The 28th Lantern

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by David Gordon

9th Day of the Month of the Boar, 1137 IC, Tani Hitokage, Toritaka Province

Now...

“Toritaka Yoshiro, slain at the Wall,” stated Miya Toshiro quietly. It was the eighteenth name from the list he was reciting, and there were two dozen more ahead of it. Toritaka Nobuske watched impassively, but the herald could feel the edge of each name cutting into the daimyo. The Toritaka family were never a large one, and the losses sustained in the final battle to turn the tide of the Horde had been heavy, but the Empire did not care. All minds focused on the Emperor, his son, and his Chosen. Few had time to spare for the Crab, and even fewer for the forgotten family of Tani Hitokage. Today, it was only the family daimyo, as well as his uncle, to meet with the herald.

“Toritaka Udo, slain at the Wall,” continued the herald, his gaze politely avoiding the daimyo and instead going to the older man seated at the daimyo’s left. He had met Toritaka Matsuhito twice before, both times under better circumstances. He held a position unique to his family, the title of Yotogi holding as much authority as a hatamoto might anywhere else. Miya Toshiro had taken the time to research the history of the position, to know it well as long as he was assigned to the western reaches of the Crab lands. The lore had been scarce, however. It spoke of the Yotogi as a chief spiritual advisor to the daimyo, a position held always by a powerful exorcist of the Toritaka line. Why the position was separate from Nobuske, himself one of the most skilled of his kind, was a mystery no research could clarify. “Toritaka Denbe, slain at the Wall. Toritaka Etsuko, slain at the Wall. Toritaka Keihoto, slain at the Wall.”

That last name made the family daimyo’s expression change, and a sharp look passed between him and his uncle. The daimyo turned back towards the herald, and lowered a closed fan.

“Toritaka Keihoto, son of Toritaka Tatsuya, grandson of Toritaka Nakadai?” asked the daimyo, his voice carefully neutral. “Family magistrate of the Toritaka? He was not supposed to be stationed at the Wall.”

Glancing through his notes, the Imperial herald confirmed the full name and station from the list of the dead and nodded.

“Hai, sama,” Miya Toshiro confirmed, lowering his gaze. “It would seem that he was on assignment in the Yasuki lands when the Imperial Legions under the command of… the Son of Heaven came through. All able-bodied bushi were pressed into service, under the command of the highest. “

A long pregnant pause filled the air between the men, and while the two shugenja said nothing to each other than Toshiro could hear, he could feel a powerful communication between the two of them.

“Leave the list,” ordered the daimyo simply, his voice precluding even polite delay. “My uncle and I must speak.”

The Imperial herald hid his discomfort at the order, and complied with a swift, respectful bow. He placed the list of names to be reviewed before the leaders of the Toritaka family, shifted backwards on his knees respectfully, then stood and withdrew. His mind moved swiftly between the names of the samurai he had read, and their lineages. Toritaka Nakadai had been a second cousin to the daimyo’s own grandfather, but the reaction of Nobuske and Matsuhito was not one of mourning. It was something different.

It was haunted.

The Miya herald pushed the thoughts from his mind. His duty had been dispensed, and he would need to return to the Shiro Kaotsuki no Higashi at dawn. He had an hour before sundown, however, and made a note to seek out the gardens of Shiro Toritaka. They offered a spectacular view of the Lantern Lighting at the edge of the valley. The quaintness of the custom, dating back to the dawning days of the Falcon Clan, always amused Toshiro. As if a lantern’s light had any power over evil spirits… Such were the ways of the goshi samurai of Tani Hitokage, however.


4th Day of the Month of the Boar, 1125 IC, Tani Hitokage, Toritaka Province

Then...

“They went from house to house, but never raised their hands in violence, my lord,” offered the old peasant, his head bowed deeply. He shook as he spoke, the memories haunting him. “I... I could hear his voice above the others, calling to us. ‘Come see!’ he called. ‘We have your children! We have your parents! Come see, or listen to them die!’ The children… screamed as he... as he...”

The old man’s words stopped with a choking noise, and he shook again. Ikei glanced towards her uncle, Doru, her expression seeking to object to the interrogation of the old man. Doru was the Yotogi, but she was the acting daimyo of the Falcon Clan. Her father had held the title, but he had not returned to their lands since the Crab occupation two years ago. He spent his time at court, seeking the aid of any who would listen, or he did… before the plague took him.

