THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
"When the night departs and the sun rises, the seeds of darkness remain. If they are left to grow, the roots will find your heart and drink it dry. Become gardeners, my friends."
-The Hooded Ronin's letter to the Great Clans, circa the Clan Wars
Ikoma Keijura had seen better days. He was exhausted, confused, and he thought he might have been shot. Blood streamed down one side of his head; Koyo said he thought the reporter had been grazed by a Crane bullet, but Keijura wasn't too sure he hadn't just fallen in the confusion in the throne room and bashed his head on the marble floor. He hadn't had the time or luxury of a doctor. He'd been offered one, but too many people in the palace had greater need for medical attention. The gardens were quiet now. The fighting had stopped and the dead or wounded had all been carried away. It was almost peaceful again. Almost. The reporter wiped off most of the blood as best he could with a damp cloth, took a deep breath, and stepped in front of the camera.
"And now to Ikoma Keijura," said the voice of KTSU anchor Matsu Shingo in his headset, "With breaking news on the current situation in the Diamond Palace."
"This is Ikoma Keijura, coming to you from within the Diamond Palace with breaking news on the recent outbreak of violence," he said, keeping his voice remarkably smooth despite the chaos. He felt strangely detached from himself, unaffected by the events now that he was reporting them. "It seems that a group of militant Cranes led by Doji Meda have attempted to overthrow the Son of Storms, Emperor Yoritomo VI."
Keijura paused, waiting for Shingo to prompt him with a question. Such was usual procedure when a low ranking correspondent made an report on the evening news, sort of an etiquette to the reining anchor. Shingo said nothing, allowing Keijura to continue with the story on his own. Keijura didn't miss a beat. "As of this point, that revolt seems to have failed. Doji Meda is believed to be dead, as is Jade Champion Kitsune Maiko and several members of the Imperial Assembly, who were unable to escape the throne room before the fighting began. The Emperor himself has been wounded, and it is believed at this time that Yoritomo Kameru has also been injured. By the Fortunes' grace, the situation seems to finally be under control now. The army of Matsu Gohei arrived at a crucial point, combining their strength with the Mantis to overcome all of the remaining rebels."
"That's certainly good news, at least," Shingo said gravely. "Was Meda alone in his act, or is this to be considered an act of war against the Emperor by the entire Crane Clan?"
"Difficult to say," Keijura replied. "The Cranes seem to be sequestered in Dojicorp Tower and have not replied to any of our attempts to communicate with them. This may merely be confusion among their ranks, as they have lost their daimyo. The chain of succession in the current Crane Clan, as you know, is somewhat muddled with Doji Kamiko's betrothal to Prince Kameru and Meda having no other heirs."
"Well, this is a remarkable story you've brought us, Keijura-san," Shingo said, a tone of deep respect in his voice. "On behalf of the Lion Clan and Rokugan I must commend your bravery. You've gone above and beyond the call of duty to bring us the truth during a terrible situation."
Keijura beamed inwardly, but was careful not to let his joy show on his face. "I am merely doing my job," he said with a short bow. "This is Ikoma Keijura for-"
"Out of my way," said a gruff voice. Keijura blinked in surprise as a huge man in tattered samurai armor stepped before the camera. He tore the golden lion mempo away from his helmet, revealing a face streaked with blood and ash. It was none other than Matsu Gohei, general and daimyo of the Lion Clan. His eyes were wide with fury as he glared into the camera.
"Listen to me, people of Rokugan," he said harshly. "You will sleep soundly in your beds another night, but it is only by the bravery of the Lion and the Mantis that you continue to do so. I suppose the Unicorn and the Scorpion have their own problems, and the Phoenix, as ever, hide behind their pacifism. But know this; I know that it is no coincidence that the Crab are so silent of a sudden. When I am certain that my Emperor is safe and secure and the Crane traitors have been dealt with, I am coming for you Hida Tengyu. This I swear." Gohei threw his helmet to the cobblestones and marched of, still seething.
Keijura stepped in front of the camera again, not quite sure what to say. "I'll do my best to keep you informed as events develop," he said numbly. "This is Ikoma Keijura for KTSU. Good night, Rokugan, and be safe."
"I feel terrible, just terrible," Munashi said. "Who could have imagined that Doji Meda was capable of such a terrible, treacherous act? I mean, really. I knew the man. I grew up with the man. I loved him like a brother. I would have thought that he would be the last man in Rokugan to raise his hand against the Emperor." The two men sat at a small table surrounded by blue crystal walls. The night sky of Rokugan stretched all around them. The serenity was disturbed somewhat by the Wasp helicopters that buzzed about the Dojicorp Building.
"Apparently, you were wrong," said the Mantis representative.
"Sadly, that is a fact that I cannot dispute, Mokin-san," Munashi said sadly. He reached across the table and filled the small cup before the negotiator. Mokin made no move to reach for it, or even to acknowledge the tea's existence. "I wish that things could have turned out differently. The last thing that I wish for Rokugan is a revolution, especially at this delicate time."
"Then perhaps you should not have attempted to assassinate the Emperor, Asahina," Mokin said brusquely. "Now are you in charge here or should I demand the Crane's surrender from someone else?"
"Well," Munashi sniffed, annoyed by the man's terseness. "It is true that I hold a large amount of stock in Dojicorp. With Meda's death, I inherit an amount that would give me a controlling interest. The Crane have forgotten how to function without their precious Dojicorp. Even if the other families do not acknowledge me as their daimyo, I can do much to control their destiny. I will use my considerable influence to bring this tragic matter to an agreeable conclusion. What do the Mantis require?"
"Complete surrender," Mokin replied. "General Matsu Gohei will take control of this building and this corporation until such time as the Emperor sees fit to return them to you."
"Hm," Munashi said. He sipped deeply from his tea, and stroked his moustache with one hand. For a long time, he did not answer. He simply watched the night sky with his single blue eye.
"No," he said.
"No?" Daikua Mokin laughed. "Fine, then. I will return to Gohei and tell him to commence the attack at once." Mokin stood up and smoothed his dark green kimono over his round stomach.
"I think not," Munashi said. He placed his teacup on the table with a click.
"Fine," Mokin said calmly. "Kill me, then. My soul is prepared for death. Increase your crimes by attacking the Imperial representative and we shall see how lenient Yoritomo is then."
"You leap to conclusions," Munashi said. "You're as much a fool as your Emperor."
Mokin's face darkened. "Watch your mouth, Crane," he said, spitting upon the floor.
Munashi frowned, looking calmly toward the floor where Mokin had spit. "Mokin," he said. "Clean that up."
Mokin laughed out loud. At least, he intended to. Instead, he found himself scrabbling on the floor toward his own spittle, scrubbing it up with his own long braid. He stood up again and bowed deeply to Munashi.
"You see, Mokin," Munashi said, swirling his tea with a long spoon and gazing into its surface. "You assume that the only way to resolve a situation is through violence and intimidation, simply because that is all you have been taught. That is understandable. You are a fool, from a long line of fools. Your ancestors were pirates, thieves, bandits, and farmers. My ancestors, on the other hand, were conquerors."
"Your ancestors were monks and gardeners," Mokin snarled.
The old priest stood, his pale blue silk robes flowing gently around him. Mokin noticed that the man was quite tall. Over six feet in fact. His bald head shone in the fluorescent light, blue veins sticking out on his temples. He approached Mokin slowly and quietly, his arms folded in his long sleeves. He stopped mere inches before the Mantis, looking down at him with his one eye. Mokin wanted to strangle the smug shugenja, to strangle the life out of him, but he couldn't make his body do anything but stand still.
"Monks and gardeners," Munashi said with a sigh. "Yes, some of them were. Some of them were indeed. But some were not. Perhaps you heard of a few of them. Asahina Yajinden, for example. Have you heard of him?"
Mokin shook his head numbly.
"He was a brilliant scholar who lived in the heart of Otosan Uchi," he replied. "He also happened to create the four Bloodswords, devise the means of creating artificial undead, and he served Iuchiban the Heartless as his prime lieutenant in seven different lifetimes." Munashi placed his hand on the Mantis' shoulder. Mokin felt a black fire burn from the priest's hand, igniting his veins and clutching his heart.
"Perhaps the name means nothing to you," Munashi said. "I have more distinguished ancestors if it pleases you to hear of them."
"I would like to hear of them very much," Mokin said, startled to hear the words come from his own mouth. "I thought you might be," Munashi smiled pleasantly. "Have you heard of Yogo Junzo? A thousand years ago he kicked off a little chain of events known as the Clan Wars and brought Fu Leng back to the mortal plane. History doesn't remember him as having any offspring, but apparently he did. Wise of Junzo to conceal it, if you ask me. No telling what might have happened to his poor daughter otherwise. Apparently my father was a direct line descendant. You've no idea how surprised I was when I learned that. The only person who was more surprised, I think, was mother's Asahina husband. Just tragic, what happened to him after that. Are you listening, Mokin?"
"Yes, Lord Munashi," Mokin said. "I am listening most intently to your honorable lineage." The diplomat was utterly horrified by how easily the shugenja was manipulating him. What was more horrifying was that more and more he found himself wanting to say the words.
"Good man," Munashi said. He squeezed Mokin's shoulder gently, causing the man's heart to skip a beat. The diplomat's knees buckled. Munashi's other hand clamped over Mokin's arm, holding him aloft with an extraordinary grip. "Would you like to hear about my grandmother?"
Mokin hung limply, only dimly aware of Munashi's words.
"A wonderful woman, to hear my father tell it," Munashi said with a sigh. "He only met her once, on a trip into the heart of the Shadowlands, but the stories he had to tell... Perhaps you may have heard of her as well. Her true name is unspeakable, but the fables remember her as the Demon Bride of Fu Leng."
At hearing that, Mokin somehow found the strength to struggle feebly in the Crane's grip, but he couldn't escape.
"Oh, yes, Daikua Mokin, I suppose now you realize there are worse fates than death. I've worked hard to take the Crane Clan as my own and will not have it ruined by the likes of you. Look into my eyes, Mokin."
Mokin tried as hard as he could to look away, but the more he struggled the more his head swiveled upward to stare at the Crane's face. One blue eye and one snowy white eyepatch stared back at him, full of insane triumph.
"A wonderful thing about my grandmother," Munashi said. "My father said that I have her eyes." Munashi released Mokin with one hand, and peeled the snowy white eyepatch from his face.
Mokin managed to recover a small bit of his will at that point. In fact, he found the will to scream as his soul was torn away.
Isawa Saigo clutched the sides of his head, moaning. He veered clumsily, knocking one shoulder into the wall as he lost his balance in the narrow, dark tunnel.
"Saigo?" Ryosei said, running to his side in concern.
"Are you all right, boy?" Hisojo said quickly. "What's going on? Another vision?"
"I'm fine," he said. "Just... destiny stepping in." He stood as straight as he could despite the pounding in his head and smiled weakly at the two of them.
"Destiny?" Ryosei asked. "What are you talking about?"
"The price of prophecy, that's what Kujimitsu always called it," Saigo said. "Prophets can feel the future as well as see it. Whenever something big is about to happen, it hits me beforehand, like a hangover. The night Ichiro Chiodo tried to kill Yoritomo I had a headache for three hours, and I was halfway across the city."
"So something important is going to happen?" Hisojo asked. He looked sharply about the small tunnel, as if he was expecting the future to leap out and challenge him right then and there, and he was prepared to face it.
"It's been building all night," Saigo said. "I didn't mention it before, since I have headaches like this almost all the time."
"I can imagine," Hisojo said. "Otosan Uchi must be a painful place for a prophet to dwell."
"You get used to them, sort of," Saigo breathed sharply between his teeth and crumpled to the floor. "Sort of," he whimpered.
Hisojo glanced further down the tunnel. "Well, whatever's going on, we mustn't tarry. Saigo, can you walk?"
Saigo staggered to his feet, looked bravely at Ryosei, and crumpled to the floor again.
Hisojo sighed. "Wait here," Hisojo said. "We'll come and find you later." The shugenja quickly took Ryosei by the hand and led her off down the tunnel.
"Stay safe, Saigo," Ryosei called back to him. As she ran, she cast a worried expression over her shoulder at the prophet she'd so quickly become so fond of. Their soft footsteps receded into the distance. "Okay, suck it in, Isawa," Saigo cursed to himself. "You can do this."
"I certainly hope so," Isawa Tsuke said, fading into being with a disapproving sneer. "I'd hate to think I'll have to hold your hand every step of the way through this. For all the work I'm doing, they might as well have reincarnated me and had me do it for you."
"Back off, Tsuke," Saigo said through gritted teeth. He pushed himself up the wall, leaning heavily in a sitting position. "I don't need your abuse right now."
Tsuke's eyes widened slightly. "So my descendant has a backbone after all. I knew if we dug long enough we'd find one. Now are you going to lean against that wall all day or are you going to get to the palace?"
"Why?" Saigo asked, shaking his head. "Why do they need me in the palace? The fighting is over. I can't change anything now."
"So you think," Tsuke replied. "But everyone in the palace has their place, their duty. Except one. Hang around here all night and you'll never find them in time, and the world will have one less Thunder when it needs one."
"One of the Thunders is in danger?" Saigo said.
Tsuke shrugged. "To me, it seems like the Thunders are always in danger. Usually that is a positive thing, for conflict forges stronger heroes. This time, the spirits of Yoma think one of them has gotten in over his or her head. As their mouthpiece, it falls upon you to protect their destiny."
"But I can hardly walk," Saigo said, blinking as another sharp bout of pain lanced through his skull. "How am I going to help anyone?"
"I suppose that is a difficulty you'll have to overcome, is it not, son?" Tsuke said with a hint of disdain. The Master of Fire folded his hands into his sleeves and turned away from Saigo, fading back into the walls of the secret tunnel once more.
"Easy for you to say," Saigo said, "You're dead." The prophet gritted his teeth, somehow found his feet again, and staggered on toward the palace.
Hatsu's head throbbed severely.
"Are you going to be all right?" asked the small woman at his side. She held out one hand to stay the glimmering portal behind her.
"I'll... be fine," Hatsu said. His vision swam before him and he reeled upon his feet. "It may take me a moment to adjust."
"Some people are momentarily disoriented when traveling The Way," she said, looking back at the portal. "I think Lord Hoshi may have been hasty to allow you to travel so soon after being injured."
"It's not the spell," Hatsu said. He closed his eyes and held out his hands to steady himself. The two of them stood on top of a small apartment building, the brilliant night skyline of Otosan Uchi sprawling all about them. A small smile crawled across Hatsu's face. "It's the city. This tattoo lets me sense everything. I can hear every sound. I can smell everything. I had no idea there was so much going on here. It's incomprehensible. I can't concentrate on any one thing."
Kyoko glanced back uncertainly from her portal to the disoriented detective. She frowned in concern. "My portal won't stay open much longer," she said. "Perhaps you should return to the mountain."
"No, I'm fine," Hatsu said. He opened his dark eyes and squinted out at the city. "It will take some getting used to, but I can handle it. Return to Togashi Mountain, Kyoko. I can handle this by myself."
The young shugenja looked uncertain, but bowed quickly to Hatsu. "You have your Dragon Sphere, yes?" she asked.
Hatsu took the crystal orb from his pocket, holding it up so that the jade dragon within glinted in the moonlight. "Right here," he said.
"Lord Hoshi will be attending his own sphere constantly," she said. "If you need any assistance, don't hesitate to call upon him."
"Thank you," Hatsu said sincerely. "Be well, Kyoko."
She nodded. With a final worried glance over her shoulder, the plain little woman stepped back through the glimmering portal to walk The Way once more. "Stubborn Thunder," she mumbled to herself. The portal spiraled shut with a single musical tone, clear and perfect to Hatsu's enhanced senses. He wondered if he would even have been able to hear that sound without the odd magical tattoo Hoshi had given him.
The dark, baggy jumpsuit Hatsu wore roared in his ears merely from the action of brushing against his skin, so sensitive was his new hearing. On the street below, he could hear the jingle of a man's keys as he fumbled to get inside the apartment building. A block away, he heard the grind of gears as a taxicab pulled away from a traffic light. Across the city he could hear the general din and chaos as the armies of the Lion patrolled the streets around the Diamond Palace. Far off in the sky he could hear a distant groan and rumble; it would rain soon. If not today then tomorrow. He concentrated on each sound individually, sorting them out in his head and filtering them away. He couldn't believe the extent of the powers Hoshi's tattoo had given him; they were both wonderful and terrible at once. His sense of smell, for example, he wished he had a bit more control over. Otosan Uchi smelled terrible to him before; now it was simply awful.
And then, just as Hatsu formed the thought, his senses began to fade. His vision blurred and shifted, retreating to normal ranges of vision and color. His hearing dulled and retracted; sounds became quickly more quiet and further away. The burning in his nostrils receded to a near tolerable level. Hatsu blinked in surprise. He was normal again. Hatsu pulled open his shirt to check his tattoo. It had become a dull black, no longer shining like glistening water. Apparently he could control it, he simply had to will it so. He felt strangely numb with the loss of power, like someone had strapped blinders to his head and filled his ears with cotton. On the plus side, he could function like a normal person now. That was the important thing. He couldn't find Asahina Munashi if he was busy listening to weather patterns in Ryoko Owari. He buttoned his shirt closed once more and pondered his next move.
The city seemed very different than the last time he had been here, even to his normal senses. The Senpet invasion had left many of the familiar buildings damaged or destroyed, altering the shape of the skyline altogether. To the east, the massive artificial island of Kyuden Hida squatted in the midst of Golden Sun Bay like the crab its builders took their mon from. Far to the north, helicopters swirled around the spires of the Diamond Palace like angry hornets. Their searchlights scoured the streets, ready for any sign of attack after the failed coup.
To the west, the blue crystal shard of Dojicorp stood unharmed. Tall and proud, it seemed unaware or unconcerned with the destruction in the city beneath it, unperturbed by the sudden chaos its late master had stirred in the palace. Hatsu wondered how heavily the building was guarded. The Lion had no doubt blockaded the streets leading to the building now if they hadn't invaded outright. From the relatively stable state of the building, he'd wager that Gohei hadn't entered Dojicorp yet. He was tempted to activate his tattoo again to confirm his suspicion, but he could wait and get a closer look. Hatsu wasn't entirely eager to get an enhanced nose full of the city again anytime soon.
A flash of light to the south drew his eye, and Hatsu turned in that direction. He folded his arms against a sudden chill wind as an expression of sadness crossed his face. Though its surface was more scarred and battered than he remembered, Shinjo Tower's spotlights still probed the night. The black monolith of the Unicorn seemed so very far from him now, literally as well as emotionally. For most of his life, Hatsu had considered himself more or less a Unicorn. His Dragon ancestry had always been more of a politeness than anything else. The Kitsuki were a small family, but most of Rokugan showed them respect in thanks for the sacrifice their brothers had made a century ago. They were considered a Great Clan, but no one truly treated them so. The Dragon Clan had been dead and buried for a long time and Hatsu had accepted that.
Now he didn't know what to think. His clan were alive and well and battling against some shadowy conspiracy that had been seeking the downfall of the Empire since the Shadow Wars. His parents had been casualties of the Dragon's war against the Stormbreaker, and he'd never even known. In a way, he felt cheated. He'd accepted somewhat that he knew very little about his parents. Now he realized that he knew nothing. He couldn't blame them, not really. He'd only been eight years old when they disappeared. There hadn't been time or reason to share those sorts of confidences with him. Maybe that was why he'd followed the path of the detective, out of some bizarre glimmer of hope that he'd discover a little more about who he was.
Well, now he knew. For better or worse, he knew.
Hatsu took a last look at Shinjo Tower. He knew there was no place for him there now. They'd never understand what had happened to him at Togashi Mountain. He was from a different world now. He wondered what had become of Sachiko in the short eternity since he'd left the city. He hoped she was all right. He'd grown very close to her in the short time they'd worked together. After he'd figured out why the Dragon of the Void wanted him to talk with this Asahina Munashi, he promised himself he would find her.
Hatsu turned toward Dojicorp once more. "Well, Kitsuki," he said out loud to himself. "Are you going to do your job or are you just going to stare at buildings all night?"
Hatsu crossed to the apartment's roof entry. He jiggled the handle with one hand and smiled ironically to himself. He'd come across half of Rokugan in a matter of seconds, carried by the most powerful magic he'd ever seen, to end up locked on a rooftop. He glanced around the roof for a crowbar or prying tool he could use to pry the padlock off, but found nothing. He prowled around the edge of the roof looking for some way to get down, finally settling on a fire escape on the southern side of the building. Hatsu leaned over the side of the building, clutching the gutter tightly as he climbed down to a level where he could safely reach the escape.
"Off to a great start, Thunder," Hatsu remarked to himself as the grim of the gutter coated his clothing. "I wonder if Mirumoto Hitomi ever had to shimmy down a drainpipe?"
The question would remain forever unanswered. Hatsu leaned out with one hand, just barely wrapping his fingers around the edge of the fire escape. He let go of the gutter and quickly snatched the metal railing with his other arm. He realized, as his feet dangled dozens of feet above the alley, that he'd begun his departure from the city in a situation very much like this. At least people weren't shooting at him this time. He hauled himself over the side of the railing with a grunt and rolled onto the fire escape to look directly into the barrel of a shotgun.
