By Rich Wulf
Forty-five years ago…
The acolyte known as Soh had never been quite so terrified as he was in this moment. A lifetime of meditation, prayer, and study had not prepared him for this. His jaw worked without words, like a broken tree limb dangling in the breeze. His eyes tried to leap from their sockets. His arms trembled, threatening to drop the thick sheaves of scrolls he had been bearing back to the libraries of Fukurokujin Seido. He had heard many legends of the samurai who stood before him today, but even the legends could not fully describe the intimidating presence of Togashi Yokuni, the Champion of the Dragon Clan.
The Champion was tall, taller even than Soh who was extremely lanky for his fourteen years. Sleek black hair hung loose about his shoulders, mirroring eyes so dark that they seemed to have no iris - simply pools of deep black. He wore a pale green kimono painted with the images of dragons in flight and he bore no weapons save a golden daisho. Only his swords and his noble bearing suggested he was a samurai at all. Strange, Soh had heard it said that Yokuni always appeared in full armor.
"Greetings, Soh," Yokuni said, or seemed to say. As the words passed, Soh was left feeling uncertain that Yokuni had spoken at all, that he had simply implied the words through posture and expression. As soon as their meaning was conveyed, the words slipped from Soh's memory.
"Lord Yokuni," Soh said, fixing his eyes respectfully on the floor. "Please do not kill me yet."
Soh felt a sense of amusement radiate from the Dragon Champion. "Why
should I kill you, Soh?" he asked, or seemed to ask.
"Because I, who am so low, cannot kneel to you as etiquette requires," Soh replied in shaky voice. "I fear I would drop my burden of scrolls, and damage their irreplaceable wisdom. Better that I should die than they should be lost. Even yet, such an insult cannot stand. I pray you, grant me leave to return these scrolls to their proper place."
"In protecting the wisdom of the ages, you honor the way of the Dragon," Yokuni said in his strange way. "I take no offense."
"Thank you, my lord," Soh said, greatly relieved.
"Tell me, Soh, who are your parents?" Yokuni asked. The more he spoke, the more real his words seemed. Soh could remember what the Champion said quite clearly now. "I wish to know who raised you to be so wise."
"I have no parents, my lord," Soh said. "I was found by the monks in this temple as a child and raised as one of them."
"Such a cruel fate, don't you think?" Yokuni asked. "The life of a monk is a life of denial, a life of poverty, a life of submission. Do you not regret what you lost? What life you could have lived?"
Soh was quiet for a long moment. "Why should I regret?" he asked. "I have no life but this one. All I can do is to live it."
The Dragon Champion chuckled.
"I will speak to the master of the temple," Yokuni said. "If you wish it, he will release you from your service in this temple. If you desire, you may find your way up Togashi Mountain, and seek me there. You will be allowed to pass gempukku as a true Dragon, as a Togashi, and take a name of your choosing. I will share with you the secrets of our tattoo magic, and you may join the brotherhood of the ise zumi if you choose."
Soh said nothing, his shock and joy at the Champion's offer such that he could not put them into words. Strangely, he sensed that he had said exactly the right thing.
"Do not assume this is a gift, Soh," Yokuni said. "If you choose the path I offer, everything will change. You will see the wicked prosper while the worthy are cast down. You will watch friends die while you will stand helpless. You will watch the pious be hunted as corruption reigns. You will fight every day for the rest of your life, struggling for what is right, and when you die your fight will be unfinished."
"And if I stay here?" Soh asked.
"Your life will be easy," Yokuni said. "You will live to an old age and accumulate great wisdom."
"But I will always wonder what could have been," Soh said in a quiet voice, "and my place among your warriors will stand empty."
Togashi shrugged. "Perhaps another will step forward to fight where you chose not to. Perhaps not."
Soh said nothing, his brow furrowed in confusion. Yokuni turned and walked back down the way he had come. At the end of the hall, he looked at the young monk.
