Become A Demon
By Rich Wulf
“Those who would hide from sight naturally flock to the shadows. Yet who is there in this world that is a greater master of the shadows than the Dark Lord himself? Look to the ruined lands of the Crane and see the price of defiance.”
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1144 by the Isawa Calendar, the Twenty-Second Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
“What is this meat, anyway?” Kanjiro asked, chewing comfortably on a chunk of jerky.
“Master Yori’s shugenja makes that stuff. I think you would be better off if you didn’t ask. Better give it to Gokun,” replied Kaoru, still perched in the branches of the nearby tree.
Kanjiro frowned and tossed the meat aside. Gokun scrambled from its hiding place. The creature was the size of a small dog and looked something like an octopus with the shell of a turtle. It snatched up the meat with one tentacle and drew it back into its shell with a loud smacking sound. Kanjiro wiped his greasy hand on his black armor and peered in his saddlebags for something else to eat. He settled on a rice cake with some rather suspicious looking chunks of gray matter nestled in it. Probably another one of the shugenja’s concoctions, but at least it wasn’t meat. Gokun sat near Kanjiro’s feet, tipping up one end and waving its tentacles in the air. Kanjiro wondered if it was begging or preparing to strike. He took a step away from the little demon. It made a disappointed grunting noise and crawled back under the bushes.
“Do you see anything?” Kanjiro asked, looking up.
“Nothing,” Kaoru replied. “Those ronin must have gone some other way.”
“Right, then,” Kanjiro said. “I’ll signal the others.” He slipped his bow off his shoulder and fired one arrow into the air. It made a strange whistling sound that was soon echoed by a similar sound from farther away. The Obsidian Legions would turn their search elsewhere, expecting Kaoru and Kanjiro to catch up.
Kaoru fell from the tree, landing flat on his back.
“Kaoru?” Kanjiro said, walking over to the man’s side. “What are you doing? Stop playing around.”
Kanjiro gasped when he saw the shuriken protruding from Kaoru’s throat. He reached for his quiver, but his arm fell limp. The bow dropped out of his hand and he staggered several steps to the right. Looking down, he stared curiously at the arrow protruding from his chest. He reached to pull it out and another struck him, pinning his arm to the breastplate. Kanjiro grunted in pain and looked around for the source of the arrows. Three more struck him in the throat and he finally fell, staring down at his wounds.
Three figures appeared from the undergrowth. All were dressed in form-fitting black outfits and masks except for the leader. He was dressed in gunmetal samurai armor and a featureless steel mempo. He held a jagged jade dagger in either hand.
The samurai looked down at Kanjiro. “This one is still alive.”
“You!” Kanjiro said, his voice a barely articulate gurgle from the arrows in his throat. “You’re the Crane!” he reached feebly for his quiver, but the samurai threw a dagger at the fallen Legionnaire. It lodged in Kanjiro’s forehead with a hiss. Everything went dark.
* * * * *
“That was incredible,” Hakumei said, staring at the corpse as Uji withdrew his dagger. “Are they always so difficult to kill, sensei?” The ninja girl crouched to get a closer look, her brown eyes bright with curiosity.
Uji grinned behind his mask. “They can be,” he said. “The Taint affects everyone differently. However, if you do this,” Uji made a quick slice with his twin daggers, cutting the man’s head from his shoulders, “they tend to stay down. Of course, Toturi might argue that it didn’t do much good against the Emperor, but that was probably a special case.”
Hakumei laughed. “Let’s hope so,” she said.
“Go see to the horses, Hakumei-chan,” Uji said. “Hide them somewhere that they will not be easily found.”
“Hai,” she said, nodding pertly. She dashed off down the road, took the horses’ reins, and led them into the forest.
“She won’t last long,” said Keita, the hollow-faced young ninja currently rooting through the other Legionnaire’s clothing. Keita had followed Uji for five years, far longer than any of his other students had managed to survive.
“Why do you say that?” Uji asked as he began searching Kanjiro’s corpse.
“She’s too optimistic,” Keita said. “that sort of attitude can get you killed.”
