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The Essence of Loyalty

By Shawn Carman and Nancy Sauer
Editing by Fred Wan

Somewhere in the Yogo provinces, eight years ago
The room was dark. There were no windows, and even the lone door, or at least the only door the prisoner knew of, was sealed so tightly that no light entered when it was closed. He had been in complete darkness for days. Only when his captors entered did he see anything, and even then the lone candle seemed impossibly bright compared to the inky blackness he had come to know over the past& how long had he been here? He was not certain. It seemed like an eternity, but in reality was probably no more than three days.

The door opened suddenly, and the light from outside was blinding. He shrank away from it, even as he longed to walk through the doorway. A familiar silhouette appeared, and then the door closed again. There were a few footsteps, a brief thud, and then the candle was lit again. Across the short table was a petite woman with a small mask. She smiled mildly, but it was only a polite reflex. "Good morning, Natsuo."

Soshi Natsuo squinted even at the candle. "Is it morning?"

"It is."

He cleared his throat and wondered if she had brought water. "It is rather difficult to tell," he said. "The accommodations are somewhat lacking, Rieko-san."

Yogo Rieko's smile did not change. "I thought perhaps we could continue our previous discussion."

Natsuo's heart sank. He knew from experience that she would offer him nothing unless he cooperated, and even if he did she was unlikely to believe him. Still, at this point he had absolutely no choice in the matter, other than to allow himself to whither away and die rather than speak to the woman. Naturally, he found that choice distasteful. "Of course," he croaked. "Whatever you would like."

"How gracious of you," Rieko said, her voice betraying only a hint of sarcasm. "Tell me about Yogo Hiroji."

Natsu repressed the urge to bury his head in his hands at the mention of the man's name. "I have told you this before, of course," he began, "but I would be happy to tell you again. Yogo Hiroji came to my home in the dead of night. He burst into my personal chambers and attempted to murder me with what appeared to be a dai tsuchi made of stone."

"Did he say anything?"

"Yes," Natsuo said. "He was shouting about me paying for my sins. Screaming, really. He appeared to be completely mad. I tried to run, but he knocked me down with a tempest of air. It seemed as though he wanted to kill me with his bare hands. He kept calling me a traitor. I& defended myself. I had no choice."

Rieko's smile was gone. "You killed a member of the Kuroiban, you mean."

"I had no idea who he was at the time, nor was I familiar with your organization," Natsuo said. "As I have said, I believed that he was coming to kill me on behalf of my superiors in the Shadowed Tower. I believed that they had somehow discovered my& trepidation."

"Ah yes," Rieko said. "I was hoping we could discuss that a bit more as well. You claim that you were ignorant of the scope of the Shadowed Tower's crimes?"

Natsuo drew a deep breath. "I said that I was unaware that we were working against the rule of lord Yojiro-sama," he said carefully. "I was of the impression that we were working for Shosuro Furuyari, whom I do not have to remind you was one of lord Yojiro's advisors. I believed that what we were doing was sanctioned by the Champion, and as such I put aside all reservations regarding it, as I have always done when asked to do something of a morally ambiguous nature. I am loyal."

"Of course you are," Rieko said. She was looking over a previous account of Natsuo's testimony, and seemed barely to pay attention. "You claim to have discovered the truth shortly before Hiroji arrived at your home."

"Nine days previously," he clarified. "When I discovered that we were not only working without the Champion's knowledge, but that in fact my superiors were intent on subverting his authority& I had betrayed the clan. I hoped to die."

"Unfortunate that you did not," Rieko observed casually. "Tell me of the scroll."

"I have told you this many times," Natsuo insisted. "I sent word to an old friend of my father's, asking permission to stay with him for some time. I asked him to tell no one. He was an old man living near the mountains, far from any village or settlement. I knew from experience that he could go months or even years without contact from the outside world unless he received a message or sent one. I thought that the Tower would be unable to find me there, and that I could determine what to do next."

"You could have surrendered yourself," Rieko said.

Natsuo laughed. It was a rasping sound. "I would never have lived to tell my story, and you know it. The Tower had informants everywhere." He wiped his hair away with the back of his hand. "Did you find the scroll?"

"The samurai to which you refer was found dead," Rieko answered flatly. "There was no indication that his death was from unnatural causes, and no trace of this scroll of which you speak."

Natsuo started to say something, then stopped suddenly. Why would she even ask about the scroll if they had not found it? Unless& "You believe me," he said suddenly. "You know that I am telling the truth."

She raised an eyebrow. "You presume much."

"If you did not believe I was loyal, I would be in the Grove by now," Natsuo said. "You have not found the scroll, but you believe that it exists."

