Hidden Emperor, Part Three
Hidden Emperor, Part Four
Hidden Emperor, Part Five
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Hidden Emperor, Part Three
"Damnit, you knock."
"No, Sanzo, YOU knock!"
"If the two of you don't shut up," Agetoki growled, stepping off his horse and swinging the large sack over his shoulder, "I'll knock you both OUT."
Toku and Sanzo looked at each other, and they both knocked.
It had been about three weeks since we left Otosan Uchi, carrying with us the semi-conscious body of Toturi the First (that's what was in the sack). He had apparently consumed some sort of Zokujin rock-cleansing fluid and would be inebriated for several months. In an attempt to save the Empire from his drunken Emperoring, my friends and I had conspired with now regent Takuan and Emerald Champion Kakita Toshimoko to have him safely hidden away in Unicorn lands until he sobered up.
But this place looked weird. We were supposed to meet this girl Toshimoko knew, Iuchi Shahai. This looked like the address, but there was a big sign outside that said "The Dark Sanctuary." Right above that another sign said, "Under Construction - sorry about the mess!"
"What do you suppose they do in a 'Dark Sanctuary'?" I asked Agetoki while we waited for them to answer the door.
"Um... dark stuff?" Agetoki replied, shrugging.
It took me a second to realize that was seriously his answer. Before I could say anything, the door opened, and a thin young woman in purple and white robes answered.
"May I help you?" she asked, standing in the door so we couldn't see what was behind her.
"I'm Yasuki Garou. We were sent by Kakita Toshimoko," I said, "He said you would help us."
She rolled her eyes. "That crazy old lush. Is he at it again?"
"At what again?" Sanzo asked.
She sighed. "I happen to know a few gaijin spells. Among them are a few choice benedictions against the influence of poisons and alcohol. So, what do you know but every time Toshimoko falls off the wagon again, he stumbles his liquored old arse out here so I can clean him up again. Is that him in the sack?"
"No, no," Agetoki replied, smiling, "It's the Emperor! But it IS Toshimoko's sack."
Shahai's face froze. "Maybe you'd better come inside."
The four of us entered, following the small priestess, Agetoki still lugging Toturi without effort. I glanced around when we got inside. The walls were black and green stone, dripping with slime and moss. In the distance, clanking metal and the hiss of steam rose.
"Spooky," Toku said.
"Thank you," Shahai said, "I like it."
"So... what do you do in a Dark Sanctuary, Shahai?" I asked.
"Dark stuff," Shahai said, exasperated, "Just follow me. And don't touch anything."
"What's THIS?" Sanzo whispered to me, holding up a big black knife he'd taken off a table, "Looks EVIL!"
"Put that down!" I snapped back, snatching it away from him.
"What's going on back there?" Shahai asked, turning.
"Er, nothing!" I replied, quickly hiding the blade behind my back and slipping it in my scroll satchel so she wouldn't see.
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously and kept walking. "In here," she pointed to a door at our left.
"Guys," Agetoki whispered, "I have a bad feeling about this chick."
"No kidding," I replied, "Total Demon Bride action here."
We followed her into the room anyway. There was a big wooden table in the middle, a large window at one end, and a rack of scrolls against the wall. Agetoki dumped Toturi out of the sack onto the table.
"I'm a good little doggie!" Toturi mumbled, staring at his feet.
I'm a shugenja, so I walked over to get a look at her scrolls out of professional curiosity.
"Get away from those!" Shahai snapped, slamming the door.
"Er... okay..." I glanced back at the rack, "What does 'Drawing Out the Darkness' mean?"
"Never you mind," she replied, smiling tightly, "Now let's get a look at our friend here."
I went over to look out the window with Toku while she checked out the Emperor. In the distance, we could see a large army of people, trudging slowly across the horizon. They carried no banners, displayed no mons. They walked slowly, their heads down, the dust of the road swirling around them. Their armor shone a dull red in the sunset.
"Scorpions," Toku said.
"How many?" I asked.
Toku counted for a second. "All of them," he said, "What do you think they're doing so far north?"
"I don't know," I said, staring out at them again, "Probably nothing to do with us."
"Okay, before we begin," Shahai said, choosing a scroll from the rack and looking it over, "I must know something. The spells I cast are very sensitive to dark magics. Any interference from the powers of darkness could... twist the spell. Are any of you carrying any such things on you?"
"Nope," I said.
Agetoki shook his head.
"Not me," Toku said.
"You mean, like, maho, right?" Sanzo asked uncertainly.
"Yes," Shahai replied, looking at him seriously.
"Oh," Sanzo said, "No, no. None of that stuff." He chuckled, relieved.
Shahai scowled at him. "What did you THINK I was talking about?"
"Well, you know, er..." Sanzo blushed, "Just never mind. It's cool."
