Akodo Tadenori shook his head in disgust. He had traveled much during his lifetime, but he had not enjoyed it a single time. Now, traveling south through some of the Empire's most rugged terrain alongside a Crane, he had to wonder why Ijiasu had asked him to undertake this mission.
"He hates you, of course."
Tadenori's head snapped around to glare at Doji Midoru. "What did you say, Crane?"
"The expression on your face. It's obvious what you were thinking. And the answer is equally obvious. Akodo Ijiasu despises you."
"Outlandish," Tadenori retorted. "What would you know of such things?"
Midoru turned away to take in the landscape around them. "What is there to know?" he replied. "He is younger than you. He is higher ranking than you. Yet other Lion look to you for leadership because of your experience. Your many victories over the Dragon eclipse his massacre at Kyuden Tonbo." He turned back to Tadenori. "How could he help but hate you?"
Tadenori scoffed. "You obviously know nothing. We Akodo are above hate."
The Crane shrugged. "It matters little to me if you believe it or not. For what it's worth, I am certain he does not realize it he hates you. You Akodo place so much emphasis on honor that you forget emotion, even when it drives you to act."
"And you know so much about emotion, I'm certain," Tadenori retorted. "I refuse to accept philosophy from a man such as you. I hear that the Shogun's soldiers refer to as 'the Corpse.'"
A slight smile tugged at Midoru's lips. "How appropriate."
The old Lion shook his head again. Midoru was maddeningly unflappable. Perhaps it would be best to restrict conversation to the matter at hand, however distasteful that might be. "Ijiasu-sama's description of our mission was& brief. Would you care to enlighten me as to the details?"
Midoru nodded. "Your lord Ijiasu offered aid to his ally Hida Hitoshi. It seems that Hitoshi-san's home province has been besieged of late, constantly under assault from large waves of the Lost. The Crab are holding their own at this time, but they are requesting additional troops to help crush the incursion."
"Hmph," Tadenori grunted, looking back at the small unit of men that followed them. "We seem fairly ill suited to crush the Shadowlands Horde&"
"Perhaps," Midoru agreed. "But then, you and I are not exactly your average infantrymen, are we?" He peered at his Lion comrade. "You are the veteran of a hundred battles, if your reputation is to be believed. A leader of men, and a peerless tactician. And I am& what I am. Unless, of course, your reputation is merely hearsay."
"No," said Tadenori gruffly. "I am not stranger to battle, nor victory."
"Excellent," Midoru said. "Then we shall get along famously."
* * * * *
Hida Kuroda snarled in fury and tightened his grip. There was a sharp cracking sound as the man's skull shattered; the body that dangled from Kuroda's fist went limp. The samurai's corpse fell at Kuroda's feet, its black blood staining the Crab's hands and legs. He turned and regarded the other Lost about him with a fury that made many fall back a step. "I am not Hida Kuroda! I am Kyofu! Any fool who calls me that hated name will suffer this one's fate or worse!" He lashed out irritably and caught one of the closest men across the side of the face, sending him sprawling to the ground where he lay twisted and unmoving. "Destroy this village! I want nothing left but blood and ash!"
The Lost scattered at Kyofu's words, eager to be free of his tyrannical outbursts. Since the undead Crab Champion had been combined with the Onisu of Fear, it was the Onisu who held dominion over their shared corporeal form. Where Kyofu's menace was once methodical and brooding, now he frequently succumbed to rage and violence. As the Onisu of Fear, it was constantly driven to inspire fear in others, even if those were the troops under its command.
Kyofu stormed across the blazing rice field that marked the outer edge of a small village in the southern Crab lands. Screams and the crack of burning timbers filled the air, but Kyofu barely noticed. He drew his obsidian blade and cut down the doors to the nearest building. Inside, horses were screaming in panic at the flames that had begun to engulf the building. A lone peasant was there, trying desperately to calm the animals. Upon seeing the creature advancing toward him, the man began to scramble away, but stumbled over a gardening tool and fell sprawling to the ground.