"What name will you choose when you come?" Yokuni said, just as Soh came to his decision.
"Mitsu," Soh replied, not sure why he had chosen it. "I will be Togashi Mitsu."
Yokuni seemed to smile then, and was gone.
It was then that Soh realized that the Champion had never introduced himself.
Thirty Years ago…
Hitomi Akuai was not a man accustomed to uncertainty. When Lady Hitomi returned to lead the Dragon, he felt the power of divinity in her words. He saw glory in her golden eyes. He was one of the first to bow before her, and was blessed for his loyalty with the Lady's name. He was a Mirumoto no longer. He was a member of the Hitomi, a kikage zumi now. He was one of many.
Some had come from far distant lands, even other clans, and were granted the Lady's name and tattoos. Some were former enemies, who came to Kyuden Hitomi convinced that the Lady was some mad despot, but walked out of her throne room born anew, now members of her proud family. Their pasts did not matter. Like him, they belonged to the Lady now, and Akuai saw them all as brothers and sisters. They were closer to him than his own brother, Ikudaiu, who had fled the clan and joined the ranks of the Brotherhood. Akuai was proud to bear the Hitomi name. He would die for any of his brethren. He would kill for any of them.
All save one.
When the Lady spoke, she spoke only truth. When she gave a command, she was to be obeyed. Even yet, over the past year, Akuai had slowly come to wonder if the Lady might have made a mistake.
"Kokujin, what have you done?" Akuai roared.
The stony landscape of the Great Climb was stained with blood. Torn and broken bodies lay scattered on the dusty earth. They were Naga, or they once had been. Now they were meat for the carrion birds.
"The Naga ambassador did not see reason," Kokujin said. The dark tattooed man crouched by a small stream, his back to Akuai. His entire body was covered with the blood of murdered Naga, but he was intent on carefully rinsing a shaft of bamboo in the water. He held it up to examine it. Akuai saw a long needle bound to the shaft - a tattoo needle.
"The Lady released the Naga delegation peacefully," Akuai said. "Kazaq came as a friend. She did not want this."
Kokujin peered over one shoulder, smiling amiably at Akuai through the blood that covered his face. "Now be honest, Akuai," Kokujin said. "You heard what the Kazaq said. He came as a messenger. He had a vision, a vision in which the Lady would bring about the end of all. He feared her pride would drag the moon from the sky and send the sun bleeding to its grave. He promised that if she did not step down and turn to the Akasha for help, the Naga would rise up to destroy her. Hitomi denied his aid, but allowed him to leave peacefully to save face in the courts. We - her loyal servants - cannot let such insults stand. Hitomi needs no help from snake-men who cannot even protect their own cities from ruin."
"The Lady would not wish for this," Akuai whispered, kneeling beside the body of a dead Naga girl. Her green eyes stared lifelessly at the sky. Her hands were still clutched tightly on the haft of her spear, a weapon that had failed to save her from Kokujin's wrath. "This is murder, Kokujin."
"This is war, Akuai," Kokujin replied, straightening and tucking the needle into his obi. "The Naga would have attacked us one way or another."
"And you believe killing the ambassador will make things better?" Akuai asked bitterly. "He was the Qamar's son, you fool!"
"I am aware of that," Kokujin said calmly. "That is why he yet lives. Look, Akuai, upon my finest creation. Kazaq is our brother now." Kokujin held out one hand, gesturing at something behind Akuai.
Akuai looked back in time to see a ruddy brown Naga slither out from behind a large boulder. Akuai remembered him from Hitomi's court. He was the Kazaq, emissary of his people. Kazaq's movements were awkward, as if he were confused or in great pain. He clutched the side of his face with one hand, leaning heavily on the boulder as he moved. His leathery skin was painted in swirling kanji, similar to Kokujin's tattoos. When the Naga looked up at Akuai, his eyes were glazed and hollow.
