THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
"The Shinomen," Zin said. Her face was serene and beautiful. Her long hair billowed out behind her in the evening wind. She spread her arms to meet it as she walked out to the edge of the road, her dress streaming out behind. Before her, the forest spread out to either horizon, dense, green, and thick. The call of exotic birds echoed from within, answered by the rustle of the wind through branches, the howl of wolves, and an occasional sing-song cry of mysterious origin.
"Wow," Kenyu said. He stepped off of his bike and walked up to stand by her side, zipping up his new coat to ward off the cold. "You really look like you belong here, Zin. You look like you've come home."
"I feel like it," she said, smiling at him. "I feel like I can do anything."
"Well that's good cause we've got the longest way to go yet," Kenyu replied. "We'd better get back on the bike and get moving before it gets pitch black out."
Zin nodded. "Yes," she said. "Those creatures might still be following us. We shouldn't hesitate, not when we're this close." They walked back to Kenyu's Otaku motorcycle. He gunned the engine and they cruised off along the forest road.
"There, you see? There is only one road into the Shinomen. I told you they would be along shortly." Asako Nitobe stepped out of a ripple in the air, a small smile on his sharp features. He stood just within the shadow of the canopy, hidden among the trees by his dark magic.
"Why didn't you kill them?" Shinko Misato said as she appeared next to him. The pennaggolan frowned as she leaned forward across the handlebars of her motorcycle. "If you're so powerful, Nitobe, why didn't you end it here and now?"
"It isn't a proper victory if we kill them so soon. It's my overwhelming sense of drama, I suppose," he replied with a laugh and a shrug. "It is my only vice, but I can't seem to stop indulging it. Besides, we shall find as many allies in the Shinomen as enemies."
"Allies?" Misato repeated.
"Yes," Nitobe said. "Like that one there." He pointed just past Misato's shoulder.
Misato rose one eyebrow and took a small sideways glance. Something cold brushed past her cheek, followed by a sparkling laugh. A shiver ran through her cold flesh, and she glared at Nitobe suspiciously. "What is it?" she demanded.
"The shiyokai," Nitobe replied. "The eaters of dreams. If we approach them properly, they will be most eager to help us prevent Zin from awakening them." A chill breeze blew through the forest, though Nitobe's robes and hair were left undisturbed. The Phoenix rose one hand palm outward to greet the shiyokai.
"Ghosts," Misato sneered. "Mindless spirits. They understand nothing but blood and pain."
"True, it is difficult to get their attention," Nitobe said. "But then why do you think I brought you along, Misato?"
The pennaggolan's good hand darted into her jacket for her pistol but it was too late. Nitobe had already begun his spell. Her vision began to cloud as a deep, throbbing pain welled up within her chest. Her arm went numb. Her vision began to cloud with red.
Nitobe calmly walked toward her, pushing her paralyzed body from the motorcycle with one hand. "I don't mean to be so rude," he said. "But I'll need the vehicle in good condition if I'm to follow Zin myself. What's about to happen to you might damage it."
"Human scum," Misato hissed through gritted teeth. "We were allies."
"Two assumptions on your part," Nitobe said as he climbed onto the motorcycle. "Firstly, we are not allies. You were never anything more than a pawn, one whose usefulness has become exhausted. Secondly, you assume I am human. Now, for the Blood of the Phoenix, die."
Misato screamed, a bone-chilling sound that resounded through the sleeping Shinomen. Her body twisted and ruptured as the stolen blood within it sought violent release. The pennaggolan's body exploded in a torrent of red fluid, painting the leaves and bark of the nearby trees, dripping down for several moments afterward like a dark rain. The chill wind in the forest increased as the shiyokai swarmed. Nitobe could see their vapor-like claws, make out their gleaming eyes in the red mist. He rose both hands toward them and moved into their midst. For a moment, he felt their claws sink into his mind, trying to twist his dreams and steal his thoughts. Only for a moment, however, for they quickly pulled back, frightened by what they found within the man's mind.
"I am Doctor Asako Nitobe, my friends," he said to them in a soothing voice. "I have come to help you."
"Human?" one of them whispered, its voice a strange twist of the wind, a reflection of stolen thoughts. "Power... Can a human ... can... can a human have... such power?"
"Is not.... He is not...." said another. "Dark... He is... What he is... .He is an Oracle, that is what he is.... a Dark Oracle..."
Nitobe nodded, pleased. "You understand me better than the pennaggolan, that much is certain. I am the Dark Oracle of Water."
"What... come... what purpose... help... why have you come?" whispered the shiyokai. "How can one..... you... such as you... how can one such as you help us?"
"I can sense your power, your wisdom, your strength," Nitobe said. "You have stolen many thoughts, eaten many dreams. You have become strong here in the Shinomen. There must be many dreams here."
"Akasha..." the voices of the shiyokai whispered. "Ripe... The Lost Akasha.... Lost... well have we fed... sleeping... tainted.... ripe for the picking... well have we fed..."
"Well then I recommend that you attend to your forest," Nitobe said. "For if you do not act soon, the Akasha shall awaken."
A confused, frantic mumble of thoughts surrounded Nitobe. The wind kicked to a frenzied pitch, creating a cloud of dim red shadow as Misato's stolen blood was stirred into a fog. The shiyokai were angry, frightened. It took them several moments to collect themselves enough to remember Nitobe's existence. Dozens of pairs of gleaming eyes shone upon him, eager and vengeful.
"Where... who... where..." the shiyokai hissed. "Akasha... who.... where.... Who would awaken the Akasha, Oracle? Who... where... Where will we find them?"
"A naga girl and an Iuchi shugenja," Nitobe replied, looking over his shoulder up the forest road. "They passed by here just now. Hurry. You might just catch them."
And as quickly as they had come, the shiyokai were gone. Nitobe stood alone in the forest, leaning against the motorcycle of the dead pennaggolan. With a satisfied nod, he straddled the bike and cruised deeper into the forest, his occult senses scanning the environment. There had to be something else here that he could use. Something a bit more physical. Something a bit more dangerous. The Shinomen Forest had been haunted since the dawn of time, and Kashrak's manipulations had only deepened their terrible mysteries. There had to be something else that he could use. The doctor stepped into the forest with a smile, looking around for something that would be of use.
A few hours later, he found it. In a dark, ancient area of swamp, he sensed the creatures. He knew them for what they were. They probably hadn't moved in a years, and to the untrained eye they seemed nothing more than an earthen mound, but Asako Nitobe's eye was well trained for such things.
"Ah," Nitobe said pleasantly, pulling his vehicle to a stop. "Hello."
"I heard you had a visitor," Ginawa said, leaning against the door.
"Yeah," Dairya replied. "I figured that would get to you sooner or later."
"Care to talk about it?"
"Godaigo said they were Scorpions," Ginawa replied, advancing into his friends room and sitting in a small chair. "He said they left in a hurry. What did they want?"
"I thought you were a Daidoji, not a Shinjo," Dairya laughed.
"I'm serious, Dairya," Ginawa said. "Mikio said that he checked the guy out later. Bayushi Oroki, son of Kogeiru, the old Scorpion daimyo. Owner of Bayushi's Labyrinth. Any reason he would be dropping us a visit, Dairya?"
"My life was complicated before I started the Army," Dairya said. "Those were just a couple of old ghosts dropping by to pay a visit."
"Tell your old ghosts to stay the hell away, Dairya," Ginawa snapped. "We've got a bad enough reputation with the cops for being a bunch of vigilantes. The last thing we want is to start consorting with suspected drug dealers. Godaigo told me that Oroki claimed to be funding the army. Is that true?"
"It's not that simple, Ginawa," Dairya said. "You know that. If you think things are that simple, then why don't you kick Kamiko to the curb? She's ten times more dangerous to Oroki if the Imperial Guard find her here, and you know it."
"Granted," Ginawa said, nodding, "but she's here for a purpose. She needs our protection."
"Everything's for a good purpose given the proper amount of rationalization," Dairya said. The ronin closed his good eye and leaned back on his bed, wincing in pain.
"All right," Ginawa said. "Give me a reason. Tell me why Oroki was here and I'll let it go."
Dairya was silent.
"Fine, then," Ginawa said with a sigh. "Let me put it this way. Toturi's Army is mine now. You gave it to me, to protect as I see fit. If I have to send you to a real hospital to get your stubborn, self-endangering ass away from my men then I will do so without hesitation. Do you understand me, Dairya?" The old Crane's blue eyes were flinty, and his mouth was pressed into a firm line.
Dairya opened his eye. "You'd do it, wouldn't you? You really would. You have no idea what the police would do to me if I turned up in a real hospital and they got a good copy of my fingerprints."
"So don't make me," Ginawa said. "Don't let your secrets bury every good thing you've ever done. What did the Scorpion want? Are they really funding Toturi's Army?"
"You don't know what you're asking," Dairya said. "This is a deep, dark, dangerous secret. Probably the biggest in all of Rokugan. Are you ready to hear it?"
Ginawa waited quietly.
"I called Oroki," Dairya said. "Yes, Oroki funds us, but the money is untraceable. He owes me a few favors, and it was his paying me back. His visit had nothing to do with money. I called him, and I gave him the stone Jiro found. He won't be returning."
"Why?" Ginawa asked. "Why would you do that?"
"All right," Dairya said. "I'll warn you in advance; you won't believe me. Have you ever heard of the kolat?"
"Boogey-man criminal organization from Daggers and Secrets, Kitsuki Iimin's first novel," Ginawa answered. "In the book, they were the descendants of the people who ruled the Empire before the kami fell. In the middle ages, they formed a secret conspiracy to steal power back, to see the end of the Great Clans and return to their way of rule."
"Well, the book is right," Dairya answered. "I don't know where Iimin got his information from, but most of the book is historically accurate. We came close to taking over the Empire a time or two, before we learned exactly how stupid we were."
"We?" Ginawa asked. "Are you trying to tell me you're a kolat?"
Dairya shrugged. "We're not the boogey-men we used to be. These days, we spend most of our time just trying not to get killed."
"What?" Ginawa said, incredulous. "Who would waste their time trying to kill off a phantom organization that hasn't been a threat in centuries."
"You'd be surprised."
"Sorry for the inconvenience," the sign read. "We're temporarily closing our doors for renovations. Expect us back better than ever." The tunnel leading to Bayushi's Labyrinth was closed. For the last two days, the regular visitors of the amusement park were forced to find other avenues of amusement. In the Scorpion Quarter, such a task wasn't difficult. Still, many customers were profoundly disappointed. After all, there was no place else quite like the Labyrinth.
One visitor in particular wouldn't be turned away. He stood in the darkened cave that led to the Labyrinth, gazing up curiously at the sign that blocked his path. Dark red robes hung from his shoulders. A shock of wild grey hair spilled down his back. Bright red pinpoints burned behind his dark sunglasses, and his weathered face was thoughtful.
His name was Hotaru. He was the Dark Oracle of Fire.
"I don't understand you kolat," the Oracle said with a sigh. "Always trying to hide in plain sight, always trying to appear to be society's benefactors. Just makes you that much easier to find. You think you'd learn a thing or two from the Shadow and find yourself a nice cave or abandoned castle to hide in." Hotaru rose one arm toward the roadblock and made a fist. "Burn," he said.
The wooden roadblock and sign immediately burst into a raging flame. In only a minute, they lay in ashes. The Oracle strode through the charred wreckage, the flames gliding away from his hair and coat. The others were such fools. Biding their time, marshaling their forces. What sort of forces did an Oracle need to marshal? They were like unto gods. These kolat were just pitiful humans. They'd been fortunate to escape the first time. They'd been lucky to keep the shards of the Oni's Eye hidden for so long.
Well, no longer. A gift freely given could not be taken back. The Oni's Eye belonged to the Dark Oracles. Hotaru planned slaughter these Scorpion fools and make the shard his own.
Crossing the parking lot, he made his way toward the gates of the amusement park. He could feel the power of the Eye burning in his mind, sense its inexorable pull upon his soul. Three centuries ago, the criminal organization known as the kolat were broken, desperate, in more dire straits than they had been even after the return of Shinjo. They turned to the only help they could find, the Dark Oracles. They had nothing to offer in return save the use of their most powerful magical artifact, the Oni's Eye.
And what a gift it was. The kolat had no inkling of its true power. The Eye was connected to all places on earth. It had been used as a scrying device, a communication tool. The Dark Oracles found they could focus their own elemental powers upon it not just to monitor the earth, but to change it. Even the nearly divine power granted to them by Jigoku was nothing compared to what they could do with the Eye. They could rewrite reality.
So they began by wiping out the kolat.
Or so they thought. It still wasn't clear what had happened after that, but somehow the kolat found a new master, reorganized, and retaliated. Somehow, they fought off the Oracles, killed two of them, and shattered the Oni's Eye. The new kolat managed to mask the broken shards, hide them away, and return to their underground existence. Until now, at any rate. One shard had revealed itself. This one would lead to others. If he could only put his hands upon it, even the Stormbreaker would bow to their power.
"Excuse me, the park is closed," said a voice.
Hotaru glanced up in time to see a massive fist meld out of the shadows of the parking lot, striking him backhand across the face. The Oracle tumbled head over heels, skidding across the gravel and finally rolling to a kneeling position. He rose his head angrily. His sunglasses were shattered, and blood trickled from his lip.
A twelve foot tall metallic creature formed out of the shadows, its armor gleaming a dull black and red. A long coiled whip with a hooked tail hung from it's waist. It's head was pointed and angular, with gleaming white eyes.
"Well, you're something new," Hotaru said, rising to his feet again. "I sense the Darkness in you. Are you of the Shadow? Are you ninja?"
"Just a Scorpion in a tin can, as far as I know," the machine replied. "I'm Bayushi Zou, chief of security. You're trespassing." The Scorpion seized up its whip in one hand and lashed out, quicker than the eye could see. A deep gouge tore across the parking lot, steaming with acidic chemicals.
"Good weapon, if a bit slow," Hotaru replied, suddenly standing several feet away. "Burn." He pointed his fist toward Zou.
The pavement behind the machine suddenly exploded. Zou leapt with the explosion, skidding face first into the parking lot. He rolled as with the fall, turned, and pointed his empty hand toward Hotaru. Several razor sharp shuriken fired from concealed ports on the armor's forearm. One of them sliced along Hotaru's bicep, another connected directly with his chest. Hotaru grunted and his knees buckled, but he quickly rose to full height once more.
"That was better," the Oracle said, advancing on Zou. "But still insufficient. Now, burn!" He pointed his fist at Zou again. The Scorpion dodged aside, but his left arm suddenly erupted in flames. He staggered toward Hotaru, lashing out with the whip again.
"Burn!" Hotaru said again, stepping out of the whip's path as another explosion erupted in front of Zou. The Scorpion staggered through the flames, the metal of its torso suddenly blazing
"BURN!" Hotaru screamed once more, striding directly toward the War Machine. The machine's head disappeared in brilliant flames. Zou didn't scream, didn't cry out, but the machine collapsed limp on the melted pavement just the same.
Hotaru stood over Zou's head, watching the fire burn. "There," he said. "You see? Now can you see the purifying power of fire? How enlightened you must feel. How blessed. Why must you mortals always resist? I'm only trying to help you become one with the elements. Isn't that what you're all looking for?" The Oracle reached through the flames and patted the War Machine's head gently.
Suddenly, a confused look spread across Hotaru's face. The metal wasn't melting. The metal wasn't burning. The only part burning was a thin layer of oil, spread just over the robot's metal skin.
"The metal is protected by magic," he snarled in anger. "Clever. You must have known I was coming."
Metal hands suddenly seized Hotaru from either side, clutching him tightly. Hotaru grunted, but showed no fear as the War Machine rose to its knees, holding the Oracle fast with all of it's impressive strength.
"Idiot," Hotaru said. "Squeeze all you want. Tear me to pulp if you have to. It shall take more than that to kill an Oracle."
"I know," Zou said. "I'm just the distraction."
"Burn," said a voice from behind.
Hotaru turned to see two jet black gun barrels aimed at the side of his head, held by a thin Scorpion in a black suit and red porcelain mask. It was the last sight the Dark Oracle saw, as twin gunshots echoed through the cavern a split second later.
"Well, that was... messy," Soshi Isawa said, striding out of the Labyrinth offices to meet them. Zou's armor was still crackling with burning pitch. Hotaru's headless corpse lay in a widening fan of blood. Oroki kneeled on the ground nearby, clutching the Migi-Hidari pistols to his chest and breathing unevenly.
"Oroki-sama!" Zou exclaimed. The War Machine suddenly split down the center. Zou struggled to emerge from the chest cavity, bionic ports on his shoulders clicking and whirring as they struggled to disengage from the armor.
"Don't rush it, don't rush it!" Isawa said sharply. "Those junction points are very... sensitive. Let the arms disengage.... in their sweet time, lest you find yourself in my shop for another two weeks. I'll see to your master."
Oroki was rising to his feet once more, though his eyes were still closed tight. "I'm... I'm fine, Isawa," he said. "I had not expected the pistols to take such a toll."
Isawa grasped Oroki's shoulder with one hand to steady him. "The Migi-Hidari are... powerful. It is said that their price... is very steep."
"Is the Oracle dead?" Oroki asked.
"I... should hope so," Isawa said, looking past Oroki at the corpse. "He's quite headless."
Oroki opened his eyes at last. He quickly holstered the twin pistols and glanced about the area. He nodded at the corpse, and at Zou, who had finally disengaged himself from the Bayushi armor. Zou's bionic arms were still a mess of wires and cables, quickly resolving themselves once more into the shape of human limbs.
"He's... amazing, is he not?" Isawa said, his voice giddy. "My masterpiece. The War Machine, the bionics, the fusion between man and machine. Zou is everything I had hoped for and more. He is... the first of a new breed."
"Whatever, Isawa," Oroki said. "Just... just return to your laboratories. I'll let you know if we need further assistance. You will be amply compensated for helping us here tonight."
"Indeed," Isawa sniffed. "Someday, you must tell me what this is all about, Oroki. I must confess, working with you is far more interesting than hacking the Dojicorp mainframe, but all the secrets flying about may kill me from curiosity."
"Then you'll receive a fitting burial," Oroki said. "Now go."
Isawa paused, glancing over the dead Oracle a final time, then headed back toward the Labyrinth. Oroki turned aside and removed his mask, wiping the cold sweat from his face with his handkerchief.
"Oroki-sama, is there anything I can do?" Zou asked simply.
"No, Zou," Oroki said. He turned and slowly began to walk back toward the office.
"What happened?" Zou asked, following close behind. "Are you injured? Did the Oracle do something to you?"
"No," Oroki said. "But the Migi-Hidari did. They are weapons of duality, of balance. The right and left. The fire and ice. Yin and yang. They use the inner balance of their bearer to fuel their power. My own chi, my life force is their ammunition."
"So what do we do now?" Zou said.
"Clean up the mess and return your armor to Isawa's lab for maintenance," Oroki said wearily. "In the meantime, I plan to rest. Just pray to the Fortunes that there is enough life left in me to deal with the other four."
Zou was silent as he considered his master's words. "And what if there is not?" Zou said quickly. "What if you die trying to protect the Eye, Oroki-sama?"
Oroki looked back at Zou, his eyes cold and hardened. "If I cannot kill the Dark Oracles, Zou, if they find the Oni's Eye, then they will create such a world that death would be a blessing. If we do fail, my friend, pray that they kill you swiftly."
Oroki turned away again, headed for his offices once more. Zou stayed behind to oversee the Scorpion bushi emerging from the Labyrinth's gates. The Enforcer's mood was dark as he drew the elephant mask from the pouch at his belt, pulling it over his face to hide his disfigurements from his men.