Rieko placed the paper she was reading on the table and stared at Natsuo evenly. "I believe that you may have been deceived," she admitted. "I also believe that you may be telling the truth, but even if that is so, it only means that you are a fool with a dangerous amount of experience with maho and other Tower arts. It hardly improves your position."

"I am loyal!" Natsuo insisted. "I will serve in any way you, the Kuroiban, or my Champion sees fit! I deserve the chance to atone for my failures, or at the very least to claim my own life. I do not deserve the Grove!"

"We shall see," Rieko said.

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

A private home near Shiro Soshi, the present
Soshi Korenaga awoke with a start, a strangled scream clawing at his throat in an attempt to free itself. Sweat poured from his body, but he felt an inescapable chill, and drew his perspiration-soaked kimono closer about him.

It had been the nightmares again. They came almost every night now, although most of the time they were easily controlled. Tonight, however& it had been difficult. Inky blackness had crept up at him from the shadows, reaching out with barbed tendrils and tearing at his flesh as he tried to escape. It drew him farther and farther into the darkness, flowing over him and drowning him even as he felt his life slipping away.

Korenaga got up suddenly and went to the table where he had taken tea before bed. He checked the pot with a shaking hand, but of course there was nothing left. He knew there would not be. Still he checked the small pouch that where the jade petals had been before he had mixed the tea. Nothing. There were only a few drops that remained in the cup from which he had taken the tea those long hours ago. He stared at them for a long time, then finally ran his finger along the inside of the cup and put it into his mouth. There was only a faint hint of the normally bitter taste, but he relished it all the same.

Soshi Korenaga sat in the darkness, his knees drawn up to his chest, and waited for the sun to rise and drive away the demons.

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

Soshi Natsuo rubbed his wrists absently and stared at his surroundings. He had not been within his family's ancestral estate for almost a decade, and yet it appeared that little had changed. The castle was generally unremarkable, so much so that the average visitor would be unable to remember anything of substance about it. This was, of course, a carefully maintained phenomenon intended to perpetuate the Soshi's reputation among outsiders.

"Thank you for coming so quickly," a silky voice offered from the dais at the center of the room. "But then you had little choice, I suppose."

Natsuo glanced up to the room's center. A woman clad in brilliant crimson and black stood on the dais, her hands folded into her sleeves. She had not been there only a moment before, and he saw no way she could have entered the room without his noticing. Again, typical for the Soshi. "No, my lady Uidori-sama," he said with a deep bow. "That my presence was involuntary does not mean I am not grateful to be here."

"My sister is not in residence at the moment," the woman answered. "I am Yukimi."

"Of course," Natsuo said with a second bow. His family daimyo was one of a pair of twins, and the two were virtually identical. "Forgive my ignorance."

"Do you know why you are here?" Yukimi asked.

"No," Natsuo admitted. He hesitated, then added "I have not been outside of the Yogo compound unescorted for years. I assumed, then, that your sister had decided upon a different fate for me than captivity."

"And how do you feel about that?" Yukimi inquired.

Natsuo considered for a moment. "I live only to serve the Scorpion," he answered. "If my service is at an end, then I feel fortunate to have seen my home one final time."

Yukimi smiled wryly. "You are correct in that your fate has been decided, but not in the manner you imagine. Tell me, my treacherous one, what services do you provide for the Kuroiban?"

Natsuo's expression did not change in the slightest. "The Kuroiban, my lady?"

"Do not play the fool," Yukimi cautioned, her expression suddenly fiery. "I know exactly who they are. All the Scorpion lords do, and I know my sister's duties well enough that I know as well. Now, what do you do for them?"

"What a remarkably poorly-kept secret," Natsuo said with a grimace. "They have used my& familiarity with various maho rituals to aid them in examining captured materials. I help them determine what they are, and how best to destroy them safely."

"And I presume from the length of your service that you have proven most useful indeed, else I imagine you would have vanished some time ago."

"I would not presume to gauge my worth to the Kuroiban," Natsuo said.

Yukimi's smile returned. "A wise decision. While I can easily determine from your tone that you relish your duties, I fear that they are at an end. Your services are required elsewhere."

Natsuo dared to hope. "Of course, my lady. How can I serve?"

Yukimi sat on the dais and struck a small chime. The note rang out beautifully through the room, and the door set into the western wall opened. A lone man entered, bedraggled in appearance despite his fine clothing. He was pale, with long, stringy hair, and a haunted expression. "This is Soshi Korenaga, a valued servant of mine. He has been working on unraveling a mystery that is of great importance to me personally, and to the Scorpion as a whole. It is, I might add, of particular interest to lord Paneki himself."

"The Champion?" Natsuo said, his tone surprised.

"Indeed. Succeed, and perhaps your past will finally be forgotten."