“When I found her she was eleven years old,” Uji said. “She was hiding in the ruins of a farmhouse. her parents had been slaughtered by a pack of goblins. She killed the goblins, one by one, using only a knife.” Uji looked up at Keita meaningfully. “If she can still find a reason to laugh and smile, I’m inclined to let it go. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Keita said soberly.
“Sensei, I found something strange in the saddlebags,” Hakumei said as she jogged back into the clearing. She held a long bundle in one hand.
“What is it?” Uji asked, walking over to her side. “More of that strange Tainted meat?”
“No, sir.” She unwrapped the bundle and held out a long shard of obsidian engraved in kanji. “What do you make of this?”
“It’s a scroll case,” Uji said, taking it carefully from her.
“I don’t see any clasps,” she replied.
Uji shook his head. “There aren’t any,” he said, studying the case. “Only maho can open it safely. The Legions use these to carry secret information.”
“So I might have found something important?” Hakumei asked in an excited voice.
“Might have,” Uji said, slipping the shard into his satchel. “Won’t know until we open it.”
“How do we open it?” Hakumei asked.
A monstrous shriek suddenly erupted from behind them.
The first thing any student of Daidoji Uji learned was to never make a sound unless you had to. Noise alerted others to your presence, and put the entire team in danger. Even if you had to die, you did it quietly. Keita had learned the lesson well, even if the monster that killed him cared nothing for silence. A beast had lunged out of the bushes and wrapped its tentacles around Keita’s arms and legs. Its shell was pressed onto his back, its sharp beak tearing into his flesh. His eyes were wide with pain, but he bit his lip and made no sound.
“They brought a garegosu,” Uji hissed, a jade dagger appearing in one hand.
“I’m with you, sensei,” Hakumei said, drawing a jade nunchaku from her obi.
“No, you’re not,” Uji snapped, stepping slowly closer to the creature. “This one is beyond you. Its shell is too hard to attack from the outside. get ready to run if I go down.”
“Hai,” Hakumei said obediently.
Uji darted toward the creature, stabbing tentatively with his dagger. It snarled and lashed at him with a tentacle. The Crane was too quick, cartwheeling out of reach. It roared in frustration and threw one of Keita’s arms at him. Uji batted the ghoulish missile aside and rolled toward the garegosu. He drew a small sphere from his satchel with his free hand and hurled it at the creature. The monster snatched it in a tentacle, gobbling it up greedily. It did not appear to notice the long, oil-soaked wick that dangled from its mouth to Uji’s hand.
The art of mizu-gusuri was widely practiced among the shugenja of the Dragon Clan; the practice of using magical potions for mundane applications was a budding science to the Agasha chemists. The best Agasha potions could heal the sick, create great walls of smoke, or even be exposed to fire and produce a tremendous explosion. This latter type of potion was of particular interest to Uji.
There were few Agasha left these days, but if you knew where to look, you could find them. Uji made it a point to keep in contact with a few of them. In times of peace, the small sphere Uji had just thrown to the creature might have been ignited for entertainment purposes, to produce a brilliant display of fire to entertain a family daimyo or other dignitary. Today, it had a decidedly more practical application.
Uji grabbed for the metal sphere on his belt that contained his small covered lantern. before he could light the wick, the garegosu charged at his legs. Uji sprawled backwards, ducked quickly into a roll, and came up on his feet with both daggers in his hands. The garegosu roared and advance. Uji cursed. The wick still hung from the monster’s mouth, but his lantern had been smashed.
“I won’t be an easy meal, beast,” Uji said, holding his daggers in a ready stance.
An arrow struck the beast in the mouth, its head wrapped in a flaming rag. Uji’s eyes widened and he quickly leapt for cover behind a nearby tree. The garegosu shrieked a final time as the specially prepared wick burst into flame. A thunderous explosion followed, punctuated by the sound of meat raining on the forest floor.
“I thought I told you to run,” Uji said, looking out from behind his tree.
“We can run now if you like,” Hakumei said, slinging her bow over her shoulder. She turned and darted into the forest.
Uji followed. After the explosive death of the garegosu, the Obsidian Legions would surely come to investigate. The sooner they left, the better. They ran for nearly an hour before stopping to rest in a dried creek bed.
