THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
"Aihime? Aihime it's getting dark. Come back inside now."
Aihime giggled as her mom's voice trailed out across the plain. She didn't really want to worry her mom, but it was a beautiful night out and she really didn't want to go inside just yet. She pulled herself up higher into the tree and sat on a thick branch, staring off at the mountains. From this high, she could see Togashi Mountain. The lights of Hoshi Jack's monasteries and television stations twinkled in the distance.
Aihime wondered what it would be like to live up on the mountain. To be up so high, it would be almost like living in heaven. You could probably reach right out and touch Amaterasu. You could step out into the sky and play a game of cards with Onnotangu if you wanted. From up there, you could probably see anything. Aihime could certainly understand why Shinsei would want to live in a place like that. Aihime wished she could live there, instead of the boring little mountain town she lived in. Nothing ever happened here. Sure, her mom told her she was still young and had plenty of her life left ahead of her, but eight years and nothing. Sure, it was fun playing with the animals in her mom's office, and she dreamed of being a vet herself someday, but there was only so much fun you could have around doctors. She was doomed to die of boredom.
The rumble of distant thunder came from the mountains. Aihime could see the first bits of lightning begin to play around the peak of Togashi Mountain. She gave a pouty frown as she leaned back against the tree's rough trunk. Soon, a storm would start. Then she'd definitely have to go back home. No more fun, then. The first drops of rain began to gently pat the leaves around her. Suddenly, a blast of white light exploded in the forest, lighting everything as bright as day. For several moments, Aihime couldn't talk or move, she just stared blankly. Lightning had hit the ground not twenty feet from where she'd been hiding.
"Aihime?" her mom called out again. "Aihime, answer me. Don't play hide-and- seek with me, Aihime."
The little girl opened her mouth to reply, still scared from what she'd seen. Just then, an angry noise came from the bushes, like a cross between a growl and a squawk. Aihime's mouth clicked shut and her brown eyes opened wide in fear. She hadn't heard any animals coming. It must have been woken up by the lightning.
The noise came again. It's cry sounded angry and painful. Aihime couldn't tell what it was; she'd never heard a noise like it. Another sound came from below as well, a piercing hiss. Aihime lowered herself in the tree and scrabbled in her pocket for her key- chain. Aihime's mom had made her carry a key to the house in case of emergency, and made her promise to never lose it. Aihime had made sure to do so by attaching as many key-chains and pieces of jewelry together as she could find. The result was a multicolored tangle of dolls, tassels, toys, and trinkets roughly the size of a grown man's fist. Aihime picked through the mess for one key-chain in particular, a tiny pink flashlight.
The young girl squeezed the tiny flashlight, casting its dim light into the dark forest below. A pair of angry red eyes shown back from the forest floor.
"A weasel?" Aihime said, breathing a sigh of relief.
The weasel hunched low and hissed up at Aihime, baring tiny fangs in defiance. It's eyes seemed to glow with an angry fire, but Aihime told herself it was just eyeshine. "Go away!" she shouted at the creature.
The weasel glanced down at a nearby bush, then looked up at Aihime once more. It hissed angrily.
"I said go away!" she said again.
The weasel narrowed its eyes and turned away from her, returning its attention to the bush.
"I mean it!" she said. The little girl wracked her brain to think of a way to make the weasel go away. She didn't want to risk coming out of the tree if the weasel had rabies or something. She didn't want to get shots. "This key-chain is magical!" she shouted, pointing the flashlight at the weasel's face again. The little animal squinted in annoyance. "If you don't go away I'll... I'll summon up Amaterasu!"
The weasel looked up at her thoughtfully. It looked doubtful.
"That's right, I'll summon up Amaterasu! And the Seven Thunders too! Shiba and Bayushi and Akodo and... um... Shinjo?" Darn. She always forgot the names of the Thunders. She hoped the weasel didn't notice.
The weasel sat down on its haunches, watching the little girl now, waiting. It's eyes seemed very intelligent. It's dark fur was black and matted. Aihime thought it was about the most evil looking animal she'd ever seen. It seemed to be daring her to come out of the tree. The rain began to fall more quickly now, making Aihime's short pigtails droop. She could hear the painful squawk again, from the bushes behind the weasel.
"Aihime?" her mom called, closer. "Aihime, answer me?"
The weasel looked sharply in the direction of the voice, muscles tense.
"I'm right here, mom!" Aihime said loudly, glaring at the weasel.
"Oh, thank the Fortunes!" she replied in relief. Aihime could hear her mom coming closer, breaking undergrowth and fallen sticks.
"That's right, weasel," Aihime said to the weasel. "My mom's coming now, and she'll have her baseball bat with her. She uses it to beat up weasels and she'll make quick work of you."
The weasel glared up at Aihime, then quickly darted off into the shadows. Aihime climbed down out of the tree just as her mom arrived. She was a young woman, having had Aihime at an early age. Her face shone with relief. She wore a short raincoat and was actually holding an aluminum baseball bat in one hand. "Aihime," she said in relief, hugging her daughter.
"Mom," the little girl smiled and hugged her mom back. Her mom always carried a baseball bat when she went into the forest, though the weasels she carried it to defend herself against were really more of the two-legged kind. Mom was very practical that way.
"Don't do that to me again," her mom said, her voice shaking with worry. "You could have been hit by that lightning."
"I saw it, mom!" she said with a sudden grin. "It wasn't even twenty feet away! It was sooooo cool! And there was a weasel, too! The scariest looking weasel you ever saw!"
"Yeah, well that's very exciting but let's get back to the house before the rain gets any worse," her mom replied, patting the girl on the shoulder. "Lightning's not supposed to strike twice in the same place, but I'd rather not push it, okay?"
"Okay, mom," Aihime laughed. She took her mom's hand and they turned to walk back to the house.
The squawk sounded from the bushes again. It was more strained this time, almost desperate. Aihime glanced back, worried. "Ignore it, Aihime," her mother said. "It's just some kind of animal."
Aihime's little face scrunched in thought. There was something about that weasel. It was up to no good. It wanted to hurt whatever was hiding in the bush. "No," she said, letting her mom's hand go and running toward the bush. "No, I have to see."
"Aihime, no!" her mom cried, running behind her. "Don't touch it-"
Aihime fell to her hands and knees and peered under the bush. Her face shone with wonder. "Oh," Aihime said. "Look at it, mom!"
"Aihime, you know what I said about wild animals," her mom said, nervously crouching next to her daughter. She set her bat on the ground and peered at the bush. "It might be hurt, or rabid, or-"
"I know, I know," Aihime said. "That's why you're here, mom. You're the doctor." She shone the flashlight so that her mom could see too.
"Well," her mom said, smiling slightly. "Would you look at that."
"It's a birdie," Aihime said. The tiny animal blinked its black eyes at the light. Its feathers were uneven and ruffled, giving it a slightly unkempt appearance. It's head was a little too big for its body, and one wing stood out awkwardly to one side. "It's just a baby," Aihime nodded.
"It's a juvenile," her mom replied. "Almost ready to fly. Looks like its wing is broken."
"Oh," Aihime said sadly. She looked at her mom. "Will he die?"
"If we leave him here, he will," she said.
"Well we can't leave him here, then!" Aihime said, becoming upset. "We can't let the little guy die!"
"We're not going to," her mom said. She reached into the bushes carefully, trying not to frighten the animal. It took several hops backward and looked up at the woman suspiciously, but allowed itself to be lifted. "Wow, little guy," she said. "You sure are tame." It squawked noisily and fluffed out its feathers to ward off the rain.
"He must know that we're going to help it," Aihime said proudly, putting her flashlight back in her pocket.
"Could be," her mom said, holding one hand over the bird's head to keep it from getting wet. She turned and began walking toward the house again. "Animals are smarter than people give them credit for. Especially crows."
"Wow, is that what he is?" Aihime asked. She picked up the bat and followed along. "Is he a crow? I didn't think there were any crows around here."
"Neither did I," her mom replied. "He must have gotten lost in one of the storms we've been having. I'll ask Doctor Kuni what he thinks tomorrow morning. He knows all about birds."
The voices of the girl and her mother trailed off into the forest, heading back in the direction of the village. In the shadows, they were followed by a pair of bitter red eyes.
Akodo was in fine shape, its repairs entirely complete. Daniri looked up at the golden robot with a sigh. The warehouse was dark, darker even than most of the city, but Akodo's outline was still clearly visible. The robot seemed to always sparkle with its own inner light.
"So what do we do next?" Jiro asked, glancing up at his brother. "That thing's probably just as dead as the rest of the hardware in this city. You going to pick that thing up and carry it on your back?"
"I don't know," Daniri said with a shrug. "I just had to see her again. It just felt right."
"You're damn weird, Daniri," Jiro said. The young thief strolled back to the warehouse windows, glancing out carefully for any sign of Gohei's Matsu guards. He ducked outside a moment later, scouting around for any sign of activity.
"How's it going, Akodo?" Daniri said, reaching out with one hand to touch the War Machine's metal surface. The metal was warm, like a thing alive.
"I knew you'd come here, sooner or later."
Daniri spun about, falling instinctively into a defensive stance. A light appeared suddenly before him, ghostly fire wrapped about a woman's hand. The flickering light illuminated her familiar features. She smiled at Daniri sadly.
"Ayano," Daniri said, straightening as he glanced away, embarrassed.
"I thought I told you to lay low for a while," she said.
"I... I was going to," he said. "But..."
"But you just can't stop trying to play the hero, can you?" Ayano asked. She smiled, shaking her head with a small laugh. "Daniri, do you want to know how I knew you'd be back here tonight?"
"It crossed my mind," Daniri said.
"Akodo told me," she said.
Daniri glanced back up the huge robot, then at Ayano, then back at Akodo. The War Machine's impassive feline face indicated nothing. "You're kidding, right?" he said.
"Daniri, I'm a shugenja, remember?" she said. "I can talk to spirits. Akodo's a giant tetsukami, and it's spirit is a lot more talkative than most." She seated herself in a golden-brown director's chair, just at the foot of the War Machine.
"How so?" Daniri asked, strolling over and squatting on the ground beside her.
"Junsui, or 'Purity,' the Ancestral Armor of the Lion," she said. "That was the tetsukami that we used to construct her. It was powerful enough for Ikimura's needs, and no one in the Lion really minded when we took it. After all, it was cursed."
"Cursed?" Daniri asked, surprised. "What are you talking about? Akodo's not cursed."
"Legend has it that the armor was cursed when an Akodo daimyo swore fealty to the Shadowlands, betraying his allies in the Crab and nearly causing the destruction of both clans," Ayano said, still gazing up at the armor. "Since then, it's been said that no one can wear the armor for long without being consumed by its need for redemption."
"Er... nobody ever told me that," Daniri said.
"Of course they didn't," she laughed. "You're a good actor, but you're not that good. I hate to break this to you, Daniri, but we chose you to wear the armor because you were expendable. You were a guinea pig. If you went mad trying to prove yourself like everyone else that's ever worn Junsui, then we really hadn't lost anything. You weren't a real Lion and everyone expects actors to be insane anyway."
"So you used me," Daniri said.
"This is show business; don't tell me you're surprised," Ayano said sharply. "Anyway, things didn't turn out quite the way we expected. Akodo likes you, Daniri. You know how the armor is. No one else can wear it for long without falling over themselves. You're the only pilot she accepts."
"Yeah," Daniri said with a bitter laugh. "Like a pussycat, huh? Just a big cursed metal pussycat." He rose and walked away from her, running one hand through his long blonde hair.
"Daniri," Ayano said, her tone snapping Daniri back to attention. She stood and walked toward him, her dark eyes searching his for something. She shook her head a moment later, uncertain.
"What?" Daniri asked. "What is it?"
"The curse," she said. "The kami that lives inside Akodo, that lives inside Junsui, has always claimed that the curse can be broken. It's waited over a thousand years for the Lion who can break the curse. Daniri, I think Akodo believes you're that Lion."
"But I'm not a Lion," Daniri replied.
Ayano glanced back up at the War Machine. "Akodo doesn't seem to agree," Ayano said. "She believes in you. Can't imagine why."
Daniri looked past Ayano at the looming figure of Akodo. For a moment, it seemed as if the War Machine were looking back at him expectantly.
"Daniri," Ayano said. He looked back at her. She paused for a moment and looked away before she spoke, torn with indecision. "Daniri, Akodo isn't effected by the blackout. I don't know why, but she's not. Take her and get out of here. Take her and find your destiny together."
"Find my destiny?" Daniri said with a smirk. "Ayano, that doesn't sound like you."
Ayano's face hardened as she looked back at him. "Daniri, I may be a Golden Sun director, but I also happen to be a shugenja from a long line of sodan-senzo and the ancestral protector of the Temple of the Ancestors. I have a right to be cryptic every once in a while."
"I stand corrected," Daniri said with a grin.
Ayano sighed. "Shut up and get out of here before I change my mind," she said. She stepped back into the shadows and the flames illuminating her vanished. Daniri was left alone with Akodo once more.
"Daniri," Jiro said, darting into the warehouse quickly. "Daniri, we have to get out of here, like, yesterday! A Matsu patrol is coming this way so I hope you're done playing with your pet robot!"
"Not done playing with it just yet," said a metallic voice. Two rows of lights along the War Machine's shoulders suddenly flared to life, casting the warehouse in intense light. The golden robot turned with a clank, folding its arms and gazing down at Jiro proudly.
Jiro stared up in awe. He'd seen Akodo on television, but seeing the real thing, the real, moving, actual thing was something else. He snapped out of it a moment later when he heard the startled shouts of the guards. "Good job, Daniri," he said, squinting up into Akodo's lights. "Now every Matsu in Otosan Uchi knows we're here."
"Then we should be going," Daniri replied. He stepped forward and the armor on his back shifted, revealing a series of maneuvering jets and a short pair of wings. He held one hand out to Jiro.
"Woah," Jiro said. "I didn't know Akodo could fly." "Neither did I," Daniri said. "Must be a new feature. Want to try it out?"
Jiro winced. "Maybe I'll take my chances with the Matsu," he said.
"Don't be silly," Daniri said, "I know what I'm doing."
The thirteen foot War Machine suddenly lunged forward, snatching up Jiro in both arms with a strangled yelp. It ran forward, metal legs clanking like pistons, charging directly through the warehouse wall, tearing thin wood like tissue paper. The Matsu Guards shouted in confusion and alarm as Akodo charged down the street toward them, golden armor blazing with its own light. The robot leaped into the air, and landed with a crunch, crouching on the ground just meters in front of them. The engines on its back lit up with a high-pitched whine and Akodo pounced into the sky, leaving twin plumes of white smoke in its wake. By the time the Matsu gathered themselves enough to bring their weapons to bear, the War Machine was already gone.
"All right," Sumi said. "The two of you saved our lives back there and for that you have my thanks, but exactly who are you and what are you doing here?" She turned to the huge Constrictor. "Have the naga awakened already?"
"I never slumbered," the creature replied. The katana was still gripped tightly in the creature's fists. Its crimson eyes watched the Phoenix carefully.
"I'm Iuchi Kenyu, Keeper of the Lands," the Unicorn said with a bow and a bright smile. "I'm honored to meet you at last, Sumi."
"You know me?" Sumi replied curiously as she returned the bow.
"Well, your friends called you Sumi," Kenyu replied. "Zin told me she had a Phoenix friend named Sumi. Since I don't usually see Phoenix stumbling through the Shinomen, I assumed you were the same person."
"Stumbling?" Shiba Naora huffed. "We weren't stumbling."
"You stumbled a little," Kenyu answered.
"Where is Zin?" Sumi asked quickly, stifling the argument. "Have you seen her? Do you know where she is?"
"She seeks the Heart of the Shinomen," Szash replied. "I seek the one that hunts her. Have you seen anyone in the forest?"
Sumi glanced at her yojimbo, then back at the naga. "No," she said. "We've seen no one. Until we ran into those creatures, we hadn't seen a single living thing in the forest."
Szash's eyes narrowed as he considered Sumi's response.
"I know what you must be thinking, Szash," said the large man in the hooded cloak. "She is not the one who summoned the creatures. Sumi is exactly as she appears to be, a friend come to help a friend."
Szash's eyes darted to the man and immediately widened in surprise. "An Oracle!" he said. The naga bowed its head deeply. "I apologize for not noting your presence before. I am honored to make your acquaintance."
"As I am honored to meet the Shinomen's eternal guardian," the Oracle replied in his slightly accented voice.
Kenyu glanced at the man, then looked back at Szash. "He's an Oracle?" he said, surprised. "How did you know? How can you tell?"
Szash looked at Kenyu with some small amount of pity in his red eyes. "How can you not?" he replied.
Sumi turned to the bushi who followed her. "Jo, how is Ikuyo?"
"She'll survive," Jo replied, kneeling over the unconscious woman. "But she won't be able to keep up.""Stay with her," Sumi said. "Hogai?"
Hogai shrugged. "It only cracked my armor," he grunted. "I'm fine."
Sumi gave him a doubtful look, but knew better than to argue with a Shiba yojimbo's sense of loyalty. "Hogai, Naora, Teika," she said, "follow me."
Szash moved into Sumi's path, his head shaking slightly. "No," he said.
"Excuse me?" Sumi replied.
"To go further is to enter the Heart of the Shinomen," Szash said. "Such is not allowed for your kind."
"He said the same thing to me," Kenyu sighed.
"Szash," Sumi said. "Or whatever your name is. Listen. I've just traveled across the entire Empire to help Zin. I lost a good friend fighting those creatures. I don't think the naga taboos are going to stop the Kashrak, and I'm not going to let them stop me. Get out of my way." She took a step toward the Szash. Though Sumi was barely five and a half feet, her fierce manner and intense gaze gave the giant naga pause.
"The Heart is forbidden to all outside of the Akasha," Szash hissed. "Even Kashrak would not dare--" "Kashrak isn't outside of the Akasha!" Sumi shouted, angry now. "Haven't you figured it out? That's why the naga were mutating. That's why your people are dying. He's been spreading the taint of Jigoku through the Akasha for a century. That's why you're all dying! After a hundred years you haven't figured that out yet?"
"It is not that simple, human," Szash said, shaking slightly in rage. "He has fallen, but he is still our brother. A naga may not raise his hand against his brother. We must find another way."
"Fine, if you won't kill him, I will," Sumi said. "This is the last time I ask you, Szash. Get out of our way." She took another step toward the naga, her lips pressed into a firm line.
"Sumi, Szash, please," Kenyu said, glancing from one to the other. "Calm down. There's got to be another way to settle this."
"Szash, what if she's right?" Moto Teika said quietly. "Your taboos are only simple rules, after all. What if something has entered the Heart of the Shinomen? What if Zin's life is in danger right now?"
"My eyes are everywhere, Oracle," the naga said with a hiss. "What could have entered the Heart without my knowledge?"
The Oracle closed his eyes as the answer to the question was unlocked in his mind. When he opened them again, they were clouded with doubt and fear. "The Dark Oracle of Water," he replied. "It may already be too late for her." Szash bared his teeth furiously, quickly looking back over his shoulder.
"There, is that enough for you, Szash?" Sumi asked sharply. "Will you get out of our way now?"
When Sumi turned back to face Szash, he had already disappeared into the forest.
Shinjo Katsunan did not hesitate. The daimyo of the Unicorn was a very efficient, practical man. His personal philosophy was that a battle was not won by your plan, but by your contingencies. For months he had known the potential threat of the Locust electromagnetic pulses. He had known that Shinjo Tower did not have the technology or resources to outfit themselves with enough hardened circuitry in the eventuality that the Locust pulses became a serious threat. He realized the chaos that would happen when they finally made their move, and that it would fall to the Unicorn Clan to restore order to the city.
So when the city fell to darkness, Shinjo Katsunan knew exactly what to do.
He strode forth from his office, his dark armor gleaming. This was not the field armor of the Shinjo police, but an ancient suit of dark purple lacquer, a long white mane of soft horsehair flowing from the helm. A short-bladed katana with a handle of darkened ivory hung from his obi at one hip, a holster with a large Ivory Kingdoms pistol on the other. A double line of Shinjo troopers awaited him in the hall, outfitted in heavy riot armor. One stood apart from the rest, a thin man wearing sunglasses and a long grey coat, his hair held back with a purple handkerchief. A cigarette dangled from the man's lip and a ball of flame hovered about the man's shoulders, casting a bright light into the halls of the Tower. He bowed deeply to Katsunan.
"Hayai and Yuki?" Iuchi Razul asked, noting with some surprise the sword and armor that his daimyo wore. "I guess it be time you decide to call out the big guns, no?"
"These Locusts require a harsh lesson in the meaning of justice," Katsunan replied. "I will show them no further mercy. When do you expect the Battle Maidens?"
Razul opened his mouth to reply, but was quickly cut off. "We are here," replied a gruff voice. A door at the end of the hall slid open and Otaku Shoda strode into the hallway. Two lines of purple-armored Battle Maidens marched behind her, the twenty Maidens stationed at Shinjo Tower plus ten more that Shoda had brought with her. All of them carried the tetsukami naginatas that the Maidens favored. Their faces were blank, emotionless masks, well prepared for the battle that lay before them.
"Otaku-san," Katsunan said, bowing to the Otaku daimyo. The stocky Battle- Maiden returned her daimyo's bow, the bow of an equal. "I had not expected you to arrive from the Hub Villages so quickly."
Her sharp eyes twinkled for a moment. "Of course you didn't, Shinjo," she said. "Truth be told, at first I thought you'd ordered me to organize that stable out of some petty political game."
"I do not play games, Otaku," Katsunan replied. "I assume you brought them?"
Shoda nodded, a fierce grin spreading across her weathered features. "Yes," she said. "Otaku war-horses for myself and the Maidens and six dozen of their less high- spirited kin for yourself and your men. They're well trained horses. Even you Shinjo should have no problem riding them. They await us downstairs in the garage."
"Excellent," Katsunan said. He turned to the Shinjo Troopers and Battle Maidens. All of their eyes were upon him, awaiting the words he would say next. "Ladies. Gentlemen. The Locusts believe we are weak, helpless and dependent upon our machines. Tonight, we teach them the folly of underestimating the Unicorn."
"Tonight, we ride."
The Crab War Machine stood on a rooftop across from the Dojicorp building, possibly the same one Yasu and Hatsu had used to gain entrance to the skyscraper nearly a week ago. A few dozen Crane samurai were visible around the large bonfires they had made for light. They patrolled the streets before Dojicorp warily, waiting for any sign of attack. "Lot of the little blue buggers down there, Yasu," Hayato said, sitting back in Ketsuen's pilot seat.
"I hope this visit turns out better," Yasu remarked. "Last time I got beaten up by trees, zombies, and midgets."
"Midgets?" Hayato asked, looking at Yasu in bewilderment.
"Long story," he replied. Yasu peered closer at Ketsuen's monitor screens, looking at the view of the street below. "I'd rather not share."
"Hey, I got an idea of something you can share instead," the scout said. "Why don't you share your plan with me? Since I'm, like, driving the War Machine and all I have to admit I'm vaguely curious how you think we're going to get a twenty foot robot to the sixtieth floor of an office building to take out one old man?"
"We're not," Yasu answered. "We're just the distraction. See if Kamiko and her Cranes are in position."
Hayato gave Yasu a doubtful look, but nodded and took the controls of the War Machine. The huge robot lumbered to the far edge of the roof and held out one hand. A pale green light flashed from the laser on it's left forearm. A moment later, a flash of light rose from the street in response. "This would be easier if we still had radios," Hayato remarked.
"Be thankful we still have Ketsuen," Yasu replied.
"So what do we do now?" Hayato asked.
"We jump down into the street and start shooting," Yasu said. "Just cause a lot of ruckus and confusion so Kamiko and her Daidoji can sneak in through the basement entrance. With the Locust pulse going out, they won't have too many weapons left strong enough to hurt Ketsuen and their security systems won't see Kamiko coming. We just need to cause enough property damage to make the Cranes think we've come to kill them so they won't be watching the back door."
