THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
"So what do you think?" Void asked, his face lit with the eager intensity of the young.
"Hmmm... difficult to say," Earth replied, squinting her deep, dark eyes as she studied the creatures below. "I have not decided," she said at last.
"You haven't decided?" Void pressed.
"I have not even decided to decide," Earth said, "To make a decision may not be worth the bother. The humans were not here yesterday. Perhaps they will be gone tomorrow and the effort of judging them shall be wasted."
"Oh, you're so stoic, sister," Thunder said with a grin, "You need to lighten up."
Earth sniffed, a cloud of dust rising from her mighty nostrils as she tucked her great head beneath her spiny coils and returned to sleep.
"And you, sister?" Void asked, turning swiftly to Thunder, "What is your make of them?"
"I don't know either," she admitted with a shrug, "I think those others are far more interesting."
"The nine who fell from the sky?" asked Air, swooping down with a whistle of wind.
"Yes," Thunder said coyly, cocking her head as she looked down upon the tiny beings. "The kami. They're very sad and very beatiful. Especially that big one with the club."
"Sister!" Void teased, shaking his head in reproval.
"Hey, hey, hey!" chirped Jade, "Are you looking at the humans again?" The littlest dragon scampered on tiny claws as he hurried to join his brothers and sisters. He sat up on his hind feet, his front talons barely hooking over the edge of the hole the sky as he peeked down at the world.
"Oh!" he said, "They have fire now! They must be as smart!"
"Ah," chuckled Void, "Yes. About that..."
"Jade!" Fire bellowed, marching proudly to the group and gazing down upon his tiny sibling.
"Yes, brother?" Jade replied meekly, his ears flat against his broad head.
"Return to your studies at once!" Fire commanded, blowing out his moustaches in a huff, "Water shall be most disappointed if you do not master the magic that is your birthright!"
Jade bowed his head and waddled off obediently, whimpering under his breath.
"And you, Void," Fire rumbled, "Are you spying upon the humans again?"
"Just studying them," Void replied, moving between Fire and the hole in the sky, "I think we have much to learn from them."
"Your imagination run wild again," Fire said, peering past Void toward the hole, "Those primates are not nearly as contemplative as the reptiles or as insightful as the felines. They certainly shall never have a kingdom as fine as the rodents. They will not last long. Did I hear mention that they had discovered fire?"
"Quite a coincedence, wouldn't you say, Fire?" Water asked, amusement apparent on her aged face as she strolled up beside her temperamental brother, "That the humans discover the power of fire so shortly after our meddlesome younger brother takes a liking to them?"
"Er, I wouldn't know anything about that," Void said, looking away.
"Of course you don't," Water said with a mirthful chuckle as she stretched her neck to gaze through the hole. "I can see why you'd take such a liking to them, Void. They have quite a feel for the magic. As much, if not more, than the Kitsu."
"Bah, they are nothing," Fire replied, flatly meeting the gaze of his older sister, "They are vermin."
"The same was said of us once," Water said softly, "Careful not to dismiss them, Fire. You might one day serve them."
"I would destroy them sooner," the dragon laughed outrageously, shaking out his mane with mockery of the humans below. The Dragon of Fire's laughter fell silent then, and he turned his deep red eyes to Void. "Patch up this hole, brother," he said with a low growl, "Return your concerns to your own world."
Void looked away, unable to dispute his older brother's command.
"Only a fool dismisses a potential ally," Earth said, slowly rising from her apparent slumber, "or a potential threat." All eyes turned to the wisest of the Dragons.
"Leave the hole as it is, as the great battle left it," she said in her deep, ageless voice, "Void, since you find such interest in these creatues, let it be your duty to study them. Contact them should you find them worthy."
"But Earth-" Fire argued.
"And Fire," Earth said, turning to him, "Should they prove themselves dangerous, let it be your duty to deal with them as you see fit."
"Thank you, sister," Fire said with a grin.
The dragons all nodded in agreement with Earth's final judgment, and filed off to their individual duties. Even Earth rose and soared away, seeking quieter environs in which to sleep. Soon, only Void and Fire remained at the hole in the sky.
"You waste your time, Void," Fire said, shaking his head at his brother's foolishness.
"It is my time to waste," Void replied, gazing down with contentment at his adopted people.
"They are short-sighted and self-destructive," Fire said, "Their violence shall consume you."
"They are passionate and determined," Void replied, "Their fortitude shall strengthen me."
Fire grunted noncommitally, and took a final look over his brother's shoulder at the land below. The mortals labored tirelessly, building the castles and towns of the land they would one day name Rokugan. The kami stood among them, sharing their wisdom and directing the work. Fire shook his head a final time and left.
"About time," Void chuckled, "I thought he'd never leave. Are you still there?"
"Yes," replied the voice from below, "I am here. The fire works just as you said. The people thrive. What is your name that I may thank you?"
"I am Void," the Dragon of the Void replied, "but no thanks are necessary. I only wish to help. Are you a mortal?"
"No," the voice replied, "I, like you, watch these humans. I have learned much from them in a short time."
"Then we have much in common," Void said, "Perhaps we can be friends."
"I would like that," said the voice.
"And what is your name?" Void asked.
"I do not have one," the voice replied.
"Ah," Void replied, "Then I shall call you Togashi."
"It is a good name," agreed Togashi.
From the shadows Fire had watched it all, and envy had burned in his eyes.
But that had been many ages ago, long even for a dragon. Fire's eyes opened slowly, still heavy with the weight of the memory. Would that he had sealed up the hole then and there. Would that his avarice had allowed him to ignore the humans' obvious preference for his brother. But he had not.
The hole in the sky, now sealed, had nonetheless remained open for longer than it should have. Now Thunder was gone, Water and Air were lost to the taint of the Shadowlands, and Jade... poor little Jade. Even Fire had found his power shackled by the mortals. Only Earth and Void were still untouched.
"Where has he gone?" Fire hissed, "Where is Void?"
"Where do you think?" Earth replied, gazing down at him from atop her massive heaps of brown coils.
"Earth," Fire growled, "He fled through the portal I left when the humans invoked my power."
Earth nodded, her deep eyes opening wide.
"Preposterous!" Fire roared, "The humans have tainted us, enslaved us, destroyed us! Still he goes to aid them?"
"Why, Fire," Earth replied, her ancient face inscrutable, "What makes you think he will save them?"
Mojo closed his eyes. He didn't know how long he'd been here. He couldn't remember and didn't want to. The glass tubes that bound him bit into his neck and legs where they had cracked, and his skull throbbed from whatever the Oni had hit him with.
For the last few hours, the only sound he had heard was Zou screaming. Mojo didn't know what the oni was doing to him, couldn't even tell how far away they were. He just wished that the Scorpion could hold on a little bit longer. At first Mojo convinced himself he was concerned for his comrade, but he soon realized he was just afraid that the oni would finish and come for him next.
The air rippled and a pair of insectoid eyes hovered before the bushi. "Greetings, Shiba," it said in a hollow echo of a voice, "I trust you are well... well... I am Oni no Akeru, Elemental Terror of the Void, but I suppose you must have guessed that... that... that..."
"Where is Zou?" Mojo asked, his throat dry and sore.
"He lives, though he will wish he did not... not... not..." Akeru snickered, "I doubt the Scorpion will have much use for an Enforcer with no arms. His own fault, really... really... He would have made a perfect vessel, had he not been so stubbornly defiant... defiant..." The oni sighed.
"Vessel?" Mojo croaked.
"An unfortunate facet of my new existence is the fact that I am ethereal... ethereal..." the oni replied, "I can become solid for short periods, but it is draining... draining... A human host would facilitate matters. I would kill for one. I have killed for one. Several times... times... You humans are so fragile. Which brings me to the topic of our conversation..."
Akeru suddenly reached out and grasped the top of Mojo's head, the ends of his talons digging into his scalp. Mojo gritted his teeth and tried not to look afraid.
"Go back to Jigoku," Mojo said, "You'll never get my name."
"Won't I?" the oni replied, "Well, we shall see... see... see..."
"We're losing him!" the nurse shrieked as they rolled the stretcher into the tent.
"Give me 20ccs of morphine, stat!" Nitobe ordered, and the nurse complied. "Now CLEAR!" The nurses and paramedics stepped back and Nitobe spread his hands across the wounded soldier's chest, drawing out the water kami and bringing the man's soul to inner peace. "That should hold him," Nitobe said, "Now clean those wounds and prep him for surgery!"
"Hai, Doctor Asako!" the paramedics replied, nodding to the man with deep respect.
Asako Nitobe stepped back as the stretcher rolled away, gazing around the shabby mobile tent hospital as if in a dream. Around him the wounded and dying of the Senpet invasion lay, groaning in the agonies of war.
And he was the center, the focus. He was the giver of life. He was the light in the darkness. Only he could decide who would live and who would die. "So this is what it is like to be a god," he said to himself with a chuckle.
Nitobe paused over a young soldier with a deep chest wound. With a slight wave of one hand he summoned the spirits to clot the wound and supply his brain with the oxygen it desperately needed. The man would live another day. And he would have Asako Nitobe to thank.
"You the man, Nitobe," said a chunky intern, noticing the doctor's technique, "You the absolute freakin' man! How come you never got to be a Master?"
"Politics," Nitobe grumbled, "It would have been, if not for politics."
"Well, I tell you what," the intern said, "I betcha they'll think twice about that after tonight! I mean, you're here up to your elbows saving people and where are they? Huh?" The intern shook his head and stumbled off to go help the other patients.
Nitobe sat back on a small chair. The young fool was correct. This catastrophe had served him with an opportunity to shine with his rightful glory. This day was an opportunity to find the greatness he truly deserved. These soldiers, these practical men and women would not forget who had saved their lives. No, such individuals did not forget what was important, as the Masters had.
And there seemed to be some openings on the Council of Five, of late. Nitobe chuckled. No doubt the Stormbreaker was to thank for that.
"Doctor Nitobe," said a nervous young nurse, "We seem to have a problem."
"What is it?" he asked, "Where is the patient?"
"It isn't a patient," she said, her eyes white with terror, "There are some soldiers outside. Senpet. At least three dozen of them, with a Scarab."
Nitobe's heart nearly stopped in his chest. "What do they want?" he asked.
"They want us to give them medical supplies and a doctor," she said, "Or they'll destroy the hospital."
Nitobe stood. The soldiers here were in no condition to fight. They were outnumbered and outgunned, regardless. Many of them were no doubt corrupt and decadent but they were still Rokugani and thus of his blood, however distant. He could not surrender them to gaijin.
"I will go," Nitobe said, "give me the supplies."
The nurse nodded and they quickly assembled two large dufflebags full of bandages, anaesthetics, sutures, and disinfectants. Nitobe took a bag in each hand and took a last look at the men and women in the hospital, all watching him with eyes full of fear and hope. He nodded to the lot and pushed through the flap of the tent, walking out into the street. Not a hundred yards away sat the massive metal dome of the Scarab, surrounded by Senpet soldiers with rifles and sabres.
"Keep your arms away from your sides," shouted the leader in rough Rokugani, "and walk slowly."
Nitobe nodded. "I am Doctor Asako Nitobe," he said, "I have medicine, and I speak your tongue." The commander nodded and Nitobe proceeded slowly toward the enemy soldiers. They watched him, glared at him, hate in their eyes. He was escorted into the Scarab, and the rest of the soldiers filed back in as well.
"Your command, sir?" the pilot said in the Senpet language.
"Take off," he said, pointing at the screen that displayed the tent hospital, "And destroy that shack of Rokugani filth." The ship lurched is it took to the air.
"You CANNOT!" Nitobe shouted, rising from his seat. Two large Senpet grabbed his arms, and a third pointed a rifle at his chest. "That is a hospital! This is murder!"
"Really," the commander said, "Rokugani, you must be aware that your Emperor murdered two million Senpet. I do not weep for your people, and I do not leave an enemy behind me." He turned away from Nitobe to watch one of the ship's exterior viewscreens.
"But my dear commander," Nitobe said, oblivious to the danger all about him, "You have just done so."
"Excuse me?" the commander replied.
"I said," Nitobe replied carefully, "For the blood of the Phoenix."
A scream of blood tore through the Scarab's cockpit as Nitobe summoned the kansen. The soldiers around Nitobe dropped to their knees as their bodily fluids boiled within them. The commander screamed and clawed at his own armor, trying to get at the churning pain that had erupted in his chest. The pilot and gunner threw back their heads as ichor erupted from their eyes and mouth. The forty soldiers in the ship were consumed in the song of blood and Asako Nitobe stood in the midst of it all, laughing in his revenge. The price of the spell would be great, but it was nothing that he had not paid before.
