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Dark Knowledge
By Brian Yoon
Editing & Development by Fred Wan

The Great Carpenter Wall

The battle was over as soon as it began. The Lion and Crab reinforcements assaulted the enemy with reckless abandon, fueled by the news of the Emperor's demise. Hida Tonoji led his men at the forefront, eagerly leaping into the thick of battle. He roared in anger, his bloodlust focused into furious attacks that felled demons with each swing. The Shadowlands army was unable to withstand the Fourth Legion's zealous assault, and was soon forced back into the Shadowlands in a complete rout. The Imperial Legion and its Lion allies returned to safer lands, guarding the defenders of the Emperor.

The Crab healers rushed to treat the wounded. Hida Kuon looked over the haggard remnants of the expedition that had traveled into the land. They were exhausted, many were wounded, and all were suffering from the horrors they had faced. They had all lost friends and comrades in the march. They had failed in their duty. The samurai no doubt struggled against despair that threatened to overwhelm all of their thoughts. Kuon knew all of these feelings. He had conquered them during the days after the fall of the Kaiu Wall. The grief was theirs to face and conquer, but perhaps he could aid them in the attempt.

"The Crab thank you all for what you have attempted this day," Kuon shouted, his voice booming throughout the courtyard. "You are to be commended for undertaking this trial. I offer you all shelter and sustenance for as long as you wish it, and we will help you find your way home again once you are well rested."

He turned from the edge of the wall and strode away. Hida Benjiro followed at his side and the rest of Kuon's advisors struggled to keep up. They could sense their Champion's foul mood and kept silent, reluctant to be first to intrude on their angry lord's stormy thoughts. They continued past dozens of Crabs standing atop the wall, all focused on the southern horizon. Finally, they reached the stairs that led to the rest of the castle. Kuon stopped. He turned and faced his men.

"Make sure everyone is tended to and their wounds treated," Kuon ordered. "Find quarters for them. Send the Witch Hunters to check all of them for signs of the Taint and to isolate any who show symptoms, or who protest at the treatment." He glanced at Benjiro. "Make sure the Scorpions are detained and stripped of all their weapons. I will not house my enemies in my own home."

Benjiro nodded. "It will be done," he said.

"When you have finished, come to my audience chamber. We will find out if this trinket is worth the death of an Emperor," Kuon said and stared intently at the packet in his hands. Benjiro turned and quickly made his way down the stairs. The Champion continued in his way, brooding over the recent events until he reached his destination.

With a gesture, he dismissed his retinue and entered the room. He looked around the empty room. Without a word he crossed to a large scroll that stood on a stone pedestal. He lifted the quill and wrote the name of his Emperor in the scroll, alongside countless others from all different clans and families. It was the place the Crab recorded the names of those outsiders who perished when in the Shadowlands or the Crab provinces.

"Three emperors have died in my life," Kuon said to the walls, "all fighting against our eternal enemy, the Shadowlands. I have failed to protect them." He slammed his fist against the stone pedestal angrily, then closed his eyes and shook his head. After a moment of introspection, he unwrapped the package in his hands.

Within the package was a book, a gaijin object that had become popular among certain sects of scholars because it could hold a large amount of information and remain small enough to be easily transported. This one, however, was emblazoned with the symbol of a spider, with smaller symbols creating a strange, interlocking pattern that seemed to trickle down the page. If he took his eyes away from it, he believed he could see them moving slightly. When he looked back, they of course were exactly as they had been.

The book filled him with a sense of unease, but he found himself strangely tempted to open it and explore its contents. His hand drifted to the cover, but his screaming instincts caused him to draw it back as if burned. Kuon scowled and glanced in the direction of the Shadowlands. That damnable land would never cease to haunt him with its myriad of evils. He looked back to the pedestal and was alarmed to see that he had once again placed his hand on the cover and was preparing to open it. He snarled and stepped away, glaring at the book and wondering idly if it would burn.

The door opened behind him. "Benjiro has set your orders in motion, Kuon-sama, but he asked me to bring you word that the Scorpion detachment is nowhere to be found. They must have slipped away during the chaos," Yasuki Jinn-Kuen reported.

"Typical," Kuon replied absently, never taking his eyes from the book.

