Heaven’s Steps Are Light
By Robert Denton
Toritaka Suppon nodded at what he discovered, then pushed himself to his full height. “I’ve found something!” he announced, his voice echoing through the trees, disrupting the serenity like a thunderclap.
His squad came from throughout the nearby woods. Fellow Yureigumi, equipped just as he was with haunt blue paper lanterns and sacks of salt swinging from their obis, they soundlessly filtered in to the tiny clearing. Their grey kimonos, cloaks, and hakama, with pine-green trim and displaying the Mon of the Falcon, were speckled in the amber light of late afternoon filtering through the canopy above.
Suppon smiled beneath his mask, a gesture none of them would see. He gestured to the thing at his feet, partially concealed beneath the debris of the woods. “Look,” he said. “This may be what we’re looking for.”
None of the other samurai moved. Their dour expressions were a wall of displeasure. A young woman broke the rank, her raven hair pulled back into a ponytail, chestnut eyes downturned to where Suppon gestured. She set aside her lantern and knelt, placing a hand on the hilt of her elaborate blade. With the other, she fingered the sting of cypress beads that hung from her neck.
“It’s a snakeskin,” she said.
Suppon nodded with pride.
She blinked at him. “Really?”
“Look at the size of it!” he defended. “Snakes only grow that large in the colonies! And the pattern, do you see the pattern?” He knelt by the shriveled thing, running a finger along the dry, papery back. The woman listlessly followed with her eyes. “This,” he announced, “is unlike any pattern I have ever seen on an animal, snake or otherwise!” He stood again and crossed his arms with a nod. “I will grant that it is not much, but it is something!”
There came a few sighs from the others. The woman stood and faced Suppon squarely. Although she came only to his collarbone, her willowy form had the presence of one twice her height. “Lady Tomoe of the Hiruma asked the Toritaka family to investigate rumors of naga sightings and activity along the borders of the Shinomen. Although she did not say, it is clear that she fears, as we all do, a return of the Kurai no Naga… that our clan’s duty is not yet done. That she asked the Toritaka is a great honor, an endorsement of our dojo, and a gesture of explicit trust.” The woman frowned. “And for her confidence, you intend to offer the Tsunami of Daylight Castle a withered snakeskin?”
Suppon bristled among the chuckles of his peers. “Yukiye,” he reasoned with her, “the size of the skin is clearly-“
“We are but a stone’s throw from the Shinomen Mori,” she cut him off. “You don’t think the snakes can grow so big there?” She raised an eyebrow. “Did the Scorpion leave you with so little guile?”
“They taught me enough to trust my own eyes! My own senses! Better than a hare’s ears are a man’s!” He brought his face closer to hers. “They taught me not to be ashamed of who I am! At least they took me seriously.”
The woman, Yukiye, curled her lip. “Perhaps we’d take you seriously if you’d take off that ridiculous mask.”
Suppon tilted his head. His expression was completely concealed behind a hook-nosed somen mask that depicted the face of a pondering tortoise. She could only see his smiling eyes. “You act as though you do not want to find the naga,” he said.
Yukiye levied him with heavy, tired eyes. “There is a sea of wandering ghosts walking the Empire. In one century our people have seen more war than in five. The Destroyer War. The War of the Twins. The Third Yasuki War. The Unicorn-Phoenix war. Our war with the Spider. And so on. There are more lost ghosts now than there have ever been. Only the Toritaka can see them and give them peace, but we are only so many. There is so much to be done.” She gestured to their surroundings, the tired faces of the others. “Yet here we are, searching for ghosts of a different kind. Chasing rumors and shadows.” Her face intensified into a hot glare. “And you with your head in the clouds, picking up snake skins and talking to spirits of turtles!”
“Tortoises,” he corrected.
She balled a fist.
Their commander’s voice echoed through the forest. “Report!” it shouted. Yukiye relaxed her hand as the Yureigumi left the clearing.
“You are a child,” she said, then joined them, turning her back to the Masked Tortoise.
Suppon shook his head and scooped up the snake skin. Much of it flaked away like an old scroll, littering the ground, but what remained he tucked into his obi.
