Four Years Ago…
"Tell me a story," the stranger said, smiling across the meager campfire.
Haru chuckled out loud, surprised by the strange request. The old hermit had not questioned the stranger's arrival. This deep in the Twilight Mountains he had precious few visitors. Of course that was one of the reasons he had come here, to retreat from society's vices and dwell upon the purity of that which lay beyond. Even still, it was good to see another person from time to time, so Haru had gladly shared his fire and his breakfast with the stranger.
By the look of the man he was a sohei, one of the warrior monks from the Temple of Osano-Wo. His body was covered head to toe in thick wrappings. A straw bundle lay on the earth, seemingly cast aside without care but always close at hand when it could have easily been left behind in the sohei's cart. Haru had seen such bundles before. Many sohei used them to carry weapons across province borders without drawing suspicion. Most magistrates would not bother to search holy men. Haru had always found sohei the strangest sort of monk - they embraced the peace of Shinsei but relished violence and combat. The dichotomy made them difficult for most people to understand, and Haru was no exception.
"Are you trying to think of a story?" the sohei asked. "Or did you not hear me?"
"Actually I was trying to politely ignore you," Haru said, chewing on a bit of meat. "I am not a very good storyteller."
"You are too modest," the stranger replied. "I have seen many professional storytellers that never let a lack of talent stop them."
"That may well be," Haru admitted with some amusement, "but I think that my stories would not interest you. I have been away from the world for too long. My tales are old and boring, and generally go on for too long."
"I know the type," the sohei said. He was silent for a moment. In the light of the fire, Haru noticed that his eyes were a strange golden color, unlike any he had seen before. Dark patterns crossed the small amount of skin visible around his eyes - scars, or perhaps tattoos. "If I wished to hear stories of Rokugan, I would be there," the sohei said. "Tell me a story about these mountains. I hear that they are haunted. Surely you must know something."
Haru raised one silver eyebrow and thought for a bit. "This is so," he said. "I have heard it said that a terrible evil was born here, the greatest of all demons. It died here as well, if such a thing can ever die."
"You have 'heard it said?'" the sohei asked. "Who said this?"
"Shinsei," Haru answered.
"Of course," the sohei said. "The Little Teacher would have been there when the First Oni was mortally wounded."
Haru looked at the sohei warily. "I did not say the creature's name. Do you know of the First Oni?"
The sohei shrugged. "Only rumors. Only enough to make me curious. Tell me more. "
Haru looked at the stranger warily. Something about his manner was distinctly unsettling. He kept an eye on the man as he refilled his cup from a nearby waterskin, then went on. "The First Oni was the most powerful of all demons," Haru said. "He marched at the vanguard of the Dark Kami's army. His power was said to be limitless. He could alter his form at will, becoming great or small as the need arose. His blood corrupted the earth wherever it fell. No weapon could harm him, no warrior could overcome him, save one blessed with the power of the Celestial Heavens."
"What a mighty hero Shiba must have been, to defeat him," the stranger said.
"At the cost of his own life," Haru replied. "Shiba and the First Oni left one another mortally wounded. The demon came here, where it was born, to die deep within the earth."
"But oni are not confined to their body," the sohei said. "Would its spirit not have returned to Jigoku to await a chance to return to this world once more?"
"I… do not know," Haru said. The conversation was beginning to make him uncomfortable.
"In the monastery, they taught us that all oni must take the names of others or they cannot exist in this realm," the stranger commented. "Whose name do you suppose the First Oni took?"
Haru shrugged. "I never thought about it," he answered. "You know a great deal about demons for a sohei."
"Know evil so you might better fight it," the sohei said in an excited voice. "Would you like to hear my theory?"
Haru grunted noncommittally, reluctant to encourage the odd stranger but unwilling to risk angering him.
"I think that the First Oni carried the true name of Fu Leng," the stranger said, "the name that no mortal can ever know. That is why he is merely called the 'First Oni,' for his true name cannot be spoken. That is why he was so powerful, for his power was drawn from Fu Leng's boundless might. That is why he has never returned to the mortal realm, because his master is also bound beyond this realm as well." The sohei grew more excited as he warmed to his subject, gesturing emphatically as he spoke.