The doctor calmly stepped to the front of the ship, avoiding the puddles, and took the controls. He set the Scarab down clumsily on the roof of the building and headed for the exit.
Nitobe stepped out onto the rooftop and smelled the night air, peeling off his bloodsoaked coat and throwing it aside. "What a night," he said with a deep, satisfied sigh.
He leaned on the edge of the building and looked down at the street below. There, in the distance, he could see the lights of his tent hospital, still safe, oblivious of how close it had come to destruction.
"A good night," Nitobe said, "A good night to be a god."
Tsuruchi Kyo stood on the steps of Yogo's Palace, the great funhouse at the center of Bayushi's Labyrinth. He turned to his men, fifteen heavily armed and armored Wasps. All highly trained, all loyal, all part of the Stormbreaker's Program. They stood rigid as statues, their world focused entirely upon their leader's command.
"Fan out in pairs," Kyo hissed in his harsh whisper, "The Kitsuki must be here somewhere. Cover the exits. You seven, come with me."
The Wasps obeyed immediately, moving like the well oiled combat unit that they were. Kyo remained on the steps, waiting, watching the members of his squad as they filtered into the streets of the Labyrinth. For several minutes, he did not move.
"Sir, what are we waiting for?" asked Inwa, his short, dark lieutenant.
Kyo held up a silencing finger, not even turning to aknowledge the man. "Don't you see?" he said with a smile.
"Sir?" Inwa asked.
"It's a trap," Kyo replied. The building across the square suddenly exploded in a brilliant orange flash, the glare reflecting in the unflinching gaze of Kyo's sunglasses.
"By the Pit!" Inwa shouted, dropping into a crouch with his pistol drawn. The remaining Wasps, with the exception of Kyo, did likewise. They scanned the square anxiously, but no targets presented themselves. "Two of the men were in there!" Inwa exclaimed.
"And now they are dead," Kyo replied, taking the cigarette from his mouth and tapping away the ashes on the tip.
Inwa shook his head and holstered his pistol. "Damn Scorpions," he spat, "So we're to wait here while the men are all killed?"
"That's why I brought so many," Kyo chuckled, "If you don't like it, Inwa, you can go patrol with the rest." He turned his gaze upon Inwa, tilting down his sunglasses to fix him with cold, black eyes. Inwa looked away.
"Captain! Get down!" shouted one of the guardsmen, pushing Kyo to the ground as the clatter of machine-gun fire echoed from across the square.
Kyo drew his twin pistols as he lay in the street, scanning the area. The fire had originated from a small restaurant across the street, where a life size clown statue grinned back. Smoke rose from its outstretched fingers. Kyo aimed a large pistol carefully and fired three times. The clowns left hand, right hand, and head shattered in turn.
Again, the ratcheting staccato of machinegun fire shattered the silence. Two of the guardsmen went down with a muffled scream as the electronic horse ride in front of the gift shop opened fire from its snout. Kyo rolled, arms stretched before him, and took cover behind the fountain. He rose and fired once, decapitating the plastic horse.
"This Bayushi Oroki is a disturbed man," Kyo chuckled, holstering his guns and dusting off his coat, "I've never been ambushed by a clown before." Kyo looked at the steps behind him. Inwa lay in a puddle of spreading blood, his body armor shredded by the clown's bullets. Kyo turned to the man who had saved him. "My thanks, Kahira," he said pertly, "You are now second in command."
"Your orders, sir?" Kahira asked, not so much as flinching at the sudden promotion.
Kyo scanned the square again. "I underestimated Oroki's firepower, and his willingness to use it," he said, "We are too exposed here. Those devices seem automatic, and we haven't seen any park employees. I'm beginning to think that this entire Laybrinth is a facade. We will not find the Kitsuki here."
"So what is our next move?" Kahira asked.
Kyo glanced around again, then moved toward a large manhole cover. He squatted and examined it, then turned to one of his men. "Open that," he said, stepping back several dozen feet and pointing.
"Yes sir," the man replied, drawing the metal tonfa from his coat and levering it under the metal cover. "It's stuck," the man said.
"Try harder Shumitsu," Kyo replied.
Shumitsu shrugged and went back to work. After a few moments of prying and grunting, the cover erupted with a dull roar and shower of smoke and flame. Shumitsu flew across the square and crumpled lifelessly on the front porch of the gift shop.
"Plastic explosive," Kahira remarked.
"Yes," Kyo said, a look of eager anticipation spreading across his face. He approached the smoking manhole, drawing a small filter from his coat and strapping it across his face. He stood back at an angle and peered down the hole. Aiming a flashlight with one hand and his pistol with the other. A tunnel of grey steel, well lit with flourescent tubing stretched below. Kyo could almost sense his quarry waiting down there. His quarry and... and something else. Something familiar?
"Sir?" Kahira called out.
"I'm all right," Kyo said, recovering his senses, he realized he'd nearly swooned, but why? His head was throbbing, and his vision was blurred. Gas? No, the filter would take care of that. He looked back at his men, and found them all lying limp on the ground.
"Hatsu?" Kyo said, dropping his flashlight and drawing the other gun, "Oroki?" He aimed both guns into the tunnel. His vision had a faint red tinge; his head was throbbing so much he could hear his own blood pulsing through his skull. Something was down there... something very dangerous. Something very powerful.
Kyo laughed as he dropped down into the tunnel.
The neighborhood was quiet, peaceful. If not for the periodic rumble or explosive flash from the distant skyline, it could have been a night like any other in Mura Nishi Chushin, the western Hub of Otosan Uchi. It could have been, except for the grim Phoenix bushi in their fiery orange armor, standing guard on every yard and street corner.
"This sucks, Jo," said a Shiba guard, leaning back against the wall and checking the clip in his pistol for the twenty-ninth time.
"It's not so bad, Gura," Isawa Jo replied, sitting back on the park bench and flipping through a newspaper he'd found, "The Unicorns and the Mantis have the tough job tonight."
"That's exactly it!" Gura replied, holstering his gun and pacing up the sidewalk, "I'd rather be out there in the city! Fighting the Senpet! Not wasting my time in the huburbs."
"They also serve, and all that," Jo replied, waving a hand vaguely as he paraphrased, "Yoritomo's orders were specific. If the palace falls, Nishi Chushin is the fallback position."
"If the the Senpet take the palace," Gura said, "There isn't a hell of a lot a residential neighborhood's gonna do to hold them back. We should be over there making sure they don't get in the Palace in the first place!"
"Well, what're ya gonna do?" Jo shrugged, turning the page in his newspaper.
"Good evening gentlemen," said a young woman, marching up to the pair with fire in her eyes. The two guards immediately stood straight at attention.
"Mistress Sumi," Jo mumbled nervously, "Good evening."
"If you two are unhappy with your duties, perhaps you would like to discuss the matter with me?" she said, standing before them with her hands on her hips. She was a petite girl, almost delicate, but her expression and demeanor allowed no argument.
"Um," Gura said, "With all due respect, Mistress Sumi, I was just commenting to Jo here how we Phoenix should be in the city lending a hand in the fight, not sitting back and guarding the huburbs."
"Well it so happens, Shiba Gura," Sumi said, standing directly before the larger bushi and glaring into his eyes, "That this huburb happens to be the home of the families of many of the samurai who are fighting and dying in the city right now. Are you prepared to surrender their families to the Senpet? To offer them up as hostages and negate all that their blood has bought?"
Gura looked away. "No, Mistress," he said.
"The Crab are headed for this huburb as we speak," Sumi added, "Their first stop on the way to the capitol. When you arrive, would you have no one available to brief them of the situation? Would you have our cousins charge blindly into a situation they know nothing about because you are bored?" she turned to Jo, her face just inches from his.
"Er..." Jo's shoulders went weak and he blinked rapidly, "It wasn't my idea, it was him."
"Yeah, and I'm sorry," Gura said.
Sumi sighed and walked away, not saying another word. Partly because she was angry and frustrated and partly because she was just scared. Why had she talked to those men like that? How had she talked to those men like that? Where had that anger come from? She didn't do things like that.
She shivered in the night wind and hugged her arms to her body to ward off the cold. Hopefully she'd find the answers soon. She turned the corner and stopped for a moment, staring at the house before her. A day ago, she wouldn't have hesitated to go inside. After all, she lived here. But now, after what she had seen, after what she had done... After what Rashid had said when she had asked for an explanation...
"Ask your mother."
"Well, I'll never know the truth if I don't go inside," she said to herself, and walked up to the door.
Sumi slid opeen the door and stepped into a small sitting room. The house was decorated in a very traditional style. There were no radio or television, and anient scrolls and ink paintings decorated the walls. A low table sat in the center of the room, surrounded by large cushions. The room's only reminder of the modern age was a dark one indeed, the silver metal glare of her Isawa Neiko's wheelchair.
"Sumi," Neiko said with a faint grin, "I am happy to see you are all right, with all that has been going on." Neiko was only in late middle age, but seemed much older. She had Sumi's green eyes and simple beauty, but a life of worry and pain had etched deep lines around the woman's eyes and mouth.
"Hello, mother," Sumi said, bowing low.
"Your mantle," she said, wheeling over and softly grasping the edge of the red cloth that hung from Sumi's shoulders. "So it's true. They have given you your father's position."
"I am Master of Fire," Sumi replied, "Shiba Mifune and the Masters of Earth and Void are dead. The Master of Air has been terribly wounded."
"Rashid?" Neiko said with a gasp.
Sumi straightened, regarding her mother curiously. The older woman's eyes widened when she saw the pearl-encrusted handle of the katana hanging from the girl's belt.
"Ofushikai," Neiko said, her voice resigned but not surprised.
"Mom, what is happening?" Sumi asked, "Ever since father died, things have been happening that I can't explain."
"Destiny is cruel," Neiko said, turning and wheeling away from her daughter.
"To blazes with destiny!" Sumi shouted, her temper getting the better of her, "You sound like the blasted Oracle of the Void!" She turned angrily to the door, Ofushikai's saya toppling a small table displaying several antique vases. Sumi gasped and reached for them reflexively as they fell. The table clattered to the floor, but the vases hung their in midair. Neiko stared at the spectacle with fear in her eyes.
"You have no mastery of Air magic," Neiko said, "You should not have been able to do that so quickly."
"There, mother, now do you see?" Sumi asked, gently taking the vases from the air and setting them on the table once more, "That is what I mean. I've been having these strange bursts of power, like just now. And who in Jigoku is the Oracle of the Void? I've never heard of such a person, yet I just compared you to her. It's a memory that isn't mine, but it's still there in my head."
"I love you Sumi," Neiko said, tears streaming from her eyes, "but you cannot ask me to tell you this. More than my honor is at stake. I have sworn to three men, three men to whom I owe my loyalty and my life, that I would never speak of this. Two of them are dead now. And the third... the third..."
Sumi wanted to be angry. She wanted to be angry at her mother. But all she saw was a hurt and confused old woman. An old woman who was suddenly very much alone in the world. Sumi walked across the room and kneeled next to the wheelchair. "It's all right, mom," Sumi said, wrapping her arms around Neiko and pulling her close, "It's all right, mom, I understand."
Sumi stayed with her mother several more minutes, comforting her and reassuring her. Then she had to leave. She had to get out of that house. She had to think. When she walked back out onto the sidewalk, Isawa Kujimitsu was waiting for her.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked.
"More questions than answers," she replied, "I need to talk to Rashid again."
"Then you'll get your chance," Kujimitsu said, "He'll be meeting us when we return to the city."
"We're returning?" Sumi asked.
"Imperial Orders," Kujimitsu said, "He needs the Phoenix to assist in the defense of the Palace at once. The Crane and Unicorn are in disarray and the Scorpion have had heavy casualties. We are needed on the front lines."
The huge truck rumbled slowly down the street, veering to avoid the flaming wreckage of a large Scarab. There had been a battle here, and not long ago. The street and surrounding buildings were a mess, but thankfully there were no bodies. The truck pulled slowly up to the curb, settling to a halt with a hiss of the brakes. At the far end of the street, the Otosan Uchi Museum of Natural History stood like a gutted corpse, the bottom floor a burned and smoking.
"You drive like an old man," Yasu snapped from the back seat.
"Quiet, Yasu," Toshimo said, "I'm listening for enemy ships."
"I can tell you where the enemy are!" Yasu replied shaking Toshimo's seat vigorously with both hands, "They're in the Palace! And we're missing it! Now move over and let me drive my truck!"
"No sense in rushing into an unknown situation, Yasu," Bayushi Taigo said, carefully cleaning and reloading his large, black pistol. "We were lucky in the baseball stadium, but one cannot rely to heavily upon fate to see one through."
