A STORY OF THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
BY Aaron Medwin
There were two monks sitting on a large rock. The sky was clear, and the Sun Mother shone down with a warming light. Birds were chirping, and the world seemed at peace. Hitomi Hatsuyoko smiled as she craned her head to face the sun, with her eyes closed. She was a young ise zumi, still experiencing the world with wonder and delight.
"Can you feel the sun, Ki?" the ise zumi said. "It feels warm."
She turned and looked at her mute companion. He sat in zazen, as he usually did. In many ways, Ki was a traditional monk, including his vows of asceticism. Still, he remained worldly -odd for a member of the Brotherhood of Shinsei. He was not facing the sun, but looking straight ahead. Despite the warm weather, he shivered as if cold.
"I feel it too. The cold is approaching, but its nothing to worry yourself about. The cold will come, and the cold will stay a good long time." She chuckled. "Eventually, the cold will recede, and life will reemerge from the shelter it took during the winter."
Hoshi Ki shook his head slowly.
"Yes, Ki, this winter coming will leave." His insistence to the contrary worried her. He wasn't a Dragon, but one of the rare ise zumi of the Brotherhood of Shinsei. Sometimes she wondered just how much he knew. "Won't it?"
Ki stood, faced the south, and began to cry. He shook his head.
"Sometimes failure comes from attempting that which you are not meant to do." She wasn't sure why she quoted her daimyo, Lord Hoshi, but she knew it had meaning to someone in the direction Ki was facing. A chill forced a shiver up her spine, and she began to walk back to the monastery. "Come on, Ki. It's getting cold out."
"'The title of Malekish is not often found among the Naga. It is not a title of importance, and it is not a necessary position. Instead, it is only found during the years of great change, when the stars and the heavens dance and the celestial alignments shudder.'" The Constrictor looked out from his hut in Nirukti, the rebuilt city of the Greensnakes. "Daini, how little you knew, once." The Malekish is a title used constantly, it was the Akasha's link to the future. There were no prophets among the Naga, save the astrologers, and so they were valued highly. The current Malekish was skilled at noticing the almost imperceptable hints the heavens gave, and he drew confidence and strength from it. "Do you remember when you wrote your journal to the Dragon-Father?"
The Akasha whispered it's answer to him. "We remember. We were right, too. If we knew how the heavens are always dancing, and if we had your skill in interpreting the dance of the stars, I would have told Toturi more truth." It paused. "Tell me, Malekish, what dance to the stars show you this night?"
The Malekish left his hut, looked up, and gazed at the heavens. The Pale Eye, shone brightly on his face with the light of fullness. It obscured much of the view, but on the other side of the night sky, he saw something he had hoped not to see.
He called to the Crab Seeker walking by. "Nakasho, a message of utmost importance." The Crab nodded. He was stationed here for just such an occurrence. "Tell the Crab at Hiruma Castle that..." He paused, while he remembered the human's name for the stars he saw. "Tell them that the Weaver and Kappa are together as lovers. The Foul Lands will rise strong tonight."
Looking up at the sky again, he saw the two stars refused to waver at all in their positions. "Go now, Nakasho-san. The entire future may ride on their forewarning."
Nakasho left ten minutes later in a helicopter.
He was killed by a flying Oni before he ever got the message to the castle. Even had he lived, it would not have saved them from what was to happen.
"People of Rokugan," the voice intoned on every radio channel and television station in the Empire. "You are all aware of the Shadowlands, that the Crab and Naga stand and guard us from every day, as they have for centuries."
Ikoma Mizaki, the Emperor's chief advisor continued. "Today, at dawn, the armies of the Shadowlands massed together a great force. Their attack was of unprecedented strength. They have taken all the lands from the edge of the Foul Lands to Hiruma Castle, and threaten much more." Dawn. That was only three hours ago.
Gasps of shock and whispers of the future passed through every crowd, from the masses below the large television display at Otosan-Uchi's Hantei Square to the small marketplaces of every clan. "The Crab and Naga report that the Oni are growing organized, that with each passing hour, the armies begin to, more and more, mimic the formation and structure of our own glorious armies."