Shahai shook her head. "The things I put up with for the Empire. Let's begin. Agetoki, Sanzo, hold Toturi down."
Agetoki grabbed Toturi's shoulders and Sanzo took his feet. Shahai unfurled the scroll, clasping a large piece of jade in her other hand, and stood by his side. She slowly began chanting, and the jade began to glow a shadowy blue.
Toturi looked up at Shahai. "Hello, Unicorn!" he said happily, "Can I go for a pony ride after this?"
Shahai just kept chanting, ignoring the raving Emperor. I sat down in a chair to watch. Something in my satchel stuck in my back uncomfortably. I wondered what it could be; I usually only carried scrolls in there. I reached back to--
"Wait!" I shouted, "Stop the spell!"
I whipped off my satchel and threw it to the floor. When I drew out the black knife, it was already glowing green, feeding off of the magics of Shahai's spell.
"This looks bad!" I said, "What's happening?"
"By the Seven Thunders!" Shahai screamed, "That's the Obsidian Blade! One of the most powerful artifacts of darkness in Rokugan, beneath only the Hand and the Bloodswords! The Dark One only knows what it's doing to my spell!"
I figured this would be a bad time to mention the Bloodsword I was carrying around, too.
A large green ball of energy appeared above the table, pulsing wickedly.
"Er..." Toku said, "What do we do now?"
"HEAD FOR THE HILLS!" Agetoki shouted. He grabbed Sanzo and Shahai and jumped for the window. Toku and I were a step behind him, leaping outside as the room exploded into green fire and demonic laughter behind us.
We sat in the bushes outside for a second, catching our breath and trying to avoid eye contact with Shahai.
"Well," she said tersely, "There goes my laboratory. I hope you're happy, Crab. By the way, I think I'll take THIS back now." She snatched the Obsidian Blade out of my hand. I just sort of tried to look embarrassed.
"Hey, guys?" Toku asked quietly, "Did anybody grab the Emperor?"
"Fortunes, no!" Agetoki gasped, "He was still in there!"
Shahai threw her hand over her face. "Egad. There's no telling what that surge did to him, but I bet it wasn't pretty."
"BUK-GAWK!" The noise came from above.
We all looked up. A small black chicken was perched on the edge of the windowsill, wearing a very tiny version of Toturi's crown. It flapped down onto the ground near us.
With a sigh, Agetoki snatched it, stuffed it back in the sack, and sat down heavily on a rock.
"Well, I hope you're happy with yourself, Yasuki Garou," Shahai hissed, "You've just turned our Empire's last hope for peace into a chicken."
"You can... uh... you can fix that, right?" Sanzo asked.
"No, actually I can't," she said quietly, "I guess maybe I could but MY LABORATORY WAS JUST DESTROYED!" That last was said very loudly and directly into my face.
"What do we do now?" Toku whined helplessly.
"The Phoenix!" Agetoki said, "The wise men of the Phoenix will know what to do!"
"Yeah sure," Shahai grumbled under her breath, "Need some magic done, call a Phoenix. Nobody ever trusts the Unicorn." She shoved the Obsidian Blade under her obi with a disdainful sniff.
"Do you want to come with us, Shahai?" Toku asked, smiling amiably, "We could use an extra shugenja!"
Shahai just turned around and left, shaking her head and muttering.
"Well, that's that," Sanzo said, "Good work, Garou. You killed the Emperor"
"Hey," I said, "He's not dead, he's just a chicken! Besides, this wouldn't have happened if YOU hadn't decided to kidnap him in the first place."
Sanzo shook his head. "Well, we HAD to after Matsu Thugatoki here beat the living tar out of him."
Agetoki spat on the ground. "Well, if TOKU--" he trailed off, pointing at Toku, searching for something to say.
Then we realized Toku hadn't really done anything wrong this time. Toku smiled.
That was pretty sobering.
So we quietly got back on our horses and headed for the mountains.
Hidden Emperor, Part Four
Sanzo stood on top of the mountain and he screamed.
A full minute later, he came back to the campfire, his eyes wild and his hair sticking out.
"What was all that about?" Agetoki asked over his bowl of rice.
Sanzo sat down and stared at the fire bitterly. "We've been out here for six weeks," he snapped, "I want to go home."
"We can't go home till we've cured the Emperor," Toku said.
"The Emperor's not sick," Sanzo said, "He's a drunken chicken. He's a chicken and it's all Garou's fault." He pointed at me, a berserk cast to his face.
"MY fault?" I replied.
"Let's not start this again," Agetoki replied, "Face the facts. The Emperor's a drunk. We kidnapped him to sober him up and somehow now he's a chicken and we're responsible. Now we have to find the Phoenix so they can change him back before the Empire crumbles in his absence."
"Nice exposition, Agetoki," I said.
