10 Valor and Death

Yo no naka yo

Michi koso nakere

Omoi iru

Yama no oku ni mo

Shika zo naku karu

(Fujiwara no Toshinari)


When the group from the seashore reached the Garden Estate, the Twilight Prince made a cursory inspection of the preparations for the journey to the battle lines at Shimonaga. "Very well," the Prince said finally, and a few of the officers breathed surreptitious sighs of relief at the Imperial Prince's approval: the travel preparations were spartan even by the standards of most Samurai Lords.

Captain Yokobashi stepped forward, knelt, and bowed respectfully. "Is it the will of the Most Noble and Revered Prince that this officer should accompany the escort party?" Yokobashi's voice was steady, but he was very pale, and the patterns of his aura were curdled by a sick horror at the thought of leaving the city.

"No, Senior Captain," the Twilight Prince replied gently. "Your place is here: the security of this estate and the availability of supplies for the field troops are your responsibilities, and it would be unfair to take you away so soon after assigning you to the position." The Prince glanced toward HorseMaster Aoshiba, whose duties would make him part of the escort troop, and was relieved to see that his other fellow-captive seemed no more nervous than the Prince was himself.

Captain Higuchi, who would lead the military escort, bowed respectfully. "Most Noble Eminence, may this unworthy servant inquire what time tomorrow the Most Noble Eminence wishes to begin the journey?"

"Tomorrow?" the Prince replied. "No. I don't want to travel when the sun is down, or arrive at the battlefield near sunset, even though the moon is waxing toward full. And this close to the solstice the days are so short that it will take two full days of travel to reach the battle lines. If we leave this afternoon and stop two nights along the way we can reach the battle lines sooner, and in full daylight."

"As the Most Nobel Eminence commands," Higuchi said with an even more respectful bow: if he had just finished five days of fasting and prayer, he would not have been able to face the thought of traveling so soon.

The Prince returned a slight bow, dismissed the officers to continue their preparations, and withdrew into the privacy of his own quarters to bathe and sleep and dine in preparation for the coming journey.

The party that finally set out, shortly after noon, included reinforcements for several the units already involved in the battle besides the Prince and his personal bodyguards. In all, more than two thousand warriors would be making the journey from the city to the battlefield. Only about four hundred of the travelers were mounted, but that had little affect on the column's speed: on hilly roads at the boundary of autumn and winter a ridden horse travels no faster than a trained man marches, if both expect to see battle at the end of their journey. Messengers with fast horses, and chits to claim remounts at posting stations when those fast horses tired, were sent ahead to warn the officers at the front of the Twilight Prince's impending arrival.

The main column spent the first night at Inuyama castle, which they reached just as the sun slipped below the horizon. Most of the warriors set up camp nearby, but the Twilight Prince and his bodyguards were housed within the fortress itself, much to the relief of the Prince and HorseMaster Aoshiba, who were both increasingly nervous at being outside the protective walls of the city. This journey felt different from leaving the city's walls for the purification ritual: now they were knowingly riding toward trouble.


The Prince was feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach by the time they arrived at Inuyama, and intensely grateful for the opportunity to lie still and rest his aching head. Even so, he was pleased at how well he had managed the afternoon's journey: the column's occasional delays had not been caused by his illness, but by poor road conditions and a brief downpour of icy rain that had made footing on the steep trail even more treacherous than usual and added to the discomfort of riding in full armor.

The Twilight Prince hoped that weaving his aura and awareness back into the deep levels of the worlds had cured most of the vertigo he had suffered since losing his eye. Surely his present illness came from traveling so soon after the fasting and sleeplessness of the purification ritual. He told himself that after a full night's sleep and a proper dinner and breakfast, tomorrow's journey would be easier.


