Jade
By Rich Wulf

Many Years Ago...

The tiny dragon opened his eyes wearily, long snout splitting open in an expansive yawn. Chewing the air with a thoughtful grin, he peered at his surroundings curiously. The air around him sparkled with a thousand tiny motes of light. Shimmering stars shone in the sky above in a strange, iridescent pattern.

A ribbon of darkness sliced through the twinkling lights, and the little dragon turned his eyes in that direction. A pair of gleaming silver eyes appeared in the midst of the ribbon as it resolved itself into a second, much larger dragon, a dragon made of everything and nothing at once. The little dragon knew it immediately as the Dragon of the Void, his brother.

"Hello," the little dragon said. "Where am I?"

"You are in Tengoku," Void said warmly. "You are in the Celestial Heavens. You are home."

"Who am I?" the dragon asked, blinking innocently.

"I am not sure," Void said, cocking his head curiously. "I should be sure. There is not much that lies outside my knowledge. You were born of the dreams of the humans. You seem to be a dragon... and yet you are not. Not a true dragon, like my other brothers and sisters. Though perhaps you will be one someday."

"What is my name?" the little dragon asked.

"I cannot tell you that," Void chuckled. "Only you know that. Why don't you tell me?"

The little dragon pursed its lips thoughtfully. "My name is Jade, I think," he said. "Call me Jade." As the dragon spoke, its colorless skin rippled, taking on the bright color of a polished emerald.

Void laughed lightly. "That is a good name, little Jade," he said with a nod. "Your name is a shining light that burns away the darkness. I approve."

Jade continued to look around curiously. "What do I do now?" he asked. "Where do I go next? You say that I am not a true dragon yet. How do I become one?"

"That," Void said firmly, "is a most excellent question. Why don't you follow me for a time? Perhaps we can find the answer together."

"I will do that," Jade said with an eager nod. The young dragon rose to its feet unsteadily, serpentine body undulating as it found its balance.

Nodding in approval, Void turned and flew away through the heavens, sinuous body rippling in the starlight. Jade followed as best he could, clumsily at first then more gracefully as he quickly mastered the art of walking. After a few minutes he dared to leap into the air. His slender body caught the ether and, after a moment when he was certain he would fall, he soared through the sky like a brilliant kite. The two dragons moved swiftly through the sparkling landscape for some time until, finally, Void came to a rest. His long body coiled around a circle in midair. His arrow-shaped head was pointed at the center of the circle, looking down intently. Jade hurried to his side and saw with surprise that the circle was a hole - a hole in the sky. The older dragon was looking through to something down below. Jade looked through as well, gem eyes glinting.

Tengoku was wondrous indeed, but the world he saw below was more wondrous by far.

"What is it?" Jade asked.

"It is called Rokugan," Void said with a smile. "It is the world of the humans."

"The ones who dreamed of me?" Jade asked.

Void nodded.

"What sort of creatures are they?" Jade asked, peering down beside Void with rapt attention.

"Good and honorable, mostly," Void said, "but always interesting. I come here to watch them. Sometimes, I help them."

"I think I would like to watch them too," Jade said. "May I?"

"Of course, little Jade," Void said with a chuckle. "Of course."

o

Some time later...

A torturous scream shook the heavens. Jade flinched in terror, scampering behind Earth's massive coils. The larger dragon stared resolutely ahead, unafraid of the sounds that echoed from Tengoku's gates.

Six of the dragons had gathered, spirits of magic and courage that guarded the heavens. Only Void was absent, and he had not been seen in nearly a year. Beside them stood the Fortunes, those who ruled the Heavens at the command of the Sun and Moon. Seldom had such a gathering been seen even in Tengoku. Never had their faces been so afraid. Across the rolling, sparkling fields of Tengoku, the sounds of battle echoed.

"Tengoku's gates have fallen," said Air, his voice a hushed whisper. "Okura, the guardian of heaven, has been defeated."

"Impossible!" shouted Bishamon. The Fortune of Strength wore heavy samurai armor. His hands twisted on the haft of his spear, eager to join the battle. "Fu Leng is only one god, weakened from years of imprisonment in Meido. How could he possibly have overcome Okura?"