"Why not?" Yasu said with a wicked grin.
"Did you hear something?" Shosuro Hanzo said suddenly, his head cocked to one side.
"I didn't hear anything," Yasu said.
"No, listen," Hanzo said.
Only the dull crackle of the truck's radio, the distant rattle of gunfire, and the whistle of the wind around them could be heard.
"The wind," Toshimo said.
With a resounding crash, something collided with the truck at a terriffic speed, causing it to hang suspended for a moment on its left wheels and then roll onto its side.
"My truck!" Yasu bellowed, as he scrambled for the door, "I just had it fixed!" The big crab pushed open the door and climbed onto the side of the truck, a short metal staff clutched in one hand.
"Careful, Yasu," Hanzo said, crawling out of the truck beside him, "There could be enemies everywhere."
"Listen to your friend, Yasu," chuckled a voice, "His advice is most sound."
Yasu spun around to see Hanzo floating in midair, clutching at his throat as he gasped for breath. Hanzo twitched, suddenly, at the neck and then hung limp. A pair of malevolent red eyes hovered nearby, focused hatefully on Yasu.
"Are you a jinn?" Yasu asked.
"Yes," the creature replied, "Jinn of the Burning Star."
"Wow," Yasu said calmly, "I've never killed a jinn before." The staff in his hand suddenly extended with a click, and Yasu brought the spiked metal tetsubo down where the creature's head should be, passing through with a whiff. He then hopped down from the truck and ran for the nearest alley.
"Arrogant mortal!" the jinn roared, unharmed, "You think you can hurt the Jinn of the Burning Star with a stick? And you flee! Coward!" The jinn dropped Hanzo in a heap and followed after Yasu, a cloud of dust billowing in the street as he passed.
"I didn't think Yasu was such a fool," Taigo said, crawling painfully from the overturned truck and hopping down to the street. He checked Hanzo's throat for a pulse, shaking his head briefly.
"He's no fool," Toshimo replied, seating himself on the edge of the truck as he nursed a large cut on his forehead. "That was a standard Hida tactic. Anger the enemy and lead him away while your comrades escape or recuperate."
"Hm," Taigo said, "Then I wish him luck. I must continue now to the Palace, Kaiu-sama. Will you come with me?"
"No," Toshimo replied, "As the defacto leader of the Crab, I must attempt to contact our forces here, organize them, array them against the enemy. I had hoped to do so in person, but now I shall have to attempt to do so via radio. Besides, you can move more quickly without an old thug like me clambering along behind you, eh?"
Taigo smiled slightly and bowed low to the Kaiu daimyo. "I still owe Hida Yasu my life," Taigo said, "If you see him again, give him my thanks. He is an extraordinary warrior. I would fear to have him as an enemy."
"I will tell him, Bayushi," Toshimo said.
Taigo nodded, then was gone.
Toshimo stared off into the alley, the way Yasu had gone. Yasu was a resourceful warrior, but jinn were an unknown, an enigma. Certainly they had weaknesses. The summoning sorceror was always a weak link and they seemed to be oddly protective of cats, but such weaknesses would be difficult to exploit. The old Crab wondered if maybe his nephew had pushed his luck too far this time.
The earth shook, and the skies roiled with red clouds and a heavy thunder. Isawa Saigo stood in an empty street in the ruins of Otosan Uchi, the bodies of the dead laying all about him. On the northern horizon, two mountains loomed, lightning crackling between them as the earth was at battle with itself. Nothing else moved. Nothing stirred. He was alone again.
"Not alone," said a voice, laughing, "Never alone."
Saigo turned. A figure stood within the gates of the Palace, body wreathed in shadows and darkness. The stranger's eyes glowed a pale white, and glinted with amusement.
"Greetings," the figure said, "We meet again."
"Do I know you?" Saigo asked, squinting.
The figure tilted its head, and a crow flapped from the walls of the Palace to alight on the stranger's shoulder.
"Shinsei," Saigo breathed reverently.
The figure tilted his head the other way, and winked.
"You are... different than before," Saigo said.
"It is a different time," Shinsei replied, "And Shinsei is always the product of his times. The first Shinsei came from simpler times, and was a simple philosopher. The second came from times of turbulence and war, and was thus a ronin warrior. These... these are dark times." Shinsei emerged from the shadows, but the darkness clung like fog. Saigo could not discern the man's features, or even if he was a man. Shinsei's voice... was like a haze, indeterminate. He must be dreaming, Saigo concluded.
"The city," Saigo said, looking at the demolished landscape, "It's..."
"Destroyed," Shinsei replied, "My vision of Otosan Uchi and all who lived here, all I would have hoped for them, is no more."
"The Senpet?" Saigo asked. Ryosei had said they were attacking the city before he found himself here. He must have passed out from the wound Kyo had given him.
Shinsei laughed and the crow cawed. "Answers are never given to a prophet so easily. No, the Senpet will not destroy the city though they are a sign of its impending demise. Three times." Shinsei held three fingers in Saigo's face, then kept walking.
"Three times?" the prophet replied, hurrying to keep up with Shinsei.
"Three times the Palace Gates will fall," Shinsei answered, "Three times they fall before the storm dies, three times before the storm churns anew. Three times they fall before the mountains bend, three times and the Diamond City will be doomed."
"Doomed?" Saigo exclaimed.
"Yes," Shinsei replied, bending low to cup a skull in one hand. It was a child's skull, burned white and clean in the carnage. "All that has been wrought shall be destroyed, Isawa Saigo. After the Palace falls three times, those who we will turn to will be the instrument of our undoing."
"Who?" Saigo asked, "Who are they? Who will destroy Otosan Uchi?" Shinsei looked up with glowing eyes, and Saigo held forth a placating hand. "I know," Saigo said, forlorn, "I suppose you cannot tell me."
"Oh, but I can," Shinsei retorted, "For all the good that it will do you. Would you know, Isawa Saigo? Would you know who would turn this bastion of order and justice into a burning pit of hell?" Shinsei's eyes burned into Saigo.
"I would know!" Saigo said desperately, unable to meet Shinsei's gaze, "I would stop this from happening."
Shinsei laughed and the crow cawed. "Are you sure, Isawa Saigo? After all, if I tell you... they will believe you."
"Tell me," Saigo begged, falling to his knees in the rubble.
Shinsei frowned when he answered. "The Seven Thunders."
And Saigo woke, screaming.
"This blows!" shouted Yasu as the Jinn of the Burning Star hurled a lightning bolt past his shoulder, detonating the front window of a furniture store.
"Pitiful human!" the jinn laughed in reply, soaring high over the street and lancing another deadly bolt.
"I am -not- about to be killed by something with such pitiful aim," Yasu growled, turning and firing his Oni-Stomper pistol at the jinn.
"Weapons forged of man, Crab," the jinn hissed as the shell passed harmlessly through its cloudy body, "You haven't the power to harm me."
Yasu glanced to one side and thought he saw something move in the darkness, a sliver of blue steel. "Then come on, then!" Yasu demanded, tossing the gun aside and drawing out his tetsubo, "Come on and get some! You think you can take me, let's find out! No guns! No lightning!"
"I think not," said the jinn and blasted Yasu with lightning. The bolt surged through his armor, and he fell limp to the ground.
"Truly I mourn that the Jewel of the Desert was destroyed by a nation of men as feeble as you," the Jinn said, floating down to the street and stepping out of the mists. His corporeal body was tall, muscular, and a greenish-shade of blue; his face was twisted in contempt for the charred body laying facedown before him.
Until said charred body leapt from the ground and grabbed his throat with both hands. Then the jinn was quite surprised.
"Kaiu insulation," the Crab laughed, slamming the jinn against the wall as he squeezed the life from his neck, "You really think I'd be stupid enough to wear this much metal and not have some? You aren't the only monster that pitches lightning, moron."
"Perhaps not," the jinn laughed, looking up suddenly and grabbing Yasu's throat in return, "but you still cannot harm me."
"I can," whispered a feminine voice from behind, and the jinn's head slid from his shoulders.
"About time!" Yasu exclaimed, pushing the Jinn of the Burning Star away as its corpse faded into mist, "Thought you were never gonna help!"
The girl walked up next to Yasu and leaned against a lamppost. She was tall and slim, with a tattered blue silk dress and white hair dyed grey with ash. She smirked at the Crab and wiped blue ichor from her katana with a cloth. "How did you know I would help?" she asked.
"Well, for weren't ambushing me and you weren't running away, so I figured you had it covered, as long as I got him close." Yasu grinned at the girl and retrieved his gun.
"Quite a risk, Hida Yasu," she laughed, slipping the blade beneath her obi.
"Well, you handled yourself pretty well at the Emperor's party, Crane-girl," he replied with a grin, "besides, it's not like I had a choice. You're Kachiko, right?"
"You don't even remember my name?" she exclaimed, shocked, "You forgot my name!"
"I have a lot on my mind," he said lamely.
"Well, it's Kamiko," she spat, brushing past him, "And you're welcome."
"I like your dress," he said, walking quickly after her.
"Oh, quit trying to get back on my good side," she retorted, "Let's just out of here before another jinn shows up. Where's your truck?"
"Flipped over on its side about ten blocks that way," he pointed, "Can I take a look at that sword?"
"No," she said promptly, "What's the quickest way to the Palace?"
"That way," he pointed the opposite direction, "Past Shinjo Tower. I'm headed there myself."
Kamiko turned around, a wry smirk on her face. "So I guess we're partners, then," she said, "I'll take care of the jinn. You use that big pistol of yours to kill everyone else." She glanced down at his holster, laughed, and walked away again.
Yasu stood in the street for a moment.
"So, Kamiko," Yasu said, stomping quickly through the ash and rubble behind her, "How are things between you and the Emperor's kid?"
"You mean Yoritomo Kameru," she said, looking back over her shoulder with a smile, "Very serious. Sorry to disappoint."
"Damn," Yasu replied, "Same thing with the Unicorn. I always show up a week too late."
"There's someone out there for everyone, Yasu," she replied with a laugh, "Of course, in your case you probably accidentally shot them already."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Yasu said, squinting off down the street. He went tense of a sudden, drawing his pistol in one hand.
"What?" Kamiko said, stopping and looking in the same direction, "What is it?"
"Trouble," he replied, pointing. Two blocks away, a crowd of people stood around Shinjo Tower, milling around listlessly.
"It's just a bunch of refugees," Kamiko said, though she stopped walking. "Is there a problem?"
"Those aren't refugees," he said, "Look at the way they move. Look at the way they stand. They're undead."
"What?" Kamiko said, "That's ridiculous! There's no such thing!"
Yasu gave Kamiko a level look. "Listen, hon," he said, "I may think Crane poetry is ridiculous, but I admit it's existence. It's my job to know stuff like this, okay?"
"I guess you have a point," she said, turning back and squinting at the shambling figures again. They did look sort of pale. "So what do we do?" she asked.
"MIIIIINE!" came the reply, as a ghul hurled itself from a third floor window above.
"Holy!" Kamiko shrieked.
Yasu quickly aimed his gun upward and fired, splitting the ghul into four pieces before it hit the ground.
"Uh oh," he said, "Maybe I should have used the tetsubo."
In front of Shinjo Tower, dozens of ghuls turned their heads, alerted by the sound of gunfire.
"MINE!" screamed another ghoul, staggering out of an alley nearby.
"MINE!" said a second, rising up from a sewer lid.
"MINE!" added three more, stumbling out of an alley along the way they'd come.
"We're surrounded," Kamiko said, drawing her sword.
"Shinjo Tower, this is Hida Yasu," Yasu said, clicking the switch on his wrist, "Come in."
"Mine!" snarled the voice from his radio.
"Well, that's not very encouraging," he said, turning off the radio.
"They're getting close," Kamiko said, "What do we do?"
"Start killing stuff," he replied, pointing his pistol into the midst of the crowd and firing. The gun coughed loudly, and a massive shell flew into the horde of ghuls, scattering several of them in a messy cloud. Yasu fired again at the three behind them, knocking one to powder and severing another's arm."
"How many shots do you have left?" she asked.
"Er, that was it," Yasu said.
"You don't have extra ammo?" Kamiko shrieked, gripping her katana with both hands.
Yasu shrugged. "Usually four shots does the trick," he said, "I carry extra ammo in the truck. Bullets for this thing are too damn big to carry if you don't have to." He holstered the gun and drew the silver tube from behind his back, clicking the switch and extending it into tetsubo form.
"Mine!" cackled a ghul, lurching toward Kamiko.
"I don't think so," she said, whipping the blade in a swift arc and cutting the ghul from shoulder to hip. It stared blankly for a moment and tumbled to pieces.