Jinn-Kuen nodded. "They always scurry away into the shadows. No one will miss them when they are gone." He gestured to Kuon's hands. "Is that the item from the Tomb? Have you managed to learn anything?"

"Is Tansho here?" Kuon asked shortly.

"Kuni Tansho?" Jinn-Kuen seemed surprised. "My lord, I have been away for days. I have no idea."

"Of course," Kuon said. "She departed yesterday, my mistake." He dragged his gaze from the book with effort and fixed it upon Benjiro. "Find Omen."

Jinn-Kuen stared at him incredulously. "How am I to find an Oracle?"

"Simply turn around."

Both men turned to see the form of Omen standing in the doorway. As always, the man radiated an otherworldly aura that normally made others uncomfortable, doubtless a result of his bond with the Jade Dragon. In this case, however, Kuon was overcome with relief, as the Oracle's presence seemed to drive the shadow from his mind. "How did you know?" he asked.

"I sensed it the moment it left the Tomb," Omen said, his gaze levied at the book.

Kuon glanced back at it. "What is it, Omen-sama?"

"Knowledge," Omen answered. "The most dangerous weapon of all."

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

Kyuden Bayushi

At the beginning of his reign, each Scorpion Clan Champion chose his own chamber to attend to visitors that warranted a private audience. Prior to his ascension, Bayushi Paneki had developed a reputation in some quarters as a ruthless killer and his audience chamber was specifically designed to play on his infamy. Paneki sat in the middle of the room behind a low table stacked high with scrolls and seals. The only source of light was a single lantern placed at the edge of the table. The corners of the rooms were cloaked in darkness. A person could stand in the corner and be completely hidden from sight. Paneki liked to use every resource available to him to help in his negotiations.

The door slid open with a small whisper. "Hira, of the Iuchi family," said an unseen servant, and the guest entered. He was a young man with long black hair that flowed behind him. His every movement was charged with barely restrained vigor. He seemed to be unaffected by the decor and instead smiled with mirth as he saw the Champion. Paneki smiled and pushed the scroll before him to the side. He bowed politely to the Unicorn ambassador.

"Hira-san, it is a pleasure to see you again. It has been a long time," Paneki said.

"A lifetime ago, Paneki-sama, yet you left a hard impression to dispel. It seems only yesterday that you rode into Shiro Iuchi at the head of an army to liberate us," Hira replied. He bowed deeply in a genuine show of respect. "My father sends his best wishes and his deepest sorrow that he could not make this journey himself."

"I regret I have little time to visit old friends. I have not had a decent game of shogi since your father defeated me on my last stay at your home." "He tells the tale every time I see him," Hira said grinning. He bowed again and remained prostrate as he placed a sealed scroll on the table before the Scorpion Champion. "I come bearing a gift, Paneki-sama."

Paneki shook his head and pushed the scroll back toward Hira. "It has been a long time, my friend, and your mere presence is a sufficient gift."

"You flatter me, my lord, but it would not be proper for a person of my station to arrive with nothing in hand when in the presence of a Champion."

"Nonsense. What use is protocol between old friends?"

"Everything, Paneki-sama," Hira replied. "If we do not follow the rules set by society, we are little more than crude beasts."

"Then, old friend, I will accept the gift in the spirit in which it is offered. Thank you." Paneki bowed slightly to his guest and took the scroll. Hira smiled widely. He watched Paneki's face intently as he opened the scroll. All mirth disappeared from Paneki's face as he read the words.

Finally Paneki looked up, and Hira froze. His eyes met Hira's and the Unicorn felt fear wash over him. Paneki's eyes were completely devoid of emotion. Hira was suddenly reminded of a tiger he had once faced while stationed in Shinomen Forest. "A gift of rice," Paneki said flatly. "How kind of the Khan."

Hira smiled weakly. "Even in the Unicorn lands, we have heard about the Scorpion's poor harvest. Though I am certain your clan does not require it, the Khan felt the rice would be a token of good faith between our two clans. I was given the honor of delivering the message."

"Did you believe that I would refuse?" Paneki asked quietly. "Is this why you presented it as though it were a gift from an old friend? Because I would have turned it away?"

