Dust stirs as the vestiges of life leave the redcap’s body, slowly crumbling away. Evi sends the remains of its lifeblood from her blade with a quick flick of her wrist before sheathing the longsword once more. The smell of rust pervades the air, cutting deeply into her lungs. It had been almost a year since she had last walked the halls of the Iron Citadel of Shiroishi, and not much had changed. It had retained none of the former glory it had held during the days of her youth, and now sat a grim monument to murder and the legacy of the tyrant Kaneda.
“Thank you, Michael.” She says, regarding the worn-out man behind her. “For coming, that is. I know this wasn’t something you had to-“
“No, there’s no need for that,” the oracle replies quickly. “Our meeting was not by chance, nor our coming here. There was no choice in my actions – I did what I did because I must.”
“Those words have been spoken here before,” the voice comes like a hiss from the shadows, as a cloaked figure emerges from the doorway. A large bamboo hat conceals his face, the glint of a serpentine eye visible beneath its surface, slowly becoming human once more.
“Joe…” Evi says, looking over at him.
The oracle doesn’t turn, now regarding the doorway at the end of the corridor. “I believe you are right. Much has transpired here… I can feel the weight of those events even now. Evi… What is this place?”
“Shiroishi was the seat of Emperor, and my home…” She stares forward blankly, lost in a distant memory, “At least, before he was killed by Kaneda and my clan scattered…”
“Routed, perhaps.” Michael scratches his nose absently as they walk slowly down the corridor.
Evi looks at him bemusedly. “Pardon?”
“The Emperor was defeated by Kaneda here. Not killed.”
“No, you must be mistaken,” Evi responds, shaking her head. “Emperor Katsuyori was murdered by Kaneda when he refused to yield. My father-”
“Was following orders.” Michael says, pushing open the heavy steel door. He walks forward into the room, leaving an exasperated Evitaerc behind him.
“How could you possibly…” Her sentence is cut short by the hand on her shoulder. “Joe…”
The warlock shakes his head slowly, raising a finger to his lips. “Just watch.”
Michael walks up to the dust-covered pedestal. A fine silk cloth is draped over the top, obscuring the shape below. With a breath, he pulls the sheet away, revealing its hidden bounty. Already it was almost unbearable. The screams of the past echoed in his head, begging to be set free. He could see the events unfolding, their secrets stretching out into the future, and as he stares into the crystal ball, he knows exactly that this is where he should be. Hesitation was never his thing. He reaches out, placing a hand on the silvery orb, and reality disappears in a flash.
Silver gleams all around. The rust and grime disappear, giving way to shining metal dancing in the firelight. The sounds of battle echo in the distance, and the citadel quakes from the roar of beast and engine. A figure runs past, pushing through them as if they were ghosts. His face is familiar, the face of man long since dead.
“Alastar!” Evi calls out, following him.
“He can’t hear you,” Joe says. “This isn’t real.”
“No, it is.” Michael corrects him. “It’s us who aren’t here. We view the events of the past as spectral observers. Come, let us follow.”
The young man bursts onto the roof, blood dripping from the blade of his katana. He wears the uniform of the tyrant-king Kaneda – the enemy of Higashi-Rei. He quickly pulls off his helmet, walking towards the figure standing at the parapet, watching the battle below.
“It is over, Katsuyori!” Alastar shouts, his voice clear despite the sounds of the havoc below. “You’re defeated. There’s no way for you to win, his armies are too powerful!”
“That may be so,” the man says, unmoving. “But a captain always goes down with his ship. Many good men have died this day. I will have this usurper’s head, even if it costs me my life.”
“You don’t have to die here.” Alastar says, gripping his sword in hand. “There’s still time for you to run.”
“No. I have failed my people this day. It is my duty-“
“It is your duty to live!” Alastar rebukes him viciously. “Wasn’t it you who said ‘Better to live and redeem yourself than to die in shame?’ What ever happened to that?”
The Emperor turns towards him, gripping his spear in hand. “Who do you think you are, boy, to tell me how to live? I spared your life once. Perhaps that was a mistake.”
A clash of blades. Sparks shower across the iron roof as sword and spear dance in the moonlight, striking over and over again. The tower shakes violently, throwing them off balance. An opportunity appears, and steel slices through the chaos.
“ARGH!” The Emperor stumbles back, clutching his stomach with one hand as blood begins to stain his side.
“What about your daughter?” Alastar screams through confusion as the Emperor staggers, trying to keep his balance. “Does she mean nothing to you?! Think of your family!”
Katsuyori looks up at the young man with fire in his eyes. “What would you know of family?”
He lunges forwards, letting out a primal yell. Alastar easily evades the attack, bringing the hilt of his sword down on the back of the man’s neck as he passes him. The Emperor crumples to the ground, broken and defeated.
“Rest now.” Alastar says, rolling the unconscious monarch over with his foot. “You’re far too old for this.”
He kneels down, pulling the amulet from the Emperor’s neck. “The Seal…”
He’s interrupted by the sound of footsteps. He turns quickly, to find the grief-stricken face of a woman staring back at him from the entrance. “Esle!”
“No!” she screams, rushing towards him. He tries to rise, but he isn’t fast enough. He may have been a match for a weary old man, but his speed cannot compare to a veteran shinobi.