"Wow," Yasu said, clubbing another ghul as it stalked up behind him, "I thought you were just a tomboy or something but you can really use that sword."
"Thanks," she said, cleaving again and taking off the next ghul's arm, "I practice a lot."
"Well, we're going to get a lot more practice," Yasu replied, nodding back toward Shinjo Tower. The rest of the crowd of ghuls were moving toward them, to join the dozen or so that already surrounded them. Yasu screamed and swung the tetsubo in a full circle around his head. Kamiko dropped into a crouch but the ghuls weren't quite as quick. Four of them stumbled away without faces.
"We have to break out of this pack!" Kamiko said, as the ghuls pressed in again, "There's too many already!" One slashed at her from behind, putting a deep claw-mark on her shoulder.
"HEY!" Yasu roared, bringing the tetsubo up and planting it on her attacker's skull. The club lodged somewhere in its pelvis before Yasu pulled it free again. As he turned, two ghuls jumped onto his back, grabbing onto his shoulder plates and tearing at his armor.
"Yasu, look out!" she cried, slicing one of them at the waste and cutting away the side of the other's head. They crumpled to the street.
"Back to back!" Yasu shouted, "We're going to die, but we won't make it easy!"
Kamiko nodded, turning with the Crab at her back. Ambition gleamed brightly in her hands, and she could feel its dark song in her heart. Yasu crouched low and held his tetsubo at a low angle, ready to cripple any who came within his reach. The ghuls cackled as they pressed in on them, oblivious to the wounds they inflicted, unheeding of the damage their comrades suffered.
"It's been nice knowing you," Yasu remarked over his shoulder, "Sorry I couldn't make it to your wedding. I would have made a lovely bridesmaid."
"There's still time," the Crane laughed back, blood trickling down her face, "Don't you know? This is the part where we're supposed to be rescued."
"That only happens... in the movies," Yasu said, breathing hard as he swung his tetsubo down again. He was beginning to feel the weight of his armor. It wouldn't be much longer.
"AKODO!" came the roar from the end of the street, amplified by loudspeakers of tremendous power. Some of the ghuls glanced back, but even for them it was too late. The golden giant was among them, swinging its tremendous sword and cleaving six ghuls at a time.
"Oh, no," Yasu said, fighting harder as his second wind came, "Oh, no no no!" Kamiko chuckled in relief.
The War Machine stood in the street, raised its sword in one hand, and roared once more. "AKODO!" Several of the ghuls fell flat just from the sound and began to scamper away from the robotic monster.
"No, I will not be saved by a Lion and a Crane in the same day!" Yasu said defiantly, clubbing as many of the ghuls as he could before they fled.
"Akodo Daniri!" Kamiko said. She turned to Yasu, "See? I remember people's names."
"This costume doesn't seem to fool anybody," Daniri said, "I need a new secret identity." Akodo clanked up to them, sheathed the sword behind his back, and pressed a switch on his neck. The chest-plate of the suit slid back to reveal a sweating and exhausted Daniri seated inside. "Hey, weren't you the Crab that tried to pick a fight with me?" he asked, grinning.
"If I ever meet the gods, I'm going to slap them for this," Yasu promised, his face red.
"Plenty of time for blasphemy later, Yasu," Daniri said, "You can help me."
"Help the mighty Akodo War Machine?" Yasu said mockingly "but I thought you were ŒMankind's Last Hope'."
"Give me a break, Yasu. I'm an actor, not a writer," Daniri said, "Here's the problem: the Senpet are moving on the Palace. Between here and there, the Shinjo Magistrates are bottled up in the Tower by all these ghuls. If the cops could get out of here, they could take the Senpet from their flank and even up the odds back at the palace but the cops just don't have the right sort of firepower for fighting the undead. Between the two of us, we should be able to turn the tide, eh?"
"Shooting zombies? Grateful Battle Maidens? Sounds like fun," Yasu replied, "I'm in."
"Ahem," Kamiko said, "What about me?"
"You can't help us," Yasu said, with exaggerated shock, "You're a girl."
Kamiko smiled tightly at Yasu, a smile more frightening than any glare could ever be. Daniri took a few steps away from the Crab.
"I'm kidding of course," Yasu said quickly.
She slapped him anyway.
"Ow," he said, rubbing his jaw as he stomped along behind them, "It was just a joke..."
"So where to next, Scorpion?" Hatsu asked.
Oroki turned to the detective, his grimace of hate hidden behind his mask. "We keep moving," Oroki replied, "The park's automatic defenses have been activated. There is no safe place in the Labyrinth for them."
"And for us?" Hatsu asked.
"The Labyrinth will not harm me," Oroki replied, his hand upon the small control device in his jacket pocket, "As for you... well I recommend that you try to stay close."
"Then if your defenses are so impenetrable," Hatsu said, looking around the darkened alley, "How did that creature get into your park? The one I saw in the monitor room."
Oroki frowned bitterly. How we wished to put a bullet in the Dragon's head. Such a quick and easy solution. Too quick, too easy. No, the Kitsuki's defeat would have nothing to do with death. He finally answered, uttering the words he hated most. "I don't know." Oroki paused. "I acquired weapons to attempt to contain it, the very ones Zou was stealing when you first arrived. But Zou... is my best agent. If he was unable to defeat the creature, then I admit I am clueless as to its capabilities. That is why I have been avoiding the underground tunnels. Under usual circumstances, they are much safer. But with that thing down there..."
Hatsu nodded, absorbed in his own thoughts.
"I sense you know something you are not sharing, Kitsuki."
"I was thinking perhaps this isn't a coincidence," Hatsu said, "What with the Shosoro microcircuitry having connections to tetsukansen and black magic, perhaps this thing... could it be an oni?"
Oroki stared at Hatsu. "What are you talking about?" the Scorpion spat, "Catch up, Hatsu! Of course it's an oni. What the hell else would it be, you stupid Dragon?"
Hatsu's eyes narrowed. "There are other beasts in Rokugan besides the demons of Jigoku. We hardly have the evidence to say it is an oni with full certainty," Hatsu replied, "Unless you are not sharing something, Scorpion."
"What you don't know about me could fill the Labyrinth," the Scorpion replied.
Oroki thought back to his encounter with the thing, atop the roller coaster. It had asked to take his name. The demons drew power from the names of mortals, or so it was said in legends. And Oroki had almost given the creature his. Almost.
The sound of gunfire suddenly erupted from the alley behind them. Hatsu and Oroki both dove to the ground reflexively. Oroki rolled onto his back and came up with his pistol, firing off a full clip that drove the Wasp guardsmen to cover.
"Run!" Oroki said, lurching to his feet and fleeing down the alley at top speed.
Hatsu was barely a step behind, his swords drawn though he knew they would do him little good. A bullet ricocheted from the wall; Hatsu moved his head aside barely in time. A chill wind blew through the tunnel, and the Dragon thought he saw something pass overhead, but couldn't be sure.
"This way," Oroki said, ducking to the right and tearing down a side tunnel without warning. Hatsu followed him, pushing aside the plastic flap that said ŒAuthorized Personnel Only.'
Oroki hopped down the four foot ladder at the end of the tunnel, landing in a crouch and darting through the darkened chamber beyond. He clicked a button on the device in his pocket, throwing the room into bright light. It was a gigantic wooden structure, opening into two large tunnels on each side. The floor was divided by metallic tracks. Two long, snakelike metal vehicles painted in red and black sat dormant upon them.
Hatsu looked around in wonder as he dropped of the ladder. "This is--" he said.
"The station house for the Failed Martyr," Oroki finished, "Yes, of course it is." The Failed Martyr was the star attraction of the Labyrinth, the largest roller coaster in Rokugan and the third largest in the world. Oroki stood at the controls, fiddling with buttons. He threw a large switch, and the Martyr's cars chugged into sluggish motion, the twin coasters slowly rolling down the tracks and into the tunnel beyond.
"Are we going for a ride?" Hatsu asked, watching the nearest coaster chug past.
"Don't be a moron," Oroki said, "It's a distraction. Come on."
Oroki turned and ran into the opposite tunnel, through which the cars arrived at the end of the ride. Hatsu followed, glancing back to see four Wasps charge into the station house and open fire on the departing coasters. The Dragon picked up the pace, running up the tracks behind the Scorpion. The night air whistled and moaned around them, and Hatsu made the mistake of glancing down.
"Seven Thunders!" he cursed, "We must be sixty feet up!"
"More or less," Oroki replied, "I suggest you do not stumble, Dragon."
Hatsu nodded and focused his gaze back on the tracks, continuing to run. The tracks twisted and stretched atop their scaffolding. In the distance, Hatsu could hear the click and churn of the roller coasters' wheels as they began their ascent on the far side of the tracks.
"In here," Oroki said, entering to a small operating booth at the side of the tracks. Hatsu glanced around once more and ducked in after him.
"Hm," Oroki said, looking out the window down the tracks, "Only two." A small monitor screen in the booth showed the progress of the twin roller coasters. One of them bore two passengers, guns drawn.
"They think we're in the other coaster?" Hatsu asked.
"Probably not," Oroki replied, "But they're taking no chances. They left a pair in the station house to watch for us and those two are searching the tracks by riding the roller coaster, which, of course, is the silliest thing they possibly could have done." Oroki reached down and flipped a few switches on the control panel, causing all of the warning lights and meters to instantly flash red.
"What did you do?" Hatsu asked.
"I always thought the Martyr was a might tame for my tastes," Oroki said, "Those guardsmen are going to get the ride I'd always intended."
Hatsu looked out the window at the spiraling web of scaffolding and tracks. He saw the Martyr itself, slowly churning up the first hill, Wasp guardsmen in the rear car. Another flash of motion caught his eye and he saw a section of the track, at the end of the second hill, drop away.
"Those men-" Hatsu said.
"Yes, I murdered them," Oroki said coldly, "It's no less than they would do to us, detective. Remember Kitsuki, it was you that asked for my help. I would have told you in advance, but I am unused to working with someone that has the burden of a conscience."
"I will take that as a compliment," Hatsu replied.
"As you will." Oroki pushed past the detective and stepped back onto the tracks, hopping onto a concealed service ladder and beginning the long climb down to the surface.
Hatsu paused for a moment. He watched the Failed Martyr sail gracefully from its tracks, plummeting to the earth with a tortured crash and the scream of those within. His heart was heavy as he sheathed his swords and followed Oroki down the ladder. A week ago, he'd been a magistrate, a hero. Now he was an outlaw, an accomplice to murder. Certainly it was self defense, but it didn't make him feel any better about it. The worst part of it was, none of this was over yet.
Hatsu stopped suddenly, the light of premonition blazing between his eyes. He rubbed at his eyes with both hands, the pain of the future pressing in on him.
"Be calm," said a voice in Hatsu's head, "I am here." The pain was gone suddenly, and Hatsu opened his eyes wide. The voice, the premonition were gone, and he remembered nothing. Only an odd calm remained, draped over his mind like a shroud.
"Dragon?" Oroki said, "Are you all right?"
"No," Hatsu said, "but I will be. Let's get the hell out of here."
Oroki nodded, and they kept running.
Otosan Uchi was a noisome place tonight, thought Kashrak. He settled back upon his coils and tried to find sleep once more. Dust sifted from the ceiling of the dank Downtown sewer, dislodged by the distant explosions of the invasion.
"The Senpet are making such a horrible racket with their invasion, don't you think?" Kashrak asked, turning to his prisoner with a feral smile.
"Die," she whispered, her face pale and drawn. The young Naga girl sat hunched on the floor in the corner of Kashrak's fetid lair, a shimmering chain of tainted green magic extending from the wall to hold her by the neck and wrists.
"How rude," Kashrak said, rolling his slitted yellow eyes as his head darted from side to side, "You were never so rude to me before. You rather liked me then."
"I didn't know you..." Zin hissed, "I didn't know how deep your perversion ran."
"Well, now you do," Kashrak said, "and honesty is the first step in a lasting relationship. The second, of course, is total obedience, which you will give me soon enough."
"Never," she promised, rising her head enough to glare at him through a stream of fine black hair.
"You were loyal to me before, Zin," Kashrak chuckled, ignoring her defiance, "And as long as some small piece of that loyalty remains, I have the means to amplify it until it is the very core of your being. You were with the Phoenix for a time. No doubt they told you of the power of the tetsukansen."
"You..." Zin said, "You were responsible for that?"
"For what? For the assassination attempt upon the emperor? For the implantation of the Doji House Guard and the Badger Daimyo? For the bombing of Phoenix Mercy and the summoning of the bakemono to destroy the evidence?" The dark Naga paused. "No. None of that was directly my doing. Not even my style; I'm far more direct. My allies, however, and the one they serve..."
