One Thousand Years of Darkness: Embracing the Darkness
by Togashi Masurao
The midday sky was lit by the many fires raging throughout the village. All over peasants were screaming and fleeing, dead and dying, crying and mourning, some even fought.
Another body fell to the ground, but Masurao spared it only a quick glance; he had to deal with the ashura hovering before him. Far to his side something exploded, but it did not faze Masurao.
The creature scrutinised its opponent and decided how to deal with him. The man seemed too quick for its bow and he would resist most of its magic: close combat seemed the best option. With unnatural speed and without mercy the Chosen of Fu Leng soared down at Masurao and attacked him with its Tainted blade.
Masurao, however, met all its attacks; strike after strike, cut after cut and blow after blow was dodged, deflected or parried. Suddenly the ashura broke its attack and hovered backwards. It emanated a feeling of trepidation and rage.
A lopsided grin appeared on Masurao's face and he exclaimed, "What is wrong, creature? Why do you hesitate? Finding yourself to come short?"
The creature's outlet of rage increased and was joined by a sense of futility. It threw its bow and sword at Masurao's feet.
Masurao's laughter shot through the sky like thunder, it seemed to drown out the roaring flames. "Do you actually believe that the petty explosions from you and your weapons will kill me? Or even wound me?"
The creature's expressions changed to indifference and a sense of eventual triumph.
"Counting on your master to revive you?"
The ashura did not respond in any way.
"Good. Then, before you die, let me show you why you can't beat me."
The ashura suddenly emanated but one thing, the one thing it had never known before: fear.
* * *
"I am sorry," the peasant said softly, hid head touching the floor, "but the Dragon have claimed these lands. We pay our taxes to them now."
"That is unacceptable!" The Obsidian Magistrate roared as he kicked over the only table in the meagre house. "You owe fealty to the Emperor and to him alone! You know the penalty for this transgression, don't you?"
The peasant suddenly sat up, face full of fear and exclaimed, "But, my lord, the Dragon will retaliate!"
The Magistrate backhanded the peasant, sending the man flying through the room until he hit the wall, and turned his back to the whimpering heimin. "The Glorious Son of Heaven does not fear the measly reprisal of the Dragon. What could they manage against us?"
"More than you would want to know," the peasant replied. His voice, however, was different now: bolder, deeper and more confident.
The Obsidian Magistrate put his hand on the hilt of his sword and slowly turned around. The shock of seeing a large, more-than-able-bodied man instead of a feeble peasant was minimal. The man had seen stranger things during his time in the service of Fu Leng. The shock of being eviscerated by the katana of this mysterious 'peasant', however, was not quite as insubstantial.
As the magistrate sagged to the floor, his killer flicked the blood of his blade and sheathed it. "The Emperor will come to know that he should not meddle in the affairs of the Dragon," he whispered to himself and smiled when he heard the sounds of battle in the village. No servant of Fu Leng would escape their wrath.
"You have performed admirably, Maigo-san," a seemingly disembodied voice whispered.
"Was there any doubt about that?" Maigo replied. "Or were you just spying on me for the fun of it, Kumaso-san?"
"Now, now," Kumaso said as his featureless form stepped out of the wall. "You are very important to us, Maigo-san, I cannot allow anything to happen to you. Our master is quite fond of you."
Maigo sniffed disdainfully at the notion of Goju being his master, but said nothing.
Kumaso laughed out loud. It Maigo's skin crawl to hear and see a mouthless man laugh and that made the ninja laugh even louder. "Once you fully embrace the Shadow," Kumaso said, splitting his face with a grin, "you won't think of me as an abomination."
Maigo had to fight the urge to step back from Kumaso when his face suddenly displayed a grinning mouth and nothing else. "I will never be a faceless slave to Goju, Kumaso. Never."
"You sound awfully sure about that, Maigo," Kumaso responded, his voice dangerously soft. "What makes you believe you can resist?"
