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Return of the Master
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman

Koto leaned against his spear and stared out into the night with a watchful, if slightly disappointed eye. Tonight, it was his duty to guard the gates of Toku Torid-E, the Virtuous Keep of the Monkey Clan. Though he was proud to serve at such a post given his relative youth, he could not help but wish that he could ride in the Imperial Legions with his brother and sister. To stand at the gates alone was quite an honor, but the simple truth was that the Monkey Clan had no enemies. Bandits
avoided them, ronin respected them, and the Great Clans afforded them the same reverence they reserved for the Imperial Families. Koto knew nothing would happen tonight, and was glad for the security of his family home, though somewhere deep down he wished that things were more interesting.

"Careful, Koto-san," whispered a voice near his ear. "When foolish young samurai wish for foolish things, the Fortunes often listen, if only to teach him a lesson."

Koto gasped in surprise and whirled about with his spear, holding the weapon shakily to defend himself. A figure stood just outside the light of the castle gates, clad in swirling black robes. His hair and beard formed a wild mane around his face. His dark eyes watched Koto with detached amusement.

"Master Tokei," Koto said, lowering his weapon with a relieved sigh. He bowed belatedly, remembering his manners. "You frightened me."

Naka Tokei tilted his head as he approached, arms folded in his robes. "Oh?" he replied. "I was told that Toku's children had no fear."

"That is not what I meant," Tokei-sama, Koto stammered, face reddening in shame. "I mean only that you surprised me."

"Be not ashamed, Koto-san," Tokei replied. "To carry fear in your heart is no dishonor. Rather, to let your fear carry you, that is where the danger lies." As Tokei approached closer, Koto noticed that the old shugenja was deathly pale. His long braids were frayed and unkempt. His eyes looked tired, haunted. "Is Lord Toku home?" he asked. "Or Lady Nayoko perhaps?"

Koto shook his head quickly. "Mother and father have been called to attend the Imperial Court. If you wish to speak to someone important, I could fetch Bokatu or Doppo&"

Tokei shook his head slowly. "What I have to say is for your father's ears alone," he said, his voice slightly hoarse. "I was& he was supposed to be here." Tokei shook his head, as if trying to dislodge an unpleasant sensation.

"Master Tokei?" Koto asked, holding out one hand to steady the old man. "Are you well? Perhaps you should come inside the keep and relax."

"No," Tokei said, waving Koto's hands away. The gesture caused the shugenja to lose his balance, stumbling slightly. Koto reached out quickly, grabbing Tokei's shoulder to steady him. Through his thick robe, Kotei could feel the shugenja's shoulder, thin and rawboned as if he were wasting away.

"Please, Master Tokei," Koto
pressed. "You are not well."

"Perhaps you are right," Tokei said with a sigh.

Hida Masu smiled grimly as he crushed the last goblin. It had been a large pack, but the wretched creatures never had a chance. He glanced at Hida Reiha, who was casually flicking the blood from her katana. "How many did you get, Reiha-sama?"

She looked down disinterestedly. "Eight." The Lady of Crab was small, demure, and wielded an axe with a vengeance. Most in the clan adored her, Masu included.

His smile widened. "Only eight? I counted ten. You're humoring me."

"I just wish you to feel you're doing well," She said with a smile. "In any case, I think Kuon has surpassed both of us."

Masu turned and paled. Hida Kuon, Crab Champion, shouldered his mighty jade hammer, a gift from the artisans of the Crane. Well over a dozen goblins lay dead around him. He looked at Masu. "How long have we been in the Shadowlands?"

The Crab warrior glanced up at the sun. "About six hours, Kuon-sama."

The Champion grunted. "We should head back. Our jade rations will not protect us if we continue." He scowled at the head of his hammer. "We could finally end this war if we only had more jade."

"The Crane are trying to secure more from the gaijin, husband," Reiha offered. "Give them time. Trust our allies. In the meantime, the prosperity our alliance has brought us will make the Great Wall stronger than ever. The Crab will never fail again."

Kuon nodded, but stared to the south with a hateful glare. Somewhere deep in the Shadowlands, his fallen twin brother, now known as the demon Kyofu, served as general of the Lost. "Soon, brother," he muttered under his breath. "Very soon."

In the heart of the Shadowlands stood a city like none other. It was a city of corruption and madness, populated by the wickedest souls in the Empire. The hellish realm of Jigoku had put its mark upon this place and all who dwelled here. This was the city of the Lost, the Dark Lord's city.

In the heart of the city, the Temple of the Ninth Kami stood silent. The Dark Lord had sent his monks and retainers about their business and retreated to his throne room. Only one other remained at Daigotsu's side. This was Mishime, Lord of the Chuda, Daigotsu's personal hatamoto. In the last five years, he had been the Dark Lord's most invaluable ally. He had aided Daigotsu in establishing the Lost families
true orders of Tainted samurai and shugenja who had sworn fealty to the Shadowlands as Rokugani samurai swore fealty to the Empire the Goju, the Daigotsu, the Chuda. Now all bore their names as proudly as any Akodo or Doji.

