By Rich Wulf
Eight Years ago…
Kaelung picked his way cautiously through the rubble-strewn cavern. Even after two years, the pass that the Unicorn called the Way of Night was not a safe place. Some parts of the mountains still glowed molten red, as if wounded by the rain of fire that had torn the range asunder. Rumors abounded that strange creatures had appeared from the broken crater, things that had not been seen in a thousand years. Kaelung was not the sort of person to give undue credence to rumor and superstition, but he held the haft of his axe tightly nonetheless.
Though he had only recently joined the order of Hoshi, young Kaelung was already one of the most imposing members of the brotherhood. He was a tall, thick-shouldered man who could move with surprising speed and accuracy. Unlike many ise zumi, his tattoos were not visible, kept hidden beneath the ritual robes of a sohei, a warrior-monk. Kaelung's grim features were focused directly ahead, staring into the darkness.
"I know that you are in here, renegade," Kaelung called out. "There is no sense in hiding."
A second figure, as tall and imposing as Kaelung, appeared at the edge of the darkness, arms folded across his chest. "I do not wish to be disturbed," the man said.
"Then you should have covered your trail better," Kaelung replied, scowling. "You know why I am here. Come with me."
The man laughed. "Why?" he asked. "So I can watch you all die for foolish pride?" The man stepped forward into the light. A brilliant red dragon tattoo stretched across his chest and shoulders. His eyebrows were slightly grey, the only visible sign that this ise zumi was older than he appeared.
"Togashi Mitsu-sama, we need you," Kaelung said. "Why do you turn your back on us?"
"I am retired," he replied. "I have fulfilled all of my promises. The Togashi can rest in peace. Leave me alone."
Kaelung looked at Mitsu quietly for a moment. "So you are sulking then," he said. "You hide here in this cave because you are bitter about what Hitomi did to your family, even after all this time."
Mitsu's eyes narrowed slightly, but he said nothing.
"You are a fool, old man," Kaelung said. "It was not Hitomi who killed your family, it was the madness that Kokujin bestowed upon her. The murderer still lives, and he carries the daisho of your Kami, of the god who gave you your tattoos." Kaelung leveled an accusing finger at Mitsu's painted chest.
"You know nothing," Mitsu said. "You are too young. You know only what the others have told you."
"So tell me the truth, then," Kaelung said.
"Truth?" Mitsu said with a laugh, sitting heavily on a large stone. "I know only that my Kami commanded me to lead Hitomi to her destiny… and that destiny led her to murder my family and embrace a madman… and led Togashi to his death. When I see Lady Moon shining in the Heavens, I know that all came to pass, as it must have… I am only left wondering… why? You ask for truth, Kaelung, but I do not think that there is any" Mitsu looked Kaelung in the eyes. "I have made enough sacrifices for the Dragon Clan. Go and hunt Kokujin if you must. I wish you good fortune."
A slow sneer spread across Kaelung's face. "Fine, then," he said sharply. "Hide here in your cave. The Dragon do not need you. If this is what passes for a legend of the Dragon Clan, perhaps it is time for new legends."
Kaelung turned his back and exited the cave, leaving Togashi Mitsu to his thoughts.
The Twilight Mountains had fallen eerily silent. The seven Dragon samurai who had come hunting Kokujin now stood surrounded in a sheltered pass, surrounded on both sides by tattooed bakemono. A band of strange tattooed men watched them quietly; their tattoos were tinted a dark grey. Their skin was an inhuman, bluish-black hue. Their leader watched them expectantly with shimmering green eyes.
Togashi Matsuo felt distinctly outclassed. Certainly in the past he had defeated terrible foes at the side of his teacher, Mitsu. Now he stood beside some of the greatest heroes of his clan, including Togashi Satsu, who carried the mysterious power of his immortal grandfather. Even yet, there was something about Kokujin's brainwashed followers that filled him with dread. He tried to stay near Tamori Chieko, but he wondered if he did so out of an urge to protect her or merely to stay close to the group's only shugenja.
