THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
Kameru grinned and held up his glass again.
"To my father!" he shouted drunkenly, "Long may he reign over the Diamond Empire!"
The small tavern was silent; the sailors stared at the boy uneasily.
"What, no fealty to the Son of Storms?" Kameru exclaimed.
"Kameru, maybe you'd better sit down," Ishihn said, eyeing the other patrons warily.
"Feh," Kameru sneered, dropping his glass on the floor with a crash. His shaven head shone in the dusky light of the tavern, wet with perspiration. He sat down heavily, swaying a bit. "My family began as sailors," he grumbled, "We ruled the seas for two thousand years. Now we rule the earth too and suddenly we're not good enough for anyone."
"That's not it," Orin said, drinking from a large glass of beer.
"Oh, it isn't, is it?" Kameru replied, "Then what is it, Orin?" He slapped the glass away from Orin's face, "Huh? What is it?"
"Kameru, you're drunk," Ishihn said, "and you're losing your temper."
Kameru turned on the little man, angry. Then it sank in. Ishihn was his friend. Orin was his friend. He was about to just strike out at them, punish them for no reason. Just like his father would. He took a deep breath. "Sorry," he said, "Lost my head."
"S'okay," Orin chuckled, "Rich people like us get to be a little crazy."
Kameru laughed. "Another round for everyone!" he shouted. The tavern cheered. It was very late at night, so only the dedicated drunks were out. The ones who had nothing better to do than sit in a bar forever. The ones who knew how infrequent a free drink was and learned to appreciate it.
"So, how is your father?" Ishihn asked carefully, "Everyone I know is quite worried about this war thing."
"I know," Kameru said, dejected. "He won't talk to me about it at all. He has no time for me, doesn't even talk to Ryosei much anymore. Poor girl. Her whole world revolves around her daddy. She's the only one he used to talk to and even she's outside his circle now. He only trusts Meda and that Tetsugi guy now."
"Tetsugi..." Orin repeated, "Member of the guard?"
"Yeah, I guess," Kameru took another drink, "Don't know him that well. Doesn't talk to me much. Quiet. Seems a decent guy, I guess. Just doing his job."
They sat in silence for a minute.
"I hate this," Kameru said, "I just hate this. I mean, I realize he's Emperor and all, but he's my father too. Why can't that be as important to him as it is to me and to Ryosei?"
"You're belaboring it too much," Orin said, chuckling and scratching his beard, "My father ignored me my whole life and I considered myself lucky. All I ever got from him when he did talk to me was the back of his hand."
Kameru shrugged. "That's you, Orin. My father's different. He's... different now. Something's changed. Ryosei thinks we're losing him."
"To what?" Ishihn asked.
"I don't know."
"Let's change the subject," Orin suggested as the waitress arrived with their drinks, "Tell us about this little Crane, Kameru."
Ishihn laughed bawdily. Kameru blushed.
"What's her name?" Ishihn asked, "Simiko?"
"Kamiko," Kameru corrected, his vision fixed firmly on the table.
"So what's she like?" Orin asked, smirking, "Pretty? How's she built?"
"I wouldn't know," Kameru said, fighting back a smile, "I've never met her. I hear she's beautiful, though. I wrote her a letter."
"When?" Orin asked.
"A little while ago, actually, before you guys picked me up."
"Kameru," Ishihn said, shaking his head, "You were already drunk when we picked you up this morning. Are you sure you didn't say anything stupid in that letter?"
"Um...." Kameru thought, "No. Just a little poetry. And I sent her a picture of me."
"Oh, no," Orin shook his head, "Don't do that. Never do that?"
"Why not?" Kameru glanced back and forth at his friends.
"She'll think you're arrogant," Orin explained.
"But Kameru IS arrogant," Ishihn laughed.
"Yeah, but no reason for the poor girl to find out before she has to!" Orin and Ishihn burst into laughter.
Kameru folded his arms and ignored them, rolling his eyes at the waitress. "If you're both done laughing at the Imperial heir," he said with mock formality, "It's probably about time we got back to the Palace. I'd like to check on my sister."
"Sure, whatever you say, Kameru," Ishihn chuckled.
The three friends got up and left the tavern, stopping long enough to pay and tip the waitress generously. A shaven headed monk stepped in their path as they exited.
"Greetings, brothers," he said, jogging to keep pace with them, "I'm from the Church of Hoshi Jack, Hour of the Tao, Shinsei Channel," he tried to shove a flower and a pamphlet at Orin, "Temperance! Consider the wave in its many forms--"
"Out of our way, beggar," Orin commanded, slapping the man away.
Kameru paused. He helped the monk to his feet. The monk smiled gratefully, nodded, handed Kameru a pamphlet and a flower. Kameru shoved the pamphlet in his pocket, tucked the flower in his belt to give his sister. The monk went on his way.
"What was that all about?" Orin whispered to Ishihn, "He was just a beggar. He tried to start a fight with a room full of sailors not ten minutes ago."
"He will make a most interesting Emperor, I think," Ishihn chuckled.
The oni is a most fearsome creature.
They are demons, denizens of the spirit world, natives of the darker realms of Jigoku. Unlike the beneficial kami, and the watchful spirits of the ancestors, the oni are creatures of malicious evil. They have no name. They have no form. They have no existence in our world until they seep through the cracks in reality or are summoned by a mortal. They are fear, despair, they wield the darkest of our emotions against us by their very nature. They are chaos incarnate, invincible, held in check only by the most pure and orderly of our worlds elements. The rhythm of drums can cause them pain. The touch of crystal or jade can kill them.
Over one hundred years past, the greatest of these demons shook this world to its foundations. This was the Oni Lord, Akuma. Only the most terrible powers of magic and technology were able to wound the beast, drive it back, and seal Jigoku forever. Since that time the Festering Pit, the greatest pinhole between the dimensions of evil and our own, has lain silent. Sealed. Some lingering symptoms of the foul Taint remained -- the bakemono, the ogres, Ichiryo, and the like -- but no more oni walked in Rokugan. No more demons hunted mankind.
Which hardly explained the twenty foot tall monstrosity of earth and metal currently chasing Hida Yasu through the streets of Downtown.
"MURA SHINKO MABRU UT JIMEN, CRAAAAB!" it bellowed, raising its massive arms to the night sky. It roared in triumph, smoke billowing from it's gaping mouth and cracked skin.
Yasu kept running. He knew he would never outrun the damn monster. He'd never make it back to the truck. Under the best of circumstances, maybe. He was in good shape, had a good head start, and the oni was overconfident. Right now, however, Yasu was wearing sixty pounds of body armor, thirty pounds of assorted weaponry, and two hundred pounds of unconscious and injured Hiruma Hayato over his left shoulder. Still, he trudged on.
"JIMEN UT CRAAAAB!" the oni roared again. The giant treads on its four legs churned the pavement as the oni rumbled onward behind the Crab warrior.
"Great!" Yasu snapped, glancing back, "It has frigging WHEELS! Thanks Osano-wo. This is fair."
The oni leaned forward, leering, its magma blood glowing red through the cracks in its skin. Steam rose from its body and from the molten asphalt it left in its wake.
"JIMEN UT NECROTUS, CRAAAB!"
Yasu could feel the heat of the oni behind him. He stopped running, and turned. The oni was two hundred feet away, and coming fast. The fear, the piercing aura of despair washed over Yasu. He ignored it.
"You want some of me???" Yasu shouted, pressing a small switch on his chest. Two small black boxes popped up from the shoulders of his armor.
The oni's jagged face broke into a terrible smile, and it rammed its fists together with a shower of sparks. It kept on coming.
"You want a little Hida Yasu?" the Crab bellowed, turning a small dial on his wrist. The oni was less than a hundred feet away now.
"JIMEN UT CANDALFRAS, CRAAAAAAB!" it screamed back, red fire flickering from its eyes and mouth.
"Yeah?" Yasu replied loudly, "Well, have a little of this, Jimen." Yasu clicked a button on his wrist and plugged his fingers in his ears.
Oni no Jimen screamed in terror as the fury of the Asako One Hundred Drum Chorus, the greatest taiko drummers in the Empire, erupted from Yasu's Kaiu-built speakers. The street vibrated and the buildings shook. The oni screamed in inarticulate pain, screeching to a halt, spraying chunks of molten asphalt as it turned and fell to the ground.
