A STORY OF THE DIAMOND EMPIRE
BY Aaron Medwin
Six months is a long time to wait. In war, it is an eternity of horrors. Rokugan has suffered horribly these past few months, and most fear the absolute worst inside, though they keep a brave face. The invasion by the Shadowlands, termed by some the 'Shadow War', has raged on for six months now, and Rokugan is in dire straits. The Naga have receded totally from Rokugan, and have returned to a deep sleep, as they clutch at a deep wound - the first blow from the Shadowlands. The Scorpion, the strongest military force in the Empire, and the last line of defense in the War... has cracks in the clan, and many people point to the curse of Yogo and foretell doom. The Lion, Crab, and Unicorn have each taken heavy casualties, and they barely hold a line at the Twilight Mountains. The Crane coffers run dry paying for gaijin mercenaries, and the infrastructure of Rokugan seems ready to collapse. The Dragon are struggling to survive a terrible famine caused by the late Oni no Tsuburu Overlord while the Phoenix - the Empire's magical arsenal - do nothing at all to support the War as their Champion sits on the throne of Shiba with a dark gaze. And of the Mantis, terrible storms have surrounded the Isles for months, preventing them from coming to Rokugan's aid.
And if that were not enough, the Emperor is dead, with Otosan-Uchi crumbling under the occupying force of a legion controlled by the Oni no Shikibu Overlord.
"The first step towards understanding tetsukami is realizing that all spirits are alike, be they human, kami or tetsukami, in their need for purpose." -Introduction to Steel Spirits, by Yogo Hacharui
Consciousness was an easy thing to lose. In the dreamy haze that he drifted in, he longed for it to return. The nightmares he was suffering were intense.
Storms rolled across the sky. Blood, warm and sensuous flowed outside his body. It was important to him, in that way that strange things are, in dreams. Around him, destruction. He saw the forces of the darkness around him, oni and zombie alike. They marched with him.
Marched for him.
He felt his lips command the demons to strike at the Imperial forces, and to invade Rokugan from the inside. He heard his voice call for a charge, and the undead forces attacked. He heard a chant from within, and knew he was evil. And still, he could do nothing. He felt trapped in a body that was not his own.
He could do nothing but scream as his soul was horrified, again and again, by the dream.
He screamed for what seemed like centuries. Then he jolted awake and sat up immediately. He was in a cold sweat, and his body was weak from anxiety. As if on cue, the room rocked with thunder and the window flashed with lightning.
"Just a dream, just an awful dream." As he spoke those words to himself, he examined his surroundings. The building was in a state of disrepair, he could see that in the structure of the room. The fading blue wallpaper and the barely legible kanji on the walls indicated an Asahina hospital. Probably an old one. He felt at home - yet his surroundings filled him with a sense of dread. And there was some scent drifting through the air. Drum music beat softly in the background from tiny speakers, attempting to keep away any evil spirits. For some reason, the drums didn't soothe him in the slightest.
A nurse walked into the room, seeing that he was awake. She bowed to him, saying in a soft voice "Sanon-sama, it is good to see you awake. I will inform Doctor Hashin-sama," and left.
For a few uneventful minutes, he wondered who "Sanon-sama" was. It certainly wasn't him. He wasn't sure what his name was, but he knew it wasn't Sanon. He thought about letting the Asahina believe that for a while, and to take full advantage of their hospitality, but then reconsidered.
A doctor came in and bowed to him deeply. "Sanon-san, I am Doctor Asahina Morado," he spoke. When Sanon showed no sign of recognition, not even of his own name, Morado sighed. He spoke in a practiced tone, as if he had given this speech many times before. "Your name is Miya Sanon. You were one of the many victims of the oni invasion into Otosan-Uchi earlier this year. While we were able to heal your body, I'm afraid that you are not yet fully recovered. We were... unable to attend to your noticeable gaps in memory. Somehow, the memories of all of the inhabitants of your district have... vanished. Some remember bits and pieces, but..." Morado trailed off. The two sat in silence, as Sanon tried to assimilate this new information.
