A STORY OF THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
BY SETH MASON
Some days, you can't win.
Seppun Kikaze stared up in mute shock as Shinjo Tower was shaken again by the impossible oni. Dust had rolled up and covered the city when the top half of the Unicorn building had smashed into the streets below. Kikaze hadn't moved as the ash and stone dust blew into his face.
After spending days helping the citizens recover from the riots, he was feeling pretty good about himself. Kikaze had opened his sizable bank accounts to restore hope where the Shinjo and Mantis could not reach. The balding Seppun had really thought he was beginning to be the hero his ancestor demanded of him.
As the beast shook the city with its cry again, someone nearly knocked him over, running for her life. The brown overcoat Kikaze had taken to wearing fluttered back on the impact, and the swords of his grandfather shone in the faint street lights.
He would have begged his ancestor for guidance. Seppun Kasuno, savior of the Imperial families when they were cast out by Yoritomo I. He had gotten Kikaze into the thicker parts of this mess that had engulfed Otosan Uchi. And now, he was gone. Moments before the oni had risen up among the skyline of the capitol city, Kasuno's ghostly eyes grew wide with terror, and a high keening scream had filled Kikaze's ears. The noise did not come from his ancestor, but seeming from all around him, as if a million spirits cried out in terror.
When the noise stopped, Kasuno's ghost was gone, and Kikaze felt utterly alone.
In a daze, he slowly walked deeper into the chaos Oni no Yoritomo was creating. His mind seemed disconnected from his body as he passed people screaming for their lives. Kikaze looked about in a way someone would take in a museum exhibit. A sheer clarity flashed in his mind then, and without thought, he reached for the long sword at his side. Cries of pain and terror flooded his ears as the stupor slowly wore off.
Otosan Uchi needed heroes. the city was dying. His ancestor's spirit had chosen him to be a savior of the Empire, as did thousands of Seppun before him. Kikaze pulled his katana, and the steel sang out against the sounds of the city in defiance.
Maybe his life could finally matter.
Hiriko slammed her fists into the steering wheel in useless fury. "Start, damn it, start!" she screamed, the words forming together in her desperation. The older woman had been tending her shift at the gas station when her desk had shook. Hiriko had looked up from her reading to see that not only had the little change jar been knocked off the desk, but chips and drinks were scattered all over the floor. Whatever had just happened jarred the whole building.
As sirens and alarms began to wail quickly, she had realized that something had shaken the entire city block, at the least. Another earthquake, Hiriko had thought, tossing down the magazine quickly and making her way to shut off the gas pumps. A moment later, her limp, numb hand fell away from the switches when she had caught a glimpse of a gigantic Imperial mon outside her door.
The mon from a tower on the Diamond Palace.
At first, she had thought the Senpet attacked again, and bombed the hell out of the Palace. When the mon, which was attached to a piece of rubble that looked curiously like a long insectoid leg, moved, then raised into the air with the clump it was attached to, she looked up.
Hiriko could remember nothing of how she got to her car in the parking lot, all she could hear was the roaring of the gigantic beast only half a block away, and slowly stomping her direction. People had flooded the streets in panic, and she was oddly not surprised further to see nightmarish creatures running and slithering their way after them. Hell had broken open in Otosan Uchi finally, Hiriko realized with an odd flash of insight. The signs of the end had all been there, and no one seemed to care until now. And now it was too late.
She felt herself giving up finally as the oni's leg raised high near her, and would plainly come to rest on the lot of the gas station. Hiriko had been robotically jamming the gas and ignition all this time, and she suddenly realized the noise from the car was not the engine trying to start, but the sound of active spark plugs being overworked. Her car had started.
The aging woman slammed on her gas, speeding away just as Yoritomo's foot came down on her store. Within the space of half a second, two clear thoughts flashed through her mind - First, she would have to leave the city now. And second, as flames roared and exploded out from the wreckage of the gas station, engulfing her car...
Maybe she should have switched the pumps off.
Another building fell to the oni's rage, and Oni no Yoritomo cried out its name once more into the nightmare that Otosan Uchi had become again. Asako Sano stood upon another tower nearby, watching the beast's rampage for a moment, feeling the heat from the city, and hearing the oni bellow its name. A part of Sano felt the call, the name sounding like a sweet geisha's music in his ears.