But even this accomplishment was not Mishime's greatest asset, nor was it the shugenja's incredible magical power. The Dark Lord trusted Mishime because he was loyal, because he was discreet, and because for nearly five years the shugenja had helped Daigotsu conceal the fact that, since his return to life following his confrontation with the Four Winds, he was nearly powerless.

Daigotsu paced his throne room. The chambers stood empty, still scarred and blasted from Daigotsu's duel with Toturi Sezaru years ago. Akodo Kaneka's broken katana remained buried in the throne. The Dark Lord refused to allow any sign of the epic battle to be removed. It served as a reminder, he said, of why the Lost should always be vigilant. The Dark Lord inspected the remains of the battle once more, while Mishime remained silent in the background.

Doji Kurohito leapt forward and made one perfect strike with his blade, then immediately sheathed it as if it had never been drawn. A single leaf drifted to the ground, breaking into three pieces as it touched the beautifully manicured grounds of the gardens at Kyuden Doji. Kurohito allowed himself a brief smile, then folded his arms and turned back to his comrade. "Please continue."

"Ah, yes," Kakita Mai said, attempting to gather her wits. "Where was I again?"

"Explaining the status of our efforts in court."

"Of course," Mai said. "Everything is proceeding very well. We fully expect this year's Winter Court to be held within Kyuden Doji. We have major allies in every clan save the Lion. Even then, we are on far better terms than for many decades. Most regard your friendship with Lion Champion Matsu Nimuro as sufficient to prevent any possible hostilities."

Kurohito nodded, then looked up in irritation as someone came running through the garden, shattering the tranquil silence. The messenger ran all the way across the garden, dropping to his knees and sliding the last few feet to kneel before Kurohito. "My lord Kurohito-sama! I bring grave news from the Imperial City!"

"What has happened?" Kurohito asked calmly.

"A fire, my lord. A terrible fire has ravaged nearly a quarter of Toshi Ranbo."

"Was anyone among the court hurt?" Mai asked.

"No, Mai-sama," the messenger responded. "The Imperial Court escaped unscathed, but many minor bureaucrats have been killed. The Lion suggest that the fire began in the half of the city the Crane defend."

"Do they?" Kurohito said, his eyes blazing. "Mai, muster Seishiro's Legion and prepare to leave immediately. I will mobilize my private guard and join you. We march on Lion lands."

"Do we plan to attack?" Mai asked.

"We plan to negotiate," Kurohito said, "but we also plan to be prepared."

Tokei allowed Koto to lead him into the Virtuous Keep. The young bushi saw to it that the castle servants made Tokei comfortable in the dining chamber then hurried off to find a guard to take his place at the gates. When Koto returned, Tokei was already half finished with his second bowl of rice. He looked up at Koto with a sudden grin.

"Are you felling better, Master Tokei?" Koto asked.

"Quite a bit, yes," he said. "In fact, I was just thinking of how much you reminded me of your father."

Koto straightened a bit, beaming with pride. "Truly?" he asked in a quiet voice.

Tokei nodded gruffly, shoveling more rice into his mouth. He spoke as he chewed, spitting a few grains into his beard. "Back in my youth, when your father and I rode with Toturi's Army, it was always the same. Toku was never the wisest bushi, nor the strongest, nor the quickest&"

Koto frowned uncomfortably, unused to hearing such things about his legendary father.

"But," Tokei said, looking up with an intense gaze, "your father was always the practical one. He was the one who cautioned me to rest when I spent too much time at my scrolls. He was the one who urged peace when Dairya would have dueled any who slighted his honor. He was the one who pulled Ginawa from his cups and helped him to find focus once more. And when the war became so grim that even the Black Lion lost hope, Toku was the one who urged Toturi to keep
fighting."

"Arigato, Tokei-sama," Koto said in a quiet voice. The young bushi was in awe. He had heard many tales of his father's great deeds, but most focused upon the battles he had fought, the enemies he had defeated. For some reason, Koto found that the old master's simple compliment meant much more. "You honor my father."

"No more and no less than he deserves," Tokei replied. "Steel and magic are fine things, Koto, but to keep an Empire alive requires something more. Such was your father's virtue: determination. The power not only to be great, but to inspire others to greatness. Thus it comes as no surprise&" Tokei trailed off uncomfortably. He looked away from Koto, his eyes fixing on a candle flame in a far corner of the
room.

The great volcano known as Tamori's Furnace dominated the Tamori family's lands, visible for miles in every direction. Togashi Satsu watched as a young Mirumoto samurai scaled the well-worn path in the mountain's side, his arms loaded with a heavy burden. Satsu frowned. He was the Dragon Champion, head of the Togashi Order, and the grandson of a god. Yet he had never seen so conflicted a soul as this young man. For all his vaunted wisdom, he did not know how to help
him. He only knew that this boy's destiny was important, and could spell victory or disaster for the Dragon Clan. Time would tell.

The young man looked up in surprise. "Ah& hello, Satsu-sama. I did not see you when I started up the mountain."

