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Dreams In Darkness

by Rich Wulf

The Dark Daughter was a woman accustomed to nightmares, which was ironic considering she was the subject of so many throughout the rest of the Empire. Ever since childhood, her sleep had been plagued with restlessness. Though the nightmares disturbed her at first, they were something she had grown accustomed to. In a way, perhaps it was her dreams that drove her to pursue such a dark path in the waking world. They had become a part of who she was.

Yet of late, her dreams had returned to haunt her again.

Shahai found herself standing in a dark forest grove. This place was familiar. Her family called it the Forest of the Dreamers. It was an accursed place. A hundred years ago a mad ronin named Fujio had suffused the grove with dark magic. Now her family forbade anyone from entering& but Shahai was too clever for the guards that patrolled the boundaries of the forest. Too clever, and too curious.

She knelt among the crumbling ruins that had once been Fujio's home. A broken skeleton lay beside her, clad in rotting orange robes. Shahai cradled the dead man's skull in her pale white hand. One delicate finger, dipped in blood from the wound on Shahai's arm, traced the kanji of the Void upon its forehead.

"Awaken, Grandfather," she whispered in a husky voice. "Awaken, and guide me."

A dim red light appeared in the depths of the empty sockets. The bleached skull began to shake in her palm, lifting itself into the air of its own accord. Fujio's jaw began to rattle in its socket as the tsukai's remains regained some faint reflection of life. The skull pivoted in midair, its burning eyes fixing on Shahai's own.

In a hollow voice, it spoke.

"Traitor," it said.

"Grandfather, no," she whispered. "Why do you say such a thing?"

"Because you have abandoned all that was important," the skull hissed. "The path of the Bloodspeaker promises freedom& but the only true reward is slavery to Iuchiban. I placed you on the path so that we both might one day be free, and we almost were. Now look what you have done."

"What could I have done?" she replied.

"Fight him," the skull replied.

"I cannot fight him," she answered. "My will is not my own."

"There are many for whom that is not a limitation," the skull said. "There is always a way."

"It is too late," she whispered. "The Dark Lord will never rise again."

With those words, a peal of thunder erupted behind Shahai. She was thrown forward on the floor by the force of it. A shower of splinters fell upon her as one wall of the ruined shack was torn away. Shahai looked up in terror as a tall figure loomed above her, radiating a palpable aura of magical energy. His lean flame was wrapped in deep black robes. A white mask covered his face, painted red with the features of a demon. Long white hair fell over one shoulder, and he gazed down upon her with cold blue eyes.

"Daigotsu," she whispered, staring up in terror at the former Dark Lord, her former love.

"Choose, Shahai," Daigotsu commanded. "Iuchiban knows that your loyalty to him is not true. You live only so long as it causes me pain to see him serve you, but you cannot hide behind your lies forever. You cannot hide from them, Bloodspeaker. You cannot hide from me."

"I cannot disobey him," Shahai hissed. "I am bound to obey."

Daigotsu only looked down at her impassively. "Such weakness does not become you, Shahai. You must choose. There is always a way."

Shahai sat up on her palette with a start. Her slim body was drenched in sweat, her shoulders shaking. She cursed herself for such fear; it was unbecoming of the Dark Daughter. It was only a dream. It meant nothing.

She looked to the small table beside her bed, where Grandfather's skull rested. The spirit's voice had remained silent since the day Iuchiban had seized the City of the Lost, but its empty eyes seemed to stare at her accusingly. She truly wished she could disobey Iuchiban, to help her Dark Lord, but how could she?

How could one choose when there was no choice at all?

The low rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, causing Shahai to rise from her bed. She moved to her window, looking out toward the northern horizon. The skies around the City of the Lost were always dark, but such storms were rare here. She sensed a strange magic in the air, familiar, like the fragrance of an old lover. The Dark Daughter returned to her bed, removed the knife from beneath the pillow, and made her way toward the Temple of the Ninth Kami.