Toritaka Iabuchi waited for them at the edge of the wood, patiently standing in his black and green kamishimo. The Yureigumi assembled before him, kneeling obediently. Suppon was last, planting his knee into the dirt and lowering his head. From behind his mask, his eye lingered on the hataki tucked alongside the man’s daisho, a thin wooden dowel affixed with many cloth strips, an implement for dusting. A sign of Iabuchi’s station, hataki were carried by all Reiryoshi. Suppon stared at the duster with long eyes.
“Report,” Iabuchi spoke. “Did anyone find something?”
Yukiye gave a sly smile. “Suppon found something,” she offered. “He thinks it is quite significant.”
A few of the others smirked. Suppon felt heat coming to his face, thankfully hidden by the mask’s blank expression.
“Oh?” Iabuchi turned to his subordinate. “What is it, Suppon-san?”
Suppon straightened and produced the withered skin from his obi. Iabuchi blinked at the grey, papery husk for a moment, then took it from Suppon’s open hands.
“Hm,” Iabuchi pondered. “Interesting.”
Suppon brightened. “Indeed,” he spoke, “I knew when I saw its size that it was unusual. But it was the pattern of the scales, so unusual for snakes in this area, that told me it was worthy of our scrutiny. This may be a sign of what we are looking for!”
Iabuchi looked up from the skin. “It is a yamakagashi skin. You can tell from the orange crossbars along the sides. They are a common snake throughout this area.”
Suppon stiffened. A few chuckles broke from the gathered scouts.
“Do not laugh!” Iabuchi barked. Mouths clamped shut. They all grew silent. “At least he is trying!” Iabuchi continued. “This is more than anyone else has found so far!”
“The rumors are likely untrue,” Yukiye spoke. Iabuchi regarded her and his expression calmed. When she saw that he was receptive, she continued. “The Naga consider the Shinomen to be their kingdom. We have dwelled on their border for days, armed and well-equipped. If the Naga have awakened, we would have encountered something by now. There is nothing here to find.” She shifted, looking north. “Unless we venture into the Shinomen Mori.”
The scouts exchanged grimaces. No one wanted to do that.
Iabuchi considered her words. He looked from one face to the next, seeing that she had spoken for all of them. All but Suppon, who would not meet anyone’s gaze.
At last, Iabuchi spoke. “Perhaps you are right, Yukiye-chan. Even so, I have my suspicions. I ask that you humor me a while longer. Let us look for three more days. If, by then, we have encountered nothing, we will return to Kyuden Toketsu.”
The gathered scouts seemed to lighten at this. Yukiye bowed, pleased.
“Now,” Iabuchi said, “let us turn to pressing matters. Yukiye, Isai, Suppon: find a suitable place in the forest for camp. The rest, seek supplies. Meet again in one hour.”
They collectively bowed to their gunso. “Hai!” they spoke as one. As they rose, Suppon caught a brief glimpse of Yukiye’s gloating smile.
As they left, Suppon approached Iabuchi, who was still considering the snakeskin in his palm. Suppon lowered his head. “Thank you, Iabuchi-sama. I am grateful for your words. Only, I ask that you do not judge the others for their haste or their disdain for their duties. They are only frustrated with their lack of progress. It can be difficult to maintain a cheery disposition in such circumstances. I know you understand.”
Iabuchi waited until the other scouts were beyond earshot. Only then did his expression transform into a dark scowl. He let the snakeskin fall from his fingers. “Scorpion words,” he said. “How sincere.”
Suppon tilted his head. An expressionless tortoise wondering at his master.
“Do not mistake this assignment for kindness,” Iabuchi warned, leaning in. “You are only here as a favor to our uncle… only because he is tired of dealing with you and your nonsense!”
Suppon lowered his head obediently. He had nothing to say.
“You have your orders.”
Dipping slightly lower, Suppon then turned and left.
Iabuchi watched with a baleful eye. “And for Fortune’s sake,” he hissed, “take off that ridiculous mask. I can barely understand anything you say!”
Where Yukiye and Isai went east and west, Suppon went north, closer to the Shinomen Mori. Perhaps it was the words of his cousin, or Yukiye’s triumphant smile, but Suppon no longer cared about the danger that the vast forest represented. He brooded as he tromped through gradually thickening forest, his heavy steps snapping branches and crushing fallen needles and leaves. Soon the parangu came out from his obi and he was slashing paths through the brush. He had never been one for moving silently. It was not his nature, and he’d never been taught as such.