"Here," Maigo said as he pulled out a small bundle of cloth from his robes and unfurled it with a flicking motion, sending the contents flying at Kumaso. "Catch."
Kumaso's hand snapped out to catch the object, but when he touched it his entire hand burned with intense pain. He threw the tiny thing on the floor and looked at it. "Crystal," the ninja hissed. "How dare you!" When he looked up Maigo was gone.
"He is willful," another amused voice said.
"He is young and headstrong," Kumaso remarked, "but I will get him nonetheless!"
"Not unless the master allows it, Kumaso-san. And we wouldn't want to anger him, now would we?" the voice stated more than asked.
"No, we don't."
"Good. I see we understand each other. Now here's what we *are* going to do about Maigo-san."
* * *
As Masurao strode through the carnage, occasionally checking the ground for anything useful, several peasants approached him.
"Thank the Fortunes! You have saved us, sama!"
Masurao turned his head and looked over his shoulder at the peasants. He said nothing and did nothing.
"We owe our lives to your arrival and help, sama," another man remarked, unsure if their saviour had heard them before.
"I see," Masurao mused. "Good. Let's talk about my reward then."
The peasants looked at each other confused and one protested, "But, sama, we are not rich people! We possessed almost nothing and what little we had is all but razed."
Masurao turned around slowly and face the peasants. In response the heimin instinctively took several steps backwards, having seen how the Obsidian Magistrates could react to protests. But Masurao did not attack. He smiled. "My good man, you misinterpret my intentions," Masurao said friendly, casually. "What I ask of you is not material possessions! All I ask something small and insignificant. Let me show you what I mean."
* * *
Maigo was meditating in a small shrine that once was dedicated to one Fortune or another. Now it was nothing but a broken structure in a broken landscape. Maigo had found it perfectly suited for his needs. After he had cleared out the rubble that might have once been a statue of the shrine's Fortune, there was enough room for Maigo to sit and sleep.
Right now Maigo was hoping to come up with a way to escape this twisted land that was once his home. Though it was true that Maigo tapped into the powers of the Lying Darkness, he was not intent on losing himself to it. Every time Maigo called upon the Darkness' power he could feel the alien entity behind the powers. It was bent on tearing down his identity, one small piece at a time. Maigo often managed to bar it from his mind, but sometimes it proved stronger and then he could do very little to fight it. During meditation he was able to stave off most of the severe effects and win back some of the lost 'territory', but he knew he was slowly losing the fight at this rate. He knew he had to find an answer soon.
* * *
Masurao towered above the peasant strapped to the makeshift altar and raised his blade to free the young woman from her physical bonds. Just as he was poised to strike a bolt of green lightning hit him square in the chest. Though it did not harm him, the force of the impact was enough to send him flying.
"She is ours!" A coarse voice screamed. "You will not steal her away!"
Masurao hopped back on his feet and reached inside his pouch, retrieving a handful of small jade chips. He began chanting and the jade glowed in his hand. Finishing the spell he thrust his fist forward and as the jade was consumed a beam of lambent green light erupted from his arm.
The stranger raised his arms in an attempt to block the attack, but it seared right through. One of his arms was all but incinerated and his other arm and chest were badly burnt. Uttering a loud curse the man raised his one good arm and around him the bodies of fallen peasants were infused with unholy unlife.
Masurao swore under his breath; he had hoped the maho-tsukai was taken care of before and he knew that he should've burnt the bodies. Quickly he incanted several mystical syllables and started moving his arms as if throwing invisible objects. Almost instantly each motion was accompanied by balls of fire launching at the undead, turning them into cinders.
Much to his distaste Masurao noticed the man had gotten of a spell that had all but healed his wounds. With a smile the man drew a bloodstained katana and slashed a body next to his feet. The blood slowly drifted upward, like smoke and coalesced about seven feet off the ground. The stranger cut open two more bodies and that blood flowed towards the rest.