Sano remembered times long past, and as he let his gaze fall from the oni to the rest of the city, he could see things how they were two hundred years ago. Three hundred. A thousand years. Yoritomo's fury caused an explosion where Togashi and the Seven Thunders once walked to meet their destiny. The streets a small family fled down was the same place where Toturi Shimoto rode to the Forbidden City to claim the throne his father had left empty with an early and mysterious death.
He could feel a familiar presence drawing near him as he let his mind wander calmly in the midst of the chaos, until finally a dark and tall woman stood behind him silently.
Selena Totec, until recently the Oracle of Fire, waited patiently. As best, Sano was a complicated man, and she had learned long ago when the time for silence with her old lover was best. The gaijin woman knew that he was seeing things long passed into dust and history, most likely reliving failures all others had forgotten by now.
"You have to leave, Selena." Sano finally spoke. His voice was low and raspy.
Selena's eyes narrowed in dark humor, "I would have, if some odd light and sound didn't call me to come meet you here." Her ears picked up Sano's breathing finally, a bare movement of struggling air. "Are you dying?" she whispered.
Beneath the tattered hood, sickly glowing eyes turned to regard the gaijin woman. "Rokugan is dying," Sano replied. "Little else matters now."
She recognized the Taint, and did her best to suppress a shudder and gasp. The Phoenix looked almost completely taken by it, only the quiet remorse in Sano's eyes told Selena that his mind was still his own. "What is that thing, Sano? What happened to you?"
"If the soul was to be likened to steel, then that," Sano pointed a black-skinned finger at the gigantic oni, "is the forge. Against it, the weak will bend, and heroes will be made in time for the judgment of Yoma and Jigoku."
"For the judgment..." Selena whispered back, not understanding. "But... this isn't the Day of Thunder your people talk about?"
"No," Sano laughed lightly, "this is just another day in Otosan Uchi."
The former Oracle of Fire smiled to herself, seeing some of the eternally young man she fell in love with back in Sano's eyes. Her face grew serious as Yoritomo plunged his claw into another building, and tremors shook the city. "I want to help, Sano. You said you picked me because I was worthy to bear the burden of an Oracle. Now, you tell me to run when hell has opened wide into this city?"
"I didn't say to run," Sano replied, his face receding back into his hood. The Phoenix lifted slowly from the rooftop and he turned to regard the beast fully. "I said you must leave the city," he said, and pointed again toward Yoritomo. "You have to go that way."
Selena's eyes grew wide, knowing what came next. "No!" she nearly shouted, "You can't fight that thing, Sano. Look at it! I don't care how long you've been around - it will kill you, damn it."
The immortal wanted to tell her it wouldn't, to reassure her, but he couldn't. He honestly didn't know what the oni was capable of, nor did he know how long it would be before the Taint finally turned him against the Empire. That was why he had to go.
He wanted to say all this, but all he could manage was to softly whisper, "I always loved you, Selena," before flying off into the night sky.
"DAMN YOU!" she screamed at him, knowing she would never see him again. "Damn you..." she repeated softly, falling to her knees in anger and confusion.
"I love you," she finally whispered.
Another tower in Otosan Uchi fell to the ground, ending countless lives.
Again, the oni trembled the city, bellowing, "YORITOMO!"
And like a small candle in the darkness, Sano roared back his challenge into the night.
Please, don't let them find my child.
Shinji ran, holding the baby to his chest, as the prayer repeated in his head.
Not far behind him, chittering and screaming, the things followed. His wife, Jennifer, had already been overrun and killed by the monsters, whatever they were. They looked like bakemono, he had called them goblins to Jennifer before she died, but not the stupid little imps from stories and cartoons. They had teeth, and blazing eyes, and claws... Fortunes, the claws. They tore through steel almost as easily as they tore through her flesh...
Please, don't let them find my child.
