THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
"There are three major legitimate consumers of Shosuro microcircuitry in Otosan Uchi," Oroki said, "Kitsu Ikimura, Hoshi Jack, and of course myself." The Scorpion glanced up, the light of the computer screen reflecting upon his crimson mask.
"This is nothing," Hatsu said with a grimace, pacing back and forth across the monitor room. "Sachiko discovered that information over a week ago. The circuitry itself is relatively harmless, mostly used in long range monitoring systems for satellites and remote control electronics. Also, both Kitsu and Hoshi can account for all of their purchased circuitry."
"As can I. But listen to what I said carefully, detective," Oroki replied, amusement apparent in his voice.
"Legitimate consumers," Hatsu repeated, seating himself next to the Scorpion, "You imply that there are other sorts of consumers?"
"Exactly," Oroki answered, "This same sort of circuitry is useful not only in receiving, but also in broadcasting. I use it for bugs and small transmitting devices. The circuits are very hardy and compact, difficult to damage and excellent conductors. In theory, they would be particularly adept at broadcasting electromagnetic pulses."
"The Locust Clan?" Hatsu replied, "They use EMPs in their raids, and rumor has it they're moving into Otosan Uchi."
"My thoughts exactly," Oroki said, "By the way, your informants are slow, Kitsuki. The Locusts are already in Otosan Uchi, and word is they are preparing for something."
"But does it necessarily have anything to do with the tetsukansen?" Hatsu countered, "The Locusts are thieves. They've never been involved in black magic before. Most Locusts aren't of the samurai caste and don't even believe in real magic, thanks to Scorpion propaganda."
"We do our best," Oroki said smugly, "However, the public face of a group is not indicative of the whole. Not all Locusts are fools, obviously, especially the upper echelon, as is apparent by their skill in avoiding capture by your Unicorn associates. Perhaps they've decided that conquest of Otosan Uchi will require something more than the mundane and have branched out into the black arts?"
"Speculation," Hatsu answered.
"All solutions begin with speculation, Kitsuki," the Scorpion chuckled.
A red light flashed on one of Oroki's control panels, beside a small black telephone. The Scorpion tensed when he saw it, then picked it up.
"Oroki," he said.
"Yes," he said.
"Yes, of course," he said, "My troops are at your disposal, Shiriko-sama. I shall dispatch them at once." He hung up the phone.
"Bayushi Shiriko?" Hatsu asked curiously.
"Yes," Oroki replied bitterly, "The newly coronated Scorpion daimyo. A curious turn of events. Shiriko has requested that I send some of my men to assist in the city's defense."
"Against what?" Hatsu asked. "Who knows?" Oroki asked, "I'm apparently not important enough to be privy to such information. Yoritomo has declared war upon the world. This sort of silliness was bound to occur. We're safe enough down here, though. Shouldn't affect the Labyrinth much."
Hatsu glanced at the wall of monitors, displaying various parts of the city. "Nothing seems to be different," Hatsu said, "I see no signs of an attack."
"It has yet to occur," Oroki said, "Don't be so surprised, Kitsuki. We Scorpion have ears everywhere. And I do mean everywhere."
Oroki paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing behind his mask. The lights in the room dimmed, then brightened again.
"What was that?" Hatsu asked.
"Someone's cut the power to my Labyrinth," Oroki said, an angry edge to his voice.
"The creature?" Hatsu asked.
"No," Oroki said, "The park has redundant internal systems. You could cut circuits all day and nothing would happen. This had to be done from the outside."
"I assume this room has an auxiliary generator?" the Dragon asked, standing and scanning the monitor screens.
"Of course. The whole park has auxiliary generators," the Scorpion chuckled, "Personally, I prefer to sit here in the dark until our would-be predators show themselves and then trap them inside. My security systems are most remarkable, Kitsuki."
"There," Hatsu said, pointing at one of the screens. A squad of heavily armed Imperial Magistrates trooped into the entrance of Bayushi's Labyrinth, led by Tsuruchi Kyo himself. "Damn," he said, "He's found me."
"Quite a trick," Oroki replied, "Even I wouldn't have thought to look for you here. To tell the truth, I'm disappointed. I'd always hoped that the first person to enter the Labyrinth's gauntlet would be one of my enemies, not one of yours."
"This isn't a game, Oroki," Hatsu said, "There are twenty Guardsmen out there. We have to go."
"You're not dead yet, Dragon. Kyo hasn't earned it." Oroki reached out and flipped a switch. The Labyrinth came to life.
Mirumoto Rojo waited in the shadows of the parking lot. Twenty fully armed Wasp magistrates were too many for Hatsu to defeat on his own, even with the help of his Scorpion ally. No, this would require assistance.
The first magistrates had come earlier in the day, undercover, when the park was still open. Rojo had noticed them then, seen their dark hearts for what they were.
A bright neon scorpion dominated the end of the tunnel leading to Bayushi's Labyrinth. A small scrap of yellow and green cloth flapped from one of its claws. To most, it was a random piece of refuse. To those who knew, it was a Mark. Rojo had placed it.
Many may have noticed the Mark, but only one man had made any note of it. His name was Kemmei Ichiro, the owner of an ice cream store out visiting the park with his family. He was a quiet man, a peaceful man, a man that few others took note of. He returned home immediately and telephoned a man he knew only as Gunjin, the sensei of a small martial arts dojo across town. Before today, they had only met once, and had said almost nothing to each other. The men spoke few words before Ichiro hung up again; there was nothing to discuss.
Gunjin in turn called a woman named Kyoko, a librarian at the Otosan Uchi Academy of Fine Art. They had been introduced when Gunjin came to the city six years ago, but had not spoken since.
Kyoko left the library at once, stopping at a small tattoo parlor in an unremarkable part of the city. The tattoo parlor was run by three brothers, Asahi, Shougo, and Mayonaka. No one ever visited the tattoo parlor; most were disturbed by the odd behavior of the brothers. It was a wonder the shop was able to stay in business. They accompanied Kyoko with hardly a word of explanation.
Jakuchu was a prominent local electronics store owner and a volunteer fireman. While trying to sell a television to a young couple, he happened to notice Kyoko and the brothers walking past the store. Without a moment's hesitation, he clocked out and joined them.
By the time Gunjin and the others had arrived, Kemmei Ichiro had sent his wife and family to spend the night with the neighbors. He had donned a suit of lacquered green armor and retrieved his daisho from behind the furnace in the basement.
"Mirumoto Ichiro," Gunjin said, stepping into the apartment and removing his coat. Gunjin wore only an armored kilt, breeches, and boots. Hit thick chest was covered in tattoos, depicting pointed leaves.
"Togashi Gunjin," Ichiro said with bow, "I have seen the Mark."
"Then we must go immediately," Kyoko said. She had changed into robes of red and green, and wore a pouch of scrolls upon her belt. Jakuchu nodded his agreement, removing his own coat to reveal armor similar to Ichiro's.
"The moon rises," Mayonaka said.
"The dark storm calls," Shougo added.
"Tomorrow may be too late," Asahi finished.
The seven walked the streets to Bayushi's Labyrinth, where Ichiro had seen the Mark. They arrived shortly after Tsuruchi Kyo and his men entered the Labyrinth. Mirumoto Rojo was waiting for them. His dark trenchcoat flapped in the wind of the tunnel, revealing the ancient armor he wore beneath.
"Greetings," Rojo said, bowing to his Dragon cousins, "It is time."
Shinjo Rakki was a good cop. Well, as good a cop as you could manage to be after working the harbor for three years. So far, he'd been shot three times in the line of duty and had to jump into the bay once to ditch of a group of smugglers packing a little more armament than they had a right to.
Rakki had always been a lucky fellow, but even luck had it's limits. In his time on harbor night patrol, Rakki had learned that Shinjo Tower was a long way away, and sometimes peace and quiet were more important than justice. He wasn't a bad cop, but he wasn't as innocent as he used to be.
"Evening, officer," said a short, stocky man in an overcoat. Rakki recognized him as Mago, a local sailor and lightweight smuggler. He smiled nervously at Rakki and put his hands in his pockets.
"Evening," Rakki replied, absent-mindedly twirling his nightstick in one hand, "How's it going, Mago?"
"Fine. Fine, officer," Mago said, leaning against a post in an effort to appear nonchalant.
"What are you unloading?" Rakki asked, pointing with his nightstick at the pile of crates at the end of Shinjo's gangplank.
"Oh, those?" Mago replied, "Nothing, nothing. Just... nothing."
"I'll just have a look then," Rakki replied, snatching up a crowbar off the dock and strolling over to the nearest crate. He levered it open easily while Mago hovered fretfully nearby.
"Snack cakes?" Rakki said, confused, holding up a shrink-wrapped treat. Mago's nighttime shipments were usually more along the lines of prescription drugs or bootleg videos. "Turning over a new leaf, Mago?"
Mago shrugged. "Amijdal snack cakes. What with the war going on and all, I suspect the Emperor to put a ban on imports any day now. I'm stocking up."
"You're smarter than I give you credit, Mago," Rakki said, tossing the cake back into the crate. "I assume you have all the necessary paperwork for this shipment?"
"Ah... er..." Mago rifled through his pockets, laughing nervously, "Actually, officer, I..." Mago quickly drew a small pistol, and his face fell in surprise when he saw Rakki's was already drawn.
"Don't make me shoot you over a cupcake, Mago," Rakki said, his voice an angry hiss, "This doesn't have to go there."
Mago hesitated, then reached for the trigger. The dock exploded with a thunderous roar. Shinjo Rakki was hurled through the front wall of a nearby warehouse, splintered lumber and flaming cakes clattering down all around him. He gasped for breath, scrambling to his feet and checking himself for injuries. He seemed unharmed, his body armor absorbing most of the punishment. What had happened? Mago must be a bigger player than he'd thought to have that sort of weaponry.