"Kobai," Hitomi Akuai whispered, staring in disbelief at the dark tattooed man that led the opposition. "This is not possible. You died years ago."
Kobai smiled. "I do admit this is awkward, to see an old friend apparently returned from the grave. I never died, Akuai. I merely found new direction. Surely you must remember how that feels. Just as we were once reborn in the service of the Lady, now I have been reborn in the service of Kokujin. Now he reaches out to you, all of you, his cousins in the Dragon Clan. He wishes to welcome you to his home. I speak to you, Togashi Satsu-sama. Only you can truly understand."
"Why would I understand a madman?" Satsu asked. While the others stood with weapons or fists ready for combat, Satsu stood casually, relaxed, and unconcerned. Matsuo knew the stance well; he had seen Mitsu take it many times before suddenly launching into a flurry of action.
"Kokujin is not a madman," Kobai replied with a rueful smile. "Of course many of you see him so - how can a mere mortal mind comprehend that which is eternal. How many of us have often wondered at the Kami Togashi's actions. You, Satsu-sama, you are different. You are one-quarter divinity. You are like him."
"Interesting," Satsu said, nodding thoughtfully. "I have only known you for two minutes, Kokujin Kobai, and yet I do not think anyone has ever so insulted me. Quite an accomplishment."
"You are not listening," Kobai said, frowning. "Kokujin wishes to speak with you, to help you understand what he has done. He accepted your challenge because he knew that would draw you here, but he wishes this feud, this bloodshed to end."
"Where is Kokujin?" Satsu asked.
"In the ruins of Shiro Heichi," Kobai said. "The home of the fallen Boar Clan."
Satsu nodded and looked back over one shoulder, meeting Matsuo's eyes for a moment. He looked at each of the others in turn, noting that all were prepared.
"You will have your wish, Kobai-san," Satsu said. "This bloodshed will end. It will end with Kokujin's death!"
With that, the seven Dragon leapt forward as one. Rosanjin's twin blades formed a circle of death as he launched into the bakemono ranks. Wayan and Akuai charged directly toward Kobai, knocking aside any who blocked their paths with furious kicks and punches. Hitomi Hogai lifted a boulder with a mighty roar, sending the stone hurtling into the bakemono behind them. Satsu moved quicker than the eye could see, katana held low to one side as he cut through the dark tattooed men. Chieko pointed her jade sword at one of Kobai's followers, releasing a bolt of pure green energy that reduced the man to nothing. Matsuo stood by her side, belching a cloud of chilling frost as another of the dark ise zumi came too near.
Thunder rumbled in the sky overhead, and Kokujin's followers fought back viciously. The bakemono practiced a crude form of Kaze-do, the Dragon Clan's secret martial art. Though their skill was not great it made them irritatingly difficult to dispatch. Matsuo snarled as one of the tiny creatures cartwheeled out of his grasp and pitched a rock at his face. Matsuo cursed in pain and lunged at the creature again. This time it the creature darted directly up in midair. Matsuo stared in confusion until he realized that Hogai, almost invisible in the night with his inky black tattoos, had lifted the creature by its head.
"Quick little things," Hogai said, nodding at Matsuo, "but still just goblins." Hogai threw the creature at the wall of the pass. Its terrified shriek ended with a wet smack.
"Arigato, Hogai-san," Matsuo said.
The massive tattooed man shrugged noncommittally and turned his attention back to his foes. Rain poured from the sky, drenching the combatants. Matsuo concentrated on his tattoo, shifting from the dragon to the eagle; he would need greater agility to fight on the rain-slicked rocks. He delivered a quick spin kick to another bakemono and glanced back at Chieko.
"Go," the pretty young shugenja said, regarding him with an amused grin. "I can protect myself, Matsuo. Join the fight!" She was hardly any bigger than the bakemono, but the way she decimated the enemy ranks with each blast from her sword left little room for argument. Matsuo nodded to her and charged in the direction he had seen Satsu run.
Matsuo found him in the center of the pass, cleaving his way toward Kobai alongside Akuai and Wayan. Kobai watched them all with a rapidly souring expression.
