Blade of Serpents
A lone figure entered the chamber, like the dead men, he wore the color of the Phoenix... he was not.
* * * * *
Otosan Uchi, three months ago...
The sun was shining brightly as Seppun Oroku walked through the gardens of the Seppun estates in the Imperial City, but the chill of winter lingered on in the brisk morning air. Oroku clutched her kimono tightly about her body and picked up the pace of her walk. The silent yojimbo walking behind her kept his steady, even pace, the precious bundle he carried tucked tightly under his arm. Oroku sighed happily when she reached the garden's end and entered the warm, incense-scented air inside the estate chambers. "Hyobe," she said, turning to her yojimbo. "It wasn't that cold. You complain too much." She looked at him for a few seconds with a mischievous glint in her eye, but as usual, Hyobe said nothing. Sighing in mock exasperation, she turned and continued on her way down the hallway toward one of the audience chambers. "Remember," she added to her taciturn companion just before entering, "let me do the talking."
The chamber was one of the tastefully decorated rooms where the Seppun had their guests await an audience with a member of the family. Under normal circumstances, the delegations occupying the rooms were individuals who had requested the privilege of the Seppun's time, but in this particular case the Seppun had actually requested that Phoenix send a representative to speak with them. It was highly unusual for an Imperial family to request someone to visit them in their home, and that perhaps was partly why the Phoenix had responded so quickly. Whatever the reason, the Phoenix had evidently thought it an important event, for they had sent a prestigious envoy; a man with three yojimbo must be quite important indeed.
"Seppun Oroku-sama," said one of the yojimbo suddenly, catching her off guard. She was not accustomed to having a guardian speak. "I am Shiba Bajiru, emissary of the Brotherhood of Heaven's Wing. My associate is Isawa Moriyasu of Kyuden Isawa. We are most honored to have been chosen to respond to your invitation, and our lord has instructed us to offer whatever service we can possibly provide."
"Thank you, Bajiru-san," Oroku said warmly. "But it is the Seppun who wish to perform a service for your august clan."
Moriyasu looked puzzled. "I'm sorry, Oroku-sama, but I do not understand. We understood that you had requested the Phoenix's aid in some delicate matter. Is that not the case?"
"It is a delicate matter, this much is true," Oroku explained, "but not one that requires the Phoenix to serve the Seppun. In fact, it is almost the opposite of that." Gesturing toward a table where a servant was pouring tea, Oroku continued as the group sat. "There are many precious items in the Seppun's care. As the Emperor's guardians, it has fallen to us to protect many objects sacred to the Hantei line over the centuries. Now that the Hantei line has essentially come to its end, we have begun to reconsider some of the items within our care, and whether or not they could serve a greater purpose elsewhere."
"Many of those items under your care are best kept removed from the Empire," Bajiru said. "Too many would use them for their own purposes. Not all clans are as strong or as wise as the Seppun."
"And yet," Moriyasu added somewhat hastily, "the Seppun possess the wisdom to determine the best place for these treasures. The Phoenix will of course respect your decision."
"Of course," Oroku said, smiling demurely. "The Seppun lords have been most impressed with how well Shiba Aikune has controlled the awesome power of the Last Wish. The Wish is purportedly the most powerful artifact in Rokugan, yet Aikune has shown restraint and strength of will in its use." Oroku watched the Phoenix carefully; none of them showed any surprise or disbelief at her words despite reports that Aikune had unleashed the Wish against his own Lion advisors only weeks before. "If the Phoenix can wield such an artifact, then they are the only ones worthy to bear our gift." Gesturing to her yojimbo, Oroku reverently unwrapped the package set before the group. The silk wraps fell away to reveal a katana, one that bore the chrysanthemum mon of the Hantei family.
"A magnificent blade," said Bajiru admiringly.
"This blade has not been used in centuries. Its last use was a betrayal of the Seppun's oath to the Hantei, yet it was necessary to preserve the Hantei line. It has been a great source of confusion for our family over the centuries, but at last a decision has been made. This blade saved the Empire once, and perhaps its power can do so again. We ask that the Phoenix, wisest of the Great Clans, wield it. May its presence show all that the Phoenix bear our favor. May its power grant you the chance to bring peace to the Empire once more. Its name is Mukizo, 'Flawless."'