"Not a music lover," Yasu concluded. He plucked the small speakers from his shoulder plates and set tossed them to the street, still blasting the frenzied drum music from the stereo in Yasu's armor. He slung Hayato over his shoulder and ran for the truck, thanking whatever Fortune had possessed him to grab that particular CD.
"JIMENNNNNN!" the oni screamed, lurching up on its arms and pulling itself painfully after Yasu. The music of the drums was pure torture, drilling into the oni's skull, shattering its grip on reality. The oni responded in kind, and the molten fire beneath its skin began to glow brighter.
Yasu slung Hayato into the truck's passenger seat, carefully checking that the scout's broken leg was in a stable position. The drums in the distance began to recede, as they were slowly drowned out by the approaching oni's roars. Yasu knew the music would not hold the beast off for long. He settled into the driver's seat, slammed the door, and started the engine.
"JIMENNNN!" the oni roared as its prey escaped. The monster's skin welled up and exploded into flame, consuming the surrounding buildings in unearthly fire. Lava and molten slag spread out in a wave on the street around it, cooling nearly instantly and heaping pinkish red rock around the oni's form.
The edge of the conflagration had stopped about forty feet from the truck. The drums had stopped, the speakers melted into nothing somewhere within the fireball. Smoke billowed from the crater, punctuated suddenly by two glowing red points, rising up and down with heavy breaths.
"That's a neat trick," Yasu observed distantly, slamming the truck into gear. He whipped the truck around and thundered away. In the rear view mirror, he could see the oni haul itself over the lip of the crater and lurch after him.
Yasu shook his head slightly. He had built the truck to his own specifications, drawing on his Uncle Toshimo's unmatched expertise for a few special touches. It was the fastest vehicle of its size that he was aware of. Yasu hit the gas and was gone.
Hayato moaned, sitting up a little straighter in the seat, clutching his leg and holding his face painfully. "What happened?" he whispered quietly. A giant bruise was spreading from his forehead to his jaw.
"A rock hit your face," Yasu said, "The oni felt sorry for us so he let us go."
The oni's roars of frustration echoed in the distance.
"He certainly sounds sorry," Hayato observed dryly.
"Yeah, he doesn't like me very much," Yasu said, plucking the compact disc from his belt and holding it up between two fingers, "We don't seem to share the same tastes in music. I just grabbed it cause I like fighting to it. Came in handy."
Hayato nodded. "Drums. So the legends are true."
"I hope they're true," Yasu replied, "I'll be testing out a few more of them before this night is over."
The truck pulled up at the gates of Downtown. The searchlights atop the fence swiveled on the massive vehicle, and Yasu knew that the massive automatic guns behind them had no doubt drew aim as well. He clicked on his radio and transmitted the all clear signal. The guardhouse opened, emitting several armored Crab samurai, who held their weapons tightly and glanced with fear in the direction of the oni's roars.
Yasu helped dragged Hayato from the truck, quickly passing him to one of the guards.
"What is--" the guard asked.
"No time," Yasu interrupted. He jogged back from the perimeter fence. "Turn those spotlights on the fence!" he ordered.
The guard complied, fiddling with a box on his belt. A spotlight swiveled, reflecting glints of fist size green rock, stationed every twenty feet along the fence. Jade, for warding off the evil spirits within. The oni roared, far away.
"Yasu!" Hayato shouted, "We have to go!"
Yasu ignored him and began rummaging through his glove compartment, "Get Hayato out of here," he said curtly.
"What are you doing, Hida?" Hayato demanded, wobbling uncertainly on one leg as the other samurai ran to the guardhouse for a stretcher. "Get your damned truck through the barricade! The oni will be here in minutes!"
"I know," Yasu replied, pulling a large aerosol can from the compartment at last. His uncle's epoxy resin. Yasu used it to temporarily glue his truck armor back on when it was damaged. It didn't hold long, but it held tight.
"YASU!" Hayato shouted as the guard returned with the stretcher, "Are you entirely insane?"
The oni roared again, and Yasu looked off in the direction it had come from.
"Someone has to survive," Yasu said quietly, looking off at Downtown's wrecked cityscape. "You said that yourself. Someone has to survive, Hayato. Someone has to tell the others that the oni have returned." Yasu turned to his friend, his eyes intense. "I nominate you."
"And you, Yasu?" Hayato asked. Oni no Jimen roared, very close now.
"Someone get me a ladder," Yasu demanded, "I don't have much time."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go back there," Yasu sneered, "and I'm going to kill it."
Chobu sat alone and wondered where his men were. It had been almost two days now since his father had killed himself on national television. Now he had surrendered himself to the Emperor for questioning and things still did not make sense.
Why try to kill the Emperor?
It was just stupid. There was no point to it. He didn't even know where his dad had gotten that monster gun or how he'd snuck it into the palace. Chobu folded his hands into his armpits to warm his fingers. The room was nicely decorated, but it was cold, like the cell that it was. Oh, there was a television, and a lamp, and a couch, and a nice view (which Chobu may have appreciated, had he had an eye for beauty), but the door was locked and the window was forty floors up. He wasn't supposed to go anywhere.
Just stupid. Stupid. Not that Chobu had any love for Yoritomo VI, but there was no reason to go shooting at him in public. Not with all those witnesses. Sure, dad was a little stupid, but this? It was insane.
Then it hit him.
Why did dad miss? Why did he shoot the Guard instead?
Chobu knew his dad. He'd seen him mad. Chobu's ankle still ached when it rained sometimes, that's how well he knew his dad mad. Dad was a thug, but he was never sloppy.
This was a set up.
"Ichiro Chobu," said a voice as the door opened. A tall, lean man in black, with a goatee and a black cap, sauntered into the room. He wore the badge of the Wasp Clan and the Imperial Guard on his right shoulder. Two pistols were holstered on his belt. "That's you, correct?" the man asked.
"I hope so," Chobu grumbled, "I'm wearing his pants."
The magistrate did not laugh. He did not smile. He seated himself on the couch across from Chobu and met his gaze levelly. Chobu was impressed. A Badger, born and bred, Chobu was two heads taller and built like a steel dumpster. Most folks preferred not to look at him at all, let alone stare him down.
"I am Tsuruchi Kyo, Captain of the Guard," he said coolly, "I have come to inquire what information you may have to share on your father's recent crime."
Chobu kept his arms folded. This guy was full of crap. Chobu wouldn't tell him a thing. He just shrugged.
Kyo sighed. "Why are all you Badgers so unhelpful?" he asked, "Even under torture, none of you have revealed anything."
Chobu shrugged again.
"What about the Shosuro?" Kyo asked, "Your father have any connections with them?"
"The who?" Chobu asked, "What are they, Unicorns?"
Kyo's eyes narrowed. "Ichiro Chobu, you may be an accessory in the most serious crime of the decade. I could have your entire clan dishonored for this insanity. Have you nothing to say?"
"You're wasting your time with me," Chobu answered.
"Possible," Kyo said, "But I plan to leave no stone unturned in this investigation. You, my friend, are a very large stone. It has been a long day for my torturers, but if it leads to the truth, I'm sure they have time to bleed one more Badger dry."
Chobu nodded. His men were dead. One less thing to worry about. What's more, this Kyo had already decided his fate. Made things easier.
"You have something to tell me?" Kyo prompted.
"Yup," Chobu said, "Just one thing."
"What is it?" Kyo asked, his eyebrows raising.
"I'm a shugenja," Chobu smirked.
Kyo's hands darted for his pistols, but it was already to late. The earth spirits pulled at his body, dragging Kyo to the ground with incredible force. Chobu sauntered across the room and stood by Kyo's head.
"You... fool...." Kyo muttered, fighting the weight of his own body, "You'll... never escape the... Palace."
"Not through the door," Chobu agreed, and bashed the lamp over Kyo's head.
Moments later, a window on the fortieth floor of the Imperial Palace exploded in a shower of glass and a large flying couch. A moment later, Chobu stepped out onto the air, wrapped himself in the air spirits, and slowly floated away.
Oni no Jimen shook the very sky with fury. How dare those mortals wreak such embarrassment! It struck out blindly, leveling a building with one fist. It roared again, bringing both arms up as the heat rose inside. The mortal structures around him drooped and melted into slag.