His last letter had been clear, even as the Crab withdrew their forces from Falcon lands and returned to the Wall in the south. There was a war coming, he wrote. The Falcon Clan was to remain distant from it. Let the Mantis forge their army with someone else’s steel. Until the looming war ends, the Falcon Clan must remain uninvolved. This is the path of survival.

It did not sit well with Ikei before today, and in many ways, she knew the Clan relied more on Doru for leadership than they did her. Today, however, was a different day.

“And you knew the voice,” stated Doru calmly, his voice free of the worry eating away at Ikei.

“Hai,” answered the old man, his head bobbing slightly. “I have known Roku since he and his brother were children. I would know his voice anywhere.”

“What happened next?” asked Ikei, her gaze flickering only a moment towards her uncle. Who was not the answer they needed.

“We all… rushed to see,” answered the old man quietly. “All who could. Little Kiku was describing to me what she saw, the gathering in the town square when… she said she saw an old woman standing beside the samurai, her hand on his shoulder. The children behind her. And then she stopped.”

“The old woman?” asked Ikei.

“Little Kiku,” answered the old man. “She stopped in the middle of her words, and it was like she forgot I was there. She walked out of the hut and… left me. The children stopped screaming. I could hear everyone gathering in the town square, but… they said nothing. They just… left.”

“And they left you behind?” asked Doru, his tone questioning but firm.

“Hai, my lord. I… I do not know why.”

Doru and Ikei exchanged one last glance before the daimyo spoke.

“You have done well, Yoshi,” she told the old man, reaching forward to place a hand on his shoulder. He had served their household for many years, washing the meager fabrics of the Falcon Clan for three decades before the lye had finally destroyed his sight. He had lived in the village since, but Ikei could remember his smile when she was a little girl. His eyes had been failing even then, but it pained her now to see him so scared. “We will have someone take you downstairs. You must rest. We will handle this.”

As the servant came to lead the blind man away, Ikei turned her attention to her uncle. She had to call his name twice to pull him out of his thoughts, and the look he gave her held a deep terror in his eyes. It was all the confirmation she needed.

“Then it is true,” spoke the young daimyo, and the guards in the room stiffened. “Bonugi’s brother has returned to us, and he has fallen to the use of maho. Who is this old woman? A Bloodspeaker?”

“Worse,” offered Doru quietly, his tone filled with a deep dread. “Our outer villages are deserted. Those who were sent to light the lanterns have not returned. No bodies. No blood. Yoshi’s story is... undeniable. She is no Bloodspeaker. The old woman is something far, far more dangerous.”

Ikei remained silent, waiting for the inevitable answer. When it did not come, she finally asked.

“What is worse than a Bloodspeaker, uncle?”

“Shuten Doji,” answered the last Yotogi of the Falcon Clan, and a chill wind blew through the halls of Shiro Toritaka.


Now...

Toritaka Kwaidan had not slept well in days.

He had been trained from childhood to expect the day his father would die in battle. The Crab Clan held a duty which could not be escaped. Even the proximity to the daimyo would not protect Kwaidan’s father from death in service to the Crab Clan and the Empire. It granted him a position of command in the forces defending the watchtowers of the Kaiu provinces, but that only placed him on the frontlines during the invasion. His death was not an unexpected blow to Kwaidan, no matter how distant the Wall seemed from the Valley of the Spirits. The same could not be said of Hideyoshi’s death.

Hideyoshi, the first son of Toritaka Doru, had been sent to train at Friendly Traveler City with the Yasuki family, to provide their family with the wily skills of the Carp. Increased trade from the Unicorn made such a position desirable. He had been in Yasuki lands, however, when the Crane began the Fourth Yasuki Wars. Kwaidan received his gempukku two months before he learned of Hideyoshi winning a duel against a Crane bushi and earning glory for the Crab Clan. His assignment to Kyuden Hida had come as a welcome bit of news. Kwaidan’s last memories of his brother had been a celebration of Hideyoshi’s appointment. It had been a better time.