"The gates are impervious to harm," added Daikoku, the Fortune of Wealth. The skinny Fortune's eyes darted about fearfully, looking for some sign that what Air had said was not true - small chance of that. A dragon could not lie. Such was not in their nature.

"He is Fu Leng," explained a resigned voice.

All eyes turned. A beautiful young woman sat astride a magnificent horse. Her face was sad as she gazed out toward the sound of the battle. Her cheeks were stained with tears.

"Lady Shinjo," said Jotei, dipping his reptilian head respectfully. The Fortune of Morning Dew had taken the form of a twisting golden dragon.

"My little brother has returned," she said sadly. "He has come home at last. This is everything that he has always wanted."

"So perhaps we should stand aside?" said Jurojin, Fortune of Longevity. "Surely we could give him a portion of Tengoku. He is, after all, a Kami. It is not his fault that he fell to Jigoku's embrace."

"No," Shinjo shook her head sadly. "He would not trust such a gesture. He would perceive betrayal where there was none, and kill us all in his paranoia. We must fight him."

"To say nothing of the Celestial Order," said the Dragon of Thunder. "Tengoku cannot abide his corruption. The presence of his demons makes the land wilt and decay. It is our duty to protect this realm from his Taint, not sympathize with him. It is too late to save Fu Leng."

"So be it," Bishamon concluded. "I shall rally the armies of heaven. Akodo and Hida will march beside me! Hantei himself will oversee our victory. March with us, Lady Shinjo. We will hold this ground until Lord Sun arrives to assure our victory. Let us destroy him together!"

Shinjo shook her head. "I will stand with you, Bishamon, but I am not so assured of our victory," she said. "My brothers and sisters believed we could defeat Fu Leng once before, merely because there were eight of us and one of him, and we had an empire at our command. Fu Leng always finds a way. He cannot be defeated by superior force. He cannot be defeated by superior numbers. His power is unimaginable. All the power of Jigoku rises up at his command. You may think him arrogant to mount this war, but my brother is no fool. There is no guarantee we will win."

The Fortunes looked at one another uneasily. "Then how will we defeat him?" asked Benten, the Fortune of Romantic Love, her beautiful face twisted in fear.

"The same way the mortals defeated him," said a voice from above them. An enormous golden eye opened in the sky, the eye of the Celestial Dragon, who bore the heavens in his coils. "Courage."

"We have courage in abundance," said Ebisu, Fortune of Honest Work. "So let us fight him."

Jade watched as the Fortunes composed their battle plans, but to him something seemed wrong. There seemed to be something missing. Their determined scowls, their shouts of defiance against the Dark Kami, all of it seemed somehow forced.

"You sense it too," whispered a familiar voice.

Jade turned to see a ribbon of darkness split the sparkling sky. A pair of silver eyes fixed on him. "Void!" he said happily. "Where have you been?"

"Thinking," he said simply. "They are fools, all of them." He gestured with one claw at the bickering Fortunes and Kami. "They cannot win this battle."

Jade looked at his mentor curiously. "Void?" he said. "Are you well?"

"They are immortals," Void continued, ignoring the question. "Tengoku has never known war or invasion. These gods have never known strife. They have never known loss. How can they know courage?"

"Some of them were mortal once," Jade replied. "Kisada, Tsukune, Yakamo, some of the younger Fortunes..."

"Yes, that is true," Void said, looking at Jade. The elder dragon's eyes widened, seeming to draw hope from Jade's words. "And perhaps that shall buy us time."

"Time?" Jade asked.

"Time for you to go to Yomi," Void said.

"The Realm of the Blessed Ancestors?" Jade asked.

Void nodded. "Unlike Tengoku, Yomi must constantly defend its borders from hostile spirits. The Blessed Guard bushi are no strangers to war. With their aid, we might yet force Fu Leng from the Heavens. You must go to them, Jade. Tell them what has happened."

"Me?" Jade asked, startled.