It had their scent. They would not escape, especially not them. The Crabs, the ones the Master had warned of. The arrogant mortal tribe that made sport of killing his brethren. They would learn the power of an Elemental Terror. No, they would not escape. Not the one who had destroyed the building to block him. Not the one who had dared strike Jimen's face and unleashed the wretched, wretched drums. Oh, their destruction would be sweet, burned brightly in Jimen's fire.
Oni no Jimen rounded the corner with a monstrous cackle. Suddenly, the dark streets flared into light, and the oni covered its eyes with its arms. Squinting, it made out the sharp twin headlights of the vehicle his prey had escaped in. Now it faced Jimen, waiting.
"YOUR PITIFUL MIGHT IS NOTHING TO THE TERROR THAT IS JIMEN, CRAAAAB!" the oni roared in the language of Jigoku. The mortal would not understand, but the oni did not care.
The truck's engine roared to life, growling and rattling in response to Jimen's threat.
Jimen brought down his fist, flattening a small car.
The truck revved its engine loudly, smoke and flames rising from its pipes.
Jimen rose its arms to the sky, a pillar of flame rising from its body.
The trucks horn blared, twice, and revved its engine louder. The truck shook with the restrained power of its engine. A metallic clank echoed, and the front grill of the truck folded into a triangular ram.
"JIMEN SHALL DANCE ON YOUR TOMB, CRAAAB!" Oni no Jimen screamed.
A whistle of feedback came from the truck. "Fu Leng sucks," said a voice through the speaker, and the drums started again.
Oni no Jimen bellowed in rage and fury, driven mad by the power of the drums. The mechanical treads on its legs tore to life, propelling it in a charge toward the truck. The trucks engine roared in reply and it screeched down the street toward Jimen, it's external speakers still blasting with the music of the Asako One Hundred Drum Chorus.
The mortal was a fool. Nothing could block the path of an Elemental Terror.
The truck kept coming.
This would be enjoyable. The mortal conveyance, doubtless one of their greatest vehicles of war, would shatter like glass across the demon's invulnerable hide.
The truck did not stop.
After two thousand years of slaughtering the children of Jigoku, these Crabs did not learn. This one's sacrifice would amount to nothing.
The truck came faster.
Not long now. The Crab would turn aside and be destroyed. He must turn. He could not be so foolish.
The truck did not turn aside.
Surely, the mortal would not be this foolish.
The truck sped up.
He had no time left.
The truck blared its horn.
What was he doing?
The truck kept coming.
This mortal was up to something.
The truck was very close.
Jimen shrieked in fury.
The truck cut off it's headlights.
And for a single moment caught in time, Oni no Jimen saw the line of fist sized green stones adhered to the ram on the front of the truck.
Oni no Jimen exploded.
Yasu hauled himself to his feet, shaking his head woozily. He'd waited till the absolute last second to jump out of the truck. He didn't even want to know how fast it had been going when he hit the pavement. Luckily, his armor had held up and he'd only have a dozen or so bruises to show for it tomorrow morning.
Yasu looked at his truck and wanted to cry. It was half melted into the massive stone corpse of Oni no Jimen, green smoke trailing in a pillar to the sky. The fire from the fuel tanks was dying down, but the heat from Jimen's corpse was still intense. Yasu took a thick face mask from his belt and snapped it into place, then walked into the smoke, taking a small metal tube from the holster on his belt.
Yasu climbed the massive pile of boulders, metal, and cooling magma, cursing and swearing at the heat. Finally, he stood atop the twisted heap that was Jimen.
"Are you dead or what?" Yasu asked.
The massive head snapped up, it's eyes blazing in triumph. "MUKRA SHINKO ABJUCTO MASHUS CRAAB!"
"What I thought," Yasu grumbled. The tube in his hand suddenly lengthened into a long, spiked club. Another fist of jade was fastened to the end.
"ACRO NOMINUS ZEKOTO--" --Thunk. The tetsubo buried itself in Jimen's skull. Yasu lifted it back up and hit it again. And again. And again. Till there was no reason left to hit.
"That was for my truck," Yasu said, kicking the pile of now quite small pebbles.
He climbed down and walked back to the guardpost as the sun rose behind him.
Hatsu's back ached.
He opened his eyes blearily. The ceiling fan spun lazily a few feet in front of him, and he realized he was lying on the floor. He hated this part. The temporary stupidity after just waking up, the confusion and disorientation while the senses gathered themselves. He sat up and rubbed his forehead. He was still fully dressed, sitting in the middle of the floor. He must have had a nightmare and rolled off of the bed. That happened to him a lot lately.
Akkan, Hatsu's dog, trotted up to him and started licking his face. He laughed and gently pushed the little dog away, sitting up. Nearby, the phone rang. It was one of the old rotary dial types, mounted on the wall. Hatsu pulled it off the hook by its cord and caught it in his other hand.
"Hello," he said.
"Detective Kitsuki Hatsu?" said a voice on the other end. It was a deep voice, full of tension and importance.
"Yes, speaking," Hatsu said, staggering to his feet. What had he drunk last night? He would blame Sachiko for this directly.
"This is Magistrate Tetsugi of the Imperial Guard," the voice replied, "I'm in the process of questioning several of the witnesses of the assassination attempt upon the Emperor. I was hoping you might be willing to stop by and share information." The tone of the voice belied the words, this man was not going to accept a rebuttal.
"Of course," Hatsu replied, "I go on duty tonight."
"Come now," Tetsugi replied, "The Imperial Palace." Tetsugi hung up.
Hatsu looked at the phone for a second, as if it was its fault, and hung up. It rung again.
"Hello?" Hatsu said tentatively.
"Hello," said a woman's voice on the other end, "Always answer on the first ring, Kitsuki?"
"I thought it was someone else," Hatsu replied, "Hello, Sachiko."
She paused again. "After one day, you recognize my voice?"
"Of course," he replied, "Why wouldn't I?"
"Never mind," she laughed, "I was just calling to see how you were doing. I had a good time last night."
"Me too," he said, trying to remember what had happened, "Um, did I drink anything?"
"Why do you ask?" she said, amusement in her voice, "Don't you remember?"
Hatsu paused, trying to think of something, anything to say.
Sachiko laughed. After three hours of peer pressure, I finally got you to drink some sake. You passed out on the floor after the second cup, Kitsuki. You Dragons certainly can't hold your liquor. I had to drive you home and toss you on your couch."
"Thank you," Hatsu said, embarrassed.
"Anytime," she replied, "Where do you buy that underwear with the little pink dragons on it?"
"What?" he gasped.
"Kidding," she replied.
"Thanks," Hatsu said dryly, "Hey do you think you could do me a favor?"
"Sure thing, Kitsuki," Sachiko replied.
"I got two calls from Doji Kamiko yesterday, never got a chance to get back to her. Do you think you could stop by Dojicorp and check up on her?"
"I guess so," Sachiko replied, "I guess since you're such a big hero, you're too famous to go out in public, eh?"
"What do you mean?" Hatsu asked.
"Don't you know?" she chuckled, "You're all over the news. It's all you and Akodo Daniri and Tsuruchi Kyo. Well, mostly Daniri. The media loves a hero, especially Lion media. I swear I've seen that footage of the Akodo jumping in front of that bullet thirty times today. Hell, it's on right now."
Hatsu stepped over to his television set. He flipped it on, banged the top a few times to clear the picture, and used a pair of pliers to change the channel to KTSU. The blurry, black and white picture indeed showed Akodo Daniri leaping in front of the assassin's bullet.
"It's in slow-motion with background music," Hatsu said, "That's gratuitous. I'm surprised they would show something like that."
"I'm surprised you own a television, Kitsuki," Sachiko replied, "Aren't you an anti-techno freak or something?"
"I'm not against technology," Hatsu said, banging the TV again to clear the picture, "I just don't like it very much. I'm not very good with it. It doesn't like me. And I accept that. But I do watch the news. Anyway, I have a to meet with the Imperial Guard and I still haven't showered or anything. Can I call you back later?"
"Sure" Sachiko said, an odd amusement in her voice, "Bye." Hatsu wondered what she was up to.
She hung up. As Hatsu opened his shower door, he realized he had no idea what her phone number was.
Well that must have impressed her.
The sun shone brightly over Otosan Uchi, casting the city in a haze of glittering early winter frost. On the outskirts of the city, a dirty old bunker of a factory belched smoke and fumes into the winter sky, tinting the blue with grey and green. A black chainlink fence surrounded the building, fronted with a line of guards in golden orange jumpsuits and baseball caps. A mob of spindly greenish figures with shaggy black hair and yellow eyes milled about before the guards, bearing large signs.