Her kick comes like an ogre’s swing, sending him hurtling across the ground.
“No…” the woman repeats, as she sinks to the Emperor’s side, tears filling her eyes. “No, you can’t be dead…”
Esle kneels next to his body, cradling him in her arms. “You can’t die now. You can’t leave. There’s still so much… Please, Katsuyori… I love you…”
Tears stream down her face, her words barely comprehensible.
Alastar staggers to his feet, clutching the Seal in one hand, and his sword in the other. “Esle!” He calls out, trying to catch his breath.
She turns her head towards him, her breathing uneven and eyes filled with hate. “You!” she screams, rising to her feet. “You killed him! You traitor! I knew we shouldn’t have let you live!”
She pulls a knife from the sheath on her leg as she advances towards him, her murderous intent clear as day. Alastar swallows hard. “Look, you have to listen to me!”
“Why should I?” She screams. “You k-killed him… The only man I ever…”
“He’s not dead!” he yells. “Please, listen. He’s not dead – but he’s losing blood fast. You can still save him, but have to act quickly.”
Esle casts a desperate glance backwards. He was right. The Emperor was dying, but not dead.
Alastar capitalized on her distraction, taking off towards the stairs. Esle turns back towards him, taking a step forward before changing her mind and rushing to the Emperor’s side once more, picking him up gingerly as his assailant disappears into the darkness.
Evi watches the scene with a mix of horror and fascination as the world begins to blur and swirl around them. “Mother…”
Michael glances over at her. “There’s more.”
The swirling world changes, and suddenly they no longer on the roof of Shiroishi castle. The sounds of battle are distant and faint, replaced by the chirping of crickets. Moonlight filters down through the bamboo forest, illuminating the circle of shinobi as discuss their next move.
“We head for the castles of Nori,” says one, his face hidden by an iron mask. “We will find sanctuary amongst the Kotetsu there.”
“Only a fool would think that the Nori would stand a chance against Kaneda!” retorts another, long dark hair flapping in the breeze. “His armies are unparalleled in all of Higashi-Rei! No, I say we swear fealty to this usurper king.”
“Treason!” a third shouts, his skin almost as dark as night itself. “I should crush you where you stand!”
The hiss of steel pierces the forest as weapons are drawn and voices are raised.
“Stop this madness!” A firm voice shouts. It comes from a silver-haired man clad in white robes. He is Luft, the head of the clan. No other words are needed, and the chirping of crickets dominates once more.
“We do not know if our liege yet lives.” He says, his voice serene and composed. “We each have sworn an oath of service to the Emperor unto death. If that Emperor so happens to be Kaneda, then so be it. But as of yet we do not know if our liege Katsuyori still lives, let us pray it is so, so first we must find him and confirm his state.”
“There is no need.” A voice comes from the forest, and Alastar walks into the clearing. “Katsuyori is dead. You answer to me. We head for Aldebaran.”
A general clamour comes over the circle once more before being silenced. “And who are you to claim authority over us?” Luft asks, staring the man dead in the eye.
“Me?” Alastar raises his hand, the Seal hanging clearly in sight. “The Emperor of Higashi-Rei.”
“No more…” Evi collapses against a nearby wall, digesting the information. She couldn’t take it. How much of what she had thought she had known was a lie?
“They refused to accept him,” Michael says, his hand still on the crystal ball, his eyes closed. “At least, on the surface. Luft could not ignore his obligations. He did as the man asked. He concealed the wounded Emperor, entrusting his wife to protect him, and sent them to Aldebaran. It is there you will find your Seal and your father.”
“My father died. I saw his body with my own eyes.” Evi says, putting up a meek resistance.
Michael looks at her with an eyebrow raised. “You know of whom I speak, daughter of the Emper-“
“No!” Evi shouts, cutting him off. “No… That’s not who I am.”
“This is something you will have to face eventually, Evi.” This time, the voice comes from Joe. She turns towards him, met by a reassuring face. “Put it out of your mind. For now, we sail for Aldebaran. It’s been quite a while since I’ve last been – I do wonder how things have changed. Care to join us, Michael?”
Michael shakes his head. “No, that’s not my place, unfortunately. I will watch over you from here, and wait for your return.”
He picks up the crystal ball from the podium. “It will be interesting. Not even I can predict how this will turn out. Hmm. Especially since we’re not the only ones aware of this.”
“What?” Joe and Evi both look at him.
“It seems we were followed by the Guild of Assassins,” the oracle says. “My senses were clouded by this place’s aura before, but it has cleared now.”
“Where? We have to catch him!” Evi stands up, ready to run.
“Gone, now.” He replies simply. “They will know within the week. It seems the hand of Fate has struck. You must leave now. I believe a boat will be waiting for you in Sozomiru.”
“Then, by your leave.” Evi says, bowing briefly. Joe tips his hat as he walks out of the room, followed by Evi. She pauses briefly in the doorframe, sparing a half-glance back.
The oracle smiles. “I told you before, didn’t I? There’s no need for that. But… You’re welcome.”
He watches from the roof as the pair disappears into the distance. The crystal ball weighs heavily in his hand. He had lied to them. He knew exactly how this would all end. He only hopes that isn’t too late to change it.