"Tengoku is not like the mortal realm, little Jade," Void said. "We have no Shadowlands here. We are not accustomed to corruption's presence as the humans are. Fu Leng's very existence here pains us, drives us to rash decisions, causes us to bicker among ourselves. You alone are immune, Jade, for you embody the purity to which we all aspire."

Jade said nothing. Void's words were not a compliment, merely a statement of fact. Even so, the little dragon was embarrassed.

"Besides, there is only one way out of Tengoku," Void said. "Someone must slip through Fu Leng's horde and carry our plea to Yomi. You are swift and clever, Jade. Should you be discovered, your pure breath will burn away Fu Leng's demons. Only you can do this. Will you do it?"

Jade looked toward the fallen gates of heaven, afraid. He could hear the roar of oni echo from afar, coming closer. "Void, what will happen if Fu Leng's armies break through?" he asked. "What happens when a god dies?"

"I do not know," Void said. "Are you afraid that you will die?"

Jade shook his head slowly. "I am afraid for what will happen to my friends if I fail," the little dragon said in a determined voice.

Void nodded silently, proud of his little brother.

Without another word, the Jade Dragon soared toward Fu Leng's army, flying as swiftly as he was able.

o

For as long as even the eternal dragons could remember, the gates of Tengoku had never been breached. The Celestial Heavens had never known war. Militant spirits from the darker realms of Toshigoku, Jigoku, and Gaki-do had attempted to breach the barriers of heaven before, but had always failed long before even sighting the gates. Only one Road led directly to Tengoku's gate, the Dragon Road, and it was well defended.

Primary among Tengoku's guardians were the fushicho, majestic firebirds with powerful magic. When the need arose, the fushicho could take the form of samurai, fighting their enemies with steel where magic failed. The fushicho were utterly fearless, for so long as they remained in heaven they could never truly die. A fushicho who perished in Tengoku's defense would rise again, healthy and whole, with the next sunrise. An army of fushicho swarmed the gates now. As Jade looked down at the battle he wondered what in all of Jigoku Fu Leng could possibly call upon to defeat them.

The little dragon saw an army of pale samurai in black armor wielding obsidian katana, hovering through the air on the wings of death's head moths. Each time one of the creatures died, its body exploded in horrible black flame, slaying all that stood too near. Jade had never seen such demons before. The fushicho fought bravely, but were quickly losing ground to the deadly demon samurai. Near the front of their ranks stood an enormous beast, half man, half dragon. Bloody and battered, he cleaved the demons with his massive sword. Their fiery blood had seared his skin so badly that Jade did not recognize him at first. This was Hoshi, son of Togashi. Only months ago the half-dragon had arrived, though at the time even he did not seem to know why he had come. Now he alone rallied the fushicho against their enemies until the Kami and Fortunes could arrive. Jade considered staying to fight at Hoshi's side; his breath could easily destroy some of the invaders from a distance, where their explosive blood could not harm him in turn.

But no, he could not dare. He had to carry out Void's mission, and to do that meant slipping past unseen. Jade whispered a short prayer, calling upon the spirits of air to hide his passing. They wrapped about his sleek body as he dove down toward the battlefield, allowing him to pass through the chaotic hordes like wind through a forest. The bodies of countless fushicho and the tattered remnants of the demon-samurai covered the battlefield, staining the sacred fields with blood. Further in the ranks, Jade could see the enormous forms of demons slouching toward the shattered gates. One reared back its head and screamed, three long tongues flapping in the wind like a gruesome war standard.

"Akuma," Jade whispered in horror. Akuma no Oni was among the most powerful of the Oni Lords. It was said that he was the father of Okura, the redeemed oni that guarded Tengoku's gates.

Now the gates had fallen.

Now Akuma was here.

What had happened to Okura?

Jade pushed the thought out of his head and flew all the more swiftly. He slipped through the gates of Tengoku. The great spires of white marble and pure crystal were now scorched black. Parts of the stone now oozed like soft mud, corrupted by Fu Leng's power. The sight revolted Jade, and only made him all the more eager to hurry on.