"Akuai," the Naga said in an excited voice. "It is good to see you, brother! Will we return to see the Lady soon? I am eager to guide her to the great destiny I have foreseen!"
Akuai turned to face Hitomi, face twisted in an angry scowl. "How have you done this?" he demanded. "Only Hitomi can grant the kikage zumi tattoos!"
"Oh?" Kokujin replied mildly, as if that fact came as some surprise.
"This is an abomination!" roared, advancing on Kokujin. "You have twisted everything for which the Lady stands."
"No," Kokujin corrected. "I have bought her time. How can the Naga fight us when their own prince is one of us? While they come to terms with the fact that Kazaq is one of Hitomi's faithful, the Lady will have time to gird our defenses."
"Kazaq is not one of the faithful!" Akuai shouted, glaring up at the larger man. "He is a mindless puppet!"
Kokujin looked down at Akuai. A slow grin spread across his bloody features. "Why Akuai," he said with a small laugh. "The way you talk, I almost think you'd be surprised if I told you Kazaq was not the first."
Akuai could say nothing. For the first time since he had sworn his name to Hitomi, a sliver of doubt crept into his heart.
"Do not look so disappointed," Kokujin replied. "You believe that your Lady is infallible. You believe that your unwavering loyalty is well placed. Many agree with you, and who am I to say if you are right or wrong? Sadly not everyone sees your Lady with the same clarity. That is where I come in." Kokujin smiled.
"I will tell her what you have done," Akuai croaked.
"She already knows, Akuai," Kokujin said, leering at the smaller man. "She knows, and she does not care. She has greater concerns. For the time being my games serve her purposes. You can do nothing unless she wills it, and I am more useful to her than you."
Akuai looked the dark tattooed man in the eyes. "Perhaps you are right," he said, "but one day she will not need you, Kokujin."
Kokujin shrugged. "On that day I will already be gone." He walked past Akuai, pushing him to one side.
"When you leave, run far and fast," Akuai called out after him. "For I promise I will find you."
Kokujin looked back at Akuai, his face still stained with Naga gore. "I give you a promise as well," he replied. "I promise that from this day forth you will live in fear of me, and one day… one day I will kill you."
"It appears we have both fulfilled our promises," Kokujin whispered into Akuai's ear. He twisted the half-finished blade as he tore it free of Akuai's stomach again. The dying tattooed man screamed in anguish. Kokujin ignored him, bringing the dripping blade back to the anvil's surface. Akuai's blood glowed fiery red as the sword touched the Anvil of Despair, and Kokujin continued to hammer the weapon into shape.
From where he stood shackled to the wall, Togashi Satsu glared at Kokujin with boundless hatred.
"Oh, do not look so sour, little cousin," Kokujin said as he continued his grisly work. "Akuai did quite well, for an old man. He killed six of my men before we captured him, and you saw what happened to the two that brought him here. His Lady would be proud." Kokujin reached over the edge of the anvil, patting Akuai fondly on the head.
"Stop it," Satsu spat angrily. "Kill us if you must, but we will not stand for this. Akuai demands a noble death, not this shameful mockery."
Kokujin paused in his smithing, looking up at Satsu with a thoughtful expression. He set down his blade and hammer and walked slowly toward his prisoner, arms folded behind his back. The light of the fire pit reflected off his muscular form; his tattoos danced in the flickering light. "Little cousin," he said, looking down at Satsu. "When I sent you my challenge, did you never pause to wonder why I did not ask you to bring a Kitsuki?"
Satsu said nothing, only glared fearlessly at Kokujin.
"Of course not," Kokujin chuckled. "Your clan stopped thinking when your grandfather died. I did not ask for a Kitsuki, because I knew they would warn you not to play my games."
Kokujin rested his hands on Satsu's shoulders, smiled warmly, and delivered a fierce knee into the chained man's stomach, so hard that he wretched. Kokujin shoved Satsu back against the wall and walked back toward the anvil.
