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Gathering Darkness
By Shawn Carman

The City of the Lost The Temple of the Ninth Kami had once been filled with an otherworldly sense of presence. Seven years ago, that presence had faltered, even if only for a moment, and all had been lost. All the difficulty, all the toil and turmoil that had followed in those seven years had been owed to that single moment of doubt.

Daigotsu cared nothing for the failures of the past. He could not blame his lord Fu Leng for doubting him in that moment. How could even a god have faith when all that had served him before had failed? But that was over now. Daigotsu had not failed his lord, and would not do so. His loyalty to Fu Leng was unquestioned, and now that his power had been returned, so too was Fu Leng's faith in him restored. But if that were true, then why was all he had created being tested in this manner? Had he somehow lost Fu Leng's favor and was unable to discern it? Perhaps he had focused overmuch on crafting his dark empire, and not enough upon the destruction of Fu Leng's enemies.

That would all change soon. By the time the demons that stood against him were well and truly destroyed, Kokujin and his adherents would have torn Rokugan's spirit apart with their lies and misdirection. The weak-minded among them would already have come to see them as a lesser evil, and the tide of destruction that he would unfold over them would be that much easier for it. In the end, he would stand over Rokugan's corpse, a blackened wasteland of pain and fear, holding the severed head of an Emperor as a tribute to his god.

"Such dark thoughts," a voice whispered through the Temple. "What can plague the master of all he surveys in such a manner?"

"I lack the patience for your games today, Dragon," Daigotsu said with a wave.

"Those who lack interest in games are the most entertaining players," the creature said with a sibilant laugh. "However, this is your domain, and I of course exist but to do your bidding."

"More games," Daigotsu said. "What is it you want?"

The Dragon coiled and writhed in the shadows, its red eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Only to tell you that I have gathered the most useful of those that survived the Rain and the Blood Hunt, as you requested. They await only your indulgence."

"Indulgence." Daigotsu smiled at the phrase. "An interesting term. You have gathered all the survivors, then?"

"With a few exceptions, yes. Lady Rekai is occupied elsewhere, as I believe you know. Beyond those few, however, they await in the chambers beyond."

"And what of Kitao?" the Dark Lord asked.

There was the slightest moment of hesitation from the Dragon, and Daigotsu savored it. The beast was deceit and misdirection personified, and to take it unawares was a rare delicacy indeed. "I cannot summon Kitao without revealing the role I play in her motivation," the serpent hissed. "That is undesirable. For both of us."

"I agree," Daigotsu said. "I merely wished for clarity."

"I find clarity abhorrent," the Dragon mused absently. "Shall we attend your court?"

"Yes," Daigotsu said. "It is time for the truth to be known."

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

The Bloodspeaker Iuchiban had wrought many changes in the Shadowlands, even after his death. After a months' long campaign, the Emperor's forces had purged Rokugan of Iuchiban's followers, and the last remnants of his cult had been gathered together. They now stood before Daigotsu and wondered at their fate.

They would wonder no longer.

Daigotsu took a moment to drink in the atmosphere of his grand audience chamber. He had often imagined the feeling of the Imperial Court. The serenity, laced with the quiet threat of political power brandished as a hidden blade. The forced cleverness of it all, the smug arrogance that such petty men with no sense of true power of their own, sickened him. This court, his court, would be different. There would be not subtle threats or implied pressure of a power often promised but never seen. Here, true power would be absolute. Weakness would be destroyed, and strength rewarded. All would be as it should be. As the natural order demanded it.

"Greetings, my friends," Daigotsu said with a smile. "This moment has been long in coming, but now you are here. Now, you are home. And together, we shall find your true purpose."

"Purpose?" one of the assembled samurai said. "What purpose would we have?"

Daigotsu regarded the resolute shugenja for a moment. "Hida Rohiteki, is it not? Tell me, priestess, what purpose has your fall from grace served thus far? What role did a power such as yours play in Iuchiban's forces?"

Rohiteki looked away, her face a mask of anger and remorse. "There was none."

"Exactly," Daigotsu said. "But no more. Here, you shall find purpose once more. You shall lead a legion of the Lost to victory over our enemies." He paused for a moment. "This is of course assuming that you can prove useful to me," he added. "Those who are useful shall find their existence fulfilling, I think." He gestured across the room to the gates that led beyond to the City of the Lost. There, a lone samurai sat atop a gigantic, slavering beast that twitched constantly, as if longing for the order to kill. "Moto Chaozhu," Daigotsu continued, "has already proven himself to me, and now he rides at the head of my hellbeast legions. He is useful, and he has been rewarded."

"And forgiveness?" another asked. "Is forgiveness among the gifts you would offer us? I find it difficult to believe you would so easily forget our service to Iuchiban."

