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Soul of Darkness, Part 2
By Shawn Carman
Assistance and Editing by Fred Wan

Born into a proud family of warriors, Moto Akikazu had been somewhat out of place as a child. Although fiercer than most youth of other families, in his childhood Akikazu was nevertheless somewhat less martial than his siblings, and more scholarly by far. They lived for the hunt and sparring with makeshift bokken. Akikazu loved those things as well, but not so much as he loved poring over his family's historical records. Other fathers would have been disappointed in such a child, and perhaps his father had been as well, but he knew that Akikazu's gifts lay elsewhere, and left him to his pursuits. As a young man, nothing had engrossed and outraged Akikazu more than reading of the fall of the Moto and the rise of the Black Guard. Despite that they had been destroyed before he was even born, the young man felt a hatred for those fallen Moto that stained his honor and name, and learned all he could about them. He had read many texts regarding the Shadowlands, even going so far as to correspond with much older youths in the Crab lands in hopes of receiving more information. Some among the Moto questioned his motives, but those who truly knew him knew that it was not fascination Akikazu felt, but outrage. He sought to understand his enemy, even if that enemy was no more. And yet, for all his reading, for all his research, Moto Akikazu discovered he knew nothing of the Shadowlands.

As a priest, Akikazu knew that words could be very powerful. Words formed prayers, which a righteous soul could use to entreat the gods to intercede on his behalf. And yet, despite the many vivid descriptions and the exacting detail with which the accounts he had read described the Shadowlands, he quickly discovered that the soul-crushing enormity of the place was almost too much to bear. The landscape was every bit as twisted and horrific as he had imagined, but what he did not expect was the oppressive weight of it all. It was as if he was being scrutinized by some vast, distant entity he could not see or identify, and he was haunted by the constant suspicion that this entity craved not only his death, but his humiliation and the shattering of his will first. Under any other circumstances, he might have found such an idea laughable. Here, however, he instinctively sensed that to disregard his intuition was more dangerous than any poisoned blade.

The Dragon warrior at his side glanced at him. "You are quiet this morning," he said in a low voice. "Are you well?" "Well enough," Akikazu returned. The two men had been traveling south for two days, and the sight of the Kaiu Wall fading in the distance behind them the previous morning now haunted the Unicorn priest. "I would feel more comfortable if I knew what fate awaited me here." Mirumoto Taishuu smiled wryly. "You called my quest foolish, and yet you wander the Shadowlands without purpose. Fortunately for me, I enjoy irony. A delightful way to pass the time."

Akikazu scowled. "Your quest is foolish," he insisted. "Daigotsu's court would never accept an outsider, even if such an organization exists, which I find doubtful. You walk to your death."

"Perhaps," Taishuu said. "But I do so at my lord's command, just as you do."

"My lords are divine."

"As is mine."

The two men continued in silence for a while, moving cautiously and always on the lookout for movement. The most common wildlife in the Shadowlands was equally as dangerous as the most deadly predators found anywhere in the Empire, and neither man had any intention of falling prey to some slavering, mindless predator before they could fulfill their purpose. Silence seemed best in avoiding predators, and so they spoke rarely. It was hours before Taishuu broke the monotony, for which Akikazu was grateful. Even silence could have weight in this place, it seemed. "How is your jade?" the Dragon asked. "Fine," Akikazu replied tersely.

Taishuu frowned. "Yesterday, I asked you that question more than once and each time you inspected your jade pouch before answering. Today, you have not looked at it once. Have you suddenly become an expert in such matters?"

"The Crab told us how long our supplies would last."

"Yes," he agreed, "and they also told us to be careful because nothing was certain." The Dragon stopped suddenly, his hand drifting closer to his blade. "Have you lost it?" he asked quietly. "Did you lose your jade?"

"No, it's fine." Akikazu patted the pouch on his hip. "Can we continue?"

"Yes," Taishuu said. "As soon as you show me the contents of that pouch." His hand had not moved away.

Grimacing, Akikazu opened the pouch and handed it to Taishuu. The Dragon warrior withdrew several small pieces of green stone from it and stared at them intently. He frowned, then drew a stone from his own pouch and compared the two. The stone from Taishuu's pouch had tiny black veins running through one tip. Akikazu's was still pristine and unflawed. "What does this mean?" he demanded.

"I do not know," Akikazu said.

"Is this jade enchanted somehow? Have you altered it in some way?"

"No," the priest answered.

"Then what is this?"

"I do not know," he repeated. "I suspect the Lords of Death are protecting me from this place. I do not know how, or even why."