"FREEDOM!" shouted a voice, and the cameras of the television crew swiveled to find the source.
The signs were handpainted. "Free our enslaved brothers!" read one. "Why do the Lions lie?" read another. Most simply said "Freedom."
One of the creatures stepped in front of the camera crew, shouted "FREEDOM FOR THE ZOKUJIN!" again in a gruff voice, and disappeared back into the crowd. The camera turned to focus on a young reporter in a tan suit, microphone in hand.
"Thus far," he said in a smooth voice, "The Zokujin protests have been completely peaceful. Though the factory directors maintain that the laborers of Okurachem are paid for their work and well cared for, Zokujin representatives object that they have not been allowed to inspect the factory and confirm these working conditions firsthand. Kitsu Suro, president of Okurachem, refuses to comment on the matter further. Argcklt--" the reporter stumbled slightly over the rough word, "--Zokujin spokesperson, swears that the Zokujin Liberation Society will continue this protest until their brothers are released. This is Ikoma Keijura for KTSU."
"Thank you Keijura," replied a slick anchorman, the KTSU logo glowing behind him. "We'll keep you updated as events develop."
He turned, as the camera angle switched. "Good evening, children of Rokugan, I am your new anchorman Matsu Shingo, and this is KTSU news."
The camera pulled out as the image switched from the news studio to a display of bright computer generated colors and the blazing Lion Clan Mon, roaring its triumph over a skyline of Otosan Uchi. The KTSU letters flared to life over the city's silhouette.
"Our top story for tonight:," Shingo said, his face a mask of concern, "Ichiro Chobu, son of Ichiro Chiodo and suspected conspirator in the recent assassination attempt upon Emperor Yoritomo VI, has escaped and is at large." A rather bad picture of the scowling young man appeared over Shingo's shoulder. "He is believed to be armed, and should be considered extremely dangerous. If you should see him, the authorities warn not to approach him, but to immediately notify the police."
Daniri shifted in his chair, uncomfortable, and waited for his cue. In contrast to the sharply dressed anchorman, Daniri wore a sleeveless black t-shirt and a golden-brown bandana. A thick bandage was wrapped around his right shoulder.
"We are very lucky tonight," Shingo continued, looking off into the camera with a newsman's smile, "To have the esteemed hero and superstar, Akodo Daniri here in the studio with us for an exclusive KTSU interview!"
Daniri smiled brightly as the cameraman signaled him, and waved to the camera.
"So, Daniri," Shingo said smugly, "I hear you just got back from the hospital after your injury."
"Yeah, they held me overnight for observation," he said,
"What's it like to be a Lion hero? To take a bullet for our Son of Storms, our Emperor?"
Daniri shrugged, a lopsided grin on his face. "I'm no hero," he said, "I did what anyone else would have done, I guess. I've been shot before. Besides, I didn't figure anybody would mourn one less action hero in the world. Especially my critics."
The anchorman chuckled. "I think there are a lot of young ladies in our audience who might disagree with that," he chuckled.
"Yeah, maybe," Daniri said modestly, "Hopefully someday I'll meet the right one." He gave the camera his trademark smoky, bedroom smile. His agent had advised him to say that tonight. It would drive the female market wild.
"So I hear that your new film is coming out soon?" Shingo prompted. Here came the plug.
"Yeah, this weekend. It's the sequel to Prisoner of the Senpet. It's called All Against the Qabal. It's a really fun movie. I jump off a bridge and some stuff in it."
"And will you still be doing the Akodo War Machines?" Shingo asked.
"Well, yeah!" Daniri said, suddenly passionate, "Of course! I mean, the movies are fun and all, they bring in the money, but War Machines is my life. I'm very proud of the show and where it's going. It got me where I am. I'll never leave it."
Shingo turned to the camera again. "There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Akodo Daniri. The soul of a poet. The heart of a Lion. We are in your debt, Daniri."
"Hey, no problem," Daniri replied, "Thanks for having me."
"Now for Kitsu Mizutoki with the weekend forecast."
The director gestured at Daniri, signaling that the camera was now off him and he could leave the desk. Daniri stood quietly and made his way out of the studio while an aged sodan-senzo priest stood before a blue screen and began the weekend ancestral forecast.
"May all the kami bless you," the bald priest said with a bow and a smile, "The ancestors predict a fortuitous weekend for all. Victory favors the house of the Crab; enlightenment shines upon the Lion. The canny Phoenix can expect promotion, while the Unicorn may find love..."
The rest just sort of faded out as Daniri disappeared into the shadows of the news studio. It all looked so different from this side, so fake. The newsman was so artificially friendly, the gilded marble sets just cheap plastic. Daniri smirked. Ancestor reports. He doubted any ancestors would have much to say him. He made his own luck. He pushed open the sound-proof doors and exited.
Hatsu pulled on his coat, straightened his daisho on his belt, set out a bowl of food for little Akkan, and started down the stairs. He found himself thinking of Sachiko. He'd never had a partner before, never really needed one. He had always feared getting stuck with one. He didn't seem to mesh well with other people for long. Strangely, he didn't mind the Battle Maiden. It would be a while before he went out drinking with her again. Hatsu pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the herb shop.
"Good morning, Hatsu, my friend!" exclaimed Hisojo, the wizened old shopkeeper. He folded shut the book he had been reading and smiled widely.
"Good morning, Hisojo!" Hatsu said, taking a ginseng leaf from the cup next to the counter and dropping a few coins.
Hisojo smiled wryly. "I'll bet it was."
"What do you mean?" Hatsu chewed the leaf thoughtfully.
"Not every man gets a personal escort home from a Battle Maiden and lives to tell about it," he chuckled, collecting Hatsu's coins and dropping them into the register.
Hatsu blushed slightly. "Sachiko," he said, "I would have introduced you had I been conscious. She is my new partner. We met just yesterday."
"Your life seems to be changing much of late," Hisojo nodded, "All I see on the news is Kitsuki Hatsu this. Kitsuki Hatsu that. Again and again. I tape it! I call my sister and I say, 'Misa, you watch the news, you see this Kitsuki Hatsu? He my tenant and my friend! I know the man that saved the Emperor! Known him since he was just a little thing." Hisojo laughed to himself, smiling at the young detective with pride. Deservedly so. Hatsu had lived above the small room atop the herb shop since his mother had died fifteen years ago. He had been eight. Hisojo had been a friend of the family and had taken Hatsu in without a word.
Hatsu grinned, looking fixedly at the counter. "I just hope people forget about me soon," he said, "The last thing I want as a detective is everyone knowing who I am."
"You wait six months then," Hisojo said, "Only the famous man curses his fame. When you are no one, you will miss these days. That is why I tape the news. I save tapes for you, Hatsu."
"Thank you, Hisojo," Hatsu said. Hisojo nodded in reply, grinning still. Hatsu just didn't have the heart to remind the old man that he didn't own a VCR. "I have to go to work now, Hisojo, I'll see you later tonight."
The young detective opened the front door in a jingle of chimes and bells and stepped out onto the sunny sidewalk. The door whooshed shut again quickly, leaving Hisojo alone in the shop.
"Such a good boy," Hisojo chuckled to himself. If he'd had a son of his own, he would have been proud to have one like Hatsu. Hisojo had never married, though. Fate had other plans for him. The old man sighed and picked up the large spherical crystal he kept under the counter. A Jade Dragon swam in its depths.
"Awaken," Hisojo said. The crystal began to glow. The dragon stirred in the crystal, turning its tiny eyes toward the old man.
"Report, Agasha Hisojo," the voice said.
"All proceeds apace," he said, "Soon, he will know."
"Excellent," the dragon replied, "Beware, Hisojo. The Elemental Terrors are abroad in the realm of man. Others may have broken through as well."
"Already?" Hisojo gasped, his bushy eyebrows rising.
The door to the shop opened with a jingle, and a young couple entered.
"Oh, it's so quaint!" the woman said, clutching her husband's arm.
The glow in the crystal faded, and the dragon stirred no more. Hisojo carefully replaced it beneath the counter.
"Hello," he said with a practiced smile, "and welcome to Hisojo's Herbs and Curiosities. How may I help you?"