Another explosion rocked the docks, and Rakki saw a warehouse further down the pier go up in a bright red fireball. What was going on?
Then Rakki noticed Mago. The upper half of him was laying nearby, his face frozen in a look of shock. Rakki walked over and took Mago's gun from his hand, his own pistol lost in the explosion. He crouched in the wreckage of the warehouse and scanned the docks for some sign of his attackers.
After a moment, a shiny metal dome rose from the bay near Mago's listing ship. Water streamed from it's surface as it emerged from the waters, hovering upon a quartet of powerful jets. A pair of spotlights shone from the front of the machine, scanning the docks methodically. The machine lurched forward suddenly and landed with a crunch on six insectoid legs. It was gigantic, large enough to contain an entire bus, and resembled a large, black beetle.
"Shinjo's breath, what is that?" Rakki mumbled to himself.
A large ramp unfolded from the side of the vehicle, dispatching a dozen men in gold and black armor with flared hoods. They each carried automatic rifles, with sabres on their belts. The leader gave a command in a foreign tongue, and they fanned out in pairs to secure the dock. Behind them, another domed ship rose from the harbor, firing missiles into another warehouse.
"Senpet!" Rakki said in disbelief, "In Otosan Uchi!" He fumbled for his belt radio, turning the volume down as far as it would go. "Officer Shinjo Rakki to Shinjo Tower," he whispered, "Come in, please, emergency situation on Golden Sun Bay!"
"I am receiving you, Officer Shinjo," the dispatcher replied, "What is your situation?"
Rakki thought for a moment. They really didn't have a distress code for something like this in the officer's manual. "Invasion!" he said, "Otosan Uchi is being invaded!"
"I'm sorry, repeat?" the dispatcher answered.
"OVER HERE!" shouted one of the Senpet, swinging the light on his rifle to bear upon Rakki. In the distance somewhere, gunfire and more explosions erupted.
Without hesitation, Rakki fired his pistol three times. The Senpet went down just as his partner rounded the corner. Rakki ran for his life. As the Senpet opened fire behind him, he glanced once more at Golden Sun Bay.
A dozen more Senpet ships were rising from the water.
"I should be dead," Rashid said.
"You were," the doctor said as he cleared his throat nervously. Rashid could tell he was fresh out of medical school, wasn't exactly confident in what he was doing yet, and wasn't quite sure what was going on himself. Fool.
"Yes, well," the doctor continued, adjusting his tie as he consulted his clipboard, "Your wounds were severe, Master Rashid, and in fact for quite a while your vital signs indicated that you were, in fact, dead. However, your body seems to have a remarkable regenerative ability. It's a wonder you've finally regained consciousness. Masters Kujimitsu and Sumi were quite worried about you."
"You're going to be okay now, Uncle Rashid," Sumi said with a little smile, sitting down next to the hospital bed where Zul Rashid lay.
"My heart is gone," Rashid replied, his voice dull and lifeless.
"Of course it's gone, Rashid," Kujimitsu chuckled, "You're a khadi. You always suggested as much, but I never really took you seriously until I saw what happened in the Temple."
"No," the sorceror replied, his eyes full of pain, "I mean it is truly gone. I sense it no more. Something has happened. Something has happened to the Jewel of the Desert."
Kujimitsu and Sumi glanced at each other nervously. "Rashid," Sumi said slowly, "Medinaat-al-Salaam was destroyed. A Fire Dragon nuclear warhead was detonated in the city."
Rashid closed his eyes, holding one hand over his chest.
"Many were able to evacuate," Sumi said, " Maybe your family--"
"ENOUGH!" Rashid shouted, lashing out with one hand and shattering a vase of flowers on the nightstand. "I have had enough! Enough death! Enough loss! Let it end!" He turned to the doctor, his eyes full of pain. "Why do I not DIE?"
The doctor shifted, folding his arms behind his back. "I'm... I'm sorry?" he said.
"There is something," Rashid said, clutching his chest, "There is something inside of me. I can feel it. It keeps me rooted here."
"Er, yes," the doctor said, "About that. Due to your regenerative abilities, we were unable to remove parts of the metal blade that pierced your sternum. The bone kept healing over before we could dislodge it. There was a shard left, buried deep in your chest cavity, but it didn't seem to be harming any of your vital organs so we left it be until you could recover."
"You left a piece of the demon Oni no Kaze inside of me," Rashid hissed, "A sliver of the Elemental Terror of Air finding a home in the heartless Master of Air. How ironic."
"We had no choice," the doctor said, "I've called Asako Nitobe, the foremost surgeon in Otosan Uchi. He was going to come in tonight and look into the matter."
"To Jigoku with Asako Nitobe," Rashid chuckled, leaning back in his bed and staring at the ceiling, "He can no longer help. To Jigoku with us all."
The doctor blinked and looked away. "Well, if you'll excuse me," he said meekly, "I have other patients."
"Of course, doctor," Kujimitsu said quietly, "I'm sure Master Rashid will be fine. This is a difficult time."
The doctor exited, and Kujimitsu and Sumi stood to the side of Zul Rashid's bed.
"Extraordinary, the amount of time we Phoenix spend in hospitals of late, is it not?" Rashid said to Kujimitsu.
"I would prefer the hospital to the alternative," Kujimitsu replied, "Asako Ishikint, Shiba Mifune, and the Master of the Void were not quite so lucky."
Rashid smiled wryly. "Perhaps we shall come to envy them," he replied, "I've a feeling that the worst is yet to come. That Asako said as much. What sort of world is this where the Fortunes can warn us of the evil that is to come but can do nothing to prevent it. This world is a cruel joke."
"Don't talk like that, Rashid," Sumi said, "You have to have hope."
Rashid smiled at the young Master of Fire, his eyes moving to the katana still tucked under her belt. "Ofushikai," he said, "You carry the Phoenix Sword, little Sumi?"
"I didn't know who to give it to," Sumi replied looking down at the ancient blade, "After what happened to Shiba Mifune."
"Mifune had no heir," Kujimitsu added, "It appears the line of Shiba dies today."
Rashid laughed out loud, a hoarse, brittle laugh. "After all this time, old friend," he said, shaking his head, "What you must think of me. The khadi may be evil, but they were my own people. My family. To think that I would betray them out of some sense of duty or honor. No, Kujimitsu. That sort of betrayal requires a stronger emotion to fire it."
"Emotion?" Kujimitsu asked.
"Perhaps I was wrong about the Fortunes," Rashid replied, gazing at the pearl encrusted hilt of Ofushikai, "Destiny is craftier than humans or demons can perceive, and its course cannot be swayed."
"What are you talking about, Uncle Rashid?" Sumi asked, concerned. She rested one hand upon the hilt of the katana. It was warm to the touch.
"During the battle, Sumi," Rashid said, turning to the girl as he sat up in the bed, "Did the sword appear in your hand when you needed it? When you were in danger?"
Sumi looked at Kujimitsu. "Yes," she said, "Yes, I suppose it did. Why?"
The sorceror grinned, laying back in the bed and closing his eyes painfully. "Ask your mother."
"What?" Sumi said.
And then the first explosions broke out, across the city, on the bay.
"What in the name of the Seven Thunders?" Kujimitsu exclaimed, running to the window.
The door to the hospital room burst open, and a pair of Unicorn samurai entered, the police guards posted on the door.
"Master Kujimitsu, Master Sumi, we need to get you out of here," the first said abruptly, "Master Rashid, can you walk?"
"If necessary," Rashid answered in irritation, "Just what is going on?"
The Unicorn paused a moment. "It appears the Senpet are attacking."
Daniri yawned, popping his back in several places as he stretched his arms out to his sides. "This is too early to be filming," Daniri grumbled, "And we both know it."
"Can't be helped," Ayano said, shrugging as she sipped from a styrofoam cup of coffee. "If you'd finished the scene right when we filmed yesterday, we wouldn't be here."
"Well you're in a mood," Daniri said with a smirk, breathing in a lungful of the sea air.
"Don't start, Daniri," she said tersely, "You may think you're cute and charming but you're not. Not to me. Not today, at any rate. Ikimura was on the phone whining at me all night and I don't need any of your nonsense." She pushed past him and walked toward the large warehouse that the Akodo War Machines crew had appropriated for storage. Daniri watched her go, bewildered.
"What was that all about?" Daniri asked as his co-star, Sheng, strode up toward him. Sheng was a muscular man with a shaved head and an unexceptional face. He portrayed the perfect thug since he was an excellent stuntman and had a face unremarkable enough that the makeup artists could easily change his appearance to play several different parts, even in the same episode.
"I heard the insurance companies were getting on the studio's case about Akodo," Sheng said, "They're still making a fuss about her."
"Why's it any of their business?" Daniri replied, annoyed, "I'm the one putting myself at risk. There isn't an insurance company in Rokugan that'll give me a policy because of the ridiculous things I do on this show."
"I don't think it's you they care about," Sheng laughed, "I think they're worried that you're going to crash the damn War Machine into an orphanage and blow up a bunch of nuns."
"Well, that's certainly possible," Daniri admitted, "but if I did anything like that, I'm sure I'd feel very sorry for it."
Daniri headed into the warehouse. It was going to be a long day of filming, and he might as well get started. The sooner he could get this over with, the sooner he could return to hunting for the Locusts. The inside of the warehouse was full of busy crew members and technicians. A large curtain was drawn around one corner of the warehouse, and Daniri headed for that.
"How are things going?" Daniri asked, peeking through.
A withered little old dwarf turned to peer at Daniri through thick spectacles. He scratched at his moustache and turned back to the computer terminal at which he was typing away. "Fine, fine, everything's as fine as it's going to be," he said.
