By Rich Wulf
Forty Years Ago…
The wind was sweet over Togashi Mountain and the sun was bright, but the newest member of the ise zumi saw none of it. His eyes were shut tight as he knelt cross-legged in the lee of the tattoo master's little hut.
"Open your eyes, little brother," the old tattoo master said in a gentle voice.
"I cannot," the ise zumi replied.
"Why not?" the old man said with a chuckle.
"I fear what I might see," he said.
"Then open your eyes, and never fear again."
He opened his eyes. The world no longer looked as he remembered it. Togashi Mountain had seemed a lifeless, barren place before. Now everything was sparkling patterns of heat and energy. He saw life and power in each stone, each wisp of wind. He glanced down at his body. His flesh was now covered in swirling patterns of dark grey and black. Within the patterns he could see strange creatures. To his eye, they moved about of their own accord. He could feel strength coursing through his muscles, strength greater than any he had ever known.
"What do you see?" the tattoo master said, but when the ise zumi looked toward the old man's voice he saw a coiled dragon. Its eyes were depthless, inscrutable pools.
The tattooed man looked at the dragon with a surprised grin. "Don't you know what I see?" he asked. "This power came from your tattoos."
"That isn't how this works," the dragon said, shaking its head. "The tattoos do not grant power, they unlock what is already within you. As you grow in strength, so will they."
"Is there any limit?" he asked.
"Only those you place upon yourself," the dragon said. "Have you given any thought to a name? Many ise zumi take new names after joining the order."
The tattooed man looked over the edge of the great mountain, at the endless sea of clouds that surrounded the lofty peak. He could see the kami as they danced and played in the morning wind. As he studied them, something occurred to him. He laughed, long and loud, then turned to face the tattoo master.
"Call me Kokujin," the ise zumi said. "That will be my name."
"An ominous name," the dragon said.
"It suits me," Kokujin replied.
"As you wish," the dragon said.
"You are Togashi," Kokujin said. "The immortal."
The dragon's eyes widened, but only for a moment.
"Is it true?" Kokujin pressed. "Are you a god?"
"It is so," the dragon said.
"And these tattoos… the ink is your own blood."
"You have hidden on this mountain all this time as a mortal?" the ise zumi asked.
"Yes," the dragon said.
"Even while your followers fought and died in your name," Kokujin said. "Even while we started wars on your behalf, while we bled and died for your teachings. All along you could have stopped it. You could have saved us."
"Yes," the dragon said. "That is the way of the Dragon. We must act only when it is time."
"Such is our right!" Kokujin laughed. "The blood of immortals runs in our veins. Mortals are beneath us. They live only for our amusement."
The dragon did not reply for a moment. "No," Togashi said. "You fail to understand. That is not why we wait, and you are not immortal."
"Is that what you tell the others?" Kokujin asked with a grin.
"That is the truth," the dragon replied firmly.
"Truth," the ise zumi mused. "To live a lie for the truth. What a wonderful life! Tell me, Togashi-san, where does one become the other? When does the lie end and the truth begin? Is there any difference, really?" The ise zumi's voice was not angry or accusatory. His tone was mild, curious, almost amused.
"You have seen too much, too soon," Togashi said. "You must rest, give yourself time to understand what you have gained. Sometimes there is madness in enlightenment. Given time, it will pass."
"Why would I want it to pass? " Kokujin replied, stepping to the edge of the precipice. "The madness is the enlightenment! You say that I have seen too much. I have not seen enough! What other secrets are out there?"
Togashi opened his mouth to speak again, either to offer warning, reason, or threats. Kokujin heard none of it.
He had already leapt from the cliff.
"What have I created?" Togashi whispered.
Perhaps he laughed then, but Kokujin did not hear.
Thirty-one Years Ago…
"You are the one they call Togashi Kokujin," she said, her mellow voice echoing through the massive chamber. "The madman."
"And you are Hitomi," Kokujin replied, grinning at the small woman seated on the throne before him. The spirits swirled about her in a seething maelstrom. Nameless, faceless dark things ripped and tore at majestic silver dragons. Kokujin had sensed her power from across the Empire. She might be greater than Togashi one day. He looked into her eyes, and he understood her.