The Onisu was on him in an instant. Kyofu grabbed the man's throat with a single hand and slammed him repeatedly into the ground. The peasant's eyes glazed over with pain, then oblivion. Kyofu lifted his blade to end the man's life, a cruel laughter bubbling forth from somewhere deep within him. Suddenly, the peasant's eyes cleared for a moment, and he saw that his life could be measured in seconds. His face contorted into a mask of hate in that moment, and he spat in Kyofu's face. "My lords, the Hida, will make you suffer, Shadowlands filth!"
There was no fear in this man. Roaring in outrage, Kyofu brought his blade down with inhuman force. The first strike cleft the man's head into two pieces, but the Onisu did not halt his onslaught. Again and again he struck until he was covered in the blood of his enemy. His rage passed, and Kyofu suddenly realized that his rage had consumed him for several minutes.
A dark, booming laughter suddenly filled the stable. Kyofu instantly dropped into a fighting stance, looking all about for its source. The Shadowlands were full of strange, maniacal beings that thought themselves the equal of any opponent they faced. Kyofu had personally dispatched no less than a dozen self-styled warlords, fools who believed they were above Daigotsu's laws. Each had laughed at Kyofu before he killed them, certain they would best him. This laughter, however, was something altogether different. "Who dares mock Kyofu?" he snarled. "Who longs for a painful, tortured death?"
"A most ironic question, Hida Kuroda," came the response. The voice was everywhere at once. Unbelievably, Kyofu felt his demonic heart flutter with an almost alien feeling: fear. Fear was something he brought to others, not experienced himself. "Truly," the voice continued, "death is not for beings such as you and I, is it?"
The room darkened suddenly. The shadows grew longer, and the light shed by the flickering flames seemed to wane and dwindle away to nothing. A dull roaring sound like the distant ocean filled the room, and Kyofu had the sensation of standing at the end of a long corridor. A great, powerful presence swelled as if approaching, filling the chamber with its enormity. Then, without preamble, there was another being within the chamber. In one instant, Kyofu was alone. The next, there was& something else.
A great suit of slate-gray armor, taller than even the largest Onisu, stood in the room's center. The armor was empty, yet hovered in place as if filled by an unseen foe. All sound was gone, leaving the chamber eerily silent and still. There was nothing beyond the room, only Kyofu and this mysterious visitor.
"Emma-O," Kyofu growled. "The Fortune of Death."
The empty helmet turned to look down at Kyofu. "Will you not bow down and pay homage to me?" it demanded. "Will you not honor a superior being?"
"I honor no pathetic Fortune," Kyofu growled. "Especially not one so weak as you, fool."
"I was not speaking to you, dream-beast," the figure said absently. "I speak to the one who knows of duty and respect." It waved a gigantic, gauntlet-clad hand toward Kyofu.
Pain. Unimaginable pain. Kyofu would have screamed had not his mortal form been so paralyzed with agony. Kyofu spasmed, then collapsed.
"Rise, Hida Kuroda," Emma-O said.
The unliving flesh that comprised Hida Kuroda's body ached with every movement, but the former Crab Champion struggled to his feet without complaint. His will had been bound to the Onisu for months without release. He had been reduced to little more than an observer as the demon committed countless atrocities in his name. The knowledge that it was his fear feeding the Nightmare's power tortured his every moment. Yet now, after so long, he was free again. "I thank you, whoever you are," he rasped, staring down at his grey, undead flesh. "You have freed me."
"Not so, mortal," answered the thing before him. "I have merely altered the balance of power within your soul. You have control of your body now, but you are far from free."
Kuroda's shoulder's slumped. "I thought for a moment& perhaps my torment was over. I thought perhaps I could rejoin my brother. I suppose I should have known better."
"A fool's dream." Emma-O said. "I have done you a favor. I expect it repaid. To that end, you are of no use to me as a Crab."
"Use?" laughed Kuroda hoarsely. "How can a fallen champion be of use to you? Are you not the Fortune of death? Do your duty and end my misery."