"Shall we dispose of the body, Zou-sama?" a young bushi asked, running up to Zou's side with a quick salute.
"No," Zou answered. "Tie it to the gates. Leave it there as a warning to the other Oracles. Let them know that they can die."
"About time you got back," Mojo said. "I was starting to get worried." Mojo had discarded the flamboyant orange plastic armor he usually wore for a more reserved suit of metallic umber. He wore a rifle slung across his back, as well as a pair of void pistols on his hips and a katana. Two men and two women dressed in similar armament stood just behind him, waiting on the front steps of Toturi International Airport.
"Wow," Sumi replied, glancing over the weapons and armor that the five Shiba wore. "Is there anything left in the arsenal?" The security personnel glanced at the samurai nervously as they passed through the gates, but did nothing to stop them. They'd been notified well in advance that the Phoenix daimyo would be passing through.
Mojo chuckled, but his eyes were serious. "If we run into the Kashrak again, I'm not sure all of our weapons will even be enough. Who's your new friend?" He nodded toward the tall, dark robed man that strode along just behind Sumi.
"I am Moto Teika," he said, removing his hood to reveal a short-cropped head of black hair and an angular face. "I am the Oracle of the Void. Sumi has told me much of her brave yojimbo, Shiba Mojo. I hear you are to be the one that will protect us on our quest to assist the naga."
Mojo frowned. "Oracle of the Void? Is this some kind of joke, Sumi? Who is this guy?"
"No, it's not a joke, Mojo," Sumi replied. "He's the real Oracle, like in the legends. Like the ones who banished Akuma's lieutenants during the Shadow Wars. Like the one who told that dying monk we pulled out of Downtown that he'd live to see the face of Shinsei."
"That would have been Jared Carfax, I wager," Teika said. "Hashin remembered Carfax as one with a definite flair for the dramatic."
Mojo glanced back at Teika, than at Sumi again. "Seriously? Is he for real?" Mojo asked. "I don't believe it."
"Believe it," Sumi replied. "He knows things that only the Soul of Shiba could know. He told me a lot about Hashin and my father."
"Moto Hashin?" Mojo replied. "The Master? What does he have to do with all this?"
"You're a very troubled, soul, aren't you, Shiba Mojo?" Teika asked, staring curiously at Mojo's eyes. "You need help, but you're not sure how to ask, are you? You're being gnawed apart from the inside..."
"What are you talking about?" Mojo snapped. "Stop staring at me like that. Sumi, may I have a word with you for a moment?"
Sumi nodded, following Mojo off to one side while Teika waited with the rest of the bushi. When they were out of earshot, Mojo turned to Sumi and whispered quickly. "Are you positive this guy is what he claims to be?" he asked. "I mean, like, one hundred and fifty percent sure?"
"He did introduce me to the other Oracles, Mojo," Sumi replied. "And the Soul seems to trust him. I trust him."
"Well, fine, then," Mojo said uncertainly. "I trust your judgment, Sumi, but I wouldn't turn my back on him if I were you. There's something not quite right about him. Something a little too... I dunno... eager. A little weird?" Mojo gestured vaguely with one hand.
"Of course he's weird, he's been touched by the Void," Sumi replied. "I don't expect him to be totally lucid. When we met up with the other Oracles, they sure didn't seem to think much of him. I'd definitely keep an eye on him, Mojo, but having an Oracle on our side just might help. Especially since we're not sure exactly where Zin is headed."
"I thought you were sure she'd gone to the Shinomen," Mojo said quickly.
"The Shinomen Forest is a big place, Mojo," Sumi said. "It takes up a third of the Crab territories and nearly as much of the Unicorn's. We need some place to start."
Mojo sighed, rubbing one hand along his topknot nervously. "So I'm to understand you think this guy is a crackpot, but you're ready to let him lead us into the largest forest in Rokugan, which also happens to be largely unexplored and mostly haunted by vengeful evil spirits."
"That's right," Sumi said. "So you're going to have to watch my back, Mojo."
"Thanks," he said, clearly irritated.
"We'll be fine, Mojo," Sumi replied in a soothing voice. "Zin needs our help. Teika can help us find her. We need him, Mojo. Anyway, I am still your daimyo unless you've decided that Gensu is right after all."
"You know I haven't, Sumi-sama," he said seriously.
"I know," she answered. "And what about the others?" She nodded toward the four Shiba bushi who stood with Teika. "Can we trust them?"
"They're hand picked," Mojo said. "All of them good friends of mine. All of them are experienced warriors, and none of them care what Shiba Gensu says. Whoever carries that sword has always been the Phoenix daimyo and that's the way it will always be. They'll die for you Sumi."
"I hope they won't have to," she said quietly.
"Yeah," Mojo replied. "Me too." He turned and marched back toward Teika and the others. Sumi followed along a step behind.
"Sumi," Teika said as she arrived. "I'm curious. Your guards tell me that Zin left for the Shinomen Forest days ago. How do you hope to catch up with her in time?"
"Zin left on foot," Sumi replied. "We don't have the same sort of limitations. I may not be very popular at the moment, but I'm still daimyo of the Phoenix. I've arranged for the Resurrection to take us to Soshi Toshi." She pointed toward the long glass wall of the airport. The Resurrection could be seen in the distance, an impossibly large and sleek black archway straddling a small runway.
"The Resurrection," Teika said, impressed. The Shiba Resurrection was the fastest mode of travel in existence. Based on magics originally created by the Dragon clan centuries before their disappearance, it tapped into a dimension of highly compressed space, allowing nearly instantaneous travel anywhere with a similar gateway. The power required to activate the Resurrection was phenomenal, thus it was only used by the very rich, or in extreme emergencies within the Phoenix families. A pair of airport attendants opened the doors as Sumi and her retinue exited onto the tarmac to approach the mammoth gateway.
"In the meantime, I need some information, Teika," Sumi said. "If you're an Oracle, you can answer any question I ask, right?"
Teika frowned. "No," he answered after a brief pause.
Sumi's eyes narrowed. "And why is that?" she asked. "The Soul of Shiba remembers that any mortal is entitled to one question from an Oracle." Her hand rested on the pearl encrusted handle of the Phoenix katana.
Teika hesitated again. "Please, you must understand that I have my reasons," he said. "You may not ask me a question, Sumi. It is simply the way things must be."
Sumi's small mouth tightened in anger. "Can one of them ask?" she nodded at her guards.
Teika blinked. "Well, I suppose so," he said. "I suppose that would be acceptable, yes."
Sumi sighed. "Fine, then." She turned to one of the Shiba yojimbos. "Ask him where we'll find Zin," she said.
The Shiba bushi shrugged and turned to the Oracle. "Where's the naga, Zin?" he asked obediently. "Where in the Shinomen Forest will we find her?"
Teika nodded, as if satisfied by the compromise. He closed his eyes and seemed to become lost in thought. A few seconds later, he looked up at them again. "Directly west of Soshi Toshi," he replied. "From there, directly into the forest. Go where the trees stand thickest, where the swamp stands deepest, where the tears of the ancients flow freely."
"Thought that was actually going to be a useful answer till right there at the end," Mojo said. "Tears of the ancients. Kudos, Teika. Suitably oracular. What's it supposed to mean?"
Teika frowned at Mojo, shaking his head. "I don't know what it means any more than you do, Shiba. The answers are given to me, I don't make them up. I suppose we'll have to find out the truth together."
The huge archway suddenly sparked to life. The metal surfaces glowed a brilliant white, and the space beneath was replaced by a featureless portal of inky black. A runway attendant in a plain grey jumpsuit approached the gathered passengers and bowed deeply. "It is a great honor to meet you, Sumi-sama," he said with a smile. "The Resurrection has connected with Soshi Toshi. We are ready for boarding."
"Will there be an in flight movie?" Mojo asked.
The attendant looked at him blankly.
"Never mind," Mojo said, shaking his head and striding up the ramp toward the gate. "I guess I just don't feel humorous today."
"Wow, I had no idea trees could get so big. I didn't see them this big when I was here last time. Okay, maybe they're not so tall. I've seen taller trees. But so wide? I've never seen trunks so thick. They're like buildings. Isn't it amazing? I mean, it really sort of puts you in your place seeing something so large and ancient and you're not even listening to me, are you?" Kenyu glanced back over his shoulder, a concerned look on his face.
"Hm?" Zin glanced up. She'd been quietly putting one foot in front of the other, lost in her own world. The forest had become far too thick for Kenyu's cycle, and for the last hour they'd proceeded on foot, leaving the bike parked in a small clearing. Kenyu said that it could take care of itself till they got back.
"You're quiet," the young shugenja said.
"I figured you were doing enough talking for both of us," she said.
"No, that's not it," Kenyu said, slowing his pace to walk beside her. "What's wrong now? You seem sad all of a sudden."
"Nothing," Zin answered, pushing her hair back into a ponytail and tying it off. "Nothing, I'm fine." She smiled bravely, but her green eyes were haunted.
"Is this about what you were talking about back at the hotel?" Kenyu said. "About how your people will treat you once this is all over?" A chill winter breeze wafted through a forest. A groan seemed to rise from the trees as the wind passed.
"It's my memory," Zin said. "I'd thought it had returned, but I was wrong. There's more. I remember more and more the closer I get to my people. I was alive in the Shadow Wars...There was a naga, Szash... I tried to help him... Kashrak did something to me." She covered her face with her hands and sobbed lightly. "I can't remember the rest. This is my life! Why can't I remember it?"
Kenyu put one arm around her shoulders, but didn't feel much more secure himself. The alien environment was really giving him the creeps. He had the urge to let his mind run free, think of something to make him feel better. Problem was, all he could think about was how worried he was for Zin. "You can remember the Shadow Wars?" Kenyu asked, amazed. "You were alive then?"
Zin paused. "Yes. No. No, I was not." She narrowed her eyes in thought. "I don't understand," she repeated. She sounded slightly angry.
"Are you all right, Zin?" Kenyu asked her.
"No, I'm not all right," she said, gritting her teeth. She moved away from Kenyu's arm, walking quickly away. She held her hands open, staring down into her palms incredulously. "I'm not all right... This isn't right. This is all a lie."
"Huh?" Kenyu said, startled. "You're not a naga? What are you talking about? What about your skin? Your pearl magic?" Kenyu's thoughts raced. Memories of home, memories of school tried to intrude. He pushed them away. The forest suddenly seemed much colder.
"Why?" Zin shouted, a wild look in her eyes. "Why couldn't you leave well enough alone? Why couldn't you let me die?" She shrieked suddenly, a terrible high-pitched sound. She broke into a ran through the forest, leaping through shrubs and undergrowth. Kenyu stood stunned for several moments before he gathered enough presence of mind to chase after her.
"No." A tree limb suddenly appeared in Kenyu's path, striking him across the chest and knocking him flat on his back. The forest itself seemed to have spoken to him.
"What?" Kenyu cried, glancing about wildly. "Who said that?"
A small tree near the path suddenly shifted, a pair of almond shaped red eyes gleaming in the pale moonlight. A thick arm jutted out to one side, the "branch" that had knocked Kenyu aside so easily. It was a creature nearly seven feet tall, arms and neck knotted with muscle. It was dressed in scraps of leather and bits of rusted armor, and its skin was covered in white scars and dark black sores.
"The Zin walks this path without your guidance, Unicorn," the creature said. "Perhaps I will help her see the truth after I have attended to you." With a bright flash and scrape of metal, a katana appeared in the creature's hands. It slithered toward Kenyu on a thick tail.
Kenyu scrambled to his feet, backing away quickly. Thoughts of home still raced through his head. Why the hell was he thinking about home? "You're h-h-him, aren't you?" Kenyu stuttered. "You're the Kashrak?"
The creature paused, a suspicious expression on his features. "What are you talking about, tsukai?"
"Tsukai?" Kenyu exclaimed, ducking barely in time as the creature's katana buried itself in the bark of a thick tree. "Pot calling kettle, come in kettle! You're the tsukai here, Kashrak!" He ran away as quickly as he could while the creature's weapon was trapped.
The creature snarled at Kenyu, rage burning in its eyes. "I am not KASHRAK!" It pulled the blade free in a single heave, bark and wood pulp exploding as he did so. With a single swift action of its powerful tail, it advanced in front of Kenyu once more, hissing. It's tail circled around the path behind, forty feet of length preventing retreat.
"And I'm not a tsukai!" Kenyu shouted back. He snapped his fingers and intoned the spirits, setting of a bright burst of light in the monster's eyes. It screamed and writhed in pain. Kenyu turned and quickly leapt over its tail, charging through the forest once more.
Kenyu ran through the forest as fast as he was able, dodging past trees, stumbling over fallen logs. He was soon breathing heavily. He wasn't used to running. He hadn't really run since high school. Running had always struck him as the sort of thing you didn't need to do unless you were chased. Now he wished he'd kept in practice. He just had a little farther to go. Just a little farther away from Zin. If he could lead this creature far enough away, she might have a chance to escape his detection.
"That's far enough, Unicorn," the monster said, lunging out of the brush. It enveloped him in two thick arms and a tail. His eyes and his mouth were quickly covered, his arms pinned to his sides. He struggled feebly, but the creature's arms and coils were stronger than iron.
"No spells, no magic," the creature warned. It pulled its hands away from Kenyu's eyes and mouth, but the coils still trapped the rest of him. The creature's face was angry and intense, watching the shugenja carefully.
"I won't tell you anything," Kenyu said proudly. It was true. He didn't know anything. "You go tell that to Kashrak."
"I told you, I'm not Kashrak," the thing said.
"Then what are you?" Kenyu asked. "If you're a naga, why are you still awake? What happened to your skin?"
"I am the Szash, he who abides," the creature said. "I have waited long for the one called the Zin, protecting the pearl beds of the Akasha in their sleep. The scars upon my flesh are a symbol of the price I have paid to protect my people."
"Szash?" Kenyu said. "Yeah, Zin just mentioned something about you? Are you her friend? I'm Iuchi Kenyu. I brought her here. If you're a part of the Akasha with Zin then you should know I'm her friend."
Szash grunted noncommittally. "You are not a tsukai," Szash said. "A true tsukai's spell would not have been so pathetic. I would have been dead."
"Thanks, I'll try harder next time," Kenyu replied sarcastically. "But since we're on the same side can you let go of me now?"
The creature loosened its coils at last. Kenyu collapsed to the ground. Without another word, the shugenja quickly rose once more, stumbling awkwardly back the way he had come.
"Where are you going?" Szash snarled, slithering behind him and grasping the shugenja's shoulder in a crushing grip.
"Ow!" Kenyu said, pulling away. "Stop that, dammit! We're on the same side here! I have to get to Zin! She was acting really strange before you showed up."
"That was the shiyokai," Szash said. "I sensed their presence. I thought you had summoned them, at first."
"Dream stealers?" Kenyu asked, amazed. He'd learned about the shiyokai at the Iuchi College. Paranormal Studies had been one of the few classes that had interested him. The shiyokai were spirits that fed upon memories, violently confronting their victim with one painful memory after another, then offering to take them away. Once the victim relented, the shiyokai fed. They wouldn't stop feeding until nothing was left, until the victim was a mindless husk. That was why he'd been thinking of home while Zin was acting so strangely; the shiyokai had been trying to affect him, too. "We have to help her!" he said quickly.
Szash shook his head. "It is better this way," he replied. "She has entered the Heart of the Shinomen. You are forbidden in that place, human, and I have another task this night."
"But they'll kill her!" Kenyu shouted. "They'll destroy her mind!"
Szash smiled, a frightening expression showing several rows of sharp teeth. "I think not, Unicorn. The spirits will help her learn the truth about herself, and the truth shall make her strong. I think they will find her more difficult to conquer than they imagined. Now, if you will excuse me Iuchi Kenyu, I have much work to do." The naga turned, slithering through the forest with a disturbing lack of sound.
"What?" Kenyu asked, glancing back and forth from the way Zin had gone toward the way Szash was going. "Where are you going now?"
"They shiyokai are flighty, stupid creatures," Szash called back. "They would not have become so organized without the help of a human summoner. If it was not you, then it must have been someone else close by." Red eyes glinted over Szash's shoulder as the naga turned its head. "He or she may make another attempt to harm my lady, and I mean to find the one who would do so. I mean to kill them for their arrogance."
Kenyu nodded, standing tall and patting the dust and grime from his jacket. "Then I'm coming with you," he said.
Szash sighed, slithering forward once more. "All right," he said. "Just try not to get in the way."
Kenyu nodded, following the massive snake creature into the woods. He had to dodge several times to avoid tripping on Szash's tail, and he wasn't entirely certain whether the naga was doing it on purpose.
Asahina Kinoji had nothing but the future ahead of him. His friends back in school would hate to see him now. He'd turned his back on the path of the shugenja when he was fifteen, studying business instead. No long hours gardening and reading musty scrolls for Kinoji. It sure hadn't done his father any good; Asahina Taki had died in the temple with no one but a bunch of nameless monks to mourn him, and nothing to his name but a pair of hedge clippers.
That wasn't the way Asahina Kinoji wished to end up. He was going to be a millionaire. At only twenty-three he was well on his way already, a prominent marketing coordinator for Dojisoft, Dojicorp's computer software division. He'd been flown in to Otosan Uchi for the weekend at the request of Asahina Munashi, the new CEO. Despite the turbulent situation the clan was going through in the Imperial City, Kinoji couldn't deny the honor. He left immediately, without sparing time to notify anyone. Not that Kinoji had any friends or family to notify; his career took up too much time to worry about such nonsense. He came straight away; no reservations, no bags, nothing.
Just as Munashi-sama had requested.
"Where am I?" Kinoji mumbled, blinking groggily at the bright fluorescent lights overhead. The last thing he could remember was eating dinner in his hotel room. The shrimp cocktail had tasted a little funny, had given him a headache.
"Awake already?" asked a pleasant voice. A smiling old man's face beamed above him, his left eye covered by a snowy patch of white cotton. He was dressed in silky robes of pale orange. "You're a strong one, it seems. He was a good, choice, Suro."
"Thank you, sir," said a voice from Kinoji's left. He tried to look over, but a pair of metal plates held his head fast to the cot upon which he lay, preventing any movement whatsoever.
"What's going on?" Kinoji shouted in alarm, struggling at the leather restraints binding his wrists and ankles. "Where am I?"
"Don't get too excited, you'll hurt yourself my friend," the old man said, resting one hand on Kinoji's shoulder. "My methods have breached the boundaries of etiquette somewhat, but I assure you I have your best interests at heart. I am Asahina Munashi, and I invited you here."
"Munashi-sama!" Kinoji said, breathing a sigh of relief. Surely the Dojicorp CEO and daimyo of the benevolent Asahina family wouldn't wish him any harm, no matter how bizarre the situation might seem.
"Is it ready, Suro?" Munashi asked, glancing over his shoulder with a polite smile.
"Yes, sir," Suro said, stepping into Kinoji's line of sight. Suro was a short man wearing a doctor's smock and mask. Both were spattered with what seemed to be blood. "It took us some time to remove it without damage. The last host was very strong."
"Yes, that will happen, I suppose," Munashi mused. "Are the subjects prepared?"
"Kashrak-sama delivered us a new batch just this morning," Suro reported. "I'll have them brought in at once." Suro quickly turned and darted away again.
"Excellent," Munashi said with a pleased smile. "There, you see?" he said, turning to Kinoji again. "You won't have long to wait now. That's the good thing about Suro. He never keeps people waiting. Such an efficient young lad."
