Fate of the Grand Master
by Rich Wulf
The heavy oaken doors opened with a slow, ponderous growl. The bitter mountain wind blew a plume of snow onto the grey stone floor. Two stocky guards shivered in the cold, pulling their fur-lined cloaks tightly about their bodies. On the path outside stood a ragged man dressed only in loose-fitting robes. His long hair and beard blew wildly in the wind. His face was grave and focused, staring past them into the castle.
“What brings you to Shiro Morito, traveler?” asked one of the guards, teeth chattering. The other simply stared at the stranger, awed by how the cold did not appear to affect him.
“My brother sent for me,” he replied simply. “I am here.”
“Master Tokei?” the guard retorted in a dubious tone. “That is impossible, the message was delivered only hours ago.”
The other guard gaped at his friend then cuffed him solidly across the brow. “How do you know what is impossible?” the other guard said. “This man is the Grand Master! Step out of his path!”
“Your friend speaks a great deal of sense,” the stranger said. Tokei’s eyes fixed on the guard. Stars seemed to prowl in his depthless gaze.
The guard nodded and quickly ducked to one side, bowing deeply as he mumbled an apology. Tokei ignored them, striding directly into the castle. Though he had just walked in snow six inches deep he left no footprints on the floor, nor did any snow mar his dull brown robes. A heavy-set older samurai in armor of midnight blue waited at the end of the hall. His face was weathered by the passage of time, creased by exhaustion and bitterness. Yet when he saw the stranger, there was a light there, a flash of something that had not been seen in some time. If not for the stranger’s beard and longer hair, one might easily have been mistaken for the other.
“Tokei,” the samurai said, face breaking into a quirky grin. “It is truly you.”
Naka Tokei looked at Lord Morito with a dark expression. “I have been back for nearly a decade, brother,” he replied. “If you were curious as to my well-being, why did you not seek me out?”
Morito shrugged. “I could ask you the same, Tokei,” he answered. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
Tokei only nodded solemnly. The two brothers had been close once, so close that when Morito was cast out of the Unicorn Clan, Tokei followed him into exile, even going so far as to take his brother’s name in a friendly jest of fealty. For years they lived the lives of mercenaries, knowing no loyalty but to the koku and to one another. On the day they met Naka Kuro, the Grand Master of the Elements, Tokei saw a better, nobler path. He had begged Morito to join him, but Morito only laughed.
There was no profit in enlightenment, Morito had said. That had been the end of it. The brothers had not seen one another again until today, over forty years later.
“Where is he?” Tokei asked.
“This way,” Morito said, turning and sliding open the door behind them. “We have done all we could for him, but very little has changed.”
Tokei followed his brother into the adjoining chamber. It was dark within, illuminated only by the dim light of a small lantern that rested on the floor beside a small palette. A young man lay upon the palette, dressed in robes as white as his ghostly hair. His blue eyes stared emptily at the ceiling. He might have been mistaken for a corpse if his chest did not move ever so slightly with each breath.
“Nizomi,” Tokei whispered, kneeling beside the prone figure. He rested one hand on Nizomi’s chest and whispered a brief prayer to the kami.
“It is my fault, Master Tokei,” said in a choked voice.
Tokei peered over his shoulder. A pale man in light blue robes and an emerald mantle knelt in the shadows. His head was bowed, white hair spilling over his shoulders.
“What happened, Keitaro?” Tokei demanded.
“We were on patrol,” Keitaro replied. He looked up at the Grand Master, and his eyes were red with tears. “Nizomi believed that one of Iuchiban’s rogue cells had fled in this direction so we followed. I was worried that it may be a trap but Nizomi insisted that we pursue. Two Asahina-trained shugenja and a dozen trained bushi vs. a cultist rabble he said there would be no problem. The twilight of the Bloodspeakers was nigh, it remained only for us to extinguish the sparks. Sekawa has warned me again and again that the boy was too brash& I did not listen.”
“The Bloodspeakers did this?” Tokei asked.
“No,” Keitaro answered. “When we arrived at the cave, the Bloodspeakers were already dead. Hakai was there.”
Tokei scowled. “The Onisu of Death,” he said in a low voice. “The one that attacked Kyuden Nio.”
“The monster that killed Kimita,” Keitaro confirmed with a hopeless sigh. “He slaughtered the other bushi with a wave of his hand. I still do not know how I managed to drive him off and escape with Nizomi.”
“He allowed you to live, Keitaro,” Tokei said. “It was not you he wanted, nor Nizomi.” The Grand Master spoke softly now. “He wished to draw me here.”
“And I fell into his trap,” Tokei said in horror. “I sent for you immediately.”