"And are we?" Hayato asked. "I mean, most of them probably don't even know what Munashi's up to. They're just doing their jobs down there."
"I know that," Yasu said, annoyed. "Don't worry. I'll try not to hurt any of the pretty little Cranes, Hayato. And if you're good, maybe we can take one home."
"Yasu, this is the stupidest plan ever," Hayato said. "We don't have any contingencies, don't have a proper gauge of our enemies tactical abilities, this is a desperate stab to try to do some damage to an enemy we're otherwise powerless against. You know that, don't you?"
"So you want to just let Munashi go?" Yasu replied. "Is that what you're saying?"
"Of course that's not what I'm saying," Hayato said. "I just want you to know what a stupid idea this is."
"Do you have a better plan? I'm listening."
Hayato scowled, his hands tightening on Ketsuen's controls. He shook his head slightly. "This isn't the way I like to do things, Yasu. I'm more of a planner. I don't like going off half-cocked like this. I know you do it all the time, but even you'll have to admit it isn't always the best way to do things."
"Well, yes, sometimes you get beaten up by midgets," Yasu admitted. "But sometimes it works. I'm, hoping this will be one of those times."
"Fortunes be with us," Hayato mumbled.
"Give Kamiko another signal," Yasu said. "Let her know we're ready to move."
"If I die, Yasu, I'm going to come back and haunt you," Hayato remarked, flashing another beam of green light down to the Daidoji.
"I can accept that," Yasu replied. He leaned forward in his own seat, ready to take control of the War Machine's weapon systems.
Kamiko's group in the alley responded with a flash of light, and Ketsuen's engines roared as the War Machine fully came to life. The massive robot stomped over to the edge of the roof, picking up speed.
"Um, Hayato?" Yasu said. "Shouldn't we climb back down the way we came first?"
The scout shook his head. "If we're doing this your way, Yasu, we're doing it right. Time for the element of surprise." The Crab War Machine accelerated, running toward the edge of the roof, toward the Dojicorp Building.
"Oh, crap," Yasu grumbled, quickly reaching for his safety harness.
The robot paused for a fraction of a moment at the edge of the roof, the sound of its thunderous footsteps ceasing. A few of the Crane guards down on the street looked up curiously, wondering what the racket was all about. The great War Machine's legs coiled with the force of its run and extended, launching the metallic monstrosity into the air. The Cranes below stared up in wonder at the huge black shape that suddenly eclipsed the light of the stars above them, flying across the space of the street. Ketsuen pulled its limbs into a tight ball around its body as it impacted brilliantly with the tenth floor of the Dojicorp Building, exploding in a shower of blue and white crystal. The floor beneath the War Machine crumbled, unprepared for the sudden weight and impact. The next floor gave way as well, dropping the black metal beast again. Floor after floor broke as Ketsuen plummeted, shattering windows and spraying rubble in its wake. The Cranes on the street fled as debris rained down on them.
For over a minute, the street was a mess of breaking glass, shattering rock, and screaming. Finally, the cacophony ceased. A massive crater stood in the place of the once graceful and majestic entranceway of Dojicorp. A scar of destruction cut the exact center of the building, cutting away a chunk of architecture roughly the size of a small bus from the ground level to the tenth story. Smoke and dust rose from the wreckage. The Crane guards quickly encircled the crater, training their weapons at the mass of black metal at the bottom.
"Fire!" the commander shouted without hesitation.
The silent street filled with the sounds of automatic gunfire and noisy ricochet. For another full minute the Crane soldiers fired. Two, maybe three grenades detonated in the crater, throwing up plumes of red fire and white smoke. Finally, the commander called for a cease fire. He moved closer to the edge of the crater, hoping to get a better look at whatever his men had just destroyed.
And Ketsuen unfolded from the crater with a metal hiss. The commander looked up with his mouth hanging open. The War Machine gazed down at him impassively with its slit eye. The robot was slightly dented in two places and covered with dust, but completely unharmed by the fall and the Crane onslaught.
"Hi," Yasu's voice said through the loudspeakers. "Sorry about the mess. Is Munashi home?"
The Crane commander backpedaled, quickly shouting orders for his men to open fire once more. Ketsuen rose its right arm, the great claw at the end shielding its face from the hail of bullets that followed. It reached up with its left hand and drew the tetsubo from its back, slamming the weapon down onto the street with tremendous force. The Cranes were thrown to the ground from the shockwave. Many of them turned and began to run.
"You see?" Yasu said, turning to Hayato with a wide smile. "I told you this would work."
"Don't say that, Yasu," Hayato said nervously. "Things always go straight to hell when you say that."
"Oh, don't be silly," Yasu said. "What could they possibly do to us?"
A blur of silver-gold and blue suddenly exploded from the ruined face of the Dojicorp building, streaking past Ketsuen with a sudden metal clang. The War Machine's tetsubo suddenly went spinning from its hand, landing with a thud over a hundred feet away.
"What the?" Yasu said.
"I told you," Hayato said, quickly turning the War Machine about to draw a bead on their new enemy. "You never listen to me, you freaking jinx."
Ketsuen's monitors suddenly focused on single figure standing in the midst of the street. It was tall and willowy, nearly twelve feet tall. It's skin was shiny white metal, covered with white-golden samurai armor. It wore no helmet, but its face curved downward like the beak of a bird. A cloak of long, white metal feathers extended from its back and arms. Its hands held the hilt of a long silver katana, already returned to its sheath. Its eyes shone a cold blue.
"What in Jigoku is that?" Yasu asked.
"By the Fortunes," Hayato swore. "It looks like a Crane War Machine."
"Get back!" the little monk said, fiercely wielding his broomstick. "I've been trained to use this!"
"So I see," the man on the steps replied. "Far be it from me to doubt the martial prowess of my Karasu brothers. I stand at your mercy, young friend."
The monk blinked in disbelief. "You're not--" he said. "You can't be-- It can't possibly--"
"You sound rather confused," the man said with a grin. "Should I return another time?"
The woman on the steps behind him rolled her eyes. She was dressed in sleek green armor, a pair of guns holstered upon her belt. She stepped forward quickly. "Listen," she said. "We don't have a lot of time to screw around here. Are you going to let us in or not?"
The little monk ignored her completely. "Hoshi Jack-sama! The descendant of Shinsei! Here!"
"So they tell me," Jack replied. "Please inform Master Jotaro that I am here. I wish to seek succor in your temple for the evening, and some important friends of mine will wish to do so as well. Can you remember all of that, my friend?"
"Yes, sir!" the boy replied. "Yes, sir, Hoshi Jack-sama!" He darted off down the hallway, then nearly tripped over himself as he stumbled back with a sheepish grin. "I'm sorry, I almost forgot. Please feel free to come into the temple. You are welcome here."
"Thank you," Jack nodded as the boy darted off again. He turned to Daikua Kita. His friendly eyes became worried once more. "Go," he said. "Return to the Palace and find Kameru. I will be safe here until you return, and you will move faster without me."
Kita nodded and turned away.
"Kita," Jack said as she hopped down the stairs. The soldier glanced back at him. "Remember what I told you. Please."
She nodded and disappeared into the streets.
Jack stood at the top of the steps, looking out with a sigh. It was a night like this, he remembered. A night very much like this when it all began. A dark night. A terrible night. The sort of night you wished you could forget. Of course he never would. He turned and entered the temple, passing through the darkened hallways. The old monk ignored the darkness, finding his way without candle or torch-light. He had been in Gekkoshinden many times before, and even without light he could find his way.
In the darkened shadows behind Jack, another monk crouched unseen. He noted the passing of the descendant of Shinsei, and waited until the man had passed out of earshot. He rose quickly and darted up a hidden flight of steps, to the second floor, to the other visitor who had sought protection in the temple this evening. Normally, the temple would be hesitant about allowing a stranger to stay within the walls on such a dangerous night, but this stranger was a very important holy man, and he was to be afforded every luxury the temple had to offer.
He was also to be notified if anyone else was to arrive, immediately and discreetly.
"Sama," the monk said, opening the door and bowing quickly. "Another visitor has arrived at Gekkoshinden."
The man looked up from his newspaper, a small smile playing across his lips. Nearby, a small child with a pale face and rosy cheeks giggled happily. "Really," the man said. "Tell me more, Koan..."
"I am Kin'Iro, the Crane War Machine," a metallic voice announced from Ketsuen's opponent. "You have damaged Dojicorp property. In the name of Asahina Munashi, I demand your surrender."
"A Crane War Machine?" Yasu said, surprised. "How the hell did they make one so quick? Ketsuen's still a prototype!"
"Worry about it later, Yasu," Hayato shouted back. Here it comes!"
The platinum and blue figure launched into motion again, darting in toward Ketsuen faster than the eye could see. Ketsuen lurched hard to the left, trying to shield itself with its oversized claw. Kin'Iro was faster, its blade flying from the saya with a loud clang. Ketsuen spun and swung outward with a backhanded left fist but the Crane was already gone, continuing its run past Ketsuen, its katana already returned to the sheath. Ketsuen turned to face it once more, stumbling slightly as a metallic whine and puff of smoke emerged from its chest.
"Damage report," Yasu said.
Hayato reared back as a shower of sparks erupted from the War Machine's controls. He seized up a small fire extinguisher at his side and sprayed the control panels, waving away the extinguisher's white fumes as rapidly as possible. "Nothing serious," Hayato said, looking at the readouts of one monitor. "That sword is charged with some kind of energy. When he cut us, it overloaded one of the power cells in the lower torso."
"Do we have backups?" Yasu asked.
"Toshimo built this thing, of course it has backups," Hayato said.
The Crane stood one hundred feet down the street, it's back facing the Crabs. Its hands were at its sides, far from its blade. Ketsuen carefully paced its way back down the street toward its tetsubo, lifting the heavy weapon in one hand and watching its opponent carefully.
"What's it doing?" Hayato asked.
"Looks like its waiting," Yasu said. "Probably wants to see if we're dishonorable enough to shoot him in the back."
"Well, are we?" Hayato asked.
"I don't know," Yasu replied. "I'm still thinking about it. Uh oh."
"Uh oh?" Hayato said. "What's 'Uh oh?' Define 'Uh oh.'"
"Looks like our friend here has the Shadowlands Taint," Yasu said, gesturing at a readout on the panel before him. Down the street, the Crane turned slowly to face them again, blue eyes glowing in the darkness. It inclined its head toward them, very slightly.
"The taint?" Hayato asked. "So I guess he's one of Munashi's conspirators, then."
"No," Yasu replied with heavy sarcasm. "It's probably just a coincidence." Yasu took up his controls and squeezed the trigger on either handle. Immediately, Ketsuen aimed its left arm at the Crane War Machine; a beam of pure green light fired from the large barrel on its forearm. Kin'Iro dodged a step back but the beam sliced through its left arm. A tortured metallic scream rose from the armor. It grasped its wounded arm, the silver armor left black and smoking by the jade laser.
"That's right!" Yasu shouted through the loudspeakers, his voice echoing down the street. "You go and tell Munashi. You tell him what happens when you jack with the Crab Clan!" Yasu pressed a series of buttons, causing a pair of small missile racks to emerge from Ketsuen's shoulders. Dozens of small missiles, each the size of a man's fist, streaked toward the Crane. The street immediately burst into flame as the incendiary gases within the missiles were released. The wounded figure of the Crane vanished in the glare.
"Good job, Yasu," Hayato said, wheeling Ketsuen around frantically. "A little overkill, don't you think?"
"Oops," Yasu replied, realizing that they'd lost sight of their opponent. "I guess I got a little excited. I've been wanting to push the 'napalm missile' button since we first got in here. If it helps, I'm pretty sure we hit him."
Ketsuen stomped out into the center of the street, standing at the edge of the flame, it's claw and tetsubo ready. It's single slit eye scanned the street surrounding the fire for any sign of attack, any sign that the Crane still lived.
And then it came. A shimmer of blue from the very heart of the napalm inferno. Kin'Iro launched itself from the harshest part of the fire's glare, a bright aura of blue light sparkling around its body. Hayato and Yasu barely even saw it before it struck, barely moved the tetsubo to block in time. The Crane's blade stopped in mid-swing, dodging away from the tetsubo in a feint and slicing inward once more.
Alarms flashed and blared inside Ketsuen's small cockpit. Hayato watched in horror as the War Machine's tetsubo fell to the street once more, along with the arm that held it, severed cleanly at the bicep.
"It chopped our arm off!" Yasu shouted. "Let me drive!"
"I can handle this," the scout growled, fighting with the controls as the Crane directed a series of quick sword strokes toward them. Most of them deflected off of Ketsuen's huge claw, some cut small gouges into the robot's legs. None were powerful attacks, none were directed with enough force to kill or maim.
"Surrender, Crab," Kin'Iro's voice called out, garbled by a strange mechanical echo. "Your tetsubo and laser are gone. Your missiles will be just as dangerous to yourself at this range. That ponderous claw will never hit me. Soon, you won't even be able to stand."
"Hey, yeah, surrender," Yasu said to Hayato. "That's a really good idea. Maybe if we turn ourselves in, Munashi will give us a nice tour of his garden. Is this guy freaking insane or something?"
"Or something," Hayato said, struggling to parry the Crane's blows. "Can't really talk right now, Yasu. Sort of busy. Think you could, oh, I don't know, help me stop this damn Crane before he fillets us?"
"Damnit, Hayato," Yasu swore. "You shoot. I'll drive." Yasu reached out and flipped the pilot override switch on Ketsuen's control panel, transferring control of the robot's movements to himself.
Hayato glared at Yasu. "Fine," he said. "See if you can do better."
"You're too subtle, Hayato," Yasu replied. "Watch and learn."
The Crane noted the small shift in Ketsuen's movements, the change in the way it reacted to his attacks. It leapt backward several steps to appraise its foe. Ketsuen dropped its claw to one side, crouching low. The Crane's eyes narrowed. The Crab's claw was too far behind its body. It would never be able to deflect an attack to its torso. One cut quick enough could end the fight. Kin'Iro was quick enough.
The Crane darted inward with its blade. To its surprise, Ketsuen charged. Frantically, the Crane tried to dodge aside, the claw swept up behind it, too late to parry Kin'Iro's initial attack but quickly enough to sweep the smaller machine into a deadly embrace. Ketsuen toppled forward onto its stomach, holding the Crane beneath it. The Crane desperately brought its sword around to meet the larger robot's mass. A flash of blue erupted from the Crane War Machine's body and then a sickly metal crunch resounded through the street, followed by a whine of failing electronics and showers of sparks.
For several moments, Hayato simply stared in horror at the silver katana blade piercing the cockpit, stopping only three inches from his face. Damage alarms blared all around them. Monitor screens flashed warnings. Yasu smirked.
"What the heck was that all about?" Hayato snapped. "What have you done?"
"We won," Yasu said. "That toothpick couldn't have survived."
"Neither could we!" Hayato said. "We impaled ourselves on its sword!" He pointed at the katana. "Look at the readouts! You took out two of the three remaining power cells! We'll be lucky if we can limp this thing back to the Kyuden!"
"But we won," Yasu replied mildly. "You can drive again now if you want."
Hayato sighed in irritation, seizing back the controls. With a tortured groan of bent metal and damaged joints, Ketsuen crawled to its knees again. Gingerly, it grasped the hilt of the Crane's sword, sliding it out of its eye and dropping it to the street once more. The large katana bounced on the pavement with a metal clang.
"We'd better get the Jigoku out of here before Munashi shows up," Hayato said, steering the War Machine toward its severed arm. Ketsuen lifted the lost limb in its claw, draping it carefully over one shoulder. Suddenly, the robot paused, its cracked eye frozen upon the crater it had left in the pavement.
There was a perfect hole, knocked all the way through the street to the sewers beneath.
The Crane War Machine was gone.
"Seven Thunders," Yasu said. "It must have used that weird force field to drive itself right down through the street. Well, I'm impressed. I wonder who was driving that thing."
"Good question. Why don't we come back and find out later?" Hayato asked. He turned Ketsuen away from Dojicorp, beginning a ponderous jog down the street.
In the sewers beneath Dojicorp, the War Machine crouched in the shadows. Kin'Iro held its wounded arm in one hand and watched the hole in the street above, waiting for the Crab to come to finish what it had started. It was unarmed now, the power of its force field drained. The wound to its arm had been worse than it had let on. Kin'Iro's metal arm had liquefied, the metal searing itself onto the pilot's actual arm. He could feel the hot steel cutting his arm to the bone. He ignored the pain and waited for the Crab to come after him.
"Well done," squawked a voice in Kin'Iro's helmet. Asahina Suro, Munashi's chief technician. "Well done, indeed. The Crabs are retreating."
"I didn't beat them," the pilot hissed quietly.
"But you didn't lose, either," Suro replied. "The armor functioned nearly as well as we hoped. In some ways, it exceeded our expectations. And so did you. You were ruthless, flawless, a perfect killing machine. Now, come back to Dojicorp. You still have some work to do tonight."
"The armor," the pilot said. "It feels strange. When the Crab shot me, something happened. My head is numb..."
Suro sighed. "I'm sure you'll be fine, revenant," he replied. "After all, you're already dead. What else could happen to you? Get back up to the lab. We'll whip you back to your soulless, murdering, undead self in no time."
The pilot gritted his teeth at the technician's flippant remarks. It was true, all of it. Though something of his old self remained aware, some small part of him knew the evil that he served, there was no more hope for him. He was a puppet now, a thing to dance at Asahina Munashi's whims, a creature with no honor that cared only for death.
Or was he? His mind drifted as he made his way through the tunnels beneath the streets, his left arm throbbing. If he was truly such a monster, then why had he offered to let the Crab's surrender?
The mystery plagued him all the way back to the lab.
"For the Blood of the Phoenix," Nitobe said.
Zin screamed in pain as her blood turned to fire. She stumbled backwards, crumbling to her knees. The Dark Oracle put his glasses in his pocket and rose from the tree stump upon which he had been sitting. He walked toward her with a leisurely pace, breathing in the deep, fragrant air of the forest. He squatted down beside her and cocked his head slightly. Zin gritted her teeth and dug her fingers deep into the soil. Her body trembled as Nitobe's dark magic coursed through her veins.
"This is a magical place," he said. "The Akasha and the pearl beds seem to be shielding you from my maho. You should have exploded in a shower of blood by now and I can't say I'm not disappointed. Still, you can't protect yourself forever, not from magic as powerful as mine. You're out of pearls and you're out of options, as you will find Jigoku's power renders me quite immune to any mortal weapons you may still have concealed upon your person. You'll just die more slowly now unless you stop fighting me. I can tell you right now, Zin, it doesn't really matter to me. Die now or die later, it's all the same to me. I can stand to wait. It's been far too long since I've had a good chance to drink in the beauty of nature."
Zin looked up painfully, her eyes meeting Nitobe's. Her mouth trembled as she struggled to speak.
"How quaint," Nitobe said with a little smile. "You want to tell me something? What is it, Zin? What will your heroic final words be? I'll be sure to jot them down or something."
Zin's jaw trembled and her eyes gleamed. She forced the words out. "You... shouldn't..... you shouldn't.... have..."
"Yes?" Nitobe asked with a smug chuckle. "Enlighten me, please. What shouldn't I have done?"
"You shouldn't have..." she gasped, "You shouldn't... have taken off... your glasses."
Nitobe's brow furrowed in confusion for the barest moment before Zin sprang forward, flinging a handful of hard packed dirt and tiny pebbles into his face. The Oracle cursed as the debris blinded him, stumbling backward and losing concentration upon his spell.
"Water!" he shouted. Clear water materialized and washed over the Oracle's face, quickly cleaning away the particles. He glanced around quickly, shaking with anger and humiliation. He could hear the footsteps padding away from him as Zin fled.
"Damn you girl!" he swore. Nitobe rose to his feet, his long coat flapping in the wind behind him. "Damn you to Jigoku! Asako Nitobe endures such treatment from no one!"
Zin didn't look back. She feared what would happen next, feared what the doctor would do if he got so much as another glimpse of her. She would have to move quickly, leave no trace of her passage for him to follow. She stumbled through the roots and undergrowth, but found her passage begin to go more smoothly. Memories flooded back into her head, memories of a time when she had been trained to move quickly and stealthily through any sort of terrain. Memories of her life as a Seeker, as a human. She didn't have time to dwell on them.
She could hear Nitobe's voice echo through the forest. "STORMS OF JIGOKU!" the Oracle screamed, his voice insane and hysterical. Thunder cracked the deep silence of the Shinomen. A sudden deluge of rain tore through the forest canopy, soaking Zin instantly. She nearly slipped and fell as the earth became mud, nearly choked on the coppery smell that suddenly filled the forest.
Zin realized in horror that the rain was not water. She gazed down at her hands, her dress, now soaked in blood.
"Blood speaks to blood, girl!" Nitobe screamed from behind her. "You cannot escape me! You cannot hide! All of your tricks will avail you nothing, naga! The blood that coats your skin and soaks your clothing will betray you!"
Zin kept running. Behind her, she could hear three quick implosions of air, followed by guttural roars. Something large began to crash through the trees behind her. A sound like cracking whips slashed through the trees, tearing some of the smaller trunks in half. A bubbling sound like a man screaming underwater followed her. She recognized it as the cry of a bakemono, but louder than the ones she had encountered before.
"Yes, you recognize its call, don't you, Zin?" Nitobe's voice called out. "The bakemono is a wonderful creature. So simple, so focused. All it wants to do is to kill. Makes you a bit jealous, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be nice to have a life so uncomplicated? Ah, but it is the way of intelligent life to complicate things, isn't it? Pretending to be a doctor. Pretending to be a naga. Spying on the Phoenix. I suppose we both have a little experience at that, though, don't we?"
Zin looked around for some avenue of escape, some option besides running blindly. There didn't seem to be anything. She could hear the bakemono getting closer. She leapt into the branches of one of the Shinomen's thick ancient trees and quickly pulled herself upward, the ends of her bloodstained dress shredding in the branches.
"Yes, you were a spy among the Phoenix as much as I was, I'll wager," Nitobe laughed. "The naga must be pretty desperate by now, willing to do just about anything to wake themselves up again. Don't tell me that you never took a look at that sword of Sumi's, that pearl handled sword, that sword that gives her a group consciousness with the Champions of the past so very similar to your own Akasha. Don't tell me you never considered taking it up yourself and seeing what kind of magic you could make with it. And don't tell me the Akasha never asked about it because I know that they did. An extraordinary coincidence, don't you think, that you happened to find two Elemental Masters and the daughter of a third on your first night after escaping Kashrak? Simply incredible."
Zin paused. She knew the Oracle's words were meant to unnerve her, unsettle her, trick her into revealing her position. Still, that last bothered her. She had been curious about Ofushikai from time to time. She had wondered, vaguely, what it might do in the hands of a naga. She wondered now if that curiosity had been her own or if it had been implanted there.
Zin snapped back to reality just in time to dodge as a thick tentacle whipped through the tree's branches. She could see the bakemono suddenly latch itself to the tree's trunk and begin to shift its ponderous body upward. It was enormous, larger than any of the others she had faced, the size of a Rokugani bus. She scrambled higher in the branches, heading for where they were thickest in hopes of shielding herself from the monster.
"Another thing you might want to consider about the bakemono," Nitobe laughed from somewhere below. "They become more powerful as they consume more flesh. I wonder what might happen to this one after he finishes you, Zin, the Akasha's chosen warrior. Why don't we find out?"
A tentacle as thick as a man's waist collided into the trunk beside her with a crack. Zin swung herself nimbly to the opposite side of the tree and continued upward. She couldn't keep climbing forever and the trunk was starting to get narrower. Soon it would be thin enough for the monster to snap. She pulled herself onto a branch nearly three feet in diameter and ran out onto its length. With luck, she'd be able to leap from it onto another tree and climb down to safety.
"Black Fortunes, this is ridiculous," Nitobe shouted. "I feel more like a fireman rescuing a treed kitty than a Dark Oracle. I shouldn't and I don't have to put up with this kind of abuse, Zin! DIE!"
Zin felt a pulse of cold wash through the forest as Nitobe invoked his magic, but the spell was not directed at her. She felt the tree shudder beneath her, saw its bark become grey and brittle and dead. The Oracle had drained the tree of moisture, and now it was quickly crumbling. Zin ran as quickly as she could without losing her balance. The canopy at this level was dense; the leaves were so thick she could barely see two feet. None of the other trees nearby were large enough to risk leaping onto. A tentacle cracked just behind her, leaving a deep welt across her hip. The limb beneath her was beginning to crack and droop from her weight.
Zin closed her eyes, and jumped.
For several seconds, she felt only the cool rush of air. Then icy cold seized her body as she met the surface of the water. Zin gasped she began to breathe, gills on the side of her ribcage pulsing. She had fallen into a deep pool hidden just beneath a layer of moss and algae. Fouled by Nitobe's rain of blood, the water filled with an eerie brown light through the hole she had left. A memory clicked in Zin's head, something long buried from the decades she had slumbered in the forest. There was something familiar about this place.
The surface suddenly churned behind her as the Bakemono landed, a monstrous octopus lurching through the aquatic environment. Zin kicked her legs more quickly, her tattered dress hampering her as she swam deeper into the pool. The bakemono drew closer, its greater mass allowing it to dive quickly through the water. Zin aimed for a dark ravine deep in the pool. She reached out with both hands, pulling herself along moss covered rocks and rough-hewn shells, trying to dive into the darkness before the bakemono found her.
Something sharp struck her ankle and held fast. Zin winced in pain, turned about in the water, and kicked. The tentacle that held her calf fast was unaffected by the blow. The dark shape of the bakemono loomed above her. Another snake-like limb shot out to bind Zin's arm, and a third held her waist in a crushing grip. She could see the monster's dark eyes gleam in the water. It's beak-like mouth opened wide as it drew close. A fourth tentacle reached for her neck.
And then Zin realized where she was. With her free hand, she reached desperately for the bumpy surface of the pool. She spoke the words of magic in her mind.
The pool lit up white as dozens of moss covered oysters opened, exposing the shimmering pearls they held within. For a single moment in time, the bakemono's irises contracted in fear, then the pearl bed exploded with the power of Zin's magic. The bakemono was quickly annihilated, rent into less than dust as thousands of pinpricks of pure white magic lanced through its being. The purity of the Akasha consumed the creature, sending its monstrous soul screaming back to Jigoku. The tentacles that bound Zin withered and vanished. When the light faded once more, the water was a clear green, washed clean of Nitobe's blood.
Zin smiled in satisfaction and swam deeper into the pool. The magic of the Akasha was strong here, in the pearl beds of the naga. She could feel the spirits of the Qamar, the Shashakar, and all the others waiting for her below. She swam deeper into the pool to meet them.
Nitobe sighed as he sat down at the edge of the pool, staring at the smoking bits of dead flesh scattered about the edge of the water. He drew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, shaking his head in irritation. How could she have eluded him so? A mere girl? He had never been so humiliated. He could feel the power of the Akasha pulsing in the water below him. He kneeled at the water's edge and poked a tentative finger through the surface. The water suddenly glowed a bright green once more and Nitobe drew back his hand with a sharp intake of breath. Zin had awakened the power of the Akasha pearl beds. Even he, the Dark Oracle of Water, could not approach a place so pure.
But water was water, and Nitobe's heightened awareness could still sense the pool's depths. The pearl bed was fed by a small stream, too small for a person to hide in. When Zin surfaced again, she would have to surface here.
And Nitobe planned to be prepared for Zin's return.
I am Yashin, I am Ambition.
The flames of the pyre burn with ecstasy. With the fervent greed that only fire can possess, they consume the body of the fallen Emperor, the man the world once knew as Yoritomo Kenjin. Only the man's truest supporters are allowed at the funeral, and thus the funeral is a small one.
Outside the palace, the sound of thunder roars. The armies of the undead press their advantage, knowing full well how weak the Empire has become without its charismatic leader.
And I have found a new wielder, if an uncertain one. The stocky man's pale green eyes stare down at me as if I were a coiled serpent. He is Kitsune Kama, the Jade Champion. For three days he has carried me, since he took the head of Doji Chomei and spilled the Crane's corpse into Golden Sun Bay for the fishes to feed. His magic has given him knowledge of my true power, and yet he carries me. I laugh at his foolishness.
"So what now, Yoritomo Hideki?" the Ikoma asks. The old historian watches the young prince's eyes expectantly.
"Will you take up the mantle of your father?" Bayushi Yamato hisses, his tortured voice a savage whisper. "Will you name yourself Emperor and continue this hopeless war, or will you flee to the safety of your islands?" The withered Scorpion limps back and forth across the battlements of the palace, the terrible wounds inflicted upon him by Kyoso no Oni not sapping his energy in the least. He no longer wears his mask, has not worn it since Yoritomo Kenjin took the throne on that day so long ago.
Hideki closes his eyes. The young bushi's face is stained with soot and streaked with tears. His hands clutch a leather-bound book, his father's book, the kanji of the five rings inscribed in gold upon its cover. Hideki is not a wise man like his father, and he knows it. Hideki is a warrior, a killer, not a man suited to command. He knows it. Hideki is no Emperor. He knows it. He will step down, and all of Rokugan will crumble to the power of the Oni Lord.
Hideki opens his eyes, meeting the odd, burned visage of the Scorpion. "I have never backed down from anything in my life," the young man says bluntly. "I will kill the Oni Lord, or I will die trying. I will destroy Rokugan myself before I allow the Shadowlands to consume us."
"You may have to," the Scorpion chuckles to himself. "You may have to."
More thunder erupts outside the palace. Hideki's eyes narrow.
"I'm ready to fight, Yoritomo-sama!" the young ronin, Nariaki exclaims. In the last few years the loyalty he displayed for the Osamu line has multiplied a thousand fold under the command of Kenjin and his line. The ronin is known for his dog-like loyalty to the Yoritomo, and the loyalty of those that follow him. Over a dozen assassination attempts in the first year were averted by the ceaseless vigilance of the young man. Many whisper that without Nariaki, there would be no Yoritomo, and no Empire.
"There is no fight here today," Hideki says, his hands tightening on the journal. "Otosan Uchi will burn today. We can do nothing but evacuate, and fight another day."
"But Otosan Uchi has never fallen!" Ikoma Genju says quickly. The young herald looks flustered, his face as pale as his dyed hair.
"We both know that is not true, Genju," Yoritomo Hideki says with a small smile. "You, of the Ikoma, remember more of our history than most. You did your best to protect our past, even when the libraries were burned."
Genju nods quietly. He has studied in the Ikoma Libraries. He remembers White Stag. He remembers the War in the Heavens. He remembers the Wrath of Beyond. He knows that Otosan Uchi has fallen many times, and has always returned. Only the name is important. Only the tradition is important. As long as the Emperor lives, there will always be an Otosan Uchi.
"As you once protected the past, Ikoma, will you protect our future?" Hideki asks, an odd, unreadable look in his eyes.
"I do not understand, Yoritomo-sama," the young herald replied. "Our future?"
"Take this," Hideki says, handing him the journal he holds. "A copy of my father's journal. It will be needed one day, but nothing I or my descendants can do will protect it. Take it. Read it. Hide it and hide yourself. Do you realize what I am asking, Ikoma Genju?"
The Lion nods gravely as he accepts the journal. "Yes, my Emperor," he says. He reaches up and removes the mantle that hangs about his neck, removes the mon of the Lion Clan and the Ikoma family from his shoulders. The scrap of cloth flutters away upon the breeze, forever.
"Begin the evacuation, Nariaki," Hideki says to the ronin, who quickly bows and darts away. "The rest of you, listen to me. I will be Emperor, but I will not be the Emperor my father was. Under my rule, I promise you will bleed. I promise you will die. But I promise you will never cower before the power of Akuma again. What say you all to this?"
The battlements are quiet now except for the crackle of the pyre's flame. Ikoma Genju, Bayushi Yamato, Kitsune Kama, all of them look upon their new Emperor, some with respect, some with fear.
All of them bow.
"You have the promise of a Scorpion," Yamato says, rising with a dark chuckle. The ever-present Enforcer in Yamato's shadow rises as well, nodding to Hideki with respect. It is more acknowledgment than Yamato's dark wraith of a bodyguard has ever given any man.
Hideki's eyes find Kama. His sharp eyes have already noticed the spell I weave upon the Fox. "You hesitated," he said. "I will not have a man under my command who is anything but certain. Why did you hesitate, Kama?"
The shugenja's eyes suddenly widen. I curse in fury. He realized the truth quicker than most; I have forgotten that the Fox bear the blood of the spirit world. I did not weave my magic strongly enough, quickly enough, upon the shugenja's mind. He draws me from his belt, still within the scabbard, and throws me to the ground in anger.
"Doji Chomei's sword!" the shugenja snarls. "It is cursed! It seeks to sap my will! Already it seeks to turn me against you as it did Chomei."
Hideki picks me up carefully and draws me from my scabbard, gazing into my razor blade with dead eyes. I reach out and brush his soul with my power. I feel the violence that wells within him, and I know that his bloodline is doomed.
"In the name of my father," Hideki says. He turns toward the stone battlements of the palace. He raises me high and brings my blade down upon the cold granite.
Pain courses through my numbed existence as my steel body shatters into a thousand pieces. Some are so small, they drift upon the wind forever. Some are hurtled over the side of the castle. My hilt is later tossed into the bay as Hideki flees the Imperial City.
It does not matter. In time, all the pieces will be found.
And though Yoritomo II no longer holds me, he will always carry a part of me with him.
The young Crane leaned back heavily against the brick wall, rubbing her eyes with two fingers. Where had that vision come from? What had that been about? She sensed snippets of it still, the Yoritomo Emperors, the sword, Doji Chomei. What had it all meant? It didn't make any sense. How could Ambition have been shattered? The sword had been whole when she first saw it in the museum, with no mention of its destruction. She remembered then the flaw she had noticed once, the crack that made the sword look as if it had been broken. Still, that did not explain who would have repaired the bloodsword, how a nemuranai of such power could be repaired, and why such a dangerous artifact would have been featured openly in an Imperial Museum.
And where had the vision come from? She could feel a pulling upon her soul, a tugging toward the direction of the Diamond Palace. Though she hadn't held the blade for long, could it still have some sort of connection to her? What could it still want from her? It had already taken everything.
And if the blade still existed, who could be wielding it now?
Kamiko's heart froze in her chest as she realized the answer. She had sensed Ambition's hand guiding her father during the failed coup. Munashi had somehow disguised Ambition as Shukujo, the Ancestral Sword of the Crane. After Meda and Yoritomo VI fell, Kameru had been the one to take up her father's sword. If Kameru held Ambition now, if the blade was twisting his soul as it had her father's, then it didn't matter what she did here at Dojicorp tonight. Asahina Munashi had already won. She could hear the old priest's laughter. If Kameru had Yashin now, all of Rokugan was doomed.
"Kamiko?" Daidoji Yoshio asked, concerned. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not," Kamiko said. "You ever wake up from a dream into a nightmare?"
"What?" Yoshio replied, his big head pivoting awkwardly on his thin neck.
"There's the signal," Daidoji Iku said, pointing up at the green light above them. "Ketsuen is in position." The soldier took a large flashlight from his belt and flashed it back up at the Crabs, quickly switching it off once more so it wouldn't be disabled by a Locust pulse.
"So what do we do?" Daidoji Chiyo asked, looking at Kamiko uncertainly. "Are we going through with this?"
The other three soldiers turned toward her expectantly. The Daidoji refugees had come to look upon Kamiko as their leader after their escape from the Diamond Palace and subsequent salvation among the ranks of Toturi's Army. When she had told them the truth about their mission an hour ago, she had seen that loyalty being tested in their eyes. She was asking them to sneak into their own home, quite possibly to be called to fight their own friends and kin, on a mission to kill a man that they had once respected as much as their daimyo. Whether they succeeded or failed they would be viewed as traitors by their own clan.
Still, they followed her. They were soldiers. They needed a leader. Without Eien, she was it. They would walk into Jigoku if she commanded it, but they could only be as confident about their mission as she was.
Another time for mysteries. Right now, they needed decisive leadership. Kamiko pushed the visions away, standing straight and tall. "Let's get ready," she said. "Hisae, are you ready to go back underground?"
"I dunno," the big man laughed. "I still have bad dreams after the last time. Will you hold my hand, Kamiko-sama?"
Kamiko narrowed her eyes. "No," she said with a coy smile. "But I can arrange for Iku to."
Iku held out one hand with a broad smile. Hisae sneered in revulsion. The soldiers laughed, the moment of tension broken. Hisae produced a short crowbar from his web belt and pried aside the manhole cover at their feet. Unshouldering his rifle and switching on the flashlight just under the barrel, the large man hopped down through the opening. After several minutes, he whistled the clear signal to the others. They quickly filed down after him.
The tunnels here were newer than the ones beneath the Diamond Palace. All of the construction near Dojicorp was relatively new, though the construction still bore the Rokugani penchant for elaborate twists, turns, and tangents. Luckily, they were close to their destination. Even more fortunate, Daidoji Iku had often been assigned to tunnel patrol when he had served under Eien. He knew these passageways well and knew how best to avoid the guards. The tunnels were neat and tidy here, or as neat as a sewer tunnel could be expected to be, at any rate. A stream of dark water flowed between catwalks on either side. A line of lights mounted in the ceiling stretched off in either direction, all dark now from the Locust pulses.
Above them gunfire, explosions, and various other sounds of chaos and destruction suddenly erupted. Dust sifted down from the ceiling of the tunnel and the ground vibrated as if from a minor earthquake.
Kamiko glanced up and rose one eyebrow. "I guess that means Yasu's in position," she said.
"What in Jigoku are they doing up there?" Hisae whispered.
"Providing a distraction," Kamiko replied. "Let's just keep moving before he falls through the street on top of us."
The Daidoji nodded and fell into line once more. They doused the lights on their flashlights; if another Locust pulse came they would be deactivated anyway. The five Cranes donned greenish tinted goggles from their web belts, passive tetsukami night sights that would allow them some limited amount of vision even in complete darkness. Kamiko gestured to the others, signaling a cease in verbal communication until further notice. Iku darted off ahead of the others, taking the point and carefully peering around the intersection just ahead for guards. When he saw none, he motioned for them to follow. For several minutes they proceeded this way while the sounds of Ketsuen's rage echoed above them.
Finally, a resounding crunch of metal and stone sounded far above them, and then all further sounds of combat stopped. The Cranes glanced at one another nervously, wondering what that might portend for their Crab allies. Kamiko gestured and they all kept moving.
A few minutes later, Iku dropped into a crouch behind a corner, signaling sharply for the others to hold their ground. After a moment, he glanced back at Kamiko and pointed to her, signaling for her to join him. She quietly moved forward, crouching down as she walked. She dropped down beside Iku and peered around the wall where she indicated. Her eyes widened when she saw what waited for them.
A large security door, much like the ribbed metal doors found in a parking garage, separated the far wall. This was their goal, the subterranean entrance to Dojicorp that the guards used. However, the spectacle beside it was entirely unexpected. Sitting with its back to the wall beside the door was a massive warrior of silver and gold. Its armor was dented and scorched. The cloak of metallic feathers that spread from his back was tattered. The warrior was enormous, nearly double the height of Hisae, the largest of the soldiers. It simply sat where it was, waiting, clutching the smoking wound upon its left arm.
Iku looked at Kamiko, the question in his eyes apparent. Kamiko merely shook her head. She had no more idea what the thing was than he did. One thing was for certain, they weren't going to get into the building past it, not without knowing what it was capable of. Kamiko wracked her brain for a plan, some way to draw the thing away without risking the lives of her men.
As it turned out, the solution presented itself to her. The door to the Dojicorp Building opened with a metal grind. A team of five white coated technicians stepped out into the tunnel. They surrounded the metal warrior, surveying the damage to its limbs and armor, noting down their findings on the clipboards they carried. One seemed vaguely familiar to Kamiko, one of Munashi's friends. Her eyes narrowed. Any friend of Munashi's was certainly someone to be wary of.
Munashi's technician seemed to command the others, directing them to note down the areas of greatest damage. A few of them produced tools from their belts and pockets, beginning to prod at the damage to the warrior's arm. After a few moments of this, he stepped forward and reached to either side of the warrior's head, working his fingers beneath some unseen handles. After a sudden hissing release of pressure, the warrior's helm was pulled aside.
Iku's eyes widened in shock. Kamiko was hardly able to prevent herself from cursing out loud.
The man inside the armor was Daidoji Eien.
"Lord Yoritomo," Tsuruchi Shinden said, bowing smartly to the Emperor with a click of his boots.
Kameru and Ryosei were still in the Emperor's study, though several dozen Wasp and Mantis guardsmen had joined them since the blackout. Kameru strode forward to meet Shinden and watched the man quietly for a moment before he realized the guardsman was waiting for acknowledgment. Kameru coughed nervously. He still wasn't used to the intricacies of being an Emperor. "Report," he said.
"We are prepared to leave, my lord," Shinden said. "We should go at once. The Locust riot gangs are swiftly approaching the Palace as we speak." Kameru nodded and turned to his sister. "Ryosei," he said. "Are you ready to go?"
"I guess so," she said, clearly frightened. "Are you sure this will be safe?"
"I'll be with you," Kameru said. "Nothing will happen to you."
"Excuse me, my lord, but I don't think that would be for the best," Shinden said.
Kameru looked at the Captain of the Guard, suspicion clear upon his face. "Mind explaining why?" he asked.
Shinden nodded. "For all intents and purposes, Ryosei is the heir to the Diamond Throne," the Wasp replied. "If something should happen to you, my lord, she is the only one with a clear claim. It would be safer if the two of you were kept apart. The Imperial Line must be protected."
"What?" Kameru shouted, angry. "What are you talking about? I can't abandon her!
"No, it's all right, Kameru," Ryosei said. She put a hand on her brother's shoulder and managed a smile. "What Shinden says makes sense. Rokugan can't afford to be without an Emperor right now. We're too much of a target together. We have to split up."
"Where will you go?" he asked. "Where would you be safe?"
"I'll go find the Agasha," she said. "Hopefully, they'll let me find the Factory again."
"Shinden," Kameru said, turning to the Wasp again. "Who do you trust, more than any of your other men?"
"Daikua Kita," he said without hesitation. "She was the one I sent with Jack to find the temple." A young bushi stepped forward at Shinden's side. Kameru recognized her; she had been the one who had handed him his father's sword at the coronation.
"Go with my sister," Kameru said. "Along with anyone else you trust with my sister's life."
"Yes, my lord," she said. She opened her mouth again, uncertain, as if she were about to say something.
"My lord," Shinden said quickly. "We must hurry. We need to evacuate you as soon as possible."
Kameru nodded. He turned to his sister and embraced her a final time. "Be brave, 'Sei," he said. "Father would have wanted you to be brave."
"The same goes for you," she said. She smiled a bit. "Come back alive, Kam. I want to be Emperor even less than you do."
"I promise," he said, grinning. Kameru turned to join the dozen Imperial Guardsmen who waited for him. He realized he still held Yoritomo Kenjin's journal. It was too late to return it to the desk. Shinden was a consummate professional; so desperate to evacuate his Emperor that Kameru thought the man might knock him out and drag him out of the Palace if there was another second of delay. He tucked the ancient book into the pocket of his jacket as it was placed over his shoulders.
He prayed to Osano-wo that his sister would be safe. He prayed that they would all be safe.
"Hey, Saigo!" The huge ronin clapped his hands noisily in Saigo's ear. Isawa Saigo glanced up from his notebook with a start, blinking in surprise.
"Mikio?" the prophet said, looking around blankly. "What did you do that for?"
"I called you three times," Mikio replied. "You blanked out on me over there. You're supposed to be keeping track of communications." The big ronin grumbled to himself, turning the wheel sharply as the Crescent Moon banked around the corner of a building. Through the monitor screens before them, they could see the city streets. A few people stared up blankly at the gigantic alien vehicle.
Saigo looked down at the panel before him. "There's nothing, Mikio," he said. "Everything's knocked out anyway. What am I supposed to be listening to?"
"I dunno," the ronin shrugged. "Trouble, I guess."
"What kind of trouble?" Saigo retorted. "The only trouble we've run into so far was that crazy old man on the rooftop."
"Yeah," Mikio said, nodding. "That guy was a pretty good shot. I think he took out one of the searchlights. I still think we should go back and see what he was doing."
"Let it go, Mikio," Ginawa said, striding into the cockpit and looking over the monitor screens. "Remember, despite whatever cosmetic changes you've made, this is still a Senpet vehicle. We can only expect to meet a bit of fear and distrust."
"Yeah, I guess so," Mikio said. He continued steering the vehicle, staring at the monitor screens in brooding silence.
Ginawa rose an eyebrow as he settled into the seat beside the mechanic. "Is there some kind of problem, Mikio?" he asked.
"Just wondering if we could go after the damned Locusts yet," he said with a shrug. "We've been tooling around the city for two hours now. I feel like a tourist."
"Necessity," Ginawa replied. "You know better than to go into battle with an untested weapon, Mikio. We haven't had an opportunity to take the Moon out on a real test run yet. We need to see if there are any problems with her before we go up against the Locust."
"The Palace will be a crater by the time we get there," Mikio said.
"Hiroru will take care of the Emperor," Ginawa said. "Have faith in him."
"Trust the spandex ninja-boy. Yeah, that's the most stable thing you've said all day, Ginawa. My confidence is restored." Mikio shook his head ruefully, turning the Moon into another sharp turn that nearly made Saigo drop his notebook.
"Dairya trusts Hiroru, that's enough for me," Ginawa said.
"If you say so, boss," Mikio said noncommittally.
"I say so," Ginawa replied. Inwardly, Ginawa wondered if he really believed that. He had thought he knew Dairya. He'd trusted the man, depended upon him. If it hadn't been for Dairya, he'd still be wandering the streets of Little Jigoku alone, penniless, without purpose. Now, with all of Dairya's tales of kolat and conspiracies, he didn't know what to think. Why had Dairya really formed Toturi's Army? What was their purpose?
"I'm going to check on the others," Ginawa said with a tired sigh. He rose from his seat and turned toward the cabin exit. "Give the Moon one more round around the harbor, then we'll go find out what the Locust are up to."
The doors of the cabin closed with a hiss behind Ginawa. Mikio glanced over at the prophet, a wicked grin on his face. "Hey," the mechanic said. "You want to fly the Moon, kid?"
"Me?" Saigo said, looking back at Ginawa in surprise.
"I'm not going into combat without a co-pilot," Mikio replied. "You're already sitting in the chair."
"Oh, well, yeah, except I have no idea what the hell I'm doing," Saigo replied. "I just came up here to sit because I was getting airsick in the personnel compartment."
"Hey, don't sweat it, kid," Mikio laughed. "You'll do fine. You're a shugenja, right?"
"Technically," he said. "What's that have to do with anything?"
"Tetsukami backup controls," Mikio replied. "The Senpet haven't gone in for the whole tetsukami race like you Phoenix have, but they've made a few innovations here and there that might surprise you. Their sahir, you know, those are kind of like their shugenja, have tetsukami interfaces in all Senpet vehicles that allow them to take control in case of emergency."
"But I can't fly a Scarab," Saigo replied, folding his notebook closed and replacing his pen in his pocket. "I can't even fly a gyrocopter. I tried once. I broke my ankle and gave myself a concussion."
"You don't have to pilot it," Mikio said. "It's magic. Just grab the controls and concentrate. Tokei tried it out once already. He said it was really user friendly. Give it a try."
Saigo looked at the large, green-handled wheel in front of him. The ranks of buttons, switches and gauges beside him. He tentatively reached out and took the grips in either hand and glanced at Mikio nervously.
"One warning. Scratch the paint job and you're walking home," Mikio said, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms.
Saigo swallowed hard, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He didn't expect anything to happen, really. After all, he wasn't really a very good shugenja. Except for the rare burst of inspiration, mostly in the form of his prophecies, magic didn't come very easily for him.
The effect was immediate. Suddenly, he could feel the rush of wind over his wings. He could feel the fuel burning in his engines. He could feel the power of the missile pods crouching just within his hull. He could see the streets below, his piercing searchlights cutting through the darkness. One of them was slightly cracked by the shotgun shell the old man had fired earlier. He wasn't just flying the Crescent Moon. He was the Crescent Moon. He flexed his wings experimentally and took a dip toward the street, bringing himself back up once more swiftly and veering to the right, just between two buildings. He flew straight up, passing through the tiers of highways and buildings, cutting over the skyline of the city. He wheeled toward the harbor, engaging his engines with a burst of speed that thrilled him to the core of his being. He was flying. He was quick, powerful, invincible. He could do anything.
Mikio slapped him.
"Ow!" Saigo said, suddenly slipping back into reality. He blinked and rubbed his face. "What did you do that for?"
"Snapping you back to the real world, ace," Mikio said, staring fiercely at the controls before him. "You have any idea where you've taken us?"
A loud explosion roared outside. "Um, no," Saigo said, glancing up at the screens. "Where?"
Another thunderous roar sounded off of the hull. "Oh," Saigo said, smiling apologetically as he looked up at the screens. The moon was flying over the harbor. Two large destroyers were following in pursuit, firing their surface to air cannons at the Senpet vehicle.
"What the hell's going on in here?" Ginawa demanded, charging into the cabin. "Are you trying to kill us, Mikio? Who's firing at us?" The old ronin quickly strapped himself into the seat beside the mechanic.
"Cap'n Saigo decided to have us pay a little visit to the Mantis fleet," Mikio said tersely, turning sharply to one side to avoid a volley of missiles. "The Locust pulse didn't extend this far into the bay. I don't think they're happy to see a Scarab on their turf."
"Can't you radio them or something?" Saigo asked quickly. "Let them know who you are?"
"Good idea, Saigo," Mikio said. A clatter of machinegun fire echoed against the hull. "Hey, guys? Yeah, we aren't really Senpet. I know we look like we're invading, but really we're just a bunch of ronin that rebuilt a Senpet hovercraft in our garage and thought it would be a good idea to go for a joyride out in the harbor. I'm sure they'll understand."
"Mikio, this no time for levity," Ginawa said stiffly. "Can you outrun them?"
"Sure," Mikio said. "But trying to outrun them and dodge all the ordinance they're throwing at us at the same time will be tricky. Part that really bothers me is, the firepower in this Scarab could probably send one of those destroyers to the bottom of Golden Sun with no problem and probably the other one, too. They should be calling for backup or something before they start something like this."
"Mikio," Ginawa said carefully. "Please don't sink the Mantis navy."
"I'll try, boss, but they're not making it easy." The Moon shuddered as one of the Mantis shells hit home, deflecting off of the heavy armor but sending the ship plummeting in a dead dive toward the harbor. The roar of the engines suddenly went dead.
"Oh, man!" Mikio shouted. "Everybody take a deep breath!"
And suddenly the Crescent Moon's engines flared to life. Turning upward at the last moment with a burst of speed, it narrowly missed the waves and took to the sky once more. A final burst of bullets streaked toward it from the Destroyers and the Moon did a neat flip, easily avoiding the fire and speeding off back into the safety of the city once more. Making a sharp turn between two buildings, the Scarab stopped immediately, hovering silently in the darkness of a large vacant lot.
Saigo sat back from the controls, gasping for breath. "You're right, Mikio," he said. "It is pretty user friendly."
Mikio and Ginawa stared at Saigo in shock.
"Okay, well, I guess we've proven that it still flies," Mikio said quietly. "Can we go take care of the Locusts now?"
"In a minute," Ginawa said, slowly rising from the seat. "I think I'm going to go in the back and try to make my heart start beating again."
"Zin," the voice called, and the world was filled with triumph.
"Zin!" echoed another.
"Zin?" replied a third. A chorus of countless more followed, their dim awareness emerging from the end of a long slumber.
Zin smiled as she swam deeper into the pool. She could not see her brothers and sisters. The magic of the Cobras would be concealing them in their slumber, even to her. She could hear their voices, however, and she knew they were close by. She dove ever deeper into the seemingly fathomless pool. Countless oysters mounted upon the walls about her opened as she past, lighting her path with the eerie green radiance of the magical pearls that they carried.
And still she swam. She swam seemingly to the center of the earth itself. Around her, she saw markings on the ancient stones. Once, before the race of man had come, this had been dry land. This had been a great naga city, perhaps the greatest of them all. Here, the Qa'tol, the greatest of all the naga, had held benevolent domain under his people, uniting them into one race and one mind with his wisdom. In this city, the five bloodlines of her people had been born. In this city, the Akasha had begun.
But it was not her Akasha. Zin's mind clouded. They were not her bloodlines. She was not Asp or Constrictor or Greensnake or Cobra or Chameleon. She was a human, not born to these creatures. For the first time, she felt the touch of the Akasha on her mind and felt how truly strange and alien it was. A fathomless pit of memories and voices. An endless coil of souls upon souls, ever regenerating themselves, ever intertwining and combining. For the first time since arriving in the Shinomen, she was afraid. Asako Nitobe and the shiyokai were right. She was an outsider, and she would always be one. Zin was afraid.
And then she found herself sitting on a wide plain. The plain was featureless, dark, and endless. Two great spheres lit the sky above her, one bright, one pale. She was alone.
"No, not alone," the voices said to her. "Never alone."
"I can't do this," Zin said, hugging her arms to herself and shivering. "I'm not one of you. I'll never be one of you."
And then they were there with her. Two figures, one large and powerful, his coils heaping behind him in a great pile. The Shahadet. The other was small and hunched and for a moment something in its eyes reminded her of Kashrak. A large hood folded behind its reptilian face, a cobra's hood. The Shashakar, Kashrak's father. Knowledge of one's heritage was unusual among the naga, but Kashrak was an unusual sort of naga. Shahadet and Shashakar nodded to her in greeting.
"Do not fear us, Zin," the Shahadet said. "We mean you no harm. We have never meant you any harm."
"Destiny's path is often rugged," the Shashakar added. "Perhaps you would not have chosen this path had you the choice, but perhaps it may yet lead you go glory."
Zin shook her head. "I don't want glory. I don't want any of this. I just want my life back. I want to know who I am."
"Memories come and go, Zin," the Shahadet said. "But we are who we make ourselves. The Akasha cannot change who you are. The Kashrak cannot change who you are. Nitobe and the shiyokai cannot change who you are."
"Look at me!" Zin said. "I'm not a human! I'm not a naga! What am I?"
"You are the Zin," the Shashakar replied. "Like every other creature that lives, you are unique. You cannot be defined. You are you, and that is that. Now, the time has come for you to choose. Will you save our people as we once saved you?"
Zin paused her eyes on the ground. Fear gripped her, of what she wasn't certain. Of everything. What would become of her now? What had she become? If she accepted the naga's quest, would she even be able to complete it or would she fail them as she failed the Crab so long ago?
A third figure appeared among them, larger than the others. She was tall, with legs like a human's. Her golden eyes shone with power. The Qamar, Kashrak's mother. Zin glanced up at the creature, her eyes full of doubt.
"The choice has ever been yours, Zin," the Qamar said. "You are one of us now. We will support you. But know this; the Dark Oracle of Water awaits you on the surface. Return, and you may die. Stay here with us and be safe, but he will certainly kill Szash and Iuchi Kenyu and Sumi."
"Sumi?" Zin replied, surprised. "She's here?"
The Qamar nodded. "You are kindred with the Phoenix," the naga replied. "Your paths are more similar than you imagine, and your destinies are intertwined."
"But what can I do?" Sumi asked. "I'm so confused. In Otosan Uchi, it was all so clear, but it seems like the closer I come to finishing this the further away it gets. My head is so clouded now. My memories are like ghosts. I can barely see them, and then they flit away. Am I a naga or am I a human?"
"You must decide that for yourself," the Qamar said. "Should you decide to stay and slumber with us, you will be welcome in the short time we have left. However, I beg you to save us. You are our final hope, our only hope. Only you can wield the Akasha Blades."
"Akasha Blades?" Zin replied, confused.
The Qamar nodded. Suddenly, she held a large knife in either hand. The blades were strange, long and triangular, stabbing weapons that extended over the wielders knuckles rather than from a vertical handle. Both were over a foot long and looked razor sharp. One was bright white, the other inky black. Both seemed to be carved somehow of pure pearl, though no oyster that ever lived could ever possibly make pearls large enough to cut those weapons.
"The Akasha is a living system, and like all living systems it fights to protect itself when outside forces seek to harm it," the Qamar said. "The blades are a product of the pearl beds. Over one hundred years, our magic has struggled to produce these weapons, the only thing that can cure the Akasha's Wound. They have remained here until the Kashrak could be found, until a worthy bearer arose. You must be the vector of that cure, Zin. Only a true naga can wield the blades' magic."
Zin looked troubled at that, but said nothing.
The Qamar smiled with encouragement, then continued. "The Blade of the Pale Eye," she said, holding up the black blade. "The Blade of the Bright Eye," she said, holding up the white blade. "The Blade of The Pale will sever its victim from the power of the Dark One. To use it against Kashrak will cast the Foul from his being. His taint will be removed, never to plague our people again. The Blade of the Bright Eye will sever its victim from the Akasha forever. Kill Kashrak with it and he will be removed from the Akasha. His madness and disease will plague us nevermore. You must use both blades, Zin, to fully extinguish the Kashrak's evil." The Qamar spun the knives in both hands, so that the blades lay along her forearms. She offered the blades to Zin, handle first.
Zin reached out for the weapons, but hesitated. "I can't," she said. "I don't know if I'm strong enough. I couldn't beat the pennaggolans without Kenyu. Nitobe would have killed me if I hadn't stumbled onto the pearl beds. I'm not worthy."
"Then make yourself worthy," the Qamar said, her voice slightly stern. "Zin, no one is born a hero. Circumstances demand that we rise to the occasion or be destroyed. This is your chance, Zin. Save our people. Save yourself. End the circle of pain and madness and perhaps one day you will have the luxury to discover who you truly are. For now, take the blades and kill the Kashrak before it is too late for us all."
Zin met the Qamar's golden eyes with her own, and nodded. She took the blades with as much confidence as she could muster. To her, it didn't seem much, she even fumbled with the dark blade as she took it, but it was enough. The blades were cold and heavy. She sensed some sort of magic deep within them, but it was dormant. They didn't seem as powerful as the Qamar had implied. She stared into the blades' surfaces, trying to understand their power and the strange destiny they shared with her.
When she looked up once more, she was alone on the great plain.
"I'm alone," she said. "They left me."
"Don't blame them for that, they're very sick," said a voice. "They did the best they could."
Zin whirled about, holding the blades ready, one high one low. She found she wielded them as if she had held them all her life. A single man stood before her, dressed in ancient green samurai armor. A crooked smile spread across his elegant features.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "What are you doing here?"
"My human name is Mirumoto Daini," the man replied. "But the Akasha knows me as the Daini."
"A human?" she said, shocked. "Here?"
"Shocked?" he asked mildly. "Or disappointed that you weren't the first? I think you've forgotten something about the Akasha, or maybe you just don't remember. No one's forced to be part of this. It's not a disease. It's a family. Anyone with a soul open enough can become a part of the Akasha. I did. You did. You look on it like a curse, but it's not. Stop fighting what you are and draw strength from it."
"I don't know if I can do that," Zin said. "I don't know if I'm strong enough."
Daini sighed. "You're strong enough, Zin. Believe me. I've been here for a long time, Zin, and I've forward to meeting you again. Yakamo and I watched you very carefully while you were with us."
"Yakamo?" Zin replied.
"Hida Yakamo," Daini replied. "You know, the Crab Thunder? Fellow with a big jade hand? Was knocked out on the Day of Thunder by Fu Leng himself?" Daini made small slapping motions in the air. "Also part of the Akasha. Seldom noted historical fact."
"Fortunes," Zin said.
Daini nodded. "It was a case very much like yours. He died before his time and the naga felt responsible, so they stepped in to save him. He was very interested in your progress until he went on to be reborn eighteen years ago."
"Reborn as a naga?" she asked.
"No, human," Daini replied. "The naga do not have a monopoly on reincarnation, just ask the Phoenix. Yakamo needed to be reborn so he could be there on the Day of Thunder and all that. It's unfortunate that Yasu no longer has his connection to the Akasha, but it happens. Before he left, he gave me a message for you, Zin."
"Yes?" she asked.
"He wished you good luck," Daini replied. "And he said to tell you that you are not alone. That you're never alone." The dark, illusionary world of the Akasha began to fade. Zin could see the jagged rocks and green light of the water begin to reappear around her.
Zin nodded, her shoulders straightening in confidence. "Thank you, Daini," she said.
"Not a problem," Daini replied, his form beginning to grow transparent. "Not much time left for conversation. I suppose I shall see you in the next life, Zin." Daini vanished.
"I look forward to it," Zin answered. She still held the large knives in her hands. That much had been real.
Armed with the Akasha's weapons, armed with new confidence, Zin swam back towards the surface.
"Congratulations, Shinjo Rakki," Emperor Yoritomo VII said, pride beaming upon his face. "You're a hero to your clan, Rokugan, and the world. You've saved all of us."
Shinjo Rakki hefted the no-dachi over his shoulder and chuckled, hopping down off of the enormous severed head of the oni. "Shucks, it was nothing," he said. "Just doing my job."
"Oh, he's humble, too!" squealed a pretty teenage girl in the front row. "Shinjo Rakki, you're my hero!" The girl ran forward and hugged Rakki with both arms. Moments later, dozens more similarly screaming and smiling young girls also mobbed him.
"Ladies, ladies!" Rakki chuckled. "Really, I'm honored but I was trying to have a chat with the Emperor here."
"No, really, Rakki, it's okay," the Emperor said, looking wistfully at Rakki's admirers. "I guess I'll just go get some coffee or something and come back when you're done. Have fun, Rakki-sama."
"Well, if you say so, my lord," Rakki said. "Okay, girls, who's first?"
Something slapped him across the face. Rakki sat straight up and glanced around, confused. He was in a small room. Three men sat next to the bed he was laying on, looking at him expectantly. The small room was lit by candle light. In the distance, he could hear shouts and gunfire.
"Um, hi," he said, rubbing his face.
"Good bedside manner, Tokei," one of the men said. He was a tall, lean man wearing a dark black jumpsuit. He looked familiar.
"Sometimes the spirits demand a more direct approach," another man replied. Rakki recognized him as Kohei, the Asako he'd spoken to with Sachiko and had later dragged him from the streets.
"Good morning, Officer Rakki," the third man said with a forced smile. He was a thin, middle aged man wearing a clean, well-cut shirt and tie. "Well, Hatsu, Tokei, if you'll excuse me I have work to do tonight."
"Sure thing, Godaigo" the first man replied. Godaigo rose and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Hatsu?" Rakki said, suddenly sitting up with interest. "That's where I recognized you from. You're Kitsuki Hatsu! You're supposed to be dead."
The man nodded. "So I hear," he replied. "You were with Otaku Sachiko when the Locust took her."
"The Locust took her?" Rakki said, glancing around in surprise. "We have to help her!"
"See?" the old shugenja said with a sigh. "I told you he wouldn't be much help. He didn't see any more than I did."
Hatsu rubbed his eyes and sat back in his chair. "There isn't anything else you can tell me, Tokei?" he asked.
"Tokei?" Rakki said. "I thought your name was Kohei, Asako."
The man shook his head. "Tokei," he said. "As in Morito Tokei. A shugenja who died on the second Day of Thunder. Member of Toturi's Army. Pleased to meet you."
"I knew it!" Rakki said, clapping and pointing to the old priest. "I knew you were full of it!" "Well, go Team Rakki," Tokei said dryly. "I stand in envy of your detective abilities. Why don't you call Shinjo Tower and have them come arrest me now? Oh, wait. The Locusts have knocked out city-wide communications. I guess they did that right after they beat you within an inch of your life and left you lying in the street."
"Oh," Rakki said. "Oh, yeah. Thanks for saving my life."
"Don't mention it."
"So what do we do now?" Hatsu asked. The Dragon stood and began pacing the room impatiently. "Last I knew, the police didn't have any leads on the location of the Locust Headquarters. What about the Army?"
Tokei shrugged. "We had a man in the Locust for a while, but they blindfolded him whenever they took him in and out. All he said about the place was that it was underground, they called it the Machine, and it always sounded like it was near some kind of big engine."
"Is he here now?" Hatsu asked.
"Toku?" Tokei shook his head. "Nope. He said he had family business."
Hatsu grumbled and paced some more. "And Yotogi destroyed her Dragon Sphere. So we have no leads. Absolutely no way of contacting her. No way of finding her in the least."
Suddenly the television in the small room crackled to life, casting the room in a blue light. The face of a man wearing a black mask and goggles appeared upon the screen, a large metallic sculpture resembling a Locust hanging behind him.
"Greetings, people of Rokugan," the man said. "I am Inago and I come to you with an ultimatum of my own..."
"What in Jigoku?" Rakki said.
Hatsu's eyes narrowed and he quickly ran out of the room.
"What got into him?" Tokei asked.
Rakki shrugged. "Dragons," he said. "Weird as they are in the stories." He turned back toward the television.
"I am the leader of a group of revolutionaries called the Locust Clan. I come to you to bring you a warning. The chaos, the destruction, the terror that surrounds you is nothing compared to what is to come. The Senpet Invasion was nothing to the havoc I have unleashed upon you, and the havoc to follow will make this night appear as a pleasant dream. Know you the name of my master, of he that will shake the foundations of this world and bring the vengeance of the shadows down upon you all. Know you the name of the Stormbreaker. Know you that the Third Day of Thunder is nigh. Tonight, the Champion of Jigoku walks abroad in Rokugan."
"Wow," Rakki said with a whistle. "Guess I should stock up on jade and canned goods or something."
"Or something," Tokei said.
"And know you this, Rokugan," Inago said. "You may destroy me. You may destroy the Locust Clan. But the Stormbreaker cannot be destroyed. Jigoku's power can never be extinguished. This is not a warning. It is a notification. Mankind's turn of good luck has run out. Your days are numbered. There is nothing you can do to halt the tide of darkness. Consider this message a public service. Cling to your loved ones. Forgive your friends and families for past sins. Drink deep from the well of life, people of Rokugan, for its waters grow shallow indeed."
The screen shut off with a crackle, returning to its formerly dead state.
"Come on," Hatsu said, poking his head back into the door and gesturing at the two men quickly.
Tokei and Rakki glanced at one another, then followed along behind. Both were somewhat confused and perplexed at the sudden urgency of Hatsu's voice, as well as his sudden disappearance during the broadcast. "Hatsu, there was a guy on the TV," Rakki said, jogging to walk alongside the Dragon. "He said he was-"
"Inago of the Locust Clan," Hatsu replied. "I know. I heard the whole thing."
"You heard it?" Rakki replied, surprised.
"I have very good hearing when I need it," Hatsu said. The Dragon turned and quickly headed down the stairs toward Shotai's Diner and the street.
"If you don't mind me asking, Hatsu," Tokei asked. "Where are we going?"
"To the Machine," Hatsu said.
"But I thought we didn't know where that was," Rakki replied.
"We do now," Hatsu replied.
"Dragons," Tokei sighed and followed along in Hatsu's path.
Kyo stood in the shadows of the KTSU building, shivering. The rain had drenched him, but he wasn't really cold. He was shivering because somehow, in some way, something had changed. When the darkness covered the city, something long dead had awakened in him. He had stepped outside of himself and seen what he was. He was afraid.
"Fool," Akeru hissed in the back of his mind. "Go in there. You know what you have to do."
"But we don't know who she talked to," he said out loud, pacing up and down the street. "We don't know what she said."
"It doesn't matter," Akeru said. "Kill all of them. Burn the building to the ground. Without their precious communications, they will be able to tell no one what they know until it is too late."
"Kill everyone?" Kyo exclaimed, glancing up at the towering KTSU building. Candles and flashlights dimly lit many of the windows. "There must be hundreds of people inside! You can't murder them all!" "Just a drop in the bucket," Akeru said. "They'll all be dead in two months anyway. The Stormbreaker cannot afford to be exposed yet. This is too critical a time. Kill them, Kyo, and be done with it."
"No," Kyo said. "I won't."
"You've picked a queer time to find free will, human," the oni snarled. "The pulse must have shorted out your tetsukansen."
"What?" Kyo said quickly.
He could feel the oni smile in the back of his mind. "As if you didn't know," it said. "Honorable daimyo of the Wasp, Captain of the Imperial Guard, noble and obedient soldier to the last. You thought your little rebellion was your own idea? Let me tell you something, Kyo. I've lived in your soul a short time, but it's been long enough to learn all I need to know. You've always been a pawn. A tool. A puppet to dance upon another's string. Your father. Your commanding officer. The Emperor. The Stormbreaker saw what a good puppet you were. That's why you were one of the first he chose."
"What are you saying?" Kyo nearly screamed. He was breathing quickly now, desperate, flailing his arms about as he paced. Two men making their way down the street quickly turned and ran in the other direction.
"Don't tell me you don't remember," the oni said. "It's so clear there in your memories. The day you first started to notice what a dark, terrible master your Yoritomo was. The day all the slights, all the insults, all the shortcomings of the others began to finally take their toll upon your formerly iron will. The day you first considered the path of darkness. Fifteen years ago, the day after you were called to Gekkoshinden."
The memory was suddenly fresh in his mind as the oni placed it for his consideration. Kyo stopped pacing, going over the events. "Gekkoshinden, a small temple owned by the Imperial family. There was a protest," he said. "A schism between the Karasu and Suzume monks over the Suzume's apparent commercialism."
"Seemed like a silly thing to argue over, didn't it?" the oni laughed. "A pathetic waste of time until the riot broke out. They decided it was your job to settle it, didn't they? You, the fresh, promising young Imperial Guardsman, future daimyo of the Wasp. Some might think a few monks having a fist-fight in a temple would be a waste of time for a trained warrior such as yourself, but a religious tiff on Imperial property suddenly becomes an Imperial tiff, doesn't it?"
"That's what he said," Kyo replied. He leaned back limply against a wall, remembering it all. "Yoritomo told the Captain to send his best men, a show of strength to settle the strife once and for all."
"And settle it you did, without violence or confrontation," the oni said. "It would have been quite a gold star for your career had anyone noticed or even cared. Turns out they didn't. Almost as if the entire thing was a waste of your time. Hardly worth remembering."
"I didn't remember," Kyo said. "Not until now."
"Well," the oni said. "That wasn't exactly your fault. The situation in that temple wasn't really the way you seem to remember it. By the time you got there, Munashi and his henchmen were waiting with the prototype implants. Every member of your squad was forcefully captured, incapacitated, and implanted. Most of them died during the first year. Seems that first batch of implants just didn't take."
"That didn't happen!" Kyo snapped. "I don't remember that! Gekkoshinden didn't happen that way?"
"What do you mean, Akeru?" the oni said, amused. "Still clinging to the false memories Munashi gave you? I must admit, they're very well done. The man's a true artist. The real memory is still here in this pit you call a brain, Kyo. It's buried, but it's here. Would you like to see it?"
Kyo screamed as images of blood and pain flashed through his head, memories of the painful operation, memories of his comrades being butchered and stitched back together before his eyes, memories of the mocking, one-eyed smile of the bastard Crane. By the time he collected himself, he was laying on the sidewalk in a fetal position, shaking uncontrollably.
"Dignified to the last, eh, Wasp?" Akeru asked.
"Get out of my head!" Kyo whimpered. "Stop making me do these things!"
"Don't fight me," the oni said. "Don't pretend you can win now. For fifteen years that implant has steered your actions but all of those thoughts were yours. All of the times you allowed the Emperor's enemies to escape were your doing. All of the omissions to your reports to allow your corrupted brethren to go free were your ideas. And all of the murders were done by your own hands. It was you who put that bullet in Ichiro Chiodo's head. It was you who killed his accomplice so the Dragon wouldn't find out the truth. It was you that invited an oni to share your soul. The tetsukansen never controlled you. It freed you to make the choices you really wanted to make."
"Leave me alone," Kyo said, his voice weak and broken.
"Ah, cut the strings and the puppet falls to the stage," Akeru said. "I hope this blackout ends soon, you're of little use to me in this condition. I suppose I'll have to drive for a while."
Kyo's back suddenly arched as the Wasp screamed in pain. Inky black darkness oozed from his eyes, mouth, and hands, swiftly covering his body and hardening into a black carapace. In moments, Tsuruchi Kyo was gone and Oni no Akeru had taken his place. The oni peered up at the KTSU Building curiously, considering his next move.
The Wasp had been right. He couldn't kill everyone inside.
Not by himself. Some of them would get away.
Taki-bi, Jimen, and Kaze were all dead. It would be years before they could take human form in Rokugan again. Mizu was gone, off on one of his curious little missions. The Stormbreaker was unreachable. One did not contact him, he contacted you. There was only one he could turn to, only one he could depend upon. The oni scrawled a little circle of darkness in the air and whispered into it.
"Oracle..." he said. "Your brother of the Void calls to you... Akeru calls to you..."
There was a brief pause, and then the oni felt a presence on the other end. It was a mortal presence, partially, but the creature on the other end of the summons was something more than mortal.
"Akeru," the man said. "It has been some time, oni."
"Ishak," the oni said. "The time has come for you to repay your debt to me."
"Indeed," the man replied. "I look forward to removing that burden from my shoulders. Tell me where and when. I shall bring whatever others I can find."
"Yes," Akeru said, looking up at the candle-lit windows of the news station. "Yes, bring all that you can find... There will be much to be done this night..."
The Shrine of Okanjin stood only blocks away from Golden Sun Studios. Though the temple wasn't as large or as lavishly decorated as many in Otosan Uchi, it was the closest thing the Kitsu family had to a home here. The order of sodan-senzo who made their homes in the city met frequently here. Some of them lived here. Statues of many of the prominent ancestors of the Lion and other heroes of the city stood about the shrine and inside, their eyes keeping constant watch over those within.
The Kitsu had found themselves better prepared for the blackout than most. In sharp contrast to the high-tech majesty of Golden Sun, the shrine had only rudimentary electrical systems, seldom used. The shugenja who used the facility to meditate and commune with the shiryo found that they preferred the lights of candles and paper lanterns. Plenty of food and dry provisions were stored within for those monks who chose to live in the dormitory at the rear of the shrine. Defense from looters and riots was not a question; few citizens in Otosan Uchi dared to risk the wrath of their ancestors. Those that considered risking the spirits' wrath thought again when they took note of the more corporeal threat of twenty heavily armed Lion samurai patrolling the shrine's perimeter. Though Matsu Gohei had his differences with the Kitsu family, he was not about to leave his fellow Lions without sufficient defense tonight.
The Shrine of Okanjin had weathered the Locust attack relatively unscathed. With this in mind, Kitsu Mizutoki, director of the shrine in Kitsu Ayano's absence, had declared the shrine a safe haven and refuge for all those who came in peace. Several dozen fearful refugees who were stranded outside their homes or fled their own neighborhood to escape the riots had found shelter within the shrine. The brown-robed priests of the Kitsu walked among the refugees now, distributing tea and small bowls of cooked rice.
A young Matsu samurai wove his way through the crowd, his eyes sharp and nervous. He searched the faces of the shugenja for several minutes, growing increasingly fretful until he finally recognized the one he was looking for, a small woman sitting in the shadow of a statue of Ikoma Genju. She was no longer a young girl, though her hair was still dark and her face held a youth that belied her years. Her hair fell down her back in many thin braids, woven with paper ribbons inscribed in the mystic kanji of the Lion sodan-senzo priests. She wore a simple ceremonial robe of golden brown, though the badge upon her left arm proclaimed her a magistrate. The woman sat with two children, telling them stories of the ancestors from an old scroll, her face calm despite the chaos outside.
The shugenja glanced up in concern when she noted the Matsu bushi hurrying toward her. She quickly rose to meet him, her movements smooth and graceful. "Kitsu Jurin?" the bushi said, bowing quickly to her.
"Yes," she replied. "Wait here, children." She began to walk back the way the Matsu had come. The bushi seemed upset; no sense in further frightening the children with whatever news he bore. "May I help you, Matsu-san?"
"I hope so," he said. "They said to speak to you, that you would vouch for their good behavior."
"What?" she replied, eyes narrowing in confusion. "Who? What are you talking about?"
The Matsu began to walk more quickly, leading Jurin toward the front doors of the temple. "Perhaps you should see for yourself," he replied.
Jurin nodded, though inward she was irritated. She had many refugees to tend to tonight, much work to do. She didn't appreciate being interrupted. As the Matsu opened the temple doors, however, her eyes widened in surprise. Four zokujin stood in the streets just outside of the temple. Their long arms dragged nearly to the street as they hunched, waiting. Their yellow eyes gleamed in the darkness. A dozen of Gohei's guard were standing with weapons ready, prepared in case the "rock goblins" should make any hostile moves. One of the zokujin rose one hand in greeting when it saw Jurin. The Lion bushi tensed, several of them raising their weapons.
"Oh, stop that," Jurin commanded. "These are the zokujin, our allies."
"They're not human," one of the Lions observed, glancing back and forth between Jurin and the zokujin.
"How keen of you to notice," Jurin said dryly. "Don't worry, the zokujin are more honorable than many humans you may chance to meet. I vouch for their behavior."
The Lions all immediately complied, lowering their weapons. Most of them immediately marched away, returning to their patrols. The zokujin quietly watched them go.
"Your soldiers are very well trained," Argcklt observed, nodding his frog-like head as he stepped onto the temple stairs. "They follow your commands well, Jurin-san."
Jurin chuckled quietly. "They're not my soldiers. They could care less about me," she said. "But I think Gohei threatened grave repercussions if they didn't listen to us. All of them either respect or fear him, usually both if they're intelligent. What brings you here tonight, Argcklt?"
"Am I no longer welcome here?" the zokujin asked. "I have come here every night." The zokujin had been visiting the temple for nearly a week now, ever since Jurin had seen him rescue Prince Kameru. Every day the shugenja and the zokujin had met to discuss their relative religions and philosophy. Though neither of them understood much more of the other's ways than they had before, they had swiftly become good friends.
"That's not what I meant," Jurin replied. "I'm just surprised to see you so far from your home. The city is dangerous tonight."
"My people are safe," the zokujin replied. "We are well used to the dark, and our tunnels offer us ample protection between those who would take advantage of the night."
"And these others?" Jurin asked, glancing at the other three zokujin. "I thought that your fellows were uninterested in Lions."
"My brothers," Argcklt said. "Chamdrsh, Kezsczeklt, and Tarandsha. They do not share my interest in your culture. They do not even speak your tongue. Still, they wished to come with me tonight. They feared that my Lion friends might come to harm in the darkness, and hoped to help me in case you were in need."
A few of the other priests had begun to filter to the temple door, curious at the sudden appearance of the three zokujin. Jurin smiled and bowed to Argcklt. "My thanks, Argcklt. I feel safer for your presence. Please, come inside."
Jurin turned and entered the shrine once more, the four zokujin shuffling along beside her. The refugees watched as the shugenja and zokujin passed, their eyes wide with curiosity. A small, bald man in dark robes suddenly emerged from the crowd, bowing sharply to Jurin and her companions.
"Konichiwa, zokujin," the man said. "Jurin, I assume these are the ones you told me about earlier."
"Yes, Mizutoki," Jurin said, returning the old monk's bow. "This is Argcklt, and these are..." She flushed a bit, embarrassed that she'd already forgotten the other zokujin's' difficult names. Argcklt smiled slightly. "These are his brothers. They came wishing to know if we needed assistance."
"Hm," Mizutoki nodded. "My thanks. If half of what Jurin has told me about your people is true, we would greatly benefit from your help tonight." He leaned close to Jurin, his voice barely a whisper. "Jurin, we have a problem." He turned quickly, headed for the private chambers at the rear of the shrine. Jurin and the zokujin followed along in the small man's wake.
Soon they arrived in the small vestibule in the rear of the shrine. The room was bare and spartan, featuring only a single chair, a small wash basin, and a row of hooks for the priests to hang their raiment as they prepared for their meditations. Mizutoki stood against one wall, his arms folded before his chest.
"Yes?" Jurin said, her eyes suddenly sharp and intense. "What is the problem, Mizutoki?"
"The Lion shiryo are restless tonight," Mizutoki replied. "Especially the older ones. Even more tonight than of late."
Jurin nodded. "An ill omen, but I don't see what it has to do with me," she replied. "I'm hardly the most skilled sodan-senzo in the shrine. As you're so fond of reminding me, old friend, I'm hardly the most traditional sodan-senzo in the city. Most of the older ancestors won't have much to do with me."
"With one exception," Mizutoki said. "A Lion of your own bloodline spoke to me tonight Jurin. One whose soul was thought to be consumed by the darkness, long ago. His soul screams for release, for redemption, but I could understand little more. He has grown distant from us, Jurin. You are his descendant; his words will come to you more clearly."
Jurin's face paled. "Okura," she said. "Kitsu Okura."
Mizutoki nodded, his face grave. "Yes, Jurin. The Fallen Jade Champion's soul has escaped from Jigoku, and he wishes to speak to you."
Szash was angry. The giant Constrictor surged through the forest with tremendous speed. The smaller trees in his path snapped like twigs. He climbed or slithered through the larger ones with such skill and power that his speed hardly suffered. His hand was tight upon the hilt of his sword. He burst through the line of trees and came to a sudden halt, his huge chest heaving with labored breath. A small, calm pool stood before him. The forest all around was silent. He was alone.
"Szash!" Kenyu shouted, running to keep up with the naga. "Szash, slow down!"
"Quiet, Kenyu," the naga hissed.
"I think that's kind of a moot point now," the Unicorn replied. "You made enough noise to wake up half the forest running here."
Sumi appeared twenty feet further down the edge of the pond. A yojimbo flanked her on either side, pistol drawn and ready for combat. Sumi's eyes narrowed as she quickly surveyed the area. "Where is the Oracle?" Sumi asked sharply. "Where is Zin?"
"I do not know," Szash replied grimly. "I hope we're not too late." Szash's eyes widened at the suggestion, and his shoulders slumped.
"Oh, come know," said a mocking voice. It seemed to come from all directions and from nowhere all at once. "Don't tell me that you've come all this way, traveled all this distance and fought so hard just to give up? I find it less than pathetic. A less worthy group of foes I couldn't possibly imagine."
Sumi's hand strayed to the hilt of her katana. Her face twisted in anger. "I know that voice," she said. "Show yourself, Nitobe."
"Gladly." The shadows along the path behind them suddenly thickened and twisted forth into a million filaments, quickly weaving into the shape of Asako Nitobe. He smoothed the lapels of his long coat and bowed to Sumi. "Welcome to the Shinomen, Sumi-chan," he said.
"Sumi-sama, Asako," Shiba Hogai said, quickly aiming his pistol at the doctor. "Oh, I don't think so," Nitobe replied. "The likeliness that I'll ever swear fealty to this girl is even smaller than your chance of living to see another day, Shiba. Coronary."
Hogai's body jerked and the pistol fell from his hand. He clutched at his chest desperately and fell to his knees, gasping for breath, his face pale.
"No!" Shiba Naora shouted, firing her pistol at Nitobe. A shimmering wall of red liquid appeared around the man, causing the bullets of Void to vanish before they connected.
"Bleed," Nitobe said, pointing at the girl. The young yojimbo's scream was cut off as she choked on her own blood. She collapsed beside the pearl bed, blood streaming from her eyes, mouth, and ears.
"Tsukai!" Szash snarled. The naga erupted in a dark blur, streaking toward Nitobe with his sword drawn. The katana sliced deep into the man's shoulder and he tumbled to the ground under the Constrictor's weight. The naga jerked suddenly as Nitobe's hands wrapped around his throat and squeezed. The doctor rose to his feet once more, katana still jutting from his torso. Szash pummeled and clawed at the Oracle with his fists and his tail wrapped Nitobe's body in a crushing grip, but the man seemed to feel none of it as he continued to choke the naga's life away.
"Let him go, Nitobe," Sumi said, her eyes dark and intense as she advanced toward him. "This is a Phoenix matter."
"So it is," Nitobe laughed. Szash's body slumped limp to the forest floor and Nitobe stepped forward from his coils, his eyes on Sumi.
"Kenyu, stay back," Sumi warned.
"But," Kenyu said.
"Stay back!" she spat back at the Unicorn. "I'll handle this."
"All right," Kenyu said mildly. He dropped to the side of the two fallen yojimbos, chanting a spell of healing in an attempt to save their lives.
"So you are the Dark Oracle Teika warned me about," she said. "You were the spy Jigoku placed among us."
"Not always," Nitobe said. "Only for the last twenty years or so. I'd always been a bit curious about maho, I'll confess. Water magic has ever been my forte'. I am, after all, a doctor and water's gift is the gift of healing. But water is so indirect, so contrary. Blood. Blood is different. Blood is a part of us. Literally the heart and soul of us. Maho is the magic of blood. The power of the Oracles did not change me; it improved me. I am powerful in a way that your feeble, indecisive Council of Masters could never understand. I am a true Phoenix." "You're a traitor," Sumi said, taking another step toward him.
"Am I?" Nitobe said mildly. He circled Sumi warily, drawing the naga's katana from his chest with one hand and tossing it aside. "My blood magic heals as well as it destroys. How many of your own kinsman have been saved by my skills and my magic? How many more have died under your indecisive leadership? The Senpet attack? The catastrophe in the Temple of the Elements? Even now the insufferable rabble that calls itself the Locust Clan have brought Otosan Uchi to its knees. Brother kills brother and the streets fill with blood. Only Kujimitsu and his poor, useless Council of Puppets remain to lead the Phoenix Clan. And where is Sumi? Where is the Soul of Shiba, the great leader of our people? In a forest a thousand miles away, charming snakes."
"It was you," she said, her eyes narrowing. "You were the one who destroyed Phoenix Mercy. You killed my father."
Nitobe nodded quickly, and a wide grin spread across the small man's features. "Give me credit where credit is due, Sumi," he said. "I didn't just kill the man, I ruined him. The man had a heart condition, and he never even told you. I spiked his prescription with a rare and deadly poison, one whose results resemble an overdose of Daikoku's Milk. I took his life and destroyed his reputation forever. Only fitting for one who would clutch a bastard half-gaijin to his breast and call himself a Phoenix. And now here you are, the bastard herself, Champion of our clan. What a waste of life you are. I look upon you and I weep for the age into which I was born. Do you wonder why I serve Jigoku? Do you wonder why I seek the Day of Thunder? Look into a mirror and tell me the answer, girl. The time is nigh for a cleansing."
"Then stop talking and do it," Sumi said, her voice an angry snarl. She charged toward him, wielding the Phoenix katana.
"Indeed," Nitobe chuckled. He leveled a finger toward her and summoned the power of his maho. "Bleed," he said.
Sumi's body burst into white flame, summoning the spirits of fire to throw of the Dark Oracle's blood magic. She gritted in pain and held her ground, the sword shaking in her hand. She could feel the temperature of her blood slowly rising despite her magic. A haze of red began to creep across her vision. She dropped to her knees.
"Teika!" Iuchi Kenyu called out. "Teika, he's killing her!" The Unicorn glanced all around. He realized to his horror that he was alone. He turned and ran for the forest line, only to trip over Szash's discarded katana.
Nitobe turned to consider the young man, still keeping one finger aimed at Sumi to maintain the spell. A quizzical expression crossed the doctor's face. "And what of you, Unicorn?" he asked. "Where do you fit into this? Why do you deem it fit to throw away your life meddling in my affairs? Who are you?" "Um..." Kenyu said, meeting the Oracle's piercing gaze. He rose with the katana in his hands. "I'm Iuchi Kenyu, Keeper of the Lands. Let her go."
"Of course you are," Nitobe said. He looked away from the Unicorn dismissively. "Well, stay put and keep your eyes open. You're about to watch me kill the Soul of Shiba."
"I said to let her go," Kenyu repeated, a small edge of fire rising in his voice. From somewhere distant, outside himself, he wasn't sure exactly what he was doing. He wasn't this brave. Standing up to a Dark Oracle like this was suicide.
Nitobe's eyes flicked back to the Unicorn. "Your weapon won't harm me," he said, striding forward to stand by the kneeling Sumi. "And don't think to surprise me with your magic. I've sensed your connection to the spirits, and it is feeble. All that is left for you, Keeper, is to decide how painful your death will be. Don't make things worse for yourself like Sumi here." Nitobe smiled and the fire about Sumi suddenly flared, and she screamed shrilly, curling forward in a fetal position as she continued to clutch Ofushikai.
"Stop it!" Kenyu demanded.
Nitobe turned to face the Unicorn fully, his back to the pool. "Make me," he said.
Kenyu screamed and ran toward the Dark Oracle with Szash's sword. The Oracle smiled and whispered one word. Kenyu felt fire surge through his veins. His muscles twisted and turned into lead. He stumbled and fell, his body wracked with pain.
"What was he hoping to accomplish?" Nitobe asked with a chuckle.
"Distraction," Zin replied from behind him. She stabbed deep into his back with the Blade of the Pale Eye.
Nitobe screamed and staggered forward, blood streaming down his back. The wound healed almost instantly, the tsukai's mastery of simple water magic acting to close the cut. He whirled about, throwing off his long cloak and spitting at Zin's feet. "The naga wench!" he said. "Your cut was not deep enough. Now you'll join the others. Bleed!"
Zin merely rose one eyebrow and watched him curiously.
"Bleed!" Nitobe commanded.
"Wither!" Nitobe shouted.
"Die!" Nitobe commanded.
A chill washed over the tsukai's soul. He did not know how the naga had done it, but his power was gone. The heightened senses of the Oracles, his maho, all of it had been wiped away. His jaw dropped open in surprise as he looked at his hands, now wrinkled and withered from the taint that had festered within them for years. A single tooth wobbled and rolled free of his blackened gums. He wobbled uncertainly, his festering muscles unable to hold his weight. The once Dark Oracle looked up at Zin in absolute horror.
But Sumi's eyes found him first.
"I would be as a god!" he hissed. His face blanched white with terror and disbelief.
"I believe you mentioned a cleansing," the Phoenix daimyo answered.
Ofushikai's blade made one quick sweep, severing Asako Nitobe's body from hip to shoulder. Another slice took his head from his shoulders before the body struck the ground. With another hiss of steel, the sword returned to its saya and the forest was quiet once more.
"Hotaru, you idiot."
Video cameras and surveillance equipment clicked discreetly in the shadows. Every bit of Bayushi's Labyrinth was captured in perfect detail in a variety of light spectrums and presented to Bayushi Oroki's security personnel. A speck of dust didn't move without their notice. A stray cat didn't notice without an Enforcer quietly noting it down. The amusement park's legendary security was even tighter than usual; nothing went unobserved.
Yet Sen, Dark Oracle of Air, stood before the gates unnoticed.
"Idiot, idiot, idiot," she said, shaking her head. She pulled on one long braid, her tiny face scowling in anger. "We told you not to go after the Eye alone. We warned you what these mortals were capable of, but did you listen?"
She sighed deeply, taking several steps back from the corpse hanging from the Labyrinth's gates. He still wore the dirty red robes he'd favored for the last two centuries or so, now stained with dark blood. His face was a tattered mess. One half was torn clear away, the other was frozen in an expression of surprise. Whatever had killed him had not been subtle, not even as subtle as the message the mortals seemed to be trying to deliver.
"So you wish us to know you can kill us," Sen said, gazing off into the gates of Bayushi's Labyrinth. "That merely makes things more interesting. Way."
The air darkened behind Sen and she stepped backwards, vanishing entirely from the city of Otosan Uchi and into the Way. The world of the way was dark, flashing here and there with brief pinpoints of light, but Sen could be fully seen. One instant, she appeared to be a young human girl dressed in the skirt, tie, and formal shirt of a young Rokugan girl with a brightly colored ball under one arm. The next, she appeared as she truly was, an inhuman creature, beautiful, seductive, and ancient. She clutched a burlap sack in one hand, the bottom stained a dark red-brown. The kansen of air whipped toward her in a frenzy. She smiled and held out a hand to greet them. The swirled about her in ecstasy.
"How is he?" Kunisada asked sharply, standing up from where he had been waiting. The Dark Oracle of Earth was a huge man in the armor of a samurai. Jagged fingers of rock broke through his skin at the joints, and his skin had a stone-like pallor. Hida Kunisada had none of Sen's dual nature, he was and ever would be what he appeared to be.
"Hotaru?" Sen asked, raising an eyebrow. "Your brother is as much of a fool as he always was. Except now he is a dead fool."
The Dark Oracle of Earth screamed in rage. He seized Sen's shoulders roughly. "Open the gate, Sen," he demanded. "Let me teach those humans exactly what sort of forces they're dealing with."
Sen rolled her eyes and smiled up at Kunisada. "You and your temper," she chuckled. "You're so cute when you're full of righteous anger."
"Tell me what happened to my brother," Kunisada snarled, leaning close to Sen, "Or you will find out exactly how intense my anger can be."
She tilted her head slightly and leaned closer to him. Her red lips parted slightly. "Is that a promise?"
Kunisada rose one rocky brow. "It's not working, Sen," Kunisada growled. "You lost all your seductive potential when you took that body, I'm sorry."
"Some men like it," she pouted.
"Some men are sick," he replied. "Now tell me who killed my brother before I tear your shell to pieces."
"Oh, for Fu Leng's sake," she cursed bitterly. "Calm yourself, Kunisada. We shall have our revenge when Water and Void arrive."
"Doctor Asako won't be joining us, I'm afraid," said a hollow voice. "He has prior commitments, it seems."
A nearly skeletal figure joined them in the way then, tattered robes of red velvet so dark they were nearly black hanging from his shoulders. His eyes were deeply sunken, the weight of decades of death pressing in upon him. He was the Dark Oracle of the Void, Yogo Ishak, betrayer of the Shadow Wars.
"Ishak!" Sen said, hoping effortlessly out of Kunisada's grip and bouncing before the undead wizard. She clutched her ball in both hands and smiled up at him. "It's about time you got here. Kunisada is getting ruly."
"Ishak-sama," Kunisada said, bowing low. "We are honored."
"Oh, stop it, both of you," the wizard snapped. "Good thing I arrived. Looks like you two were ready to kill each other again."
"Kunisada likes it rough," Sen said with a mischievous smile.
"She's insane," Kunisada said. "She keeps stealing new bodies. I wish I could kill her."
"Well it's not for lack of trying, that's for sure," Ishak said with a sigh. "You two have been at each other's throats since I've met you."
"And a thousand years before that," Sen said, bouncing her ball on the floor with an impish grin. "It keeps us young." Kunisada groaned in long-suffering annoyance.
"How interesting," Ishak said with indifference. He strode past Sen with a small shake of his head. The three of them were currently in the center of a large "clearing" in the Way. The Way wasn't really a place, it didn't have any features at all, but this particular feature seemed to be larger and clearer than most, and the Dark Oracles used just this sort of place so they could meet beyond the prying eyes of mortals.
"Hotaru is dead," Ishak said. "I assume both of you know this by now."
"Yeah," Sen said. "While we were waiting for you to stop messing around at the Seal, he went off half-cocked and got himself killed by the kolat. They hung his corpse outside of an amusement park. They're holed up there now, waiting for us. I could smell the Eye from the parking lot. Arrogant little fleshbags. Like they could hurt us."
"Apparently they managed to hurt Hotaru," Ishak said, one hand resting upon the ancient wound in his chest. "I think I have a glimmer of an idea how."
Sen shrugged. "Temporarily," she said. "Jigoku'll make us a new Dark Oracle of Fire soon and then we'll be back in business. No harm done."
"No harm done?" Kunisada snarled, lunging toward the girl. "He was my brother you filthy--"
"Pain," Ishak said.
Sen and Kunisada crumpled to the ground, clutching their chests and screaming. A dark nimbus of energy surrounded their bodies, and Ishak's eye glowed with a similar light. "If the two of you children are done," he said tersely, "Perhaps we can discuss matters with some modicum of maturity. Black Fortunes, I don't know how the two of you managed to survive in Jigoku's service before I was called."
"Maybe that's why you were called, great one," Sen said, trying to smile coyly through her pain. "To knock us back into line when we've been bad?"
"Spare me," the wizard replied, snapping his fingers. Their pain stopped. The two Oracles looked up at Ishak from where they sat on the ground, waiting to see what he would say next. The withered man paced back and forth before turning to them once more. "There will be no new Dark Oracle of Fire," he said. "Jigoku has decreed it."
"What?" Kunisada said.
"You can't be serious," Sen added, her green eyes wide.
"The final Day of Thunder draws near," Ishak said. "Soon, the Champion of Darkness will be chosen. Jigoku will suffer no mistakes as it has in the past, it conserves its energy for the final battle. After the Day has passed, perhaps there will be another Dark Oracle of Fire."
"How could this happen?" Sen asked, pouting slightly. "We're important! We're needed!"
"Well, perhaps the dark forces have sensed that our lust for the Oni's Eye has become more important than serving the Stormbreaker," Ishak said. "Perhaps this is a warning for us to do as we're told. Remember that our Light counterparts were punished once for forgetting their place. Do not be deluded into thinking that our master is more merciful than theirs."
Sen and Kunisada glanced at one another. "So what do we do?"
Ishak frowned. "Luckily, it seems we've been offered a reprieve. One of my fellow lieutenants in the Stormbreaker's organization has run into a problem. He had hoped that I would help him solve it. Sadly, I have other commitments this night but you two should be more than sufficient for the task."
"Killing humans?" Sen asked.
Ishak nodded. "That is a blunt way of putting it, yes."
"Well, the night's not a total loss, then," Sen said, standing and bouncing happily. "At least we get to kill people. When do we leave?"
"Immediately," Ishak replied.
The halls of the Machine were quiet. Sekkou and Kaibutsu strode through the darkness, the dim flourescents on the ceiling flickering to awareness as they approached, and then extinguishing again soon after. Here in the Locust Clan's own headquarters, the electromagnetic pulses produced by the Pestilence bombs had no effect. Here, everything was as it usually was, save that the halls were empty.
"Creepy," Kaibutsu mumbled. "No people."
"This is a busy night for us, Kaibutsu," Sekkou said. "All the Locusts are out tonight."
"So why aren't we out tonight?" the ogre asked, glancing at Sekkou as he walked. The big creature was intentionally slowing his pace so that Sekkou could keep up with his long-legged lope, though he tried not to look like it.
"Because the Locusts are making a mistake," Sekkou replied. "This is too soon, too unfocused. This reminds me entirely too much of Meda's coup. A good idea, but performed with a clumsiness and stupidity that defeats itself before it even begins. I think that we are being used, Kaibutsu, but by whom and to what end I cannot imagine. I think that Inago knows, and he will be here. That is what we've come to talk to him about."
"Oh," Kaibutsu nodded, enlightened. "Who's Doji Meda?"
"Never mind," Sekkou said. "Just keep your ears open, my friend. I think that Inago may not be entirely happy to see us."
Kaibutsu nodded, his small and relatively human-like ears twitching slightly to either side of his mask. The ogre looked back the way they had come, the muscles in his huge arms tensing. His nose twitched.
"What?" Sekkou asked, noting the change in his comrade's posture. He reached into his long coat with one hand. "Is someone back there?"
Kaibutsu nodded. "Gone now," he said. "But following. Someone behind us. Smells like death."
Sekkou shook his head irritably. "Massad, no doubt," he said. "No surprise to see him lingering about here, no doubt looking for some sort of advantage upon the rest of us. It was a mistake to invite that Jackal necromancer into the Locust."
Kaibutsu nodded in agreement. "Kaibutsu does not like zombies either. Zombies and ogres not get along, ever."
Sekkou looked at the ogre curiously. "You've seen zombies before?" he asked.
The ogre nodded. "Where Kaibutsu grow up, in the mountains, zombies everywhere. Not many people there. Old Phoenix lands, Phoenix move away. Now Kaibutsu's family live there along with the goblins and the zombies and the gaki. Gaki even worse than the zombies. Gaki even try to eat an ogre if you don't pay attention. Bad stuff."
"Fascinating," Sekkou replied. "Kaibutsu, after this is over you must promise to tell me more about your home."
"Okay, Sekkou-sama," Kaibutsu replied cheerfully, happy to be of help.
They stopped at last before a large metal door. Sekkou looked back down the hall a final time, trying to catch a glimpse of anyone following them. The Locust lieutenant drew the long silver wand and gun from his coat, holding one ready in either hand. This was the one room in the entire machine through which Inago Sekkou was not allowed. This was the sanctum of Inago alone. To the Locust Clan, this chamber was sacrosanct.
"Kaibutsu," Sekkou said. "Kick open that door."
The ogre nodded obediently, hammering out with a leg as thick as a young tree. The metal door dented savagely. The ogre kicked again and the door tipped awkwardly from its hinges. The ogre snarled as it seized the sides of the door in either hand, tugging it free with the sound of tearing metal. He tossed the door aside, and it landed in the hallway with a resounding thud. Sekkou charged into the office beyond, aiming both weapons at the man who waited just within.
Inago sat at a small table, his back to the door. He stared into the screen of a small computer, the monitor active but showing nothing but garbled binary digits. The keyboard was stained with old blood. On the table before him lay the goggles and mask that the Locust leader always wore. Sekkou had not seen Inago's face without the mask in years.
"You're finally here," Inago said, not turning to face them. "Good."
"Turn around," Sekkou said. "We've known each other too long for me to shoot you in the back, Inago."
"You would kill me, then?" Inago asked, a hint of regret in his voice. "You, Sekkou?"
"Yes," Sekkou said, and there was no mercy in his voice.
Inago nodded, his shoulders slumped. He did not turn around. "Once," he said. "I was an artist. I was a sculptor, a creator of strange and beautiful things. The locust statue in the Heart of the Machine was my second finest creation, inspiring me to my finest creation, the Locust Clan. With the Locust Clan as my tool, I would have sculpted the entire world into a better image. I would have made the world a purer, more perfect place."
"I know all of this and don't care much for rhetoric," Sekkou said. "Now turn around."
"Did you know I haven't sculpted in months, Sekkou?" Inago asked. "Not a thing. Not a single thing. I haven't been able to create anything, almost as if the ability was lifted entirely from me. I'm a man without a soul, Sekkou. I've given up everything."
"And I should care?" Sekkou replied. "Do you remember why you created the Locust, Inago? To create a world where a man could succeed through a simple matter of his own strength and merit. Where the strong would survive and the weak would improve themselves or perish. You've become weak, Inago, and you're threatening everything the Locust stands for. I don't care about your personal problems. Just turn around."
Inago turned slowly in his chair. His eyes met Sekkou's. Sekkou shook his head and looked away.
Inago's face was a ruin. Wires and circuitry crawled beneath the surface of his skin, framing his eyes, crawling into his ears and nostrils, burrowing through his lips. Veins framed in circuitry pulsed along his neck, throbbing with the lifeblood of the creature Inago had become. His shirt hung open, his thin, wasted chest distorted by the mechanical implants and machinations within. Inago smiled weakly, his face pale and drawn. Sekkou put his pistol away with a sigh.
"Ugly," Kaibutsu grunted in distaste. "Poor guy."
"I thought you had come to kill me," Inago said. "Have you changed your mind?" "The Oracle was right," Sekkou said. "You are already dead."
"Oracle?" Inago replied.
Sekkou nodded. "He said you were the prisoner of someone called the Stormbreaker. Who is the Stormbreaker?"
"True art is expensive," Inago said. "Throughout history, one thing has never changed. Every true master needs a patron. The Locust Clan has been a rather expensive work of art, and by its very nature legitimate patrons have been difficult to find. The Stormbreaker funded our research into electromagnetic pulse technology for some time. One day, one day long ago, he came to collect upon his investment. When I discovered what he truly intended for the Locusts, I denied him. I fought him. I lost. This..." he held out his hands to display his ruined body. "This is what he made me. This is the price we have paid for Pestilence."
"Does this Stormbreaker have the Pestilence technology?" Sekkou asked. "Does he know how to produce the pulses?"
Inago nodded. "Of course. He kept close tabs on everything we did, even before he betrayed us. After I delivered him Isek's final modifications to the Pestilence generators, that was when the orders came down. That was when he commanded me to begin preparations to attack the Palace."
Sekkou laughed bitterly. "Yes, now that we're expendable," he replied. "Why would he want Pestilence? An electromagnetic pulse generator? Does he plan on selling it to the Senpet or one of Rokugan's other enemies?"
Inago shook his head. "No," he said. "The Stormbreaker has darker designs, I'm afraid. Whoever they are, the Stormbreaker's power is tied to the Shadowlands. I think he's trying to bring down the Third Day of Thunder. Pestilence is part of it, somehow. Now that he has what he wants. Now that we're no longer necessary, he's going to eliminate us somehow. Sekkou. Pestilence isn't a pulse generator."
"What?" Sekkou snapped.
"Don't tell me you didn't suspect," Inago said. "When you use the smaller wands, like the one in your hand, you see the havoc they cause. Electrical equipment surges to the limits of its capacity; vehicles speed up, radios blare at full volume, alarms trigger. Only then does everything go dead, electrical systems fried by the power surge. Pestilence doesn't work that way. Everything just turns off. Almost everything."
"Isek never found a way to sufficiently micronize the power to create a pulse of that size," Inago said. "The side effects of that much electromagnetic radiation would have been tremendous. He had to find another way. The Stormbreaker supplied the initial idea and we developed it. We turned to tetsukami tech."
"Tetsukami?" Sekkou said, glancing at Kaibutsu. The ogre shrugged.
"Pestilence broadcasts a signal to the air spirits in a ten mile radius," Inago said. "It tells them to enter electrical devices and shut them down. In effect, its just a tremendously powerful spell. I'm guessing that even now the Phoenix are beginning to clue in and prepare countermeasures to negate the effects."
"And when they do, the Locust at the Diamond Palace are doomed," Sekkou said.
Inago nodded. "There's no way we can stand up to the Imperial Guard without Pestilence. Not with their weaponry. Even with our normal EMPs, its only a matter of time before the Locust are slaughtered."
Sekkou leaned against the wall, tapping his EMP wand in his palm as he concentrated in thought. Something didn't fit. Something was still bothering him. "Inago," he said. "You say that Pestilence speaks to the air spirits, correct?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Is there something special about air spirits?" Sekkou asked. "Are they easier to communicate with than other spirits in any way?"
"I don't know," Inago replied. "I don't think so, though. Why?" "Then Pestilence could broadcast a signal to control other sorts of spirits, then," Sekkou said.
"Potentially, yes," Inago said. "It would be difficult, but yes."
Sekkou nodded. He pointed the EMP wand at Inago and fired. The Locust Champion shrieked in pain as sparks of electricity shot through his body. He flew backward from his chair, clutching his chest in pain. Smoke and fire burst from his throat and joints. The smell of burning ozone and charred flesh filled the room. Inago tumbled forward on the floor, whimpering as the electrical systems in his body seized up and failed. Inago Sekkou turned and left the room. Kaibutsu watched the former leader of the Locust twitch helplessly on the floor for several moments. Then the ogre turned and followed Sekkou, a sad look on his monstrous face.
"Inago be okay?" Kaibutsu asked.
"No, Inago not be okay," Sekkou replied. "And I suggest you don't mention it again, Kaibutsu. I don't want to think about what we saw back there."
"Where we go now?" Kaibutsu asked. "We go to save the Locust?"
"If we can," Sekkou said. "But I'm afraid our friend the Stormbreaker hasn't left us with much margin for error. We need to find Isek."
"Who?" Kaibutsu asked.
"The man who built Pestilence," Sekkou replied. "He's a good programmer, maybe almost as good as me. He's a tinkerer, an inventor, a true mad scientist at heart. If I know the way his mind works, he's built a thousand back doors and countermeasures against Pestilence, just on the off chance that someone might use it against him. We need to find him. If the Stormbreaker decides to crank out his own version of Pestilence, Isek might be the only man who can save us from it."
"A good plan," Omar Massad chuckled, stepping out of the dark hallway ahead of them. "I'll be sure to find this Isek and kill him. In the meantime, Sekkou."
Sekkou drew his gun and fired, but Massad vanished like mist. Two dozen twisted figures stumbled out of the darkness where he had stood, their red eyes glinted in the black.
"Miiiiine...." they moaned.
"Oh no," Kaibutsu said mournfully. "More zombies."
"What's happening?" Orin demanded, approaching the nearest Agasha and seizing him roughly by the collar.
"I... I don't know," the small man stuttered, blinking nervously at the big gaijin. He nearly dropped the candle that wobbled in his hand. "Are... are you supposed to be out of your room?"
"No, but then again the lights aren't supposed to be out yet, either," Orin said. "Don't you people have backups?"
Daidoji Ishio stepped up to Orin's side, his expression worried. "Looks like the lights are out all the way down the hall. I can still hear the machines in the Factory clanking, but it looks like everything else had been completely shut down."
"Damn," Orin said. He turned back to the frightened shugenja, still struggling to escape Orin's grip. "Where's Agasha Hisojo?" Orin asked. "We need to talk to him at once."
"Hisojo-sama is no doubt very busy," the shugenja said pertly, working what little bit of courage he could to defy his attacker. "Return to your rooms, and I'm sure he will notify you when the time is right?"
"If all the machines are off that means all of the Palace's vaunted defenses are shut down, too," Orin snarled. "When will be the right time to see him? After the Palace is overrun?"
"I... I don't..." the shugenja stuttered.
"Orin, stop harassing the help," taunted a young girl's voice. Togashi Meliko stood further down the hallway, a tiny mote of light bouncing around her round, pretty face.
"Meliko," Ishio said, bowing with a wide smile.
"Good to see someone who knows what they're talking about finally," Orin said, releasing the Agasha. The small man quickly scampered off down the hall, returning to his duties.
"Oh, Orin," Meliko said, sauntering up to him and scratching his beard with one hand. "You say the nicest things. Hisojo wants to see you both. Now." She began to walk back the way she came, expecting them to follow.
Left with no other alternative, the two men fell into step behind the small ise zumi. Ishio's eyes followed the light that bounced around Meliko's head, scratching his stubble in wonder.
"How do you suppose she does that trick with the little light?" he asked Orin, whispering so that she wouldn't hear.
"Don't ask her," Orin replied with a rueful toss of his head. "She'll no doubt tell us. At length."
"The wisp, if you must know, is an old friend of the family," Meliko said, her tone clearly annoyed. "Now stop whispering behind my back. It's rude. I swear, you two are like a pair of old hens."
"Hens?" Ishio groused indignantly. They both fell into step behind Meliko.
Within minutes they found themselves in the main room of the Factory itself, brightly lit by many candles. The infinite coils, spirals, and gears of the Factory churned above them. Shugenja and rushed about everywhere, packing nemuranai into boxes or readying weapons. Agasha Hisojo stood in one corner of the room, his face pale and bleak. When he saw the three of them, he brightened considerably.
"Ah," Hisojo said, bowing to Orin and Ishio. "It is good to see you safe."
"What's going on, Hisojo?" Orin asked. "What's everyone doing? Are we under attack."
"I believe the Locust are at the heart of this. They are a terrorist organization bent on the overthrow of the samurai caste. This effect is very similar to the electromagnetic pulses that the Locust favor. I fear the entire city has been thrown into chaos and the Palace is indeed under attack even as we speak."
"Is the Factory in danger?" Orin asked quickly.
"Difficult to say," Hisojo replied. "Our enemies know of this Factory's existence. If the Locust have any connection to the Stormbreaker than I would not be surprised if we were the true target. Luckily, we are not quite as hampered as the rest of the city. We are not quite as dependent upon technology."
Meliko glanced up at the ceiling, squinting curiously. "Hisojo?" she said. "Why's the Factory itself still going when everything else has been shut down?"
"A mystery for another time, girl," Hisojo said. "Now stop standing around, all of you, and arm yourselves; if the Stormbreaker's minions come, we must be prepared to fight them." The shugenja hurried off, directing the other Agasha with sharp, concise commands.
Daidoji Ishio and Togashi Meliko hurried off at Hisojo's command, but Orin hesitated. He stared past where Hisojo had stood, his eyes intense. He suddenly noticed a tall, shadowy man standing at the very rear of the Factory, his form smoky and lacking distinction. His eyes glowed a dim green as he regarded Orin. "Well done, Amijdali," the man said. "It is not every mind that can perceive me when I do not wish to be."
"Who are you?" Orin demanded. No one else seemed to notice Orin now, or the man he was talking to. He wondered if he would have time to improvise a weapon.
"Be at peace, I mean you no harm," the figure said, his voice seeming to echo through the chambers of the young gaijin's mind. "I am Hoshi, leader of the Dragon Clan."
"The same Togashi Hoshi that slew Akuma at the end of the Shadow Wars?" Orin asked. "The half-dragon?"
"Akuma was never slain," Hoshi replied, "and the answer to your first question is more complex than I have time to answer now. You must leave this place, Orin Wake, and leave now. Take Agasha Hisojo from this place at any cost, for he is still needed. Take them and go as far as you can, as fast as you can."
"Orin," Hisojo said, walking up to the gaijin's side quickly. "Are you going to just stand here or are you going to-" Hisojo's eyes widened as he suddenly noticed who Orin was speaking to. "Lord Hoshi," the shugenja said in surprise. "I did not know you had arrived. May I assist you in some way?"
"You have done your best, father," Hoshi said, a tone of regret in his voice. "But I fear that it is too late for me to follow your advice. You always taught me that my humanity was a strength, not a weakness. Had I listened, perhaps I would not have acted the way I did. Rojo would not be implanted, the Factory would still be safe, and we would not be in the situation that we are in now."
"And what situation are we in now?" Hisojo said sharply. "Or have you chosen to be your typical cryptic self until it is far too late to rectify the situation."
"See for yourself," Hoshi replied, pointing across the room with a single finger.
Orin and Hisojo followed Hoshi's gesture. At the far side of the Factory, the air suddenly tore itself asunder, a portal of shimmering black forming from nothing. Samurai and shugenja all turned immediately toward the portal, readying spells or drawing bows and swords. A single man stepped from the portal. A single, skeletal man dressed in robes of red velvet so dark they were nearly black. Bolts of fire, electricity, and steel consumed him instantly, and the intruder disappeared into a cloud of fire and magic. A moment later, the smoke cleared to reveal the figure still standing, his sunken eyes regarding his attackers with infinite disdain. He clasped his withered hands together and twisted the palms.
"Nothing," the man said.
A shockwave of shadow erupted from the man, expanding outward until it struck the ring of Dragons attacking him. As one, the shugenja and samurai screamed, clutching their eyes and ears, falling to the ground in pain as the Void robbed them off all sensation. The man walked slowly across the Factory, the remaining Dragons still keeping their weapons trained upon him but uncertain what to do next.
"I am Yogo Ishak, descendant of Fu Leng, Dark Oracle of Void," the man said. "You have plotted the downfall of Jigoku, and thus you must all be destroyed. This Factory shall serve the purposes of my master." The man spoke without venom or emotion; as if he were simply listing off facts that could not be changed. "You may as well attack me if you are able," he continued. "Surrender will not alter your fate."
Without a word, Hoshi marched directly toward Ishak.
"Lord Hoshi," Hisojo said, beginning to follow him.
"Orin," Hoshi said, turning his green eyes to the gaijin.
Orin caught the Dragon's meaning and grasped Hisojo's shoulder in one hand. "Wait," he said.
"Orin, this isn't the time," Hisojo replied in a harsh whisper. "Take your hand off of me this instant."
Orin hesitated for a single moment, then drove his fist into Agasha Hisojo's face. The shugenja blinked dizzily and collapsed. Orin quickly hoisted the old man over his shoulder.
"Orin!" Meliko shouted, noticing what he had done. "What are you doing?"
Orin did not reply, but simply turned and ran for the exit opposite the duel about to begin between Yogo Ishak and Hoshi. Many of the other Dragons were following.
"Ishak, there is no place for you here," Hoshi said, his voice rolling through the Factory like thunder. "I will not allow you to take what the Dragons have built. I will destroy the Factory first."
"So be it, Hoshi," Ishak said with a mocking laugh. "There are other Factories to be conquered, and we know exactly where to find them thanks to your betrayal." He waved a hand dismissively and a bolt of darkness streaked across the room toward Hoshi. He stepped aside with startling speed and Ishak's bolt continued onward, melting the steel walls of the Factory into mist as it passed.
"I will see you destroyed as well, Ishak," Hoshi promised. Fire erupted from the Dragon's skin and for a moment, the shadows that covered his form parted. Hoshi resembled a man, tall and bald, his skin covered in a swirling dragon tattoo. Countless faces swam through the scales of the dragon. Hoshi's own face seemed preternaturally old, lines of worry and doubt creasing his eyes and sinking his cheeks.
Ishak narrowed his eyes at Hoshi, then laughed. "I think not," he said with a brief shake of his head. "I had expected more of the fabled leader of the Dragon but you're just a mortal. A mortal with genetic delusions of grandeur."
"More than enough to deal with the likes of you," Hoshi said. The voice of the Dragon Champion had faded; he spoke as a mortal now, with his own voice, strong and defiant.
"We shall see," Ishak replied.
Orin heard the sounds of battle echo behind him as he ran. The tunnels of the Dragon shook with the fury of the duel. Red and blue glare flashed through the hallways and Hoshi and Ishak unleashed their fury upon one another. The sound of tearing metal and exploding stone resounded. The hidden Dragons shouted in pain and fear as their tunnels began to collapse around them.
"Meliko!" Orin said, turning quickly to the ise zumi. "Which way to the surface?"
"The surface?" Meliko replied, surprised. "We can't go there! The Dragon will be seen!"
"Meliko, think!" Orin shouted. "There's nowhere else to go. If we go deeper into these tunnels, we're going to die! Is that what you want?"
Meliko's young face twisted in doubt. After a lifetime of guarding the secrets of the Dragon, even in a situation such as this she hated the thought of exposing her clan to the light of day. The doubt only lingered for a moment, and she broke into a run again.
"Dragons!" she shouted. "Follow me to the surface!"
Orin ran again, the slight weight of Hisojo hardly slowing him down. "Hey, wait up!" shouted a voice behind him. Orin glanced back to see the Crane, Ishio, following him. He was huffing and puffing as he carried an unconscious Mirumoto bushi over either shoulder. A stream of blood trickled down his forehead.
"Ishio!" Orin said with relief. "You made it out."
"Not yet we haven't," Ishio said. He nodded at the hallway behind them.
Green-armored Mirumoto bushi and shugenja in robes of emerald and crimson ran in a mass, following the lead of Orin and Meliko. Many of them also carried wounded and unconscious Dragons. Their faces were pale and fearful, but they carried on.
"Orin," Ishio said as they started running again. "Where in Jigoku are we going to hide all of these Dragons?"
Orin was startled by the thought. There were dozens of them; to many to conceal once they surfaced in Otosan Uchi once more. He could see the fear in the faces of those who had realized the truth, their fear of emerging into the light of day, their uncertainty of what they would face there. What would become of the Dragon without their secrecy? As another explosion thundered from the Factory, Orin pushed the thought from his mind and concentrated on running.
"Fortunes," Daikua Kita swore, staring down into the smoke. She held her pistol trained in front of her, ready for something, anything, to rise up out of the darkened stairway.
"What is it?" Ryosei called out, alarm in her voice. "What's going on?" She struggled to pass the Imperial Guardsmen that protected her, but they did not allow her to pass. She had led them the way she had come with Saigo before, in search of the Agasha Factory. Now the tunnel was collapsed; smoke wafted through the tunnels from beyond the rubble, carrying with it the smell of burning chemicals and flesh.
"Some sort of battle is going on in the bowels of the Palace," Kita said, rejoining the others. She was upset, her normal cool exterior slowly being worn away by the strangeness of the night. "We can't go this way, your Highness."
"Man, this is insane," said one of the Imperial Guardsman, a Mantis who stared at the ancient hall with wide eyes. "I had no idea all of these tunnels were down here! People live under the Palace?"
"Well. They used to," Kita said bluntly. "From the smells coming through that rubble, I think a lot of people are dying."
"Hisojo," Ryosei said, worried for the kindly old shugenja who had helped her before. "Is there any way we can get through?"
"We have enough problems of our own, Your Highness," Kita replied. "My orders are to get you to safety. Even if we could get through that tunnel, which we can't, whatever's on the other side is certainly not safety. We'll have to return to the Palace, and pray that there's some other way out that the Locust haven't surrounded yet."
The guards nodded and headed back up the twisting tunnel, holding their weapons ready to deal with any threat. Kita brought up the rear, protecting Ryosei directly. The princess looked very young and very tired.
"You're worried for your brother," Kita said to her as they climbed the steps.
"I'm worried for everyone," Ryosei said. "I have a bad feeling about tonight."
Kita nodded but said nothing. She became very quiet once more, her eyes nearly glazed as she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
"What's wrong?" Ryosei asked, noticing Kita's sudden distraction.
"Nothing," Kita said with a curt shake of her head. She walked up several more steps before suddenly turning to Ryosei with another answer. "I was given... a warning," she said, her voice halting and hesitant. "A warning for the Emperor. But when the time came, I couldn't deliver it."
"A warning?" Ryosei replied. "Did someone threaten him?"
"No, not that kind of warning," Kita said. "It was very strange. Something Hoshi Jack said right before I left him. I promised I would carry on the message, but the words were so cryptic I couldn't find a way to say them. And then he was gone."
"What did Jack say?" Ryosei asked.
"That there was good and evil in all things, and that sometimes the evil was stronger," the guardsman replied. "He said I had to carry on the warning, because there would be no time for Jack to tell Lord Yoritomo himself."
"But Jack is waiting at Gekkoshinden," Ryosei said. "Why wouldn't he have time to talk to Kameru?" Ryosei's thoughts became a blur. She thought about the dire words her brother had read to her from Yoritomo Kenjin's journal. Combined with the warning of Jack and her general feelings of trepidation about the night, a cold fear settled into her stomach. "Kita," she said as they emerged from the tunnels and back into the halls of the Palace. "We have to find my brother."
Kita nodded, Ryosei's fear reflected upon her own face. "I was thinking the same thing," she said.
The other three Imperial Guardsmen looked to Kita curiously. "Your orders?" one of them asked.
"Rally the Imperial Guard to the main courtyard," Kita said. "All of them."
The three guards looked at her in disbelief. "But Kita-sama, the Palace--" one of them began.
"To Jigoku with the Diamond Palace," Ryosei snarled, stepping in front of Kita, her green eyes blazing at the insubordinate guardsman. "The Emperor's life hangs in the balance. Rally the Imperial Guard. Now."
The guards immediately bowed and took to their heels, shouting out to their fellow guardsman as they ran. Daikua Kita said nothing, but inwardly she reevaluated her respect for the princess. She was no spoiled weakling courtier. She had a strength equal to her brother's and her father's, though she was more reluctant to show it. Perhaps they still had a chance, after all.
Jared Carfax folded the newspaper under his arm and strode briskly up the steps. Though he was concerned about the blackout, he wasn't really worried. He was an Oracle, after all. He had his powers to keep him safe. Even if the full brunt of the riots were to come through here, he doubted they could withstand the defensive power of four Elemental Oracles, as the others were waiting just upstairs in one of his many uptown apartments.
Carfax opened the door to the apartment. Naydiram stood just inside, a grave look on his face. He appeared to have been waiting for Carfax to return.
"What?" Carfax asked, quickly shutting the door. "What is it? Is something wrong?" He could hear a light sobbing coming from the next room. "To say the least," the Oracle of Earth replied. "I think maybe you should see for yourself."
Carfax quickly fell into step behind the Senpet. They entered the next room, a large central chamber with a fantastic view of the city. A large entertainment center with television, stereo, and various other technological toys dominated one wall. A long, plush gaijin-style couch shaped like a half moon filled the center of the room. Mazaque', the Oracle of Water, stood at the window, quietly brooding. Selena Totec, Oracle of Fire, sat in the middle of the couch, quietly sobbing to herself.
Carfax immediately sensed something odd about both of them, but he could not divine precisely what it was. He turned to Naydiram, a perplexed look on his face.
"You sense it too?" the cab driver asked, scratching the stubble at his chin.
"What's wrong with them?" Carfax asked.
Naydiram sighed, looking at them and then back at Carfax. "I don't know how to explain," he said. "But they've lost their powers. They're mortal again, both of them."
"Gods!" Carfax said, suddenly marching forward into the room. "Mazaque', Selena, is this true?" Mazaque' simply ignored Carfax, continuing his vigil at the window. Selena looked up at Carfax with red-rimmed eyes, nodding slowly. "I just got used to having these powers!" she said. "I just got used to the responsibility! I was ready to help, to make a difference! Now they're gone. I feel a big hole in my soul where they used to be."
"How did this happen?" Carfax asked, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "Do either of you know how it happened?"
Mazaque' turned, his dark skin gleaming in the moon's light. He nodded once, quickly. "The Dark Oracles are dying," Mazaque' said. "As our opposite numbers are destroyed, we, too, lose our power."
"Why?" Carfax snapped. "Why are the Dark Oracles dying?"
"Oh, gee, there's a big mystery," Naydiram sneered. "Who would ever want to kill a Dark Oracle? Oh. I know. Everyone. The Dark Oracles aren't popular people, Carfax. With the Day of Thunder coming up on us fast, you can only expect them to become more and more involved. You can't really blame the mortals for killing them."
The Oracle of Air fell back into a large, stuffed chair. "But this shouldn't be happening," he said. "Aren't they supposed to be replaced immediately?"
"Maybe not," Naydiram said. "Maybe Jigoku and Yoma have decided they don't need us anymore."
"Well," Mazaque' said with sudden certainty. "I, for one, am relieved. For a full century now, my life has been tossed upon the whims of Yoma. I have served as an Oracle, and served well, as such as been my honor. Now, I am free once more. I will not stop to reason why. I will simply return to my life."
"If that's what you have to do," Carfax said. "But think, Mazaque'. You might not have much of a life to go back to. The Palace Gates have already fallen twice and we're up to the seventh Yoritomo. Jigoku is a hair's breadth away from engulfing the world and no one is in the least bit prepared. We're not exactly winning, you realize that."
"Perhaps you are right," he replied, his eyes lost in deep thought. "At least one thing has improved. As I am no longer an Oracle, I need no longer stand on the sidelines. When the Day of Thunder comes, I will stand and fight. If I am worthy, perhaps I will find a warrior's death."
"Well, gee, that'd be great," Naydiram said sarcastically.
"Is there any way I can get my powers back?" Selena asked, hope dwindling in her eyes.
Carfax looked at her evenly, his eyes full of sorrow. "That," he said, "Is one question that I wish I could answer."
"Sachiko, are you there?"
She opened her eyes slightly. The Battle Maiden had seated herself cross-legged in one corner of her prison. After Yotogi's voice had left her, she'd put herself into a deep trance to conserve air, a mental exercise she'd learned at the Otaku Academy. Beating her fists against the walls and swearing at Yotogi wouldn't do much good anyway, it would only waste the time she had left.
She had come to this conclusion after twenty minutes of beating on the walls and swearing at Yotogi.
"What?" she said, glancing around sharply. "Yotogi?"
"I think not," the voice replied.
"Then show yourself," Sachiko said. "I'm getting tired of disembodied voices."
"Indeed," the voice replied. "Understandable. Regrettably, I can show you little. Outside forces aren't aware of my interference, and I would prefer it stay that way." A pair of gleaming black eyes appeared hovering in the air before her, slanted and inhuman. They held no pupils or irises, just pools of inky black speckled with what seemed to be stars.
"What are you?" she asked. "I'm going insane, aren't I?"
"Slowly but surely," the creature replied. "But that's an entirely different problem. I am an associate of your friend and former partner, Kitsuki Hatsu."
"Hatsu's dead," she said sharply. "And I don't remember him talking to any disembodied voices."
"Oh, no?" the voice replied. "Surely you remember his hunches, then? Those spells when he would become distanced from the world, cut away from everything, and return with some brilliant deduction on how to solve his latest case? You did not witness these?"
Sachiko looked at the eyes warily. "Maybe," she said.
"That was I," it said. "I am Void."
"Void?" she replied, rising to her feet warily. She rested her hand on the metal chair, ready to heft it and hit the creature if need be. "You're an element? What kind of name is that?"
"Void," it repeated. "As in 'Dragon-of-the' so you can forget about hitting me with that chair. It won't do you any good."
Sachiko frowned and took her hand off of the chair. "What do you want from me?"
The dragon's eyes tilted slightly to consider her. "Such curious creatures," it said. "You always have been. Almost as curious as Dragons. I think that's why I like you so much, because you remind me of me. And that's why Fire hates you so much. Because you remind him of him."
"Fire?" she asked. "The Fire Dragon?"
"Yes," Void replied. "He hates your kind. He pretends to chafe in your service, but believe me, he revels every time one of you calls upon his power with one of your bombs. He loves destruction. He loves carnage. He's a beast at heart, just like you humans. He can't stand being reminded of it. But that's another matter entirely. You don't want to hear about my family problems, now, do you?"
"I have a few of my own right now," she said.
"I noticed," the eyes dipped a bit, nodding. "Yotogi plans to turn you to his side, or kill you in the process. This is quite the prison, Sachiko. You've got little hope indeed of escaping."
"So you came to mock me?" she asked.
The dragon paused for a long moment. "No," it said. "I came to see if you had any ideas."
"What?" she said suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
The dragon sighed. "I overestimate myself sometimes, it seems," it said. "I tend to judge myself a bit more clever than I am. Sachiko, I've been sent to eradicate the human race. I was hoping you could stop me."
"You're not making any sense," she said.
"I know, I know, believe me I know," the Dragon said, annoyed. "It's so difficult to communicate in terms that humans can understand. Sachiko, do you know anything about Dragons?"
"Very little," she said.
"We operate in a very orderly fashion," it said. "You humans think we are mysterious, inconceivable, but it is only because we are slaves to order, an order beyond the grasp of your chaotic natures. Everything we do is for a reason. Every act we perform is balanced, measured, purposeful. A thousand years ago, we sought to aid your kind in your battle against Fu Leng. We lent our power to your Elemental Masters. Little did we know that the corruption Isawa Tadaka had sought to harness in his soul would creep into our own. Many of us were twisted into abominations. Some of us died. Do you know what it means for an immortal creature to die, Otaku Sachiko?"
She shook her head.
"Yes, well neither do I," the dragon said. "Neither does anyone else. It is inconceivable for us to imagine our deaths. Something had to be done. The three of us who remained alive and conscious put the matter to a vote whether your race needed to be destroyed. Fire judged you lacking. I judged you worthy. Earth abstained. We decided to wait until the next Day of Thunder to enact our judgment, and I was to be the tool of that judgment. Thus, I have come."
"Judgment?" Sachiko asked. "But the vote sounds inconclusive to me. Kind of shaky premise to kill a species over, wouldn't you say?"
Void nodded again and closed its eyes. "The logic of dragons," it said. "I am to dwell among the humans, and observe. I have watched through the hole in the sky for a long time, but I have been here physically since the Fire Dragon laid waste to Medinaat-al- Salaam. Helping."
"Helping who?" Sachiko asked.
The Dragon opened its eyes once more. They were filled with pain. "Both sides," it said. "The Seven Thunders and the Stormbreaker have both had the benefit of my assistance. Every time I help one, I must help the other. Every time I send Hatsu a dream or vision, I must give the Stormbreaker's lieutenants the same. Such was the decision of Earth. Fire chuckled when he heard it. He knew it would not be long before my meddling caused the extinction of your race. I am bound by my sister's decision, Sachiko. If I help you escape this prison, I must give your foes equal assistance. Do you know what that means?"
"No," she said.
"And I cannot tell you," Void said. "In return for Hatsu's visions, I guided Munashi's ambition. I helped Hatsu find a successful career as a detective. I gave the Kashrak dreams that led his minions to find the Porcelain Mask. I gave him a dream that led him to the city, exposing the foul heart of the Stormbreaker's chief lieutenant. At the same time, I gave that same lieutenant clues that would lead him to the identities of the Seven Thunders. To help you, Sachiko, to save the life of a Thunder, will alter the course of destiny. Such an act will have grave repercussions for all of Rokugan. I will let it be your choice."
"My choice?" Sachiko asked.
"I will elucidate, as you humans sometimes have problems understanding," the dragon replied. "You are one of the Seven Thunders, a savior of Rokugan. Mirumoto Rojo implied as much to you as much before, did he not?"
"Something along those lines," she said warily. "But I'm not in the habit of listening to lunatics who think they're Dragons."
"Indeed," the dragon answered. "Well, know you this. Should you die, perhaps there will be another to take your place. Perhaps what you humans know as Yoma will yet choose another champion of light to stand in your stead. Perhaps not, and all of Rokugan, all of the world of man, is doomed if you deny my help. But accept my help, be free from this prison, and live to fight another day, knowing that my assistance will cause untold damage to the Empire. Perhaps you will be able to defeat the advantage I give to your adversary, perhaps you will not, but you will live. It is your choice. What is your answer, Otaku Sachiko?"
"Like I said," she replied stiffly. "I'm not in the habit of listening to lunatics who think they're dragons." She turned her back to the creature and folded her arms.
The dragon's eyes widened, then narrowed once more at the joke. "Are you certain, Thunder?" it asked. "You will certainly die. You don't have a chance to escape outside of succumbing to Yotogi's will."
She looked over her shoulder at the dragon, her green eyes fierce. "I'm still alive, aren't I?" she said sharply. "So there's a chance. I'll get out of this, creature. I don't need your help."
"You are certain?" the dragon asked.
She said nothing, only turned away from the dragon again.
The dragon nodded. "Spoken like a true mortal," it said with pride. "Like a true Thunder." And then it was silent.
"What?" she replied, turning toward it.
The Dragon of the Void was gone. The door to Sachiko's cell stood wide open.
Keijura paced quietly through the streets of Otosan Uchi. It had taken him much longer to return to the KTSU Building than he expected. Under the circumstances, he counted himself lucky that he'd managed to return at all. The rioting in the city had escalated. A few times, he barely managed to duck into a darkened building in time to avoid a mob of looters or open combat between policeman and unruly citizens.
The entire time, his thoughts were consumed, distracted. He thought of Shosuro Kochiyo and what she had told him. He thought of her tales of conspiracy and the Stormbreaker. She had been right. When she revealed the true identity of the man who wanted to bring down the Yoritomo Dynasty and the Diamond Empire, he had not believed her. The more he thought about it, though, it made sense. Though he was well liked and respected, what did anyone really know about him? What reason had there ever been to believe he was what he claimed to be?
Keijura shook his head. What reason was there to disbelieve? Either way lead to hearsay and madness. He'd listened to that foolish girl's babblings a bit too closely and now some of her madness was rubbing off on him. He gazed up the street at the KTSU Building, standing just ahead. Some of the windows were lit with the pale glow of candles or lanterns. The lanterns he recognized; the paper lanterns the network had purchased for last years New Years Festival and never used. They had been taking up space in the supply rooms for months. At least now they were being put to good use. If nothing else, the building looked more festive than he had ever seen it, the office windows lit in the multicolored light of the New Years Lanterns. Keijura laughed to himself in irony.
He wondered how those who had been trapped in the building were faring. KTSU featured twenty four hour programming, so even this late at night dozens of technicians, reporters, and maintenance workers would be inside, trapped by the blackout, unable to check upon their friends and families. Keijura felt sorry for them, but at the same time he envied them. He had no family, really, and his co-workers at the network were the only friends he really had. He entered the building, nodding to the security guards who watched the door. Even now they kept their vigil. Except for the jolly paper lanterns, it was almost as if it were a normal work day.
Keijura mounted the stairs and walked up the six flights to his office. He could sleep there for the night. He would be safe there, safe even from Kochiyo's bogeymen. But first things first. Keijura was a man of discipline, with strict and regimented habits. Even if he didn't believe Kochiyo's story, he had to treat it as if it were the truth. He picked up the small laptop computer from his desk and pressed the power key. To his surprise, it flared to life, powered by its independent battery. He hoped he could record what he learned before another Locust pulse rendered the computer inoperative; lap tops were expensive, even for his newly inflated salary.
He finished typing in the details of Kochiyo's revelations, and saved the file. On impulse, he copied it as well, quickly typing in an e-mail address. He really didn't expect to hear back from the addressee, but it made him feel better to make the attempt. If nothing else, he'd realize how insane Kochiyo really was and maybe that would be some small consolation.
Keijura shut down the computer once more and crossed the office. Laying himself out on the leather couch beside his desk, he closed his eyes and let his body relax. The infinite tensions of the previous day began to drain from his body. He hovered on the edge of sleep, on the edge of a dream.
A sudden noise in the hallway alerted Keijura's keen senses, suddenly ending the dream and snapping his mind to attention. He quickly rose from the couch and ducked out into the hall in time to see a flash of red disappear around the corner. He quickly headed in that direction, rounding the corner before his shadow could escape. He was not surprised to see Shosuro Kochiyo standing at the shadows of a broom closet, half crouched behind a large plastic trash can.
"You," Keijura said, disgust evident in his voice. "Why are you following me?"
Kochiyo shrugged, drawing to her full height and walking slowly toward him. "I can't exactly return to my apartment. I thought maybe I would follow you back, just in case."
"Just in case of what?" Keijura asked, folding his arms as he gazed down at the geisha in irritation.
"Just in case they try to kill you," Kochiyo said.
"Listen, Scorpion," the reporter said sharply. "I'm tired of your conspiracy theories and shadow games. You've already forced me to ruin the life and career of a good man. I don't know what your game is now, but I'm done with you. I don't believe your lies, and I don't want to see your face. Get out of my life. Now."
Kochiyo nodded. She leaned back against the wall, her shoulders slouching in despair. She closed her bloodshot eyes ruefully. "He was right," she said. "You won't listen. None of you will listen until you've seen for yourself, and by then it will be too late."
"Kochiyo, perhaps I'm not making myself clear," Keijura said. "You have no evidence. You have no witnesses. You have no credentials to make me want to trust you in the slightest."
"Than why did you even agree to talk to me?" she said, looking up at him suddenly, her eyes intense.
Keijura paused for a moment before answering. "I don't know," he said. "Call it a hunch. I thought I might learn something."
"And now you think you didn't," she said. "Just because the truth I gave you was too hard to hear?"
Keijura shook his head. "No, Kochiyo," he said. "I'm not going to let you twist my words and thoughts around like you did to Daniri. I'm leaving now. If you follow me, I'll summon up KTSU security and let them deal with you. Understood?"
Before Kochiyo could answer, a sudden roar split the night. The reporter and geisha felt a sudden, instinctive fear, something deep and ancient and primal. Keijura ran to the end of the hallway, looking down to the street to see the source of the sound.
He was never the same.
An enormous giant of a man stood on the sidewalk before KTSU. He was dressed in the ancient armor of a samurai, broken here and there by bits of grey stone growing directly from his skin. To his left stood a thin, insectoid figure, hunched low as his segmented eyes scanned the area. To his right stood a young girl, her happy smile an eerie and frightening contrast to the demonic spectacles of her companions. She looked up at Keijura, smiled, and pointed.
"Fortunes," Kochiyo cursed. "They've found us."
The insectoid creature suddenly liquefied, transforming into an inky shadow of black upon the sidewalk. Like a puddle of nothing, darkness seeped into the cracks around the station's main doors. The giant followed, knocking the doors from their hinges with a single backhand slap.
"Who are those people?" Keijura asked quickly. "What are those people?"
"They must know that I tried to expose the Stormbreaker. They've come to kill us, all of us," Kochiyo snapped back at him. "I suppose it would be in bad taste for me to say I told you so."
In the Temple of the Elements, a light shone in the darkness.
In the hallways surrounding the Tier of Water, the blue-robed Caretakers murmured quietly among themselves. Shortly after the blackout had begun, the Master had entered the main room of the Tier and sealed himself inside. He had carried a small bundle under his arm, and his expression had brooked no question or delay. For hours now he had been within the Chamber of Water, chanting, casting the ancient magic of the Isawa. The Caretakers could feel the ebb and flow of the spirits all around them. The candles flickered fitfully as the elements thickened. Powerful magic was being worked this night.
Within, Isawa Kujimitsu knelt on a small mat, his fists resting upon his thighs. The old shugenja's eyes were closed in deep concentration, his bald forehead glistening with sweat. There was more to this strange darkness than there appeared to be, that much was certain. The elements did not ring true this evening; something was different. Whatever power the Locust Clan were using to strangle the life out of the city, it wasn't technology.
He had tried to tell the other Masters of his suspicions, but to no avail. Iuchi Hisato had rushed off to check on Shinjo Tower, certain that the police would not be able to coordinate their efforts without his help. Ranbe Kuro was strangely unheeding of Kujimitsu's words; the old man was wrapped up in some remorseful remembrance of a long-past argument with his grandfather. Hoshi Hisato would hear nothing of it; he claimed to have sensed no 'thickening of the elements' and would hear of no such nonsense from a shugenja twenty years his senior, even if that man was the Master of Water. All of the new Masters, it seemed, were oddly wrapped up in their own emotions and concerns this night except for Munashi. Asahina Munashi was not present at the Temple; presumably he was busy at Dojicorp or the Palace. Not surprising; the new Master of Air was a busy man even at the best of times. Kujimitsu sighed. He wondered if it had been a good idea seeking outside the clan for new Masters. The candidates had all seemed like dependable, worthy individuals at first but now, at the first crisis, all he had to depend upon was himself.
It would have to suffice. In the absence of Sumi, Kujimitsu was the senior member of the Council of Masters and thus the interim leader of the Phoenix in Otosan Uchi. Wherever Sumi had gone, he knew that the girl always put the needs of the clan first. She wasn't the fool or manipulator that Shiba Gensu believed her to be. The powerful temper she had inherited from Zul Rashid was more than balanced by the calm she had learned from her adopted father, and Isawa Neiko's courage ran true in her daughter. Yes, Sumi would be fine, but now it was Kujimitsu's duty to insure that the rest of the city survived in her absence.
He leaned over the two items that rested before him, both laying on the crumpled brown piece of paper he had wrapped them in. One was a simple transistor radio, battery powered, purchased down the street at a convenience store. The other was a small samurai helmet painted in red lacquer. Though the helm seemed unexceptional at first, it was one of the most powerful and treasured artifacts of the Phoenix. Kujimitsu's meditations were now complete. He was ready to begin. He reached forward and gingerly lifted the helm, placing it upon his head. It was surprisingly small, a tight fit on Kujimitsu's round head. The Master of Water smiled to himself at the thought that the first Isawa should have such a small head. He closed his eyes and felt the magic flow through him.
A slight shift in the rhythm of the shugenja's thoughts alerted him that he was successful. Kujimitsu's perceptions were expanded to the world just beyond reality, the world in which the spirits watched over the living, the world of the kami and kansen. He opened his eyes and there it was, a dark haze over the rest, a cloud over his vision. He could sense a word being whispered by the twisted air spirits that composed a haze, a name that they whispered again and again.
"Pestilence," Kujimitsu whispered.
The spirits shifted in their flight, turning their eyeless sight to the wizard. They flowed around him, over him, through him, leaving not a mark upon his body. They avoided the crimson helmet upon his head, regarding it with no small amount of wariness and trepidation. Finally, satisfied with their exploration of the man's spirit, they returned to their cloud and regarded him once more.
"You are a human," the spirits hissed. "You are a Master!"
"I am," Kujimitsu replied. "I am honored to meet you, spirits of air."
"Are you Master of Air?" the spirits asked, a hint of fear in their voices.
"No," Kujimitsu replied. "I do not have that honor. The Master of Air is abroad this night. I am the Master of Water."
"Good..." the spirits murmured. "A dark man is the Master of Air... a man driven by what he does not understand...."
"As are we all," Kujimitsu replied. "Tell me, spirits. Why are there so many of you abroad this evening?"
"Our power..." the spirits cackled mischievously. "Fueled by the Pestilence we are... Now we touch the world instead of hovering about it... We find the machines... We draw out the spark that powers them..."
"But you are hurting people," Kujimitsu replied sternly. "The people depend upon the machines. By turning them off, you cause us pain. Have we not ever honored the spirits of air and been your allies?"
"We only wish to watch the city change..." the spirits replied, sounding slightly bewildered at Kujimitsu's sudden vehemence. "Do you not like the changes we have made?"
"No, we most certainly do not," Kujimitsu replied. "Can you not feel the pain of the city? Can you not sense the destruction and chaos you have caused?"
The spirits paused for a moment, considering Kujimitsu's question. "No," they replied. "The cloud Pestilence casts over us... it is distracting as it empowers us. Our thoughts are... muddled."
"Then let me free you," Kujimitsu said. He reached out with his magic. Though his area of expertise was Water, he had some little skill in manipulating Air. He could feel the black cloud cast by the Locust Machine, smell the rough mechanical enchantment burning his nostrils. Whatever was behind this spell was tetsukami, and had been cobbled together quickly. Still, it was powerful, and would require much power to counter. He reached out with his magic and tried to wipe the cloud away. He drew upon the ancient power within Isawa's Helm to boost his spell, and for a moment, the dark haze faded.
At his side, the tiny transistor radio sparked to life, squawking loudly with static.
A pulse of white suddenly lanced through the grey cloud. Kujimitsu shouted in surprise as the light blinded him, stumbling backward from the position he knelt in. When he gathered himself once more, the radio was silent. Pestilence had sent forth a burst of its power, once more chaining the spirits of Air to its commands.
"Master Kujimitsu!" shouted a Caretaker, bursting into the chamber. Four of the blue-robed shugenja rushed to his side, steadying him to his feet. "We heard your cry," said the first Caretaker. "Is anything the matter?"
"No," Kujimitsu said, his voice a frustrated growl. He drew the helm from his head and tucked it under one arm, his brow furrowed in thought.
"Do you need anything, Master?" asked another Caretaker, her eyes wide with concern.
"I am fine," he said with a reassuring smile. "Now leave me."
The Caretakers complied instantly, filing out of the chamber as silently as they could, sliding the door shut behind them. Kujimitsu prowled back and forth, the length of the Tier of Water, rubbing his chin in thought. He could still feel the power of Pestilence, whatever it was. It hovered just on the edge of his senses, somewhere deep in the city, somewhere near the Palace. He was sure if he could find the device, he could disable it, but the riots and fighting were thickest near the Palace. Without the support of the other Elemental Masters, the Shiba were unlikely to follow Kujimitsu on a raid into the heart of the fighting. It seemed almost as if the world was working against him, insuring that he would have to win this battle alone.
"No," Kujimitsu said to himself. "I am not alone."
The Master of Water crossed to the far end of the Tier of Water, a sudden purpose in his stride. Passing behind the Altar of Water, he ducked down and felt the bricks along the floor. Finding the loose one, he drew it aside and produced a small box. The box was ancient, crafted of lacquered black wood, barely bigger than Kujimitsu's palm. The box's hinges and paneling were covered with dust, undisturbed in years. Kujimitsu blew gently on the box to disperse some of the dust, then opened the tiny hinge with one hand. Within, in a bed of black velvet, rested a single piece of glass carved perfectly into the shape of a tear.
Once, such items were used by those such as Kujimitsu to communicate. Once, the network that spawned might have brought Rokugan to its knees. Now, they just might save it. The Master clutched the tear between two fingers and concentrated. Which of the others would he choose? Which one would be of the most help to him here?
It was no choice at all, really.
Isawa Kujimitsu sent out a mental summons to Shinjo Katsunan, daimyo of the Unicorn.
"It doesn't look like much," Tsuruchi Shinden said, peering around the corner of the alleyway. He sneered in distaste at the small temple, Gekkoshinden. He held a large pistol in one hand. Though they had run into no trouble so far, the Wasp was ever prepared.
"This is where Jack is waiting for us," the Emperor replied, standing just behind the guardsman. Kameru held a pistol as well. Like all the Yoritomo Emperors before him, he was not one to let another fight his battles.
"That may well be, but as Captain of the Guard I urge caution," Shinden replied. "It is poorly constructed, with few easily defensible positions. If we are discovered within, we will be lost, Your Majesty."
"Then we must not be discovered, Shinden," Kameru said. He pointed at the window of a shop near them, a coat store. The windows had been broken and shattered. The mannequins lay scattered in the front display.
Shinden glanced at the window, and nodded curtly at Kameru. Gesturing to two of his men, they quickly and stealthily darted into the window, returning some time later with several long coats. The Wasp and Mantis bushi quickly donned the coats over their armor, concealing their guns and swords as well as they could in their length. Kameru concealed his own pistol in the pocket of the coat he was handed. He glanced down in surprise as the coat caught over the edge of his sword.
Strange. He hadn't remembered stopping to retrieve his sword. As he examined the blade, he realized it wasn't his; it was the strange katana he had taken after Doji Meda fell, the one he suspected had been giving him the strange dreams and visions of late. He had intended to stop carrying the sword, but here it was again. He felt a chill.
"Yoritomo-sama, we must move quickly," Shinden said. "I suggest we go groups of two so as not to arouse suspicion. I will send the others ahead first to make sure the temple is secure. If all seems well, then we will go last, Your Majesty."
"All right, fine," Kameru said, his voice numb. Shinden's words quickly distracted him. What had he been thinking about? Probably wasn't important. He tucked the sword away in his coat and watched the street.
Shinden's men moved quickly and professionally, trying their best to look casual while moving to the temple as efficiently as possible. Soon, the first pair had disappeared inside. Two minutes later, Shinden dispatched the second pair. Again, no sign of trouble arose as they disappeared into Gekkoshinden. Shinden waited a full five minutes, his head cocked as he struggled to hear any sign of trouble. Kameru could tell that the Wasp was irritated, having lost all radio communications with his men due to the blackout, but was carrying on regardless. Finally, he nodded to Kameru, and they began to walk across the street toward the temple.
"Your Majesty," Shinden whispered as they walked. "Once we are inside, stay behind me."
"Are you expecting some kind of trouble?" Kameru asked, worried by the Captain's paranoia.
"It is my duty to expect trouble," Shinden said. "Your life is my responsibility. If anything should threaten you, run. I will see to your escape even if it means my own life. Is that understood?"
Kameru nodded. He was a bit troubled by Shinden's intensity, but felt somewhat reassured to have such a driven warrior on his side. Perhaps he could stave off the terrible prophecies written in Kenjin's journal with more allies like Shinden. He certainly hoped so.
The door of the temple opened as Shinden and Kameru approached. A small, wiry monk in a wide straw hat waited just within, dressed in torn and shabby robes. He smiled and bowed as the pair arrived, quickly shutting the door after they had entered. The interior of the temple was musty, cramped and dark. Candles guttered on every wall. The cloying odor of incense drifted from somewhere, carried on the chants of unseen monks.
"Welcome to Gekkoshinden, Your Majesty," the monk said. "I am Koan. If you need anything, do not hesitate to call upon me."
"Where is Hoshi Jack?" Kameru asked the monk.
"He went out into the city," Koan replied. "He said that on a night such as this, he was needed. He will no doubt return shortly." The old man chuckled to himself, teetering back and forth on his heels. He scratched at his chin with one hand, then stared at the fingers for several moments, fascinated by what he found there.
Tsuruchi Shinden cleared his throat, snapping Koan's eyes back to focus upon them.
"Yes?" the little monk said. "Did you want something else?"
"Where is the Emperor to go in the meantime?" Shinden asked tersely. "And where are my men?"
"The guardsmen?" Koan asked, looking surprised by the question. "Why, they went to the shrine in the basement to pay their respects to the temple's guardian. As for you, Lord Yoritomo, we have a room waiting for you on the second floor. Wasp-sama, would you like me to direct you to the basement?"
"I think I will stay with the Emperor," Shinden replied coldly.
"Well, whatever," Koan replied with a huff. He strolled toward the nearest staircase, mumbling under his breath. "Bushi these days... Never giving a rat's tail for their gods until it's too late... Going right to Jigoku, the whole lot of you, that's all I have to say..."
Kameru and Shinden followed the old monk to the second floor, the ancient wooden stairs creaking with every step. Koan scampered off to one side after they reached the top of the flight, opening a door so recessed in shadows that Kameru and Shinden had not noticed it at first.
"In here," Koan said. "This room will be perfect for you, Yoritomo-sama. No one will disturb you."
Shinden took a candle from the wall and entered the room first, pistol drawn. He scanned the small, darkened chamber for several moments. A single bed stood against one wall, a large table with three chairs against another. A small fireplace crackled against one wall, and on the other a small window looked down onto the street. When he was satisfied that it was empty, he nodded to Kameru and stepped back into the doorway. After Kameru entered, Koan began to shut the door. Shinden shook his head, placing his foot in the door's path.
"The door stays open," Shinden said, leaning down into the little monk's face for emphasis.
"Says you," Koan said. He leveled a single punch square into Shinden's brow. The Wasp flew backwards with extraordinary force, crashing into the far wall and sliding to the floor, unconscious.
"Fortunes!" Kameru exclaimed. He drew his own pistol and fired at the monk without hesitation. Koan dove into a lightning fast back-flip, dodging out of the bullet's path.
A chill spread through Kameru's arm and his fingers went numb, leaving him unable to pull the trigger. "Now, now," chuckled a familiar voice. "Don't blame Koan for his outburst. He's been alive for two thousand years now. He's accustomed to getting things his own way." A thin, nearly skeletal hand emerged from nothing to remove the pistol from Kameru's grip. Another pressed gently against the Emperor's chest. The strength drained from Kameru's limbs and he fell backward into a chair.
The air between the two hands rippled, and suddenly a tall figure melted into existence. He dropped the gun disdainfully on the table, shaking his head at the small child who appeared beside him. Kameru gasped as the man's face melted into view.
"Asahina Munashi!" Kameru exclaimed.
"Indeed," Munashi replied, seating himself at the table across from Kameru. "I apologize for concealing myself from you before, but your guards really a bit over- protective. There's no telling what Shinden would have done to me if he'd noticed me waiting for you. Koan. Be a good lad and fetch us some tea."
"Get it yourself, you old stick," he said.
Munashi turned, his single eye blazing in barely suppressed anger. "Koan. Tea. Now."
The monk sighed and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
"As I said, don't mind Koan. He's a useful sort of chap to have around, but his immortality gets to his head from time to time," Munashi said with a small smile. "You see, Togashi Koan was born thirty years before the first day of thunder. It was proclaimed at his birth that he was destined to 'open the door for the Seven Thunders.' As it turned out, on the first Day of Thunder, there were no doors to be opened. Fu Leng met his attackers in an open field and had it out with them. On the Second Day of Thunder, Koan had equally ill fortune. He joined an army of Lion samurai hoping to help them charge the walls of Otosan Uchi. Instead, they marched in the opposite direction, following the retreating armies of Yogo Junzo. The endless span of years has been quite maddening for him. Good and evil are indiscriminate in his mind now; the only thing that exists for him is death. He would do anything, it seems, to open the door for the Seven Thunders, fulfill his destiny, and be freed from his mortal coil. He's decided this time around that perhaps he would have better chance of being in the right place at the right time by working for Jigoku. Fascinating fellow, don't you agree?" The child giggled, pulling itself up into the third chair and smiling at Kameru.
"Is Koan the Stormbreaker?" Kameru asked.
Munashi stared at Kameru for several seconds, then laughed out loud. "Please, be serious," Munashi said. "Koan is hardly lucid enough to lead an army of darkness. He's a useful ally, a good source for information lost to the ages, but he's far too unstable to be a real threat. No, the Stormbreaker and the Champion of Jigoku are chosen with more care."
"Champion of Jigoku?" Kameru replied. The young Emperor found that Munashi had somehow drained the strength from his body, leaving him unable to do anything but sit and speak. He decided to try to speak as much as possible, perhaps giving Shinden a chance to wake up and help, perhaps giving himself a chance to discover something that would be of use. He had heard the term 'Champion of Jigoku' before, it had been mentioned in the journal.
"All right," Munashi said with a bored sigh. " A short lesson on human history, Lord Yoritomo, as everyone but me seems to be an absolute moron. Every thousand years, a champion of Jigoku goes into single combat against a band of mortal heroes called the Seven Thunders."
"I know that," Kameru said. "I know about the Seven Thunders. Everyone knows about the Seven Thunders."
"Really?" Munashi said with a grin. "Then tell me this. If Jigoku is so powerful, with hordes of oni and undead spirits at its disposal, then why bother with a Day of Thunder? Why bother with the ritual? Why not just invade the empire en mass and be done with us? Why?"
Kameru felt a sudden warmth on his chest, beneath his coat. The jade amulet, the one given to him by Agasha Hisojo. He could feel its magic working, beginning to do something. He had to keep Munashi talking. "I don't know," Kameru gritted his teeth. "Why don't you tell me."
"Indeed, why don't I?" Munashi asked, watching Kameru carefully with his single eye. "The reason is this; Yoma, or Atman, or Good, or whatever it decides to call itself is equal in power to Jigoku, with just as many minions. It just chooses not to use them; invasion is not in the nature of Good. However, if Jigoku, the Foul, Evil decided to launch a full scale invasion, Good would unleash its full might in retribution. Who would win is immaterial, but one thing is certain: the whole of our world would be annihilated by the confrontation."
"Which is what Jigoku wants," Kameru said.
"Wrong again," Munashi replied. "With no world left to corrupt, Jigoku would lose its purpose and fade away. Thus, Good and Evil have established certain moderating rules. Thus, the Day of Thunder. The personification of a complex metaphysical duel between the best the forces of good and evil have to offer. I don't know how long it's been going on, but it predates our brief history by a longshot. The zokujin, the nezumi, and the naga all have records of such events. Whichever side wins becomes the presiding influence on mortal destiny for the next millennium. The champion is never a creature of Jigoku, but one who has been corrupted by Jigoku. On both of the Days of Thunder we humans have had, Fu Leng has been the chosen Champion, and both times he has failed. This time it appears to be up to the Stormbreaker."
"And who is the Stormbreaker?" Kameru asked.
"A good question," Munashi said. "Even I don't know the answer to that, and I'm quite possibly the smartest man in Rokugan. However, now that I finally have you, the last of the Yoritomo line, the Seventh Emperor firmly in my power and the gates of the Diamond Palace prepare to fall for the third and final time. It is here that he has chosen to reveal himself, and it is I that have the honor of being the first to see his face. For the quality of my service to him, I will be the first to swear my fealty in person. When he shatters the Empire, I will be his right hand."
"Why, Munashi?" Kameru asked. "Why are you doing this? You're betraying everything your clan, your empire, your species stands for."
"Don't get self-righteous with me, pup," Munashi said with a harsh laugh. "The blood of Fu Leng runs as strong in my veins as the blood of Asahina, and the Asahina family is not without its own black sheep. Tell me, Kameru, is that Doji Meda's sword?" Munashi smiled at the blade that hung from Kameru's belt.
Kameru said nothing.
"Pekkle," Munashi said. "Be a dear and fetch me the Emperor's blade, please."
The child did as Munashi bade, climbing down off of its chair and shuffling over to Kameru's side. It smiled up at him, giggled, and waved. Crawling up into the Emperor's lap, it reached into his coat. Puzzled, it drew out Yoritomo Kenjin's journal, staring suspiciously at the golden rings embossed upon the cover. It turned and tossed the book to Munashi.
"The Path of the Emperor?" Munashi said, looking at the book. He tried to open it, but frowned in frustration when he found the book would not unclose for him. "Silly wards," he said. "Be that way." Munashi tossed the book into the fire, where it lit up with a crackle. "Now, Pekkle," he said. "Bring me the sword."
Pekkle nodded and drew the sword from Kameru's saya, gazing into the blue- tinged blade with wonder in its big eyes. It smiled at him again; Kameru saw that it's teeth were very small and pointed, like an animals.
"Pekkle," Munashi said, a warning tone in its voice. "Don't play with the bloodsword. Now bring it to me."
Pekkle's cheeks puffed out in a pouty expression. It hopped down from Kameru's lap and skipped over to the old man, handing the sword to Munashi. The old wizard took the blade and smiled down at its steel surface. "Hello, again, old friend," he said. "You may return to your former state now." He gestured over the sword; the metal warped and twisted. In a moment, it was the Ancestral Sword of the Crane no longer, but an odd blue katana with a visible crack in the middle of its blade. Munashi frowned at the flaw for a moment, then looked up at Kameru again. "Yashin," he said. "One of four blades crafted by my ancestor, Asahina Yajinden, forged upon the Anvil of Despair. I planted it in the Museum of Natural History, knowing that my agent, Maseto, would eventually lead Kamiko to it. And from her, it found its way to Meda. And from Meda, to you. It is a powerful and deadly weapon, even in this day and age. It is the tool with which I shall destroy your dynasty, Yoritomo."
"It's more than that," Kameru said, gazing at the blade from where he sat.
"Oh, is it?" Munashi said mockingly. "And what might it be?"
"There are souls in that blade," Kameru said. "I've heard them in the night." He felt the amulet pulse again under his tunic. He felt sensation begin to return to his limbs.
Munashi narrowed his eyes at the Emperor. "You lie," he said. "Yashin consumes the souls it drinks. The departed are in no shape to speak with anyone."
"Perhaps you're just beneath its notice," Kameru said.
"And perhaps you're a deluded fool," Munashi said sharply, laying the bloodsword on the table between them. "But I am not here to squabble, Yoritomo. I am here to bring you a gift. A gift so you may be properly adorned when the Stormbreaker arrives." Munashi reached into his deep robes, drawing out a bundle of rough cloth. Laying it on the table, he carefully unwrapped it, revealing an ancient mask. It was white porcelain and spread with hairline cracks. The jaw was completely shattered below the mouth, giving the mask a gruesome, fanged appearance.
"I think I've had enough of your gifts," Kameru sneered. "Why don't you keep it?"
"Ah," Munashi said with a laugh. "Is this heroic defiance or just etiquette, refusing the gift as it is given? Either way, quite a charming display, Yoritomo." Munashi lifted the mask in his long fingers, gazing upon its ancient craftsmanship and eerie beauty. "I assure you, however, this is truly a gift worthy of an Emperor, and suited to you personally. The Yoritomo line is quite a muddled one, Lord Yoritomo. Over time, you've accrued the blood of seven kami in your veins, Akodo, Doji, Hida, Shinjo, Bayushi, Shiba, even a few vague remnants of what was once the Hantei line. Would you like to have an eighth?" Munashi stood, the mask held precariously between the tips of his long fingers. He took a step toward Yoritomo.
The door opened then, and Hoshi Jack peered into the room. The old monk's eyes went wide when he saw Munashi. The shugenja glanced back, his face twisting in rage.
"I said keep it," Kameru said. He stood up from his chair, swiftly knocking the mask from Munashi's hands with a backhand blow. The shugenja gasped in shock, his head snapping in the direction of the flying mask. Before the Crane could turn face him, Kameru punched him in the side of the throat with all of his strength. The old man fell to the floor like a broken scarecrow, gasping for breath.
"Kameru, beware!" Jack shouted.
The Emperor looked up just as Pekkle launched itself across the table, snarling, it's tiny teeth looking quite a bit larger as it bared them for a savage bite. Kameru darted beneath the lunge and swept up Yashin from where it lay on the table. He slashed out at Pekkle, but the blade passed clear through the little creature's body. It giggled as it came to stand once more, snarling up at him in rage.
And then it's face softened, looking sad and innocent and in pain all at once. Its hand came up trailing red mist, the same red mist now raising from the line that passed through the middle of its form. Its shape began to grow hazy, indistinct, returning to the shadows from which Munashi had crafted it. It wailed in terror and fear, tears streaming down its face as what passed for its soul trickled away. In moments, there was nothing left to mark the Pekkle's passing but its tortured cry, echoing through the halls of the monastery.
"Jack," Kameru said, turning to face the monk as he tucked the blade beneath his obi. "You're just in time!"
"Am I?" Jack asked, gazing about the room in stunned surprise. "What has happened here?"
"Munashi was behind Meda's coup," he said. "This was some sort of elaborate trap for me. We have to get out of here." He quickly crossed the room and knelt by Shinden's side, slapping the Wasp's face in a desperate effort to wake him. "Where have you been, anyway, Jack?"
The monk knelt on the ground for a moment, considering something he found there. "You didn't speak to Daikua Kita, did you?" he asked. "Did she speak to you? Did she give you any message from me?"
"No, she didn't," Kameru said from where he knelt.
"A pity," Jack said, now standing behind the Emperor. Satisfied that Shinden was alive, Kameru quickly darted to the fireplace. Only charred ashes lay where Munashi had thrown the book. Kameru closed his eyes and hung his head in defeat.
"It is all right, Kameru," Jack said. "All is not yet lost." Hoshi Jack lay one hand on the Emperor's shoulder, and when the Kameru turned to look up at his friend something cold pressed onto his face. All Kameru heard was a sizzle like burning meat as a thousand hooks buried themselves in his cheeks, forehead, and nose. The pain was so intense Kameru could not even scream; his back arched and twisted as he was thrown across the floor. Hoshi Jack just stepped back and watched, his expression inscrutable.
Jack nodded with a distant satisfaction. "Now, all is lost," he said.
Kameru turned his face toward the monk, dimly able to perceive him through the blood that clouded his vision. He saw Munashi rise from where he lay, and stand at Jack's right hand. The Crane bowed deeply, sobbing with joy.
"Why," Kameru hissed through the pain. "Why?"
"Why indeed, Lord Yoritomo," Hoshi Jack replied, a strange sadness in his voice. "Why, indeed."