"Then we are lucky that Fu Leng is dead, and can never return," Haru said with a nervous laugh. "Does it seem unseasonably warm for this time of year, or is it just me? I think we may be due for a rough winter."
"Of all the lessons Fu Leng has taught us, remember this," the sohei mused. "Death is not eternal."
That quote is not familiar to me," he said, working to keep the terrified stutter from his voice. "Who said that?"
"A misunderstood Crab prophet," the sohei answered, looking around with a wistful expression. "A man before his time. A man who understood too much, and was punished for it. He would have seen the potential in a place like this. A place that has seen the birth and death of gods. Good riddance to him."
Haru set his bowl down near the fire. Suddenly he was no longer hungry.
The sohei seemed to note Haru's shift in mood. With a sigh, he rose and gathered his straw bundle. "I have taken enough of your time. I should continue on my way. I intend to make a new home in the ruins of Shiro Heichi. Visit me there, if you like." The bundle shifted on his shoulder; within, Haru imagined he saw the firelight gleam off the tsuba of a katana. Why would a monk have a katana?
"The mountains are dangerous in the dark," Haru warned, not certain why he would try to keep this sinister fellow out of danger.
"I do not fear the darkness," the sohei replied, tossing his bundle into his cart. Haru could hear it thump against something large and metal. With a final respectful bow, the sohei turned and made his way off along the mountain path.
Haru waited until the man was gone and began gathering his meager possessions as quickly as possible. Perhaps society was not such a bad thing after all.
Mirumoto Rosanjin watched the wall of collapsing stone in silent awe. Boulders and dust rolled down upon the dead city of the Boar Clan, swallowing up entire castles in waves of hungry earth. Kokujin's tattooed goblins and kikage zumi fled in terror before the attack. Tattooed shugenja hovered in midair, trying vainly to calm the raging earth kami with their magic.
"Jianzhen," Rosanjin said to the silent spirit standing beside him. "If you could have collapsed the mountains upon Kokujin all this time, why did you wait until now?"
The Boar shugenja's face was gray and solemn. "Because it ultimately serves no purpose," she said. "Kokujin does his work in the caves beneath, where we cannot reach. He uses the First Oni's corruption to protect him. We could heap mountains atop him and he will survive. Ultimately, all of this will serve only to annoy and distract him… and to destroy my ancestral home."
"But your people can never return to the mortal realm," Rosanjin said.
Jianzhen glared bitterly at the Dragon. "So I should abandon all hope?" she said with a snarl.
"Stop it," Kaelung ordered curtly, not bothering to look back at them as he studied the chaos below. "The Boar has given us one chance at this. We must act while Kokujin's minions are disorganized or not at all."
"Kaelung is right," Togashi Mitsu commented. "Kokujin is a clever opponent. If we give him time, he will turn this chaos to his advantage. We must strike now, stay in a group, and move directly to the Boar citadel. There, we can make our way to the caves as Jianzhen instructed."
"We will not bury Shiro Heichi," Jianzhen said. "Head directly to the castle and you will be safe."
"I question the logic of charging into an avalanche, especially with this criminal," Rosanjin said, nodding at Kaelung.
"Then stay behind with the ghost, Mirumoto," Kaelung replied. "You will not be missed."
With that, Kaelung leapt from his perch, landing nimbly on the road far below. Mitsu and Matsuo were only a step behind, both moving swiftly over the uneven stone. Rosanjin climbed down after them, grunting in frustration as he watched the ise zumi quickly outdistance him. All three had the benefit of magical tattoos that enhanced their speed and reflexes. Rosanjin had only natural ability and training. Matsuo glanced back when he noticed that the samurai had been left behind, but Rosanjin only shouted at Matsuo to keep running.