The Prince's hopes for the next day's journey were only partly fulfilled. During the morning's ride he found his vertigo lessened, but not gone; and his armor seemed heavier than ever. His mood was improved by comparing the lands he was passing through with their state the last time he had left the city. Even places that had not been the objects of specific healing rituals were noticeably improved over the stricken, wasted aspect they had shown a month and a half ago, their auras returning to natural, not demonic, patterns. There were signs of the birds and animals returning: even the abundance of crows and other carrion eaters was encouraging compared to the previous emptiness. Plants that had seemed dead before now showed the healthy auras of winter dormancy, while the unnatural vegetation that had been choking them was dead and crumbled and already returning stolen fertility to the soil.

The small army moved steadily northward, with only a brief pause at noon. The Twilight Prince's vertigo returned in full force toward the end of the morning, bad enough that he managed to take only a little tea and a few bites of plain rice for his meal, and then only because of the anxious urging of HorseMaster Aoshiba and his other attendants. The Prince recovered somewhat during the rest stop, but his dizziness and queasiness returned when they began moving again, and gradually became worse as time passed. By late afternoon of a winter day that seemed to stretch longer than any in midsummer, he was riding with his eyes closed and mage-sight turned off, trusting his mare and HorseMaster Aoshiba to keep him on the road, grimly determined that he would not be the cause of any delay in the army's journey.


As sunset approached, Captain Higuchi moved back along the column from the vanguard until he was riding beside the Prince. "Most Noble Eminence," he said hesitantly, wondering if one was somehow supposed to bow, even on horseback, "One of the messengers has returned. A support camp has been set up at a defensible position a few hours from Shimonaga, well beyond the Enemy's transportation range. With the gracious permission of the Most Noble Eminence, this column can reach it before full dark, by continuing to travel past true sunset."

The Prince had not opened his eyes, nor really listened to what Higuchi was saying. He murmured weakly, "All right ... whatever ... " and returned his full attention to the problem of staying on his horse during a journey that seemed to be taking forever. He felt rather than saw the sunset, as an added chill that increased his discomfort. The Prince rode on in a half- trance, even after the sounds of the troops in the vanguard ahead of him began to change.


A startled gasp and half-smothered curse from HorseMaster Aoshiba roused him. His companion's voice was so shaken that the Twilight Prince hastily gathered Power and turned on his mage- sight, even before he opened his eye. For a moment he did not understand what had startled Aoshiba so: they were riding through an orderly military encampment, which centered on a medium-sized shrine with a clear and unusually well-rooted aura. As they rode closer through the twilight gloom, his eye picked out some details of the shrine's construction and the marks of a past battle, and knew. They were to spend the night at Nakayama shrine, where he and Aoshiba had both been captured by the Enemy less than two months before.


"I think you'd better help me dismount," the Prince said quietly to Aoshiba, although he was suddenly feeling much less dizzy: either the presence of the fountain of Power enclosed by the shrine or the Power he himself had just summoned from it had cleared his head. Once down from the saddle, he left one hand resting on the HorseMaster's shoulder as he turned to look at Captain Higuchi, who was waiting on his knees beside the entrance to the priests' quarters. "Captain, are you sure that staying here is wise?" the Twilight Prince asked very softly.


Captain Higuchi bowed very low and answered nervously, "Kindly permit this most unworthy servant to reassure the Most Noble Eminence. Since the ritual the Most Noble Eminence graciously performed here, this is now the safest place in all this district. The Enemy don't seem willing or able to approach Nakayama shrine now." He paused, then added hopefully, "Will the Most Noble Eminence be able to lock Shimonaga Shrine against the Enemy in the same way?"


"At the moment, I don't remember what it was that I did here," the Prince replied wearily. "It certainly wasn't the usual ritual ... " he added, looking around him with both mage- sight and normal vision. "Perhaps after I've bathed and rested awhile, and eaten ... "


"Of course, Most Noble Eminence," Higuchi replied hastily, "The bath is ready, and the Most Noble Eminence's meal is being prepared at this very moment ... also, Senior Commander Yanagi and some of her officers have humbly petitioned to be granted an audience with the Most Noble and Revered Eminence tomorrow morning."