"Akuma..." Zin said, her head dropping hopelessly.
"Oh," Kashrak said, a nostalgic grin on his features, "Oh, how I wish it was. Oni Lord Akuma. Those were the days. But I'm afraid not; I've had to make do with mortal allies. But what they lack in raw power, they make up for in sheer guile and ruthlessness. For example." Kashrak reached into one of the many pouches about his waist and drew forth a black pearl. With a few whispered words, he crushed the pearl in his fist and sprinkled the dust into a puddle. The water clouded, then cleared to reveal the face of an elderly man in a blue silken kimono.
"Kashrak," said the man.
"Asahina Munashi," replied the Naga, "Always a pleasure."
"Indeed," the Crane replied, lacing his fingers together as he regarded the reptilian sorceror, "How go things in Downtown?"
"We are untouched by the invasion, still," the Naga said with a yawn, "Unfortunate. I would like to see our Crab friends outside crushed between the peril without and the peril within. To confess, old friend, I am bored."
"Then be bored no longer," Munashi replied, "I had convinced Doji Meda not to call the Crane forces away from combat, but fear he may soon join the engagement in a misguided attempt to find his missing daughter. Family is a heavy burden to bear."
"But if the Crane interfere..." Kashrak hissed.
"The Senpet's near-hopeless attack will lose what little momentum it has," Munashi said, his voice rimmed with anger, "The Stormbreaker has said that the palace gates must fall. They must fall tonight. Otherwise, the prophecies may never be fulfilled."
"If our esteemed leader has spoken, who am I to argue?" Kashrak said with fiendish glee, "Tonight, Oni no Taki-bi, Elemental Terror of Fire, shall return to the land of Rokugan."
"Many thanks, Kashrak, that is more than I could ask," Munashi said, "I knew we could count on you." The Crane turned away and the puddle went dark once more.
"So that is your great plan?" Zin spat, throwing back her hair and staring Kashrak in the eyes, "To be a servant to the humans you despise? To jump at their beck and call? To serve their whims and hope for a scrap when they are the masters of the table?"
The twisted Naga sat up on his tails, his eyes burning in the darkness of the tunnel. For a moment, Zin felt connected to his gaze, bonded to the fathomless evil beneath. She turned away, the taste of bile in her mouth.
"You're trying to provoke me, Zin," Kashrak said, "It will not work. I have no dreams of empire. My goals have already been accomplished. My destiny has been fulfilled. My sole desire is to while away eternity causing as much pain and suffering as I can manage. Of course it would mean nothing to me without the fair Zin by my side," he said with a chuckle, "Now if you will excuse me, my dear, I have an oni to summon."
"You must be insane," Sachiko laughed, "You must be simply no less than insane."
"That's what they tell me," Yasu chuckled.
"Still, she said, "It's good to see you." She hopped off the motorcycle and gave the big Crab a hug. He blushed and stepped back with a large grin. The garage of Shinjo tower was a wrecked mess, but it was less a mess than the rest of the station. Magistrates, bushi, and Battle Maidens rushed about everywhere, readying their weapons, preparing to depart for the Palace.
"Sachiko!" Kamiko exclaimed, "We meet again!"
"Doji Kamiko?" Sachiko replied, her eyes wide as she took in the tattered and battle-stained young girl. She'd known Kamiko as a programmer, a hacker, a somewhat spoiled rich girl. This was a completely different side of her.
"So you guys all know each other already?" Daniri said, "How come I'm the famous one and I never know anybody?" He shrugged, hands in his pockets. He was enjoying his first few minutes out of the War Machine in hours.
"You guys picked the right time to show up," Sachiko said with a grin, "It seemed like we'd been fighting off those ghuls for hours. I was starting to give up all hope of making it to the Palace in time. I can't thank you enough."
"Sure you can," Yasu said with a lewd smirk.
"Cool your jets, Crab," Sachiko replied coyly, "We've got work to do." She strode off toward the far end of the garage, gesturing for them to follow. Yasu and Daniri glanced at each other and watched her walk away with interest. Kamiko glared at them both and snorted in disgust.
"We've moved the armory here," Sachiko explained, indicating long tables covered with weaponry and body armor, "Take whatever you need."
Yasu nodded, selecting the largest shotgun he could find and then browsing through the grenades. Kamiko looked over the guns in distaste. "I don't really know how to use any of these," she said.
"Tha's okay!" chirped the weedy little man behind the table, "A pretty little bird like you, she no need to defend herself. Tha's what big oxes like him are for, no?" he pointed at Yasu.
"That was incredibly sexist," Kamiko said.
Sachiko smirked. "Meet Iuchi Razul, chief mechanic and tetsukami wizard for Shinjo Tower. Yasu, I imagine the two of you should get along."
"I already like him," Yasu nodded, putting a handful of shotgun shells in his pocket.
"Hey, Daniri!" called out a voice from nearby. The actor turned to see the magistrate he'd saved on the harbor earlier that day, Shinjo Rakki.
"Hey, Rakki, what's up?" Daniri said.
"Not much, man," Rakki said, smiling and bowing to the Lion, "I just wanted to thank you again for pulling me out of the fire back there."
"No problem," Daniri said, "I just happened to be in the right place. You cops have to do stuff like that every day." Daniri winced inside. He knew it sounded cheesy, in fact it was a line from his show, but Rakki didn't seem to mind.
"Yeah, anyway, I just wanted to thank you and stuff," Rakki said, glancing around nervously, "And... well..."
"Yeah, Rakki?" Daniri asked, "What is it?"
"Could I be on your show?" Rakki smiled hopefully.
"Razul, there are a lot of jinn out there tonight," Sachiko said, leaning on the table to get the shugenja's attention, "Do you have any tetsukami I can borrow out? Magic seems to be the only thing that works well."
"What?" Razul replied, his bushy eyebrows shooting up, "The Ot-Nag she no good for you no more? You get all spoiled on me, Sachiko-chan." He shook his head in mock disdain.
"The Ot-Nag is fine," Sachiko replied, patting the large pistol on her belt, "I was just wondering if you had anything else. Techno-meshiodo or something."
"Hmmm," Razul said, "We use up most of that against the ghuls. Not much technomesh left. Just these, and they pretty much useless." Razul gestured to a small table, covered with blue gems.
"What do they do?" Daniri asked, picking one up and examining it.
"Penetrating Drop," Razul said, "She a good spell, but in a fight she not so good. You stick de technomesh in de thing, de thing's sprit fill with Water."
"So you can drown people?" Yasu asked.
"No, no," Razul said, "Not real water. Just de Water kami. Not so much good against a person since dere so much water Kami in them already, neh?"
"Hmm," Sachiko replied, taking a few and slipping them into her belt, "You never know. Thanks Razul." The Battle Maiden turned and walked away, Kamiko and Daniri in tow.
"She thank me just by wearing that armor," Razul grinned, leering at Sachiko's skintight battle-suit. Yasu nodded vigorously and continued shoving weapons and ammo in his pockets.
Kameru stood upon the walls of the Palace, gazing down at the streets below. The skyline of Otosan Uchi was shrouded in smoke from the fires. The helicopters of the Scorpion buzzed between the buildings like angry hornets. Some of the familiar buildings of the skyline were simply gone.
"How long?" Yoritomo asked. The Emperor stood at the other end of the battlements, watching the ashes drift off into the night sky.
"Difficult to say," Ishihn replied. He tugged uncomfortably at his robes. Ishihn was unused to wearing the formal trappings of the shugenja, though he had been fully trained at the Ranbe school. "If the Crane do not arrive soon, the Senpet will breach the gates."
"It won't be long, father," Kameru said gravely, "Shiriko reports that the Senpet Forces have already passed Shinjo Tower and the Museum."
"What of the other clans?" Yoritomo asked. His voice held no anger, frustration or annoyance. It was flat, devoid of emotion, devoid of hope.
"We sent a distress signal to the Crab," Kitsune Meiko replied, wringing her hands absently, "They have not responded. Matsu Gohei has promised Lion support but even the fastest planes they have will not arrive for some time. The Phoenix have returned from the Hubs and have now added their support to the Palace grounds directly; the remaining Elemental Masters protect the gates as we speak. The Scorpion still patrol the city, trying to destroy as many of the Scarabs as possible, while the Unicorn have only recently managed to free themselves from the ghul siege of Shinjo Tower."
"The Mantis cannot hold the palace alone," Ishihn lamented, "Not even with the help of the Phoenix."
"Where is Meda?" Yoritomo asked, "Where is Kyo? The city's greatest hour of need and our Champion and Captain of the Guard desert us. I must lead the armies myself."
"You cannot, Your Highness!" Meiko replied. Yoritomo turned to her, an angry glint in his eye.
"I will hold the gates, father," Kameru said, stepping in front of the Emperor, his face a mask of iron defiance. "I will lead the armies."
Yoritomo turned to his son, silent, brooding. The two locked stares for a tense moment. "Go then, Kameru," Yoritomo said quietly, "Do not fail me, my son."
"We will hold the gates," Kameru replied. "Ishihn, come with me." Ishihn bowed immediately in agreement, falling into step behind Kameru. Kameru turned at the door and bowed to his father. Yoritomo nodded.
Kameru marched off toward the steps, his manner full of cold fury. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled.
"What are we doing?" Ishihn asked, jogging to keep up, "What's the plan, Kameru?"
"We kill them," Kameru said, "Or we make them kill us."
The prince and his friend continued down the hallway toward the stairs. They did not even notice Fatima as they passed, but she had not given them much to notice. She was a simple servant, huddled in the corner, watching the battle outside with terror in her eyes. Even when they passed, she did not relax her facade, there was too much at risk.
This Kameru was everything they had told her the Mantis would be: brash, violent, and domineering. He was also charismatic, quite attractive, even. She might have been interested in him had she not come here to kill his father.
Fatima looked off the way Kameru had come. Several guards stood vigilant at the archway. She couldn't get past them to Yoritomo, and wouldn't be able to do anything if she could. She would have to bide her time. Gaining access to the Palace had been difficult enough and she wasn't going to ruin the mission now taking foolish risks. Perhaps a guard's identity might serve her better. It certainly wouldn't be much of a surprise if one went missing for a while, not in this battle. After that, it would only be a matter of time before she finished phase two of her mission and killed the Emperor.
And then for phase three.
The storm broke just as the Senpet attempted their third push against the castle walls. Kameru had arrived to rally the men as the first raindrops fell, and the Senpet began to fall back. The prince's leadership, fighting at the forefront with sabre and pistol, seemed to drive the Mantis and Phoenix against the exhaustion and hopelessness that had crushed them for the last four hours.
Still, the numbers seemed insurmountable until a sudden war-cry erupted from the Senpet's right flank and a squadron of purple Shinjo motorcycles and squad cars arrived on the scene, led by a monstrous golden robot that could only have been the Akodo War Machine.
Sumi stood atop the walls of the Palace, her hands balled into fists. The fire spirits whirled about her in a writhing whirlwind, reflecting the young girl's fury and anger. At her side, Zul Rashid called the storm's lightning down upon the retreating Senpet soldiers and jinn. The rest of the balcony was lined with Shiba soldiers, firing tetsukami bullets of void and fire into the enemy.
"They pull back from the gates," Rashid said simply, lowering his hands to his sides as the last of the Senpet fled behind the cover of the nearby buildings.
"No doubt this is only a brief reprieve," crackled Kameru's voice over a Shiba Bushi's radio, "Stay sharp everyone."
"Hai, Kameru-sama," replied the bushi.
"By the Fortunes," Sumi gasped, looking Rashid in the face for the first time in hours, "Your eye!"
Rashid turned, looking at his reflection on the silver surface of a rain puddle. The skin around his left eye was grayed, discolored. The white of the eye itself had gone an inky black and the pupil burned with a dead red glow.
"The curse of Kaze," Rashid said, raising a hand to his face, "It seems my new immortality comes with a price."
"You should go back to the hospital, Rashid," Sumi said.
"And let Nitobe's staff of fools and charlatans stare blankly and offer false encouragement again? I think not. I think perhaps there is no hope for me, Sumi. I have died twice already, and lived to tell the tale. All I wish to do now is to see my adopted home safe."
The Shiba Bushi spread out along the walls, some of them descending to the courtyard to rest or mingle with their comrades. Sumi and Rashid were left alone. A few blocks away, the imposing dome of a Scarab prowled over the top of a battered building, headed for the Palace. A pair of Scorpion gunships suddenly swooped in its path with a burst of gunfire, and the Scarab wheeled about and retreated. The helicopters hovered in place, allowing it to leave.