They were toying with him now, he knew. Brandon, Jennifer insisted on naming the baby after her father, began to cry softly as they ran, his wise eyes shutting in fear and frustration. Shinji wondered what it was like to go through something like this as a child. As he ran down the apartment hallways and took a quick left, he remembered a study about how babies and small children still had a strong connection to the kami. Perhaps Brandon could feel the taint seething off of the things that chased them now.
The stairway. Oh, Fortunes, it was the stairway. The little demons had let him get too far ahead of them while playing their little cat and mouse game, and they wouldn't be able to catch him before he got on the other side of the stairwell door. Shinji threw open the door with his free hand, and the slamming noise made Brandon yelp and cry harder now. "Don't worry, Bran," he cooed to the baby, "Daddy's gotten us out, we'll be on the street soon..."
It then occurred to him what the streets could be like. When Shinji had married Jennifer, his mother's adherence to the 'old ways' forced her to demand Shinji cast out of the family. Shinji's father, Doji Kuno, could not bring himself to stand up for his son, but he quietly sent them money every month, allowing the family to live in better than average housing. If bakemono were swarming a high rise in an affluent section of Otosan Uchi, there could possibly be nowhere to go now. The floors had been shaking as if tremors had come, but there had been no prediction from the holy men.. and they were far too strong and regular to be natural.
Three flights of stairs away from the ground floor, Shinji heard the door he escaped through being forced open and flung, clattering, to the ground.
Please, he heard himself begging the Fortunes again, don't let them find my child.
Shinji rounded the final curve of the stairs. If he could make it to the car, if he could outrun the bakemono, if he could get out of the city, if he could make it to his father's estates down the coast, he would thank the Fortunes forever and sing their praise.
Just as he reached for the doorknob, Shinji heard a groaning of wood, and the door flew inward, striking him on the forehead. The young man staggered to the ground, landing on his back and holding onto Brandon as safely as he could. The room was spinning, and an odd, spotted light took half of Shinji's vision up. What was left of his rational mind knew he had a concussion, his forehead was bleeding, and he would pass out very soon.
On the other side of the doorway, a group of goblins leered as they took a few steps forward, snorting under their breath. Several flights up, mad chittering and tiny feet could be heard coming. Brandon had stopped crying, and Shinji didn't know if the door had struck the child as well, or perhaps his son had somehow realized how hopeless the situation had become.
Maybe the Fortunes had abandoned Rokugan.
The sniper breathed evenly. His military training had taken over awhile ago, and if it weren't for the gaijin at his side, what he had been doing for the past few hours would have been easily described in military terms and tactics. Civilian hostages taken and recovered, targets evaded and terminated, and other objectives. The Scorpion let his empty clip fall to the ground - he didn't hear it clatter due to the screaming and sirens and other sounds that had engulfed the city - and reached into his belt for another.
"Shiro," the gaijin said calmly, as if they were sitting across each other in a tea house. His Phoenix red kimono was hardly rustled, and Calin's pale face showed no sign of excitement. They were both leaning against the out wall of a brick building somewhere near Downtown, using the corner as cover from hurled objects and other, less mundane, projectiles.
Demons were in Otosan Uchi, tearing a swath of carnage through everything. Shiro realized he probably wasn't going to survive the night, and it was very possible that the Empire would be destroyed from the inside out within days.
"Shiro," Calin repeated.
The clip slid smoothly into place with a snap the Scorpion felt more than he heard, and he turned his head to regard the street. "What?" he answered quickly.
"Are you hungry?"
There was a quick pause, and Shiro rumbled, "Yes," before spinning around the corner of the building, and firing into the madness he saw before him. A city street hemmed on either side by ruined building faces. Bakemono scurried to rush him, now that he had revealed himself. Stupid creatures, Shiro thought as his rifle rang out above the noise five times within two seconds. Five dead goblins. Five hundred or so left, and the three oni. He kept strafing, never standing still, and trained his rifle on the lead oni's eye. A Ugulu, he believed. Three shots rang out... the oni didn't seem to care much.
Behind him, Shiro felt Calin's body literally fly past about five feet off the ground. "The goblins, Shiro. Handle them." The gaijin said evenly, flying just a little higher, but staying in lateral motion. Many of the little ones seemed surprised by Calin's flight, and after a second of surprise, a barrage of litter flew into the air after him. Before the bakemono remembered Shiro was there, he had already fired into the throats of six of them, and found shelter kneeling behind a mail pickup box.