"Are you well, Mirumoto Kenzo?"

"I am, my lord." The young man bowed deeply, then walked to the edge and tossed the bag into the volcano. Seconds later there was a great flash, and streams of strangely colored energy wafted lazily from the lava below. "My hunters recovered these items, and the Tamori and Kitsuki were unable to determine their purpose."

"And thus you destroyed them," Satsu said.

"As ordered by Rosanjin and Temoru," Kenzo said. "Those nemuranai we cannot identify must be destroyed. Such items have pained our people too much already."

"You know much of pain, Kenzo." Satsu regarded the young man carefully. "I fear that this duty is too taxing for you."

"No, my lord," Kenzo insisted without hesitation. "I protect the Dragon as my father once did."

Satsu nodded. Mirumoto Junnosuke had been a mighty general before his rage had consumed him, driving him to join the Lost. Kenzo spoke of him with deep reverence. "Know that you may ask for anything you require, and it will be yours."

Kenzo bowed deeply. "Thank you my&"

Satsu was gone.

The Dark Lord's narrow gaunt face was thoughtful as he gazed out his window at the city below. His white hair hung loose over his shoulders. His porcelain mask worn only during battle and when worshipping the dark god Fu Leng hung from his waist beside his sword. "They have grown strong again, Mishime," Daigotsu said, his voice the rich tenor of a practiced statesman. "Already the questions have begun. When will we take our vengeance upon the Empire? When will we again assert our superiority over Rokugan? Soon those questions will grow in volume," he turned to look at Mishime, "and I fear my answers may not be sufficient."

"You worry overmuch, Dark Lord," Mishime said, hands clasped as if in prayer. "The Lost revere you second only to Fu Leng himself. They remember the victories you delivered at the Kaiu Wall and Otosan Uchi. Of all those who have called themselves Dark Lord, none can compare
to your accomplishments." The lanky Chuda's bearing was obsequious,
almost servile, but Daigotsu knew that such was only Mishime's way. The man had been raised in the Empire, trained to hide his power
behind flattery and self-deprecation. Daigotsu saw through to the sincerity in Mishime's words.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence, my friend but I think you are wrong," Daigotsu replied. His fingers caressed the golden no-dachi on its stand near the window. "Fu Leng himself blessed this sword, the Hantei sword, so that only those of my blood could wield it. It is a symbol of my authority over the Lost, but I do not truly believe any of that matters. They claim to serve me, but most revere only power. Should they recognize that I have none, I will be discarded as surely as all the others. The families shall fall to infighting as the Horde of old, and this city will crumble."

"You are not powerless, Daigotsu," Mishime said with a small shake of his head. "Your control of maho has increased considerably since your rebirth."

"Oh?" Daigotsu replied. He gestured at Mishime and spoke words of dark magic, releasing a crackling bolt of red lightning at his hatamoto.
Mishime reacted quickly, knocking the bolt aside with a wave of one hand. He looked at Daigotsu in surprise.

"I used that same spell against Toturi Sezaru five years ago. Now it is barely enough to distract you," Daigotsu replied. He clutched his right arm. "Even the limb Omoni crafted to replace the one I lost begins to wither. I no longer have the power to sustain it. If we go to war with Rokugan, the Lost shall expect me to stand against the Elemental Masters, or the Jade Champion. What will happen if I fall?"

The doors burst open as Matsu Nimuro exploded into the room. His eyes were ablaze with fury, and his hand gripped the handle of his blade tightly. The Lion warriors within the chamber all bowed their heads, both out of respect and fear. The wrath of the Lion Clan Champion would not be endured lightly. "Tell me what happened here," Nimuro demanded.

"There was a fire, my lord," one man offered.

Nimuro looked about at the blackened walls and the haze that still filled the room. "Get out," he commanded. The man paled and left immediately. "Now, someone answer my question without regurgitating the obvious. I have no time for fools."

"We believe the fire started in a warehouse in the northwestern quarter, my lord," said Matsu Aoiko, stepping up to the Champion and bowing deeply. "It spread rapidly, and consumed several buildings within our portions of the city. This building marks the end of the damage." She held out a small bag. "We found this in the warehouse."

Nimuro took the bag and untied it. It was filled with some foul black powder. He sniffed it carefully. "Daidoji," he said, clenching it in his fist.

"It is a powder the Dragon sometimes use in their firework celebrations, my lord," Aoiko said.

"Someone made a terrible mistake," Nimuro said, throwing the bag back to Aoiko. "And that someone was a Crane. No one threatens the Lion interests in Toshi Ranbo. Not even Doji Kurohito."

Matsu Nimuro, the man called the Golden Lion of Toshi Ranbo, turned and stalked from the room. No one dared speak for a long time after his exit.

Koto patiently sat across from Tokei. He and his siblings had often studied at the feet of the Grand Master during his visits to the Virtuous Keep. They all knew that Tokei had endured a strange journey across the spirit realms a journey from the depths of hellish Jigoku to the Celestial Dragon Road itself. It was a journey that no other mortal in history had survived, but it had changed him deeply. Sometimes, Tokei became distracted, as if he were walking the paths to those other
worlds again. The only thing to do was to wait for his return.