Hatsu stared blankly at the bald, fat man pointing the shotgun out of the apartment window. He felt like an idiot. In his haste to get off of the rooftop, he hadn't even paused to consider if there would be anyone inside the building. He'd even heard the man entering earlier. "I can explain this," Hatsu said, trying to look innocent.
"This should be good," the man said with a broad smile. He held the weapon steady, pointed directly at the detective's face. "Shoot. No pun intended."
"Okay," Hatsu said. He could only think of one thing to say. "I'm the Dragon Clan Thunder, sent on a mission to save all of Rokugan from the forces of Jigoku. This, of course, involves climbing down your drainpipe. Now if you'll just put that gun down I'll be on my way."
The fat man chuckled. "Well, why didn't you say so?" he asked. He lowered the shotgun and offered his hand to Hatsu. Hatsu took it uncertainly, and stumbled into the man's apartment.
"By the Fortunes," Hatsu said in surprise. The walls of the apartment were covered with all varieties of blades and swords, all gleaming in immaculate condition. In the very center of the room stood a massive suit of green and gold samurai armor, a scowling oni mempo glaring from the helmet. He turned to the fat man, who had seated himself on a dirty couch in the corner to watch television.
"Surprised?" the fat man said with a laugh. "
Hatsu stared, dumfounded. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately.
"Don't tell me you thought Kyoko would teleport you into an unknown location?" he said. "The spell just doesn't work that way. I run a Dragon safe-house here. I'm Mirumoto Chojin, by the way. You know, you could have just knocked, Hatsu-san."
Hatsu shook his head, irritated. "They didn't tell me," he said. "They just dropped me off and I guess they figured I'd sort it out all by myself. I could have been killed trying to climb in here like a damned fool."
"Feh, that's the Dragon Clan for you," Chojin said. He took a deep chug from a can of beer and set it back on the litter-strewn coffee table before him. "Lord Hoshi could teach the Scorpions a thing or two about secrets, that's for sure. You get used to it after awhile, trust me."
"I doubt that," Hatsu said. He stepped close to the armor, examining the silk bindings upon a shoulder guard.
"You're young, you can adjust," Chojin shrugged. "Just assume that whatever you've been told is only five percent of the truth. With the Dragon, that's usually an overstatement but its a start."
Hatsu grinned, taken in by the fat man's humor. "You seem pretty judgmental of your own clan, Chojin-san," he said.
Chojin shrugged. "Everybody's crazy in their own way," he said. "Even the Great Clans. It's no big deal. Just pick a crazy that you're comfortable and stick with it. Hey, do you want one of those swords, Hatsu?"
"Are you serious?" Hatsu said, turning with a surprised look. "These weapons look priceless."
"Oh, they are," Chojin said. "More than you know, even. I used to be Lord Hoshi's Weapons Master. Not to sound arrogant, but I bet I was the finest swordsmith in all of Rokugan once." Chojin's gaze became distant then, and for the first time since Hatsu met him he looked sad. "That was another time." He suddenly grinned again, standing and waddling up to Hatsu's side. "Anyway, you'll need a weapon, right? You're the Dragon Clan Thunder, after all. Can't have you running around Rokugan without a proper weapon."
"I lost my katana in Bayushi's Labyrinth," Hatsu explained lamely.
"You lost your blade?" Chojin made a clicking sound with his tongue and shook his head. "What would your ancestors say about that? Great dishonor in losing the family katana."
"I doubt that," Hatsu said. "I bought my swords in a Dojicorp Blade-Mart. My parents' original blades were... lost before I could inherit them."
"That's a shame," Chojin said, nodding soberly. "It's always a shame when a tradition dies. I know I sound like a dinosaur, but it's true. Tradition can be a powerful ally for a samurai." He took another long drink from his beer. "Oh, well. No time to start a tradition like the present. Pick a sword, Hatsu. Any sword in the whole armory and it's yours. Least I can do."
Hatsu shook his head. "I really couldn't," he said, running one hand over a perfect midnight black saya. "They're too valuable."
"Stop being polite and take the damn sword," Chojin said. "If the Dragon Clan Thunder went and got himself killed for being too courteous to properly arm himself I could never show my face in the Factory again. Not that I would, you see, but it's a matter of principle."
Hatsu hefted the katana in his hands, slowly drawing the blade. The steel was dark and sharp. It gleamed brightly even in the dim light of the apartment. The hilt seemed to vibrate in his hands, like a thing alive.
"You like that one?" Chojin said, looking over Hatsu's shoulder speculatively. "Figures. That's the only one in the whole room that I didn't make."
"It feels strange," Hatsu said, turning the blade end over end in his hand. It was light and quick, but he could feel the mass of the weapon.
"Legend has it the blade was made from a dragon's claw," Chojin said. "It was the last thing the true dragons left behind before they returned to their home in the sky."
Hatsu looked deep into the dark blade's surface. "Which dragon's claw is it?" he asked.
"Don't recall off hand," Chojin said, scratching his stomach absently. "Dragon of the Void, I think."
Hatsu returned the blade to its sheath. He had the vague impression that it was no coincidence, coming across this blade. He wondered again whose side the Void Dragon was on. Its own, most likely. "I'll take it," Hatsu said.
"Be careful with it," Chojin warned. "You've got Hoshi's blood in your veins now. Powerful nemuranai - enchanted objects - like that sword will do different things for you than they would for normal people."
"Like when I used Mirumoto Rojo's sword in Bayushi's Labyrinth," Hatsu said.
"Yeah, I guess so, whatever," Chojin shrugged. "Just be careful with it. There's no telling what you'll be able to do with that thing."
Hatsu rested one hand on the hilt and contemplated a quick practice swing with the blade. Suddenly, his vision went white. Nearly unable to control the motion of his arms, Hatsu drew the katana, swung it in a quick arc, and returned it in a sheath.
"Sorry about the table," Hatsu said.
"Eh?" Chojin asked.
The wooden endtable of the couch fell in two neat pieces. The bowl of chips that had been sitting atop it was deposited neatly on the floor.
Chojin whistled. "Togashi's blood, boy, I never even saw you draw!"
"I see what you mean about the sword," Hatsu said, a little embarrassed. "I'll try to be more careful."
"Especially around other people's furniture," Chojin said. "Good thing that was my ex-wife's table or I might be a little angry about that. I think that's the most amazing thing I've ever seen, and that's saying something."
Hatsu tucked the blade under his belt. "Thank you for your help, Chojin-sama." He bowed deeply to the weapon master. "I have much to do. I hope we'll meet again."
"Good luck, Thunder," Chojin said simply, returning to his couch and television.
Hatsu quietly made his way out of Mirumoto Chojin's apartment, climbed down the stairs, and stepped out into the street. He breathed the cool night air deeply and wondered what he would do next. He figured himself to be somewhere near Little Jigoku; Dojicorp was halfway on the other side of the city. A taxi came down the street toward him. Hatsu stepped from the curb and gestured with one hand to hail it. A burst of gunfire echoed faintly from a few blocks away. The cab sped up and kept moving. Hatsu sighed as he watched it drive away.
"I guess I'm walking," he said to himself. He wondered if Mirumoto Hitomi had ever had trouble hailing a taxi.
Yoritomo VI felt distinctly unwell.
"I am fine," he spat, glowering at the physicians hovering all about the room. In truth, he felt like molten steel was burning his intestines. His heart pounded in his chest like a live animal. Cold sweat poured from his face. The doctors wore various expressions of concern and fear for the Emperor's health. He'd broken into a fever seemingly out of nowhere, and his blood pressure was steadily increasing. At the best of times the Son of Storms had a violent and unpredictable temper. Now, with his Empire seemingly falling apart around him, it was all they could do to even try to get him to remain calm.
"You must calm yourself, your Majesty," said a severe young Asako doctor. "Allow us to give you something for the pain, at least."
Yoritomo frowned. "I am not going to let my mind be clouded by drugs. Not now, of all times. Where is my son?"
The doctors looked at one another uncertainly. None of them answered.
"We are still the Emperor," Yoritomo said darkly. "Answer our questions, and truthfully, or you will face our wrath." The Mantis Guard attending in the corners of the room snapped immediately to attention, awaiting their Emperor's command.
The Asako blinked, startled by Yoritomo's blunt savagery. "Kameru is unaccounted for, my lord," he said. "He may simply be lost in the shuffle; there are a lot of soldiers about in the Palace. We did not wish to cause you any more undue stress by telling you before all the facts were known."
Yoritomo chuckled. "Stress?" he replied. "My own Emerald Champion has defied my rule openly before the world and the Jade Champion may have destroyed the Empire's last chance for peace by murdering him in cold blood. Do you think that anything you have to say to me, doctor, will cause me any more... 'stress'?" Yoritomo's eyes were flat and unblinking. The Emperor's hand tightened around the neck of a glass vase on the nightstand.
"I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it," said Akodo Daniri in a pacifying tone. He stepped between the doctor and the Emperor, looking from one to the other uncertainly.
The Asako bowed in deference, trying not to acknowledge the obvious weapon in his patient's hand. "My apologies, lord," he said simply. "We were wrong."
Yoritomo pulled his legs from under the sheets and turned to sit on the side of the bed, pausing for a moment to catch his breath and let the black dots clear from his vision. "Daniri," he said. "Help me to stand. I wish to leave here."
"I recommend against standing, my lord," another doctor said urgently. "We're still not entirely certain of the extent of your wounds."
Yoritomo met the doctor's eyes with his own. "I," he said hoarsely, "I am going to find my son. Jigoku help any of you who stand in my way." He rose to his feet, wobbling slightly. Daniri steadied him by the shoulder and a Mantis guard shoved through the gathering of doctors to catch the Emperor's other arm. Daniri grabbed a dark green kimono from the back of a chair and handed it to the Emperor, who quickly threw the garment over himself. With a final glance at the doctors, the Son of Storms turned and limped out of the small bed chamber assisted by the Mantis and Lion.
"Where are we going, your Majesty?" the Mantis guard asked discreetly. The Emperor recognized her as Kita, a samurai-ko from the Daikua family. She had served the imperial family as yojimbo for nearly two decades now, but had never had opportunity or reason to speak to him before. She certainly had never had reason to lay hands upon her lord. Regardless, the woman's face was expressionless and professional, as if this were entirely normal. Four more Mantis marched down the hallway at a discreet distance, hiding their concern for their lord with remarkable grace.
"I need to find Kameru," Yoritomo said. "I need to find Ryosei." His voice came in thick gasps, as if even walking were an effort. He hadn't thought Meda had wounded him that badly. Something else must have happened to him. Whatever it was, it was getting worse. The fire in his stomach grew.
"Kameru was headed for the gardens, last I saw," Daniri replied.
Kita rose her eyebrows slightly. "It may still be dangerous there, Your Majesty. That is where the fighting was the thickest."
"'Was', Kita?" Yoritomo said. "You imply that the fighting has ceased."
"For the moment," she nodded. "Matsu Gohei stormed the gates of the Palace an hour ago. With the Lion's help, the Guard were able to capture or dispose of the rest of the rebels and secure the grounds."
"Go Lion," Daniri mumbled to himself with a small grin.
"Idiot doctors," Yoritomo coughed. "They told me none of that. Did they feel I did not deserve to know?"
"Perhaps they were afraid of how you would react," said a voice. "I, for one, can emphasize."
Yoritomo glanced to the source of the voice, a small alcove to the side of the hall. The four Mantis had their pistols drawn, already pointed toward the unexpected speaker. A little old man in robes of red and green emerged from the shadows, holding forth his hands to show he meant no harm.
"Agasha Hisojo," Yoritomo said. "How like a Dragon to show up after the battle is done."
Hisojo sniffed, scratching at his moustache with one hand. "Akodo Daniri," Hisojo said, nodding to the actor with a smile. "I have seen your television show."
"Always good to meet a fan," Daniri replied.
"I thought you'd be taller," Hisojo replied blandly. He turned back to Yoritomo. "You look ill, my lord," he said. "What has happened?"
"I was wounded by Meda," Yoritomo replied. He had the eerie feeling that the Dragon was looking right through him. He wondered what the old shugenja saw that he could not.
"Your wounds are moderate, at best," Hisojo said. "I fear something more is wrong here. You seem to have caught fever."
"Father!" cried a voice from behind Hisojo. A young girl in a green silk kimono burst from the alcove. A door in the shadows seemed to swing closed behind her, not even noticeable a moment before. Recognizing the girl immediately, the Mantis Guard parted and allowed her to approach the Emperor. She wrapped her arms around Yoritomo and hugged him joyfully.
Yoritomo patted his daughter's back with a weak hand. "Ryosei," he said. He didn't ask where she had been. He didn't ask where she had disappeared to. That didn't matter now. She was back. All he had to do now was find his son. He feared he didn't have much time; the pain seemed to be getting worse. "Thank you, Hisojo," he said. "Thank you for bringing her back to me."
"Yoritomo, allow me to examine your injuries," Hisojo said. "The Dragons know a few things about medicine that the Asako aren't even aware they're ignorant of. Perhaps I will notice something that the other doctors did not. I would like to help you, Your Majesty."
"You certainly can," Yoritomo said, glancing away from Ryosei and glaring at the old Agasha. "You can use your fabled Dragon magic and find my son. Find Kameru. I must speak to him at once."
Hisojo paused for a moment, as if considering an argument. At last, he sighed and nodded. "Yes, my lord," he said. "I'll do my best." The old man closed his eyes, dropping into a light trance. Drawing an ancient scroll from within his robes, he began mumbling a prayer to the kami. The air seemed to thicken for a moment, and a glowing pulse of light slowly grew to life beside Hisojo's head. The mote bounced playfully in midair as it awaited instruction.
"Wow," Daniri said.
"Just an air spirit," Hisojo said. "Don't tell me you've never seen real magic before, Akodo."
"Not much of it," Daniri replied. "Well, except for that big magical robot I drive around in sometimes."
"Ah," Hisojo replied. He turned to the spirit. "Yoritomo Kameru. Find him for me, please, Kaze-san."
The light flickered in response and streaked away through the halls of the palace at phenomenal speed. As Hisojo waited for the spirit to return with an answer, he scrutinized Yoritomo once more. He was wounded above the eye and in his left shoulder, but the cuts had been bandaged and well seen to by the Asako physicians. Neither injury should have produced the haggard, exhausted state the Emperor was in now. Perhaps the events of the last few weeks had simply caught up with him. He had heard that the Emperor had not been getting much sleep. No surprise; sleep shouldn't be easy for a man haunted by five million dead Senpet. The Imperial family carried a congenital heart condition; perhaps Yoritomo's karma was now coming home to roost.
But was that it? Something about all of this bothered him. It was just too convenient. After everything else that had happened, for Yoritomo VI to be smote down by a natural cause was just bizarre in the extreme.
"Then again," Hisojo thought to himself, "In this case it seems that bizarre would only be appropriate." He headed off through the halls, following the air spirit.
Kamiko nearly gagged. "This smell is terrible," she said. "I can't believe anything could smell so bad."
"The sewers of Otosan Uchi were not designed for comfort, I'm afraid," Daidoji Eien replied, a glimmer of humor in his usually serious eyes as he scanned the tunnel ahead.
The large flashlights the Daidoji soldiers carried carved away much of the gloom, but the ancient sewers of the Imperial capitol still had plenty to spare. All around them was murky darkness, punctuated only by distant dripping. Twenty-eight of their comrades had been lost in the ill fated assault on the Diamond Palace, all of them hardened warriors. They had been outnumbered and surrounded. All of their hopes had hinged upon Meda deposing Yoritomo peaceably or, failing that, dispatching a message to their Crab allies to begin the attack.
Unfortunately, Meda never had a chance to transmit that message. They had been lucky to escape intact at all. Meda had made a poor tactical decision. He had rushed into things without being fully prepared. That was out of character. Eien had worked beside his daimyo for many years, first as an assistant to his father and later as the chief of the Crane House Guard. Meda was not a rash man. He had never been one to rush into things. It had not been a mistake. At the end, there was a moment of clarity. Eien had seen that in his master's eyes. Though most of the others in the room at the time missed it or attributed it to nothing, Eien remembered the name that Meda said in that moment, and the ring of accusation it held.
"Sir," said Yoshio, "I think you're going the wrong way. This isn't the way back to the tower."
"We're not going back to the tower, Yoshio," Eien said. "At least, you're not."
"What?" Kamiko retorted. "We have to go back to the tower! The Lion could be attacking!"
"The Lion aren't attacking," Eien said. "I can guarantee you that."
"How?" Kamiko demanded.
Eien turned to the girl. Her blue eyes were cold and fierce, like her father's. He smiled sadly at the memory. "Because we would all die there," he said.
The other assorted soldiers mumbled among themselves in surprise and disbelief.
"Explain yourself, Daidoji Eien," Kamiko ordered, her voice sure and strong despite the exhaustion and pain she clearly felt. "Your men may think that your strong silent act is impressive but I find it dangerous. We've lost enough today because of a lack of communication, and I'm not going to allow any Crane to take another step through this sewer until you tell me exactly what you're talking about."
Eien sighed deeply. He had seen that same look, heard that same tone from Meda in countless board room meetings, in untold meetings with foreign ambassadors. There was no arguing with her. Eien glanced over his men, then returned his eyes to Kamiko. "Come with me," he said, gesturing to her as he walked further down the tunnel. "The rest of you, wait here."
Kamiko followed along behind until they were out of the earshot of the rest. She looked no less angry or demanding for the intervening time. "What's this all about, Eien?" she asked again. "What in Jigoku are you doing?"
"Your father was betrayed," he replied. "He was manipulated into attacking the Emperor. In the end, he realized what had been done to him and that was why he was killed. Kamiko, he was murdered."
"Murdered? Betrayed?" Kamiko exclaimed. "By who? Maiko?"
"Maiko was just a tool," Eien answered. "I'm talking about Asahina Munashi."
Kamiko was stunned. "The old priest?" she asked. "The master of the Fantastic Gardens?"
"The same," he replied. "I don't know why or how he would do such a thing, but I trust the dying words of my daimyo as I would my own. Don't tell the others of this. If he can get to your father and to Kitsune Maiko then surely he can get to anyone. I'm taking a risk just by telling you, but I feel I owe you no less."
"By the Fortunes," Kamiko whispered. She remembered her conversation with her cousin Kamoto earlier in the day. It seemed so long ago now. Both of them had wished that their father hadn't listened so closely to Munashi, though neither of them had imagined how dangerous the man's counsel would be. She looked up at Eien again, noticing the intense gaze on the man's face. "What are you going to do, Eien?" she asked.
"I'm going to go kill Munashi," he said simply. "I'll sneak into the tower and do it before he realizes I'm there."
"In the shape you're in?" she scoffed, she tapped the bandage on his head and arm with one finger. "You expect to get in and out of Dojicorp security in that shape?"
"I've had worse," he said. "Besides, I don't expect to be sneaking back out." His face was flat, emotionless.
"No way," Kamiko said, shaking her head. "You may be prepared to die, Daidoji, but that doesn't give you the right to abandon the rest of us to the sewers. Did you ever think about that?"
"Yes, in fact, I did," he replied. "My intelligence network in the city is extensive. I planned out some possible routes of escape should the coup go sour. I found one that's perfect. There's a place you'll be safe in Little Jigoku."
"Where would we be safe?" Kamiko exclaimed. "Where in all of Rokugan would a group of rebels against the Emperor find a place to recover? Especially us! Half of those people need a hospital, Eien."
"The place you're going has a hospital," he said. "And enough security and firepower to hide you all for quite some time. You're going to find Toturi's Army."
"Toturi's Army?" Kamiko replied, puzzled. "Like in the stories?"
"Sort of. They're a gang of ronin vigilantes," Eien replied. "They've taken to fighting back against the city's decay. My intelligence reports that they're well stocked, have a medical facility and a doctor, and are heavily armed. They're stationed in what may be the only safe part left of Little Jigoku, in a place called Shotai's Diner."
Kamiko frowned. "How do you know you can trust your intelligence?" she asked.
"I trust it like I trust myself," he replied. "Because it is myself."
"What were you doing in Little Jigoku?"
"Looking for my uncle," he answered. "I wanted to make sure that he had found a safe place to settle down."
Kamiko's eyes opened wide. "Jinwa?" she exclaimed. "My old sensei? Is he all right?"
"Indeed he is," Eien replied. "In fact, he's the leader of Toturi's Army. He goes by the name Ginawa now. Kind of a similar sound to it, even. Surely he'll help us. Jinwa is an honorable man, and he loves you like you were his own daughter, Kamiko."
"Come with us then, Eien," Kamiko said. "You can recover from your wounds and we can go after Munashi together."
Eien shook his head. "Can't risk it," he said. "Whatever Munashi's up to, he's been planning it for some time. The surest way to spoil a well made plan is spontaneity. I have to kill Munashi. Now. Quickly, before he can put the next part of his plan into action. Jigoku, whatever he's up to, it may already be too late to stop him."
Kamiko's brow furrowed. She scowled resolutely, one hand resting on the hilt of her katana. "Then let me come with you," she said. "If Munashi is responsible for my father's death and dishonor then I think I have as much right to him as you have."