"They're just going to let them to escape?" Sumi said, "After what they've done to Otosan Uchi?"
"They are testing us. They know we have neither the organization or the manpower necessary for a counterattack, Sumi," Rashid said, "The best we can hope for is to hold this ground. The Senpet will find no sanctuary in Otosan Uchi. If they are wise they shall flee and return to their remaining ships before the armies of the Crab and Lion arrive in force. As for the damage done to the city," the sorceror gazed out at the burning skyline of Otosan Uchi, "I'd say we have the better end of the bargain. This is nothing compared to what we've done to them."
"That's cold, Rashid," Sumi said, folding her arms and turning away from the skyline, "Those are innocent civilians out there. They've got nothing to do with Yoritomo's war and now they're dying for it."
Rashid frowned. Sumi seemed angry, confused, and he sensed not all of it was due to what was happening in the streets.
"You spoke to your mother?" he asked.
"She didn't tell me much," Sumi said bitterly, "She said that it was a matter of honor, and refused to discuss it. Even with me, even with her own daughter."
"She was ever a proud woman," Rashid said, a hint of regret in her voice, "Perhaps too proud. Such impertinence before one's own daimyo is not to be taken lightly, Sumi. You shall have to be more strict in the future."
"What are you talking about, Zul Rashid?" Sumi replied, hand resting on her sword's handle. She had nearly tired of the sorceror's games and riddles. Something was happening inside of her mind, her soul. She wasn't sure what was going on and didn't need an arrogant sorceror confusing things for her with riddles.
"Have you not guessed yet, my child?" he asked, "The Soul of Shiba resides within your breast. You are the rightful Champion of the Phoenix."
Part of Sumi was not surprised. She was in fact more surprised by the fact that the words came as no shock to her, but simply confirmed what she had already known. "All right, Rashid," she said, her tone hard and unflinching, "Explain."
Rashid seated himself on a small bench along the edge of the wall, leaning back against the rail and looking down upon the battle-scarred street. "I am a man who prides himself on his aura of mystery," Rashid chuckled, "This, no doubt, is the greatest mystery I will ever reveal. Fitting, since I anticipate it will be my last. The tale begins roughly forty-five years ago, with a man named Shiba Ashijun. Have you heard of him?"
"He was the Champion of the Phoenix, prior to Shiba Mifune," Sumi said. She had always been rather poor at history, but she had instantly recalled the name as if it were her own.
"Yes," Rashid said, "Ashijun was the daimyo, but he was a young man. He was still an adventurer at heart, and a bit of a rogue. He had himself appointed ambassador to Medinaat-al-Salaam so that he might carry his escapades to the City of One Thousand Stories. He was hoping no doubt to leave a few tales of his own. It seems in the end he got his wish, for he fell on the wrong side of the heartless coven of sorcerors known as the khadi. They murdered him in the night."
"What did he do?" Sumi asked.
"He wounded their pride," Rashid answered.
"Pride?" Sumi asked, seating herself on the bench near Rashid. His face looked weary and nostalgic. For the first time, she noticed the many lines and folds he bore around his dark eyes. He looked very old right now, and very sad.
"Indeed," Rashid continued, "In that land, pride is a capital offense if there ever was one. The Dread Lord of the khadi discovered that Ashijun had dallied with his favored wife. What's more, she had bore him a son. Such an affront was not to be tolerated. Even the Soul of Shiba could not save Ashijun from the Dread Lord's fury."
"And what happened to the child?" Sumi asked.
"He should have been slain," Rashid replied, "Thrown from the window of the Tower as a bastard and half-breed mongrel. A quirk of fate saved his life. The Dread Lord of the khadi, as it turns out, was impotent and unable to conceive children of his own. Though he had many wives, none thus far had bore him sons. Behind his back, he was mocked and scorned, for he was not well liked at the start. The Dread Lord decided to hide the wife's infidelity and pretend that the child was his own. The boy was raised surrounded by the teachings of black magic and hatred."
"That's terrible," Sumi said.
Rashid nodded, not meeting her eyes. "Still, something in the center of his being remained pure," Rashid tapped his chest with two fingers. "Somehow, he knew that he did not belong. He never accepted the teachings of his dark masters to heart, not even when that very heart was torn from his breast and he was himself inducted into their grim cabal."
"The boy was you," Sumi said.
"Yes, of course," Rashid said, "I thought you'd have figured that out, Sumi. I knew I had to escape. I knew that my destiny lay beyond the city's walls, but I had no friends, no allies outside the khadi, no one to trust. Thirty years I waited before the opportunity presented itself at last. In Rokugan, Shiba Mifune, cousin of Ashijun and interim Phoenix Champion, had proven what he had suspected for three decades. With the help of an Phoenix-Agasha alchemist, he proved that Ofushikai, the Ancestral Sword of the Phoenix, was a forgery. The true sword still lay somewhere in Medinaat-al-Salaam, stolen by Ashijun's killer. Mifune dispatched his most skilled operative, a young Shiba samurai-ko recently betrothed to his friend Isawa Asa, the Master of Fire, Isawa Neiko."
"My mother," Sumi said gripping the hilt of Ofushikai tightly.
"I see you begin to sort out the puzzle," Rashid said. "On her mission, we met. The voice at the center of my being had been compelling me, driving me to discover all I could about my true father. That trail led to the sword and to Neiko. We met all sorts of trials and catastrophes at each other's sides." Rashid smiled faintly, sadly. "Two young people fighting against a thousand minions of darkness. In final conflict with my adopted father, the Phoenix Sword appeared in my hand, as it did with you Sumi. With such a weapon in hand the two of us were able to make our escape, if only just. Your mother was struck a terrible blow as we fled, the wound that leaves her in the confined state she is in today. I carried her back to Rokugan, professed my love, my loyalty, my undying devotion. She told me she was to be married, and I said that mattered little to me since I was already married, too. She demurred."
"Rashid!" Sumi said, shocked.
"Despite my attempts to pretend the contrary, I am not a nice person, Sumi. Do not allow yourself to be fooled," the old wizard chuckled. "Besides, mine was a marriage arranged by the Dread Lord, forced upon me by forces I was to weak at the time to defy. I did not love my wife..." Rashid grew silent for a moment. "Though I admit I regret leaving behind my daughters. I wonder sometimes what became of them.
"I returned once, a decade ago. I saw them... They did not know me. I decided at the time not to shatter their world by revealing myself." Rashid stood, wiping at his eyes with one hand. "Sumi, do not judge me harshly. I ask nothing of you. I will be dead soon, or worse. I simply would not leave this world with all of my daughters ignorant of their father.
"I am sorry if I have upset you or failed you. If it makes any difference, you could not have asked for a better father than Isawa Asa. He was a greater man than I, and the world shall miss him." The sorceror was silent. He stepped toward the stairs of the balcony, turning to leave.
Sumi reached up and took Rashid's hand in her own. Their eyes met, and an eternity of regret melted away from the old sorceror's eyes. His cynical facade melted away, and he laughed. Not his trademark laugh of self-deprecation or irony, but a tearful laugh of true joy. He fell back to his seat and embraced his daughter.
Isawa Kujimitsu ascended the wall, regarding the pair curiously. "Rashid, Sumi, have I come at a bad time?" he asked.
"Rashid is my father," Sumi said through her own tears, "He's my real father."
"How wonderful!" Kujimitsu said, his round face falling into its easy smile, "I always suspected you had ulterior motives for leaving the Burning Sands, you old khadi fool." The Master of Water chuckled as he sat on the bench across from the father and daughter.
"That is the good news, old friend," Zul Rashid said solemnly, "Now for the bad."
"Your face..." Kujimitsu said in shock, noticing Rashid's glowing eye at last.
"The source of my ill tidings," Rashid said. "Kaze's curse spreads, and even I do not know where it will end. Already, my perceptions of the world have begun to change. After the Senpet invasion has been repulsed, I shall renounce my position as Master of Air and separate myself from the Phoenix before something terrible should happen."
"Rashid!" Sumi said, "No!"
"It is for the best, Sumi," he said, "It must be done. I will not become another Isawa Tsuke, blind to my own corruption."
"I wish you all the best, old friend," Kujimitsu said gravely, "I hope you can find a cure for your ailment."
"Perhaps too great a hope," Rashid said, "I have lived a seasoned life. I think that I am all out of luck. Besides, you are the one who shall need luck, Isawa. It seems you are the Last Master now."
"The Last Master?" Kujimitsu replied, glancing at Sumi, "Sumi, what's the meaning of this?" Sumi glanced to Rashid as well, bewildered.
"Phoenix bureaucracy," the khadi said, "Did you not know that you cannot be Phoenix Champion and Elemental Master both at once? Heavens, the Shiba will be scandalized enough that their champion is a shugenja."
Kujimitsu looked to Sumi, taking in the sword still on her belt, the new wisdom to her eyes. "Well, this is the day for surprises," the Master of Water said, rising from his chair and kneeling before her. "Isawa Sumi, let me be the first to offer you my fealty," he said.
"Time for ceremony later, Kujimitsu," Rashid replied, "It looks like the Senpet are up to something." In the streets, the enemy soldiers seemed to be moving rapidly, taking up new positions across from the wall.
"What's going on?" Sumi asked, "It's too soon for them to attack again."
"They're not attacking," Kujimitsu said, "They seem to be clearing a path, and are doing so rather rapidly."
"For what?" Sumi asked.
"That question should be resolved rather quickly," Rashid said, pointing at the street, "Brace yourselves."
Sumi glanced down in time to see a massive ball of purple fire hurtling down the street toward the palace gates. The Senpet began scrambling feverishly to move out of the way, as did the Mantis and Phoenix before the gates, but they were not quick enough. The fireball flashed through the ranks, reducing men and equipment to ash. It struck the wall with the force of a cannon, cracking the gates and knocking Kujimitsu to his knees.
"What in Jigoku?" the Master of Water cursed.
"A good guess," Rashid replied, his eyes on the flaming form beneath.
The flames moved like liquid, sculpting themselves to the shape of a forty foot woman. She opened eyes of icy blue, looking up and focusing on the Elemental Masters atop the wall.
"Mukra shinku ut noscraftus Taki-bi, Phoenix," she said with a wicked smile. She grasped the Palace gates in both hands, the steel and crystal melting uselessly in her touch.
"The Terror of Fire," Rashid said.
"They are herding us," Hatsu said, following Oroki into the passage, "Like sheep."
"I tend to agree," called out the Scorpion's voice from somewhere in the darkness, "The Wasps seem to keep finding us, somehow, yet the do not engage. They simply drive us on."
"Where are they taking us?" Hatsu asked, his voice low as he followed, ready for anything. He didn't fully trust the Scorpion. He doubted he ever would
"Why how... utterly bizarre," Oroki said, stepping out onto the public walkway again.
"What is it?" Hatsu asked.
They were standing before the Tunnel of Love.
"What's in there?" Hatsu asked.
"Love?" Oroki suggested.
"That's not what I mean, Scorpion," Hatsu spat, "I mean are there any generators, armories, traps, any of your little hidden surprises in there?"
"Only fuel," Oroki said, "I store several dozen barrels of liquid fuel in the tunnel, for use in the case of an energy crisis. Other than that, the tunnel is one place that is truly as it appears. I suppose I thought it would be wrong, somehow, to set traps there." He shrugged. "Love is quite confusing enough without me getting involved."
"You have a uniquely disturbed code of honor, Scorpion," Hatsu said.
"I will take that as a compliment," Oroki said, edging toward the tunnel with his pistol drawn.
"As you will," said Hatsu, his daisho ready.
"Why don't you get a real weapon, Dragon?" Oroki whispered, "I'm almost out of bullets after covering us both all night."
"The daisho is the true symbol of the samurai," Hatsu said, "It's a pure weapon, a noble weapon."
"It's a fashion accessory," Oroki said, taking a silencer from his pocket and screwing it onto the end of his gun, "If you have to be a cavemen, you could have at least brought along a bow."
Hatsu just shook his head in disagreement, and the two fell silent as they entered the tunnel. The water of the lagoon lapped the artificial shore gently, and the bright neon images of flowers, birds, and kissing lovers flashed on the walls and ceiling.
"Did you turn on the lights?" Hatsu whispered, considering the lights on the ceiling.
Oroki simply shook his head. He removed the small black control device from his pocket and pressed a button. Nothing happened. He looked back at the Dragon, narrowed his eyes, and shook his head again before returning the device to his pocket.
