By Rich Wulf & Shawn Carman
Naka Tokei stood in the midst of the Forbidden City, gazing out at Otosan Uchi with sad eyes. The skies above were dark and overcast. The storm that had pelted the city for the last several hours had abated for a time. Rivulets of rainwater darkened by blood flowed through the streets, but they could not wash away the dark stain upon the tortured city. The legions of the Great Clans now marched through the streets, fighting back the remnants of the Horde. Much like the rain, Tokei feared that the samurai were too late to wash away the damage that had been done. The streets of the Forbidden City were filled with triumphant Lion samurai, who having defeated the Dark Lord’s yojimbo now moved on the Palace itself.
Their victory was short-lived.
As the samurai of the Great Clans surrounded the Palace, a sudden unearthly light suffused its walls. Even Tokei hissed in pain and drew back at the radiance. Mere feet from the door, Lion Champion Matsu Nimuro fell to his knees with an anguished scream, his legendary strength betraying him. Tokei stood beside Nimuro, eyes narrowing as he looked up at the walls of the palace.
“Stand down, Lion,” Tokei said. “You have fought bravely, but the fight is no longer yours.”
“What sorcery is this?” Nimuro growled. “Can you not dispel this maho?”
“This is no maho, Nimuro,” Tokei said. “The Imperial Palace was warded long ago by the greatest shugenja of the Phoenix. When the wards are fully active, those not of Imperial blood who intend harm to the Emperor or his line cannot enter. Daigotsu has reactivated those wards now, and intensified them using the pure magic of the kami. Fascinating.”
“You do not seem to be affected,” Nimuro growled.
“As I do not intend to enter the Palace, the wards cause me no pain,” Tokei said. “Simply stand back, Lion, and the pain shall cease.”
The Golden Lion scowled, head bowed in defeat. “Hai, Grand Master,” he said reluctantly. Nimuro rose and took several steps back, angry eyes still fixed on the gates.
“What do we do?” Nimuro demanded. “Whatever the Dark Lord’s plans may be, we cannot allow them to come to pass.”
“I think perhaps we are already too late,” Tokei said, looking at the heavens with sad eyes. “The children of Toturi were granted the blessings of the Hantei Dynasty. We can but pray that they arrive soon.”
At that, a sudden sharp scream echoed from beyond the walls of the Forbidden City. A wave of oni and ravenous goblins leapt over the shattered battlements, tearing into the allied samurai. Nimuro and the others defended themselves fiercely. Amid the chaos, Naka Tokei simply stood, watched, and waited.
* * * * *
Goblins scattered in terror as a shimmering portal opened without warning on the outskirts of the Forbidden City. The swirling green and white gateway radiated a purity that pained the wretched creatures, driving them across the courtyard. For a moment, the brilliant light was too much to bear, but then the image of figures walking through the light were distinguishable. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the portal was gone. In its place stood five samurai, each heavily armored with weapons drawn.
“Ghedai failed to mention the effects of the spell on one’s equilibrium,” muttered a man with snow-white hair.
“Sit down and rest if you wish, Jotaro,” said a man in a mask. “I will be honored to guard lady Tsudao’s back in your stead.”
“Paneki, Jotaro enough,” Toturi Tsudao said. She pointed to the samurai across the courtyard. “Deijiko, your champion looks as if he might enjoy our company. Let us join him, shall we?”
“Those oni bar our way, my lady,” said the slightest of the three women.
“That they do, Miyako,” Tsudao replied calmly. “A pity for them.”
The five samurai charged into the battle, smashing the flank of the pack of oni and drawing their focus away from the Lion army. Tsudao and her command staff fought with a quiet resolve, protecting one another’s back and allowing none of the beasts to exploit their weaknesses.
Tsudao’s intervention gave Nimuro all the chance he required. With a blood-curdling shout, his Lion forces renewed their assault on the oni with a suicidal passion. Caught between the flawless precision of Tsudao and the boundless fury of Nimuro, the oni were cut to ribbons in mere moments.
Tsudao cleaned the blood from her blade with a casual flick of her wrist. Meeting Nimuro’s eyes, she nodded respectfully. “Greetings, Nimuro-san. You have my eternal gratitude for defending my father’s home.”