"No," Eien said. "This is a suicide mission and you know it, Kamiko. You have to survive so that you can lead the Crane Clan."
"After what's happened there may not be a Crane Clan anymore," Kamiko answered.
"Then answer me this," Eien said. "How do you expect those wounded men and women to get any help from Toturi's Army? You're the only one Jinwa is likely to listen to. The rest of them are just traitors. Believe me, your old sensei doesn't have much love left for our clan. One of the reasons I chose not to reveal myself to him."
Kamiko faltered, glancing back in the direction of the Daidoji soldiers. She looked back at Eien again. "All right," she said. "Go. But be make me one promise, Eien."
"Your word is my command, Lady Kamiko," he said formally.
"If you're planning on not coming back alive, then change your plan," she said. "I shall be needing a dependable bodyguard after we save the Crane Clan from Asahina Munashi."
Despite the terrible events of the last few hours, and the worse events to come, Daidoji Eien laughed.
Yasu felt ill. He staggered out of the glistening doorway and immediately buried his face noisily in a garbage can.
"What's wrong, Hida?" Kuni Mokuna asked with a chuckle. The big shugenja hopped down out of the portal, closing it once more with a snap of his fingers. "Never walked The Way before?"
"I think I'd rather ride in Kenben's boat again," Yasu replied, looking up with a distinctly uncomfortable expression. "You never said anything about using magic."
"A boat would be a liability in the city right now, you know that, Yasu," Mokuna replied, glancing about the alley to see if there were any witnesses to their arrival. "We'd never make it past the harbor patrols. Thanks to that idiot Gohei, the Crab aren't very popular here right now."
"We were never very popular," Yasu shrugged. "At least now we're famous for it. So who's watching Downtown while the Crabs are away?"
Mokuna scowled. "The Shiba," he replied. "Apparently Tengyu was able to scrape up a few that knew which end of their pistol to point at an oni."
"The Phoenix aren't that bad," Yasu said with a laugh. "They've just got a bad rep, that's all."
"You're only saying that for the sake of Sumi, aren't you?" the shugenja asked, folding his arms with a wry grin.
"Yes," Yasu said. "I can and will lie where spandex-wearing Phoenix girls are concerned. So where are we headed, Mokuna?"
"Golden Sun Studios," Mokuna replied. "That's where Toshimo was working on that blasted Lion War Machine. That's probably where he is now. It's just about a mile or so that way, near the bay." Mokuna pointed toward the darkening eastern horizon. "What he thinks he can learn from the Lion I'll never understand. A man who can build Kyuden Hida certainly doesn't need any help from a charlatan like Kitsu Ikimura."
Yasu pursed his lips. "Maybe he just wanted an Akodo Daniri autograph?" he suggested.
Mokuna looked blankly at Yasu for a moment. The shugenja was well known for his terrible sense of humor. It was one of the many reasons that he and Yasu got along so poorly. He just shook his head and walked off in the direction he had indicated.
"So," Yasu said, catching up to Mokuna easily, "You think we'll run into any hostilities while we're in town?"
"I hope not," Mokuna said. "The Mantis are merely suspicious of the Crab at the moment, not openly militant. Still, I expect that if we're discovered by any Lions they'll certainly want to have a few words with us."
"Lions," Yasu repeated.
"Yes, Lions," Mokuna said.
"You realize that we're headed for Golden Sun Studios, right?" Yasu asked. "Lion central."
"Lion actor central," Mokuna corrected. "Gohei and his ilk wouldn't be caught dead in a place like this. Besides, I'm in charge of this mission and I'm a bit more familiar with the ways of subtlety than you are."
Yasu snorted. "Who said you're in charge, Mokuna?"
"The fact that I'm a Crab daimyo says I'm in charge, boy," Mokuna retorted.
"Yeah, but just the Kuni daimyo," Yasu said.
"I hope you're kidding, Yasu," Mokuna said. "I'd hate to have to turn you into a tree this early in the mission." Mokuna reached for a scroll tucked into his belt.
"Can you really do that?" Yasu asked.
"Indeed," Mokuna said seriously. "Permanently."
"Then I'm kidding," Yasu said quickly.
The sound of a large vehicle engine growled in the distance. Both Crabs fell silent, flattening themselves against the wall of the alley; watching the street carefully. A large grey van rounded the corner and prowled slowly down the street in the direction of Golden Sun Studios. The driver was a large, thick-necked bald man who watched the street a bit to warily with dead eyes. The van passed and Yasu exited the alley to stare after it, tilting his jingasa to one side to scratch at his temple.
"Did you see his eyes?" Mokuna asked.
"Blue," the young Seeker answered. "What would a Crane be doing headed for a Lion movie studio? Especially right now of all times?"
"I do not know," Mokuna replied, squinting at the vehicle. "I have a bad feeling about the man that was driving that van. Something did not quite sit right about him."
"I think I know what you mean," Yasu said. "But it's not his fault he was a Crane. It just happens sometimes."
"Yasu, please," Mokuna hissed. "I am being serious."
"So am I," Yasu said with a wide grin. He glanced around to check that the street was devoid of spectators and quickly jogged off down the sidewalk.
Mokuna shook his head slightly as he brought up the rear. Sometimes he didn't know how seriously to take the young Seeker. The boy seemed to consistently speak nothing but silly, arrogant drivel. At least he was supposed to be capable in a fight. Hopefully they wouldn't find out; this was supposed to be a simple mission. Still, you could never be too careful. If the boy were anything like his father he would do fine.
Yasu and Mokuna continued down the street about a hundred paces and the Seeker carefully peered around the corner. Mokuna kept watch on the street behind, his hand resting on the leather bag of scrolls at his belt. Yasu drew a pair of compact binoculars out of his pocket and unfolded them. He hissed between his teeth.
"What?" Mokuna asked, looking back at the bushi sharply. "What do you see?"
"Lions," Yasu said.
"Don't be an idiot, Yasu," Mokuna snapped. "Of course there are Lions."
"No," Yasu said, folding the binoculars up with a snap and standing. He looked at Mokuna seriously. "I don't mean the fluffy powder-puff actor Lions. I mean real Lions. Old-school heavy duty samurai type. There must be six or eight of them guarding the gates of the studio. Have a look." He handed the small binoculars to Mokuna and took a step back to watch the street.
Mokuna grunted as he surveyed the entrance of the studio. Just as Yasu had reported, eight Lion Clan samurai stood before the gates. They wore thick golden armor and carried odd, three-pronged spears. Each of them bore a pair of large pistols on their belts. "That armor isn't ceremonial," Mokuna said, noting the scorch-marks and battle damage many of the guards bore on their suits. "They must have been involved in the fighting at the palace. What are they doing here?"
"Gohei needs a base of operations," Yasu said.
Mokuna looked back at the bushi curiously. "Matsu Gohei, the Lion Champion? Here?"
"Well, look at the spears those guys are carrying," Yasu said. "Those are Gohei's men or I'm an mujina. The Butcher's moved an awful lot of samurai into the city in the last couple of days. He sure isn't keeping them in the KTSU building. Golden Sun's got the area and the resources to house a large number of people at once. I'm sure the Akodos aren't happy that their precious movie studio being used to house a bunch of Matsu goons but there isn't much they can really do about it."
"Well, excellent," Mokuna said with a sigh. "Your father's unknowingly sent us directly into a den of Matsu bushi. He didn't say anything about this."
"Maybe he didn't think it was important," Yasu said.
Mokuna narrowed his eyes and frowned. "Tell me you're joking, Hida Yasu," he said. "There could be thousands of Lion samurai in that studio, none of which are too fond of the Crab Clan right now."
"I'm not worried," Yasu said blandly.
"You're as mad as your father," Mokuna said.
"That's why he's the boss," Yasu replied. "So what's the plan?"
Mokuna peered around the corner at the guards again. "I had planned to use our magic to help us sneak in, but things will be more difficult now," he said. "Trained bushi tend to be a bit more perceptive than the average person and illusory spells grow a bit thin when they're spread over two people."
Yasu looked up and down the street, pondering for a moment. His eyes froze on a small restaurant nearby and he smirked. "You go on ahead, Mokuna," he said to the shugenja. "I'll make my own way in."
"Yasu," Mokuna said, a warning tone in his voice. "This is a serious mission. Tell me you aren't going to do anything stupid."
"I'm not going to do anything stupid," Yasu repeated with a dark chuckle.
"Somehow I doubt your sincerity."
"Well, whatever I do, console yourself in the fact that you'll be far away from me when I do it," Yasu said. "If nothing else, I'll try to fail so spectacularly that the Lion Clan will become completely distracted from ever even considering looking for you." Yasu scanned the street a final time and headed for the restaurant.
"How comforting," Mokuna said dryly. He drew a scroll from his belt and faded into the shadows.
Sachiko felt like she'd be sick any moment. Her stomach throbbed numbly, the pain of the gunshot wound blunted by the painkiller. Her head throbbed, too. Probably from a reaction to the morphine. Her body had never agreed well with drugs. The room around her was white and clean. A small white bed with a small white table surrounded by a white curtain partition. A hospital. She hated hospitals, but she whispered a brief, thankful prayer to the kami that she'd woken here instead of in the morgue. After her stupidity, that was probably what she deserved.
"Just like a rookie," she murmured, clutching one hand to her stomach. "What was I thinking back there?"
"Exactly what I was wondering," said a gruff voice from the other side. The partition opened and a tall, older man in a pristine indigo magistrate uniform stepped to her bedside. Shinjo Katsunan, daimyo of the Unicorn.
"Uncle," she said, bowing her head low to him.
"I'm not here as your uncle," he said. "I'm here as your commanding officer."
"Yes sir," she said quietly. She always felt like a foolish young girl around her uncle. He always seemed to do everything with such ease and grace, while she consistently took whatever she was doing and screwed it all to Jigoku. Like now, for instance. "I suppose you want to talk to me about Lucky Star Center," she said.
"I think that it would be a relevant topic," Katsunan said calmly. He seated himself in the small visitor chair, facing Sachiko. "But first of all, I want to know how you're feeling."
"Well, I've been shot," she said, indicating the thick bandage around her stomach with one hand. "All things considered, I could be better."
"That's all?" he asked pointedly. "Otherwise you feel all right?"
"I suppose so," she said, a bit confused by the line of the questioning. "Why do you ask?"
"It's not important," he said. "Tell me about Lucky Star Center."
"I screwed up," she said simply, her eyes downcast. "I became separated from my team and ended up getting stuck. I probably should have shot that cocky bastard Sekkou as soon as I recognized who he was."
"Sekkou, Massad, and that thing that was with them all seem to have gotten away clean," Katsunan said. "We attempted to track the helicopter, but Sekkou scrambled all attempts to track or pursue with that Locust EMP wand. We found the helicopter on a rooftop near Dojicorp, abandoned. Odd to see Sekkou himself participate in such a small scale raid. We don't even know what he was after in that mall, but whatever it was he got away clean."
"And it's my fault," Sachiko said.
"I never said that, but it could be interpreted in that way," Katsunan replied. "It's unfortunate that you were the one to find Sekkou, Sachiko. An officer with less training might not have recognized that EMP wand and just fired on Sekkou as soon as he drew it. A less trained, or perhaps less emotional officer."
Sachiko's brow furrowed. "But then he would have used it on the helicopter and killed everyone inside."
Katsunan inclined his head slightly. "Granted. But we'd have liquidated one of the most dangerous criminals in Rokugan, and obtained a Locust EMP wand to boot. Perhaps it would be a small price to pay."
"But the men in that helicopter..."
"Are police officers. They know the risks that come with their job. What if Sekkou goes on another rampage? Kills another twenty or thirty innocent citizens looking for whatever the Locust are after? Even worse, what if he's already found it? We're already nearly helpless against the Locust Clan's EMP technology. Now you may have handed them another weapon that we don't even know the nature of. What do you plan to do about that, Sachiko?" Katsunan's voice was still level and calm. He wasn't condescending, wasn't accusatory. He simply sounded curious. As if Sachiko had spilled something on the floor and he wanted to know if she planned to wipe it up.
"You're right, this is all my fault," she said, rubbing her temple with one hand. Her headache seemed to be getting worse. "My wound isn't very bad. The shugenjas in the hospital healed up nearly all of the internal damage. I should be back on my feet in a day or two. Station me in little Jigoku. Revoke my detective status and put me on full time patrol again. I'll find Sekkou."
"Why should I do that?" Katsunan asked. "Wouldn't it be more logical to keep you as far away from Sekkou as possible, in case you should encounter him again and a similar outcome occurs? He's already proven to have a psychological advantage on you Sachiko. I have plenty of other agents who aren't such a liability."
Again, there was no venom in the man's words. He had simply calculated her worth and found it wanting. What infuriated her more was that she found it difficult to disagree with him. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him calmly, awaiting his judgment. She knew Katsunan to be harsh, but fair. She'd simply deal with whatever he suggested and find some way to deal with Sekkou on her own later.
Katsunan smiled slightly, the expression looking out of place on his severe face. "I know that look," he said. "You look just like my brother sometimes."
"What are you talking about?" Sachiko asked, trying to sound as bland and innocent as possible.
"You're planning something," he said with a sigh. He ran one hand through his sleek grey hair. "It doesn't matter what sort of disciplinary action I assign to you, you're going to pervert it in some way and find a route back after Sekkou. Hisato would have done exactly the same thing. You have his fire and his nerve. I just hope that you have some measure of your mother's common sense to balance it out."
Sachiko said nothing, just watched her uncle quietly.
"Well, here's the verdict," he said, steepling his hands before him. "I'm revoking your detective status as a disciplinary action and placing you full time in Little Jigoku. But before you over-excite yourself with the prospect of hunting down Inago Sekkou, keep in mind that you have a specific mission. A mission that has very little to do with the Locust Clan."
"Mission?" she said, bewildered. The Locust were the only serious threat in Little Jigoku. Certainly there were plenty of other small time hoods and delinquents in that part of the city, but even they steered clear of Locust territory. Besides, she was a Battle Maiden. They had regular police officers to deal with hoods.
"I've heard rumors that some of the citizens of Little Jigoku have taken to vigilantism in order to protect themselves from the rising chaos in the area," he said. "I'm not certain what to think of this. On one hand, it irritates me. It suggests that the Unicorn Clan are not doing their duty properly. On the other hand, I realize the necessity. We cannot be everywhere at all times and the damage in that area done by the Senpet hampers our mobility greatly. So here's what it comes down to. I want you to find this Toturi's Army. Determine whether they are a potential liability or a useful ally for us. And deal with them appropriately."
Sachiko nodded reluctantly. She didn't really have any desire to chase after peasant vigilantes after what Sekkou had done to her, but orders were orders. All things considered, Katsunan could have been much harsher in his punishment. He could have suspended her, or worse. "Toturi's Army?" she asked. "As in the Emperor Toturi?"
"Yes, that's exactly it," he said. "Apparently they fashion themselves a band of ronin heroes. That in itself worries me. I've met quite a few ronin in my time and very few of them were to be considered any sort of hero."
"Where do I find them?" Sachiko asked.
"If I knew that, I wouldn't need you to look for them, would I?" Katsunan asked. "They cover their tracks well, from us as well as from their rival gangs. I suppose they're uncertain how we would react to them."
"Well, they'll find out soon," Sachiko said. "I'll find them for you, uncle."
"All we know is this: that they were led by a man calling himself Dairya," Katsunan said. "From descriptions of the man's appearance and behavior, I believe that this so called Dairya is actually a ronin named Zeshin, formerly of the Soshi family. He traveled widely working as a mercenary, and not always for the Diamond Empire."
"Amijdal?" Sachiko asked.
"Sometimes," Katsunan answered. "Just as often the Senpet or their satellite countries. Granted, that was all before our current difficulties with them. Still, the man could have some loyalties that aren't entirely appropriate in the current political climate. Something to keep an eye open for." Katsunan shifted in his chair slightly. For a man of such reserved subtlety, it was an expression of extreme discomfort. "Well," he said, clearing his throat curtly, "I've taken up enough of your time, Sachiko. It's important that you get your rest. You begin on your new assignment as soon as possible."
"Hai," Sachiko said. She bowed as best she could from the bed as Katsunan returned to leave. He returned the bow mechanically and exited the room.
The young Battle Maiden watched her uncle leave, wondering what had elicited his sudden shift in his mood. He normally wouldn't even have considered paying her any personal favors like he'd just done. It was completely out of character for the man. Even though she was the niece of the Unicorn daimyo, she'd had to work just as hard as anyone else for every promotion. Maybe even harder. She knew Katsunan was a complicated man. He often planned out his life to such meticulous detail that he left himself completely overwhelmed with work he had no possible way of completing. He was also a fiercely independent man, who seldom delegated authority. He seemed to be in the distracted sort of mood that he fell into whenever he was in the midst of one of his great projects. No doubt the stress of commanding the Unicorn as a military force rather than in their usual capacity as peace-keepers was beginning to wear on him.
But was that it? Somehow, Sachiko didn't think so. She knew that her uncle was capable of far more than he appeared to be. The current situation in the city shouldn't be such a problem for him; she'd seen him manage worse. Still, even a person like Katsunan had to have their limits. She wondered vaguely what they could be. What else was going on here?
A question for another day. Her head was throbbing much too hard to think about that sort of thing right now. All she needed at the moment was some sleep. Then she'd be fine. Sachiko closed her eyes and drifted off.
Hiroru crouched in the darkness; he felt wrong. Something was odd here. Granted, he'd never been in the Diamond Palace before, and the Mantis Guard were likely to roast him on a spit if they found him here, but there was something beside that. Something different.
Hiroru glanced back down the hallway, in the direction the Akodo had gone with the Emperor. He smiled to himself. Daniri would be shocked indeed to find out that he'd been followed, especially into the depths of the Emperor's palace. Still, a promise was a promise and Hiroru had sworn to Jiro that he'd keep an eye on his brother.
That had come as a surprise, as well. He had known that there was more to Jiro than there seemed; he knew that when he'd first caught the boy stealing Dairya's gun right out of its holster. He hadn't expected him to be Akodo Daniri's brother, though. If it were true, than Daniri wasn't even a real samurai. Well, that was none of his business. Daniri liked to play the fool but he was a valuable ally and Hiroru would not desert him.
Not that he'd ever admit that to Daniri himself. Personally, he despised the man. He was cocky, obnoxious, and altogether arrogant. He reminded Hiroru a bit too much of himself.
There it was again. An odd tweak in the shadows. Something felt wrong about this place; something Hiroru couldn't quite describe. He had feelings like that sometimes, sort of like a sixth sense. He'd been having them ever since he was about twelve, ever since he'd learned how good he was at disappearing when he didn't want to be seen. He'd never felt it this strongly before, though. A doctor rounded the corner, walking directly down the hall toward where Hiroru was hiding. The ninja was unconcerned. Few people could detect him when he didn't want to be found.
The doctor paused for a moment, his eyes finding Hiroru in the shadows. He had seen him. Somehow, he had seen him. The ninja held his breath, every muscle tensing as he prepared to leap at his attacker. Then an odd thing happened. A ripple passed through the doctor's face. For a moment, his features became that of a woman, and a moment later his face became eggshell smooth. Then, the moment was gone, and all was normal again. He continued walking, apparently not having noticed Hiroru after all. He turned another corner and the footsteps receded.
"By the Thunders," Hiroru hissed to himself. He darted from his hiding place and chased after the doctor as quickly as he could without risking being seen. He had to know what he had just seen. The eggshell face was something out of a nightmare. Literally. Hiroru dreamed about that sort of thing almost every night. Had he imagined it?
When Hiroru came around the corner at last, there was nothing but shadows.
The Matsu captain flinched, a nauseated look on his face. "What on earth is that smell?" he said.
"Fresh miso soup, special recipe," the delivery man replied. He smiled widely and held up a brown paper bag. "Very good. You want to try some?"
"Thunders, no, get that away from me," the captain replied, waving a hand in front of his face to dispel the odor. The rest of his men lingered a safe distance away, all of them suddenly finding more important things to do near the gate house and far from the malodorous bag.
The delivery man shrugged. "It's an acquired taste, I guess. Could you show me the way to Kitsu Ikimura? This stuff is already ten minutes late."
"Later than that, by the smell," the captain mumbled. "Well, I can't let you go in until you've been checked for weapons. Hold your hands out to your sides, please." The delivery man complied obediently, holding the large sack in one hand. The captain quickly but thoroughly frisked him for weaponry. He glanced over the beeper clipped on the man's belt before confirming that it wasn't a threat and taking a step back.
"You want to check the bag?" he asked, holding it in the captain's face.
The captain's knees buckled. "I'm sure it's fine," he said, holding one hand over his mouth and gesturing the delivery man toward the gates. "Straight down the main street, make a left on Akodo. Third studio warehouse on your left."
The delivery man bowed politely. "Domi arigato," he said with a crooked grin. He stepped through the gates of Golden Sun Studios.