"You do not kneel as the others do," she said, gesturing to the other tattooed men, her kikage zumi.
"Why should I?" Kokujin shrugged. "If you are truly greater than me, then you do not need my fawning obeisance to prove it." He looked at the nearest tattooed man, reached out, rested one massive hand gently upon the young man's bald head. "Is it true that you created them?" he asked. "That you can unlock the power in others, as Togashi once did?"
"Yes," she said. "Is it true that you carry the Taint?"
"I carry Fu Leng's blessings as well Togashi's," Kokujin said with a nod, "I would collect the blessings of the other Kami as well, but they feared me so much they fled the mortal realm."
"And yet you murder your fellow Dragons," she said. "Such are the deeds of a corrupted soul."
Kokujin laughed. "One need not serve Fu Leng to relish murder. Neither heaven or hell rule me. I kill because it pleases me to do so. I am my own master."
"Teach me," she said.
"To kill?" Kokujin asked.
"No," Hitomi said sharply. "Teach me to find the balance, as you have. To rule corruption and not be ruled by it." She looked down at her right hand, encased in a faceted network of obsidian shards.
"You cannot be serious, Lady Hitomi," said one of the small kikage zumi kneeling beside the throne. He was small, wiry. His luminous green eyes glared at Kokujin with hatred. "Your will is strong. You can find the path on your own."
"Silence, Kobai," Hitomi commanded. "We need him."
"The Lady has spoken," said a burly tattooed man to the other side of the throne. "If she believes that she can command Kokujin's loyalty then who are we to doubt her?"
"He is a murderer, Akuai," Kobai snarled. "A slave to the Taint."
A sharp crack echoed through the chamber. Kokujin had turned his hand sharply, snapping the neck of the young kikage zumi beside him. The boy slumped dead to the floor. "I am no slave, Hitomi Kobai," Kokujin said with a smile. "Can you say the same?" The other kikage zumi continued to kneel, making no move to escape or defend themselves without Hitomi's permission. Kokujin sneered at them all.
"This insult cannot be endured, my Lady," Kobai snarled, luminous green eyes gleaming furiously. "Let me slay him now!"
"I think not," Hitomi said. "There is much that I need to learn from Kokujin. "A madman he may be, but only Kokujin. understands the burden I bear. Light and darkness war within his soul, and yet he retains control. His madness is irrelevant. Only he can help me. What say you, Kokujin. Will you take my name and swear to restrain your madness? There are benefits in serving me."
"Why not?" Kokujin said. "One name is as good as another."
"The Lady has spoken!" Akuai boomed. "Hitomi Kokujin is welcome here."
"He will destroy us all, my Lady," Kobai warned.
"And if I leave," Kokujin said, "Hitomi will fall to the whispers of that blackened claw and destroy the Empire. Is it not so, my Lady? Is this not what you fear?"
Hitomi was silent for a long moment. Finally, she nodded. "It is so," she said.
"Then I am welcome in Togashi Mountain?" he asked.
"You are welcome in Kyuden Hitomi," she corrected, "but kill another of my kikage zumi and that will change."
"Understood," Kokujin said with a smirk. "It is no matter. There will be plenty of killing soon enough." The dark ise zumi's mirthless laughter filled Hitomi's audience chamber.
Twenty-seven Years Ago…
At a small shrine in the craggy foothills of the Great Climb knelt a single monk. He wore only a simple pair of tattered hakama despite the frigid winds. His body was painted with brilliant tattoos, images of blazing dragons in flight. His arms and chest were covered with the scars of many battles. A well worn bo staff lay on the ground, near at hand.
The ise zumi opened his eyes. He had covered his tracks well. Even yet, they had found him. He peered back over one shoulder. There were six. All bore the dark, swirling tattoos of the kikage zumi, Hitomi's tattooed men. The leader was smaller than the others. His eyes were a strange brilliant green. Mitsu recognized him as Kobai, one of the first who had sworn himself to Hitomi's order, one of the killers who had slaughtered his family at Hitomi's whim.