"What are we waiting for, if you don't mind me asking, Munashi-sama?" Suro asked, trying not to sound afraid. "What's going on here?"
"Ah, good question," Munashi said, snapping his fingers. "Smart as a whip, just like your resume' claimed. We're kind of in the middle of an experiment here, working on a cure to a very deadly disease, don't you know."
Munashi turned a knob on the side of Kinoji's cot, causing it to wheel upward until Kinoji was completely vertical. He was in a large, square metal room. A single iron bound door stood directly ahead, standing open.
"Disease?" Kinoji repeated. "I'm not a doctor, I really don't see how I can help your research..."
"Of course you don't," Munashi said with a sad, long-suffering sigh. "That's the entire problem with this disease. The victims don't even realize they're afflicted until far, far too late."
"I'm infected?" Kinoji exclaimed.
Munashi nodded. A squeak of metal wheels sounded in the hallway and Kinoji entered, wheeling a large iron box on a dolly. Slits were carved on the top and sides, and feral, animal noises sounded from within.
"Wh-wh-what's that?" Kinoji stuttered.
"Goblins," Munashi said. "Had them shipped in fresh today. In a moment, I'm quickly going to step out of this room and return to the control center upstairs. From there, we'll deliver your vaccination and then open that crate of goblins."
"But I'll be killed!" Kinoji exclaimed.
"No, you'll be cured," Munashi said. A metallic arm extended from somewhere in the ceiling, hovering just inches before Kinoji's face. A porcelain mask was gripped in its three claws, the inside facing Kinoji's own face. "Thanks to this wonderful little item here. By the time those goblins escape their confinement and recognize you as prey, every vestige of your terrible disease should be wiped clean away and you'll be able to deal with them properly."
"Fortunes!" Kinoji exclaimed, hysterical. "What sort of disease do I have?"
"Humanity," Munashi said. "A sad state of affairs, but if luck is with us, a temporary one. And remember, though you may feel a bit of pain, it is for the sake of science. Good luck, Kinoji-san." Munashi pushed a lock of hair gently from Kinoji's eyes and cupped the side of his face with one hand, smiling fondly. Then he turned and left the room with a hiss of silk.
The iron door closed with a clang, leaving the room in near total darkness. The arm gave a metallic whine as it suddenly pressed the mask forward. For a moment, Kinoji felt the cool porcelain on his skin, then a warm sizzle, then searing pain as a thousand tiny hooks crawled into the flesh of his face, burrowing deep into the bone of his skull. The hooks spread down through his neck and through his spine to his heart, reaching deep and wrapping around what they found there. Kinoji screamed as the darkness in his soul was suddenly pulled forward and his brain filled with thoughts of hate, thoughts of anger, thoughts of vengeance. He had to escape.
Kinoji tumbled to the floor, dead.
Asahina Munashi entered the room once more, stroking his mustaches with one hand. He stepped over the gnawed goblin corpses and tattered remnants of Kinoji's cot. He squatted beside Kinoji's corpse, peered into the hollow eyes of Fu Leng's Mask, still fastened to the boy's skull. He glanced back at the iron door, at the deep divots left in the metal by Kinoji's bare fists. Asahina Suro stood in the doorway, clipboard and pen in hand.
"Exciting," Munashi said, rising with a grin. "That one lasted over twenty minutes, fueled by nothing more than a normal human bitterness and misguided ambition. I can only imagine what the Mask will do with some real darkness to feed upon. Make a note of that, Suro, and wrap the mask for me. I'll definitely need to take it with me to the Palace."
Munashi strode out of the chamber once more. Suro followed along behind, scribbling diligently.
Sekkou leaned against a lamp post as the sun set over the city. The grinding of gears and growl of engines passed behind him, another van full of loyal Locusts preparing for the evening's festivities. It was the dozenth such vehicle he'd seen pass in the last hour. At any other time, it would have been a sight he'd love to see, the hordes of the Locust rising up at last against their samurai oppressors.
So why was he still here? Why did it all seem so wrong? He was supposed to have left over an hour ago, but here he was, still waiting outside the appliance store that disguised the entrance to the Heart of the Machine. Waiting for what? Waiting to face Inago again. Waiting to confront him with what the Oracle had told him. Waiting to find out if it was the truth, or simply mystical nonsense. Sekkou fancied himself a brave man, he often thought of himself as a revolutionary, but he found it hard to go back inside. How could he tell Inago what he knew?
What if it was the truth?
That would simply be intolerable. Inago had never really been a friend; Sekkou wasn't the sort of person who had friends. He had been a useful ally, however, a close advisor and teacher. He had learned much from Inago. He had grown used to the Locust leader's presence. Would a world without Inago be a world without the Locust? Would there be a place left in such a world for Inago Sekkou? Sekkou turned toward the door, one hand hovering just above the handle.
"Sekkou!" shouted a voice.
The Locust whirled about, a pistol in one hand. Kaibutsu stopped in mid jog, his jaw dropping wide.
"Please don't shoot Kaibutsu," the ogre whimpered, holding up his hands.
"Kaibutsu," Sekkou said in relief. He holstered the pistol. "Sorry, I've been tense lately. It's good to see you. Did you find the stone? Did you find Jiro?"
Kaibutsu shook his head sadly. "No," the ogre said, frowning. "Tracked Jiro to big diner. Couldn't go any further. Too many Toturi's Army hanging around. Always hanging around. Going in and out, keeping eye on everything. No stone. No Jiro. Dang."
Sekkou quickly seized the front of Kaibutsu's coat with one hand. "Kaibutsu!" he said sharply. "You discovered the Army's base of operations?"
"Sorry," Kaibutsu whined.
"No, don't be sorry," Sekkou chuckled. "You've done well, my friend. We'll deal with them soon. For now, I need you to do one more thing for me."
"Yes?" Kaibutsu said, his sharp teeth gleaming in a pleased grin.
"Come with me into the Machine," he said. "I need to talk to Inago. He may get angry at what I have to say, and it would be good to have a... friend like you at my side."
Kaibutsu nodded eagerly. "Kaibutsu would like that. Kaibutsu would do anything to help you, Sekkou-sama."
"Good," Sekkou said, nodding and patting the ogre on his shoulder. "Good, now let's go." He turned toward the door.
Across the street, Massad chuckled to himself. The cross-hairs of his oversized Ivory Kingdoms pistol rested just over Inago Sekkou's helmet. His finger tightened over the trigger as he chuckled to himself. "Now that's funny, Sekkou," he said to himself. "Looks to me like the Locust are mobilizing. Seems to me like their lieutenant should be leading them, not sneaking back into the Machine after everyone else has left. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were staging a coup. How Doji Meda of you. Well, here's how we'd deal with Doji Meda in the Burning Sands." Massad pulled the trigger. The silencer hissed and the muzzle flashed. The bullet ricocheted through the alley, bouncing off of the scorched black chest plate of a tall samurai, suddenly appearing from nowhere to stand before Omar Massad.
"Slayer!" Massad cursed, falling back several steps, firing the pistol at the man repeatedly. "Gekkar, kill him!"
The massive ghul lumbered toward the samurai with a groan. The samurai turned his head slightly, mempo expressionless as he faced the dark-skinned behemoth. Gekkar balled both fists together and smashed them down toward the samurai's head. The samurai caught the blow easily in one hand and squeezed, smashing Gekkar's fists with a sickly crack of bone. The ghul stared blankly at its mangled hands for a split second before the samurai delivered a swift chop with his other hand, burying his fingers deep in Gekkar's throat. With a twist of his shoulders, Gekkar's head tumbled to the floor of the alley. The ghul slumped in a misshapen heap as the samurai turned to face Omar Massad.
"A good ghul," the samurai said. "They used to make them like that in the old days. You're a true craftsman, Jackal. A master of the mysteries of the City of Bones. Can we talk for a few minutes? I don't mean to interrupt your assassination, but I'm operating on a tight schedule here."
Massad glanced back at the brick wall behind him. It was twenty feet high and sheer. No other doors stood between him and the samurai. "Well," he said. "I didn't survive this long by not recognizing an opportunity at negotiation." Massad smiled as amiably as he could, returning his gun to his vest.
"Good," the samurai said. "I am Moto Yotogi, and here are my terms. You have a heart full of darkness, Omar Massad, but your full capacity for evil lies unplumbed. I would invite you to join me, and know true immortality."
"Moto, eh?" Massad said.
"You know the name?" Yotogi asked.
"I've heard of you," Massad replied. "Powerful dark magic in your family. I hear that you've sold your souls to Akuma."
Yotogi laughed. "Yes, they say that, don't they? And before Akuma it was D'arveshti. And before him, Onnotangu. And before him Kahen Sinn. And before him Fu Leng. The list goes on and on. No, I'm afraid our orders are much more direct. We are the foot soldiers of evil, Omar Massad, and the pulse of Jigoku itself beats in our hearts. We never surrender. We never die. We never fail. Do me a small favor, Massad, and I'll see what I can do about sharing a bit of that power with you."
Massad's eyebrows rose. "Really," he said. "What's the price?"
Yotogi gestured back at the appliance store. "What you know as the Locust Clan no longer truly exists. The pack of wild hounds that bay and yip at Inago's command are nothing more than a tool of the Stormbreaker. I'll explain more about him later. Anyway, like all wild dogs, eventually there comes a time when they have to be put to sleep. That's where you come in, Massad. I want you to go in there, and I want you to destroy the Locust."
"Why can't you do it yourself?" Massad asked. "You got a date tonight or something?"
"Something like that," Yotogi replied. Massad's flesh crawled. It was a new feeling for him; the Jackal wasn't frightened easily.
Massad glanced back at the store. "Destroy the Locust, eh? You know I was right about to gun Sekkou before you ruined my shot, right?"
Massad shook his head. "You disappoint and misunderstand me, Massad. I didn't say I want them dead. I said I want them destroyed. Sekkou must discover the truth. He must discover what a sham and mockery his life has become, how far he has drifted from the heroic revolutionary he fancies himself. Inago, in turn, must see what a puppet and useless fool he has become, how helpless he is to control his own destiny. They must be utterly broken. Their souls must be peeled bare and made ripe for the fires of Jigoku. They must be destroyed. Do you understand?" Yotogi looked back at the appliance store again. A small smile seemed to curl the lips of his mempo.
"Destroy. Right. Got it," Massad replied. "So what do I do with them then?"
Yotogi looked back again and shrugged. "Oh. Shoot them, I guess. I really don't care. It's up to you, Massad. I'll be in touch." Yotogi took a step back, fading into nothing again. Massad was alone in the alley with the demolished corpse of his ghul. He shivered; again, it was a new feeling for him. He'd never been frightened of anyone in his life.
You had to respect that.
Massad crossed the street and headed for the appliance store, a wicked grin working across his lips.
The young Seeker crouched at the edge of the forest, scanning the undergrowth with her binoculars. She'd come a long way to find out the reason behind the naga's recent silence, and she wasn't about to go home without an answer. Nothing. No sign of movement. No sign of life in the Shinomen. Wait. There. Something large and dark one hundred feet into the forest. She couldn't tell what it was, but it didn't seem to be coming any closer. It was breathing unsteadily, hunched in a pile on the forest floor. Probably a wounded animal. She steadied her rifle across her back and hopped down from her perch, jogging quickly toward the tree line.
Ducking into the shadows of a huge tree, she peered closer at the shape she had seen. From this distance, she could tell it was dark green and covered with scales. A naga. From the size of it, it looked like a Constrictor. They were the warriors of their race, enormous creatures with tails of solid muscle, able to crush the life from their enemies. This one looked like it was over eight feet in height, which meant it would have up to three times that length in tail. From the way it was hunched over it looked like her guess was correct, it was definitely hurt. The Seeker edged closer, trying to approach without alerting it.
"Yes?" it said suddenly, it's head snapping up. Bright yellow eyes gleamed in the shadows. It turned in a full circle upon its tail, surveying the environment. Its skin was mottled with dark patches, and a white crust had formed around its lips and eyes. It was a naga, and a very sick one. It's eyes stopped where the Seeker hid in the bushes, focusing on her despite her camoflauge.
She stepped out of the bushes and bowed, allowing the other to fully sense her presence.
"Go," it said, pointing to the edge of the forest. "Go, now! Flee the darkness, little Crab, the battle that rages here does not involve you."
"Battle?" the Seeker said, looking around the forest. There were no signs of combat.
"It is nothing you can perceive, human," the naga replied. "The naga race battles for their very identities. Our own soul turns against us. You are not part of this."
"I am, I think," she said, stepping closer. "I've come to find why you've abandoned the Crab to Lord Akuma's forces. Does our ancient pact no longer hold, Constrictor? Or is the Shinomen in danger? Do you require our assistance? You have only to ask and the full forces of the Crab will be at your disposal."
"You presume much, little Crab," the naga said, its voice ragged with pain. "This is nothing your Hida berserkers or Kuni witch hunters can root out and destroy. The Akasha is changing, killing us. We are not what we were. We are no use to you."
"What?" the Seeker said. "How?"
The Constrictor closed its great golden eyes, and a terrible sadness passed over it. "Kashrak, my brother," he said. "Why did I not listen? Why did I not understand?" The Constrictor slumped over its own heaps of coils as his last bit of strength fled.
The Seeker rushed to the huge naga's side, drawing her first aid kit from her belt. She held her fingers at the creature's neck, and was relieved to find a pulse. She drew a antibiotic needle from the kit, hoping it would be of some use to the naga's alien system.
"You humans never give up, do you?" cackled a voice from behind her. "I find that so... adorable."
She turned quickly, her rifle in her hands. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw it was another naga, though it was like no other naga she had seen. It was large and thick, like a Constrictor, but its torso split into multiple tails. A half dozen or so cobra-headed tentacles swayed from the creature's spine and hips, and dark black spikes jutted from the skin of its arms and shoulders. It slithered toward her, making no sound as it passed over the forest floor.
"He's sick," she said. "Can you help him?"
"Can I help him?" the naga asked with a chuckle. "Of course, my pretty, I can help him. I can make him even better than he used to be. Please move aside."
She stepped away, letting the naga approach his fellow. Something seemed strange about this second naga. She didn't quite trust him. She knew how silly that seemed; the naga's collective consciousness hardly allowed for them to betray one another. Still, she kept one hand on her rifle and watched the new arrival carefully. He placed both hands on the unconscious constrictor's shoulders.
"Szash," the naga hissed. "He who abides. You were the only one who loved me. The only one who had hope for me. Qamar, Shashakar, would have strangled me before I ever left the pearl beds. They said that such an abomination should not be suffered to live, even severed from the Akasha. They said I was too dangerous..."
The Constrictor opened its eyes just a crack, a feeble yellow gleam lighting its face. "Kashrak," it said. "You've come back..."
"I never left," the other naga said, baring its fangs in a smile. "I have been with you all along. You saved me, brother. You told them to let me live. You said that all life deserves a chance, that even severed from the Akasha I could find a place in the world."
The Constrictor coughed violently, green blood dripping from it's maw.
"You were right, Szash," the Kashrak said, lowering its head to the other's level and looking him in the eyes. "I have found my place in the world. Now I will help you find yours." Kashrak's hands tightened and suddenly Szash's body went tense. The Constrictor's eyes lit up with a crimson light, and a soul-tearing scream tore through the clearing. Szash's tail thrashed violently, tearing a young tree from the earth by its roots.
A single gunshot returned the clearing to silence.
The Kashrak turned and narrowed its eyes at the Seeker, staring down the barrel of her rifle without fear. Szash slumped to the ground once more, limp
"You asked me to help him," Kashrak said. "Now you would kill me? Extraordinary."
"You're killing him," she said, steadying her aim. "Don't do that again."
"You don't know our ways," Kashrak replied. "I could be helping him for all you know. Why don't you put a cap on that human tendency to interfere with what you don't understand and just sit back for a moment?"
"You're not helping him," she said. "Now back away. That last shot was a warning."
"That was your mistake," Kashrak nodded. "I never would have given any warning."
The Seeker cried out in pain as razor sharp claws sliced across her abdomen. She hadn't even seen the naga move, but then it was there, tearing at her with its talons and biting her about the face and throat with its cobra-head tentacles. In a matter of seconds she fell to the ground covered in blood. The Kashrak rose a great fallen log above its head in both hands, preparing to bring it down and crush the girl.
And a burst of green lightning struck the dark naga from behind. Szash wrapped his arms and tail about his brother's torso and the two rolled across the forest, their massive bulk flattening small trees and smashing the undergrowth aside. The Seeker was barely conscious as she saw their combat carry them away, and as her vision faded she saw the face of a third naga, a great serpent with a noble face and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. It looked down at her with a great sadness as it took her into its arms and carried her into the Shinomen.
Through the spiraling highways of Otosan Uchi the van passed, weaving through the late evening rush. It was an older model Hiruma van, with no windows on the side and a good deal of rust collecting around the wheel hubs. The driver was a large, thick necked man with a generous growth of stubble. He sang along with the radio as he drove, badly mangling the lyrics of the latest Kakita Yunokawa love ballad.
Next to the driver sat a small, thin man with a shaven head, Inago Isek. A small headset covered the side of his head and one eye. It's greenish lens really served no purpose, but it certainly looked impressive and Isek was fond of it. He drummed his fingers on the side of the door as the van drove along, feeling the cold wind blow along his scalp. He was excited. He'd been waiting a long time for a night like this. The Diamond Palace glowed an unearthly blue in the distance.
"Hey, Josuke, can you change the station?" complained one of the men in the back. "That song sounds like my neighbor beating his cat."
"You don't like this freakin' song, Ryo?" the driver complained, his voice a thick mumble. "Yunokawa's a genius! I got all her albums!"
"Yeah, you just bought 'em because of the covers," said another of the men, scrubbing at a small automatic pistol with a rag. "She's the one that's dressed in the feather boa and, like, nothin' else on her new album, right?"
"Well, yeah, but that's just the image she projects to the public, Izo," Josuke retorted. "She happens to be a beautiful woman, sure, and if she can use that to project her art to a wider audience than I say more power to her. What do you have to say to that?"
Izo blinked quietly. "I just think she's hot," he said.
"You got no sense of art," Josuke laughed tersely, apparently hurt by his friends' inability to understand. "This stuff's freakin' beautiful."
"Josuke. Listen to the damn music," Ryo said, leaning forward on the large black crate in the center of the van. "Those lyrics suck. 'I love you so much but I'm feeling all alone. Instead of a big heart I think you've just got a big stone.' That's awful."
"That's beautiful," Josuke said. "It speaks to me. What do you think, Isek?"
Isek looked up, smiled, drew a large silenced pistol from his belt, and pointed it at Ryo. "Ryo, don't lean on Pestilence. I will shoot you in the throat. You will die quickly, but from the pain you won't think that it's quick enough."
Ryo nodded quickly and leaned back in his seat. Isek nodded, put his gun away, and returned to looking out the window. The van was quiet for the next several minutes. Finally, the vehicle pulled off the highway and made its way through the city streets. Pulling to the side of the road, Josuke parked in front of an office building several blocks from Shinjo Tower. The skyscraper's omnipresent spotlights scoured the sky, but took no note of the small van beneath.
"So when does the show start?" Josuke asked, glancing over at Isek.
"Now," Isek said. "Unload it."
Josuke nodded, quickly hopping out of the van and heading for the rear doors. Isek moved over into the driver's seat and flipped a switch on the dashboard. A small electrical timer began counting down, reading two minutes. Isek leaned down to check underneath the dashboard a final time, smiling to himself as he noted the bricks of plastic explosive were still intact. Glancing in the rear view mirror, he saw that the others had unloaded the large black crate, and were now opening it. He got out of the van and walked over to join them. The top console of Pestilence had been revealed, an enormous keyboard covered with kanji and other strange symbols.