Daniri stepped past the old man, staring up in pride at the massive machine standing against the wall. It resembled a thirteen foot golden samurai, sculpted entirely of steel. A circle of metal blades surrounded it's head, sweeping back in a mane. Large fangs protruded from it's upper chest and waist, giving the impression of a gigantic lion's head. In its left hand it carried a broad bladed sword, four feet wide and seven feet long.
"She looks good," Daniri said, turning back to Ikimura.
"She ought to," the old man replied, shoving away from the desk and hopping to the floor, "Took me almost five hours to work out all the dents you put in her yesterday."
"You're a master, Ikimura-sama," Daniri said, looking at Akodo again.
"No, I'm a servant," the old man chuckled, "That great metal beast is the master. Seems I spend half my life taking care of it and the other half making excuses for it."
The Akodo War Machine was the best kept secret of the Lion Clan Production Company. The show had two aces in the hole to guarantee its success. The first was Daniri, the most athletic and charismatic star the Akodo school had ever produced. The second was the War Machine itself. It was real.
Kitsu Ikimura, a man dedicated to creating the most powerful and realistic on-screen visuals in the industry, had been asked by Ayano to create the War Machine effects, visuals the like of which had never been demanded for film or television. In turn, Ikimura had hired a group of Kaiu engineers and Isawa tetsukami artisans to assist his own crew in the design. The final result was Ikimura's masterpiece, Akodo.
She was a one-of-a-kind mechanical juggernaut, a giant suit of tetsukami armor capable of moving with the speed and quickness of whoever wore it. Like all tetsukami, the spirits in the armor could be finicky and temperamental, but Akodo's kami seemed particularly fond of Daniri. When the young actor donned the War Machine, the feats of martial prowess and acrobatics it could perform were mind boggling. The show was a runaway success, and the critics praised the amazing illusion Ikimura had created.
"Illusion indeed," Daniri laughed to himself, running one hand over the smooth golden surface of the armor.
"Daniri, get away from there!" Ikimura snapped, slapping his hand away, "I've got three more diagnostics to run before we start. I'm not about to let this thing leave the garage before it's ready."
"All right, all right Ikimura-sama," Daniri said soothingly, stepping away to the curtain. He pushed his way through and quietly closed it behind him, heading back out of the warehouse to watch the sun rise.
When Daniri reached the door of the warehouse, there was a sudden pealing explosion, sending the ground into tremors.
"What's going on?" Ayano shouted from her seat, where she had been going over the script. "Those idiots down the bay didn't set off the charges early, did they?"
Daniri opened the door and ran out onto the docks. A dummy fish warehouse that had been rigged to blow for the shoot today, but that was in the opposite direction.
Daniri skidded to a halt at the edge of the docks, his jaw dropping open. Out in the water, over a dozen domed ships were rising from the deep and taking to the air. One had already landed further down to the east along the bay, next to a warehouse that was wreathed in flames. Another ship flew over the docks to the west, firing several missiles into another warehouse and consuming it in fire.
"Look at that!" Sheng said, scratching his bald head and laughing, "Looks like we've got some competition, Daniri!"
"This isn't a movie, Sheng, it's an invasion!" Daniri shouted, "Get the others and get the hell out of here! They're blowing up all the warehouses to secure the docks. Ours might be next!"
Sheng stood with his mouth working wordlessly. Daniri sighed. Sheng was a good actor and tough in a fight, but he wasn't the brightest man he'd ever met. Daniri turned and ran back into the warehouse.
"Ayano! Ikimura!" he shouted, "Evacuate the warehouse! The city's being invaded!"
Ayano stood, her features immediately freezing into an expression of stern authority. "Well, you heard him!" she commanded, gesturing to the crew, "Grab what you can and run inland with it! You!" she pointed to a young stage hand, "Contact KTSU studios at once. I'm sure they shall want the scoop on this. And someone contact the Matsu. If they're not on their way already, they'll be sorry they missed out on a chance to fight."
She folded her script under her arm and hurried toward the rear entrance while the crew all scrambled around her, quickly disassembling the expensive cameras and lights as best they could and hauling them off. More tremendous explosions rocked the building, drawing slowly closer.
"Ikimura!" Daniri said, throwing aside the curtain, "We have to go!"
"I'm not going anywhere," the old man said, turning with a bitter scowl, "I'm not done yet."
"There's no time to finish the diagnostics!" Daniri said, grabbing Ikimura's shoulders and turning him away from table, "This whole place is going to be destroyed!"
"Then so will I!" the old man said vehemently, "I'm not going to abandon Akodo. If it's destroyed, I might as well be, too."
Daniri smiled, his movie star smile. "What made you think I was going to leave her behind?" he asked.
Ikimura turned and smiled. "You always did do the right thing, boy," he chuckled.
The Scarab lurched forward over the dock, streaming fire and smoke from its hoverjets. The pilot held the controls steady, while the gunner locked the forward missile pods onto a large warehouse in front of them.
"Prepare to fire," the captain said.
Suddenly, the front of the warehouse burst open, and a giant charged onto the docks. The rising sun reflected off of its golden armor and the large sword it held in its hand. It threw its head back and roared.
"Argh!" the gunner grunted, shielding his eyes from the brilliant glare reflecting off of the giant.
"What is that?" the pilot asked.
"Fire," said the commander.
The missile pods coughed, and a quartet of needle-shaped projectiles streaked toward the docks.
"Enough showboating, Daniri," the actor mumbled to himself, "move!" He leaped to one side, the armor moving even more swiftly and fluidly than Daniri could himself. The missiles continued past him, impacting violently with the docks. The Akodo War Machine rolled nimbly and stood.
"Wow," the pilot said, "That thing is fast."
"Stop admiring it," the captain said brusquely, "and destroy it before it attacks."
The gunner nodded, firing several more missiles at the golden warrior.
"Oh for the love of--" Daniri swore, breaking into a run. Unfortunately, the Akodo War Machine, as powerful as it was, was a prop. None of the weapons on it were really lethal, except for the sword. He'd just have to keep moving.
"It's too fast," the gunner said, "The heat-seekers won't lock on to it for some reason."
The captain nodded. "Sahir," he called out to the air.
"Yes captain," came the reply over the intercom.
"Dispatch the jinn," he commanded.
Daniri glanced back at the hovering ship. They'd stopped firing at him. They must have run out of missiles. Just then, he heard a series of pings, like pennies being dropped on the floor. Turning around, he saw four men in gold and black armor, firing automatic rifles at him.
"Stop that," Daniri said tersely, his voice echoed by Akodo's own roar.
The men fell a step back, intimidated by the War Machine's invulnerability, but they kept firing.
"I said STOP!" Daniri shouted, bringing the giant sword down hard on the docks. A shockwave rippled through the ground, splitting the heavy timbers and knocking the gunmen off their feet.
The wind swirled behind him, and Daniri turned to see a large figures with wispy, immaterial legs floating down toward him. It had skin as black as obsidian, and a long white hair that streamed out on the winds as it descended.
"Surrender, child of Rokugan!" the creature demanded, "I am prepared to demonstrate mercy!" It pointed one finger toward Daniri, firing a bolt of electricity into the War Machine's chest. Daniri stumbled and fell to one knee, disoriented by the shock.
"Fool!" the jinn laughed, folding his arms across its chest, "You are helpless against the Jinn of the Silent Tower!" It clapped its hands together, producing another bolt. Daniri threw himself to the ground, dodging by mere inches.
Daniri pointed with his right arm, firing off the rack of four tiny missiles on his forearm. Of course, they were only smoke missiles, but the jinn had no way of knowing that. It dodged quickly to one side, and Daniri had enough time to get back to his feet.
"You are quick!" the jinn said, "But you can not outrace the--" Daniri threw the War Machine's sword, impaling it in the jinn's torso and interrupting it's sentence. The jinn dispersed into a cloud of black mist and the sword fell to the docks below with a loud 'thunk.'
The Scarab hovered down in front of him, firing with a pair of heavy machine guns. Daniri quickly turned and ran.
"I definitely shouldn't have thrown the sword away," he mumbled to himself as the Scarab fell into pursuit, chewing up the docks behind him with bullets.
Daniri glanced ahead as he ran. The warehouse before him and to the left was still intact. He recognized the large fish painted on the front doors, and smiled. Daniri redoubled his pace, leaping into the air and crashing through the warehouse's loading doors.
"It went into that warehouse, sir," the pilot said, turning to the captain.
"Follow it," the captain ordered, "It killed a jinn with one blow. Something that powerful cannot be allowed to escape."
"Yes, sir," the pilot replied. The Scarab crashed through the all too flimsy wooden walls of the warehouse in pursuit. The pilot paused, blinking in confusion at the monitor before him.
The War Machine was gone.
"Where is it?" the captain demanded, leaning over the pilot's shoulder and frowning at the monitor, "Where could it have gone?"
"There!" said the gunner, pointing.
Through the rear window, they could see the head of the golden warrior. It held up a detonation plunger in one hand, waved with the other, and pressed the plunger.
Daniri fell flat as the dummy warehouse exploded all around him. Being an Ikimura explosion, it was of course designed to be spectacular. The earth shook, shrapnel flew everywhere, and a pillar of yellow flame curled into the sky. It took nearly two minutes for the conflagration to subside enough for Daniri to risk looking up. He sighed in relief as he caught sight of the tattered husk of the Scarab leaning awkwardly in the middle of the wreckage.
Two more Scarabs hovered into sight, drawing a bead on Daniri with their missile launchers. "Oh, Amaterasu, no," Daniri moaned. He was still laying prone, covered with debris from the explosion. It had been a good fight, but he was done.
Then the sky screamed, and a pair of crimson and black jets streaked over the harbor, riddling the two Senpet ships with missiles. The Scarabs broke apart and barreled into the harbor. The War Machine shrugged off the debris and ran over to the edge of the docks, snatching up its lost sword and saluting the receding fighters.