Daniri stood next to the cherry red Ide Equestrian sportscar and fished through his pocket for his keys. It was cold outside, but not terribly so, and the sun was bright enough to give him an excuse to put his sunglasses back on.
"You are a fool," said a voice from behind him.
"Excuse me?" Daniri said, turning around and lifting his glasses slightly.
A shaven headed man in loose robes faced him angrily. It was the sodan-senzo from the news. He glanced Daniri up and down and shook his head in irritation. "You're not a warrior. You're a peacock! Too busy polishing your own fame to consider honor."
"Yeah, that's me exactly," Daniri said blandly, turning back to his car and taking out his keys. The car alarm switched off with a loud beep. "Boy, do I ever feel sorry for myself. Guess I'll just have to console myself with money and adoring fans."
"Do you know what the worst thing about Akodo Daniri is?" the monk asked.
"Nope," Daniri said with disinterest, not turning around, "but I bet you're going to tell me."
"The false hope that you give people," Mizutoki said, his voice full of sadness.
Daniri turned around, took off his sunglasses.
"You come so close," Mizutoki continued, "So near to the true Way of the Lion. You do not carry bravery and courage in your heart, but rather wear it like fashionable jewelry. You leap in front of bullets for the Emperor, but it is all done for your own glory, to further your own exploits and hollow, vain fame."
Daniri began an angry retort, then he looked the monk full in the eyes. Something was there, in that ancient gaze, something behind the eyes. A thousand proud Lions frowned down upon him. A thousand angry ancestors voiced their discontent. For a moment, the old sodan-senzo's face was replaced with that of a mighty samurai, a bold warrior with one eye.
"Ancestors..." Daniri gasped.
"Exactly," Mizutoki replied sadly. "Young one, I know it is not your fault. You do only what you have been taught. It is the new way, perhaps, but it is not the right way."
Daniri said nothing, simply looked at the ground and felt angry and foolish.
"Try," Mizutoki said quietly, "It is all I can ask. It is all anyone can ask." The old monk folded his arms in his robes and quietly walked off across the parking lot.
Daniri picked his keys up off the ground. He hadn't realized he had dropped them. What was that all about? What had happened? That face, the warrior with the one eye. Akodo. The first Lion, dead almost two millennium. But why would Akodo speak to him? He wasn't even a Lion, not really. Beside, there weren't even any Akodos anymore. His arm started to throb again. He ignored the pain, like he'd been taught. He brushed the old wizard's words from his mind, got in the car, and drove away.
But every time he brushed them away, they kept coming back.
Sachiko pulled off her helmet and glanced around the lobby. She hadn't really had occasion to visit the Dojicorp Building in the past, and wasn't entirely sure she was impressed. Sure, it was beautiful. All white steel and blue glass. But it was so cold. No emotion. No life to anything. The executives filed in and out, going about their business, paying no mind to the world around them. Sachiko noticed that there were a rather large number of the blue-uniformed Doji House Guard standing post about the building. The eyed her warily. She waved to one of them, smiling sweetly. His facial expression didn't change one bit.
"May I help you, officer?" said the prim secretary. Like most Cranes, he was a platinum blonde.
"I'm here to see Doji Kamiko," she said, setting her purple motorcycle helmet on the ivory finished desk with a clunk, "I'm Battle Maiden Otaku Sachiko."
"Ah," the secretary said, glancing at the helmet disdainfully, "Well do you have an appointment?"
"No," Sachiko replied, "but I need to talk to her regarding a police matter."
"I am sorry," the secretary said politely, "but the Champion's daughter is currently under guard after the current crisis. She is seeing no one. Good day, officer."
"Ah," Sachiko said, her frowning in frustration. "I see. It's just that she called my partner twice yesterday, and I was just coming by to see what she wanted."
"Your partner?" the secretary asked, curiously.
"Detective Kitsuki Hatsu." The secretary's face froze a moment, then became a mask of total friendliness. "Of course. The man who saved the Emperor. Why didn't you say so?" he picked up the phone and hit one button, "I'll tell them you're coming right up. Seventy-fifth floor."
"All right," Sachiko said. She walked off shaking her head. She should have known better. The Cranes would do anything to avoid a political incident, and she supposed kicking out the partner of the Imperial Hero would probably be somewhere on their list of etiquette blunders. She pressed the button for the elevator, which arrived surprisingly fast.
"Poor Hatsu," she thought, looking through the glass walls over the city as the elevator rose, "Look what he's missing. He could have walked up all these stairs."
The elevator arrived at the seventy fifth floor with a soft ding and Sachiko's ears popped. A disembodied voice said, "Welcome to Dojicorp. Seventy fifth floor."
She stepped out and the doors slid silently shut behind her. "Otaku Sachiko?" said a voice to her left. A tall man in an exquisite blue and white kimono awaited her, steadying the katana on his belt with one hand.
"That's me," she replied.
"Pleased I am to make your acquaintance," the man said formally, bowing low. His movements were fluid and graceful, and his eyes never left Sachiko's. "I am Maseto."
Sachiko nodded. "I'm here to see Doji Kamiko."
Maseto nodded, smiling and gesturing to the door at his left. "Right through here."
Sachiko stepped toward the door, keeping a wary eye on Maseto. Something didn't sit quite right with her about the man, and she wasn't about to turn her back on him. She stepped through the door into the room beyond. It was a large room, but was packed from floor to ceiling with bookcases, computer terminals, and a few pieces of furniture. Several types of swords, Rokugani, Senpet, Amijdan, and others Sachiko didn't recognize. In the midst of it all, seated at a tiny white chair before a relatively small monitor screen, was a small Crane girl, staring at the screen intently and occasionally tapping the mouse or keyboard. She was dressed in a simple white t-shirt and blue cut-offs, with a blue Daidoji Steelboys baseball cap.
She glanced up. "Who are you?" she asked, "Maseto, who is this?"
"Battle Maiden Otaku Sachiko, partner of Detective Kitsuki Hatsu," Maseto said, taking post by the door.
Kamiko's eyes widened, and she smiled. "Great!" she said, "Maseto, please leave us. I have much to discuss with Sachiko-chan."
Maseto nodded, smiled tightly to Sachiko, and left, sliding the door shut behind them.
"Where have you guys been?" Kamiko demanded, hopping to her feet, "I've been calling you all night!"
"We've been busy," Sachiko said, a bit surprised by Kamiko's bluntness. "We've had a lot of leads to track down."
"A lot more important things to do, you mean," Kamiko said, rolling her eyes, "That Kitsuki didn't think much of me. That I can tell. I've been underestimated all my life. But come here, look at this." She sat back down and gestured urgently, staring at the screen again.
Sachiko made her way across the room, carefully stepping over the various manuals, notepads, and cables strewn about the floor. She wasn't nearly as technophobic as Hatsu was, but she wasn't entirely comfortable around computers and preferred to keep it that way. "What's that?" the Battle Maiden said, peeking over Kamiko's shoulder at the list of figures on the screen.
"Business transactions," Kamiko said, "Shosuro Microcircuits Inc. I memorized the make and model of those circuits I pulled out of the assassins head, then cross referenced all buyers in the last six months. I've pulled up only three."
"Wow," Sachiko said, "How did you get the Scorpions to let you into their system?"
Kamiko grinned, her eyes bright, "No one let me in."
Sachiko put one hand on Kamiko's shoulder. "Kamiko, if anyone asks, this meeting never happened."
"Oh, of course it didn't," Kamiko agreed, "What was your name again?"
"So who were these buyers?" Sachiko asked, sitting down on a nearby couch and leaning forward in interest.
"Hoshi Jack the televangelist, who uses them in his satellite television relay systems. Kitsu Ikimura, the great special effects artist. That's the guy who designed the Akodo War Machine. And..."
"Bayushi Oroki," Sachiko laughed, reading the name over Kamiko's shoulder, "We talked to him yesterday and he claimed he knew nothing about any of this."
"Yeah, whatever," Kamiko said dryly, "From what I hear about Oroki, he claims a lot of things. This helps though, right?"
"It helps a lot," Sachiko replied, "Hatsu will be thrilled." She stood, tucking her helmet under one arm.
"And you'll call me, right?" Kamiko said, hopping back to her feet, "Let me know how things turn out? Let me know if you need my help?"
"Sure thing, Kamiko," the girl seemed awfully eager. She must not get much of a chance to leave Dojicorp, being the Emerald Champion's daughter and all. Still, Sachiko couldn't help liking her. Sachiko bid Kamiko good day and exited into the hallway. Maseto was waiting to escort her to the elevator, an impersonal smile on his face.