People stared at the man on the screen. They stopped whatever it is they were doing, and focused entirely on the man giving the dire news. "At this time, we are evacuating the lands of the Crab Clan. All non-military personnel will abandon the area immediately. All possible military assistance will be provided to the Crab to allow them to defend us. The Empire shall not fall. The glories of the Jade Empire shall not silence!" A cheer from the television set, as the transmission ended.
"Yeah, that's great," Hida Yono scowled as he swung his tetsubo at the demon he was facing. "Some assistance." His swing having lodged his tetsubo in the demon's face, he pulled out his gun and fired several rounds of jade ammunition into the next oni in the wave.
Yono was a soldier stationed in Stalwart Sunrise Village, a large village near the Shadowlands border. It was the first target of the Oni armies, and Yono was proud to defend his village.
He defended it well, destroying every zombie and demon that came within his reach. He defended it right up until an Oni jabbed a talon into his skull, making him the first casualty of what would be later called the Shadow Wars.
He would not be the last. Millions would die before it was over.
Daidoji Kurichiki would be one of the few people to forget where he was during Mizaki's announcement. He was in his office, at the Daidoji family offices going over some proposed Yasuki business arrangements. Since the Daidoji-Yasuki War three hundred years ago, the Daidoji had controlled all aspects of Yasuki business, allowing only the transactions they approved, and forbidding most travel by Yasuki sales professionals.
Still, Kurichiki was not heartless. Because it was his job to decide, he allowed the Yasuki to survive and prosper, albeit in a limited way. There had been many far worse Supervisors.
"Twenty thousand pounds of ramen noodles to the Ide?" He was surprised. That was a great deal of food, and in the wrong direction - the Imperial edicts were for the Crab to gather food for the planned strike against the Shadowlands. Then he saw the offer the Ide made for the noodles. Impressive. He reached for the stamp to deny the transaction, but considered the new situation. The Crab would need all the resources they could gather for the war thrust upon them, and ramen was not a warrior's food. But these items of techno-meishodo, now that would help the Crab. He sighed, knowing his superiors would disapprove, and initialed the request, allowing the transaction.
Moving to the next request, he was momentarily taken aback. "The Yasuki want perfume. I don't think so." He laughed as he stamped that request "DENIED".
"What will happen to us?" Iuchi Arumiko asked. "This evacuation has never been done before. Nothing of this scale..." She began to sniff. She had been brought up in the pampered, wealthy environment of Kyuden Iuchi, and lived in the lap of luxury so long she grew accustomed to it. Until she moved to Shiro Yogo, and was apprenticed to Yogo Hacharui, she had barely ever even seen crime. War on this scale terrified her.
But, she had seen many, many evil things since she arrived. She put on what Hacharui called her 'invisible mask', and drove away the tears. She bowed deeply to her master, and said in the most calm voice she could, "Master, what are we to do now?" She wasn't sure her fear was totally banished, but if he saw it, he gave no hint.
Yogo Hacharui was not thrilled with the prospects of the future either. Without the Crab's financial support - even the small amount the Daidoji allowed, there would be no need for many of the products of YogoCorp. No need for the master of YogoCorp's many inventions. He looked down at his small apprentice, and said through his mask, "Arumiko-chan, we are going to make ourselves indispensable."
Fuzake Nez was in a panic. The big Oni-Oni came and blew up his shop. His home. His poor tools. He was driving his prototype car as fast as he could to someplace as far away as he could reach.
He had been working-working on a new car for commercial intraclan sale, and it was purring like a kitten. The engine was good, the steering was good, the brakes were good, but it needed a paint job. It was a small car, so it needed a small paint job. He took out the spray paint to make the car a nice brown, but the Oni arrived just as he was about to spray. Well, one did. It was a big Oni. Tall as many Nezumi. It waved it's arms and smashed in a wall. Nez thought quickly, and sprayed it with paint in it's large single eye. It was blinded, and he made a break for it.
