The penultimate chapter of the saga of Celestial Edition! Kali-ma and her most hated enemies rush toward the front lines of the Empire’s defenses even as the Empress herself draws ever closer!
Goddesses, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Yoritomo Saburo held the open scroll in his shaking hands, almost fearful to look at it directly. The room seemed cooler than it had only a few moments before, but other than that, nothing seemed different. He glanced around at the others, all waiting and pale. “Shouldn’t… shouldn’t something have happened?”
The monk Furumaro shrugged. “Perhaps something did?”
Isawa Kyoko shook her head slowly. “I do not think so. I felt nothing.”
“Idiots,” Hiruma Akio muttered. She raised her voice. “Idiots!” Overwhelmed with frustration and relief, she shouldered past Saburo and Akodo Shunori and ducked down one of the adjoining corridors. She ran to one of the windows overlooking the external garden, stuck her head out, and retched. The enormity of everything that had happened, it was simply… too much. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and spat to clear it. “Idiots,” she repeated. It was time they were given a stark and realistic picture of exactly what was going on and exactly where they stood. And of course it would have to be a Crab to perform such a duty. Her teeth set, her mood beyond stormy, she wheeled about and headed back to the others.
The first words of a much longer, scathing argument were on her tongue as she rounded the corner, but died instantly when she saw the others scattered around the temple floor. “What… what happened?” she said to no one in particular.
Furumaro was at her shoulder instantly. “They were simply exhausted, I suppose,” he said solemnly. “The effect of the scroll on them was far greater than they imagined.” He looked at them. “They should recover soon.”
“The scroll?” Akio said incredulously. “But… but nothing happened?”
“Oh no, something certainly happened,” the monk said, smiling warmly. “And it certainly took long enough. My patience was sorely taxed.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Imagine having before you the most glorious meal imaginable, but not being permitted to consume it. That was similar to what I have experienced these past few months.”
“What?” she demanded.
“The shugenja who created the scroll must have been a soul of incredible purity,” Furumaro continued. “I was not able to open it myself. I required it to be done by another, by souls of honor. It took a tremendous amount of time to cloud their minds sufficiently to make it seem an appropriate choice.” He chuckled lightly. “Fortunately your Empress assisted me somewhat, even if unknowingly.”
“Who are you?” Akio whispered, transfixed. “Where is Furumaro?”
“There is no Furumaro,” the monk said. “I should not be surprised that you resisted me the most strenuously, I suppose. Even if you had been with the group the entire time, those who followed my brother Hida was always the most resilient sort.”
“Oh no,” she whispered. She wanted desperately to reach for her weapon, but her arms would not obey. “Oh gods, please no…”
The monk reached up and caressed her cheek. “Rest now, little one,” he said. As she fell to the ground, he smiled. “I would tell you that your nightmare will soon be over, but I find that my days as a monk have left me with a distaste for outright lies. How curious!”
The Dark Lord Fu Leng drew in a deep breath, intoxicated with the divinity he had stolen from the Black Scroll, divinity that had been stolen from Kali-ma, who had in turn stolen divinity from him. He extended his awareness beyond the temple and sensed the demon goddess to the south. She sensed him as well, he knew, and turned her attention in his direction. “Come to me, trollop,” he whispered with a smile. “Come and let us see who deserves to reign!”
* * * * *
Moto Jin-sahn pulled his steed up short, reaching down instinctively to pat its side comfortingly. The horse had been incredibly taxed over the past few days and weeks, but it had responded marvelously, as it always had, and Jin-sahn was grateful for its steady companionship. He glanced around at his command staff. “Is the area secured?”
Shiba Danjuro nodded stiffly. He still had not recovered completely from the terrible wounds he had suffered during the war with the Destroyers, but he refused to step away from his duties even for a short time. Jin-sahn wished otherwise, but as always he was also tremendously relieved to have Danjuro’s calm counsel in his ear at all times. “The scout patrols have ensured us that no enemies are present within several miles, Shogun.”