Now well behind enemy lines he soared over the demon armies. He saw other beasts that he recognized among Fu Leng's ranks. Yakamo - the demon that took the Sun's name. The Maw, slain centuries ago but now restored to life to help Fu Leng mount his assault. The master shuten doji, maho tsukai spirits of such power that mortals feared even to look upon them. Entire legions of Elemental Terrors, fearsome beasts made of raw corrupted magic. Jade studied the enemy as he flew overhead, noting their numbers and their formations, hoping that what he had learned would be of some use when he found the Blessed Guard at last.

As Jade considered this, he suddenly realized that the armies beneath him had fallen silent. Glancing down to see what had occurred he saw a single figure standing in the center of the battlefield. He was a tall man, wearing robes of deep green and bright gold. He carried a long spear and wore a porcelain mask, cheeks stained by bloody fingerprints. The man looked up at Jade directly, a curious expression in his icy blue eyes.

"Where are you going, little Jade?" the man whispered, and though he was hundreds of feet below the dragon could hear him quite clearly.

"You will not stop me, Fu Leng," the dragon whispered.

"I do not need to," the dark god replied.

With that the heavens shook and the Dragon Road tore open behind the Dark Kami. An enormous wall of flesh boiled out of the earth, twisting as it erupted into an enormous humanoid figure. A single pale red eye glared angrily at the Jade Dragon. A jagged mouth split its face as it roared, a roar that made Jade stumble and fall from the sky. The little dragon struck the Dragon Road with a painful grunt, his long tail coiling on the earth around him for several seconds after he crashed. Jade knew his attacker immediately for what it was - the demon that carried Fu Leng's true name, the monster that slew immortal Shiba himself, the First Oni.

"I must see to Togashi's errant child, my friend," Fu Leng said in pleased tones, looking up at his oni. "See that this one does not escape."

The First Oni's only reply was a loud snort, clouds of diseased air billowing from its jagged mouth. Fu Leng made his way toward his armies, leaving the First Oni to attend to Jade. The little dragon sat up on his front claws, peered up at the enormous creature advancing toward him. The First Oni's face had already changed; where once it had a single eye it now had six. It extended a massive claw toward Jade, ready to crush the life from the dragon.

Jade snarled in defiance and blew his pure breath at the demon's hand. A cloud of white fire washed over the First Oni's fingers. Its sagging skin sizzled and burned, blisters popping and spraying shards of green stone. The creature snatched back its hand, glared angrily at the Jade Dragon, and lifted its massive foot. Jade darted aside as the First Oni stomped heavily on the earth. The dragon coiled back, ready to release its holy flame upon the demon again. Jade knew he had no chance against such an opponent, but he was not prepared to surrender easily.

He was quite surprised to see a swarm of samurai horsemen in ghost white armor appear from nothing and charge the First Oni with bright crystal lances. The demon roared as they speared its foot. One heavy fist slammed down, crushing three of the nearest attackers.

"What are you doing, foolish dragon?" whispered a voice nearby. "They sacrifice themselves for you! Run!"

Jade glanced back in time to see a skeletal face fade away into mist. Leaping into the air again, he soared away down the Dragon Road. The sounds of battle soon faded behind him, and little Jade coiled at the side of the road to catch his breath. As he did so, he noticed that he was no longer alone. Ten tall, skeletal figures in wearing fine silken robes and jeweled crowns now surrounded him. Each was flanked on either side by two human samurai in white armor, like those who had saved him. The skeletal figures stared at Jade silently, impassively. They looked every bit as fearsome as Fu Leng's demons. Jade could sense powerful evil within them, but he also knew they meant him no harm.

Behind them, crouching low and watching the Dragon Road carefully, was a hulking female figure with curling ram horns. Jade recognized her at once.

"Okura!" he said, flitting between the strange skeleton kings and bowing deeply to her. "I am happy to see that you are alive."

"Then thank them," Okura said, nodding to the silent figures. "They saved me. They saved you as well."

"Who are they?" Jade asked. "What are they?"