Just then Rosanjin felt a tingle at the base of his skull. It was not uncommon among the Dragon for those without the gift of magic to possess some awareness of the spirit world. In bushi, this talent was focused toward the ability to detect magic in use. Rosanjin looked up quickly and saw two of the tattooed shugenja hovering toward the fleeing ise zumi. Both men were chanting, arms raised to the heavens as dark clouds gathered overhead. Rosanjin drew his bow in a swift motion and fired two arrows, striking each man in the throat. He continued running, ignoring the bodies as they struck the earth on either side of the road.
Mitsu, Matsuo, and Kaelung had already entered the castle gates. A tall kikage zumi had noticed their passage and was now waving a dai tsuchi as he attempted to rally the disorganized goblins to chase the intruders. Rosanjin dropped his bow and lunged at the man, drawing both swords in mid-air and swinging the blades in a wicked cross cut. The kikage zumi's shouts ended in a brief, anguished shriek as Rosanjin cut him in four pieces. Rosanjin rolled and came up in a crouch, standing before the gates of Shiro Heichi. He looked around him and saw dozens of inhuman eyes now fixed on his twin blades. Kokujin's bakemono now ignored the walls of stone collapsing all around them. There was nothing left for them but their hatred for this arrogant Dragon.
Rosanjin's thoughts went back to his training. In situations like this, hopelessly outnumbered, there was only one thing left that a warrior could do. Brag, and hope for the best.
"I am Mirumoto Rosanjin, son of Mirumoto Yuyake, Master of the Iron Mountain!" he shouted boldly, not even sure if the goblins could understand him. "I defeated Shiba Tejin at the Battle of Wind Gorge! I stood with Tamori Shaitung at the Battle of Snow and Fire! These blades bear the stamp of Togashi Nyoko and in eleven centuries they have never known defeat!" He took up a low Niten stance, wakizashi held low and parallel to the ground, katana lifted high over one shoulder. "The only gates any of you shall pass these days are the gates of Jigoku."
Kokujin's goblins did not retreat, but now doubt flickered in their eyes.
That was all that Rosanjin needed.
They charged, and Rosanjin released a triumphant battle cry.
The sound of battle echoed from the halls beyond the dungeon. The floor shook as the mountains above shifted and heaved. Still chained against the wall, Togashi Satsu wondered what was happening above. Could Matsuo and the others somehow be involved or was their situation growing even worse than before?
Through it all, Kokujin continued pounding relentlessly upon the bloody anvil. His face, once twisted with a crazed grin, was now solemn and expressionless. Satsu could see now that Kokujin was mumbling something under his breath, over and over, with each stroke of the hammer. At the foot of the anvil, Tamori Chieko lay collapsed in a pool of blood. Her chest still moved with breath, somehow clinging to life despite the torture the wicked tattooed man had inflicted upon her.
"You do not look so confident any more, Kokujin," Hitomi Hogai said with a low growl. He yanked violently at his chains, causing Kokujin to glance up. He immediately returned his attention to his work, lip curled in a sneer.
"You will die today, Kokujin," Hogai added, yanking at his chains again.
"No, Hogai," Kokujin said in a clear voice. "I will not die today. That much has been promised."
"By who?" Satsu asked.
"By your grandfather," Kokujin said with a bitter laugh. "When he named me as his heir."
"You are truly mad," Satsu whispered.
"The truth is the truth and it cannot be changed," Kokujin said, holding up his katana to study it in the light of the fire pit again. "I am a tamashii, heir to the Dragon Champion. That was why Mitsu feared to face me. That was why Hitomi sought my help. Who would know how best to bear the burden of divine power but Kokujin?"
"What is a tamashii?" Hogai asked, looking at Satsu. "What is he talking about?"
"Lies," Satsu said, still staring at Kokujin in disbelief. "All lies."
"That is what I have always hated about the Dragon Clan," Kokujin said with a sigh. "You lie even to yourselves. Wrapped in so many secrets, is it any wonder that you have such difficulty fulfilling your potential, Satsu? I have mastered the power of two gods. In me, Fu Leng's corruption and Togashi's enlightenment find balance. I am my own master, poised to elevate myself to a level of power you cannot begin to understand. You cannot even keep yourself out of chains. I find it sad."