"You called me 'Togashi,'" Mitsu said, turning as he rose. He plucked his staff from where it rested against a nearby tree, held it ready in both hands. "I thought your Lady had purged that name. Or have you come to mock me before you murder me as your kind murdered Mikoto, Yama, Rinjin, and old Gaijutsu?"
"I come to apologize, Mitsu," Kobai said. "The Lady has seen the error of her ways, as I prayed that she would. Kokujin is no longer welcome in Kyuden Hitomi. The surviving Togashi are free to return to their home. Your name has been restored. It was the Lady's final wish before she ascended to the heavens."
"I see," Mitsu said, never relaxing his stance, "and it took six of you to tell me this?"
"We need your help, Mitsu," Kobai said. "There are too few kikage zumi after the Battle of Oblivion's Gate. Too few by far. We need you to help us hunt Kokujin."
"Why do you hunt him?" Mitsu asked warily.
"Vengeance," Kobai said. "Vengeance for what he nearly did to the Lady, for what he did to the Dragon Clan. She hoped to learn balance from him, but she became his slave. We became a clan of killers because of him."
"I never became a killer," Mitsu said. "The choice to let another man make your own decisions was always yours. Let the consequences be on your head, Kobai. Do not blame Kokujin."
Kobai scowled at Mitsu, then slowly frowned. He bowed his head, closed his eyes in shame. "You are right, Mitsu-sama," he said in a soft voice. "For what my family has done to yours, there can be no apology. We were fools. Even yet, Kokujin must be stopped."
"For vengeance," Mitsu said with a sigh.
"And he has stolen Togashi's swords," Kobai said. "They must be returned."
"For vengeance and trinkets," Mitsu corrected. He dropped his staff, letting it clatter on the stony ground. "You have learned nothing, Kobai."
"These are not trinkets! These are the blades of our founder," Kobai said urgently. "They are powerful, sacred. They cannot be left in the hands of a madman."
"Togashi does not need them anymore," Mitsu said. "Togashi is dead. Your Lady killed him."
Kobai blinked. "You will not help us? The Order of Hoshi have already agreed. Wayan himself stands ready to aid us."
"Then I wish Wayan well," Mitsu said, "but I have fought Kokujin before. I will not face him again until I am ready. I warn you not to do this, Kobai. Return to your mountain. Wait until you are strong enough. Do you not see the trap that awaits you? Kokujin took the blades because he knows that you and the other kikage are impulsive, reckless where the honor of your family is concerned. He wants you to chase him."
"He is only one man," Kobai said. The kikage zumi turned and walked away. The others followed.
Mitsu wondered if he would ever see any of them again.
Five Years Ago…
The road to Shinden Hoshi was rough, untamed. Like most of the roads in Dragon lands it was not made for ease of travel, but rather to give a general notion of which way to go. The wounded monk grunted in pain as he staggered across the uneven ground. Leaning heavily against a boulder, he adjusted the bandages that crisscrossed his barrel chest. Gathering his strength he forged on, leaning on the shaft of his axe for support.
The sohei guards cried out as he neared the gates of the small temple. The wounded monk recognized their faces, but not their names. He had never cared much to learn their names. One opened the doors and ran inside. The other ran toward him, extending one hand to offer aid. The wounded monk waved him away impatiently.
"I need to see Wayan," he growled fiercely.
"Of course," the guard nodded quickly, "but let me help you!"
"I don't need your help," the wounded monk snapped.
The guard nodded and backed away. The monk sat down on a large stone, both hands gripping the haft of his axe tightly as he concentrated on remaining conscious. The weapon was covered with dried blood and gore. He watched the guard suspiciously, one eye hidden beneath the thick bandage that crossed his scalp.
"I remember you," the guard said.
The wounded monk said nothing, only stared angrily.
"You are one of the ones they sent to hunt the madman," the guard said again. "What happened to you?"
"I found him," the monk whispered with a scowl.
The guard looked away, frightened by his gaze.