"Hey, what's going on here?" asked a grizzled old security guard, strolling out of the front doors of the office building. "If that's a delivery, it has to go to the back."
"Oh, it's a delivery all right," Isek said with a smile. He began typing on the large console. Readouts began to flash on the small monitors that covered the console, readouts only Isek and a select few Locusts could possibly understand.
"What the hey?" the security guard said, cocking his hat to one side as he looked over Josuke's shoulder. "What are you boys doin'?"
"Unleashing Armageddon," Isek said, looking up with a fierce smile. "You can watch if you like."
The security guard looked confused, then his eyes opened wide, focused on the Locust mon Isek wore on his t-shirt. He began to carefully step back towards the office building. Isek sighed, drew his pistol, and shot the guard in the chest. He could hear shrieks from across the street, from an old woman who'd witnessed the murder. Isek fired the pistol randomly over his shoulder until she ran away.
"Um, Isek," Josuke said. "Shouldn't you be a little more careful? I mean, the pulse hasn't gone off yet. The cops could come."
"Then they'd better hurry," Isek replied, tapping the last few keys of the sequence and then pressing a large red button. "They've got exactly twenty seconds before Pestilence cycle starts up. Boys, you'd better head for the alley. This isn't the sort of thing you want to look into." The three men quickly scattered. Isek himself calmly walked over to the van, started the engine, put it into gear, took the brick from under the seat, and set it on the gas pedal. The van screeched off toward Shinjo Tower. Isek didn't know if it would actually reach the police station. He really didn't care. It would hit something.
Isek strode back into the alley as Pestilence detonated behind him, releasing a wave of electromagnetic energy brighter than light. He felt the cold wave pass through him, felt the small hairs on his hand stand up. He heard the crackle in his headset as the pulse passed through; a whine of tortured engines and the crackle of burning wires followed, echoing outward for blocks. The lights all around quickly went dim. The city was suddenly quiet, the ever present hum of electronics and machinery suddenly, entirely gone.
Isek looked up at Shinjo Tower. Its spotlights searched the city no more. They, too were dark. He knew that elsewhere, throughout the city, the other three pulse generators were also being detonated. All of Otosan Uchi would be thrown into darkness.
"Peaceful, isn't it?" Isek asked, striding back into the street again. Screams of confusion and fear began to fill the void left by the machinery.
"Wow, sure is dark," Josuke said, stumbling out into the street, making his way by the dim light of the moon.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about the darkness," Isek said, patting the other Locust on the shoulder. "Soon, the more poorly wired buildings will start catching on fire. And with no fire trucks in operation, we'll have plenty of light to see by. Now. Let's go visit the Palace."
Tokei stepped out of the shadows of the alleyway, peering carefully to the left and right. He'd intended to stay put in his apartment like he'd promised Shotai. He really had. Somehow, he couldn't stay put. He'd had a terrible feeling. He just had to go out and look for those cops, see what they were up to.
Now he wished he'd stayed at home. He couldn't even believe what he'd seen. What was that thing? It was shaped like a man, it talked like a man, but whatever it was it wasn't human. Tokei had an affinity for the elements; the swirl and dance of the spirit world was an open book to his eyes, and when he'd laid eyes upon the thing that called itself Moto Yotogi, he'd almost crumpled to the ground in utter terror.
It was gone now. It had ridden off down the street on a spectral horse, chasing after that poor Battle Maiden. Tokei hoped she would be all right but he knew she wouldn't be. He felt like a coward, a weak fool who had done nothing to save her. In his heart, he knew there wasn't anything he could do. His magic wouldn't have been much more than an annoyance to a thing like Yotogi. Better for him to survive so he could report back to the rest of the Army. If they would even believe him. Tokei shivered.
But he couldn't go back just yet. Not yet. He crouched down in the alley, watching the street. A quartet of Locusts stood about laughing and congratulating one another.
"Did you see that turbo-slut run?" one of them laughed.
"Yeah, she thought she was a pretty hot piece of kappa 'fore our boy Yotogi showed up," snapped another, high-fiving the first.
"You know it, man, you know it. The man is style incarnate. You see that trick he did with the horse?"
Tokei nodded to himself. The Locusts were putting on a good show, but their mannerisms betrayed them. A nervous laugh here. A darting glance there. They were as frightened of this Yotogi as he was. Maybe even more so. They had to go back home with him, after all.
Tokei's eyes darted back to the crumpled heap of purple armor and twisted motorcycle that lay to one side of the street. Shinjo Rakki, the Battle Maiden's partner. It was further testimony to the Locusts' fear and distraction that they hadn't remembered to loot Rakki's body yet. Fortunes, he might even still be alive. It wasn't likely, after a crash like that, but Tokei wouldn't leave until he knew for sure.
But how? How would he get to Rakki without the Locusts stopping him? He couldn't stop four heavily armed Locusts. Not by himself. Not even with his magic. Certainly not in the middle of Locust Territory.
"When the mountain will not allow you passage," Tokei whispered to himself, quoting the Tao, "Remove the mountain." A small grin crossed the old shugenja's face. He stepped back into the shadows of the alley, and vanished.
"Damn... it... all... to JIGOKU!" screamed a terrible voice, echoing with the anger of hell itself.
The four Locusts looked up suddenly, their eyes wide. Moto Yotogi strode forth from a darkened alley, smoke streaming from his scorched armor. His mempo scowled with a ferocity to match his words.
"The Battle Maiden... escaped... my steed.... lost.... Someone must pay!" The tattered man fixed burning red eyes upon the four Locusts. They immediately scattered to the winds, running off into the streets and alleys as quickly as their legs would carry them.
Yotogi reached up and removed his mempo. It melted into smoke in his hand, as did the rest of his armor and a foot of his height. Tokei stood where the dark Moto had been, a plastic scroll card in his hand. His illusion gone, he quickly hurried to the fallen officer. He heaved the twisted motorcycle to one side with a groan and kneeled close to Rakki's face. He was breathing. If his legs, back, and neck weren't broken he might still be able to walk out of here. He might even have a chance to make it out of Locust territory.
"Officer Shinjo," Tokei said, shaking the limp body gently. "Officer Shinjo, wake up, quickly." Tokei pulled another card from his pocket and spoke a few words of magic, summoning forth spirits of water to soothe the officer's pain.
"That.... hurt...." Rakki said, slowly rolling onto his back and peeling away his motorcycle helmet. It clattered onto the street noisily.
"Are you all right?" Tokei asked. "Can you walk?" He glanced down the street. A few figures were approaching in the distance. "More importantly, can you run?"
"Yeah," Rakki nodded, heaving himself to his knees with some effort. "Yeah, I think I can run. Nothing's broken, seems like."
"Wow, you're pretty lucky," Tokei said, grabbing Rakki's arm and helping him up.
"That's what they tell me," Rakki winced. "Where's Sachiko? Who was that Moto? And what the heck are you doing here, Asako?"
"Time for that later," Tokei said. He threw Rakki's arm over one shoulder and began to jog briskly as Rakki limped along. Someone down the street called out to them, and Tokei jogged faster. They ducked around a corner and hid behind a dumpster for several minutes. Everything stayed quiet.
"I think we lost them," Rakki said.
"Weird," Tokei replied. "Shouldn't have been that easy. Not around here. The Locusts patrol this area pretty thick. I've hardly seen anybody since we got here."
"You sure know a lot about the Locusts for just a simple fortune teller," Rakki said.
"Yeah, and that armor is mighty purple to be wandering Locust territory," Tokei replied. "You'd better leave it here, Shinjo. They won't need to recognize us if they catch you dressed like that. Cops aren't too popular in this neighborhood."
"Good point," Rakki said, beginning to unbuckle the chest plate. "You're right, by the way. This place is a lot quieter than its reputation. I don't think I've even heard a gunshot since you woke me up. Where do you think all the Locusts have gone?"
"I haven't a clue," Tokei said, shaking his head. "But I don't think they'll wait long before they let us know."
And then, on cue, the explosions began. A few minutes later, the rain followed.
"Damn Osano-wo and his sense of drama," Tokei mumbled into the storm.
The rain pelted him in sheets. He was blind to it, blind to it all. He didn't see a thing but the sidewalk right ahead, didn't think about a thing except putting one foot in front of the other. He carried a small dufflebag on his back. Just a few things, the important things. Everything he needed. It was funny. After he'd had so much, after everything he'd been through, he could still carry everything he cared about in one bag. He really hadn't gotten anywhere.
Daniri looked back at the gates of Golden Sun Studios a final time. They hadn't asked him to leave. The Lion had too much dignity for that. He had been expected to be honorable enough to leave on his own. Gohei had even arranged a car for him so that he could leave the studios without being harassed by the press. Daniri hadn't taken it. He'd been in and out of the studio enough times to know all the secret exits. The press wouldn't bother him. And he wasn't about to accept another favor from the Lion Clan, not after what he had done to them.
"It's my fault, after all, isn't it?" he said to himself, turning into the rain once more and trudging off down the street. "I knew the risks. I knew what could have happened if my secret got out. I could have stopped any time. Or I could have kept my fool mouth shut. And did I?"
"Of course you didn't, but you were always the dumb one."
Daniri spun around to face the source of the voice. A skinny young boy followed just behind him, the rain plastering his hair to the sides of his face. He nodded at Daniri, but didn't smile.
"Jiro," Daniri said sharply. "How did you find me?"
Jiro shrugged. "I learned a thing or two from Hiroru. Mom sent me to look for you. She had a feeling you'd try to disappear, like dad."
"Yeah?" Daniri replied. "And what if I do? Who the hell would care? You've heard what they're saying about me now. I'm a disgrace to the Lion Clan. An embarrassment to the Lion Clan."
"Yeah," Jiro nodded. "That Mantis guy with the talk show said they should dust off the old seppuku mats for you and let you settle it all yourself."
"Real funny," Daniri replied. "Not a bad idea, really."
"Nah," Jiro said, stepping back under the awning of a small magazine shop to get out of the rain. "You can't seppuku anyway. You're not a real samurai, remember?"
"Thanks, Jiro," Daniri said. "I'd forgotten about that."
"Oh, calm down, Danjuro," Jiro snorted, rolling his eyes at his older brother. "You were always so full of yourself. Everything's about you. Think for one minute, 'Akodo.' What exactly have you lost?"
"Oh, well now, let's see," Daniri replied, pacing back and forth in the rain. "There's my career. My name. My friends." He began counting them off on his fingers as he paced. "My position on the Imperial Court. All of my fans. Everyone who respected me. And, oh yeah, the back-stabbing witch that I was about to propose to until she sold me out for Onnotangu knows what reason. Is that enough for you, Jiro?" Daniri looked back at his brother, his gaze intense and angry.
"Oh, yeah, I really pity you, bro," Jiro said with a sneer. "Big hero of Otosan Uchi. Lost everything. And you really deserved everything, too, didn't you?"
Daniri stopped pacing, rubbing his eyes with one hand. He was quiet for a moment, rain streaming over his face as he looked up at his brother again. "I dunno," Daniri said. "For a little while, it felt like I did. For a little while, it felt like I'd earned it."
"Oh, really?" Jiro asked, folding his arms.
"Yeah," Daniri said. "Felt kind of like there was hope for us after all. That I could make a difference among all the samurai and shugenja and everything else. It felt like I could matter."
"You still feel that way?" Jiro asked. "Or you gonna walk out of the city and disappear in a cloud of self pity like dad did? I'm just askin', cause either way's fine with me." The younger brother met Daniri's eyes coldly.
Daniri frowned. "You didn't used to talk to me like this, Jiro," he said. "You used to respect me."
"Things change, Danjuro," Jiro said. "Maybe you should have thought about that before you ran off to join the Akodo and left me and mom behind."
"I'm sorry for that, Jiro," Daniri said. "I sent money. I tried to keep an eye on you both, make sure you were safe."
"Didn't need money," Jiro said. "I needed a brother."
Daniri stepped under the awning, the rain dripping from his long hair. He sat down next to Jiro, his shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Jiro," he said. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought you'd be proud of me. Like I said, I thought I could make a difference."
The two brothers were quiet for a while. The rain continued pouring down on the street around them.
"You still think so?" Jiro asked.
"Hm?" Daniri asked, looking up.
"You still think you can make a difference?" Jiro asked. "Without your money and your cars and your studio and your big robot. You think you can still make a difference?"
"This is the part where you ask me to join Toturi's Army, isn't it?" Daniri asked.
"No," Jiro said. "This is the part where I ask you to stop being such a flake. Maybe if you pull that off, I'll ask Ginawa if you can join up later on."
"Thanks for the lukewarm offer, Jiro, but no thanks," Daniri said. "You don't know what I've been through. You don't know what I've lost."
The street lamps around them went dark. Daniri blinked all around in silence. Jiro shuffled along a few steps behind, similarly stunned.
"Blackout?" Jiro asked.
"No, this isn't normal," Daniri said. He pointed to the west. "Look, even the Diamond Palace and Shinjo Tower aren't lit up anymore. The whole city's been knocked out." He glanced down at his watch. "My watch is stopped, even."
"The Locust," Jiro said. "They're making their move."
Daniri nodded. "Stay near me, Jiro."
"As if," the boy retorted. "I'm going back to Little Jigoku. The Army's going to need me."
"Not as much as I do," Daniri said.
"Huh?" his brother replied. "What are you talking about?"
"You're a thief, Jiro, and a good one or you'd never have survived in the Locust so long. You're coming with me, and we're going back to Golden Sun Studios."
"Why?" Jiro asked, trailing along in his brother's wake.
Daniri looked back at Jiro and smiled, and a bit of the old mischievous glint returned to his eyes. "Whatever they're up to, we can't let the Locusts get away with it. We're going back into Golden Sun Studios, and I'm going to steal Akodo."
"Kameru?" Ryosei asked, pushing aside the door and stepping quietly into the office. "Are you in here?"
Kameru looked up from the wide marble desk, a smile suddenly spreading across his face. He quickly rose from his seat and crossed the large room to meet his sister. "Ryosei," he said happily, "how are you?"
"I'm fine," she frowned at him, puzzled. "You look tired. Have you been getting enough sleep."
"Plenty," he shrugged. "Just not the right kind. I've had nightmares every night since dad died." He gestured toward a pair of large, stuffed chairs near the rear of the office. They moved toward them and sat.
"I've been trying to get in to see you every day since the coronation, Kam," Ryosei said. "Your advisors keep telling me you're too busy."
Kameru frowned. "I didn't know about that," he said. "Fortunes, I wouldn't have turned you away, Ryosei."
"That's good to know," she said with a bright smile. "I was hoping you weren't starting to drift away, like dad did."
"Trying every day not to," Kameru said thoughtfully. "Thought you'd given up on me for a little while there, after you disappeared."
"That's actually sort of what I came to talk to you about," Ryosei said. "I learned some things, Kameru. I learned some things about the tetsukansen implants. I learned some things about the Palace. I met a prophet, too. Isawa Saigo. I think he may be able to help us."
"A prophet?" Kameru asked, suddenly interested. "In this day and age?"
"He's a Phoenix," she said. "A shugenja, though he doesn't seem very good with magic." She laughed to herself lightly. Her face became quickly serious again. "Kameru, he washed up in the Diamond Falls after being shot by Tsuruchi Kyo."
Kameru nodded. "Shinden told me that Kyo went a little rogue right before he died."
Ryosei nodded. "Yeah, but even though Kyo's gone, the Imperial Guard are still looking for Saigo. As long as they are, he won't be able to help you. I met a man, Hisojo, who thinks that Tsuruchi Kyo may have been working with a being called the Stormbreaker. I think Kyo knew about Saigo's prophecies and wanted to stop him from helping father."
"Wait just a second," Kameru held up one hand. "Hisojo? Agasha Hisojo? The old Dragon?"
Ryosei blinked. "How do you know about Hisojo?" she asked.
"I'm the Emperor, remember?" he exclaimed. "How in blazes do you know about Hisojo?"
"He found us," Ryosei said. "While I was trying to help Saigo escape through the tunnels beneath the Palace."
"Those tunnels are dangerous, Ryosei!" Kameru said quickly. "Full of two thousand year old wards and Kaiu traps. You could have been killed!"
"If we'd stayed in the Palace, Saigo would have been killed," Ryosei replied tersely. "Maiko herself was implanted. Saigo can see the implants. You were off sulking in your own little world so we couldn't exactly turn to you for help."
"Sorry," Kameru said. "Still, you should have come to me. I'd have helped you, Ryosei. You say he can see the implants?"
"Wow, even Ranbe Yuya can't do that," Kameru nodded respectfully. "We'll have to bring him to the Palace. I'm Emperor, after all. I can order a pardon and call off the Guard anytime I want. Where is he?"
"I don't know," Ryosei said, sadly. "And I don't think he'd come if you publicly summoned him. A lot of people want Saigo dead."
"So what do we do?" Kameru asked.
"I don't know," she said, resting her hand on her brother's. "But we have to find him, Kameru. We have to find him."
"Yeah," Kameru said, thoughtful. "Especially now."
Ryosei cocked her head slightly. "Why's that?"
"Ryosei," Kameru said, looking her in the eyes, his gaze intense. "I know why dad started the war."
"What?" she replied, surprised. "Why?"
"Well, I know his motivation," Kameru amended. "I'm still not sure why he responded the way he did." The young emperor rose from his chair and quickly returned to his desk, drawing out a thick book. He returned to Ryosei, handing it to her with a grave expression.
"What's this?" she asked, tracing her fingers over the embossed cover. The five symbols of the elements gleamed golden upon the cover. The book felt warm to the touch. Though Ryosei wasn't a true shugenja, she'd studied with her aunt enough to sense the power the book contained. "Path of the Emperor," she read the inscription out loud.
"A journal," Kameru said, sitting down across from her once more, leaning forward as he watched her page through the book. "Written by the first Yoritomo Emperor at the beginning of the Shadow Wars."
"Yoritomo I?" Ryosei looked up, surprised. "He wrote a journal? I had no idea! I thought he was assassinated during the Shadow Wars. When could he have written this?"
"According to the date inside, he wrote it before the Shadow Wars," Kameru said. "Before he was Emperor. He wrote that book when he was just Yoritomo Kenjin, third cousin of the Mantis Clan daimyo. The first chapter is about the most terrifying experience of his life. The Mantis fleet was on maneuvers near the Tidal Land Bridge when a demon 'as large as the hand of hell itself' rose from the waves, battling the Great Sea Spider. It destroyed the Bridge, the Spider, and half of the Mantis fleet. Kenjin suddenly found himself the highest ranking Mantis in the entire fleet, the entire clan. He had no choice but to flee. Later, he learned the name of the demon he'd seen. Akuma."
"Kenjin saw Oni Lord Akuma and lived?" Ryosei said.
"Akuma was weaker then. It was just after the Oni Lord had returned to Rokugan, about a year before the Shadow Wars even began. Still, Kenjin knew that the demon's power would tear the Empire apart. The other Great Clans wouldn't listen to him. The Mantis were beneath their notice. It's all written in the book. The first of three chapters is Kenjin's story."
"What else is in it?" she asked, thumbing through the pages. "The last part is written in different handwriting. More frenzied." She squinted at the odd scrawlings and multicolored ink. "It's gibberish."