Sachiko still couldn't figure out quite what was wrong with the man, but she did not like him. She looked up from the glass elevator, back at the seventy fifth floor. Maseto was stared down at her as she descended, grinning coldly the whole time.
Chobu huddled in the shadows behind the dirty old hotel and cursed the day he was born. The news had pegged him as the ringleader of the assassins. What the hell was that all about? He pulled the hood of his coat up over his face and stood, checking his pocket to make sure all his scrolls were still there. Good thing he hadn't trusted those cops to begin with and had hidden them before even going into the palace. That Wasp had certainly been surprised to find out he could cast his spells without them.
What now? He wasn't a Badger anymore, he was an Imperial Assassin, a scapegoat, the focus of an Empire wide manhunt. He had to get out of the city.
Suddenly, light flooded into the alley as a car rounded the corner. Chobu squinted and held up one hand to deflect the glare. Cops.
"Hey, you!" said a voice from the car's loudspeaker, "Come away from there with your hands where I can see them."
Chobu nodded and took a few steps away from the wall, holding his hands out to his sides. He tilted his head so his hood hung low, shadowing his face.
"What are you doing back here?" the loudspeaker crackled. The passenger side door opened and a Shinjo officer stepped out, looking Chobu over.
Chobu kept slowly walking toward them.
"Answer me," the speaker said again.
"I AM SHINJO, LORD OF THE CABBAGE PATCH!" Chobu chanted and fell down on a trash can.
"What the hell?" said the cop standing over Chobu.
"Careful, Maku," the other cop said, stepping out of the car, "He could be dangerous."
Chobu picked up a half eaten sandwich from nearby and shoved it into his hood, pretending to eat it as he crouched on his hands and knees.
"This guy's not dangerous," Maku said, "He's just drunk. Or a lunatic."
"Or both," the other cop said.
"Or neither!" Chobu growled, lunging up and stabbing a broken bottle into Maku's neck.
"Holy--" the other cop swore.
"Guess again," Chobu laughed, pulling the pistol out of Maku's belt and firing it into the other Shinjo's face.
The two police crumpled to the pavement in twin puddles of blood. Chobu scowled, tucking Maku's pistol into his coat. He strolled casually over to the police car and took the shotgun out from its rack in the front seat. As an afterthought, he snatched the handcuffs off the driver's corpse, too.
They want me to be a killer. They want me to be a lunatic. Chobu chuckled. I was already both. They just gave me a reason.
And he walked off into the night.
Bayushi's Labyrinth was not a mere amusement park. It was an entertainment masterpiece. Rides, shows, restaurants, sporting arenas, shopping malls, the Labyrinth had everything, and everything was designed to the exacting specifications of a very particular young man.
Before Bayushi Oroki had built the Labyrinth, it had been nothing. A graveyard of neon signs and discarded machinery from various failed Scorpion business ventures. It was a gift from his father at his coming-of-age, a worthless property stowed away in a dank cave in the deepest sections of the city. It was more of a cruel joke than a gift, a demonstration to the young man how unlikely it was that he would ever rule the Scorpion Clan.
Oroki took this, as he took so many things, as a personal challenge. He used what little clout and finances he had, called upon several favors, enlisted some foreign investors, and made the Labyrinth one of the greatest tourist attractions in the capitol. It was all things to all people, everything anyone could ever want. It was also Oroki's home, his domain, his private sanctum, his neon multicolor dream. Oroki stood by the window, among the shadows of his private library, watching the ferris wheel turn outside.
The large man stopped several feet away, politely making just enough noise for Oroki to notice.
"Yes, Zou?" Oroki replied, turning only slightly. His red mask reflected the light of the carnival.
"Soshi Zanjin and Hachami have been murdered," Zou replied simply.
"Explain," Oroki said, still watching the ferris wheel.
"They were badly mutilated," the bodyguard replied, his voice muffled slightly by his customary rubber elephant mask, "Zanjin was hurled from the roof of one of the fun houses through the window of a shop across the street. Hachami was torn into several pieces."
Oroki spun on his heel, his eyes intense and angry. "Does anyone know?" he hissed, "The police?"
"No," Zou replied, "Only a few members of the staff, and they are loyal. We have closed down that area of the park and increased security."
"Well done, Zou," Oroki said, "No police in my Labyrinth."
"And the killer?" Zou asked.
"Find him," Oroki said, "And deal with him as an enemy of the Scorpion."
"Yes sir," Zou said, "By the way, Isawa Saigo is here to see you. He waits in the lobby."
"Ah," Oroki said, glancing at his pocket watch and snapping it into his pocket again, "My two o' clock. I have looked forward to this all week. See him in, Zou."
The bodyguard nodded and vanished. A moment later, he returned, leading a pale, skinny man with ragged hair and bloodshot eyes, dressed in dark clothing.
"My friend!" Oroki said convivially, holding a hand out to indicate one of the library's overstuffed chairs, "Please have a seat. How have you been?"
"Not good," Saigo grumbled, sitting himself gingerly in the chair and staring suspiciously at the tall shelves of books looming on every side. "I had no idea you had so many books."
Oroki chuckled, sitting in the chair opposite Saigo, crossing his legs and lacing his fingers. "Information," Oroki said, "My vice is my lust for information. Ever the domain of the Scorpion, and of course our brothers the Phoenix." Saigo nodded in acknowledgment as Zou delivered a tea tray.
Oroki looked around at the books. "Knowledge of the past is rare in these times," the Scorpion continued, "It has gotten me where I am today. Zou and his brethren give me knowledge of the present, also an advantage over my opponents. And you, my good prophet, deliver me knowledge without compare. Knowledge of the future. And I have all sorts of things you want. This is why we are such good friends, eh, Saigo?"
Saigo smiled weakly. "I haven't been feeling well, Oroki. Lots of dreams."
Oroki nodded. "The work of a prophet is thankless," his voice was pleasant and understanding, "It must be maddening to see all futures but your own. The Elemental Masters are good people, but they are very busy. They have no time to see to your needs properly."
Saigo's eyes shifted about the room rapidly, ignoring the cup of tea Zou poured for him.
"Zou, Zou, Zou," Oroki laughed, taking up his own cup, "This man obviously does not need tea. His tastes are more refined. Go fetch him his payment." Zou nodded and vanished again. "Payment?" Oroki repeated with amusement, "Rather I should say gift. One pays employees, not dear friends. Now, what have you predicted for me this week, prophet?" Oroki produced a pad and pen from his pocket, clicking the end of the pen with his thumb.
"Omens most dire," Saigo said, running a hand through his hair nervously, "A great darkness wells in the heart of Rokugan. I fear the Last Days come."
"Last Days?" Oroki said, writing down every word.
Saigo nodded. "The Final Battle."
Oroki chuckled. "Saigo, it seems you're always predicting an apocalypse. I thank you for the warning. What of my clan ?"
Saigo rubbed his temples. "A new mask to lead them," he mumbled, his voice not entirely his own, "The White Scorpion rises with strife and struggle."
"White Scorpion?" Oroki continued taking notes.
"The White Scorpion shows the way to the true path and to the dark path. The White Scorpion has a heart of darkness, and may destroy them all."
Oroki copied every word carefully. "And myself? What of my future?"
Saigo nodded, his eyes rolling back. "Hunted..." Saigo said, his voice even more ominous, "You will be hunted by the Void... only on your own terms shall you survive."
"How comforting," Oroki remarked, undisturbed by the prophecy. He knew better than to truly ignore Saigo's words. The prophet's predictions had given him enough warning to pull out of his first cartel and pin the evidence on his brother Kenburo so that dolt Hatsu could arrest him. Saigo was never wrong. That was why he was such a troubled young man. Why he did the drugs Oroki so gladly offered him. Anything to forget the future, if just for a little while...
Zou returned carrying a small box. Saigo seized it eagerly, snapping open the lid and counting the vials inside.
"All there?" Oroki asked, still scribbling calmly in his pad.
"Yes, as always," Saigo said with a relieved smile, standing, "Thank you, Oroki."
"My compliments," Oroki replied, putting his pen away. "Any news on the Master of Fire's condition?"
Saigo shook his head, frowning. "Coma," he said, "The drugs may have done something permanent to his brain."