After a few moments of that uncomfortable silence, Morado stood. "Here is some information we(?) prepared to try and help you recover. If you remember anything, do not hesitate to summon myself or one of the nurses, sama," Morado offered. Without further pause, he walked out the door, leaving Sanon alone with his thoughts.
What did I do that was so awful to deserve this karma?, he wondered. Surely, he had never done anything so dreadful that he would be stripped of his identity as he was. He sighed and tried to remember. Fragments came back... he could remember a woman, but nothing about her.
He opened the folder and started leafing through the documents. Sanon learned quickly. After five minutes, he knew most of his vital statistics. After ten, he could retrace his lineage back four generations. He settled down into his bed and prepared for a full afternoon of relearning. After that... he decided he would take that as it came along.
Outside, some birds chirped a song.
The announcer's voice was soothing as she sang a little ditty signaling the end of the show. Doji Shiya smiled an impossibly bright smile as she looked directly at the mike.
"Thank you for listening to Doji Shiya's Story Time," and the red light blinked off. Almost immediately, the smile left Shiya's face. Burying her face in her hands, she took several deep breaths. Inwardly, she wondered if she was helping at all. No, she was helping, and she was doing a great job. Fan mail had never slowed since the beginning of the war, and her ratings were as well as could be expected with an estimated count of a fifth of her fans without a radio of their own. She had to be helping. That was the only logical conclusion she could draw from the responses she had been getting. She stood up tall and steeled herself, ready to face the world again.
She walked right out of the booth, ignoring the myriad people clamoring for her attention, and headed for the office door. Some were important, she knew, but right now, she had only one thing on her mind. If she hurried, she could keep her lunch date with her husband, whom she hadn't seen in days.
She stopped at the door, blocked by a man she truly did not wish to see. Ka-aper, one of the directors of the station, stood in the doorway blocking her. He had a grin on his face, and Shiya sighed. This would not be good, she thought.
"My dear Shiya-sama," he said in his unusually strong Senpet accent. "How lovely it is to be seeing you on this day. Please come, join me at my office and we will have a meal."
She sighed in frustration, and nodded. Silently, the two walked to Ka-aper's nearby office. When they arrived, he opened the door for her, and beckoned her inside. The aroma was astounding, and intoxicating. Gaijin scents and sounds bombarded her at every turn, and the alien tapestries nearly blinded her; this man who flaunted his gaijin ways was loathsome. Yet, as was required of her, she ignored them and remained calm and seated.
"Shiya-sama, how long have you been working for us? Five years now? Six?" he asked. He poured himself a drink, and began to sip at it.
"Six years, Ka-apet," she answered. Senpet needed their rhetorical questions answered.
"Ah yes," he said, pretending he had forgotten. "It has been a long time. Your ratings are quite well, in fact, since the invasion, you host the number one show on the radio, and the print sales are good as well. Still..." he paused, daring her to speak. When she did not, he continued. "Your show is to be terminated, as of right now."
She stood up instantly, balling her small hands into fists. Controlling her anger, she spoke with a careful tone, full of rage, yet polite. "May I ask why, Ka-apet?"
"Certainly, my dear." He took another sip of his drink, and motioned with his glass to the window. "Those people out there, they're fighting a war. I have always liked your clan, the Crane. Good business sense. You people know when to keep beauty going. I like that, I like it very much. However, there is simply no more money for such frivolous things as a children's radio show. The airwaves are expensive to control, you know." He paused and looked out over Kosaten Shiro, only a few miles away. "You know, they say the Shadowlands are poised to attack here within weeks."
Shiya was silent as she took it all in. Mistaking this for acquiescence, Ka-apet continued. "I wish I could help you, my dear." He took another sip of his drink - and as he did, she noticed that something in the drink was moving, wriggling like a maggot. She barely restrained herself from gagging at the repugnant sight.
"Are you finished, Ka-apet?" she queried. He nodded.
She thought of every argument she had been making with herself, how everything pointed to her remaining in her position, of her effect on morale, of her as a beacon of peacetime finery, reminding the warriors why they fought. She opened her mouth to scream everything at Ka-apet in sheer frustration, but thought better of it, and held her tongue. Instead, she nodded her head and left, closing the door softly behind her.