"We are the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang," said the nearest in the hollow voice. "We are the gods of the Ujik-hai people, who you know as the Moto. We are the Lords of Death. We were awaiting entrance to the Celestial Heavens when Fu Leng's armies arrived. We saved her." The skeletal king gestured toward Okura.

"Why?" Jade said, looking at the undead god warily. "So you could gain our favor and enter heaven?"

"Yes," the Lord of Death replied. His nine fellows nodded. "We have no love for Fu Leng. Were it in our power we would feed him molten steel until his stomach burned, for such is our means of punishing one who murders his brothers. We will aid you in defeating him, and we will take our places among your Fortunes." The ancient god spoke tonelessly, as if all that he said was already certain.

"Ascension into Tengoku must be earned," Jade snapped. "I appreciate your aid, but you cannot expect us to exchange one evil god for ten."

"Are you saying that there is no evil in your Tengoku?" The Lord of Death chuckled, an eerie, hollow sound. "Look no further than your Lady Moon. She built her path to heaven with the bones of her own people. Look no further than your Lord Sun, who rode proudly beside the Shadowlands Horde and gave his name to a demon. I thought that you dragons were wise. This is not a question of good and evil, but of survival. Fu Leng would corrupt the heavens, make all that exists as twisted and depraved as himself. The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang want no such thing. We are gods of order and discipline. We wish only to be remembered and honored by our children, the Ujik-hai, and perhaps others if they will accept us. There is no place for us in Fu Leng's heaven."

"But you hope there will be a place for you once he is gone," Jade said.

"And why not?" the Lord of Death said. "You found a place for Okura."

Jade laughed. "Okura is a noble soul," he said. "She earned her place by defeating Akuma. Her honorable deeds turned the tide at Oblivion's Gate and saved the Empire."

"I see," the ancient god said. "Then why don't you ask her why she no longer guards the gates of Tengoku?"

Jade frowned and looked at Okura. "I assumed you rescued her, as you did me."

Okura looked over her shoulder, scowling at the Jade Dragon. "I fought them, for a time," she said. "Then my father, Akuma, faced me. He offered me a place at the head of Fu Leng's armies."

Jade's eyes widened. "And you refused, of course."

"I gave no answer," Okura said, bowing her head in shame. "I was tempted to accept, more tempted than I ever have been."

"Why?" Jade asked, shocked.

"You have no idea what it was like to feel the power of the Taint, little Jade," Okura said in a grim voice. "I hope you never will. Every day I give thanks to Lord Sun that he purified me and redeemed my soul, but when I looked into my father's three eyes I wanted to join him. The Lords of Death carried me away before I could fall to temptation. I fear that if I see Lord Akuma again, I will not be so strong." She looked up at Jade, and the little dragon saw fear in her eyes.

"You must be strong, Okura," Jade said. "We all must be strong, or Heaven will fall."

"Easy for you to say," Okura said. "Your blood flows with pure jade."

"And your blood flows with the courage of a Lion," Jade said, smiling hopefully at the oni. "Lord Yakamo would not have placed you at the gates if he had not trusted you to defend them."

Okura looked at the dragon impassively. "You make it sound simple."

Jade shrugged.

"Where will you go next?" she asked.

"To Yomi," Jade said. "I must rally the Blessed Guard."

"They will not come to your aid, little Jade," said one of the Lords of Death. Jade could not tell if it was the same one who had spoken before, or another.

"Why not?" Jade asked. "Do the ancestors not wish to save the Celestial Heavens?"

The Lords of Death looked at one another silently. Finally, one turned to face Jade again. "You are too innocent, little dragon," he said. "When the Lying Darkness came to consume the ancestors, to ravage the fields of Toshigoku, where were your firebird samurai? Where were the noble Fortunes? Only one dragon stepped forward to fight for Yomi. Why should they leave their own realm defended and fight for you?"

"Void said that they would help us," Jade replied.

"Void?" Okura snarled. "The Dragon of the Void? Foolish dragon! All of this is his fault!"

Jade looked at Okura in confusion. "What do you mean?" he asked.

"All of this began with Void's Oracle, Kaede," Okura said.