“We should be safe here,” Hakumei gasped between breaths. She stood with her hands and her knees, her slim chest heaving with exertion.
Uji nodded, removing his mask to sip water from the flask on his belt. The Crane was not even winded. “You ran well,” he said. “I think I lost track of you once or twice.”
“Really?” Hakumei asked, blushing with pride.
“I would not waste your time with a lie, Hakumei-chan,” Uji said. The Crane put his flask away and took out the obsidian shard. A thoughtful look crossed his weathered face.
“Do you think Osaku and the others will be able to open it?” she asked.
“Perhaps,” Uji said, “but the islands are weeks away. By the time we get there, the Legions will know that we have intercepted the contents, rendering them obsolete. If we are to open this, we must do it swiftly.”
“And how will we do that?” Hakumei asked.
“We visit a friend,” Uji said, putting the shard away. “Are you ready to run again?”
“Yes, sensei,” she said, immediately straightening. Uji could tell that she was exhausted, but she was not about to give up.
He ran, and left her to follow.
* * * * *
West Hub Village was not as it once was. Though not as far sunk into decadence and corruption as Otosan Uchi, the touch of the Dark Lord was still obvious. Many buildings were gutted by flame. The black-armored troops of the Obsidian Legions stood on every corner. Limp bodies lay in the streets, either the bodies of the dead or the sleeping forms of those who had simply ceased to care. The eastern sky was marred by a perpetual cloud of dark gray smoke, the same pall that hung over the Imperial Palace, visible even from here.
Knowing that the Legions would quickly stop and question anyone who acted strange or suspicious, Uji and Hakumei walked openly. Uji had hidden his armor outside the city, replacing it with the stained and patched kimono of a ronin. Hakumei had removed her mask and covered her skintight black outfit with a ragged cloak. She had smeared mud over her pretty face so as not to attract the eyes of the guards. They walked through the streets with their heads bowed, easily blending in with the beaten populace of the city.
Entering a small sake house, Uji nodded to the large budoka standing guard. “Tell the Tiger that he has visitors,” Uji whispered, “and tell him of these.” Uji drew back the sleeves of his robe, revealing the twin cranes tattooed on his wrists. The budoka quickly nodded and disappeared into a back room as Uji and Hakumei sat at a table.
“Who is the Tiger?” Hakumei whispered.
“Akodo Kage,” Uji said flatly. His blue eyes showed no trace of humor.
“Toturi’s teacher?” Hakumei said, surprised. “I though he was a Kolat.”
“He still is,” Uji said. “He’s been fighting Fu Leng in secret since the Day of Thunder.” The budoka poked his head out of the private room and gestured to them both. Uji rose and waited for Hakumei to follow.
“Toturi said that the Kolat plan to conquer the Empire,” Hakumei whispered as she rose.
“That they do,” Uji said. “Under the circumstances, I wish them luck. At least they’re human.”
“Do you really think we should trust them?”
“Does Toturi know that you have found Kage?”
“He does not need to know,” Uji said sharply.
Hakumei frowned, unconvinced. The pair stepped into the back room. At a low table sat Kage, an ancient man in dark brown robes. His hair was carefully braided to match his long, elegant moustache. The table before him was covered with a number of small statues, each depicting a miniature samurai, divided into three groups. As they knelt at the opposite side of the table, he lifted one to consider it.
“Moto Gaheris, son of the raider of the same name, has been slain by Otaku Kamoko,” he said. “It seems that his son, Chagatai, will soon be lord of the Unicorn. Chagatai at least had the foresight to behead his father’s body.” Kage set the miniature aside with a sigh, placing it in a second group. Hakumei recognized Hida Yakamo and Toku among that group.
“Bayushi Tomaru is also dead,” Uji replied. “A Hare that recently joined Toturi’s Army reported that he died searching for the Black Scroll.”
Kage looked irritated as he picked up another miniature and moved it to the group with Yakamo, Gaheris, and Toku. “When will the fools stop searching for that dreadful thing?” he said. “At least there are still Hare alive. That comes as a surprise. Now, what brings you here, Uji-san?”
