16 Liberations and Appearances


Mata konogoro ya


Ushi to mishi yozo

Ima wa koishiki

(Fujiwara no Kiyosuke)


At dawn the next day Warlord Isanari summoned his inner council to meet with him and Senior Commander Tahata, to inform them of the new report being sent to the Throne and discuss the military situation around the Great Shrine. Archivist Yamashiro, Finance Minister Ninori, General Hanenori and Chancellor Tajima all arrived promptly, and read copies of Tahata's report in silence -- both the rough notes made at the Prince's house and the polished (and slightly abridged) version that would be sent to the Imperial Court.

Isanari found himself wondering, suddenly, what the report looked like to the mage-blocked Chancellor. Did Tajima not notice the references to demons and magic? Or did he see them and somehow explain them away or immediately forget them? Perhaps it was unwise, or at least unkind, to show Tajima the reports at all, but to leave the Chancellor out of their meeting would be even more unwise: an unwarranted insult to the man and his office, certain to destroy the small progress they had made toward working with, not against, each other.


When they had finished reading, Archivist Yamashiro said abruptly, "Lord Commander, I hope you don't expect to take part in any battles before summer. Your heart is in no condition for it now, and even after the Healers finish the repairs you will need several months of rest before you have much hope of surviving on a battlefield."

"But -- the Shrine," Isanari protested.

"Leave that to us," General Hanenori urged in a confident tone, gesturing toward Tahata. "The Most Noble Eminence's escape disrupted the Enemy's positions: our lines are only five miles from the Inner Shrine now, not ten. And since the great purification ritual on the shore we've been able to move men and supplies across the bay on boats safely, instead of having to march all the way around. Now that we have a reason to concentrate our attention there, things will move quickly enough."

The Warlord nodded reluctantly. "As Domain Lord of Isanari ... " he began.

"You won't be for long, if you take part in a battle," Yamashiro warned grimly.

Chancellor Tajima assumed a look of innocent curiosity and asked, "Do you plan to marry your daughter to your cousin Commander Isanari before you leave?"

"She's only eleven years old!" the Warlord protested, nauseated. The cousin who commanded his Domain's forces, though a competent field commander, was nearly fifty and said to be a wife-beater at best: there were some very nasty rumors about the deaths of two of his concubines. The Commander also had no political or administrative skills at all, though he did well enough commanding armies in the field. The Chancellor met Isanari's gaze levelly, and the Warlord sighed and nodded reluctantly. "Understood ... my Clan and the realm need me alive, not dead on the battlefield."

After discussing the situation with some of the other Domain lords, they decided not to send the report to the Throne until they could send with it an accurate account of the conditions near the Great Shrine. The report was omitted from the latest package of dispatches for the Throne, and Tahata set out for the Shrine by boat that same day, taking many men and supplies with him. Other reinforcements for the troops in the Shrine's area were sent out to begin the two day march west and south down the pilgrimage road from Hinamachi.


On the afternoon of the third day of Tahata's expedition, a small fast boat sailed up the bay and into the city's harbor. It brought news from Tahata to the Domains Council: the mouth of the Isuzu River, which flowed through the Great Shrine's precincts, was now controlled by the forces that had sailed with him. The Sotomiya, the Outer Shrine where the Mother of Crops was worshiped, four miles north of the Uchimiya, the Inner Shrine of the Queen of Heaven, was also held by the realm's forces, along with many of the smaller shrines that clustered so thickly in the area. Tahata asked urgently for additional reinforcements, and for priests and priestesses to reconsecrate and staff the rescued sanctuaries. General Hanenori immediately began making plans to go to the front.

The boat brought other dispatches as well. Chancellor Tajima read one from Yamakado, his new field commander, with a worried frown that deepened as he read. When he finished, the Chancellor announced to the other members of the council that he would go to the shrine and take personal command of the Tajima forces fighting there.


"Why, Chancellor?" demanded the Warlord worriedly, "We need your skills here."

Tajima sighed. "Because I prefer that my Domain should have at least a few surviving vassals when the battle is over, Lord Commander," he replied. "And I would have very few left now if my ex-ronin Captains Nishiyama and Shimazuki had not managed to evade some very stupid orders from my present field commander ... I wish I could remember how old Shimazuki is, and more about his background," he added worriedly, "Nishiyama is very young, despite his field experience, and lacks the administrative experience to handle anything beyond a Senior Captaincy."


Warlord Isanari sighed and nodded unhappily. Even in peacetime, serious organizational problems in a Domain's forces would take priority over a Lord's ministerial responsibilities. In wartime, a Domain Lord's decision to direct his forces in person could not really be questioned even if the Lord was useless in battle and served by a competent Commander, and Tajima was neither.


General Hanenori offered, "If you find yourself with gaps in your command structure, I can recommend some good men to fill them."


"I may take you up on that," Tajima said quietly.


The Warlord was worried by the thought of the Chancellor on the battlefield, and more than a little jealous: it did not seem at all fair that the mage-blind Tajima should be allowed to risk himself against the Enemy while he himself was trapped in his castle by his weakened heart.


Isanari was frankly horrified, along with all of the other members of the Domains council, when the Twilight Prince sent word that he intended to go to the Great Shrine complex to supervise the reconsecration of the liberated sanctuaries and aid in breaking the magical siege of the Inner Shrine. The Warlord groaned, "What if the Most Noble Eminence makes another charge toward the Enemy?"


"He will, of course," the Chancellor realized suddenly.


Warlord Isanari, who had intended his comment to be rhetorical, stared at him in shock. "Are you sure?"

Senior Commander Mikawa added indignantly, "Are you implying that the Most Noble Eminence has no sense of military discipline?"

"Well, the Eminence was trained to be a priest, not a soldier," Magistrate Suewari pointed out. "The amazing thing is that he shows any competence at all on the battlefield ... though it would make our lives easier, and safer, if his inclination was to move away from danger. Do you really think he is likely to lead another charge?"


"The Most Noble Eminence remembers captivity, but still cannot remember being captured, or the time he spent at Nakayama, waiting, while the Enemy cut their way through the samurai to reach him," Tajima answered quietly. "He charged the Enemy at Shimonaga rather than wait for them to cut their way to him again. It seems unlikely that the Eminence will show much patience if he is asked to remain quiet while the Enemy approaches."

