A STORY OF THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
BY SETH MASON
Asako Sano flexed his wrists, and then his fingers. He had been hanging in the same place for three days now, bound by some sort of vine, somewhere in Asahina Munashi's garden. Since his defeat, he had found it impossible to speak to the elements, the kami, or summon the slightest amount of magic. The fact he hadn't eaten or drank anything in those three days and was still alive, however, quelled any fear that Munashi had somehow stripped him of his immortality.
But his arms were still getting sore.
The ancient henshin looked around the garden, a deceptively beautiful place. Somewhere, birds chirped, and he could hear water flowing. Days ago, he would have reflexively felt their presence in the Void, or touched the water kami with his mind. Sano sighed as he found either impossible anymore. The trees lacked depth, the air seemed... less than before.
"Bored?" Came a voice from close behind him. Sano's eyes narrowed as he recognized the voice, and then the form of the man as he stepped out from the foliage.
"Koan." The Phoenix said flatly. "Shouldn't you be out violating the Order a little more?"
The other immortal shrugged and perched on top of a large rock near Sano's bindings. "I think it's rather odd, don't you?" Koan said, nodding to himself, as if agreeing with an observation Sano had just said.
Sano moved his arms around a little more, "Glad to see you're still insane. It's comforting somehow." He relaxed, and several moments of silence passed. "What's odd?" He finally said, taking the tone of a parent towards an annoying child.
"I always figured we'd die side by side, off on some odd quest for fate or something." Koan spoke, and his eyes got a hazy look, "In some foreign land." He chuckled, "Instead, we're in Rokugan, in a garden. No Dragons, gods, fortunes or anything."
"It's your fault," the Asako shrugged as he said, "If you hadn't decided to get in my way, Munashi would be dead, and we could go take a nice cruise somewhere and toy with fate this second." Sano cocked his head to the side, "Uh... Koan?"
The Dragon looked up at his onetime student. "Hai?"
"Why aren't I dead yet?"
"No idea," Koan said, hopping of the rock. He adjusted his kimono, "I could take care of that right now if it's really bothering you."
Sano just fixed him with a dark look.
"Thought so." Koan turned to leave, "I'll send Pekkle back with something to drink, I suppose."
Sano sighed and worked his shoulders a little more as the ise zumi walked off. No answers given, more questions raised.
Heichi Tetsugi looked into the monitor. It showed one of the rooms in the safehouse on the outskirts of Otosan Uchi that he had detained five Minor Clan Assembly members in. The soft glow of the screen was the only thing lighting the small chamber behind the Imperial Advisor's offices. Tetsugi pushed a button, and the tape rolled backwards until he let his finger up.
On the monitor was a scene from a day ago. Two of his most loyal yojimbo were escorting Hachi Goro, the Bee Champion, envoy of the Bee Clan "Queen", from the restroom back to his quarters.
"I have heard the Imperial Advisor's little coup failed," The man snarled in his high voice, "Tell your lord Tetsugi I will be there to spit upon his grave, if the honorless dog is given one."
Tetsugi pressed another button, and the screen returned to the picture of the present. The room was still, and Goro sat upon a comfortable futon, glaring out his window. Just as he had been for hours. He would destroy the Boar, given the slightest chance.
The man shook his head and walked out of the secret room, closing the wall-panel door behind him with a near-silent click. How did it happen? Tetsugi wondered to himself as he stood behind his desk, looking outward over the city. Lady Sun had set so long ago, and the darkness around Otosan Uchi seemed deeper from the night before. Tomorrow, the Diamond Empire would crown its new Emperor, Kameru would be called Yoritomo the Seventh. Yoritomo the Sixth was dead, which was the aim of Meda's plan, but something had gone wrong. Someone else killed Yoritomo, and something caused the Crane's attack to fail.
Thunder cracked, and a thought split Tetsugi's mind like a light through fog. It hadn't been Meda. The Crane Champion had been no fool, he would not have attacked so ruthlessly, so blindly. Tetsugi chided himself inwardly, for only now realizing it. There had been someone... something influencing Meda near the end. There were few people who Meda had trusted with his plans, however. But mostly, it had only been him and...
"Asahina Munashi, sir. Line one." His new secretary, a young Seppun woman he had ignored mostly, called over the intercom. Daiken had been removed from the desk, as it was now considered a breach of security to have a Crane so close to the Imperial Advisor. If only they knew...