"Very well," the Prince agreed. His grip on Aoshiba's shoulder tightened slightly. "Come, HorseMaster. Let's go eat," he said lightly to his companion, and smiled at the Captain's shock and the HorseMaster's startlement. "Don't let down your guard, Captain," he added over his shoulder, as the two former captives entered the priests' quarters. "The Enemy could be faking their reluctance to attack this place ... "

After the meal, HorseMaster Aoshiba wandered through the camp restlessly, comparing it with the images in his memory. Between the repairs that were still in progress and the military camp that now surrounded it, Nakayama Shrine did not much resemble the place that played such a frequent role in his nightmares. Somehow that made it seem even stranger to discover his own sword, an heirloom brought out from the Aoshiba family shrine when his old Lord's domain was overrun, in a pile of weapons recovered during the rebuilding. It was a great relief to recover the sword, and the link to his ancestors that it provided.

When Aoshiba returned to the priests' quarters, he found the Twilight Prince still wide awake and as restless as he was himself. The HorseMaster gratefully accepted the Prince's invitation to play a game of shogi before they tried to sleep. They borrowed a board and chessmen from one of the priests, and soon found that they were well matched as players: chessmen and control of board territory changed hands repeatedly before Aoshiba achieved a checkmate. The HorseMaster paused, only then wondering if it had been politic to beat his Lord in the game, but the Prince just smiled and asked for a rematch. They were interrupted at first light by Shirokura Motoharu, who brought their tea and morning rice, as well as some orders for the Prince to sign -- he had written them up himself, and flushed with pleasure when the Prince praised the quality of his calligraphy.


Most of the reinforcements that had traveled with the Prince set out on the march to the battlefield shortly after sunrise. Senior Commander Yanagi Izumi, who commanded the forces involved in the Shimonaga battle, arrived at Nakayama a short while later with two of her aides. Captain Moeri and his cavalry scouts served as escort for the officers.


Captain Moeri was wearing battle harness, and barelegged despite the late season cold. It was the first time the Twilight Prince had seen the young man when he was not modestly draped in kimono and hakama, and he decided that the beauty of Moeri's features and movements had not made any false promises. The Prince tried not to stare too rudely at the cavalry officer, who seemed horribly young for such a responsible position. He found himself wondering whether Moeri was of age: the way that the peasant-born Captain tied back his hair gave no clear sign, unlike the more formal hair styles worn by Samurai youths and adults.


The Twilight Prince was suddenly reminded that he had never released the Power he had gathered when he first arrived at Nakayama the previous evening. He blushed at the thought of the effect he must be having on those around him, but there was nothing he could do about it now without causing a disturbance. Besides, he might need that Power later in the day. He sighed and turned his attention firmly to the business at hand, or tried. After all, anyone with Moeri's beauty must have a lover already of one sex or the other, he thought, remembering Moeri's sister Taka in the company of Ninori Kiyoie.

As the Prince turned back to face Senior Commander Yanagi, his new earring caught the morning light. The Dragon's Wife caught her breath and asked hesitantly, "Forgive the impertinence, Most Noble Eminence, but is the Eminence aware of the properties of the Jewel he wears?"

"No ... " the Prince blushed slightly. "It is ... a recent acquisition."

Yanagi reached inside the neckline of her armor and drew out a small object she wore as an amulet: it was a pale golden color and had a shape that did not appear to exist entirely in the ordinary world. "Such Jewels differ in their natures and properties," she said with a gentle, reminiscent smile that startled her aides much more than her possession of the jewel did, "But each is a pledge of friendship and more than friendship from a Dragon to its wearer, and each will serve as a passport that allows the wearer to visit the Water Realms in body without drowning, should the wearer so desire."


The Prince thanked her for the information and added, "and I do apologize for taking you away from the battlefield at such a time."