“You did nothing wrong, Keitaro,” Tokei said. “I never even received your message. I sensed something had happened to Nizomi and came immediately.” He looked down at Nizomi again. “His body lives, but his soul has been taken.”
“The soldiers of the Ox are at your disposal,” Morito said. “As many as you need. I don’t care what sort of demon this Hakai is; if he’s harmed my brother’s son we’ll find a way to kill him.”
“Nizomi is not my son,” Tokei replied.
“Keitaro said he was,” Morito said, confused.
“It is complicated,” Keitaro answered.
“You thought I died during the Clan War, brother,” Tokei said. “In a way, I did. The spell I cast to save Nanashi Mura tore me from the mortal realm and cast me into Jigoku. An Oni Lord tortured me in that place, where time has no meaning. Only the bravery of a doomed friend offered me the chance to escape. I made my way across the Spirit Realms, through blood and thunder, seeking the way home. When the time came for me to return, the elemental dragons feared that I had seen too much that no mortal was meant to see. They separated my soul into two halves, good and evil.” He brushed one hand gently across Nizomi’s brow. “Nizomi was born from that other half. He is part of me. I left him with the Crane because even I am uncertain which of us is composed of that good in Morito Tokei and which of us is evil. I gave him to the Jade Champion to be trained, distancing myself so that, if the need arose, Nizomi could stop me.”
“I have never understood the strangeness that is your life, Tokei,” Morito said, “but that doesn’t matter. I will stand by you, as will all the Ox Clan.”
“And you would die by me,” Tokei said. “Hakai is too powerful for you to fight. Hakai feeds off of death and violence. If you came with me the fight would only be more difficult.”
“I cannot let you charge into this demon’s trap alone, Tokei,” Morito said.
“There is no other way,” the Grand Master said. He rose, closing his eyes. His face looked much older all of a sudden, his shoulders bent with weariness. “He will torture Nizomi’s soul as the Maw tortured mine. He will attempt to break Nizomi as they could not break me. If I do not stop him, Hakai will transform him into the very thing I have feared.”
“And if you face him and lose, he’ll have you both,” Morito countered. “This creature is no fool. Would he have challenged you if he did not have a plan?”
Tokei was silent for a time. “No,” he admitted, “but I can think of no other way to confront him than directly.”
“You were always the wise one, Tokei,” Morito said, resting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I was always the cunning one. I have a plan.”
The robed figure stepped into the cavern. A nimbus of crackling magic surrounded his body, illuminating the darkness. He held a limp body in his arms, clad in robes as white as death, face covered with a thick hood.
“You are quick, Grand Master,” said an oily voice from the darkness. The tall, sinuous form of Hakai stepped into view. Its form was humanoid, but only barely. Grey, pallid flesh was draped over a form that was nearly skeletal. It wore robes of fine silk and an elaborate golden headpiece. Shadow seemed to seep from its form. Its eyes burned with a hateful red light.
“I have come for Nizomi’s soul,” Tokei said.
“It is here,” Hakai said. He held up a sphere of shimmering white. Brief flickers of shadow moved within it.
Tokei set the body on the floor and moved purposefully toward Hakai. A powerful force struck the Grand Master from behind, hurling him to the floor. Tokei turned with a startled expression but his arms flung out to his sides of his own accord. He was lifted bodily into the air by an invisible force and held there, helpless.
Hakai tilted its head slightly and made a disappointed clicking sound as he circled the hovering Grand Master. “I expected you to succumb to my ally, Naka Tokei, but not so easily. I am disappointed.”
“What have you done, Hakai?” Tokei demanded. “What power is this?” “I should think the taste would be familiar,” Hakai replied. “Centuries ago a madman came to this place with the Kuni on his heels. It was here that he finally gave his soul to the nameless thing that haunted his dreams. It was here that the greatest of all Oni Lords was born. Though that entity has been banished from this world his power can still be felt here, where he was truly born.”
A hollow whisper reverberated through the cavern as the foul presence spoke its name.
Tokei’s eyes widened with horror.
“Did you not wonder, Grand Master, why the Onisu took so little interest in the conflict between Daigotsu and the Bloodspeakers?” Hakai asked. “The time for serving mortals is done. Demons shall rule the Shadowlands again. The banished Oni Lords must return. You, who know the paths of the Spirit Realms like none other, can help us realize that day. Akuma will finish what the Maw began. My lord will turn you to our cause, and Rokugan shall become a banquet of chaos and death.”
“Then release Nizomi,” Tokei demanded. “If I am the one who truly has the potential for evil then let him go. He is no use to you.”
Hakai chuckled. “For one whose name means enlightened’ I am surprised you never recognized the truth,” he said, staring into the depths of the sphere. “The dragons defeat themselves with their mystery. Had they told you the truth, they would have saved a great deal of suffering.”