The car ran good-good. Very good-good. It would be a top seller, if he ever got the car-car to market.
He never would.
He drove past the gates of Hiruma Castle, and didn't stop. He saw the explosion in his mirror-mirror. His poor lab. His poor tools.
"Uchi no kaisha, demon-thing," Yasuki Punu snarled, holding his katana in front of the slavering Oni no Nekasu that threatened to deliver death and worse. Stay away from my family. He hoped his blade held the courage his heart did not, for he was no warrior.
Yasuki Punu was the governor of Stalwart Sunrise village, a village just south of Hiruma Castle that had built up a reputation. The village was near the Shadowlands, and was protected by an incredible amount of Crab troops, under the command of his lovely wife, Hida Yamahime. Unfortunately, she was elsewhere defending the town, and he was the only thing between the oni and his children.
"PARAA NI HOTSHUKII, CRAAAB!" The oni's four eyes blinked in a hypnotic patter. It had killed the rest of his village that way, Punu knew. Lure them to sleep, then the mouth in the center of this almost humanoid demon fed. No more, his Hida cousins would say. Punu just wished he could run away fast enough to escape.
The blinking continued, and Punu began to drift to sleep as Nekasu's magic began to grip his mind. Swing your sword, fool. He just couldn't muster the strength.
In the first sign of good fortune in months, since the armies of the Oni Lords invaded the first reaches of Crab lands, an arrow made of greenstone, with glowing sigils to provide the power of jade, erupted from the oni's leftmost eye. Behind the oni, Punu saw his wife, his warrior, his lover, holding a crossbow, loaded with another greenstone shot, aimed directly at the oni. She clutched her side with her other good arm. The oni leaped around to deal with the new threat.
"KYOSO BYI NASHOO!" it shrieked as it leaped for Hida Yamahime.
"Go back to hell," she hissed, and fired.
The oni exploded into a shower of ichor and bone, splashing all over Yamahime's injured form. Punu rushed to his wife, cradling her body as she collapsed to the ground, near blissful unconsciousness.
"The village is clear," she whispered, having barely the strength for more.
"You were magnificent, my love." He held her close to him, taking in the sound of her steady breathing, drawing strength from being with the woman he loved.
"Matsuro and Shiniko are safe. Nothing attacked here, save that one."
"That was a rather weak Nekasu, Punu-kun." She managed a weak smile. "My mighty protector could certainly have saved me from it's foulness. Remember what your sensei taught you."
He finished her statement, reciting the chant he learned in the few kenjutsu lessons he had taken. "Strike hard, strike fast, and strike often."
They sat for a long moment in silence, not an awkward silence, but the amiable silence of two old friends. After several moments, Yamahime broke that silence.
"Take the children, and run from this place. Hiruma Castle has fallen again, and the Wall cannot hold much longer. Flee to the farthest reaches of the Empire, to the Phoenix." She grabbed his neck, and leaned up to whisper in his face. "Promise me that, husband."
"Flee? Why? The Hida will save-"
"The Hida are working to save themselves." A pause. "Husband, in the nine years since I was put in charge of the village's defense, not once have you questioned me. For your own safety, governor-sama, leave this place. Leave it now, or you and our children will die here."
Punu was no physician, but he knew enough of medicine to know that she was severely injured. She could not be moved. So he reminded her of that.
A tear came to his eye. "How will I live without you?"
She looked away, not meeting the gaze of the one man who could inspire such emotion in her. "You are a Crab."
"My family hasn't fought a war in centuries!"
"You are a Crab," she repeated, more firmly this time. "You are a Crab, and you can act the part for once in your life, Punu. Retreat, and..." Her voice trailed off. She looked down, tears almost coming to her eyes, knowing the pain she was causing her husband.
He stood up, abruptly, backing away from her. "No, no, I can't do that."