Jin-sahn nodded. He looked back to the small procession that existed at the center of his forces. “I will not pretend that any of this makes sense to me,” he finally said.
“Sense need be made only by those who must answer to a higher power,” Danjuro observed. “The Empress has no such limitations, praise the Heavens. We can but serve and trust in her wisdom.”
“Fortunes,” the Shogun spat, “I think if I was as serene as you Phoenix I would not live out the day.” He smirked at his second officer, who offered a thin but genuine smile in response. “Still, if you do not consider it heretical, let us attempt to advise the Empress against this once more, shall we?”
“Of course,” Danjuro said.
The two commanders approached the Imperial procession, but were cut off by a samurai-ko who shook her head. “With respect, Shogun, I would save my breath.” Shiba Erena shook her head. “I have attempted every argument that I believe you would bring up, and I fear at this point that Satsu-sama is dangerously close to a physical response if any of us attempt to press the issue. It is quite insane, frankly.”
Jin-sahn elbowed Danjuro. “Now there’s a Phoenix I can identify with!” he said jokingly. His mood darkened quickly, however. “If there can be no dissuading her, then we must set forward to Kyuden Ashinagabachi, as she instructs. We have no choice but to obey.”
Danjuro began to agree, but the Voice of the Empress appeared at their side suddenly, moving with such fluid grace that he seemed simply to appear with the wind. “Something has changed,” he said. “The Empress no longer needs to go to the Mantis palace.”
“Praise the Heavens,” Erena breathed.
Satsu looked at the Shogun. “Is there a Scorpion temple near here?”
Jin-sahn thought for a moment. “There is a rather large one roughly three hours’ ride to the southwest. Other than that, just a handful of small shrines in this area. Why do you ask?”
“You must take us there at once.”
“Pardon my temerity, my lord,” Danjuro interrupted, “but what has happened?”
“I do not know,” Satsu said. “I am not certain if the Empress knows either.”
Erena sat up straight atop her horse, clearly alarmed. “How can the Empress not know?”
“Many things governed by the Heavens are made known to her as they take place,” Satsu said. “For something to be unknown or surprising, either the Heavens chose not to reveal it to her, or…”
“Or it originates from someone or somewhere over which the Heavens do not hold dominion,” Jin-sahn said darkly.
* * * * *
Kakita Totani awakened suddenly, on her feet and blade in hand before she was even truly awake. She had been catching a few desperate moments of sleep in one of the tents during a lull in the fighting, but the clamor outside had roused her instantly. For a moment of disorientation she thought the camp was being overrun, but the nature of the shouts beyond the tent were not panicked, but jubilant. She reached for the tent flap but it was torn away before she could touch it, and Tsuruchi Etsui appeared. “Totani!” he said. “Come quickly!”
The Crane duelist followed her fellow Legion commander out onto the field, where both of them had insisted on barracking with their forces during the now weeks-long siege of Kyuden Ashinagabachi. Outside she saw that dozens or hundreds of the men under their joint command were crowding around the barricades separating them from the enemy, and more joined them every moment. “What is happening?” she demanded.
Etsui’s feral grin of triumph was unlike anything she had seen from him before. “The beast demons, the bigger ones that look like animals? They are all fleeing!”
The words seemed to make no sense at all, but as Totani looked, she could see that the beasts were indeed abandoning the enemy ranks and moving almost due west with incredible speed, loping and roaring all the way. In their wake, the ironclads seemed disoriented and without formation.
“This is it, men!” Etsui roared, leaping atop the barricade. “The enemy has broken and their lines are in disarray! Now is the day of our victory! Who fights with me? Who will tell their children of the day the Battle of Kyuden Ashinagabachi was won?”