"It's the future," Kameru replied. "Kenjin's whole world was shattered when he saw Akuma. He'd never seen anything so powerful and for the first time in his life, he didn't know what to do. While the Great Clans squabbled among themselves, he went on a quest. He sought out each of the Elemental Oracles. Have you heard of the Oracles?"
"Only fairy tales," Ryosei laughed. "I didn't think they were real."
"Well, they're real all right," Kameru said, glancing down at the book in his sisters' hands again. "And every mortal is entitled to ask each of them one question. The answer will be truth."
"What did Kenjin ask them?" Ryosei asked.
"That's the funny part," Kameru answered. "He found them all in one place, waiting for him. When they asked for his question, he just said: 'How can I help?' Apparently, he somehow impressed whatever power blesses the Oracles by asking such a simple and selfless question. The Oracle of the Void told Kenjin to follow them into the mountains, taking only his journal. Kenjin returned with it seven days later. It was filled with their prophecies."
"Fortunes," Ryosei said, staring in wonder at the leather-bound journal. "I've never heard of this before."
"No one has," Kameru said. "The Emperors have passed it down in secret. I wouldn't have known about it myself if I hadn't found it laying in dad's desk drawer. But that's dad for you. Keep the most basic things about yourself a dead secret and leave the greatest secret of them all laying out where no one will think to look for it."
Ryosei smiled sadly. "Yes, that was dad."
"I remember one of the last times I talked to him, really talked to him," Kameru said. He sat back in his chair, staring at the fresco on the ceiling as he thought back. "It was during the Senpet Invasion. He seemed so hopeless when I came in at first, just sitting there behind that big desk like he didn't know what to do. Now I know why." Kameru took the book from Ryosei and flipped through it, finding a particular dog eared page. "Read it," he said, passing the book back to his sister.
Ryosei squinted at the journal. "Our ancestor's handwriting leaves much to be desired," she said.
"He was just a simple sailor," Kameru chuckled. "He never wanted to lead the Mantis, much less save Rokugan. He was just doing what he had to do."
"Salvation shall come to the Empire, if ye be strong enough, said Earth," Ryosei read. "But violence begets violence and the emperor will pay the price for the salvation of his people, said Air. The Last Champion of Jigoku wields disharmony and chaos as his weapons, said Fire. The Day of Thunder has not yet come, said Water. Three times the Palace Gates must fall before the world is ready for the Champion of Jigoku. And then Void rose his voice at last to finish the prophecy. The Last Thunder can only rise..." Ryosei stopped, her mouth open, her eyes wide on the book.
"Read the next part," Kameru said hoarsely.
"After seven emperors are destroyed."
Kameru nodded, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "Yoritomo VII, that's me. Destiny sucks, huh?" He suddenly looked very tired, though he tried to smile at his sister.
"Kameru, don't jump to conclusions," Ryosei said, setting the book back on the table between them. "Who knows what that prophecy means? Who knows if it's even true?"
"Read the second chapter of the book," Kameru said. "They predict the return of the Dragon at the end of the Shadow Wars. They predict the curse Kuni Shikogu put on the Yoritomo II. They predict the earthquake that hit Yasuki Gardens back in 1932. They predict all kinds of things, all through the twentieth century. You have to read a bit into parts, and hindsight helps a lot, but the parts you can make sense of are all true."
"And the last part?" Ryosei asked. "What's that about?"
"We're living it," he said. "It's all about the time before the 'Last Day of Thunder.' It mostly just calls this period The Last Days."
Ryosei glanced down at a page before her. "And the prophet and the princess shall find safety in one another, said Air. But the seer's love will be turned against him. It shall be his hand that shall open the gates for the Dark Champion to enter." Suddenly she wanted to put the book down, put it as far away as possible.
Kameru paused for a long time, his face grave, his eyes distracted. "The tone isn't very encouraging," Kameru said. "It says... It says that we can't win."
"Fortunes, Kameru," Ryosei said, her face pale. "We have to do something about this. We have to find Saigo. Maybe he can make some sense of it."
"I hope so," Kameru said. "I really do. But I also really don't want to talk about this anymore." He gestured dismissively at the journal. Ryosei closed it. "Anyway, so that's what I've been spending most of my time doing, reading the book. In between meeting my advisors and talking to Jack. What about you?"
"I've been pretty much sitting around the palace playing the princess," Ryosei said, shrugging. "The guards are afraid to let me leave the Palace alone and my doof brother forgot all about me." She thumped him lightly on the shoulder with the book.
"Hey, I'm sorry, Ryosei!" Kameru laughed. "Careful with that! Bad princess! No slapping the Emperor with the artifact of prophecy!" He blocked the book with one thick forearm and pulled it away from her. They both laughed lightly, trailing off into a long silence.
"Kam," Ryosei said softly. "It's going to be all right. Remember that. As long as we don't lose sight of what we're fighting for, it's going to be all right. Okay? Do you promise me you'll remember that?"
Kameru was quiet for a long time. He knew the words were hollow and trite, but somehow they meant a lot. "Yeah, 'Sei," he said. "I promise." He hoped that it would be a promise he could keep.
The room was suddenly thrown into darkness. In the distance, shouts were heard. Kameru stood up quickly and drew the katana from his belt, its blade casting the office in a pale blue light. His expression was sharp, alert, intense. "Something's happening," he said. "Something's not right."
The door of the office opened suddenly and a trio of Wasp Guardsmen burst in. Hoshi Jack was standing among them, looking worried. "Your Majesty, Your Highness," Tsuruchi said, bowing quickly to Kameru and Ryosei. "Please come with us. We're going to move you both to safety."
"What's going on?" Ryosei asked. "What happened to the lights?"
"Total blackout," Shinden replied. "Even our radios aren't working. My guess is it's some sort of electromagnetic pulse."
"A terrible danger is coming," Jack said softly, his eyes shining in the light of Kameru's sword. "I feel that we'd be better off if we moved as far from the Palace as possible. There's a small temple near here. I know the proprietors. We should be safe there, but I really should go on ahead and tell them who's coming. It's a cloistered brotherhood, and they may want to tidy up a bit for the Emperor." Jack laughed lightly.
"Good, you do that." Kameru said, turning to Shinden again. "Shinden, pick your best man, send him along with Jack."
"I have just the one in mind," the Wasp replied. "Jack-sama, if you'll come with me please."
Outside, the first bursts of gunfire echoed across the city.
"She is not a naga. We can do nothing for her."
"She is a hero. We must do everything for her."
"Her actions made no difference. Szash is worse off than he was before, and the Kashrak escaped. She caused herself nothing but pain."
"A true hero's worth is in their reasons, not their results. She is perfect. We must save her."
"She is not a naga."
"That did not stop us before."
"That was different. He was a Thunder. She is nothing. A foolish girl who poked her nose in where she should not."
"We are not in the position to be choosy about our savior, my friend. This girl can rescue us from the Akasha's Wound."
"The greatest wizards and healers of the naga can do nothing to stem the plague that spreads through the Akasha. What can this girl possibly do that we cannot?"
"Well, as you are so fond of saying, she is not a naga."
"And this will help us why?"
"The Akasha's Wound kills us through mutation. We are used to unity, similarity. The differences it creates in our body and minds are too much for our kind to handle. This human is different. She is an individual. She is not like the rest of her kind, and used to being so. The shock of the Akasha's Wound will not be so great, and her human physiology will be resistant to the disease's effects."
"She knows nothing of our people. The Akasha's magic can cure the plague, but only if the source is properly analyzed. Without knowledge of the pearl magic, she will be of no use to us."
"Then you will teach her the pearl magic."
"Teach a human? Hah. That will take far too much time."
"We have time."
"We have no time! The Akasha's Wound will kill every waking naga in a matter of months! It would take twenty years to teach a human the barest rudiments of our power."
"Then we will not be awake. We will return to the Heart of the Shinomen and she will sleep there with us until she is ready."
"That will take five times longer, easily. Akuma will rule all of Rokugan by then."
"The humans can defeat Akuma. Do not mistake the silence of the Dragon Clan for cowardice. Togashi Hoshi is much like his father. I believe he can defeat the Oni Lord. We will be safe in our sleep. Rokugan does not need us, for a time."
"But who will protect the Shinomen? Who will watch us in our time of slumber? Who will keep the Kashrak from slaying us all as we sleep?"
"The Szash. After what has been done, he no longer needs slumber."
"The magic of the pearl beds is very strong. The human will be bound to the Akasha forever. She will be neither human or naga, an alien to both worlds."
"The alternative is death. For her as well as all of us. I will die myself before I let the Kashrak claim another soul."
"As would I."
"Then our choice is clear."
"Yes... Yes, our choice is clear. Bring her."
"Sachiko?" a pleasant voice said. "Sachiko, are you awake?"
Her head was throbbing again, worse than before. Her eyes opened to a glare of yellow light. She could feel a hard iron chair bite into her back and arms. Otaku Sachiko blinked, her head numb, and rubbed her eyes. She was alive.
That was about the best she could say about her situation. Her armor and weapons were gone. She wore only the purple halter and nylon pants that she wore under her armor. Even her boots, watch, and hair clip were gone. She sat up in the metal chair and looked around the room. The walls were rusty metal boiler plate, without windows. The door was the same, with a large pressure valve wheel. Old fashioned naval issue. She guessed that she was in some of the abandoned tunnels beneath the city, fashioned by the Mantis during some of the less hopeful moments of the Shadow Wars. They were supposed to have been destroyed. Apparently they weren't.
She stood up from her chair, half surprised that Yotogi hadn't bound her hand and foot. The chair, a small cot, a slightly dirty full length mirror, and a wooden table furnished the room. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling. Sachiko saw a bright yellow, very short dress laid out upon the bed. A bright blue bow and comb sat on the table, next to a bowl of water and an envelope. What was Yotogi thinking? What sick games was that monster playing this time? She snatched up the envelope and tore it open, unfolding the scrap of paper she found inside.
I WILL LET IT BE YOUR DECISION.
WEAR THE DRESS. ABANDON THE PATH OF THE BATTLE MAIDEN. SUCCUMB TO YOUR COWARDICE. ADMIT THE WEAKNESS OF YOUR FAMILY AND I WILL CEASE MY OBVIOUSLY FRUITLESS QUEST TO HELP THEM STAND AT MY SIDE. I THINK IT IS OBVIOUS BY NOW THAT YOU WILL MAKE A BEAUTIFUL CORPSE.
DIE LIKE A WARRIOR, YOUR FISTS BLOODIED UPON THE DOOR AS YOU TRY TO CLAW YOUR WAY TO FREEDOM ONE LAST TIME. DIE AND RISE AGAIN AT MY SIDE, AS A TRUE OTAKU. AS A TRUE MOTO.
Sachiko tried the door. It wasn't locked; the wheel turned freely. After several moments of spinning the wheel fruitlessly, a cold fear settled into her heart. She caught a glimpse of the edge of the door.
"Bastard!" she cried, pounding the door with both fists.
The door had been welded shut.
"Yotogi!" she shouted, marching out to the center of the room. "I heard your voice before! I know you can hear me! Where are you, Yotogi?"
The room was quiet.
Sachiko paced back and forth. "Dammit!" she shouted, frustrated. "I know I heard you, Yotogi! Where are you?"
"So desperate to see me again, Little Fortune?" his voice replied, amused. "I thought you didn't like me."
"Where are you, Yotogi?" she snarled, gritting her teeth.
"Not far," he replied. "Don't you know that, Sachiko? Your family is never far. Now what can I do for you, Little Fortune?"
"Let me out of this room," she commanded. "Give me my armor and my weapons and let me out of here."
"Oh, you don't want me to do that," Yotogi said in mock surprise. "In the Heart of the Machine? The Locusts would surely kill you if they saw a magistrate in their headquarters. How surprised they would be."
"I'm in the Machine?" she said, glancing around at the room. "The Locust are here?" It only made sense. If more tunnels like this existed, they would be perfect for an underground terrorist organization like the Locust Clan.
"The Locusts were here," Yotogi corrected. "Now only a few of them remain. I think the rest of them won't be coming back. The Stormbreaker doesn't need them any more, you see. Then it will just be you and me here, Little Fortune. Forever."
"What is it you want from me?" Sachiko said, trying to keep from losing her temper. It was exactly what Yotogi wanted. The sick freak seemed to enjoy it when she lost control. Her head was pounding, a terrible headache sitting just behind her eyes.
"Just what's mine," he said. "Your grandmother understood. She was the only one who ever did, it seemed. The Otaku. The Moto. The two most misunderstood families of the Unicorn. The two most powerful families in the clan. Your family stands outside the norm for nothing more than a fanatic loyalty to one another and unquenchable thirst to see justice done. My family stands alone merely for a difference of philosophies. How tragic, don't you think?"
"A difference of philosophies?" Sachiko retorted. "You sold your souls to Fu Leng, Yotogi."
"Not Fu Leng," he said with a sigh. "It was never Fu Leng. Why does everyone get that all mixed up? Fu Leng was simply a means to an end. We Moto have always served Jigoku directly, and we have never regretted it. Do you know why?"
"Because insanity is hereditary?" she asked.
"Good guess, you may have something there," Yotogi chuckled. "But that's not entirely it. We serve Jigoku because Jigoku is chaos. Pure, unbridled destruction. And I don't know how much you know about physics, Little Fortune, but let me clue you in on one of the most basic working principles of our reality. Chaos always wins. It may take a little time, but chaos always dissolves whatever rules are placed upon it. Chaos strikes down everything designed to contain it. Chaos rises above all. Chaos is forever."
"And you think Jigoku will have a use for you, once it's done with the rest of Rokugan?" Sachiko asked, sitting at the edge of the bed and staring at the floor.
"Probably not," Yotogi said. "It will probably crumple us and toss us aside the same way the Stormbreaker is undoing the Locust Clan right now, but do you know what I think of that? Well, I'll tell you. I'd rather surf the tsunami than stand in its path. At least then I'll get a bit of a thrill before I hit the shore. You know what I mean, Sachiko?"
"No," she said with a tight smile. "No, I really don't."
"Well, I think you'll start seeing things my way pretty soon," Yotogi said. "Right about the time you start running out of air in there."
"Where... where am I?"
The Seeker opened her eyes. She felt a numb coolness over her entire body. A bright green glow emanated from somewhere below. Above, she could see the shimmering surface of a pool of water. She could feel the water in her lungs, and was not alarmed. She looked down at her body, her hands. Her skin had taken an emerald tinge, the color of the light.
"Awaken," said a voice in her heart and she knew it was the Akasha. "Awaken, and save us."
"I can't remember my name," she said. "I can't remember who I am."
"Who you were is unimportant," the voice said. "You are the Zin now. You are our last hope."
Zin nodded, kicking with her legs until she swam to the surface. She rose from the pool to find herself in a deep cavern lit with the green radiance, walls and ceiling encrusted with white pearls. An ancient robe of white silk and a long chain of white pearls lay on the shore nearby. She would need the pearls for her magic. She donned the necklace first. Dressing quickly, she ascended the tunnel which she knew led to the surface.
How did she know where the tunnel led? How did she know magic?
"I have waited for you, my lady," said a voice. "I knew it would not be long before you awoke."
She turned to see the face of Szash, the Constrictor she had saved so long ago, in another lifetime. He looked no older than he had on that day, though his disease no longer consumed him. His body was still covered with black welts, and a bright katana hung upon his belt.
"Szash?" she said. "Am I the first to awaken?"
"No, my lady," he said, shaking his head. "There are others, others who left the Shinomen to seek the source of the Wound. Some will be killed by the Wound. Some will be killed by the fearful humans. Be careful in your journeys, my lady."
Zin was quiet for a time, sitting on a large rock as she collected her thoughts. "Szash," she said. "I can't remember much. My memories... they are confused."
"Believe me, it is for the best," Szash replied. "The Akasha has given you what you need to perform the task at hand."
"The Akasha," Zin repeated. "I can feel it, but I feel that I am outside of it as well. It is strange."
"Not so strange, my lady," Szash replied. "You are unique."
"I'm not 'your lady,' Szash," Zin said. "I'm just... I don't know what I am... but I don't have any hold over you. You don't have to be so formal."
"What little life I have left, I owe to you," Szash said with a short bow. "You are now, and will ever be, my lady."
"How long have you been here?" she asked suddenly.
"Since you went to sleep, my lady," he said. "One hundred and two years."
"You've never left the forest?" she asked.
"No," Szash replied. "I abide, as ever. The pearl beds cannot stand unguarded. Their magic is all that keeps the naga alive now, until the source of the disease can be found."
"It must be very lonely for you," Zin said, looking into his crimson eyes with sympathy.
Szash met Zin's gaze for a few moments, then turned away, unable to bear the weight of the soul he saw there. "Lonely. Yes. More than you can imagine, my lady. Now go. You have much to do."
"Good bye, Szash."
"I pray I will see you again, my lady."
"Saigo!" Kamiko said. "There you are."
"Why's it so dark?" Saigo asked, stumbling into the railing at the bottom of the stairs. The prophet nearly fell on his face before Kamiko grabbed his arm and steadied him. He clutched a tattered notebook under one arm.
"Blackout," Kamiko answered. "No television, no radio, no nothing. As far as we can tell, it's city wide."
"Locust Clan," Akiyoshi said, jogging quickly downstairs to stand just beside the Crane. "It's got to be them, though I had no idea their EMPs had this sort of power. The Army's mobilizing right now; Ginawa says that there's bound to be rioting soon, and we'll need everybody to stop it."
"Sadly, that includes rehabilitated prophets and Crane refugees," Ginawa added from halfway up the stairs. "We need everyone available to pitch in before the city goes to hell. Kamiko, gather your Daidoji soldiers. We've got to move."
"What's the situation with Dairya?" Saigo asked. "Did you ever sort out that business from earlier?"
"Irrelevant," Ginawa said with a sigh. "Mystery for another day. Right now we've got an emergency to deal with." The old ronin marched back up the stairs. Akiyoshi fell into line behind him. Saigo jogged up as well, a step ahead of Doji Kamiko and her Daidoji retinue.
"What are you planning to do, sir?" Kamiko asked as they emerged into Shotai's kitchen. Small candles and flashlights lit the dim chamber. Shotai, Mikio, and Hiroru spoke in hushed tones on the opposite side of the room. "Any electrical system that was operating when their pulse went off will be completely fried, inoperable for hours at the very least."
"Swords still work. Guns still work," Ginawa said. He turned around to face Kamiko, tapping his temple with one finger. "More importantly, we can still think. And as long as capability for reason exists--"
"Therein lies the solution," Kamiko finished her sensei's old maxim with a sigh. "Doji's Tears, I feel like I'm back in class again."
"For all intents and purposes you are, Kamiko," Ginawa said. "Toturi's Army is an entirely different world than you're used to. We're used to functioning with limited resources, and acting as a well oiled unit. Dairya planned for every contingency and in my short tenure I've done my best to reinforce that. Even without radios, we'll be able to communicate just fine."
"Besides," Mikio said, strolling up to join them with a pleased grin. "Not every electrical system was knocked out in that pulse."
"What do you mean?" Akiyoshi asked. "How is that possible?"
"Through here," Mikio replied, gesturing toward a metal reinforced door at the back of the diner. It led to the adjoining abandoned warehouse.
The door suddenly opened, revealing the excited countenance of Hida Yasu. His dark eyes were wide, and a child-like grin was plastered on his face. "Oh, man!" he said quickly. "Kamiko, you have to get in here and see this. You just won't believe it. Oh, man I never expected to see one in such good condition." The loud hum of an engine sounded from the warehouse beyond.
"What's going on?" Saigo asked, bewildered. "What's in there?"
"See for yourself," Ginawa said, gesturing toward the door.