Bajiru nodded, his stern expression unchanged, but Moriyasu smiled broadly and bowed his head deferentially. The little shugenja was practically drooling at the notion of claiming the sword for his clan. He would decline twice, of course, but that was protocol and nothing else. Not for the first time, Oroku wondered if this was the wisest course of action for her family. She would do what she was ordered regardless, but she did not have to like it.
Moriyasu opened his mouth to decline the offer, but never got the chance. From somewhere beyond the estate's walls, there was a thunderous report that sounded as if the Fortunes had lashed out against the city. Bajiru and Hyobe were on their feet at once, as were Moriyasu's two yojimbo. Seconds later there was a second report, and the very floor rocked as if by an enormous earthquake. The eastern wall exploded in a hailstorm of wood and stone, and through the smoke Oroku could see hazy, inhuman forms lunging into the chamber.
"The Shadowlands," Bajiru shouted, leaping headfirst into the creatures pouring through the destroyed wall. His speed was nothing short of amazing. Oroku could hardly see his blade while his movements were little more than a blur. The misshapen beasts that were rapidly filling the chamber fell by the dozen as Hyobe joined the Phoenix warrior in the fight. Moriyasu's yojimbo joined as well, but they were clearly outstripped by the two more seasoned warriors. Oroku saw one fall beneath a wave of the creatures, shortly followed by the second. Moriyasu shouted an incantation to the Fortunes, summoning a billowing column of flame that destroyed the beasts that had killed his bodyguards.
Over the fighting, Oroku heard another voice chanting, but this was nothing like the prayer Moriyasu had uttered. The words were unfamiliar, almost painful to the ear, and echoed with a sinister tone that made them ring out above the din of the battle. A huge stream of foul green energy appeared in the chamber, but rather than striking like the column of flame, it wound its way sinuously through the room like smoke. For a moment, Oroku even imagined that there was a pair of empty black eyes and a great, gaping maw that made the energy look like a terrible serpent. That image lasted only a moment before it lashed out and struck Moriyasu.
The Phoenix shugenja only had time for a muffled scream before the energy destroyed him utterly. Flesh and tattered remnants of his clothing scattered across the room with explosive force. A splatter of blood hit Oroku in the face, and despite the incredible circumstances, she felt a fleeting wave of nausea.
A second blast of corrupted energy, black this time, laid Bajiru low. His magnificent orange armor blackened and cracked where the energy tore through him. Hyobe fell as well, but was not killed. He was swarmed by tiny green creatures, who pinned him to the ground with their sheer numbers.
A lone figure entered the chamber. Like the dead men, he wore the colors of the Phoenix, but his expression left little doubt in Oroku's mind that he was not. His maniacal, depraved smile terrified her, but she would not show it. Summoning her courage, she managed "You are not welcome here. Please leave."
The man standing amid the rubble laughed. "I did not realize the Seppun were a humorous people. You must be an exception." He glanced around the room at the various dead bodies, looking for something. Finally, his eyes settled upon the blade Oroku had been presenting to the Phoenix. Hefting the katana, his smile took on a hard, cold edge. "Ah, this is what I was looking for. You and your allies were merely an added bonus."
"That is not for you," she whispered.
"Oh, but it is," he insisted. "The favor of the Seppun. That is what you said this blade represented, isn't it? The blessings of your family? Yes, that was it." He admired the blade for a moment before pointing it at Oroku. "You will offer me the Seppun's favor. In the name of Lord Daigotsu. After all, are we not stronger than your chosen protectors?" He nodded toward the dead Phoenix.
Somewhere deep within her soul, Oroku felt the stirrings of anger. "I will not."
"You will give the blade willingly," replied the stranger. "Or I will take you and your yojimbo instead. You will not enjoy your time with us, I think." At his words, a flickering of electricity raced down the blade and arced across the room to strike Oroku.
