Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
As the girl crested the hill, she looked downward upon the crashing waves, contemplative of the fate befallen many of her former comrades several generations hence. The thin fabric of the kimono pressed against her body by the chill wind, last breath of a dying season bereft of its sovreignity. Behind her, the city of Otosan Uchi was dark with mourning. The gates covered in black crepe, a low-lit lantern in every window. Even in her incognito travel, she had heard of the fate befallen the Hantei dynasty, and the untimely passing of the Emperor. “Heartbreaking,” she had mused, “truly and utterly.” Her voice low, and somber, and sincere.
Where many may have felt it dangerous to travel so close to the Imperial City, the girl’s mind was emboldened by the fury and corruption of Maho.
Behind her, her silent guardian stood as vigilant as ever. His radiant green eyes shining from underneath the plumed helmet upon his head. Ever watchful, ever ready. The thought of such devotion brought a crooked smile to her face, and reserves of tears to her eyes. Kitsu Kawahime had never been what one would describe as “beautiful,” and the touch of Jigoku had furthered the appearance of her concave cheekbones, unfocused eyes, and sallow skin, yet knowing that she had a companion who she knew would never, could never, leave her was all the solace she had needed. There had been another, once, but that time had passed, and would never come again.
“White Stag Cliffs, eh?” The skull floating by her shoulder whispered in her ear. “You Lion are so predictable. Always clinging to the past, when you should look to the future.” “Hush, and shush!” The girl replied, annoyedly. “That’s precisely what I’m doing. This place was the location of wholesale slaughter. And do not dare call me ‘Lion.’ Not here. Not where my blessed ancestors ascended to Yomi. Now get you gone, I have no further need of you, tonight.”
“Oh, such cruelty!” The floating skull whined, hovering in a figure eight pattern. “When I, I have given you so much. Have I not taken your tremors from you? Have I not made you strong, strong enough to make your reams come true?” It asked, its voice a soft, hissing whisper.
“You have, and I have great need of you still. Yet not tonight. Now leave, or I shall open my throat here and now.” Kawahime answered, in all the sternness of a parent to a disobedient child.
“Have it your way…” The skull sighed in a sing-song voice. “But I warn you, even if this does work, these creatures are no servants of Fu Leng. His gifts will not protect you from them.” And with that, the skull vanished in a puff of foul smoke.
Kawahime rolled her milky golden eyes, and dropped to her knees. The ground wet from the melted snow of weeks prior. Seven-hundred years ago, the Akodo Elite Guard had given their lives to protect their Empress. Such selfless sacrifice had sanctified this ground with their blood. The Kitsu pondered that for a moment. “No.” She told herself. “The form the Kami gave us was filled with blood. It is from the blood that we are bound to our ancestry. It is the actions of men; maho, murder, the like, that corrupt its purity.” Her hands tamped the ground, and the grass made her hands itch to an obscene amount. It was not as poignant a pain as touching jade, but it was certainly not comfortable.
“Blood of my forebears,” her chapped, cracked lips recited. “whose bodies littered this chosen ground, feat for carrion, worm and rot…” Ritualistically, she drew the tanto from her obi and ran the blade aloung the length of her pale, scarred wrist, spilling her life essence onto the ground below. “Be as the river-water that ferries me to the Realm of Slaughter. Where death is constant, and sorrow all-supreme.” As the drops fell to the ground, the blood fizzled and steamed hot, burning through the grass, sod, bedrock, and ripping away the fabric of the Ningen-do. Warm air and the sound of screamed burst upward from the opening, and she reached her hands to pull back the realm of mortals as though it were made of paper. The portal large enough to enter, she slipped her petite body through.
The Realm of Slaughter was every bit what one would expect. The smell of putrid, rotting meat hung in the air, and her feet were no longer touching grass, but coarse, dry rocks, jagged crags which made up the ‘White Stag’ of this world. She found the hot, humid air difficult to breathe, and every muscle ached. On the beach, below, armies of varying ages and clans fought one-another to the death, before a sea of blood. This was not glorious samurai combat, as she had witnessed amoung her kin, but the desperate clawing and scratching of the bloodthirsty. Men were trampled as the bodies just continued to line the beach, leaving sand in between. Within the scarlet waves, bloated drowned bodies floated like buoys.