"I find it sad that it took you all these years to forge two swords," Hogai barked.
"I think you'll soon find that I have been busier than that," Kokujin replied. "I have killed many Dragon since I found the Anvil, and to be sure it took me some time master the art of swordsmithing. I forged ten Shameswords, each born of the souls of dead would-be heroes. I gave the batch to my friend, Daigotsu. He will see that they fall into the hands of appropriate wielders."
"You talk too much Kokujin!" Hogai roared, pulling his chains again. "When the others hunted you, did you bore them to death like this?"
"Your honesty shames me, Hogai," Kokujin said. "You are right. Words prove nothing. It is time for action. I am finished." Kokujin studied the sinister black katana he had forged with a satisfied smile. He lifted the matching wakizashi from where it lay nearby and circled around to the front of the anvil. He held both hands in a loose Niten stance and looked down at Chieko. "Two swords, forged with the divine blood of countless Togashi and the black blood of the Twilight Mountains. I wield Heaven and Hell in my hands. Now tell me the name, and our pact shall be sealed."
"She cannot speak, madman," Satsu said. "She is dying."
"I am not speaking to Chieko, little cousin," Kokujin said, still staring at the Anvil of Despair. "I sense you. You can hear me. One more and the pact is sealed… Now tell me the name."
Satsu realized that was what Kokujin had been whispering as he forged the sword. "Tell me the name…" Over and over. "Tell me the name…"
"Tell me the name," Kokujin whispered. He rested the wakizashi's blade against Chieko's throat.
"NO!" Satsu shouted. The young Dragon felt a surge of power well up in his chest. Kokujin staggered backwards as if he had been struck a physical blow. He looked at Satsu, eyes wide with surprise. Satsu screamed as pain coursed through his body. He hung limply from his chains.
"Excellent," Kokujin said, a glimmer of respect in his eyes. "You begin to master your grandfather's power. Surprising but not unforeseen. Like my swords, the chains that bind you were forged using the corrupted steel of these mines. Should you attempt that again they might not be as merciful." He walked toward Chieko, katana raised. "Though you are welcome to try."
Behind him, the doors of the dungeon opened with a crash. Three tattooed monks burst into the chamber. The largest hurled his ono at Kokujin. The axe buried itself solidly in the dark tattooed man's back. Kokujin grunted in pain, crumpled to his knees and fell face-first on the stone floor.
"That was fast," Togashi Matsuo said, looking down at Kokujin in disbelief. "I thought Kokujin would put up more of a fight."
"Mitsu! Matsuo!" Satsu exclaimed as he recognized his rescuers. "Chieko is injured badly!"
Matsuo nodded and hurried toward the anvil, but Mitsu seized his arm. Matsuo looked back in confusion. The old tattooed man shook his head silently, eyes locked on Kokujin's fallen body.
"That's not enough to kill him, boy," Kaelung said in a warning voice. "I was aiming to chop one of his arms off."
The dungeon's inky shadows began to shift and twist around the three men, congealing into the forms of a six of Kokujin's tattooed men. These were different than the others. They looked stronger, more confident. Matsuo gasped as he recognized their leader. It was Kobai, the man he had seen Rosanjin kill only days before.
Kokujin reached back, grasped the haft of Kaelung's axe and tore it from his back with a spray of black gore. He staggered to his feet, blood streaming down his chin, and tossed the axe aside. Even as he reached for his swords, the gaping wound on his back began to heal. "What is it that I have always said, Kobai?" Kokujin asked.
"Never assume the enemy is dead," Kobai replied. "Until you have devoured their heart."
"Is this the last of them?" Kokujin asked.
"Except for the Mirumoto upstairs and the monk who ran away, yes," Kobai replied. "They brought a ghost with them as well, but she cannot enter."
"Good," Kokujin said, pointing at Mitsu with his blade. "Bring me their hearts."