"Who is this Kaede?" asked one of the Lords.

"Each true dragon has an Oracle, a link to the mortal realm," Okura said. "They are supposed to guide, but never interfere. When Kaede became Empress, the Spirit Realms were thrown into disharmony. She realized her mistake and withdrew from the Empire. We thought that she had acted in time to prevent any permanent damage, but we were wrong. The boundaries between the realms weakened, though we did not realize it at the time, just enough to give Daigotsu his chance to release Fu Leng."

"Unfortunate," concluded one of the Lords.

"No," Jade said defiantly. "Kaede took the throne to restore Rokugan to order, to keep peace in her family. How could something so evil come of that?"

"You can accept that Okura was born from evil and yet now serves good," said one of the Lords of Death. "Yet you cannot accept that actions born from good can serve evil? You have much to learn little dragon."

Jade looked about desperately, fearfully. "What shall we do, then?" he asked. "I was sent to bring aid, to save the Heavens. I cannot fail!"

"Perhaps you are looking in the wrong place," said another of the Lords. "Fu Leng has always wielded the power of the gods, but has always met his fate due to mortal machinations."

"So I should go to Rokugan for help?" Jade asked. He felt so confused. The gates of Tengoku never fell, but they had fallen. Void was never wrong, and yet now his Oracle was responsible for all this? Okura, who he saw as a symbol of courage and hope, was afraid. His greatest allies were a band of evil gods from a foreign land. Nothing was as simple as it was yesterday. "What do I do?" he asked plaintively.

The Lords of Death laughed among themselves. "If we knew how to stop Fu Leng," one said. "We would have done it already. You must make your own decision, Jade. Stay with us, and fight the Dark Lord from the shadows, or walk your own path."

Jade nodded slowly. "I will return to Rokugan, then," he said.

"We wish you well," the Lords of Death said in unison. The ten ancient gods withdrew with their guardians, leaving Jade to his thoughts.

"How will you find your way to the mortal realm?" Okura said. "The paths are few, and Fu Leng's minions have closed the way he came."

"Ningen-do is a jealous realm," Jade said. "Anything which enters the mortal world soon loses all traces of connection to its home, but there may yet be something... something that came from Heaven and has not yet lost its connection to Tengoku." Jade closed his eyes in concentration. A frown spread slowly across his face.

"What is it?" Okura asked. "Did you find something?"

"Yes," Jade said, "but it is not what I would have hoped. The path will be dangerous. My power will be limited there."

"Then you must be brave," Okura said. "As I must, when I see my father again."

Jade looked at her. "Will you return to face Akuma?" he asked.

"I will," she said. "I defeated him once before. I must find the courage to do so again. I cannot leave Hoshi to hold the gates alone."

"And what of them?" Jade asked, nodding at the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang.

"I think that we can trust them, for now," Okura said with a sigh. "I will watch them, Jade. You have my word."

"Thank you, Okura," he said.

The oni samurai bowed respectfully. The fear in her eyes was gone, replaced by a fierce determination. Jade wished her well, though he wondered if he would see her again. The little dragon concentrated on the mortal realm, and the path that would take him there.

An instant later, he was gone.

o

The Shadowlands...

A red star burned across the sky above the Temple of the Ninth Kami. In the Empire beyond the Shadowlands, such an event was seen as a dire omen. In the City of the Lost, such an occurrence was welcomed. The last time such a star had crossed the sky was the night he had first come here, Omen reflected with a rueful smile. He had taken his name from the occurrence.

Omen was a spy in the City of the Lost, a Tainted Witch Hunter who had allowed a Ratling shaman to steal his name and identity so that he could explore undetected. What information he could find he released to the Crippled Bone Tribe using specially encoded messages. Presumably they passed that information on to his former clan. Omen had learned much of Daigotsu's operations here, but he always knew that it was only a matter of time before the Taint finally consumed him. His magical Nezumi spear slowed his corruption, but soon even that would not be enough. One day he would find himself a willing servant of darkness like all the others in the city.