"No need to apologize for that, Most Noble Eminence," the Dragon's Wife replied dryly. "This battle at Shimonaga has been somewhat like a siege, but more like a mess. These past few days there has not been much for me to do but watch the same skirmishes fought over and over, with different faces on the corpses each time."

"Wouldn't it be more sensible to set up a stable perimeter outside the Enemy's range, and use the army's strength for something less wasteful?" The Twilight Prince allowed his awareness to dissolve into the fabric of the world, reaching toward the resonance of the violence to the north. He was carrying enough Power to do that, but not enough that he might lose his awareness of the person he conversed with or find himself walking the world-roads.


"Ordinarily the course suggested by the Most Noble Eminence would be wisest," Yanagi agreed wearily, "Unfortunately, Shimonaga Shrine is perfectly placed to control the road into Tobida province. If the armies of the realm can recapture the shrine, it will be possible to break through to meet the forces of the Wolf of Tobida and regain contact with a large piece of free territory. If Shimonaga remains in Enemy hands, well ... word has come through that Lord Tobida and his people are short of supplies for the winter, much worse off than the home provinces. If the Enemy can starve them out, that free territory may not be there come spring."

"I see," the Twilight Prince said thoughtfully. Now that she spoke of it, he thought he could sense a distant resonance of the auras of untainted land and unconquered people somewhere beyond the roiling energy that marked the battlefield.


An aide asked hopefully, "Will the Most Noble Eminence most graciously seal Shimonaga Shrine against the Enemy, as Nakayama is now sealed?"

The Prince looked down at his hands unhappily. Now that he had seen and sensed Nakayama, he understood how vital it might be for him to remember or re-create whatever it was he had done there, how many lives might be saved if he could remember. But even trying to think about it made him feel sicker than a three hour horseback ride. The Twilight Prince shook his head miserably and said softly, "I'm sorry. I can't remember anything. Please forgive me."


"There is nothing to forgive, Most Noble Eminence," Senior Commander Yanagi assured him promptly. "The rites that have been used to heal other shrines are perfectly adequate. Besides," she added with a smile, "if the effects achieved here at Nakayama require the presence of demons or a major battle within the shrine precinct during the rite, it would be unwise to try to reproduce them."

"I hadn't thought of that," the Prince admitted, hesitantly returning her smile. "Though it's true that to purify a shrine of the Bright Powers while bloodshed is still taking place within its boundaries involves dangerously antagonistic forces."


The Prince paused for a moment, then continued, "As for Shimonaga, although I can't really cleanse the shrine and reconsecrate it until after the battle, there are plenty of ways to disrupt the transportation portal before then. I should also be able to stabilize parts of the battlefield even before I am close enough to jam the portal itself." The officers nodded in satisfaction.


It was a large party that set out for the battlefield, traveling northeastward up the east bank of the Tobida River. Besides Yanagi and her aides and escort, and the Twilight Prince and his attendants and escort, it included the last few companies of the warriors who had traveled north from the city with the Prince. Captain Moeri and his Irregular cavalry formed the vanguard.

The Twilight Prince, who rode near the front of the column, ahead of the dust of others' passage, found it very easy to watch the handsome young Captain as he rode ahead, strong legs clasped firmly about the body of his horse. It was more interesting than watching the inanimate scenery, and less unsettling after they passed into the area of demonic infection that spread outward from Shimonaga Shrine.


Captain Moeri was using his own excellent mage-sight to scan for danger from the Enemy, and knew perfectly well that the Prince was watching him. He found the knowledge unsettling: he was certain such attention meant that he had displeased the Most Noble Eminence in some way. Surely that highest of Highborn Lords must find it an affront to his dignity that a peasant like Moeri should be made part of His escort, and allowed into council meetings besides. To Moeri, the Prince was a stately and enormously dignified figure of supernatural beauty, lighting up the archaic armor like the flame within a paper lamp shade. The style of the armor, of a type now generally used only for ceremonial occasions, further set the Divine Power apart from the mundane clods of mere flesh and blood among which it was Manifest, and Moeri was miserably certain that nothing he did could merit the approval of such a resplendent Being.