----------------

In the depths of his workshop, Omoni the Sculptor labored on his latest creation. The mass of blood and bone that lay upon his anvil squealed in terror and pain as he continued his work. He moved to the rhythm of the cries, like a blacksmith keeping a steady pace with his hammer. The goblin-man's face was blank, lost in thought as he continued his work.

He did not notice the ripple of movement behind him. The goblin Skub, crouched at the foot of the handle, looked up at his master and hissed a warning. Omoni spun about quickly, the fingers of his right hand sharpening into long blades. His dull black eyes widened in fear when he recognized the man who now stood before him.

"Daigotsu," he whispered.

The former Dark Lord stepped forth from the shadows of the workshop. Skub scampered forward on its thick arms and legs, crouching at Daigotsu's feet like an eager dog. Daigotsu looked down fondly, resting one hand on the little goblin's bald head.

"What are you doing here?" Omoni asked in a low voice. "The City of the Lost is not safe for you any longer."

"The time has come for a reckoning, my friend," Daigotsu said. "I will live as an exile no longer. I intend to reclaim my home."

"Leave here, Daigotsu," Omoni said sharply. "You are fortunate that Iuchiban is not here; he is transporting his most loyal servants to the ruins of Otosan Uchi. He would sense you if he were here. You know that the enchantments within the temple allow it to detect all who trespass within this city who are&" Omoni trailed off uncomfortably.

"Who do not bear Jigoku's touch," Daigotsu said wryly. "Who are not blessed, or as the Crab would say Tainted."

Omoni bowed his head. "Iuchiban told us how you have fallen from the Dark Kami's favor. He told us that you have lost a great deal of your magic."

"But we both know it was never my magic that gave me power," Daigotsu said. He rested one hand on the sculptor's shoulder. "Look at me again, Omoni."

Omoni looked up, his dark eyes narrowing as he studied the former Dark Lord. He caught his breath in surprise. "But how?" he asked.

"A long story, Omoni-san," Daigotsu said. "I will tell you another time. For now, I must know - will you join me? I would have you fight by my side once more."

"I cannot," Omoni replied, his voice shaking. "On the day the Shadow Dragon gave me the Hantei Emperor's sword, he drew a promise from me that I would forever serve the one who wielded it. The sword belongs to Iuchiban now."

"Accursed dragon," Daigotsu replied. "His games will be his own undoing one day."

Omoni fell to his knees at Daigotsu's feet. "My lord, I beg of you," he whispered. "Kill me."

Daigotsu looked down at Omoni in surprise.

The goblin-man looked up at Daigotsu with pleading eyes. "I have stood beside you since we were children," he said desperately. "You know there is no soul in all the realms to whom I owe more than to you. I made the promise I made only for your glory, but now it binds me to your greatest enemy. I cannot fight you, Daigotsu, but if you attack the City of the Lost I will be forced to protect it in Iuchiban's name. Allow me this one last service, Dark Lord. Kill me." He lifted his chin, exposing his throat granting his old friend a cleaner strike.

Daigotsu frowned. With a smooth movement he drew his katana. He lifted it into the air in a one handed grip, held high and angled at Omoni's throat. A single, swift stroke was all that was required. At the Dark Lord's feet, Skub whimpered in confusion.

"May the Ninth Kami forgive me," Daigotsu said in a thick voice. "I cannot do this."

Daigotsu sheathed his blade and stepped back into the shadows, vanishing from the workshop. Omoni blinked in surprise then fell forward on one hand, his twisted body shaking with quiet sobs. After several minutes he staggered uneasily to his feet and made his way through the caverns, skulking in the former Dark Lord's wake.

----------------

Shahai quietly opened the doors of the Temple of the Ninth Kami and stepped inside. The central chamber was large, but seemed strangely empty. Once, this room had been dominated by Daigotsu's trophies of war. Now Sezaru's mask, the Celestial Jitte, and even the Steel Throne had all been lost. Even the great statue of Fu Leng had been dismantled and cast away, destroyed by Iuchiban's servants. Only a single broken foot remained, now a lump of unrecognizable stone. Even the guards were gone; this place bore no significance to Iuchiban. The only reminder of the former Dark Lord's rule were the black scorch marks upon the floor, the place where Daigotsu had once died in battle against the Empress, Toturi Tsudao.

