A war has been raging on for many years - thousands of years - between two ancient clans in Japan: the Yamagata clan and the Yamaguchi clan. Their reason for the war? To find the Seal of Dragons. Prophecies told by monks say that whoever holds the Seal of Dragons will become Emperor of Japan and bring prosperity to all; but doing so comes at a price...

"He's gone!  The prisoner has escaped!" Shouted one of the armed guards - his voice piercing the silence that hung in the air.

The armed guard continued to shout, "Ring the bells!  He has escaped!  Alert the patrols!"

Slowly, all around, guards began shouting and soon; in the distance, the melodic ringing of bells could be heard - echoing out in the darkness - as the guards alarmed everyone in the castle about their escapee in vain and hoping it would scare him.  

One by one, like fireflies, torches began to litter the caste grounds and eventually the light won its fight over the darkness to occupy the area.  The orange tainted yellow glow gently illuminating the huge fortress that was Osaka Castle.  

The light, spreading up along the giant, dull white stone walls made the castle stand grand and tall amongst the midnight landscape.  Its steep, sloping, slate roofs curling at the tips covered the fortress; providing shelter to those who resided within.  

Silhouettes of bare, naked trees, flooded around the castle grounds, stood against the glittering stars of the night sky from the torches moving across the castle grounds; the cold spring air brought a stinging chill to everyone who was awake, making sure everyone knew of its presence.

Amongst the shouting of the guards, horses whined and neighed in their stables; the sound of the water passing by could almost be heard in the background.  The river, swollen to its brim from the winter snows carried everything and anything that strayed into it - all the way past the castles high stoned walls that prevented from anyone trying to enter the castle without permission.  

Chaos spread amongst the grounds of the castle like wildfire.  Soldiers footsteps resonated as they ran over the cobbled stone paths.  Murmurs, talk and shouts all mixed into one large chorus - the noise allowing itself to fill every single entrance and hallway in the castle.

The commotion caused Kei Tatsuo to stir from his sleep; the light gently glowing through his shoji screens displayed silhouettes of men running across them - all depicting a story.

"What is the meaning of this?" Mumbled Kei to himself, waking up from his sleep.  "They couldn't keep a prisoner for one night; just one lousy night."  He sat up in his futon, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light in his room.

The room, plain as it was, was decorated in neutral brown and beige colours; the tatami mats delicately placed next to each other made an intricate pattern.  Kei never really took an interest to interior furnishings, he was content with a decent bed and a quiet nights sleep - which very rarely happened.  Placed opposite his futon was a pitch black lacquered stand holding three swords; getting up out of his bed, he walked across the room and picked up his katana and unsheathed it - measuring its weight in his left hand.  

The handle of the sword was long enough for two hands to grasp it, and was wrapped in a black lace.  The guard was of a simple design much like to Kei's taste - two semi-circles clasped around the beginning of the ice cold metal blade.  Along the edge of the blade, a ghostly-white wave travelled from the guard to the very tip of the blade.

Kei sheathed the sword and grabbed the plain green haori neatly folded next to his bed to put it on before opening the shoji and stepping out onto the veranda.  The cold spring air flooded in and surrounded Kei, chilling him to his bones.  His kimono, made of fine silk did nothing to protect him from the sharp snap of the spring air clutching at his legs, but the haori kept his torso warm as he wrapped it around him, tying the laces to hold it in place.

Kei Tatsuo-Yamaguchi, a samurai of the Yamaguchi clan, was young at the age of 21 to be in command at Osaka Castle.  His taste for simple things, even in life, matched his attitude; sharp to the point and simple to understand.  Why make life more complicated when it can be made simple?  He was tall in stature with broad shoulders and his face was strong in the jaw and in the cheeks - all typical characteristics of one of the sons to Iso Yamaguchi-sama, the Lord of the Yamaguchi clan, and a potential heir to the clan.

In front of Kei was a cobbled path with guards rushing past holding torches and shouting to each other.  On the other side of the path was a single continuous veranda the stretch out in either direction, with individual shoji marking rooms that people occupied.  Osaka castle loomed behind it, like a giant - still with its dull, white stone walls holding the slate roofs up towards the heavens.  People were waking up to the noise and commotion being heard, and one by one the shoji doors were beginning to open, revealing who was inside.

Kei shouted to a soldier running by, "You!  What is going on?  The prisoner has escaped?"  

The solider, slightly older in age to Kei with a top-knot, bowed and replied in a nervous tone, "Yes, Tatsuo-sama, the prisoner managed to unlock the door and took one of the horses from the stable."  He stood there nervously, shifting his weight from leg to leg, trying to avoid Kei's gaze, but allowing his gaze to rest upon the katane Kei held.

A flash of anger ran across Kei's face and he clenched his hand around his katana, when he heard of the news, but he hid it from the solider - rumours went around Osaka Castle that Kei Tatsuo, a highly regarded samurai, was notorious for having an anger problem; while it was true, he didn't want to add fuel to cinder.  

Great, he thought to himself, another sign that the Yamagata Clan is winning this war.  "What of the guard on duty?" Kei asked inquisitively.

The solider swallowed hard before answering Kei, beads of sweat forming around his hairline, "Dead, Tatuso-sama.  A kabuki mask was left in the prison cell."

Kei's thoughts were running through his head when the words reached his ears, the guard was killed?  That is not like the Yamagata Clan if one of them is captured.  Did we catch an assassin instead?  

Kei stood on the veranda thinking of what his next move would be, letting his thoughts flood him before making his decision. 

A stifled yawn escaped Kei's mouth before saying to the solider, "Tell the soldiers to stop searching for the prisoner; he is long gone by now heading back to Yamagata Castle.  Bring a messenger to my room quickly!"

The solider bowed quickly and ran off, issuing the commands to stop searching.  

Just when we were one step ahead of the Yamagata Clan, we take two steps back.  What other inconveniences lie ahead of the Yamaguchi Clan?  Kei thought to himself.  If we did catch an assassin, did the Yamagata Clan hire him?  But what about the kabuki mask left behind - that was always the Yamagata signature.  Why can't things ever be simple?

Kei look up towards the midnight sky, the orange glow of the torches radiating out towards the night; the cold spring breeze passing him by, chilling his skin to remind Kei of its presence.  In the distance, the cry of a fox was heard.

The last thing I want to deal with is a nine-tailed fox running off reporting what has happened to some deity, Kei mused to himself, a small smile forming on his lips.

He headed back in his room, closing the shoji behind him and placing his katana back on the lacquered stand; silence now took precedence.  

Kei began to think about what to send with the messenger back to Hagi Castle - how to explain to his father that Iso Yamaguchi's commander at Osaka Castle, had its prized possession escape right underneath him, killing one of his men and leaving behind a kabuki mask.  

It really did seem to Kei that the search for the Seal of Dragons was of the utmost priority in winning the war against the Yamagata Clan.

The End

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