After nearly a minute of tense silence, Naka Tokei laughed softly. "Patience," Tokei said. "That was never your father's virtue. You must have learned that from Nayoko."

"She was trained as a Scorpion," Koto said with a crooked grin. "She says that a poorly placed word can do great harm, but a poorly placed silence harms nothing."

"Then she is a wise woman, and a fitting match for your father," Tokei replied. He looked down forlornly at his dinner then looked back at Koto. "Where might I find your sister, Miyako?" he asked.

"She rides with the First Legion," Koto replied. "There was a large fire in Toshi Ranbo, and the Lion and Crane have blamed one another. The Legion hopes to ensure that their feud does not harm the Imperial City."

"A noble quest," Tokei said. "The court is too public for me to dare warn your father now, but perhaps Miyako can aid me. Her connections in the Legion may allow discretion which my presence would otherwise negate. Koto, can you spare a swift horse?"

Koto stared at the old shugenja in blank silence, conflicting emotions stealing any thought of response. While he was curious what danger may lie in the court that Tokei could not dare to reveal to his father; he was also jealous that his sister might be chosen to help Tokei deal with it instead of him. When Koto realized Tokei was still waiting for an answer, he cleared his throat and answered quickly. "Of course, Tokei-sama." He rose quickly from his seat. "I will ready the horse myself so that you can leave without alerting suspicion."

"Arigato," Tokei nodded. With that dealt with, Tokei returned his attention to his dinner. Koto noticed that the old shugenja ate much like his father did picking the choicest bits of food and swallowing them quickly. It was a habit that both had learned during their days on the road as ronin, a habit that had earned Koto and his brother a fierce scolding from their mother when they began to emulate it.

"This is fantastic, Kumiko-sama!" Yoritomo Ukyo cried exuberantly.

Beside him in the bow of the ship, Yoritomo Kumiko looked at the younger Mantis curiously. "Ukyo-san, contain yourself," the Daughter or Storms said, pushing an errant lock of hair out of her mouth as the sea wind whipped across the deck.

"Someone looking on might think that you've never been aboard a ship before."

"Have I?" Ukyo asked, looking down at the petite Mantis Champion. "To sail on a ship beside you, Daughter of Storms, makes me forget all else that came before."

Kumiko gave the young sailor a hard look. "Kamoto's recommendation won you a place on this vessel, nothing more," she said sternly. "Do not test me."

Ukyo's face fell. He bowed his head shamefully. "I& am sorry, Daughter of Storms," he replied.

Kumiko gave Ukyo a steady look for several moments, then grinned. Raucous laughter broke out from the rest of the crew, all pointing and jeering at Ukyo.

"That was for the sama,' Ukyo," Kumiko said, clapping him on the back and laughing. "While on this ship, we are family. Do not kowtow to me as if I were an Otomo lord!"

Ukyo laughed nervously. "Kamoto warned me that your line of the family had a strange sense of humor," he replied.

"As well as a strange sense of honor?" she asked, raising her eyebrow. Ukyo said nothing. "Come now, Ukyo-san. I heard that our reputation for piracy was what drew you to volunteer for this ship."

Ukyo looked up at Kumiko. "Is it true?" Ukyo asked, looking down at the deck. "Is the Third Kama truly a pirate vessel?"

"Of course not," Kumiko replied. "It is simply a vessel of the Mantis Champion, who by decree of the Emperor Toturi rules the seas of Rokugan."

"Ship off the port bow," shouted the lookout. "Merchant vessel!"

"Ah, an invader in our territory," Kumiko said, looking up at Ukyo pertly. She drew her twin kama, hooked blades gleaming in the starlight. "Let us see to his travel papers, yes?"

"What matters weakness while your mind is still sharp and true? You need not fight your own battles, Daigotsu," Mishime replied. "You have countless minions prepared to fight and die on your behalf. The Onisu, Kokujin, Shahai, myself&"

"I trust Kokujin, and I created the Onisu," Daigotsu mused, pacing the room slowly, arms folded behind his back. "Of Shahai I am not so sure. Not anymore."

"You doubt Shahai?" Mishime asked in a dubious tone. "Why would you doubt her, if I may ask? For all I can see she is the most loyal of all your allies. She serves you because she chooses to do so. Because she worships you. Because she loves you, if I may be so bold. I know the two of you did not part on the best of terms&"

"Shahai left because she wished to help me," Daigotsu replied. "I was uncertain of the risk in her plan, as I still am. I do not doubt the depths of her commitment, Mishime. I only doubt the other commitments she still holds."

"Do you fear betrayal from the Bloodspeakers?" Mishime replied.

"You are a Bloodspeaker, Mishime," Daigotsu said, looking at the shugenja frankly. "Would you consider it wise to trust any member of your order out of hand?"