Natsuo doubted that, but he would take any opportunity. "Only name what must be done, my lady, and I will do it without hesitation."

"Of course you will," Yukimi said. She took up a lacquered box that lay next to her and set it in front of her. "Step forward, please."

Natsuo did so, his curiosity piqued. He noticed that Korenaga shrank back slightly, but paid the wretched little man no mind. He drew closer to the dais and looked within the box. All the color promptly drained from his face, and he took one staggering step backwards.

"Is& is that a Black Scroll?" he whispered.

"Of sorts, yes," Yukimi said. "It is a new Black Scroll, not one of the original scrolls given to the Scorpion to safeguard a thousand years ago, however."

"What?" Natsuo demanded. "That isn't& how is that possible?"

"And that, my friend, is one of the many questions you will be answering for the Scorpion."

"What?" Natsuo repeated. "My lady, no! I have spent nearly a decade being punished for participation in maho that I believed was done for the clan's benefit. You cannot ask me to do this again!"

"I can," Yukimi said insistently, her tone firm. "However, I am not doing so in this instance."

Natsuo frowned. "I do not understand."

"None of us do," Yukimi admitted. "The scroll was recovered from the Shadowlands, in the Tomb of the Seven Thunders. We know almost nothing about it, save that it is indeed a Black Scroll, and that it is not one of the series with which we are familiar. It was not created through blood sorcery, and yet it bears the touch of Jigoku, as loyal Korenaga discovered."

Natsuo recoiled from Korenaga. "The Taint?"

"Hai," Korenaga said weakly. "It is kept under control," he added hastily. "Meditation and jade petal tea help, and I have monthly appointments with one of the Kuni witch-hunters. He believes I was Tainted by a bog hag that was discovered in our lands and promptly destroyed."

"A difficult ruse," Yukimi added. "Bog hag corpses are exceedingly hard to acquire."

"The point of the matter is that, unlike you, my corruption stems from a genuine attempt to aid the Scorpion, rather than a subverted attempt to destroy the clan's authority," Korenaga ordered. "I will not be judged by one such as you."

"Enough," Yukimi said, raising her hand. "Korenaga's loyalty is not in question, Natsuo. And neither is Natsuo's, Korenaga. He has proven his determination over the years, and in this he shall be trusted. He knows more than perhaps any of our number about matters of this sort."

"I have no inkling how a Black Scroll could even be created without use of blood sorcery, save perhaps by Isawa himself," Natsuo said. "If the means can be discovered, however, then I will find it."

"Excellent," Yukimi said. "Each of you will ensure that the other attempts nothing inappropriate. You will each ensure that the other is dealt with should anything unfortunate take place."

"Hai, my lady," they both responded.

Natsuo wondered if he might not have been safer with the Kuroiban.

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

"This is a mistake."

Natsuo looked at Korenaga patiently. "We have discussed this at length. There is little else we can do. Yukimi-sama made it explicitly clear that we are to discover all we can about the scroll at any cost, so long as the Scorpion do not suffer for it."

"How can we know what will happen?" Korenaga asked.

"We cannot know for certain," Natsuo said, "but there are things that we can surmise based on the records of previous Black Scrolls. They are used to seal away power taken from external sources. The process of sealing it in such a manner corrupts the magic used to seal it in the first place. Isawa used pure blood magic to steal Fu Leng's power in the original Black Scrolls, thus transforming them into corrupt blood magic. This spell is not maho, although it is corrupt. Thus, technically, our investigation of it does not violate Imperial law, or at least it does not unless we discover that the magic used is in fact one proscribed by the Emperor's edicts."

Korenaga shook his head. "But opening the scroll& using it& will release the power contained within. Whatever it was taken from will be empowered, and it will know the scroll's location."

"That much is not certain," Natsuo cautioned. "However, just to be cautious, that is why we have come here." He gestured to the south. "The Crab border is less than a mile away. If someone or something should become aware of the scroll, then they will consider the Crab their most likely targets." He smiled wryly. "Fitting, don't you think?"

"What will we release?" Korenaga asked again. "What will we set free?"

"I do not know," Natsuo admitted. "It could very well be that the magic used to steal the power is the corrupting element in this case. For all we know, releasing this energy will be a beneficial thing. And even if that is not the case, by releasing it we will be able to quantify it. By releasing it, we can identify it."

"You think," Korenaga insisted. "We do not know that for a fact."

"It is a reasonable assumption based on prior knowledge," Natsuo said. "By doing this, we have relatively little to lose, and much to gain." He paused for a moment, then shrugged. "And what could the Scorpion lose in any event? Two individuals that they can easily disavow as traitors or madmen."