"Beautiful!" shouted a voice behind him, "That was just beautiful!"
Daniri whirled around to see Kitsu Ayano standing defiantly on the blasted docks. A large samurai stood by her side, pointing a camera at Daniri.
"Ayano!" Daniri exclaimed, "What are you doing here?"
"Haruki here was recording your heroism," Ayano replied, "KTSU will eat this footage up. I certainly plan to make them pay for it. Daniri, that bit with the sword was just wonderful. I couldn't have choreographed it any better. And blowing the warehouse? Genius."
Along the harbor, more Scorpion helicopters and jets struck back against the Senpet. Out on the bay, the Mantis warships were beginning to return, and receiving a rather rude welcome from the Senpet barricade.
"Okay, okay, I'm a genius," Daniri said, "Now let's get out of here before our genius is rewarded posthumously."
"Any resistance?" the commander said into his intercom.
"Negligible, sir," came the reply, "Some dock security. A few Mantis. One of the Scarabs got too close to a warehouse when it went up, but we haven't lost anything else. They didn't leave much to guard the city itself."
"Noted," the commander said, "Continue to secure landing stations for the rest of the Scarabs. The outer Mantis patrols are as yet unaware of our passage, and I want a secure defensive position in case of an airstrike."
"Right away sir," the soldier answered.
"May Adnan's own luck be with you," the commander concluded.
Commander Athmose was a logical man, a methodical man. He was not the sort to take chances. As far as he was concerned, this entire assault was a ridiculous chance, with little to nothing to gain. He had already made his peace with the gods of the dead, but he didn't plan to make it easy for the Rokugani to kill him. They would have to work for it.
"Doubts, Commander?" oozed a thin, shaven-headed man, appearing on a monitor screen.
"Massad!" Athmose growled, lurching forward in his chair, "I told you not to contact me!"
The Jackal produced a small skull in one hand, a child's skull. He smiled fiendishly as he gazed into its eye sockets. "I am not under your command, Athmose," he chuckled, "We are allies now, remember? I go where I please."
"If we are allies, then get to work," the Commander snarled. "Have you accomplished your mission?"
"Nearly," Massad said, "The famed Shinjo Tower is not nearly so impregnable as it seems. In Medinaat-al-Salaam the City Guard would have killed one like myself on sight. Getting myself arrested here was all too easy. I feigned illness in my cell, then strangled the guard who came to my aid. He was the first to feed the Slayer. Now I have found all sorts of new friends to play with."
"Spare me the details," Athmose grunted, "Just neutralize the Unicorn as the Pharaoh has commanded. Fail us at your peril, Jackal."
"I will do as we have planned," Massad said calmly, smiling and gazing into the empty sockets of the skull, "but make no mistake. I have no fear of you or your armies, Commander Athmose. I am Omar Massad, the King of Ghuls, the most dangerous man alive. Death serves me. Even your Pharaoh lives by my allowance. Lucky for you I hate Yoritomo more than I hate her. Now be a good little Senpet and dispatch the rest of my gang. I'm so lonely with only the voices of the dead to keep me company."
Athmose nodded, scowling. "I'll send them. I'll be glad to be rid of them. Athmose out." He switched off the monitor.
"Worthless dog," Lieutenant Seforete sneered, spitting on the floor of the bridge.
"That he is," Athmose said hoarsely, "but our Pharaoh believes that his dark magic may yet prove useful. With any luck, the Unicorn will kill him. At any rate, I don't plan on giving him a ride back."
"The Pharaoh has lost her mind," Seforete replied, "This is a suicide mission, a feeble show of defiance before Yoritomo crushes us forever. To ally ourselves with the lesser factions is pure madness!"
"Allow yourself to think that way, Lieutenant, and we have already lost. Our common enemy gives us a common cause," Athmose said quietly. He pressed the intercom switch on the panel before him. "Sergeant Akhent, what is the status of your charge?"
The sergeant's slightly woozy voice came over the intercom. "Commander?" the sergeant said shakily, "I think I was knocked unconscious. Fatima... she's gone."
"Good," Athmose replied. So she was already in the city. But why had she left ahead of schedule? To a military mind like Athmose's surprises were not welcome. He clicked a switch on his control panel, placing his Scarab on full alert.
In the shadows of Golden Sun Bay, a single figure crept, the prize pupil of the Old Man of the Mountain. Fatima smiled slightly as the noisy Scarabs of the Senpet crunched into the docks all around her. Such a show, and all put on for her benefit. The Senpet attack was a final show of defiance, not expected to truly pierce Otosan Uchi's defenses. It was also distraction. A distraction planned to fool the Mantis Emperor into thinking the Pharaoh would settle for a frontal attack, a distraction designed to sow chaos and to provide Fatima ample confusion to carry out her true mission.
Truly, distraction was important. The Senpet were doing so well at this point that if she waited much longer the Rokugani wouldn't have a chance. That wouldn't do. Fatima pressed a small button on her belt. A full minute later, she smiled with satisfaction as a squadron of red and black fighter jets whipped out over the harbor and began firing into the Senpet.
"An eternal curse deserves eternal revenge," she whispered, and vanished.
Yasu ignored the first few explosions. After all, it wasn't every day you got box seat tickets to the playoffs. Whatever it was, the police could handle it. The seats had been a special gift to Kaiu Toshimo from Doji Meda. The Steelboys and the Berserkers were tied at the bottom of the seventh, and whoever won this one would go on to the Diamond Series.
Sirens began to wail across town. More explosions erupted, closer. The whoosh of a jet plane passed uncomfortably close to the stadium. A nervous ripple ran through the crowd, and even some of the players in the field began to look around anxiously. Toshimo and Yasu exchanged glances.
"Always on my day off," Toshimo grumbled, getting up from his seat. "Hold on, Yasu, I'll go pull the car around." The old Crab turned to exit the box.
"I think the situation is about to explain itself," Yasu said, pointing.
A pair of large, dark shapes hovered high over the open dome of Diamond Stadium. One was a dark crimson helicopter bearing the mon of the Scorpion, the other was a large black hovership resembling a giant beetle. The two ships wheeled and circled about each other, exchanging machinegun fire in staccato bursts. The crowd began to panic, screaming and running from the stands. The Berserkers and Steelboys cleared the field.
"Amaterasu!" Toshimo exclaimed, "That's a Senpet Scarab!"
"That chopper is toast," Yasu remarked, watching the far more maneuverable hovership bank and circle about.
As Yasu predicted, the Senpet ship spun in midair and fired a pair of small missiles from a forward pod just below its forelegs. One struck the Scorpion airship in the tail rotor, sending it into a spin. The other flew wild, striking the stadium dome and exploding brilliantly in a shower of rubble. The Scorpion chopper spun clumsily, winding down to the ground and settling with a crunch in the center of the baseball field.
"Good pilot," Yasu remarked, looking through the Hida Berserkers binoculars he'd bought at the souvenir stand, "Not that it did him much good."
"Not against that Scarab," Toshimo replied, "State of the art war machine! What I wouldn't do to get my hands on one of those!"
"Maybe they'll give it to me if I ask nicely?" Yasu asked.
Turned and arced downward into the stadium, descending upon the crippled helicopter for the kill. The Scorpion pilot and crew fled, running for cover.
"Don't say I never got you anything," Yasu replied. He turned his baseball cap backwards and leapt over the edge of the box into the field.
"No, Yasu!" Toshimo warned, but knew it was too little, too late. He ran out of the box, headed for the garage.
The young Crab, unarmed and unarmored, sprinted across the baseball field toward the hulk of the Scorpion gunship. The Scarab spun about in midair, spraying the field with random fire. Yasu dove, rolled, and came back to his feet running.
"Run for your life, fool!" a samurai in red and black armor shouted to Yasu as he headed in the opposite direction.
Yasu ignored him. The Scarab began firing its machineguns directly at the fleeing Scorpions. Four of the six went down screaming, and Yasu just ran harder. He dove into the body of the gunship just ahead of a burst of bullets, rolling into the pilot seats.
"Please tell me the weapon systems are still on-line," he mumbled to himself, flipping switches on the control panel, "Please, please, tell me."
The Scarab hovered down into view before the cockpit, bringing its missile pods to bear once more.
"Funny," Yasu said with a grin, "I had exactly the same idea."
A Scorpion gunship is equipped with a bank of eight Tangen Missiles, among the most powerful and deadly air-to-air explosives available. Generally, only two or three of these missiles are ever fired by the gunner simultaneously, as the backward thrust tends to cause subsequent launches to fire in increasingly random vectors and deteriorate the pilot's control of the vehicle.
Yasu launched both banks at once, not even bothering to lock on.
Six of the missiles collided with the Scarab, detonating in a great sphere of fire. Two more flew wild out of the dome and into the city; Yasu prayed that they would hit Crane buildings. The Scarab went into a nose-dive, steering itself toward the helicopter that had crippled it. Yasu leapt free of the battered wreck as the Scarab collided with a brilliant thunderous crash. He rolled on the field to douse the flames that had caught the back of his Berserkers jacket and stood.
The Scarab lay awkwardly on one side, a flaming hole in its hull the size of an elephant.
A ramp opened on the bottom of the Scarab, deploying a group of twelve black and gold clad soldiers. Yasu's smile fell. "Damn," Yasu said, "That thing was built to last if they survived that!"
Yasu was still close to the wrecked ships, and the soldiers hadn't yet noticed him. He could run; they'd never even know he was there. They'd never know he'd escaped. The four Scorpions still lay wounded or dead on the ground, easy targets for the Senpet. The people in the crowd were in a riot, hundreds of them mobbed at the exits and unable to escape due to the debris and general chaos.
