Corruption's Price
By Rich Wulf

The Dragon Road…

Fu Leng stood, a single warrior against countless enemies. Yet they were afraid, and he was not. His oni, spirits, and beasts had been forced back to the shattered gates of Tengoku by this latest defensive maneuver. Only Fu Leng himself remained unmoved. Now he stood at the center of a pile of dead gods, his deadly spear cutting whistling arcs through the air. Behind his porcelain mask, the dark god's face was unconcerned. Of them all, only he understood the powers of both the Celestial Heavens and the Festering Pit of Jigoku. He wielded the Fortune of Death's spear and a city of fallen samurai now chanted his name. He was unstoppable.

The gods drew back in a circle around him. Some of them, he sensed, were preparing to flee. He would not allow these cowards any such luxury, not after barring him from his true home for so long. Today he would buy back his place in the Heavens with blood.

But the eyes of a god are not the eye of a mortal, and though Fu Leng's concentration was focused upon the matter at hand, another part of his mind monitored the events within his temple in the mortal realm. There, Daigotsu now stood against the Four Winds. Fu Leng chuckled. He did not doubt his chosen champion could defeat Toturi's spawn. A he prepared to secure his place in Tengoku, his attention fell upon the words of Toturi's youngest child, the Anvil.

"We would not wish for the Dark Kami to realize that your true plan is to supplant his place in the Celestial Order!" Naseru said. "After all, were you not a Bloodspeaker, one of the tsukai who defy Fu Leng's will? If I were the Dark God, I do not think I would rely so heavily on someone who could pose a future threat to me." Naseru looked up, his single eye looking thoughtfully into Fu Leng's own.

Fu Leng scowled behind his porcelain mask. It was an obvious attempt to destroy his alliance with the Dark Lord, but he could not deny the logic in Naseru's words. Still, it was impossible. Daigotsu had fought too long, sacrificed too much in his name. His faith was unquestionable, his loyalty absolute. Yet there Fu Leng remembered one other, one who importuned his power with modesty and respect, then turned and seized mastery of dark forces for himself. Iuchiban - the man who nearly destroyed the Empire and might have supplanted Fu Leng's place in the Celestial Order.

Fu Leng would not allow another Iuchiban. He would not rely s heavily on a single mortal again. Why should he? After all, did not the thousands of Lost samurai who followed Daigotsu's banner all chant the name of Fu Leng? He could rely upon them. The Dark Kami ceased to draw upon Daigotsu's faith, for a moment, and opened himself to draw upon the power of all those others who believed in him.

Fu Leng staggered with a gasp as he found almost nothing. Nearly all of the power which had suffused him since his escape from Meido was a result of Daigotsu's faith alone. The other Lost believed in Daigotsu and he, in turn, worshipped Fu Leng. The Dark Kami had been a fool to doubt him.

The gods had been waiting for any moment of weakness, and this hesitation was all that they required. Bishamon leaped forward, seizing Fu Leng's spear in both hands. The Dark Kami resisted, not surrendering his weapon. The Fortune of Strength shrugged his powerful shoulders and shattered the powerful weapon in half. Something heavy struck Fu Leng from behind, and he was sent tumbling across the Dragon Road. Lord Hoshi charged, carrying the Dark Kami toward the gates of heaven until the he finally regained his bearings and tore savage claws across the half-dragons' face. Hoshi reared back in pain, leaving Fu Leng kneeling on the Dragon Road between the defiled gates of the Celestial Heavens.

Fu Leng removed his porcelain mask with one hand and spat black blood on the shining stones. He looked up at the gathering armies of Heaven in defiance. Behind him, he could hear the shrieks and roars of his demon army as they rallied to his side.

"With or without the spear of death it is all the same," Fu Leng said, his confidence growing as he rose to his full height. "None of you can defeat me."

"Not so, Fu Leng," said a voice. "Some of us have beaten you before."

Fu Leng looked toward the sound of the voice. A bitter sneer creased his noble features.

Toturi.

Beside him stood Lord Sun, Lady Moon, and the other four Thunders who had defeated him in two separate incarnations. Fu Leng's spies had told him that Toturi's soul had not been seen since his death at Daigotsu's hands. None knew for certain where he went, but now the truth was clear. Toturi was a general, a tactician. After his defeat, he had gathered his forces in secret. He had traveled the Spirit Realms, and brought each of the Thunders back here to face Fu Leng again.

Fu Leng took a single step back, not eager to face the Seven Thunders again without preparation.

"There has been too much death in Tengoku today," Toturi said in a clear voice. "We have no doubt we would defeat you, but at what cost? We offer you the mercy that you denied us, because that is the way of Heaven. Leave this place now. Take your armies and return to the Pit where you belong. Remain, and we will find a realm even more maddening than Meido to bind your infernal soul - and this time, you will not escape."

"I have all of eternity to find my way here again, Thunders," Fu Leng said in a low voice. "Enjoy your victory today."

"We shall," Lord Sun replied with a sneer. "Just as we shall enjoy the next one when you return."

"We shall see, Yakamo," Fu Leng replied. With that, the Dark Kami turned his back on the gods and Thunders and began the long march home to Jigoku.

o

The City of the Lost…

"Is it not tragic?" the sinuous voice said, "to place such great faith in one who is so unworthy? Much like building a castle upon sand, all the work one performs amounts to nothing when the foundation beneath shifts. All is undone with as little ease as it takes the Anvil to speak."

Daigotsu said nothing. His soul hovered in a realm of gray, shapeless mists. His soul was beyond life, but not quite dead. The vision of Fu Leng's retreat faded, and Daigotsu closed his eyes in shame, turning away from the Shadow Dragon's images.