"Especially if the defenses around the Most Noble Eminence begin to fail," General Hanenori agreed ruefully. "I can't say I'd blame him for that. We'll assign units with good horses to stay around the Eminence, so those huge gray horses of his will be less likely to carry him out of contact with his bodyguards."

"But, if anything goes wrong ... " old Lord Katafuse began anxiously, tweaking at his frayed mustache.

Hanenori answered calmly, "If the Eminence comes to harm, we are all dead, by the Throne's decree. And if the Uchimiya falls to the Enemy siege, now that we know about the danger, we are most likely all dead by the Throne's decree, and probably named traitors besides. So we might as well plan accordingly, and pray that the Most Noble Eminence is as lucky at the Great Shrine as he was at Shimonaga."

The Samurai lords had been worried about finding the manpower and transport they needed for this unexpected midwinter campaign, but soon found that their biggest problem was organization, not recruiting. As word spread through the city that the Most Noble Eminence was setting out to rescue and purify the Great Shrine, even injured samurai reported for duty. Groups of peasants and artisans from the refugee camps, survivors of the Long Retreat, set out on the pilgrimage road toward the Shrine. They marched together, chanting, much as they might have on any pilgrimage in better times, and carried with them their axes and sickles and other tools that might serve equally well for smiting the Enemy or repairing the damage the Enemy left behind. Some of the chants were new, praising a 'Compassionate Deity of the Twilight Garden' who had not previously been an object of pilgrims' devotion -- the Domain Lords who heard of them hoped fervently that such peasants' chants would be beneath the notice of the Nobles of the Imperial Capital.


The forces led by General Hanenori and Chancellor Tajima included every samurai that could be spared from the region around the city and a few that probably should not have been. The Twilight Prince's personal staff as Lord of Kawachi would include his usual companions HorseMaster Aoshiba and Bannerman Shirokura Motoharu, and a large contingent of Kawachi samurai as bodyguards, including Motoharu's older brother Tadaharu. Captain Moeri and his cavalry company were also unofficially counted as part of the Prince's party, though nominally under the General's command.

The Most Noble Eminence's religious staff included priests and priestesses of both the Bright and the Twilight Powers, which surprised the Samurai lords: one did not generally associate the Great Shrine with the Twilight Powers. The Prince explained that the Great Shrine complex had been created before there was any division between the rites used in worship of the Bright and Twilight Powers. Despite the similar rites, the goddess whose death had generated the crops, revered at the Outer Shrine, was as much a Twilight Power as the Queen of Heaven enshrined in the Inner Shrine was a Bright one. In any case, many of the subsidiary and minor shrines were true Twilight shrines, even in their customs.


Unlike the peasant pilgrims, the official expedition did not use the pilgrimage road: the merchants and fishermen of the great bay were unexpectedly cooperative in the matter of providing transport. General Hanenori commented that the only seaworthy vessels that had not been offered to them were a few children's toys. There were still problems in loading and transporting horses on vessels that had never been intended for such use, but in general both the waters and the journey were smooth.


As the Prince's party were preparing to embark, Captain Yokobashi, who had been a captive at the Great Shrine along with the Prince, appeared before his Lord and begged permission to join the Kawachi companies. Yokobashi had been spending more and more time drunk during the few months since his captivity and torture and the massacre of his men, and it did not require mage- sight to guess that the haunted man planned to seek his death on the battlefield. The Prince tried gently to convince the Captain to give himself more time to recover from his experiences, but finally agreed to let Yokobashi travel with them.


The Twilight Prince had feared that his usual dizziness while traveling would contribute to a thoroughly spectacular case of seasickness, and was relieved to discover that although he did not feel really well, he did not feel miserable either. The pearl earring that had been the gift of the Lord of the Bay felt oddly warm, which may have had something to do with it. Dealing with the gray horses, who were not at all happy about the moving decks beneath their feet, provided a useful distraction.


Chancellor Tajima was so seasick that he spent most of the brief voyage wishing that he could die and get it over with. By the time they landed at the mouth of the Miyagawa, he was too miserable to pay much attention to the landscape around them. Many of the trees and other plants looked rather odd, but he assumed that was simply a side effect of his illness. He was too relieved to be on solid ground once more to spend time worrying about it.


As the Twilight Prince and his party rode the few miles from their landing place to the Outer Shrine, they passed through a landscape that was a patchwork of normal and demonic vegetation. The patches of terrain that showed the marks of demonic influence grew larger and more common as they moved away from the sea, but dwindled again as they drew near to the Outer Shrine complex. The Sotomiya compound itself showed obvious signs of contamination only on its offices and outbuildings: none of the sacred structures that were so carefully renewed every twenty years showed any evidence of the demonic taint either to mage- sight or to normal vision.


The Prince stopped before he reached the steps that led to the main approach to the main sanctuary of the Mother of Crops, and dismounted. He changed into the formal robes of a high priest of the Twilight Powers and continued into the compound on foot, followed by several lesser priests. Moeri stayed with the horses: despite his formal priestly status, he lacked the training in rituals and in the use of his Power that was needed for this task.

The Twilight Prince walked along the main approach and paused at the purification font to rinse his hands and mouth, and it seemed to Moeri and the others waiting that the world twitched. It wasn't quite an earth tremor -- or not merely an earth tremor -- but that did not make the horses any less upset. As the Prince continued onward, past the first torii, and then the second, the watchers with mage-sight were aware of a building pressure and tension in the aura of the world around them like the pressure that can sometimes be felt before a thunderstorm strikes. When the Prince stepped through the gate of the outermost of the four fences around the main sanctuary of the Mother of Crops, the world seemed to pause and hold its breath, and when he finally set foot in the sanctuary courtyard within the innermost fence there was another earth tremor, a strong one, accompanied by an odd stretching and release in the aura of the world, as if reality was working out a muscle cramp.

When they had quieted the horses and had time to look around, the watchers could no longer see any evidence of demonic contamination in any of the shrine's structures, and the surrounding forest was also showing fewer patches of oddness. The waiting men avoided each others' eyes while they waited for the Most Noble Eminence to finish his prayers and rejoin them.


"The compound was not badly tainted, after all," Captain Yokobashi said finally. "And the Mother of Crops is a Life Power ... so of course it only took the presence of a Powerful Life Mage to set the shrine to rights." Moeri looked at him skeptically.