"Unfortunate," Oroki said stiffly, "Did they ever discover who supplied him with Daikoku's Milk?"
Saigo shook his head, pocketing his box.
"A mystery," Oroki concluded, "Go now, my friend. And enjoy your evening in my park. Hachami is ill tonight, so I will supply you with an equal substitute."
Saigo waved goodbye as Zou led him from the library. Oroki looked over his notes, deep in thought as he puzzled out the prophet's riddles. White Scorpion? That could only be Shiriko. Kogeiru, Oroki's father, was the current daimyo of the Scorpion after his older brother's disappearance ten years ago. His daughter, Shiriko, should have inherited the mantle, but was only seven at the time. Now, she was almost of age. Oroki's father was a weak and ineffective daimyo, and was prepared to turn the Clan over to Shiriko as soon as she was eighteen. Oroki had heard that she was a cultured and intellectual Scorpion, given to throwing large parties and spending a lot of money. That sort of person could be this White Scorpion, the doom of his clan. He would have to confront her when the situation presented itself, discern her motives.
And if the situation did not present itself, there were other methods...
Sumi sat on a cold steel chair next to the hospital bed, her face creased in a little frown.
"Will he wake up today, Nitobe?" she asked. She asked it every day.
The healer turned, his face grim. "No," he said stiffly, "Isawa Asa will not wake up. He may never wake up. Mayhap he should have considered this before he did what he did."
Sumi looked down at the floor, her face creased in a little frown. She was a very young girl, just a teenager, a very pretty girl (though she didn't think so), and of late she found she was often a very sad girl.
Nitobe looked at Sumi. He was a very professional man, one who prided himself on the strength of his morals. Still, he could not help but feel sorry for the girl. "I am sorry if I was abrupt," he said carefully, "But your father's condition is a precarious one. I assure you we will do whatever is within our power to repair the damage done to body and soul."
Sumi nodded, holding back tears. Asako Nitobe quietly excused himself from the room to see to his other patients. Sumi reached over and took her father's hand, looking intently into his blank, unseeing eyes. Her own green eyes were red rimmed from crying.
"Sumi," said a voice from the door.
She turned, and suddenly smiled. "Uncle Kujimitsu!" she exclaimed, hopping up from her chair and embracing the man.
"Hello, little flower," Kujimitsu laughed, abandoning his attempts to remove his coat and hugging her back.
"Should you not be in class, child?" hissed a terse voice from behind him. A lean, dark figure stepped into the room.
Sumi broke away from Kujimitsu and glared at Zul Rashid, her little round face intense.
Rashid returned her stare, his craggy face cold and bleak.
Rashid cracked first, the corner of his mouth breaking into a small smirk.
"Uncle Rashid, you're so mean!" Sumi giggled.
Zul Rashid could not help but laugh out loud. He clasped his hands and bowed formally, then kissed Sumi on the cheek. Kujimitsu covered his own smile with one hand. Sumi was the daughter of the Master of Fire, but all the Masters had had a hand in raising the girl, and none of them could resist her smile.
"How is your father?" he asked, his voice gentle but serious.
"The same," she said sadly, taking a step back and gesturing at the comatose figure with one hand. "Nitobe is not very hopeful."
"He never is," Kujimitsu replied, "Sour little man." He stood by the side of Asa's bed and sighed deeply.
Asa lay still, eyes closed, a limp and lifeless form. Tubes ran into his nose and arms; machines clicked and beeped around him, preserving his life. Asa was a young man, barely old enough to be Sumi's father, but his ordeal had left his face haggard and worn.
"Why now, old friend?" Kujimitsu asked, "Of all times, now."
"What?" Sumi asked, looking from Rashid to Kujimitsu, "What's happening?"
"Dire portents," Rashid said, resting one hand on Sumi's shoulder, "Nothing you need concern yourself with, young one. I hear you are falling behind in your classes."
"It's not my fault," Sumi said, "Those teachers don't know what they're talking about."
"Don't they?" Rashid remarked wryly.
Kujimitsu chuckled. "You look tired, Sumi. Why don't you go home? We can handle Asa for awhile. I am sure your mother would like to see you as well."
Sumi nodded, yawning. "That's a good idea, Uncle," she said, rubbing her eyes, "I am pretty tired. Thank you Kujimitsu-sama, Rashid-sama." She bowed low an kissed her father on the forehead. "Father, please wake up," she whispered. And she was gone.
"You never cease to amaze me, Zul Rashid," Kujimitsu laughed, settling his wide body into the chair.
"Truly. And why is this?" Rashid replied curiously, folding his arms and leaning against the window sill.
"You're always so dark, so grim, so invulnerable and mysterious," the shorter man said, "but whenever you're around Sumi-chan, the facade crumbles. Have a care, gaijin, or I shall expose to the world that you are not such a heartless sorceror after all."
Rashid smiled. "She reminds me of my own daughters in Medinaat al-Salaam. I look upon her, and I see them. I wonder if they have become half so beautiful or so clever. I wonder if they have married, or if in ten years they have thought well of their traitorous father."
"Rashid, you are no traitor," Kujimitsu said, "The khadi--"
"Speak not of them again!" Rashid shouted, spitting on the floor. He calmed himself. "I am Phoenix, Master of Air, now and forever."
Kujimitsu only nodded, shocked by his friend's outburst.
"I am sorry," Rashid said quietly, "Please, just let the matter of the khadi rest. What are we to do about Asa?"
Kujimitsu sighed, leaning on the edge of the Master of Fire's bed. "What is there to do? Daikoku's Milk is a potent drug and a virulent poison. We are lucky he is still alive. Nitobe tells me that when he awakens, it will be months before his body and mind recover. He will never be Master of Fire again. What will we do?"
"I will find the man who did this and kill him," Rashid swore.
Kujimitsu started, surprised again by Rashid's intensity. "Actually," Kujimitsu said, "I meant what would we do about selecting a new master?"
Zul Rashid shook his head. "There are few skilled in fire in this day," he said, "Only Sumi shows even a talent. The kami adore her. But she is too young, her mind too unfocused."
"The Master of the Void said there was someone," Kujimitsu added.
"Then by all means," Rashid said, "I hope that the Master finds this someone."
Funuke was, without a doubt, the most clever thief that ever lived. Who could compare?
No one. He dropped nimbly, pulled away the straps of the Asako Mini-Gyro and stashed away behind some nearby bushes, then breathed in the fragrant air of the Fantastic Gardens. After scoping out the Dojicorp Building for eight months, tonight was the night, finally the right time. After the other night, the Doji House Guard were scrambling to tighten the security of the lower floors. And ignoring the upper floors. This suited Funuke just fine. He bought himself one of the Phoenix's cheap personal gyros and dropped in from above. The Fantastic Gardens were where they kept all their best toys anyway.
"Case in point," the thief laughed, strolling into the clearing and plucking a small statue of Shinsei from a marble table. Pure gold. "First catch of the day," he said, slipping it into his pocket.
Not that sneaking in here had been easy. The Gardens were surrounded by complex perimeter sensors. The Shosuro nightvision goggles had gotten him past those. They had been mighty expensive, but if he found more toys like this statue, he'd be making a profit in no time at all.
Voices. To the south.
Funuke quietly ran out of the clearing and slid under a bramble bush. His thick bodysuit would keep off the thorns, and no one would look for him here.
"I must say, Tetsugi," one of the approaching voices said, "This has been a most illuminating evening."
Funuke caught his breath as they entered the clearing. Doji Meda, some Emerald Magistrate, and the High Priest, followed by a little kid in robes.
"I have learned much," the magistrate replied respectfully, "The coming times shall be less difficult when men of honor can stand together. The gardens are very beautiful this evening, Munashi-sama." They passed the marble table.
"My thanks," Munashi said, gazing at the table with his one blue eye, "I do try to keep them presentable."
The kid ran toward the bushes, dangerously close to Funuke, and started picking flowers. The thief kept holding his breath and slowly reached toward his knife.
"I will show Tetsugi out, my friend," Meda said to the priest, "I know you have many preparations to make for the Festival."
"Indeed," Munashi said, still staring vaguely at the table, "I've some weeding to attend to, as well." The two samurai left.
The kid looked right at Funuke, and giggled. Funuke scowled and put his finger over his mouth. The child mimicked the gesture with a grin. Funuke had never killed a kid before, but if he had to... He drew the knife from his belt quietly.