They continued, more carefully than before, trying to stay out of the neon as much as possible. Large metal barrels stood against the walls on either side, filled with the emergency fuel Oroki had mentioned. The tunnel turned off to one side, and a small boat bobbed in the water, empty. Hatsu froze, and signaled the Scorpion with his wakizashi. Oroki was instantly alert, aiming his pistol in each direction before glancing curiously at Hatsu again. Hatsu pointed with his katana.
At the end of the tunnel, one of the neon lights was bent and twisted. A human figure kneeled amidst the twisting lights, gripped as if in a huge fist. He held his head up wearily as they approached, his eyes red and watering, dark hair spilling about a bloody face. He wore the bright orange armor of a Phoenix, covered now in blood and filth. The bushi's mouth worked limply, and he opened one eye.
Oroki pointed his pistol at the man. Hatsu snatched Oroki's wrist in a firm grip, his katana ready in his off hand.
"If you shoot that man," Hatsu hissed, "It will be your last crime."
"He will betray our position," Oroki retorted.
"He is a hurt," Hatsu said, his voice brooking no argument.
"Fine," Oroki said, "Then you go first. Get ambushed. I'll wait here."
Hatsu proceeded carefully down the hallway, glancing both directions before he kneeled beside the Phoenix.
"What happened to you?" Hatsu said, tugging experimentally at the glass tubes that bound him, "Who are you?"
"I'm Shiba Mojo," he said, "And that damn oni did this."
Oroki walked a bit closer. "The oni?" he said, "You saw it?"
"Damn right I saw it!" he said, "It was Oni no Akeru! Elemental Terror of the Void! Now get me out of this thing!"
"How did it do this?" Hatsu asked, breaking away the glass tubes that bound the man.
"It controls inanimate objects," he said, standing unsteadily, "It numbed my tetsukami goggles so we couldn't see it coming. It twisted these tubes to hold me. Who knows what else it can do?"
"Who knows indeed?" asked a mocking voice, and a thin man in sunglasses stepped seemingly out of nowhere. With a shrug, he threw his trenchcoat back on the floor, revealing dark black body armor and a pair of large black pistols holstered crosswise on his hips.
"Kyo!" Hatsu hissed, holding his daisho low and ready, "How did you find us?"
"Oh, you're not half so clever as you think, detective," Kyo said, "You were betrayed. The Stormbreaker's eyes are everywhere, and there is not much he would not do to kill one of the Seven Thunders."
"Seven Thunders?" Hatsu and Oroki replied simultaneously.
Kyo shrugged. "Apparently. Myself, I don't understand how a Kitsuki could be a Thunder, but I don't get paid to understand. Oh, well, enough chitchat."
"Behind you!" Mojo screamed, pointing back down the tunnel.
Hatsu dove into the water as gunfire erupted behind him. Oroki and Mojo threw himself into the abandoned boat. The Scorpion pointing his pistol over the side and firing blindly. Hatsu pushed himself through the water, his eyes burning from the excess of chlorine and chemicals. He swam the way he had came, keeping close to the bottom, as the exchange of fire continued above him.
Oroki risked a glance over the side of the boat. Four Wasps stood at the end of the tunnel, pistols and rifles at the ready, covering his position. He had one bullet left. Kyo darted back around the corner. "Dragon!" Oroki shouted, "Get back here you coward!"
"You're on your own, Bayushi," Kyo laughed, "That's what you get for throwing in with a fugitive. Now come out with your hands up and surrender. Perhaps we can come to an agreement."
Oroki considered it, for a moment.
Hatsu lunged from the water beside the Wasps, slashing with katana and wakizashi at once. The first strike took a wasp across the ankles and the second slashed one across the wrists to disarm him. He swung again with both swords, cleaving a man at torso as he tried to draw aim and finishing the wounded man behind him. Then he turned looked straight into the barrel of the last man's gun, six feet away.
A gun fired. The Wasp fell against the wall, leaving a streak of blood as he slid to the floor.
"Nice shooting," Mojo said.
"He said Œhands up'," Oroki said, dropping back into the boat to take cover, "It's his own fault he forgot to tell me to drop my weapon first.
Seven more Wasp guardsmen ran around the corner from where Kyo had taken cover, sweeping the tunnel with machinegun fire. Hatsu dove into the water again as the bullets tore into the barrels of fuel behind him, filling the tunnel entrance with a brilliant orange fireball. The Dragon pulled himself up onto the shore once more, choking on smoke and chlorinated water. He cursed as he realized he had lost his swords.
"Seven Thunders!" Oroki cursed, glancing over the edge of the boat again, "Does your ill luck never end, Kitsuki?"
Kyo laughed wickedly as he peered around the corner. Hatsu was open, exposed, with nowhere to go. "No way out, Kitsuki." The Wasp stepped out into the tunnel, pointed both pistols at the Dragon, and fired.
A blur of motion cut the bullets' path. A large man covered with tattoos stood between Kyo and Hatsu, extended one fist swirling with the markings of a dragonfly, and dropped two bullets on the ground.
"Now!" the man shouted.
And all was chaos. A man with a crescent moon upon his face melted from the darkness and seized one of the Wasps about the throat, dragging him back into the shadows. One rose from the lagoon, water streaming from the dragon that wrapped about his torso, and coughed a cloud of fire onto the two nearest guardsmen. One dropped from the ceiling, fingers baring the claws of the tiger upon his back as he rent the throat of the Wasp's rear guard. A shimmering portal opened in the air and three samurai in green lacquered armor leapt from within, slicing at the Wasps with katana and wakizashi. A final ise zumi, an old man with skin painted in patterns of herbs and vines lunged from the portal, seizing Tsuruchi Kyo about the neck and dragging him to the ground. Mojo jumped out of the cover of the boat, grabbing one of the fallen Wasp's weapons and firing away into the remaining guards.
The was leader of the samurai sheathed his daisho and turned to Hatsu. He was a tall man in ancient style green-lacquered armor, his helm carved into the fearsome likeness of a Dragon. "I am Mirumoto Rojo," he said, bowing deeply to the detective, "and I am honored to meet you at last, Hatsu."
"He doesn't look like a Thunder," said a stocky samurai to Rojo's left.
"Luckily, looks aren't required to save the world, Choha," Rojo replied with a laugh.
"Through the portal, quickly," said the third samurai, stepping partway through the shimmering gateway, "The fire will spread here soon." A woman in robes of red and green stood on the other side, in deep concentration as she maintained her spell.
"No!" said Kyo, gasping for breath against the vice-like grip of the ise zumi's elbow about his throat, "No one is going anywhere!" A wave of darkness rolled forth from Kyo's eyes, sweeping over the samurai, the shugenja, and the portal. The portal snapped shut, cutting the samurai in two from crotch to shoulder. Kyo stood, throwing the old ise zumi.
"The oni!" Mojo shouted, "It's the oni!"
Kyo raised his fists and laughed as darkness seeped from his skin, forming chitinous armor over his body. The three remaining ise zumi lunged at him, but his upper torso twisted with a wicked backhand slap, scattering them across the floor. Kyo's body swelled, taking the monstrous shape of Oni no Akeru.
"Kyo!" Oroki exclaimed, snatching one of the Wasp's pistols from the ground and pointing it at the oni.
"I am better than Kyo," he said, his voice a distant echo, "We have improved ourselves."
"The oni," Mojo repeated nervously, "He's been possessed by the damn oni."
"Possessed is such an ugly word," Kyo chuckled, "It suggests parasitism. Ours is more a commensal relationship. Equal parts given so that both organisms prosper."
"I don't care what it is," Rojo said, "It can return to Jigoku." The samurai crossed his daisho before you and screamed. A bolt of pure white light launched from the junction of the blades, striking Akeru in the chest and causing him to stumble backward. Oroki and Mojo began firing away at the oni, bullets ricocheting harmlessly from it's shell.
The oni roared and lunged forward again, reaching for Hatsu with his long talons. "Look out!" shouted Choha, pushing Hatsu out of the way and taking the brunt of the oni's attack. Akeru charged past, spinning with his back to the wall and Choha's intestines dripping from his claws. The oni chuckled with Kyo's voice, the light of the growing fire reflecting in his eyes.
"Choha!" Rojo shouted. His daisho glowed with an unearthly light as they streaked through the air toward Akeru. Akeru held up a forearm to deflect the samurai's furious blows, and kicked out with one leg. Rojo fell back with a grunt, his swords flying from his hands.
"Close, but not enough, Dragon, "Akeru said, hunching down like a beast and examining the steaming white cuts on his arm. "Your chi is weak." He snatched out with one fist, catching Mojo in the chest and sending him flying backward into Oroki.
Rojo's dragon-hilted katana skittered across the shore into the water; Hatsu snatched it up before it could sink, and rounded on the oni with the blade in his hand.
"Your friends seem most eager to throw away their lives for you, detective," the oni said, "but now you have run out of friends."
"You've sold out everything you've sworn to protect," Hatsu said, pointing with Rojo's sword, "You've dishonored yourself and your clan. Now you've given up your soul as well. What the hell happened to you?"
"Honor is an excuse used by those too weak to seize their own destiny," Kyo said, "Just look at us. Look at what I have done. I have conspired to assassinate my own Emperor. I have helped start a war that threatens to consume the world. I have used the Imperial Guards as assassins and thugs on the Stormbreaker's whims. And look at you, with your honor. Now you're an outlaw and a traitor, not to mention alone, powerless, and weak."
"Not alone," said a whisper in the back of Hatsu's mind. "Use the sword, Thunder. Use it now."
Hatsu did not hesitate. He brought the katana up in both hands, swinging it from the waist as he darted in toward the oni. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, his body felt warm, the dragon-hilt of the sword twisted in his hand like a living thing and the blade burned with red fire.
"NO!" Akeru said as he realized his error and the oni's skin shattered before the blade like a dandelion in the wind. Kyo's body flew back against the wall, striking hard and sliding down with a heap.
Hatsu turned to Rojo, laying nearby, and helped him to his feet.
"Well done, Kitsuki," Rojo said, "Not many can operate the nemuranai so effectively without training."
"Stop congratulating each other," Oroki spat, "We have to get out of this place before we all burn. There are exits further down the tunnel."
"Not so fast, Thunder," hissed Kyo. Hatsu turned to see the Captain of the Guard, leaning painfully against the wall, pointing a small pistol at him. Kyo fired four times, taking the detective full in the center of the chest.
"Hatsu!" shouted one of the ise zumi, leaping forward to catch the young detective's body as it fell.
"Kyo!" Oroki snarled, whirling on the Captain with his own pistol. Kyo laughed as the ceiling collapsed in flame the rubble consumed him.
The swirling portal appeared once more. The shugenja on the other side looked haggard, but alive. "Hurry!" she said, "I cannot hold it long!"
"I am afraid our paths must diverge at this point," the old ise zumi said with a deep sadness as he lifted Hatsu's body.
"Is he dead?" Mojo asked.
"He took four chest wounds, Phoenix," Oroki retorted, eyeing the ceiling warily, "What do you think? Now unless you have a magic portal of your own, I suggest you follow me to the exit." Oroki ran off down the tunnel, away from the fire, pistol still in hand.
Mojo quickly followed after him, taking one final look at the Dragons. They stood about the portal, the five of them, entering their portal with the blasted faces and slumped shoulders of the defeated. The old man was last, carrying the fallen Thunder, and then the portal was gone.
"Dammit!" Sachiko cursed. She sat on her motorcycle just east of the gates, surrounded by several stunned magistrates, Kamiko, Yasu, and the big Lion robot. They had arrived narrowly in time to repulse the last attack, and now some monster from hell was just destroying the Palace anyway. At least the Senpet seemed to be equally as afraid of the thing. "Yasu!" Sachiko shouted to the Crab.
"Yo!" Yasu replied. He'd been staring open-mouthed at the gigantic oni.
"You're a Seeker!" she said, "Tell us how to kill that thing!"
"Hon, that's Oni no Taki-bi, the badass grand demonslut of Fire!" he said, "That thing hasn't walked Rokugan in a thousand years and even then it took an army to kill it. Elemental Terrors aren't things you take lightly. Of course... I killed one." The Crab smirked.
"So what can we do?" Daniri asked.
"Rush it," Sachiko said, pulling on her helmet.
"What?" Kamiko replied.
"What?" Yasu said.
"Rush it," the Battle Maiden repeated, "If that thing destroys the Palace, we're all fodder for the Senpet anyway. We might as well attack and die trying, right?"
"That's insane!" Kamiko exclaimed.
"Seems like a good idea at the moment," Daniri said.
"I'm with him," agreed Yasu.
Taki-bi lurched out with one arm, sweeping across the top of the wall. The bushi screamed as they burned or were struck from their posts. Sumi ducked, the kami instantly flaring out in an aura to protect her. At the last moment, she seized control enough of the power to extend the protection to Rashid and Kujimitsu.