Taishuu shook his head. "I have never heard of such a thing."

"Nor have I," Akikazu admitted, "but it is what it is. We must continue."

"Will you cast aside the jade? To prove your devotion to your Lords?"

Akikazu sneered. "I am a man of faith, not a fool. If they demand such of me, I shall. Until then, the jade remains with me." Taishuu nodded and returned the pouch, and the two men set off into the bleak landscape once again.

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

It was Taishuu's turn to take the first watch when the second night began. Darkness did not so much descend upon the Shadowlands as it did encroach upon everything within it. The shadows grew longer and deeper until blackness pooled all across the land and enveloped everything. The men dared not light a fire, so they simply found somewhere they could put their backs against stone and waited for daylight. Akikazu drifted into sleep gradually, his mind troubled by the sights he had seen throughout the day. He hoped he would not dream.

The blackness faded into gray. Everything fell away, leaving nothing but empty plains and distant hills. Akikazu wandered in the void for a long time, his mind filled with the same drifting fog. As dreams went, it was not altogether unpleasant.

Stone erupted from the ground, driving the fog away with a swift wind and harsh grating sound. The fog lifted from Akikazu's mind as the gray deepened into black shadows. Figures moved in the darkness, and Akikazu felt terror blossom in his chest.

"Moto Akikazu," a flat voice said from the darkness. "That is your current name?"

"Yes," he said, struggling not to cower in the face of such scrutiny.

"The task placed before you has grown more urgent," another voice said. "Time is short. You must complete the task."

"I& I do not know what it is you wish of me," he answered.

"Uncertainty is weakness," a third voice said. "This was meant to test your faith."

"And yet shielding you from Jigoku's control is more difficult than we anticipated," another voice said. "The distance between us makes it taxing."

"Jigoku is hungry for your soul," one said. "It longs for your return."

"Return?" Akikazu's fear abated somewhat. "My lords, I have never succumbed to Jigoku's influence! I am loyal to you!"

"At the present," a voice said. "You once belonged to Jigoku. That time is over now, and shall remain so provided you remain worthy of our blessings."

"I have never belonged to Jigoku!"

"Your conviction pleases us," a voice said, "but you are mistaken. The belief your people have in a cycle of life and death is well-founded. Your soul once walked in another form. You were a leader of men, betrayed by those called the Kolat who feared the ascendancy of the Moto family. Their agents advised you to move against the Shadowlands, and you did so. You and your men were destroyed and corrupted, and the Kolat-controlled Shinjo remained in power. This was the beginning of your fate, although it ended far, far later."

"No," Akikazu whispered. "That is not true."

"Defiance does not become you," a voice said. "You were once Moto Tsume. We freed and purified your soul, that you might serve us."

"I was born before you came to power in Meido!" Akikazu insisted. "I cannot be Tsume!"

"Arrogance is a weakness," a voice insisted. "You are arrogant to assume your feeble, mortal perception of time is accurate. Your concept of time is nothing to such as us."

"You shall be our greatest servant," a voice said, "but we need others. Powerful vassals are required to advance our presence in your empire. Go forward. Discover that which was destined for you."

"Wait!" Akikazu rose as the stone walls fell away and the gray returned. "I don't understand!"

Akikazu came awake in an instant, standing in a crouch before he even realized he was awake. His hands were clenched, his mouth open in a feral snarl. He cast about, looking for an enemy, but managed to retain enough sense of himself to keep from crying out.

"What is it?" Taishuu said, his voice just above a whisper. "What do you hear?"

Akikazu wiped his sleeve across his face, his hand trembling ever so slightly. "Nothing," he whispered. "There's nothing. How long was I asleep?"

"Only a few hours," Taishuu said. "You have much more time, if you wish."

Akikazu shook his head. "No. No more sleep. No more dreams." He glanced back at the Dragon. "I will take the watch. Get what rest you can. We have to leave at first light, and we must hurry."

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

It was halfway through the third day in the Shadowlands when Taishuu's keen eyes spotted something on the horizon to the southwest. Akikazu instantly veered toward it without a word, causing the Dragon to grow quiet and continue to regard the priest with suspicion. It was clear that the warrior feared Akikazu had succumbed to some sort of madness, but he had stopped asking to see the jade pouch after the strange discovery he had made the previous day. Still, Taishuu did not turn his back on the priest, and kept his hand near his blade at all times. Despite what seemed like a short distance, it took nearly three hours to reach the mysterious feature on the distant horizon landscape. When they finally arrived, the stared for several minutes, attempting to decipher the ruins before them. "This was a tower of some sort," Taishuu finally said. "Stone and obsidian, by the look of it."