A little after noon, the head of the column reached a broad fan-shaped valley, its former forests long since the victim of battle and demonic infection, whose 'end sticks' were formed by the headwaters of the Tobida River flowing down from the northwest and a smaller river that flowed almost directly from the east to join it. Shimonaga was now only a few miles away, in the Tobida's narrow valley a little way upstream beyond the top edge of the fan. The shrine buildings themselves were still standing, but only a few scattered ruins marked the location of the surrounding village.

After crossing the small tributary, Senior Commander Yanagi, her escort, and some of the fresh troops that had traveled north from the city continued along the road to Shimonaga beside the Tobida. The Twilight Prince and the companies assigned to his party traveled straight northeast, as though following a central rib of the fan, until they reached the high ground that bordered the valley on the north.


Once they reached the higher ground the Prince gathered his ceremonial supplies from the packs: a drum, a bell, consecrated fire from the hearth of one of the city shrines, and a special staff with a large tassel of paper streamers on one end used in purification rituals, as well as his personal banner showing the chrysanthemum mon of the Imperial line in gold against a black background. Then the Prince and his party began to drift slowly west along the ridge to get a better view of Shimonaga shrine.

From his vantage point on the ridge, the Twilight Prince could see that the battle to recapture Shimonaga was going just as badly as Yanagi had described. Activity was concentrated at the north end of the valley and near the road along the riverbank, but the Prince could see little evidence of anything that looked like a proper military formation anywhere, just a mess of various sized clumps of warriors, Ashiharan and Enemy, interspersed with each other. Whenever Yanagi's officers succeeded in restoring some degree of organization to the forces on one part of the field, a new clump of the Enemy would pop up in some totally impossible place or direction and the formation would dissolve again. The Prince thought it must be like fighting one of those eternal battles that were said to take place in some of the Otherworlds, especially after sunset, when the odder members of the Enemy forces would join the battle.

When the Prince reached out to block the Enemy from transporting themselves into the parts of the battlefield that were nearest him, he was surprised by how easy it was. He was startled again by his own Power and range: no ritual was needed to begin the blockade, he simply reached out and stilled the energy flow around him, as he might have silenced a lute by resting a hand on its strings. Once he began chanting the private ritual that allowed him to sustain and extend that stillness, it was easy to gather the Power into himself instead of dispersing it, and then use that Power to control the energy flow in ever more distant parts of the battlefield.

After retuning and reweaving the strands of Power in the valley for what seemed like a very short time, though the sun was now very close to the horizon across the river, the Twilight Prince had diverted all of the energy that the Enemy were pouring through the portal to his own use. He stored within himself as much as he could of the Power he did not need to prevent teleporting within the battlefield: it would help him to reconsecrate and stabilize the shrine once the battle was over. The remaining Power he retuned into harmony with a spell-prayer of healing and benediction: to protect and heal the samurai who fought so fiercely in the valley below him, and to undo some of the changes to earth and air, water and vegetation that gave comfort to their demonic foes.

With the portal blocked and the Enemy reduced to more ordinary methods of maneuvering, the tactical situation gradually reverted to something a bit closer to the expected forms of battle. There were still pockets of Enemy forces interspersed among the forces of Ashihara, but at least there were no new ones popping up in the middle of command posts and formations. Senior Commander Yanagi and her officers were able to reestablish some order among the formations of their troops, and a boundary began to become apparent between the territory dominated by Yanagi's forces and that still controlled by the Enemy. It curved in a long arc up from the river and across the battlefield, and passed about midway between the Shimonaga Shrine and the Prince's position on the
hillside. The boundary very slowly moved toward the shrine, first at one place along its length, then at others.


Once the sun had fully set, the Enemy forces were able to stop the human army's advance, and even push them back in places. Not only did the demons see better than most humans in the gathering twilight, but their numbers were reinforced as creatures that could not bear the light of day came creeping out of their various shelters and hiding places. The Enemy concentrated their attention at the uphill end of the battle line, trying to break through and somehow end the Prince's interference with their portal.