The pain was, as promised, unimaginable. Her muscles spasmed out of control, twisting her body in a violent convulsion that threatened to snap her bones like dry tinder. When the pain passed, she saw a flickering of movement from the corner of her eye.
Hyobe had thrown off his attackers and raced across the room in an instant. "No!" he shouted, lashing out at the maho-tsukai. His strike was barely deflected by the blade the stranger carried, but still tore through his side. It was the first time Oroku had ever heard Hyobe speak.
The maho-tsukai lifted his blade, its surface crackling with energy once more, but he was never given the chance to speak. A third explosion ripped through the building, collapsing the chamber in a pile of rubble. Several large stones struck Oroku, and she was too weak to avoid them. She felt the stone crush her bones, and a blossoming warmth within her told her that she was bleeding inside.
For a time, she fell unconscious. A distant sound awakened her after an unknown length of time. She felt cold and could not move. A faint voice said something that sounded like "she's going," and a blurry form entered her vision.
"Seppun-sama," a man's voice said. It was gentle and comforting. "I am Isawa Churezu. We cannot treat your wounds, but we will see to it that you are not further defiled by the creatures that attacked you. They have all been killed."
She opened and closed her mouth, but was unable to speak.
"Shh," he said. "Your yojimbo did not survive, I am afraid. Your Phoenix friend did, however. We are removing him to safety. He will live."
"No," she managed. "No, the blade, he..."
"Shh," he said again. "Do not try to talk. The Phoenix will be honored to receive your gift, and we will commemorate it to your memory, Seppun-sama."
"No," she whispered one last time as darkness took her.
* * * * *
The northern Isawa provinces, one month ago
Mishime slowly slid his shoji screen open. There was no light in the corridor; all was dead at this time of night. Light was unnecessary, he mused, for darkness had always been his ally. It had cloaked his indiscretions for years, and now it allowed him to move unseen through the Empire. Darkness had allowed him to infiltrate Otosan Uchi several months ago and now it had allowed him to win Isawa Churezu's confidence, working his way into the man's home, if only for a short time.
And now, it would allow him to seize the prize he needed to achieve his life's ambition. It had been so easy to gain Churezu's confidence. Appearing unbidden on his doorstep, wishing to thank the man that had saved his life. The fool was eager to embrace his kinsmen, and reveled in Mishime's endless gratitude and constant recounting of his heroism. Posing as Isawa Moriyasu had not been difficult with so willing a target.
The thick wooden door that protected the area where Churezu conducted his research was a meager barrier at best. Mishime placed his palm against the portion of the door where the lock was centered and pushed. The wood resisted at first, but it began to creak under the force, and finally cracked and splintered. It was louder than Mishime had expected, but the powder he had placed in Churezu's meal would prevent his awakening. The shugenja's doddering old yojimbo could have conceivably heard the sound, but he doubted it. The man was clearly a fossil, and was only still in service because he had nowhere else to go.
The chamber was even darker than the corridor, as it had no exterior windows. It mattered little, however, as Mishime had memorized the position of the item he desired. He glided silently through the chamber until he reached the rack upon which a lone katana rested. He exalted in his victory for the briefest of moments, running one finger along the edge of the blade until a lone drop of blood ran down it's mirrored exterior. "Mine," he whispered hoarsely.
Light suddenly filled the room, causing Mishime to hiss in surprise and spin to face the door. There stood the aged yojimbo, still clad in his plain, frayed kimono. One hand rested on the hilt of his blade, and the other carried a hooded lantern that he had just opened. For one so old, he had entered the chamber without a sound. "Impressive, old man. I don't remember the last time someone surprised me."
"The real surprise will come when I kill you," the old man said in a ragged voice. "I thought your line ended when I killed your father years ago."
"Killed my..." Mishime's voice trailed off. He peered across the dimly lit chamber at the old man, and understanding dawned on his features. "Reikado? By the Fortunes, are you still alive? Unbelievable!"
"Believe it or not, as you like," the old man said, drawing his blade. "In a moment, it won't matter. You look just like your father, and now you'll share his fate."