Nimuro wiped the gore from his face and bowed. “It was my great pleasure, Lady Tsudao, but I fear I was not fast enough.” He gestured toward the old man carefully scrutinizing the palace’s strange glow. “Tokei says that the wards have been greatly increased. We may be unable to gain entrance.”
“You will have to go alone, Lady of the Sun,” Tokei said.
“Then I shall,” Tsudao said grimly.
Tsudao walked alone through the blood-drenched hallways of the Imperial Palace. The wards had proven too strong for her allies, and only one who bore the blood of an Emperor could enter the palace. She was alone, but she would not fail.
A noise from a side corridor caused her to drop into a low fighting stance and spin to face the sound. A black-clad man bearing a sinister mask emerged from the shadows, his kimono torn and ragged from numerous combats. “Greetings, noble Tsudao-sama. I apologize for approaching you so silently, but I feared you might be one of the many beasts I have seen in the palace thus far.”
“Who are you?” she demanded.
The black-clad samurai bowed deeply. “I am Bayushi Tai, emissary of the Scorpion Clan. I was on business in the palace when the wards were activated and found myself trapped within. I have been searching for survivors, but unfortunately I have found only death.”
“This place is dangerous. You should leave.”
Tai shook his head. “I could not abandon you in such circumstances, my lady. I will come and assist you.”
“No,” she replied. “I command you to leave.”
“I beg your pardon, Tsudao-sama,” Tai said, rubbing his head, “but my ears are ringing so loudly from my last fight that I fear I cannot hear you.”
Tsudao shook her head, exasperated, but a small smile flickered on her face for the briefest of moments before her frown reappeared. “Fine. Accompany me if you wish, but I hope your soul is ready for death.”
* * * * *
The halls of the Imperial Palace were eerily silent. Tsudao stepped carefully over the bodies of the fallen courtiers and Seppun guardsmen, making her way toward the room where her father’s throne once stood. Beyond, she could hear the sound of steady chanting, an unholy sound that filled her heart with dread. Reaching out cautiously, she pushed open the doors to the throne room.
The floor of the throne room was painted in arcane symbols, etched in dark red pigment that could only be the blood of those who had fallen defending the city. A half dozen figures in dark robes knelt in the center of the chamber, heads bowed as they continued their steady chant. Behind them, a tall man with flowing white hair sat upon the lost Steel Throne, smiling at them from behind his white mask.
“Toturi Tsudao, at last,” Daigotsu said, a note of respect in his voice. “Of all my enemies, I did not expect you to be the one to face me. In truth, I expected your brother Sezaru. But perhaps this is appropriate. Are we not both great leaders? Great generals? That the two of us should meet so it is fitting.”
“Kill them all,” Tsudao hissed. The Sword and Bayushi Tai charged forward, blades drawn. Daigotsu’s cultists offered no resistance. As they fell before the blades of the samurai, they looked upward with strangely satisfied expressions. As their blood touched the floor of the throne room, the arcane symbols suddenly flared with a red light. A tortured shriek echoed through the throne room. The air was torn asunder, and a bleeding red portal appeared in the center of the throne room. A foul wind tore through the room, nearly causing the two samurai to wretch.
“What is the meaning of this?” Tsudao demanded.
“Those cultists were completing the spell that would transport me back to my citadel in the Shadowlands,” Daigotsu said in an amused voice. “The only component still required was their sacrifice. I thank you for saving me the trouble. I prefer to leave bloodshed to others.”
“So you plan to flee, coward?” the Sword asked, advancing warily and stepping between the Dark Lord and the portal.
“Why should I remain?” Daigotsu said with a shrug. “I have my just vengeance. I have restored my brother to his rightful place. I have no further business here.”
“Your brother?” Tai said, confused.
“If it pleases you to know the truth, I am the forgotten son of Hantei XXXVIII, raised by the Order of Bloodspeakers. I have been guided by dreams to restore the Fallen Kami, Fu Leng, to his rightful place. Having accomplished that, I am satisfied. If you trouble me no more, I shall not trouble you. I give this you one offer of peace, daughter of Toturi.”
“You cannot possibly be serious,” Tsudao said, drawing her blade. “I will never stand beside the Shadowlands.”