"Damnit Yasu," he added, "You have to pick the stupidest times to get heroic." He glanced about for a weapon, and noticed he was standing on home plate. A solid oak baseball bat lay on the ground at his feet. He hefted it in one hand, comparing its weight and balance to a tetsubo.
Yasu charged , screaming and swinging the bat. The Senpet turned, startled. "Welcome to Otosan Uchi!" he shouted, downing the first of them with a swift blow to the base of the skull. Yasu grabbed the fallen man's rifle and dropped behind one of the Scarab's hoverjets for cover as he began picking off the others.
"Kill him!" shouted the Senpet Commander, who immediately fell clutching his throat. Yasu glanced to one side and saw the two remaining Scorpions crouching in the dugout, giving him support fire. They were damn good shots, too. More than he expected from Scorpions, to be sure. Not that it would do them much good; they were still outnumbered badly.
"Welcome to Otosan Uchi!" he shouted again, "Home of the Berserkers!" He kept firing, putting down two more of the Senpet and emptying his gun. A bullet clipped his shoulder, throwing him to the ground with a grunt. "I should never have left my armor in the car," he mumbled as the Senpet took aim again.
A blare of a truck's horn erupted from the far side of the stadium, and the wall exploded. A monstrous black and grey truck churned through the rubble, a demonic stone head grinning from atop its front-mounted ram. A pair of large gatling guns clicked into place over the cab, firing twin bursts of molten metal into the hull of the Scarab where the Senpet crouched for cover, scattering several of them to the astroturf. The five remaining soldiers fired a few token shots at the juggernaut, then fled across the baseball field, where the Scorpions mercilessly gunned them down from behind.
The truck screeched to a halt beside the wreckage of the two ships with a final blare of its horn. Yasu staggered over to the driver's side door just as Toshimo stepped out, a rather satisfied grin on his face.
"Uncle Toshimo!" Yasu said, "How did you get out of the parking garage so fast?"
"I was determined," Toshimo said, nodding back to the swath of destruction the vehicle had left, "People just sort of got out of my way. That was a very stupid thing you just did, Yasu."
"Yeah, but it was fun," he said.
"You were shot?" Toshimo asked, looking at Yasu's shoulder.
"Yeah," he replied, "Now get out of my truck. My armor's in there."
One of the two remaining Scorpions strode up to the truck, his manner calm and regal. "Thank you, Crabs," he said with a florid bow, "I am Bayushi Taigo of the Clan Scorpion. Shosuro Hanzo and I are in your debt for this timely and... memorable rescue."
"No problem," Yasu said, tossing the baseball bat into the back of his truck and fetching out his retractable titanium tetsubo, "I'm Hida Yasu and this is Kaiu Toshimo. I'm guessing this wasn't an isolated incident?"
"Not nearly," Taigo said, glancing across the field toward his comrade, who was inspecting the Senpet for survivors, "The city is being invaded by the Senpet."
"Great," Toshimo said, shaking his head as he checked the balance on a large pistol Yasu handed him, "Just wonderful. This is all the city needs now. Where are they headed?"
"The Diamond Palace," Hanzo said, returning his smoking pistol to its holster as he ran up to join them.
"Then I guess we'd better stop them," Yasu replied, donning his steel jingasa. "You two need a lift?"
"Madness!" Doji Meda shouted, pounding his fist upon his blue crystal desk, "Pure insanity! What have they to gain?" Asahina Munashi stood behind the Emerald Champion, calm and collected. His child servant stood nearby, playing with a small doll. "The Senpet are cornered, wounded, without recourse," the priest said with a sad smile, "Who can predict what people in such a situation will do?"
Meda moved toward the window. From this high in Dojicorp tower, he could see the fires crawling across the city, from Golden Sun Bay inexorably toward the Palace.
"I never thought I'd see such a sight in the Imperial City," Meda said, folding his arms behind his back and shaking his head.
"Jealous?" Munashi asked.
"Excuse me?" Meda replied, turning quickly.
"It's nothing less than you planned yourself, my friend," Munashi said calmly, running his wizened fingers along the Ancestral Sword of the Crane, mounted on a steel and crystal stand beside the desk, "They merely seek to end Yoritomo's madness."
"But I--" Meda froze, his face torn with doubt, "I never intended anything like this..." He indicated the window with a wave of his hand.
"Didn't you?" Munashi asked mildly, "The road to Jigoku is paved with good intentions, Meda." The priest smiled at the child as he threw his doll in the air. "There is no change without sacrifice."
"What are you suggesting, Munashi?" Meda asked coldly.
"Tsuruchi Kyo has disappeared. As Emerald Champion, you now command Otosan Uchi's Imperial armed forces as well as your Cranes," Munashi replied, "I only suggest that you recognize opportunity when it comes."
Meda stared out the window for a long moment, his face torn with indecision. Munashi calmly contemplated the minimalist Kakita Inoue painting on the wall while the child giggled to himself. Coming to a decision, Meda returned to his desk and lifted the telephone.
"Hai, Meda-sama," answered Daidoji Eien, the new captain of the House Guard. Machinegun fire could be heard in the background.
"Pull back," Meda said, "I want the House Guard to place a defensive ring around Dojicorp and the surrounding areas. We are in a vulnerable position here."
"But sir," Eien said, his voice uncertain, "The Senpet appear to be headed toward the palace. If we make a concerted assault with the Scorpion and Mantis now, we'll have them outnumbered. Especially with the Unicorn and Lion on the way."
"The Scorpion and Mantis can handle themselves," Meda replied, "Your home is undefended. Return at once."
"Yes, Meda-sama," Eien said reluctantly, "Eien out."
"See?" Munashi said as Meda hung up the phone, "Not so difficult. No harm was done. No evil. Should the Senpet strike down our maddened Emperor, it is not your fault."
"Then why do I feel like a traitor?" Meda asked hoarsely.
"The feeling will pass, my friend," Munashi replied, "When Rokugan is safe once more."
"We shall see," Meda replied, "Munashi, please leave me. I prefer to be alone with my cowardice"
"Not cowardice," Munashi replied, "Heroism is defined by its results. Come, Pekkle. Meda-sama is an important man. He has much to think about." The elderly shugenja folded his arms in his sleeves and moved to the door of the office, exiting in a swish of blue silk as Pekkle skipped along behind him.
Meda stood at the window for a long time, watching the advance of the powerful Senpet Scarab ships and their legions of jinn. The Scorpions slowly fell back before them, battered by magic and raw firepower. The Mantis struggled to take a foothold in the bay, but were repeatedly repulsed. The Senpet were nearly three fourths of the way to the Diamond Palace, right on the doorstep of the Museum of Natural History.
A cold fist grabbed Meda's heart.
He returned to his desk, lifting the phone.
"Yes, Lord Meda?" came the voice of his secretary.
"Where is my daughter?" he asked, his voice full of dread, "Where is Kamiko?"
He already knew the answer.
Kamiko stood on the steps of the museum, staring off down the street as the night wind whipped her kimono around her. Thunder rumbled in the streets.
"The explosions are getting much closer," she said.
"Perhaps we should go back inside," Maseto replied, "Whatever is going in can't possibly concern the museum."
"I hope Kameru got home all right," she said, worried.
"He left hours ago," her yojimbo answered, "As we should have." The streets shook as another Senpet missile hit. "Now let us seek cover, Kamiko-chan."
A large Scarab ship barreled down from the sky, streaming smoke and fire. It crashed hard into the street just a hundred yards from the museum, skidding to a halt with a sound of tortured metal and plowing through three parked cars and the front windows of a department store.
"Maybe you're right," Kamiko said, turning and heading back up the steps. She pushed open the doors of the museum and ran inside. Maseto joined her several moments later.
"Doji's Tears!" Maseto cursed, looking back through the glass doors toward the wreck, "The troops inside that ship survived the crash!"
"What are Senpet doing in Rokugan?" Kamiko asked, looking over Maseto's shoulder and watching as gold and black armored soldiers crawled out of the wrecked ship.
"Mission of vengeance, no doubt," Maseto answered, "Rokugan has much blood on its hands today."
"Well we should be safe in here," Kamiko said, "What business would they have in a museum?"
Maseto scowled. "Look," he said, pointing. "That man, the one with the short staff. He is a sahir, the Senpet equivalent of shugenja."
"So?" Kamiko asked.
"You forget, Kamiko," the yojimbo replied, "Rokugan's history is rich in magic. To one with the proper knowledge, this so-called museum is a veritable arsenal. No doubt he has already sensed the power in this building."
True enough, the sahir had already turned and pointed, and the soldiers were trooping down the street toward them.
"We should leave," Maseto said, turning, "There should be fire exits--"
"Leaving already, little mortals?" laughed a voice above them, and behind. Kamiko and Maseto whirled around, to see no one.
"Ill wind," Maseto said.
"Exactly," replied the voice. A sudden breeze swirled in the center of the lobby, and a rising mist congealed into the shape of a giant. He wore only loose pants and a vest, and a pair of large horns curled from the sides of his bald head.
Maseto drew his pistol, firing several shots into the giant's chest. The giant laughed, a booming, arrogant laugh.
"Fool!" he shouted, "I am the Jinn of the New Moon! It is time for you to suffer as my brothers and sisters in the City of Stories suffered. Your chapter in history is done, Rokugani!"
The Jinn clapped his hands together, producing a bright flash of light and a wave of force that tore through the lobby, toppling furniture and scattering statuary. Maseto was flung against the wall, his sword clattering from his hand. Kamiko threw herself to the floor, taking cover behind one of the museum's couches as the wave passed.
"Maseto!" she cried, "Are you all right?"
"Unhh..." Maseto moaned, leaning back against the wall, blood trickling from a gash in his forehead. "I think my leg is broken, Kamiko," he said, reaching for something on his belt, "Get out of here!"
