EVEN UNTO DEATH
(THE TEST OF THE JADE CHAMPION)
Written by Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
The forested hills outside Otosan Uchi were ominously silent. Hakai dropped
from the sky with a resounding thud, its tall, lean form absorbed the impact
easily. The Onisu regarded the trees silently for a moment, its eyes seeing only
death and decay where the vibrant forest stood. Bark peeled from wood drained of
moisture. Branches curled in the icy embrace of death; not now but in the
distant, inescapable future. It was all the same to Hakai. Death and life were
as one to him, and he saw the fate of everything laid out before him just as
clearly as mortals could see light and color.
Finally, the creature beckoned toward the trees. "To me."
They came slowly at first. Just a few individuals, small wiry creatures with dark, mottled green skin. Then dozens. Soon, hundreds of bakemono poured from the forest, each one gnashing its teeth and pawing at the ground in anticipation of battle. Hakai chuckled; if the Rokugani knew that a force this large had crossed this close to their Imperial Capitol, they would be horrified. These samurai still had much to learn about the shadows. The bakemono left a wide circle around Hakai, however. Even their fury and eagerness did not overwhelm their fear of the powerful Onisu.
"Omoni," Hakai commanded.
"Yes, great Lord of Destruction." A lone human emerged from the goblin hordes. His presence had not been obvious at first; for a moment he somehow seemed to be just another bakemono. His skin was dark, almost blackened, as if from a lifetime of working a forge. His hooded eyes hinted at a madness no human mind could contain. "How may I serve you?"
"I have need of one of your creations. A particularly cunning one."
"Yes, lord." Omoni scanned the horde for a moment, then lunged forward and seized a particular goblin by the throat. The beast thrashed and hissed in his hands. "This one is quite cunning, lord," Omoni said, oblivious to the beast's struggles. "He was one of my first. He nearly escaped me several times. He is called Skub."
"Its name is unimportant." Hakai took the goblin gently in both hands and studied it, as if holding a child. The creature quieted immediately, staring at Hakai through beady, terrified eyes. The Onisu snorted. "I believe you might try to kill me if you had a chance, little one. Bold you are indeed. Exactly what I need." Closing his eyes, the Onisu pushed his mind into the goblin's, in the manner Daigotsu had taught him. It resisted, but could not oppose Hakai. Into the creature's mind Hakai placed a vision of a pair of ebony weapons, hidden in Otosan Uchi.
"The weapons crafted upon the Celestial Forge," Hakai whispered. "Our ears have told us they will be in the place called Kyuden Nio. Bring them to me, wretch." Hakai clenched his other fist, the talons biting deep into the flesh of his hand. Holding it aloft, he allowed the blood to drip onto Skub's head. "This will protect you from the wards of the humans, but not for long. Hurry now."
Hakai dropped the goblin. It stared at the Onisu for the briefest of moments, its eyes full of hatred. Then it darted off toward the city, vanishing almost immediately in the undergrowth. "Will it succeed, Omoni?"
The human nodded. "Oh yes, master. He is exceptionally fast and strong. The samurai will be unprepared for his strength."
"Good," Hakai said. "In the meantime, I have another mission for your creations."
"I am ready," Omoni nodded.
Bayushi Sunetra peered about the courtyard carefully. She had missed the
initial rounds of tournament due to her commitments in the provinces of the
Kitsune. She had hoped, vaguely, that her business would have taken longer. She
sighed as she looked about the gathered assembly, searching for any sign of the
remaining Scorpion competitor. She finally found Soshi Angai, kneeling in
meditation at the far side of the courtyard. She was an adequate shugenja, but
no one among the clan had any illusions that she had the slightest chance
against the Crane prodigy, Asahina Sekawa.
Sunetra sighed. These ceremonies were so boring.
Though this ceremony seemed to suddenly have potential, she thought with a subtle glee. She noticed the distinctive figure of Yasuki Hachi, prominent among the silken-robed courtiers in his bright green emerald armor. Hachi looked up from his conversation with a Shiba diplomat, one eyebrow raising as he noted Sunetra. The corner of Hachi's mouth turned in a crooked smile.
"Konichiwa, Bayushi Sunetra-san," said a mellow voice to her side, she turned to see Doji Nagori, smoothing his long white hair as he rose from a deep bow. "Our friends among the Scorpion feared that you would not make it to the Test."
Sunetra looked at the storyteller. "Our friends?" she replied curiously.