"I have only done as I was instructed," Hira said, his tone nervous. "The Khan doubtless knows that the Scorpion would not wish to be indebted to another, and only wanted to ensure that you accepted the gift in the spirit with which it was offered."

"Doubtless," Paneki said flatly. "I am certain the Khan did not send such a bounty with you today."

"No," Hira answered. "It is to be delivered at the mid-point of the winter season, presumably when your harvest would be beginning to run low. Not that the Scorpion require such aid, of course," he added hastily.

"I had heard the Khan was considering a similar gift to the Dragon," Paneki said. "I know nothing of such plans," Hira said. "I only wished to see an old friend, and to obey my Khan's orders. I have no other agenda, Paneki-sama."

"I would not insult an old friend by questioning the motive behind such a gift," Paneki finally said. "The rice will be well used. Thank you."

By mutual agreement, the two samurai changed the subject and spoke of less charged matters. Hira soon made his excuses and left the Champion's presence. As he walked back to his room, Hira wondered if following the Khan's orders had permanently destroyed an old friendship.

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

An hour later, the door slid open once more, and the servant announced the arrival of the Soshi family daimyo. She stepped through the opening and bowed politely, her every movement the epitome of elegance. "My lord," she said softly, and made her way toward her Champion.

"Yukimi-chan," Paneki said. His brush flew across the parchment as he continued his work. "What a pleasant surprise. Yogo Koji will not be here for another day."

The shugenja paused in mid-stride. The true Soshi family daimyo was a clever woman named Soshi Uidori. She was cursed to have been born one of three identical sisters, an occurrence most in the Empire associated with great misfortune. Naturally, the Scorpion had turned the instance into an advantage. The sisters often stood in for each other's place, and few people ever noticed the difference. "How is it you can always see through our ruse, Paneki-sama?"

Paneki placed his seal on the parchment and placed it to the side. "It is a simple matter," he said. He looked up and smiled. "You're the prettiest, my dear."

Yukimi laughed. She bowed gracefully. "I am happy to please you, my lord," she replied.

"In truth, you three can be very predictable. You hold the interests of the Scorpion with every move. When I summoned the Soshi Family Daimyo to me, your sister Uidori must have realized your skills would be more useful to me than hers in this instance. The sensei of the Dojo of the Closed Eye would have some expertise on the matter."

"Few men can say he sees into the heart of a woman. I suppose the Master of Secrets can make that claim with ease."

"That is the highest praise a man can ever receive," Paneki said. He stood up. "Come with me," he said, and turned to face the wall behind him. With a touch of some hidden switch, a door popped open and revealed a darkened passageway. The silent pair stalked the hidden corridors of Kyuden Bayushi, slowly moving toward the basement of the castle. When Paneki stopped in front of a nondescript door, Yukimi realized she had no idea where she stood.

They entered a small room, though it would be better described as a cell. A single table was the only furnishing placed inside, and a man dressed entirely in black sat against the wall. When the two entered the room, he quickly leapt to his feet and knelt in front of the Champion.

"This is Shosuro Aroru, one of my faithful servants," Paneki said. "Have you heard of the news about the Emperor?"

"Yes," Yukimi said, her head bowed. "I heard only this morning. This man was part of the expedition?"

"He acted as the Scorpion leader. He directed our men and was there at the fateful battle. When the Emperor ordered the officers of his defending army to leave his side, Aroru picked up this item from the Tomb. What can you tell us about the item, Aroru?"

"Nothing, Paneki-sama," Aroru replied. "When I found it within the Tomb, I knew it must be safeguarded. I wrapped it inside an old cloth. I did not open the package after that, even after I returned home."

Paneki gestured toward a worn wooden case placed on the middle of the table. Without further ado, Yukimi moved forward and began to examine the ancient box. She murmured to herself and chanted to the kami. Paneki and Aroru simply stood by and watched as she fell into her work. Finally, she waved her hand over the latch of the box and the case snapped open.

A green glow filled the room. Yukimi's eyes widened as she saw the contents of the box. She set the box back onto the table and stepped away.

Yukimi looked up at her Champion. "My lord," she said, her voice quivering, "this is a Black Scroll. The power of the scroll and the strong seals that block its evil nature are overwhelming." Her hands twitched, as if she longed to seize it.