"Yes, run little Kamiko," the Jinn laughed, sauntering across the lobby towards them, nonchalantly kicking aside a toppled statue of Hantei III, "We jinn love a chase."
Kamiko stood her ground, glaring at the spirit.
"Kamiko, LEAVE!" Maseto shouted. Kamiko ignored him.
"You have fire, little one," the jinn said, smiling, "But is it enough?" "Find out," Kamiko said.
The jinn laughed and brought one foot down on the floor, sending another wave ripping through the tiles toward her. Kamiko leaped to one side as the couch split in two and took to the stairs, running to the next floor.
"Come back, girl!" the jinn demanded, "We are not done yet!"
Kamiko could hear the Jinn of the New Moon's laughter growing swiftly closer, and pushed herself harder to reach the next floor. There had to be something. Maseto had said that the museum was an arsenal. There had to be something here that could kill a jinn. She couldn't remember anything on the second floor that fit such a description. She kept running up the stairs, dodging behind a lifesize statue of Kakita Toshimoko and toppling it down the stairs.
"GRAAGGHH!" the jinn roared amid a crash of breaking stone. "A clever trick, little one, but not clever enough!"
Kamiko ran out into the third floor. It was completely open, nowhere to hide, with glass cases displaying famous weapons.
In the center of the room, Yashin gleamed at her.
The Jinn of the New Moon stormed onto the third floor in a crackle of blue lightning, laughing out loud. "Your race is at an end, little one!" he shouted, "You have run out of stairs!"
Kamiko turned, with Yashin clutched in both hands.
The jinn arched an eyebrow and smirked. "A sword," he said, "Your friend's gun doesn't work so you use a sword. I should tell you now, mortal, Rokugani magic is notoriously inept at harming my kind."
Kamiko said nothing. The katana seemed to glow white.
"So be it, then," the jinn said. He clapped his hands together, producing another wave of force.
Kamiko stood in the center of the room, unaffected as the glass cases and furniture rattled all around him. The jinn paused, confused. Kamiko charged at him, blade cleaving the air.
"Mortal, your pathetic blade--"
The jinn fell to his knees, a deep gouge across his stomach. Sparkling white blood poured from the wound to the floor. "How?" he asked, his face full of fear and shock.
Kamiko slashed again, cutting open the jinn's throat. The Jinn of the New Moon scattered into a cloud of brilliant motes of starlight and was no more. Kamiko stood over the jinn as it discorporated, reveling in the kill and her victory.
With a gasp, she returned to herself, throwing off Ambition's spell and realizing her situation. "Maseto!" she exclaimed, realizing that he was still on the ground floor. By now, the Senpet soldiers would be there.
"Over here, Captain Rathma!" shouted one of the soldiers, "I've found someone!"
"Excellent," Rathma replied, strolling across the lobby, clicking the butt of his staff sharply on the tiles. "Looks like a Crane," the wizard observed. "Those are the cultured ones. Perhaps he can help us out, eh? Be our personal guide to this little treasure trove? I am prepared to show you mercy if you do so, Crane. A much better offer than your Emperor gave our people."
The Crane huddled on the floor, clutching his hands to his chest. The other soldiers gathered around, pointing their weapons at the man.
"What is he doing?" Rathma asked suspiciously, "Is he wounded?"
"No," Maseto said, glancing up with a fiendish grin. He was clutching a black canister in his hands.
Rathma fell a step back, staring at the Crane fearfully. "What-" Rathma stuttered, "What are you going to do?"
"What I must," Maseto said. The canister burst, and the lobby filled with fire.
"What in Jigoku is going on in this city?" Otaku Kojiro demanded, throwing open the door of his office and nearly knocking down a passing officer.
"Some sort of disturbance down at the harbor," Shinjo Chikafusa said, hurrying toward the captain, "We got a garbled message from an officer Rakki who was at the scene."
"What did he say?" the Captain demanded.
"Well," Chikafusa chuckled, "You won't believe this.
"What did he say?" Kojiro demanded loudly. Everyone in the office turned.
"Um..." Chikafusa replied nervously, "He said the Senpet were invading."
Otaku Sachiko stood from where she had been doing paperwork at her desk, inviting herself into the conversation. "The Senpet?" she asked, "How could they get past the Mantis patrols without anyone noticing?"
"I'm wouldn't know, Sachiko-san," Chikafusa replied, "The transmission terminated abruptly. We've dispatched several officers to the scene."
The elevators at the far end of the office opened, and a trio of armored Battle Maidens marched out. Their leader was a large, middle aged woman with salt and pepper hair and a stony face. She advanced on Kojiro, frowning.
"Daimyo Otaku Shoda," Kojiro said, nodding to the woman, "What brings you to Shinjo Tower?
"The city is under attack," she said without preamble, "The Scorpion have already joined the battle. I will need as many of your Battle Maidens as you can spare. We ride at once."
"Is it really that serious?" Kojiro asked.
"Would I be here were it not, Otaku?" she asked, her eyes narrowing. Otaku Shoda was the highest ranking Battle Maiden in the city, and though the Maidens generally worked alongside the Shinjo police, they were technically a division of the Unicorn military. Shoda's commands could override those of Kojiro or any of the other police, though she did so infrequently.
"I suppose not," Kojiro replied, "Sachiko here can direct you to the others. The rest of my men and I are at your disposal, should you require them."
"If you think it will be necessary," Shoda said, barely concealing her known distaste for the Shinjo magistrates.
The lights in the office suddenly flickered, then went dim. A confused murmur ran through the room.
"Power outage?" Sachiko asked, looking up at the lights.
"Too much of a coincidence," Shoda said. She drew a large pistol from her side, clicking a button on it's handle, causing it to extend into a six foot long spear. Sachiko and the other three Battle Maidens did the same.
"The backups should have kicked in by now," Chikafusa said, blinking in the darkness.
"Officer Otaku Sachiko to Shinjo Tower," Sachiko said into her belt radio, "What is the situation?"
There was no response.
"What's going on?" Kojiro asked, "Where's the dispatcher?" He took the radio from her. "Dispatcher, this is Captain Shinjo on the thirty-ninth floor. Come in."
A hissing sound came over the radio.
"Just static," Chikafusa said.
"That's not static..." Kojiro said.
"Heh..." the radio said, "Heh heh... heh heh... heh..."
The elevator suddenly dinged.
"Get down!" Sachiko said, realizing that the elevator should be out of power like everything else. She leaped behind a nearby desk just as a pair of men in leather vests and bandanas burst out of the elevator and filled the office with gunfire.
Chikafusa screamed and fell backward into Otaku Kojiro's office door, shattered glass spraying all around. One of the Maidens fell as well, her naginata clattering to the floor. Shoda and the remaining Maiden found cover, and Kojiro moved with surprising swiftness, dodging behind a large potted plant. The rest of the half dozen or so officers in the office went down in the gunfire, wounded or worse.
Sachiko waited until the fire stopped, then rolled into a kneeling position and aimed the barrel of her naginata across the top of the desk. The two men were gone, but the elevator remained open. She held her aim steady on the open door. The other elevator dinged, and opened smoothly. A man emerged a moment later and she fired, blasting it directly in the face.
The man stumbled back, half of its face blown away by the power of the rifle, and then straightened. It grinned as well as it could with half a mouth. It was a very pale man, wearing nothing but a simple white smock. "Heh heh heh..." it chuckled, stumbling out of the elevator and heading toward the Unicorns. "Mine?" it gibbered.
"A ghul!" Shoda said, glancing up over the edge of the desk she crouched behind, "Necromancers!"
"What do we do?" cried one of the other Maidens.
Sachiko stood and fired four more shots into the ghul, taking it in the chest twice and shattering the rest of its head with the last two hits. It fell to the floor, twitching. Sachiko fell back behind her desk.
"Mine!" shrieked another ghul, staggering out of the elevator and turning its head slowly on a stiff neck. Two more followed behind it, walking with an awkward, clumsy gait with their arms outstretched.
Another maiden stood, aiming her naginata carefully in shaking hands. The two men emerged from the first elevator, standing behind the ghuls, for cover and fired on her.
"Nakao! No!" Shoda screamed as the girl fell to the floor.
"MIINE!" screamed one of the ghuls, lurching quickly across the floor and leaping onto the corpse.
"No!" Shoda shouted, pointing her rifle over the desk. The two men opened fire again, laughing. Shoda dropped back behind cover, cursing.
"Miine!" the ghuls cackled fiendishly, amid the sounds of loud chewing and snapping armor.
"What the hell's going on?" Kojiro wailed, "What happened on the other floors?"
"The Jackals happened!" shouted one of the men. "In the name of Massad, I welcome you to the City of Bones, Unicorns!" He laughed as he fired randomly about the office, shattering the water cooler and the large glass window that dominated one wall.
Shoda sat on the floor, seething and glaring at nothing. To stand was certain death, but to wait seemed just as certain. Sachiko risked a glance around the side of her desk and caught her gaze. The Battle Maidens nodded at one another.
As one they stood, their naginatas blazing. One of the ghuls went down immediately under their concentrated fire as did the gunman hiding behind it. Another ghul rose amid the desks, its jaws dripping with blood and sinew. It leaped toward Shoda, its claws outstretched. She fell back and swung the butt of her staff, clubbing it in the chin and knocking the creature to the floor. She spun the staff one-handed and stabbed into its chest, twisting the broad blade to split open its ribcage.
The second gunman fired wildly as he turned to run, several of his bullets lodging into the back of the remaining ghul. It glanced back at him curiously, then staggered onward toward Sachiko as she struggled to reload her naginata. The ghul grabbed a large filing cabinet in both hands, the metal surface tearing and rippling as it was lifted overhead. The monster cackled and grinned as it prepared to heave its improvised projectile.
"Mine!" it hissed.
