EVEN UNTO DEATH
(THE TEST OF THE JADE CHAMPION)
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
A roiling mass of darkness extended from Hakai's gesture, streaking through the halls of Kyuden Nio. Seppun Isei tackled Hantei Naseru from behind, pushing the Anvil from the black energy's path. The two Asahina, Sekawa and Kimita erected a wall of swirling air kami to deflect the shadows. Shiba Yoma leapt aside, as did a number of his Shiba guards. The rest were not so lucky. Four Shiba bushi, two shugenja, and a trio of courtiers who had followed the group were scoured by the blast, screaming in pain as their flesh rotted and turned to ash. An instant later only withered skeletons, wilted silk, and rusty armor remained.
"What in Jigoku is that thing?" Seppun Isei snarled, rising with his katana clutched in both hands.
"I am the nightmare of the Phoenix," Hakai replied. "I am the
death from which there is no return. I am the Onisu of Destruction, Hakai. Come
and face me, Jade Champion. I, too, am shugenja, and you have not answered my
Asahina Sekawa frowned.
Hakai slowly drew a pair of gleaming jitte from his robes as he advanced upon the survivors.
"Tsubeko's celestial jitte," Shiba Yoma gasped.
"They are mine now," Hakai laughed. "Win them back if you can. Can the Jade Champion's magic conquer death?" Hakai gestured again, sending a shockwave through the air. Sekawa's shield of air was shattered, throwing the young shugenja heavily against the wall.
"No," Kimita shouted, stepping angrily in front of her brother. "We will not stand for this."
"Then do not stand." Hakai shrugged and cut the air with a sharp gesture. A deep gash cut Kimita from shoulder to hip with the gesture. She fell in a spray of bright blood. She had no time to move aside, or even to scream.
"Damn you!" Sekawa shouted, focusing his concentration and summoning a bolt of green energy to strike the creature down. Hakai deflected the spell with a wave of the celestial jitte. Four Phoenix bushi charged the beast, shouting as they rose their weapons to attack. Hakai ignored them. As each blade passed harmlessly through its form, the Phoenix bushi wielding it fell dead, lives torn away by the cold touch of Hakai. Shiba Yoma paused six feet from the Onisu, his own blade prepared to attack.
"Retreat, Phoenix!" Hantei Naseru shouted. "There is no
victory for us here. We cannot defeat this creature without a plan."
Yoma nodded, backing away slowly. Hakai watched him, leering and snickering under its breath. It lifted its hand once more, preparing to cast another spell.
"No," said a voice from the doorway. A hooded man stepped through the doors of Kyuden Nio, tattered blue robes blowing in the wind.
"Another one?" Hakai asked. "Are you all in such a hurry to die?"
"I have been dead thirty years," the man replied. He regarded Hakai
with eerie blue eyes and unfurled a scroll from his sleeve.
"Uncle," Asahina Sekawa gasped, looking up from Kimita's fallen body.
"I know you," Hakai said, studying the man carefully. "You were stained at Volturnum. You heard the dark realm's call, but tried to deny it."
Asahina Tamako shook his head slightly. "I make my own destiny," he
answered. "I do not want the power you offer."
"You confuse me with my master," Hakai said. "I do not recruit. I do not make deals. I promise only one thing." The Onisu lifted its clawed hand again, glowing with dark power.
Tamako nodded without comment, as if accepting the oni's offer. He held the ancient scroll in one hand as and bellowed words of magic. Hakai smiled broadly and countered with darkness. The air thickened with summoned kami and dark kansen. Yellow lightning crackled between Tamako and Hakai. The two moved toward one another, the energies that pulsed between them increasing in intensity. Hakai's blood-red robes whipped and shredded from Tamako's assault, but the creature itself was unharmed. Tamako felt his knees begin to buckle almost immediately. His heart burned in his chest. Behind him, Naseru, Sekawa, and the others retreated from Kyuden Nio. He had bought them the time they needed to survive.
Tamako knew he could not defeat this creature. Whatever it was, he could sense its power through the corruption that linked them. Hakai was beyond human; human power alone could not defeat it. Tamako could feel the temptation deep within him, the power granted to him on the day he was wounded at Volturnum. The darkness still welled there, offering its power.
After thirty years of fighting, Asahina Tamako relented. He drew upon the darkness and seized the power he hoped would allow him to defeat Hakai.
"I told you, old man," Hakai whispered. "No deals."
Hakai clapped its hands and unleashed a beam of unholy white energy from the depths of its putrid being, consuming Asahina Tamako.
Tales of the attack spread through Otosan Uchi like fire through the fields at harvest time. Kaneka had already heard four different versions of what was taking place in South Hub Village, none of which he fully believed. All he could be certain of was that bakemono were attacking the site of the Jade Championship in large numbers. No one knew how the creatures had reached the area, or who was controlling them.