It was that celebration that Kwaidan dreamed of, only something was wrong. He only became aware that is was wrong when he looked down at the rice he was eating and saw it moving. It squirmed and wriggled, a thousand tiny maggots biting at each other. Kwaidan started in horror, dropping his bowl in his dream, and it took forever to reach the ground. The wood shattered like porcelain, and suddenly, the maggots were everywhere. They crawled all over the food, which lay rotten upon the table. He looked towards his brothers, but only Hideyoshi was there. Goro had vanished from the dream, and Hideyoshi’s mouth was filled with blood and broken teeth. It was not Hideyoshi, and Kwaidan ran.

In his dream, Kwaidan’s legs moved sluggishly, and the thing wearing his brother’s face pursued him. The harder he ran, the harder it chased. Around him, Kwaidan could feel the woods of the Shinomen, deep and fog-drenched. Every step crunched down upon the backs of beetles, and where the fog cleared, he saw bones and rotted wood. He ran until his lungs burned and his legs ached. It was only then that he saw his father. He beckoned to Kwaidan in the dream, and Kwaidan ran to him. Only it was not his father.

It was a woman in a blue kimono, with blackened, fanged teeth and antler-like horns erupting from her head. She held a lantern, waiting for Kwaidan as fear washed over him like a drowning tide. And she was so very hungry.

When Kwaidan awoke in a start, he found himself hungry as well. The rice in the morning did little to assuage the strange hunger in his gut, and he went about his morning task. As the light of the dawn filled the Valley of Spirits, he walked among the lanterns which ringed the valley. At each one, he murmured the prayer of thanks, extinguished it, and collected it. He hung each in its place on the cart he dragged with him, ensuring each lantern was given its due spot of honor and respect. The lanterns protected the Valley from the unresting dead in the night, and it was his sacred duty to light them each evening at twilight and collect them each morning at dawn. It was a simple, but important duty, and Kwaidan was grateful for it.

While some might seek glory far from their home, or service in the name of the Crab Clan, Kwaidan had never desired more than could be found in the Valley of the Spirits. He had been trained in the ways of his ancestors, as bushi of his family had been trained for over 500 years, long before they had been Crab. Kwaidan even took the old name of his family for those in service to the Valley itself upon completing his gempukku, amused by the many ghost stories. It had been that duty to the Valley which had spared him from the war, and from the duty on the Wall. Toritaka Doru had left his middle son behind when he took his youngest to join his oldest on the Wall. And now, it was just Kwaidan and his little brother Goro left.

Kwaidan pushed these thoughts and memories from his mind, though the last image of his dream haunted him. He made the decision to write it down, as was the way of his family, when he returned to his family’s estate. He did not expect the two samurai of his family who met him on the way there after returning the lanterns to the watchtower. Nor did he expect the letter they bore, with the chop of the Yotogi himself. It ordered his immediate presence at Shiro Toritaka for an examination. Gathering his swords and spear, Kwaidan skipped his morning kata to arrive with all due haste.


Then...

“We could use the cover of the moonless night, get our archers close, and lay down arrows in an area,” argued Ikei, staring at the map of the Valley in front of her. Roku’s possessed forces had gathered in the village, and it was little doubt they were planning on storming the castle that night. They sent out bands of armed peasants and samurai, taking any who were outside the castle and dragging them before the old woman. The sight of her was all they needed to fall under her sway. The Shuten Doji of Fear had come to Tani Hitokage, and soon, she would claim them all.

“No good,” answered her uncle, shaking his head. “Every single one of them would gladly throw themselves in the way of an arrow to save her. There is no way to guarantee a kill save in close personal combat.”

“And marching out there with the castle guard in blindfolds would be suicide,” added Ikei quietly. She stared down at the map, and despair clutched at her heart. This was the death of the Falcon Clan. Perhaps she should take her own life now, and order the castle to follow in her footsteps. The Falcon would be remembered as the Snake Clan was, a cautionary tale of the dangers of the Minor Clans, unmourned and forgotten.

She lifted her gaze and looked towards the window of the small castle that had always been her home. For the first time in her life, she saw twilight falling over the lands of the Falcon Clan, and no lanterns were being lit at its edges to keep the unquiet dead at bay. Darkness gathered, and no light rose to stop it. This was, truly, the end.