Captain Higuchi cursed imaginatively as the shadows lengthened and the battle moved closer to the Prince's position. Fighting by mage-sight was possible ... but so was fighting in a fog, and coordinating troop movements in fog was usually the easier task of the two. Torches and bonfires along the battle lines helped, but not enough.


"Don't worry," the Twilight Prince assured his fretting Captain, "Our forces are holding, for the most part." When Higuchi stared at him, the Prince added, sounding embarrassed, "The useful range of mage-sight depends partly on the Power held by the Mage, you know, and I ... well, I can see everything clearly between here and the Shrine, and back along the river about halfway to where we crossed." Somehow Higuchi was not comforted by the fact that the Prince had his eyes closed when he said this, and Aoshiba, standing by with the Prince's horse, chuckled quietly at the Captain's expression.

Higuchi remained beside the Prince, listening anxiously to the noises in the deepening gloom, fidgeting, and wishing he could see clearly for himself what was going on. Wishing there was something he could do that would be useful. There was suddenly a lot of noise and activity on the hillside between their position and the Shrine, and the Prince said urgently, "That last Enemy charge almost broke through. If the line isn't reinforced over there we'll have them in our laps soon ... there's trouble on the slope below us too, but the line there seems to be holding for the moment."

Higuchi bowed quickly, and gathered about a third of the forces assigned to their position into a countercharge that pushed the Enemy back almost two hundred feet toward the shrine before the new battle line stabilized. But the resulting bulge in the line stretched and thinned the ranks of the human forces, and Higuchi and his men were needed to maintain the new line against the Enemy force fighting desperately to regain the lost ground.

Meanwhile, the trouble on the slope below had continued. A second prong of the Enemy's force had pressed hard against the samurai who manned the battle line there, their ranks stretched thinner by the bulge created by Higuchi's charge, and a company of cavalry had come to reinforce them. It seemed to the Prince as he watched by mage-sight that there were at least two groups of the Enemy involved in the attack. One group, which rode perfectly ordinary horses and seemed to bear at least some distant kinship to the normal patterns of the world, served as a screen around the second type. Those others were immense, massive and slow-moving and showed aura patterns that were fantastically improbable.

The Enemy's pressure did not quite break the Ashiharan line, but the defenders were driven back among the bonfires behind the lines until from the Prince's position it was clear even to ordinary sight that the cavalry unit being savaged by the Enemy was Captain Moeri's Irregulars, and the infantry they had reinforced were also Irregulars and ronin. The young Captain had lost his horse, and he was fighting on foot with berserk ferocity, using a field sword longer than he was tall, his aura glowing brighter to the Prince's sight than any of the ordinary bonfires around him.


The Twilight Prince watched, sickened, as the Enemy slowly cut their way toward him through the thinning lines of warriors. As yet another man went down to be trampled by a huge demon like a small moving fortress, he looked around at the Captains of the remaining reserve companies and demanded nervously, "What are you all waiting for? Does the Enemy have to reach us up here before you join the fight?"

Captain Nishiyama, who led a company of Tajima vassals, met the Prince's eye unhappily but steadily. "Forgive these unhappy servants, Most Noble Eminence," he said quietly. "But we have sworn, before our overlord the Chancellor, an oath by our Ancestors and all the Powers and Spirits that we would remain close to the Most Noble Eminence, and not leave him unprotected for any inducement whatsoever ... " Nishiyama paused and swallowed hard as a horrible scream of human agony sounded from the battle below. The Twilight Prince flinched at the sound, and shuddered.

TroopMaster Kusano, leading a half-company of the Prince's Kawachi infantry, snorted and began harshly, "They're only ronin and peasant scum ... " But he fell silent when the Prince turned to glare at him, unable to meet his Lord's gaze.