Mishime frowned, unable to meet Daigotsu's gaze. "No, my lord," he said. "Our order is powerful and divisive. Some cells still defy you merely because it is their nature to do so. Some believe that to acknowledge any master other than their founder is tantamount to heresy."

"The fools," Daigotsu hissed. "They see their own arrogance reflected in others. All that draws upon the power of Jigoku must bow before Fu Leng, and I am his chosen servant!" Daigotsu beat his chest with a clenched fist. "Iuchiban is nothing before the Dark Kami. He sought no greater goal than destruction. He openly defied his own Taint, seeking to control it and channel it into others, rather than mastering it as I have. The Bloodspeakers who still follow him follow a false path."

"I know this, my lord," Mishime said mildly. "As do many others. The others will eventually lie in homage before Fu Leng, either due to loyalty or because our soldiers have cut their legs from beneath them." Mishime chuckled softly to himself. "I apologize, my lord. Sometimes my baser nature dominates me and I sound like that maniac, Kyofu."

Daigotsu shrugged. "Maniacs have their place," he replied. "They often see the world more clearly than those burdened with sanity."

A soft knock from the throne room doors drew the attention of both men. Daigotsu looked up, alert, prepared for anything. "Dark Lord," came the voice of one of his retainers. "You have a visitor."

"Send them away," Daigotsu said sharply. "I am not to be disturbed."

A sudden explosion echoed from the hallway, tearing the door to splinters. The Obsidian Magistrate who had spoken was thrown through the passage, smashing into the wall beside Daigotsu's throne. Mishime winced and ducked aside. Daigotsu looked on, eyes narrowing as he slowly drew the mask from his belt.

Shiba Mirabu knelt silently at the shrine's main altar. He prayed at Shiba's Shrine each morning, asking for the guidance and strength necessary to lead the Phoenix. He never considered himself worthy of the title Phoenix Champion, but there had been no one else. He had known five years ago when the Elemental Masters, the clan's most powerful shugenja, had offered the position to him, it was little more
than damage control, a political maneuver to restore the loyalty that had wavered during Shiba Aikune's time in command of the clan's armies. The Phoenix Clan had suffered much, and they needed a Champion to rally around. Mirabu was the only option.

Someone waited behind him. Mirabu finished his prayer and rose. He turned and bowed. "Good fortune, Isawa Nakamuro-sama," he said. "To what honor do I owe a visit from the Master of Air?"

Nakamuro returned the bow. "I have only come to offer my report, Mirabu-sama," he said, returning the honorific sama.' "The repairs to Nikesake are complete. Our new trade agreements with the Crane have brought much prosperity to our lands, and the Isawa have forged a rough alliance with the Unicorn."

Mirabu nodded. "I wondered if we would survive," he confessed.

Nakamuro frowned. "You mean the war?" he asked. "It has taken long, but I had no doubts we would prosper. Your leadership has brought us together, Mirabu."

Mirabu studied Nakamuro carefully. Of all the Elemental Masters, he was the least likely to offer hollow flattery. Mirabu bowed, grateful for the kind words. Nakamuro waved the gesture away. "You deserve all the accolades I can offer and more," he replied. "The important thing is that the Phoenix stand united. The jealousy and conflict between our families is a thing of the past. Whatever comes next, the Phoenix shall face it as a clan."

Leaving Tokei alone with his meal, Koto hurried to the stables. His mind raced as he walked past the stalls, studying each horse until he found the finest one. What was the Grand Master doing here? He was always a mysterious sort, coming and going as he pleased, but this was peculiar even for him. Naka Tokei was among the most powerful shugenja in Rokugan. For him to be so exhausted and confused
was an ill omen indeed. When he had arrived, he had been so certain that Koto's father would be in the castle. Could there be a shugenja powerful enough to thwart the Grand Master? What did his father have to do with any of this? Koto was so distracted with worry and confusion that he did not see the dead stable hand until his sandal trod on the lifeless hand. Koto looked down with shock just as the intruder slid a knife into his belly.

Koto clutched at the blade with his left hand and sneered up at his attacker. The assassin's eyes narrowed behind his black hooded mask, gauging the pain on the young Monkey's face. Koto ignored the cold pain in his abdomen, reaching for his katana with a shaking hand. The killer stepped forward, twisting the knife. Koto cried out in pain and drew his katana, swinging it at the assassin's face. The blade swung true but its target cursed and knocked the boy's strike away with a steel
gauntlet. The assassin darted backward, releasing the knife and letting Koto fall clumsily on the floor. The young Monkey looked down feebly as blood streamed over his fingers. He peered back up at the masked assassin. The young bushi shook with fear, afraid that he would die before he had truly lived.

The killer drew a slim blade with a low steel sigh. The weapon was the length of a forearm with a straight blade, more like a long knife than a samurai's wakizashi. "Go to Yomi and wait for your father, Monkey," the intruder hissed in a woman's voice.

Bayushi Sunetra, Mistress of Secrets, knelt silently in Traitor's Grove. All around her, the swords, armor, and masks of dead Scorpion warriors hung from the trees. The wind made a mournful sound as it passed. Sunetra seldom wore masks, generally preferring a thin covering of makeup to disguise her features. Today, she wore a steel mempo carved in the manner of an oni, and was glad for it. Behind
the mask, tears streamed from her blue eyes. She bowed her head gently as she prayed to those gone into the realms beyond.