"The Gardens are indeed beautiful this evening, no?" Munashi said, presumably to the kid. He traced his long fingers across the surface of the empty table.
"A most beautiful prison is what they are, in truth," the priest continued. Funuke wished the old bag of bones would wander off and talk to himself somewhere else.
"I am Munashi, the greatest Asahina since Yajinden. Am I daimyo? No, that is Meda's role. Am I Jade Champion? No, that is for the Fox. Am I a Master? Nay. I was unlucky to not be born a Phoenix, and envy is a dark, dark sin." Who was he talking to? The kid obviously didn't understand him, still giggling and nimbly plucking flowers from the thorns.
"Fate, perhaps? No. Demands placed by the kharmic wheel, spinning our lives to its pleasure," the priest looked at his reflection on the swirled surface of the table, a sad expression on his face. "The ancestors say 'Rise, Munashi! Rise high or forever be low! Forever exterminating vermin.' It is a penance, but it must be borne. Pekkle, bring me the thief."
Funuke gasped. The kid smiled. Funuke spun and crawled away quickly, but was suddenly seized by the belt. He glanced back and goggled in surprise. The kid had shoved his arm right through the thorns, grabbed him, and was still smiling, the bouquet of flowers in his other hand. Funuke stabbed at the kid's hand with his knife.
The blade broke.
Pekkle giggled and pulled Funuke straight up through the thorn bush. The branches tore and gouged at the thief's skin and he screamed in pain. The small child's strength was amazing. He dragged the thief back to the center of the clearing with one hand and spun him to face Munashi, switching his tight grip to the back of Funuke's neck.
"Where is the statue?" Munashi asked calmly.
Funuke weakly pulled it from his pocket and held it out in one bloody hand.
"On the table, please, as it was."
Funuke carefully replaced it.
"What..." Funuke gasped, "This kid... what the hell is he?"
"Pekkle?" Munashi asked, his face bland, "Why, he's an oni, of course. I summoned it from hell myself."
Funuke's mouth dropped open. Blood trickled into one of his eyes. Pekkle giggled.
Munashi shrugged. "I have to amuse myself here somehow. I just don't like gardening, and Pekkle is such an interesting companion."
"What are you going to do with me?" the thief whimpered pathetically. Pekkle strengthened its grip on his neck and shook him a little.
"Well," Munashi said, frowning sadly, "I abhor violence, but now that you know Pekkle's secret, I suppose I'll have to kill you."
"K-kill me?" Funuke stuttered, "But I didn't know until you told me!"
"I know," Munashi smiled, "Ironic, isn't it?"
Pekkle made a fist.
Genju Gemmei set her knitting aside and changed the channel. She just couldn't watch TV, not anymore. It was all bad news and violence. It hurt too much to watch. Another shooting, only three blocks away this time. It could have been Jiro, this time. It could well be Jiro. He still wasn't home.
Gemmei sighed. She could move out, maybe, but what would that accomplish? All her friends were here. Her job was here. She'd been a teacher so long what else could she do? Her students depended on her, and maybe she could make a difference to a few of them if she stayed. Besides, Jiro would never leave. He was too stubborn, like his father and his brother.
She hoped Danjuro was doing well. She knew he was doing well. She just hoped he hadn't changed, but then she knew that he had.
She looked at the clock again. Well past midnight. She sighed and looked at her knitting again. Her heart just wasn't in it. She was worried about Jiro. She could grade some papers, but she knew she'd just make mistakes. She was just too distracted.
There was a knock at the door. Gemmei heaved her stout little body out of the armchair and prayed to the Fortunes that it wasn't the police. She opened the door.
"Danjuro?" she said with a gasp, taking a step back.
Akodo Daniri smiled weakly and took off his sunglasses. "Hi, mom," he said, "I'm home."
Sumi slowly made her way down the sidewalk, counting the cracks. The neighborhood surrounding the hospital was not the best, and if she'd thought about it she probably would have taken a bus, but her thoughts were not currently focused on herself.
What would happen to father? Was he really as doomed as Nitobe said he was? What would the Masters do without him? Would they replace him? With who? A cold wind blew around her legs as she waited for the light to change. She stamped her foot in irritation as she realized she left her coat at the hospital. Suddenly, a swirl of heat surrounded her, and she was warm. She smiled and thanked the kami for their protection.
Suddenly, a scream erupted from around the corner. A scream of fear, a scream for help. Sumi realized she was the only person in sight. She jogged up to the corner and peeked around, hugging the wall.
A group of five shaven headed, leather-clad young punks in leather jackets, members of the local gang known as the Bishonen, stood in a circle in the street. In the center of them, a robed woman in dark hair lay in the street, covering her head.
"Get up, you freak!" one said, stepping over her and spitting. "Get up or we make you get up!"
"Make her, Zak," another chuckled, "Lessee you make her."
Sumi clutched the wall, wishing she could do something. She felt helpless. Just a girl, alone.
"A Phoenix is never alone," it was her father's voice, from when she was very young. She remembered it now. Another pulse of heat swirled around her, angry this time, reflecting her own anger.
Zak grabbed the prone woman's hair and tugged at it. She shrieked. "Hey, freak, are you listening?" he demanded.
The Bishonen all turned. Sumi stood in the middle of the street. The air around her rippled subtly in a haze of heat.
"What the hell?" said one.
"It's a Phoenix!" said Zak.
"She's cute," said another.
"What are you doing to that woman?" Sumi demanded.
"None of your business," Zak answered loudly, starting to walk toward her, "You samurai scum don't give a crap about us, so don't interfere with our business or you'll end up like her."
"Little girl samurai," chuckled another, "trying to tell us what to do."
"Actually," Sumi said, waiting till they got a little closer, "I'm a shugenja."
"Get her," Zak ordered.
Sumi did nothing. The fire kami protecting her, on the other hand, was absolutely enraged. The street around her suddenly erupted into white flame, causing a nearby window to melt with the heat. Sumi stood unharmed in the midst of the blaze, smiling slightly.
"Holy crap!" Zak cursed, falling back and slapping at his singed eyebrows.
Sumi took a step forward. The fire roared and arced up around her, surging closer to the Bishonen.
"Run," she commanded.
The Bishonen fell back, and Zak drew a pistol from his pocket. Sumi's heart froze. Suddenly, a hole folded open in the air behind him and a large, bandaged man in deep red robes stepped out onto the street. He grabbed the back of Zak's neck in one hand and crushed the consciousness from him. A squat ratling appeared at his side, clutching a long metal staff.
"We are the Elemental Masters," the bandaged man said, his voice booming, "Leave now or there will be difficulties."
The ratling tapped the end of his staff on the ground, at the street shook.
The Bishonen fled.
Sumi's aura of fire vanished as Ishikint and the Master of the Void came toward her. Ishikint glanced at the Master speculatively to see if he was as surprised at the girl's raw power. The Master revealed nothing.
"Ishikint! Master!" she shouted, running towards them, "Where did you come from?"
"We would not allow the daughter of Isawa Asa to return home unattended," the Master of the Void replied in his odd, echoing voice. He glanced down awkwardly as Sumi caught him in a hug. Ishikint laughed, but then Sumi tackled him, too.
"Ishikint thanks you," the old ratling said, "Now please let Ishikint breathe, Sumi." "That woman!" Sumi said, suddenly letting them both go, "We have to check on her."
Sumi ran toward the robed woman. She was sitting on the curb now, her long hair falling over her face.
"Hello?" Sumi said, standing before her, "My name is Isawa Sumi and these are my friends. Are you all right?"
The woman looked up at Sumi, and the hair fell away from her face. She was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman Sumi had ever seen. Her face was round, her eyes a brilliant silver, and her red lips were pulled into a tight frown. And her skin was green.
"Thank you," the woman said, "I am the Zin."
Ishikint crouched low, his eyes wide. "By the Seven Thunders!" he exclaimed, "Look at her!"
Sumi frowned at Ishikint. "So she's a mutant. You've seen mutants before. So what?"
"Sumi don't understand," Ishikint said rapidly, scampering past her to bow low in front of Zin. He laid his staff on the ground before her and flattened his ears reverently. "Asako Ishikint, Master of Earth, adopted son of the Phoenix Clan," he said formally. The ratling looked up, his beady eyes filled with awe and respect. "Ishikint welcomes you back to Rokugan, Naga."