by Rich Wulf
On the blasted plains beyond the City of the Lost, a solitary figure sat on a stony outcropping and enjoyed the silence. Many assumed that the Shadowlands was a place devoid of life – Omoni knew better. The Shadowlands teemed with an endless variety of flora and fauna, an endless array of life constantly vying for survival, for sustenance, for dominance. Omoni often came here to escape the endless heartbeat of living things.
Omoni could sense life in all its forms. He could hear the rush of blood through a rat’s veins twenty paces away. He could smell the complex processes by which a flower drew upon soil to find nourishment. He could taste a hare’s fear as the wolf sank sharp teeth into its throat. It was too much to bear at times, and so he came here. This was a bleak, desolate place. It suited him well.
The sculptor of flesh was a hateful, twisted little man. His lank hair hung unevenly, torn from his scalp in places by his own hand. His dark eyes gleamed with a near-feral madness mixed with devious intelligence. He shuddered with every breath, as if the act of breathing caused him great pain. He stared blankly at the broken earth, enjoying the dreary solitude and trying not to think too much upon his own existence.
“Omoni,” hissed a sibilant voice. A sinuous black dragon wove itself from the shadows, coiling in the air above Omoni. The little man shrieked in surprise, turning and falling off his stone.
“Where did you come from?” Omoni snarled, staring up at the creature in disbelief. “I sensed nothing. I still sense nothing.”
“Of course you sensed Nothing,” the dragon said with a chuckle. The word ‘nothing’ had a different sort of feel when the dragon said it, as if it meant something else altogether. “You have heard of me.”
Omoni nodded quickly though the dragon seemed to be stating fact rather than asking a question. “You are the Shadow Dragon,” Omoni said. “You are the one who brought Kyoden back to life.” All who lived in the City of the Lost knew of the Shadow Dragon. Once a servant of heaven, the dragon had fallen prey to the Shadowlands Taint. Now it was a powerful being of pure darkness.
“I saw you in Kyoden’s memories, Omoni,” the dragon said, circling about in the air to get a better look. “You are an intriguing creature. You stand as one of the Dark Lord’s closest advisors and confidantes, yet you choose to live among the bakemono rather than in Daigotsu’s temple. Why is that?”
“I feel more comfortable there,” Omoni said, rising into a crouch. He watched the dragon warily. “It is& simpler among the goblins.”
“Because not all value you as Daigotsu does,” the dragon said with a leer. “The others& Shahai, Mishime, Tsukuro, Hoturi& they see you as a beast, no better than the goblins who serve you.”
“I do not care about them,” Omoni snarled. “They are weak, all of them. They all fear Daigotsu.”
“And Daigotsu protects you,” the Shadow Dragon said, its hollow gaze fixing on Omoni’s.
“Of course he does,” Omoni said fiercely. “Daigotsu is my friend. He gave me my great power. He has made me what I am.”
“Has he?” the dragon asked in a mild voice. “Strange. According to Kyoden, it was the Bloodspeakers who created you.”
“That is a lie,” Omoni said nervously.
“You were an experiment, a failure in their attempt to create a perfect being by binding a human child with a Shadowlands spirit,” the dragon added. “They accidentally summoned an errant bakemono spirit rather than the demon they required, and you were the result.”
“That is not true!” Omoni snapped.
“You were the first, and the weakest, of their three creations,” the dragon continued. “Daigotsu saved you from the Bloodspeakers. He removed the memories of your uncomfortable origins to take the edge off the pain that is your life. He did these things because he pitied you, not because he valued you.”
“No,” Omoni said, his voice now echoing with an inhuman growl. “I am valuable to him. I helped him build his armies. I helped him sculpt the bakemono. I helped him create the Onisu. I helped him find the Tsuno!”
“Helped” the dragon mused. “Implying that none of those are things he could not have done without you”
“Daigotsu needs me!” Omoni roared. He lashed out at the dragon, clawed fingers swiping harmlessly through its smoky form. “He is my friend!”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “Is that so?” it asked, “and what if he were gone. What then would become of you, sculptor of flesh?”