"Yours and mine," Nagori replied. "Oh, and Yasuki Hachi-sama's of course. It is well known that the esteemed Emerald Champion is a close friend of your clan. Hachi-sama owes the Clan of Secrets much." Sunetra noted that Nagori spoke loudly and clearly, loud enough that his words would be overheard by the assembled diplomats. What was this Crane up to? She noted Hachi suddenly moving across the courtyard.
"The Emerald Champion presents you with a gift, Lady Sunetra, a tale of bravery and honor, a tale of daring, and of beauty, though surely its beauty will pale in comparison to your own."
"Another time, Crane," Sunetra said, trying to step away from the storyteller. She noted Hachi moving toward Soshi Angai. What was he doing?
"But surely you have time for a gift from the Emerald Champion?" Nagori said, stepping to intercept her. He was quicker than he looked. A small crowd had gathered now, eager for Nagori's tale.
"Later," she pressed.
"But," Nagori said, lower lip sticking out in a small pout. "I had assumed that Hachi was a friend of the Scorpion Clan. If this is not so, I shall be glad to reserve my tale. Is this so?" The diplomats looked at Sunetra. Some whispered among themselves.
Sunetra could see Yasuki Hachi across the courtyard, very openly and publicly offering Soshi Angai his best wishes in the match to come.
When Angai lost, as she most certainly would, it would seem as if Hachi did not support her opponent. It did not matter whether Sekawa or Kimita won - the Jade Champion would be Crane, and would be free of the stigma of Yasuki Hachi's victory at the Emerald Championship. If Sunetra tried to split off from Nagori and stop Hachi, she would be forced to publicly denounce Nagori, destroying the illusion that Hachi himself was a pawn of the Scorpion. Sunetra frowned at the storyteller, neatly caught in his trap. "Tell me your story," she snarled.
As Nagori began his tale, Sunetra noticed Hachi once more across the courtyard. The Emerald Champion inclined his head slightly, smiled again, and disappeared into the crowd. This game would be more interesting than she had thought.
Naka Tokei, Grand Master of the Elements, stood in the center of a ruined
village dozens of miles from Otosan Uchi. The corpses of dozens of goblins
littered the ground, mixed with the corpses of the peasant villagers. None had
survived, save Tokei. The body of an oni, a deep purple insectoid creature, lay
charred on the ground nearby. The thing had died far too easily. Tokei had
sensed the thing's presence, traveled dozens of miles here to combat it. It had
died after offering only the most token resistance. It was most curious that
such a pathetic creature could have alerted his senses.
Even as the creature's corpse evaporated in the sunlight, Tokei could feel the disturbance it caused lessening. Void oni were particularly upsetting to the balance of the elements. When this one appeared, Tokei had sensed it immediately. Now, thankfully, the balance had been restored and the disruption was rapidly disappearing.
Only to be replaced with another...
Tokei jerked upright as the oni's form finally dissipated fully. There was something else amiss, something far worse than the Akeru no Oni that he had slain. He could sense it, somewhere to the east. Somewhere near...
This beast had been nothing but a distraction.
The old man covered his face with one hand and sighed. He had been deceived by the simplest of ploys, one that a Scorpion child would easily pierced. He could not suppress a chuckle. "No fool like an old fool!" he blurted out across the empty field. He grinned at the lone hare that had stuck its head up from the tall grass at his cry. "No time to talk, my friend! There are guests in my late friend's home and I have to pay my respects."
The old man chanted softly to himself, then was gone.
Death arrived on the hills outside the Imperial City.
Hakai's form was cloaked in shadow, invisible to those who did not care to see. He hovered about the outskirts of South Hub Village. The protective wards assembled by the Imperial shugenja were strong. A lesser creature could not have approached so close to the Test and remained invisible, but Hakai was not a lesser creature. Hakai was Onisu.
The shadowy figure hovered near the courtyard, looking down upon each of the pitiful mortals in turn. Hakai saw into each of their souls, seeing them as nothing more than flickering candles ready to be snuffed with the briefest touch. He saw their births. He saw the bit of death in each of them. He saw how they would meet their ends, if nothing changed.
Of course, the paths were always changing, but Hakai enjoyed the sights nonetheless.
A young Crab stood at the edge of the courtyard. Hakai saw the boy lying in a ditch outside of Friendly Traveler village, slain by a rough hewn blade jammed halfway through his throat, lodged in the Imperial standard against which he rested.