"If you say so," Sachiko said. She aimed and shot the ghul in the wrist, shattering the bones. The creature glanced up, it's eyes widening in sudden comprehension for a brief moment before it dropped the filing cabinet on its own head. The ghul crumpled in a heap of metal.
The elevator closed swiftly. Shoda fired three shots into the doors too late. She snarled angrily, spinning her naginata and collapsing it back onto her hip.
"Kojiro!" she shouted, "How could you allow something like this to happen! This is an inexcusable breach of security!"
"I don't know how those creatures could have gotten inside the Tower!" the Captain said, emerging from hiding, and running over to the fallen Chikafusa, "Our security is second only to the Palace itself!"
"Only to people trying to get in," Sachiko said, kneeling and examining the corpse of a mangled ghul.
"What do you mean?" Kojiro asked.
"Look at this thing," Sachiko said, pointing to the corpse, "Look at what it's wearing. And that scar on its chest. It's an autopsy scar. These things came from our own morgue. They only had to get one necromancer inside, and they had an army ready to open our doors for the others."
The lights in the room flickered, and returned to full brightness. Sachiko and Shoda moved over to the window, looking down to the street far below. Squads of Shinjo police cars mobbed the streets below, and purple-armored samurai fired away at ghuls in the street.
"Reinforcements," Shoda said tonelessly, "Somehow someone must have gotten out a distress call."
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Sachiko said, shaking her head.
"What do you mean?" Shoda asked, turning to the younger woman.
"Whoever brought all of these creatures here had one intention, to contain us within Shinjo Tower. If the Unicorn are here fighting them, then what's happening to the rest of Otosan Uchi?"
A low moan rose from the stairwell and another ghul staggered out into the hallway, dressed in the uniform of a Unicorn officer. Shoda and Sachiko both turned wordlessly and fired their naginatas several times, blasting the undead thing to pieces.
"This is going to be a long night," Sachiko said with a sigh.
"You're the new guy, right?" the girl asked.
"Yes," Jinwa replied, looking up from his book.
"The one they call Ginawa?" she asked. She looked about eighteen, pale, and pretty in a demure way.
"I suppose that would be me," he replied.
"I'm Shima," she said, "but they call me Akiyoshi."
"The geisha that helped Hoturi to escape the Scorpion," Jinwa said with a grin.
"You know about her?" the girl replied, impressed, "Wow. Not a lot of people remember her. When I came here, like, I was the only one. My mom used to tell me stories."
"And she's your particular totem?" Jinwa asked, glancing back at his book.
"Yeah, well, we have a lot in common," the girl replied, pulling a chair from a nearby table and sitting down.
The diner was not crowded at this hour; it hardly ever was. It was the worst part of town, and had few customers, though the few that it did have prevented any outbreak of trouble from ever occurring. It was owned by a member of the so-called New Toturi's Army , a fat old retired soldier who called himself Shotai. The Army used the diner as its primary base of operations, and several members actually lived in the rooms upstairs. Jinwa was one of these, of late. Not that he had much choice.
"What are you reading?" the girl asked.
"Poetry," Jinwa replied, folding a corner of a page and closing a book, "Written by a good friend of mine."
"Is that, like, a Crane thing?" she asked.
"Excuse me?" he said.
"Well, I heard you used to be a Crane. They read poetry and stuff like that, right?"
"Well, I suppose so, but culture is not the exclusive domain of the Doji, my dear. Anyone can and should broaden their cultural horizons whenever possible, it's a simple-"
"Hate to interrupt," said a grizzled man in a long black coat, resting his fists on the table, "but we've got work to do."
"Tokei," Jinwa said, "You've been drinking."
"Helps, believe me," Tokei said, "The magic's easier when I can't hear the spirits talk back. I'm serious, now. We've got to ride."
"What's going on?" Akiyoshi asked.
"Nothing for you, sugar," Tokei replied, "You're still too new."
"But he's new!" she pointed at Jinwa.
"He," Tokei said, copying her gesture, "Is a former soldier, yojimbo, and iaijutsu instructor. You're just a rehabilitated-"
"Don't say it, Tokei," she said, standing suddenly with a dangerous look in her eyes. "Don't even go there."
She turned and stormed off toward the stairs. Tokei watched her with a chuckle.
"That was quite rude, Tokei," Jinwa said.
"So it was. So I'm a jerk. Later for that, Ginawa. The city is under attack."
"The Locusts?" Jinwa asked.
"No, he means it literally," Dairya said, pushing open the doors of the kitchen and striding out into the diner with a taco in his hand, "The city is under attack. The Senpet have invaded."
Jinwa shook his head. "What can we do?" he asked, "There are a dozen of us, maybe. We're outnumbered. They have real weapons."
Dairya paused. "We don't fight because we can win," he said, "People are dying. Now let's go."
Shinjo Rakki was exhausted. He had no idea how long he'd been dodging the Senpet, or how he'd managed to stay alive. He stumbled a bit, but that was all it took in his condition. He collapsed face first into the garbage in the alley. His luck had finally run out.
He sat up as best he could, feebly pointing his pistol down the alley. He was out of bullets and the five Senpet advancing on him knew it. He'd shot four others in their squad already, and they weren't particularly happy with him. "Back off!" he shouted, "Don't make me use this!"
The leader sneered, shouldered his rifle, and took out his sabre. The others did the same. "I will cut out your heart, Unicorn," the Senpet said in a rough accent, "but it will not be first."
"I'm warning you!" Rakki shouted, clicking back the hammer on his gun.
The Senpet stopped, their faces pale with fear. They turned around and ran.
"Wow," Rakki said, "I had no idea I had it in me."
"Don't flatter yourself," said a metallic voice from behind him.
Rakki turned around. "Oh dear Amaterasu," he whispered, "I must be hallucinating."
Standing behind him in the alley was a massive golden robot. It looked a lot like the Akodo War Machine from TV, but it was dented and riddled with bulletholes. It's huge sword was scratched and scorched.
"Yeah it's me," Daniri said, "No autographs."
"How?" Rakki asked, astonished.
"I figured I had to lend a hand," Daniri replied, "This suit seems a lot more effective against their jinn than anything else but magic. Can you walk?"
"Yeah," Rakki said, staggering to his feet.
"Good," Daniri replied, "You can come with me, then. I'm headed for the Palace."
"I wish to see the Emperor," Kameru said, striding down the hallway toward the door of his father's office.
"I am sorry," replied the Mantis samurai-ko, barring the way with her nagimaki, "He will see no one."
Kameru's face reddened. His hands balled into fists. "Perhaps you misunderstand," he said, "I have come to see my father. Now get out of my way."
The guard hesitated, then met Kameru's gaze. She quickly moved aside. Kameru forced open the twin doors, entering the large chamber beyond, boldly prepared to denounce his father's foolishness. He stopped in his tracks.
The Emperor sat at his desk, slumped in his chair, staring vacantly at his hands folded before him. He wore his ceremonial armor, the green metal gleaming dully in the room's dim light. His insectoid helm sat on the desk beside him.
"Father," Kameru said.
Yoritomo's eyes flicked toward his son, focusing. "Kameru," he said. Explosions and rattling gunfire sounded in the distance. Sirens wailed.
"Father, the Senpet are headed toward the Palace," he said.
"Father, we must leave," Kameru added, pacing back and forth across the marble floor, "We must retreat until the armies of the Clans can rally and push their Scarabs back to the sea!"
"Leave?" Yoritomo repeated, "And let others fight the battle I have started? I think not. The Senpet seek only vengeance. They seek my blood and mine alone. Perhaps we should see if they can take it? Their cause is just, after all."
"What are you saying, father?" Kameru asked, halting his pacing abruptly.
"Only that perhaps Ichiro Chiodo should have been a better shot," the Emperor said bitterly, "The casualty reports have come in, Kameru. Three million seven hundred thousand dead. Nearly two million more injured by the blast and radiation. Seventy five percent of Medinaat-al-Salaam utterly destroyed and the remainder rendered uninhabitable."
"You did what you thought you had to, father," Kameru said, his voice unsteady.
"I did," Yoritomo replied, "but I must still live with the guilt. How many more innocents have to die, son? How many more must I murder before it ends?"
"You began this war, father," Kameru answered, a hint of steel in his voice, "How am I supposed to help you overcome your doubt when you won't even tell your own son why you're doing this?"
Yoritomo laughed, a brittle humorless laugh. "You would think I was insane if I told you."
"And how would that change anything?" Kameru sneered.
"You wear the ancestral blades," Yoritomo said, gesturing at the twin scimitars sheathed across Kameru's back, "You seek battle."
"Don't try to change the subject, father," Kameru shouted.
"I am not," Yoritomo replied calmly, his eyes gleaming with a mad intensity. "You came here to save me, to seek a peaceful situation. Yet you wore the blades. Why?"
Kameru looked away for a moment, then met his father's gaze. "Because I knew it would end in battle," Kameru said, "Everything ends in battle."
"Exactly," Yoritomo said, standing and picking up his helmet in one hand, "An unavoidable fact. So why fight it? If blood must be spilled, pick the time and place and begin the battle before your enemy does so for you. Such is the way of the Yoritomo, the way of the Mantis." Yoritomo placed the fearsome helm atop his head, and strode across the chamber, his metal soled boots clicking loudly on the floor.
"Father, I don't understand what you're saying," Kameru said.
"You understand," Yoritomo said, "You understand better than you admit. Now let us go, my son. Our enemies await."
Yoritomo left his chambers. Kameru followed his father, after a moment of hesitation.
Kenzo sat on the stairs and dabbed at his brow with a handkerchief. He huffed and puffed to catch his breath as he stared in wonder at all the stairs he had climbed. He sighed to himself as he realized he'd half to climb down them all again yet today. Behind him, the mountain cut off suddenly into a plateau, topped by the tall black battlements of an ancient castle.