Aoshiba snorted. "I wouldn't bet good money on that." He was surprised and relieved when the Prince seemed unchanged after completing his rituals: in major Power-shapings it was not uncommon for the mage to be reshaped as much as the Power was.


Most of the military force camped around the periphery of the Outer Shrine complex, on ground that was moderately rather than intensely sacred. The buildings reserved for housing members of the Imperial Clan when they came to worship at the Outer Shrine were undamaged, so the Twilight Prince and his personal companions stayed there. They were grateful for the buildings' shelter: the wind that night was strong and very cold, yet so damp that it drove before it billowing clouds of freezing fog or very fine sleet as it howled around the roofs and fences of the shrine.


The Twilight Prince summoned Captain Moeri to share his bed, for the sake of warmth and company. Sacred ground and the requirements of ritual purity would have prohibited any greater intimacy even if memories of his captivity had not overshadowed desire.


Moeri awakened deep in the night and felt the Prince shivering beside him. He was certain there must be ways for a Fire Mage to warm someone without cooking the person's flesh or setting the bedding afire, but his training in the use of his Power did not yet extend to such subtleties, so he put his arms around his lover and held him close under the covers, trying to share his own body's unfailing warmth.

When he moved to try to shelter his lord's scarred face from the piercing cold and damp, Moeri discovered that the Twilight Prince was weeping silently. He shifted further, until the Prince's head rested against his chest and the patched and empty eye-socket was sheltered against the warmth of his robes and heart, and gently stroked the Prince's hair.

"Forgive ... this weakness," the Twilight Prince whispered miserably, and tried to pull away. He flinched as the wind howled again around the eaves. "I'm so afraid -- Powers! How can you bear to touch such a hideous coward?"

Moeri held him tighter. "My Beloved Lord was tortured near this place. Only a fool or an insensible block would not feel fear." The Prince stopped trying to pull away, but began another protest. Moeri pressed his fingers gently to the Prince's lips to silence him. "My Beloved Lord showed compassion for the Lord Commander's illness, and for Captain Yokobashi's grief -- insisted they give themselves time to heal," he said softly. "Has the Most Noble Eminence no compassion to spare for the flesh in which my Lord himself is Manifest?"

As his lover sighed and rested against him, the young Captain added quietly, "Trust your servants, Beloved Lord. And trust the Power Manifest within Your Most Noble and Revered Person. The Most Noble Eminence will not face the Enemy alone or undefended again."

"The Power frightens me, too," the Prince admitted softly. "In the sanctuary today -- my mage-sight had such range!"


"Could my Lord see as far as the Inner Shrine?" Moeri asked worriedly. The new Fire Mage had been avoiding use of his own mage-sight at long range because it felt so strange to feel other people and things inside his boundaries. He had also developed an odd tendency to lose track of where his body was located while watching things elsewhere within his aura. An aura measured in miles instead of feet would be impossibly confusing, especially when it was full of forests and armies.

The Twilight Prince answered softly, "I could see as far as Shimonaga ... and the Imperial capital ... "


"Five days' journey!" Moeri whispered, shivering at the thought.


"Perhaps farther: it's hard to sort out the auras of places you've never been. Shimonaga and the capital were the farthest places I recognized," the Prince said wearily.

Moeri wrapped himself around his love as well as he could manage, body and aura, to protect him from more than the physical cold. "If you start to lose yourself, Beloved Lord, close your eyes and turn off the mage-sight," he whispered, rubbing the Prince's back gently, "Feel the boundaries of your flesh ... I'll help as much as I can."


"I'll hold you to that," the Twilight Prince whispered, "once the need for ritual purity is over ... "

Moeri could feel himself blushing, but he managed to reply with mock severity, "Only if my Beloved Lord promises to send for the refreshments beforehand, so there will be no need to bother the servants ... "

The Prince chuckled sleepily and shifted to a position that would let them sleep without developing muscle cramps. As the night passed, the sky cleared and the wind became even colder, but gentler and less noisy so that it was easier to sleep.

In Hinamachi, Noble Lord Kagemitsu also spent a restless night.


He had observed the fading ripples in the world's aura caused by the Power-shaping at the Sotomiya with great satisfaction, and only partly because they were evidence that his friend and liege lord was still safe and well. Kagemitsu was certain that if he, a Fourth Rank Mage, could feel the effects of the Twilight Prince's actions, then the stronger mages at the court of the Heavenborn Monarch could feel them as well. After all, if one ignored mountains and the crookedness of the roads, the distance from the Great Shrine to Amekudare no Miyako was not much greater than the distance between Hinamachi and the Great Shrine. He hoped that the courtiers who had abetted the mistreatment of the young High Priest of the Evenings Shadows and then stripped that title
from the Twilight Prince in such an insulting fashion would benefit from this reminder of his Lord's Power.


Despite his confidence in the Twilight Prince's Power, Kagemitsu could not help worrying about the next day, when his Lord would both face the Enemy's forces again and return to the place where he had recently suffered such torments. Finally, he gave up trying to sleep, got up, and began to go over the plans and preparations for the New Years' Day ceremonies and festivities that were so rapidly approaching.


Fujikawa Kakemono, who had been very shy around Kagemitsu since the party at Ninori's, brought him some tea shortly after midnight. The courtier used the excuse of asking about some things in the estate's storehouses that had once been her family's property to convince the girl to stay and talk for awhile. The challenge of trying to become her friend and not frighten her away helped take his mind off his Lord's danger.

** *

The next morning, General Hanenori joined the Twilight Prince and his companions at breakfast and reported that the army had held the lines overnight, and even made some progress despite the filthy weather. The armies of the realm were now positioned around the Inner Shrine at a distance of about a mile and a half, in a great arc that swept from the southeast around through the north almost to the due west, but the Enemy were now resisting further advances with all their available Power and military strength.


As the sun rose, the Twilight Prince presided at the renewed rites honoring both the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of Crops in the Hall of Daily Offerings, just inside the outermost of the four sanctuary fences. Then he dressed in his white and multicolored armor, armed himself with both his naginata and a tasseled purification staff, and rode south along the road toward the Inner Shrine, accompanied by his bodyguards, Moeri's company, and some of the priests.