They all filed inside. Kamiko's jaw dropped wide and Saigo simply shook his head. The Daidoji soldiers made assorted comments of shock and disbelief. "How in Jigoku did they get one of those?" Kamiko asked, staring up at the shining metal dome perched in the center of the warehouse. The dark shadow of Ketsuen could be seen standing just beyond it. Kitsuki Hatsu and Hiruma Hayato stood in the shadows of the monstrous vehicle, staring up into its insectoid headlights.
"What is that?" Saigo asked.
"Where the heck have you been, Phoenix?" Daidoji Yoshio said, his eyes goggling. "It's a Scarab! A Senpet Scarab! You remember the invasion, right?"
"I was... sort of... delirious when that happened," Saigo said. "When you're trying to kick Daikoku's Milk, details get kind of blurry for a couple of weeks or so."
"Oh," Yoshio said. "Well. That's what they look like." He pointed at the enormous hovercraft.
"We found it on a rooftop the day after the invasion," Mikio said. "The inside was a little messy. I don't even want to know what happened to the crew, but it still works just fine. Not a scratch on it. I flew it back and hid it here. Ever since, I've been tinkering with it, learning, making improvements here and there. I call it the Crescent Moon."
"Why?" Hiroru asked.
Mikio looked at the ninja blankly. "Because our symbol is the wolf, stupid," he said. "And wolves howl at the moon."
"Not the crescent moon," Hiroru replied. "Wolves howl at the full moon."
"Wolves howl at all kinds of moons!" Mikio roared, shaking a fist at Hiroru. "Besides, the stupid thing wouldn't fly if it was shaped like a full moon, would it?" Hiroru quickly scampered out of the way, chuckling to himself.
"You did just fine," Ginawa said, holding a hand to his face to hide a smile. The sharp points Scarab's short wings had been tapered off somewhat, and the entire vehicle had been repainted a steel grey. A large howling wolf mon was painted on the vehicle's wings, and on either side of the crew cabin.
"Thanks," Mikio said, smiling up at the Scarab in fatherly pride.
"How's it still operative in the EMP?" Akiyoshi asked, walking slowly toward the huge vehicle. She ran her fingers across the metal surface of one wing.
"The Senpet don't have the same sort of tetsukami advances as we do, but they've made up for their lack of magic with hard science," Mikio said. "They've been using hardened circuitry in all of their assault vehicles and critical systems for something like four years now. Protects against exactly this sort of thing. Our military tends not to use them much since we haven't really perfected the technology and EMP's haven't been a practical weapon anyway. Till now. Anyway, why buy import hardened circuits when those junk Dojicorp microchips so much cheaper? Er. No offense." He glanced back at the Daidoji soldiers, some of whom rose an eyebrow at the mechanic's last statement.
"None taken," Kamiko said stiffly.
"I don't understand," Hatsu remarked, walking up to join them. "The rest of the city is out of commission but Ketsuen still seems to be working just fine. Did Toshimo use hardened circuits when he built it?"
"I dunno," Yasu shrugged. "I don't build Toshimo's machines. I just break 'em for him."
"I'd guess not," Mikio said. "The Crabs have a small defense budget compared to the Lion and Mantis. They have to make do a lot. If I had to hazard a reason, I'd say Ketsuen's just too stubborn to be shut down by something as minor as a city-wide catastrophe. The Armor of the Shadow Warrior gave its wearer near immunity to magic. Maybe that somehow communicates into EMP shielding?" Mikio stared up at the giant War Machine. It's simple slit of a face made no reply whatsoever.
"That's Ketsuen, all right," Hayato nodded.
"Okay, everyone, enough mooning over your toys," Ginawa said, his voice echoing throughout the warehouse. He pressed a button on the wall, opening a large metal garage door that led out onto the street. Twenty or thirty young men and women waited outside with various weapons and sacks of tools or medical supplies. All wore the mon of the howling wolf on their sleeve.
"We're ready, Ginawa," said a young man in the front of the group.
"Then it's time to move. Hito, Tohaku, take your units and spread out toward the northwest. Nakao, Goemon, you head south. If you see any Locust activity, do not engage. Report at once and stand by for further orders. Your first priority is helping the injured and organizing the civilians. Got it?"
"Yes, sir," they replied.
"Go," Ginawa said. "Carry the Fortunes." The men and women of Toturi's Army quickly marched off into the streets. Ginawa turned to those still assembled around him. "Shotai, you stay here with Godaigo and coordinate," Ginawa said. "We've got no radio except Ketsuen's and the one in the Scarab, so communication with the infantry will be purely through Ide Sporadic code. That means flashlights on rooftops, and leave the damn flashlights off if you don't need to have them on. They're not EMP shielded and I don't want another Locust pulse disabling our only eyes and ears because you didn't feel like flipping a switch. Got it?"
"Got it," Shotai nodded. He turned and headed back into the diner.
"Hiroru," Ginawa said. The ninja stepped before the ronin without a word. "I have a very important mission to ask of you. It's also very dangerous, and you'll be going alone."
"Good," he said.
"I need you to head for the Palace," he said. "Get back in there, find Prince Kameru and Ryosei. Keep an eye on them. The Locusts aren't too fond of the Imperial Family. Having one trustworthy set of eyes watching their backs might make the difference."
"Done," Hiroru said, stepping back into the shadows and vanishing.
"That creeps me out," Akiyoshi said, rubbing her bare arms.
"Yasu, Hayato, you two are in Ketsuen. With all the power in the city down, Dojicorp will be weakened as well. This might be your best and only chance to take down Munashi. Use it."
"Rock," Yasu said. Hayato smiled dangerously.
"Kamiko, you and the Daidoji are with Yasu," Ginawa said to the Daidoji soldier. "You know Dojicorp better than anyone else, and even on foot you should have no trouble keeping up with Ketsuen. Speed is not this particular War Machine's forte'."
"She's quick where it counts," Hayato shrugged.
Kamiko nodded, her face grave. "Good luck, Ginawa," she said, bowing low to him. "Good luck sensei."
Ginawa's grave frown broke for a moment. He smiled at Kamiko and returned the bow. "May you not need luck, Kami-chan."
"The rest of you, to the Scarab," Ginawa said. "We'll patrol the city until we can find where these pulses are coming from. The missile pods are still armed, Mikio?"
"Locked and loaded," the mechanic replied.
"Good," Ginawa said. "Those should deal with the Locust EMP generators when we find them."
"And most of the Locusts, too," Mikio said. "The forward missile array carries thirty warheads, each one with the power to level a quarter of a city block. Those little bastards are the reason why the skyline is in the sorry shape it is right now."
Hatsu cleared his throat, drawing Ginawa's attention. "Excuse me, but what about Otaku Sachiko?" he asked. "I realize that a lot of other people are in danger, but I can't leave her. The man that took her... there was something very wrong about him. He has to be stopped before he can hurt her."
"I'm sorry about your partner, Hatsu," Ginawa said with genuine regret. "But there's really nothing we can do. We don't even know who took her."
"This is where my impeccable timing comes into play," said a voice from the street. They turned to see Tokei, dirty and exhausted, one arm wrapped around a half-conscious bloody man in a t-shirt and sweat pants.
"Who on earth is that, Tokei?" Mikio asked.
"Might I introduce officer Shinjo Rakki," Tokei replied. "Otaku Sachiko's partner." He helped the Unicorn to stand on his own two feet.
Rakki waved limply and proceeded to collapse in the street.
"He'll be fine," Tokei said reassuringly.
"What has happened to this city?" Jack said. The old monk leaned heavily on the battlements, covering his face with his hands. The rain pelted the stone on either side of him, but seemed to leave the old man untouched.
"Sir, you should come with me," said Daikua Kita. She was a young soldier, dressed in a neatly pressed green uniform with a golden Mantis mon on either shoulder. A pair of black pistols were holstered on her belt. Tsuruchi Shinden had commanded her to keep watch over the descendant of Shinsei, and she hadn't let Hoshi Jack out of her sight since. Kita stood a polite distance from the old monk, watching the streets below cautiously.
"We need to go down there," Hoshi Jack said, standing straight and smoothing his robes with gnarled hands. "We need to find succor for the Emperor."
"I advise against it, Jack-sama," Kita said perfunctorily. "It's very dangerous out tonight. Tell me where to find this temple and I'll go there myself."
Hoshi Jack turned, meeting the young soldier's gaze. "The city is dying, Kita," he said sadly. "I cannot stand by and let others do my work for me. Besides, the monks will be so frightened, they won't even open the doors for you. I must go."
Kita shifted nervously. She was renowned among the Imperial Guard for her piercing gaze and indomitable will, but after looking into Hoshi Jack's eyes she quickly turned away. There was an ancient powerful wisdom between the man's eyes, a power that she found she could do nothing to deny. "I advise against it," she said weakly. "It will be very dangerous."
"Danger is nothing new to me," the monk said with a small smile. "I may not look it, but I have had my share of adventures in my day. I promise not to take any foolish risks, Kita. I'm not planning to go face down the Locust Clan or anything silly like that. I just want to go out there and find the temple. Along the way, I hope to see if there is anything I can do to help the people. I must confess, I will feel much safer with one of the Emperor's hand-picked guards at my side." Jack turned and walked slowly toward the steps, his pace even and measured. "If you're coming, that is," he added.
"Wait, I'm coming," Kita said after a momentary pause. She cleared her throat and quickly jogged ahead of the monk, shining her flashlight onto the steps ahead. "First I think we should report to the barracks," Kita said. "I'll requisition Tsuruchi Shinden for a few more men to accompany us, just to be on the safe side."
"And what good would that do?" Jack asked, an amused tone in his voice. "A large group of armed Imperial Guardsmen would be more a target than anything else, outside of the Palace. No, I think we'd be far less conspicuous alone, Kita-san. We are merely the scouts, remember that. We must leave some guards behind to protect Lord Yoritomo."
Kita nodded. The old man was right, of course, and it made her feel like a fool. Why was she acting like such an idiot? She was an experienced magistrate. She'd handed the Emperor his sword at his coronation, even. By Shinsei, who did the old man think he was?
"Shinsei," she reminded herself quietly. She chuckled with the irony.
"It's a strong individual that can laugh in the face of adversity," Jack said, noting the Mantis' smile. "I think that the Imperial Guard will prosper with soldiers of such courage."
"Thank you, Jack-sama," Kita said sincerely. "If we aim to leave the Palace, I think that we should leave through one of the exterior surveillance towers, in the rear. We haven't sealed some of them yet, and the entrances aren't publicly known. This way." She pointed down a side corridor, and the two increased their pace slightly as they headed for the nearest tower.
"That is a good idea," Jack agreed. "I think that the Palace gates may become a dangerous place soon."
"When aren't the Palace Gates a dangerous place, lately?" she replied.
Jack nodded. "If it makes you feel any better, my friend, troubled times make for interesting history. Perhaps our names will find their way into a text book? Just think of it. One day, millions of little Rokugani children will barely be able to keep their heads off of their desks trying to memorize the names of the great Daikua Kita and the somewhat vaguely notable Hoshi Jack."
Kita laughed. "Let's just hope we live so long to see it."
"I intend to, at any rate," Jack replied.
"Lieutenant Daikua-sama," said a burly Wasp Guard, quickly snapping to attention with a salute. The guard stood next to a very large machine gun, recently mounted on the floor facing the tower door.
"At ease, Hitomaro," Kita said, returning the salute. "What word of the scouts?"
"They haven't returned yet," Hitomaro replied with a worried frown. "They were due back over an hour ago. I would have sent someone to look for them, but there is no one. With our security systems down, the Captain has ordered all of us to remain in the Palace just to maintain all of the exits."
Kita nodded. "I'm going outside, Shinden's orders. If I'm not back in an hour, seal this door."
"Daikua-sama?" the guard replied, confused. "You're going outside? Sir, I highly recommend against-"
"It's all right, Hitomaro," Jack said soothingly. "I walk at her side. I will not allow any harm to befall your lieutenant."
The guard blinked. "Shinsei?" he said, startled. The guard quickly fell to his knees, pressing his face to the floor.
"Get up. Get up," Jack said with a smirk. "I think preferred anonymity. All of this bowing and scraping is bound to go to my head."
"Yes, Shinsei-sama," Hitomaro said, quickly rising to his feet. He kept his eyes downcast, not daring to meet Jack's.
"Hitomaro, listen to me," Kita said sharply, stepping in front of the guard. "I want you to keep an eye on this door, and I want you to keep that gun ready. If you hear anyone outside that doesn't give the proper signal, I want you to fire. Anyone, Hitomaro."
"Yes, sir," Hitomaro said uncertainly.
"Hitomaro," Kita repeated. She had seen that look before, heard that tone from men untested in combat. Hitomaro didn't understand what it truly meant to be a warrior, to be a samurai, and the security of the Palace itself was in this man's hands. "Hitomaro, that order includes us," Kita added sharply. "Do you understand that? If I'm captured and taken back to the Palace, I intend to give a false signal. I won't let the Locust into the Palace even if it means my life. Are you prepared to fire upon me, Hitomaro? Are you prepared to fire upon Hoshi Jack?"
Hitomaro blinked, looking back and forth from Kita to Jack. "I... I don't.... I can't say..."
"We all have a part to play, my friend," Jack said to the man, laying one hand upon his shoulder. "The best we can hope is to fulfill our roles with honor." The descendant of Shinsei smiled.
"Yes, sir," Hitomaro said suddenly. He met Kita's gaze, and nodded with a sudden confidence. "I won't fail you, Daikua-sama." He immediately crouched behind the machine gun, watching the door fiercely with flint black eyes.
Daikua Kita glanced at Jack, then saluted Hitomaro. The two of them quickly exited the tower and darted out into the darkness of the city. After they'd safely cleared the open area around the Palace, Kita led Jack into the shadows of a restaurant awning to plan their next move.
"I wouldn't worry for that man, Kita," Jack said. "He's a good soldier. Just a bit inexperienced."
"I'm not worried about him," Kita replied. "Not anymore, at any rate. How did you do that to him? That was a total reversal. I wouldn't have trusted that man to guard the Emperor's cat five minutes ago, but did you see the look in his eyes when he left? I only wish I could inspire people that way, Jack-sama."
"Inspiring others is the easy part," Jack said with a shrug. "Following the example you set for others is much more difficult."
Kita nodded, thinking over the old man's words. A crackling growl like broken thunder hovered over the city, the distant sound of gunshots and fire. A terrified scream occasionally added to the dirge. "Eerie, isn't it?" Kita said. "I didn't realize how noisy the city was until today."
"Or how dark," Shinsei said, glancing around the shadowed streets warily. "Otosan Uchi is a city of power. It withers under this Locust pestilence."
"Yeah," Kita nodded. "The blackout is only the tip of the iceberg. Those EMP's will knock out backup generators and independent systems as well. The hospitals and highways are probably thrown into total chaos right now, and it'll be weeks repairing all of the city's computer systems. Even if the Locust stop right now, the damage is already done. This is worse than the invasion." The sound of glass breaking erupted from around the corner. A woman's scream followed.
"I fear the greatest threat is not the Locusts or the darkness," Jack said, striding off in the direction of the noise. Kita quickly followed, drawing one of her pistols.
The spectacle before them was grim. The front window of an appliance store had been broken open and the interior was in flames. A man's body hung from the open window, impaled on the shattered glass where he had tried to leap to safety. A woman lay sobbing in the street nearby, clutching a bleeding wound in her stomach and sobbing. Jack quickly ran over to kneel by her side as Kita scanned the street. She heard three sets of footsteps running off into the darkness, but saw no one.
"Calm down," Jack said to the woman. "You're not alone now."
"Oh, Fortunes," the woman sobbed. She clutched blindly at the hem of Jack's robes, her blood staining the brown fabric. "Why! Why did this happen?" "I wish I could answer that," Jack said sadly, pushing the woman's hair from her eyes.
"Is there anyone else inside?" Kita asked, her eyes on the upper windows.
"No, no one," the woman sobbed. "It was just me... just me and Yuri..." She began sobbing again, leading to an uncontrollable fit of coughing. Her lips were stained bright red when she was done.
"This woman needs medical attention," Kita said.
"Where will you find it?" Jack asked, looking up at her. "The Phoenix ambulances are crippled, and this woman cannot be moved."
"We can't just sit here and watch her die!" Kita snarled.
"I'm doing what I can," Jack said. "Do not stress yourself, Kita. Give me time."
Kita nodded and took several steps back. She began to pace impatiently. She wanted to be off after the culprits, catch them, show them Mantis justice, but she knew she couldn't leave Jack.
Jack looked over the woman's wounds, wincing. "Who did this?" he asked. "Who attacked you? Did you recognize them?"
The woman nodded, her eyes glazed in shock. "Yeah," she mumbled. "Yeah, they used to come in here all the time. That was the funny part. I thought they were nice kids. I... I liked them..." the woman's voice trailed off as she lost consciousness. Jack quietly closed her eyes and said a brief prayer over her body, then stood and returned to Kita's side.
"We can still catch them," Kita said. "I saw which way they went. I can track them."
"And what purpose would that serve?" Jack asked. "What would you do to them? Bring them to Shinjo Tower? Execute them in the street?"
"Someone has to do something," Kita said stiffly. "We can't just let them run free."
Jack closed his eyes and frowned, folding his arms into his bloodstained sleeves. "The city is full of evil tonight, Daikua Kita," Jack said. "Would you face it all by yourself? While the Emperor himself awaits your service in his name?"
"Well, I can't just sit by and do nothing!" she shouted, flailing her arms angrily.
"Sometimes, there is nothing you can do," Jack replied. "Nothing to do but wait and hope for the best. Will you make me a promise, Daikua Kita?"
Kita turned to Jack, confused. "Of course, Jack-sama. What is it?"
"Just to remember one thing," he said. He looked around before he spoke, and his words seemed strained. "Remember that there is good and evil in all things, and sometimes the evil is stronger. You have seen this tonight, Kita, and you must remember it. You must remind Kameru as well."
"Why don't you tell him yourself?" Kita asked.
"Because he will not have time to ask me," Jack replied.
Hoshi Jack turned away and walked into the darkened streets of the crippled capitol. Kita followed along behind, quietly, pondering the old monk's words.
Ikoma Keijura ducked into the shadows of a deep doorway and looked around. The streets seemed empty, though it was hard to tell. He'd never seen the city so dark. He'd never known the city could be so dark. He could smell the fires from here. In the distance, smoke rose from the spiraling highways in a thick orange plumes. Most of what little light there was to see by in Otosan Uchi came from those fires. He hated to think of the people trapped on the highway, trapped in a maze of dead vehicles and flame.
Keijura had been one of the lucky ones. His taxi had just pulled off into the heart of the city when the pulses hit. The car quietly pulled to a stop, the driver looked confused, and they both stepped out into the street to join a quickly growing crowd of baffled people. When the gunshots and explosions started, everyone started ducking back into their homes and stores. Keijura didn't know what happened to the taxi driver, he had too much on his mind.
It was the Locust, it had to be. They were rumored to have technology like this. They'd hit a few areas in the Lion provinces like this, using electromagnetic pulses that fried every electrical system, crippling law enforcement and sending the populace into chaos. It had never been anything on this scale, though. If Shinjo Tower had known that the Locusts could shut down Otosan Uchi, they would have stopped at nothing to put the terrorists out of commission before they could gain a foothold. How could this have happened?
Keijura thought back to the reason he was here; that strange message on his answering machine. The woman on his answering machine, Shosuro Kochiyo, had claimed that she knew who had created the tetsukansen, who was behind the conspiracy to assassinate Yoritomo VI. Could it have something to do with this?