Though Golden Sun had been hit hard by the Senpet Invasion, none of the damage showed anymore. The show must go on, after all, and one couldn't film action movies and crime dramas on sets that had already been blown up. Actors in full costume wandered about here and there, rushing to their respective studios or standing about and chatting in a leisurely way. A rather large number of Lion bushi were present, as well. Though they also seemed somewhat relaxed, all were dressed in full armor and armed with katana and rifle. The actors and bushi didn't mingle with one another. In fact, the two groups hardly even acknowledged one another's existence. They were so busy ignoring each other, they hardly acknowledged the rather large delivery man carrying a brown paper bag through the streets, though many of them turned their heads at the smell.
With this in mind, Yasu stopped in an alleyway to open up the bag and delicately dispose of the dead cat.
Making his way into the crowd again, Yasu found his way to Kitsu Ikimura's warehouse. He found it at the edge of the docks, overlooking the dark waters of the bay. The young Crab glanced about to see if anyone was paying any undue attention to him, then circled around behind the building. The grey van was parked behind the building adjacent, its engine running.
Yasu reached into the paper bag, removed a small radio, and held it to his ear. "Mokuna, I'm there," he said. "You read me?"
"Right here, Yasu," Mokuna replied. "I'm about three blocks from the warehouse right now."
"I found that Crane's van over here. You know, the guy we saw earlier," Yasu reported. "By the way, what's taking you so long?"
"Yasu, it takes time to travel through the shadows without drawing notice. How did you make it so far so quickly? I didn't think I'd heard any gunfire."
"You underestimate me, Mokuna-sama," Yasu said with exaggerated politeness. "Some day, I'll have to give you a few lessons in the art of subtlety."
"I'm sure that will be quite an education," Mokuna replied. "Go ahead and move in if you must, Yasu. I've a bad feeling about that Crane."
"Right," the Seeker replied. "Yasu out." He folded the radio shut and tucked it into his pocket, then slowly approached the van. He kept one hand inside the bag, tight around the handle of his Oni-Stomper pistol. He glanced in each of the windows and the rear, then turned toward Ikimura's warehouse, walking quickly but silently. He stopped completely still, noticing that the rear door of the warehouse was slightly ajar. His instincts screamed to him that something wasn't quite right here.
Yasu peered into the closest window. The interior was dark save for a small light on the opposite side. Yasu reached back into the bag, took a pair of sleek green goggles from inside, and pulled them onto his head. After a moment of reflection, he put the Ikoma's Sushi baseball cap back on his head over them. In the hazy green vision of the nightsights, he could see the massive golden figure of Akodo standing in the center of the warehouse, covered with scaffolding and exposed wires. A pair of men in Akodo War Machines crew jumpsuits lay on the floor nearby, one of them face down with a pistol clutched loosely in his hand. On the opposite side of the warehouse, near the light, he saw three figures. The glare of the light in the nightsights prevented him from telling more about what they were doing.
Yasu wished he had been able to bring his armor along. With the range of sensors and surveillance equipment that Toshimo had installed into it, he could have easily picked up their conversation, even from this distance. Not to mention the fact that the kevlar plasteel plating would come in handy should the bullets start to fly. He'd brought along one of the shoulder plates, but that was more to make the bag look like it was full of boxes than for any practical reason.
"You've gotten too soft, Yasu," he chided himself. "Too dependent on your toys. A little manual labor will do you a world of good."
He turned to the door and slid it open slowly, hoping it wouldn't creak. Fortunately, it didn't. He slid it closed once more to prevent any outside lights from revealing his position. With the brown paper bag still covering his hand, he deftly paced his way across the floor without making a sound. He crouched by the ankle of Akodo to check the pulse of one of the crewmen. Dead. Toward the direction of the light, he heard his uncle's voice.
"This won't gain you anything but enemies, Crane," he said. "Isn't your clan's reputation in a sorry enough state as it is?"
"Ah, but the Crab's hands are not clean either," a man's voice replied, out of Yasu's range of sight behind a stack of crates. He could hear fingers clacking away at a keyboard. "Gohei already thinks Ikimura-sama is a fool to keep you here rather than turning you over to the Matsu House Guard. He would hardly be surprised by any accidents that were to occur from keeping a dangerous potential traitor so close at hand."
Yasu approached a bit closer. He could see Kaiu Toshimo and a withered old man in the golden robes of a Kitsu, seated back-to-back on the floor with stout cord tied around their wrists. A sweet, pungent smell hit Yasu's nose, and he felt his foot stick a bit on the floor. Gasoline. The fluid dripped off of everything around Akodo, including the large red barrels of fuel that powered the War Machine itself.
"This is madness," the old Lion wheezed. He must be Kitsu Ikimura, the famous special effects artist and creator of the Akodo War Machines. He was one of the few Lions Yasu respected. After all, Akodo War Machines did feature some fairly well done and impressive explosions if nothing else. And lots of them. "Your clan was already promised a chance to review the War Machine data," Ikimura continued. "What good does it do you to steal it?"
"I'm not stealing it," the Crane replied. "I'm destroying the data, along with you two and your massive golden abomination over there." A few more decisive clicks echoed from the keyboard. "Ah, that should about do it." The big Crane walked around the corner of a stack of crates and back into sight again, clapping his hands together in satisfaction. Yasu noted that the man had a very large pistol on his belt. "You see," the man said calmly, drawing the pistol from his belt and checking the chamber. "The existence of any more War Machines in Otosan Uchi doesn't quite factor into Dojicorp's plans, I'm afraid." The man screwed a silencer onto the barrel of the gun.
Yasu cursed himself for not bringing along a more silent weapon. His Oni-Stomper would alert every Lion within three miles to his presence, and that was if the explosive shell didn't set off the gasoline vapors and kill everyone in the warehouse instantly. The only other thing he had was the survival knife Hayato had given him for his last birthday, and he could never hit the Crane with it from this distance. Especially since he wasn't very good at knife throwing. There was only one thing left to do. Improvise.
"Excuse me," Yasu said, stumbling around noisily in the darkness until he blundered out of the shadows toward the three men. He noticed Toshimo raise one eyebrow at his appearance.
"Suru's blood, what in--" the Crane cursed, spinning toward Yasu and pointing his pistol.
"Fresh miso soup!" Yasu said, grinning widely. One arm was wrapped around the brown paper bag, holding it over his face and chest. "Someone order--" He fell short and let himself look surprised, staring at the barrel of the Crane's gun.
"I think you're in the wrong place, boy," the Crane laughed. He aimed the pistol and fired. The bullet hit the brown bag with a loud "ping," deflecting off of the metal shoulder guard inside. Yasu threw his knife, burying it in the man's stomach.
"You should have left a better tip," Yasu said, kicking the man in the face as he crumpled to the ground. Yasu kicked the man's pistol away across the floor.
The man toppled over on his back, dark fluid spilling from his mouth. He looked up into Yasu's eyes with a gaze of crystal blue, burning with the fever of madness. "Blood never dies," he chuckled. Then the Crane's breath rattled in his throat and he was silent. Yasu took a step closer, staring with morbid interest at the black ichor dripping from the man's wounds.
"Maho-tsukai," he whispered.
"Yasu, behind you!" Toshimo shouted.
Yasu whirled around to see two more men behind him, both of them pointing automatic pistols at his chest. Further behind them, another figure moved in the shadows.
"You shouldn't have assumed we came alone," said one.
"Ditto," Yasu said.
The two men looked confused for a moment, then fell to their knees with a muffled scream and a terrible ripping sound. Their flesh transformed into wooden bark and sticks. Their feet burst from their boots and rooted themselves deep into the ground. Kuni Mokuna stepped between the two new trees that had sprouted in the warehouse and nodded to Yasu.
"I see you've found your requisite amount of trouble this evening, Hida," he said, tucking a scroll back into his pouch. "Glad I could participate."
"The night is young, Mokuna," Yasu said, kneeling to untie Ikimura and Toshimo. "I've still got plans."
"What are you going to do, Yasu?" Toshimo asked.
"You saw what happened to that guy when I shot him," Yasu said, pointing at the big, bald Crane. "All in all, the Crane are acting a little funny lately. I think it's about time I paid them a little visit. Find out who sent these guys."
"Indeed," Mokuna agreed, stooping over the dead man. His chest had crumbled in upon itself, and black fluid was now pouring out of his eyes and ears. "This man is rotting from the inside. I've seldom seen Shadowlands Taint so advanced. It can hardly be a solitary case."
Ikimura glanced at Toshimo earnestly. Toshimo nodded and turned back to Yasu. "You'll have to go alone, Yasu," he said. He quickly crossed back to Ikimura's small office and began unhooking the wires that connected his computer to the wall.
"Huh?" Yasu looked back and forth between Mokuna and Toshimo. "But this is sort of important."
"So is this," Toshimo replied, emerging again with Ikimura's hard drive tucked under one arm. "Those men released a deadly virus into Ikimura's systems. I have to bring it back to my lab in Kyuden Hida to fix it, and quickly. If I can't retrieve the data, we'll never be able to build another War Machine. Mokuna, can you take all three of us there?"
"Barely," Mokuna said, a bitter note in his voice. "I won't be able to return to the city to help Yasu, though. Not tonight."
"Hey, do we even need another War Machine?" Yasu asked, raising one eyebrow skeptically.
"Those men were certainly frightened by the prospect of one being built," Ikimura cut in. "I'm not entirely eager about the prospect of my Akodo being used for military purposes, but if it's for the good of the Empire then I guess I'll do whatever I must." Ikimura picked up the phone from his desk and punched a few numbers. "Hello, maintenance?" he said.
"Hm," Yasu sniffed, leaning back against the wall and folding his arms. "Well, you old-timers have fun with your hard drive, then. If you need to call me, I'll be in the Dojicorp Building somewhere, breaking things."
Mokuna chanted a few words from a scroll and a shimmering portal appeared nearby. Toshimo quickly stepped through, too distracted by the daunting task of fixing the computer he carried to even notice Yasu. Ikimura followed a step behind, pausing for a moment at the portal's entrance to turn to the Seeker.
"By the way, call someone to clean up all this gasoline," he said. "I'd hate for someone to throw an errant cigarette butt in here and blow up half the studio." The old man bowed quickly to Yasu and was gone.
"Good luck, Hida," Mokuna said, nodding to the young Seeker as he stepped toward his own portal. "I must admit, your methods are... interesting."
"Thanks," Yasu said. He looked toward one of the twisted trees then back at Mokuna. "If I ever need any landscaping done, I'll keep your number handy."
Mokuna smirked slightly, then bowed to Yasu and was gone, taking the portal with him.
Yasu picked up the phone on Ikimura's desk and punched in a few random numbers. After a moment, a human voice answered.
"Yeah, I'm in Ikimura's warehouse," he said. "You'd better send over somebody from maintenance. The dead Cranes and gasoline are starting to get to me."
"You heard me." Yasu hung up the phone and left the warehouse, giggling.
"You look terrible, Sekkou," Massad said, a slightly mocking tone in his voice. "Though of course it's difficult to tell inside of that black fishbowl you call a head."
"Begone, Jackal," the Locust retorted. "I've neither the time or the patience to deal with you." Sekkou pushed open the door of his personal chambers and quickly entered. It was good to return to the Machine facility again, if only he could be rid of the annoying pest that had followed him back.
"Very well, then," Massad said, rubbing one hand across the top of his bald head. "I hope that Master Inago-sama shows you the same respect, my friend." The Jackal turned and exited Sekkou's chambers, laughing gently to himself as he toyed with the Soul of the Slayer.
Useless gaijin fool. His powers were useful but the man was clearly insane. Some day, that insanity would become more of a hindrance than his powers were useful and on that day, Sekkou would be there. It had been Inago's idea to bring Massad into the Locust, yet another in a series of questionable judgments on the part of the Locust's mysterious leader.
"Sekkou," said a voice from the back of the room.
Sekkou turned sharply. Inago stood in his chambers. As usual, only his dark hair was visible. The rest of him was concealed in dark cloth and silver metal. Sekkou had seen the man's face once, upon his ascension to second in command. He wondered if this Inago was still the same man as he was then. "I did not know you were here," Sekkou said.
"I apologize for unduly distressing you, my lieutenant," Inago said. The Locust master's voice was melodic and deep, the circuit which carried the man's electric charisma to the countless mob that followed him. "How was your... exercise, this morning?"
"A mistake," Sekkou replied. "I'd thought that they were ready. I overestimated them, and underestimated the anger of the Unicorn."
"Did you?" Inago said mildly. "From what I hear, it seems that the entire mission was a series of errors, right down to the choice of targets. Why a shopping mall, Sekkou? You know that the Locust do not strike a target without reason. Terror. Information. Profit. These are the things the Locust seek."
"I remember a time when the Locust only sought two things," Sekkou replied.
Inago was silent a moment. He nodded, slowly. "I know how you feel, Inago," he said. "I have sacrificed much to bring us where we are. More than you might ever know. Yet, a revolution does not march upon charity. EMP technology is expensive to create and maintain. If we must indulge in some occasional piracy or mercenary work, remember it is for the common good."
"Of course, Inago," Sekkou said with a sigh. "I know that. But we have been inactive for so long and it has been a long day. I think my temper is a bit frayed."
"Try to contain your enthusiasm for a bit longer, my militant friend," Inago said with a short laugh. "Soon, the time of the Locust will come. Soon, the Great Clans will feel our wrath. The Machine will fall."
Sekkou just nodded quietly. He could think of nothing further to say.
"No more missions without my command," Inago said. "You are to remain inside the Machine until further notice. This is a critical time for us. Plans are being put into motion. Our struggle is more important than any of us, Sekkou. Even you. You are a valuable ally but do not think for a moment that I would hesitate to dispose of you."
Inago turned without another word and left the chamber, leaving his lieutenant to his thoughts.
Sekkou locked the door of his chambers and removed his helmet, letting it clatter to the floor. He seated himself heavily in an overstuffed armchair, his head leaning on one hand. The helmet seemed to gaze back up at him placidly. Sekkou stared at it for a moment. He had never appeared to the Locusts without it. Once he had been a firebrand revolutionary, fighting at the forefront of every Locust offensive. Now he had become an emotionless piece of plastic. Like Inago.
He had been so close. So very close to finding out what had become of the man who once had seemed destined to lead the Locust to greatness. Now there was no hope. He had tempted fate enough by attacking Lucky Star, to leave the Machine against Inago's specific orders was to invite death. There was no one else he could trust to find Jiro and the stone, though. No one but himself.
There was a heavy knock at the door.
"Sekkou?" said a slow, thick voice. "Sekkou you there?"
"I'm here," Sekkou said. A slow, wicked smile crossed the Locust's face. He stood and unlocked the door.
Kaibutsu poked his head into the chamber, blinking in surprise. "Sekkou, you lost your helmet," Kaibutsu covered his eyes quickly. "Kaibutsu did not see. Kaibutsu did not look."
"It's all right, Kaibutsu," Sekkou said, closing the door behind the pit-fighter and locking it once more. "We're friends now. After what happened in the mall, we're friends. I know your secret, so now you know mine."
Kaibutsu removed his hand from his eyes. A lop-sided smile crossed the ogre's face. "Kaibutsu just wanted to check you were okay," he said. "Massad was saying funny things in the lounge, thought maybe Inago was going to hurt Sekkou."
"And what do you think of that, Kaibutsu?" Sekkou asked. "What if Inago had hurt me?"
Kaibutsu frowned, his heavy brows knitting angrily. "Kaibutsu would not like that. That would make Kaibutsu furious. Inago was not there in the mall with the others. Inago did not come back for Kaibutsu. Sekkou did." The ogre smiled, revealing large, white teeth.
Sekkou patted the ogre on the shoulder. Of course, he'd returned for Kaibutsu because only the ogre could have gotten them out through the mall's roof, but there was no reason to tell the creature that. Kaibutsu was powerful, loyal, and unimaginative. He was perfect. "I thank you for your support, my friend," he said.
Kaibutsu smiled again. "Good night, Sekkou," he said, turning toward the door again.
"Good night, Kaibutsu," Sekkou said.
"Oh," Sekkou said, trying to look as if an idea had just struck him. "One more thing, Kaibutsu."
"Yes?" the ogre turned to Sekkou, his face eager.
"You wouldn't mind doing a little mission for me, would you? A secret mission?"
Kaibutsu shrugged. "Got nothing else to do," he said.
"Well, here's the thing," Sekkou said. "You remember Jiro, the boy who was with us in the mall?"
Kaibutsu nodded fervently. "Kaibutsu like Jiro," he said. "Jiro smart."
"Yes, well, you know that Jiro's missing," Sekkou said. "Inago seems unconcerned with this, but I value the boy's talents greatly. Find him, Kaibutsu. Bring him back to the Machine, and tell him to bring the white stone he found at the mall with him. Would you do that for me?"
Kaibutsu nodded. "Right away," he said. "Kaibutsu will go now if you like."
"Yes, Kaibutsu," Sekkou replied. "I would appreciate that very much."
Yoritomo staggered forward despite the guard's efforts to hold him aloft. The Son of Storms' stamina was exhausted, and he collapsed to the cold floor of the Diamond Palace.
"Kameru!" he shouted, somehow finding the strength to make his voice roll through the halls like thunder.
"Someone, help him!" Ryosei shouted, kneeling beside him.
The guards were thick around the Emperor, forming a protective ring about him until medical attention could arrive. Akodo Daniri found himself shoved to the outside of the group, his temporary license to assist and accompany the Emperor apparently revoked. He found himself standing beside the elderly Dragon, Hisojo. The air spirit he had summoned continued down through the halls of the palace, forgotten by its summoner. The old wizard stood with his hands balled into knobby fists, veins standing out on his neck with impatience and irritation.
"You think he'll be all right?" Daniri asked.
"No," Hisojo replied. "I do not, not if they continue the way they're going." The Dragon took a step toward the Mantis bushi, who immediately turned to bar his path with their spears. Hisojo held out his right palm and spoke a single word. A thunderclap echoed in the hallway and the six guardsmen hurtled a dozen feet backward to land with a clatter of armor and weaponry. Ryosei and Yoritomo remained were they were on the floor, unaffected by Hisojo's spell. Hisojo lowered his hand again, folding it primly into his pocket. "Now," Hisojo said sternly. "Are you going to allow me to look at your wounds, Yoritomo or are you just going to lay there and die of pride?"
Yoritomo looked up at Hisojo defiantly, but nodded. Ryosei moved aside as Hisojo moved toward the Emperor, already beginning to draw scrolls and small bottles of reagents from his pouches. The Mantis guard rose and gathered about once more, but this time guarding Hisojo as well as the Emperor. Though they might not understand what the old man was doing, they understood loyalty. No one would interfere with the Dragon's ministrations before they were complete.
Daniri remained where he was, forgotten in the hallway for a few minutes. Eventually he began to grow bored and decided to go for a short stroll. The palace had been secured. Surely there'd be no danger now. The Emperor could get along just fine with the Imperial Guard and the Dragon to protect him. Daniri looked about curiously at the ancient paintings and tapestries that lined the walls. He'd almost forgotten, for a little while at least, where he was. As a child, he'd dreamed about some day visiting the Diamond Palace, about some day catching a glimpse of the Emperor. Now here he was. He wished he could have visited under better circumstances, but here he was.
"Not bad at all, Danjuro," he mumbled to himself, smiling at a small statue of Akodo One-Eye.
"Do you ever stop patting yourself on the back, Lion?" Hiroru asked, suddenly appearing at Daniri's side.
Daniri had taken a swift step back and delivered a backhand to Hiroru's chest before he realized what he had done. Luckily, the ninja quickly rolled with the blow and did a flip backward into the air. His landing dislodged an ancient porcelain egg from its crystal stand. Hiroru quickly flattened himself and caught the egg between two fingers. Daniri darted forward with one leg and hooked the end of the stand before it could shatter.
"What did you think you were doing, sneaking up on me like that?" Daniri whispered tersely as he set the stand back up on end. "The guards would kill you if they saw you in here, dressed like that!" He waved a hand at Hiroru's white, masked costume.
"Well, there's gratitude for you," Hiroru retorted, placing the egg back in its proper position. "Imagine what those Cranes would have done if I hadn't followed along and kept an eye on you!"
"What would they have done?" Daniri asked.
"Well," Hiroru folded his arms and tilted his head slightly. "Nothing, actually. You did an almost obnoxiously good job of avoiding them. I felt like I'd wasted my time sneaking in here after you for awhile there."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Daniri said. "Nice catch with the egg, by the way."
"Thanks," Hiroru replied. "How's the Emperor?"
"Not good," Daniri said. "He keeps having some sorts of fits. It may be his heart, or his fever. I think the stress may be too much for him. His daughter's falling apart. I think she thinks he's dying. That'd be an odd thing, eh? I never imagined Yoritomo VI dying of natural causes."
Hiroru had grown very silent, his eyes unfocused and deep in thought. "Hmm," he said. "An ill time for mysteries."
"What?" Daniri replied. "What's up, Hiroru?"
"I saw something peculiar earlier," the ninja replied.
"Care to elaborate?" Daniri asked. The actor leaned against the opposite wall, hands in his pockets as he casually watched the halls for approaching guards.
Hiroru paused a moment before he spoke, as if composing exactly how to relate what he had witnessed. "I saw a man earlier, skulking around the Emperor," he said finally. "It was... strange."