"I don't think so, old man. My father was a powerful and cunning man, but I'm far wiser than he ever was. For example," he reached into his obi and withdrew a small, black, egg-shaped object, "I always come prepared. Please, enjoy the essence of Pekkle no Oni." Mishime hurled the object to the ground between himself and the old man.
Where the object struck the floor, there was a brief flash and then a thick, black cloud filled the chamber. The old man cursed and hurled himself out into the corridor to avoid the cloud of Taint. Laughing, Mishime grabbed the blade from the stand and chanted a short prayer to the Dark Kami. A bolt of sickly green energy erupted from his outstretched hand and instantly rotted away the chamber wall. "You've missed your chance, Reikado! You will die knowing you have failed! Sayonara!"
With those parting words, Mishime leapt through the hole he had created and carried his prize into the night, laughing all the way.
* * * * *
The Shadowlands, present day
The Temple of the Ninth Kami was a severe building, even for the City of the Lost. Mishime never entered its obsidian doors without feeling awed by Fu Leng's power. His years among the Phoenix had been utterly wasted, that much was clear to him now. His father's path, the path of maho, was the true path to power. His father had joined the Phoenix Clan with his meager elemental magic when they opened their doors to any ronin with potential following the Clan War. By that time Tenkazu had already faked his death, throwing his nemesis Reikado off of his trail after nearly two decades. As a result, Mishime had been born an Asako.
Deep in his soul, Mishime knew he had never truly belonged. When he had the chance to betray not only his family but several Kuni witch-hunters investigating the City of the Lost, he had taken it without hesitation. Serving the Phoenix had been a drudgery, but serving Daigotsu was exhilarating.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, Mishime approached the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands. Daigotsu was sitting on the throne that had replaced the Steel Throne, apparently lost in thought even as he stared into his open right hand. "My lord Daigotsu," he said, bowing low. "I have returned from my quest, and I wished to thank you again for allowing me to undertake it."
"And what of me, little Snake?" came a voice from across the room. Steeped in shadows, Shahai ran one bone-white finger along the surface of the altar that dominated the temple's western wall. "No greeting for me? You should be cautious, lest I take offense."
"Forgive me, Dark Daughter," Mishime said with the proper respectful tone. "I did not realize you were there."
"Mmm," mused Shahai. "I am not accustomed to being overlooked."
"Not now, dearest," said Daigotsu lightly. "I believe my hatamoto has something he wishes to tell me. Is that not correct, Chuda Mishime?"
"It is, master," said Mishime reverently. "I have at last recovered that which escaped me during your siege of Otosan Uchi. I present it to you as a gift." He held the katana he had recovered from the Phoenix provinces before him reverently.
"A katana. How intriguing. I already have several. What need have I for this one?"
"I have retrieved this blade because it is the same blade that ended the mortal life of Hantei XVI, the Steel Chrysanthemum. Your ancestor, my lord."
Daigotsu leaned forward in his throne, an amused smirk on his handsome features. "The blade the Seppun have guarded all these centuries? I thought it was lost in the siege."
"It was, master, but only temporarily. The Phoenix had taken it to study. I have retrieved it for you."
The masked man stood and took the blade from Mishime, holding it like a delicate work of art. "The blood of the Hantei stained this blade," he murmured. "This sword struck down the rightful Emperor, wielded by a hero who knew his duty to his family. Marvelous." He favored Mishime with a smile. "You have done well, hatamoto. Very well indeed. What reward would you have for this service you have done me?"
"I ask only to serve you, master," Mishime said. "I ask only to gather others to bear my true ancestors' name. I ask to let them spill their blood on your sword and swear their eternal loyalty to the Chuda and to you."
The Dark Lord's smile was both terrible and genuine. "That which you ask, I would gladly have given in time. Rise, Chuda Mishime, and begin your line anew." After a moment's thought, he added "And what will your legacy be called?"
"The Snake Clan, my lord," Mishime replied. "And I will finish the task my ancestors could not. I will drown the Empire in blood. For you, master."
Daigotsu nodded silently, pleased with his hatamoto's words.