Emma-O looked down at Kuroda silently for a long time. "What do you know of duty?" the Fortune asked.
"I am a Crab," Kuroda said.
"Oh?" Emma-O replied. The Fortune sliced one hand through the air and suddenly they stood upon a vast, barren plain, roiling with gray fog. Countless wandering souls milled about the landscape, constantly seeking escape, constantly seeking a release from the vast nothingness of Meido. "This is my duty, Crab. Your Wall is nothing compared to this. I am the steward of souls. Were it not for me the Spirit Realms would be torn asunder by these wandering, restless spirits. Yet there are no thanks for me. There are no rewards for me. None came to aid me when Daigotsu invaded my realm and unleashed Fu Leng upon the Heavens. Humanity owes me a favor for the insult they did to me in allowing Daigotsu to exist. I have come to see that favor repaid in full, Hida Kuroda." Emma-O waved his arm again, and they were back in the burning stables once more.
"That is no longer my name," Kuroda hissed. "I have no right to it any longer."
"I will call you whatever I please, Hida Kuroda," the Fortune said ominously. "Your soul is not yet fully lost to darkness, so long as I will it. Your mind is yet your own, and that is what makes your service to me so magnificent."
The former Crab frowned. "What do you require of me?"
"Few in the mortal realm honor me properly," the Fortune rumbled. "Humans rarely concern themselves with my power save for during their funeral rites. Do they honor your ancestor, Osano-Wo, only during the thunderstorms he brings? No, of course not. Yet I am forgotten, abandoned by lesser beings. One of your mortal princes even dared invade the sanctity of my realm not so long ago." Emma-O grew wrathful at the mention of such effrontery. "I will not endure such an outrage!" Emma-O's voice echoed within his empty armor. When he spoke again, he was calm once more. "You compared your duty to mine before. It is an interesting comparison. The Crab Clan does honor me, with their actions if not their words. And you despise the darkness that has taken you, even as I hate your masters Daigotsu and Fu Leng." An enormous, gauntleted hand rose to point at Kuroda. "You and I share enemies, Hida Kuroda. And you bring my gift to them. I thank you."
Kuroda frowned. "What is it you want?"
"Only to bless you," Emma-O responded. "Only to give you a shadow of my power, that more souls might be ushered into my realm at your hands. You would retain Kyofu's power, but you would be the one in control. I would weave the magic so that none, not even Daigotsu, would tell what has been done unless you foolishly revealed yourself."
"Do as you like," the former Crab said weakly. "If I am to be a pawn, I would rather be a Fortune's pawn than Daigotsu's - even if that Fortune is insane."
Emma-O held out his gauntlet. Cradled in the palm was a netsuke, an amulet that crafted from black metal. A tiny golden chain spilled from the gauntlet's empty palm. "Accept my blessing."
"What is it?" Kuroda asked hesitantly.
"Nothing more than a physical symbol of our pact. Once you take it in your hand, there can be no reneging our bargain. You will be blessed by my energy, and you will remain in control of your form."
"What benefit do you gain?"
"So long as you retain my blessing, all the souls of those you kill will be conscripted to Meido, regardless of their destiny. My power will grow as your campaign continues. And when the time is right, I will punish Daigotsu and Fu Leng for their insolence." The Fortune regarded Kuroda inquisitively. "I trust you have no problems with such retribution."
Kuroda regarded the Fortune impassively. "No." He reached out and seized the amulet.
"Excellent," Emma-O said, hollow voice booming with pleasure. "You shall be my avatar in the mortal realm, Hida Kuroda. Serve me well, and cast aside that amulet lest any recognize its implications." With that, there was a swelling sound, again reminding Kuroda of the distant ocean. The Fortune seemed to recede into the shadows, and then was gone.