"You answered my invitation, and here you are. Imprisoned," Kokujin said. "You are a fool, little cousin, and I mock you because that is my right. If you deserved fair treatment, you would not be in chains."
Satsu stood straight in his bonds and glared at Kokujin. "When you are the one in chains I will remember you said that."
"Fair enough," Kokujin said without humor. "Can you kill me, little cousin? Can you succeed where Togashi and Hitomi failed?"
"If he does not, I will!" Hitomi Hogai roared.
"Silence, animal, I am talking to your owner," Kokujin said, glaring at Hogai.
"Togashi and Hitomi did not fail," Satsu retorted in a bold voice. "If they suffered you to live, your life must have served some greater purpose."
Kokujin held up his nearly finished katana, considering its fine edge. "I agree," he replied in a distant voice. "Togashi used me. So did Hitomi. I used them in return. Now they are gone and I am not."
"So you believe you are better than them?" Tamori Chieko said defiantly. "Togashi and Hitomi reside in the Celestial Heavens. You hide in a cave with goblins and lunatics."
"This is true," Kokujin said, pointing at Chieko with the blade. "You are a smart one. You understand." He looked back at Satsu. "So few really understand. Satsu understands."
Satsu's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Some of the Hoshi monks I have met believe that you are much like your grandfather," Kokujin said, hammering on the sword again. "More like him than your father, even. Sadly, you are incomplete. The monks that lived long enough to tell me tales believe that you are destined to wield his blades, and that when you find them you will gain his wisdom. That is why they were so eager to retrieve Togashi's daisho from me." Kokujin's eyes met Satsu's as he continued working the bloodied katana. "That is why I am eager to return them." He gestured at the golden swords that now rested on a stand nearby.
"For some reason I find it difficult to trust your generosity," Satsu said acidly.
"And I thought you understood me," Kokujin said. "I am a Dragon, Satsu. We are more alike than you know, and I find I miss the Dragon as they once were. Without the wisdom of a true god to guide you, the Dragon Clan is a pale shadow of itself. The mystery is gone. The riddle is no more." He grinned slowly. "No one gets the joke without Togashi to explain it. When I finish my blades I will return your grandfather's daisho and release you, Satsu."
"And you think I will spare your life then?" Satsu replied.
"Can you kill me?" Kokujin asked, looking genuinely surprised. "That should be interesting."
"You are insane," Hogai growled.
Kokujin looked at Hogai, raised one eyebrow, and sighed. He looked back to his katana to continue his work, but his shoulders slumped and the hammer fell from his hands with a clang. "Fu Leng's blood," he swore, kicking Akuai's limp form. "I thought for certain the old man would have lasted longer than that. The Bloodspeaker scrolls claimed the victims would last much longer… but then I do suppose I have been working quicker than they intended. Pity, I was almost finished." He looked back at Satsu. "Just as well, I suppose. This brings me to my next point."
"Which is?" Satsu hissed.
"Suffering," Kokujin replied, flipping the unfinished katana and catching it easily in his other hand. "Togashi and Hitomi were both very powerful, but their power was tempered by suffering. It gave them focus, gave them perspective. If you are to take back your grandfather's swords, then you must suffer as well, Satsu."
"Do what you will, madman," Satsu said, meeting Kokujin's gaze squarely.
"I will," Kokujin said, sitting on the edge of the anvil and grinning vaguely. "Pick."
"Pick?" Satsu replied. "Pick what?"
"Pick the anvil's next victim," Kokujin said, gesturing at Chieko and Hogai with his sword. "The pretty little shugenja or the ox. Pick the one you want to watch die next and which one you want to bring back home."
Satsu's face darkened with rage.
"Pick me, Satsu-sama!" Hogai shouted. "I am not afraid to die!"