"Thanks," Agetoki said, taking another mouthful of rice.
A month and a half after our disastrous visit to Iuchi Shahai's Dark Sanctuary, we found ourselves in the Phoenix Mountains. We were trying to find the shugenja of the Phoenix Clan, the only ones in Rokugan who knew enough of magic to potentially cure the Emperor's condition, but just ended up doing a lot of shivering in the cold and getting hopelessly lost.
"We are NEVER gonna find these guys," Sanzo whined.
"Who, the Phoenix?" Agetoki asked.
"Who the--? Of course the Phoenix!" Sanzo snapped, "And we're NEVER gonna find them! After Tsuke's little fireworks display on the Day of Thunder there's only like four of them left! They could be anywhere!"
"I would assuage your fears, Sanzo," Agetoki said, "But I think that you live to complain, and to remove your reason for living would be cruel."
"Yeah, thanks dude," Sanzo threw a stick in the fire and stormed off. He'd been pretty mad since we hit the mountains. His new horse was afraid of heights and had bucked him off about six times, the last time directly onto a big nest of fire ants. So he complained a lot. And scratched frequently.
Toku got up and walked over to the burlap sack holding the small black chicken that used to be Toturi the first. It clucked feebly. "Hey, guys?" Toku said, "Maybe we ought to let Toturi out of the sack for a little while. It can't be good for him to be in there all the time."
"Why not?" Agetoki asked.
Toku shrugged. "I just think he should get a little exercise or something. If he's going to be a chicken, he should be a healthy chicken, at least."
"But if you open the bag, he'll fly away!" I said, "And then we'll really be screwed!"
"He won't fly away!" Toku said, "I grew up on a farm. Trust me, chickens don't fly very well."
"Well, okay," I said warily. "But keep an eye on him. If he gets away, you have to catch him."
"Gotcha, Garou!" Toku grinned.
He opened the bag.
The chicken flew away.
We all just sort of watched it, stunned, as the little black chicken flapped gracefully off into the sunset.
"What the HELL???" Agetoki boomed, leaping to his feet, "I THOUGHT YOU SAID CHICKENS CAN'T FLY, TOKU!!!"
"Er... they can't," Toku said, still holding the empty sack in bewilderment.
"Technically," Sanzo said, leaning against a tree and rubbing his back, "Toturi's a rooster."
"But he's--" Toku stuttered, "It's the same thing! Rooster, chicken, doesn't make any difference! Chickens aren't supposed to fly that well!"
"Wow," Sanzo remarked, shading his eyes with one hand, "Look at him go."
"He IS the Emperor," I said, "And the Lion Clan Thunder, too. Maybe that's why he flies so well."
Agetoki growled, throwing his rice away and punching a tree, "Well what the *EXPLETIVE DELETED* are we gonna do now??"
"Let me see," I said, hopping onto a rock and trying to track the black chicken's flight path, "He's headed for a big monastery. He'll probably try to stop there and look for food."
"More likely sake," Sanzo said, "It IS Toturi."
So the four of us quickly gathered up our stuff, stamped out the fire, and ran back to the horses. We galloped through the mountains until the monastery was in sight. It was a elaborate stone building, carved right into the side of the mountain. Gigantic crow statues, the symbols of Shinsei, perched on either side of the entrance. A gentle waterfall trickled to one side of the monastery, and the roll of drums could be heard somewhere from within. A large sign hung above the gates: "THE HOUSE OF TAO." A smaller sign hung below that: "OVER 2,000,000 ENLIGHTENED." And a very small, new, handwritten sign below that: "under new management."
"Sure is beautiful!" Toku said, "And so peaceful."
"Peaceful. Yeah. Whatever," Sanzo said, "Let's go find that chicken."
So we went up to the gates, and knocked with one of the big bronze rings mounted on the door.
"Don't touch anything this time, Sanzo," Agetoki warned, heaving his massive form off of his horse and taking his bearings.
"If this is about the Obsidian Blade thing again, that was Garou's fault for--" Agetoki looked at Sanzo and Sanzo was silent.
The massive doors creaked open. A tiny man stood before us, his head shaven and his torso bare. He bore a large cricket tattoo on his chest. "Greetings, samurai," he said in a slow voice, "I am Hoshi Maseru. How may I help you on your path this day?"
"We were looking for a chicken," I said, "He came this way."
The monk's brow furrowed in concentration. "That's some sort of philosophical question, right?"
We looked at each other.
"No, no, don't tell me!" he said, holding up his hands, "I have to figure it out for myself. åYou are looking for a chicken.' A chicken symbolizes fear, right? Samurai have no fear. So, you seek fear in order to better know courage! Exactly! So you seek to test your might!"
"No, wait," Agetoki said.