She almost started from the touch of her uncle’s hand on her own, and as she turned towards him, she saw in him something different. For years, she had heard his council to her father, the two voices of the Falcon Clan working as one for the benefit of their small Clan. Always a daimyo and the Yotogi, two positions kept separate to protect the other: the daimyo to lead the Clan and the Yotogi to keep the unquiet dead at bay. Should either one fall to possession, the other could rise to keep the Clan safe. But Ikei was not her father, and she could not see a way to live up to his command. Doru, however, did.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, knowing he would not answer. Doru shook his head.

“It is better that you do not know,” he answered. “But I have a solution. The price will be high.”

“How high?”

“All who have fallen under the sway of the Shuten Doji will die, as well as anyone who leaves this castle tonight.”

“But it will work?”

“It will stop the Shuten Doji.”

That was all she needed to know. She gave a nod to her uncle, and he turned at once towards the nearest servant.

“Bring every blue lantern from our storehouse immediately,” ordered the last Yotogi of the Falcon Clan. “And enough lantern oil to fill them all. Bring them here, then leave us. Send word to all the guard in the castle. They are to light no candles nor lanterns tonight. Once the lanterns are here, douse all lights in the castle. None are to be lit before dawn. When this is done… go to your chambers. Gather your families. Lock your doors. Do not open it for anyone or anything until sunrise. Is this clear?”

The servants nodded their understanding, and went to work. Ikei watched her uncle, recognition slowly creeping into her mind. There were at least one hundred blue lanterns in the castle, kept under strict lock and key, to prevent anyone from using them accidently. She had only learned of why through her studies, an old ghost story told and retold time and again. As Doru saw the recognition grow in her eyes, he gave a simple, grim nod.

“It is the only way.”


Now...

“When was the first time you saw the woman in blue?” asked Toritaka Matsuhito, regarding the young man in front of him impassively. Inside, his sympathy grew with each answer, and with how difficult each answer had been for Kwaidan to give. He had no idea what the Fortunes had decided, no idea the burden his bloodline carried. His father had not warned him, save through vague mysteries and instilling in him a deep sense of superstition. It was the little habits which could protect most from the dangers posed by the hungry dead, and Kwaidan’s father had made sure he knew them all.

All the superstition in the world could not protect Kwaidan from this, however.

“The first was… nine months ago?” offers Kwaidan quietly, a frown coming to his face in thought. “I… I thought it was just a nightmare. My father and brothers were away, serving on the Wall during the invasion. I thought it was just worry, that’s all. I saw her in my dreams, standing on top an impossibly high wall, drifting among the dying and the living like mist. And then… I saw her hold up a lantern, and draw a flame from one of the dying. He… he screamed in terror, but he was the only one who could see her. Other than me. And as I saw the flame begin to burn… I became… I woke up.”

It lined up with the reports Matsuhito had received. Toritaka Keihoto had been killed by an arrow shot by a Lost, and died atop the wall. Reports spoke that he had been screaming in terror at the time of his death, and trying to crawl away from something no one else could see. The other dreams Kwaidan had mentioned, speaking of the woman in blue, spoke of her menace and patience, and always of her lanterns.

Matsuhito’s auguries had pointed towards several candidates in the Toritaka family, and he had been able to eliminate each other one. They did not have the dreams of the woman in blue. They did not see the lanterns. They were not afraid. Kwaidan would not admit that the dreams terrified him, but the old shugenja could see it in the young bushi’s eyes. The fear of the woman was alive inside him, and it would not leave him again, not in this life.

Or in the next.

There was one test left, and Matsuhito wished again to spare the young bushi from it, but nothing could be done. The Clan had to be certain, especially this time. Kwaidan was only the second cousin of the Toritaka daimyo, far too close for safety in this case. Matsuhito gave the nod to the attending servant, and the last test was brought forward.

Confusion sat on Kwaidan’s face as the covered tray was placed in front of him. The servant withdrew swiftly, leaving it there.

“Sama?” asked the young bushi, glancing between the covered tray and the Yotogi curiously. Matsuhito nodded, and gestured with his fan.