It was maddening enough that he was to remain here while his Lion kinsmen battled the Tsuno to the west. The words of Ginawa, the old warrior that had been more a father than his true father, returned to him, the words he had spoken when Kaneka had prepared to enter the war against the Dragon. "Kaneka," the old man said. "The Lion have many swords. Your blade killing a Dragon is no different than any other. Your blade resting in the Emperor's saya is unique. Any samurai can kill the enemies of the Lion. Only you can win the throne."
The words were wise, but they weighed heavily in his heart. To wait here
seemed cowardly. Kaneka was a man of action.
The road to his father's throne would not be easy. He had much to learn.
"Assume ranks!" he shouted to the assembled Imperial guardsmen, most of whom were familiar as Lion soldiers. "Form a division and prepare to march!" Kaneka's hand strayed to the hilt of his blade. Perhaps a taste of battle would clear his mind, and possibly lend legitimacy to his claim to the throne. Coming to the rescue of so many high-ranking members of the clans could certainly boost his reputation. Perhaps enough to rival even--
No. Such thoughts were beneath him. A samurai did not fight for personal gain, no matter what his ends were. A samurai fought for the good of the Empire. But still... He turned to Akodo Ijiasu, his second in command "What do we know of the guests at the championship? Have they returned safely yet?"
Ijiasu shook his head. "Most have escaped, Kaneka-sama! Some remain near the tournament grounds. Shiba Yoma, Asahina Sekawa, Yasuki Hachi..."
Kaneka cut him off. "Where is Naseru?"
"He remains unaccounted for, my lord."
Kaneka stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Do ample samurai with combat experience remain to command the forces in the city itself?" Kaneka asked.
"To tell the truth, no, sir," Ijiasu replied. "Most of the Legions accompanied Tsudao. Only a handful of Lion and Seppun remain, and most of the Seppun commanders are at Kyuden Nio."
"The Horde must not be allowed to enter the Imperial City," Kaneka said forcefully. "You men, follow me to the south wall. We will meet the enemy there."
"What of Kyuden Nio, Kaneka-sama?" Ijiasu asked.
"My half-brother Naseru prides himself on his boundless strength and
self-sufficiency," Kaneka replied. "Were we to come to his aid, he
would take it as a great insult. I shall assume that all here know the fate that
befalls those who incur his disfavor?"
Only silence answered him. Kaneka nodded grimly. "Then we shall do our duty, protect Otosan Uchi, and allow those stationed in the Southern Hub Village to do their duty as well. To the south gate!"
As the guards followed him, Kaneka finished the thought to himself: "And to the gates of Jigoku with you, Naseru."
It amazed him how easily he could set aside morality where the welfare of Hantei Naseru was concerned.
He had so much to learn.
Hantei Naseru stood in the courtyard outside the castle, beside a line of shugenja from every clan, including a handful of Seppun and minor clan priests. The castle still rumbled and smoked from the duel continuing within.
With deep trepidation in his voice, Naseru gave the command.
"Destroy Kyuden Nio," he commanded, pointing at Kyuden Nio. "Bring the castle down on Hakai!"
Isawa Minoru stared at the Anvil in horror. "Kyuden Nio has stood for centuries," he mumbled in shock. "Surely we need not--"
"We need not leave it in the hands of the Shadowlands!" Naseru snapped. "Unleash your fires and collapse Kyuden Nio upon that beast's head."
"There may be survivors inside-"
Naseru slapped the man across the face. "Give that thing any chance to
escape and there will be no survivors!" he shouted.
"Do as he says," Yasuki Hachi nodded. The Crab and Dragon shugenja had already begun casting.
Asahina Sekawa looked down at the fallen body of his sister. He could scarcely believe that she was dead. There had been no parting words, no final blessings, Hakai had denied him even that. Sekawa rose from where he knelt and began casting with the others, face set in a grim expression. Soon even the reluctant ones joined in his prayer. Dozens of samurai stood ready about the courtyard, watching the castle with trepidation as the sounds of combat within ceased.
Hakai appeared at the gates of Kyuden Nio. One clawed hand dripped with black blood and gore.
"Now!" Sekawa shouted.
In times to come, even the shugenja participating in the spell that destroyed Kyuden Nio would be hard pressed to describe what happened. The earth shook, the air twisted, fire and ice erupted spontaneously and all-consuming void spilled forth all at once. In one instant, the grand castle stood as it always had. The next, it was utterly consumed in an explosion of mammoth proportions. Many of the samurai standing near the structure were blasted off their feet. Most of the shugenja collapsed from exhaustion.
Asahina Sekawa was the first to his feet. Yasuki Hachi was the second. For many moments, all was silent save the crackle of fire and the distant sounds of debris falling to the earth.
Hakai rose from the midst of the rubble, one arm hanging limply, a deep gouge along one side of its face.
"Was that meant to end me, Crane?" the creature snarled, taking one step forward and eyeing the Jade Champion furiously.