"Thank you," Tetsugi replied into the com, and placed his hand on the phone. Munashi was now his prime suspect; at the very least, he was close enough to Meda during the time that he would know probably more than the Boar. If the shugenja had a hidden agenda, however, Tetsugi would have to take care not to give away his suspicions.
The Advisor picked up the phone, feeling the heavy weight of another lost soul placed upon his shoulders.
"... nothing like her father," an inhuman voice came nearby, above. Bayushi Shiriko realized she was waking up on a filthy stone floor, her head throbbing. She tasted a somewhat fresh wound in her mouth, but she couldn't remember how it got there. The Scorpion daimyo's head spun as she tried to prop herself up on her hands, but found her wrists chained close to the floor, allowing her only enough movement to try to sit up.
"Hrmph," The same voice, drawing a little closer now, "The fragile wakes up, finally."
Shiriko opened her eyes slowly, her throbbing head threatening to black out once again. Rough hands jerked her up by her arm, and the smell of rotted flesh assailed her nostrils. Waves of agony shot up her arms from the bindings, and she felt the rusted cuffs dig into her skin.
"Hello, cousin," the voice hissed into her ear.
She had been kidnapped. Shiriko's memories cleared up quickly, the mental focus training her father had given her came back, and soon, she was fully aware. "Ishak," she spat, turning her gaze upward to stare into the dead man's black eyes. "My men?" She asked, glancing around the dimly lit chamber. "What happened to them?"
"Dead," the Yogo said coolly, tossing Shiriko back to the floor, "To the last. It might comfort you to know that they were truly loyal Scorpion, refusing to let me take you," Ishak laughed a little. "While they were alive, anyway."
Shiriko quickly counted up the dead in her mind, and compared them to the among left guarding the Seal. How many men would Ishak need to destroy them all?
"None," came the Betrayer's voice, as he crouched to stare the young Scorpion Champion directly in the eye. "Your men are trained, but they are nothing to me. I destroyed your guard myself, Shiriko." Several moments of silence passed between them, as he stared at her, and Shiriko refused to back down. When he finally stood, out of boredom more than weak will, Shiriko closed her eyes, trying to ignore the depth of the darkness she looked into.
Akutenshi. The word flashed across Shiriko's mind like a forgotten memory. Something from her father's journal. A man named Karasu...
Ishak looked down at the Scorpion suddenly. "Clever girl." He walked to the edge of the light in the room, and Shiriko realized the illumination was provided by a very dim bulb from above. She was in the corner of a stone cell. "As much fun as this little family reunion has been, Shiriko, I need to know something before I kill you."
Cows. Trees. Soup bowls. Shiriko flooded her mind with random thoughts, knowing Ishak could read her thoughts. She made sure whatever he asked would not trigger a memory reflexively.
"Stop playing, girl!" he yelled, and waved his hand as if to slap her. Ten feet across the room, Shiriko felt the sting of something smacking across her face.
Blue flowers. Her first kimono. Pictures of Otosan-Uchi...
"Where are the Midi-Hidari guns!" Ishak bellowed.
Spring mornings. Cats....
"The what?" Shiriko asked, caught totally off guard.
Yogo Ishak's eyes narrowed at the Scorpion Daimyo. "The Midi-Hidari guns, child." He repeated, but he knew it was futile. "You don't know."
Shiriko paused, closing her eyes. She could know. It sounded familiar. But, if she didn't know about them, how important could it be?
"Scorpions keep secrets from Scorpions, dear Bayushi-chan." Ishak interrupted her thoughts out loud, "And only the most important secrets are kept from even you, it seems." The corrupt Yogo walked toward her thoughtfully, "I suppose you never really had the time to get settled into your position, to learn all these little things. I mean, stopping the Senpet invasion, then disgracing yourself in front of Emperor Yoritomo is quite a lot of work."
"You seem to know a lot, betrayer," Shiriko snickered, "and yet a pair of guns escape you." She smiled and looked up at the foul thing standing before her. "Fu Leng is running out of good help, it seems."
"Spare me," Ishak snorted, placing his rotted hands into his large black coat. "I've learned a lot of patience in the past dozen or so decades, girl. Simple insults are a waste of breath. Besides," his mouth twisted into a wicked grin, "they're rather weak coming from someone who has little room to call herself a Bayushi.. charging into war blind, like a Lion, shouting at the Emperor, like an obnoxious Crab." The akutenshi shook his head in pity, "Your father probably looks upon you with disgust from Jigoku."