"Obsidian more easily conducts the energy harnessed by maho," Akikazu said flatly. "This tower belonged to the Lost." Taishuu knelt and examined the ground. "These tracks seem fresh. It is difficult to say for certain, given how strange the ground here is. I would guess this destruction is recent. It appears that a number of Lost fought something here. I see tracks from at least three large opponents." Akikazu pointed to the collapsed wall, his finger following the trail of three gigantic gouges in the stone. "This was no random attack," he said under his breath. He barely remembered Taishuu was there. "This was a coordinated assault. They meant to destroy this place and all within it." His eye narrowed. "The demons have grown arrogant."

"Arrogant?" Taishuu said. "They are mindless creatures, are they not?"

"Oh no," Akikazu assured him. "Treacherous and ambitious, yes, but far from mindless."

Taishuu rose and drew his blade. "Your tone disturbs me," he said frankly. "I find myself wondering if the protection of your gaijin gods is sufficient." Akikazu met the man's eyes. "I am sane enough," he said. "This is what I was meant to find. This is why I have traveled so far from my home. It was this place the Lords set before me. Something here calls to them, and as their servant I must answer."

"You vowed to Kuon that you would ensure I did not fall to darkness," Taishuu said, clearly unconvinced. "I made no such vow, but I feel a similar obligation all the same. I remain unconvinced that I should not exercise it now."

Akikazu's baleful glare was answer enough. "If I have fallen, then the Lords of Death will not answer my prayers, and I am no threat to you. If I am myself, then they will protect me, and I shall bestow their blessings upon you. It is your decision."

Taishuu did not move for several minutes, then slowly nodded and sheathed his blade. "I have trusted you this far. I suppose a bit farther will do no harm." "Then help me," Akikazu said, making his way through the jagged obsidian shards toward the ruined tower's center. The Dragon followed, and the two men spent a large portion of the afternoon sifting through the ruins, searching for something they could not identify. Taishuu protested only occasionally, but Akikazu never answered him. His body grew weary, but he would not relent in his search. Devotion was strength. Doubt was weakness.

"Akikazu." The mention of his name drew the priest from his trance. He looked up, mindless of his aching back and arms, looking for Taishuu. The Dragon stood perhaps thirty feet away, hunched slightly over a relatively clear spot where he had hefted a large piece of wall away. "I have found something." Akikazu hurried over to see what it was that Taishuu had discovered. It was only the exhaustion that kept him from drawing back in horror.

There was a chest of sorts amid the rubble, but nothing like any chest either man had ever seen. It appeared to have been constructed on a frame of black bones, with rusted steel panels that were almost completely covered with what could only be tanned flesh. Without knowing, without having any indication, Akikazu knew that it was human flesh. A thick, menacing lock of obsidian secured the lid, and there was no obvious aperture into which one might place a key. "This is it," Akikazu said softly.

"Then your quest is surely at an end," Taishuu said. "You cannot carry that alone, even if you would touch something so foul."

"I need not touch it," the priest said. He lifted his hand and uttered an ancient prayer to the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang, one his forefathers had used over a thousand years ago and which now sprang unbidden into his mind. A shadow of darkness flickered across the chest, and the lock creaked ominously. It shook and twisted, then fell away in the shape of a skull. The lid opened without being touched. Inside, strangely out of place, was a pile of silken scarves. Atop the scarves rested a single, gigantic ruby, larger than a man's fist. With reverence, Akikazu reached in and lifted it free, marveling at its warmth. "What is it?" Taishuu asked.

"A servant for my masters," Akikazu whispered. "An old soul, waiting to be born again in their service, just as I have been."

"That is not for you, priest."

The voice was unfamiliar, and both samurai were instantly roused from their fascination. Akikazu slipped the gem into his pouch as he and Taishuu turned to search for the speaker. The Dragon drew his blade and nodded his head to the south.

Two men, or what had once been two men, stood atop a small rise. Their demon steeds stomped and snorted in the background. How the two had approached and remained so silent and unseen, Akikazu could not know for certain. He only knew that they threatened his purpose here, and he could not permit that. The larger of the two men was massive, and his form flickered with an unholy orange flame that waxed and waned, but never truly disappeared. His face was nothing but a skeleton, and madness peered out from its empty sockets. "Koshiro," he said. "Retrieve that which is mine."