Uji placed the obsidian shard on the table. Kage’s eyes narrowed. “That belongs to the Legion.”
“The soldiers that carried it don’t need it any more,” Uji said. “Can you open it?”
“Of course,” Kage nodded, lifting the shard and considering it carefully. He handed it to a servant, who nodded and exited the chamber.
“Wait,” Hakumei said. “Uji said that only maho can open the shard.”
Kage looked at the girl. “Who is this pretty one?” he asked. His smile, in another place and time, might have been charming.
“This is my student, Hakumei,” Uji said.
“Ah,” Kage nodded. “Well, Hakumei-chan, the truth of the matter is that even the Dark Lord himself cannot keep track of all of his maho-tsukai. Occasionally a few slip through the cracks. let’s just say that I am always prepared to pick them up. I keep a few tsukai on hand for just such and occasion. Maho-tsukai tend to be somewhat weak willed. Keep them in a cage with no food or light for a few weeks and they’ll gladly do anything you ask.”
“Are you serious?” Hakumei asked.
Kage tugged one of his long braids. “There is one thing I’ve learned in the last sixteen years. If you want to fight a demon, you must become a demon. Your sensei knows this. How do you think he has survived this long?”
“Leave her alone, Kage,” Uji said sharply.
“She asked,” the Kolat said mildly. “Incidentally, I have heard rumors of a group of ronin saboteurs causing no end of trouble for the Legions in recent weeks. I assume you are responsible. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Uji said.
Kage smiled. “When all of this is over, you should consider coming to work for me. The Temple has fallen. We are in need of new Masters.”
“I am not ready to become that sort of demon,” Uji said.
“Not yet,” Kage said. “What if I could offer you vengeance on Hoturi the Heartless?”
Uji leaned forward and plucked a small figure from the table. It was a miniature Hoturi, complete with a clean hole through his torso. “Explain,” the Crane said.
“As you know, Hoturi and Kamoko are the most powerful of Fu Leng’s undead minions. They seem impervious to our best attempts to kill them. However, I believe that we may have found the solution to this problem.” The Kolat reached under the table and drew out a small green vial, placing it on the table.
“What is it?” Uji asked.
“The blood of an ashura, taken while the creature was still alive,” Kage said.
“How did you get it?” Hakumei asked.
“Persistence and planning,” Kage said, black eyes flicking to the girl and back to Uji. “The beast has since been slain, and as you know the blood of an ashura explodes violently upon the creature’s death. This blood was contained, and will not ignite until the jar is opened. Place it in the hole in Hoturi’s chest, and the ensuing conflagration will utterly destroy him.”
Uji stared at the bottle.
“Think it over, Uji-san,” Kage said.
The budoka returned, handed a scroll to Kage, and departed again. “Ah,” Kage said, unrolling the paper. “Here is your message.”
“That was fast,” Uji said.
“I have a reputation to uphold,” the Kolat replied. As he read the message, his face twisted into a severe frown. He quickly handed the scroll to Uji.
“What?” Hakumei said. “What is it?”
“That scroll is a message recalling the Obsidian Legions to Otosan Uchi,” Kage said, “to prepare for an attack on the Islands of Spice and Silk.”
“Toturi’s camp,” Hakumei whispered.
“We need to return,” Uji said, tucking the paper into his kimono. “We need to warn them.”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” Hakumei said. “Why would a random patrol be carrying such an important message?”
Kage laughed. “Ikoma Ujiaki still views himself as an honorable man, even if he serves a monster,” the Kolat said. “This is a warning. You were intended to find this message. He wants Toturi to know an attack is coming. That is the only way the battle will be worthwhile.”
“I need to get to the islands as swiftly as possible,” Uji said, rising.
“Of course,” Kage said. “my servants will arrange it.”
Uji and Hakumei rose and headed for the door.
“Oh, by the way,” Kage said. “Should the tide turn against you, and either of you escape, you know where to find me.”
Uji looked back at Kage, nodded, and departed, taking Hakumei with him.
Kage laughed out loud when he noticed that the bottle of ashura blood was gone.