"You should have accepted my master's offer of peace, Togashi Satsu," Kobai said, shouting to be heard over the storm. "You have left me no alternative." With that, Kobai's flesh became sleek, black, and featureless. The tattooed man seemed to melt, becoming one with the shadows on the ground. The other tattooed men did the same; Matsuo could see movement in the shadows as they scattered like minnows. The bakemono were left alone in the pass, staring about in confusion for their human comrades.
"They have escaped!" Hogai roared.
"No," Satsu said, looking around with a startled expression. "I sense it is worse than that."
Thunder echoed again. Matsuo looked up in time to see six hovering figures silhouetted by the lightning. They wore the billowing robes of shugenja. Six bolts of lightning hammered down on the walls of the pass, creating an explosion of dust and rubble. The bakemono shrieked in pain and terror. Matsuo covered his face with his arms as stone rained down. He shouted for his comrades; he thought he heard a man scream.
Then the wall of stone fell upon him, and Togashi Matsuo saw no more.
The city of Foshi was a quiet place. The Lion Clan liked it that way. Everything was swift, smooth, and efficient. The city had one purpose - to keep the armies of the Lion well fed and content. To that end, crime and mischief were not tolerated. Outsiders were not tolerated, with the exception of traveling monks and the occasional well-behaved merchant.
It was the perfect place for someone like Kaelung.
The grizzled sohei sat at a small table in the corner of one of Foshi's largest sake houses. Foshi had few sake houses, for most Lion had little use for distractions, but this was a rather nice one. Kaelung had been nursing a cup of sake for well over an hour, the cup nothing more than an excuse for him to retain his place at the table. He stared out the window at the streets of Foshi with a thoughtful expression, watching the Lion soldiers go about their daily maneuvers.
"There is something quite soothing about Lion bushi," said a voice, causing Kaelung to look up with a start. Another man wearing the loose robes and complex facial wrappings of a warrior-monk had seated himself nearby. Kaelung had not heard him approach. "I would wager that those soldiers have done those same exercises every morning for the last ten years. I would wager their grandfathers once did the same in that very square. I would be quite surprised if their grandchildren were not fated to do the same. They may have their faults, but Lion are nothing if not reliable. Don't you agree?" The sohei unwrapped the long scarf, revealing a familiar face.
"What are you doing here, Mitsu?" Kaelung asked in a sharp voice. He lifted his bottle to refill his cup.
"I was looking for you, Kaelung," Mitsu said.
"Pity that you found me," Kaelung replied.
He lunged forward and smashed the sake bottle across Mitsu's face.
Mitsu rolled backwards, off of his cushion into a fighting stance. Kaelung planted one foot on the table and lunged, wielding his long axe in one hand. Mitsu ducked as Kaelung swung the blade, cleaving the support beam behind him. A shower of dust and lumber tumbled from above, causing both men to dodge aside as part of the ceiling collapsed. The other patrons shrieked and scattered, getting away from the two men as swiftly as possible.
"I am not here to fight you, Kaelung," Mitsu said, hopping onto a nearby table. He tore off his robes with one hand, leaving only the hakama he usually wore.
"That's what the last three Mirumoto said," Kaelung snapped, lifting his axe high. "Then they tried to kill me because of Nanashi Mura." Kaelung brought the axe down heavily, splitting the table down the center. Mitsu back-flipped away, landed in a crouch, and picked up a large chunk of the broken table. Kaelung readied his axe for another strike and scowled. "At least this time Wayan sent his best killer."
"Wayan did not send me, Kaelung," Mitsu said, holding his shattered board to block the shaft of Kaelung's axe and shoving him away. "I am not here to kill you."
"Then stand still," Kaelung growled, drawing his weapon up again.
The doors of the sake house burst open and a dozen armored Lion samurai charged through. The leader glared at the two dueling monks, who paused to look at the samurai curiously.
"What is the meaning of this?" the Lion demanded.