"NO TIME TO WAIT FOR ENLIGHTENMENT!" the little monk shouted, "KIIII-YAII!!" and he charged at Agetoki, full speed.
Maseru flew into a leaping kick. Agetoki sidestepped, grabbed the monk's belt, and spun, throwing him into the heavy bronze doors with a loud slap. The monk's eyes rolled back and he slid down the wall in a heap.
"Great!" Sanzo exclaimed, throwing out his arms in exasperation, "THERE you go again, Matsu! We come here to ask the monks for help and what's the first thing you do? You kill one of them. Nice job."
"No!" Maseru said, quickly hopping to his feet, "I'm not dead! I'm okay!" He patted the dust off his chest. "Boy, did that hurt."
"I hope that it did," Agetoki replied, "For your sake, do not try that sort of thing again."
"We're not philosophers, by the way," I added, "We really did come here looking for a chicken. A black one. About this big," I held out my hands.
"He's a rooster, actually," Toku said.
"Oh!" Maseru said, nodding, "Sorry about the misunderstanding; I'm new here. Chicken, hmm?" He pursed his lips in thought and looked at whatever philosophers look at when they're thinking. "Nope, sorry. Can't answer that for ya. Maybe you should talk to the boss."
"We'd like that," I said, "It's very important."
So Maseru lead us into the House of Tao. It was a nice place, with lots of little Shinsei statues, story gardens, and beautiful tapestries depicting past Monks of the Month. I glanced at this month's tapestry. It had a picture of a bald woman holding a katana, with a tattoo of a crow on her forehead. The caption said: "Hoshi Eisai! What a babe!!" and the two exclamation points were connected with a curved line, making a little smiley face. I concluded that these monks must be very sheltered.
"Hoshi's in here," Maseru said, opening a door and leading us outside. The courtyard was very large, which was a good thing since its occupant was also very large. He was a massive dragon with the torso, arms, and head of a man, coiled in the center of the room with his back to us. A golden suit of armor gleamed dully at his side, hanging unused. A man in green armor decorated in snake and dragon motifs was speaking to him diligently.
"Ahem," Maseru said, "Lord Hoshi, Daini-sama, there are some men here to see you."
"The Daini-sama," the man in green corrected tersely, "How many times do I have to tell you people, it's THE Daini now?"
Maseru coughed nervously. "Um. I'm sorry, the Daini-sama."
"Anyway, they came here to talk to you about a chicken," Maseru said.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU???" Sanzo exclaimed.
It took me a second to realize he was talking to Hoshi. Growing up on the Kaiu Wall, I was used to seeing monsters on a daily basis, so another one didn't bother me. Plus I'd fought on the Day of Thunder with Agetoki and Toku and seen all matter of creatures in Fu Leng's Army. I forgot that Sanzo had "called in sick" that day.
"Excuse me?" Hoshi said stiffly, looking over his shoulder at us.
"Never mind him," Agetoki said, stepping in front of the slack-jawed ronin. "I am Matsu Agetoki, Lion Clan general. These are my compatriots - Yasuki Garou, shugenja of the Crab, Toku, Captain of the Imperial Guard, and our stable boy, Sanzo."
"They've got a big lizard in their backyard," Sanzo mumbled, still ogling Hoshi blankly.
"Greetings, Matsu-san," Hoshi boomed deeply, turning his massive body as his scales rippled in the twilight. "Would you like a tattoo?" He reached for a large knife and paintbrush on a table nearby.
"Er... no, that's all right," Agetoki said.
Hoshi shrugged, frowning slightly. "To each his own. By the way, this is my friend Daini."
"THE Daini," the samurai said, folding his arms tightly.
"Hm," Hoshi said, "The Daini here's been spending a little time with the Naga. Now he wants me to help him on their holy war to crush the Dragon Clan daimyo, who also happens to be his brother."
"SISTER," Daini said, "Hitomi's my SISTER!"
"Yeah, okay Daini," Hoshi said, not looking at him, "Maybe you'd better go take a walk or something. You're so tense lately. Loosen that big helmet."
"THE Daini!" Hoshi said, "Fine! I used the little article Qamar gave you. Walk. Now." He made little shooing motions with his hands.
The Daini mumbled something under his breath and stormed off.
Hoshi shook his head. "Weird kid," he said, "That whole family is screwed up. Satsu was a just an all around freak, stalking poor Yakamo like that. Learned his lesson. Then there's Yukihira the sword freak --boy needs a girlfriend not another sword, you ask me. And what kind of name is Yukihira? Anyway their brother Hitomi's the worst of the bunch. Up there in the mountains startin' wars and givin' out tattoos to everybody that comes by and suchlike." He heaved a mighty sigh. "How many tattoos did she do last week, Maseru?" he asked.
"Six more, by our accounts," the monk replied.