Daigotsu nodded at the slight young warrior. "There is an element of truth to your words, Tsuruchi Hiro. Forgiveness is not a virtue here, and I am not a forgiving man. You, and many others like you, did not choose Iuchiban's service, however. It was forced upon you. This, I find acceptable. Those who chose to follow him of their own will, of course, are far more disdainful to me." As he said this, Daigotsu glanced at a contingent within the chamber that bore stained robes. They bore a resemblance to some order of priests or monks, but the horrors in their eyes clearly demonstrated otherwise. These were the true Bloodspeakers, the men and women who had followed Iuchiban for years, and had only arrived in the City of the Lost when faced with certain extermination by the Emperor's forces. They, too, would find that their lives served a purpose.

That purpose was education.

"Katsu." A robed figure stepped forth from the deep shadows at Daigotsu's command. The man wore a straw hat that obscured his every feature. "Demonstrate the fate of those who fail to prove useful to me."

Katsu lifted a hand and gestured toward the robed Bloodspeakers assembled to the side of the corrupted samurai. "Kill yourselves," he whispered.

There was a single, pristine moment of silence, and the Bloodspeakers began screaming. They drew weapons, the ritual blades they had used to draw blood in their master's name, for the most part, and turned on one another. Some savagely cut themselves, while others instantly attacked the men and women standing next to them. In a matter of seconds, most were dead or dying, their blood pouring out onto the stone floor. In less than a minute, there was only one left. The last Bloodspeaker screamed a gargling wail and plunged his own dagger into his eye, joining his colleagues on the floor.

"It is in your best interests," Daigotsu said, his voice just above a whisper, "to convince me of your worth and loyalty. Iuchiban kept you in thrall through his unique blend of maho and gaijin magic, a blend that my vassal Katsu now practices. Abandon me, betray me, or fail me, and there is nowhere in this world that you will be safe from my retribution." He drew himself up, absently brushing dust from his black robes. "And with that, my friends, I will take my leave. Think well on what has happened here today, lest it play itself out again and again, with your faces among the dead."

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

"A magnificent display, my love, but somewhat uncharacteristic."

Daigotsu glanced over his shoulder at Shahai. "In what way?"

"I have come to expect subtlety from you," the Dark Daughter answered. "You are precise and deliberate. Today's display in court was far more& visceral." Her blood red lips curled into an exquisite smile. "It was, as I said, magnificent."

"I have come to realize that subtlety is lost on those who do not possess the intelligence to appreciate it," Daigotsu answered, returning to the scroll that held his interest. "Some require a more immediate display. I imagine disloyalty is far from the minds of our new attendants, wouldn't you say?"

"Perhaps," Shahai mused. "They are certainly keen to gain their freedom, as Chaozhu and Mishime have."

Daigotsu chuckled darkly. "Do not be nave, my dear. Chaozhu and Mishime are as tightly bound to Katsu's will as any others, and by extension to mine as well. There are precious few I trust enough to permit them absolute freedom, even if in restricting them I limit their usefulness to me."

Shahai raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

Daigotsu glanced over his shoulder again, a wry smile on his face. "Do not fret, my love. I count you among those precious few."

Her expression grew dark. "I betrayed you once," she said quietly.

Daigotsu put down the scroll and turned to face her. "You were a Bloodspeaker once. Iuchiban's hold over you was impossible to break, and yet you still worked against him, for me." He crossed the room and drew a finger across her perfect porcelain skin and ruby lips. "That is enough for me."

She smiled. "Is that why you spared Mishime?"

The Dark Lord folded his hands into his sleeves. "Mishime is a fool. He was subject to Iuchiban's will, true enough, but even had he not been his lust for power would likely have led him to cling at the sorcerer's robes regardless."

"Then why not kill him?" Shahai asked. "Make an example of him."

"That is exactly what I have done," he answered. "He believes that I have forgiven him, and that I desire his loyalty and aid. In truth, should he prove disloyal again, I shall have Katsu destroy him in a most spectacular manner. In death, the final lessons he teaches the Chuda will be unforgettable." He shrugged. "Until then, I can make use of his abilities. He has my tolerance, not my trust."

"Whom do you trust?" Shahai asked.

"Very few," Daigotsu said, a touch of anger in his voice. "Betrayal is the essence of who we are. For a time I believed I had overcome it, and those who flocked to my banner were loyal without question. I know now that even the most loyal among our number cannot be completely trusted." He paused. "Present company, and a handful of others, excluded, of course."

"What others?" she pressed. "That wretch Omoni?"

Daigotsu frowned. "I have asked you not to speak of him in that manner," he said quietly. "Are my wishes so unimportant to you?"

"No," Shahai answered hastily. "I& forgive me."

"Omoni is perhaps the only true friend I have," Daigotsu answered. "Above all others, I know he would never willingly betray me. He and Kyoden were alone in that regard."