Kaelung scowled, turned, and cleaved another support beam with his axe. Much of the ceiling collapsed in a cloud of dust, leaving the Lion shouting and hacking in confusion. Kaelung leapt up through the chaos, landing easily on the edge of the hole leading to the second floor. Mitsu cursed and leaped after him. In midair he noticed a flash of steel and kicked hard at the lip of the hole, changing direction just as Kaelung's axe whipped through the air past his face. He landed back on the first floor just as the Lion recovered enough to draw their bows and open fire. Mitsu cartwheeled through the debris, slapping two of the arrows aside before he landed, faced the Lion, and coughed a cloud of searing fire, burning the rest of the missiles in midair.
"A Dragon?" one of the samurai said, looking at his commander. "I thought the Dragon were our allies, sir!"
"I… I but…" the sergeant looked confused, uncertain what to do next.
Mitsu took the opportunity to leap up after Kaelung again, landing on the second floor just in time to see his quarry depart through a window. He followed after quickly, peering out to see Kaelung standing on the roof of a small shack across the street. Mitsu jumped after him just as Kaelung lifted his axe and struck the roof hard. The small shack collapsed just as Mitsu landed. Mitsu swore as he landed awkwardly in the debris, rolling clumsily out into the street, landing on his back. A Lion soldier shouted a battle cry and fired an arrow at Mitsu.
Mitsu snatched the arrow out of the air in one hand and scowled. "Stop that!" he snapped, jumping to his feet.
The Lion blinked, his second arrow tumbling from his hands.
Mitsu glanced around quickly, searching for Kaelung. He saw a large robed figure duck into an alley. He could follow, but it was likely that Kaelung was preparing another ambush. Instead Mitsu drew upon the power of the scarlet centipede tattoo that encircled his right thigh. He felt the spirit of the celestial centipede fill him; the world slowed as Mitsu moved at incredible speed. He circled around the building, heading for the opposite exit where Kaelung would exit. Mitsu charged into the alley, entering to find Kaelung kneeling beside the opposite entrance with his axe held low to one side, watching the street. From experience, Mitsu know that once the spirit of the centipede had departed he would be left exhausted for the same amount of time he had drawn upon its power. Moving as swiftly as he was, normal combat would be near impossible.
So Mitsu charged directly at Kaelung, aiming one shoulder at his back. Kaelung looked back just as Mitsu drew close, eyes widening in surprise. The two ise zumi collided with a sharp crack, both tumbling across the dusty street and into an alley on the opposite side of the road. Kaelung flew face first into a wall, his head jamming through the wooden slats. On the other side, an elderly peasant looked up in alarm as he chewed his afternoon rice. Mitsu collapsed in the alley behind Kaelung, drained by the centipede's power.
"Why did you do that?" Kaelung groaned, drawing his head out of the wall and sitting down heavily on the ground. He spat out a mouthful of splinters. "You could have killed us both."
"Because… you wouldn't listen…" Mitsu said, gasping for breath as he sat up. "I am not here to kill you, Kaelung…"
"I wish you were," Kaelung said ruefully. "I think it would hurt less." He massaged his bruised face with one hand and looked around for his axe.
"Then why are you here?" Kaelung asked.
Sharp cries echoed in the streets outside. Kaelung and Mitsu both looked that way in alarm. "The Lion will not be pleased at how you treated their architecture," Mitsu observed. "Perhaps we should leave the city before we speak further."
"A wise suggestion," Kaelung said. He helped Mitsu to his feet, pulling the exhausted ise zumi's arm over his shoulder as they disappeared into the alleys of Foshi.
Togashi Matsuo thought, at first, that someone was stabbing him in the eyes. Then he realized that he was laying on his back, staring into the noonday sun. The young ise zumi groaned as he sat up and rubbed his pounding skull. He felt like someone had dropped a mountain on his head. As he began to recall the events of the previous evening, he realized that someone had dropped a mountain on his head.
Matsuo lay at the bottom of a narrow crevice in the face of the mountain, filled with rubble. He was covered with dust, but he was not harmed at all. He noticed that the tattoo on his chest had become a twisting vine, symbol of rejuvenation. His tattoo had altered itself automatically to heal his wounds. It had never done that before. Matsuo pushed the mystery aside for now and climbed cautiously toward the light, picking his handholds carefully in the unstable crevice. When he emerged once more he found he was still in the pass, though the landscape had changed dramatically. All about was broken rubble and bakemono corpses. Six of Kokujin's ise zumi and a dozen tattooed goblins picked through the rubble.
