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KAONASHI

The forest stood still and quiet, drenched in the light of a full moon on the night that Lady Hatsumi, the beloved of Lord Yamagachi, was found murdered in her bed. A hush descended upon the forest like a fog, creeping along the forest floor and congealing in the dark crevices there with almost tangible weight. Each moment bled into the next, a ceaseless, indivisible stream of time that seemed as though it would stretch infinitely onward, when at last it was broken by the pale echo of distant voices. The sound gradually intensified, billowing upward and outward in voracious waves until the forest was flooded with the angry bellows of a dozen men, their footsteps pounding the earth in steady time, meting out the fierce rhythm of the hunt.

In the branches high above the angry shouts crouched a man, his cloaked figure swathed in shadow as he surveyed the landscape. Moonlight streamed through the forest canopy in uneven patches, weaving a piebald pattern of darkness and light among the underbrush some dozen yards below. That there were yet no traces of his pursuers among the shadows brought him little comfort---judging from the echo of their voices, they could be no more than two hundred paces behind. And should they overtake himů

The thought alone was enough to turn the blood in his veins to ice. As the distant shouts drew nearer, he could feel his heart beating with violent rapidity, raining blows against his ribcage dull and heavy as a fist against a sack of grain. And yet turning his face to the West, his heart leapt with a sudden surge of hope. Already the moon hung low over the horizon, its pale light beginning to wane with the approach of dawn. In an hour, perhaps two, the sun would break over the Eastern horizon, and he would enter the world of light where those who hunted him could not follow.

Rising to his full height, the slight weight of his slender frame easily supported by the bough beneath his feet, the cloaked man leapt from his perch to the next branch. He could not stop them from tracking him by means of magicks, but he might at least mask the trail of his scent by confining his flight to the branches well above the forest floor. Arrested though his mind was with thoughts of capture and death, as he fled through the treetops his senses were steadily flooded with images of Lady Hatsumi. The whisper of wind through the leaves was the rustle of her gown, the musky scent of recently fallen rain was the perfume of her hair, the shimmer of moonlight along dewy branches was the gleam of her eye. It was as though the landscape itself were saturated with her presence, pressing upon him from all sides in a stifling embrace that left him feeling drained and breathless. He could almost hear her distant voice echoing through the trees, calling to himů

But no---she was dead, found murdered in her bed this very night. The knowledge of her death might have brought him some small comfort, had the blame for her murder not fallen wrongly on his own head. And now he was being hunted by his own Clan for a crime he did not commit, their perverse notion of payment for the twenty years of his life spent enslaved to them. Lord Yamagachi must be pleased indeed to have found a reason, however false, to dispose of him after so many years of bitterness and hatred.

Now was his time to flee, and flee he must. He had to escape before they caught his trail. He had to escape before the dawn broke. Above all, he had to escape them before the rise of the new moon, before his memory failed him and his conviction of his own innocence fadedů

He had to escape before the mask once again defeated him.

Kaonashi/Kiesuke freed from his mask

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