"You are a great man, Dark Lord, a powerful leader," the Shadow Dragon said. "I hope now that you see the truth. You did not need Fu Leng - he needed you. By relying too heavily upon him, you failed. By relying upon your own strength, you could have triumphed. You could have been as a god."

"I did not want to be a god," Daigotsu replied simply.

"Oh?" the Shadow Dragon replied, intrigued. "Such modesty is unbecoming, Dark Lord. With your power and talents, your potential is infinite. And yet, such strange limitations you seek to put upon yourself. You emulate the bushido of a samurai. You play at loyalty and love, as if creatures like us are capable of such things. You play at being a man, when your strength comes from the raw power of corruption at your heart."

Daigotsu opened his eyes and glared at the Shadow Dragon. "I am strong because I follow my own path," he said. "Your advice is noted, dragon, but not heeded."

"Very well, then," the Shadow Dragon said, its serpentine body seeming to shrug among the mists. "I had done what I can to convince you. I shall leave you to your own devices. I do hope that your friends arrive to collect you soon; you have proven uncomfortably difficult to influence."

The dragon faded into nothing, leaving Daigotsu's soul to float among the mists.

o

"Kyoden," Goju Shingo said with a formal bow. "It has been a long time."

The Obsidian Champion returned the sensei's bow as he stepped before the threshold of the House of Goju. The dojo was among the largest in the City of the Lost, the place where the Goju family gathered to practice the arts of stealth, combat, and assassination. Shingo, once a Phoenix, was now the dojo's master. Kyoden, the late Dark Lord's own yojimbo, was hailed as his finest student. Kyoden did not speak as he walked past Shingo into the dojo, his heavy armored feet clanking on the soft wooden floor.

"My sympathies go to you, Kyoden-san, on the death of our leader," Shingo added. "I know how loyal you were to the Dark Lord. If there is anything that I can do…"

Kyoden scanned the dojo, his dark eyes emotionless behind his iron mask. "Yes," he replied. "Leave."

Shingo blinked, surprised by the sharpness of Kyoden's request. The sensei prepared an angry retort, but when he saw the look in Kyoden's eyes he wisely reconsidered. "Students," Shingo said, "To me. We shall continue our training today at the Wall of Bones."

The sensei departed, and his students filed out behind him. Some of them cast Kyoden angry or curious glances. The wise kept their eyes straight ahead as they marched out. After the last one had gone, three figures stepped into the dojo behind Kyoden. One was a woman in fine lavender robes, beautiful and dainty like a child's doll. Another wore the green robes of a priest, worked overall in images of coiling snakes. The next was a hunched, unkempt figure. His eyes were rimmed with red, tears streaming openly down his face. He carried a large bundle wrapped in black cloth, an awkwardly shaped burden that could only be a corpse. Shahai, Mishime, Omoni. These were the most trusted agents of the fallen Dark Lord. They watched Kyoden in silence.

"It is time," Kyoden said, striding toward the rear of the temple.

The others followed, though they stood a short distance away. A massive altar dominated the rear of the room, a tremendous sculpture of a powerful dragon worked in pure obsidian. Kyoden knelt before the altar and quietly began to remove his armor, laying each piece aside with care. Bowing his head, he called out to the master of all Goju - the Shadow Dragon.

Within moments the creature was there, weaving its essence from every dark corner of the room. Its size was impossible to comprehend, both miniscule and infinite at once. It looked down upon Daigotsu's loyal followers with a bemused expression, waiting patiently for them to explain their presence in its temple. Kyoden looked over one shoulder and nodded quickly to Omoni. The flesh-sculptor shambled forward and deposited his burden, pulling away the cloth to reveal that which lay inside - Daigotsu's corpse. Omoni had performed his craft well, mending the fatal wounds Toturi Tsudao had inflicted upon the body and leaving the Dark Lord's vessel whole again.

"One year ago, I perished in the city of Otosan Uchi," Kyoden said. "My essence returned to become a part of Nothing, as is the way of all Goju. My master came to you with a bargain - he offered you a piece of his soul in return for my life. I have failed to protect my master. My life no longer has meaning. I would return my life to you, Shadow Dragon, so that you might return Daigotsu to us."

"Hmmmm," the Shadow Dragon said, looping lazily about the temple as it studied the humans who stood before it. "But if your life has no meaning, as you say, is it not a poor offer? If you wish something as potent in return as the soul of the Dark Lord, should I not ask for more?" The dragon's eyes studied each of them, hovering for an instant longer on Omoni.

"This is only a piece of the Dark Lord's soul," Shahai said in a silky voice. "Merely enough to restore his life. The trade is satisfactory."

"I see," the Shadow Dragon said. "And why turn to me? Do your kind not have other avenues by which to escape death? Tsukuro, as I recall, is quite immortal and even you, sweet Shahai, have returned from the dead from time to time."

"Corruption is not a science, Shadow Dragon, you know this," Mishime answered. "Jigoku affects each of us differently. We choose not to gamble that the Dark Lord was fortunate enough to find immortality. We have taken his fate into our own hands, as he instructed us before he died."

"Intriguing words, but words all the same," the Shadow Dragon said. "I require actions to prove your sincerity."

Kyoden nodded as he removed the last part of his armor - his ebony chest plate. Beneath, he wore formal robes of pure white, the color of death. "My master was a samurai," he said. "I am a samurai. I shall absolve my failure to him in the way of a samurai." The Obsidian Champion drew his wakizashi, holding his blade before his stomach.

The Shadow Dragon smiled as Goju Kyoden began the three cuts. As Kyoden's life slowly faded, the Dark Lord's slowly returned…