Nine Years Ago…
Kokujin crouched on a heap of masonry near the edge of the site that would one day be a grand temple. He turned a lump of discolored jade over and over between his fingers. Once, it had been a Witch Hunter's badge of office. Now it was merely a toy. "Your plan is impressive, Daigotsu," the tattooed man said.
Daigotsu looked back over his shoulder at Kokujin, arms folded placidly in his formless black robes. A mischievous grin spread across the handsome man's face. "Do you think that I am too ambitious, Kokujin-san?" he asked. Daigotsu's yojimbo, Kyoden stood silently at the would-be Dark Lord's side, silent in his ebony armor.
Kokujin's brow furrowed. "I do not believe there is such a thing as too much ambition," he replied. "Every time I believe I understand the nature of the universe, that nature changes. I once thought Togashi was immortal, and yet he died. I once believed Hitomi was a foolish girl who would lead her clan to destruction. Now she rules the Heavens. A year ago you were a pawn of the Bloodspeakers. Now you intend to rule the Shadowlands." Kokujin looked around at the dozens of Tainted samurai and peasants as they went about their work, hurrying to build Daigotsu's City of the Lost.
"I intend much more than that," Daigotsu said softly. "I have studied the Tsuno magic. All the Spirit Realms are one. All I need do is find the proper passages and Fu Leng will be restored to his proper place at the heart of Jigoku. We could even send him into the Celestial Heavens if we wished." Daigotsu laughed. "Imagine that. Imagine the look on Lady Hitomi's face when she sees the Dark Kami standing at her gates. Do you suppose she will invite him in for tea?"
Kokujin frowned thoughtfully. "I would like to be there to see that," he said. "Is that possible, do you think? Could I enter the Celestial Heavens?"
Daigotsu shrugged. "All things are possible, Kokujin-san," he said. "Personally I have no desire to go there. I am mortal. My place is here."
"I am immortal," Kokujin said. "I do not have a place."
"I see," Daigotsu said with a patient smile. "Have you decided if you will remain in the city, my friend?"
"I think not," Kokujin said. "Our adventures have been amusing, Daigotsu-san, but I have things to do in Rokugan."
"Of course," Daigotsu replied. "I place no demands on you, my friend. I know you have your own schemes, and so long as they do not conflict with mine I wish you luck. You will always be welcome in the City of the Lost."
"That is good to hear," Kokujin said. "This looks like quite an interesting place."
A greasy little man stepped forward from the hordes of Lost and spoke quietly to Daigotsu for several minutes. Kokujin recognized him as Omoni, the miserable little creature who had escaped the Bloodspeaker camp with Daigotsu and Kyoden. He was a strange little man who possessed a bizarre ability to alter the flesh of Tainted creatures. He used his abilities to create terrible beasts to serve Daigotsu's whim, but just as frequently used them to cripple or kill minor oni and goblins for his amusement. Omoni was a petty, deranged, pathetic creature. Kokujin liked him.
As Daigotsu and Kyoden strode off to survey construction in another part of the city, Omoni hunched over to join Kokujin. "You do not need that," Omoni said, leering suspiciously at the chunk of jade in the tattooed man's hand. "So long as you serve Daigotsu loyally you need not fear the madness of the Taint. Let it consume you, my friend. Be reborn in its glory!"
"Perhaps another time," Kokujin said. "In the meantime, tell me of these new bakemono you have created."
Omoni beamed, displaying a mouth full of sharpened teeth. He was never quite so happy as when someone asked him to discuss his art.
Matsuo's tattoo shifted into the form of the frost dragon, long coils swirling over his chest and arms. Taking a deep breath he unleashed a cloud of freezing wind at the two nearest tattooed men. Each leapt in a different direction, easily evading Matsuo's attack. One landed in a crouch nearby; Kaelung delivered a savage backhand to the man's face that sent him reeling only to melt into the shadows.
Kokujin Kobai lunged at Mitsu, fingers extended into sharpened claws. Mitsu ducked to one side as his attacker slashed a line of red along his right arm. Mitsu spun and aimed a swift kick at Kobai's torso. Kobai laughed and dissolved into shadow as Mitsu's leg passed through him.