Within seconds a blob of blood easily the size of a man floated between Masurao and the maho-tsukai. It started to take on human features; arms and legs first, then the body took shape, a head formed and finally it landed on the ground: a seven foot tall samurai composed entirely out of blood.
Masurao smiled and said, "Impressive little trick, tsukai."
"It has only just begun!" the man yelled and he ordered the blood samurai to attack.
The blood spirit's face cracked with a twisted grin, like that of its controller, as it advanced upon Masurao. Masurao only now realised that he had lost his sword after the first attack and looked around for it as he retreated several steps. He found it to be too far away to get to it safely. The tsukai noticed and laughed triumphantly.
Up until now the blood samurai had appeared unarmed, but as it closed in on Masurao his hands grew wicked-looking talons the size of tantos. The creature clicked the talons against each other, obviously intending to proof their hardness. As it passed a wall of a derelict home it raked its claw through the wall easily, like a Kakita blade through stone.
Just as Masurao was about to start on a spell several oily, ink-black tentacles grabbed his arms and legs. The foul appendages originated from the maho-tsukai and he controlled them as if they were his own limbs.
Masurao struggled against his living bonds as he saw the clawed horror approach. Power welled up in his body and with a fierce shout and a flash of green light Masurao repelled the tentacles from his body. His effort, however, was too late and the blood samurai raked one of his claws through Masurao's abdomen. Grabbing his bleeding gut Masurao staggered backwards. With a growl he clenched his blood drenched hand and lashed out at the air between him and the spirit. The blood samurai faltered as if struck by an unseen force and dissipated, splashing on the ground as ordinary blood.
"Impressive," the tsukai said, "but it won't save you! The girl belongs to Fu Leng!"
Masurao let out a laugh through the blood. "You are a fool," he said. "Just because you are looking for someone of pure blood, does not mean that it has to be a girl who has not given birth yet!"
"Silence, fool! You are nothing to us and you cannot save the girl from her destiny! Now prepare to die and enter Fu Leng's service!"
Masurao, who had stood hunched because of his wound, suddenly straightened himself and relinquished the hold on his bleeding abdomen. Though the wound was large and deep, it did not seem to bother Masurao at all. As the tsukai watched in amazement small black tendrils shot from one side of the wound to the other and in moments they covered the entire wound. Seconds later the wound had entirely healed. Masurao extended his arm to his side, suddenly his sword shot through the air into his hand and he sheathed it.
Blinking in amazement the tsukai said, "What is this? How is it possible that... that..."
"I have such powers?" Masurao finished.
"You should be in the service of the Emperor! Not acting against him!" the tsukai spat.
Masurao cleared his throat from the blood and spat on the ground before the tsukai. As soon as the blood hit the ground it sizzled and burned as if it were acid. The tsukai watched in horror.
"I am not a witless pawn of the Taint, like you!" Masurao triumphantly shouted. "Where you dabble in the darker magic, I am master of arts so dark that you could not even begin to fathom them without losing your soul! Your master means nothing to me, for I have sought out and gained all this power by myself!"
The tsukai narrowed his eyes and hissed, "You cannot control the Taint. It is our Emperor's gift and by stealing it you have forfeit your life!"
"If your master wants these powers back, he'll have to come and get them himself! Until then there is nothing you can to do stop my power from growing. All the villagers I killed today strengthen me with their blood."
The tsukai looked around in mixed fascination and horror as he realised that the young woman on the altar was the only one left alive. "Perhaps," he said as he regained confidence," we can make a deal. I was under the impression you wanted to thwart our plan. I didn't know you were simply harvesting power."
"Again you assume too much, little man of maho. I did quite actually come here to stop your plan. I just didn't know after which peasant you were. That killing them all strengthened me was just a little bonus." Masurao stepped in closer and put his hand on the tsukai's shoulder. "I am, however, willing to make you another deal."
"What might that be?" the sorcerer asked curiously, yet terrified.
"I'll let the girl live," Masurao said as he moved his free hand backwards. "And you die." With those words a large bony spike shot out from Masurao's lower wrist and he thrust it through the maho-tsukai, impaling him upon it.