As they rode away from the newly reclaimed Outer Shrine and toward the Inner Shrine to the Queen of Heaven, now doubly besieged by their own forces as well as the Enemy, the aspect of the land the party traveled through changed rapidly. The forest nearest the Outer Shrine was filled with Power, but not in any way unnatural: the towering cypress trees and other lesser plants, thickly coated with ice and frost from the night's mists, stood quietly in their winter sleep as though they had never been disturbed by any demonic presence. However, as the troop moved nearer to the Enemy forces that surrounded the Inner Shrine the forest began to display a less healthy, more exotic, appearance. They passed trees and other plants that were unnaturally twisted and misshapen, or normal of form but abnormal of color: silver or sky blue or bright crimson, even to the bark, or pale glowing phosphorescent shades of lavender or yellow-green. As the tainted growth became more common, alien plants began to appear as well: saw-edged grasses in unlikely colors and dense growths of vines with thick, fleshy leaves and slime instead of bark.

There were areas within the normal forest that remained contaminated, and areas within the infected region that remained untainted: evidence of the health or pollution of one or another of the eighteen subsidiary shrines and one hundred nine minor shrines that existed in the Great Shrine complex along with the great Inner and Outer Shrines. As the party passed these lesser shrines, some of the priests paused to heal and strengthen them, so even as they rode the Prince's party could see the demonic contamination fading from the forest around them.


To Chancellor Tajima the infected patches of forest simply looked withered and dead, but he did not have much energy to spare for sightseeing. The previous day's seasickness and the night's screaming winds had left him with a vicious headache that drained his strength and made it difficult to focus on anything much farther away than his horse's ears.


When they arrived at the battle lines they found that the army was only a few hundred feet from the Isuzu river that bordered the western side of the main sanctuary complex. The lines had stabilized there. Between the realm's forces and the long bridge across the river was a massive Enemy force strengthened by a long, unbroken line of more than twenty of the enormous, heavy, armored demons, side by side like a living palisade -- Chancellor Tajima's blurred vision showed him masses of armored men and the vague shapes of fortifications or great siege engines. The General mentioned that a Captain of Artillery named Yonsen Dorubaru had suggested a possible method of dealing with the living barrier that blocked them from the river, and the Prince asked to speak to the officer.


The warrior who came forward to kneel politely before them was at least as tall as the Twilight Prince himself, and seemed at least twice as broad. He had sky-blue eyes, and very pale skin on what could be seen of his face: his hair and beard were worn long and loose, and were very full and curly, and the color of newly minted gold coins. He wore Ashiharan armor and clothing marked with a hammer as a crest, and carried a huge ax strapped to his back besides the two swords that showed that he was counted as Samurai.


The Twilight Prince stared at the huge man for a long moment -- and it truly was a man that faced him: the Artillery Captain's aura showed far less evidence of nonhuman ancestry than his own or Kagemitsu's did. Then he smiled and said in what he hoped was one of the commoner trade-tongue's among the foreigners, "Welcome, traveler. Accept our thanks for aid in these troubles."

The foreigner looked startled and pleased by the Prince's greeting; the surrounding samurai just looked startled. Yonsen answered, "The Most Noble Eminence is most gracious to a traveler from afar," then continued in the tongue of Ashihara, "It may be possible to destroy these whale-sized demons if the Most Noble Eminence and the other Honored Priests will bless our ammunition: set Power-shapings upon it to bind it and whatever it strikes to the proper shape of the world. I'm a priest in my own land, and Thor's power is strong against demons, but we need the strength of native Powers."


Some lesser priests looked dubious, but the Prince nodded. "An excellent idea ... what are you loading into your guns?" he added curiously.

"Mixed loads of iron, silver, salt, and wood chips ... and a few herbs and spices: everything I've ever heard mentioned as making demons uncomfortable or tending to break spells," the gunner replied. "If one thing doesn't work against an Enemy, another might."


"Hmm ... show me." The Twilight Prince followed the foreign officer to a pile of ammunition and chanted softly as he used his purification staff to draw arcane patterns in the air over it. "Try it now," he suggested.

Yonsen's gun crew quickly loaded a cannon that had been sighted in on one of the insectile behemoths and fired. A burst of cheers rose from the watching samurai as part of the monster shattered and evaporated. As the Prince and his priests blessed more ammunition and the gun crews reloaded and selected their targets, the infantry and cavalry prepared to take advantage of the new weakness in the Enemy line.


Even with be-spelled ammunition, the huge demons were not easy to kill, but the gun crews worked quickly. The gap was soon five behemoths wide, and the samurai prepared to charge. As a sixth monster was destroyed, the Twilight Prince had a sudden vision of a Power traveling with the shot from Yonsen's own gun: a man as burly and hairy as the gunnery officer but with more red in the color of his flowing hair and beard, armed with a shining hammer and riding a chariot pulled by ferocious-looking goats. Both the vision and the cannon had auras that carried the clean force and tang of a midsummer thunderstorm. The Twilight Prince wondered whether the foreigner had a shrine in which to worship his patron, and resolved that a suitable place should soon be provided for this friendly Power.


The orderly battle lines dissolved into chaos where the huge demons had been destroyed, with samurai pressing forward to try to break through the weak place in the line to reach the bridge across the river and the Enemy trying just as desperately to hold them back. A charge by a small Enemy force almost broke through to reach the guns and the Prince. Yonsen cast aside his gunner's tools and unstrapped his ax, shouting a battlecry in his own tongue, and waded into the battle, wielding his equally huge ax with berserk strength and amazing skill. Looming over the samurai beside him, he resembled an angry golden bear masquerading as a human warrior.

As the Twilight Prince mounted his horse, it occurred to him that the giant foreigner might appreciate the gift of an appropriately large horse. He removed the scabbard from the blade of his divinely charged naginata and his bodyguards and Moeri's cavalry scouts mounted as well, moving into a deep V- shaped formation around and in front of him. Bannerman Shirokura Motoharu waited a little behind the Prince, steadying the great black and gold chrysanthemum banner, and Captain Moeri and HorseMaster Aoshiba rode close at his left hand and his right, while Captain Yokobashi rode at the point of the wedge.