The doors of the temple opened once more. Wayan, leader of the Order of Hoshi, stepped out onto the rocky path. The wiry old monk wore the battle dress of a sohei, minus the long scarf that usually covered his face. Complex tattoos covered his face and arms, the mystic legacy of Hoshi, son of Togashi. When Wayan saw the wounded monk his face became grave.
"Kaelung," Wayan said, bowing to the wounded monk. "You have returned. Where are Maseru and the others?"
"Gone," Kaelung said.
"Forty sohei?" Wayan asked sharply.
Kaelung nodded. "We found Kokujin on the Plains Above Evil. He was waiting for us with two hundred bakemono. He had carved his designs upon them, the tattoos he uses to control the weak."
Wayan shook his head. "The tattoos Kokujin uses to control others are temporary. He must use his own blood to scribe them. There is no way he could control so many."
"I saw what I saw," Kaelung snapped.
"I believe you, Kaelung," Wayan said. He looked intently to the south, as if he hoped to see Kokujin. "I just find it disturbing. The madman killed all of your comrades?"
"Not all," Kaelung said. "Some of them were carried away. Toward the Shadowlands. I followed them until Kokujin saw me. I fought him until I realized I could not win. I barely survived."
"Return to the temple, Kaelung," Wayan said. "Tell the others what you have seen. Once your wounds are healed, we will hunt the madman again. Next time, we will be prepared."
"Have you heard nothing I said?" Kaelung said, looking at Wayan incredulously. "We were prepared. We had taken every precaution. It amounted to nothing. Kokujin was ready. This is a game to him, and so long as we follow the rules he makes we cannot win. We need help. We should turn to the Hida, the Hiruma, the Daidoji. We must find allies who know how to battle the Taint. If we continue fighting alone out of stubborn pride he will continue to destroy us."
"Kaelung return to the temple," Wayan said. "I order it."
Kaelung rose unsteadily, his face grim. "You are a fool, Wayan," he said. "You command me no longer."
Kaelung made his way slowly back down the path. The sohei guard stepped forward with an angry look, but Wayan waved him back. "No," the old monk said. "Perhaps he is right. He must find his own path."
Kaelung continued down the rough trail. Pain surged through him; his injuries were grave. He slumped to the ground, gasping for breath, clutching the bleeding bandages at his right hip. For a moment, he considered returning to the temple. The monks there could treat him. He could always leave later.
"No," said a voice. "That is no longer your place. You know that."
Kaelung looked up. A tall figure in black robes stood before him. His face was a featureless golden mask with a gleaming jade stone set in the forehead.
"You again," Kaelung said. "The one who saved me on the plains."
"You did not mention me to your master," he said.
"He did not ask," Kaelung answered.
"I thought surely you would have stopped to recover in one of the villages along the way," the strange figure replied. "You are as strong as you are stubborn."
"Who are you?" Kaelung demanded.
"I lost my name long ago," the man said. "I am called Master Jade, of the Kolat."
"Kolat?" Kaelung said with a snarl. He rose to his feet, hefted his axe. "I have heard of you. Yours is a dark order, bent on dominating the Empire. You would make all others like yourself, pawns without the will to think."
"Strange," Master Jade said. "I have heard the same said of the Dragon Clan, in the past. And yet you changed, didn't you?"
"Why did you save me and not the others?" Kaelung asked, rising with a pained grunt.
"Random chance," Master Jade said with a shrug.
Kaelung looked at the Kolat Master suspiciously.
"I am sorry," Master Jade laughed. "Were you hoping for something more? Did you secretly dream that it was your great destiny to face and defeat Kokujin? I am sorry, Kaelung, but I do not believe that the future is constructed in such a manner. I do not believe in destiny."
"Neither do I," Kaelung said. "The future is what we make it."
"Then perhaps we can come to an agreement," Master Jade said. "I, like you, would wish to see Kokujin and his minions destroyed for my own reasons."
"And you want me to help you?" Kaelung asked.
"No," Master Jade said. "You are not the sort of man who would offer help or accept it. I wish only to fight by your side."
"I'm listening," Kaelung said.