Korenaga shook his head and covered his eyes with his hand for a moment. Finally, he lowered his hand and nodded. "Very well," he said meekly. "I will do it."

"What?" Natsuo said. "No. I will do this."

"I am already Tainted," Korenaga said. "It is only reasonable for me to do it. I am less of a loss to the clan than you."

Natsuo shook his head. "I have participated in the damnation of too many good men to allow it to happen again. No. Even if it were not time for me to accept the burden of my past transgressions, I could not risk the Taint that will doubtless come from this attempt to infect you. It could easily be more than you could tolerate, and if you should lose control of yourself, then I will have failed the Scorpion again. I will not allow that to happen."

Korenaga was quiet for a moment. "You are no traitor," he finally said.

"Thank you," Natsuo said, his head bowed. "Perhaps one day I will deserve such praise. Let us prepare."

An hour later, Natsuo stood alone in an empty, rocky field. For all the bravado and reasoning he had used to convince Korenaga, he was still filled with doubts. What he was about to do, no living soul had tried before. All those who had attempted it in previous generations had come to ruinous ends. Was it purely arrogance that made him believe he could achieve this? Or was his hope that the scroll was something completely new and different overcoming his fears? He could not say for certain. All he knew was that he genuinely believed this was the best way to serve the Scorpion. If he failed again, then he would deserve whatever fate was ultimately his.

Natsuo quieted his spirit as much as possible, and broke the seal on the scroll.

Sensations the likes of which he had never imagined coursed through him. He felt as though he had suddenly been cast into the ocean, and mighty currents were tearing across the surface of his body. He heard a distant noise and wondered idly if he might be screaming. He ground his teeth against the sensation and read the scroll in front of him. He could feel the power coursing out of it, and tried to redirect it into the spell. Perhaps he could keep whatever was drawing on the power, something ominous far away, from gaining it.

There was a massive explosion of pain and light.

Everything went black.

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

Bayushi Paneki stormed into the chamber, his face a mask of barely-restrained anger. He waited for the doors to close behind him, and leveled his withering gaze upon the two samurai that stood within the room. When the door was closed, he spoke. "Explain," he said quietly.

Yukimi inclined her head respectfully. "The investigation of the scroll from the tomb is complete, my lord. I have prepared the findings for you."

"Do not presume that behaving coyly will divert my wrath," Paneki cautioned. "I want to know exactly what activities you sanctioned, and what were undertaken without your consent."

"Yukimi-sama did not instruct us to open the scroll," Korenaga offered quietly. "We did so without her knowledge, because we believed that in doing so we could acquire the information she desired."

"And yet I do not fault them for doing so," Yukimi insisted. "Korenaga has explained to me the reasoning that Natsuo followed, and I believe that I would have arrived at a similar conclusion."

"Bold words," Paneki said. "Tell me what was learned, and I will determine if the risk was worth it."

Korenaga drew a shaking breath. "The scroll was created via elemental magic, and it contains, or contained, the essence of something& some vital portion of an entity's power, stolen from it through magic we do not understand, but not through maho."

"Are there others?" the Champion demanded.

"No," Yukimi said. "It was the only one of its kind."

"And in opening it you have released the power it contained, which may now be used against us."

"That is possible," Korenaga admitted. "Natsuo's& ravings seem to indicate that whatever was affected by the power is in some remote corner of the world, far from Rokugan."

"It is possible the scroll was created by the Unicorn during their travels," Yukimi offered. "They came through the Shadowlands on their journey home. The scroll could have been lost and placed in the tomb at a later date."

"What was the effect of the scroll?"

The two shugenja cast an uneasy glance at one another. "It appears to blight the target with the essence of Jigoku," Yukimi said cautiously. "The effect ravages the target, but it appears that only the one casting the spell suffers from the Taint itself. The effect is difficult to describe. It is similar to spending a long period of time within the Shadowlands without becoming Tainted, but your body is ruined by the environment all the same."

Paneki shook his head. "Madness."

"The spell leaves behind no trace of itself when the casting is complete," Korenaga said quietly. "Although the appearance of what remains is damning, it does not corrupt its target, and the spell is not maho."

"What are you suggesting?" Paneki demanded.

"That our duty to the Empire remains paramount," Yukimi said with a bow. "This scroll can assist us in discharging an affront to those duties. Isawa's Black Scrolls bound a god. Perhaps this Black Scroll can free us of a god whose time in the Empire has passed?"

Paneki cut her off with a sharp gesture. "Do not speak those words again," he cautioned. "What you are suggesting is spared the label of treason only by the thinnest of margins. I will not accept such a notion."

Yukimi nodded. "Of course, my lord. We are in a strong position, and do not need to resort to such tactics."

Paneki's silence was his only reply.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!