Daniri stared at Hiroru for a moment. "That's it?" he said. "Strange."
Hiroru shrugged uncomfortably. "It's difficult to explain," he said. "I have a sense about this sort of thing sometimes. Something about the whole thing felt very wrong."
"Strange," Daniri repeated. "This from a man who dresses up in white pajamas and jumps around on rooftops."
"I'm serious, Daniri," Hiroru said. "I know that you don't particularly like me, but trust me on this. Watch me carefully." Hiroru took a few steps back from Daniri, into the darker area of the hallway. Suddenly, the shadows seem to wrap themselves about the ninja and he was gone. A chill rippled through the hallway.
Daniri choked. He'd been looking directly at Hiroru, hadn't blinked or looked away. The darkness just wrapped itself around the ninja and he was gone. "Hiroru?" he said.
"Right here," Hiroru replied, appearing once more where he had stood. "I never even moved."
"How did you do that?" Daniri asked. "Are you a shugenja?"
"That's a laugh," Hiroru replied. "Somehow, I have a feeling that the kami aren't particularly fond of me. The shadow's been with me ever since I was young. Wherever it comes from, it gives me nightmares and sometimes it makes me hear voices. I have to fight every day to keep its power from growing."
Daniri just watched the ninja silently. He didn't know what to say, he sure didn't know what to think of the ninja now. "And what does this have to do with the Emperor?" he said at last.
"The woman," he said. "The things I can do, she can do them to. Only... I think he... she... whatever it was, was stronger than I am. If it could get to the Emperor, in his condition..."
Daniri shook his head. "That's a longshot, Hiroru. Nobody could get past all of his guards."
"I did," Hiroru said. "Daniri, I have to find it, whatever it was."
"All right," Daniri said. He looked back down the hallway, in the direction of Yoritomo and the Mantis Guard. "They probably don't even remember I was here, anyway. Let's go hunting for shadows, Hiroru."
"I don't need your help, Lion," Hiroru said.
"Then why did you tell me all of that crap just now?" Daniri replied.
"I thought someone needed to know, in case I didn't return from the hunt," the ninja answered.
"Now you're just being melodramatic," Daniri said.
"You'd be the expert, I suppose, Akodo," Hiroru answered. The ninja closed his eyes for several seconds, concentrating deeply. "I think she went that way," he said, opening his eyes once more and pointing.
"You think?" Daniri asked. "That's not much to go on, Hiroru."
The ninja sneered behind his mask. "You have something better to do, Lion?" he asked, and started down the hallway.
"I'm disgusted, simply disgusted," Oroki said with a sneer. He drew a pistol from his jacket, turned, and pointed it into the shadows of the hallway.
There was no movement, no response. In the distance, the carnival music of the Labyrinth trilled happily.
"I mean it," Oroki said a bit more forcefully. He cocked the hammer of the small pistol.
"Bah," said the shadow. A gangly little man wearing a lab coat and thick goggles stepped into view, a sour frown on his face. "How... did you detect me?"
"Maybe I didn't, Isawa," Oroki said with a chuckle. "Maybe I always do that before returning to my office, and just sometimes it pays off."
"Interesting... philosophy," Soshi Isawa replied, scratching his pointy chin with one hand. The scientist tilted his head curiously at Oroki. "It's only me, Bayushi. Are you going to put that gun away now?"
"Perhaps," Oroki said, still aiming the pistol directly at the little man. "What were you doing hiding outside of my office?"
"I wished to speak to you, Oroki-san," he replied. "I did not... wish to be seen. No particular reason. Just... a habit of mine."
"Probably a healthy practice, with the reputation you have garnered, shugenja," Oroki replied. He released the hammer of his weapon and returned it to his jacket. "Well, step into my office. We can speak further there." Oroki opened the oak door, revealing the mirrored chamber beyond.
"I always find your office... intriguing," Isawa said, holding his jacket close to his body as he entered the mirrored room. "They say a cluttered office indicates... a cluttered mind, an empty office... an empty one. I wonder what your den suggests about your... state of mind."
"Analyze me all you wish," Oroki said pleasantly, crossing through the reflective room and seating himself behind his desk. "When you've come to a conclusion, I'd love to be the first to hear it."
"I... shall do so," Isawa said, staring hypnotized at the infinite images of himself on the wall. He seated himself awkwardly in one of the chairs before Oroki's desk. He looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. Oroki knew that Isawa was well used to the world within his own laboratories, and was a bit unaccustomed to functioning outside of them. He was an eccentric and reclusive madman, but the Soshi daimyo was also a genius and thus a valuable ally until his madness proved too dangerous to tolerate.
"What brings you to the Labyrinth today?" Oroki asked. "How is Zou coming along?"
"Excellent, most excellent," Isawa said. "That is what I wished to speak to you about. He's progressing better than I had even believed imaginable. The nemuranai you chose to bond with his mechanical elements seems to agree with him. Already he is training in the dojo."
"Good, good," Oroki said. "I'm glad that old heirloom went to good use."
"Indeed, its power is... amazing," Isawa replied. "He will easily... be Akodo's equal." The scrawny man rubbed his hands together unconsciously as he leaned forward in his chair. "You wouldn't happen to have any more... nemuranai, would you, Oroki?" Isawa attempted to make the remark sound offhand, and failed miserably. His subtlety was limited to computer terminals and the surgeon's table, it seemed.
"I'm sorry, no," Oroki replied. "The medallion was an old family heirloom. I'm glad to see it came to good use."
"Yes, well..." Isawa sighed. "Anything I can do for the betterment of... science." He folded his hands across his lap and looked about the office nonchalantly. This went on for several moments.
Oroki watched Isawa curiously. Isawa continued to sit. "Will there be anything else, Isawa?" Oroki asked a bit tersely.
"Hm?" Isawa asked. "Oh, no. Nothing."
"You're certain," Oroki said stiffly. The shugenja was up to something. He knew it. At least he knew he wasn't casting a spell. Magic would have tripped the silent tetsukami alarm Oroki kept under his desk.
"Yes, just thought I'd... visit," Isawa said mildly. "Just... just wanted to visit my old friend Bayushi Oroki. It's good to check in with your friends... from time to time... you know how that is."
"What do you want, Soshi?" Oroki said flatly.
"Well, there are a few things I'd like to... talk about now that you mention it," he said with a dry little laugh. "It has been so long since we've had a... chance for good conversation. But I know you despise to waste words, so I'll make this brief." Isawa's face suddenly went cold, his eyes serious behind his thick goggles. "What did you speak to Shinjo Katsunan about earlier today?"
Oroki was inwardly impressed, though he let nothing of it show in his eyes. Spying on him was no mean trick, though if anyone in Otosan Uchi could have done so it would have been the Soshi daimyo. "A personal matter," Oroki said simply.
"Indeed," Isawa frowned. "Too personal to share with a Scorpion daimyo?"
"You may be a Scorpion daimyo," Oroki replied, "but you are not my daimyo. I am not beholden to you by any bonds of loyalty."
Isawa scowled, balling his hands into fists on the arms of the chair. He whistled to himself impatiently.
"Stop that," Oroki said, glancing down at the red light flashing beneath his desk. "If you're planning to read my mind I can and will have to shoot you."
"Damn you, Oroki!" Isawa snapped. "This is a delicate time for the Scorpion Clan! If you won't... tell me voluntarily, then I'll be forced to use whatever leverage I can. Remember, I still have access to the machines that support your yojimbo's life."
Oroki's facial expression and body posture did not change in any way. "Do what you must, Isawa, and I'll respond in kind."
Isawa slumped backward in his chair, his dark eyes burning at the young Bayushi. "You made some sort of deal, didn't you? A deal with the Unicorn, while Shiriko is... away?"
"Yes," Oroki said.
Isawa flinched, startled by the sudden lapse of honesty. "What kind of deal?" he asked.
"Nothing that will bring us harm," Oroki said. "I'm no fool. I needed some information from him, and simply offered our cooperation in return."
Isawa laughed a bit at that. "Our cooperation," he replied with a smile. "It was Scorpion cooperation that provided us the plans to the Akodo War Machine. Katsunan must not have been thinking properly when he made that deal."
"Perhaps not," Oroki replied. "He's a man with a lot on his mind. I think he more or less just wants us out of the way while the Shinjo flex their muscles in Little Jigoku. I think some of the other clans feel that the Scorpion got a bit more than its share of glory during the Senpet Invasion. The Unicorn plan to correct the situation by beating peasants into submission."
"The Locust are not mere peasants," Isawa said.
Oroki kicked his feet onto the edge of the desk and drew a dark bottle of liquor from the bar behind his desk. "To us, they might as well be," he said. "True," Isawa said. "But that is beside the point. What was so valuable? What were you seeking that was worth speaking in the name of the Scorpion and risking Shiriko's wrath?"
Shiriko's wrath. Oroki nearly laughed out loud at the suggestion. He respected the girl, envied her a bit, but didn't fear her. "Bayushi Shiriko is very far away," he said. He poured himself a glass and offered one to Isawa. The shugenja politely waved it away. "As I said before, Katsunan was a convenient ends to ironing out a few personal curiosities of mine."
"Involving?" Isawa pressed. The shugenja appeared as if he really didn't expect Oroki to answer, but his curiosity was too insatiable to simply let the matter drop.
Oroki considered the little scientist for a moment. Really, what was the harm in telling him? The secret wasn't really his to begin with, he stood to lose nothing by giving it away. In fact, Isawa might even feel he owed Oroki a favor in return for revealing the information, after all the resistance he'd offered the shugenja's questioning. Not to mention the fact that Isawa's resources would be very useful in verifying the truth of Katsunan's story.
"Tell me," Oroki said, pulling up his mask just enough to sip deeply from the cup. "How much do you know about the Moto family?"
"The Moto family?" Isawa replied. "What do they have to do with this?"
And so Oroki told him.
Argcklt was tired. He'd been tunneling through the walls of the palace for over an hour now. The rock was starting to get harder now, taking more effort to push out of the way. The human he was dragging along with him was starting to get heavy, too. Luckily, he knew where to go. He had sensed the place when he had come in before, at the ceremony. If he made it, they would both be safe there. His long green fingers were streaked with brown mud and his own orange blood. He hadn't dug through so much solid stone in a while. He chided himself for becoming so soft. If he got out of this alive, he'd have to get more exercise.
The young zokujin paused for a moment to catch his breath. The prince moaned, rousing slightly from his unconsciousness. Argcklt glanced back to see him fumbling with the lump of stone stuck to his side, attempting to pull it away.
"No," Argcklt said quickly, hopping to the prince's side and catching his fingers in his own. "Don't move. Don't touch. Be brave, prince, we will be safe and soon. By the Stone, I promise you."
The human blinked, looking vaguely in the direction of Argcklt's voice. He looked confused, pale and frightened. "Where am I?" he said, his voice harsh in the voice of the tunnel. "Who are you?"
"Sorry," Argcklt said, realizing the mistake he had made. "I forget sometimes humans lose their sight with the sun. You are safe in the walls of the palace, prince. I am Argcklt of the zokujin. I find you hurt in the garden. I try to help you, but I am no healer. I take you to better help now."
"A zokujin," the prince said in wonder. "One of the rock goblins who serve the Lion?"
Argcklt scowled. "We are not goblins," he said stiffly. "We are not of the dark. We are the zokujin." He turned to the tunnel again and continued digging. He was angry now, but he would work it away with labor, in the zokujin way. The prince did not understand the insult he had given him. He was just a foolish human.
"I'm sorry, Arg- um, whatever your name was," the prince said.
"Argcklt," the zokujin replied quickly, not bothering to slow his work or turn around.
"Arg-ick-ult," the prince repeated, slowly making his way through the word and adding several of the humans' odd vowel sounds. "I didn't mean to insult you," he added. "I'm Kameru. Thank you for saving my life."
"You are not saved yet, Kmru," Argcklt said, intentionally shortening the prince's name with his strange accent. "If I've gone in the wrong direction, we may both die yet. If-" He paused, pressing his fingers against the stone before him. It gave slightly, even without focusing his will. Argcklt pushed sharply and the stone gave away to empty air. Light filtered into the small, dusty tunnel, revealing Argcklt's emerald skin, wispy grey mane, and sharp alien features to the prince for the first time. In the room beyond the gap a huge green statue of an obese man smiled down upon them. They had reached the Temple of Osano-wo.
"Amazing," Kameru said. His head was light from loss of blood and he could barely believe what he saw. "I never knew there were tunnels like these in the palace."
"There were not," Argcklt said. "I made this one."
Kameru wrinkled his brow, unbelieving. "How?" he asked.
Argcklt pressed his hand to the floor of the small tunnel. His fingers glowed with an eerie light, and he left a steaming claw print on the solid rock. "Like that," he said.
"How did you do that?" Kameru asked. He pressed one hand to the stone sealed against his side, the wound giving him some pain again. "Are you a shugenja?"
"Not a shugenja," the creature replied. "Earth and metal are friends of zokujin. They will allow my kind to pass if I have the will to ask. You humans could learn to speak to the earth as well, but you do not have the patience."
"How long does it take to learn?" the prince asked.
"Three hundred years," the zokujin replied.
Suddenly a face appeared on the other side of the breach in the wall. It was an elderly priest's face, and its jaw was wide open in surprise. "What in the name of the Fortunes?" he exclaimed. He caught sight of the zokujin and his jaw dropped open wider. "Seppun's blood!" he cried. "Oni! Oni! Guards!" The priest ran off screaming through the temple, calling for the guards, the Fortunes, the kami, his mother, and whatever else he could think of.
Argcklt watched the priest go, a curious expression in his huge yellow eyes. To think. The priest had stayed with his temple throughout all of the fighting earlier, only to run away upon seeing Argcklt, who meant no harm to anyone. He wondered if he would ever understand them. He shrugged, hopped down from the hole he had made, and turned around to help Kameru through. The palace's temple was not large, but it was richly adorned. Ancient silk paintings hung from walls of green marble inlaid with gold. The statue of the Fortune himself was pure jade, and nearly twelve feet tall. Kameru stumbled out of the wall and collapsed upon the floor.
"When I came upon this place before, it spoke to me," Argcklt said, gazing up into the face of the smiling Fortune. "There is power here. I hope we are not too late."
"I hope so, too," Kameru said. He fainted dead away, clutching at the wound at his side. Blood seeped out around his fingers, staining the pure white floor. The zokujin rushed to his side and knelt, closing his eyes in meditation. He whispered in the ancient language of his people, calling out to the earth, calling out to the power of the Bloodwhite Stone. He prayed for Kameru's life.
"What in Jigoku?" cried a Mantis bushi, charging into the temple with his naginata ready. The elderly priest scrambled in right behind, his white robes hiked above his knobby knees. A tall woman in the golden robes of a Lion shugenja followed a step behind.
"See?" cried the priest, rushing up behind the Mantis. "What did I tell you? It's a demon!" He pointed at the zokujin, nearly jumping up and down as he pointed at the creature in goggle-eyed fear.
The Mantis glanced at the man prone on the floor before Argcklt and his face filled with fury. "Prince Kameru!" he exclaimed. The Zokujin looked up at the samurai, but did nothing. He only whispered quietly in his language, continuing his prayer. He could not stop now. The Mantis rose his spear high, preparing to bury it in the Zokujin's chest.
And he crashed to the floor, knocked off his feet from behind by the Lion.
"What are you doing, you Kitsu fool?" the Mantis shouted.
She stood before Argcklt, blocking the Mantis from attacking the zokujin a second time. "This is no demon, Masashin," she said.
"He has the prince, Jurin!" the Mantis countered, rising and glaring at the Lion in anger.
"The zokujin will not harm him," the Lion said. "It is not their way. He is here to help."
The Mantis paused. "How do you know?"
"Don't listen to her!" screamed the ancient priest. "It's a beast! Look at it!"
"I swear by my ancestors and yours that the zokujin means the prince no harm, Masashin," Kitsu Jurin said, her face intense. "If you wish to kill the creature, you may answer to the spirits themselves. I'm certain they'll be understanding should you err." The shugenja stepped aside, folding her arms in her sleeves. Her bright, unsettling green eyes remained fixed upon the Mantis, waiting for his response.
The Mantis looked uncertain. His naginata wavered unsteadily in his hands. Argcklt ignored both samurai, continuing to chant. The Mantis glanced at the Lion once more, and let his spear clatter the floor. The priest watched curiously, still unsure what to think of the monstrous creature in his temple but unwilling to deal with it himself. The zokujin's whispering grew louder. The temple began to grow slightly warm. The Mantis opened his mouth to comment but his words were forgotten as the mouth and eyes of the statue of Osano-wo exploded with brilliant green light.
Kitsu Jurin stared in mixed awe and fear. After a lifetime of communication with spirits, her mystical senses were quite keen. What she saw at that moment she would never be able to describe. For a moment, it seemed as if the hand of the Osano-wo itself extended from the statue. It paused a moment over Kameru's prone form. The sword at the prince's side glowed a bright red, and the hand hovered where it was for a moment, unsure. Then it dipped toward Kameru, gently touching his heart, a single massive finger passing through the prince's chest as if it were mist. Then the spectacle was over. The temple faded into its normal, dim light again.
"Masashin, did you see that?" the priest exclaimed. "Did you see that?" The old man was barely able to contain the rapture in his voice.
The Mantis was already kneeling, his face pressed to the floor. The prince quickly fell into line beside him.
Kameru sat up awkwardly against Osano-wo's altar, propping himself up on the saya of Doji Meda's katana. He ran one hand over the wound on his side, feeling only smooth skin. "By the Fortunes," he whispered.
"Literally," Kitsu Jurin said, still staring at the statue of Osano-wo.
"Your Highness," Masashin said, rising to his feet and taking up his naginata once more. "Are you well?"
"I'm fine," Kameru said. He rose nimbly to his feet, his strength and energy restored in full measure. "I feel better than I've felt in a while, actually." He looked around the temple for Argcklt, but the creature was gone.
"You should come with me, Your Highness," Masashin said quickly. "Your father has been searching the grounds for you. The doctor's fear that he's badly injured, but he refuses to cease until you are found."
Kameru nodded. "Take me to him immediately," he said. He rushed out of the room, following closely behind the Mantis Guard.
Kitsu Jurin and the old priest remained in the temple, both of them still staring at the statue of Osano-wo as if expecting it to come to life once more. "Amazing," the priest said, rising clumsily to his feet with quite a bit of help from Jurin. "Simply amazing. Have you ever seen anything so wondrous in your entire life?"
"Never," Jurin admitted. "Nor do I expect to again. Miracles like that are very rare."
"I... I must tell my brothers of this at once," the priest stuttered, hopping from one foot to another in excitement. "It must be recorded! It must be documented! If, er, if you'll excuse me, Kitsu-sama."
"Of course," the Kitsu said, ignoring the old man.
The priest scurried out of the temple, still jabbering out loud in divine ecstasy.
"All right, zokujin," the Kitsu said with a smile. "You can come out now."
The temple was quiet for a moment, then Argcklt peered out from behind the statue of Osano-wo. His bright yellow eyes were narrowed at the Kitsu in suspicion.
"That was quite a trick, I must say," the Kitsu said, her voice calm and soothing. "I doubt even the most powerful shugenja in Rokugan could have pulled off an intervention of that caliber. I'm quite impressed."
"It was nothing I did. Humans do not know how to listen," Argcklt said simply.
Jurin stroked her long black braid and rose one eyebrow, intrigued. "I speak to the spirits every day," she said. "Osano-wo has never answered personally."
"What you do is different," the zokujin replied. "You speak to the ghosts of your dead. They are always close by. You command the spirits of nature. They are eager to please. You never listen to the earth. I did not command the Thunderer, I only told him that his son was in danger. He came immediately. I do not think he wants Kameru to die."
"Amazing," the Kitsu said. "I would say that the prince is lucky you found him, but I would wager that it was no accident."
Argcklt narrowed his eyes again. "Why did you save my life, Lion?" he asked. "It is not your kind's way to show my people compassion."
Jurin nodded soberly, her eyes upon the floor. "True," she said. "Truer than you think, even. My father is Kitsu Suro, so I know well of the Zokujin."
Argcklt hissed at the name. Kitsu Suro owned Okurachem, the factory that had made its fortune through the harsh exploitation of zokujin until very recently. "You wish to mock me," he said bitterly. "The Kitsu have always thought my people were fools."
"Once, I did, yes," she said sadly. "I was in the Okurachem Factory on the day the Senpet invaded. We were unprepared, caught off our guard. A Senpet killed my yojimbo and had his sabre to my own throat. In the next moment, two of your kind burrowed through the floor and dragged him off into the depths. They could have fled. They could have easily escaped, but they didn't. Many Lions would have died that day if it hadn't been for you, Argcklt." The Kitsu bowed deeply.
The zokujin blinked, surprised that the human woman knew his name. He stepped out from the shadows of the Fortune, his wide eyes curious.
"The Lion owe you a debt, Argcklt," she said. "Your people possess honor and courage of a sort I don't quite understand."
"I don't understand you either," Argcklt said.
Jurin smiled a crooked smile. "Understanding takes time and effort," she said, "but I would like to try."