"Fall back!" screamed Kameru, waving an ancestral Mantis blade as he backed away across the courtyard. He fired repeatedly into the oni's body with his rifle, producing no results. "All units fall back to the courtyard!"
"INGRA KISHAN CARASSOS UT MANTIS!" Taki-bi chuckled, her gaze turning to Kameru. She pointed a single finger at the prince, spraying liquid fire across the courtyard toward him.
Kameru ran and leaped, rolling narrowly out of the way as Taki-bi's fire shredded the trees and shrubbery of the Palace courtyard.
"AKODO!" roared the golden War Machine, charging through the gates behind the oni and bringing his blade across her back in a savage chop. The oni looked down mildly as the War Machine's sword melted into a useless stump.
"Oh, crap!" Daniri said, jumping back a step and looking up at the oni.
"AMBAR KINKOS, UT AKODO," she laughed, seizing War Machine's chest in one hand. Daniri screamed as the outer shell of the armor peeled and dripped away in her grip. Daniri prepared to make peace with his kami when a beam of green light struck through her left shoulder, leaving a trail of white smoke.
"AKRA JADE!" she shouted, tossing Akodo aside and turning to the gates.
"What do you know?" Yasu said, holding a small, odd looking pistol in both hands, "The damn thing really works."
"DIE, CRAB!" she roared, striking out with twin plumes of fire. A matching column of red flame dipped down from the top of the gates, intersecting Taki-bi's and canceling both.
"No," Sumi said, standing on top of the wall, the storm whipping her kimono around her, "No more, demon."
Taki-bi chuckled, folding her arms across her chest. "So you fancy yourself a Master of Fire, girl?" she hissed, switching to a harshly accented Rokugani tongue, "Let us test."
"No games, oni," Sumi said, cutting the air with a gesture, "No deals. Leave my world or die."
"Such threats," Taki-bi laughed, "Such harsh words. You will not find me such an easy target as my little brother, stripling, and your fire cannot harm me." Taki-bi reared back and let loose with twin pillars of purple flame. Sumi instantly returned with a red blast of her own. The twin beams met, shifting balance back and forth above the courtyard in a deadly balance of power.
"Wish me luck, Shinjo," Sachiko whispered to herself as she mounted her motorcycle in the shadow of the gates.
She kicked the engine into gear and flew out into the courtyard, passing Yasu and the fallen Akodo. The oni glanced down at her approach and gestured vaguely with one hand. A sphere of purple fire exploded before her, and Sachiko barely dodged in time the motorcycle screeching in protest as it skidded on the rain-slicked stones. Another exploded to her right, and Sachiko swerved again, toward the oni. Sachiko veered close with her motorcycle, reached out with one hand, and threw a handful of blue techno-meshiodos into the center of the oni. Absorbed in her duel with Sumi, Taki-bi did not realize what was happening until too late.
"NO!" shrieked Taki-bi, clutching her torso in pain. She ceased her onslaught against Sumi and doubled over in agony. The Master of Fire, suspecting what the Unicorn had done, ceased her own assault lest Taki-bi grow stronger again from the fire. A sphere of pure blue appeared in the oni's center, growing, expanding. The oni's purple glow lessened, her flames diminished. A great pool of water spread out around her and began to boil.
"NO!" shrieked the oni again, her body sinking into the pool of water as it was extinguished. Her head disappeared beneath the surface, the blue eyes flashing white and then darkening to black.
"That was just like this movie I saw once," Yasu said, staring at the water in morbid curiosity.
"Well done!" Yoritomo Kameru exclaimed, running toward them. He held one arm close to his body; it had obviously been badly burned. "Well done, indeed. But we must return to the gates and bolster the defenses!"
"Obviously," Kamiko said, stepping into the courtyard.
"Kamiko!" Kameru said, running to her side and embracing her with his good arm, "What are you doing here? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine! I'm fine!" she laughed, "I can take care of myself. Now let go of me and go lead the army."
"Oh yeah," he said, embarrassed, "Right."
The first bursts of gunfire could be heard at the gates. The wounded and beleaguered Rokugani forces were crushed suddenly by the fierce attack of the Senpet. The Unicorn, and Mantis forces were pushed back through the broken gates and continued to fall back. The Phoenix retreated from the top of the wall, the Elemental Masters fighting alongside the bushi, fighting savagely for every inch of ground.
A silver and blue helicopter tore through the skies above the palace, dipping low over the crowd and firing into the Senpet. A second and third came behind the first, forcing the invaders back.
"It's the Crane!" Kamiko shouted in joy, "It's my father!"
"About time," Kameru grumbled to himself.
Six more of the helicopters swooped down into the courtyard, setting down quickly to disgorge squads of Daidoji soldiers before springing into the air again. The Crane bushi fell instantly into rank alongside their brethren, falling against the Senpet with gun and sword upon the Palace lawn.
Then the Scarabs arrived in force, the final desperate push. The Scorpion gunships desperately tried to outmaneuver them, but the superior Scarabs tore through the Palace's air defense, heading for the Palace with breakneck speed.
"Reinforcements!" Daniri warned, shrugging off the final shards of the ruined War Machine and pointing at the sky.
"What about the Scorpion jets?" Sachiko asked, "They seemed more than a match for those things out on the harbor."
"Our jets can't maneuver in the city," Kameru said, hacking aside a Senpet soldier and firing his pistol with the other hand, "We just have to hope for a miracle."
And a shadow passed over the courtyard, blocking out the light of the moon and stars, stopping the rain. A massive roar filled the sky and a great wind blew into the city, a wind blown by jet engines of incredible size.
"What the hell is THAT?" Ishihn remarked, eyes wide and staring at the sky.
"Looks like my clan finally got here," Yasu said.
The shadow pivoted on its axis, framing itself against the light of the moon. It was a tremendous floating island, mounted by a grey steel war fortress built in the style of the Crab, and ringed about by enormous cannons. As buildings went, it was nowhere near the size of the Palace or Dojicorp, but what it lacked in size it made up for in sheer intimidation.
"THIS IS HIDA TENGYU, CHAMPION OF THE CRAB AND COMMANDER OF KYUDEN HIDA!" thundered a voice from above, "THE EMPEROR AND THE PALACE OF OTOSAN UCHI ARE UNDER OUR PROTECTION! LEAVE IMMEDIATELY OR FACE THE CONSEQUENCES!"
A pair of Scarabs changed direction instantly, swooping up toward the floating castle with missiles flying. The explosive missiles detonated off of the castle's surface without effect, and a pair of cannons large than the Scarab's themselves locked onto the ships and fired with a loud yawn of disintegrating matter. The ships were instantly vaporized.
"Retreat!" shouted a Senpet commander from somewhere. The Senpet turned and withdrew from the palace, pursued by the combined forces of the Great Clans.
And above them all, Yoritomo simply watched.
Jinwa slumped against the burned out husk of an overturned car, breathing heavily. He could feel the heat of the burning bakery across the street. His leg still throbbed from where the shrapnel had hit, though Tokei's magic had closed the wound. His eyes were streaming from the smoke and the dust and all the death he'd seen today. Not ten feet away, a young man lay face down in the street. Dairya had called the boy Hasame, and he'd joined the Army three weeks before Jinwa had. He was only sixteen, and he would never see seventeen.
"I shall die soon," Jinwa said quietly to himself as he checked the clip on his pistol, "I shall die here, far from everything I have known, and there will be no one to mourn me. I shall simply be another nameless old man on the pyre."
Jinwa flinched as a bullet pinged off the street nearby. The Senpet had been defeated. They were on the retreat. The Emperor was safe. Not that it mattered. A good part of the Senpet Army had decided to retreat through this part of the city, and were shooting everything in their path as they went. Dairya had led their little gang on a counterattack against the soldiers, and their skill and speed had at first stopped the Senpet in their tracks.
Reality was beginning to reassert itself, however, and pure numbers and firepower were slowly grinding Toturi's Army into the ground. Luckily, they had managed to relocate most of the neighborhood into the local Temple of Osano-wo, but now the temple stood in the Senpet's path and there was nowhere left to run.
"Amaterasu!" exclaimed a girl's voice. The girl Jinwa had met in the diner earlier today, the one named Akiyoshi, collapsed at Jinwa's side, staring at Hasame's body. "Is... is that?"
"Afraid so," Jinwa said, "It's looking pretty grim around here. Have you seen Dairya?"
"Last I saw of him, he'd hot-wired an Otaku Vehement and was trying to play chicken with a Scarab," she laughed, briefly. "I hope he's okay."
Jinwa nodded. Another figure staggered past the car, dropping to his hands and knees to crawl to Jinwa's side.
"Ginawa!" Tokei gasped, "You're alive!"
"Thanks to you," the old bushi replied.
"Boy does this suck!" Tokei laughed, "The whole vigilante thing just sounds like a lot of fun until they start to shoot at you, doesn't it?"
Jinwa grunted and sat up a bit, peeking over the edge of the wreck. A large Scarab hovered over the street, not one hundred yards away.
"Pretty scary, huh?" Tokei said with a bitter laugh, "What do you think we should do?"
"Can we evacuate the Temple?" Jinwa asked.
"No can do," Tokei said, "The neighborhood's crawling with Scarabs. They'd be no better anywhere else. Hiroru's up to his eyeballs just trying to keep them all from rioting."
Jinwa glanced up at the temple. Only two blocks away. The Scarab's guns would begin tearing into it any second.
"What do we do?" Akiyoshi cried, "What can we do?"
"Run," Jinwa said, "The two of you, get out of here. Get back to the Temple. I have a plan."
Tokei looked at Jinwa for a moment, ready to argue. Then he nodded without a word. He spoke a simple spell and wrapped himself and Akiyoshi in shadows. The pair fled into the darkened streets.
"The sun will be up soon," thought Jinwa to himself, "I wish we could have held them off a few more minutes. I'd have liked to see another sunrise." But that wasn't to be. They were doomed. There was only one chance. It probably wouldn't work, but he had to try.
Jinwa dropped his gun on the ground and stepped out into the Scarab's path, his hands held out before him. The guns on the great vehicle swiveled to bear upon him, but they did not shoot.
"Move aside or be destroyed," echoed a gruff voice from the loudspeaker.
"Shoot me if you have to," Jinwa shouted, "Everything I have has already been destroyed. I will not let you pass."
Inside the ship, the gunner shrugged and reached for the trigger, but Commander Athmose rose a restraining hand.
"Explain yourself," boomed Athmose's voice, "Why would you throw away your life in this way?"
"That temple," Jinwa said pointing, "It is full of innocent women and children, people who have nothing to do with Yoritomo's war. My friends and I have spilled our blood against impossible odds to defend them. We could not defeat you with our cleverness. We could not defeat you with our strength. All I can do now is beg you to spare them."
"My people were innocent as well," Athmose said, "My brother, my cousins, my grandfather. They were murdered by your Fire Dragon."
"And so you would destroy more innocents in retribution?" Jinwa shouted, "Is this the legendary courage of the Senpet? If you must murder someone, spare the temple and train your weapons on me. I was a soldier. I was a warrior. Take out your aggressions on an old man if it pleases you. If you think it would please your grandfather to do so."
Athmose leaned forward, kneading his chin with his fist. This attack had gone entirely wrong, as he thought it would. Their forces had been routed. Their jinn had been destroyed. He suspected their attack had been betrayed from the beginning. And now he was reduced to slaughtering women and children. The old man's face in the view-screen was haggard, intense, and afraid. Afraid not for himself, but for those he defended. Athmose saw something of himself in the man's eyes, something of the men he fought alongside.
"Lieutenant Seforete," Athmose said, clicking off the external speakers, "Are we still being pursued?"
"Negative, sir," Seforete replied, "Kyuden Hida is maintaining a holding pattern over Shinjo Tower."
"How much fuel do the thrusters have left?" Athmose asked.
"Not much," Seforete replied, "A half hour at most.
"If we made a slight detour," Athmose asked, "Could we still reach the shore?"
Seforete turned to his commander, eyes questioning.
In the street, Jinwa stood absolutely still. At any moment he expected the guns to fire. At any moment, he expected to join his ancestors in the next life. The Scarab lurched forward with a mechanical growl, and Jinwa tensed.
The Scarab turned away, continuing its path down a side street.
Jinwa fell to his knees, astounded. He turned back and looked over his shoulder. The Temple stood still, untouched by the horrors of the invasion. The men and women of the neighborhood peeked out through the windows, hope dawning in their eyes for the first time in almost a day. And behind the temple, sparkling on the blue and green shingles of the roof, the sun rose once more.