Hoshi sighed. "I better get cracking then."
"Wait," Toku interrupted fearfully, "The Dragons are at war? Why?"
"Eh. Nagas. Who knows?" Hoshi said, "They claim the firstborn of the Qamar was stolen by their tattoo cult. Some guy named Kazaq. Probably a bunch of bull."
"Actually, Kazaq's--" Sanzo quit in mid sentence after Agetoki nonchalantly punched him in the throat. Sanzo nodded at Agetoki and stepped back, gasping.
Great. Sanzo's landlord, the one we left unconscious next to a tattoo parlor, was the firstborn of the Akasha. There was another national catastrophe for us to add to our list. I made careful note to avoid eye contact with Hoshi at this point.
"Gosh, that sucks," Toku said quietly. I could tell the little guy felt bad about starting another clan war and all.
"Eh. That's life," Hoshi said, "Hey, little fella, you want a tattoo?" He reached for the knife and paintbrush again.
"No, that's okay," Toku said, "My mom would kill me if I got one." Hoshi shrugged, disappointed.
"What's with you and the tattoos?" Sanzo asked, his voice hoarse.
"What do you mean?" Hoshi replied, "You want one?" He grabbed his tools again.
Maseru, thankfully, interrupted at this point. "Master, they come looking for a chicken."
"A what?" Hoshi said, letting the knife where it lay.
"A... chicken," Maseru replied.
"Egads, no," Hoshi said, "Not now!"
"No, we're serious," I said urgently, "A very good friend of ours was transformed into a chicken via maho. It got away and flew in this direction. Have you seen it?"
"I'm serious too!" Hoshi exclaimed, his tail switching nervously, "I must tell you something now, something I have told no other. Are you prepared?"
"Yeah, I guess we're prepared," I said, looking at my friends nervously.
"The prophecy..." Hoshi said, his voice shaking the mountain, "The prophecy of the Black Chicken!!!"
"That's it, I'm leaving," Sanzo said, turning around. Agetoki grabbed him by the nape of the neck.
"The Black Chicken comes..." Hoshi said, closing his eyes sadly and leaning back on his coils, "And he carries in his noble claws the only chance for hope, the last chance for peace for all of Rokugan... Only the greatest heroes in the Empire can find the Black Chicken... the Firemane, the Innocent, the Wizard, and the Fool. These four bring hope, but they shall also bring chaos and destruction to all in their path..."
"Hm," Sanzo said, "We'd better avoid those guys."
Agetoki looked at him for a second. "That's us, you nimrod."
Sanzo blinked. "No way. Really? Which one am I?"
"Guess," Agetoki said dryly.
"Hey!" Sanzo shouted, "I'm no Fool! That must be Toku!! I must be the Wizard or something."
"I'm the shugenja," I said, "So obviously I'm the Wizard. Agetoki's Firemane. Toku's the Innocent."
"After that night with Purple Parlor with Chinoko," Agetoki chuckled, "Sanzo's certainly no Innocent."
"Huh?" Toku said, "What happened then? Who's Chinoko?"
"Can we get back on track here?" Hoshi asked politely. We all sort of settled down and stopped giggling at Sanzo's expense. "Anyway," Hoshi said, "Only the greatest heroes in the Empire can find the Black--"
"You said that part already," I interrupted.
"Oh," Hoshi replied. He thought for a minute. "Sanzo got me all screwed up back there. So anyway, the Chicken's like really important and stuff. Find it. I haven't seen it, but I'll help you out. Maseru will go with you."
"I know these mountains well!" Maseru said enthusiastically.
"Good," Toku said, "Cause Sanzo got us lost."
"ME???" Sanzo said?
"Shut up or I'll punch you in the throat again," Agetoki said.
Sanzo shut up.
So we turned to leave the House of Tao, disappointed that we were no closer to finding Toturi, but somehow rejuvenated by Hoshi's news of the prophecy and Maseru's offer to help. We couldn't fail now. Destiny was on our side. I was the last one out of the door.
"Hey," Hoshi said, "You with the hat."
"Yeah?" I said, turning around.
"You want a tattoo? Won't take long!"
I turned around. "It's not going to be of anything stupid, is it?"
"Only what's in your soul," he said proudly, taking up the knife and the brush, "I give you the power to release your inner fire!"
"So, like what if it's a kitten or something weird like that?"
"Er..." Hoshi said evasively, looking at his brush, "That almost never happens."
I thought about it for a minute.
"Sure," I said, "What the hell."
TO BE CONTINUED...
Hidden Emperor, Part Five
"So, let's see it!" Sanzo said, excited.
"Yeah, let's see your tattoo, Garou," Toku added.
I pulled up my right sleeve, showing my upper arm. I peeled away the bandage to reveal the fresh tattoo.
They all just sort of stared.