"Yes master!" The smaller man shared his lord's skeletal features, but was more proportioned and lacked the haunting fire the other man seemed to radiate. Koshiro leapt from the rise, his obviously preternatural strength carrying him much farther than Akikazu would have expected. He landed only a short distance away and charged, his blades drawn. At this distance, it seemed to Akikazu that the man's bones and armor were one, tied together with lengths of leather and other rough clasps. "Die!" the Lost samurai screamed.

Akikazu's wakizashi was in his hand in an instant. He parried the first two strikes, then rolled away from the third. There was a tearing sound and for an instant he feared the madman had cut him, but the strike seemed only to have ripped through his now stained and filthy kimono. "Filthy undead monstrosity!" Akikazu snarled. "You are nothing but an abomination that has reached its end!"

"I am Daigotsu Koshiro!" the thing shouted. "I will taste your blood before the&"

Akikazu lifted his hands to the sky, palms upward, and called out to the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang. A black aura danced around his body, eerily similar to the one surrounding the demon on the hill. The murky image of ten skulls floated through the darkness, and Akikazu shouted as he threw his hands forward. The blessings of death cascaded from him, enveloping the undead samurai. It made a gurgling sound of surprise and collapsed into a pile of rotten bones and armor, no trace of life left within it.

"Impressive," the thing on the hill said. "You destroyed my lieutenant, but against Moto Tsume you shall not fare so well." The thing that had once been a man drew its blade and stepped forward.

"Moto Tsume?" Akikazu snarled. "You dare? You dare pretend such a thing? You are nothing but a specter inhabiting an empty shell!"

The thing chuckled darkly. "Perhaps I am. But what matter is it of yours? In the end, you shall die all the same."

"Do not speak to me of death," Akikazu spat. "You know nothing of it."

"Enough." Akikazu stopped in his tracks, more in surprise than alarm. The cold touch of steel was at his throat, and he realized that Tasihuu had drawn his blade against his throat while he had been preoccupied with the creature standing only a short distance away. "I will not permit this."

Akikazu's face contorted in rage, but the thing calling itself Tsume only laughed harder. "As if the choice was yours!" it boomed.

"It is," Taishuu said. "I am Mirumoto Taishuu. I have been commanded by my lord to seek the City of the Lost and offer myself as the ambassador of Rokugan, just as you have sent your ambassador to us."

"Magnificent," Tsume said. "Then destroy this whelp and join me."

"I was commanded to present myself to Daigotsu, none other." Taishuu shook his head. "I will not heed your orders."

"What are you doing, fool?" Akikazu demanded.

"Take the gem and leave," Taishuu ordered. "I need this& man to show me to his master's city. I cannot allow you to destroy him."

"I will destroy you both!" Akikazu shouted.

"And you will die in doing so," Taishuu said. "Your Lords will have lost their gem, and your soul will be held accountable. Is their will so unimportant to you?"

"And why should I spare you?" Tsume said. "Why should I permit him to leave, or you to survive?"

"I will guard his escape," Taishuu said. "If you kill me, then you will have betrayed your lord."

"What do I care of such things?" Tsume demanded.

"Perhaps you do not care," Taishuu observed. "But I imagine Daigotsu would care very much. Do you dare risk his disapproval?"

If Tsume had a face, Akikazu knew that it would have displayed a moment of doubt. "And why should I not kill him anyway?" he said, gesturing toward the priest. "You could not stop me."

"Probably not," the Dragon said. "But I would make certain your gem was destroyed."

"No," Tsume said at once. "The gem must not be broken."

"Then Akikazu parts ways with us here," Taishuu said. "He has business in the Empire, and I have business with your master."

Akikazu snarled in rage. "I vowed that I would kill you before I allowed you to succumb."

A moment passed before Taishuu replied. "Many from both the Crab and Unicorn will want to know that Tsume still& lives."

Akikazu knew that if he tried to stay, he risked losing his life and, more importantly, allowing the gem to fall into the hands of his enemies. His life meant little, but he could not permit the ruby to be lost again. He was not certain what it contained, but that mattered not at all. Nor could he overlook the need to tell the Clans that Tsume had been resurrected once again. "I will see you again, blasphemer," he cursed at the undead samurai. "And on that day, I will end your wretched existence."

"We shall see," the thing said.

"And you," Akikazu said, glaring at Taishuu as he slowly backed away. "When we meet again, I guarantee we shall not both survive."

"My survival is a matter of concern, to be sure," Taishuu said. "If I live long enough to meet you again, then I shall accept my fate."

Akikazu glared at the two men with seething hatred, then turned and ran north, calling upon the Lords of Death to mask him from their attacks as he did so. There would be a reckoning. Of that, he was certain, and in certainty was strength.


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Togashi will return!