Samurai streamed over the barricade in a wave, coursing over it seemingly without end. Their weapons were held high and their shouts were deafening. They had no formation, no technique, but the air was almost crackling with their energy, and Totani could not imagine a scenario in which they would not shatter the enemy before them and push them from the mountains. It was as Etsui had said. And yet, something bothered the more reserved commander, something she could not entirely make sense of. “They are not fleeing,” she whispered to herself. “It is more as if… they were summoned?”
Someone bumped into her, and Totani found herself face to face with a young samurai who held a brevet rank in her own legion, a well-liked Sparrow warrior who had acquitted himself very well so far in the siege. His face now, though, was strangely haunted. “I have to go now,” he rasped, his eyes only barely seeing Totani. “I am sorry. Thank you so much for everything. I have to go.”
“Sahara, what are you saying?” Totani asked, but it was too late. The young man had crawled over the barricade as well, but while Etsui’s brigade was charging south toward the ranks of the ironclads, Sahara was heading west, seemingly chasing the demon beasts. “What is going on here?”
* * * * *
The demon Kali-ma, murderess of the Ivory Kingdoms, the last, most wrathful aspect of the goddess Shiva, raged as she rushed across the lands of Rokugan. Her most sacred elite warriors rushed along with her, forming a phalanx around and behind her, but their presence was nothing to her state of rage. As she ran, she lashed about blindly in her anger, tearing flesh from those who wandered too close and eradicating them utterly before they realized what had happened. Nor did the demon realize that it was happening, for in the throes of her absolute rage, even her most sacred followers were far, far beneath her notice.
The land blackened and died at her touch as Kali-ma strode across it. Her essence was too powerful to be contained by the mortal realm, and everywhere she went a hint of an evil realm followed. It faded in her wake, but soon her strength would be complete, and there would be no more fading. There would be no mortals. There would be only destruction.
And there, her prey.
It was an insignificant mote of a being, a tiny scrap of flesh soaked in power but worthy of none of it. Its existence drove her mad with white-hot anger, and she was filled with a physical ache that was her need to destroy it and consume its power. As she raced toward it, though, it changed. It unfolded. It twisted and grew until it was no longer a tiny scrap of flesh, but a bold serpentine form, a dragon of enormous scale, its hide a brilliant black that seemed to radiate darkness from it. Its eyes were a sickly green that seemed to weaken the very soul of those who looked upon them. Those eyes promised power but gave only misery, seduced the willful and left them broken.
The dark god Fu Leng and the demon goddess Kali-ma roared at one another in a primal tongue of evil, both filled with a hatred the likes of which the mortal realm had never known, and then they fell upon one another with a fury that shook the mountains themselves to their very core.
* * * * *
The entire temple shook with the force of the confrontation taking place only a short distance away. The earth pitched and rolled, opening cracks in the ancient structure and shaking dust from the roof. Moto Jin-sahn jogged through the corridors, looking for his Empress with increasing desperation. Every tremor and every cascade of lightning reminded him of the enormity of what was happening around him. Precious moments passed, and finally he found that which he sought: the Empress and her attendants stood in the courtyard at the temple’s center, regarding the sky impassively and strangely tranquil despite the chaos unfolding around them.
“Empress!” Jin-sahn shouted, forsaking a bow in her presence for the first time. “My lady, my forces are in position to defend the temple, but we must evacuate you immediately.”
“You must not remain here, Empress,” Susumu replied, unusually subdued.
Jin-sahn nodded. “I will summon an honor guard with our fastest horses. I think that if we exit through the northeast, the cover will be greatest. The most sensible destination would be a….”
“The Empress will not be leaving,” the Voice of the Empress said. Satsu’s face was exceptionally somber, and he clearly felt uncomfortable with the message he imparted. “The hand of destiny is not yet stilled in this place.”
“Empress, please,” Jin-sahn began.
“Silence, please,” the Voice said firmly. “Someone comes.”
Jin-sahn glanced around at the doorways leading to the courtyard, but all were silent other than the tremors. As he looked, however, he noticed that above each door was a sigil of some sort. He had not noticed them before, but he noticed them now because they were glowing red as if taken from the forge. Even as he watched, each grew brighter and brighter until they were each white with the sheer heat that they radiated. Then they exploded in a burse of flame that destroyed the stones on which they were inscribed.