Paneki's expression never changed. "I was of the impression that we were aware of the location of most Black Scrolls. Which one is this, that it has so completely vanished from our sight? Dark Divination? Touch of Fu Leng? Our agents never learned of their fate."

She shook her head. Paneki could see the terror in the depths of her wide eyes. "No, Paneki-sama. This is an ancient scroll and I can feel that the wards have never been breached. This Black Scroll has never been opened before. This scroll is some new evil."

"Preposterous," Paneki said. "All the scrolls were opened. Had they not been, Fu Leng could not have been defeated. If even a portion of his power remained sealed away, he would not have fallen on the second Day of Thunder."

"This is not one of the Black Scrolls we know," Yukimi insisted. "I can identify those without question. This scroll& I have never seen its like. I do not know what it contains, or what other power could be captured in such a manner as to create a Black Scroll, but something has. This is something altogether new and unprecedented."

Behind his mask, the color drained from Paneki's face.

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

"What is it?" Kuon insisted. "Omen, I must know, what are you free to tell me about this item? I know you are bound not to interfere beyond certain limits, but&"

"Worry not about my restrictions," Omen said. "That is no longer a matter of concern. The item you have retrieved is the Tao of Fu Leng. It is an ancient treatise that details the strengths and weaknesses of those who possess the mark of Jigoku, which you call the Taint of the Shadowlands."

"It contains spells and such, then," Jinn-Kuen said.

"Would that it did," Omen answered. "It is a discourse of philosophy and discussion. It is a rationalization of the most terrible acts and thoughts a mortal mind could conceive. It speaks of furthering the Dark Kami's goals. Even standing in its presence for long periods of time can be dangerous. I believe these twisted words are far more treacherous as any item infused with simple blood magic."

Jinn-Kuen paled. "I aided in bringing such a monstrosity to our lands?"

"Better we bear it than risk its release somewhere in the Empire," Kuon responded.

Omen nodded solemnly. "If it had fallen into the wrong hands, the dark knowledge inside could corrupt the readers and spawn a great evil in the empire. We are fortunate that Jinn-Kuen was wise enough to take it. We must take care that such an evil fate is not released."

"It would solve all of our problems if we simply destroy it," Jinn-Kuen said. "I have allies who might be capable of such a thing, my lord."

Omen shook his head. "The Tao of Fu Leng is too powerful to dispose of safely. The possibility that it might only be restored elsewhere is strong, and then we would have no knowledge of its location, or who bore it. So long as Fu Leng leads Jigoku, this book will exist in some form. It must be guarded. Those who follow the Dark Kami will want this book very badly. The Lost will come for it, and nothing will stand in their way. Their zeal will be unlike anything the Crab have ever witnessed."

Kuon nodded decisively. "Send for those of our clan that saw the Tomb of the Seven Thunders, and that saw this item. We need to make sure that they are untouched by Fu Leng's influence." He turned to Jinn-Kuen. "Is there anyone else that might have seen it?"

Jinn-Kuen shook his head. "I was the only Crab within the Tomb. I was the only one to touch the item. Wait& no, Benjiro carried it for a short time before we reached the Wall, but he never saw it nor knew what was contained within it. Is it possible that he could have been affected?"

"We cannot take the risk," Kuon said. "Omen-sama, take this abomination and find a secure place for it. We must make sure that no one is able to access the powers that this item represents. No resource will be denied to you."

"A wise decision," Omen said. He wrapped the book in the cloth in which it had arrived and then picked it up gingerly. "I will depart for the Kuni lands as soon as Benjiro is brought before us."

Kuon strode to the entrance and threw the doors open, pointing to the sentries standing outside. "Find Hida Benjiro and bring him to this room immediately," Kuon ordered.

The guards bowed and ran down the hallway. Only a few minutes later Benjiro appeared, his expression curious. "Your orders have been fulfilled, Kuon-sama. What else would you have of me?"

Jinn-Kuen stepped forward. Standing between the Benjiro and Kuon, he seemed like a child, but his eyes fairly burned with intensity. "The item from the Tomb," he demanded. "Did you open it?"