Kawahime watched for a few moments, before turning away, unable to stomach it any longer. The warm wind tossled her ruddy hair before her face, and she pulled her hood up for a meager protection against the sand that was blasting against her face. She down a beaten path, outlined by two seemingly neverending parallel rows of vertebrae. She travelled for what seemed like hours, when suddenly, her quarry appeared before her. A foot-and-a-half taller than the average Rokugani, these human-like creatures possessed two long, curving tusks from underneath the lower lip – yet, they wore armor, and in a rather ancient style. Gaudily lacquered enamel plates were laced together with strands of woven, black, human hair while their swords were larger than any Gaijin weapon Kawahime had seen. And at present, the largest of these large swords was pressed firmly to her neck. “A pretty sight,” the creature spoke, his voice as dark and as heavy as stone scraping against stone, “and I’m not an aesthetically-minded person. What say I add this man-thing’s red pelt to my collection?” The largest creature asked, pointing to a bandolier of scalps across his chest.
“Are you the ones they call ‘Tsuno?’” She asked, her voice devoid of any fear or panic.
The creature with the blade to her neck grunted and pulled her closer. “We are. And how do you know of Tsuno?”
Kawahime blinked her inhuman eyes toward the beast, and locked gazes with it.
“I see.” The largest of the Tsuno replied, letting taking the blade from her throat, yet keeping it trained upon its target. “Very well, blood-traitor. Speak smart, and speak fast, or you may just find yourself a permanent resident of this charming land.”
Kawahime bowed courteously., her hands folded in front of her body. “It is common, in Ningen-do, that one introduce themselves when meeting someone new.”
The Tsuno around Kawahime laughed a hideous, screeching laughter. “What care we for Ningen-do? Besides…” The Tsuno’s wide-nostrils flared and blasted a jet of hot wind against her. “You are a daughter of Jigoku. Its filth is upon you.”
Kawahime blushed a sickly pink and used her overly long sleeve to cover her face. She knew the consequences of her actions, and that there would be sacrifices necessary to restore balance. Yet, all the same, it was a painful reminder of the gravity of what she had done. She was unclean, and could never retake her place in the Celestial Wheel.
“The touch of Jigoku, maybe. But I am not its servant.” Not yet, anyway, a familiar whispering voice hissed silently. “I am Kitsu Kawahime. Servant of the Kami, and the Void.”
The Tsuno leader roared in fury, and faster than lightning, had gripped her by the throat, and lifted her from her feet.
“You dare to bear that name?! You are a base defiler, unworthy of the blood within you! And so I shall purge it from you!” His large paws made her throat appear as small as a sake glass, which could be easily shattered. Kawahime, in all of her Jiujutsu training, could do scarce little but dig her nails into his forearms and hope to counteract the weight of her body.
“Please—” She gasped, her face turning white as the air was choked from her. “Let me explain. I seek—I seek to rectif-rectify my Clan’s shame.” The capillaries in her eyes swelled and threatened to burst from the pressure within. “To restore bal-balance!” Her vision faded, and all was turning to black. Her last concrete thought was her wish that Huo were with her. Suddenly, she felt herself falling to the ground. She gasped inward, unconcerned about the foulness of the air, and seeking merely to fill her lungs. She coughed, and vomited, a viscous black, foul-smelling liquid.
“How is it that you plan to restore balance, man-thing?” The Tsuno asked, fingering the sharpness of his blade.
Kawahime continued her coughing and sputtering before wiping her mouth with her long sleeve, and regained her composure. “For generations, Mortals and Jigoku have fought a never-ending war for Ningen-Do, itself. How long before Jigoku wishes to consume Toshigoku?”
The Tsuno snorted, clearly unimpressed with this proposal.
“Conversely,” she continued. “Has not Tengoku extended its will upon Ningen-do? Have not the Kami, and their offspring, upset the balance, and destroyed what was once the dominion of the Ancients? Balance, Tsuno-sama, is not the dominance of humanity over all.”
At this, the Tsuno narrowed his cat-like eyes, and raised his heavy blade. “And what do you propose? That we reclaim our place in Ningen-do?”
Kawahime bowed low, on her knees. “Hai. And I shall help you in this. But in return, I will require your loyalty to my cause.”
The Tsuno beared its rows of jagged teeth in a wicked snarl. “And If you fail?”
Kawahime kept her head low. “Then add my scalp to your belt.”
The Tsuno said nothing, looked to the girl prostrating herself before him, and raised his blade.
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