Almost two thousand years ago, the Crab were invaded by a large army of Oni led by a demon known as the Maw. This nearly-apocalyptic event led to the creation of Kaiu Kabe, the great Carpenter Wall between Rokugan and the Shadowlands. Since then, the Kaiu family has tunneled into the Wall, laying deathtrap after deathtrap inside, tempting the Oni to try and enter Rokugan through the Wall.
Some tunnels, however, were for transportation, and those remained trap-free(for the most part) and heavily guarded. When the first Kaiu electronic trap was created, they began to replace the guards, since they could usually tell the difference between a demon and human. The presence of jade increased the safety of the traps, and this saved many a Hiruma, as they continued both their ancestral duties of combat and scouting.
Some tunnels, though, were on no record. Nobody was sure where some of them led. Unfortunately for them, this was the case for Fuzake Nez and his newly re-honored bodyguard Matsu Jishikuro. They had traveled along a particular tunnel for weeks now, and there was no sign of any intelligent life in the tunnel, even after weeks of exploration.
Some would say that the travelers are included.
"Mystics vs. Aiguchi?" Jishikuro asked, plodding along.
"The Aiguchi for sure-sure. Daidoji Urei is the best defensive player in Rokugan." Nez answered.
"Builders vs. Hunters?"
"Ninja vs. Tsu Fish?"
Jishikuro stopped and turned to Nez. "You have got to be kidding me."
Nez looked directly into Jishikuro's eyes, and whispered, "I am, pink-skin." Grinning, Nez scampered ahead.
The two had become friends over the months that passed since their meeting. Originally and still officially a yojimbo, Jishikuro had proven himself invaluable to Nez as a companion with similar interests. They both enjoyed watching baseball, playing kemari, and sharing useless trivia. Occasionally they argued, but given their common desire for survival, they worked together well enough.
Fortunately, the tunnels had been surprisingly habitable. Pipes that still functioned dripped enough water for the two to drink, and moss had provided the two with edible, if not palatable food. The tunnel itself was dimly lit by lighting systems decades old, and it was a miracle that the lights still functioned.
Jishikuro jogged ahead to catch up to Nez. When he caught up, Nez was lying on his back, tail waving around lazily. Further on, the lights didn't seem to work.
"Nice run. You got us from nowhere with lots of light, to... nowhere at the end of the light." Jishikuro said.
"Jishikuro, do you-you know what these tunnels are for? I think-wonder that they're Kaiu make. Very strong steel." Nez said, tossing a rock up in the air and catching it again.
"Right. Strong steel."
Nez stood up and looked carefully at the wall. "It's not-all like Kaiu steel, though. Some is soft-soft. You can see-see the places where the soft mixes with-with the Kaiu hard stuff." Nez pointed to the wall, and traced a line. Jishikuro peered at the wall, but shrugged. "I don't see anything different. You sure?"
Nez' ears perked up. He put a finger to his snout for silence as he peered down the tunnel into the darkness.
"You know, you're losing your accent." Jishikuro remarked.
Nez hissed at Jishikuro. Crouching, he walked ahead, into the darkness. Jishikuro shrugged, and looked around for some water to drink. He found some in a puddle that looked mostly clean. As he leaned over to drink, Nez came running back, a look of panic on his face.
"Trolls! Trolls in the tunnel!"
Jishikuro opened his mouth to ask Nez to calm down, but saw three gigantic trolls running towards him, bearing clubs nearly the size of Nez. All thoughts of thirst gone, he drew his katana and fell into a battle stance. Letting one come to him, he exploded in a flurry of blows as soon as it got close and raised it's club. Surprised, the troll was unprepared for the Lion's prowess, and fell quickly.
"Heee underrresstimated youuu, huuuumannn. Iiii willl nnot," it rumbled. "Forrr frrrredommm!" it howled, and the two charged Jishikuro. He sidestepped the charge and swung at one of them, in an attempt to hamstring the monster, but his blade found only air. Enraged, the troll threw his club at Jishikuro. It hurtled end over end, and it struck Jishikuro with such force that he fell backwards, unconscious. One began to walk towards Jishikuro.