Benjiro frowned, seeming annoyed at the question. "You know that I did not."

"Think!" Jinn-Kuen insisted. "Did it come unwrapped at any point? Did the cloth fall away during the race to the Wall?"

"No," Benjiro insisted. "I never saw what was within."

Kuon nodded, satisfied. "Good. Thank you. Omen?"

"I do not detect the book's mark on either of these men," the Oracle answered. "Does this satisfy your inquiry?"

"Yes, thank you," Kuon said.

Omen turned to leave, the book safely in his possession, but Kuon frowned again as the Oracle stepped through the doorway. "Wait, Omen," Kuon said. "How were you able to tell me so much about the book? You told me that you are bound by laws to maintain neutrality. How could you bypass this limitation?"

Omen smiled. The others were surprised to see the sadness etched in the Oracle's face, but no one was impolite enough to remark upon it. "I was free to respond, for the balance has already been restored."

As the Oracle departed, Kuon wondered idly if his parting words were not equally as disturbing as the presence of the book he carried.

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

"What is the meaning of this new item, then?" Paneki demanded. "This item cannot exist. It is impossible." He paused for a moment, willing the growing alarm within him to diminish. "Could there be more?" he demanded.

Yukimi shook her head. "It is impossible to say unless it is examined. We cannot know the truth of this thing unless it is read, and in doing so we risk unleashing whatever malignant force is contained within it."

Paneki stared at the thing, rage and fear warring in his heart. "Go to the meditation chamber above us," he said softly. "Send word to the Yogo." He turned and met her eyes. "I want the Kuroiban here immediately."

"Of course," she said. Yukimi turned toward the other package. It lay on the table, wrapped in an old black kimono. A glint of gold shined off the top of the dragon figurine. "But first, what of the other item? Perhaps we should examine it."

Aroru stepped forward. "I gave my word that I would protect the item until it reaches Dragon lands, my lady."

Yukimi sneered in disgust. "What does your word given to an outsider mean if your superior asks that it be broken? The Dragon's item was found in the same place as the scroll. If the item holds even half the power of a Black Scroll, we must learn its secrets." She looked at Paneki. "Perhaps," she offered casually, "Aroru-san could meet an accident on his way to the Dragon lands and the item will be lost. A tragic end to such a hero."

"No," Paneki said at once, "the Dragon item will remain untouched. It would require too much manpower to solve its riddles before the Dragons notice its disappearance. I will not alienate our staunchest allies. And Aroru is too valuable to be wasted on such a simple deception." He turned to the silent assassin. "Breathe not a word of what has transpired here tonight, Aroru," Paneki ordered. "Rest, finish your duties with speed, and return to me."

Aroru nodded. "Do you wish me to kill Daigotsu Soetsu?" "Soon," Paneki said, "but not just yet. He has one use remaining."

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

"Forgive me for saying so, my lord," Jinn-Kuen began, "but there is an extremely important matter at hand that I hope you have considered."

Kuon turned to the much smaller man, surprised at his words. "More important than a deadly and poisonous artifact in our midst, one that will bring the Lost upon us like a plague? Please, enlighten me."

Jinn-Kuen spread his hands palm up, as if to placate his Champion. "Forgive me if I presume too much, Kuon-sama, but the Righteous Emperor is dead. The throne is empty."

Kuon stared at the wily Yasuki. "Your point?"

"The throne must be in strong hands, Kuon-sama, if the Empire is to prosper. The people will need an Emperor that is ready to do what must be needed to protect it from the dangers that surround his lands. The forces of the Shadowlands have assaulted us again and again in the recent times. Who better to guide the Empire than one who understands our greatest enemies?"

The room was silent for a moment. Jinn-Kuen waited with his head bowed. Benjiro searched the Champion's face for a hint of the thoughts that lay within, but Kuon was as inscrutable as always. Finally, Kuon shook his head. "This is not the time to dwell on such matters. The Crab lands must be safe before we can concern ourselves with the rest of the Empire, and we have weathered the attacks by our enemies for too long. Proceed with the preparations, Benjiro."

Benjiro nodded. "We are almost ready, Kuon-sama. We will soon be ready to march for the Scorpion lands."


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!