All the while Kokujin ignored the intruders. He returned his attention to Chieko. "Tell me the name," he repeated over and over.
"Kokujin has given them the power of the crescent moon," Kaelung shouted.
"There are too many shadows here!" Mitsu cried. He belched a gout of searing flame, momentarily dispelling the darkness and temporarily causing Kokujin's minions to retreat.
"So fight closer to the light!" Kaelung answered. He charged past the shadowy tattooed men, toward the edge of the fire pit. As they followed, their forms became more substantial. One appeared and slashed at Kaelung's back with a broad knife. Kaelung spun and dodged the blow and dragged the man into the light by the throat. With a wet snap, he cast the corpse into the fire pit. Mitsu landed beside Kaelung with an agile flip. He produced another gout of flame as he landed, consuming the attacker that had followed him.
Matsuo realized with a start that the remaining four were unwilling to approach Mitsu and Kaelung in the light, leaving him surrounded. The tattoo on his chest shifted into the form of an eagle; Matsuo vaulted over the heads of his foes, tucking into a nimble somersault and rolling to his feet at the edge of the fire pit. The young ise zumi's eyes widened as he realized the gap was no shallow pit filled with fuel. It opened into a bottomless chasm, seething with volcanic fury. Matsuo quickly took two steps away, turned, and found himself standing directly before Kokujin.
Kokujin's eyes narrowed slightly. "Tell me the name," he said again, pointing his katana at Matsuo's chest.
Matsuo felt his foot brush against something metal. Looking for any weapon, he quickly snatched up whatever it was. To his surprise, he found himself holding a pair of golden blades. The swords felt light in his hands; the steel hummed and vibrated like a living thing.
"Have you ever even wielded swords before, boy?" Kokujin asked, sneering at Matsuo.
Matsuo scowled and lunged at Kokujin, swinging the swords wildly. Kokujin lazily stepped to one side and slashed with his wakizashi, leaving a deep wound down Matsuo's left cheek. He brought his katana up in a savage cut that would have bisected the boy at the torso had Kaelung not tripped Matsuo from behind. The sohei kicked Matsuo solidly in the stomach, sending him rolling away across the floor.
"You are no match for Kokujin, Matsuo!" Kaelung roared, snatching his axe from the ground. "Leave him to me!" Kaelung leapt at Kokujin with his axe.
"I'm flattered," Kokujin replied, catching the heavy axe blade between his crossed swords. "Who are you again?"
Matsuo crawled to his knees with a groan, wiping the blood out of his eyes with a forearm. He leaned heavily on Togashi's katana, only dimly aware that he was using one of his clan's most highly treasured nemuranai as a cane. The tip of the blade sank an inch into the stone floor, snapping him back to his senses.
"Be alert boy!" Hitomi Hogai snapped, rattling his chains. "More trouble!"
Matsuo looked up quickly. Kokujin Kobai stepped out of the darkness, long claws dripping with Mitsu's blood. Matsuo leaned back against the wall and lifted Togashi's katana.
"Drop the sword before your incompetence insults us both," Kobai said with a sigh.
"I can use it well enough," Matsuo said. "Watch." With that, Matsuo turned and severed Hogai's chains with a single broad stroke.
"Yes!" the mad Hitomi shouted. Kobai's eyes widened in terror, but before he could melt away Hogai had seized each of his shoulders in a meaty hand and slammed him headfirst into the wall. Kobai grunted and fell unconscious.
"Free Lord Satsu, Matsuo!" Hogai growled as he charged at Kokujin. The huge warrior barreled across the dungeon, swinging his shattered chains from either wrist.
Matsuo hurried to Satsu's side. Using the wakizashi, he cut the chains from Satsu's wrists. "Come, Satsu-sama!" Matsuo said. "We must defeat Kokujin!" He offered Satsu the golden daisho.
With a determined expression, Satsu accepted the golden blades.
The moment his hands touched their hilts, he collapsed.
Togashi Satsu's soul floated in the timeless depths of void.
"Grandfather," Satsu whispered, though in his heart he was uncertain he would hear any reply.