The Dark Daughter folded her arms in her long sleeves and stared at the floor, her expression strangely unfocused. She had helped her lord build the city, had helped him bring unity to the mad denizens of the Shadowlands. Under their combined forces, Emperor Toturi was punished for his crimes on the Day of Thunder. Through their planning, Fu Leng was restored to his rightful place in Jigoku and the City of Otosan Uchi was destroyed. No other ruler had ever brought the Shadowlands such success.

So was this the end? Was Daigotsu's return from death merely a footnote to his proud history? Was he doomed to be usurped by Iuchiban's madness? Stripped of his corruption and cast into exile until the Bloodspeakers found and destroyed him?

It was unacceptable.

She sensed his presence before he ever arrived. She turned to face the doors of the temple. With a slow, grinding sound they opened. He looked much as he had in her nightmares, garbed in black, white hair falling loose about his shoulders.

"Shahai-chan," he said, his rich voice echoing through the temple. He strode toward her, pausing in the space where the black marks stained the floor.

"Daigotsu," she whispered. "You should not have come here."

"Why not?" he asked with a small laugh. "Is this not my home?"

Shahai's eyes moved past him. Daigotsu turned toward the doors of the temple. Lightning flashed in the skies above the City of the Lost, outlining the figure that now stood in the temple doorway. He wore white robe, the color of death. He held a golden no-dachi in a two-handed grip, its steel outlined in black flame.

"Iuchiban," Daigotsu replied with a sneer.

"You were a fool to come here for Shahai," Iuchiban said. "Why do you think I kept her alive? My eyes are upon her always, waiting for the day that your weak sentiment overruled your judgment and you sought to rescue her. Now we finish what we began on the day I took your sword and your city."

Daigotsu shrugged and adjusted his stance, holding one hand open above the hilt of his blade in a parody of the Crane dueling technique.

Iuchiban shook his head. "Not yet," he replied. "Shahai, kill him."

Shahai felt her body wrench. Her hand moved to the dagger at her hip, unable to resist the Bloodspeaker's commands. Daigotsu gestured toward her without moving his eyes from Iuchiban, hurling her heavily against the wall with the force of his magic. The room went dark as she slid to the stone floor.

Iuchiban raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"You are not the only one who knows his enemy, Iuchiban," Daigotsu said, advancing toward the Bloodspeaker. "Now ask yourself& which of us drew the other here?"

Thunder echoed outside the temple once more, but this time it was echoed by the cry of a thousand voices.

"For the Dark Lord!"

"What have you done?" Iuchiban snarled. He lunged toward Daigotsu, no-dachi cutting a savage arc through the air. Daigotsu drew his sword and caught the blade on his own, locking their weapons together as he leaned forward and spit in the Bloodspeaker's face.

"Go and aid your armies, Bloodspeaker," Daigotsu hissed. "Or stay here, and fight me."

"Fool," Iuchiban retorted. He pushed forward, throwing Daigotsu to the floor. "My Bloodspeakers are bound to serve my whim. They already fight as if I were among them. My will controls them all. I sense their every action. Even the few who remain in this city will deal sufficiently with your rabble."

"I would not be so sure," Daigotsu replied. The echoes of shattering stone and roaring goblins sounded from the walls. In reply, the sounds of terrified shrieks filled the city. "If you can truly sense your followers, then you must sense that many of them are leaving now."

Iuchiban glanced toward the door, lips fixed in a humorless line. "What have you done?" he demanded.

"It is your unique power, your blend of khadi sorcery and Rokugani blood magic that binds the Bloodspeaker initiates to your will," Daigotsu said, rising to his feet and leveling his blade at Iuchiban's chest. "That power is no longer quite so unique."

Iuchiban laughed. "Whatever khadi serves you, his power cannot match mine," he said, withdrawing toward the door. "There will be time enough to deal with you later, fallen one."

In a flash of movement too swift to be seen, Daigotsu appeared in the doorway of the temple. "I did not give you leave to exit my home, Iuchiban."