"Stop!" Nez pulled out his pistol and aimed it at the trolls. "Go back-back! Leave him-him alone!"
The troll smiled a fearsome smile, and put it's club down slowly. It raised it's hands slowly. "Nnnnezzumii, puuut thhe gunnn dowwnn. I willl nnot hurrrt yooouuu."
"I don't believe you-you! Back away!" he exclaimed.
"I ammm Blarr, a guarrd. Hee innnvadeed ourrr kinngdomm, annd willl be puunnishhed forr hiss crrime," the troll rumbled. "Yoouuu arre allowwed to ssstayy, nnezummii. Comme too ourr ciity, yoouu willl be welcomme whille heee stannds triialll."
Nez was so stunned by that, that he simply cooperated and allowed himself to be led into the great troll city of Thanatos. Trolls were supposed to be evil, he thought.
Hacharui hissed into the phone, "Listen, commander. Those troops were promised to me six months ago by Yamato-sama himself. Your cooper-"
A tired and frustrated general interrupted him. "Yogo-san, where do you suggest we take them from? We have no more reserves. We have no more conscripts. We have no more supplies, even if we had men. Isn't that your department?"
Hacharui sighed. "I don't dare increase production. If I did, that would simply draw the Shadowlands forces directly to us. I just don't have the manpower to properly defend this place." He paused for dramatic effect. "Well, I suppose I can have production shift to make fortifications for the complex. We've got the designs, so it would only take, oh, maybe three months to get things going. We should be fully defended in five. But I'm afraid that we won't be able to send you any supplies in the meantime."
"Damn you, Hacharui. I can't send you any men. Call the Senpet. They've been pretty helpful so far."
Hacharui reeled from the grave insult. Asking help from gaijin? "Thank you, Sutsue-san. You have been most helpful." With those words, Hacharui hung up the phone. No troops. No reinforcements. Hacharui buried his face between his arms. This was not going according to plan.
Hacharui raised his head when he heard footsteps walk into his office. It was Iuchi Arumiko. He smiled weakly, and motioned for her to sit in a chair.
As she sat, she looked at him and frowned. "Hacharui, when was the last time you slept?" she asked.
He yawned and mumbled a few words. She gave him a questioning gaze, and he repeated, "Two days ago, I think. It's all jumbling together. The army won't send us troops, I'm afraid."
"I... see." Neither spoke, but they looked at each other for a long while. He simply gazed into her eyes. "Listen, Hacharui. It's been a long, um, two days for you. You need to get some sleep."
He blinked and nodded. "You're right. When I return, we'll discuss some options for the near future. Be ready to give me some thoughts and alternatives to just simply rolling over and dying." Hacharui walked out the door, sighing.
Precisely ten seconds after Hacharui walked out, and confirming that he was indeed gone, Arumiko ran around the desk and set to work opening the lock he put on his desk drawer. It opened at her touch, and she chuckled. "Trusting, especially for a Scorpion." She smiled as she thought of Hacharui, who had recently warmed to her much more than she could have hoped. Was this his way of courting her, this game of locks and secrets?
Concentrating on the present, she shook her head and began to look through Hacharui's files for certain documents on the building itself. The complex' schematics were easy to find; Hacharui had obviously been looking over them recently. She saw that they were old - the buildings had to be much, much older than YogoTech itself, and the format was unfamiliar.
She found it. It took her a few hours, but she found it. This building held the key... and so simple, once you saw it!
In her excitement, she raced over to Hacharui's house as fast as her legs and car would take her.
The humans called the place the Festering Pit. The zokujin before them had a different name for it. Before them, there was a countless number of races with a countless number of names for the gate between the demon realm and that of humans.
For now, it was the Festering Pit of Akuma, and Akuma was lord of all he oversaw.
"The humanss, the Isawa bound me, you knew that?" Akuma asked the new Oni. "They forssed me into a hideouss body of his creation to sserve HISSS ENDSS!"
"I know what has transpired, Lord Akuma." Oni no Boukyaku whispered, fearful of the Overlord's rage.