“Remove the lid,” he ordered, and as Kwaidan did so, he revealed a freshly skinned rabbit. It had been taken from the clutch of the castle this morning, killed and cleaned in preparation for the evening meal. This rabbit had not yet been cooked, and Matsuhito watched the young man’s expression with growing sadness. The hunger swarmed upon Kwaidan unexpectedly, warring with the young man’s revulsion at the bloody animal before him. Almost immediately, Kwaidan’s face went taut, along with his arms, as the young bushi found himself reaching forward without control. He stopped himself twice, but the third wave broke the dam of his resolve, and with a look of horrified shame, Kwaidan snatched up the skinned piece of meat and brought it fast towards his mouth.

His teeth and fingers tore at the flesh of the dead animal with reckless abandon and mindless hunger, and it was all Matsuhito could do to not turn away in revulsion. He had placed this test before Kwaidan. He would witness its result. To turn away now would be to shirk the duty of the Yotogi, and show cruelty to the young man in the guise of politeness. Instead, he waited until the young man finished eating as much of the skinner rabbit as he could, and gestured with his fan to the servant as the broken body of the dead animal dropped from Kwaidan’s grip. The servant came forward with the wooden bucket quickly, passing it to the young bushi just in time as he doubled over into it. The sound of sickness filled the room, mixed with the cries of shame and disgust, and only then did Matsuhito looked away.

“Send for my nephew,” he told the servant, as Kwaidan began a fresh round of vomiting. “Tell him… we have found the 28th lantern.”


Then...

Three hours ago, the room had been lit by a hundred blue lanterns. Now, there was only one.

Ikei and Doru had taken turns, telling every single ghost story they knew before blowing out a lantern. Ninety-nine stories, told in a room growing colder and darker. It was only them in this room, and only one lantern left. And it was Doru’s turn. Ikei steeled herself for what came next, and reminded herself of the truth outside their walls.

They had no choice.

“Once, there was a beautiful woman who was born with a gift,” spoke Doru quietly, almost whispering his story into the last of the blue lanterns. “Not since the time of Lady Doji had there lived a woman with a greater talent at the theater. Her verse sung to the souls of all who came to her stage, her music stirring the hearts of those who heard it. She was the greatest of the Noh playwrights, who took her place time and again upon the stage in secret, for doing so would be the highest sin. She had been born samurai, after all, and the Crane Clan did not lower itself to perform in such a manner. But the legend of her verse spread throughout the Empire, and so she was invited to perform in the capital itself, to the greatest crowd ever. And so she performed a tragedy of her own writing, the story of a scorned woman who loved a nobleman, and died by her own hand, haunting him.”

Ikei had heard versions of this story before, but this one had a ring of truth to it that others did not. Her gaze watched her uncle carefully, even as her mind took in every detail of the story. She knew how it would end, but it was the journey to that end that must be perfect.

“In the audience that night had been the Emperor himself, and he fell deeply in love with the haunting woman who sung behind the mask. He had to have her. And so, he wrote to her that night, demanding a reply and declaring his love. He was pleased the next day to find a reply, beautifully written and finely crafted from the same woman who had stolen his heart. She refused to see him, but left open for another letter, and so the Emperor wrote again. And again, she replied. And so it went for that entire Winter Court, letters back and forth between the playwright and the Emperor, the latter declaring his love and desire and the former enchanting him further with her verse, until finally, he could wait no more. The Emperor wrote to his beloved, demanding to meet with her that very night, lest he drink poison and take his own life in despair, so great was his desire for her. And so too was her desire for him that she went to the garden he requested and waited for him.

“And so the Emperor snuck into the garden, carrying with him a single blue lantern. He called out for his beloved, and she answered. She ran to him, her face covered in a simple cloth with only her eyes showing. When the Emperor professed his love to her, he asked to see her face so that he might know truly who had stolen his heart. At first, she was afraid and refused the Emperor again, but he threw himself at her feet in protest, tearing his own kimono in sincerity of his love. Truly, he declared, he would love her no matter what lay beneath the cloth. And so she removed it, and the Emperor screamed, for her face was horrifying to gaze upon. She had been scarred by a childhood illness, and her countenance lay in the realm of nightmares. The Emperor felt only revulsion at the sight of her, and recoiled as she reached for him. Her heart on the verge of breaking, she reached for him again, reciting the lines of her first poem, but it did no good. The Emperor struck her with the blue lantern as hard as he could, knocking her away, calling her monster… demon... With that, he fled the garden, leaving her behind.