Masurao retracted the spike and watched as the tsukai hit the ground with a pleasing thud. He then walked over to the young woman, who laid bound and gagged on his altar, and asked, "I take it that you want to live?"
Desperate moans escaped her throat as she vehemently nodded her head.
"Then you shall have to live with the consequences," Masurao whispered. "I cannot let you go unblemished, or they will come after you again."
Masurao chanted softly and his eyes and mouth began to shine with a black light as he gathered power. He held the protesting woman down with one hand as Tainted essence started to flow from him and the surroundings into her. The woman closed her eyes and tried to scream, but couldn't, and when she opened her eyes again, they glowed a sickly green. With Tainted strength born of desperation she tore through her bonds, jumped off the altar and ran off.
"And now," Masurao said to himself, "a little diversion for my enemies."
Masurao raised his arms and yelled, "Rise, bodies of the death. Rise and aid me once more!" His entire body seemed to light up with a green light and from it hundreds of wispy tendrils drifted to the bodies littering the village. One by one they arose, animated by dark magic and congregated around Masurao.
"Kill anything who comes to investigate," Masurao commanded the zombies and left.
* * *
A pair of soft, careful hands started to caress Maigo's broad shoulders and chest. Maigo could feel soft breaths against his skin and smelled an exotic perfume. He knew it had to be the woman who once was Agasha Yuko.
"What do you want?" he gruffly said.
"That depends," she purred, "on what you want, Maigo-san."
"Good, then you can leave now."
"Come now, Maigo-san. I do not believe that you really want me to do that," Yuko said as her hands slowly moved down Maigo's body.
Without warning Maigo stood, nearly toppling Yuko over in the process. With his back to the woman he said, "You have no idea what I do or do not want. You do not even have the slightest bit of control over me, seductress. Now why are you here?"
Yuko straightened herself and took an insulted pose as she sat on the floor, legs spread out next to her in feigned innocence. She blew a lock of hair from her face and said, "That was rude. I just came her to see to your needs."
"Again, you have no idea what I need."
Yuko chuckled, "Why, you are still a man, are you not?"
"And you think you're still a woman, ninja?" Maigo laughed. "You live an illusion, an empty shell of what you once were and could've been, as a slave to the Shadow."
"You're tongue gets you into trouble, Maigo-san." Yuko said on a dangerous tone. "It could get you killed. And for what? You have nothing left. No father, a dead mother and a Tainted brother!"
"At least my brother is a free man."
"Do you really believe that? He has given into Fu Leng's call andů"
"Ha! You are a foolish woman, Yuko. My brother is in no way a slave to Fu Leng. Just as I am no slave to Goju."
"You sound jealous, Maigo. Perhaps you would like to be 'free' as well?"
Maigo looked over his shoulder at Yuko, "What do you mean, woman? What are you talking about?"
"Just that it sounds like you are planning to leave us. Leave us like your brother did."
"So you're here to see if I am about to desert the Clan? You would not be able to stop me, Yuko. Now leave. Tell your master he need no longer bother himself with me."
"That is not acceptable, Maigo," Yuko said and stood. As she did three faceless ninja entered the small shrine, seemingly stepping out of the walls.
Maigo smiled wryly. "I told you that you cannot stop me and you won't."
Yuko laughed as her face melted away and she advanced upon Maio with her followers.
Maigo ran out of the shrine and finally turned around to face his assailants. The first lunged at him from the shrine. Maigo grabbed the ninja and, using the ninja's own momentum spun around, throwing him back into the shrine.
Yuko cursed as she saw her followers sprawled across the floor. She stepped over them and out of the shrine, her ninja-to ready. She found Maigo still waiting unarmed. "I hope you are ready to die, traitor!"
Maigo sighed and slowly raised his arm, palm forward and said, "Let me show you something I have known for quite some time."