"What of Kokujin? Katsu? The Shadow Dragon? Kyofu?"

"Anyone so foolish as to trust the Shadow Dragon is unworthy even of my disgust," Daigotsu answered, "and in a realm of chaos and madness, even we look upon Kokujin as insane. Katsu can be trusted, for he cannot betray me without destroying himself in the process, something he has demonstrated he is unwilling to do. Kyofu is more inscrutable. He hides something from me, but I cannot say what."

"Hatred? Betrayal?" Shahai asked.

"Something more dangerous, I believe," Daigotsu said. "Hope."

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

The Temple of Venom The so-called Temple of Venom was in many ways the exact opposite of the Temple of the Ninth Kami. In the Temple of the Ninth Kami, the ominous feeling of weight came not from the trappings, but from the darkness that was contained within them. There was a sense of dread inspired not by what one could see, but by what could not be seen. The Temple of Venom, on the other hand, was a cathedral of pain and chaos. The walls were black and seared with energies that most mortal souls could never hope to contain. It was home to the Chuda family and their master, Chuda Mishime.

Mishime grimaced as he pored over the tomes Daigotsu had given him. The seemingly endless series of scrolls had been left behind when Shokansuru had disappeared. The demon summoner's whereabouts where unknown, but Daigotsu suspected betrayal. Mishime was inclined to agree, for he had never trusted the mysterious maho-tsukai. Perhaps it was ironic that Daigotsu had ordered him to review Shokansuru's texts for useful information, using a known traitor to investigate a suspected one, but Mishime knew the true reason. Despite his mastery of the Chuda's arts, he could not hold a candle to the raw power possessed by Daigotsu, Shahai, and Yajinden. They were blazing bonfires, and he a simple lantern. But his traditions were deeply steeped in ritual and research, whereas those more powerful than he possessed an intuitive grasp of maho. His knowledge would be more suited to this task, even if the others were not occupied with other matters. And if this aided him in regaining the Dark Lord's favor, so much the better.

The Snake Lord frowned and crumpled a scroll, casting it away. It disappeared in a flash of green fire as it touched the blackened stone floor, but Mishime did not notice. The madman's cipher had been simple enough to break, but he had discovered that many of Shokansuru's documents were filled with mindless egotistical rants regarding his supremacy at his craft, and of an age of demons that would wash over the world, with him standing among them. Clearly the man had been far more deranged than even Mishime had believed.

A curious notation drew Mishime's attention. The blood sorcerer frowned and rubbed his jaw absently. After a moment, he rifled through a pile of scrolls he had already examined, searching for one in particular. Finding it after a moment, he unrolled it and compared it to the first scroll. After a moment, his frown deepened, and he sought another scroll. He spend several long moments in deep concentration, carefully reading and comparing the three entries, all of which bore a similar notation, one that he had not seen in the other scrolls. Its meaning was unclear, but Mishime's instincts whispered that it was important. He could almost sense the kansen swirling throughout the temple grow silent from a sense of awe, perhaps even fear. If he could but decipher this forbidden lore, it would be the currency he would use to purchase his lost prestige. This was the secret he could offer his lord in exchange for his favor.

Chuda Mishime smiled.

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

The Forgotten Tomb of Fu Leng, deep within the Shadowlands Daigotsu entered the ancient tomb with a whispered prayer to his dark god for guidance. He prayed often, although not in a manner that the fools in Rokugan would understand. He prayed for the chance to face his enemies, and the power to glorify the Dark Kami's name above all others. He did not ask for these things out of ambition or lust for personal power, but from a genuine desire to serve something greater than himself, something that he believed was inevitable. As a child, he had seen the darkness that dwelled within all men, and he knew that one day that darkness would overcome the light, destroying the world man had made for himself. He wished to usher in that day, to stand at the side of true power when the darkness finally came.

The Forgotten Tomb of Fu Leng was, if legends could be believed, the place where Fu Leng's first mortal body was interred after he was defeated by the Seven Thunders on the first Day of Thunder. Daigotsu suspected it was more of a ceremonial edifice than anything else, for he had been unable to determine where any remains, assuming they existed, were within its vast interior upon his first visit here. Instead, he believed that Fu Leng's death had created a second, more stable portal to the depths of Jigoku, unlike the crude and uncontrollable nightmare that was the Festering Pit. Within the tomb, the mortal realm and the Realm of Evil existed in the same space at the same time. To a loyal devotee of Fu Leng, it was the most sacred of all places.

Daigotsu drew in a deep breath before he stepped across the final threshold, into the chamber where two realms were one. What he was about to do carried great risk, but he would not fail.

Daigotsu stepped across the boundary marking the tomb's innermost sanctum. Even as his sandal touched the black earth, his mind was inundated with the whispers of a thousand demons. They roared through his thoughts, cursing him and his dark empire of mortals. Mortal. Fool. Prey. Their insults were all the same.