"I am here," replied a deep voice, echoing with the wisdom of eternity.
Satsu said nothing for a moment.
"Are you surprised?" Togashi replied. "Were you not told that when you regained my swords that my wisdom would be yours as well?"
"I must confess I found the tales difficult to believe," Satsu replied. "How can wisdom be contained in steel?"
"It cannot," Togashi said. "The swords are only a symbol. It was the trial you were forced to endure to regain them that has brought you wisdom. All has come to pass as it must."
"I do not understand, grandfather," Satsu said. "I have seen no wisdom here, only failure. I have led my followers to their deaths and worse. Was all of this for my benefit? How can I accept that? Their blood is on my hands. No power is worth that, no wisdom, nothing."
"What greater evil might come to pass if you ignore their sacrifice?" Togashi answered.
"I cannot accept that," Satsu said. "I will not accept that it was Chieko's destiny to be tortured. I cannot believe that after a lifetime of Akuai's service it was Akuai's destiny to have his soul consumed by a dark artifact."
"Those who you love will die. This cannot be changed," Togashi said. "It falls to you to be certain that their deaths are not in vain."
"How?" Satsu asked. "I am not the leader that you once were. I cannot see the future as you did."
Togashi laughed. "I never saw the future, Satsu. Not in the way that you mean. I saw only patterns of the past as they built to inevitable conclusions, reflected through countless ages of experience. The only destiny that I could not predict was my own. It is impossible for any creature, mortal or immortal, to see his own fate clearly."
"So is that why you so seldom came down from your mountain?" Satsu asked. "Because every time you interfered, the future became your own."
"Quite astute for a boy who claims to be without wisdom," Togashi said.
"The only wisdom I have gained is that I can never lead the Dragon Clan," Satsu said. "I am not the man you were."
"You are everything that I was and more," Togashi said, "We are one."
Satsu frowned. "What do you mean, grandfather?"
"After the Day of Thunder, your father became Hitomi's greatest enemy," Togashi said. "Do you not think it strange that he led the Dragon back to her side? It was you that changed all of this, Satsu. On the day you were born, your mother would have died, as would you have. I led Hitomi to your mother's side. All that was left of my soul, lingering within Hitomi, passed on to be reborn in you. You gained the strength to survive, strength that you shared with your mother. That is our power, Satsu. The power to alter destiny."
"So I am not real?" Satsu asked. "I am only a shadow of you?"
"I never said that," Togashi answered. "You are Satsu, son of Hoshi. We are two beings, yet we live on in one soul. We are both mortal and immortal, both divine and human. I have lived in the corners of your soul, walked through your memories, passed through your dreams. You are a wise and noble man, Satsu. You bring honor to my name. You are my true heir."
"But I cannot wield the power of the gods as you once did," Satsu said.
"You ask for too much," Togashi answered. "Your power reflects mine, and my power waxed and waned with need."
"I think that our situation is dire, grandfather," Satsu said. "Yet I sense no power."
"No," Togashi replied. "You have not yet seen dire. Wait."
"What is about to happen?" Satsu asked urgently. "What is Kokujin's plan?"
"Is it not clear?" Togashi answered. "He intends to become a god."
Kokujin shoved himself away from Kaelung, threw his wakizashi into the air, seized one of Hogai's whirling chains, and pulled hard. The massive Hitomi warrior stumbled and crashed into Kaelung with a loud curse, sending both men to the floor. Kokujin caught his wakizashi and sheathed it beneath his obi.
When he looked up he saw Togashi Mitsu waiting for him, standing over the fallen bodies of Kokujin's last two minions. He held Kokujin's smithing hammer in both hands, ready for combat.
"Mitsu," Kokujin said, holding his ebony blade low over one hip.
"This has gone on too long," Mitsu said, circling the mad tattooed man.
"You may not believe this, but I agree," Kokujin replied. "After forty years of wandering this realm I have learned next to nothing. I have watched spoiled children ascend to divinity while I have not changed. I have watched the Empire hail weaklings like you as saviors when you have always been a puppet. That will soon change. All I need is one more soul. Your soul? Chieko's soul? It does not matter." Kokujin looked around wildly. "Now tell me the damned name and the deal is done!"