"Then," Akuma leaned into Boukyaku's face, hissing "you know what it is I seek to destroy!"
"I know," Boukyaku said. "You wish to seek revenge upon those who bound you to servitude."
Akuma laughed, and when he laughed, Boukyaku felt true fear. He looked back, into memory. Boukyaku saw Akuma killed by another oni, the Okura, he saw Akuma killed by a human, and each time, he felt Akuma's rage, almost palpable. It built constantly until Boukyaku had to cease his examination.
"You are a fool, lessser one! I sought revenge in the passt, for all the good it did me! Three timess wass I destroyed, once even by my own daughter! Revenge makess one ssloppy." Akuma said in a tone that belied his rage. "I have studied all the tactics that we have used in the passt. Fu Leng, the pitiful kami who freed us taught me patience. From the human Yori, I learned how a human's mind workss, and how to exploit it'ss weaknesses. From Iuchiban," Akuma chuckled, remembering something in the distant past. "From Iuchiban, I learned to twist the humans to my own endss with pretty liess." One of his elongated, taloned claws pointed behind Boukyaku, to Rokugan itself. "Even now, I have minionss of humans working for me. I promissed them power beyond human comprehension, but there is only one who will receive it."
"Who?" Boukyaku asked. "If your motive isn't revenge,
Akuma glared at the small human-seeming oni. "You are a lessser being, memory. You sserve me, never forget that!"
Boukyaku hesitated. Akuma was powerful enough to destroy him utterly, and that was obviously something to avoid. For now, anyway. Jigoku never remained loyal to any leader for long. "I cannot forget, Overlord," he said.
"That will sserve you well, Boukyaku. I have an asssignment for you. Oni no Chi and Akeru, the Terror of Void are now poised to attack the human's heart of magic," Akuma pointed to a map of Rokugan, just conjured from the mists "causing their front liness to crumble. Follow them. Ensure their success."
"GO!" Akuma roared, and Boukyaku flew out of the pit, racing to the place Akuma called the 'heart of magic', which the humans called YogoTech, Cl.Inc.
Silently, invisibly, and intangibly, the Oni watched Konyo as she drove to Akuma's home. It knew Konyo was important, for she was it's namer. It was bound to her as tightly as any Oni could be bound. Oni no Konyo, it was called.
It had watched Konyo for months, trying as all oni do to wrest control over their shared name. It watched as she sued for peace, under the guise of protecting Rokugani culture. She had said that 'in a time when even the peaceful Asahina turn their spells and studies to destruction, some must hold true to our sacred traditions.' And so the Phoenix stayed home while the other clans went to war. Konyo herself was praised, and it was whispered that she was the reincarnation of the old Phoenix heroine Shiba Toriiko.
Oni no Konyo knew the truth. Konyo was tainted, but the taint went deeper than her body - her mind was completely given over to the Shadowlands. She was in league with the Shadowlands, and the oni should have been pleased.
However, it was not. It wasn't sure why, or how, but when it looked at Rokugan, it saw a place that it would prefer intact and whole. It didn't want to see the Empire destroyed by an invading force of its kind. Unfortunately for it, Oni no Konyo was powerless to stop her from sabotaging the Empire. Only she could see or hear it, and that fact irritated the Oni more than a little.
It watched Konyo as she drove to Akuma's home, and it sensed her motives. She was going to open another tunnel through darkness, and it couldn't stop her.
Soon, it would have more of her name, and would be able to act. For perhaps the first time, an Oni prayed to the Fortunes.
I am Shiba Joyoyen, daughter. I led the Shiba troops to stop Isawa Akuma when he first began dabbling in maho. He was a good man, but he was blinded by the darkness that he chased for so long that he embraced it. When he died, his home became a sacred place, rumored to hold the keys to his 'son'.
Tell me where it is, Joyoyen. As she questioned her soul, Konyo drove west, in the direction she knew was correct. She drove without escort, without guards at all, carrying only the sword of her distant ancestors at her side.