"You will join your uncle and sister in Jigoku."
"It was not an attack, demon," Sekawa said quietly. "It was a beacon."
Thunder crackled in the sky, heralding a bolt of lightning that streaked toward the Onisu. Hakai slid through the shadows to one side and quickly looked to the sky, fear evident upon its features for the first time. A figure in dark robes hovered above the ruins of Kyuden Nio, wreathed in green fire and black shadows. The thunder roared a second time.
"The Grand Master," Hakai hissed.
"Begone from this place, Onisu," Naka Tokei bellowed, his voice filling heaven and earth. "Unless you are prepared to test the limits of your immortality."
"Can you defeat us all?" Sekawa asked, preparing to add his own magic to the Grand Master's immense power.
"Who says I have not already won?" Hakai replied, patting the celestial jitte tucked beneath its belt. "I will visit your uncle and sister's souls soon. We will wait for you there, Jade Champion."
Another bolt of lightning crackled down at Hakai, but the demon was already gone.
The Shadowlands spread in every direction. This far beyond the Carpenter Wall, it seemed as if the Dark Lord's touch stretched across the entire world. To the eyes of most Rokugani, the Teeth of the Serpent was a bleak, dreadful place. To Hakai, it was home. The Onisu leaned against an outcropping of sharp obsidian and closed its eyes. It allowed the dark powers of this place to wash over it, healing its wounds, carrying away its exhaustion.
"Now do you see?" spoke a voice deep within Hakai's consciousness.
"Master?" Hakai whispered. "Were you with me the whole time?"
"I am always with you," Daigotsu replied. "Your brothers. Your sisters. You are all a part of me, just as the bakemono are a part of Omoni. Now do you realize why we act as we do? Do you see why we must be careful not to show our true strength too soon? The Great Clans put aside their petty arguments and allied against you. Though they were weak, they were many, and that was enough. It has always been so."
"I could have destroyed them, had it not been for Naka Tokei," Hakai replied. "I know," Daigotsu said. "He has escaped his prison and returned to this world of flesh, but even Tokei's presence is not the reason you failed. Our enemies always find a way. Had it not been Tokei, it would have been someone else. Fear and chaos are useful weapons, but ultimately they cannot defeat samurai. Such things only strengthen their resolve. That is the way we have failed all too often in the past. It is not our way. Reserve fear and chaos for when you have already won, to demoralize those who have not yet begun to fight."
Hakai nodded slowly. "I see that now," it replied. "How do we defeat them, my lord?"
"As they have always defeated us," Daigotsu replied. "In unity, we prosper. In learning, we become stronger. Though your mission failed, it served a purpose. Rokugan believes we are the same disorganized horde we have always been, striking out randomly at anything that threatens us. Your attack will give them comfort in their prejudice, and leave them weak against our true nature. What will you do with the weapons you have stolen?"
Hakai drew the stolen celestial jitte from its robes, weighing one in each hand. The Onisu let them fall to the earth. "They do not matter," Hakai said. "I do not need such weapons. It only matters that our enemies do not have them. It only matters that foolish heroes come to the dark lands seeking to retrieve them. Those fools will ultimately join us, either willingly or as shambling tools. That, in the end, is worth more than any weapon." The Onisu stood and walked away, kicking dust over the abandoned jitte as it strode deeper into the Shadowlands.
Daigotsu's approval echoed in what passed for Hakai's soul.
Only a few days ago, the chambers of Asahina Tamako had seemed cold. Now, the closeted quarters of the old master's tower seemed neither warm nor cold. Only empty.
Sekawa stood unmoving in the center of the room. His face, too, was empty. Anyone looking upon him might have thought him dead. In his hand, he held a tiny netsuke. It was a simple design, a shining sun that was meant to affix to his obi. It had been a gift from his father at his gempukku, a symbol of the Asahina family's pledge to peace and understanding rather than conflict and death.
The young shugenja sat heavily on the floor, clutching his head in his hands. How could she be gone? None of it made sense. He had finally realized his dream. He was the Jade Champion, with the power to help bring peace to the entire Empire. The cost was far too great. Kimita and Tamako, both gone. Yes, he had his prize. Now it was all that he had. The Jade Champion looked down at the netsuke, nestled in one palm. Everything he had been taught about pacifism was represented by this tiny piece of jewelry.
He balled his hand into a fist, crushing the tiny amulet. The broken shards cut deep into his flesh, but he ignored the pain. "Hakai," he whispered. "I will reclaim that which you have taken from me. I will teach you what it means to die. For my uncle. For Kimita. For the Empire. Even unto death."
Sekawa stood, brushing his hand on his bright green haori, indifferent to the streak of blood he smeared across the mantle of the Jade Champion. He left the Temple of the Morning Sun without looking back. In his uncle's chamber, only shattered fragments of ceramic remained, the broken shards of Asahina Sekawa's life.