A trio of shaven Dragon stood chatting among themselves. Hakai saw two of them lying in a battlefield in Phoenix lands, scorched corpses unrecognizable even by their kin, bones melted by a power beyond reckoning. The third lay in a monastery, her once lithe body withered with age and twisted by disease. She would die alone many years from now, unloved, with no family to mourn her, no comrades remaining. Perhaps her charred friends were more fortunate.
A Crane shugenja stood over his defeated Scorpion opponent in the center of the courtyard. Hakai saw the Scorpion's robes stained with blood, a knife buried in her chest by a spurned lover. The Crane's death was more interesting still...
Death was a subtle thing. Everyone carried a bit of it with them, whether they realized it or not. This was not what interested Hakai, not today. His red eyes focused on a small box deep within Kyuden Nio. Even from here, he could sense the power contained within it.
He could sense Skub, the creature given to him by Omoni, close to the box. As the sculptor of flesh had promised, none had detected him.
Hakai chuckled quietly and stepped back into the shadows, returning to the goblin hordes waiting deeper in the forest.
The courtyard was utterly silent. In the dueling circle, two blue-clad
shugenja faced one another wordlessly, Sekawa and Kimita, brother and sister.
The duel had officially begun minutes ago, but the two combatants spent a long
time simply regarding one another in a silent gesture of mutual respect.
Finally, they both smiled and began chanting.
The collected observers waited, expecting to see some astounding display of illusion or the manipulative mental abilities for which the air-dominant Asahina school was known. There was a muted gasp of astonishment as the earth at Sekawa's feet churned and began to flow upward, like an inverted avalanche. Another similar reaction followed shortly when fire billowed from Kimita's hands to form a swirling sphere that hung in the air before her.
In the tournament's box, Tanitsu smiled. "I should have expected as much."
Shiba Yoma quirked an eyebrow. "Would you care to enlighten us, Tanitsu-san? What exactly are the competitors doing?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Tanitsu replied. "Both are strong in air, that is a given. They have each chosen to forswear their strongest element in favor of another. It is both a show of respect for one another and a demonstration of their versatility. An elegant display."
Yoma nodded, returning his attention to the duel.
Below, the elements were responding easily to the commands of the Asahina. Sekawa had fashioned from the earth a massive figure of a massive male warrior clad in armor and wielding a yari, striking the characteristic pose of the Daidoji fighting style. Hushed whispers of appreciation rippled through the crowd. Across the courtyard, his sister had responded to his challenge. What had been a swirling mass of fire had now assumed the form of a lithe female Kakita duelist, its form flickering with hungry flames. Another murmur of assent from the crowd.
Locking eyes, the two shugenja smiled.
At once, both of the elemental samurai moved forward to the center of the ring. The two circled each other slowly, the earth samurai rumbling as it moved in opposition to the ominous crackling of the fire bushi's flames. The faces of both shugenja strained with exertion as their creations began their duel. Even the Seppun Imperial guards looked on in appreciation of their subtle maneuvers.
It was a brief but intense confrontation. The fire duelist would feint and strike, the heat of its blade marring the earth samurai's form. In return, the earthen warrior would swing with incredible force, the wind of its strikes tearing at his opponent's fiery form. After several tense minutes, the fiery samurai landed a devastating blow across the earthen construct's chest, one that seemed certain to shatter its physical form as it staggered and slumped. But it was a ruse. The elemental warrior spit down the center, unleashing a smaller but identical samurai composed of pure crystal. This new opponent lunged upward with a powerful strike that tore through the fire samurai's body and disrupted its flames completely. In a moment, the flames had fragmented and died.
Gritting his teeth from the effort of controlling his creation, Asahina Sekawa completed one final maneuver to complete his victory. Holding both hands palm down, he gestured toward the earth. With a rumble, his samurai of earth knelt and laid its weapon at his sister's feet. With a deep bow of respect, the creature was swallowed by the earth and disappeared.
Smiling despite her exhaustion, Asahina Kimita bowed to the new Jade Champion of the Empire, her beloved brother Sekawa.
Shiba Yoma entered Kyuden Nio, his expression one of mild satisfaction. The
tournament had been most interesting. The Masters had been certain that one of
their own would take the mantle of the Jade Champion, but then the Masters were
always certain of themselves. Yoma found these results somewhat more gratifying.