The Prince, who still hoped to preserve the man, started to protest against Yokobashi's position. He was interrupted by the Enemy's second attempt at a sortie, which was accompanied by a great shaping of Power. The Prince worked quickly to weave his own Power and that of the naginata into a counter-shaping to block and then unmake the Enemy's thrust. Deprived of magical support, the Enemy charge impaled itself upon the wedge of the Prince's guardians -- Yokobashi took the head of the Enemy captain -- and its fragments were crushed by the Tajima and headquarters troops that flanked the Prince's position.


Beyond General Hanenori's headquarters troops, on the far left flank of the realm's forces, were the troops of Clan Isanari, in whose province the battle was taking place. Chancellor Tajima's forces were on the Prince's right, and Senior Commander Tahata commanded the far right flank.


There was a sudden turmoil in the aura patterns at the north end of the battle lines: the Enemy's right flank was driven back toward the center, and the Twilight Prince could see by the aura patterns that some of the Isanari samurai had reached the river. He learned later that when the Enemy line had crowded against a small shrine to the Great Spirit-Master Deity a huge mass of serpents had come boiling out to drive the Enemy away. Then the serpents vanished even more quickly than they had appeared, leaving a clear path to the river for the Isanari samurai.

Useful though the disruption was, the movements at the north end of the battle sent a ripple down the line as the crowded Enemy troops were pushed south. The neat wedge of the Prince's defenders was mashed out of shape by the unequal forces that fronted it, but managed to keep moving west as well as south. When they were halfway to the river they encountered two of the insectile behemoths from the southern half of the line that were trying to move north into the gap left when their kin had been destroyed.

Captain Yokobashi slew one by thrusting his katana into its maw and up through the roof of its mouth. In dying it fell upon him and crushed both the Captain and his horse. The Prince shouted Yokobashi's name as the Captain fell, and blinked away tears as the familiar aura vanished from the battlefield. Now only Aoshiba was left of the men that had defended him at Nakayama. Angered, the Twilight Prince broke through the ring of his bodyguards to deal with the second behemoth himself. A thrust of his heavenly naginata backed with his full Power and a shouted reminder to the world that such creatures did not belong in it -- a variant of the spell he had used over Yonsen's ammunition -- quickly reduced the house-sized creature to harmless fragments. The flow of Power was so intense that it shattered the purification staff in his other hand.

Moeri, HorseMaster Aoshiba and Bannerman Shirokura tried to stay close to the Prince, but found themselves too busy fighting the smaller demons that swarmed in to fill the gap left by the behemoths' destruction. Some of the Tajima samurai commanded by Captain Nishiyama rode forward to guard him until his own men could reach him. Aoshiba fought grimly, carefully aiming his blows for the creatures' eyes and the joints of their chitinous armor. Captain Moeri discovered that it was very easy to ignite the insides of centipede-slugs: they were nearly as unstable as gunpowder. Once he got the knack, he was able to make some of them explode while they were still surrounded by their own allies.


The Bannerman killed a butterfly with a body as big as his own, mad eyes, poison-dripping mandibles, and wings the size of sails patterned in black and white and phosphorescent yellow- green. He turned around in time to see his older brother Tadaharu being horribly mangled by a crab-like creature that had started up from underfoot. With a scream of anguish, Shirokura Motoharu cut down the demon, then turned back, his face wet with tears, to give his Lord the service that he owed as the last surviving warrior of the clan of Shirokura. But with the Enemy swarming so thickly it was all he could do to protect the banner. He could not reach the side of the Twilight Prince.


The Prince himself was growing worried as he approached the bridge. To common sight the structure looked sound and reassuring normal, but a faint tinge of something odd was visible to mage-sight. Nor did he like the thought of crossing a twelve foot wide, two hundred seventy foot long wooden bridge while fighting enemies that could fly, or climb, or, most likely, swim better than humans: some of the Enemy looked quite aquatic both to mage-sight and to ordinary vision.

The Twilight Prince paused, surrounded by Nishiyama's Tajima samurai, to catch his breath and survey the situation. He noticed that the river was shrinking in its bed, and mage-sight showed that Tahata had set his men to dam the Isuzu upstream. The river's bed was very wide, there near the bridge, and water seldom filled the full width except during the peak of snow-melt or the worst of the rainy season, and even then the stream ran shallow. Now, in the depths of winter, many shallower channels had been empty even before Tahata blocked the main flow.


Instead of guiding his horse onto the bridge's timbers, the Prince turned her head south and took her down the riverbank instead. Nishiyama and his men tried to join him, and so did Moeri and Aoshiba and the other Kawachi samurai, but the Enemy pressed them too closely and at first none of them could break through. The Twilight Prince reached the riverbed only because most of the Enemy still shrank from facing him directly, as they had at Shimonaga. He hesitated when he found that he was alone, but he had felt one of the magical barriers surrounding the inner Shrine shatter as his naginata passed the edge of the riverbank and he could see the barrier on the east bank eroding under the pressure of his own Power. Beyond, within the Enemy's other barriers, the Power of the talisman enshrined in the main sanctuary glowed in his mage-sight like a bonfire seen through clearing fog.

When he heard the splashing of other horses' hooves behind him and mage-sight showed the familiar, hard-edged aura of Chancellor Tajima among the riders, the Prince decided to continue toward the Inner Shrine. If he could get close enough, past enough of the magical barriers, he could use the Power of the Mirror at the shrine's heart against the Enemy, as he had used the Power fountain at Shimonaga. The sooner he reached the Mirror, the better, he thought: already too many had died here, and there was always the chance that the Enemy, in their desperation might find a way to use the Mirror against the army of the realm.

Chancellor Tajima managed well enough in the earlier part of the battle, despite his blurred and distorted vision. Fortunately, it had not been necessary for him to actually take command, only to override Yamakado's eagerness for an untimely charge. Tajima had also made it clear, he hoped, that his newly recruited vassals were no more expendable than any whose families had served his for generations.

As the battle reached their position, the Chancellor had begun to realize that there was more happening than he could see, even allowing for the blurriness of his vision. His men seemed mysteriously unable to take advantage of what looked like gaps in the Enemy line to Tajima, and too many samurai were dying for the numbers arrayed against them -- once or twice he even thought he saw men cut to pieces who had no Enemies near them at all. After witnessing those deaths, Tajima developed a habit of looking over his shoulder at odd moments, wondering what might be sneaking up on him, although his own weapons never touched anything that he could not see and he felt none of the unseen barriers that seemed to block the advance of his men. The Chancellor decided that he might owe Warlord Isanari an apology, if he survived to return to Hinamachi. Whether or not it involved magic and demons, there was clearly something very strange going on during this battle -- much stranger than he had previously thought possible.