At once he came to the edge of a tall cliff. He looked down from the precipice and saw winding rapids far below. He walked alongside the cliff for a time, following the current, thinking it might pool somewhere flat and provide drinking water for a camp. He nodded to himself. That would be a better place than whatever the others would find.
As he loudly snapped fallen limbs and tromped over brush, his mind wandered. He saw himself giving orders to his cousin, forcing him to bow low in front of all Suppon’s peers. He saw the nakodo making Yukiye his wife, her temperamental nature subtly changing as their courtship advanced, all while she struggled to keep her warming feelings for him hidden. He saw himself returning to Scorpion provinces, perhaps for his expertise to aid in the upkeep of the Scorpion Wall, and earning acclaim as a student of their dojo. He saw himself repelling an oni attack from beyond the portal, laughing as his enemies scattered beneath him. He imagined a massive castle with a tortoise statue in his courtyard. A jade one. With gold trim, he decided. Suppon indulged these thoughts with a long smile as the world faded around him.
Yukiye stood before him in his mind’s eye, arms crossed in the white Uchikake of a bride. She frowned, as she often did, but her eyes sparkled with longing. “I suppose you think I want this…” she said coyly, her voice timid and shaking. Her cheeks blushed faintly…
Suppon walked into a low branch, banging his head. He cursed with the sharp pain, wobbling close to the cliffside as he caught his balance. Angrily, he ran his fingers along the surface of his mask and found a small dent. His anger flared and he chopped at the tree limb with his parangu, each strike accompanied by a loud cry that echoed through the forest and sent birds flying from the grass. On this third strike, it became stuck, and he would have wrenched it from the branch and toppled over the side of the cliff had he not spotted something that immediately seized his attention.
Just beyond a wall of azalea bushes, Suppon glimpsed a structure standing in the forest. Curious, parangu forgotten, he abandoned his path and moved towards what he saw. He found himself standing on the far side of a swinging bridge suspended over a branch of the rapids. On the other side stood a quiet cottage, the foundations of which took up nearly the entire suspended island on which it stood. It was a simple cabin with a thatched roof, devoid of decoration or anything remarkable beyond its location. Suppon thought he would have missed it had the branch not reminded him of his surroundings.
Seeing no reason not to investigate, wondering who would build a cottage in this unaligned part of the Empire, Suppon tromped across the bridge and approached the door. He slid it aside and looked within. The entryway was recessed below the wooden floor of the house, providing a space to remove one’s sandals. Suppon stepped inside and did as habit and custom dictated, slipping off his sandals and placing them so they faced the door.
“Hello?” he shouted. “This is Tokestu no Toritaka Suppon!” He paused. “The Masked Tortoise!” he added with audible flair. “Apologies for entering your home! Who is the master of this household?”
There was no reply but for the creak of the wood and the stirring wind.
“Abandoned,” Suppon whispered. He stepped out of the foyer and deeper into the house, finding it simple in layout. There were but three rooms, all separated by sliding shoji doors. The largest had a recessed hearth at the center and a chain that suspended a tea kettle. From the mattress on the floor, Suppon assumed it doubled as a bedroom. Across from this was a much smaller room, a personal shrine. It had been used recently, judging from the ashes in the incense bowl before the icon of the celestial dragon.
It was in the third room that Suppon found the body. He froze in the doorway. The body was an older man in the trappings of a priest, but with no Mon or clan identification. He was hunched over a desk, a paintbrush clutched in his twisted fingers, papers scattered beneath him. Twin trails of blood ran from his eyes and pooled beneath his cheek on the table. His grim visage promised last moments of horror. Suppon noticed, with grim realization, that all the windows were not only shut, they were broken, as if by a sudden wind.
Slowly, Suppon unhooked his haunt blue lantern and laid it on the floor. He didn’t light it just yet, but he gave a cautious sweep through the room, lingering in the south-western corner; the unlucky one, the one that pointed towards the Shadowlands. His fingers graced the handle of his sword. But he found no evidence of lingering spirits, and his Toritaka eyes saw nothing else amiss. At last he relaxed.