"Oh?" Kokujin asked, running one finger along his katana as he studied the blade. "This isn't mere death, Hogai-san. The anvil doesn't just use blood to power its magic. It uses souls. Whoever Satsu chooses won't just die in agony." His eyes locked with Satsu's again. "They will be bound in eternal torment inside my sword."
"Pick me, Satsu-sama," Hogai repeated, though his face was paler than before.
Chieko said nothing, her eyes fixed on the ground.
"I choose myself," Satsu said.
Kokujin rolled his eyes. "So predictable," he said. "That was not a choice, little cousin. Your blood won't do. Pick one, or I feed both to the Anvil. My wakizashi is complete. I only need one to finish my katana, but I suppose I could use a tanto."
Satsu closed his eyes and lowered his head.
"Take your time," Kokujin said in a mocking voice.
"Pick me, Satsu-sama," Hogai said hoarsely. "I am nothing."
Satsu looked up at Hogai, his golden eyes tormented. He turned and looked at Chieko. She looked back at him silently, her expression calm and serene. Satsu looked back at Kokujin.
"I have made my choice," he whispered.
"It is a miracle you are still alive, Wayan-sama," Togashi Matsuo said, helping the old monk sit upright against a stone outcropping.
"More like a curse," Wayan replied, wincing in agony as he settled against Matsuo's bedroll. The monk's left leg was splinted and heavily bound. His chest and left eye were covered with bloody bandages. His right arm hung limp and useless in a sling. "You should have left me behind."
"Normally I defer to the Order of Hoshi's timeless wisdom," Mirumoto Rosanjin said, stooping to spoon some cold rice out of a pot into a bowl. "However, in this case, I think you're being a fool."
"Am I?" Wayan asked, glaring at the samurai. "I cannot walk. I can barely be carried. You cannot pursue Kokujin while dragging a dying old man through the Twilight Mountains."
"Stop being selfish!" Rosanjin snapped, glaring at the old monk.
"Selfish?" Wayan asked, incredulous. "What are you talking about?"
"Rosanjin, you cannot talk to Master Wayan like that," Matsuo said angrily. "He is the greatest hero of the Brotherhood."
"Exactly," Rosanjin retorted. He looked back at Wayan. "Even wounded, you are the most experienced warrior among us. Matsuo has his tattoos and I have my swords, but all of our weapons and talents are nothing compared to your wisdom. Neither of us knows Kokujin as you do. Without your guidance we are doomed."
"I am dying," Wayan said in a weak voice. "I will not last the night."
"Then know this, monk," Rosanjin replied. If you die, I will follow you into Meido and drag you back here. So stay alive, you coward." He shoved the bowl of rice toward Wayan.
"Very well then," Wayan said in a determined voice. "If you will not let me die in peace then I have no choice but to live." He took the bowl from Rosanjin and held it to his mouth, chewing deliberately.
"Let's go patrol, Matsuo," Rosanjin said, rising. "Master Wayan should be safe here for a while."
Matsuo nodded silently and followed the samurai. He said nothing more as they made their way through the rocky terrain, his lips fixed into a thin line.
"You think I was disrespectful," Rosanjin whispered as they skulked through the shadows.
Matsuo nodded, angry.
"I am no healer, Matsuo," Rosanjin said. "It was your knowledge of herbalism that saved Master Wayan's life, but we both know without a shugenja he won't last much longer."
Matsuo nodded again.
"But we both also know that Hoshi Wayan is the most obstinate man in the northern provinces," Rosanjin added. "I said what I did to keep him angry enough to survive until we can find Chieko."
"You're wrong," Matsuo said softly.
Rosanjin looked at the tattooed man curiously.
"You're wrong," he repeated. "Wayan isn't the most obstinate man in the northern provinces. That honor belongs to a certain Mirumoto samurai I know."
Rosanjin chuckled. "That may well be," he said.
Matsuo climbed onto a rocky ledge and peered out into the darkness. His tattoo became the wolf, letting his eyes pierce the shadow with ease.