Beside her, Kawamura appeared without a sound. The old woman was called the Ghost of Traitor's Grove, for who but a ghost would choose to live in such a bleak, hopeless place? She watched Sunetra, unreadable behind her featureless silver mask. Finally, she knelt and began to pray as well.

"For those who came before," Kawamura whispered, beginning her daily prayer.

"For who gave their lives for loyalty and honor," Sunetra replied.

"To those traitors who yet live," Kawamura continued.

"We shall have revenge," Sunetra finished.

With a silent nod to Kawamura, Sunetra composed herself and rose to depart. As the lithe Scorpion warrior made her way through the gloomy, darkened forest Kawamura prayed for the quick death of whoever had drawn her Lady's wrath.

"I am not to be denied," said a voice through the smoke and debris. A tall man in a fine white kimono strode into the throne room, eyes taking in the charred walls and shattered throne. His handsome face creased for a moment in disapproval before he bowed to Daigotsu. It was a quick, shallow bow, a bow between equals.

"Lord Daigotsu," he said.

"Who are you?" Daigotsu said, glaring at the man from behind his demonic mempo. He edged slowly toward the golden no-dachi.

"I am your ancestor," the man replied, striding quickly toward Daigotsu. "I have come to take what is mine."

Mishime stepped toward the man, defiantly shouting words of magic, but the intruder gestured curtly, and Mishime fell to his knees, gasping for breath. The man looked down at Mishime curiously. "Another thing that was once mine. You defend your master well, Chuda, but you forget who should truly command your loyalty."

Mishime looked up, eyes bloodshot with pain. "Iuchiban!" he coughed, flecks of blood flying from his mouth.

Daigotsu drew the golden no-dachi. Black fire coursed along its length in reply to his touch. He regarded his opponent warily.

"Shahai warned that you would not bow to me," Iuchiban said in a bored voice. "I hoped to disappoint her, as you have built a spectacular army. Surrender it to me."

"I serve only Fu Leng," Daigotsu hissed, advancing toward Iuchiban.

"My Bloodspeakers created you," Iuchiban said more firmly. "All that you have ever been suits only my purposes. All that you have created is mine. Those who deny destiny are doomed to be crushed beneath it."

Daigotsu said nothing, only charged at Iuchiban with his blade drawn.

The room swam, and suddenly Daigotsu saw his body floating beneath him. Pain surged through his soul as he felt his essence begin to crumble away, pushed free of its mortal form by Iuchiban's magic. The Dark Lord summoned what power he had remaining, seeking any anchor he could find. The pain vanished, and Daigotsu looked down to see he now wore robes of pure white. Daigotsu's body, still holding the golden no-dachi, circled him with a small smile.

"Impressive," Iuchiban's voice said from the stolen body.

"Most souls simply die when I possess them so. Perhaps you have more power left than Shahai believes."

"Then kill me if you can," Daigotsu replied.

The border between the Unicorn Clan lands and the Lion Clan lands was rather indistinct, especially of late. The two touched at the City of the Rich Frog, a former city of ronin that had been absorbed by the Lion years ago, but for the most part they were separated by empty plains and low hills. On a clear day, it was sometimes possible to see Lion forces practicing on the plains that marked their western border. Only mutual respect of one another's powerful armies kept the peace most of the time, and both clans liked it that way.

Moto Chagatai, Unicorn Clan Khan, sat atop his horse and surveyed the horizon. There was some movement there, but it was impossible to place at this point. Ikoma cavalry perhaps. Or Matsu infantry.

"What do you see, my Khan?" Moto Kouang was one of Chagatai's chief advisors. She was still quite young, but remarkable in her tactical abilities and powers of perception. With Chen gone to court and Tadaji having passed on to the next world, the Khan had valued her counsel greatly over the past few years. Hers had been the loudest voice lobbying for an alliance with the Crane and Mantis clans, an alliance that had made the Unicorn far richer than they could have dreamed. But
as much success as he had, the Khan always thirsted for more.

"I see opportunity. I see the future. Battle on these plains, Unicorn and Lion blood mixing in the grass. I see glory and power." He turned to Kouang. "What do you see?"

She smiled. "I see the same thing. And something else."

Chagatai raised an eyebrow. "What might that be?"

"Victory."

Koto's eyes narrowed. His fear was gone. "Stay away from my family," he warned, blood trickling from his lips.

The assassin paused, a thoughtful expression in her eyes. Then thunder shook the stables. A fierce wind blew the doors open with a crash. Naka Tokei stood revealed in a fiery nimbus. One hand held an unfurled scroll covered with sacred kanji. The other pointed toward the assassin, two fingers extended in a sign against evil.

"I give you one chance to surrender," Tokei said. The shugenja glided across the stable toward the assassin, his feet not truly touching the ground.