Calin looked back down on the scene just in time to see one of the demons leap into the air after him. Four arms, two wings, and a bit too many claws and teeth. The gaijin hurled lightning from his hands into the goblins, which arced around those too close together. Dodging to the side of the oni's charge, Calin realized he could not move too far from Shiro, or they would both be overwhelmed in turn.
On the ground, the Scorpion had resorted to running and firing half-blindly behind him as the goblins gave chase while the two oni stood their ground and bellowed, urging the bakemono forward. At least these were no longer raiding the buildings and killing civilians, he thought. He needed some way to stay ahead of the monsters, but not so far that they lost interest in the chase. Something large flew by Shiro's head, missing him by inches.
"Time to go," he muttered to himself, pulling out one of his sidearms. Shiro fired once, shattering the driver's side window of a nearby black compact car, and quickly completed his forced entry into the vehicle. He tossed the sniper rifle to the side, letting it rest in the passenger seat, and pulled a few tools out of his belt to force the ignition.
Above the street, Calin caught one of the oni's fists in his own as the thing hissed happily. It seemed to be enjoying the chase and fight. Calin wrapped his free hand in summoned flame and lunged for the thing's throat. The oni laughed loudly, grappling the man's attack with two free hands, and then striking him solidly across the face with his fourth. "DESKATU ATAM PERCABA, GAIJEEN." It hissed at Calin.
"Emkinna Sanru pabra," Calin growled back, arcing his torso backward and forcing both knees into the demon's stomach. The oni let go of Calin as it was stunned and nearly fell to the ground.
Calin really had no idea how to speak the same language as the oni, but a magic he learned when he was young allowed him to speak so that anyone could understand, and also know what was being said to him, no matter what dialect.
And he didn't appreciate round-eye jokes.
When he had tried to say, "You," it had come out "Sanru." Oni no Sanru, then, was this thing that had regained its balance and was now howling in a high pitch as it charged him again. Calin quickly looked down to take stock of Shiro's situation. Goblins were launched both to the side and into the air as a small black car plowed through them, and Calin could see Shiro's arm hanging out the driver's side window, firing a small gun into the crowd of monsters. The things were trying to overrun Shiro's charge, but they were so small it was failing miserably. Chances were that the small car would fall apart due to the tiny bodies impacting it before it would lose speed.
Calin's attention returned to himself as he dove to avoid the oni's attack. Below him, he saw another of the oni - Calin cursed himself for forgetting the other two demons - step into the street. Right in Shiro's path. "Shiro!" he yelled, although he knew the Scorpion would not hear him over the noise in the city and this very street. Nor would he see his impending doom, as the goblins mobbed his path and windshield.
The wind rushed behind the gaijin and he knew the Sanru oni was making another charge at him. Calin turned in mid air, flew up and to the side, and let lightning fly from his hands. The bolts struck the oni on its left wing, tearing the thin membrane to shreds. The oni screamed and plummeted, letting Calin direct his attention to the carnage below.
The sound of tires squealing filled the air as Shiro saw the hulking oni far too late. The thing never flinched as the car came hurtling toward it, while the Scorpion sniper fired uselessly at its legs. Just before the car would have impacted, the oni swung a gigantic fist over its head and down into the engine of the car. The vehicle was immediately stopped.
And Shiro, not having the time to have put on his seat belt, was thrown through the windshield and into the street with the noise of bones and flesh being torn.
Two cuts. A quick stab with a wakizashi, and a step to the left. Three goblins feel, squealing and clutching at open wounds as they fell before him. Seppun Kikaze attacked like a whirlwind, felling the bakemono with every movement of his wrists, and always managing to stay just outside their reach. He heard a baby wailing over the sound of the little demons chittering and screaming at him. Too many, he realized, even as one more leapt at him only to fall out of the air missing its head.