"Punu-kun, my husband, my love-"
"Those are my words. Words are mine, you fight. You are the warrior, the true Crab. I can't... I won't..." He began to sob.
He knew he was weaker than she, but he didn't care. He cried openly, the only person who could hear it was his wife. And she understood.
That didn't mean she accepted his weakness.
"The Kyoso is coming," she said. "The Kyoso Overlord. That Oni confirmed the last reports I got from my men. I cannot kill her. Do you know what that means? Her dark fire will consume my soul. I will never again be reincarnated. I will never know peace and enlightenment in the next life, because my simpering Crane of a husband did not have the stomach to do what he had to when the dice had been thrown." Angrily, she lay down on the cold, wet, wooden floor and glared at him. "I am already dead. Soon, I will rise as a zombie to take that which you left me."
Punu sniffed, the tears leaving him. He drew his wakizashi.
Yamahime saw this, and smiled. She cleared her mind of doubt and fear, and nodded to her husband.
He mouthed the words, "I love you," then brought down his blade.
So many marriages in Rokugan are not for love, but Punu's father would have none of it. He arranged the marriage after Punu fell in love, and stole a samurai-ko's heart. They loved each other very much, and that love grew with each passing year. He could barely imagine life without her. And now she was gone.
He would do as she requested, he would flee with their kids.
Kyuden Shiba was truly a beautiful sight at night. In the dim light, you could see the bushi on the walls. You could see the array of bushi in the noble red and pink of the Phoenix, and the heavy plumage of the occasional Shiba House Guard warrior. Shiba Nakira, the Phoenix Clan Champion, saw the Kuni encampment just outside the walls. Even the lights themselves were a marvelous sight. They were not technological in origin, nor magical, but a combination. The new art of 'tetsukami' promised to usher in a new age of prosperity for the Phoenix, save the Yogo's odd prolificacy in the art.
The Eternal Halls had existed since Shiba first came to the lands of the Tribe of Isawa, and Nakira liked to revisit those memories often. So often, in fact, behind his back, he was whispered to be insane. Twenty years as the Phoenix Champion, each bringing him more in tune with the Soul of Shiba's ancient memories, and less tuned to reality. He walked the halls seeking inner peace, but, as usual, he found nothing. He stood in the grandiose halls, admiring a portrait of Lady Asako and her husband, Yogo.
I am Shiba Tsuzaki. I delivered the keys to the Path of Man to Asako without totally understanding them myself. I allowed the Isawa and Asako to fight each other, and Yogo to leave my clan and found a line of traitors. I thought I was a good and kind daimyo, but I was not...
Nakira barely noticed when the Soul of Shiba intruded on his thoughts. It happened so often...
I am Shiba Noyomi. I tried to preserve the peace at White Stag, and paid for that mistake with my head, blown off by a gaijin cannon...
"No. I am Shiba Nakira, and my thoughts are my own," he insisted. Immediately, the voices went silent, for a time. All too brief, he knew.
"Nakira-sama." The voice came from Shiba Konyo, the beautiful, youthful, and headstrong samurai-ko recently promoted to head the Shiba House Guard. "I have bad news," she said in her typically blunt manner.
"What kind of news?"
"Haven't you paid any attention to the radio in the past six hours?"
"No, I don't like the radio. It reminds Guseryo of-"
"The Shadowlands have invaded," she said bluntly. She had long ago gotten used to his constantly referring to past Shiba as living, breathing people.
The Phoenix Champion was silent.
"They have taken Hiruma Castle. They show no signs of slowing down, and the Fortunes only know if the Kaiu Wall will stop them."
"Jishi says that the Wall is impregnable. He watched it get built."
"Nakira-sama. I am talking to Shiba Nakira, champion of the clan in the here and now. We need the wisdom of the ages, not the mindless prattle of their commentary."
She didn't understand that there were two millennia of voices in his head, all speaking at once. She probably never would, and so he accepted her disdain for them without too much complaint. Instead, he sighed and continued, "So what is the Captain of the House Guard wanting me to do?"