Argcklt cocked his head, then chuckled. "Yes," he said. "I would like that, too."
Hatsu's head swam. His senses reeled as he opened up the power within himself and stared at the heights of Dojicorp. From seven blocks away, he could smell the oil of the guns borne by the Matsu bushi that surrounded the building at street level. He could taste the acrid burning ozone exhaust trails left by the Wasp helicopters swarming about the upper levels. He could hear the hum of surveillance cameras and redundant motion sensor systems subtly incorporated into the building's structure, hiding in every niche and crack in the building's intricately carved surface. He could see the web of infrared beams protecting the Fantastic Gardens and roof, no doubt linked to all manner of automated weapons and alarm systems. There was no way in, no way out.
He sighed and prepared to reel in his enhanced senses once more, when he heard the heavy rumble of a distant truck engine. Hatsu took a step back into the alley and jogged off in the direction of the sound. He darted out onto another sidewalk just as the vehicle rumbled past, a gigantic tractor rig with a scowling stone head mounted on the hood. The one-eyed mon of the Seeker Academy gleamed on the doors and hubcaps. Hatsu only caught the barest glimpse of the driver, but he recognized him immediately. The streets this close to Dojicorp were relatively quiet and deserted. The truck pulled up to the side of the street where it could get a good view of the crystal spire and waited.
"Subtle as ever, eh, Yasu?" Hatsu mumbled to himself. He crouched in the shadows of the alley and watched the truck. He hadn't seen Hida Yasu since Ichiro Chiodo's assassination attempt. Since then, he'd spoken with him on the phone several times on the subject of the tetsukansen investigation. The Crab seemed honorable enough, if a bit brash. Then again, Tsuruchi Kyo had seemed like an honorable man, as well. Hatsu remained where he was, extending his senses so he could hear what was happening inside the vehicle.
"Target in sight," Yasu said.
The dry hiss of a radio responded. "Good luck, Yasu," said the voice of Hida Tengyu. "Carry the Fortunes, and be careful."
"I'm always careful," Yasu answered. "I have a reputation to uphold."
The side door of the truck opened and Yasu hopped out into the street with a thump. Hida Yasu wasn't a tall man, Hatsu noticed. He was one of those people that seemed tall. His general mass and constant aura of angry menace just made him seem a lot larger than he was. The monstrous suit of Seeker tetsukami armor and thick metal-shod boots helped promote his size as well. He carried a large pistol on his belt, and an even larger one that looked more like a good sized thermos with a stock and a trigger. A metal cylinder - a collapsed tetsubo - was strapped across his shoulders, and a large survival knife was sheathed at the small of his back. Hatsu could sense that all of his weapons were oiled, loaded, and prepared for combat. The ammo belts that criss-crossed his chest were fully stocked. This was a man looking for trouble.
Yasu turned in the street, removing his steel jingasa and craning his neck upwards to stare at the Dojicorp Building. He drew a small metal object from his belt, quickly unfolding it into a pair of binoculars. The Crab scanned the building for several moments, looking up and down at each level of the skyscraper. Hatsu could hear a low rumble build in Hida Yasu's throat. It steadily grew in volume, finally concluding with a compact burst of cursing that surprised Hatsu in its range of vocabulary and intensity.
"Damn Cranes," Yasu grumbled in conclusion, stuffing the binoculars back into his belt. He mashed the jingasa back down upon his hair and seated himself on the step of his truck, leaning forward on his knees and spitting.
Hatsu's mouth pressed into a firm line. He seated himself where he had been squatting to get circulation into his feet once more. It looked like Yasu would take his time deciding what to do next. The Seeker certainly had no business here. Matsu Gohei was only seven blocks away. No doubt he'd be more than interested to introduce himself to the son of Hida Tengyu if he knew he was present. Yasu was taking a terrible risk, and Hatsu was prepared to hang around and find out why. He settled in to spy on the Crab, shutting down the power of his tattoo to prevent becoming overloaded with sensory input.
For several minutes, this continued. Yasu continued to sit against the step of his truck and think. Hatsu continued to sit in his alley and watch. For want of something better to do, Hatsu drew the Dragon Sphere out of his pocket. He stared into its depths and concentrated. "Awaken," he whispered.
"Greetings, Thunder," said the odd, indistinct voice of Hoshi. The little jade dragon appeared to be speaking the words.
"I'm at the Dojicorp Building, Hoshi-sama," Hatsu replied.
Hoshi laughed, an oddly disturbing sound. "Sama? All Dragons play their part, Hatsu. We are equal. Please address me so. Did you meet Chojin?" The little green dragon peered up at Hatsu with a curious expression.
"Yes," Hatsu replied, smiling at the sphere. "A very interesting man. He gave me a blade."
"All is well then," he said. "What do you require of me?"
"Well, I was just wondering," Hatsu said. "I've come across another man skulking in the shadows around Dojicorp. I'm not sure if I should trust him or stop him."
"Hida Yasu?" Hoshi replied.
Hatsu blinked. "You know him?"
"I have heard of him," Hoshi said. "He has been a most useful ally in the past, though he was unaware of our presence. I cannot be a judge of character for you, Hatsu, but you may find an ally in the Seeker."
"Should I approach him, then?" Hatsu asked.
"You have everything you need. Unfortunately, the decision of whether to approach the Seeker is no longer yours to make. There seemed to be the barest hint of humor in Hoshi's voice.
Hatsu looked up into the barrel of Hida Yasu's pistol.
"Good evening, detective," Yasu said. "Thought you were dead."
"Good luck, Thunder," Hoshi said. His voice trailed of laughing and the little dragon returned to its slumber in the sphere.
"Try to keep the moonlight from reflecting off that thing next time," Yasu said, nodding at the crystal. "Is there a little snowman in there or what?"
"Sort of," Hatsu said. "I suppose you want to know what I'm doing here?"
"Crossed my mind," Yasu said. "Especially considering that Sachiko and I turned this city upside down looking for you. The Scorpion said Kyo planted a lead paperweight in your sternum. Where have you been?" The Seeker squinted narrowly at Hatsu, not lowering or wavering the steady grip on his weapon.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Hatsu said. He rose to his feet slowly, keeping his hands visible and away from his sides.
Yasu took a slow step backward to keep the Dragon covered. "Make something up, then," Yasu said. "I've had a really frustrating day and I think I'd like to hear a story."
"Speaking of stories, what are you doing here, Seeker?" Hatsu asked. "I thought the Crab had returned to Kyuden Hida."
"Don't change the subject," Yasu said. "Person with the gun gets to pick the subject. It's a rule, even with ghosts."
Yasu's pistol skittered away down the street. Hatsu was suddenly holding his dragon-claw katana in both hands.
"Holy!" Yasu quickly drew his other gun, which happened to be the Oni-Stomper.
"Go ahead and fire that beast," Hatsu said. "I'm sure the Lions would love to find you here."
"They'd be surprised how quick I can run," Yasu said, tightening his grip on the enormous pistol. "How did you do that trick with the sword?"
"Want to see it again?"
"No, that's okay."
"Then tell me what you're doing here."
"I'm spying on the Cranes, what does it look like?" Yasu said, exasperated. "Now where the hell have you been? I don't want to shoot you, Hatsu, but I will if I don't get some answers and quick."
"Believe it or not, I've been at Togashi Mountain," Hatsu said. "The Imperial Guard tried to murder me, and came damn close. Since the night of the Senpet Invasion I've been in an underground hospital, recovering from the wound that Oroki assumed killed me. By all rights, it should have."
"Togashi Mountain?" Yasu answered. "Where the televangelists live?"
"That's right," Hatsu said. "I'm going to shave my head and give out flowers at the airport. You want to come with me?"
"I'll think about it," Yasu replied. "What are you doing following me around?"
"I'm looking for Asahina Munashi," Hatsu answered.
"Asahina Munashi?" Yasu asked, his eyes wide.
"Yes," Hatsu said.
"Asahina Munashi?" Yasu repeated.
"That's right," Hatsu answered.
"The Asahina Munashi?" Yasu said again.
"Yes, that's him," Hatsu said. "Do you know of him?"
"Never heard of him," Yasu said.
Hatsu sighed. He could almost hear the rim shot. "He's the daimyo of the Asahina family, Master of the Fantastic Gardens."
"Oh, yeah," Yasu said. "That guy. Actually, I have met him. Creepy old scarecrow. What the heck do you want from him?"
"I'm not sure," Hatsu said. "I was told that if I spoke to him, I'd finally get some answers."
Yasu rose an eyebrow. "So you're planning on sneaking past the Matsu army and busting through Dojicorp on a maybe?" The Crab laughed out loud.
"That's right," Hatsu said. "What's your excuse?"
"Pretty much the same thing," Yasu confessed with a sigh. "I ran into some maho-tsukai Cranes earlier that claimed to be working for Dojicorp. I figured I'd go inside and look around."
"Dressed like that?" Hatsu nodded at Yasu's heavy armor and weapons.
"Well, I didn't want to overdo it," Yasu admitted.
The Dragon and Crab stood for a few more moments, each staring at the other's weapon.
"How do I know I can trust you?" Hatsu asked.
"I was going to ask you the same thing," Yasu replied. "You could be implanted with a tetsukansen. You could be one of them."
"In that case I would have just cut your hand off instead of disarming you," Hatsu said.
"Granted," Yasu said. "Well, with that in mind I could have just shot you in the back of the head while you were playing with your snow globe."
Hatsu thought about this for a moment, and nodded. He put his sword away and Yasu holstered his Oni-Stomper. The Crab wandered off down the street to find his other pistol, then returned to stand next to Hatsu. The Dragon was staring up at the blue tower Dojicorp.
"Any ideas?" Yasu asked. "My Ikoma Sushi uniform is at the cleaners."
"Yes," Hatsu said. "Actually, I do have an idea."
Tsuruchi Kyo was not well. He felt less and less himself every day. He sat in the small hovel of an apartment that he had taken as his own, staring at the wall before him and concentrating. He found he had to do that more and more now, just to feel human. Sometimes, when his thoughts slipped, he'd sink entirely into the Void. The demon would exert itself again, and he'd fade away.
Kyo looked down at his hand. His thoughts had drifted, and it had dissipated into black smoke. As he turned his attention, it faded back into reality, his fingers flexing in and out into a fist. "Damn," he cursed. "What have I done?"
"Stop whining, human," the oni chuckled from inside of him. "Your soul was lost a long time before I found you. Don't complain now that the ferryman has come to take his toll." "I never thought it would be like this," Kyo said. He looked in the dirty mirror that hung on the wall, watching himself shimmer in and out of being.
"You expected Jigoku to be pleasant?" Akeru laughed again. "You certainly enjoy my power well enough when it's time to kill."
Kyo frowned. The creature was right. As much as the demon fought him all of his waking hours, the two of them were in perfect synchronicity when it came time to serve the Stormbreaker. He was invincible. A walking, killing, invincible shadow. That was the only time he ever felt truly alive anymore.
"Do you wish to stop now?" Akeru said. "You can get out of this any time you want, Wasp. Simply say the word. I'm sure the Stormbreaker will be understanding of your reluctance."
"No," Kyo said. "I will see this through as I promised. We had an agreement, and I will honor it."
"You always were a man of honor, Kyo," hissed a voice of pure electronic static. "A peculiar honor to be sure, but one that was always useful to my ends."
Kyo turned quickly. A small computer sat in the corner of the dingy apartment. It was the only luxury the Wasp allowed himself since leaving the palace, but it was a necessary one. The indistinct form of a head and shoulders appeared on the screen, its eyes glowing a deep red. "Stormbreaker," Kyo exclaimed, quickly dropping from his chair and kneeling.
"Your obeisance does you credit, Wasp, but I have no time or use for the trappings of samurai. You are more than that. Rise." The Stormbreaker's face was harsh and mechanical, neither male or female. As long as he had served his master, Kyo had never had a slightest clue as to the being's identity. He knew better than to speculate. He had seen what sort of fate awaited the curious. He stood, staring at the screen in momentary surprise. Seven smaller, shadowy silhouettes had appeared in a circle around the Stormbreaker. Kyo had only participated in conferences with his master's other lieutenants a handful of times during his years of service, and those occasions had only involved one or two others. This meeting would be of extreme importance, without a doubt.
"Time grows short," the Stormbreaker said curtly. "The signs have fallen into place. The next Day of Thunder draws near. By the prophecies of Norikazu, the gates of the Diamond Palace must fall three times before our time is nigh. The Senpet and Matsu Gohei have supplied us with two victories. Now we must supply the third."
"My faction is in a position to comply, my lord," said one of the other voices. This one was clearer, sounding distinctly male. "We can destroy the entire palace if you so will it."
"I will it not," the Stormbreaker retorted, an edge of impatience in his voice. "The Yoritomo family is still of use to me. I require them intact."
"I see," the man replied. "Then am I to lead my people to destruction?"
"Is it such a large price to pay, my puppet?" the Stormbreaker asked.
"Of course not, my lord," the man said instantly and sincerely. "It shall be so as soon as you require."
"Indeed," the Stormbreaker said. "But that is not our only concern. Fulfilling prophecy is well and good but one must also deal with realities. Fu Leng walked the path of prophecy, relying on his own power to save him in the end. And in the end, he failed. We shall not be so foolish. How goes the rest of the plan?"
"The program is almost fully prepared," said another voice. There was just a hint of something in this one, something a little bit too intense. Kyo wasn't sure who the man was, but if he ever met him he intended to shoot him. He just couldn't deal with crazy people. "We need only two more components for the weapon to be complete."
"And that is why we need the palace intact?" asked another voice, a woman. "We're after the Agasha Factory, aren't we?"
The Stormbreaker was silent. The other lieutenants waited quietly as well. All of them were surprised by the temerity of the woman, demanding information of the Stormbreaker directly. Kyo fully expected to be given orders to assassinate her before this meeting was over.
"Exactly," the Stormbreaker said, a hint of amusement in his odd voice. "What of the rest of you?" he asked, suddenly ignoring her. "You all have your orders. What is your status?"
"Holy Home City has been converted into a viable resource as per your requirements, mighty Stormbreaker," said a man with a thick gaijin accent. "We are having trouble with a few mischievous Hitomi but it's nothing that my oni cannot handle. Their destruction is only a matter of time and their own foolhardiness. The Hitomi are well known for their self destructive behavior."
"Do not be overconfident, khadi," the Stormbreaker said. "Overconfidence leads to disaster."
"The three candidates to the Elemental Council have been implanted," said another man. He had a cultured, elegant tone to his voice. To Kyo's ear, he sounded distinctly Phoenix. "The new Master of Air, of course, is still free. As is Isawa Kujimitsu, who thus far has been irritatingly lucky at avoiding my attention."
"There is no luck," the Stormbreaker replied. "Fortunately, Kujimitsu's power is limited. Outnumbered four to one there will be little he can do to influence the council, especially once Isawa Sumi has been properly dealt with. How is this proceeding?"
"I'm afraid she isn't rather fond of me," the Phoenix replied. "Her bodyguard is rather overprotective, as well. Plus there is the added problem of that naga girl hanging about again."
"Zin?" hissed another of the lieutenants. The creature's voice was obviously inhuman. Kyo wondered what sort of monster it was. If it was powerful and intelligent enough to find a place on Stormbreaker's council, Kyo wanted to know its capabilities. Such a creature could be dangerous.
"You had your chance to control the Zin, Kashrak," the Stormbreaker said. "The time for compassion is past. The naga girl must die."
Kashrak did not reply for a minute, obviously brooding over his response. "Very well," he said. "But make it quick. I would wish that for her."
"How romantic," the Stormbreaker replied. "Phoenix. I once commanded you to kill the naga. You failed."
"I did not fail, master," the Phoenix said quickly. "I simply had no opportunity! My other responsibilities-"
"Are insignificant when compared to my plans," the Stormbreaker finished. "You will seek out the Zin. You will kill her. If you fail me, there will be no third chance. Is this understood?"
"Yes, Stormbreaker," the Phoenix replied.
"And what is the situation in the former Shadowlands?" the Stormbreaker demanded.
"The Great Seal is protected by the Scorpion Army," said a hollow, gravely voice. Kyo suspected that the speaker was very likely undead. "We were unable to take the Seal itself, though we made some interesting acquisitions."
"The Seal is unimportant as well," the Stormbreaker replied. "As long as the Empire believes that we require its conquest they will be divided and distracted. You have accomplished your task well, Ishak." Kyo blinked. Ishak? Yogo Ishak? The betrayer of the Shadow Wars?
"Thank you for your praise, Stormbreaker," Ishak answered, his sarcasm obvious. It seemed that Ishak hadn't been aware he was intended to fail.
"Our time is close," the Stormbreaker said to them all, ignoring Ishak's retort. "Closer perhaps than any of you realize. The doom of the Diamond Empire is nigh. Prepare."
With that, the other faces faded from his screen. Only the Stormbreaker's remained, staring directly into Tsuruchi Kyo's eyes.
"Kyo-Akeru," the Stormbreaker said. "How are you adjusting to your new life?" The shadow watched the Wasp intently, as if daring him to dispute the fact of his earlier discontent.
"As well as can be imagined," Kyo said. There was no lying to his master. Nothing seemed to be beyond his knowledge. He knew other lieutenants who thought they could fool the Stormbreaker. Kyo had been the one to kill most of them, and their deaths had not been pleasant. "Akeru's power is great, but I feel myself fading. I'm not what I once was. I'm not who I used to be."
"No one is ever who they used to be," the Stormbreaker said. "Life breeds experience, and experience breeds change. I am not the being I was yesterday. I am not the being I was one thousand years ago. You must consider this, Kyo-Akeru: perhaps what you are now is better than what you were before. Are you not quicker? More powerful? Is not the darkness yours to command?"
"I feel like I'm not human anymore," Kyo replied.
"Don't be a fool, Kyo-Akeru," the Stormbreaker said. "Humanity is overrated. I have not come here to give you vocational advice. Go to a monk if you require that. I am here to ask you a question."
"Ask, master," Kyo said. He wasn't certain how he felt about being called Kyo-Akeru. It annoyed him to be constantly reminded of the demon that dwelt within him, but he knew better than to argue about it.
"Do you know why I invited you to our conference today, yet never asked you a single question?"
Kyo considered for a moment. A wicked smile spread across his sharp face. "To hear their voices, to see their mannerisms," Kyo said. "The time grows close and the liabilities must be weeded out."
"Exactly," the Stormbreaker said, nodding slightly. "You do not miss much, Kyo-Akeru. That is why you have remained in my service for so long. What is your opinion of the others?"
"The programmer is dangerous," Kyo said. "His insanity makes him unpredictable. Kashrak seems a bit too attached to his Zin. It may lead him to mistakes. The Phoenix is arrogant. If he has the power to match his arrogance, he will do fine. If not, I expect him to be dead before this is over. The gaijin will do fine if he listens to your advice."
"And the girl?" the Stormbreaker asked mildly. "What is your opinion of her future?"
"I think her future is short," Kyo said. "Ishak is insubordinate, but he has a right to be. Who is this girl, that she thinks herself above you, master?"
"Just a girl," the Stormbreaker said. "A girl who is in the right place to do me a very large favor."
"I see," Kyo replied. "And when will I be killing her?"
"As soon as that favor is paid, Kyo-Akeru. Very soon."
"Excellent," Kyo said with a smile. Suddenly he felt much better.
Saigo nearly collapsed. His head was pounding so much now he could barely even breathe, let alone stand. He felt as if all the omens and prophecies and warnings of all the futures to come were bottlenecked in his head, all trying to break free at once. He couldn't make any coherent sense of any of it, not even the pseudo half-sense gibberish that the prophecies usually packeted themselves in. The stomp of marching boots echoed from around the corner. Saigo fought off the pain long enough to duck behind a lavender suit of ceremonial armor donated by the Ide family. A pair of Mantis Imperial Guard marched past down the hallway, oblivious to the prophet's presence.
"What am I even doing here?" he mumbled to himself. "I came here to help Ryosei and I'm not even doing that now. I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing!" Saigo bared his teeth in frustration and pain. He wasn't sure where he was. He wasn't certain he could even find his way back to Hisojo's secret passage. He hadn't felt this useless since he started taking the drugs...
Saigo's head swam and he felt fire lance through his veins. His body ached for Daikoku's Milk, for the heady cloud of euphoria and painlessness it would bring. It was always how he'd dealt with the pain before. It was how his body wanted him to deal with the pain now.
"No," he said resolutely. "No, I can't. I've got work to do." That he had no clue what that work might be was not a consideration. He formed the focus in his mind and concentrated on it. He had to concentrate on something to try to get his mind off the pain, otherwise he might as well lay down and die right here.
Instinctively, Saigo looked up to his right. He saw a soldier there, a bushi in the green armor of the Mantis, looking right at him. How had she gotten so close without him hearing her? For a moment, her facial features seemed to disappear. She darted off into a darkened hallway.
"What in?" Saigo breathed, stepping out of his cover to get a better look. He couldn't see anything, not a sign that she had ever been there. He cast a brief spell, one of the few that he'd learned to cast satisfactorily, summoning a sudden bright light upon the hallway where she had disappeared.