Kikaze was still wondering, somewhere in the back of his mind, where he learned to use one sword, much less two. He never hesitated, however, and masterfully stepped to the side, and the back, then to the side again, to draw the goblins away from the child that still cried louder than anything he had ever heard. The apartment complex lobby was huge - it was a Crane building after all - so there was plenty of room to move away from the stairwell doorway. The Seppun man spun again, swinging out with both blades, and a goblin fell cleaved in half, and the other died on the end of his shorter blade.
It was then Kikaze realized all of the goblins were dead. He just didn't understand it. What had happened to him? He felt half-possessed, but he knew everything he did was somewhat under his control. There would be other days to figure those things out, however. Hopefully.
Stepping over the fallen bakemono, Kikaze made his way to the screaming child, who seemed to grow quieter as he approached. Finally, he found himself kneeling over the corpse of a man who had seemed to try and shield the child with his own body. The man was torn in pieces, and one of his legs was... not accounted for. Whoever this one was, he had bought Kikaze enough time to save the child it seemed. Kikaze's hands pushed the bloody corpse away, and gently lifted the child up. The boy had dark hair, but fair skin. Underneath stains of blood and sweat, the child was actually smiling at him, and the middle-aged Seppun couldn't help but laugh lightly in response. It was then he saw the child's oddly large eyes... oddly blue and large. So the fair skin didn't just come from Crane heritage, then.
Something in the child's eyes made Kikaze think a moment. He had just saved this baby. Though he had spent all his time during the last riot fighting and killing Locusts, he never actually knew if he saved a single soul with any of his actions. And now, after wading through tainted corpses, he held a small life in his hands... and something seemed right.
He had to save the city, not just destroy its enemies. The swords at his side - he didn't even realize he had put them back in the saya - seemed to hum and warm for a moment. He would have to save them, not all of them, but as many as he could. And he knew how. Somewhere, the ancestor spirit had told him, there were others. The Seppun family had hidden members ready to give their lives to defend the Emperor, but they had failed, and now one Emperor was dead, and quite possibly the new one as well.
Kikaze rose to his feet, holding the baby in his left arm. He would have to find them, and soon. Somehow, he knew the future of the Empire did not just rest on the great and powerful forces at war right now. If he failed, everything could be lost, just as a single missing beam could bring a great house crashing down.
Bayushi Chiri would have been a powerful man in the past. As the most trusted military counselor in the Scorpion Clan, those both within his family and without had come to kneel before him seeking wisdom. In the days when war was an improper gesture or word away, men like he could be more valuable than the favor of an Emperor. But for most of his lifetime, his wisdom was shared with young gunso who ended their own budding career with their brash ambition.
When the Diamond Emperor had made his ultimatum to the world, Chiri had wondered if his time had finally come. Unlike many Scorpions, he was a deeply spiritual man, and truly believed that the Fortunes had something great for his destiny. He watched quietly, however, as Bayushi Shiriko took command of the Clan, and ignored him. He never knew the daughter of Bayushi Dairyu personally, but never had any reason to think she would be a capable military leader.
She had, of course, proved him wrong. Her bright future as a great leader of the Scorpion, however, was cut short, and again Chiri wondered what his place in all this was going to be. It then occurred to him that he should perhaps stop wondering - and seize the station he knew was his. So for the past few days, Bayushi Chiri was practically the de facto Scorpion Champion, though he had little contact with anyone in Otosan Uchi. Shiriko's weak uncle had tried to retake the title of Bayushi Daimyo, proclaiming himself the rightful leader of the Clan. Chiri knew the Fortunes meant for him to lead, and not the pathetic man who had led while Dairyu's daughter grew to the rightful age. Though powerful, nothing could have saved him from Chiri's will, and soon, Bayushi Chiri had no opposition in the Clan to lead.
Under the aging man's orders, the Scorpion had recovered from the incident at the Great Seal, and left that in the care of the Crab and Phoenix Clans. With hardly anyone in the entire Empire noticing, Bayushi Chiri had managed to assemble what was possibly the largest standing strike force in Rokugan at this time. The other Clans were unaware or too scattered in leadership to compare to what he had under his control now.