Omen sighed. He knew that day was not long in coming. The Tainted Crab walked slowly through the Temple of the Ninth Kami, using his short spear as a crutch. His growing Taint had consumed his right leg over the course of the last week, causing his foot to curl into a useless stump. It was strange that as hideously corrupted as most of the Lost became, none of them were ever handicapped by their conditions. Omen wondered if, somehow, the Taint knew what he planned for the City and was punishing him for his presence. The Taint was making his life as painful as it could, hoping that he would surrender willingly.

Omen would not let that happen. The day he felt himself truly begin to slip, his Nezumi spear would protect him from corruption one final time. He seldom used it as a weapon, but the blade seemed sharp enough to do the deed. He looked at its fine edge, like a swords. One swift blow and his pain would end...

But no. Such thoughts were cowardice. Until Omen could do no further good here, he would not consider such a thing. He continued his patrol.

The Temple of the Ninth Kami was silent today. Daigotsu was not here, off on another secret mission with his new Bloodspeaker advisor. If Omen had learned one thing during his time here, it was that this new Dark Lord was never to be underestimated. He was cunning, calculating, and commanded the unswerving loyalty of the Lost. Even Omen, who had been watching the city closely to divine Daigotsu's plans, had not suspected his true intent was to rescue Fu Leng from the Realm of Death. Or had he? Perhaps Omen had already been corrupted, and his belief that he still served the Witch Hunters was merely a part of his madness.

"You are wrong, Kiyoshi," whispered a voice in his head. "Your battle is not over yet."

Omen's eyes widened. "Kiyoshi is not my name," he whispered to himself.

"It is what you call yourself, is it not?" the voice replied. "It is the name I see in your heart, Witch Hunter."

"Who are you?" Omen whispered.

"I am like you," the voice replied. "I am trapped in this city, far from home. I wish to defeat the Dark Lord and save the Celestial Heavens from Fu Leng."

Omen frowned. The words sounded too convenient, too much like the sort of lies he heard sometimes when madness tried to claim him. And yet this time it seemed different; the voice did not sound like the Taint's seductive song. He wanted to believe it.

"Come to the throne room," the voice said. "Take me from this place."

Omen nodded, glancing about to see if any guards were present. There were none. Daigotsu was gone and Shahai was amusing herself elsewhere. There was little in this part of the Temple of any true value now that the Steel Throne was gone. Omen slipped quietly through the massive doors. Across the room, he saw a sparkle of bright green, which quickly faded. Whispering a short prayer, the Witch Hunter made a sphere of light appear in his palm. Where he had seen the gleam before, a pair of jitte hung on the wall.

"The Celestial Jitte," he said. "The weapons Hakai stole from the Test of the Jade Champion."

"Is that where I am?" the voice said from the jitte. "Destiny loves irony, it seems."

"Who are you?" Omen said, looking closely at the weapons.

"I could be your ally," the voice replied, "but we must trust one another."

Omen nodded slowly. "Fair enough," he said.

"You are quick to accept my offer," the voice said.

"Why should I not be?" he said. "I have nothing else to lose."

Omen reached for the jitte with a shaking hand. As his long fingers touched the silver metal, a shiver passed through his body. He felt searing heat, followed by chilling cold. The feeling passed a moment later. When it faded, so did the buzzing in the back of his mind.

Omen looked at his open palm. His cold, pallid skin was now healthy and warm. The black spiderweb veins that covered his flesh had faded. He could feel his foot heal beneath him, supporting his body once more.

"What have you done?" Omen asked, voice quavering with hope.

"Is it not obvious?" the voice said. "Now let us hurry from this place before Daigotsu's servants sense that your Taint is gone."

"If they have not already done so," Omen said, tucking the jitte behind his obi.

A loud cry echoed outside the doors of the throne room, followed quickly thereafter by the sound of chanting shugenja. Omen spun his spear in midair, speaking words of magic that he had not known only a moment before. The doors of the throne room burst open with a thunderous clatter just as the Witch Hunter tore open a shimmering green portal and stepped into its depths.

By the time Daigotsu's soldiers entered, the first Oracle of Jade was already gone.