Before Yuko even had the time to gasp a tremendous gout of flame incinerated the ninja, turning her into ashes. Her three followers watched in dread how their mistress was disintegrated. When Maigo turned his attention they could only do one thing: flee.
Masurao was meditating on a stone near an abandoned village, when he sensed the presence of an approaching entity. Smiling Masurao hovered down the small hill on which the stone was situated.
"Greetings, spirit creature. What brings you here?" Masurao asked the man before him.
The samurai bowed and said, "It seems you already know about my origins, perhaps you also knew I was coming?"
"I sensed you were approaching and that you were not from Ningen-do, otherwise I know nothing."
"Very well," the man replied, "then I shall tell you. I am hengeyokai, a shapeshifter spirit, more precisely a ryu. I am an independent and minute fraction of the essence of an Elemental Dragon. My 'parent' was the Dragon of Earth. I have sought you out because of your heritage, Son of Fire, because only you can understand me now that the Dragons sealed Tengoku of from Ningen-do."
"Though I am honored by your appearance, I do not believe you would want to be around me. I have done things in the name of survival that would make most Obsidian Magistrates throw up by just mentioning them.
"What do you mean, Masurao-sama? It surely can't be that bad!"
"Before you speak again, my honored guest, let me show you some things. Then you can decide for yourself."
* * *
As the sudden feeling of vertigo subsided the shapeshifter noticed that they had been transported. Before them lay the ruins of a small kyuden, only its main structure was still standing.
"Where are we, Masurao-sama?"
With a flamboyant gesture Masurao indicated the kyuden and said, "Welcome to my humble adobe. But to be more precise, we are in Unicorn lands. Since there is no Clan presence here and because Otosan Uchi is far away, the Obsidian Magistrates do not come around here often. This way I can conduct my studies and experiments in relative peace. Now if you would follow me?"
The ryu nodded and as they proceeded, he looked around. He immediately noticed that the area was cleansed of the Taint. A sound caught his attention and he looked fast enough to see a shadowy form scuttle away.
Masurao noticed the spirit's distress and remarked, "Just a curious Ratling. They share a warren with the zokujin underneath the kyuden. We have a mutual agreement about our situation: we cooperate or we die."
Again the ryu simply nodded and followed his guide. They did not enter the actual kyuden, but descended into its bowels. The stairway was steeped in darkness, but Masurao's form glowed slightly, allowing the spirit-creature to at least find the steps without stumbling.
After a descent of at least one minute, the two men entered a large hall. The ceiling was almost ten feet high and the wall stretched out into darkness. Small globes with swirling fire kami were placed infrequently along the wall, casting a ghastly light on the many stone slabs. In the distance dark forms moved between slabs and occasionally someone -or something- moaned or growled. They continued to walk down the hallway until the ryu saw something that made him stop in his tracks.
Chained to the wall with jade manacles was a beautiful, young woman. The ryu's eyes widened as he saw that she was only scarcely clad and horribly scarred.
"What is this... this... this torture about, Masurao?" the creature exclaimed.
"Watch and learn, my naive guest," Masurao calmy said. He walked over to the woman and smiled at her. In response she spit into his face. Masurao wiped away the trickle of saliva and picked up a knife from a nearby table. With one quick cut Masurao trailed the knife across the woman's arm. To the woman's credit she did not scream, however, the black blood welling up from the wound clearly showed she was no human.
"Pekkle no Oni," Masurao explained, "one of the more subtle creatures of Jigoku. We've got some of the more insidious beasts down here as well."
"And why do you experiment with these creature, Masurao-sama?" the ryu asked, his faith in Masurao's goodwill slightly restored.
"Because I need their powers. I already have met with many a success."
"You had success in what?! What are you trying to do? Become an Oni yourself, perhaps?!"
"If I have to: yes. To fight your enemy, you must become your enemy. It is the only way to survive in this world."
"People have found other ways to survive!"
"Slaving under Fu Leng's yoke or fleeing to gaijin lands? That is not a life for a samurai! Not a life for me!"