And so he waited. An attack from outside the Diamond Empire's borders would arrive, and Chiri would be ready. His Clan would be heralded as saviors of the Empire, and Chiri's line would be honored as the new rulers of the Scorpion.
Now, as he stared blankly into air, he knew perhaps he had been wrong. "Hai, Taigo-sama." He said into the phone. "I had thought you had been killed in the fighting at Otosan Uchi."
Taigo narrowed his eyes as he heard the old man's simpering. "No, Chiri-san. I have been entrusted with the sword of the Scorpion Clan, and with the Clan itself," he said, not bothering to add he had been given the sword by a man thought dead for ten years. "You will rally as many soldiers as you think will be able to make it to the Emperor's City before daybreak, and you will lead them here, do you understand?"
On the other side of the cluttered tech lab, Shosuro Hendo listened to the protesting voice on the other end of the phone. The nearly blind old man chuckled to himself as he reached into one of the countless heaps of electronic hardware, and procured a small set of green wires. Hendo didn't even look down as his work as he used the small heated pen to work the wires onto the armor he was working on. "Kids," he muttered with an amused, raspy tone.
"You are either a fool or deeply ignorant, Chiri. Do you think it was under your order that the Scorpion forces began to gather?" Taigo's voice had gone from mild to stern, as if he were a disappointed sensei. "Those men near the Seal hardly know who you are, let alone why you should be telling them to do anything. They are, however, loyal Scorpions, and under my direction they have helped re-establish a network of authority and communication throughout the Clan." He paced around the room, almost tripping over the junk strewn everywhere.
There was a pause as Taigo let his words sink in. "Now, many of the Clan's samurai may not know of you, Chiri-san, but I do. I know you are an exceptional strategist and perhaps the finest military leader we have now. I also know what truly happened to Shiriko's uncle, and so I know you will act in the best interests of the Clan, even at your own risk." The ninja turned his eyes to the little old man working on his armor suit, and watched Hendo work as he continued, "I have told every commander I know to place themselves under your command. You will gather a small strike force as I have told you before, and the rest will assemble outside Otosan Uchi as quickly as possible, and prepare to head toward the mountains of the Dragon."
On the other end of the phone, Chiri paused as if to protest, then ended with a simple agreement and formal farewell.
"The Dragon mountains?" Hendo asked, raising a white eyebrow at Taigo. On the table before the old man, sparks flew as his hands worked in deft motions to weave the circuitry together. "What would you be doing there?"
The younger Scorpion smiled slightly at the remark. Hendo knew just as well as Taigo did that Bayushi Dairyu was alive, and had given him the orders. "My suit, Hendo-sama," he said, bowing slightly in respect. This man had been Dairyu's sensei for a long while, and was deserving of such honor. "How long until it is complete?"
"Impatient upstart," Hendo grumbled in mock-severity. "That depends on how much more you want me to do with it. Here," he slightly moved the pen along the bare circuitry just below the armor plating, "is where I have things completed. Here, here, and here," the pen moved only a tiny bit, but the old technician gestured with his free hand as if he were noting large differences, "is where there can be room for more. The Father's Suit was never meant to see true combat. Fortunately for you and young Dairyu, I designed it," the little man's eyes shone with mirth. "So there is almost no limit to the amount of change and upgrade that can happen to it."
Taigo suppressed a laugh at Hendo's comment of "Young Dairyu," the true Scorpion Champion was at least a middle-aged man by the world's standards. "I can make this very clear then, sama. Otosan Uchi is going down in flames, and the Empire will soon follow if I do not try to do something about it as soon as I can."
From one of the back storage rooms, one of the more brilliant tetsukami engineers known to the Empire returned, carrying unidentifiable pieces of wiring, weapons, circuit boards, and other things. "I think these will do, Hendo-sama," Soshi Isawa said, grimacing to himself beneath his mask. This lab is a disgrace, he wanted to say. But he found it very likely at this point, Bayushi Taigo would much rather cut off the shugenja's head than listen to any prattle. It was true he was a powerful and influential man, but there were times when even a Scorpion had to shut up and listen.
Still sitting, Hendo looked to Isawa, then to his own work, as if weighing something.
"One hour, Taigo-san. That is all we will need."