I was in the middle of Dragon territory with my friends Toku (Captain of the Imperial Guard), Matsu Agetoki (General of the Lion Cavalry), and Sanzo (just Sanzo). We were currently searching for the Emperor, Toturi the First. Through some fault of our own and other factors too bizarre to explain, he'd been transformed into a chicken. In our search for the Imperial Chicken, we'd stopped by the House of Tao, where Hoshi the half-dragon offered us advice, a prophecy, and the able assistance of the young monk, Maseru. He'd also offered us all magical tattoos. I was the only one who accepted.
"Wow," said Sanzo, "It's a chick in a bikini with a sledgehammer! I like it."
Toku cocked his head to read the banner that swirled around the scantily clad young girl. "It says 'Crabs do it sideways,'" Toku said, confused, "What's that mean?"
"I'd rather not know," I replied, "This thing'll come off, right?"
Maseru's face dropped. "Of course it does not come off! It is an expression of your soul!"
I blinked. "Huh? What the hell does this have to do with my soul?? Hoshi's just a crackpot hack tattoo artist and doesn't want to take any responsibility for the crap he carved all over my arm!! I have to live with this!"
Maseru shook his head sadly. "It is funny. How everyone seems to say that. You just don't understand."
I rubbed my arm again. I hoped it wasn't getting infected. "Easy for you to say!" I said, "You just got a cricket! Look at this!!" I showed him my arm again.
"It is quite nicely done, regardless of the content, Garou," Agetoki observed.
"Yeah, well..." I looked at it again, "I guess she is kind of hot. Probably won't look that cool when I'm seventy-nine, though... Oh well. No time to do anything about it now. What do you think the thing does?"
"Does?" Sanzo asked.
"Yeah," I responded, "All these Dragon tattoos are supposed to give you magical powers."
"I didn't know that! I'm going back!" Sanzo exclaimed, turning his horse around. Agetoki gave him a dark look and he stopped.
"Maseru, what does yours do?" I asked the monk, who was walking along quietly at my left.
"My tattoo?" the monk replied. He smiled broadly. "It allows me to communicate freely with all varieties of crickets."
I stopped walking. "That's it?" I asked.
Maseru nodded. "That is spectacular, no? I count myself lucky."
I shook my head. "But my friend Togashi Mitsu was an ise zumi, and he could do all sorts of stuff. He could breathe fire and heal himself and run really fast and, well, all kinds of stuff."
"Ah," Maseru said, "Those tattoos must have been of Togashi's own blood. This new breed of ise zumi: myself, yourself, and a few others, must make do with the blood of Hoshi or Hitomi. It is diluted somewhat. Sometimes there are... odd effects."
"Glad I didn't get a tattoo now," Sanzo mumbled.
We kept walking. I didn't feel like talking to anybody. My arm was throbbing something fierce, too.
"The pass gets treacherous up ahead," Maseru warned, "And Hitomi's scouts are everywhere. I will scout ahead, and make certain there is no ambush."
The little monk carefully, silently made his way through the curving pass while we waited. He reached a particularly narrow section, looked around carefully, then turned back to us.
"I believe it is clear!" he shouted, "I see no one!"
Then three large bald men appeared on the cliff above Maseru and pushed a boulder over the side. The monk disappeared in a loud crash and a cloud of dust.
"Ouch," Sanzo winced, "I hope he's okay."
"Get those others!" the largest of the three men ordered.
"I, Matsu Agetoki, am prepared for you!" Agetoki shouted, drawing his katana as the three monks took a step forward.
Then six more ise zumi jumped over the edge of the cliff, dropping forty feet to land nimbly and begin running toward us. The one in front began glowing red.
"Run!" Agetoki said.
Which was easy for him to say. He had a horse. We turned and scampered back down the pass, the dark ise zumi of Hitomi barely a step behind. I turned a sharp corner and ducked under some bushes. I wasn't as fast as Agetoki or Sanzo, but I'd learned a few tricks about stealth from the Hiruma and the Nezumi.
"Hi," said a voice next to me.
I turned. A small, dark haired man covered in swirling green tattoos squatted next to me.
"Er... hi," I said, reaching slowly for my tetsubo.
"I'm Kobai," he said, nodding and smiling, "Nice tattoo you got there."
"Thanks," I said, "I'm Garou." Kobai's eyes flicked to my hand, which was now on the hilt of my tetsubo. So I kicked him in the face. A trick I learned from the Doji. I turned and ran from the bushes.
And came face to face with the three of Hitomi's ise zumi. One was on horseback and the other two were on foot. They had been saying something about giving up on the chase and going back when they all spotted me.
So six hours later there I was, chained to the wall in Kyuden Hitomi. Four very angry tattooed men stood before me. One of them, Kobai, was holding an icepack to his forehead.