There was only one way to find out.
He walked carefully up to a convenience store, peering in through the windows to see if there was anyone inside. He saw a young man's head duck back behind the counter, so he began knocking.
"Hello?" Keijura called out. "Is there anyone there? Hello, I need some help."
The man peeked out from behind the counter, then ducked back.
"I can see you back there," Keijura said. "Please let me in or I'm coming in there myself." Keijura reached for the doorknob.
The clerk stood up, pointing a shotgun at Keijura. The reporter quickly released the doorknob and took two steps back, hands outstretched. "Get out of here!" the clerk shouted. He advanced to the door and pushed it open, keeping the gun trained on Keijura's face. He looked like a young teenager. His name-tag said 'Hello, my name is Kenji' in big, bright yellow letters.
"I was just leaving," Keijura said. "Sorry to have bothered you." He began backing away, watching the clerk carefully.
"Hey," Kenji said, squinting thoughtfully. "Aren't you that reporter? The KTSU guy?"
Keijura stopped, smiling slightly. "Yes, that's me," he said.
"Aw, man!" Kenji said, glancing around. "Am I gonna be on television? Where's the camera?"
"There is no camera, Kenji," Keijura replied. "The whole city's blacked out. Everything's fried."
"Yeah, I know," the young clerk said. "What's up with that? Is it the end of the world or something? I would have to work the late shift on the Day of Thunder."
"I don't know," Keijura said. "But if I were you, I'd take that shotgun and go protect your family with it. I don't think anybody's going to care if you clock out early tonight."
"Hey, yeah, good idea," Kenji said. "I hadn't thought of that. Guess I was too scared to think straight. My mom's probably freaking out. Thanks, Ikoma-sama. Hey, you should probably take your own advice. You live around here?"
"No, I don't," he said. "Doesn't matter, anyway. I don't have much family to speak of."
"That sucks," Kenji said. He hopped down off the curb and began to walk off down the street. "Hey, if you need somewhere to hole up, Ikoma-sama, I'm sure my mom won't mind."
Keijura nodded. "Thanks, I've got something I need to do first," Keijura said. "But before you go, do you think you could answer a question of mine?"
"Sure, go ahead," Kenji said. The clerk looked down the street anxiously, as if he were eager to get home.
"Can you give me directions to Sanzo's Torii?" Keijura asked.
"That old dump?" Kenji laughed. "Yeah, it's two blocks down on your left. You can see it from here, just about. It's the torn up old park with the big warning sign on the gates. You can't miss it."
Keijura looked off in that direction, nodding when he noticed the sign. "Thanks," he said. "Now go find your mom, Kenji. Nobody should be alone on a night like tonight."
"Yeah, I will," Kenji replied, jogging down the street. "Thanks, Ikoma-sama!"
Keijura headed off in the direction Kenji had indicated, sticking to the shadows of the buildings and walking with his coat pulled tight around his body. The city seemed colder, somehow, as if the Locust clan had sucked away all the heat along with the power. The sounds of gunfire and explosions were still far away. Keijura could barely fight his reporter's instinct to run off in that direction and investigate. He knew what a silly idea that was. They were probably miles away through hazardous terrain.
Besides, he was about to crack the biggest story of the century in a few minutes anyway. His brief check into Kochiyo's background hadn't turned up much; she was a minor league geisha with a long list of misdemeanors: traffic offenses, that sort of thing. She was nobody. He had no reason to believe she was the one who had broken the story on Akodo Daniri. He had no reason to believe she was telling the truth. Except something told him to believe her. Something told him not to let this go.
So here he was, standing in the shadows of a run down abandoned park in the heart of a dead city on maybe the most dangerous night a person could possibly be walking around alone. Keijura clutched the tiny key chain canister of mace in his pocket. He knew it wouldn't do him much good if something really happened to him, but he felt more confident for it being there. He reached out with his other hand to tug experimentally at the chains crossing the chain-link gates of Sanzo's Torii. They fell to the sidewalk with a clatter, already unlocked and simply hung into position.
"Hmm," Keijura said to himself. That meant someone was already inside, waiting for him.
"CONDEMNED AND SACRED PROPERTY," the sign read. "DO NOT ENTER UNDER MUNICIPAL ORDINANCE #0223975 OF THE OTOSAN UCHI MUNICIPAL HOUSING ACT. TRESPASSERS MAY FACE UP TO A h20000 FINE, 10 YEARS INCARCERATION, OR SEPPUKU."
The warning on the gates was a strange one, but not one that Keijura was unfamiliar with. Sanzo's Torii was one of many such places throughout Otosan Uchi, burial places of great heroes that had been cast into a bizarre legal limbo by a proclamation of Yoritomo II. After the Shadow Wars, seven tombs were among the only buildings to survive the city-wide devastation. Though everything about these heroes had been forgotten except for their names, their tombs somehow survived. In a fit of patriotic zeal, the Emperor had proclaimed several of the tombs throughout Otosan Uchi to be "blessed and perfect in every manner, not to be improved on by any hands short of the divine kami themselves." He had gone even so far as to proclaim a penalty of death for anyone who attempted to improve the heroes' perfect tombs.
Which was all well and good, until the buildings began to fall into disrepair. It was during the time of Yoritomo IV that some of them, such as Sanzo's really began to show the wear of time. Roofs needed to be replaced, floor tiles mended, the usual sort of maintenance that any building eventually needs began to crop up. Because of the Emperor's decree, none of these repairs could be made. No roofer or maintenance crew wanted to risk death to clean up the tomb of a hero nobody remembered anyway.
Instead of repealing the previous Emperor's proclamation and repairing the sites, Yoritomo IV decided to endorse them. The city's treasury did not have nearly enough money to waste fixing sentimental landmarks. The peoples' tax dollars would be better spent on schools, hospitals, the military, and a thousand other things the empire needed. Though Yoritomo II's decree was never actually enforced, it was used by the Imperial Court as a convenient excuse to avoid wasting money on a bunch of tombs for some forgotten heroes.
Of course, the tombs couldn't be torn down either. They were sacred, after all, blessed by the kami. Instead, they were all condemned. Chained up, roped off, boarded up, few people even remembered why the tombs even existed. Once again, those who lay within were forgotten.
Keijura whispered a short prayer to Ikoma, Akodo, and Amaterasu and pushed open the gates to Sanzo's Torii. He walked on his tiptoes, trying to be a silent as possible, sliding the gate shut behind him with little noise. Inside the fence, the small park was overgrown with snarled trees and vines. A great pagoda stood in the center of the lot, it's roof filled with holes and littered with debris. A few birds had made a large nest in one corner, and the bright green eyes of a raccoon glinted from under the stairs. A huge torii arch stood over the path, slanting and crooked with age. Rot had crept into the timbers, and the white bodies of termites slipped in and out here and there through the holes. Keijura whistled. He'd never seen anything wooden that was so badly rotten yet still standing.
"Poor Sanzo, eh?" said a woman's voice. "I don't know who he is, but I'm sure he can't be happy about the shape his tomb's gotten into."
A slim figure stood in the darkness of the pagoda, short with long hair. Keijura couldn't make out the features, but he could tell it was a woman, and a rather shapely one at that. She held something in her hand, pointed at him. The reporter removed his hands from his pockets to show he had no weapons. "I'm Ikoma Keijura," he said. "You called me, remember?"
The woman flicked one hand at him, and something small landed in the grass by his feet. He glanced down, and then knelt to pick it up. It was a small thermos, still warm. He looked up at her curiously.
"Drink it," she said.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It won't hurt you," she said. "Drink it or we don't talk."
Keijura shrugged and unscrewed the thermos, taking a sip. The contents tasted like a very bitter unsweetened green tea. "Now what?" he asked.
The woman waited nearly a minute before she said anything. Then she stepped out of the shadows at last. She was young and pretty, wearing a low cut scarlet kimono with her long hair hanging loose. The Scorpion mon was stitched upon her obi. Her eyes seemed to be red from crying.
"You're a Scorpion," Keijura noted, "but you're not wearing a mask."
She nodded. "No room for masks anymore," she said. "There's just me now. I guess you're what you seem to be, too, since you're not writhing on the ground in pain after drinking that jade tea."
"Jade tea?" Keijura shook his head, bewildered.
"There's a small cluster of monks that live in the old Kuni territories," she said. "They sprinkle powdered jade in the ponds where they grow the herbs they use for their tea. Creatures of the Shadowlands can't stand to drink it. Since the tetsukansen are from Jigoku like any other sort of demon, the tea would have told me if you weren't in control of yourself. If you'd been implanted, that would have driven the tetsukansen out in a hurry. I'm sure the Phoenix will slap themselves silly when they finally figure that out, but so far they haven't. I'm Shosuro Kochiyo."
Keijura quickly pulled a notepad and pen from his pocket, started scribbling down notes. "How do you know about the jade?" he asked. "What's your connection to the tetsukansen?"
Kochiyo smiled sadly. She walked down the rickety steps of the pagoda, sitting on the ground near Keijura's feet. "It's a long story," she said with a deep sigh.
"I like long stories; I'm a reporter," Keijura answered. "Besides, I think this park is probably the safest place for both of us for a little while. Why don't you tell me whatever you know about the tetsukansen and the conspiracy to assassinate Emperor Yoritomo VI?" Kochiyo laughed, shaking her head as she gazed off into the distance. "You still don't get it, do you? None of you do. None of this was ever about Yoritomo VI. If the Stormbreaker had wanted to kill him he could have, any time. The assassination was just a test, to see how well the implants were working. We wanted something public, something decisive, something to sow fear and confusion. The Stormbreaker wanted to prove that even the Emperor wasn't safe anymore."
"The Stormbreaker?" Keijura asked. He knelt near Kochiyo and continued writing. "Who's the Stormbreaker?"
"A servant of Jigoku," she said distantly. "The one behind all of this. The one trying to bring about the Third Day of Thunder. Fortunes, I wouldn't be surprised if he's behind the Senpet Invasion and this blackout, too."
Inwardly, Keijura sighed. He knew that this interview was over. He'd expected to come out here and get some real, useful information but now it seemed his hunch was wrong. This Kochiyo was just another doomsday prophet, one of the many quacks and psychos that saw the end of the millennium coming and thought it had to mean the end of the world. He clicked the end of his pen and put it back in his pocket, then turned and started walking back toward the gates.
"What are you doing?" she asked. "I'm serious here. Aren't you going to listen to me? I'm the one that gave you your precious story on Akodo Daniri."
Keijura looked back over his shoulder. "Yeah, you helped me ruin the career of a good man. Thanks. Listen, next time you think you have a story, just keep it to yourself, okay? I've got a real job to do."
"You think I'm crazy," she laughed bitterly. "You think I'm making this up. You're so secure in the little world that you've created that you can't believe it's about to come to an end."
"You're asking me to believe a lot," Keijura said, stopping at the gates to look back at the Scorpion. "A little proof would go a long way to gaining my trust. Do you happen to have any?"
"Of course not," she said. "The Stormbreaker's conspiracy is a heartbeat away from bringing down the Empire. You think they'd let a potential rogue agent like me get away with any kind of hard evidence? Don't kid yourself, Keijura." She slumped where she sat, covering her face with her hands. She looked utterly hopeless, utterly defeated.
"So why did you invite me here?" he asked. "Not to sound vindictive, Kochiyo, but you can't prove a word you have to say. You're just wasting my time. You screwed with Akodo Daniri's life and now I think you're screwing with mine."
"That was why he picked me," Kochiyo said, looking up with a bitter smile. "That was why he invited me into his confidence. He knew that I had nowhere else to turn. I was a washed up geisha who was covering as a actress to hide the real way I was making money from my family. My parents found out and disowned me. I had nothing. Nobody. I was two seconds away from ending it all when I heard his voice. He knew that I would do anything to be someone important again, even just for a little while. He knew I'd be easy to dispose of if anything went wrong."
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"I offered my soul to Jigoku for a second chance," she said. "I didn't think it would work. I was only half serious when I made the offer. Imagine my surprise when I got a response."
"Who?" Keijura said. "The Stormbreaker?" She nodded. Keijura took a few steps back toward her. He knew in his head that he didn't believe her, but something in her manner made him want to hear her out. She looked so devastated, so desperate. Even if she was lying, he couldn't leave her alone in a state like that. Not in a place like this, not tonight.
"I was sleeping in one of those hostels the Brotherhood of Shinsei keeps out in the huburbs, you know?" she said. "It was late at night, I was alone in the bathroom. I had the razor over my wrist when the idea came to me. I said I'd do anything, give anything, for another chance at success, another chance to show everyone wrong. To be the master of my own destiny. The Stormbreaker spoke to me that night. 'Kochiyo, there is no destiny. Everything that exists is eventually conquered by a force greater than itself. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is permanent. Everything that lives is doomed to die, rot, and be forgotten.'"
"Wonderful philosophy," Keijura replied.
"Yeah?" Kochiyo looked around the deserted shrine. "I bet Sanzo would agree with me." The deserted lot was quiet for a few moments, interrupted only by the distant sound of gunfire.
"This Stormbreaker," Keijura said. "Did it come to you as a voice in your head? Some sort of mystical revelation?"
"No," Kochiyo said in annoyance. "If something like that had happened, I probably wouldn't have listened. I'd have probably been so scared that I would have just killed myself. He showed up after I chickened out and put the razor away. He was waiting in my room."
"He?" Keijura asked.
Kochiyo nodded. "I don't know what came over me then, but the words really struck a cord. I was so filled with hate, so filled with frustration. I'd do anything to get back at everyone else. I agreed to do anything he wanted, anything he said. I became a lieutenant of the Stormbreaker, one of the architects of the apocalypse. I didn't realize until a really recently how serious he was, or how powerful. He's everywhere. He has influence in every clan. He sees everything. He knows everything. He remembers the past and he sees the future. I thought maybe I could manipulate him because I knew who he was, but now I know it just won't work. No one would ever believe me. There's no way anyone would believe me, not now. He's too close."
"Kochiyo," Keijura said. "You know who this Stormbreaker is? I mean, you know his real identity? His name, clan, everything?"
Kochiyo nodded. "Of course I do," she said. "He knew I was the only one of his lieutenants I could trust with the information."
"And why was that?" Keijura asked.
"Cause I'm the one nobody would believe," she said, dead serious.
"Fine, then," Keijura said. "I don't believe you either, but I'm willing to listen. Will you tell me who he is?"
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Are you sure you want me to tell you?"
"Why not?" Keijura asked. "If I'm not going to believe you, what could it change?"
Kochiyo met the reporter's eyes with her own, jet black and full of pain. "Everything," she said. "It will change everything."
"Tell me," he said.
And so she did.
"I remember you," the Kashrak cackled. "Oh, yes, I definitely remember you. You've changed quite a bit, haven't you?"
"What are you talking about?" Zin said, backing away from the creature warily. The string of pearls dangled from one hand as she prepared to summon the magic of the Akasha. "You're familiar, but I don't remember you." A young couple glanced down the opening of the alleyway, but quickly hurried about their business when they saw the two figures facing off within.
The Kashrak looked amused. "Of course you remember me," he said, advancing toward her on slithering tails.
"Stay back!" she shouted. A burst of bright white magic exploded from her necklace, striking the Kashrak full in the chest. It staggered back a pace, but was unharmed.
"Your magic is surprisingly strong," he said, impressed. "But I, too, am of the Akasha. It's magic will not harm me. Do you see? We are linked. I am no danger to you. In fact, I would hazard to guess that I am the one who put you on the path you walk now."
"No," she said. "The Shashakar--"
"Means well, but is sadly a fool," Kashrak replied. "We are abominations, you and I. In brighter times, our mutation would have led them to expel us from the Akasha. Instead, we have become a newer, stronger generation, better adapted to survive than the last. It is the way of evolution."
"You're searching for a cure for the Akasha's Wound as well?" she asked, suddenly hopeful.
"Searching?" Kashrak asked, amused. "I have found it."
"Then we can work together!" she said. She felt nagging doubt in the back of her mind. A distant memory telling her not to trust this creature. She ignored it. After two years wandering the empire of humans alone, it was good to finally find another of her kind.
"Yes," Kashrak said, with a wide smile. "Yes, we can work together. I can teach you greater magic, and you will stand at my side."
"And we will cure our people," she said.
"Oh, I have the cure for them well in mind," he said. "Now come with me..."
"I must admit, I am a bit jealous, my son. All of these years working for the cause of darkness and already you bear more of its gifts than I. Look at yourself. You are a masterpiece."
Zul Rashid sneered, spitting a mouth full of spit and blood onto the floor nearby. A large mirror stood before him, provided by the School of Enlightenment. Both eyes had been lost to the curse of Oni no Kaze now, replaced with gleaming red points. Circuitry covered his face and wrapped about his throat. More wires and scab-like circuits covered his torso everywhere except for the old cross shaped scar over his heart. His left arm had become entirely mechanical, and his right arm was beginning to undergo the transformation as well. He was becoming a monster. He wondered how much longer he had before the madness of Jigoku overcame him. The cavern around him was utterly silent save the drip of water in the deep earth, completely dark save a single lantern sitting on the floor nearby. The chamber was empty except for two men, two men far from home.
"Kill me, Kassir," Rashid growled. Even his voice had a strange metallic echo now. "Kill me or by the gods I'll use all the power the oni has given me to destroy you as well."
The khadi strode back into Rashid's range of vision. He was a tall, thick man with a long beard and face covered in scars. He wore a kimono of Rokugani design, dark grey with the ancient mon of the Kuni upon its breast. He smirked as he regarded the former Master of Air, bound to his seat by the kami he once commanded.
"My name is not Kassir, Zul Rashid," the man said. "I am Kuni Ishan now. You will learn my name well. It was given to me by the Stormbreaker himself. In the language of the oni, it means both teacher and student."
"I really don't care what you call yourself, father," Rashid said. "I'll kill you just the same."
"I don't know why I continue to hold out these false hopes for you, Rashid," Ishan said with a sigh. "After all, if you think about it you're not even my true son. Bastard child of that lecherous Phoenix and my harlot wife, that's what you are. I should have smothered you in your crib. Now why do you think I didn't do that?"
"Because that would have meant taking an action without the Pharaoh or the Stormbreaker pulling your strings?" Rashid snarled. "Because the thought hadn't occurred to your feeble, unoriginal mind? Because you couldn't father a child of your own and figured stealing one from the man you murdered would serve your purposes just as well?"
"Everything has to be so needlessly complex with you, boy," Ishan said, his face tight with annoyance. "It's all about revenge. The immortal Soul of Shiba, last of the kami, bound within a khadi sorceror. Delicious irony, no? I thought it would only be appropriate to soil Ashijun's legacy by taking his son. I was young and foolish, it seems."
"To say the least, 'father'," Rashid retorted. "If you recall, I was the one who stole the Phoenix sword from you and disgraced you in front of the entire sect." The broken sorceror gazed up into the eyes of his captor. The end of his mouth curled up in a triumphant smile.
"The twists and turns of a road mean nothing, Rashid," Ishan said, striking the bound sorceror with a savage backhand blow. "Only the destination is important. And look at you now. Tainted. Abandoned. Captive. You say that I am a puppet but soon it will be you who dances to my tune."
"Oh, how original," Rashid coughed, black blood trickling from his lips. "Tell me, Ishan, do you really believe your threats are original or do you knowingly copy them from those horrendous Kitsuki dime store novels?"
Ishan's mouth pulled into a tight line. He folded his arms and tapped one foot on the ground. "Clever to the last, Rashid. Oh, so very clever. You have an answer for everything, I wager."