"Any sign?" Rosanjin asked hopefully.
"Of what?" Matsuo replied.
"Anything," Rosanjin answered. "If we could even find the path back the way we came, at least that would be something."
"Nothing but rocks and trees," Matsuo said, shaking his head as he climbed back down. "Without Hogai to guide us, we are lost."
"Damn these mountains to Jigoku," Rosanjin swore. "We could wander forever and never find Shiro Heichi."
"That may be Kokujin's intent," Matsuo answered. "His challenge was to Satsu, and perhaps now he has Satsu. Kobai was not interested in us. Kokujin may be content to let us wander out here, lost, until we die." Matsuo sniffed the air carefully. "That may not take long, either. I smell a storm in the air. This high in the mountains, that may well mean a blizzard."
"I will not surrender," Rosanjin swore. "Not to Kokujin, not to the storm itself. We will survive, Matsuo, and we will rescue Satsu and the others."
"I hope you are right," Matsuo said. The young ise zumi suddenly tensed, sensing something out of the ordinary. He glanced around warily.
"What is it?" Rosanjin asked, swords instantly in his hands.
Matsuo pointed just as a small light appeared in the distance, bobbing its way through the rocky cliffs. The light was coming swiftly toward them, moving at a rapid pace. Matsuo and Rosanjin quickly ducked behind a large boulder, peering out as the light drew closer. They could see now that the light radiated from a lantern borne by a figure floating up on the breeze. He was dressed in robes of inky black painted with silver kanji of the elements. His face was covered with a dark veil. The wind swirled about him, bearing him easily to the ground.
"Come out, both of you," the figure demanded in a surprisingly feminine voice, pushing back the veil to reveal a woman's face. She looked directly at Matsuo and Rosanjin. "The earth will not hide you. The mountains whisper their secrets to me."
"She is one of Kokujin's shugenja," Rosanjin whispered, taking out his bow. "One of the ones that brought the mountain down on us."
"No," Matsuo said, pushing Matsuo's arm down as he drew an arrow across the bow. "If she served Kokujin, there would be no warning."
"Unless this is another trap," Rosanjin answered.
"Then wait here," Matsuo said. "I will find out her intent."
"What if she is hostile?" Rosanjin asked.
"Then I'll try not to stand in the way of your shot," Matsuo answered.
Matsuo stepped into the light, hands held out to show he held no weapons. The strange woman's eyes narrowed when she saw him. "You are tattooed," she said. "Like the others." A small figure stepped out from behind her, standing between her and Matsuo. Matsuo thought it was a goblin, then realized it was a tiny stone man with large, oval eyes, glowing with a weird blue light. Its arms and legs were stunted like a doll's.
"Tattooed, yes," Matsuo said, looking down at the stone man warily, "but not like the others. I am Togashi Matsuo of the Dragon Clan. My comrades and I came to fight Kokujin, but we were ambushed. A friend of ours lies injured not far from here. If you are shugenja, we would be grateful for your aid. Perhaps we could help one another find our way out of these mountains."
She looked at him cautiously. "I am not lost, Dragon," she said with a sneer. "I am Heichi Jianzhen, and these mountains have belonged to my family for seven centuries."
"Heichi?" Matsuo replied. "I thought the Boar Clan were no more."
"Rokugan cared little for my clan when it was destroyed," she replied. "Why should anyone care if we survive? We do not need the Empire. We have the Shakoki Dogu to protect us." She rested one hand on the tiny stone figure that stood before her. "You were a fool to bring war to my home, Dragon."
"I do not intend to harm you," Matsuo said.
"You could not harm me if you wished to," Jianzhen replied.
A small tremor passed through the earth under Matsuo's feet. On impulse, he glanced over one shoulder.
Hundreds of pairs of glowing blue eyes stared at him from the darkness, hundreds of Shakoki Dogu moving slowly closer. Their shimmering eyes burned with silent rage.