The Twilight Prince exchanged a glance with Aoshiba and beckoned. The HorseMaster nodded grimly and brought both their horses over to the Prince. Aoshiba had been counted as ronin himself not too long ago, and his memories of the battle at Nakayama were very clear. The thought of standing idly by while other men were torn apart by the demons was becoming unbearable.

Nishiyama and his men watched warily as the Prince looked around at them and at his other bodyguards, pointedly ignoring Kusano and his men. "Well, if you are all sworn to stay near me, I suppose that you should do so," he said quietly, smiling at the sudden gratitude and understanding in Nishiyama's eyes. "Follow me!!" he finished with a shout and leaped into the saddle, urging his mare down the hill.

Being mounted on the mare the Prince had given him, Aoshiba was able to stay near his Lord to guard his back, though that was almost a formality, so few of the Enemy dared to approach his Lord's Power when fully Manifest. Aoshiba was very glad the Prince had given him such a good horse: he would not have wanted to explain to the Warlord why he had let the Prince get away from him on a battlefield. The Prince's banner was also carried on one of the great gray horses, so Bannerman Ashiya, the Samurai who had charge of the banner, was also able to keep up. The Tajima horsemen and the rest of the Prince's personal attendants, not nearly so well mounted, dropped behind despite their best efforts, and Kusano and his infantry squad were left far behind, caught completely unawares by the Prince's charge.

As the Twilight Prince charged down the hill his long hair and his horse's mane and tail streamed back in the wind of his passage like long silk banners. He looked even more like a comet to mage-sight, since he began the charge filled with Power and summoned more to his will during the ride. Some Enemy scrambled to avoid the Prince's path, though he had time, in the odd timelessness of that charge, to notice that the Enemy cavalry were led by a warrior armored and masked in pure black, wearing a surcoat the color of fresh blood and riding a blue-gray horse as fine as the Prince's own. Many other demons that did not flee soon enough to avoid the wake of his Power were dissolved away to less than sludge, but a few remained that were hardy enough to face him.


The Prince grabbed Captain Moeri out of the jaws of something huge and slimy and hideously obnoxious: it most nearly resembled a slug with the multiple jointed legs of a centipede and a gaping, tooth-filled maw. He pulled the young warrior up behind him as he stuffed the purification staff down the creature's throat and fried its tiny brain with a blast of Power. Oddly, though the monstrous creature caught fire at once, the tassel of paper strips on the purification staff did not, at least not at first, though the staff remained stuck in the demon's gullet. Other nearby centipede slugs turned ponderously and began to advance toward the Twilight Prince and his companions, while smaller demons had moved to counter the charge of cavalry that had followed the Prince.


Aoshiba's gray mare kicked out at something with a satisfying crunch while he finished a foe in front of them. The HorseMaster sighed, settled his feet more firmly into the stirrups, and guided her closer to guard his Lord's back. He nodded to Ashiya as the Bannerman moved up close on the Prince's right. Perhaps with the aid of the horses they could last until the cavalry broke through to reach them.


The Prince looked around desperately to find a usable weapon and reached out to grasp the shaft of a spear sticking out of something even uglier than the beast he had just killed ... at least, the weapon had looked like a spear to HorseMaster Aoshiba while it was stuck into whatever it was, but when the Prince lifted it up it proved to be a naginata, glowing bright with Power to match that of the Imperial Mage. Aoshiba was left wondering whether he had seen wrong at first, or if the Twilight Prince had reshaped the weapon to suit his own tastes.

The shock of the rescue had snapped Moeri out of the berserk. As his mind cleared, he found himself clinging to the back of a horse and surrounded by a cloud of long dark hair and the scent of pine resin and cinnamon. The cresting flood of the Twilight Prince's Power left the young swordsman healthier than he had been before the start of the battle and filled the peasant- born Captain with an anguished desire for the Imperial Prince's embrace that he knew must be hopeless.