Almost at the same time, there was a gust of wind as if some great beast were taking a deep breath nearby, and a swirl of darkness bled away from the shadows in the courtyard to coalesce in the center. The darkness grew in size until it suddenly dissipated like leaves on the wind, and in its place stood a lone figure. Tall, with flowing white hair and black robes, a porcelain mask upon his face.
“Daigotsu!” Jin-sahn roared, red tinting his vision. He leapt into the air, his scimitar held above his head in both hands, bringing down with force that would tear stone in twain. The scion of darkness could not be permitted to exist in the same space as the Empress. Her Shogun would not permit it. Lazily, Daigotsu lifted one hand toward him.
“No!” The shout barely impacted on Jin-sahn, so intent was he on his enemy’s destruction. Something struck him in the side, pushing him away so that his attack was spoiled. At the same time, dark lightning leapt from Daigotsu’s hand and struck whatever it was that had hit him, and Jin-sahn smelled burning flesh. He rolled on the cobblestones and jumped to his feet at once, intent upon renewing his attack.
“Be still!” the Voice of the Empress commanded.
Jin-sahn glanced down at the crumpled form of the Imperial Advisor. “What have you done?” he demanded. “Why did you stop me?”
“Why did you spare this fool?” Daigotsu asked, his voice smooth and smoky. “You only prove the disloyalty I have long suspected.”
“I serve two masters,” Susumu croaked from ruined lips. “And I serve both loyally.”
Daigotsu clucked his tongue and turned to face the Empress. “I have come at the appointed hour, as agreed. I will hear your proposition, but I agree to nothing in advance.”
“The Empress assumes that you have assets in this area, then?” the Voice asked.
“I have numerous assets available, yes,” Daigotsu confirmed. “I suspect you are well aware of that fact already.”
“Very well then,” the Voice returned. “The Empress has foreseen that this threat cannot be overcome through light alone. The demon goddess Kali-ma represents a threat and affront to the whole of the Celestial Order, and the whole of the Celestial Order must stand against her for her to be defeated.”
“I have no love for the harlot goddess,” Daigotsu said with a wave. “You cannot imagine I will slay her for you, surely.”
“Yours is not the role of savior, but merely participant,” the Voice said. “In exchange for your role, those among your followers who have not embraced the touch of Jigoku will be granted amnesty and the right to bear the mon of the Spider as one of the Empress’ Minor Clans.”
“Completely inadequate,” Daigotsu said with a sneer.
The Voice glanced to the Empress, who nodded. “Additional concessions can be made, but the cost will be significant.”
“Clearly you have no notion of what you ask,” Daigotsu said. “My favor cannot be so cheaply purchased. Not like yours.”
“Be cautious with your words!” Jin-sahn barked.
“Be silent, pet,” Daigotsu said. “We are done here.”
“The Empress knows the hearts of her people,” the Voice said. “Even yours. She knows of your dreams for your son.”
Daigotsu had been in the process of summoning the darkness to ferry him away, but he stopped in an instant, the shadows dissipating. “Speak,” he said finally.
“The blessings of the Heavens can be granted to your son,” the Voice said. “His connection to the Realm of Evil will be severed, and he will be made lord of the Spider. He will become a noble of Rokugan, trained in the Imperial house, if you so wish.”
Daigotsu said nothing for a moment, and it was simple for Jin-sahn to imagine that he was licking his lips in anticipation behind his mask. “What is the cost you require for this… gift?” he asked cautiously.
The Empress withdrew something from her belt and handed it to the Voice, who regarded it incredulously and then reached forward with it. “Your life,” he answered quietly.
Daigotsu said nothing for several minutes. Then, with a steady, unwavering hand, he reached forward and took the Empress’ offered wakizashi.