The summer morning dawned a bruised blue-yellow above the Wall. Here, the change of seasons did not bring bountiful crops or laughing festivals, but rather swarms of biting insects with blood-red eyes rising above tepid swamps, spiderwebs the size of coarse thread blossoming in every grove, fields of sickly green grasses and silky human hair growing to the height of a Hida’s chest. Lady Sun gave only the most passing of glances through clouds the colour of frayed skin, lighting this blighted world enough for those unfortunate enough to be mired in its labyrinthine pathways to see the bleakness around them. Cutting their way through the tangled landscape one summer morning was a considerable force of folk dressed in a motley assortment of colours and mon. Burlap sacks were tied to the waists of all those present, each stained with the black blood leaking from the heads gathered within. Ronin swore with as much feeling as the Hida, Hiruma, Kuni, and Kaiu that travelled with them — no Yasuki had troubled themselves with the Twenty Goblin Winter this year — as they slashed their way through the grasses towards the ruins rising from the acrid mists in the near distance.

“Well!” panted the ronin Atsutane, pausing a moment to shift his bulging bag to his other hip, “at least there is such a fearsome team as this to contend with such a nightmarish setting. We’ve already made our way to Shiro Hiruma!”

One of the Hiruma scouts at the vanguard of the group looked over her shoulder at him, smirking slightly. “Ah, the ronin knows his castles, I see. They must have taught you well in that geisha house of your mother’s!”

He returned her smile tenfold, his slightly crooked teeth beaming in the hazy light. “Indeed, my mother may have found herself in…less than favourable circumstances…but she still saw fit to educate me about the lands of my betters. I would think this would be a boon to you, Nyako-sama, would it not?”

Nyako rolled her eyes, but nodded once. “Indeed. One does not last long in these wastes without knowledge and purpose. Ah!” she exclaimed, falling to her knees suddenly, “Hiruma-sama! Only one such as you could catch me unawares.”

Hiruma Ashida stood at the edge of the tall grasses, one foot on the burned desolation that served as the courtyard for his lost Shiro. His kimono were streaked with dyes to match the landscape around him. His eyes, white with a deep inky center, stared out of a face painted brown and green, and his teeth gleamed as he gave Nyako a rare smile. “Nyako-san, I see that you have done impeccably in guiding your troop of the unproven to this place. I thank you for that.” He turned to the group bowing deeply before him, his smile fading immediately to a mask of impenetrable seriousness. “You who have come, I thank you. The Crab, as I’m sure you’re all abundantly aware, are regrettably short of soldiers. Nevertheless, my home, Shiro Hiruma, remains burnt, broken, and claimed by this shithole of a realm. I mean to take it back,” he growled, turning to face the ruins of his inheritance, “and I mean to keep it ours. If you can help me do this, I swear, I will personally stand for each of you when you claim your right to your gempukku or your Family name.” He turned slowly to face the assembled, the fury naked in his eyes. “WHO STANDS WITH ME? WHO STANDS WITH THE HIRUMA?!”

The acrid skies cleared with the collective roar bellowed from strong chests full of battle fervor. For just a moment, Lady Sun smiled fully on those organizing themselves into formation, blessing them with Her full glory as they fell upon the ruins as a tsunami upon the unsuspecting shore, scouring it clean and holy with their fury. That evening, as the Sun turned the mists of the Dark Brother’s kingdom to the hue of flushed skin, Hiruma Ashida took his evening meal in the tatami room of his ancestors, his eyes closed, his face set in an expression of peace. Atsutane poured sake for Hiruma Nyako, watching Ashida with a smile. “I trust that my meager assistance with winning this great victory for the Crab will earn me a place at dinner in the future?”

Nyako returned his infectious smile, a dimple forming in her right cheek. “Hai, Atsutane-san. The Family name and supper you partake of will be your choice once we return to Kyuden Hida.”

Atsutane returned to his bowl of rice with vigor. “Ah, good. I have plans for both.” He turned to look out a jagged hole in one of the walls. “And perhaps once there,” he murmured to himself, “I can once again look upon the stars.”

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