The big one with the jet black skin leaned close to me and snarled. "I will ask you one more time, Crab," he spat, "What are you doing on our mountain? You are an assassin sent by Yakamo, admit it."
"Actually, Yakamo's got more important things to worry about than you freaks right now," I replied.
"Truly? I doubt it. I am Hitomi Kokujin," the big one smiled, standing tall and punching his chest, "I am the Wielder of Darkness. I am the Stealer of Souls. I am the right hand of the Moon and the Stolen Heart, the voice that screams to you at night. This is Hitomi Tashima, former Unicorn Magistrate. Now his very essence belongs to my divine mistress, his loyalty absolute. This is Hitomi Akuai, Dark Prophet, Manipulator of the Future. You have already met Hitomi Kobai, our Hitoden. We are the Warriors of the Dark Thunder." Kokujin sneered arrogantly.
"I've never heard of any of you," I said, "Oh, except for Kobai. I kicked him in the face a little while ago."
Kobai snarled and lunged at me. Tashima and Akuai grabbed his arms, holding him back. "Careful, Kobai!" Tashima warned, "Remember, we are only to question him! Hitomi wishes him to be healthy when he tortures him."
"Her, you idiot," Kokujin replied, smacking Tashima in the back of the head, "Hitomi is a woman."
"He is?" Tashima said doubtfully, rubbing his skull.
Kokujin just rolled his eyes and sighed.
Akuai sat on a stool nearby and looked at me like I were a particularly annoying stain on the wall. "I don't see what the big deal is," Akuai growled, "Just steal his soul, Kokujin. Then we can ask him whatever we want."
"Fool!" Kokujin roared, kicking Akuai in the side, knocking him off the stool with a yelp, "He is protected! The blood of Togashi already runs in his veins. See?" Kokujin pulled up my right sleeve to show the tattoo.
"Hoshi!" Akuai breathed fearfully, "This Garou is an ise zumi like us!"
"I wonder if his tattoo sucks like ours do," Kobai asked.
"Mistress Hitomi's tattoos do NOT suck," Kokujin said.
"I dunno, Kokujin," Tashima said, rubbing the white mask tattoo on his face, "You got your soul stealing tattoo from Togashi so yours rocks. My tattoo sucks, though. Just tells me whenever it's about to rain. Not really worth it when you consider how much it scared my horse first time he saw it."
"Mine lets me see in the dark a little," Kobai said, "What about you, Akuai?"
Akuai sat up. "Lets me control my bodily functions."
"What?" Tashima replied, "You mean like slowing your heartrate and stuff like that?"
Akuai looked embarrassed. "Er... no. That *would* be neat, though."
Kobai and Tashima glanced at each other. "What does it do, then?" Kobai asked.
"Well... um.... let's just say I wasn't the most popular man at the dinner table until I went to the tattooing chamber and just leave it at that," Akuai said, "I have much to thank Hitomi for." He clasped his hands reverently.
Kobai squinted, confused, looking over Akuai. "Akuai, where IS your tattoo, anyway?"
Akuai shrugged. "Right on my--"
"Shut up, all of you!" Kokujin commanded, "I swear, it's like living with a bunch of six year olds. You people are always, 'Hitomi, my tattoo sucks,' or 'Hitomi, I want a glass of water,' or 'Hitomi when do we get paid?' or 'Hitomi, the Naga are killing us again.' I swear you're all such a bunch of wussies. Make me want to purge the house all over again."
They all got quiet and looked embarrassed. Kokujin slapped Tashima in the head again, just for good measure.
"You. Crab," Kokujin said, turning his attention back to me. "The tattoo that Hoshi gave you. What does it do? What is its power?"
"I don't know," I replied, "I just got it today."
Kokujin sneered and looked at my arm again. "What does 'Crabs do it sideways' mean?" He scowled suspiciously. "Some sort of Yakamo propaganda?"
"Um, no," I said, wishing I were anywhere else. Beiden Pass would have been better than this.
Kokujin growled. "So what were you doing on our mountain, Crab?"
Oh well, I thought. Might as well tell them the truth.
"I don't suppose any of you have seen a black chicken, have you?"
They all looked at each other.
"It's Emperor Toturi," I explained, "He got really drunk so we kidnapped him and accidentally used maho to turn him into a chicken and then he flew off into the mountains. A black chicken. Rooster, actually."
"Enlightened madness!" Akuai exclaimed, "Kokujin, he's one of us!"
"Oh, shut up," Kokujin retorted, "I'm just going to kill this idiot and put him out of our misery."
"Good idea," Kobai agreed.
Then the door of the cell boomed open, and a large, muscular, bald man with four swords on his belt entered the room. His right arm was covered in twisted black crystal, crawling up onto his face. The rest of his body was painted in tattoos.