Moeri shook off his remaining distraction when a tentacle came reaching out of the dark and wrapped itself around the neck of Bannerman Ashiya, riding beside them. Both the Most Noble Eminence and Aoshiba, riding on their left, were busy with other threats: another of the centipede-slugs and a creature like a great sea urchin with taloned legs in place of its spines. A sweep of the young Captain's long sword was enough to sever the tentacle, but it was too late: the Bannerman's neck was bent at an unnatural angle even before his body fell to the ground.


The rest of the mounted bodyguards caught up then, and the Twilight Prince and his followers continued their advance. They slowly pushed the Enemy back to the original battle line, and then farther still, as more of the army moved to support their flanks. Finally they were close enough to the Shimonaga hot- springs that the Prince was able to use the Power that welled up with the hot water directly, without tapping the portal. He took advantage of a momentary gap in the foes that faced him to pause for a breath and reweave the Power around the Shrine yet again, to unmake the portal completely.

There was a brief moment of unnatural quiet, as though the whole world and all of the warriors on the battlefield had paused for breath at once. Then the shrine complex exploded into an enormous pillar of multicolored flame that fountained into the sky like enormous fireworks and lit the paths of the remaining Enemy forces as they fled away west across the river and east toward the foothills of Mount Mitake. The unnatural blaze quickly died out without threatening anything outside the shrine compound, but nothing remained of the shrine itself but ash.


When Senior Commander Yanagi had picked her way across the battlefield to the Twilight Prince's side, she said cheerfully, "Well, the feats of the Most Noble Eminence have done wonders for the morale of the ordinary troops, both the charge and the closing of that portal ... Gave us officers apoplexy, of course, but I suppose you can't have everything. Though it's regrettable that the Shrine buildings could not be saved."


The Prince felt himself blushing at the Senior Commander's praise. He waved away the apology with a rueful smile, saying, "That doesn't matter, Senior Commander. The old buildings were too contaminated for reuse anyway. The explosion simply saved your men the trouble of razing it before we construct the new shrine here."


The Dragon's Wife bowed respectfully.

"May one inquire why the banner of the Most Noble Eminence is way over there?" asked one of Yanagi's aides, gesturing.

The Twilight Prince sighed. "Because the Bannerman who had charge of it is dead," he replied, then put two fingers to his lips and whistled a loud, shrill pattern. He was answered by the sound of neighs and galloping hooves from two different directions, as his summons was answered not by one blue-gray mare, but by two.

The second mare bore a black saddle on a blood-red cloth marked with the ball and crescent pattern known as 'moon and morning star', and the Prince realized that she had been the mount of the Enemy cavalry officer he had seen. The reins had been neatly tied up where she was in no danger of tripping on them, and a piece of paper was twisted through the knot. The note was written in exquisite, though somewhat old-fashioned handwriting, and said "Humble thanks to the Most Noble Heavenborn Prince for the loan of the horse. She deserved better than the boorish Kanehide. With respect, Kurowa no Motoe."


The Prince read the note in silence, and passed it without comment to the Dragon's Wife, who said dryly, "A demon with taste, evidently, and enough pride to feel embarrassment at riding a stolen horse in its owner's presence."


During the next few days the site of the new shrine was carefully cleaned and prepared, and the far too numerous dead from the battlefield were burned. The army of Ashihara used a pyre not far from the shrine site for their own dead, including Ashiya and, to the Prince's deep regret, the conscientious Captain Higuchi and many of his detachment. The men who had followed the Prince's charge had suffered few losses, to the Prince's great relief. Once he had performed the funeral service, the Twilight Prince turned his attention to repurifying himself for the rites of the Bright Powers, so that he would be ready to consecrate the new Shrine.

The Enemy dead, many of whom stank remarkably, were burned on a separate pyre farther down the valley. A few really huge demons were burned where they had fallen, because it was easier to bring firewood to them than to drag them to the firewood. Most of the Enemy dead required less wood to burn them than human corpses did, as though their flesh were somehow more flammable or less solid, and some burned of their own accord when the rising sun touched them.



Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso