THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
By Rich Wulf
Jared Carfax stood at the edge of the wind and felt his new power flow through him. He felt the surge and flow of the world's life energy course through him. He felt the fear, rage, and frustration of the dying city roil all around him. He felt the dark heart of the oni, intent on devouring all that stood in its path. Jared Carfax felt it all, and he was a part of it.
He was the Oracle of Thunder.
Though he had not even known of the existence of an Oracle of Thunder as little as an hour ago, he knew that he was such a being now. The experience was surprisingly different from being the Oracle of the Wind. Command of lightning, the rain, and the elements had been his before. Thunder, as the domain of the Oracle of Thunder, was something quite different. His was the power of the raw stuff of the cosmos, the building blocks that comprised hearts, dreams, and souls. The world was composed of Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Void, but Thunder was different. Thunder was how the universe expressed itself, how it procreated, how it protected itself. There was not much in the universe that was composed entirely of Thunder, but everything had just a bit.
Some had more Thunder than others, and Carfax could sense seven of them now.
"Seven..." Carfax whispered. "No... there are not only seven."
The realization had come to a shock, but he should have realized it before. Now, he knew them all.
The Seven Thunders.
The Last Thunder. The one that stands in judgment. The one that would destroy them all.
Five were within the city right now. One was nearby. Two more were far away, but still connected to the struggle transpiring here.
It was not time for them yet. It was not time for any of the Thunders to rise. As powerful as Oni no Yoritomo might be, he was not the true threat. This was not the Day of Thunder. Though some of them would probably play a part in its demise, they would not do so together, as they would stand together soon.
And yet, the part of the Oracle of Thunder that was still Jared Carfax recognized how terrible the oni was, and mourned for the countless lives that were extinguished each time the oni took another step into the city.
This was not the Day of Thunder, but Oni no Yoritomo had to be destroyed.
Jared Carfax would find the ones who could do it, and he would show them the way. If destiny demanded a price for that, then destiny should have considered such a thing before giving him this power.
The Oracle of Thunder stepped out onto the winds of Otosan Uchi, and was gone.
"Seven Thunders," Daniri swore, his voice augmented by the electronics of the Akodo War Machine. "What are we going to do about that?" He stared up at the great shape of the oni lurching through the city, only a few blocks away.
"I don't intend to do anything about it," Inago Sekkou replied, stepping out of the warehouse and looking up at the creature curiously. "This is out of my league. I was planning to get out of the city, or perhaps hide." Mitni stepped out beside her brother and nodded in approval.
Daniri glared down at the two of them. "You wanted this city so badly before, Locust," he said. "Now that it's in danger you're just going to abandon it? Or are you just jealous that the oni's doing a better job of destroying Otosan Uchi than the Locust ever did?"
"You seem to have some sort of overdeveloped notion of my heroism," Sekkou retorted. "Daniri, I am a terrorist, mostly of the electronic variety. I consider myself a dangerous man, but in the end a man has certain limitations and an oni the size of a skyscraper is definitely one of them. What do you suggest I do? Let it step on me and hope I get its foot so slippery that falls down? I consider myself far too valuable to throw my life away in such a foolish manner. No, I'm afraid this is more of a job for people in big robot suits. Hey. You have a big robot suit, don't you?"
Kaibutsu whistled as he stepped out and took his first look at the oni. Next to him, Jiro simply stood still and turned very pale.
"Danjuro," Jiro said to Daniri. "We have to find mom. We have to see if she's okay and get her out of the city."
Daniri nodded. In the background, the great oni plunged its claws into another building, toppling it in a heap of fire and smoke. "Let's go, Jiro," he said quietly.
"Fortunes be praised," Sekkou laughed sharply. "That's perhaps the first sensible thing I've heard you say all evening. We can get a much better idea of what that thing is up to once we're outside the city."
"Yeah, maybe we could go now," Mitni emphasized as the oni took a step in their direction. "We can talk just as well in the truck."
"Big oni," Kaibutsu observed solemnly.
"Big oni indeed," Sekkou nodded. "You have a point, sister. Let us flee the darkness."
The five of them turned and hurried in the direction of Daniri's truck. Kaibutsu and Daniri - with the War Machine - loaded themselves in the back while Sekkou, Mitni, and Jiro hurried into the cab.
"No way," Jiro said, shoving Sekkou out of the way as he tried to settle into the driver's seat. "I'm driving."
"What are you, eight years old?" Sekkou asked. "Can you even drive this thing?"
"I'm fourteen," Jiro snapped back. "Yeah, I know how to drive this thing. I just want to make sure we don't accidentally make a wrong turn out of the city on the way to pick up mom."
"You're smarter than your brother," Sekkou nodded slightly. The truck's engine roared to life and headed off down the street.
Seven dark shapes moved swiftly through the waters of Golden Sun Bay in two formations. The surface of the water above was littered with debris from the broken city. The floor of the bay was littered with broken ships and other wreckage left by the Senpet's earlier invasion. Last time, the voyage through the underwater graveyard had been thrilling, an exhilarating trip through Rokugan's past. This time, Hida Yasu found it difficult to work up any excitement about a bay full of wrecked ships. They only served to remind him of the death that was waiting for them above.
Not that he didn't have faith in himself or the Crabs that followed him. The amphibious Mako hover-tanks that followed in his wake were state of the art, the finest hardware Kaiu Toshimo's armories had to offer, second only to the Scarab in maneuverability and attack power. He trusted the others implicitly. They were all Seekers. They had faced the minions of the Shadowlands before, though admittedly never like this. If there was anyone in the Empire that could help him kill Oni no Yoritomo, these were the men and women who could do it.
A dark shape loomed in the water to the starboard side of the Crab squad. It was a broken building, hurled into the bay by the oni.
"Damn," remarked one of the Crabs over the radio system. "I used to eat at that restaurant. What sort of monster has the power to do something like that?"
"You having second thoughts, Hidekazu?" replied Hiruma Hayato, sitting in the co-pilot seat of Ketsuen.
"Jigoku, no," the other Crab replied bravely. "It's just that... I've never seen anything like that... ever."
"Nobody has," Yasu said grimly. "Buckle up, people. We're not Cranes, here. We all knew that the Shadow Wars were just the preliminaries. You all knew this would happen someday."
"Yes, sir," came a chorus of replies from the other ships.
"Prepare to surface on my mark," Yasu said, flipping a few switches on Ketsuen's control panel. "Yoshi, keep your squad in reserve. In case we run into trouble when we surface, it's your job to create a distraction so we can withdraw. You will not surface until the landing area is secured. Understood?"
"Check," replied Yoshi through the radio.
"Yasu," Hayato said, his voice concerned as he looked over his instrument panels. "I'm getting some pretty strange readings from up above."
"Elaborate," Yasu said.
"The Taint emissions are off the scale," Hayato said with a shake of his head. "There must be some sort of malfunction. We don't even get readings this high at the Great Seal."
"Damn," Yasu swore. "Are the rest of you getting the same thing?"
"Yes sir," came one reply.
"Check," said another.
"The gauge is flat out," said a third. "Usually, there's some fluctuation but right now its as if there's more than we can even pick up. It's not the oni, either. It's just general background radiation."
"That thing has opened some sort of gate right to hell," Yasu said grimly. He seized the controls of Ketsuen in two large, gauntleted hands. "Be ready for anything. Surface on my mark."
Ketsuen and three of the Mako banked and turned sharply upward toward the surface of the bay, trailing a stream of bubbles. The remaining three ships loomed deeper in the water, vanishing in the dark shadows. Ketsuen was the first to emerge, water streaming from its gnarled grey metal hide. It pulled itself onto the docks with a heave, wood splintering and groaning beneath its massive legs. The three Mako rose into the air around it, hovering at a low altitude in a triangular formation. Ketsuen drew a large metal tube from its back. With one deft flick, the tube extended into an enormous tetsubo, jadesteel rivets swiveling into place. The Crab War Machine carefully marched forward into the streets of Otosan Uchi. Screams, sirens, and explosions filled the sky. Though it was still early in the day, the sky was as black as night. Something very wrong was happening here.
"What is the oni's position?" Yasu asked. "I can't see it from here. Too much smoke and fire."
"Readings indicate that it's returned to the Forbidden City, the Emperor's District," Hayato replied.
"Should we go up and get a better look?" asked one of the other pilots.
"No," Yasu replied sharply. "I can't support you up there, and you make too good a target. We stay together and move through the wreckage at ground level. Don't broadcast our existence before we're ready."
"The docks look deserted," Hayato replied, scanning the surrounding area. "Should I tell Yoshi's group to join us?"
Yasu glanced at the monitors, an uncertain look on his face. "No," he said. "Where the hell is everybody? You'd think there'd be people swarming the docks, trying to get on a boat and get out of here. But there's nobody. Take a look in that alley behind that warehouse. Mako One, Mako Two, check across the street. Mako Three, stay with us."
Ketsuen turned, spotlights on its shoulders casting the darkened alleyway. Red eyes glinted in the light for a moment, then the air was filled with shrieks as long-legged, insectoid creatures scampered for the shadows. They were over eight feet in height, long strips of ragged red meat hanging from their fangs. A heap of corpses lay in the alley all about, torn open and bleeding.
"Looks like gakimushi," Hidekazu replied from Ship A. "They're swarming the alleys. They seem to be scared of the light."
"Good," Yasu said. "Open fire before they get brave."
The darkened harbor flared with green light as the tetsukami jade lasers of the Crab ships tore into the fleeing creatures. The streets filled with the tormented shrieks of the monsters, and the docks beneath their feet began to shake. Yasu scowled.
"Move off the docks!" he shouted. "We're stirring something up down there!"
The three Mako easily glided forward, toward the rough cement streets at the inner edge of the docks. Ketsuen, unable to fly, had a rougher time as it stumbled clumsily forward on the heaving timbers. The wood began to splinter and burst with purple flames. A black claw the size of Ketsuen erupted from the ground just as the Crab War Machine leapt clear. The docks exploded and Ketsuen rolled to face what was emerging, an enormous reptilian head covered with blacked sores and dripping bile. It's mouth hung open to display uneven, rotting yellow fangs. It hovered seventy feet above the surface of the docks, watching the Crab ships with quiet malice.
"Hida's blood!" Hayato swore. "What in Jigoku is that?"
"Looks like an Orochi," Yasu said grimly.
"A sea serpent?" Hayato replied. "I thought that Orochi weren't Tainted!"
"Undeath happens to the best of us, I guess," Yasu offered.
Yasu yanked hard on the War Machine's controls just as the Orochi lunged, teeth digging into the hard cement street. Ketsuen was already clear, sparks erupting from the street as it skidded on its stomach. Ketsuen spun as it skidded, a burst of smoke erupting from its shoulders as hidden missile launchers erupted with a fury. The missiles detonated, blasting blackened flesh and bits of bone from the serpent's head. The three Mako swarmed, joining the chorus with their jade lasers.
"Aim for the head!" Yasu shouted. "It's still a damned zombie!"
The Orochi reared back, screaming in pain and anger. Its face was now little more than an exposed skull, empty sockets blazing with red fire. It seemed no less active for the loss of its flesh, and no less angry.
"Yoshi, get your squad up here stat," Hayato snapped into the radio. "We've got a situation."
In moments, the docks were consumed in chaos.
"I'm fine, all right?" Matsu Gohei repeated for the dozenth time. The look of pain that shot across his features proclaimed the words to be a lie.
"That bullet might have hit a kidney," Kitsu Jurin said, looking at him in concern from the driver's seat. "My magic sealed the wound, but you need proper medical attention."
"Trust me, I'll feel perfect as soon as we find Genju Gemmei and the journal," the Lion daimyo replied. "Especially if there's something in that book about killing a gigantic oni."
The car rounded the street, headlights reflecting off of a wall of piled rubble. Jurin slapped the steering wheel and cursed in frustration. "Another dead end!" she cried. "We'll never find her at this rate. We'll have to turn back and risk the highways if we want to get to Little Jigoku."
"That's death," Gohei replied. "That monster seems drawn to the highways. He's taking a great deal of delight in tearing them all down. I always thought the Phoenix were a bunch of idiots for building them so high."
"Well, there's nothing we can do now," Jurin replied with a deep sigh. "It's just so bitter, losing now after finally managing to get a name out of that stubborn spirit."
A large head and a pair of pale glowing eyes appeared from the back seat. Argcklt. "Jurin-san?" the zokujin said quietly. "Could you please open the door for me?"
"Argcklt?" Jurin looked back at him, surprised.
"I will clear the road," the zokujin answered. "Let me out of the car."
"There are tons of debris out there," Gohei replied dubiously. "Can you move them all with your magic?"
Argcklt smiled. "Gohei-sama, I can try."
Gohei still looked doubtful, but Jurin nodded and pressed a switch to unlock the doors. Argcklt quickly stepped out into the street. He glanced back at the shadow of Oni no Yoritomo, then hurried forward to kneel at the base of the rubble. He closed his great, luminous eyes and pressed his hands against the crumbled rocks. The two Lions in the car could hear the deep hum of the zokujin's song. Behind them, the roar of the oni sounded once more, closer.
"I think it's headed this way," Gohei said, glancing back over one shoulder. He drew his pistol from his jacket. A cloud of smoke filled the streets behind them as the oni drew closer.
"Do you think that gun is going to stop it?" Jurin asked, looking at the gun.
"No, but I'd hate to die unarmed," he answered. "I hope whatever the copper goblin is trying works, because we just lost our way out."
Argcklt hunched into the back seat again and slammed the door, shocking both the Lions with his sudden return. They both quickly turned to look at the street ahead of them. The wall of rubble was gone, twisted into two great columns on either side.
"Fortunes!" Jurin breathed. "That was quick!" She threw the car into gear, engine roaring as it sped off. A great stone claw of Oni no Yoritomo crushed the ground behind them only moments later. The oni continued on its way, unaware of the Lions that had escaped below.
"How did you do that, zokujin?" Gohei asked sharply. "The Elemental Masters couldn't have moved that much rock so quickly."
"You humans still have to learn a thing or two," the zokujin replied calmly. "The whole world is not against you, Gohei-sama. The earth is our mother and our friend. I convinced her of our purpose, and she gladly moved aside. I told her we were in a hurry."
"I don't suppose you could convince her to stop that oni while you're at it?" Gohei asked.
"Sadly, no," Argcklt answered. "She cannot stop Yoritomo any more than you could spit out a poison in your own body. With luck, I hope we can find a way to stop it when we find the journal you seek. The oni pains the earth."
"And if the journal doesn't help us?" Gohei asked, looking at Kitsu Jurin.
"Let's not start thinking that way," Jurin said, pushing the dark question away. "Not yet. Right now the journal is all we have left. Let's hope it has the answer."
The upper levels of the furniture store weren't pretty. The soft light of Orin's bear sword gave enough illumination to move around and see fairly clearly, but that was about it and the city was quickly growing darker. The goblins hadn't been through this floor, but it looked as if humans definitely had. The rooms were well looted and picked over. Orin figured that the furniture on the ground floor hadn't been carted off simply because it had been too much trouble. Who wanted a new couch when a demon was stepping on buildings? Soup, flashlights, and bread were far more valuable, and his scouting group was turning up precious little of anything useful. Their best hope at the moment was to wait out the siege or find a way to contact someone on the outside. With no food or water for a group of twenty plus, that pretty much knocked out all their hopes.
"Anything?" Orin asked Gihei.
The thick-shouldered ex-bouncer shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "Not much, Orin-sama," he replied. "The fridge is just about empty, except for ketchup and some mystery meat. There's some cans of soup and a box of instant rice in the cupboard, though."
"Well, that should hold us for a little while," Orin nodded. "Take it downstairs and ration out what you can."
"Yes, sir," Gihei nodded soberly and headed back to the kitchen.
Orin glanced around the rest of the ruined apartment as the search team picked through everything. Outside, he could hear the squeals and the excited hoots of the goblin mob. He wished they would just go away, but knew they would have no such luck tonight.
"Orin-sama, I think I've found something!" shouted Ebizu proudly. The young man was rummaging through a pile of overturned furniture and dusty boxes in the corner. Orin hurried over to see along with a few of the others. Ebizu coughed as he dragged a rusty metal box from the upper shelves of a closet, wires dangling awkwardly from its sides. He carefully carried it over to the table and looked at the others, proud of his find.
"What is it?" said one of the others.
"It's one of those old ham radios that were popular back in the seventies," said Gyukudo, the old marine.
"Battery powered," Orin nodded in satisfaction as he examined the old radio. "Good job, Ebizu. Let's hope it still works." Orin sat down and began twisting the dials, but nothing happened. He glanced over the device, then fiddled with the switches again. Still, nothing happened. "Am I doing something wrong here?" he asked. "Anyone ever operate one of these before?"
"Here," Gyukudo said, stepping over to the table and taking the radio. He fiddled with the battery cover. It didn't budge at first, then peeled away with a sticky sound. Blackened battery acid dangled from the cover like caramel. A very old, corroded battery lay entombed inside. Gyukudo quickly drew a small knife from his pocket and began trying to pry the useless thing loose.
"That looks bad," Orin said uncertainly. "Do you think it'll still work?"
"Not without a new battery," Gyukudo answered, still fiddling with the knife.
Everyone at the table was quiet for a moment. Gyukudo looked at Ebizu meaningfully and raised one eyebrow.
"Er.. Everybody go look for a new battery!" Ebizu said quickly, getting the old man's point. He darted off to search, and the others joined him.
Gihei emerged from the kitchen again bearing a plastic bag loaded with food. He noticed the damaged radio and whistled. "Looks pretty far gone," he said. "Battery corroded?"
"What was your hint, kid?" Gyukudo asked, looking at the young man archly. "Mine was the damned battery acid eating my fingers." The old man finally pried loose the grime encrusted battery, letting it drop to the floor with a wet thud.
"Hey, sorry," Gihei replied, setting the bag down in a chair. "Maybe you should let me take a look at that."
"Why?" Gyukudo snapped. "Since it's all broken to hell anyway I might as well let some ham-fisted kid break it the rest of the way?"
"No, that's not it, I-" Gihei replied.
"Eh, get lost," Gyukudo snapped irritably, peering deep into the recesses of the radio. Gihei shrugged and reached for his bag.
"Wait a second," Orin said, holding one hand out to quiet Gyukudo. "Gihei, do you have any experience with this sort of thing?"
"Well, not really," the bouncer replied.
"Oh," Orin said. "Well, never mind then."
"Not with that model," Gihei continued. "That looks like one of the earlier Dojicorp 1102 models, and those were discontinued due to a short in the basic transmission conductors. They'd short out sometimes when they weren't even on, causing a lot of stress on the internal conductors and sometimes making the batteries burn out and degrade early. Sort of like what you're looking at there. The 1104 series was a vast improvement, with only a few basic design changes that improved the overall reliability as well as the functionality-"
"Wait," Orin said. "You're telling me that you know about radios?"
"Well, not that radio," Gihei said. "Most folks who knew what they were doing stayed away from that one. But, yeah, I used to repair radios at my brother's shop. That didn't pay very well. Working in the Cat's Meow brings in a lot more cash, and it doesn't interfere with my classes at all.
"Classes?" Gyukudo laughed. "They make you take classes so you can roll drunks?"
"No," Gihei said quietly. "I'm studying to be an electrical engineer."
Orin and Gyukudo both stared at the soft-spoken bouncer for a moment, then looked at each other. "Fortunes and Winds, boy!" Gyukudo swore. "Why didn't you tell us that earlier! Here, you take a look at this damned thing and I'll go run the food downstairs to the others."
"If you think that's for the best," Gihei replied.
"I think that would be for the best," Orin nodded certainly.
Gyukudo handed the radio and his knife to Gihei, who immediately sat down and began peering inside. Orin held his sword close to the table so the young man could see as he worked.
"How does it look?" Orin asked.
"Not good," Gihei replied. "The interior's pretty chewed up. If I had some parts I might be able to fix it, given time."
"Time we're short on," Orin answered. "Where would we find parts?"
Gihei shrugged. "A telephone, maybe? Television? Another radio..." "Gihei, if we had another radio.."
"I know, I know," he replied. "Sorry, I'm just nervous. I'm not thinking too clearly right now."
"None of us are," Orin replied. "Just stay calm and-"
Orin's words were suddenly interrupted as one of the apartment windows exploded in a shower of glass. Kazuo, a member of Orin's search team, screamed and went down in the spray. Orin turned with surprise and saw something small and black crouched on the fallen man's chest, stabbing wildly with a shard of metal. Three more leaped through the window after the first, screaming in triumph and slashing at the stunned men and women.
"Bakemono!" Orin shouted, leaping forward and slicing one down. Another cleave dealt with the other two, but then the third lunged at him from the fallen Kazuo. Its blade slashed at Orin's cheek, but Orin reached out suddenly and seized the small creature about the throat. It's eyes widened in surprise as Orin snapped its neck and tossed it aside.
One glance at Kazuo's body told Orin that it was too late, and he hurried to the window instead. Beneath him he saw a mob of goblins, one piled atop one another, clambering over one another's bodies in order to reach the window. Another group were almost to the top. Two were carrying lit torches and smiling in anticipation. Orin cast about him for some way to deal with the threat.
"Ebizu! Honzo! Help me with this couch!" he said, quickly circling around behind a small futon. The two men hurried to the other end of it and helped him lift.
They quickly carried the tattered futon to the window and pushed it through. The screams of the goblins beneath echoed as the metal frame and heavy mattress hammered into them. Orin nodded in satisfaction as he noticed the torches had ignited the mattress and it was now heaped atop several disabled goblins. The pile had been broken, but there was no reason they wouldn't try the same tactic again.
"Honzo, watch this window!" Orin shouted. "Ebizu, go to the other side and watch the alley!"
"Wow, they're like ants," Ebizu said in fearful fascination, watching as the goblins tried to organize again.
"Big, dangerous ants," Chojin agreed. "Keep an eye on them. I'm going downstairs to get Chojin and Mel." Orin hurried to the stairs, then noticed Gihei staring at him blankly. "What?" he called out. "What is it? Why aren't you fixing the radio?"
"No light," the bouncer shrugged. "I can't see what I'm doing."
"Oh," Orin said. He hesitated for a moment, then set the bear sword down on the table where it would cast its glow upon the man's work. "Don't lose that sword," Orin warned. Gihei nodded, immediately turning to his work again.
Orin hurried down the stairs, only to meet Mirumoto Chojin on his way up. The old Dragon's face was set and determined, though he blinked in surprise when he saw Orin. "What's going on?" Chojin asked quickly. "I heard some commotion." Meliko was a step behind him. She smiled at Orin, though her face was still a bit pale and wan from the earlier use of her tattoo magic.
"The goblins climbed each other and piled their way in," Orin said.
"Persistent little buggers, aren't they?" Chojin replied. "I hate it when they do that."
"I was hoping you could help me find some way to stop them," Orin replied. "If they keep this up, we won't be able to hold them off for much longer."
"That's part of what I wanted to talk to you about," Chojin replied. "I don't think those barriers on the doors downstairs are going to hold much longer. If they should gather the presence of mind to bring an ogre or an oni to help, we're dead. This is a very temporary situation, Orin. We need to get out of here, and quick."
Orin paused a moment in thought. "Bring everyone up to the next floor," he said. "It's still clear, and we can barricade the stairs."
"But we'll be trapped up there," Meliko replied.
"We're trapped already, Mel," Orin said. "By the way, it's good to see you up and around."
"Good of you to notice," she sniffed. Orin was a little confused by that, but really didn't have time to dwell on it.
"By the way, we found a radio, Chojin," Orin said. "But we don't have any batteries for it. Do you know if anybody downstairs has any batteries or anything?"
Chojin frowned. "Radio?" he said. "Togashi's sake, Orin, I'm an engineer for the Hidden Dragon. Do you realize how much tetsukami power I have running through this suit right now?"
"Enough to power a radio?" Orin asked.
"I could restore power to this whole city block if I had to!" Chojin laughed. "As stupid an idea as that would be. Anyway, the point is I'm sure I could handle a radio."
"Great," Orin said, finally feeling a small glimmer of hope again. "Mel, do you think you could run downstairs and get the others to move up here?"
"Oh, could I?" Mel asked.
"Mel?" Orin replied. "Is something wrong?"
"Oh, forget it," she replied, turning and heading back down the stairs in a huff.
"What the heck did I say?" Orin said, turning to Chojin.
The old Dragon smiled. "Some mysteries not even the Dragon are privy to, boy. Now show me this radio."
A piercing crystalline sound echoed in the subterranean chamber, and Shiba Mojo flinched. He noticed that the creature, Zesh, now held a shard of the enormous broken crystal in its claw. Its fiery red eyes watched him carefully through the swirling haze of spirits. It's wings moved slowly as if filled with some strange, unseen wind. Mojo glanced about him quickly, realizing that he had lost track of himself for a moment.
"How long have I been standing here?" Mojo asked.
"LONG ENOUGH," Zesh replied. "THE STOLEN LIFE'S BLOOD OF THE EARTH DOES NOT GIVE ITSELF EASILY. IT WISHED TO KNOW YOU FIRST. IT FINDS YOU ACCEPTABLE, AS I HAVE." The creature held its great claw first, small shard of stone clutched between two sharp claws.
Mojo stepped forward cautiously, uncertain that he wanted to get so close to this strange, bound monster. The jade chains suggested a Shadowlands creature of some sort, and the fact that he was in the basement of a kolat stronghold didn't do much to inspire trust in him, either.
"YOU DO NOT TRUST ME?" Zesh asked, its flaming eyes squinting in a smile.
"No," Mojo answered.
"EXCELLENT." It tossed the stone to the floor, out of the range of its chains. It bounced near Mojo's feet.
The yojimbo knelt and carefully picked up the broken fragment. It felt warm in his hands, and seemed to pulse with the same energy of the free-floating spirits that surrounded him. Mojo felt his gaze slowly being pulled into the stone, and glanced away. He turned to Zesh once more. "What is this? Is this the weapon you offered me?"
"NO," Zesh replied. "IN SUCH A RAW STATE, THE BLOODWHITE CANNOT BE SAFELY USED. NOT BY ONE SUCH AS YOU. NOT WITHOUT SOME SORT OF MIRACLE. YOU MUST BRING IT TO ONE SKILLED AT FORGING SUCH THINGS. ONE WHO IS CONSIDERED AN FRIEND OF BOTH YOUR CLAN AND THE KOLAT."
"Who?" Mojo asked.
"ISAWA KUJIMITSU," the creature replied. "SHOW THE MASTER OF WATER THE STONE AND HE WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO. HE HAS DONE IT BEFORE."
Mojo scowled. "Kujimitsu's no kolat," he snapped. "What are you talking about?"
"THE TRUTH IS A VERY DIFFERENT PLACE THAN YOU IMAGINE," Zesh chuckled. "PERHAPS YOU ARE RESHAPING YOUR OPINIONS ON MANY THINGS RIGHT NOW, AND I WOULD WAGER THAT THEY ARE STILL WRONG. GET USED TO BEING WRONG, PHOENIX. IT IS WHAT THEY CALL LIFE. YOU SPIN ENOUGH LIES OF YOUR OWN, DO YOU NOT? SOMETIMES THEY SAVE YOU, DO THEY NOT? FALSEHOOD IS NOT ALWAYS EVIL. EVERYTHING SERVES ITS PURPOSE."
"You're talking nonsense," Mojo replied.
"TRULY?" Zesh answered. "WHAT IS YOUR NAME, PHOENIX?"
"Shiba Mojo," Mojo replied.
"YES, I HEARD TAKAO MENTION THAT," the creature said. "BUT IT IS NOT TRUE. I HAVE HARVESTED ENOUGH NAMES TO KNOW A TRUE ONE WHEN I HEAR IT. THAT DOLT AKERU IS FAR TOO EASILY ACCEPTING. SHIBA MOJO IS NOT YOUR NAME."
Mojo paused for a moment. "Well, not that it matters, but I had it changed a long time ago."
"WHY?" Zesh asked. "WHY DID YOU CHANGE WHO YOU ARE? BECAUSE YOU FOUND IT AMUSING?"
"Sort of," Mojo said. "I was young. My original name was Shiba Gempachi. I liked Mojo better. I thought it sounded cool."
"I DO NOT SUPPOSE AKERU WILL FIND YOUR FALSEHOOD AMUSING, DO YOU?" Zesh chuckled. "NAMES USED TO BE MUCH MORE STABLE THINGS, YOU KNOW. AN ONI COULD SINK HIS TALONS INTO A NAME AS IF IT WERE FIRM GROUND, AN UNMOVING ANCHOR UPON WHICH TO FOCUS ITS SPITE. WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL HAPPEN WHEN AKERU SINKS ITS TALONS INTO YOUR LIE, AND TRIES TO USE IT TO JUSTIFY HIS OWN EXISTENCE? THAT, I THINK, WILL BE FUNNY."
Mojo frowned. "What do you-" a sudden realization came over Mojo. "Wait. You're trying to tell me that because I gave my name to Akeru..."
"IT WAS NEVER YOURS TO GIVE," Zesh laughed. "THE ONI HAS NO HOLD OVER YOU. THE WEAKNESS, THE DISTRACTION, THE NIGHTMARES YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED OF LATE ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A NATURAL CONCERN FOR YOUR CHARGE, THE LADY SUMI, WHO WADES THROUGH HELL FOR THE SAKE OF THE WORLD."
Mojo shook his head. "No," he said, glancing away and pacing slowly across the chamber. "That doesn't make sense. If I don't have any connection to Oni no Akeru, then why did Moto Teika drag me here? Why did he claim to need my help? What in Jigoku was all this about?"
Zesh cocked its head slightly. "YOU MUST FIGURE THAT OUT FOR YOURSELF, PHOENIX," it answered. "AND YOU MUST PROMISE ME THIS." It paused.
Mojo glanced up at the creature, ready to hear its words.
"SHOW THE BLOODWHITE TO NO ONE," it said. "NOT WASHI TAKAO, NOT TEIKA, NO ONE SAVE ISAWA KUJIMITSU. TELL THEM THAT I TOLD YOU NOTHING. TELL THEM THAT YOU FAILED."
"Why?" Mojo asked.
"DO YOU TRUST THEM?" Zesh asked.
"No," Mojo said without hesitation.
"DO YOU TRUST ME?" Zesh asked.
"No," Mojo answered again.
"THAN WHAT DOES IT MATTER WHICH ONE OF US YOU LISTEN TO?" Zesh said. "HUMOR ME, AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. NOW GO, PHOENIX, OR THEY MAY SUSPECT YOU HAVE SPENT FAR TOO MUCH TIME HERE TO RETURN EMPTY HANDED."
Mojo nodded, slowly tucking the Bloodwhite Shard into his empty gun holster and snapping it closed. He turned toward the stairs, then glanced back at Zesh. "Zesh, may I ask you one more question?" Mojo asked.
"I CANNOT STOP YOU," Zesh replied. "THOUGH I MAY NOT ANSWER."
"What are you?" Mojo asked. "Are you an oni? A spirit? Something else?"
Zesh suddenly lunged, yanking his chains taught with a surge of motion that shook the entire cavern. When he came to a halt, his shadow-wreathed face hovered only inches from Mojo, far closer than the yojimbo had thought the creature could come. It opened a ragged mouth in a smile of bright, white teeth.
"WHAT ARE YOU, PHOENIX?" Zesh asked. "WHAT ARE ANY OF US?"
Mojo turned quickly and left the chamber.
Sumi took careful stock of her surroundings. A dead body lay in the hallway beside her - the body of the stranger who had somehow awakened her. The corpse of Asahina Munashi, the man that had attacked her and the Pekkle demons were gone, vanished into mist. It made sense. Leader of the Crane, advisor of the Emperor, Elemental Master, Munashi had come into a position of far too much power far too quickly. It was no surprise to find him involved in this. Sumi had always found his presence somewhat unsettling, and was relieved that he was no longer a Phoenix.
She seemed to be in a laboratory of some sort, with Dojicorp logos everywhere. Where exactly this place was, she had no idea. The Inquisitor's henchmen had done a good job of keeping her only dimly aware of her surroundings on the trip here, the better to prevent her from summoning her magic and the power of Ofushikai. Her mouth was dry and cottony from the sedatives, and she was in a very poor mood. She didn't like playing the part of the hostage very much.
The blade was warm in her hand, and she sensed an aura of contentment from the spirits within. After transporting itself across the breadth of Rokugan to her hand to strike down Munashi, the Soul of Shiba was glad to see her. She whispered her thanks to the blade as she quietly made her way down the hall.
The building seemed mostly deserted, but she was cautious nonetheless. No sense in getting herself killed now. In the distance, she could hear explosions and gunfire. The scent of smoke hung faintly in the air. Wherever they had taken her, it seemed like she was in the middle of a war zone. As she stepped out into the lobby, she noticed a large desk overturned, papers strewn everywhere. It looked as if the building had been looted. She knelt by the desk and leafed through the scattered paperwork with one hand, holding Ofushikai low and to one side with the other. Picking up one sheet, she examined the letterhead.
DOJICORP SYSTEMS INC. RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT BRANCH SOUTHERN HUB OFFICES OTOSAN UCHI
"Fortunes," she whispered, "I'm back in Otosan Uchi. What's going on outside?"
She glanced up at the sound of the wide office doors opening. Quickly, Sumi dodged behind the fallen desk. The sound of a dozen pairs of booted feet sounded, echoing through the abandoned building. Whoever it was, they sounded heavily armored, moving methodically, rhythmically. Soldiers. Sumi tightened her grip on Ofushikai and prepared for the worst, calling up magical sutras to summon the spirits of fire.
"Fan out," said a familiar voice. "She has to be here somewhere. If you see Munashi or any of his security staff, report back. Do not engage. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Isawa-sama," replied another man.
Sumi couldn't believe she recognized the first voice. She immediately stood. "Kujimitsu?" she called out.
The lobby was filled with Phoenix bushi in bright orange armor, carrying an assortment of tetsukami weaponry. In the middle of the group stood Isawa Kujimitsu, dressed in the light armor of shugenja. Surrounding him were four unfamiliar figures in similar armor. The soldiers turned their weapons on her, startled, but Kujimitsu quickly threw up a restraining hand.
"Wait!" he shouted, half-laughing as a relieved smile broke across his face. "You're about to shoot your daimyo! We came her to rescue her, remember?" The nervous soldiers quickly lowered their weapons and looked rather embarrassed.
"Kujimitsu!" Sumi shouted, circling the desk and running to meet the old shugenja. He came forward to meet her, though his eyes boggled a bit in surprise when she caught him in a rough hug. "It is good to see you again, Uncle!" she cried happily.
"Erm..." Kujimitsu replied, trying to keep the grin from wiping the formal expression on his face. "Lady Sumi, may I introduce to you the new Council of Elemental Masters?"
"What?" Sumi backed away and glanced at the four strangers surrounding Kujimitsu. They looked very young, some of them even younger than herself. "New Elemental Masters?" she asked. "Kujimitsu, what's going on? I hope you did a better job picking them out than last time."
"It seems we made a few mistakes in trusting Asahina Munashi," Kujimitsu replied. "We're now seeing that they're rectified. We were here to rescue you, but it seems that you've got that well under control."
"With all due respect, Master, is this the proper time for this?" asked a pale blonde at Kujimitsu's side. "Now that we know Lady Sumi is safe, we should return to the city to deal with the problems there."
"Of course, Okiku," Kujimitsu nodded quickly. "Come, Sumi. We can explain things to you along the way." The Master of Water turned quickly and headed back for the doors. The Phoenix bushi fell into line around them, glancing around everywhere as if expecting an attack at any time.
"What with the number of guards and the explosions I heard outside, I assume something dreadful is going on," Sumi said.
"To say the least," Kujimitsu replied. "See for yourself, Sumi-sama." As they stepped out into the parking lot, the Master of Water gestured in the direction of the city skyline.
The great oni was clearly visible, standing amid the demolished cityscape. It threw its insectoid head back and screamed its name once more, shaking the pavement though they were miles away.
Sumi stared in shock and horror. The Soul of Shiba reeled, unable to fully comprehend what it was seeing. In two thousand years, throughout countless lifetimes, never had it seen a creature the likes of what it viewed now. Never had it witnessed destruction on the scale that was present here today. The Soul of Shiba was utterly unprepared for what it was witnessing, and Sumi was left to make the decision on her own.
"Any idea on how to stop that thing, Kujimitsu?" Sumi asked, still looking in the direction of the city.
"As you know we have some wards laid on the city," Kujimitsu answered. "It seems to be ignoring them. We could channel more power into them, but not with the number of shugenja we currently have. We just need more manpower."
"We're going back into the city," she said. "Now."
"Is that the best idea, Sumi-sama?" asked a young man, one of the new Masters.
Sumi looked at him squarely. "What is your name?" she asked.
He glanced around, as if it took him a moment to recall. "Isawa Hideyoshi," he replied.
"Right," Sumi answered. "I'm the daimyo of the Phoenix. Let's not start off our relationship questioning each other. Asahina Munashi was behind my kidnapping. I'm betting after seeing all the Pekkle oni he summoned that he might have had something to do with that creature, too. We need to go to Dojicorp and find out."
"That may be a little dangerous, Sumi-sama," Kujimitsu said. "We have no idea what Munashi's capabilities are."
"I killed Munashi myself," she replied. "If he comes back, I'll kill him again. Now let's get to Dojicorp and find out some way to stop that creature."
He sat up with a scream.
All around him was dark, foul with corruption. The world hardly seemed real, all dark smoke and twisted, tormented faces. He felt a rattle of something in his hand and glanced down to see that it was his hand. The flesh was nearly gone now, leaving only bone and sinew. The old man tore open his robes to find that his body was the same way, even more emaciated than before. A jagged scar cut across his stomach where the girl's blade had disemboweled him. Another circumnavigated his throat. Both wounds were stitched together neatly with dark black thread.
"What has happened to me?" he moaned. His voice was oddly muffled, and he rose his hands to his face to find out why. It finally hit him when he felt the porcelain mask fastened to his skull.
"I am dead," he said.
"The first time is always the hardest," said a soothing voice. A dark presence stepped out of the swirling mists. A tall man in rotting robes rested one hand on Asahina Munashi's shoulder.
Munashi looked up at the man. "Father?" he said.
"Hello, son," Yogo Ishak replied fondly. "I see that Phoenix brat helped you cast off your last few delusions. You are ready to truly join us now."
"I feel different," Munashi said.
"Now there is the understatement of all time," Ishak laughed. "You are one of the immortals, Munashi. An akutenshi. A true servant of Jigoku. So long as you serve well, another will always be prepared to help you rise again. You are more powerful than ever, my son. You no longer need hide your Taint. It is part of you now. It is you. Your fondness for hiding among the mortals is, I'd say, about over but I don't think you'll miss them much."
"I was afraid..." Munashi chuckled, staring at his desiccated hands in wonder. "I was afraid I would not live until the Day of Thunder."
"Fear is for the living, son," Ishak said. "Now return to Otosan Uchi. Your army awaits."
Kaibutsu grunted, pitched forward, and skidded face first down a steep ramp of broken highway.
"Kaibutsu, how are you?" Sekkou shouted from the top of the ramp. The golden head of Akodo appeared past the Locust's shoulder.
"Kaibutsu's feet hurt," the ogre whined, sitting up to brush the dust off his chin, arms, and torn body-suit. "Too much walking. Kaibutsu miss truck."
A sudden hiss and metallic whine echoed from above, and the Akodo War Machine hovered down to land with a clank beside the fallen ogre, carrying Mitni and Jiro.
"Sekkou, you can get down by yourself," Daniri said blandly.
Sekkou grunted irritably and began scaling his way down the face of the broken highway. Jiro hopped nimbly from one shoulder. Akodo carefully set Mitni on her feet, and she smiled coyly up at Daniri before straightening her miniskirt and helping her brother down to the street. Sekkou brushed himself off and drew a small pair of electronic lenses from his coat. He scanned the street for any sign of movement in the dark, then nodded.
"It looks clear," Sekkou said.
"You sure, Locust?" Daniri said. "Last time you thought the street looked clear we ran into a goblin mob."
"Kaibutsu not like goblins," the ogre nodded solemnly. "Kaibutsu miss truck."
"Well, no, to tell the truth I'm not certain," Sekkou snapped bitterly. "I'm sort of out of my depth here. Two weeks ago, I thought that the only Shadowlands creature that still wandered the earth was the masked doofus over there. Now I'm in a city full of nightmares. My apologies if it's taking me a moment to adjust. If you want to be certain the street is clear, why don't you take a look? Don't you have any sensors in that great, gaudy toy?"
Daniri said nothing, but turned back and forth, doing a slow sweep of the area. After a few moments, he turned back to the others and nodded. "No sign of heat or movement, but we should still be careful."
"Oh, should we?" Sekkou snapped. "Thank you, Lion hero."
"Kaibutsu miss truck," the ogre said as it heaved itself to its feet once more.
"Let's just do what we need to do and get out of here," Sekkou said tersely. "Are we close to your mother's house or not?"
"What does it matter to you?" Jiro asked.
"It doesn't," the Locust replied. "I'm just thinking maybe we should argue in the midst of crisis a little more. I always feel it's best to become a living symbol of hubris while man-eating monsters are wandering about."
"Feel free to leave any time you like, pal," Daniri said. "It's not as if we're exactly friends. You can take Mitni and Kaibutsu and scamper out of the city if you like."
"I just might do that," Sekkou replied calmly. "We'd certainly attract less attention without your clanking golden ass."
"Akodo leaving?" Kaibutsu peered up at the robot mournfully. "Kaibutsu like Akodo."
"Oh, please," Mitni cut in sharply. "Ego check. Can't the two of you stop behaving like spoiled school children for two minutes?"
"What are you talking about Mitni?" Sekkou turned to his sister. "He's right, for once. I already have what I needed from them. We don't require them any longer. I know who the Stormbreaker is and can handle him without a die-cast metal hero. This little alliance is at an end and I, for one, am-"
"You're being an idiot," Mitni answered. "The five of us may very well be the only beings in Rokugan who know who the Stormbreaker is. Don't tell me that you didn't catch the connection between the Stormbreaker working as one of the Emperor's chief advisors and the sudden appearance of an oni made out of the Diamond Palace screaming the Emperor's name?" She pointed one thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the roaring oni, invisible in the smoke and fire consuming Otosan Uchi.
"The thought had crossed my mind," Daniri answered.
"I'm not an idiot, Mitni," Sekkou hissed.
"Of course," she answered, folding her arms with a smirk. "Then I suppose you've both figured out why that thing is here?"
"It's here to destroy the city," Daniri replied.
"I could care less why it's here," Sekkou said. "I just plan to get out of its way before Kyuden Hida rolls in here and blasts it back to Jigoku."
"Oh, come on now," Mitni shook her head at both men.
"It's a distraction," Jiro said, looking up from where he sat on a nearby chunk of rubble. Everyone turned to look at the young boy.
"A distraction?" Sekkou replied. "Jiro, what on earth are you talking about?"
"Seems an awful lot of trouble for a distraction," Daniri said.
"Is it?" Mitni asked, arching one eyebrow. "How far is too far for the Shadowlands? This oni is an impressive show of force, but ultimately an unnecessary one. To me, it looks like the Stormbreaker already had pretty much everything he wanted. Unlimited access to the Emperor. Money. Power. Prestige. Fortunes' sake, we thought he was Shinsei!"
"Maybe he is Shinsei," Sekkou said. "I never had much use for religion.
"Anyway," Mitni ignored him, "It seems like if he really wanted to bring down the Empire there are better ways to do it than have a big oni stomp around Otosan Uchi. Think about it. Rokugan has recovered from this sort of thing before. Kill a city and the rest will rebuild and move on. Even Otosan Uchi. No, the Stormbreaker is after something more, and this little pocket of hell he's created is just here to distract us while he gets on with his true objectives."
"And what are those?" Sekkou asked.
"Beats me," Mitni shrugged. "You have to admit, the oni's a pretty big distraction, as far as distractions go."
"Kaibutsu distracted," the ogre offered.
Sekkou sighed. "Mitni, you're taxing my patience greatly. We should really keep moving before-"
"I'm not finished," she cut in again. "When we get back out of the city again, we need some way to find Hoshi Jack, to find out what he's been up to, and expose him to the world."
"Simple enough," Sekkou laughed. "Get me back to a computer terminal and I'll find him in twenty minutes. Ten with your help, Mitni."
"Well, fantastic," Mitni answered. "But who are you going to tell? Tell me, Sekkou, who exactly in the whole Empire would believe a pair of Locusts? Or were you just going to post it on the Internet and hope everyone in the world believed it?"
The group was quiet for a moment.
"Someone would believe me," Sekkou said in a low voice. "Somehow, I would make them believe me."
"Well, for what it's worth, I believe you," Daniri grumbled. "I know what's at stake here, and I know that Jack is the Stormbreaker. I'm the one that discovered it, right?"
"Exactly," Mitni said. "And that's why the five of us have to stay together. We might be able to find the Stormbreaker, but we'll need Akodo Daniri or nobody will ever believe us."
"It's just Daniri now," Daniri replied.
Sekkou shook his head slowly. "She makes sense," he said bitterly. "As always, sister. What do you say, Lion? Do we maintain our alliance for a while longer?"
"I guess so," Daniri replied. "We can talk about it more later. Let's just go find my mother and get out of here."
"No," Sekkou said.
"What?" Daniri retorted, looking at the Locust sharply. "Weren't you listening just now?"
"Yes, in fact, I was," Sekkou replied. "In fact, you made me remember something I forgot. Kaibutsu, you come with me. Sister, stay with Daniri. He'll need you to find me later."
"Kaibutsu come with you," the ogre nodded eagerly.
"What are you doing?" Mitni asked. "Why can't I come along?"
"Too dangerous," Sekkou answered. "What I need is in a safehouse pretty close to where that oni is prowling around, and you can't exactly run in those heels."
"Sorry," she shrugged, looking down at her minskirt and high heels. "Didn't have much time to change."
"You aren't going to argue?" Sekkou asked.
"Did you really expect me to?" she smiled.
"Not really," the Locust answered. "You were always the smart one."
"How will we find you later?" Jiro asked.
"Will we find you later?" Daniri added.
"Of course," Sekkou replied. "Mitni will know where to find us. If we don't show up in two days, move on without us."
Jiro narrowed his eyes at the Locust. "How do we know we can trust you?"
"Well, think of it this way," Sekkou answered. "Do you really care? Wouldn't both of you sleep a little easier in your beds if I'd been killed by the oni?"
"I know I would," Daniri said. "No offense, Mitni."
"None taken," she smiled.
Sekkou turned to leave, then glanced back. He looked at his sister for a long moment, and then at the golden War Machine at her side. "Daniri," Sekkou said.
Akodo turned to face the Locust.
"Stay safe," Sekkou answered. "We've got a big responsibility, the five of us. If we die tonight, we take the rest of the Empire with us."
Daniri nodded. "Good luck, Sekkou," he said.
"And Daniri," Sekkou paused a moment. "I hope your mother is well. Family is more important to me than you might think." The Locust turned and quickly headed off down the darkened side street. Kaibutsu followed along behind, pausing to wave a final good-bye to the others.
"Kaibutsu miss truck," the ogre said miserably, plodding on behind his friend.
Ketsuen slammed into the wall, hard. Yasu bit his lip from the force of the impact, but immediately pushed hard on the controls to bring the War Machine to its feet. The great grey robot staggered out of the wreckage of a fallen building, scanning for a sign of its enemy. An oni thirty feet tall and covered with jagged, horny protrusions lumbered toward him, greenish bile dripping from its jaws.
"And I thought that undead Orochi was a pain," Hayato groaned at Yasu's side.
"GAZRA IKIRIA SHUTRA UT CRAB!" the creature roared as it lunged in for the kill.
"Someday I'm going to learn that language so I'll know what in Jigoku they're shouting at me," Yasu grumbled. Ketsuen dodged to one side, lashing out with its oversized jadesteel claw and cutting a deep gouge along the oni's hamstring.
"Don't," Hayato replied from the gunnery controls. "Believe me, it'll just piss you off." He squeezed the triggers of the twin joysticks, causing eight guns on Ketsuen's shoulders to reveal themselves and pepper the creature's underside with bullets. "You speak oni?" Yasu said, glancing at Hayato in surprise. "You never told me that." The oni turned and screamed, swinging an overhand chop at the War Machine. Ketsuen neatly caught the creature's arm in its claw and snipped, effortlessly severing a forearm as thick as a small automobile.
Hayato shrugged. "It was part of the scout curriculum. We had to learn one Shadowlands language. I picked oni because I thought it would be a cool language to insult people in." The enormous oni shrieked and staggered backwards, its severed stump spraying acidic red blood everywhere. Hayato aimed the War Machine's left arm at the creature's eyes, firing the jade laser at its face.
"Well, is it?" Yasu asked. Ketsuen charged in at the wounded oni, throwing one heavy shoulder into its knees. The gigantic creature toppled backwards, rising a cloud of dust and cracking the surface of the street.
"Is it what?" Hayato asked, glancing over at Yasu curiously.
"Is it a good language to insult people in?" Yasu asked. Ketsuen rose its tetsubo high and brought it down hard between the oni's legs. It cried out in pain. "Oni, I mean," Yasu added.
"Oh," Hayato squeezed the trigger again, firing another jade laser into the creature's midsection. "Not really," he said. "It's hard to explain. It's just... It's just way too much. It's like hunting rabbits with a grenade launcher."
"Wow," Yasu replied. "Sounds like my kind of language. You'll have to give me some pointers sometime." Ketsuen quickly dodged backwards as two Mako rounded the corner. The War Machine stepped out of the way as they unleashed a flurry of missiles on the prone, wounded oni. The creature's body exploded in a cloud of red fire and crystal powder. The Mako circled and took up positions on either side of the War Machine.
"If we survive today, Yasu, I promise I will," Hayato replied. "Mako One, Mako Two. What did you guys see?"
"The next few blocks are clear," reported one of the pilots. "After that it starts to get really ugly. Mako Three is holding position three blocks from here."
"Was it as ugly as the guy we just put down?" Yasu asked.
"Uglier," reported the pilot. "We saw a few thousand goblins and what looked like a small army of plague zombies. Squad two is trying to circle around to the north, but it doesn't look like it'll be much easier."
"Egh, sounds like Byoki," Yasu grumbled. "I read about them. Highly infectious. Turn off your external air filters, guys, this is gonna be messy and I don't need any of you guys getting the plague."
"Check," came the reply.
Hayato glanced over at Yasu, then quickly looked away again.
"What?" Yasu asked. "You nervous or something?"
"Me?" Hayato laughed. "Nah." He chuckled and looked over his control panels again. A moment later, he looked up again. "No, I'm not nervous," he repeated. "To tell the truth, I'm scared out of my mind! Goblins and gaki and kumo I'm used to. But oni? Hell until a couple of weeks ago we didn't even think they existed. If Oni no Jimen hadn't broken my leg, I still wouldn't believe it. Look at that thing out there! Look at that thing we just killed! It's as big as a bus! And there's even worse stuff up ahead? Don't tell me you're not scared, Yasu."
Yasu shrugged. "Of course I'm scared," he said. "Everybody's scared of stuff like that. That's why it exists. Oni are supposed to be fearsome. That's the whole point. But hell, we've been trained, right? If we can't deal with this stuff, then who else is going to?"
"Yeah, yeah," Hayato said. "I know. I didn't say I wanted to cut out. I just said I was scared. That's all. I'm still with you, Yasu. We'll see this thing through until we've stomped a mudhole in Oni no Yoritomo's proboscis."
"Damn straight," Yasu answered. "Try to think of it this way. Our ancestors had to deal with crap like this on the Carpenter Wall every day. I've seen old footage of it. There's not much of it, but it's out there. Old black and white stuff where everybody moves way too fast. It's weird."
"Really?" Hayato said. "The Wall was this bad?"
Yasu smiled. "Hell, no," he answered. "The Wall was cake compared to this. Now let's get going. Oni no Yoritomo isn't gonna wait for us forever."
The Crane's armor flickered golden in the light of the fires. Eien's clouded mind couldn't remember if he had started the fire, of if he had simply stopped to watch. Only one thing was certain. He was free now. He could still feel Munashi's presence, though it was changed now. He could still feel the revenant's evil deep inside him, doing its best to thwart his actions, but now it was no longer a battle he could not win.
The evil was still inside him. It was him. To be truthful, Eien was the outsider. His soul had passed on long ago, and only Munashi's dark magics kept it tethered to his corpse. The body was truly the revenant's now. Daidoji Eien was merely a passenger. Fortunately, the Armor of the Golden Samurai was on Eien's side. Together, they were strong enough to make the passenger the driver.
"Munashi," Eien hissed. He could feel his former master. He had returned to the city. He was deep, deep in the city, near the creature that shook the streets with its roar.
Munashi was out there, waiting for him, on the other side of that creature.
There was only one way to get to him.
Eien had to kill Oni no Yoritomo.
The Crane War Machine nodded, firm in his decision, and rocketed out onto the smoky air.
Shiba Mojo ascended the stairs, his mind heavy with the creature's words. The tall figure of Washi Takao awaited him at the top, thick arms folded across his chest. In the shadows further down the hallway, Mojo could see the stocky outline of Moto Teika.
"You survived," Takao said simply.
"You didn't expect me to?" Mojo replied.
"Zesh can be... unpredictable," Takao replied. "He comes from a different world than we do. Sometimes his darker nature can be his undoing, but he tries."
"Sounds like most people I know," Mojo replied.
"What did he say to you?" Teika said, suddenly darting forward out of the shadows. "What did he say? What did he give you?"
The Bloodwhite Shard grew warm in Mojo's holster. The yojimbo ignored it, kept his face neutral, remembering Zesh's words of caution. "He said that I already carry the weapons that I need to defeat the Dark Oracles," Mojo replied. "He said that my trip here was a wasted one, and that what you seek is not here."
Teika frowned. "What in Jigoku does that mean?"
"I don't know," Mojo shrugged. "Sounds like fortune cookie crap to me. Maybe if we click our heels together three times, the Dark Oracles will go away."
Teika scowled. "Is that supposed to be funny, Shiba?"
Mojo shrugged. "Supposed to be. Well, I did my part. You can hang keep hanging around with these monks if you like, Teika. I'm going home. It's been real, Takao. Keep your head shiny." Mojo walked up the last few stairs, nodded to Takao, and headed for the hall. Teika moved into his path, holding up one hand to stop the Phoenix.
"I don't think so," Teika said. "I came here for a reason, Shiba."
"Yeah," Mojo replied. "Something about me being the only one that can help you restore the Oracles to balance and all that. If Yogo Ishak is on my way, I'll be glad to help you out. Otherwise, I'm long overdue to check in on Sumi-sama. If you'll excuse me..."
Mojo tried to push his way past the Oracle of the Void. The Oracle stepped into the Phoenix's path again, eyes narrowing. "What did that creature say?" Teika said. "What did he tell you? You're not telling me everything. You're not telling me the truth."
"Come on, Teika," Mojo laughed. "You're freaking me out, here. Now get out of my way."
The Oracle held the yojimbo's gaze for a tense moment, then abruptly smiled. "Of course," he said. "Of course, you've done all you can. This was a long shot after all, right? What else could I ask of you?"
"Exactly," Mojo replied. He stepped past Moto Teika and headed down the hallway.
"Takao," Teika said quickly. "I will be frank with you. Where are the Bloodwhite Shards? If that creature does not have them then they must be here somewhere."
Takao looked over at Teika. The monk's shoulders were suddenly tense, his dark eyes sharp. "
"Who told you there was such a thing here?" he replied.
"No one told me," Teika replied. "I'm an Oracle, remember? I know things. Now where are the Bloodwhite Shards?"
Takao paused for a moment, considering. "Follow me," he said, stepping into the hallway. "Follow me, and I will show you."
Further down the hall, Mojo glanced curiously over his shoulder. He had heard the two men, clearly. Why did Teika suddenly seem so obsessed with Bloodwhite Shards? He hadn't even mentioned them during their trip here. And why was Takao leading him this way? The shards were downstairs, where Zesh was bound.
As Takao stepped into the hallway, his face was illuminated for the briefest moment by a torch on the wall. His eyes were on Mojo's. His lips moved silently in a single word.
With that, Takao spun about, staff whirling in one hand. The end of the wooden shaft collided solidly with Moto Teika's jaw. The Oracle grunted and staggered backwards. The halls suddenly erupted with motion as dozens of Washi monks emerged from hidden doorways or dropped from the ceiling. None of them screamed in fury, none of them made a sound at all. None of them acknowledged Mojo in the slightest as they charged toward the Oracle of the Void. Mojo didn't have a clue what was happening, but he did as he was told, and ran.
"Nothing!" he heard Moto Teika call out behind him. "You are all NOTHING!"
The smell of burning ozone crisped the air. A harsh, crackling sound echoed through the halls of the Eagle's Claw. Screams echoed as the monks of the Eagle died. Mojo ran directly ahead, hoping he was headed toward a door of some kind. He risked a glance over one shoulder and saw a growing sphere of darkness, twisting and surging through the hallway. Within, he could see the Washi monks, struggling their way through the darkness. Their forms became hazy and indistinct as the Void consumed them. In moments, they were all gone.
"Damn, that's a big ball of Void," Mojo whispered. He knew what pure Void could do, and he kept running.
"It was your destiny to be removed from this equation at the very start!" Teika's voice cackled. "You accepted the duty of being the wardens of darkness. Surely you did not think you could keep us contained forever, or that your dark deed would not come home to roost?!? Where are they, kolat? Where are the Bloodwhite Shards?"
"I knew it was a mistake to trust that guy," Mojo mumbled under his breath. "One of these days, Sumi-sama is going to learn to start listening to me."
Mojo pressed on, running as quickly as he could from the swelling sphere of Void that ate away at the center of the Eagle's Claw. He could feel the floor shift under his feet as the structural integrity of the building began to disintegrate. He could hear the screams of the Eagle monks as they were consumed by the Oracle's power, their vows of silence forgotten in an infinity of pain.
Mojo stopped running, facing a dead end brick wall.
"Fortunes, who designed this place?" he cursed, ducking quickly to the right and opening a door. He saw only brooms and cleaning supplies. He turned to the left and opened the door. The stairs led up.
"I don't want to go up!" he shouted to no one in particular. He looked back the way he came. The wall of Void was thirty feet away.
"Better than staying here," he mumbled, running up the stairs.
A dull crackle sounded in his ears a few moments after entering the stairwell. Already, the Void was consuming the stairs beneath him. Mojo continued running, following the spiral upward. He stumbled as the stair directly beneath his feet crumbled. He pitched forward, pushing off with his hands and continuing with his momentum. Luckily, the next stair was more stable. He kept running, his heart beating like a hummingbird's. A doorway yawned up above him and he ducked through. Glancing right he saw nothing but darkened hallway. Glancing left he saw a window. Mojo didn't even hesitate, he ran for the window and jumped...
And landed on the sloped roof outside. He skidded sideways, boots struggling for purchase as clay tiles burst and skidded away before him. He could see the sphere of Void to his left, already eating through the roof of the monastery. He could see the bald heads and frightened faces of Washi monks peeking out of windows here and there, staring at the sphere of darkness.
"What are you doing?" Mojo shouted to them. "Run! Get out of here while you can!"
One of them looked at Mojo, but they didn't seem to be listening. The ducked back inside, charging off toward the Void. What was the purpose of that? Why throw your lives away against something you had no hope of beating? Courage was one thing, but this was another. Running into that was suicide.
Mojo carefully maneuvered his way to the edge of the roof and peered down. Past the edge, he saw the mountain face dropping away into clouds. A few tiles skittered over the edge and he listened for them hitting the bottom. He heard nothing, and whistled. There was no climbing down that way. He followed the mountain wall, trying to find the path he had used to ascend. He found the stairs, and followed them up... up...
Up directly into the quickly growing sphere of Void.
"Oh," Mojo whispered. "I guess that's why they charged off into that thing. There's nowhere else left to go."
Mojo felt the strength in his legs depart and sat down hard on the edge of the roof. The crackle of Void grew louder, like the buzz of an enormous swarm of hornets. A loud growl echoed from deep inside the monastery, the sound of rock grinding against rock. The entire upper half of the monastery suddenly shifted, collapsing at an awkward angle. Mojo grabbed the edge, nearly thrown off by the motion. The Eagle's Claw had stood on its mountain roost for a long, long time but it wasn't going to be here much longer. Neither was Mojo.
"This place is going to fall apart," he whispered to himself. "It's going to fall apart with me in it, and nobody will ever remember me except for countless disappointed young ladies. What sort of a crime is that?"
"Phoenix!" shouted a voice from above.
Mojo glanced upward, his topknot whipping across his face in the wind. A tall figure leapt out of one of the upper windows, long staff in hand. Blood streamed down his shoulder, and dark black burns covered one arm. Seven more Eagle monks emerged behind the man, glancing back nervously at the sphere of Void.
"Takao?" Mojo shouted.
The tall monk nodded, moving like a cat over the treacherous tiles. The younger monks moved with equal agility. They stood at the edge of the roof and looked down.
"What the hell is going on back there," Mojo asked. "I thought the Oracles were supposed to help people."
"That's no Oracle," Takao replied. "I'm not sure exactly what he is, or how he managed to make himself seem like an Oracle, but Moto Teika is no Oracle. Do you know why he brought you here?"
"I don't know," Mojo said. "He seemed to think I was important, for some reason. He saved my life."
"Hm," Teika said simply.
"What happened to Zesh?" Mojo asked. "Will he be all right down there?"
"Zesh has survived worse than this, Phoenix," Takao answered. "I guarantee you that Oracle has bitten off more than he can chew with that one."
One of the younger monks tapped Takao on the shoulder, pointing at the advancing sphere of Void. In moments, it would consume the roof where they stood.
"We have to get out of here," Takao said, glancing over the side of the roof again.
"What?" Mojo laughed. "You're not seriously going to jump, are you? What's down there? Where will we land?"
"I think there's a lake down there, somewhere," Takao replied.
"You think!" Mojo shouted.
Takao smiled. "Believe it will be beneath us, Phoenix, and it cannot help but break our fall!" With that, the monk backed up several steps and took a running leap off the edge of the Eagle's Claw. His followers did the same. Mojo took one final look at the sphere of Void, and shrugged.
"Either way it looks like I'm about to become the punch-line to a really bad joke," Shiba Mojo mumbled, and jumped off after them.
"This neighborhood looks terrible," Gohei commented as they stepped out of the sedan into the streets. The buildings all around were dark and in disrepair. The street was heavily cracked. On the street corner, a slumped form lay in the shadow of a street lamp that could only be a dead body. Similar mysterious shapes lay heaped in a nearby alley. Garbage was strewn everywhere and the area had an overwhelming stench of decay.
"I don't think it's entirely the oni's doing," Jurin replied, stepping out and standing beside her daimyo. "The neighborhood has always been poor, and it wasn't high on the list of priorities for repair after the Senpet Invasion and Locust Riots. Welcome to Little Jigoku, Matsu Gohei."
"Let's just get this over with," Gohei retorted. He drew his pistol from his coat and scanned the area carefully. He winced as he took a tentative step, the wound in his side still paining him greatly. He pushed the pain aside and moved on.
"Do you know which house we seek, Jurin-san?" Argcklt asked, emerging from the sedan and scuttling out into the middle of the street.
"Sort of," Jurin said. "All we're really running on at the moment is the name Yamato's spirit gave me and the page I took from the phone book back in the office of the Imperial Tombs. That won't help us much if Genju Gemmei has already fled the city or..."
"Or if she's been killed," Gohei finished, coldly declaring the worry that had been echoing in their thoughts since leaving the Tombs.
"Which house is it, Jurin-san?" Argcklt asked quietly. "I can go inside and look for her. If there is danger, my stone brothers will allow me to swiftly escape."
"2407, the second on the left," Jurin pointed. The zokujin nodded and quickly scampered off in the direction of the house. The creature pressed its long fingers to the wall. A dim glow surrounded Argcklt's hands for a brief moment, then the zokujin stepped through the bricks as if they were not even there.
The street was silent for a long moment. Jurin watched the house anxiously, clearly worried for her friend as well as for the outcome of his search. Gohei looked at her for a moment, then turned back to watch the house as well.
"He is a good... creature," Gohei said quietly. "I think we misjudged those creatures."
Jurin smiled slightly. "That's ironic," she said. "I remember catching a glimpse of the Remnants of the Ikoma Histories once. It was a section detailing the career of the original Matsu Gohei."
"The Butcher?" Gohei said with a slight smirk.
"The same," she replied. "Though it was written in his own hand, and he hardly seemed the butcher he is portrayed as in so many other sources. In fact, he said something very much like what you said just now, though he was speaking of a nezumi. You have much in common with your namesake, Gohei-sama."
"That's what they tell me," he replied. "Though from you that almost seems like a compliment."
"Matsu Gohei was a man willing to do whatever was necessary to end the Clan Wars," Jurin said. "It was those that stood in his way that painted him the Butcher. He was a good man, and an honorable man. His spirit sings in the Halls of the Ancestors for those who listen. I admire him."
"That makes two of us, then," Gohei nodded in agreement. "He was one of the finest the Empire has ever known. I think the way people remember him is shameful."
"And how will you be remembered?" Jurin asked. "For good or ill, Gohei left his mark upon the history of the Empire. I see much of Gohei in you, my lord. What legacy will you leave?"
"People who try to be great, stumble," Gohei answered simply. "I don't want to be Matsu Gohei. I only took his name so that idiots would fear me, politicians would underestimate me, and I'd be free to rule the Lion as I wished. I have no aspirations other than to return our clan to our proper place. Luckily the families are so stubborn that I've had little success and we'll probably all be dead in a matter of hours so it doesn't really matter, does it?"
"As I said," Jurin replied with a small smile. "I see much of the original Gohei in you."
Gohei looked at the shugenja, trying to catch some gleam of her intent, but her face was calm and inscrutable. He sighed and gave up, returning his attention to the house. Gohei had decided long ago that he would never understand shugenja, and sodan-senzo were worse than most. Merely because you had a talent at talking to the dead didn't give you license to make as little sense as the dead. In fact, in Gohei's mind, it made the entire effort of learning to communicate with them something of a waste.
There was a sudden movement in the house, and Gohei lifted his pistol in readiness. The door shimmered for a moment, and opened. Argcklt emerged onto the front steps, his yellow eyes wide with confusion.
"Argcklt?" Jurin called out to him. "What did you find?"
"Nothing," Argcklt replied, shaking his wide head. "No one inside. No one home at all." The zokujin hopped down the stairs, sitting heavily on the bottom step. "It looks like someone already searched the house, as well. There was little of value inside though the doors were locked. I could not find the journal." The zokujin's shimmering gaze met Jurin's for a moment, then turned away in shame and disappointment.
"No!" Jurin shouted suddenly. "That can't be! Why would Bayushi Yamato send us here if it was too late?"
"Well," Gohei said, his face twisting into a bitter snarl. "That's the darker side to all this, isn't it? Ikoma Genju hides himself away so that the journal will be safe from the Emperor's enemies. Fine. Great. Yoritomo Kenjin's journal is safe from the Emperor's enemies. That doesn't exactly protect it from everything else, though, does it? What in Jigoku was he thinking? I swear, no one is better at outsmarting himself than an Ikoma. This has all been a waste of time, Jurin. You wanted to be in the history books? Well here's your route. We'll be a rather humorous footnote, if anyone survives to remember us."
"Gohei," Jurin said softly.
"What?" Gohei retorted. "I've abandoned everything I know to be practical, everything I know to be right, to go with you on this foolish quest. We've both known all along that the odds for us succeeding would be nearly nothing. Even if we succeed what then? What will that book tell us that can save the city now? Look around you, Jurin. Look what's happening. What can we possibly do? What is the cost of our failure?" The Lion daimyo threw his arms out to display the ravaged city, the burning skyline.
He closed his eyes. His knees wobbled, his strength drained by his wound. He sat down hard and leaned against the wall, gun clattering on the ground.
"It's over, Jurin," he said hoarsely.
"No," Jurin said. "It's not. It can't be. It just can't. We can search the house again. We can-"
"And what then?" Gohei asked. "What if Oni no Yoritomo turns this way before we're done? What if he demolishes the three of us with a single step and moves on? What will we do then?"
"I do not know," Jurin replied. "I'm not afraid to finish what I started."
Gohei glanced up from where he sat, his pale features suddenly hardening. "What are you implying? I'm tired, Jurin. I'm lucky to be walking right now. I know when I've been beaten, and I've been beaten now. It's time for us to get out of here. It's time for us to save ourselves."
Jurin looked back at the house, then back at her daimyo. He clutched the wound at his side. His mouth was creased in pain. He hid it well, but he wouldn't be able to go on much longer. Most mean would already be dead or unconscious from the wound he had taken. She looked down at the mask in her hands, a smiling face worked in pale grey leather. Was Yamato's spirit mocking her or encouraging her? Perhaps she had imagined it all. Perhaps the spirit had sent her away merely so she would stop bothering him.
Maybe Gohei was right.
They were lucky to still have a vehicle that was functioning, and plenty of gas. With Argcklt's rock magic, they had no trouble getting through even the most ravaged roads. They still had their lives. They could escape.
"What then?" Argcklt asked.
The two Lions looked at the small zokujin. His face seemed as sad and lost as theirs, but there was an odd glint in his yellow eyes.
"What did you say, Argcklt?" Gohei asked.
"What you say makes a lot of sense," Argcklt replied. "A smart man, a smart zokujin, would leave the city. Leave all this far behind. But what would we do then? The journal might be our last chance. If we run now, we'll die later. This city is just the beginning and you don't need to hear the spirits to know that. Jigoku will flow loose over the whole world if we don't stop it. Do you know how to stop it, Matsu Gohei-sama? Do you Jurin-san?"
They were silent for a moment.
"Neither do I," Argcklt said. "But Genju Gemmei might. Either we find her now, or we die later. Either way, I say we find her. We have come this far."
The zokujin's words hung on the air. In the background, the continual explosions and roar of the hellish monsters that had arrived with the oni echoed through the city. Gohei frowned, shook his head slowly, and stood, bending to retrieve his gun from where it had dropped.
"This is the second time in one night you have shamed me with your wisdom, zokujin," the Lion daimyo said with a small smile. "It is growing to be a habit."
"If it pleases you, I shall endeavor to be more foolish, Gohei-sama," Argcklt said with a smirk. "Me-Argcklt-think-it-good-we-keep-looking."
"That's much better," Gohei replied.
A sudden metallic clank echoed from down the street. Gohei whirled, pointing his pistol at the source of the sound. An enormous metallic creature stepped into the street, two human figures following in its shadow. Gohei's eyes widened when he recognized the golden metallic sheen, and a name laced with venom dripped from his lips.
"Gohei," Daniri replied, standing his ground and widening his stance to protect the boy and woman following him. "What in Jigoku are you doing here?"
"I don't think that's any of your business, heimin," Gohei sneered. "Now clear out of here. The Lion Clan has official business here."
"Wait, Gohei," Jurin said suddenly. She stepped in front of the Lion daimyo. Her face was cast in a stunned expression. "I just realized something! I just realized why the name seemed so familiar!"
"Eh?" Gohei lowered the pistol quickly. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Genju Gemmei!" she replied. "Isn't Akodo Daniri's true name Genju Danjuro? Isn't that what they said on the news!"
"Huh?" Daniri called out from where he stood. "What about my mom?"
"By the Blood of Akodo," Gohei shook his head in derision. "That can't be. A coincidence like that-"
"Is the stock and trade of prophecy," Jurin replied.
"This is why I hate shugenja," Gohei mumbled, shoving his gun back in his coat.
"Wait," Daniri said. The War Machine clanked down the street towards Gohei and Jurin, its companions following as quickly as they were able. "You mentioned my mother. Genju Gemmei."
"We came here looking for her," Jurin said, looking up at the golden armor. "Unfortunately, we were too late. She's not here."
"Did you check the basement?" Daniri replied immediately. "The door is behind the cupboard in the kitchen. She built it that way so she could hide in case of another riot."
"Or course we checked the basement!" Gohei said quickly. "Argcklt checked the whole house! Do you think we'd miss something that obvious?"
"Um... wait," Argcklt called out from the stairs. "There's a basement?"
Mirumoto Rojo opened his eyes once more, and things were greatly changed. Imposed on everything were patterns of force, power and weakness, strength and passiveness, light and dark. He blinked his eyes and peered about uncertainly, adjusting to this new world.
"There is nothing new, Mirumoto," replied the voice of the Old Man. "While you wear the armor of Togashi, you bear his power as well. You see things as he once saw them."
"Rojo?" Agasha Kyoko's voice called out tentatively. "Rojo, what's going on? This is very strange..."
"Ah, the Agasha girl," the Old Man added. "You... I do not have the slightest idea how to begin what you must be seeing. Some secrets Togashi kept even from me."
"Kyoko," Rojo called out. He peered around the darkened caverns of the mountain. On the other side of the great crystalline pool stood the slim figure of Agasha Kyoko. She looked weak, but alive and standing. In either hand she held a gleaming sword, the daisho that Rojo had seen rise from the pool earlier.
"It is strange," the Old Man said, peering into the depths of his crystal. "The power that I have used is hardly commonplace, yet here I sense it used twice tonight. Either the mortals have become obsessed with the power of their robotic toys, or something very important is about to happen." The old man's eyes were intent on the stone. They narrowed in concentration, as if the Old Man was not quite used to being surprised and was not about to admit that such a phenomenon was occurring now.
Rojo looked down at his arms and body, at the emerald armor that now clung to his body like dark, scaly skin. The armor seemed to pulse and flex as he moved. He could feel its strength, its power surging through him. He looked across the pool at Kyoko and saw that her eyes had changed. They glowed a soft green now, and were filled with a strange regret. Dark, swirling tattoos seemed to stretch from the corners of her eyes like tears, forming a web over her entire face. "What has happened?" Rojo asked. "What have you done to us?"
"I have given you what you came here seeking," the Old Man said. "I have restored Togashi to you in the only way that I still could. By harnessing a bit of the earth's lifeblood and bonding it to his soul. He lives on now in that armor, and those blades. So long as you bear the armor, you have the power of Togashi, Mirumoto. So long as you carry those swords, Agasha, you bear my brother's wisdom."
"The power of Togashi?" Rojo replied, stunned.
"It is true, Rojo," Kyoko said. "I can feel it. It is true. We are Togashi."
"I do not envy either of you," the Old Man said. "But you asked for this."
"No," Rojo said slowly. "If Togashi's power and wisdom rest only in these artifacts, then let them be made whole again. Why should Togashi be divided?"
The Old Man frowned. "You realize, of course, that those artifacts are the only thing keeping you alive in this radioactive mountain," he replied.
"Then send us back," Rojo said. "Send us back and I will give the armor to Kyoko, or she can give the blades to me. Or if it must be done this way, I will give her the armor here and die."
"Always so eager to die," the Old Man shook his head. "A mortal trait that I shall never understand. Think about what you are saying, Mirumoto. Think about what is happening here."
"He is correct, Rojo," Kyoko replied. "Lord Hoshi called us here for a reason. Both of us. The mistakes of the past cannot be allowed to happen again. The power and wisdom of the immortal are too great a burden for any one man. The true Togashi is gone. We can only follow on in his path. Only together can we use his power and wisdom justly. You must keep the armor, Rojo, if only to protect the Dragon and restore balance if the mind of Togashi causes me to act erratically as Lord Hoshi did."
"Fine, everything is settled, then," the Old Man said abruptly. "By the way, Mirumoto. The thing in your head is gone. It took only a slight expenditure of power on my part, and I hardly saw it fitting to leave such a grotesque thing within the bearer of my brother's legacy."
"Thank you," Rojo answered. "How did you do it?"
"There is little I cannot do," the Old Man said cryptically. "If there's nothing further, I would appreciate it if the two of you left my mountain."
Rojo turned to the Old Man, still uncertain what to think of everything that had just happened. "I thank you for your help," Rojo said.
"Yes, well, see if you're thanking me in a few days," he replied. "I would tell you to go in peace, but you would not find it." The Old Man held his shard of glowing stone forth once more. Its light grew quickly until it enveloped Rojo and Kyoko.
In a few moments moment, they could see nothing but the light. When it faded once more, they were standing in the intersection of two streets. Rojo replied standing over her protectively as he scanned the streets. He noticed that in the armor of Togashi he was quite a bit taller then normal, almost eight feet. Every bit of the armor seemed to respond to his commands as if it were a living thing. He wondered vaguely if he could take it off.
The streets around them were empty of all life. In the distance, it sounded almost as if there were some sort of fireworks going off but otherwise all was eerily silent.
"Where are we?" Rojo asked. "This is not Togashi Mountain."
"No," Kyoko said. "This is Otosan Uchi."
"Why is it so dark?" Rojo asked. "Did so much time pass while we were in that place?"
"I do not think so," she replied. "Something is very wrong here." Kyoko looked suddenly toward the south. Her green eyes shone softly on the darkened streets. Her small mouth pulled into a frown. "Yes," she said. "Something is very wrong here. The seal has been broken."
"The seal?" Rojo asked. "Kyoko, what are you talking about? The Great Seal? It's miles from here, in the territory of the Crab. If it broke, surely the effects could not have spread here so quickly. The Crab have countermeasures."
"No," Kyoko said. "The Great Seal is irrelevant. The Shadowlands are everywhere. Jigoku had only to find a place where the boundaries were weak to invade our world again. Now they have found it. Now they are here. If we do not act quickly, Otosan Uchi will become a new Festering Pit, and the power of darkness will consume the millions who dwell in the city."
"What must we do?" Rojo asked. He noticed movement in the shadows now. There were countless small things there watching, waiting, listening.
"I do not know," Kyoko said, holding the twin swords level as she noticed the creatures as well. "I think in a matter of a few moments we shall have our hands full simply trying to remain alive."
Then the shadows erupted with a thousand biting, clawing things. Rojo and Kyoko stood back to back and screamed in defiance as the awesome might of Togashi returned to Otosan Uchi.
The enormous centauroid War Machine moved effortlessly through the rubble-strewn parking lot. Shinjo Rakki craned his head to try to take everything in. "What in Jigoku are we doing in an amusement park?" Shinjo Rakki asked, peering about in wonder. "And why is it in a cave?"
"Extensive caverns have been a feature of Otosan Uchi since its founding," Bayushi Oroki replied, walking quickly to keep up with Rakki's machine. "I'm hardly one of the first to see them as suitable shelter from the elements. Criminals, smugglers, and vagabonds have used them for time immemorial. I'm merely one of the first to see the marketing potential as a viable real estate opportunity and an ideal place for legitimate business. I fear the Labyrinth may not last too much longer, however, if that beast continues rampaging about up there."
Another tormented roar erupted from the city above. The entire cavern shook. A large chunk of debris crashed into the pavement a dozen feet away. The sounds of breaking glass and crashing metal echoed through the park, as well.
"Why are we here?" Rakki asked. "It looks like this place isn't going to last too much longer."
"Two reasons," Oroki replied. Another large chunk of debris crashed into the ground nearby. Bayushi Zou stood close to Oroki, ready to deflect any wreckage that may fall upon his master. "First of all, I own it, and I want to make certain that all of the employees and other residents are aware of my precautions and escape measures."
"Nice place," Rakki nodded, looking around in wonder again.
"Yes, it was," Oroki answered. "Though I'm suddenly of the notion that selling may be a good idea. Want to buy it?" The three of them stopped before a large metal delivery door in the midst of the steel outer fence. Oroki typed a sequence into a keypad and the door opened with a hum.
"No thanks," Rakki said. "What was the second reason you mentioned for coming here?"
"We need to visit a friend of mine," Oroki said. "He's as close a thing there is to an expert on the Bloodwhite Shards, at least as far as I know. You've done the impossible tonight, creating that bizarre War Machine seemingly out of nothing. I want to know how it was done. Now get in here before debris falls on your head."
Oroki and Zou entered the large warehouse beyond. It was dark, lit only by the pale glow of emergency lights. Several figures scrambled into the room and formed a line in the darkness. Oroki paid them no mind as Rakki ducked through the door behind them. "Well to be fair, the armor didn't exactly come from nothing," Rakki replied, looking down at his centauroid armored body. "I think this used to be my squad car."
"Well, at any rate, it's unprecedented. We need to find out what exactly you've done differently, or if the Bloodwhite Shards themselves have somehow changed."
"Do we really have time for that?" Rakki asked. "I mean, the city's being attacked up there. I could go up there with this armor and make a difference."
"We'll make time," Oroki replied. The steel doors behind them slid shut smoothly behind them.
Rakki glanced back over his shoulder, then turned back to Oroki. A dozen masked Scorpion security bushi stepped out of the shadows, all holding large rifles trained on the Unicorn War Machine. Rakki coughed. "I'm starting to get the impression I don't have a lot of choice in this."
"That is correct," Oroki replied. "I don't mean you any harm, Shinjo, but there's a greater battle being fought here. I don't think you're fully aware of the stakes here."
"What's going on here?" Rakki asked, carefully looking over the armed guards that surrounded him.
"Every one of these men have sworn their lives to my cause," Oroki said. "And by 'mine,' I mean myself, not the Scorpion."
"You mentioned the kolat earlier," Rakki said warily. "I didn't make too much of it before. I thought you were just delirious or something."
Oroki nodded. "The time for shadow games is over," Oroki said. "We are not the enemy of Rokugan. Not today. The creature we faced earlier tonight is only the beginning of what we're about to face. Before tonight, we thought we only had two weapons against the Oracles, and I carry those. Yet you were the one who killed the Dark Oracle of Air tonight."
"So what now?" Rakki asked, looking down at the Scorpion. "Does that make us enemies?" Rakki's hand tightened on the long shaft of his naginata. He mentally calculated whether he thought he really had a shot against a room full of armed Scorpions on their on turf. War Machine or no, he felt a little bit of fear welling up in his stomach.
Bayushi Zou took a step toward his master, but the smaller Scorpion waved the Enforcer away. Unarmed, Bayushi Oroki stood his ground without fear and looked up at the Unicorn War Machine. "I would not wish us to be enemies," Oroki said. "I have more than enough enemies already."
"So what do you want?" Rakki asked.
"Just your cooperation," Oroki replied. "If you agree to let me examine your War Machine and give me back my Bloodwhite Shard, I'll tell you as much as I can in the time we have left. Maybe we'll even have a few minutes left for you to hurry back to the surface and get yourself killed."
Rakki pretended to weigh his options for a moment, though there was really only one choice. "All right," he said. "I'll do it. I'll help as much as I can."
"Excellent," Oroki replied. "Zou, go fetch Soshi Isawa. And grab the Upgrade while you're at it. I think that we'll need it."
The Enforcer nodded in reply, and vanished into the darkness.
Iuchi Kenyu sat and stared at the wall, wondering what was going to happen next. The phone call hadn't worked out quite as he had hoped it would. The Phoenix guard had simply gotten really quiet after he had given her his message. She had never even handed him the phone.
Sure he'd left on bad terms, but not that bad. Surely dad would have wanted to talk to him, right?
Then again, maybe not. Dad could hold a grudge nearly as well as mom.
"Hello?" Kenyu called out. "Anyone there?"
"Yes," came the reply, a slick, smug voice with a hint of faint malice. "There is indeed someone here, Unicorn."
The door of the containment area opened and a tall, thin man entered, dressed in burnt orange armor. At his side walked a thin woman with a tetsukami prosthetic on her right arm. The Shiba guard that had been watching Kenyu before followed the two of them in and closed the door. Her face held a look of mild confusion. Her eyes met Kenyu's for a moment, then quickly looked away as she took up a position by the door.
"Shiba Gensu?" Kenyu said, a bit bewildered by the would-be daimyo's arrival.
Shiba Gensu slowly made his way across the room, arms folded behind his back in no particular hurry. He strolled over to Kenyu's cell and leaned one shoulder against the bars. "Iuchi Kenyu?" he said with a faint smile. "Or perhaps I should call you Ide Kenyu? Or perhaps even, if you judge the rumors I've turned up correctly, Otaku Kenyu, as you held that name briefly as well. You're rather an anomaly, aren't you? Can you really ride the Battle Maidens' motorcycles?"
"Why do you care?" Kenyu asked sharply.
"I don't," Gensu said mildly. "I was just commenting to Katsumi-san that an individual cursed with such a gift probably wouldn't make too many friends among the Otaku. Not the best group to have enemies, in, wouldn't you say, Otaku?"
"It's Iuchi," Kenyu said. "The Iuchi were the only ones that wanted me."
"A shame," Gensu nodded sympathetically.
"The guard never really called my father," Kenyu said. "Did she?"
Gensu laughed. "Of course not. Do you really think I would be so foolish as to place a guard with anything less than absolute loyalty to me? No. I noticed your propensity for talking merely to hear the sound of your own voice. I instructed your guard to pretend to be receptive to your babbling, hoping we could turn up some clue as to exactly what you were doing with Isawa Sumi."
"It's not Isawa," Kenyu replied. "It's just Sumi. She's touchy about that."
"As if I care," Gensu chuckled. "Kenyu, I'm here to talk about you."
"I'm flattered," Kenyu said blandly. "What in Jigoku do you want with me?"
"I have a proposition," Gensu replied. "As you may know, I have my heart set upon being recognized as the true daimyo of my clan. Though I have many supporters within my family, I still have many hurdles yet to overcome. The Otaku and Ide are rich families. Perhaps with their support I could sway some of the more mercantile-minded Isawa and Asako to my side."
"What?" Kenyu laughed. "Why would my family help you? They don't even want to help me."
"Indeed, you are a black sheep," Gensu said. "But hardly a forgotten son. I've done my research on you, Iuchi. Your mother gifted you with a true Otaku motorcycle before you departed. That's hardly the sort of gift a Battle Maiden would give someone she didn't care for. Besides, the Otaku and the Ide have a certain reputation to uphold. They can hardly afford for it to become common knowledge that they have a murderer in their family."
"Murderer?" Kenyu said, suddenly standing up. "Gensu, what are you talking about?"
"The poor Inquisitor you killed," Gensu said. "The one you stayed behind and smothered while the rest of your accomplices fled."
Kenyu's eyes narrowed. "You killed him?" the Unicorn said in a low voice. "You killed that crazy bastard even after everything he did to help you?"
"Oh, no, not yet," Gensu replied. "I have little use for Yao to be sure, but I am a Phoenix and I do not kill if I do not have to. If your family refuses to be cooperative, only then will I have my shugenja murder the Inquisitor and create the proper evidence of your crimes." At Gensu's side, Katsumi smiled faintly.
Kenyu shook his head slowly. "Why are you telling me this?" he asked. "What do you want from me?"
"Your cooperation," Gensu replied. "I know that you tried to save Yao. You remained behind to save an enemy's life while your comrades escaped. To me, that says that you are a good man. A moral man. A weak man. I want you to confess to your crimes on a video tape, so I can hold it against your family until some arrangements can be made in a more legal sense. I believe a healthy amount of Stock in Ide Motors should be sufficient. If you do not agree, of course, I shall have to kill the poor Inquisitor prematurely to make certain that I have the proper leverage to pressure your parents. Now what do you say, Iuchi? Does Inquisitor Yao live or die?"
Kenyu was quiet for a long time. He looked up finally, meeting Gensu's flinty black gaze and smug grin. "Tell me something, Gensu," Kenyu whispered. "Do you actually believe that a cheap criminal like you could ever hold the Soul of Shiba? Or are you really that deluded?"
"Your friend Sumi has tainted the Soul of Shiba," he replied smoothly. "I no longer need it. Answer the question."
"Do you really believe it's her fault that you can't hold the sword?" Kenyu asked. "Maybe you should take a closer look at yourself."
Gensu frowned. "Who told you that I could not hold the sword?"
"I know some things about Ofushikai," Kenyu replied. "And I know that if I had kidnapped the Phoenix daimyo and buried her in a hole somewhere, I certainly would have taken the sword. Something like that would go a long way to convince the other families that I was the true daimyo of the Phoenix. It would be a lot more convincing than blackmail and bribes, anyway. I just sort of assumed that the sword must have thought as little of you as I do."
Gensu's face twitched slightly, and Katsumi sneered at his side. A moment later, his face was smooth and smug again. "You're quite confident for one in your unenviable position, Unicorn," Gensu replied. "You're alone here. You have no friends, no allies. Your so-called friends left you to rot in that basement. I, on the other hand, have the loyalty of an entire clan. You should be begging me for my friendship, not ensuring my enmity.
"I couldn't live with myself if you were my friend," Kenyu said. "If you're going to kill Yao, then I'll make you kill me, too. We'll see how much mom and dad want to help you then."
Gensu opened his mouth to reply, but an urgent chirp sounded from a radio on his belt. He turned his back to Kenyu's cell and drew the device out quickly, holding it to his ear. "Yes?" he said sharply. "I'm in the middle of a meeting, I--"
Kenyu could very faintly hear a voice on the other end, speaking very loudly and rapidly.
"What?" Gensu snapped. "Are you sure? Here? That's ridiculous."
"Sir?" Katsumi said, looking at her lord. Gensu waved at her curtly.
"Listen, I don't have time for this foolishness," Gensu said. "Security is your responsibility, not mine. Address this matter or I'll have each and every one of your--" The voice cut off Gensu again. It sounded very excited and very urgent. "What?" Gensu replied. "What did you say?" Gensu turned suddenly and looked at Iuchi Kenyu.
"What?" Kenyu said, smiling slightly. "Some sort of problem?"
Kenyu realized, then, that Gensu wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the wall behind him. On impulse, Kenyu threw himself to the floor. In that instant, the stone wall of the cell exploded in a cloud of dust and smoke. A massive figure charged through the wall, crashing straight forward into the bars. The solid steel buckled with a creak as the huge arrival hammered it with one thick shoulder.
"Szash!" Kenyu shouted from where he huddled near the bed.
"Unicorn," the Naga replied, nodding at him as it shouldered the bars again. "It is good to see you."
"Is Zin here, too?" Kenyu asked.
The Naga's lip curled in a snarl. "No," he spat. "I do not wish to discuss it."
A sharp crack sounded as a small ball of black energy thudded into Szash's shoulder. The Naga looked up, red eyes narrowing. Gensu glanced down at his pistol, then back up at the ineffective wound it left on the Naga's shoulder.
"What are you waiting for?!?" Gensu shrieked at the others. "Open fire!"
Szash's jaws parted with a savage hiss as it focused on Shiba Gensu. It seized the bent metal bars in two hands and heaved, tearing away the wall of the cell. Katsumi tried to draw her pistol, but a backhand swipe from the creature sent her sprawling across the floor. The Naga lunged, seizing Gensu's throat in one large fist and wrapping the thick coils of its tail around the man's body. The other guard drew her pistol and aimed at Szash's head.
"Think it over, Shiba," Kenyu shouted over the chaos. "Do you really want to die for a guy like Gensu?"
"Weigh it, Phoenix," Szash hissed, releasing Gensu's throat and slithering closer to her. "I am not as merciful as the Unicorn. Decide in this moment if you must die."
The Phoenix returned her pistol to its holster, turned, opened the door, and ran.
"Finally," Kenyu said, exasperated. "A Phoenix with an ounce of common sense!"
"Let me go, damn it!" Gensu shrieked from within Szash's coils. "You have no idea who you're dealing with, monster!"
Szash turned, red eyes focusing on Gensu. "Kenyu, who is this man? Why does he threaten me?"
"Um... that's Shiba Gensu," Kenyu said. "Er... Gensu... meet Szash."
"Gensu? This is the man that has caused us so much trouble?" Szash hissed, leaning close to Gensu. His reptilian snout hovered inches from the man's face. To his credit, Gensu glared up at the Naga fearlessly despite his incapacitation. "This is the man that has taken Sumi?"
"Just let him go, Szash," Kenyu said. "Let's get out of here."
"He is an enemy," Szash rumbled. "He has caused me pain. He has caused my friends pain. He dances with the Foul without realizing his arrogance. He does not deserve to live." Gensu's face paled.
"He's beaten. He's harmless," Kenyu said, glancing toward the hole Szash had made in the wall. He could hear sounds of shouting approaching. "There's no reason to kill him.
"Listen to him, Naga," Gensu said. "You have what you want, now let me go and get out of here. Do you really want the murder of a clan daimyo on your head?"
Szash reached out, grasping the sides of Gensu's face in his large, scaled hands. "You mistake me, Phoenix," Szash said. "Kenyu is the merciful one. I recognize the courage he must possess to show mercy to his enemies. Unfortunately for you, I do not share it."
With a sudden movement, Szash twisted his hands and tightened his coils, shattering every bone in Shiba Gensu's body. Kenyu flinched and looked away at the sickening sound. Szash smoothly uncoiled and let the man's crushed body fall to the floor. Kenyu looked up at Szash, his face stunned.
"Regret his death if you must, Unicorn," Szash hissed. "I know that I will not. Let us begone from this place. Time is short." The big Naga turned and moved back toward the hole in the wall of Kenyu's cell, drawing his katana as he prepared to leap back into the fray. Kenyu followed along, pausing only a moment to look back at Shiba Gensu's twisted corpse.
Kenyu wanted to feel sorry for Shiba Gensu. He really did. Somehow, he just couldn't bring himself to do it.
He turned quickly and followed after Szash.