"Have you found anything?" Kobai asked, pacing the cliff's edge forty feet from where Matsuo hid.
"Nothing, Kobai-sama," one of them said. "I think the rest must have been crushed."
"Then there will be bodies," Kobai hissed. "Keep looking. If our master has taught us anything, it is that you should never assume your enemy dead until you have personally devoured his heart. Find the other three, living or dead. Kokujin will not accept failure."
Matsuo was horrified by the dark ise zumi's words. Only three had survived? Were the others dead? Or even worse, had they been captured, to be tattooed and brainwashed as Kobai had? Matsuo could not imagine Satsu being killed or captured. It was as impossible a notion as the sun falling from the sky… but that had happened once as well. The Dragon Clan had learned, in their time, that nothing was certain.
"What do I do?" Matsuo whispered to himself.
As if in reply, one of the bakemono cackled. "I find one! I find one!" it shouted, leaping up and down as it flipped a small boulder away. "Over here!"
The dark ise zumi moved over to see what the bakemono had found. Kobai knelt amid the stones, rolling many more away. Matsuo concentrated on his tattoo, making it adopt the form of the wolf so that he could hear their words from his hiding place.
"Yes," Kobai said, nodding. "That is Hoshi Wayan. I don't think he will last much longer."
"Will not survive!" the bakemono said triumphantly. "Let me eat! Eat heart, like Kobai-sama said!"
"May as well," Kobai replied. "He isn't even one of the ones Kokujin needed."
"Joy," the goblin said, smacking its lips.
"No!" Togashi Matsuo roared, leaping out of the pit to stand before Kokujin's minions. "You will leave him be!" His tattoo had become the frost dragon again, the most powerful of its forms.
They turned to face him, and Matsuo realized to his horror how outnumbered he truly was. A dozen goblins and six ise zumi, fighting on their own territory.
"Ah, the boy," Kobai said, "Mitsu's brat student. Kokujin offers you the same deal as he did the others. Offer no violence and you will receive none. Surrender."
"I would die as a Dragon before I would live as what you have become, Kobai," Matsuo said.
"Very well then," Kobai said. He opened his mouth to give the order to attack, but the words froze in his mouth. An arrow was suddenly lodged in the dark tattooed man's throat. He staggered, looking about in confusion. Blood poured from his mouth. He fell to his knees, leaning on one hand, and died.
"Well said, Matsuo," Mirumoto Rosanjin said, climbing over the wreckage on the far side of the pass, holding his bow in one hand. Rosanjin's armor was badly dented and a bloody bandage was wrapped around his forehead, but he was alive. He drew another arrow and fired just as Kokujin's minions charged, felling a second ise zumi.
Matsuo roared as the frost breath billowed from his lungs, freezing three of the goblins and two of the ise zumi into solid statues of ice. One of the ise zumi spat a cloud of roiling black grease in reply. Matsuo fell flat as the cloud boiled over his head; he could feel the noxious gas burning the hairs in his nose and searing his chest. The ise zumi laughed and took another deep breath, just as Rosanjin's third arrow planted itself in his chest.
"For Satsu and the Dragon!" Rosanjin shouted, tossing his bow aside and drawing his blades to meet his attackers. The bakemono scattered like leaves in the face of his two sword technique; the first five that faced him died in the space of a heartbeat.
Matsuo rolled to his feet again and leapt at another ise zumi. The man grinned as they collided. Matsuo was taken aback by the savage glee in the man's eyes.
"Fight if you will," the man whispered as Matsuo slammed him against the mountain wall. "One day you will all bear the master's blood!"
"You will not see that day," Matsuo said. He planted one hand on either side of the man's head and twisted with all his strength. A sickly snap ended the mad tattooed man's life. He fell to the earth beside his brethren.