Omoni’s chest heaved with anger. Long spiky hairs stood out on his back, like an enraged animal. Drool spilled from between his sharpened teeth. “Are you threatening the Dark Lord?” Omoni demanded, his voice nearly inaudible between angry growls.
“What if I was, goblin-man?” the dragon asked, the tip of its nose hovering mere inches from Omoni’s face. “If I wished to destroy your lord, what would you do to stop me?”
Omoni’s mouth twisted in frustration. His hands balled into fists, his sharp claws digging into his palms. He closed his eyes and bowed his head in shame. “I& do not know.” Omoni said. He fell to his knees and sobbed quietly, covering his face with his bloody hands.
The Shadow Dragon watched the curious little man for a long moment. A sinister smile twisted its reptilian features. It hovered closer to the sobbing wretch and whispered in his ear. “I see now why Daigotsu values you so highly,” it said. “For all your madness, for all your weakness, your loyalty is absolute. You truly believe that the Dark Lord is your friend.”
“He is my friend,” Omoni whispered.
“And you fear what would happen to you should he ever fall,” the dragon continued. “You wonder what place there would be for one such as you in a world without your master.”
Omoni nodded quietly.
“You wish only to protect your lord,” the Shadow Dragon said.
Omoni nodded again.
“Then give him this gift,” the Shadow Dragon said. The shadows around Omoni parted to reveal a massive sword in a golden saya, lying on the broken earth.
Omoni looked at the sword suspiciously, then at the Shadow Dragon. “What is this?” he asked.
“The sword of the Hantei,” the Shadow Dragon said. “My Goju recently acquired it.”
“If you have cursed this sword, Daigotsu will know,” Omoni warned. “He has been blessed by Fu Leng. Even you are not beyond his power, dragon.”
“I know that,” the dragon chuckled. “I serve the Dark Lord as you do. My statements earlier well, think of them as a test. The sword is safe for Daigotsu to wield.”
“Why give this sword to me?” Omoni demanded. “Why not deliver it to him yourself?”
“Because I, too, pity you, Omoni,” the dragon said. “Tell Daigotsu how you truly came upon the sword, but invent whatever lie you like to tell the others and increase your own standing. Think, for a moment, of the reaction when you bring this treasured artifact into the Temple of the Ninth Kami. Think of their faces. Shahai. Tsukuro. Mishime.”
Omoni shrugged. “Tsukuro does not really have a face. He wears the flesh of others.”
“You know what I mean,” the dragon said with an amused laugh. “Think how jealous they will be, if only for a moment. Perhaps they will realize how greatly they misjudged you, and why Daigotsu values you as he does.”
Omoni looked at the sword cautiously. “What is the price?” he asked. “Kyoden says that your favors always come at a price.”
“Kyoden spoke truly,” the dragon said. “All I ask is that once you give the sword to Daigotsu, that you forever serve the one who wields it.”
Omoni considered this. “So long as it is Daigotsu’s hand, or his chosen heir, I so swear.”
“Fair enough,” the dragon said. It receded into nothingness once again, leaving Omoni alone with the sword.
* * * * *
The Temple of the Ninth Kami was quiet today. The chanting monks and worshipful samurai had been dismissed. Now only Omoni and the Dark Lord remained. Omoni had considered doing as the Shadow Dragon suggested, unveiling the sword before Daigotsu’s court and stunning them all. Instead, the sculptor of flesh decided to tell Daigotsu in secret. Better to be safe in case the sword was truly cursed.
Daigotsu sat on the stairs before the mighty statue of Fu Leng, studying the golden no-dachi he now held in one hand. Omoni looked on eagerly, watching as his master turned the sword in a complex kata. The golden sword sputtered with uneven black flame, as if the spirit of the blade was uncertain whether it should serve this new master.
“How is the arm?” Omoni asked curiously. “Working well, I hope?”
“Much better than the last one you made for me,” Daigotsu said, squeezing his right shoulder. “It feels quite natural.”
“That one will not decay as quickly as the others,” Omoni said proudly. “It should serve you well for many years. Even if severed from your body, it will continue to obey your commands.”
Daigotsu smiled faintly. “I do not intend to let anyone sever my arm again,” he said, “but I applaud your craftsmanship nonetheless, Omoni.”