Hoshi Jack stood at his accustomed place, at the apex of Togashi Mountain, and watched the chaos in the Imperial City with a sense more profound than sight. He felt every dark creature as it punctured the walls between worlds and was birthed in this reality. He sensed every mortal life as it was snuffed out by the merciless slaughter. A part of him, a small part, was revolted by what had come of his actions. The remainder of him was enthralled, and took it all in as an artist admiring his work.
Each time the beast screamed forth its name, its link to Ningen-do, the mortal world, became stronger. Each step it took shattered the wall holding back the forces of Jigoku, casting the greatest city of the Empire further into ruin.
Yet it was all just the beginning. This victory meant nothing beyond a symbol of what was to come. The lowly beasts in the trenches would revel at the carnage and be inspired to fight more fervently, but Hoshi Jack and the power that controlled him did not truly care about any of that. The beast that forged its body from the wreckage of the Diamond Castle was meant to serve one purpose alone.
"It is time," Hoshi Jack whispered. "Summon them forth, and send them to me."
And in a city a thousand miles away, the great beast heard its masters call, and screamed its stolen name again. A torrent of darkness issued forth from its throat, separating onto the premature night on inky wings. The size of the cloud was as large as the city itself, the creatures within more numerous than the human denizens. The The demon flock shrieked as it erupted into the world of mortals, but turned away from the city beneath, soaring upward onto the higher currents of the atmosphere, spiraling off to the north, toward a certain destination.
The Emperor's demon slumped against a building from the exertion of the summoning, its energy spent for the moment. A silvery burn gleamed on its forehead, and it rubbed at the wound with a jagged claw.
In the depths of the machine called Kyuden Hida, the Crabs noted the sudden spike of Shadowlands activity. Their radar registered the horde of beasts soaring rapidly north.
"What in the name of Shinsei was that?" Kaiu Toshimo said.
"I don't know sir," replied the technician, hands shivering in terror as she tapped at the keyboard. She prayed that the instruments would tell her it was some sort of error, that what she had seen had not just happened, but she was having no such good fortune.
"To Jigoku with figuring out what it was," Hida Tengyu barked, leaning over the technician's shoulder for a better look at the screen. "We can analyze the data later! For now, get a bead on its trajectory and tell me where the hell those things are going!"
"North, Hida-sama," the technician replied. "Toward the old Phoenix lands. They've reached the upper stratosphere already. They seem to be following some sort of upper air current, and they're moving at incredible speed."
"Damn it," Tengyu swore. "Just once. Just once, tonight, I want something to happen that makes damned sense!"
"I'm sorry, sir," the technician said.
"I'll mobilize some fighters," Toshimo replied. "We can follow them."
"Do it," Tengyu hissed, turning and storming back to the rear of the bridge.
Meanwhile, in a temple a thousand miles away, one man knew the demon flock's destination. He sat back with a smile, the night's work done.
Deep inside, a part of himself wept in dread, defeat, and denial.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we all saw what just happened out there," Yasu said into his radio.
"Check," replied another pilot, hiding his fear well.
"What was it?" asked Yoshi. "I'm in position on the south side of the thing. I just saw it cough a cloud of something into the sky."
"I don't know what it is, and I don't care," Yasu replied. "All I know is that the thing seems to be settling down. It looks tired. So let's kill it. On my mark, move from your positions and attack. Concentrate your attacks on his legs. Even a bug can't stand with no knees."
A chorus of agreement came from the other six ships.
"One more thing," Yasu said. "If you've got something you've been waiting all your life to do, waiting all your life to say, now would be the time to say it. Cause ten seconds from now would be too late. Anything? Anybody? Anyone?"
"I wish I'd gone to engineering school," came one response.
"Toishi, I love you," said another.
"Let's do this," said a third. "Been waiting all my life for this. Wouldn't have it any other way."
"Tell Hayato his mother was a Crane," said Yoshi.
"I think he knows," Yasu replied.
Hayato gave him a strange look.
Yasu grinned. "What?" he said. "What of it? Your mother is a Crane."
"Hida Yasu, you're my hero," Hayato said in a girlish voice.
"Shut up," Yasu laughed. "Gentlemen, start your engines. Attack on my signal." Yasu turned a dial on the War Machine's control panel, sending a timed signal to each of the other ships. He watched the seconds nervously tick down while he primed Ketsuen's weapon systems.
"NOW!" he shouted.
The oni seemed to glance up a moment before the Crab ships broke the cover of wrecked buildings and shadowed alleyways. It rose its mighty claws to the sky and shrieked.
The air around it exploded in a shower of white flame as specially designed Kaiu missiles exploded, showering the beast with crystal-laced napalm and jade lasers. The emperor's name dissolved into an inarticulate snarl as the flames and smoke obscured its body. It staggered backwards in pain, disappearing from view as it collapsed. A trio of Mako fighters floated up over the fallen oni, hovering in for closer inspection.
"Yoshi, you and your wing men need to pull back, now," Yasu said hurriedly. "That is not a confirmed kill. I repeat, that is not a confirmed kill."
"Hey, no worries, Yasu," Yoshi laughed back. "We slew the beast. I'm just moving in to write our names on it before those Lions snag all the credit."
"Lions?" Yasu remarked. He glanced down at his instrument panels and saw a large number of blips approaching. The computer identified them as Matsu combat helicopters. What the hell were they doing here?
"Yoshi!" Yasu shouted. "This is an order! Pull back from that damned--"
A moment later, they were dead.
Hida Yasu watched in horror as a claw the size of an office building sliced through the air with impossible speed. It didn't even seem real at first; all three of the Mako were swatted from the air like toys, struck with such force that they exploded on impact, though the fuel tanks didn't ignite until moments afterward, leaving little trails of flaming debris.
"YORITOMO!" came the cry of the oni as its head rose from the smoke, eyes gleaming green as they focused on Ketsuen. Its other claw shielded the silver burn on its face as it regarded them warily.
"Holy crap," said one of the other Crab pilots. "I don't believe that thing got up from that."
"I don't believe those Lions are still closing in," said another. "Did they not see what just happened?"
The beast rose its claw high, then savagely dropped it, puncturing the street where Ketsuen had stood just an instant before. Yasu pulled hard at the controls, and the War Machine responded like a thing alive. Jade lasers fired from shoulder mountings, riddling the claw above but leaving no mark. A chorus of explosions sounded overhead as the Lion helicopters arrived, peppering the oni with missile fire. The oni ignored them, slashing out with its other claw at the remaining two Mako.
"What in Jigoku are they doing?" Hayato shouted to Yasu. "They don't even have any jade!"
"The Lions made their own bed," Yasu replied, eyes on his screens. "Let's worry about ourselves."
"For the honor of the Lion and the glory of the Matsu! FIRE!" shouted a voice overhead. Another chorus of explosions sounded as the helicopters unleashed their payloads, this time into the street before the oni. The creature hissed and breathed a cloud of inky darkness at the helicopters. The nearest few disintegrated in a cloud of microscopic, devouring oni-spawn. The others rapidly circled back.
"Are they even aiming?" Hayato asked, looking at the smoking streets in wonder. "They didn't even hit the stupid thing that time!"
"They're aiming all right," Yasu smiled. "Mako One through three, follow me into that smoke cloud!" The boosters on Ketsuen's back fired and the War Machine leaped, disappearing into the smoke left behind by the missiles just as the oni turned its attention to them once more. The last of the three Mako fighters followed just as it dropped its claw again. Yasu heard the pilot scream as the ship's engines were shorn free by the creature's attack. The ship spiraled helplessly to the ground and crashed in an explosion of fire.
Ketsuen kept running, because someone had to survive.
"How are those Lions doing?" Yasu shouted to Hayato. "Looks like they're thinking the better of it," Hayato answered. "They're retreating."
"Thank the Fortunes," Yasu replied. "Wonder why they showed up when they did."
"YORITOMO!" the oni cried in fury, smashing one foot into the smoky concealment of its enemies, missing Ketsuen by meters.
"I really wish he'd stop saying that," Yasu grumbled.
"Yasu, what are we going to do?" asked one of the other pilots. "When that smoke clears, we're toast!"
Yasu glanced at his instruments, then back at the screen displaying the cracked city streets. Ketsuen drew its tetsubo and held it in hand and claw. "Follow me," he said.
Ketsuen's boosters fired again and the War Machine leaped high into the air. As it came down, it fired concussive missiles from ports in its lower legs and brought its weapon down with a powerful blow against the street. The reinforced cement only held for a few moments before Ketsuen vanished, landing with a clumsy roll in the sewers beneath. The two remaining Mako were right behind, searchlights flooding the tunnels.
"The sewers!" Hayato exclaimed.
"Sensors showed a big tunnel right below us," Yasu replied. "Now let's get out of here before he drops the ceiling on our heads." Ketsuen took off at full speed, running through the tunnels at a pace the Mako were hard pressed to match.
"That was a disaster," Hayato said morosely as the great oni's roar faded into the distance. "We didn't accomplish anything besides getting some good men killed."
"Not entirely true," Yasu said, with a small shake of his head.
Hayato looked at him. "Explain," he said.
"You didn't see?" Yasu said. "First when it summoned that cloud, then when it rose up out of our missile fire. That thing told us exactly what we need to do to kill it."
"Explain," Hayato said.
"Crab pilots!" crackled a voice over the radio. "This is Taisa Matsu Chieko of the Lion Armed Forces. Identify yourselves and give me your position."
"This is Seeker Hida Yasu of Kyuden Hida," he replied. "My current position is running away from that oni at top speed."
There was a brief pause.
"It was my understanding that the Emperor ordered all Crabs exiled from the city of Otosan Uchi," Chieko said pertly.
"The Emperor's been saying a lot of strange things lately," Yasu answered. "And it's my understanding that the time for political games ended a few hours ago. Can I meet you to organize our attack against that creature?"
There was another brief pause.
"I am sending you coordinates," she replied. The transmission cut off abruptly, though the coordinates flashed on Hayato's screen a moment later.
"Well, Yasu," Hayato said wryly. "Either you just gained us a lot of extra firepower or you just killed us all."
"Great," Yasu answered. "Let's go find out which one."
Ichiro Chobu was absolutely convinced that he was going insane.
There was no way that what he was seeing was real. There was no way that things could have gotten this far. A moment ago, he saw a spider the size of a van spin down from the side of a building, pick up a family of five, and vanish into the smoke above. He saw a building explode with black fire, bricks breaking on the ground like ceramic from the heat. He saw a bus crash against a pile of rubble, then stand up, twist into a demonic shape, and stalk off down the street in search of prey. It was all like a bad trip, except a bad trip didn't usually stab you in the arm like that goblin had before Chobu kicked its head in. The wound was still throbbing with pain, and the rough bandages and dressings Chobu had applied didn't seem to be helping much.
What in Jigoku was going on here?
The Badger realized, deep down, that he had answered his own question. This was Jigoku. This was a big piece of hell on earth, released to destroy the city. This was the sort of thing that happened when you let someone like Kashrak check into your back yard and just hang out there. There wasn't a bit of doubt in Chobu's mind that the big snake had something to do with this, and Chobu knew exactly what he was going to do about it.
He was going to run like hell.
After all, it wasn't his responsibility. The Emperor had people to deal with this sort of thing, right? Chobu imagined that any minute now the Seekers would come storming through the streets, beating down the Shadowlands monsters and restoring things to some semblance of sanity.
Then again, the Seekers had been banished. Maybe they didn't want to help.
Chobu pushed that thought right out of his mind. It was their job to help, right? That was the reason the Crab existed. That was their whole deal, their whole reason for being. It didn't matter how badly they were treated, they would still do the right thing when it all came down to it. Right?
Chobu realized that, were it him in the same situation, he would let the city burn. He tried not to think about that too much.
A loud shriek sounded from around the corner and the Badger quickly ducked into the shadows. Something large, hunched, and covered with jagged spikes lurched across the street a block away. It paused for a moment, sniffed the air as if searching for something, and then shambled on.
"Damn," Chobu whispered to himself. "Can't go that way, either. I'm never going to get out of this damned city."
Chobu lingered in the alley for a few more moments, trying to decide what he would do next. The street began to shudder beneath his feet, signaling the approach of something larger. Chobu ran, not entirely sure where he was going. He began to notice some familiar landmarks here and there as he went, and realized that, bit by bit, he was slowly getting closer to Downtown. Downtown was about the last place he wanted to be, but it did border the harbor. Maybe if he could cut through the area quickly enough, before Kashrak or something else caught wind of him, he could make a swim for it.
Chobu kept running.
Koan groaned. He hated the Shinomen. He'd always hated the Shinomen. Some people thought it was pretty, majestic, and mysterious, but not Koan. It had been hate at first sight ever since his earliest visit. Every time he came here, he was devoured by tiny, biting insects. Every time he tried to find his way somewhere, he would inevitably get lost. And always, without fail, he would fall into some foul-smelling puddle of muck and ruin the rest of his weekend trying to get the odor out of his clothes.
As the elderly monk sat at the edge of a forest pond and rinsed out his filth-encrusted hakama he tried to push his thoughts toward more positive things. If he could find the Naga, everything would be all right again. If he could find the Naga, he could awaken them, put them on the right trail to the Day of Thunder, and go home. And maybe... just maybe... he could talk Hoshi Jack into using some of the infinite power of Jigoku to burn this forsaken forest off the face of the planet forever.
Deep down Koan wasn't a bad person. Not really. He just didn't like the wilderness.
The old monk held up his stained hakama for inspection and sighed deeply. The odd moss he'd slid in had put a deep orange stain right across the seat that simply didn't want to come out, no matter how hard he scrubbed. He'd never even seen a moss like that before, not in two thousand years. It seemed almost as if it was a species of plant bred specifically to burst, stain deeply, and ruin Koan's pants. Koan wouldn't put that sort of thing past the Shinomen. The forest really was a living thing, and it had a terrible sense of humor.
Koan sighed, gave up, and struggled back into his sopping wet trousers. He really didn't have any more time to dawdle over laundry; he was on a mission. Ignoring the damp, unpleasant feeling on his legs he tried to concentrate. The Akasha had to be focused around here somewhere. Probably in a pearl bed. The Naga were skilled at hiding such places of power from outsiders.
Of course, Koan wasn't exactly an outsider. He had been here before. During the Clan Wars, he had been one of Togashi Yokuni's emissaries to the Shinomen, sent to create good diplomatic relations with the Naga. In Koan's mind, the mission was further proof that Yokuni hated him and wanted him to suffer, for the Dragon Champion knew well how he felt about the forest.
"Well, it serves you right, Togashi-sama," Koan chuckled under his breath. "You may have wanted me to be miserable, but I paid attention during my last trip here. I still remember everything. There should be a central pearl bed right around this hill..."
Koan stopped, staring into a pool of black, stagnant water with a look of unmasked horror. If this was an Akasha pearl bed, then the Naga had certainly lowered their standards in the last few hundred years. The filthy water didn't look like it was capable of sustaining the life of parasitic microorganisms, much less a race of magical snake creatures. The smell made Koan want to gag. The entire pond was black, rotten, and very dead.
"Damn," Koan mumbled under his breath. "This is Kashrak's fault, I know. Him and his damned Akasha's Wound. He went and killed all of the Naga, I just know it. It's just like him. Always overdoing things."
Koan sat down at the edge of the pond, resting his chin on one hand. If the Naga were dead, then what was he going to do? How was he going to betray Hoshi Jack subtly enough for the Day of Thunder to happen as planned, while still making sure that he didn't get caught? His entire plan was falling apart.
This was just his luck.
Koan uttered a bitter curse, picked up a heavy rock, and hurled it into the festering pond. It hit the surface with an oddly clear splash. Bright silver ripples flickered surrounding the point of impact. The water seemed to waver for a moment, and the ripples quickly vanished. The pond was dark, black, and stagnant once more.
"Wait a second..." Koan said standing up whip-cord straight as he took a better look at the pond. "That's not..."