Shiriko looked up at her captor, her eyes betraying no hint of any rage. She seemed suddenly more focused at the mere mention of Dairyu, her father. Inwardly, Ishak wondered if he had made a slight error. "The guns, child, are perhaps the most powerful set of modern weaponry in existence. Save, the Fire Dragon, of course." The Yogo opened his trench coat to show his torso. Shiriko winced, for in the center of his chest there was a four inch wide gaping hole circled by rotted flesh, revealing the other side of Ishak's coat. "Even with the most powerful maho at my command, one shot took the last bit of true life left within me."
"And you supposed I was going to give them to you?" Shiriko asked, turning her eyes from the grotesque image before her.
"No," Ishak said simply, drawing a long, stained knife from his coat. "I was hoping you'd put up a long fight."
Bayushi Dairyu was quite healthy, for a dead man.
As Bayushi Taigo, Dairyu's ex-enforcer, stepped onto the rooftop of the abandoned building, that thought crossed his mind, and he smirked to himself.
"I'm glad you came," Dairyu said as he stared out over Little Jigoku, his voice somewhat raspy underneath his black mask. He wore nothing but a simple black suit, and a long black trenchcoat. And his mask. It was a relic, for Dairyu had been one of the most loved and capable Champions of the Scorpion in known history. The face was smooth and black, totally covering the wearer from forehead to chin. On it, two red oni eyes were inlaid, and seemed to follow whoever was looking at it.
"I swore I would serve you to my death," Taigo said, bowing low to his lord. "I suppose that even meant if you happened to die and come back."
Dairyu chuckled a little, "Taigo, I have missed you. If we survive this, we will have to play Go again."
Taigo knew the former Scorpion Champion was a careful man. The very fact he was uncertain if they would come out of something alive unsettled him a bit. "Hai, Dairyu-sama. Your daughter has your talent for the game," he allowed himself a small smile as he said, "but I fear she may never attain your degree of skill."
"Perhaps," Dairyu nodded, almost to himself. "But that is for a different day." He turned and walked to his old friend, removing his mask. "You need this," he said, "just as the Clan needs you. And as the Clan needs Shiriko." Dairyu removed a fully black mask from his coat, and placed it over his scarred face. "Just as the Empire needs me."
"Where do you go now, sama?" Taigo asked, tucking the mask into his obi.
The older man turned his face towards the heart of the city. "To find Asako Sano. He calls to me, though he does not know it."
"Hai. I fear the worst. He is a brave man, for a Phoenix. He has seen much, but none of us truly know what we face. Perhaps Sano has discovered the truth."
Taigo was almost getting worried. Something that set Dairyu at ill-ease, and was able to lay low a thousand year old Phoenix spirit-walker... it was not something he wished to deal with, but knew he would, if Dairyu so commanded. "What would you have me do?" he asked.
"Find the Locust. Destroy them." Dairyu said simply, "I shall keep an eye on the young Oroki." With that, the man stepped over the ledge, and was gone.
Bayushi Taigo lifted the mask off his obi. He was now given the same command, by a different Champion. Before Bayushi Shiriko left for the lands of the Crab, she had commanded him to take care of the growing Locust threat. They both knew Oroki would not, his plots and games hardly intersected with true threats, and Oroki's father would never have the spine to do anything active. Now, as he placed the mask of Bayushi Dairyu in his obi, he knew the role of The Father was his to fulfill again.
Taigo stepped out onto the roof's edge, where the night sky of Otosan-Uchi greeted him, and he placed the black and red mask upon his face. Without a sound, The Father stepped into the air, and disappeared like smoke in the wind.
The Shadow had been contained. Supposedly. As Father's form went from each pool of Darkness, he knew it was a lie. He could feel the Lying Darkness on the edge of his senses. It dared to twist his reality, it tried to tempt him with immortality, with true mastery of the shadow. Lies. Though much of history had been forgotten since the Shadow War, the Scorpion never forgot that which was now their eternal enemy. The Darkness had betrayed and threatened to consume the Scorpion a thousand years ago. Somehow, they had prevailed then, and later, a way was found not only to contain the Darkness, but to harness it. The technique was still not perfect, and Taigo was one of three men alive who could walk in the Shadow with such ease. Others had failed, and were killed, lest they let the Darkness overwhelm them.
Several blocks down, a Scorpion man dressed fully in black waited. He lay on his stomach on a rooftop, nearly invisible, a long rifle in his hands. He had not moved for hours, save to scan the area below him. As the Scorpion movements to clean the last of the Senpet from Otosan-Uchi continued, Bayushi Shiro had maintained a steady watch over Little Jigoku since the attack was repelled.