Yoma was a practical man, a samurai who always considered what would be most advantageous for his clan in any situation. This was why he had been chosen to be the Voice of the Council. When Tsi Xing Guo had descended from the heavens and selected a Phoenix to work the Celestial Forge, Yoma was not dazzled by the glory of Tengoku. He was not overcome by the great honor of the Master Smith's decision. No, he was already calculating how this event could best be turned to his clan's advantage.
When Shiba Tsubeko returned and revealed her quest to give the weapons to a suitable hero, Yoma was intrigued. He immediately suggested using the weapons to bury the Phoenix's long-standing enmity with the Jade Champion. The Masters were uncertain, but Yoma could be fairly convincing when he chose. They saw the wisdom in his words, and recognized that an alliance with the premier shugenja in the Empire would be to their advantage. Now Tsubeko's grand, noble quest would gain the Masters an ally within the Crane. A possible ally against the Dragon, before the Dragon thought to draw upon the Crane's friendship for themselves.
"Tsubeko-chan, your destiny has come," Yoma said, sliding open the shoji screen leading to the smith's chambers.
Yoma cursed loudly. "It appears your destiny has arrived already," the Voice of the Masters remarked.
The young Shiba weaponsmith lay dead upon the floor. The chest containing the Celestial Weapons was broken open, it's contents stolen. Yoma shouted for aid, but his cry was drowned out by the noise of the courtyard outside.
The sound of screams.
Hantei Naseru scowled. He despised being surprised. It did not happen often,
but this was one of those times. The courtyard had erupted into chaos. Tiny
creatures with dark green skin, bakemono, had appeared seemingly from midair.
They ran rampant across the courtyard, attacking the honored diplomats,
scampering away from the armored bushi, cackling wildly as they left blood and
death in their wake. Yasuki Hachi was already rallying the bushi present,
organizing a counterattack. The Emerald Champion really was quite a capable
warrior, Naseru had to admit that much.
A dark-skinned creature the size of a dog suddenly hurled itself over the edge of the dais. It held a serrated knife in either hand and looked at Naseru with gleaming red eyes. It hissed wildly and scampered toward the Anvil.
The Anvil sighed, drew his blade, and severed the creature's head from its shoulders. He may not have his sister's skill with the blade, but he was still a son of Toturi. He retreated toward the doors of Kyuden Nio. Asahina Sekawa and Asahina Kimita were already there, working alongside a half dozen Phoenix shugenja to strengthen the wards protecting the castle.
"Isei!" Naseru shouted to his yojimbo. "How did this happen? How did these things pierce the Phoenix wards?"
"I do not know, my lord," replied Naseru's yojimbo, busily hacking at four more of the creatures as he withdrew toward Naseru. "They simply appeared."
"There must be someone at the heart of this," Naseru said. "Bloodspeakers?"
Isei shrugged, occupied with his fight.
A group of twelve Shiba samurai met Naseru in the entrance hall. Shiba Yoma stood at the head of the group, his expression grim. "Naseru-sama," he said, "I have more dire news."
"I think it will have to wait," Asahina Sekawa interrupted, pointing toward the end of the hall.
A sudden billowing darkness filled the end of the hallway. A ripple passed through the air, eliciting screams of pain from the Phoenix shugenja as the protective wards over Kyuden Nio were torn away. A tall figure appeared standing a foot above the floor, a humanoid creature dressed in robes of blood red. Its skin was brown and twisted, covered with sharp horns; its mouth split in a toothy smile. Naseru felt a shudder pass through his body. There was something... familiar about this creature.
Yoma's Shiba bushi formed a wall before Naseru and the shugenja, warily eyeing the creature's aura of black energy.
"Children of Rokugan," it hissed. "When will you learn? The office of Jade Champion has been cursed since its inception. All who have held the office have fallen to ignominious death. Will this new Crane be any different?" It nodded toward Sekawa.
"You have come to corrupt the Jade Champion?" Hantei Naseru shouted, scowling back at the creature. "This tale has been told. Is the Shadowlands grown so weak and ineffective that it cannot devise a new scheme?"
The creature looked at Naseru, sneering at the Anvil's defiance. "You are mistaken, son of Toturi," he said. "I am uninterested in corruption. My brothers and sisters have more than enough souls to spare. I am Hakai, and I have come to accelerate this pattern of woe. I have brought the Jade Champion the gift of death."
Hakai extended a long-fingered hand. Darkness rolled forth to consume them all.