One Thousand Years of Darkness: The Price of Duty

The night sky was sparsely lit, only a few stars ventured out in these troubled times. Or that was what the hemin believed. Most dismissed such views as the delusions of the masses, but at least they retained something to believe in. Either way, what little light there was in the sky was quickly being dimmed by the growing pillar of smoke mixing with the gathering clouds. The tranquility of the dim sky served to sharply contrast the violence and noise on the ground.

In the middle of the chaos, a monk coolly walked past several panicking men, pieces of commands and conversation drifting by him like the ashes. Few that survived the night would remember the odd man, so calmly walking away from the catastrophe.

As the men ran past, toward the growing blaze, Nikkan stepped into a small entryway. Only partially feigning weakness, he leaned on his oddly curved walking staff, paying but half a mind to the words. It was a cautious half a mind, nonetheless.

"Fire! Send for the…"

"…the magistrate's quarter…"

On the streets of the small village, however, the growing fire provided more light and heat than anyone desired. The soft staccato of the growing rain provided an odd counter to the roar of the flame. But the monk was unconcerned; it would not be enough to ruin his plans.

The samurai that ran past reeked of the Taint, proud and loyal dogs of the new Hantei. Soon, the Imperial guards would abandon the site and any who were hurt by it. They would then begin to look for someone to blame. Occasionally, they even found the right person, not that it seemed to matter to them.

The small monk pulled his kasa over his features as several small explosions shook the ground. No, there was little chance that any would uncover his plans. Gaijin powder was very effective in that regard. Best of all, few expected it as it was still banned under Imperial law. Only two groups had ready access to the powder…and no one had ever accused Nikkan of being a Daidoji.

A mirthless chuckle escaped him as he thought again how the fortunes had turned. The kolat were once a fanged shadow, given less belief than children's tales and operating effectively out of that veil. Then, they were the greatest threat to the Emerald Throne that no one knew. In these desperate days, they may be its last, best hope.

Cautiously, Nikkan felt the pouch at his side. As expected, it bulged with the stolen scrolls that had brought him out this night. Troops movements, supply lines…the very heart of the intelligence they needed. With the mysterious fire consuming the magistrate's quarters none would ever know that this precious information had fallen into enemy hands.

The monk's reverie was cut short when he felt a pull from the elements. Nikkan was not yet so old as to forget the deeply rooted sensation of magic being called upon, especially when it was the order of those he fought. With a speed that belied his appearance, Nikkan moved quickly to find the source.

A tight hiss escaped him as he found a Fallen Phoenix drawing water kansen to his command. Bile rose in the monk's throat as the impure spirits flowed around his body. By chance or by design, the Phoenix was trying to save the records office. That was one thing Nikkan could not allow.

Without even a warning cry, steel flashed through the air striking true.

The spirits faltered and fled as the will to command them vanished. With unseeing eyes, the shugenja looked down at the sword point sticking through his chest. A thin trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth as words of power fled his mind.

With a sharp tug, the blade slid free of the Fallen's chest. Nikkan watched as the man's body slid off the steel, dying even as he fell towards the damp road. The little remaining dust was settled as his blood faintly pulsed free.

As quickly as it appeared, the blade was gone, once again nothing more than an oddly curved walking staff.

It struck Nikkan that he could feel another piece of his honor dying beside the man. Another action that a lifetime ago would have shocked him, now so common. Growling softly, Nikkan buried that thought deep inside. But it would not die so easily.

Barely noticed by the sentries that remained, Nikkan walked carefully to the trees. He looked back over the fire that now threatened to engulf the entire town. It was not enough to stir pity in his heart. He slipped into the darkness as thoughts rose unbidden.

He had been there that day…the day honor failed…the day when thunder had been muted by darkness.

*

Settled among the rolling hills, the building looked like any other. The Lord Moon shone down over the valley, the trees, and the house. There was nothing conspicuous about it. Except of course, that anyone who got close enough to see it would be killed.

Nikkan walked down the hall with great care, disabling traps and snares as he went. Even among the Kolat, it took a great deal of naivety to do without such devises.

Finally, satisfied that everything was in order, Nikkan made his way to his private chamber. Darkness lingered over the spacious room, a heavy veil that seemed to consume the light. It seemed the same darkness that had swept over the Empire those long years ago.

Sitting in the middle of the dark, cluttered room, Nikkan closed his eyes even as his hand strayed over the collected papers and reports. Ever so slightly, the old Dragon bowed to the burden that had become his. In what seemed an entire age past, his duty had been clear. Training and instinct allowed him to find truth in lies and treachery in words.

Now, he bent his will towards fighting against the very symbols he had spent a lifetime upholding. Leading the pawns that he had once brought to justice.