"I had thought you wiser than that Masurao. The Taint consumes all: mind, body and soul. Not even you can fight it alone."
"Do you actually believe I do not know that? I have taken precautions long before I even took the Taint."
"Precautions?" the man-creature asked incredulously.
Masurao smiled, almost devilish. Suddenly a row of jade spikes tore through the skin on Masurao's back. The spines stood upright on his shoulder blades and trailed along his spine. The sound of jade tearing through Tainted flesh was sickening, but not hardly as much as the sounds of Masurao's wounds as they healed. Masurao's brow furrowed as he resisted the enormous pain from the jade searing his skin where the spikes protruded.
The ryu's mouth fell open, gaping at the horrible sight. "What are you? What have you become?" the ryu whispered.
Masurao laughed, but there was nothing pleasant about the sound. "Does it really matter? You need not fear me. On the contrary, I can help you return home, return to Tengoku."
"Really? You can?" the he was trying to restrain himself, joy was evident in the ryu's voice and eyes.
"Yes, but you'll have to die," Masurao said sternly. "The only way left to Tengoku is through Yomi, where I will send your soul."
"And why do I have to die?" the man-creature asked warily.
"Because your physical body would cause you trouble. Yomi is a jealous realm and it would change your body according to its own definitions. Your soul would not be affected by this."
"Very well. Just do it. As long as I am freed from this blasted realm." The ryu braced himself for what was to come.
Masurao nodded and suddenly he didn't seem evil at all, but more benevolent. His face was sad, as if he knew the world could not be helped and that the only escape was death. Slowly the former Dragon raised his hand and touched the ryu's forehead.
To the ryu the sensation was painless and rather peaceful. He felt himself slump to the ground and the last thing his ears registered were the chants of Masurao. Before he realised it his spirit was taken away to the realm of Yomi.
As Masurao finished his chants, as slim form in fiery red robes stepped out of the shadows, smiling.
"Well, Masurao-san, I'd almost think you were after my title," the smaller man said with a grin.
Masurao grimaced slightly and the spikes returned below his skin. He then turned to the other man and said, "You need not fear your position as Master of Lies, Jubei-san. After all, you had to work hard for it."
Isawa Jubei chuckled as he brought back the memory of killing Asako Kaushen. "It was work," the Dark Phoenix said, "but I wasn't that hard. Kaushen was a fool that relied solely on his lies to protect him, yet he had no power to back them up. Finding him was the hardest part."
Masurao smiled cruelly. "Indeed, I met him once. I truly hope you are smarter and more loyal than he."
"I will not tell you to trust me, but you can be certain that we share the same goals. The Bloodspeakers no longer serve Fu Leng. He crossed my master in a grievous way. We welcome you as our ally."
"Everyone needs allies to survive in these dire times, yet I wonder what this alliance will cost me."
Jubei looked around and said, "We only request that I stay a little while. This place, your experiments, this is all very fascinating. But I really wonder about your nature, Masurao-san. What exactly are you?"
"I am many things, but I know what you are curious about. Let's just say that I do not wish to be called Masurao no Oni."
Jubei's eyes widened in amazement. "Then it is true? You stole the essence of an Oni? Without losing your name? How? This could be a great victory against Fu Leng!"
"Stay around and perhaps you will learn something."
* * *
Kumaso looked down upon the ashes that remained of Yuko with a sneer. "I knew they should've sent me instead of that weak woman!"
"You would've succeeded where Yuko-san failed, Kumaso-san?" a disembodied voice asked.
"Of course!" Kumaso exclaimed. "Yuko underestimated Maigo and she was unprepared. But it matters not! I will go after Maigo myself now and you won't stop me this time!"
"You are allowed to, but do not fail us. Go and exact your vengeance upon the deviant... should you happen upon his brother... kill him too."
* * *
Maigo spared his homelands one last glance before he headed down the road. Where he would go, he did not know. Perhaps he would find his brother, perhaps he would his death. At least he was free and no one would capture him ever again.