"Fine, fool," Iuchiban said. "You shall fare no better than last time."

An aura of raw magical power erupted around the Bloodspeaker. His no-dachi cleaved the air, unleashing a torrent of black energy at Daigotsu. Daigotsu dove to one side, summoning an aura of shadows around his body to protect himself from the Bloodspeaker's power. He rolled to his feet again, holding his blade steady.

Iuchiban approached with a confident smirk.

"What madness drove you to challenge me, Daigotsu?" Iuchiban demanded. "Did you finally tire of your exile and come here to seek the solace of death? I doubt that even when you carried your Kami's Taint you had the strength to defeat me."

"I suppose we shall soon see the truth," Daigotsu said. He flipped his sword in one hand and drew it sharply across his left palm. Bright red blood erupted from the wound and Daigotsu spoke a single word of magic. A shrieking bolt of red energy erupted from his hand, scouring the air around Iuchiban. The Bloodspeaker fell back, his white robes now scorched by the mystical energy.

Iuchiban smirked. "Quite impressive," he said. "How did you win your Taint back from the Fortune of Death?"

"The answer lies within your own weakness, Iuchiban," Daigotsu said.

Iuchiban charged Daigotsu with a fierce cry. Another burst of magic erupted from the Dark Lord, but the Bloodspeaker charged through unscathed. Daigotsu lifted his sword to protect himself, but Iuchiban struck with incredible strength, shattering the blade and leaving a deep wound across the Dark Lord's chest. Daigotsu stumbled backwards, falling against the foot of Fu Leng's broken statue.

Behind Iuchiban, the sound of animal shrieks and growls filled the temple. A pack of frenzied bakemono scuttled into the darkened chamber. Omoni stood at the center of the group, his face pale as he looked upon the duel.

Iuchiban kicked the shattered halves of Daigotsu's blade away. Seizing the Dark Lord by the throat, he held him against the wall. Sheathing his no-dachi across his back, he drew the sharp knife at his hip and pressed it against Daigotsu's chest. From the corner of his eye, Daigotsu saw Shahai stir, struggling to her feet again.

"Omoni, how goes the battle?" Iuchiban asked, eyes fixed on Daigotsu's.

"Poorly, Iuchiban-sama," Omoni replied. "Many of the Bloodspeakers have fled. Some have turned against one another. The city is in chaos."

"While my khadi leads my armies, you no longer control the Bloodspeakers, Iuchiban," Daigotsu said defiantly. "That is why you fail you offer no loyalty to your followers, and receive none in turn."

"Power is the only absolute," Iuchiban retorted. "Loyalty means nothing."

Shahai extended one arm and whispered a simple spell. The cord holding Iuchiban's sword in place came free. The no-dachi tumbled to the floor. The Bloodspeaker looked down in surprise.

"Kill!" Omoni cried without hesitation, pointing at Iuchiban.

The bakemono rushed forward in a pack, swarming the Bloodspeaker. Iuchiban succumbed with a frustrated cry, the knife falling neatly from his hands. Daigotsu rolled free of his enemy's grip, lifting the Hantei sword and unsheathing it in a fluid motion. Iuchiban shrugged the lifeless husks of Omoni's goblins aside and summoned another bolt of magical energy. Daigotsu deflected it with his reclaimed blade. With a second stroke, he took Iuchiban's arm.

"This city is no longer yours," Daigotsu hissed.

"Fool," Iuchiban said. "I cannot die!"

"Good," Daigotsu replied. "The torment you will face at my hands will make your time in the Kaiu Tomb seem a fair memory."

"Fine," Iuchiban growled, withdrawing slowly from Daigotsu, Omoni, and Shahai. "My iron fortress in Otosan Uchi awaits me. Savor your city of ashes."

Iuchiban breathed another spell. He vanished from the temple, but as he did so, a cacophonous explosion shook the building. Daigotsu rushed to the temple doors. The sight that greeted him drew a spiteful curse from his lips.

Iuchiban's parting spell had set the City of the Lost ablaze.


 

 

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