"The Kuni have left. All of them."
Nakira frowned. The Kuni had arrived in Phoenix lands five months ago, as part of the Imperial edict to destroy the Shadowlands. The Phoenix would acquire the wisdom of the Kuni, and hopefully be able to ensure a victory. That war was planned for five years in the future, though. "Tell them to come back. If the Shadowlands have attacked us, we need their knowledge more now than before."
"You want me to go to Kuni Karichi, and tell him to ignore his clan's troubles and simply return here?"
"I didn't say to phrase it that way, but yes."
This was not an uncommon thing - the two of them argued on nearly every subject, and almost every time they spoke. He looked up again, and pointed to the painting on the wall. "Yogo was shorter than Asako. Yet, in this picture, he is taller."
She sighed, but followed his gaze. "What is the point?"
"The Soul knows things, Konyo-chan." He said cryptically.
"Don't ever call me that again, whether you be my daimyo or no."
"The Soul also knows that the Kuni are wrong. In his experience," Konyo bit her tongue. At least he didn't reference another blasted Shiba daimyo. They may be her honored ancestors, but she preferred to deal with the world by making her own decisions. That was what made her so suitable for the command position she was in. "the Crab have always fended for themselves. They will cope until the Kuni finish our instruction."
"This is a *big* army. The Crab can't defend against it by themselves. Even if they could, it's not our place to order around the Kuni. They're not a Phoenix family."
"They should be."
She stomped her right foot, exasperated with his inability to see the obvious. "They're not. Nor are they likely to be." Regaining some measure of composure, she continued "Nakira-sama, I just came here to bring you the news. I do have other business to attend to. Our armies will be called soon enough, I will ready them."
Nakira nodded as Konyo left him watching Asako and Yogo. He thought of the past he never experienced, yet remembered more vividly than the past he did.
I am Shiba. Asako was my best friend, my most trusted ally...
Night is dawn, like day
In the shadows of demons
The sky does not change
The sky was a light grey, clouds obscuring the sun totally. The Yasuki family plodded through the muck that used to be the Majikani Kakon road from Stalwart Sunrise Village to Hiruma Castle and points further. The road looked as if there had been a war fought on it - bodies, destroyed vehicle parts, and various equipment strewn about. No cars drove by, all that still lived had fled days ago, when the Oni armies first invaded.
Some of the bodies, Yasuki Punu recognized, were villagers from Stalwart Sunrise. He had failed to protect them, and now the minions of Darkness had destroyed them. Had destroyed Yamahime.
Interrupting the silence, his daughter Shiniko startled him. "Where's Mama, papa?"
Matsuro had a quick answer. "She's dead." He was always close to his mother, and upon hearing of her death, he became sullen. This was the first time he had spoken since he found out. "She's dead, and we're going to die too."
"That's not true, Matsuro." Even as Punu spoke the words, he wasn't sure of their veracity. Squatting, and looking straight into his daughter's eye, he pointed to her family mon. The carp was dirty, but the gold was still visible. "Shiniko, what's that?" he asked, forcing a playful tone of voice.
"Silly daddy," she giggled. "It's the Carp."
"Right!" Punu grinned.
Matsuro rolled his eyes.
"And what's so special about the Carp?" Punu continued/
"It's really, really lucky!" Shiniko exclaimed.
"So, as long as we have our carp, we'll be fine. Isn't it good we're Yasuki?"
Shiniko, won over, hugged her father. Punu picked her up, and put her on his back.
Matsuro thought about saying something, then decided against it. He looked around, feeling very angry, but more sad. He saw a gun, laying in the muck a few feet away, so he ran over and picked it up. He recognized it as a Yasuki holdout pistol, small but accurate. Opening it up, he saw it fully loaded.
Running over to his father, he exclaimed, "Look, father! A gun!" Punu wasn't surprised; Matsuro was training as a Scout, and was fully proficient in the use of all small firearms. That such a thing would comfort his son was expected.