The shadows drew away, but not instantaneously. The darkness retreated slowly, like a snake rearing back from fire. Saigo whistled to himself. This was a brand of weirdness he was not prepared to deal with. Pain shot through his skull again, driving him suddenly to his knees. A sharp thunk sounded from behind him, and Saigo glanced up in time to see a short throwing knife protruding from the wall where his head had been a moment before.
"Soul of Shiba!" Saigo cursed, ducking behind the Ide armor again. No more knives came, but the light he'd summoned into the hallway disappeared.
"Incredible," Tsuke said, shimmering into being in the midst of the hallway.
Another knife suddenly pierced the air, darting through Tsuke's form and clattering to the floor somewhere down the hall.
"Tsuke!" Saigo whispered. "I thought you could only appear to me!"
"You're the only soul that can view me," he said, his dark red eyes watching the empty shadows.
"But she's still out there!" Saigo said. "She can see you."
"Exactly," Tsuke said.
Saigo's jaw dropped open slightly. "She has no soul," he said.
"Good luck, son," his ancestor said, turning to Saigo with strangely sad eyes.
Tsuke faded away as the hallway began to grow darker.
Yasu shook his head to clear the dizziness. He hated heights. "This is your idea?" the Crab asked.
"We can get across here," Hatsu said, pointing. There was a direct line downward from their position to the edge of the Fantastic Gardens.
"Are you insane, Dragon?" Yasu replied. "We're sixty stories up." He gestured toward the open window. A hundred feet away, Dojicorp glistened brightly in the night. Plastic tarps and bits of paper flapped here and there around them, left in the building by the construction workers who had come and gone much earlier that day. Tonbo Tower was intended by its architects to be nearly as tall as Dojicorp someday. Perhaps that was true, but the tiny Dragonfly Clan seemed unable to garner the funds to finish their architectural masterpiece, and after two and a half years the tower lingered yet in a state of perpetual construction.
"Think about it," Hatsu said. "The soldiers below won't be watching. The helicopters fly in patterns. We just have to get across to the Fantastic Gardens and we'll be in. We'll even manage to circumvent most of the lower level security."
"They have infrared sensors around the garden," Yasu said. "We won't get in without tripping alarms."
"I can see the infrared beams," Hatsu replied. "We won't set off anything."
Yasu shrugged noncommittally. "Well, we don't have a way of getting across, anyway."
"You mean Kaiu Toshimo didn't ever build you any sort of grappling hook?" Hatsu asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. "With all of the other gadgets you carry around, I find that hard to believe."
Yasu frowned. "Okay," he said. "Fine. So I do. It's in the damn truck. I expect you want me to walk back down all those steps and go get it."
"You could use the elevator," Hatsu nodded to a distant corner of the darkened building.
Yasu's jaw dropped open. "There's an elevator?"
"I thought you knew," Hatsu said. "I prefer stairs, personally."
Yasu quickly walked away before he lost his temper, muttering something under his breath about how some Dragons would have been better off to remain missing. Hatsu returned to watching the Dojicorp building, trying very hard not to laugh.
Fatima felt the bile rise in her throat. This was the second time today that she had been seen when she should not have been. At least the first one had been wise enough to give up. This one seemed to need a bit of encouragement. At this point, that encouragement would need to be of the fatal variety. This one was a Phoenix, not some random skulking peasant. If he started talking about what he had seen, people might believe him. That wouldn't do. Fatima drew another long throwing knife from her belt and prepared to throw.
Fatima? Who was Fatima?
The name seemed so familiar.
It seemed almost as if she should know it.
A wave of cold washed through her body. The hallway grew darker around her and her vision blurred. Not now. The old man had told her that their new power came with a price, but not now. Of all times, not now. She had thought she was beyond its power. She had heard there were those that could resist, and had always assumed herself to be among them.
A convenient fable, the shadow laughed. No one is beyond us, though everyone thinks they are. Until the end.
The Phoenix peeked out from his place of concealment, then quickly darted behind his cover again. Damn him. If he hadn't followed after her so persistently, she wouldn't have had to call upon the shadow again. Now it wouldn't leave her alone.
Come to us, the shadow beckoned. Your mission is accomplished. It is time to return home.
"Not yet," she cursed the shadow. "Yoritomo VI is only phase two. I must complete phase three."
"You should have thought of that before you called upon us again," the shadow laughed close to her ear, its voice low and seductive.
"No!" she forced the voice away, forcing its power away as well. The shadow retreated to the base of her mind, laughing, certain that she would call again. Fatima stood in the midst of the hallway, a trio of short throwing knives clutched in one hand. She felt naked, exposed here in her true form with none of the shadow's powers to conceal her, but it didn't matter. Her own natural skills were more than enough to deal with this Phoenix.
A razor sharp five-pointed throwing star sliced past her left shoulder from behind, shredding the sleeve of her black blouse and bouncing down the hallway. She spun to one side, careful to keep the Phoenix in her peripheral vision. Two men had somehow found her from behind, a Lion with long blonde hair and... the one in white. The one who had seen her before.
"That was a warning shot," the man in white said in a level voice. "Put the knives down." Another shuriken appeared in the man's hand. The other man yanked a tapestry from the wall nearby and stripped it of its hanging rod, wielding it like a short staff.
The shadow called to her again, gently, patiently. She could use its power. Or she could die. Either way it would be satisfied. Either way a little bit more of creation would be undone.
"Careful!" shouted the Phoenix from the other end of the hallway. "She has some kind of power!"
"Who the heck is that guy?" the blonde man asked the man in white. The man in white shrugged. The two of them slowly advanced upon her.
"What are you doing here?" the man in white asked. "What do you want?"
"I want you to die, Rokugani," she said in her native tongue. She hurled the blades into the air. One aimed for the blonde man, who ducked low and spun his staff, deftly catching the blade in the end. The man in white moved with astounding speed, the blades passing through the place where he had been fractions of a second after his passing. She knew his speed. She shared it.
The man in white flicked his wrist quickly, throwing a handful of shuriken at Fatima. The assassin saw her fate in that instant, and called upon the power of the shadow a final time, expecting it to save her as it had saved her opponent.
The shadow laughed.
Fatima was no more.
The hallway filled with a horrible tearing and shrieking. Darkness flickered and wavered in areas where it should not. The girl in black clutched at her face and dropped to her knees as her body quickly evaporated into a black mist and was pulled away into the shadows in pieces. A moment later, even the screams were gone and it was as if she had never been.
"By the Fortunes," Daniri swore, staring wide eyed at the place where she had stood. "What was that all about, Hiroru?"
"I wish I knew," the ninja replied. "Phoenix, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Saigo said, stepping out from behind his cover and staggering over to where the girl had disappeared. He was clutching the side of his head and blinking groggily, as if recovering from an intense headache.
"So..." Daniri said, "Is it over?"
The sound of booted feet running drifted from further down the hall. "For you, it is," Hiroru replied. "As for me, I think it's time for me to get out of this damned castle before the Mantis start asking a lot of questions." Hiroru started to step back into the shadows.
Saigo cleared his throat loudly. "Um, if it's not too much trouble?" he said.
Hiroru and Daniri both looked at him.
"I'm sort of not supposed to be here, either," he said. "But I have no idea how to get back outside."
"Who are you?" Hiroru asked. "Why should we care?"
"I'm Isawa Saigo, prophet of the Phoenix," he said. "The Imperial Guard might be trying to kill me."
"Why?" Daniri and Hiroru asked together.
"Because I can see the tetsukansen," the young shugenja replied.
Daniri whistled. "If he's serious, maybe you'd better take him along," he said. "This guy might need the Army to protect him, if the Imperials want him."
"If the Imperials want him, what's he doing in the palace?" the ninja said, cynically.
"My escape plan ran into a few hitches," Saigo said. "I'm working on it."
"He's an idiot," Hiroru said. "I can't afford to risk bringing him with me."
"If he can see the tetsukansen," Daniri said. "Can we afford to leave him behind."
The booted feet drew closer.
"We don't have much time to decide, here," Daniri said.
"Fine," the ninja spat. "Have it your way, Lion." Hiroru swore, grabbed Saigo by the shoulder, and disappeared into the shadows with him without another word.
Saigo wondered, vaguely, what he had gotten himself into now. At least his headache was gone.
Zul Rashid choked. The smell of the city was terrible. Beyond the decaying corpses and the filth of the oni, something else had come to Holy Home City. There was an odor of complete corruption and decay. The buildings all about stood dark and silent, their doors and windows gaping as if in mute horror of what they had become. In places, the streets had cracked and broken like great blisters. A foul, black ooze bubbled up from these wounds from which a choking yellow billowed, hanging near the ground.
"I have never seen anything like this," Zul Rashid said. "It is as if the earth itself were dying."
The three ise zumi walked quietly at the khadi's side, pondering his comment.
"We have seen a place like this, once," Asahi said. The golden dragon tattooed about his waist seemed to have taken a darker tone, hiding its face from the darkness.
"Once," Shougo said, nodding. "Once long ago, in what seems like another life."
"The Crabs called that place Downtown," Mayonaka finished. "But Downtown was nothing compared to this. The corruption had not extended this far, this fast. Holy Home City rots from within with the Taint of the Shadowlands."
"Then I truly have come home," Rashid said, his mechanical eye gleaming a dull red in the night. He wrapped his arms about his chest to ward off the bitter cold, but found it didn't help. The ise zumi were seemingly oblivious to the winter, walking about bare-chested in the sickly grey snow. He wondered if it was truly as cold as he felt, or if some of his chill was generated by the spreading curse of Oni no Kaze.
In the distance, the dog-like howls of the Byoki oni drew closer. Soon, they would find Rashid and his companions, and bring their plague zombies with them. The khadi glanced about for a weapon of some sort.
"There is no need," Asahi said, noting Rashid's anxiety.
"We are almost there," Shougo continued, gesturing toward a small, dark alley nearby.
"We are almost safe," Mayonaka continued. The dark-skinned ise zumi led the way into the shadows, nearly vanishing completely.
"This doesn't look much like a church," Rashid said, looking about the dirty alley doubtfully.
"It isn't truly a church in the Rokugani sense of the word," Asahi said. He brought up the rear, watching the street carefully. His tattoos had brightened once more, taking on a bit of their once golden sheen.
"There is no worship here," added Shougo. "No tribute to any gods or divine power that accounts itself as superior to man." Shougo patted down one of the walls with his bare hands, searching out a door that Rashid hadn't even noticed a moment before. Perhaps it had not even been there.
"There is only mercy, compassion, and justice," Mayonaka finished. "It is one of the many shrines to Hida Sukune. Many do not understand their purpose, so they remain secret. The press have dubbed these places the Cult of the Shadow Samurai."
"So you said earlier, Mayonaka," Rashid replied. The khadi looked at the door uncertainly. He'd heard of this so-called cult. On the surface, they seemed no different than the Kitsu sodan-senzos, summoning and communicating with the spirits of those who had passed. He'd heard other rather unsettling rumors about them, that their involvement with the spirits of the dead did not cease with mere worship.
Mayonaka looked at Rashid curiously for a moment, shrugged, then passed through the doorway. His brothers followed, also watching the khadi carefully. The howls of the Byoki sounded not a block away.
"Stay outside if you must, Zul Rashid," said a voice from beyond the door. It was calm and tempered, but had an odd, ethereal quality. "No harm shall befall you other than that which you intend. The Byoki, no doubt, will be far less reasonable."
Rashid scowled in frustration. He hated being left without alternatives. He felt as if he was being hedge toward this place, herded like a sheep. After spending so much of his life being controlled and herded by the khadi of Medinaat-al-Salaam, he wasn't about to allow some cult to force their will upon him again.
On the other hand, he wasn't about to let himself be slain by a pack of plague onis and undead peasants, either. He would take his chances with the cultists. Rashid stepped through the door quickly and closed it behind him. The door faded behind him, swallowed once more by illusionary magic. Rashid found himself in a small chamber without windows, dimly lit by rows and rows of silver candles lining the walls and hanging by chandeliers from the ceiling. The room was packed with people. Perhaps a dozen small families and as many more individuals huddled everywhere. All of them looked harried and exhausted, but none of them carried the symptoms of the plague that had destroyed the city. As Rashid entered, they turned to him with fear in their eyes.
One set of eyes burned bright with a blue light from within. Rashid took a step back, shocked, before he realized that the eyes belonged to a statue. The statue was of a man in crimson samurai armor. He stood with his hands outspread in peace, though his hands were red with his own blood. His face was covered in the ancient style battle makeup of the Crab Clan, but his mouth was curved in a serene, peaceful smile. Rashid noticed that the dull, throbbing pain in his chest and his eye had receded a bit. He felt almost normal again.
"Welcome to Holy Home City, Zul Rashid," said a small man in robes of red and grey. It was the man who had spoken before, the one with the odd voice. His hood was deep and covered his face, and he leaned heavily upon a short staff. Rashid thought at once that he must have been very old.
"What is this place?" Rashid asked. "Why have none of these people become ill, like the others?"
"The blessings of Sukune," the little man said. "The Shadow Samurai keeps this place free from the Taint, and protects all who dwell here. Unfortunately, his power is limited to these walls. Please, come with me, Master of Air. There is much I would wish to discuss with you."
The little man turned and began to hobble away. The crowd parted respectfully before him, many of them bowing their heads as he passed. Rashid noted samurai, peasants, and even lowly eta among the crowd. All of them stood side by side as equals, and all of them moved aside to let the man pass. He could not see the ise zumi who had accompanied him, and wondered vaguely where they could have disappeared to in such a small place. They approached the statue of Hida Sukune. The little man pushed a door aside to the left side of the statue, and gestured for Rashid to enter. Rashid looked over the man suspiciously. He didn't seem to be carrying any weapons.
"So distrustful?" the man said with a chuckle. "Am I not taking the greater risk by allowing a Tainted gaijin khadi sorceror into my home in such a dangerous time? Yet I look at your pain and I am prepared to trust. The least you can do is allow me to help."
Zul Rashid frowned. "I don't need your help," he said. "Nothing can help me. I came here to die."
"If that was your wish you would have remained outside with the oni," the man replied. "Surely they could have provided your needs with alacrity. Now, please, let us talk. I mean you no harm."
Rashid glanced the man over a final time, then ducked through the door behind the statue. Beyond was a small chamber lit by single, bright oil lamp. From the ceiling hung strings of bright jewels and beads which refracted the lamp light and filled the room with a thousand sparkling motes of color. A small palette and a chair sat against one wall, and a cardboard box filled with books and scrolls sat in the corner of the palette.
"It is not much," the man admitted, "but it is home." He walked quickly over to the palette, seated himself cross-legged on the ground, and nodded toward the chair, indicating for Rashid to sit.
"You know my name," Zul Rashid said, folding his arms across the chest as he remained standing. "now tell me yours."
"Thi'kwithatch," he replied, throwing back his hood. His face was narrow and rodentine, and covered with short grey fur.
"A nezumi," Rashid said.
"It should be no surprise to you, Zul Rashid," the nezumi replied. "Most of Rokugan may believe my kind to be barbaric and stupid. You, of all people, must know differently."
"Yes, I do," Rashid said, seating himself on the chair and relaxing a bit. "Asako Ishikint was a very good friend of mine. He was a skilled shugenja and a strong ally to have at one's side. He saved my daughter's life at the expense of his own."
"I knew him as well," Thi'kwithatch said. His dark red eyes sparkled in the candlelight. "The world is less for his passing."
Zul Rashid took a casual glance at the box of scrolls and books on the floor. They seemed, at first perusal, to be a box of religious texts, though he thought he caught sight of a spell scroll or two within. The nezumi shamans typically didn't use scrolls to cast their magic, using the natural power of their chi instead. Ishikint, the only nezumi who had trained with the Phoenix as well as his tribal shamans, knew how to do both. Apparently he had been spreading his teachings to a few of his brethren. Rashid smiled wryly.
"Tell me," Zul Rashid said. "How does a nezumi shaman come to be the leader of an underground cult?"
"An interesting story, that," Thi'kwithatch replied. "A more interesting one, I think, would be to ask you what is happening to your eye and hand." The ratling frowned, his whiskers twitching slightly.
Rashid looked down at his left hand. The fingers and palm were now entirely consumed by greyish-red circuitry. Dim red lights blinked here and there in the depths of his skin. "My heart is Tainted," he said.
"A sad state," said the nezumi. "With the heart lost, the soul cannot be far to follow. You may have come to the right place, sorceror. Within the sanctum of the Shadow Samurai, the Dark One's Taint cannot take hold. As long as you remain here, your condition will not worsen."
"But will it improve?" Rashid asked.
Thi'kwithatch did not respond immediately, and that was the only answer Rashid required. The old sorcerer sighed heavily, leaning forward in his chair and burying his face in his hands.
"I am sorry, Zul Rashid," the nezumi said. "I would like to help you, but I cannot."
"I know, I realize that," Rashid said, rubbing his face and sitting upright again. "It is just that in the weeks since I've received this curse, I'd quickly lost hope for my recovery. For a moment, I thought there may have been a chance."
"There still might be, sorceror, there might be," the nezumi said, a small clicking sound rattling in his muzzle. "Holy Home City has greater problems to attend to at the moment, unfortunately. You saw what was happening outside."
"The plague, the zombies, the onis," Rashid nodded. "Had it not been for the ise zumi, I would never have made it here."
"The Brothers of the Day," Thi'kwithatch said with a short laugh. "An odd trio, the brothers. They take a bit of getting used to."
"Why do they act the way they do?" Rashid asked. "Finishing each other's sentences and all. Do they have some odd sense of drama that I'm meant to be impressed by? They can be quite irritating."
"They do not mean to be," the nezumi replied. "Their condition is nothing that they have any control over."
"Condition?" Rashid asked.
"A few years back, Mayonaka was gravely injured and near death. The other two brothers prayed to Togashi and the Fortunes; they were willing to give up their own lives so that their brother might survive. Togashi granted their wish. The three of them became one. One soul, one identity, just different reflections of the same. Shortly afterward they heard the calling of the Shadow Samurai. Once, Hida Sukune also made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of his brother. Perhaps he felt some sense of pity for them. He seems to protect them. They have an odd sort of wisdom, and a tragic one. I expect you might have much in common with them, Zul Rashid."
"Why are they here?" Rashid asked. "I had heard that there were no more ise zumi."
"I had thought that as well," the nezumi admitted. "Whenever I ask them the same, they avoid the question. I suspect that there may be more than just those three, but I value their friendship too much to press the matter. They usually dwell in Otosan Uchi, but they go where they are needed. When the darkness came to Holy Home, all communication with the outside world was cut off. Almost a week ago, the brothers came. They sensed the danger, and they came."
"So what is happening here?" Rashid asked. "How did the city become... this?"
"I do not know," the nezumi sighed. "Every night, the nightmare seems to grow worse. Every night, the brothers go out and look for survivors. We save who we can. Two days ago, they found only one. Yesterday, they came back with no one at all. I fear that the ones you saw outside are the only ones left."
"The brothers mentioned a group called the School of Enlightenment," Rashid replied. "They said that they were the cause of this."
Thi'kwithatch nodded. "A group black magicians who feel that they have inherited the legacy abandoned by the Kuni Family. The perform all manner of maho and dark sorcery. I'd thought they were only a rumor. That was before they killed the city."
"I've had some experience with maho-tsukai," Rashid said. "Black magic could not have accomplished something like this. Jigoku is protected by the Great Seal, cut off from the world of men. Somehow, this School of Enlightenment has subverted the Seal and turned this city into the heart of a new Shadowlands."
The nezumi considered Rashid's words for a long time. "The Great Seal," he said. "The Great Seal was placed at the time of the Shadow Wars. It closed the Festering Pit. But what if the Festering Pit was only one of the doorways to Jigoku? There is more than one way to hell, I fear." The nezumi huddled on the floor, wrapping his paws around his legs.
Rashid snapped his fingers, as suddenly it clicked together in his head. "Tadaka," he said.
"Excuse me?" Thi'kwithatch said, looking at Rashid curiously.
"Isawa Tadaka," Zul Rashid said. "The Second Phoenix Thunder. History tells that he was fascinated with the Shadowlands. A thousand years ago, he sought to defeat the power of Jigoku by controlling it. In essence, he was a maho-tsukai with the best of intentions. It was he that summoned the first Oni no Tadaka, and it was he that devised the means to harness the power of the Elemental Dragons through the use of the Shadowlands Taint. Many of his experiments were conducted in caverns in the mountains near here. The effects of those experiments may linger still."
"You think that Isawa Tadaka made a doorway into the Shadowlands?" Thi'kwithatch asked.
"Perhaps not a doorway, but a crack," Rashid said. "A crack between worlds that someone has exploited. To what end, I do not know."
"The Third Day of Thunder," Thi'kwithatch said.
Zul Rashid turned to the nezumi. "My comrade, Kujimitsu, often theorized that the Third Day had yet to come," Rashid said. "To tell the truth, I'm not certain whether I agree with him. The Shadow Wars seemed to be a fairly definitive conflict for our millennium."
"Important, yes, Zul Rashid. But definitive? I think not." The voice had not come from Ishikint but from the door behind them both. Zul Rashid turned in his chair to stare blankly. A tall samurai in bright red armor stood in the doorway. It looked nearly exactly like the samurai from the statue in the main room. He seemed to glow, and Rashid could make out details of the door and wall through his body.