When Captain Nishiyama led a squad to support the Twilight Prince's attack on the Enemy siege tower, Tajima joined them. This was partly out of duty and a desire to protect the Imperial Prince that his brother had so shamefully abandoned. And partly because the air seemed clearer around the Prince: the light in that direction was less distorted and easier on the Chancellor's aching head and blurred eyes. When the Twilight Prince changed his course, riding down the river bank instead of onto the bridge, both his Kawachi bodyguards and the group of Tajima samurai tried to follow him. The Chancellor was the first samurai able to break through the Enemy lines to join the Prince in the riverbed, but Nishiyama and a handful of others managed to follow through the gap Tajima made in the Enemy line.


The horses picked their way carefully across the icy rocks and sandbars of the river bottom. They were not attacked during that passage, which was fortunate since the footing was so uneven. After they had splashed through the main channel the Prince paused, gazing at the east end of the bridge worriedly. "I don't like the looks of that," he commented.


"Whatever the Most Noble Eminence decides," Tajima answered, and Captain Nishiyama nodded respectfully. The Chancellor could not judge the danger on the east bank: the pain he felt when he tried to look in that direction was so great that he could not keep his eyes open long enough to see much.

The Twilight Prince sighed and shook his head. He could see the danger all to well, and hated the thought of leading these men against such odds. But the Enemy were not approaching the water of the sacred river, and the barrier on the east bank was eroding more rapidly as he moved closer to the main sanctuary. He turned his horse south, letting her choose her own path upstream beside the running water of the Isuzu's remaining flow. The Tajima samurai followed without comment: isolated as they were, it was better to ride in the open river bed than to travel through dense forest on a ceremonial pathway covered with loudly crunching gravel. The sounds of the continuing battle seemed unnaturally hushed as they moved away from the bridge.

Tajima wondered where the Prince planned to bring them out of the river. South of the bridge the Isuzu's banks were so steep that stone walls had been built in some places to keep them stable. As the banks pinched closer together, he realized that their goal was the set of shallow steps leading down into the river that served the function filled by purification fonts at lesser shrines. The purification steps themselves were clear to the Chancellor's sight, but beyond them the processional way that led east through the trees to the main sanctuary seemed crowded with a curdled mass of impossibly shifting, watchful shadows. Just looking toward them made him feel sick and dizzy, and there was a scent of lightning in the air that added to Tajima's queasiness.


The Twilight Prince had also developed a headache, though it was not nearly as bad as some he had suffered from in recent months. The magical barriers that formed the Enemy's siege works could not stop his mage-sight from sensing the general shape and flow of the Power in and around the sanctuary, but they did stop him from seeing the details he needed to safely shape the Power there without leaving his own aura dangerously open. It felt like hovering on the edge of a sneeze that never happened, or the tightness that sometimes precedes a thunderstorm. The fraying remnants of the barriers he had already passed through were also a nuisance, but they presented no hindrance to shaping the Power beyond them: he could clearly feel the Power of the Sotomiya as a solid anchor behind him.

As the Prince's gray mare set her fore-hooves on the steps of the purification site, the clustering shadows came rushing toward the intruders. The Twilight Prince swung his naginata in a great double loop that kept the Enemy away from his horse's sides until she had time to gain solid footing. Then rider and horse fought to keep a space clear for Tajima's chestnut gelding to scramble up the steps.

The Chancellor was impressed -- his own horses were trained to be reliable as transportation during battles, but not to be warriors in their own right. He joined the battle to make a space for Nishiyama and the others to come out of the river and did well enough, though he could not clearly see either the foes he fought or the corpses he created.


After what seemed like a very long time -- but probably was not, since the horses' legs were still dripping from their scramble in the river -- the Enemy were forced to fall back for a moment and the Twilight Prince shouted something that might have been a prayer or a curse and moved his naginata in a complicated pattern that had nothing to do with battle. Part of the pattern looked as though he was cutting a door or gateway through something. Some of the shapes that had been attacking the two horsemen simply vanished. Others fled away up the road toward the main sanctuary.


As they paused to share a drink of clean water from the Chancellor's flask, the Twilight Prince and Captain Nishiyama discussed their situation. Two of the Tajima samurai were dead, and four of the horses, leaving only one mounted man besides the three officers. More of the realm's warriors were riding toward them up the riverbed -- they all could see the Prince's banner and the Twilight Prince recognized the auras of Captain Moeri and HorseMaster Aoshiba and others of his men. Beyond the approaching samurai, flames edged with purple and green were rising from the bridge -- in one way or another the trap the Prince had suspected had been sprung. Southward around a slight bend of the river they could see that Tahata's men had outflanked the Enemy and were also moving toward them.


Enemy forces from the bridge were also moving toward them, traveling along the main processional path, but as yet there appeared to be few of the Enemy along the road from the purification site to the main sanctuary. If the Twilight Prince and his companions hurried, they might be able to reach the sanctuary and retrieve the sacred Mirror before the Enemy's reinforcements arrived, then await their own reinforcements in some place more defensible than these open steps at the top of the riverbank. They agreed to try it, and the two horseless soldiers took cover in an undefiled minor shrine at the south end of the steps. They would await the reinforcements while the mounted men raced for the Sanctuary.


The Chancellor took no part in the planning because he no longer trusted his own judgment of their situation. "Most Noble Eminence," he had confessed worriedly, "I don't think I can see all of our foes."

"Mm," the Twilight Prince had replied, clearly unsurprised by Tajima's admission. "Don't worry about it. Any thing you can't see at all should be unable to harm you or get past you to harm anyone else." The Chancellor blushed, knowing how foolish he must have seemed while blind to his own blindness -- he definitely owed the Warlord an apology.