“What of the sword?” Omoni asked. “Is it safe? The Shadow Dragon said that it would be, but I do not trust him.”
“The Shadow Dragon is a strange sort of creature,” Daigotsu said. “It has taken on many aspects of the shadow that it has become. It is a being of deceit, corruption, and destruction. Even so, it is still a dragon. Though it will cloud the truth and seek to deceive you, it will never lie. It cannot. If it told you the sword is safe, then it is. My magic confirms that. I sense no danger here.”
“Is it truly as the dragon said?” Omoni asked. “Is it truly the Hantei sword?”
Daigotsu shrugged. “If the Shadow Dragon believed it was so, I have little reason to doubt him. This sword’s past is quite complex. It is named Akkuai-uo, or sometimes Kunshu. It was forged by Doji Yasurugi for the son of the first Emperor. The fifth Hantei wielded it in defense of Kyuden Hida, personally guarding the gates beside the Lord of the Crab Clan. Hantei Fujiwa’s victory that day granted the blade great powers against the Shadowlands. I find it ironic that it was this same sword that our god, Fu Leng, drove into the stomach of another Crab Champion centuries later. Or that that Champion’s son lost the blade again when the maho-tsukai, Kuni Yori, captured and slew him.”
“I know the stories,” Omoni said. “You mean Hida Kisada and his son, Hida Yakamo.”
Daigotsu nodded. “Yes,” he said with a sneer. “Two men who were such brilliant failures that the Rokugani elevated them to the Celestial Heavens so that they could be the gods of all failures. After Yori’s defeat the sword lay discarded and forgotten in the Shinomen Forest until it was discovered by a band of Monkey Clan magistrates. They returned the sword to Otosan Uchi, where it remained unused until it was set in the heavens beside the other Ancestral Swords. If any could steal this blade from the Heavens amid the war that wages there, it would be the Shadow Dragon. I suppose he found it ironic that I should come to possess the blade. Am I not the last true member of the Hantei line?”
“You said that the blade was a weapon against darkness,” Omoni said. “Is it not dangerous for you to wield?”
“Perhaps,” Daigotsu said, staring into the sputtering black flames that covered the blade. “It does seem as if the sword is uncertain whether it should acknowledge me as its master. Perhaps we should seek a higher counsel on this matter.”
Omoni scowled. “Not the Oracles again,” he said sourly.
“No,” Daigotsu said, a strange gleam in his eye. “Not the Oracles. I think, instead, we should seek the counsel of the last true Emperor who wielded this sword.”
With that Daigotsu sheathed the no-dachi, turned, and rested the sword in the outstretched hands of the statue of Fu Leng. The Dark Lord bowed his head and fell respectfully to his knees. Omoni quickly did the same, turning his eyes to the floor just as a horrible, numbing cold filled the Temple of the Ninth Kami. Omoni could feel a powerful presence radiating from the statue. He could hear words spoken, though he could not understand them. They were the words of Fu Leng himself, intended only for Daigotsu. After several minutes the cold faded and Omoni dared to look up again.
“Here,” Daigotsu said, handing the sheathed sword to him. “Draw the blade.”
Omoni took the sword obediently, wincing in frustration as the blade jammed in its saya. “I cannot,” he said. “It feels frozen in place.”
Daigotsu nodded, took the blade from Omoni, and drew it easily. The golden sword erupted in a brilliant aura of white flame. “Fu Leng has decreed that only I or a member of my line can draw this blade and wield it. By the Dark Kami’s power, it shall forever be a weapon against my enemies. Even should my closest allies turn against me, this blade shall remain forever true.”
Omoni looked at Daigotsu, left eye twitching in confusion. “Turn against you?” he asked. “Why would we do that? You are the greatest leader we have ever known, Dark Lord. Like the sword, we are forever true.”
“I hope that you are correct, my friend,” Daigotsu said, eyes flicking from the sword to Omoni and back. He sheathed the blade with a swift movement. “I thank you for the blade, Omoni.”
With that, Daigotsu turned and left the temple, leaving the tormented little man to his thoughts.