The priest had been dead for a while. His flesh was already pallid and waxy. Suppon shook his head at the man and wondered what could have caused this. Then his gaze drifted to the papers just beyond the body. The writing was hasty, the brushwork wild and undisciplined. It looked desperate. Suppon felt a chill as he followed the trail of kanji to the paper’s edge. The priest, in the throes of death, had written off the page and left strings of kanji on the wooden surface of his desk. Suppon could see where the wind had blown the pages away; there was a break where some writing was bisected between edge of paper and desk. In fact, he’d written on overlapping papers, so that connecting the writing was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. With a growing sense of dread, Suppon carefully gathered the papers and laid them out, matching them together and with the writing on the desk to see the entire message.
He stared at the writing for a long time.
Heart racing and in his stomach, he purposefully gathered the papers again. His hands were shaking and his mouth was dry, but he ignored that for now. Taking a charcoal spindle from his satchel, he summarized the message on a blank sheet of paper, then folded them all together and tucked them in his obi. As he left the room, he paused at the door and offered a long bow to the corpse of the priest.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Suppon burned the cottage with the flint and steel he found inside. Black smoke rolled up the thatched roof as he crossed the swinging bridge. Reaching the other side, he unsheathed his katana and deftly struck the ropes, severing them. The bridge collapsed, free planks falling into the churning river below.
He was the last to return to the meeting place. Iabuchi was already speaking with Isai; they’d found the perfect place to set up camp. Iabuchi afforded his cousin a brief, disappointed look, but Suppon paid it no mind. He simply rejoined the group, kneeling beside the line they formed before their gunso.
Yukiye wrinkled her nose at him. “You smell like smoke,” she remarked.
Her frown softened, eyes furrowing with curiosity. “What happened?” she whispered. “Did you find something?”
She could not see his face behind the blank expression of the tortoise. But his eyes flicked to hers, eyes that seemed knowing and confident. Eyes that had glimpsed the future. “Nothing of importance,” he replied, and wondered how long it would take him to reach Shiro Toritaka from here.
It took several moments before Iweko Seiken realized something was amiss. Concealing his reaction with a practiced On, he turned away from the grand window to look casually upon the Imperial Court.
He found it completely empty. No guards, no courtiers, no artisans, and no priests. The rhetoricians, just moments ago engaged in passionate debate, had vanished. The servants with their trays of tea and the warriors playing Go in the private balconies alike were no longer here. The Moshi woman with the trained parrot from the colonies, the odd Dragon monk who never spoke even when addressed, even the broad, imposing sentinel of his mother’s Voice… all gone. The Imperial Court was as abandoned as a disgraced tomb. Seiken was alone.
Disoriented, he paused in the void of his mother’s court. It was teeming with activity before he looked away. Seiken searched his mind for the exact moment things had changed. For how long had he been staring out the window from an empty courtroom?
He took a cautious step down from the dais, his padded foot touching the polished stone floor. At once he became aware of another presence. He was alone no longer. His keen eyes spotted the visitor: a young girl, moon-faced with a stalk of black hair sticking out from her shoulder-length cut, stood just before the dais, a short distance from him. She was perhaps nine years old, dressed in overlapping silks, colors so hot and vibrant they clashed and pained the eyes. Regarding her, Seiken felt the sense that something was amiss about the girl, struck by a vague notion that he’d seen her before, somewhere far from this place.
The girl bowed before the dais. As she did, her kimono sleeves swept forward like flapping wings. In the discordant colors, Seiken glimpsed the pattern of alternating scales, the flank of a vast serpent. His gaze trailed to the girl’s shadow, which dwarfed her, coating the entire room behind her, coiling, curling, massive…
Seiken’s heart froze, his blood crystalizing in his veins. He whispered the girl’s name. “P’an ku.”
The girl lifted her head and turned. A long braid hung opposite of the stalk of hair, clattering with ceramic beads of alternating colors. It seemed that oceans of stars were swirling in those beads. She was smiling, her eyes almost glowing in the dimming light. She giggled.
Seiken’s jaw clenched. He breathed slowly, remaining calm in spite of his growing sense of exposure, of complete helplessness. He inclined his head to the girl, showing proper deference to the ancient dragon before him. He opened his mouth to speak.