“Her heart broken and knowing herself to be truly alone, the playwright unbound the obi she had tied so perfectly. She wound it over the bough of a sakura tree, and wrapped its length about her throat. She climbed up the tree, carrying the blue lantern with her as she went, and dropped from the tree to her slow, strangled death. When the guard found her in the morning, they thought her some kind of monster from the south, whose death had polluted the tree and the lantern. To hide the shame of a suicide in the garden, they cut the tree down in the first rays of the morning sun. Her body they had an eta remove in secret, had it cut open and filled with stones, and sunk in the bay of Otosan Uchi.

“And so her soul, consumed by fear, desire, and regret, denied in life the love of her Emperor and denied in death the rest of a funeral, haunts the world still. She waits for those who light the one hundred blue lanterns, whispering their stories in the dark of a moonless night. She comes only when bidden, to feed on the fear of those who cling to such stories, the first of her kind… Thus is the story of Oiwa, the first of the Aoandon and rightful Empress of the gaki.”

With that, Doru blew out the last lantern, and darkness filled the room. And yet, in the dimness of the starlight, Ikei could see they were no longer alone. A third figure had joined them, her face hidden in shadow but the blue of her kimono somehow clear to be seen. Fear hit Ikei like the tide of the ocean itself at the sight of the woman, and she felt her heart shudder in her chest. It pounded like a prisoner chained inside a burning building, and the daimyo’s mind screamed for her to be anywhere but this place, while a still quiet knowledge slipped through that even that would be no help. As the woman in blue turned towards her, she just barely made out the line of antler-like black horns reaching into the shadows above her head, darker than the darkness beyond her.

And then Doru was between Ikei and the shozai-gaki, holding a scroll before him.

“We did not call you here to be your food tonight,” he spoke in a voice which challenged the very idea of fear to begin with. “Look beyond us, Empress of the gaki. Taste the air of the Valley. Hear the song of fear being sung. You and your daughters feed on terror itself, on lives claimed in the deepest throes of fear. Nowhere in the world tonight is there more fear than in this valley. In the heart, there is a being who would use this fear to consume the entire Empire… We called you here to feed, Empress of the gaki, to take all who have fallen to it and take it from this realm. You, and all your daughters. Feed well tonight.”

For a moment, the monstrous woman in blue tilted her head, as if listening to the song itself, and the next she was beside Doru. A hand with fingers ending in rusted steel blades was wrapped around his throat, and her face was pressed against his. Ikei could hear a whisper pass from the shozai-gaki to the Yotogi, and then… she was gone.

Doru collapsed to the ground, shaking, and Ikei crawled towards him. She could not remember when she fell to the ground as well, but it seemed so inconsequential to the presence they had called there. Her uncle looked towards her in the dim starlight, meeting her gaze with his.

“What did she say?” asked the young daimyo of her chief retainer. “Will she do what we asked?”

“Hai,” answered the old shugenja, his neck bleeding from the five cuts of her fingertips. “But... there is a price.”


Now...

“The price was one hundred souls,” explained Toritaka Nobuske, his gaze turned outwards into the Valley of the Spirits. Twilight had begun, and already, his retainers were lighting the lanterns that ringed the valley and kept it safe from the unquiet dead at night. “One hundred souls to light her lanterns. The bloodline of the last Yotogi of the Falcon Clan would carry the mark of the first Aoandon until this price was paid. The gaki would hunger for them above all others, and among them would be chosen the souls to light her lanterns.”

“We were nearly wiped out that night,” explained Toritaka Matsuhito, his gaze watching Toritaka Kwaidan taking in the secret history of the Toritaka family. “Between the gaki and the Shuten Doji, there were only a dozen of the Falcon Clan left. After Kisada’s march on the capital and the end of the Clan War, however, the Crab Clan took us in and helped us rebuild. They felt responsible for what had happened, to a degree. Our numbers swelled as they never could as a Minor Clan, but we always kept careful track of the bloodline of Doru.”