Rosanjin now stood at Matsuo's side, blades ready. Four goblins and two ise zumi remained, though the goblins now shied away from Rosanjin's swords.
"Follow us if you can," one of the ise zumi said, "the
mountains will kill you long before you find Shiro Heichi." With that, both
remaining ise zumi turned jet-black and melted into the shadows. The goblins
looked at one another, screamed, and ran away.
"Should we pursue?" Rosanjin asked.
"No," Matsuo replied. "Wayan needs our help."
Rosanjin nodded, sheathing his blades. "Next time there will be no shadows for them to hide in," he promised. Rosanjin spat on Kobai's corpse as he followed Matsuo to tend Wayan's unconscious body.
"Do you still believe we can defeat Kokujin?" Matsuo asked, looking up at the samurai. "Only three of us remain. Satsu has been killed or imprisoned. Wayan is in no shape to fight."
Rosanjin knelt beside the fallen monk and looked at Matsuo seriously. "I must believe we can still triumph," he said. "If I do not, we have already been defeated."
Mitsu and Kaelung walked in a shallow ditch beside one of the grand roads the Lion Clan reserved for their armies. Occasionally one or the other would glance back toward Foshi to see if they had been followed. Fortunately, thus far it looked as if they had escaped from their chaotic encounter there more or less unscathed.
"Tell me about Nanashi Mura," Mitsu said as they walked.
Kaelung shrugged. "It's a ronin village," he said. "They've been under the Dragon's protection since the days of the Hantei. The Dragon sometimes use them as mercenaries."
"That's not what I mean," Mitsu said. "Tell me about what happened in Nanashi Mura."
Kaelung looked at Mitsu in surprise. "You have not heard?"
"I know that something happened there, and that it drove the Mirumoto to put a price on your head. All else is rumor; I wish to hear your side."
Kaelung nodded. "I was a Mirumoto before I joined the order of Hoshi," he said. "I know their tactics, their procedures. I helped rob a supply caravan that was bound for Nanashi Mura. No one was harmed."
"Even yet, no doubt the Mirumoto were enraged," Mitsu said. "To be robbed by one of their own, at a time when the Dragon need resources and troops so badly."
Kaelung shrugged. "Our need was greater," he said. "I will say no more. If the Mirumoto catch me, they will kill me. So I avoid them. Why did you seek me, Mitsu?"
"Because I know that you faced Kokujin and survived," Mitsu said. "I know that whatever you saw last time caused you to leave the Dragon, to hunt him on your own… or perhaps with questionable allies."
"What of it?" Kaelung asked.
"You know, don't you?" Mitsu asked. "You know the truth about Kokujin."
Kaelung was silent for a while. "I know that you were right not to come with me the last time I hunted him," he said. "I was not prepared then."
"And Togashi Satsu is not prepared now," Mitsu said, "but he goes to face him nonetheless. To recover his father's swords."
"Satsu?" Kaelung said, looking at Mitsu grimly. "Are you serious?"
Mitsu nodded. "You know what he will try to do."
Kaelung closed his fist so hard that the knuckles popped. "We must stop him," he said. "Where are they?"
"Several weeks' travel to the southwest of here," Mitsu said. "In the Twilight Mountains. It took me some time to find you, unfortunately."
"Do they know the truth?" Kaelung asked.
"I swore I would not share it," Mitsu said. "I do not take such oaths lightly."
Kaelung nodded. "With your centipede tattoo you could catch up to Satsu in a day," Kaelung said.
"Then I suggest you do your best to keep up with me, old man," Kaelung replied, eyes fixed on the southwest.
Togashi Satsu opened his eyes, and immediately wished that he had not. The son of Hoshi hung from chains in a dank underground dungeon. The smell of blood and rotting flesh hung heavily in the air. Decaying bodies lay scattered about the chamber, chained to the walls, floor, and ceiling. A huge fire pit dominated the center of the room, beside which sat a mighty anvil made of dark red steel. Satsu imagined he could see screaming faces moving about within the steel, begging him to be released. A small heap of burlap cloth lay beside the anvil.