But the girl plopped her forehead to the stone floor, prostrating before him. Taken aback, Seiken watched her with curious eyes.
“Oh great Empress,” the child spoke, “I have come to pay my respects to your son on the occasion of his ascension!”
Seiken paused. Empress?
The child continued, “Although I am not yet worthy to fully appear before you, impure as I am, I would be remiss not to repay the kindness your son showed me in your wondrous colonies. As an ally of your realm, I would offer him a gift, glorious Empress.”
Seiken managed a slight chuckle. “Gracious dragon,” he spoke in a carefully measured voice, “such a gift is not necessary.”
The child looked up, confused. “Oh! It’s you Seiken! A thousand pardons!” She cast about the room. “Where did your divine mother go? Did I offend her presence?”
Carefully, Seiken walked to the dais, keeping his distance from the child. “Mother is preparing for the ceremony,” he replied, careful not to lie, but also not to insult the dragon. “It is just myself here, now.”
“I know that!” P’an Ku replied, shaking an annoyed hand. “I’m the one that did this!” Her annoyed look melted into an impish grin. “Oh, but it works out anyway. I have a gift for you, Son of Heaven! Some time ago, your advice aided me when I most needed it, and the clarity you offered has placed me in your debt. I seek to repay you that debt today.”
“It is not necessary,” Seiken said. “All beneath Heaven serve. Even the grass bows when the wind blows.”
“But wise lords still reward their servants!” P’an Ku insisted. “Isn’t that how humans do it? They reward their best servants?”
“This is true,” Seiken replied cautiously. “Even so, to honor a great dragon is reward enough!”
“Ah ha!” The child sprung to her feet, eyes glittering. “I win! Now you must accept my gift!” Grinning she began a slow walk towards the dais, each step darkening the room and brightening her gaze, until her eyes glowed like the setting sun. “I’ve studied your people, Child of Heaven. I know their ways. They are fascinating.” Reaching the dais, the child lifted herself up with difficulty, then extended her arm, suspending herself on her toes. She looked up into the face of Iweko Seiken with the innocence of the very young. “That’s why I would save them,” she whispered.
Seiken blinked. “Save them? What do you mean?”
The child opened her hand. A piece of chalk lay there. This, she offered to the Empress’ son. “A gift,” she uttered. “For the future, never look forward. Always look up.”
The eldest Iweko child looked into the eyes of the mad dragon, searching. Then, cautiously, he picked the chalk from the child’s hand.
A cold jolt went through him. His fingers tightened around the chalk. At once he felt crowded in his own body. His muscles tightened as his arm moved of its own accord. With a loud THWACK, he drove the chalk to the wall. He watched as his arm traced over the wall, drawing hastily, sloppily, like a child. His body ignored his commands as he drew symbols he didn’t understand. All the while the child watched with twinkling eyes.
Seiken staggered away from the wall, suddenly released. His eyes focused at what he’d drawn. A chalk triangle, tilted to the right, glowed gently against the stone. At two corners he’d drawn a small spiral. At the third, he’d started one, but then the dragon had grown bored halfway through; there he’d drawn a spiraling dragon with lightning coming from the center point, and as an afterthought, squiggles clearly meant to be birds and a depiction of the sun with a crude smile at its center. Seiken shook his head at the drawing. “What… why…?”
“It took the King Priest twelve scrolls to contain the Ninth Kami, but the sorcerers of old, it took them only three to contain Jigoku!” The child came close, eyes wild. “Don’t you see? Twelve scrolls! Nine Kami! Three Seals! Twelve-Nine-Three! See? See!?”
“There were ten Kami,” Seiken uttered.
The child blinked for a moment, then pulled away, shaking her head. “What? No. Ten? That doesn’t work. That messes up the whole cosmology.” She began to pace. “You don’t need a tenth Kami. It’d be like having a thirteenth scroll! It makes no sense.” The child glared at the Empress’ son. “It’s like you’re making this up as you go along…”
Seiken grimaced. “My apologies, great dragon. Please continue.”
The child blinked again, and then happily nodded. “Of course! You see the realms sit on a great ocean, and soon a stone will be thrown inside. Three stones will ripple the ocean.” The child held out her arms. “So you see, that explains everything.”