The assassin reached for something at her belt. Tokei spoke a single word and a bolt of pure red fire erupted from his fingertips. It consumed the woman in an instant, not even leaving ash behind. Tokei hovered over the fallen Monkey, gazing at his wound with a dispassionate frown.

"Please help my father, Tokei-sama," Koto whispered, laying back on the floor. He could feel cold spreading through his arms and legs.

"We will both live to help him, boy," Tokei said.

The Grand Master drew another scroll from his obi and spoke a single word of magic. The blade slid from Koto's stomach, drawing a sharp cry from the boy as its serrated edge came free. Flesh twisted at the Grand Master's command, knitting and folding until the wound was closed once more. The spell complete, Tokei allowed his magical aura to fade. He settled heavily to the ground, leaning against a wooden pillar as he gasped with exhaustion. Koto tried to sit up and help the old shugenja, but a searing fire tore through his stomach.

"Stay down," Tokei said in an irritated voice. "I have healed what I can, but you must let nature take its course." A pair of Monkey samurai rushed into the stable behind Tokei, looking down at the charred floor and their wounded comrade in amazement. One stooped, helping Koto to his feet.

Tokei knelt, lifting the serrated dagger from the floor. The weapon's steel had a strange red hue. A ruby so dark it was nearly black was set into the hilt. With an impatient grunt he tucked the blade into his obi and began preparing a steed. The other Monkey samurai hurried to aid him, not even questioning the Grand Master's presence in the stable.

"Master Tokei," Koto called weakly.

"If you are going to tell me to rest," Tokei said, still gasping for breath, "Think again. What was it your father said to me that time? I must not stop. I cannot rest. The empire is at stake and any man can make a difference."

"Actually, I was going to tell you to take that horse," Koto replied, pointing at a black mare at the end of the row. "She is the fastest."

"Thank you, Koto," Tokei said sincerely, bowing his head to the young Monkey. He saddled the black mare and galloped away into the darkness.

"Fortunes, please watch over Tokei-sama," Koto said, wishing for all the Empire that he could help, "and watch over my family too&"

The warrior-chieftain Kan'ok'ticheck gnawed absently on a stick. It was a delicious stick, fresh from a sapling and a bit green beneath the bark, reminding him of the sweet evergreen of his distant home. Still, his mood could not be improved by a simple snack. His mind was troubled by thoughts of Tomorrow.

Tomorrow was the enemy of all Nezumi. Tomorrow was death. tomorrow loomed just in the distance, waiting to ambush and destroy the One Tribe and finish the job that the heavens had failed to do when they fell from the sky. Tomorrow had many servants, including the cursed Stained Paw. Kan'ok'ticheck bared his teeth when he remembered the battle where he had faced the Stained Paw chieftain,
deep in the big-big forest, fighting beside the Tattered Ear Tribe.

"Kan'ok'ticheck." The warrior looked up to see the old-old chieftain of the Tattered Ear tribe, Zin'tch, entering the warren. The two were equals in the One Tribe, Zin'tch for his wisdom and Kan'ok'ticheck for his skill in battle. "Scout come back. Report from shadow-land. You listen." The old Ratling beckoned for someone to enter.

A small scout, Grasping Paw tribe maybe, entered. The little one kept rubbing his digits together nervously or smoothing his whiskers over his blunt muzzle. Zin'tch nodded, and the scout looked to Kan'ok'ticheck.
"Tainted-Spirit-Man arrive in bigdark human warren. Bring more wicked humans to White-Faced-Tomorrow."

"White-Faced-Tomorrow," Kan'ok'ticheck sneered at the Nezumi name for Daigotsu. "Dark army grow-grows?"

"No!" the little scout shook his head feverishly. "New wicked humans fight with White-Faced-Tomorrow. Big mess."

Kan'ok'ticheck leaned in carefully. "Humans fighting in City of Lost?"

"Fight-fight like Nezumi and Naga," the scout confirmed.

The warrior rubbed his paws excitedly. "Stained Paw no have allies while humans fight." He looked at Zin'tch. "They weak now. We attack. Kill Tomorrow's pack."

Iuchiban nodded and charged forward, slashing with the golden blade. Daigotsu tried to dodge, but the fire left savage burns across his stolen body's back. Iuchiban stomped down hard on Daigotsu's new thigh, and the Dark Lord winced as he felt the bone snap. He felt a strong kick to his midsection and Iuchiban seized him by the collar, slamming him against the wall beside the window with incredible strength.

"Fear not, Dark Lord," Iuchiban said in a mocking voice. "You shall be with your god for eternity." He lifted the Hantei sword high in his right hand.

"Join me," Daigotsu replied. His eyes narrowed in concentration and a look of shock flickered in Iuchiban's stolen eyes. Daigotsu's right arm, the bizarre artifact of flesh Omoni had crafted for him, turned at its true master's command. The arm slashed its body's stomach. Iuchiban coughed black blood and staggered away in pain, dropping the no-dachi.

Daigotsu felt the room swim a second time, and again focused upon the only body he found available. The pain in his leg and back faded, but agony now seared through his torso. Iuchiban had returned him to his own body.