"Sukune-sama," Thi'kwithatch said in excitement. The nezumi quickly rose from his feet and bowed deeply to the man.
"You're-" Rashid said, unable to quite finish the sentence.
"Dead," Sukune finished. He smirked slightly. "This is true. For a long time now. In fact, I think I may have led a fuller, more interesting life as a spirit than I ever did in my original life. I go where I am needed, Zul Rashid, and you require my help."
"And why is that?" Zul Rashid asked. He rose from his chair, eyeing the spirit warily. He had heard mixed reports of so-called shadow samurai. Most of them were not nearly as benevolent as this Sukune appeared to be.
"The Day of Thunder comes," Sukune said. "The Thunders already have begun to discover their power. The Stormbreaker prepares his own machinations. Here in Holy Home City, he is breeding an army. You were right in thinking that it was no coincidence, your arriving here. It is your duty, Zul Rashid, to find and face your khadi father before it is too late.
Zul Rashid's brow furrowed in irritation. "What?" he exclaimed. "My father? What in the Caliph's name does Kassir have to do with all of this?"
Hida Sukune smiled sadly. "Do you not remember? You recognized his voice on the rooftop. Kassir is one of the Stormbreaker's lieutenants. He leads the School of Enlightenment."
Rashid's mouth hung open slightly. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly. "Why?" he asked. "Why could he possibly?"
"That is for you to discover on your own," Sukune replied. "Your father's tale is perhaps even more complicated than your own. I wish you luck, sorceror. Saving one's own blood from the path of darkness is not an easy path, much less so when they join that path of their own free will. I do not envy your position, Rashid."
"I don't want your envy, ghost," Rashid said bitterly. "I just want peace. If I have to go through my father and the School of Enlightenment to do it, then I suppose that's just the way things have to be."
Yasu knew he was going to die. There was no doubt about it. The world wheeled underneath him in a way that the world was not supposed to wheel. Dojicorp grew larger and larger. The stars, as ever, remained oddly still, watching from beyond as two tiny figures slid down a rope six hundred feet above the earth.
Hatsu was very calm. Still wrapped in the power of his enhanced senses, he was aware of everything around him. He could feel the rush of the air around his body, rising warm air from the generators of the Lion soldiers below. He could smell the Fantastic Gardens, a riot of herbs and plants, growing nearer. He could hear Yasu's teeth chattering.
Contrary to Yasu's fears, they did not die. They did, however, crash into the Fantastic Gardens in a tangled heap, displacing a large flowering shrub. Yasu gasped for breath, clutching the earth gratefully in both hands. Hatsu stood quickly and drew his katana, severing the cord that had dropped them in the building. It would be no good for getting them back out again, and could cause trouble if it were noticed.
"I don't..." Yasu swallowed hard, "I don't believe that worked."
"I don't believe you're so skittish about heights," Hatsu countered, taking a quick look at their surroundings.
"Why do you think I drive everywhere?" Yasu retorted, quickly rising to his feet and checking that his weapons and equipment were intact. "Besides, look at me. I'm a big guy. If Amaterasu had wanted me to leave the earth, she wouldn't have used so much of it to make me."
Hatsu peered around some more, extending his heightened senses as far as he could. No one seemed to be responding to their entrance. "I'm amazed no one heard us," he said. "Your armor made an ungodly amount of noise when we landed."
"They're Cranes," Yasu shrugged, "It's past their bedtime."
"That could be it," Hatsu answered. "Or it could be that the Fantastic Gardens are sacred. Only the priests and the gardeners spend a lot of time here. They must have all retired for the evening." The gardens were eerily silent. The crowns of the great trees herded away the glaring lights and noise of the city. For all intents and purposes they had landed in a secluded grove, far from the trappings of humanity. "It sure is beautiful," Hatsu said.
Yasu drew a small pistol from his belt, taking a few steps forward. "Yeah, well, nature makes me itch," he said. "Let's find Munashi."
"You have found him," replied a silky voice. A tall, elderly man appeared on the path before them. He wore long robes of blue and white, emblazoned with the image of a great crane holding a blossom in its beak. His bald head shone in the gentle light of the gardens, and his wrinkled face held an enigmatic smile. He regarded them with a single eye, the other concealed beneath a snowy circle of white cotton. He stopped a dozen feet away from the two men, approaching no closer. "This is quite the night for interesting visitors. What brings you to my garden at such an hour?"
Hatsu and Yasu glanced at each other. Both of them had been following hunches, so neither were quite certain what to say next.
"We're lost--" Yasu began.
"I was sent by the Dragon of the Void," Hatsu said at the same time. "He said that you would help me."
Yasu watched the Crane carefully, never putting his gun away.
"The Dragon of the Void?" Munashi said mildly. "Aren't you that Kitsuki detective who supposedly died a while back? The one who was conspiring against the Emperor?"
"That was all a mistake," Hatsu said.
"I'm certain," Munashi said. "And you - you're the young Seeker fellow I met the other night. Tengyu's son. Matsu Gohei wants to speak with your father."
"A lot of people want a piece of my father," Yasu said. "The kitty daimyo can wait in line."
"We mean no harm, Munashi-sama," Hatsu said quickly. "We just came to speak to you."
"Your friend's gun certainly implies harm," Munashi said, gesturing toward Yasu with a dark look.
"Yasu," Hatsu said to the Crab. Yasu slowly put his pistol in his holster, never taking his eyes off the Crane. The bushes seemed to move, just a bit. Yasu quickly turned his eyes to the foliage, scanning them thoroughly.
"Now," Munashi said. "What was all this about? Something about a dragon?"
"The Dragon of the Void," Hatsu said. "He sent me to you. I know it sounds bizarre, but its true. For some reason, he thought you might be able to help me crack the conspiracy that's eating up the city."
"Did he?" Munashi asked with a slight grin. "Funny, that's not what he said to me."
"He spoke to you?" Hatsu asked warily.
"He did indeed," Munashi replied. "He came to me in a dream, and he told me the names of the Seven Thunders."
Yasu and Hatsu glanced at one another. "Why?" Hatsu asked.
"Well, that's simple enough," Munashi replied. He smiled broadly, displaying perfect teeth. "So I can kill them."
In an instant, Yasu had drawn his pistol and fired. A wall of solid bamboo sprang up before Munashi, impossibly deflecting the Crab's barrage.
"Damn," Yasu said, looking at his smoking gun. "That's some tough wood."
"He's part of it!" Hatsu exclaimed, drawing his sword. "He's with the Stormbreaker!"
"Bonus," Yasu replied. "I was looking for a reason to wax that old freak." He spun back to back with Hatsu, both of them watching for Munashi to reveal himself. "By the way, what's a Stormbreaker?" he asked.
"Fools," the voice of Munashi filled the gardens, reverberating from all around them. "I am the Master here, and it is not a title I take frivolously. Your lives are in my hands, Thunders. You destiny ends here."
"Thunders?" Yasu exclaimed. "As in plural?"
Immediately, the garden surged to life about them. Vines sprang from the earth, thorny growths reaching out to snare arms and legs. Hatsu swung his blade, severing many of them before they could take hold. Yasu found himself snared about the legs and forearms, but simply ignored the vines. He plodded forward as best he could, tearing the thorny growths from the earth with his sheer mass.
"What's with this Thunders business?" Yasu shouted to Hatsu as he beat fruitlessly on the bamboo wall. "I don't want to be a Thunder!"
"Hey, it's not my decision!" Yasu shouted back, slicing away another onslaught of vines. "By the way, I think we found your maho-tsukai."
"Oh?" Yasu retorted. "You think?" A tree near Yasu bent at the trunk and stretched its branches toward him. The Crab pointed his Oni-Stomper and split its trunk with a deafening boom. As the tree toppled, Yasu caught a hint of something grey through the foliage.
"We can't keep this up," Hatsu said, stumbling as a vine tore a gouge across his calf. "We have to get away from these plants."
"This way," Yasu said. He grabbed the Dragon by the collar and charged off into the undergrowth. The plants moved aside or were flattened by the Crab's charge, and soon they emerged into a small clearing. A row of slate grey prayer chambers stood in a line, with a maintenance shed at one end.
"Planning to pray, Yasu?" Hatsu asked.
"Couldn't hurt," Yasu replied. "The foliage is thinner here. The plants won't be able to follow us unless they uproot themselves."
The Dragon looked at the Crab. "Can they do that?" he asked.
"Let's hope not."
The two men stood in the center of the clearing, weapons ready, watching as the Fantastic Gardens lurched and rolled all around them. The trees and vines seemed to hiss in frustration, unable to reach their prey. The garden began to grow dark.
"What's happening?" Hatsu asked.
"It's night time, remember?" Yasu replied. "Munashi's turning off the lights."
"That's okay," Hatsu said. "I can still see."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot," Yasu said. "You're a ghost." Yasu took out his night-sight goggles and quickly strapped them to his head.
Soon the entire garden had fallen to darkness. The plants grew silent and immobile once more all around them. The scene was perfectly normal. Aggressively normal. And thus eerie enough to set the Crab and Dragon's teeth on edge. Minutes passed.
"Well, you got us in here," Yasu said. "Any ideas for how to get out?"
"Good question," Hatsu said. "I'll think about that one. What do you think will happen next?"
"Don't ask," Yasu said. "It's the surest way to make it happen."
"Indeed," chuckled Munashi's voice from all around them.
A pair of tiny red eyes appeared on the dark path before them. The creature behind the eyes giggled with the voice of a child.
"Oh, no," Yasu cursed. "Not another one of those damn things."
Another pair of eyes appeared beside the first.
And a second.
And a third.
Soon, five small, pale children in blue silk kimonos were slowly approaching them, giggling fiendishly.
"What are they?" Hatsu asked. "They look like children."
"Pekkle," Munashi's voice replied. "A misunderstood and underapplied creation of my ancestor, Yogo Junzo. They are oni, but they form their bodies from substance not of this world. They are small, but strong, and nothing of this earth can harm them. Not jade, not crystal, not magic. They are the perfect warriors." Munashi's voice vanished once more in a trail of high-pitched laughter that nearly matched that of the Pekkles.
The five little creatures charged. Three of them launched into Yasu, striking the Crab with such force that he flew back through the wall of the maintenance shed. Two more lunged at Hatsu. The Dragon retreated, slashing with his blade to encourage them to keep their distance. His blade struck the first Pekkle in the throat. Used to its invulnerability, the Pekkle did nothing to dodge or block the blow.
Its head fell off.
As one, the other four Pekkles all turned their eyes toward Hatsu. Eyes full of mischief, eyes full of fury, eyes full of sinister evil were filled for the first time in eternity with fear. Yasu sat up in the wreckage of the shed, tilting his jingasa out of his eyes.
"Damn," he said. "Everyone has a cool sword but me."
The four Pekkles ran at Hatsu, screaming. No longer did they approach in their cocky, childlike manner. Now they were pure demon, full of rage and murder. Tiny hands balled into fists and round faces contorted in rage. Hatsu swung the dragon-claw katana rapidly, slicing the first across the stomach and cutting the second from shoulder to hip. The third tackled him from the knees, knocking him to the ground. The last drove a foot down solidly upon Hatsu's arm, dislodging the blade from his hand with a crack.
"Excellent," Munashi laughed from somewhere. "Excellent, my children. Now kill him."
A guttural engine roar tore away the silence of the clearing. Yasu burst from the garden maintenance shed, swinging a chainsaw overhead. The first Pekkle turned to look at him curiously and was struck across the face. It flew backward from the force of the blow, toppling into the fountain at the center of the clearing. The last Pekkle ignored Yasu, seating itself around Hatsu's neck and bringing its fists up to crush his skull. Yasu grabbed both of its tiny fists in one meaty hand and lifted it off of Hatsu's back.
"Get up quick, Dragon," Yasu said. "I can't hold these little buggers off forever."
Hatsu leapt to his feet. Quickly scanning the clearing for his sword. As if on cue, it the dark blade gleamed where it lay in the grass. Hatsu darted across the clearing to pick it up with his good hand. To his surprise, the short grass of the clearing had wrapped itself around the hilt, holding it fast to the ground.
"Hatsu!" Yasu shouted. "Hurry up!" One of the Pekkles had attached itself to Yasu's arm and was dangling wildly. The other had emerged from the fountain, only to be struck in the face with the chainsaw again and fall back in.
Hatsu tugged at the blade, leaning low to the earth. His heightened senses noticed something then, all fire and plastic and gears beneath an odd little bush. He filed it away for future reference and pulled, tearing the grass away and lifting the dragon-claw katana high.
Thunder roared, and rain poured into the Fantastic Gardens. A soggy Pekkle thudded into the ground near Hatsu, and he buried the blade in its chest. Yasu held the other one at arms length as it squeezed his arm tightly. Only his Seeker body armor prevented the little creature from mangling his arm into a pulp, but cracks were beginning to spread through the gauntlet. Yasu ran to Hatsu's side and held the arm toward him.
"Do a Crab a favor, would you?" he said.
The Pekkle looked up at Hatsu's sword and shrieked, then it was no more.
Munashi roared in anger. "Damn you all to the pit of Jigoku!" he hissed. "You are not the first to die in these gardens, and you will not be the last!"
"What do you think he meant by that?" Yasu said, letting the chainsaw motor die down.
"Like you said, don't ask," Hatsu answered. "I think I know how to get out of here now. I smelled something over there, under that bush."
Yasu looked at Hatsu, his face cynical behind the stream of rain dripping from his jingasa. "Funny," he said.
"I'm serious!" Hatsu said. The Dragon ran toward the bushes at the edge of the clearing.
And toppled to the ground as a pair of skeletal hands burst from the earth beneath him. A series of popping sounds erupted from around the clearing, as multiple skeletons began to tear their way free of the earth.
"Oh, man," Yasu mumbled, yanking on the chainsaw's starter again.
Hatsu turned on the ground and struck with the katana, severing the arms that held him. The creature's jaw opened soundlessly, as if it would scream if it could. Yasu charged up behind, driving a heavy boot down upon its skull.
"Gotta take out the heads," he advised. "Or they'll just keep coming."
"You've fought these before?" Hatsu asked.
"Oh yeah," Hatsu said, "They're all over Dow- er, never mind."
Yasu turned and fired his Oni-Stomper at the oncoming skeletons. He shattered the first one's head perfectly, and hit the second one in the chest with such force that it really didn't matter. He holstered the empty weapon and drew his smaller pistol, taking an entire clip to damage a single skeleton's head enough for it to fall. A pair of skeletons clawed at Yasu's armor; he immediately laid into them with the chainsaw, screaming in a berserker rage.
In the meantime, Hatsu darted for the bushes again. Skeletons lumbered awkwardly after him, and he sliced limbs and necks with his katana as quickly as he could. He skidded on the wet grass and came to a halt near the odd little bush he'd noticed earlier. With only one good hand, he had to holster the katana to reach inside. He desperately hoped that this particular bush wasn't animated by Asahina Munashi's will.
Hatsu stared in wide eyed surprise at the tangle of leather straps and metal blades in his hand. He had found an Asako Mini Gyro, a portable tetsukami helicopter. How it had got there, what it was doing there, he would never know. The final gift of Funuke the thief would never be fully appreciated.
"Hatsu, look out!" Yasu shouted. A metallic scream cut the air as Yasu dismembered the trio of skeletons approaching the unarmed Dragon from behind. "What do you have there?"
Hatsu turned around and held out the small gyrocopter pack. "A mini-gyro!" he said. "If we can get through the treetops--" Hatsu's voice trailed off. "Oh, no," he said.
"What?" Yasu said desperately, turning to ram the chainsaw into the face of another skeleton. "Damn, how many corpses are buried in this place?"
"I just remembered," Hatsu said. "These gyros have very weak engines. They can't carry much weight. I don't think this thing could support you even out of your armor, Yasu, let alone the both of us."
"Give me that damn thing," Yasu said, snatching the copter. "Toshimo put enough power cells in this suit to power half of Kyuden Hida. I could make this thing fly us both back to Togashi Mountain if you want to. Cover me."
Hatsu drew the katana again, swinging wide arcs to keep the skeletons at bay while Yasu hurriedly rerouted the gyro-copter's tetsukami systems through his armor. Then Yasu prayed. While all of the mechanical systems seemed to be in order, you never knew how two kami were going to hit it off. Air kami, like the one in the gyro, were flighty and mischievous. Earth kami, like the ones in Yasu's armor... well, they were like Yasu. He clicked the starter button on the gyro.
Hatsu's arm was beginning to tire. Fighting with his off-hand, he knew he wouldn't be able to hold off these skeletons for much longer. "What's happening, Yasu?" he asked.
"Fine!" Yasu said with forced cheerfulness. "Everything is fine!" He leaned close to the copter's power system. "Listen to me, you damn little air spirit, and I know you can hear me," he whispered. "You've spent Onnotangu knows how long sitting under that bush in this freaky maho-garden, and you're going to spend a hell of a lot more time here if you don't cooperate. In pieces, if I've got anything to say about it!"
With a whoosh of air, the gyro-copter started.
Yasu grabbed Hatsu under one arm. The Dragon yelped, surprised at the Crab's strength. Yasu gunned the copter's motor and leapt into the air. The leaves and upper branches reached out to stop them, but were shredded and pushed aside by the whirling blades, amplified by the strength of Yasu's armor. In seconds, they had broken the crown of the Fantastic Gardens and escaped into the night sky of Otosan Uchi.
"Where to?" Yasu shouted over the roar of the wind.
"I'm not sure," Hatsu said. "I don't have a lot of friends left in this town."
"I do," Yasu said with a chuckle. He turned the copter toward Kyuden Hida.
In the control rooms of the Fantastic Gardens, Asahina Munashi sat with a smug grin on his withered face. He had indulged himself enough for one night. After all, he had access to Dojicorp's mundane arsenal as well as his own magic. A simple surface to air missile and...
"Get your finger off of that damned button."
Munashi could count the number of times he had been surprised in his life on two fingers. This was one of them. He turned slowly in his chair into the steel blue gaze and steel grey gun barrel of Daidoji Eien.
"Why, Eien-san," he said with a smile. "How good to see you've returned. And how remarkable to see you've passed security. I gave them specific orders to shoot you on sight. You've been corrupted by the Emperor's enemies, don't you know."
"Whatever, Asahina. I just wanted you to see who killed you," Eien said simply, clicking back the hammer of his pistol.
"Your mistake," Munashi replied.
Eien's face went blank. At that moment, he realized he'd failed in his promise to Kamiko. He wouldn't return to her alive. Eien toppled over onto the floor. Behind his corpse, a Pekkle giggled, blood dripping from its fist.
"Now," Munashi said, turning back to his control panel. "Where was I?"
The screens were blank. The Thunders had escaped.
"Drat," Munashi said with a sigh. "I really hate days like this."
Yoritomo VI lay back in the bed, his face pale. Cold sweat beaded upon his forehead. His eyes were glazed, and his breathing was shallow. Ryosei sat beside him on the bed, holding one of his hands in her own. The Mantis Guard and assorted doctors hovered around the edges of the room, watching Agasha Hisojo as he prepared a small packet of herbs. Rain beat against the windows of the Diamond Palace and thunder cracked the sky, as if the elements themselves wished to be witness to the Son of Storms' condition.
"I have come to help," said a man at the door.
"Kameru?" Yoritomo said, his unfocused gaze turning to the door.
"No," the little man said. "Only Hoshi Jack." The descendant of Shinsei quietly entered the room, standing quietly at the side of the Mantis Imperial Guardsmen.
"Well, you had your chance to devise the Asakos' diagnosis, Dragon," Yoritomo said. His once deep voice was now cracked and weak. He shivered with fever.
"You're a very ill man, my lord," Hisojo said bleakly. "I'm not certain there's much I can recommend. You should not have stressed yourself earlier."
Yoritomo closed his eyes. "I must find Kameru," he said. "The kharmic wheel spins. I have to keep him from making the same mistakes. I have no time left. He must break the curse. I have to see him. I have to... I have to..." Yoritomo's face wrinkled in pain, and his body shuddered.
"Father?" Ryosei asked, holding his hand tightly with both of her own.
"Yoritomo-sama?" Hisojo quickly bent near the Emperor, checking the pulse at the side of his neck.
Hoshi Jack bowed his head. Lightning cracked, startlingly close to the window. Yoritomo whispered something then, but only Ryosei was close enough to hear. He lay still.
The door of the small chamber burst open, and Yoritomo Kameru entered with a desperate expression. "Father?" he exclaimed.
Agasha Hisojo stood and folded his hands before him. He shook his head slightly, his eyes upon the floor.
"No," Kameru said, his voice barely a whisper.
Hisojo stood aside to allow Kameru to approach his father. Ryosei sobbed gently. Kameru knelt by Yoritomo's side for several moments, then stood and turned toward the Mantis Guard. His face was calm and cool, and if there were tears in his eyes the Mantis made a point not to notice them. They waited for the words that they knew would come, that they had feared would come.
"The Emperor is dead," he said.
"Long live the Emperor," said Hoshi Jack.