“I do not expect you to stand beside me,” Daigotsu said. “I merely ask you to step aside. Choose wisely, daughter of Toturi. I will not offer again. ”
Tsudao leveled her blade at Daigotsu. There would be no compromise, no peace with the Shadowlands.
“I will stand with you, my lady,” Bayushi Tai said, bravely concealing the terror in his heart.
“Tell the little one not to interfere,” Daigotsu said, “He is no one. I would let him live to witness this.” The Dark Lord drew an obsidian katana. The sword bled darkness as he moved it in a slow kata.
“I am not afraid,” Tai said.
“This foe is beyond you, Bayushi-san,” Tsudao said, eyes still on the Dark Lord. “He may well be beyond me. Step aside.”
Thunder echoed overhead as the children of the present and former dynasties faced one another at last. With a loud shout, they charged. Daigotsu’s blade collided heavily with the Sword’s, but neither wavered. Between the throne and the portal, they faced one another. Behind his mask, Daigotsu’s eyes narrowed with respect.
“You have your father’s fighting spirit, if not his experience,” Daigotsu said with a curt nod. “May you die as well as he did.”
“May you rot in Jigoku forever,” Tsudao snarled.
Daigotsu chuckled. “One can always hope.”
The Dark Lord shoved Tsudao away and retreated toward the throne, reciting words of dark magic. An aura of bloody energy surrounded his fist and lanced out at Tsudao, but she leapt aside. Where the energy struck, the marble floor melted like ice in a forge.
Another raw bolt of energy tore into the marble floor. The powerful spell flew wild, eradicating the western wall of the throne room. Tsudao noticed this time that Daigotsu’s knees buckled slightly after he cast his spell, that his eyes became unfocused for a split second as the magic took its toll. When Daigotsu fired a third blast of power, the Wind fell flat to the floor and threw a small jade dagger, a gift once given her by her ally Paneki, at the Dark Lord. The blade glanced off of Daigotsu’s throat. The Dark Lord hissed in pain and staggered backward, one hand flying to his bleeding neck. Tsudao pushed her advantage, lunging forward and striking with her sword. She slashed Daigotsu quickly. The Dark Lord brought one hand up to protect himself, and Tsudao’s sword severed his right arm at the shoulder.
Screaming in pain and rage, Daigotsu lashed out with a savage backhand strike. Tsudao was thrown against the Steel Throne, her blade falling from her hand. Daigotsu’s chest heaved as he clutched his right shoulder, reddish-black energy streaming from the wound.
“I was content to stand aside and let Fu Leng’s conquest of the Heavens determine your fate, daughter of Toturi. Now I promise you that your Empire will fall.” Daigotsu tried to speak the words of magic again, but his body sagged from the effort. With a final spiteful glare, Daigotsu stepped into the bloody portal and was gone.
For a single instant, Tsudao considered leaping into the portal and pursuing the battle. In that moment of hesitation, the portal closed.
“What will we do?” Bayushi Tai said quietly, stepping forward from the shadows. “If what Daigotsu said is true, if Fu Leng has returned to the Celestial Heavens…”
“Then that is a problem we must deal with in time,” Tsudao said, rising from the throne and sheathing her blade. “For now, we must gather the survivors and decide what we must do next. If the Horde is gathering for a war, we must respond in kind. This will not be easy. My brothers and I stand divided even now. The Empire will not unite behind us until one has been chosen as Emperor. Now more than ever, the others must stand aside and acknowledge my claim before we march forth to defeat the Dark Lord.”
“You have regained the Throne itself, my lady,” Bayushi Tai said, gesturing at the Steel Throne. “It is a strong symbol of your father’s rule. You may gain much support for reclaiming it.”
“It is Tainted,” Tsudao said.
“I have associates who may be able to attend to that,” Tai replied. “With your permission of course.”
Tsudao nodded gravely. “So be it,” she said. “Cleanse the Steel Throne. Have it taken to Kyuden Seppun. If the heart of the Empire is gutted and ruined, then that shall be the new center of power for Rokugan.”
“And what if your brothers do not agree to acknowledge your rule?” Tai asked.
“I have seen the power of our true enemy,” Tsudao said. “There can be no room for compromise. Tomorrow, we shall begin to build my new Empire, and those who do not stand beside the Steel Throne must stand against it.”