"Only to the simplicities that a mind such as yours could devise," Rashid replied. "You have no power over me, Ishan. I have nothing left for you to take."
"Is that so? Well, then answer me this, Rashid, for it is a matter I have contemplated often," Ishan replied, pacing back and forth across the chamber with his arms folded behind his back. "Consider the Soul of Shiba, repository for all of the souls of every Phoenix Champion that has ever lived, ancestral inheritance of every Phoenix leader. The very power that allowed you to defy my dark teachings, the very power that even now resides in the young breast of your succulent daughter, Sumi."
Rashid's eyes narrowed as he watched Ishan pace.
"Do some basic math, Rashid," Ishan chuckled. "You were a Phoenix Champion. The soul abandoned you upon your death, though of course in your case death was only a temporary condition. Such a thing has never happened before. A champion that yet lives. You are still connected to the Soul of Shiba; the link is still there. I searched for it myself while you slept. It is tenuous to be sure, but it exists; like a silver thread stretching across the astral planes. You are still linked to your daughter, Sumi, Zul Rashid. Tell me that you have not sensed it yourself. Tell me that every time she calls upon the soul you cannot feel her memories press in upon your own."
Rashid said nothing, but hatred was etched plainly upon his face.
"You still share a soul with your daughter, Zul Rashid," Ishan said, a mad gleam in his eyes. "So tell me. When you finally succumb to the curse of Oni no Kaze, spreading through your ancient corpse every moment you stay in this dark place, what will happen when the taint finally overwhelms your efforts to resist? What will happen to the Soul of Shiba? What will happen to your lovely, innocent, delicious little daughter?"
Rashid's head slumped. He closed his eyes tightly.
"Well," Ishan said with a small chuckle. "Why don't we find out?"
The thickly vegetated floor of the Shinomen had given way to a muddy swamp. The trees were enormous, twice as wide as the trees Kenyu had remarked upon earlier. Some of them had appeared to be small mountains at first. Great rivulets of crystal blue water ran through the bark of the trees to meet with the glistening, swampy earth.
"This place is amazing," Kenyu whispered, following close behind Szash.
"My people call it the Tears of the Ancients," he said. "It has stood undisturbed longer than your people have had a spoken language."
"Wow, that's a long time," Kenyu nodded. "Wish I'd brought my camera."
"Shhh..." Szash said suddenly, holding one hand before Kenyu's face. The naga flattened his huge body against the earth, the mottled texture of his skin matching the swampy earth perfectly.
"I didn't hear anything," Kenyu whispered, shaking his head. He crouched down next to the naga, trying to stay as quiet as possible. The forest ahead was dark; he could hardly see anything. The naga's red eyes seemed to have no problem piercing the shadows.
Then Kenyu heard it, too. The crack of sticks. The stomp of boots. Someone was approaching, down the path Kenyu and Zin had followed. As they drew nearer, Kenyu saw seven figures, with flashlights and weapons.
"Who are they?" Kenyu asked. "What are they doing here?"
"By their colors, they are Phoenix," Szash said. "They are far from home, I think."
"What do we do?" Kenyu asked.
"We wait, and see what they intend," the naga replied.
"I guess this must be the place you foretold, Teika," Sumi said, looking up in wonder at the enormous trees. "This is Zin's home."
"I didn't expect to get here so easily," Mojo said. "I thought the Shinomen was larger than this."
"The forest is a living thing, with a mind of its own, Mojo," Teika replied. "Do not underestimate its generosity. If it had not wished us to come this far, we would not have."
"Good point," Sumi said. "Everyone, stay on your toes. Hogai, Naora, set up our supplies. Establish a temporarily camp here while we decide our next course of action. Jo, Ikuyo, patrol a perimeter of two hundred yards, find out if we're as alone here as we think. Mojo," Sumi turned to Mojo and her eyes widened slightly.
"Yes?" Mojo asked, confused.
"Mojo, turn around and shoot that thing behind you."
Mojo whirled around just as a gigantic heap of mud and filth heaved itself from the swamp and lunged toward him, a maw full of several rows of sharp yellow fangs gleaming. Mojo rolled to one side and the beast swatted him with a massive paw, knocking him backwards into the swamp. The remaining Shiba drew their weapons and fired on the beast, but it charge on regardless, ignoring the pain. Sumi leapt forward, the Phoenix sword blazing red fire in her hand. The katana swept across the beast's face, cutting a deep steaming gouge. It roared in agony and stumbled backward, then charged forward again, seizing Sumi in one of its paws. Sumi twisted awkwardly, but her sword could not find its target, and she was forced down into the muddy waters from which the beast had come.
And then a second creature burst from the earth behind them. It's jaws closed over Shiba Hogai with a sickening crack, and it's enormous paws pinned Shiba Ikuyo to the ground. Mojo flew up into a kneeling position and fired his void pistol, putting small pockmarks in the beasts flesh but doing little else. A third monster rose behind Mojo, seizing the yojimbo in its paws and dragging him back down into the water.
"Sumi!" Shiba Jo shouted, firing his pistol repeatedly at the arm that pinned his daimyo. The beast struck out with its other paw, narrowly missing the samurai, but knocking Moto Teika to the ground. The other beast advanced, preparing to finish off the two remaining Phoenix.
And then Szash was among them, spinning like a cyclone with his katana held in both hands. The gleaming blade cut deep slashes into the monster's face, causing it to stumble back in pain. He moved in closer as it lowered its guard, the blade darting into the creature's mouth and stabbing deep into the roof. Szash pulled his blade free quickly as the monster fell in a heap. The other beast roared in anger.
"What in Jigoku?" Shiba Jo cursed.
"Retreat," Szash said to the Phoenix. "Or more will come and we will die." Jo quickly pointed his pistol at the naga.
"Hey, calm down, we're on your side!" Iuchi Kenyu said, quickly pulling Shiba Ikuyo to her feet and supporting her. "Now run!"
"But Sumi," Jo said, pointing at the beast that still held her.
The monster suddenly gave a pathetic whimper and crumpled inward on itself, smoke rising from its mouth. Sumi pushed away the creature's paw and crawled to her hands and knees. Ofushikai was still clutched in her right hand, the water around it boiling into a froth. "I'm fine," she said, coughing up water and wiping the mud from her eyes. "You heard him, get out of here."
"Master Teika, please get up, we have to retreat," Shiba Naora said, kneeling beside the prone Oracle.
Teika nodded quickly and rose, glancing about the area. "Mojo?" he said.
Sumi glanced around, her face grim. "I... I don't see him." Teika stood just behind Sumi, nodding thoughtfully.
"Your comrade was pulled under," Szash said. "He is dead. Now let us go. The Sanshu Denki are very territorial. They will not follow us far. This way." The naga darted off through the thick swamp, the Unicorn following along with the wounded Ikuyo.
Sumi looked back along the path, hesitant.
"I know he is your friend, Sumi," Moto Teika said, his face sad and serious. "But Zin fights for the life of an entire race. If we do not hurry, all may be lost. Weigh the outcome, and you will know I speak the truth."
Sumi nodded slowly. "Let's go," she said reluctantly. "Let's go find Zin."
Fuzake Ikachup was in a mood. Fuzake Ikachup was in a mood because Fuzake T'Chip was in a mood. Fuzake T'Chip was in a mood because Kaiu Toshimo was in a mood. Kaiu Toshimo was in a mood because Hida Tengyu was in a mood. Hida Tengyu was in a mood because Otosan Uchi had been under a complete communications blackout for the last two hours and he wanted some answers.
Tengyu asked Toshimo. Toshimo didn't know. Toshimo asked T'Chip. T'Chip didn't know. T'Chip asked Ikachup. Ikachup had no idea. T'Chip asked Ikachup to go fix the plumbing in the basement of the Kyuden and now Ikachup was in a mood because he knew even less about plumbing than he did about the blackout in Otosan Uchi.
But that was okay. Ikachup was a Fuzake ratling, and as long as he had his tools he could figure out anything. Ikachup pushed open the maintenance hatch and dropped down into a maze of pipes and copper tubing. In the distance, he could hear a steady drip. Water on metal. Ikachup scrabbled forward several yards on his hands and knees, till water dribbled on his nose.
"That the leak, no doubt," Ikachup said, looking up. "Now just gots to go find-find it."
"Find find it?" the water said. "But I'm right here-here."
Ikachup blinked, confused. The water became a steady stream upon his nose. He waved a paw to move it away, but the stream intensified, crawling into the little nezumi's nostrils and mouth. The ratling would have screamed in fear, but his lungs were filled with water. The creature flailed its limbs and tail, his monkey wrench clanging against the pipes. Minutes later, Ikachup lay still, water still streaming from his mouth and nose, eyes wide in terror.
And then he sat up, blinking, wiping the water from his face with one paw. His eyes were a crystal shade of blue, the blue of Oni no Mizu, Elemental Terror of Water.
"Bah, a nezumi," Ikachup said, looking down upon himself in distaste. "Still, beggars can't be choosers. I guess this body will have to do for now." Ikachup stood up and straightened his overalls, taking a moment to adjust to the balance of his new tail.
"So, Yasu," the nezumi smiled. "This is Kyuden Hida. This is your home. I trust you won't mind me dropping by unexpectedly and borrowing your ratling like this." He chuckled. "But time enough to talk to myself later... Now it's time to find-find the main engine room."
Electrified fence encircled the place the old Scorpion had called Downtown. Razor sharp wire coiled atop the fence. Spotlights stood every hundred feet or so, ready to search out any intruders. Tonight, everything was dark. In one place the fence was torn entirely asunder, as if something large had rent its way free and escaped into the city. Gunfire and explosions echoed from where the thing's trail led.
"Well, Chobu said to himself as he examined the hole. "Looks like I'm in luck."
The Badger carefully picked his way through the fence and crept into the darkened streets of Downtown. The pavement was cracked and buckled from years of abuse and neglect. No glass remained in any window. No one walked the street. However, nothing was silent. A constant chatter and hiss came from every darkened alley. A giggle sounded here and there whenever he turned his back. He drew a pistol from his coat and looked around carefully. The Badger's mouth was dry; this place wasn't normal. Otosan Uchi wasn't supposed to be like this. Even the worst parts of Little Jigoku didn't creep him out this way. He wanted to turn around and walk away.
No. This was too big. This was important. Whoever this Kashrak was, he knew something that could help.
Help what? Help Chobu find revenge? That didn't even seem to make sense anymore. Doji Meda, Tsuruchi Kyo, Kitsune Maiko, even Yoritomo VI, all of the people who had been in charge of the Palace when his father was framed were all dead now. His revenge was over, and he hadn't even had to do anything. So why was he still going on?
Chobu took the scroll out of his pocket, the maho scroll he had discovered in his travels with Heichi Tetsugi. That was the answer. That was why he was here right now. Because there was a bigger world out there. Something was rotten in the heart of the city, and that something had caused his father's insanity and death. Well, the death anyway. This Kashrak, whoever he was, was Chobu's best clue to find out who had been screwing with his family.
And when he learned the truth, Chobu planned to deal with the culprit in his own inimitable fashion. Painfully.
Chobu froze in his tracks, stopping in the middle of what was once an intersection. All around him, hundreds of tiny red eyes glinted in the darkness. Whatever they were, he would never be able to kill them all, never be able to escape in time. The fact that they hadn't killed him yet, however, suggested that they wanted something from him. He stood his ground and waited for them to make the first move.
"Not many humans come this way," cackled a voice after minutes of silence. Chobu couldn't tell where it came from; it seemed to be everywhere at once. "Even less leave. You seem to have a purpose here. Who are you?"
"I was sent by the old Soshi," Chobu said. The old man had never told Chobu his real name. "He said to come here to seek the Kashrak."
"Oh, did he now?" the voice said, a brittle laugh echoing through the streets. "Well, one can never have too many apprentices. Tell me, human, what is your name?"
"Ichiro Chobu," Chobu replied. He didn't see any reason to lie. An alias wouldn't do him any good in this place.
"Ah," the voice said. "Delightful. The son of the assassin. I've been wondering what ever became of you. And what would you ask of the Kashrak, Ichiro Chobu?"
"I want to know what this is?" Chobu said, taking out the scroll and holding it out, unfurled. "I want to know how to use it."
"Excellent," the voice replied. "It's been ages since I've had an apprentice. Please. Join me."
A manhole cover in the street several yards ahead suddenly slid to one side. Chobu saw a pair of golden eyes in the depths of the sewer, glinting upward at him. Thousands of tiny footsteps suddenly sounded all around. Chobu saw tiny, twisted green figures emerging from the shadows holding a variety of improvised weapons. Goblins. They were pushing him toward the manhole. Chobu shrugged and dropped down through the street.
He couldn't wait to see what would happen next.
"No," Zin cried, covering her eyes as she huddled beneath the exposed roots of an enormous tree. "No, this isn't right. None of this is right, not any of it... I'm a naga... I'm the Zin, the Cure, the chosen of the Qamar..."
"You were an accident," the wind whispered. "You were in the right place at the right time, a human pawn immune to their disease and a ripe vessel for their teachings."
"I am part of the Akasha!" she shouted defiantly.
"Against your will," the wind replied. "You turn the Akasha on and off like a faucet. A true naga cannot turn off her soul! Your body is human, the Phoenix doctor told you as much in the hospital. You would not be the freak, the mutant you are if not for their meddling, and you would not have been wounded in the first place if not for their Kashrak."
"No!" Zin said. She huddled deeper into the roots of the tree, trying to push away from the painful memories that were all too real.
"Yes," the wind said. "These memories hurt, don't they? After all this time, you've finally remembered everything and you find out you're not at all who you thought you were. Remembering hurts. Remembering is bad. But we can help. We can take it all away."
Zin looked up for a moment. Her green eyes squinted in the darkness. She saw a face whip past in the wind, a face smiling in glee. "You can?"
"All of it, everything," the wind answered. "Old memories, such burdens. Curses of the past, lifted. Scars of your mistakes, healed. All will be wiped clean and fresh and good as new. Just tell us that we may."
The air around her thickened with anticipation. The forest grew quiet as it waited for her answer.
"You... may... NOT!" Zin held out one of the last two pearls from her necklace. It exploded in a flash of white and the forest filled with the screams of the thwarted spirits. Zin rose to her feet, the final pearl clutched between her thumb and forefinger. She saw the fleeing, misty forms of the shiyokai, retreating into the Shinomen's dark recesses.
"The spirits have become fat and lazy of late. I fear that they are too used to feeding upon those that cannot fight back. No matter. How are you feeling, Zin?"
Zin whirled around, holding the final pearl tightly. A small man sat on a nearby tree stump, polishing his glasses with a handkerchief. He smiled tightly.
"Where is Kenyu?" she asked quickly.
"Two miles from here, helping the Szash fight a colony of Sanshu Denki," he replied.
"You," she said. "I know you. You're a Phoenix, the doctor who examined me."
"Doctor Asako Nitobe, at your service, Zin," the doctor said with a warm smile. "Now, as I asked before, how are you feeling?"
Zin paused, uncertain. "Whole," she said. "I still can't remember anything before I came to the forest. I can't remember my real name."
"It's just as well," the doctor shrugged. "You have no right to those memories. The girl you were is dead now. The woman you are was created by the forest, so let your memories begin here."
"You saw my memories?" she asked, narrowing her eyes at the doctor. "You watched all of that?"
"With my magic, yes," he replied. "It was my right. I summoned the shiyokai, after all."
"Tsukai!" she hissed.
"Oracle," he corrected, holding up a single finger.
Without another moment of hesitation, Zin focused the magic and exhausted her last pearl. A beam of pure white streaked toward Nitobe's heart.
"Frost," Nitobe said calmly. A wall of pure ice appeared before the doctor, refracting the white beam into harmless moonlight.
"Melt," he said, and the wall was gone as if it had never been.
"What are you?" Zin asked, taking a step back.
"The Dark Oracle of Water," he replied coolly. "That was your one question, by the way. I like to work one into the conversation before people find out what I am."
"Did the Kashrak send you for me?"
"That dolt?" he laughed. "Please, give me some credit. I serve a higher source. I was sent here by the Stormbreaker himself, though, I must confess, along the way I've grown rather fond with the idea of finding you. I've an obsession with knowledge, you see. It's so sad, don't you think? That a country so bound in tradition and ritual as our own has lost so much of our history? I have begun a quest, dear Zin, a quest to find our past. It has led me down many a dark road, but has led, at last, here. Your Akasha, your group mind, has never forgotten its past. There are minds within it that remember Rokugan as it was, minds that can rebuild our lost centuries of tradition. Oh, the questions I would ask them. I shudder in anticipation of the wealth of history that could be returned to me."
"So get out of my way," Zin said. "Let me kill Kashrak and awaken the naga. Then you can ask them anything you want."
"Hm," Nitobe nodded. "As much as I enjoy the idea of Kashrak slain, I'm afraid that doesn't fit into the plan at all. An awakened naga race wouldn't have much use for me, I think. I'll go out on a limb here and guess that they'd be pretty hostile toward me. No, they'd be much more useful, right where they are, sleeping. All I need is you, Zin, your memory and connection to the Akasha restored, safely tucked away somewhere where I can ask you questions from time to time."
"I won't help you, tsukai," she said. "You were the one, weren't you? You were the one that summoned the creature that destroyed Phoenix Mercy and killed Sumi's father, weren't you?"
"Yes, and a clever deduction, I must say," he nodded. "Had to be done, though. Had to cover the trail of the tetsukansen. Asa's death was just a bonus. Pathetic fool, calling himself a Phoenix after clutching a harlot and a half gaijin bastard child to his breast. That family made a mockery of everything our clan stands for. I'm glad he's dead, and I'll be sure to pass the same consideration on to Sumi and Zul Rashid as soon as I can."
"But you're a model Phoenix, I suppose? A maho-tsukai and a Dark Oracle?" Zin laughed.
"Again, Zin, you forget your history," Nitobe smirked. "Maho is the oldest of Phoenix traditions. We invented it. Oni Lord Akuma took his name from an Isawa. Black magic is in our blood, quite literally. There's no sense in denying a power that's rightfully yours. I've embraced the same destiny that Isawa Tadaka and countless others foolishly turned their backs upon. I am like unto a god."
"You're a monster," she said, glancing around for some weapon, some means of escape.
"Bah. Labels. Anyway, think over my offer, Zin. It's a much better offer than the others would give you. You don't owe the Akasha anything; they took away everything you were. The Kashrak? Fortunes only know what he would do to you if he found you again, but I'm betting it won't be pretty. The Stormbreaker? He already knows everything he thinks he needs to know. He just wants you dead, simple as that. "
"The Stormbreaker?" Zin asked. "Who is that?"
"Oh, as if I would answer that," Nitobe laughed out loud. "Now. Sleep. We'll talk more after we get a little further from your bloodthirsty Constrictor friend."
Zin felt a rush of blood to her head as powerful water kami tried to steal away her consciousness. She felt the world spin. She felt her knees weaken. She did not sleep. She stood upright and looked the Dark Oracle in the eye.
"Well, that's impressive," he said. "Sleep."
Zin swooned slightly once more, but stood straight. Her eyes were sharp and fierce, the eyes of ten thousand naga warriors. "No, Nitobe," she said. "This close to the pearl beds, the Akasha awakens within me. Even you can't numb the mind of an entire people. You'll have to kill me."
"Drat," Nitobe said. "Oh, well. It isn't as if that wasn't an acceptable alternative." He smiled as his dark eyes glowed with the power of Jigoku. "For the Blood of the Phoenix..."