Three Weeks Ago…
It seemed sometimes as if there were countless monasteries in the mountains of the Dragon Clan. Togashi Matsuo had certainly seen his share of them, following his sensei. Old Mitsu seemed to have a sense for them. The most secluded shrine, the most well-hidden temple, stood out like a beacon. The priests never seemed surprised to see Mitsu walking up the path, and he was always welcome.
"Centipede," Mitsu whispered.
Matsuo nodded. He focused on the image of a celestial centipede in his mind, the thought of many legs moving swiftly as one. He thought of the creature's speed and agility. He imagined that speed within himself. He felt a burning fire in his chest; the tattoos that spread across his body took the shape of the mighty centipede, stretching from Matsuo's right wrist to his left.
"Good," Mitsu said. "Wolf."
Matsuo nodded. He imagined a powerful wolf spirit, surging through the snow-covered forest in pursuit of a hare. The scent of his prey was strong in his nostrils. The sound of its furry feet scampering across the powdered earth was like thunder in his ears. The centipede tattoo faded to be replaced with a howling wolf.
"Excellent," Mitsu said. "Dragon."
Matsuo grinned. The image came easily, a great crystal dragon soaring through the clouds. Its breath was the north wind; its beard was hoar frost. Its claws were as sharp as icicles. As it passed through the sky it left swirling snowflakes in its wake. A chill passed through Matsuo's body and when he looked down the snow dragon had taken its familiar place on his chest.
"That one is my favorite," Matsuo said.
"How many is that now?" Mitsu asked.
"Seven," Matsuo replied. "The tattoo takes seven different forms now."
"Wonderful," the old sensei said with a pleased grin. "That is an incredible power, especially for one so young. I have never seen anything like it, Matsuo. And coming from me, that's saying quite a bit."
"I know," Matsuo said. He was fond of his sensei's tales. Mitsu's adventures were countless. The foes he had defeated were incredible. The things he had seen were unimaginable. If Matsuo had not had the opportunity to accompany his master on a few of his latest adventures, he might not have believed any of them were true.
"I think I am ready to try an eighth form," Matsuo said eagerly. "Perhaps a flaming sword? That might be useful."
"Do not push yourself, Matsuo," Mitsu said with a chuckle. "Let your power develop naturally. And flaming swords are somewhat overrated. They're quite difficult to wield without burning oneself."
Matsuo looked at his master curiously. No doubt there was a story behind that statement, but before he could ask the temple doors burst open. The acolytes gasped as a large tattooed man staggered in, covered in blood and scars. His clothing was torn and muddy. He moved purposefully toward the ise zumi, his golden eyes blazing with urgency.
"Lord Satsu," Mitsu said, helping the injured ise zumi stead himself. Mitsu did not look surprised to see the grandson of the Kami Togashi stagger half-dead into a remote temple, but then Mitsu rarely ever looked surprised. "What happened?"
"Mitsu," Togashi Satsu said, looking at the older man triumphantly. "Matsuo," he added, looking to his student. "Come with me. I know where Kokujin hides."
"Explain," Mitsu said tersely.
I grow bored of waiting.
I have heard your challenge, and I am prepared to meet it.
Pick seven of your best, and send them to me.
Send two from the Togashi, the family whose name I once carried.
Send two from the Hitomi, the family that I helped to create and that understands me best.
Send one from the order of Hoshi, the children who have dedicated themselves to my death.
Send one from the Mirumoto; let him test his swords against mine.
And send one from the Tamori. Why not?
Send any less and I will kill them.
Send any more and I will not appear.
I am waiting, and I promise enlightenment to those who would face me.
Find me in the Twilight Mountains.
"A strange letter," Mirumoto Rosanjin said, handing it back to Akuai. The handsome samurai glanced about the jagged landscape with an uneasy frown. "Very choppy and abrupt."
"Kokujin may be many things, but he is no poet," Tamori Chieko replied with a small laugh. The little shugenja hugged her arms to her body for warmth.
"It is getting late," Matsuo said, looking at the full moon above. He wondered if Hitomi was watching over them. "We should light a fire."