The raiding party found the road clear for the several hundred feet separating the river from the Second Torii on the main approach to the shrine: they had missed the First Torii by riding up the river instead of the road. A hundred feet past the torii, where the processional way was crossed by a smaller road leading south to a subsidiary shrine and north to the rear gate of the Great Shrine, another cluster of the Enemy awaited them. Fortunately, none of the demons were mounted, or inhumanly huge. The four horsemen tried to take them in a charge, with the Prince's huge gray in the lead, Tajima a little behind, and the other two riding on either side to make a very small wedge formation. But just before reaching the Enemy warriors, the horses struck an unseen snare that slowed them as though they were trying to run through mud. Hindered thus, and with only four horses, their charge did not have enough weight to carry them beyond their foes. As they came to a halt, surrounded, the Tajima samurai tried to clear enough space for the Prince to repeat the spell that had broken the barrier at the riverbank steps.


The Enemy were using a new tactic, attacking the horses instead of the armored men that rode them. The Chancellor was more envious than ever of the Prince's combat-trained steed: the gray mare did most of the work of defending herself, which left the Twilight Prince free to protect himself and his companions. Tajima and Nishiyama did well enough at first, though their horses were not battle-trained. The fourth member of their group strayed too far from the others in the melee and died quickly after his mount was dragged down.

When a spear pinned Captain Nishiyama's leg to the side of his horse, the Prince yanked the spear loose and pulled Nishiyama up before him on the gray, his healing Power already at work upon the injury. Chancellor Tajima leaned too far while blocking a blow aimed at the two men, and a foe he had not noticed slipped in and gutted the chestnut horse. Tajima barely managed to kick free of the stirrups in time to avoid being pinned as the stricken beast collapsed. While the Chancellor was off balance, and the Prince in his turn was distracted trying to protect him, there came a sudden wailing cry from behind them, quite different from the sounds of their foes, who seemed to prefer high pitched twitters, deep rumbling growls, or eerie silence.


Turning, Tajima saw that the sound was coming from a black shape attached to the face of an Enemy spearman. This foe had been preparing to stab the Twilight Prince, but was now desperately trying to pull off the churning black attacker. As the spearman collapsed, blood pouring from face and throat, the black shape leaped away to stand between the Prince and the Enemy, still yowling. The Chancellor realized that their new ally was a huge black cat. It looked at least twice normal size, but then, a cat with its back arched and its fur on end always looks twice as big as normal.


Between them, the Chancellor, the cat, and the injured Captain Nishiyama managed to clear enough space for the Twilight Prince to perform his gate-cutting rite. Most of the Enemy blocking their path vanished or fled toward the sanctuary, as they had after
the spell at the riverbank, but one small group of cloaked and armored men stopped only a short distance up the road. The cat hissed loudly at them.

The Twilight Prince dismounted and set the gray mare to guard their backs. He rested the butt of the naginata on the ground and grasped it with his right hand, leaving his left hand free. The Prince reached out with his free hand and then pulled it toward him. It was not a beckoning gesture, but looked as though he had grasped a leash and was pulling a tethered beast closer. Chancellor Tajima shivered: the expression on the Prince's face could not properly be called a smile, he thought, it was far too ferocious. The most richly clad man facing them stumbled forward a few jerky, unwilling paces and spat, "Damn you, Princeling!"

"I didn't invite you to touch me, or ask you to eat my eye," the Twilight Prince pointed out calmly, "so I hardly think you have reason to complain about the link between us ... it won't exist much longer, in any case."


With a snarl and a wordless yell the cloaked being drew his second sword and hurled himself toward the Prince with a weapon in each hand, followed by his companions. The Prince evaded his opponent's rush, but his answering blow glanced harmlessly off the Master, and he also had to dodge an attack by one of the other demons. The Prince recognized a sleet-like aura with a shiver that came as much from memory as from present events.


Chancellor Tajima drove back the Prince's second opponent, then found himself too busy with their other enemies to watch the progress of the Prince's battle. The numbers in the two groups were even, if you counted the cat and the horse, and ignored the handicap of Nishiyama's partly-healed leg.


The Twilight Prince was able to hold his own against the Master, but no more. The link joining his aura to the demon's cruel one let him recognize the Master's feints and tricks for what they were, while his opponent seemed unable to take similar advantage of the link; but the physical battle kept the Prince too busy to grapple for further magical advantage. The white and multicolored armor withstood the attacks the Prince was unable to parry or dodge, though he began to regret his lack of a full helmet. With his height and the length of the naginata compared to the Master's swords the Prince far outreached his opponent, but although the Master began to look quite battered, none of the many blows the Prince landed did any serious harm.


The cloaked figure laughed harshly. "Do what you will, Princeling," he mocked. "You cannot harm me! I am warded by a prophecy that I can never be bound by sorcery by another's act, and I can never be slain by any crafted weapon or being capable of speech. What a pity that you are not similarly protected."

As he spoke he aimed a sweeping blow at the Prince, who parried with the Heaven-sent naginata and sidestepped. The Master's follow-through carried him past the Prince and his shorter blade nicked the gray mare's rump. The already enraged horse turned and reared, squealing, and attacked him with her teeth, and with fore-hooves that had lost their straw shoes in earlier battles, or perhaps while fording the river.

Confident in his prophecy, the Master, like the Prince, had omitted the weight and interference of a full helmet: his skull split like a melon beneath the mare's hooves. Tajima had already slain one of the Master's followers, and the cat was busily trying to claw the face off another. Before the Master had time to realize that he was dead, the Prince's naginata had finished Nishiyama's opponent and the cat's victim had collapsed limply to the ground. The Chancellor finished their last opponent before any of the others could offer to aid him.


The Twilight Prince and his companions could hear reinforcements, both their own and the Enemy's, approaching from different directions along the roads through the forest, but they could see the fences of the main sanctuary now, only a few hundred feet away. Within the remaining, thinning, barriers the Power of the sacred Mirror shone to mage-sight like a beacon. The Prince put the gray mare in the building at the northwest corner of the crossroads that in normal times housed the shrine's consecrated horse. They left Nishiyama with her, and Tajima wondered whether the man was guarding the mare or the battle-trained horse was guarding the injured man.

They ran up the next stretch of road without incident -- it was not a fast run, since both the Prince and Tajima were in full armor and the cat moved slowly to stay near them. After passing the ruins of the ceremonial hall where the Prince's ronin companions had been imprisoned, they ignored the road that looped off toward the main south gate of the sanctuary and angled north instead: the Twilight Prince's escape had left a gaping hole through all of the fourfold fences north of the western gate of the sacred precinct.