"This is Naga ammunition, dad! Nothing Tainted can take more than a few shots of this stuff!"
Punu nodded. Whatever makes Matsuro happy. With him delighting in his new weapon, examining every inch of the small pistol, the three Crabs traveled on.
Four hours later, Matsuro's keen ears heard movement. Punu was growing tired, and Shiniko had fallen asleep on his back nearly three hours ago, but Matsuro was still full of energy. He put his finger to his lip to signal Punu to be silent, and waved his father off to the side of the road, now covered with thick fog.
Matsuro saw five figures, somewhat humanoid, coming to them. They were moving slowly, and Matsuro identified them as zombies, based on their shape and movement. Then, as Punu was walking to the side, they split up, and tried to surround Matsuro.
Seeing this, he charged the center figure, firing his pistol directly at the target. "I am Yasuki Matsuro, and I'll destroy all you Tainted bastards!"
The horde fired back, but a loud voice called out in a Senpet accent "Hold your fire! It's more refugees!" The gunfire ceased.
As the voice drew closer, Matsuro saw the target he had been firing at.
It was a very large, very muscular, very dark skinned man. In Senpet battle armor. He walked right up to Matsuro. Matsuro realized he was still holding the gun, ready to be fired. It was aimed point blank, at the man's chest.
"Little one, you can put down your gun now. We won't hurt you."
Punu ran up, Shiniko in tow. The Senpet extended an arm to him, then hesitated, and bowed instead. "I am Sergeant Hotep, Allied Senpet Foreign Legion. We're here to help save your Rokugani asses." He grinned. Punu frowned. If the Emperor is allowing gaijin to fight our wars.... the situation was more grim than he thought.
"Yasuki-sama, I've got to get you and these children out of here. The demons are on this route. We thought you were advance scouts, until your boy here tipped us off you were human with that gun of his."
"We're, we're... we're..." Punu couldn't stand, he couldn't see straight. The exhaustion of the day had caught up with him, and he couldn't stay conscious. So he fainted.
Nakira was in his office at the top of the highest tower in Kyuden Shiba, looking at the beautiful skyline. He heard a chime, and answered it. The television screen on his desk showed a picture of the Elemental Council.
Isawa Takige, the recently appointed Master of Air stood up and approached. "Shiba-sama, it is good to see you in good health." He was truly blessed by Benten. His motions were graceful, and his voice crystal clear. He was no tensai - one of the rare elemental specialists who normally populated the Council, but simply extraordinarily skilled at his chosen profession.
"Thank you, Takige-san. What can I do for you today?"
"I'm sure you're aware of the Kuni withdrawal."
Nakira thought back to memories of earlier. Shiba, Tsuzaki, and... oh yes, he had spoken with Konyo earlier. She had mentioned something about the Kuni leaving. He nodded.
"Well, we're not totally unprepared. The Council has noticed a tremor in the elements, and we think it's got something to do with the Shadowlands invasion."
"Of course it doesn't. The tremor is normal for this night. This night, every year, they act that way."
"Huh... Nakira, I've been Master of Air for eight years, and I've never felt this before."
"It happens every decade. That's normal."
Takige was surprised. Nakira wasn't usually this unstable.
"Oh, very well then." Takige listened to someone off the screen, and nodded. Turning back to the Shiba daimyo, "Master Kujishi wishes to speak to you about the disturbance. Perhaps the Soul has experienced it before."
"Oh... very well." An elderly man, wizened in features but strong in voice and spirit strode towards the center of the screen, as Takige moved off. "Master Kujishi, tell me what this tremor was. "
Nakira was so engrossed in his discussion with Kujishi, the venerable Master of Water, that he failed to notice his assailant from behind.
>From the shadows, a figure said "Sleep," and Nakira collapsed, unconscious. "Sleep, Shiba. The Council can defend itself."
"My dear Nakira," the man said as he stepped over Nakira's sleeping form. "the tremors are just beginning, and we can't have you in our way."
TO BE CONTINUED