"Come on, Master Kenzo," Meiji said, hopping easily up the stairs and turning back toward the fat, older monk, "The monastery is in sight. We don't have far to go now. Let's get there before lunch, I'm starved!"
"Not far to go?" Kenzo said with a grin, "We have the farthest way to go yet."
"What do you mean?" Meiji replied, throwing out his hand to indicate the monastery, "We just have to walk up and knock. We're here!"
"Not all obstacles are visible and not all distances can be measured," Kenzo replied, "You've never been to Eagle's Claw before, have you, lad? You've never dealt with the Order of Washi."
"I've never met a Washi before," Meiji admitted, "But I have studied on them. They are like us, Master. Students of Shinsei. How different could they be?"
Kenzo laughed out loud, hauling his large bulk to his feet with a groan. "A crow and an eagle are both birds, but they are hardly the same thing to a rabbit," he said, "Indeed, they are our cousins, but family ties do not guarantee brotherhood. Not even in the Brotherhood of Shinsei."
Meiji glanced back at the old monk, confusion in his eyes.
"Let us just say that the Brothers of the Eagle are small enough to be easily dismissed, yet they are never to be trifled with," Kenzo said, "They are militant, yet they are reclusive. They keep to themselves, yet they are not to be ignored. They are simple, but they are certainly not simple to understand."
"Simple to understand. Do you mean their vow of silence?" Meiji asked, starting up the steps again.
"That is part of it," Kenzo admitted, slowly falling into step behind the younger monk, "Though one should not judge another on the basis of the expression of their faith. You will find that the path of the Eagle is far different from ours, Meiji. Their duty has consumed them. Words are only a distraction to such men and women."
"I have heard they are great warriors," Meiji said, turning with an adventurous glint in his eye.
"Untrue," Kenzo said, "War is a contest, almost a game. The Washi are guardians, protectors, not samurai. Games do not interest them."
"Guardians?" Meiji asked, stopping before the massive iron gates of Eagle's Claw Monastery, "Guardians of what?"
Kenzo's gaze became distant, lost in thought. He sighed deeply. "Pray you do not have to find out, little Meiji," he said. A great sculptured relief of a shrieking eagle decorated the center of the stout iron doors, clutching a great ring in its claws. Kenzo took the ring in one hand and let it fall, sending a resounding boom throughout the monastery, echoing off into the mountains.
The two monks waited several minutes. Not a sound emanated from the dark structure. The sun began to set in the west, and a light mist began to rise from the earth.
"It doesn't look like any monastery I've ever seen," Meiji said quietly, gazing up at the spiked walls and looming watchtowers, "It looks like a castle. Or a prison."
"How observant," Kenzo said with a nervous smile, "The Eagle's Claw has a colored past."
"Do they know we are here?" Meiji asked, a slight quaver in his voice.
Kenzo nodded, looking just behind Meiji.
Meiji turned with a gasp to see six men standing silently in a semicircle behind them. Each man wore a simple pair of leather breeches, and carried a staff of stout bamboo. They were all lean, with rigidly defined muscles and eagles branded on their chests. Their sharp, cold eyes watched the two visitors calmly.
"I am Hoshi Kenzo of the Order of the Dragon," Kenzo said, folding his hands and bowing low before the men, "This is Karasu Meiji of the Order of the Crow. We have come by the order of Washi Takao himself." Kenzo reached into his robe and the six men tensed as one, ready to spring. Kenzo very slowly drew a folded piece of paper from his pocket and set it on the ground, backing away.
The nearest of the six stepped forward and snatched the paper from the ground, giving it a quick glance. He turned to the others and nodded, once. Then all six men bowed in unison. The one who took the paper made complicated gestures with his hand.
"They say that we are welcome in Eagle's Claw Monastery," Kenzo translated for Meiji, "These six will attend us at all times. We are not to stray from the paths where they lead, or wander into areas into which they do not permit us."
"Why?" Meiji asked, a hint of youthful defiance in his voice.
"We will die," Kenzo said simply.
"What?" Meiji exclaimed, "They're threatening us?"
"No," the old monk said seriously, "we are threatening them. Their duties are very important and our very presence interferes with their security. Make no mistakes, lad, the revered brothers of Washi are fully prepared to dispose of us the moment we irritate them."
The gigantic iron doors swung open with a torturous creak. Meiji swallowed hard.
The Washi monk made a few more gestures to Kenzo. "We have one hour," Kenzo said, "Then we must leave."
"Will that be enough time?" Meiji said.
"More than enough," Kenzo replied, "I know Washi Takao. He is not a man with much use for small talk."
Hoshi Kenzo stepped into the halls of the monastery, following two of the monks. Karasu Meiji reluctantly followed along behind, the remaining four monks watching his every move from behind. The doors creaked shut once more, closing with a dull thud and leaving the monastery's interior in near darkness. A bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling here and there, giving the Washi all the light that they required, and leaving Kenzo and Meiji stumbling to keep pace with their surefooted guides. The monastery was silent, save for an odd, echoing moan reverberating from somewhere deep in the structure's bowels.
"What's making that noise?" Meiji asked, frightened. One of the lead monks shot him an irritated glance.
"A monster," Kenzo said, not meeting Meiji's gaze.
The Washi monks led the two visitors deeper into the monastery, through dark and twisting corridors and up spiraling staircases. There were no windows in the monastery, and all of the doors were heavy wood, held fast with thick iron padlocks. Finally, they arrived at a door marked with the symbol of the eagle.
Five of the monks took up guard positions around the door, and the leader opened it, indicating with a nod that Kenzo and Meiji were to enter. The familiar scent of burning incense surrounded the two monks as they entered a small prayer shrine. A tall monk knelt in the center of the shrine, surrounded by dozens of small candles. His eyes were closed in deep meditation, and he chanted to himself softly. He wore the eagle brand upon his chest. A younger man in black robes sat cross-legged in the corner. He stared intently at the floor, only glancing up briefly to acknowledge the two visitors.
"This is Takao, leader of the Order," Kenzo explained, "It would be improper to interrupt him." Kenzo knelt to one side of the tall monk, falling into meditation himself. Meiji looked at the young man in the corner, who was still ignoring them. In the depths of the monastery, the thing Meiji had heard earlier still moaned in eternal agony.
"This place gives me the creeps," Meiji thought to himself as he kneeled beside Kenzo.
Takao turned suddenly and stood with one fluid, silent motion. He faced the two visitors and opened his eyes, so blue they were nearly white, piercing in their intensity. His face and chest were covered with scars, and his body was knotted with muscle. Like the other monks, he wore only simple leather breeches. He regarded them silently.
"Greetings, Master Takao," Kenzo said, standing and bowing his head, "I have come as per your request."
Takao began gesturing with his hands, the secret sign language of the Washi. Meiji didn't understand any of it, but Kenzo watched intently, nodding here and there in understanding.
"This is Karasu Meiji," Kenzo said as if in explanation, "He is a young novice in the Order of the Crow. His masters felt that he needed a bit of real world experience before they assigned him to a temple for the rest of his life, so for some odd reason they stuck him with me."
Takao glanced at Meiji, grinned slightly, then gestured again. Meiji found Washi Takao's grin even more frightening than his customary scowl.
"I'm afraid not, my friend," Kenzo chuckled, "Sadly, those days are long past. Would that I could, but I am too old for another adventure."
Takao frowned a bit, then continued gesturing. Kenzo's face fell in shock. "No," Kenzo said, "No, that's impossible. We were thorough, discreet. Who could have known? Who would have broken-"
Takao held up a silencing hand, then gestured some more, his face intent and a little angry as he explained some important matter to Kenzo. Meiji wished not for the first time that he knew what they were talking about. Several times during the speech, Takao indicated the young man sitting in the corner, who did not look up.
Kenzo looked over at the young man, then back to Washi Takao. Kenzo nodded, and rose to his feet just as Takao knelt in meditation once more. Without another word, Kenzo turned to leave. The young man in the corner followed Kenzo and Meiji into the hallway. The guards immediately fell into step around them, leading them back towards the exit and closing the iron gates of the monastery. The young man from the shrine was still with them as they exited, following quietly at a distance.
"We should find a place to rest before we make the descent," Kenzo said. The old monk seemed very weary of a sudden, drained of his usual wit and vigor.
"If you don't mind me asking," Meiji said quietly as they walked, "What's going on?"
Kenzo sighed, shaking his head and smoothing his robes over his round stomach. "I'm afraid I can't tell you much," he said, "I was a bit of a rogue in my younger days, you see, and in one of my more notable escapades I managed to earn a small bit of Washi Takao's trust. That sort of trust isn't easy to come by, though, and I'm loath to betray it."
"Well, tell me whatever you feel you can, Master," Meiji said, "Who is that, for example?" He nodded to the young man still following them.
Kenzo considered his answer for a long moment. "His name is Washi Naizen. We were brought here to be his guides," Kenzo said, finally, "Something very valuable and very dangerous was stolen from the Eagle's Claw. It is the duty of the Washi to find it. However, the outside world is no place for a Brother of the Eagle, and Takao knows this well. We are to help this young monk survive long enough to find what he is looking for."
Meiji looked at the young monk. He looked even younger than Meiji, just past fifteen years it seemed. His hair was long and tied back into a ponytail, and his face seemed to have none of the hardness or wicked intensity of the other Brothers of the Eagle.
"Why him?" Meiji asked, "He seems so young. Why not one of the others?"
"Because," Naizen said with a grim smile, "I am a failure. When I die, no one will mourn."
"What?" Meiji asked with a start, surprised that the young monk had spoke, "When you die?"
"When they kill us," Naizen corrected, "Why do you think your Master Kenzo looks so depressed of a sudden? Washi Takao has given us an impossible mission. We are all going to die."