The light from the flames consuming the stable suddenly flared into being once again. Kuroda was alone in the flaming ruins, a rapidly cooling peasant corpse at his feet. He looked down at the blackened amulet clenched in his fist. He stared at it for several long minutes before throwing it to the earth. The roof's timbers began falling down around him, bouncing harmlessly off his obsidian armor. Hida Kuroda took up his blade and walked from the burning building back into the chaos outside.
* * * * *
Tadenori surveyed the devastation laid out before him. He had seen the ravages of two wars and countless border skirmishes. He had seen the ruin his lord Ijiasu had made of the Dragonfly Clan's meager territories. Yet he had never seen anything like this. "The men who did this&" he began, but the words stuck in his throat. "No man did this. This was the work of animals."
Midoru said nothing. The horrors that had been visited on the village were still evident in many ways. Indescribable stains still marked the ground and many of the ruined structures, leaving no doubt in the two samurai's minds that the villagers had endured unimaginable torture at the hands of their murderers. Death did not disturb Midoru; indeed, it had been his constant companion. Tadenori had been right, however. This was not death. It was malicious, murderous slaughter. "Have you ever served on the Kaiu Wall, Tadenori-san?"
"No," the Lion said flatly. "Lord Ginawa deemed me too valuable to be squandered on such a detail." It was not arrogance or boasting, merely recitation of fact.
"You requested such duty, then?"
Tadenori nodded. "I believed that in facing an inhuman opponent, I would be better prepared for the horrors of war." He surveyed the ruins a second time, his face ashen. "I doubt anything could have prepared me for something like this."
"If any man can be prepared for such as this, then he is a man beyond redemption," Midoru said quietly with a glance over his shoulder to their waiting Hiruma guide. "We must instead steel ourselves in preparation for punishing those responsible."
"Hmph," Tadenori grunted. "Very well."
Minutes passed into hours as the two men and their troops scoured the village separately. Neither knew what they were looking for, but each secretly hoped for some sign that would show them how to track their prey, some hint of weakness that could be used against their inhuman foes.
Tadenori had begun to lose heart, his resolve eroded by the decimated village's spectacle, when he stumbled across an oddity. Amid the ruins of one particularly large building, there was a perfect circle where the ash had not been disturbed. The Lion warrior frowned. In the days since the village's destruction, there had been the typical mountain winds and at least one brisk rain. Yet this small pile of ash appeared as though it had been created by fire not an hour previously. He knelt, curious, and waved his tessen briskly before it.
Nothing. Not so much as a single particle of ash stirred despite the wave of air the iron fan pushed before it. Tadenori's frown deepened. He reached his hand out as if to touch the tiny pile, then withdrew it, feeling a small pang of fear.
"Bah," muttered the Lion, angry with himself for succumbing to such foolish emotion. He reached out cautiously and touched the ash with the tip of his tessen. It fell away from his touch instantly, the entire pile disappearing as if blown away by a strong breeze. The fingers that held the fan tingled strangely.
Beneath the ash, obscured until the moment of Tadenori's touch, lay an amulet. It was blackened, but not by fire. It did not appear to be stone or metal, but some unidentifiable material that resembled both. Tiny characters adorned its surface, but not in any language Tadenori recognized. His curiosity aroused, he reached out to take the amulet.
"Leave it be, Tadenori," Midoru's voice was harsh, unyielding. He stepped into the Lion's field of vision, his dark eyes bright with concern. "I recognize the symbols engraved on that netsuke. It is powerful, but more dangerous than you can imagine."
Tadenori's brow furrowed. "Is this a thing of the Shadowlands?"
The Crane shook his head. "No, it is not," he said, eyes narrowing. "It was forged by the Fortune of Death. Nemuranai such as those are dangerous for those not strong enough to wield them properly."
"If strength is required, then it belongs to the Lion," Tadenori said, his voice harsh. He reached out and took the amulet, tucking it absently into his obi. "There is nothing else here for us, Midoru. We should go." He turned and stalked off toward the Hiruma mountains, back toward where their guide waited.
Doji Midoru watched the Lion recede, his mouth a grin line. After a
few moments, he followed.