“Your ancestor, Kwaidan-san,” stated Nobuske, turning away from the vista and back towards his younger cousin. “And very nearly mine. You bear a particular burden, greater than any other alive in our family. You are the 28th lantern owed to the first Aoandon. Upon your death, she will choose among those closest to you the 29th lantern… but we have noticed a pattern over the last three centuries. Whenever possible, she moves closer to the line of the last Falcon Clan champion. My line.”

“And so, you must live, Kwaidan,” continues Matsuhito. “Live, and be fruitful. Find a wife, have children, and live a long, healthy life. Put as many lives as you can between the daimyo and the first Aoandon as you can, so long as we can track them. From this day forward, you are forbidden from taking any lovers with whom fathering a child is a risk, save your wife. Furthermore, you will be given an assignment away from Tani Hitokage. While your family, when you have one, will remain here, it is paramount that you do not. We cannot risk the hungry dead forcing their way into this world simply to kill you.”

As the explanations proceeded, Matsuhito watched Kwaidan’s expression. Each new revelation added a new stone pressing into the chest of the young man. He had not been prepared for this burden, perhaps, but there was a chance he would bear it well. Matsuhito offered a silent prayer to Fukurokujin on the young man’s behalf. May he live a good long life, and carry his burden far.

“I have two questions, if I may, sama,” spoke Kwaidan calmly, and Nobuske gestured for him to continue. “The first, who else knows of this?”

“Aside from myself, my nephew, and you?” answered the Yotogi. “Only the Kuni family daimyo knows of the blood curse you now bear, though we have not yet informed her that a new samurai bears it. She has greater concerns than such, and treats this as a matter of family concerns only.”

“Rightfully so,” added the daimyo quietly. Matsuhito nodded, then continued.

“Were this to be discovered, finding you a bride outside the Crab Clan would become impossible,” finished the Yotogi. “And would make things very difficult for the entire Toritaka family.”

Kwaidan nodded to that, accepting its wisdom with the same stoic exhaustion as everything else. He took a breath, and steeled himself for the next question asked.

“And what happens to me when I die?”

Matsuhito glanced towards his nephew at that, the silent question being answered with a nod. They had come this far. If he thought to ask, Kwaidan deserved to know.

“Your soul is already in the process of transforming into a lantern gaki,” answered the Yotogi simply, his tone kept even. “You already know the hunger and the dreams. When you die, the first Aoandon will come for you. You will know terror beyond anything you have ever imagined, and when you think you cannot be anymore scared, she will light your soul ablaze and trap it inside her lantern. There, you will burn in abject, never-ending terror until one hundred souls have been claimed by her lanterns and she is summoned again to this realm to feed. Only then will you be released back into the kharmic cycle.”

The Yotogi paused with another glance towards his nephew, before turning back to Kwaidan.

“It is... possible that the first Aoandon may reach the end of her kharmic torment in Gaki-do before that point, but we do not consider it likely,” concluded Matsuhito. “We do not believe that she will ever be ready to move on.”

With that, the young bushi simply nodded his acceptance of his damnation, and let his breath out slowly. The daimyo and his uncle watched Kwaidan a moment more, before Nobuske stepped forward.

“Go to your home, and gather your things,” ordered the daimyo. “You will be departing tomorrow at dawn to Kyuden Hida and from there, to Otosan Uchi. I have chosen you to be among the representatives of our family at the coronation of Toturi X. You will bring us honor there, and abroad. Go.”

Kwaidan bowed deeply, pressing his forehead to the floor before rising and exiting the room. Nobuske turned towards his uncle, and lifted a brow slightly.

“He took it rather well, all things considered,” offered the daimyo quietly. Matsuhito nodded and called in one of the servants.

“Go to the cart tended to by the samurai who just left here,” ordered the Yotogi. “Bring one of the lanterns he was responsible for, and bring… blue paper.”

Nobuske gave his uncle an odd look as the servant departed, and the Yotogi lowered his head.

“He is about to leave his home and everything he has ever known,” answered Matsuhito to the silent question. “We should give him something of home for him to carry with him.”

“But blue?” asked the daimyo simply.

“So no matter what happens,” replied the older shugenja. “No matter the challenges he faces… he remembers his most important duty to his family. And what waits for him on the other side of his death.”

Nobuske nodded to the hard wisdom of his uncle and turned away to watch the lanterns ringing the Valley of the Spirits.