“What truth?” Tokei demanded.
“They split you into two beings, for shared pain divides,” Hakai said. “Like all mortals, both of you are evil. Both of you are good.” Hakai looked at Tokei and cackled maliciously. “Together perhaps you might have stood a chance, but your fear of yourself made you push Nizomi away. Now both of you will serve us, Grand Master, as will all the other souls I consumed that day at Kyuden Nio.”
The Onisu knelt beside the prone body, still clutching Nizomi’s soul in one hand. It reached out and pulled the hood aside.
To his credit, Hakai was only surprised for an instant when he saw the bearded face that looked back at him.
An instant was enough. The true Naka Tokei sat up and snatched the demon’s wrist and spoke words of magic. Ripples of jade fire cascaded from its body and into the Onisu. Hakai screamed as the magic tore through its corrupted form, green light pouring from his eyes as the light of purity began to tear it apart. The Onisu wrenched itself away, Nizomi’s soul tumbling from its gaunt fingers. Tokei caught it in midair and whispered something into its depths. It streaked off through the air in a flash of white light and was seen no more.
Even as Hakai retreated, Tokei turned to Akuma’s prisoner and spoke another spell. The air rippled outward from the Grand Master and Akuma’s voice moaned in pain. The man in Tokei’s robes fell to his knees. The Grand Master helped his brother to his feet.
“What an idiotic trick,” Hakai roared, shuddering with pain. “You would deceive an Onisu and an Oni Lord by dressing your brother in your robes?”
“You fell for it,” Morito said dryly.
“And you will die for it!” Hakai shrieked.
The roar of Akuma filled the cavern, but even it was dwarfed by the cacophonous rumble that followed. A wave of heat, a flash of cold, a shudder of the earth, a ripple of the wind, a tremor in the elements heralded the appearance of a man in stark white robes, his ghostly hair flowing loosely over his shoulders. He stood between the Onisu and the two brothers, his youthful features reddened with rage.
“Through blood and thunder I have come, father,” Nizomi said. “Let us show these demons their place.” The young shugenja began to chant.
“Hai,” Tokei said simply, and joined Nizomi’s prayer.
Hakai shrieked in pain as the power of the Grand Master and his son coursed through him. The dark presence of Akuma retreated from the cave, fleeing to the safety of Jigoku rather than face their combined power. Though there was little to see, Morito felt awed by the spiritual energies he felt summoned in the cavern. The triumphant howl of released souls reverberated through the stone, the song of all the heroes that Hakai had slain finally released to their final reward.
In moments it was over, and one less Onisu haunted the Empire.
Tokei stopped on the mountain road, looking back at Shiro Morito with a thoughtful expression. Keitaro and Nizomi had gone on ahead, both eager to return home and tell their comrades of the victory they had shared here. Tokei did not share their eagerness.
“Always so grim,” Morito said, riding beside his brother. “You won, Tokei. Enjoy it.”
“What have we won, Morito?” Tokei replied. “Hakai is dead but twelve good men died to his trap. Akuma still lingers at the boundaries of perception, waiting for his chance to enter this world again. To say nothing of his brothers and sister.”
“So he will come again,” Morito said. “You will stop him again. That is that.” He looked at his brother with a broad smile. “At least now you know you will no longer fight alone. You may not think of Nizomi as your son, but he sees himself as such. He is a worthy man, a powerful shugenja, and a fearless warrior.” Morito smiled bitterly. “We always walk a different path, Tokei, but I cannot help but envy you. My sons are all fools.”
“We both make choices, Morito,” Tokei said. “Had you seen what I have seen, I do not think you would wish to be in my place.” He looked at Morito seriously. “And I do not think that I would wish to see what you have seen.”
Morito frowned uncomfortably. “Some days I wish I’d taken old man Kuro up on his offer and gone with you to join Toturi,” he said. “You’re a better man than I, Tokei, protecting the Empire while I hide in the mountains.”
“So says the man that disguised himself as a Grand Master and stood unarmed against the Onisu of Death,” Tokei said. “You underestimate yourself, Morito. But then one never knows the strength of steel until it is tested.” He looked at his brother meaningfully. “We both protect Rokugan in our own way.”
Morito looked away. “I will remember what you have said, brother,” he said, turning his horse back toward the castle. “Be safe, and carry the Fortunes, and enjoy the horse. Finest breed in the Empire, though I’d not say that in earshot of a Unicorn.”
“Thank you, brother,” Tokei said with a laugh. “Be safe.”
The Grand Master continued on his way, for once enjoying the slow ponderous rhythm of horseback travel over magic. At the shadowed threshold of Shiro Morito, the Lord of the Ox Clan watched his brother until he vanished into the mountains, then returned to the darkness.