“Yes…” Seiken furrowed his brow at the child. “That… explains everything…”
The little girl made an urgent face. “If nothing is done, it will be the undoing of your mother’s Empire.”
All brevity dropped from Seiken’s form. He stepped forward, kneeling before the child. “The undoing of the Empire?” He frowned, daring to lay his hands on the girl’s shoulders. “I beg you, dragon! Speak plainly! What do you mean? What has happened? What is coming?”
The little girl sighed, rolling her eyes. “I already told you! To open a scroll you break the seal!” P’an Ku smiled. “Even a child knows that.”
Seiken searched the girl’s glowing eyes for a long time. His face grew dour. “You… cannot tell me, can you? You do not even know where you are right now.”
“Can it be stopped?” he asked. “At least tell me that.”
“Can one gamble as the dice fall?” She shrugged. “I suppose. It’s not a very smart way to play the game, though. Fate cannot be stopped, but the brave can rise to meet it.” The child stiffened, smile fading. She turned her head to an empty corner of the room. “But you foresaw it, Divine Empress. Your actions have saved the lives of millions.”
Seiken followed her gaze. There was no one there.
The child reverently lowered her head. “They can never know how you fought him. For twenty years you played a game of shogi with a betrayer of Heaven. You have saved all of my favorite toys. For that, I am grateful.” The child looked up, expression darkening. “But now it is their turn, yes? Now it is their turn to save the Empire.”
“How?” Seiken asked. “What can I do?”
The child looked at him from the corner of her eye. A slow smile spread, serpent-like, over her face. “You have already played your part, Child of Heaven. The die is already cast.”
The color drained from Seiken’s face. He released the child. His mind swam as he placed his palm against his forehead. He searched his memory for something, anything, but could think of nothing that matched what the dragon had revealed. What had he done? What part had he played? Had he saved the Empire, or doomed it?
“You’re just like everyone else,” P’an Ku spoke. The tone was supportive, as if the comment was meant to make him feel better.
Seiken recovered, scrutinizing the dragon for a long time. “You said it was their turn,” he spoke. “Who do you mean?”
The child’s eyes flashed. “My toys,” she replied.
Before he could ask another question, the child stood straight, face determined, like a samurai. “It is as you said,” she spoke, voice deeper now, echoing through the chamber. “Even the grass must bow when the wind blows. You can rise to meet your fate, and you may yet have a say in how it unfolds. I have taken what little action I am allowed to intervene on the behalf of my toys. This is my gift. Now, I tell you what to expect. This is my warning.” The child crossed her arms, straightening her back. As she did, the great shadow behind her unfurled, looking like a dragon that rose to its regal height. It consumed the chamber.
Seiken knelt. Although his heart churned, he knew he owed the great dragon a debt for this vision. “Great dragon of the heavens, how can we repay you?”
“I want to be Emerald Champion,” P’an Ku replied.
The child laughed. “Someday. That would be a fun game.” Her head tilted, as if listening to something distant. “Ah. That is all I can say. But it is enough, oh yes, it is enough.” The child bowed, her forehead touching the floor even as her feet were firmly planted and standing. “Before I go, I will leave a gift for your mother. Farewell, Child of the Divine Empress! We are even now!”
Seiken blinked. He knelt on the dais before a full court. All eyes were upon him, confused and silent. The games of go in the balconies had stopped as their participants leaned over the banisters to watch him. The debate between rhetoricians had ended as they stared at him with wonder. The guards, the courtiers, the artisans, and the priests. The Moshi woman and her parrot, the oddly smiling and nodding Dragon monk, even Hida Kozan, arms crossed and watching with visible concern. All of the court stared at the kneeling Son of Heaven.
And then, in unison, their gaze swung to the bizarre chalk drawings on the wall of the court.
“My lord?” spoke Kozan, eyes flashing. “What is it?”
Seiken stood, expression dour. “A gift,” he replied, and dismissed the court.
The Prophecy Revealed - Geoff Prugh
Toritaka Suppon discovers the Prophecy of Darkness. The Crab keep it to themselves, warning no one.
Visions of the Realm - Chris Justice
P’an Ku bestows Iweko Seiken with a warning of the coming darkness… or so he intended.