"Satsu-sama, are you well?" Tamori Chieko asked quickly. She was chained against the wall to his left; bloody and battered but unharmed. To her left, Hitomi Hogai was also chained. Kokujin's men had used three extra sets of manacles to restrain the burly kikage zumi.
"I am well enough," Satsu said, tugging at his restraints to test their strength. "Have they harmed you, Chieko?"
"No," she said, looking away. "Satsu-sama you should not have surrendered to them because of me. I am not worth it."
"Nor am I," Hogai added. "You should have let us die."
"Had I let them kill you and fought them alone, they would have slain me as well and all of us would have died for nothing," Satsu said. "At least now we all have hope of escape."
The door at the far side of the chamber opened with a rusty squeal, and a tall figure stepped into the room. Though Satsu had never seen the man before, he recognized him immediately.
The mad tattooed man's skin was covered with swirling tattoos that moved and shifted by the moment. His eyes were wide and disturbingly clear. His lips were split in a broad smile, revealing perfect white teeth. A golden daisho was strapped across his back.
"Hello little cousin," Kokujin said, lifting a blacksmith's hammer and leaning it across his shoulders as he strolled toward Satsu. "You will be pleased to know that another of your friends has been recovered. I am particularly pleased, for once he was my friend, too."
Two large tattooed men followed Kokujin into the room. Between them, they dragged the limp form of Hitomi Akuai.
"Tell me, Satsu," Kokujin said, standing before his prisoner. "What do you know of the Twilight Mountains? I suspect Hogai told you much. He was once a Crab, was he not?"
"I know the First Oni died here," Satsu said.
Kokujin nodded. "And The Boar Clan once lived here," he added, strolling back toward the center of the room. "For the iron in these mountains was stronger than any other. Sadly the blood of Fu Leng's finest creation tainted that steel, and eventually others came seeking the dead demon's power. They made this." He ran one hand across the surface of the Anvil. "They called it the Anvil of Despair. The Boar Clan died so that it might live."
"The anvil that created the Bloodswords," Tamori Chieko added fearfully. "The Phoenix Masters said it was destroyed."
Kokujin shrugged. "The Phoenix say a lot of things. True, they did find it once. True, they sent a small army of Inquisitors on a mission to destroy it by casting it into a pit of fire in the heart of the Shadowlands. They failed, of course. I mean, what did they expect? The power of the Taint helped create the anvil. Did they really expect that anything in the Shadowlands would help destroy it? That sort of poetic nonsense only happens in stories. No the anvil is alive and well, and ready to create again." Kokujin smiled and gestured toward the anvil.
The two tattooed men dragged Akuai forward. The old tattooed man suddenly stood upright and kicked at the nearest, causing him to stagger back and fall into the fire pit with a shriek. The other turned and stared blankly. Akuai punched the man in the throat, leaving him lying on the floor choking on his own blood.
Akuai charged at Kokujin. The mad tattooed man moved with startling speed, grabbing Akuai by the face. Akuai struggled fiercely, leveling kicks and chops at Kokujin that would have killed a lesser man. Kokujin ignored his attacks, dragged him forward, and pressed him against the anvil. Immediately the steel became a thing alive, chains snaking forward to grasp Akuai's throat and wrists.
"If you dare put my grandfather's swords on that anvil there isn't a force on heaven or earth that will stop me from killing you," Satsu promised.
"I have no such intent," Kokujin replied. "Why sully Togashi's swords, when I can make my own?" Kokujin kicked the pile of cloth aside and revealed a half-finished daisho, a perfect copy of the swords he wore on his back. Kokujin lifted the katana in one hand, the hammer in the other. He looked down at Akuai with a sad smile.
"I give all the Dragon samurai I capture a choice, Akuai," he said. "Accept my tattoos and join my order, or refuse, and bleed for the anvil."
Akuai opened his mouth to speak.
"Never mind. I take it back," Kokujin said, jamming the sword into Akuai's stomach. "I never liked you anyway."
The blood stained the sword, and Kokujin began his work. The sound of a hammer on steel filled the Twilight Mountains, accompanied by the screams of a dying Dragon.