He took a step toward the water, dipping one toe in carefully. The surface didn't ripple, though he felt the damp chill. He drew out his foot and looked at the sandal. There wasn't one bit of mud or filth on it that hadn't been there before. In fact, clear water dripped off of the toe.
Koan quickly got down on all fours and cupped one hand, dipping it into the stagnant pond. The surface seemed to break for a moment in silver ripples again. He drew out a hand of crystal clear water.
"It's an illusion," Koan whispered.
He quickly sipped the water from his hands. It was fresh, clean, and clear. "It's an illusion!" he laughed out loud. "It's all an illusion! The pearl bed is still here!"
He felt a sharp poke in his back, and quickly turned around. The wide smile faded from his face. A tall, reptilian creature with scaly black skin and wide, pale eyes hovered in the bushes just yards away, holding a long spear trained on Koan's chest.
"Leave this place," the Naga hissed, his voice badly garbled by webs of skin that stretched between his upper and lower jaw. "Leave and do not return. Your kind does not belong here."
"Ah," Koan said brightly, rising and bowing to the creature. "I assume you are one of the proud Naga?"
"What do you think, huu-man?" the creature hissed, narrowing its milky eyes. "I am the Quezar, guardian of this pearl bed."
"I did not think there were any Naga still awake," Koan said, trying to keep his voice mild and not startle the creature. It wouldn't kill him, of course, but it would definitely hurt and that would be very, very annoying.
"The disease does not kill me as it has killed the others," the Quezar replied. "Though it has turned me into this." The creature rose from the bushes. Its bare upper torso was covered with bony grey spikes, jutting directly through the skin. The tip of each one gleamed a bright red.
"Is that your blood?" Koan asked, leaning closer to get a good look at the twisted spikes.
The creature shook its spear at him. "They are poison," the Naga replied. "Remain any longer, and I will give you a demonstration. You are not welcome here, huu-man! Begone."
"Not welcome?" Koan asked, grinning again. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. I've come with some very important news, my friend. News about the disease that tears your people apart, the disease that has given you your interesting skin condition."
The Naga chuckled darkly. "Ah, I suppose you have come with a cure, eh? You would only be the fourth huu-man in the last century to claim such a thing. I do not take kindly to liars, and it has been a long time since last I hunted. Be as smart as the last liar, and run now. Perhaps I will not follow."
"A cure?" Koan replied. "I would not be so obtuse as to think I could succeed where an entire race has failed. No, I do not know the cure. I have no idea how to help your people restore themselves. None whatsoever."
"Then what in the name of Qatol are you jabbering about?" the Quezar roared, poking Koan in the ribs with his weapon.
"Revenge," Koan said, ignoring the wound. "I do not know how to make your people better, but I know where the Champion of the Foul makes his plans. I have seen him. I have heard him. Even now, the armies of the Foul prepare to rise up again and smite the whole earth. Now, as I see it, your people have two choices. You can either lay here in your dirty old ponds, dream away about the way things used to be, and die pathetically with the rest of us huu-mans... Or..."
"Or what?" the Quezar replied.
"Or you can die with the skin of your enemy's throat in your jaws," Koan replied. "You can raise your spear against the Foul instead of shaking it at harmless old men. You can die as Naga."
"Why should I believe you?" the Quezar asked. "Who are you?"
"I am Koan, servant of Hoshi Jack, Harbinger of Jigoku," Koan answered. "I have come to deliver a challenge to your Qamar. The Day of Thunder comes. If you be brave enough, I dare you to come to Togashi Mountain and face us once more."
The Quezar looked befuddled. "I do not understand," he said. "If you serve Jigoku, why would you wish to raise the Naga? After all the trouble the Foul has done to render us helpless, why arouse us now?"
"Bah," Koan laughed. "I would not expect a brute warrior like yourself to understand. Go. Bring me your Qamar, your Dashmar. They will know me."
"They sleep," the Quezar replied simply.
"Then go into your pond and commune with their spirits," Koan sighed. He tried to make it seem as if he were quickly losing patience, though in reality he was growing quite excited. This was working out exactly as he had planned. "Tell them my message. I will wait for them here and deliver my challenge personally."
The Quezar looked at Koan for a long moment, then nodded. "All right," the Naga said. "If you are not here when I return, huu-man. I will find you."
"Of course," Koan replied.
The Quezar lay his spear on the banks and quickly dove into the water, disappearing beneath the surface with startling speed.
Koan waited a few moments, until he was sure the Quezar was gone, and ran.
He hadn't lied. He had met the Qamar and the Dashmar before. Of course, those meetings hadn't gone very well. Every Qamar and Dashmar since had held a strong, personal dislike for Koan. One particular Shahadet had taken the feud so far as to personally test out the limits of Koan's immortality. That had not been a pleasant decade. No, Koan's damage had been done. The message had been delivered. The Naga would awaken.
Now, he just had to get the back into the Way before they woke up and found him here.
Tsuruchi Shinden paced the halls of the little hospital, chewing himself up inside.
"Shinden, calm down," Ryosei said. "There's nothing we can do now but wait for Saigo and hope for the best."
"Calm down?" Shinden laughed. "I'll bet Hoshi Jack is calm. Laughing while his diseased monster tears the city apart!"
That was what he meant to say, at least. What Ryosei heard was "I am calm."
Shinden knew the truth. He had known ever since Hoshi Jack had placed that strange mask on his Emperor's face, but he could say nothing. Every time he tried to warn someone, the wrong words came out. That twisted monk had cursed him to be unable to share what he knew about the Emperor's fate. Shinden had sworn his life to protecting the Emperor. Jack had taken that away, but let him live. As far as the young Wasp was concerned, he was already dead. All that was left was to bury him.
The small hospital was, surprisingly, nearly empty. There were a few walking wounded stumbling about the halls, but not as many as Shinden would have thought. Medical personnel were also scarce, most of them having fled when the oni appeared. A few dedicated individuals stayed behind to help the wounded that staggered in or were carried by Shinjo officers. The oni sounded outside, much closer before. They would all be dead soon, just like Shinden.
"We'll find him, Shinden," Ryosei said. "I promise you. I wouldn't abandon my brother."
"I know you wouldn't, Princess," Shinden replied, and to his surprise it came out as he intended it to be heard.
Ryosei looked at him curiously, but before she could say anything the emergency room curtain opened and Saigo limped out. The elderly doctor who had bandaged his wounds didn't even stop to talk to them, but hurried off to help his next patient. Thick bandages and a splint covered the lower half of Saigo's right leg. He smiled at Ryosei through the pain. Shinden nodded at Saigo, and the prophet returned the Wasp's greeting with a curious stare.
"Saigo, how are you?" Ryosei said.
"Later for that," Shinden said quickly. "Use your powers, prophet. Tell me where I can find the Emperor."
"It doesn't work that way, Wasp," Saigo said. "The visions come when they want to, not when I want them to. Besides, I'm not going any further with you."
"What?" Shinden sneered. "What are you talking about?"
"There's something wrong with you," Saigo replied. "Almost like the tetsukansen, but different. You're not in control of yourself. I didn't have time to argue about it in the Palace, but now that we're free I think you should go your own way."
"Saigo, are you serious?" Ryosei asked, standing up and looking at Shinden fearfully. "Is he implanted?"
"I don't think so," Saigo said, "but he's not himself. Deny it if you want, Wasp, but I think you know what I'm talking about."
"Yes, I do know!" Shinden tried to say. Instead, the words were "I have no idea what you mean."
Saigo looked puzzled. "What did you say just now?" he said. "It sounded garbled."
"I said that I'm the Captain of the Imperial Guard!" Shinden tried again, avoiding anything that could possibly trigger the curse. "The Emperor is my responsibility, and so is the Princess! I'm not going to abandon them both to the whims of some Phoenix, no matter who or what he claims to be. Princess, surely you don't believe this lunatic? You don't trust his word over mine?"
Ryosei looked at Saigo, then at Shinden. "I'm sorry, Shinden, but I do," she replied. "We've been through too much together. Saigo knows what he's talking about. I'm ordering you to stay here and protect the hospital."
"But the Emperor!" Shinden insisted.
"Would be better served if you remain here until Saigo can return and discover precisely what is wrong with you," Ryosei replied. "Shinden, I don't want to be your enemy. I've lost too many people that I thought were friends and allies already. You're an honorable man, Tsuruchi-san. Will you promise me that you will remain here?"
Shinden shook his head, prepared to deny her request, then he caught the look in the Phoenix's eyes. Saigo's gaze was cold, hard, and prepared. There was no doubt in Shinden's mind that if he resisted Ryosei's command any further, the Phoenix would kill him. Shinden wasn't sure that the Phoenix could do it, supposedly his magic was not very strong, but the Wasp was certain that the boy would try.
In his heart, Shinden realized that Saigo was the only one he could still depend on. He couldn't even depend upon himself.
"Keep her safe, Isawa," Shinden said to the prophet, his voice thick. "Bring our Emperor back alive."
"I will, Shinden," Saigo nodded, still watching him carefully. "Do as your Princess commands, yes? I think I might be able to help you, later, when we have time."
Shinden nodded, afraid that anything he could say would be perverted by Hoshi Jack's curse.
"Are you ready?" Ryosei said to Saigo. The prophet nodded, and the two of them headed for the doors of the hospital, back out into the deadly city.
Shinden wished for all his soul that he could join them, but he knew it was better for them both that he did not.
Kamiko was free for the first time in a long time. She crouched in the shadows of a dark alley across the street from the Dojicorp building, and no one seemed to notice or care that she had escaped. She saw dozens of other Cranes, soldiers, shugenja, and executives both fleeing into and out of Dojicorp, scrambling about fearfully in the shadow of the oni. She turned to leave, to find her own way out of here. There had to be some way out of the city.
Without really knowing why, Doji Kamiko stopped. She looked back over one shoulder, at her fleeing kinsmen. They were frantic, confused. Without Doji Meda, without Munashi, they had no one left to lead them.
A Daidoji guardsman was hurrying past nearby, carrying a wailing child in his arms. Kamiko stepped out of the shadows and seized him by one arm.
"Get out of my way!" he shouted. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw who she was. "Doji-sama? What are you doing here?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing," she replied. "What are the Crane doing?"
"The Crane?" the man replied, glancing back at the building. "I don't know, but I'm taking my daughter and getting out of the city!"
"What?" Kamiko replied. "Dojicorp hasn't organized any sort of evacuation, any counterattack, nothing?"
"I haven't heard a thing!" the man shouted, glancing around desperately. "No one's heard anything from Munashi-sama in hours! Everything is falling apart! We're all going to die!"
Kamiko slapped him. The child stopped crying.
"Doji-sama?" the man glanced down at the smaller woman, surprised.
"You're not going to die, Daidoji-san," she said calmly. "Munashi is gone. I'm in charge now. Your daughter will be fine, but you have to listen to me. We need to organize, and get people to stop panicking. We're Cranes, damn it, not a bunch of scared rabbits."
"What will we do, Doji-sama?" the Daidoji replied, suddenly lucid. His eyes were fixed up on her, ready to act on her command.
"Hide your daughter in the sub-basements," she replied. "Then organize as much of the security staff as you can find. Start rounding up non-combat personnel and hide them in the basements as well. Even if the oni knocks our building over, we'll be safe down there for a while. Also, find my cousin, Kamoto, and tell him to meet me in the lobby. He'll know exactly what sort of resources we still have left."
"And then what do we do, Doji-sama?" the soldier asked.
A sudden mechanical hum sounded above them. Kamiko and the soldier looked up as a formation of golden helicopters passed by overhead. A few moments later, it was followed by a trio of gunmetal grey hovercraft.
"That looks like a counterattack to me," she said. "Round up whatever vehicles we have remaining. We'll go rendezvous with those Lion and Crab and figure out what to do next."
"Yes, Doji-sama!" the man replied sharply. He turned back toward the building, then stopped, glancing back over one shoulder. "Doji-sama?" he said.
"Yes?" she replied.
"It is good to have you back, Doji-sama," the man said with a nod of his head. "I am sorry that I was afraid."
"Don't be sorry, just do something about it," Kamiko replied. "The Crane built this city. I'm not about to watch it be destroyed and do nothing."
The man nodded again. "Hai," he answered, and vanished into the building.
Kamiko busied herself trying to stop every Crane she saw rushing into and out of the building. Some stopped and listened to her words. Some hurried on and ignored her as if Fu Leng himself were on their heels. She wondered if those weren't the wiser ones, and if there really was anything left that she could do.
A small helicopter touched down on the deserted highway at the edge of the city. It was painted in colors of red and gold. A brilliant company logo on the side read "Sato Systems." The side door of the helicopter opened and a young woman in a long black coat stepped out into the wind kicked up by the blades. She looked upon the wreckage that had become the city of Otosan Uchi with a heavy heart. The city had not been her true home, but it has been as close to one as she could remember. She turned back toward the helicopter, her long black hair spread out on the high winds.
"Zin, are you sure about this?" Shiba Sato asked. The old man's face was concerned. He looked past her, at the dying city. "I've never seen anything like this, and believe me that's saying something."
"I have to go," she said. "It's far past the time I faced him. I might have been able to stop this. Maybe I still can."
"Do you want any help?" Shiba Jo offered. The yojimbo began to exit the helicopter, rifle at the ready, but Zin stopped him with a gesture.
"No, thank you," Zin said. "I have to face the Kashrak by myself. It's the only way."
"People who talk like they know their own destiny end up getting themselves killed, girl," Sato said bluntly. "You should let us help you."
"I can't," she said. "I know he would face me. If I came with others, he would kill us all. Besides, Sumi will need you. Kenyu will need you. I don't need your help any longer. Either I'll succeed or I won't."
Jo nodded, sitting back against the side of the helicopter. "I guess this is good-bye, then?" he said sadly.
"I suppose it is," Zin nodded. "I thank you both for your help. I would not have made it this far without you. Tell Sumi that I said thank you as well. I know that you will save her."
"Tell her yourself, when you see her," Sato said with a smirk. "And stay alive. We'll see you around, Zin."
"I hope you are right," Zin said with a slight smile. She waved to the two of them and started off down the highway.
Shiba Jo watched her for a few moments, then returned to the helicopter. The small vehicle hovered off into the premature night. Zin continued alone. She could feel her destination. She could feel him waiting for her, pulling the strings of the Akasha until their next and final confrontation.
The Kashrak was waiting for her in Downtown.
The Emperor of Rokugan staggered down the streets, clutching his head in pain. Every time the oni screamed, the mask seemed to dig deeper into his skull. Every time it said that strange word, it seemed like the evil shoved itself a little deeper into his heart.
Was that bad? It seemed like that should be bad for some reason.
And what was that word it kept saying? Was that a word that should mean something to him?
He could remember when he had free will. It seemed like that must have been a good thing, but now he couldn't remember why. Everything seemed so much easier when all you had to do was go through the motions. He staggered onward, wondering where he would end up next.
A few blocks away, the large creature roared that strange word again. It reminded the Emperor of something. Oh, yes. It was his name. At least it used to be. Maybe it would be again. It really didn't matter. He'd lost his name before, right? Once, he had just been Kameru. Then his father had died and his name was taken away. He had lost two names in a rather short amount of time; he had hardly even had a chance to get used to the new one. The Emperor was halfway tempted to go over there and take his new name back. Maybe he would give that thing a piece of his mind while he was at it.
The Emperor blinked, eyelids scraping over tearless eyes. He dimly realized that the creature already had a piece of his mind. A piece of his soul, at any rate. He could feel it now, pulsating softly deep within the oni's body, right where the prophet had left it when they carried him away.
The oni had Yashin.
"Well," the Emperor said. His voice was strangely metallic, sounding only vaguely like the man he once was. "I must go and get that back."
The Emperor of Rokugan staggered onward through the streets, toward the oni that had taken his name and his sword.