"Near the old deli," came a whisper across his radio, through his earpiece. Silently, Shiro swiveled his gun down to the street, and peered through the tetsukami scope. The image in the device was illuminated as if it were full daylight, and a form could be seen emerging from an alleyway.
"Target acquired," Shiro replied into his mouthpiece, and raised the crosshairs to where the man's head would emerge. He saw the man's hands first, pale skin, red robes. Phoenix robes. The gaijin attempted to hide in the kimono of a Phoenix? Shiro pulled his finger on the trigger just as the man's face came into view.
"Fortunes!" the sniper cried, and twisted his rifle just in time to save the man's life.
In the street, Calin looked up, wounded and weary, as the brick wall beside him coughed up a small pocket of dust with a dull ping of air. Snipers. Sano had told him to be weary of them. No sense in running, Calin thought, and quietly summoned a protective shield of force around him. There was little a mere sniper would be able to do now, so Calin crouched and waited to see if his assailant would continue.
Minutes passed, and suddenly, Calin was aware he was being watched from behind. He spun, and the barrel of a rifle was held a foot from his face by a black-clothed sniper in full gear and mask.
"By the Thunders!" The gunman whispered, and lowered his weapon. With his free hand, the Rokugani removed his mask. "You're from the Isle of Man."
Calin nodded, comprehension dawning on him. He bowed low to the other man, and said, "You are the descendant of Bayushi Tashiro, are you not?"
Shiro nodded, hardly able to believe the man before him was real.
"In the name of the House of MacLir, rulers of the Isle of Man, I have come to secure an old debt from your ancestor to mine."
Sano tried whistling. Then he attempted to sing. It suddenly occurred to him that since he was immortal to the weapons of man, Asahina Munashi was planning to bore him to death.
He could hear the foliage rusting, and knew a small group approached him. Within minutes, Munashi, Togashi Koan, and several Oni no Pekkle came into view.
Munashi smiled, and bowed in mock formality. "Please excuse my rudeness. I've simply been far too busy to be a proper host."
"Planning the end of an Empire is truly busy work," Sano said, casting his eyes off to the side, "I'm sure there was little you could do to hurry." It almost made him want to laugh. He was making small talk with two of the most powerful evil entities in the Empire.
"Well, yes, but I was thinking of you," Munashi said, reaching into his obi, and pulling a small pouch out. "Koan told me you were a little anxious to die, so I thought I'd take care of that for you."
Sano tensed. Where he usually would be confident no maho could ever touch him, now he was a little less than sure. Munashi had been resourceful enough to strip his connection to the kami, perhaps he had found a way around his other defenses.
Munashi then reached for his eyepatch, and Sano screamed.
His entire body, his spirit, and his mind were wracked with pain. As if streams of molten lead had been injected into him, he felt as if he was being burned and twisted in a thousand ways. The pain almost overwhelmed him, but Sano remained focused, and with little effort, he expelled the tsukai's influence.
Koan laughed as he watched the little Pekkles skitter and move to help Munashi back to his feet.
The Crane's one good eye narrowed as Sano's head hung limp, but he looked up at him with a triumphant smile. "That would have been the easy way," Munashi said lowly. "You're as stubborn as the Asako were reputed to be once. I suppose we'll have to resort to other methods."
The man walked up to Sano and placed a thin, boney hand on his chest. Sano could feel the kansen reaching into his mortal body and his immortal soul, but not to harm him. They were looking for something. After a minute, Munashi smiled thinly, and Sano started to worry.
The Asahina pulled a small statue out of the pouch he had revealed earlier. It was an evil looking goblin carving, which Munashi pressed to Sano's chest. The henshin bit his lip as the thing suddenly became white hot, and burned itself into his chest. Munashi let go, and the goblin carving stuck halfway out, with it's face looking out before Sano.
"The blood," Munashi said, "of over two hundred Oni were fused to make that artifact. Not very many things in this world are more corrupt than the little goblin sitting on your chest," He explained, while Sano fought back the searing pain he felt still. "I suppose you're quite a bit out of my reach to corrupt and bend to my will; being a thousand years old connects you to the Void in ways I may never understand."
Munashi, Koan, and the Pekkle turned to leave, "But it's only a matter of time before that statue begins to diffuse into your blood stream. Soon enough, you'll be nothing more than a raving lunatic, and a willing slave, henshin."
"Enjoy the view."