"Enough." He drew upon the Dark Kami's blessing, feeling Fu Leng's power wash over him. It was magnified tenfold in this place, and for a moment he could almost feel the approving gaze of his master. "I will not endure the slander of fools that have lost their way." The resulting roar of outrage from the demon hosts of Jigoku was little more than a distant murmur thanks to Fu Leng's blessing. A wry smile crossed Daigotsu's features, and he closed his eyes to concentrate. The amount of time he could spend in this place without being subject to the demons' assault was limited, and he had much to do.

For long moments, he stood unmoving in the chamber's center. He extended his power, his awareness, into the depths, cautiously searching for his quarry. He dared not stray too far, lest he lose his soul into the Realm of Evil. Only a short time ago, such a thing would have posed no threat. Now, with the oni's treachery, he could not take such a risk.

Finally, when he believed that he would have to turn back, he found what he sought. It was just as Mishime had described it from Shokansuru's writings, and despite himself the Dark Lord grudgingly admitted, even if only to himself, that perhaps the Chuda lord's loyalty was genuine.

Those unskilled in the ways of demons might not comprehend was it was that Daigotsu had discovered. It was a torrent of energy, a link, some might even call it a chain, that bound the essence of an Oni Lord to the mortal realm. Even when banished, such mighty creatures still bore the faintest connection to Ningen-do, a result of their having consumed the soul of a mortal and gaining their independence. The Oni Lords clung to such links tenaciously, in the hopes that they might one day allow the demons to return to the mortal world and wreak havoc anew. Admiring the power necessary to sustain such a link, Daigotsu reached out and felt the essence of it. He could sense the link to a miserable cave, far to the north, where a demon beyond all comprehension had been born or perhaps died. It mattered not why the creature was bound to such a place, only that it was. With a gruesome smile, Daigotsu reached out with his own essence, and plunged it into that of the Oni Lord.

No blessing could shield the Dark Lord from the roar of outrage and agony that bellowed up from the deepest, darkest depths of Jigoku. The other whispers fell silent, for even demons could know fear. Daigotsu felt an incredible pressure as another soul, another essence, threatened to overwhelm his own, but he refused, fighting back with all of his power. Slowly, very slowly, he began to drag the demon back toward his body.

The two dark powers were locked in combat for what seemed like an eternity. Daigotsu felt wave after wave of excruciating pain as the demon hurled one relentless assault after another at his very soul, but Fu Leng's blessing protected him. Finally, after a lifetime of pain and struggle, Daigotsu returned to his body with a tremendous sense of physical impact that nearly knocked him to the floor.

Near him was a huge ball of flesh and blood that writhed like a dying serpent. It seemed to expand, growing larger and larger as it blossomed into something huge. It seemed as though it would fill the chamber to its entirety before it finally stopped. Two huge arms extended as the ball uncurled, and two rail thin legs, both tipped with massive talons. A gigantic, gaping mouth loomed, row after row of knife-sized teeth glinting in the low light. "Who dares?" the beast boomed, it's voice accompanied by a twisting tongue of greenish black fire that licked out of its mouth with each breath. "Who dares stand against Akuma?"

"I dare," Daigotsu said, his arms spread wide, his mouth twisted up in a feral grin of victory. "I am Daigotsu, brother and son of Fu Leng, lord of the Lost."

"You are prey!" the Oni Lord snarled and reached out to rend him into bloodied ribbons. Even as the demon's claw drew near the human, it recoiled in agony, shrieking a terrible cry of pain that no mortal had ever heard and remained sane. "What is this?" it bellowed. "What have you done to me?"

"I know much of demons and their souls," the Dark Lord laughed. "I have tasted yours, and mingled it with mine. You are mine to command, beast, and shall be until your final death."

"Akuma is no man's slave! I have never known defeat!" The demon's rage was a living thing that filled the room and seemed to rattle the very stone foundation itself. "I will destroy myself before bowing to your will!"

"Do so if you wish, mighty Akuma," Daigotsu mocked, "but know that in doing so you will die forever. Your soul shall not pass on this time."

The oni laughed. "You know nothing! I am eternal!"

"Perhaps," Daigotsu said, "but this tomb is a mixing of both Jigoku and Ningen-do. I have drug your soul in its entirety into the mortal realm. Nothing of you remains in Jigoku now. Your power is greater by far, but not so great as to stand against mine, and not so great that your soul can breach the boundaries between realms upon your death." He shook his head. "No, mighty one. You are mortal now, just as am I. And you shall be bound to my will until the death of us all."

The demon's shriek of fury rumbled across the countryside, accompanied only by the mocking sound of Daigotsu's cruel laughter.


Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!