"Here?" said a sharp voice, followed by a mocking laugh. Hitomi Hogai swaggered back toward the group, a broad sneer painted on his ugly features. "Don't be foolish, boy."
Matsuo shrugged. His tattoo shifted, becoming the snow dragon once more. He sat down next to Chieko, wrapped one arm around her shoulders to pool their warmth. He wished, not for the first time, that Mitsu had come with them. It seemed strange that he would stay behind; he hated Kokujin more than any of them.
"Hogai speaks true," said Akuai, the old kikage zumi. "Kokujin will see the smoke and come for us."
"Kokujin?" Hogai said with a chuckle. "This deep in the Twilight Mountains he's just one of our worries. There are many things to fear here, old one. The First Oni died here. His blood cursed these mountains. All matter of evil beasts make their home in this place."
"Then we are fortunate to have your expertise, Hogai-san," Hoshi Wayan answered. The old monk was perched on the top of a nearby boulder, searching the area carefully.
"You were once a Hida, weren't you?" Rosanjin asked.
Hogai nodded quietly, not looking at Rosanjin.
"Why did you leave them?" Rosanjin pressed. "Was the armor too heavy?"
"He is a Dragon now, and that is all that matters," Togashi Satsu said sharply as he walked back into the camp. "Is that understood, Rosanjin?" Satsu glared at the samurai purposefully.
"Hai, sama," the samurai said, bowing quickly to their leader.
"Do you hear that?" Matsuo asked, looking up intently. His tattoo had taken its wolf form.
"I hear nothing," Wayan said, "but your ears are sharper than ours."
"It sounded like a drum…" Matsuo said, "except that it was like metal. Steel on steel… More like a blacksmith's hammer. it is gone now."
"There are many spirits in these mountains with many songs," Hogai said. "That was no doubt one of them."
"It may have been important," Matsuo said.
"No doubt of that," Hogai replied, "but no sense in worrying about it unless it comes back."
"I found tracks outside the camp," Satsu said, looking up at Hogai. "Bakemono tracks. Hogai, I would have you look at them but by my eye they seemed fresh. If they lead us true, we should find Kokujin by tomorrow."
"And then what?" Chieko asked.
"Then he dies," Akuai said. "Then we wipe away our shame and take back what is ours."
"I look forward to that," Rosanjin replied boldly, hand tightening on the hilt of his katana. "I will show this madman that it takes more than two swords to be a Dra-"
"Shush!" Matsuo said, rising suddenly.
Rosanjin looked at the young ise zumi curiously. "Matsuo?"
"Quiet!" he whispered. "I hear something…"
"Hammering again?" Hogai asked, peering about at the shadows.
"No…" Matsuo said. "This is different… this is…" Matsuo's eyes widened. He turned to Satsu. "My lord, run!"
The Dragon moved as one, none doubting Matsuo's words. Rosanjin's blades were in his hand just as Wayan leapt to the ground, staff ready. A glowing sword forged of pure jade formed in Chieko's slim hand at her summons. Matsuo led the way back down the trail the way they had come.
The path was blocked. Dozens of small, spindly creatures stood in the pass. Bakemono - goblins. They held sharp knives and clubs or simple stones. Normally, such creatures held little threat but there was something strange about these. Each one had strange patterns traced across its body in dark red. Each stood ready for combat. Matsuo recognized their stance in horror - it was Kaze-do, the secret martial form of the Dragon Clan.
"These are Kokujin's bakemono," Hoshi Wayan whispered. "We are surrounded."
"I am not afraid of goblins," Hogai growled.
"Perhaps you should be," said a smooth voice. The goblins parted. Several larger figures stepped forward, human figures. Like the goblins, their bodies were covered in swirling tattoos. Like the goblins, their stance was that of the Dragon. Two green pinpoints shone in their midst, the glowing eyes of their leader. He was a small man. Matsuo did not recognize him, but Wayan and Akuai gasped at the sight of him. He smiled and bowed to them all.
"I am Kobai," the tattooed man said. "Kokujin Kobai. Greetings, Satsu, son of Hoshi. My master welcomes you to his home."