The fact that his position as kolat master perverted the very tenets of his former training did little to faze the man anymore. With a deft hand pulling from the shadows, he led men to their deaths as surely as any general.

Grasping his satchel, Nikkan pulled out several of the scrolls that he had obtained the previous night. It was fortunate that the Obsidian Magistrates were still so accurate and inclusive in their duties. Comparing figures and routes, he lost himself to his work. Few of the masters walked Rokugan so openly anymore, trusting sleeper agents and long-woven webs of deceit. But this was personal.

These missions were more than a strike against the Throne. They were the fulfillment of a promise.

'Nikkan will see to your safety and welfare for a while, and then he will join me as well.'

Taehime… Kenshuko.

'I have done all I can for you, both of you. Now I go, just as he said.'

'Have I...? If I truly wanted to help them, I would not make Koshin simply another pawn.'

The voice rose from deep inside. Nikkan tried to fight it, to make peace with that part of his old self, 'He chose his path, I simply aid him."

'You aid him because he is competent and skilled. A fine assassin for you, Kolat.'

Nikkan concentrated on his work, hoping he could ignore the voice. Pulling out a clean scroll, Nikkan began to copy the necessary information. It did not take long to finalize the draft. Sighing gently, Nikkan put the scroll away. It would have to wait, just a little bit longer.

Instead, he replaced the reports and findings that he had requested on the Dragon. Scratching softly with the hollowed feather the gaijin merchants used, he made careful notes of his own observations. There seemed to be nothing new, save for decline.

Taint without, corruption within…it seemed that the work of a thousand years of peace had come crashing down with Togashi's imprisonment. Friends, allies, students…all caught within one web or another. All the families were touched by it.

'Hitomi…Togashi….Kitsuki….even the…'

At once, the anger burst forth and Nikkan thrust his pen into the scroll violently, shattering it. With weary eyes, Nikkan watched as the ink flowed from the paper like an open wound. The ink ran off, destroying the parchment that Nikkan had just obtained. So many lives sacrificed, so many families destroyed by his hands. And he could not even feel pain for it anymore, finding only a cold numbness.

Mirumoto no longer. Loyalty he had given, only to be rewarded with the Lying Darkness pulling the strings of his clan like a vile, nameless puppeteer.

No. Loyalty had died, and with it died 'Mirumoto' Nikkan.

*

After working in the shadows for so long, the glare of the sun seemed unusually bright to Nikkan's eyes. Still, his promise was about to be brought to completion, so he would continue even if it meant walking straight into Jigoku.

The road led into the horizon, and to the paths beyond. But his meeting would be here, no towns, no people, just the meeting and the promise.

Just at the meeting of the horizon, a shimmering figure began to appear. Walking slowly, but with unmistakable purpose, he began to take form. Clad in a black kimono, he moved as if ready to strike at any moment. That, perhaps, was why he was still alive.

The two men moved closer to each other, neither giving any indication that they noticed the other. Then, when they had just passed each other, they both stopped. Without looking away from the ground in front of him, Nikkan spoke softly,

"The Ninth Kami lives,
A Thousand Years of Darkness…"

For the span of a heartbeat, nothing was said. Nikkan's mind raced. Had he been betrayed? It was inconceivable, but if he did not know how to finish…Nikkan subtly moved his thumb up on his shirasaya.

"…Yet heroes remain." The figure said, completing the haiku, "It is good to see you have not gotten yourself killed, Nikkan. And there is no need for the sword."

Nikkan laughed in spite of himself, yet he still moved his hand away from the deadly blade. "Koshin, it is good to see that you have not gotten yourself killed either. But not for lack of trying, unless I miss my guess."

Koshin only responded with silence.

"They will be in Toshi Ranbo, Konshin. The Third Legion. Everything you need to know is here." Nikkan pulled the scroll free and handed it to his assassin. "I cannot fight beside you, but I can guide your blade. There is still work to be done, for both of us."

The former Kakita's head tilted slightly, glancing over the figures and numbers. The information was more complete and detailed than he could have asked for. The unspoken question hung between the two.

"No…don't ask. It is better that you don't know my methods." For a moment, Nikkan looked every day of his years.

With only a nod, Koshin began to walk down the path again, as alone as when he had arrived. Still, Nikkan knew that his work was only part of what lay ahead. He watched Koshin leave, watched as the former Crane never looked back.

"Sometimes I envy you, friend. You still have your vengeance, while all that remains for me is duty."

Another deep sigh rose in Nikkan's chest, sending the cold fire of the seal of the Obsidian Magistrate against his chest again. It was a pain that the kolat welcomed, for it reminded him that he was not lost yet.

"Sometimes it seems yours was the easier choice."