"Mistress Hitomi!" Kokujin said reverently, and they all bowed.
No way, I thought. No freaking way that's a chick. I blinked, shook my head, and wished I could rub my eyes. Obviously Kokujin was seeing something I wasn't.
"Hello, boys," he, I mean she, said gruffly, "How's our prisoner doing?"
"Utterly intractable," Kokujin said, "He is a Crab, tattooed by Hoshi. Obviously Yakamo and Hoshi conspire toward your demise, my mistress. He will not confess. I was about to send him to his ancestors."
Hitomi glanced over at me, and I made eye contact. Suddenly, the tattoo on my arm got very warm. Hitomi cocked her head slightly, and an odd look crossed her face.
"I don't know," she said sweetly, her voice very feminine of a sudden, "He doesn't seem all that bad to me."
Kokujin glanced back and forth, bewildered, "But mistress..."
"Unchain him," she ordered, "and return his equipment."
Akuai and Kobai quickly complied, unlocking the manacles on my wrists and giving me back my satchel of spells, tetsubo, and Ginawa's Bloodsword (I was going to HAVE to figure out something to do with that thing).
"Leave," Hitomi said abruptly, "All of you."
Kokujin and the others turned and left the room. I grabbed my hat and turned to follow them. Hitomi blocked my path, leaning on one door with a coy smile on her face. The tattoo heated up again.
"Where do you think you're going, Crab?" she asked.
"Um. Out there," I pointed, my voice cracking in fear. I felt ill.
"All in good time," she said and slammed the door.
The next morning, I limped out through the gates of Kyuden Hitomi, using my tetsubo for balance. Hitomi stood in at the gates, a little smile on her face and a flower behind her ear. She still wore the four swords, but had discarded the manly yellow kimono for a long green silk dress. The assorted tattooed men stood in a line, their arms folded, scowling maliciously.
In hindsight, she wasn't really all that bad. She was pretty when she stopped scowling all the time, and the crystal on her face and arm were quite pretty in the right light. And man. Was she in good shape. I digress.
"Thank you for the pleasant stay," I said.
"Thank *you*," she said with a weird grin. Kokujin sneered at me over her shoulder. I knew I was kicking an angry dog, but I couldn't resist.
"You know, Hitomi," I said, "You ought to grow your hair back out."
"Really, Garou?" she said, suddenly patting the back of her head, "You think that would look nice?"
"Well, you look fine now, but you might want to try a new look," I replied.
"Are you sure you can't stay, Garou?" she asked, her voice lilting and smooth. She put one hand on her hip and arched an eyebrow.
"Sorry," I said, averting my eyes, "I have to find the Emperor."
"Anything else I can do?" she asked, "You sure I can't come with you?"
I really didn't want to push my luck at that point. The effects of that tattoo could wear off any second, I was already a little ashamed of myself, and I wanted Kyuden Hitomi far behind me before she woke up again. "Er... no, thanks," I said, patting the pouch of Agasha potions and powders she had given me. "These should be plenty of help, thanks."
"You're sure?" she asked, her green eyes wide.
Kokujin stood directly behind her, mouthing the words "I-WILL-KILL-YOU-GAROU" over and over.
"Yeah, I'm sure," I said and I kept walking.
As soon as I got out of sight of the castle, I broke into a dead run. Well, as well as I could run in my condition; I was still kind of hobbling after the previous night. There would no doubt be some major changes in Kyuden Hitomi soon, and I knew Kokujin would be wasting no time sending his thugs out after me in retribution. I skidded to a halt, as a bald man leaped onto the path. How could they have been so quick? I reached for my tetsubo.
"Wait, Garou!" he said, "It's me, Maseru!"
"Maseru!" I exclaimed happily, "I thought Kokujin dropped a boulder on your head!"
"He did," Maseru said, "Just grazed me."
"You lucky little freak!" I said.
He shrugged. "Agetoki and the others sent me back to look for you. Toku's idea. He had a feeling that you would be okay, but wanted to keep looking for Toturi."
"Great!" I said, continuing along the path and pulling Maseru along beside me, "Why don't we hurry?" I glanced back in the path of the castle, expecting Tashima to gallop around the bend any second.
"Uh, sure, okay," Maseru said, "I don't think we need to hurry that much, though. The others aren't moving that quickly anymore."
"Why not?" I asked, stopping.
"Agetoki convinced them to join the Lion army," Maseru said.
"The Lion Army?" I replied, "What, are they attacking the Cranes again?"
"No," Maseru said.
"Um, no," Maseru looked at the ground, "Hm, they really should have thought of this, I suppose. This is probably a terrible inconvenience to you, Garou."
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"The Lions have apparently declared war on the Crabs."
TO BE CONTINUED...
All artwork above created by Rich Wulf