As the trio approached the gap, they found themselves once more blocked by the Enemy. Some had come out of the opening in the sanctuary fence, others arrived along the service road that skirted the fence. The cat launched himself into their foes with a wailing cry and the Prince and the Chancellor moved to stand back to back as they were surrounded.


The Prince, facing the gap in the fence, cut and parried almost automatically. The Enemy were hampered by the fence and reluctant to press him closely, and much of his attention was focused on the bright beacon of the Mirror's aura, which was now so tantalizingly near.


The Chancellor, facing the road from which they had come, was harder pressed, crowded more and more by things he could not bear to see. "Eminence! I can't see anything, my Lord!" Tajima exclaimed suddenly. That was not quite true: he could see the buildings and other structures around them clearly, and in the distance the Prince's banner, and his own, were moving rapidly up the road from the river. But he could see nothing of the Enemy surrounding them but roiling fog.


"What does your sword's blade reflect?" the Prince asked.


Tajima cleared blood -- or something -- from the blade and glanced at it, then lunged desperately to his left to cut at the spearman reflected there. "I can't watch and fight ... " he gasped.

The cat meowed anxiously at their feet and Tajima looked down to see that he was standing next to a round metal plate -- no doubt it had been part of the damaged fence. The Chancellor bent hastily to pick it up, and found that it showed his foes clearly, though some distortion in the polished bronze filled the image with trailing streamers and spines of color.


"Tajima?" the Prince prompted worriedly.


"All right now," Tajima assured him, then added, meaning it as a joke, "The cat brought me a mirror."

"Good," the Prince replied, "Be ready to step toward the sanctuary with me when I say ... now ... again ... "


Chancellor Tajima stepped backward obediently so they stayed together as the Prince moved into the sacred precinct. Their first step took the Prince inside the outermost of the fourfold fences, and Tajima found himself foolishly bracing for an earth tremor like the ones that had occurred at the Outer Shrine the day before. He was guiltily relieved when nothing happened, and all the more startled when their fifth step, which took them inside the second fence, was accompanied by a violent tremor, which continued until they had passed inside the third fence.


The Prince paused for breath then, to Tajima's relief. Angling the mirror over his shoulder showed that inside the fourth fence the wide courtyard of the main sanctuary was crowded by Enemy troops near their gap in the fence. The space between the third
and fourth fences was too narrow for the Enemy to crowd them from the sides and their foes seemed reluctant to approach singly, in part because the cat had taken to perching on one fence or another and launching itself toward Enemy faces. With the Prince guarding the narrow opening in the innermost fence and Tajima at the third fence's opening, their position was reasonably safe. When he had caught his breath, Chancellor asked tentatively, "Most Noble Eminence?"

"Mmm?" The Twilight Prince was busy with the tricky problem of probing the thin but complex barriers remaining between him and the shield that protected the sacred Mirror from the Enemy.

Tajima continued hopefully, "Is it true that the Eminence did something at Nakayama that drove away many of the Enemy?"

"Yes, I believe so. But I still can't remember ... "


"Perhaps," suggested the Chancellor, "knowing what was intended there, and what resulted, it would be possible to improvise something similar?" He added worriedly, "Our reinforcements seem to be pinned down somewhere between Nishiyama's position and the outer fence."


"Let me think ... " The Prince considered, looking thoughtfully toward the northeast, where Nakayama rested within the boundaries of his aura -- he needed a Power-shaping that would root the place where he stood, and his own aura as well, to the deepest core of the world and bring him and his companions safely out from among the enemies that surrounded them ... "Oh, of course!" he said suddenly.


The transportation trick that Kagemitsu used so casually was not one that could be used safely by Life Mages: the world their Mage-sight showed was too volatile to allow safe targeting. However, the basic principle was simple enough: at a certain level, the level that made it this world and not one of the others that could be reached along the spirit roads, all of the world was a single place. And since all places in the world were really in the same place, there was no particular reason an object should
be here as opposed to there, unless it was rooted like a tree or mountain or building. The heart of the first half of the transportation Power-shaping was reminding the world of its own unity. Unity ...


The Twilight Prince rested the butt of the naginata 'Truth Defender' on the ground, clasped his hands around the shaft just below the blade, and summoned the Power that was its nature as a Heavenly artifact. Beyond the foe and the magical barriers and its defender's shield, he felt the Heavenly Mirror awaken as well. The Mirror began to feed him Power also, ignoring the intervening space and barricades, answering the resonance of Heavenly origin, which marked both the naginata and the Prince's aura, despite all the generations that had passed since his ancestors left the High Plains of Heaven. Some of the Enemy fell back, as the Power wakened, and others fled. The rest seemed hesitant to approach.


The Prince heard Tajima sigh with relief at this respite, and turned his attention to the transportation spell, reaching in all directions and none to bring his aura and all within its boundaries into harmony with the core of the world. Or to bring the core of the world into harmony with his aura: it amounted to the same thing.

He felt the cat's strong aura and willing support, and the stubborn shell of conventional reality in which the Chancellor was locked. The Twilight Prince felt and saw by mage-sight the awakening of the Outer Shrine and wove the thread of its Power into the harmony he was creating ... Then he looked farther, gathered other threads: from the lesser sanctuaries of the Great Shrine, from the shrines in Hinamachi, including the Sword shrine at Atsuta and the tiny shrine in his own garden, from the shrines he had known in the Imperial capital, and from Nakayama and Shimonaga and all of the other shrines reconsecrated under his authority in the preceding months. The Prince felt the weight of the proper shape of the world, like a huge river boulder that had been partly levered out of position and required only a slight push to reseat itself in its proper bed ... He pushed.


With an almost audible click, as a sword that has been loosened in the scabbard is thrust home once the danger is past, the patterns of the world within the range of the Twilight Prince's Power-shaping returned to their shapes in the time before the invaders began to change them. A few of the Enemy remained in the shrine complex: perhaps they were natives of Ashihara. The rest were simply gone: destroyed or moved out of range -- it was a transportation spell, after all. Caught up in the gloriously complex patterns of the world's aura, at that moment the Twilight Prince neither knew nor cared.



Copyright 1991 Elyse M. Grasso