Certainly, daughter. Seventeen kilometers north of Pale Oak Castle is the village of Ashes. The peasants there were isolated from the world, and the new village of Ashes built in the place of the old remains so to this day. Isawa Akuma used that isolation to his advantage, and it hid him from justice for longer than it should have. Daughter, why do you ask?
Konyo smiled. The souls of the past Champions were such fools. How did it survive Oni no Akuma's birthing?
Daughter, why do you wish to know these things?
I am Shiba now, Joyoyen. I am the Champion. I live, and you serve me. Never forget that. She glared at the road ahead of her, as if Joyoyen would feel the gaze. Perhaps he did, for her soul did not speak to her again.
It was of no consequence. She knew where the house was. It was just a matter of getting there, now.
The Phoenix had fallen to darkness before, and they had always recovered.
That was the only thing keeping Isawa Takige sane at the moment. He ran through a grassy field, not daring to use the Way for fear that Shiba would find him. She had changed so much.
When she first emerged from the hole, she was fine. She even spent extra time with him, and his crush on her blossomed into love. She even almost returned his feelings. Now, of course, he knew that she could not return his feelings. She was gone, and something had replaced her.
So he fled, telling the other Masters to scatter as well. Even with Hokori lost to Jigoku, the other Masters wouldn't listen to him. He didn't know what they were thinking, nor did he know what their plans were. All he knew was that Konyo was not to be trusted, and even if they refused to see the truth, he would. He needed a plan, though.
"For starters, finding a way off this accursed plain would be nice," he said to nobody in particular. "For my next trick, I'll find the Mirumoto armies that should be camped in Dragonfly lands. If I'm lucky, I can finally get into this Fortunes-cursed war." That thought stopped him short in his tracks, and he burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. "I can't believe that I, an Elemental Master, one of the leaders of the most pacifistic clan in the Empire... damn, that's ironic."
For the thousandth time in the past hour, Takige wished that the Council retained full control of the clan. Five heads were better than one, even a child realizes that logic. When that one head is potentially insane, it becomes crystal clear.
Prophet's Plain was clear, for which Takige was grateful. If he had to deal with any more guards tracking him down, peasants trying to help him, or bandits trying to rob him, he would probably go nuts.
None of the peasants had ever even seen a car before. When Konyo drove up, several cries for the headman were heard. After a few minutes of impatient waiting, he came racing down the hill to the visitor, passing every inhabitant of the village. Each of them were prostrated before Konyo.
He kneeled quickly, saying hastily "Welcome, Shiba-sama. How can I serve you today?"
Konyo looked at him for a minute, watching the beads of sweat form on his bald head as he knelt. He was nervous, and fearful, and she could almost feel it. Such a delightful feeling, power. "Headman, take me to the house of Isawa Akuma."
The headman stood up and hesitated. "Sh-Shiba-sama," he stammered. "I-Isawa Akuma's home has been cursed! They say that Jigoku itself opens up there! It is not safe!"
She laughed. Her laugh was no longer the quiet expression of joy it was, but now was a loud mocking cackle. "I am the Champion. I fear nothing. The wards of my clan will not harm me."
The headman blanched, and Konyo frowned. She summoned her sword to her hand and took the headman's head from his body in one fluid motion. Pointing to a young man, she said "You. You are the new headman. Take me to Isawa Akuma's house."
The young man obeyed.
When Konyo entered Akuma's home, she was immediately struck by a sense of dread from the musty, well preserved old house. It was a small house, and typical of the style used nearly a thousand years before. Somehow, this building was the only surviving building of Akuma's entry into Ningen-do, and with that thought the dread passed quickly, replaced by a feeling of curious familiarity. She smiled, caressing the walls. "Akuma, you old fool. We warned you about your treachery."
On the far side of the room was a small shrine, still stained with blood. Candles sat on a small table, which was remarkably free of dust. A red tinged knife and bowl sat in the center of the table, waiting to be used.
With a smile on her face, Konyo took the knife and cut across her palm, letting the blood drip along the knife into the bowl.
She whispered softly, "Father to darkness, I am Shiba. The Phoenix will fall to your might... you need but give the word."
In response, the darkness smiled.