"Idiot," Iuchiban said as he slumped against the wall, broken leg unable to support him. "You have killed yourself."

Daigotsu spat blood in Iuchiban's face and collapsed forward out the window.

The Dark Lord felt the rush of wind surging past him and summoned what magic he had remaining. He felt his descent slow as countless levels of the temple spire fell past him, till he settled gently on the earth. He tried to walk but fell to his knees, his wounds too great to continue. A mob of Lost samurai had gathered about the temple, watching in confusion. At the far edge of the crowd, Daigotsu could see red-robed Bloodspeakers moving swiftly toward him.

"Defend me!" Daigotsu commanded, searching the eyes of the followers. "Destroy the Bloodspeakers!"

There was no reply. Where once Daigotsu saw only loyalty in the eyes of the Lost, he now saw fear, doubt, and indifference. The Bloodspeakers drew closer, with some drawing knives and scrolls. Daigotsu fell forward on one hand, the other clutching his wound.

"Where are your god's blessings now, Dark Lord?" he heard a mocking voice say. Daigotsu looked up, searching for the sound of the voice. He saw only red robes on all sides. He bowed his head, hoping that his death would be swift. Then the gallop of hooves echoed behind him, and the Bloodspeakers scattered. A heavy hand seized his robes and drew him into the saddle of a demon steed. The face that looked down upon Daigotsu was feral and inhuman, but familiar.

"Kyofu," Daigotsu whispered, squinting up at the corrupted Crab Champion suspiciously.

"Iuchiban will not kill you today, my lord," the undead horseman said with a sneer. He shouted and kicked his horse into a gallop, plunging toward the city gates. Daigotsu faded into unconsciousness amid the sounds of hoof beats and maniacal laughter.

"Munemori," Bayushi Kamnan said as he slid easily through the open window.

Kakita Munemori looked up from his calligraphy with a start. The old Crane's eyes were wide. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

The Scorpion landed lightly on the wooden floor. He stood in a partial crouch, metal mask gleaming in the lantern light as he studied the old courtier. "I was sent to exchange information with you. Do not pretend you were not expecting me."

"I was not expecting your lack of subtlety," Munemori whispered, looking quickly at the door. "If we are to be overheard here&"

"Do not worry," Kamnan replied. He peered down, looking at Munemori's calligraphy with a critical frown. "Your yojimbo has found peace for the evening in the arms of a talented geisha. The guards are all involved in an altercation on the other side of the palace. We are alone here. By the Fortunes, I suppose I could even kill you now and none would know until morning." Kamnan looked back up at Munemori, his expression unchanged.

Munemori refused to be intimidated. The old courtier had seen Kamnan's like before. They were not truly samurai. They were not truly ninja. They were killers animals, pure and simple. The only way to deal with an animal was to show no fear. "So report," Munemori said. "Or kill me, and when Atsuki learns what you have done, he shall surely regret placing his trust in you. I wonder what sort of punishment the Bayushi reserve for traitors."

Kamnan smiled. "Atsuki wishes to know the status of the court. His sources report that there have been& certain difficulties."

Munemori nodded. "As always the dangers of indolence," he replied. "Rokugan has not known a war in years. The Empire has been at peace."

"No thanks to Toturi's whelp," Kamnan replied. "It is we who have maintained the peace in the Empire."

"Yes," Munemori said blandly. He had his own opinions of Toturi's heir, but did not care to share them with Kamnan. "At any rate, our allies in the court believe that for the time being, we can maintain peace here, though it would facilitate matters if you could determine the source of the fires."

"How do you know they were not an accident?" Kamnan replied.

Munemori looked at Kamnan and sighed. "A random fire in the Imperial City, at such a critical time? Our new Toturi's influence is waning. Should a new crisis arise that the Emperor cannot deal with swiftly, perhaps long silent supporters of other Winds may step forward and suggest that Toturi Kaede chose her heir poorly. When Toturi killed the last Hantei, avatar of Fu Leng or no, he set a precedent that the throne of Rokugan can be seized by force of arms. This cannot be allowed to happen."

"It will," Kamnan says. "Atsuki has little faith in the new leadership of this Empire. Sooner or later, a failure will occur, a crisis will occur. This new Emperor will fail to deal with it appropriately, and the Empire will suffer."

"What are you saying, Kamnan?" Munemori replied sharply. "That we should plot against the throne?"

Kamnan laughed. "What did you think we were doing, Munemori?" Kamnan asked. He returned to the window, looking out at the courtyard below with a scowl. "Did you think we were subverting Imperial influence these last five years merely out of a desire to build better roads? Please. Atsuki has made puppets of Emperors before. If Toturi III cannot rule the Empire, the Gozoku will rule instead," Kamnan
peered back at Munemori. "Or do you not wish to admit that is what you are doing?"

"I want only what is best for the Empire," Munemori said.

"Of course," Kamnan replied with a mocking nod. He turned and slipped out the window again, leaving Munemori to his solitude.


 

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!