"You say that you have not changed, but you are wrong," Mitsu said. "You are even more insane."
Kokujin lunged at Mitsu with his shadowy blade. The sword struck the steel hammer with a shower of sparks. Kokujin laughed eagerly and buried a knee in Mitsu's stomach. Mitsu released his left hand from the hammer and delivered a solid blow to Kokujin's jaw. Kaelung rose and swung his axe at Kokujin from behind. Kokujin ducked and rolled to one side, letting the axe miss Mitsu's face by inches.
"Careful!" Mitsu growled.
"Sorry," Kaelung said insincerely as he looked for Kokujin.
"Now or never, demon!" Kokujin shouted, backing away from Mitsu and Kaelung and keeping an eye on Hogai as he rose. "In a moment I shall have to flee from these fools and your opportunity shall be lost! There is still time! Tell me the name and our bargain will be complete!"
A shadowy whisper passed through the tunnels beneath Shiro Heichi, and an unearthly voice spoke a single word. After that day, none could truly remember what had been said - none save Kokujin. The dark tattooed man shrieked in delight and turned back toward the Anvil of Despair, lifting his katana to deal Chieko a killing blow.
Chieko was gone.
Togashi Satsu stood on the other side of the anvil, holding Togashi's daisho in a Niten stance. A grim smile was painted on his face.
"Matsuo has escaped with your would-be sacrifice," Satsu said. "Our shugenja will heal her, as she did Hoshi Wayan."
"Kokujin-sama!" Kobai said, limping to his master's side and glaring at Satsu. "I can still catch them. I can move through the shadows and bring her back."
"No, Kobai-san," Kokujin said, glaring furiously at Satsu. Mitsu, Kaelung, and Hogai moved in on the Kokujin in a wide circle. "My little cousin is right. Chieko is lost to us."
"You have lost, Kokujin," Satsu said. "Drop those cursed blades and we may yet show you mercy."
"And we may not," Kaelung added.
"I have not lost," Kokujin said. With a swift movement he seized Kobai by the throat and threw him across the Anvil of Despair. Lifting his black katana high, Kokujin plunged it into Kobai's chest. Kobai shrieked one final time as his blood spilled onto the Tainted steel.
A deafening crack, louder than a hundred thunderbolts, rang through the Twilight Mountains. A bright fire erupted above Kokujin, blinding him for a moment. The floor shifted crazily beneath his feet. With a mad laugh he realized the fire above him was sunlight. The mountain had split asunder. Shiro Heichi had split in two. Broken stones and debris rained upon them. The floor split, carrying Satsu away from Kokujin. Hogai shouted in terror as the part of the floor where he stood plunged away into darkness. The dark tattooed man now stood on the top of a large column of rock beside the Anvil of Despair, swords lifted in triumph. With a mighty leap, Mitsu and Kaelung landed on either side of his island, prepared to attack. Kokujin no longer cared.
"Kokujin!" Kaelung cried. "What in Jigoku have you done?"
"Jigoku?" Kokujin asked, looking at the sohei. "Jigoku is exactly what I have done."
A brittle hiss cut through the air beside them. A gaping black portal opened, stretching from the depths of the chasm into the sky above. The smell of putrid smell of rancid meat rolled over them. Drops of dark ichor spilled out and fell forever upward into the sky. A wet, bubbling roar emerged from the depths of the portal. A slick red tentacle poked out of the portal and wrapped around one edge. Its skin blistered and twisted like a membrane stretched over countless tiny creatures as the organ flexed, pulling a meaty head the size of a small castle from the darkness. Its lipless mouth hung open, dripping pus and bile around uneven fangs. Dozens of fleshy eyestalks writhed from its scalp, regarding the tiny figures below with an odd sense of detachment.
"Togashi Mitsu," Kokujin said in an excited voice. "Meet the First Oni."
To Be Concluded