Lifeless, Part Two
By Rich Wulf
Kitsu Hisashi strode swiftly through the halls of the Kitsu Tombs. For a man raised among the serene, meditative practices of the sodan-senzo, his face betrayed an anxious impatience. He passed quickly through the dark, arched hallways, paying no mind to the other robed priests as they nodded to him in greeting. He moved directly to the heart of the Tomb, a chamber at the deepest part of the subterranean temple. Sliding the heavy door aside, he entered and bowed pertly.
"Juri-sama, you have called and I have come," he said with no further preamble.
The room was large and poorly lit. The center of the room was dominated by the statue of an intimidating female samurai with curling horns, both hands clutched on the hilt of a massive no-dachi. Small recesses lined the walls, each occupied by a painted urn featuring the mon of a departed samurai. A wizened old man in golden robes had been examining each of the urns in turn, removing the dust from them with a long brush. As Hisashi announced himself, the man turned. His eyes were a deep orange color, like Hisashi's, a rarity found only among those with pure Kitsu blood. This was Juri, most powerful of the sodan-senzo, the guardians of the ancestors.
"Hisashi," Juri said, setting his brush aside on one of the alcoves. "You are as punctual, and as impatient, as ever."
"With all due respect, Juri-sama, I was in the midst of important work," Hisashi replied. "With the Toshi Ranbo affair settled, Lord Nimuro was preparing to make plans for our campaign against the Tsuno. He urgently requires my expertise."
"I am well aware of your experience in battling the Tsuno," Juri said, golden eyes narrowing. "Nimuro is aware of your talents as well. I doubt he would move far against them without your counsel."
Hisashi smirked. "Are you trying to say that there will be enough Tsuno left for me to kill when my errands for you are done?"
Juri's face showed no trace of amusement. "Yes."
"With all due respect, Juri-sama, what could possibly be so important?" Hisashi asked. "I shared with you what that Witch Hunter learned, the conclusions he drew from the Tsuno I captured. These Tsuno are not native Shadowlands beasts. The Taint has no hold on them; they merely wear it as a cloak to mask their true origins. They ally with Daigotsu only to one end - to see every last Lion dead. I need to know why before we destroy them."
"I do not question that your crusade against the Tsuno is just," Juri replied. "I, too, demand retribution for their defilement of these sacred halls. However, merely because we have one enemy does not mean that all others lie at rest. Far from it. There is a greater danger, Hisashi, one that I fear only a sodan-senzo trained in the ways of war, a man such as yourself, can safely investigate."
Hisashi straightened, his expression growing more serious. "Tell me what you wish of me, Juri-sama."
Juri sighed. "Before we move to business, a simple request. I have heard of your impulsive behavior of late and I wish that you would be more cautious, Hisashi-san," Juri replied. "We Kitsu are warriors, as are all Lion, but we are not impetuous. I ask only that you be more cautious in your vendetta against the Tsuno. I despise them as much as you, but we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by violence."
Hisashi blinked in stunned disbelief. "You summoned me all this way to lecture me on temperance?" he asked. "Juri-sama, I acknowledge that few in the Empire are so wise as you, but I am not some mere acolyte."
Juri nodded. "Of course," he said. He gestured toward the statue of the samurai. "Do you know who this is?"
"Yes," Hisashi replied. "That is Okura, the Redeemed Oni, Guardian of Tengoku."
Juri nodded. "Her tale is an inspiring one. A demon summoned with the name of a Lion, she rose above her hellish origins and embraced bushido. She died a hero, and ascended into the Celestial Heavens to guard the gates forever. The tale of her summoner does not end so happily. Kitsu Okura was the Jade Champion of his generation. He made a deal with Akuma no Oni for power and knowledge, believing such knowledge could aid him in conquering the enemies of the Lion."
"You would compare me to Kitsu Okura?" Hisashi asked with a sharp laugh. "Juri-sama, I know well enough not to make the same mistakes he did."
"Do you?" Juri asked, casting a severe look at the younger man. "While you avoid the mistakes he has already made, be doubly cautious not to make new ones."
"I promise I will be cautious," Hisashi replied. "Was there anything else?"
The old sodan-senzo nodded. He took a lantern from the wall and moved into the darkness of the chamber. The darkness melted away to reveal a low stone table covered with a silken cloth. Juri pulled the cloth away with one hand, revealing a small stone figurine of a smiling man holding a fishing net. "Do you know what this figurine represents?" he asked.
Hisashi studied the statue for several seconds. "That is Haruhiko, a Minor Fortune," he replied. "I believe he was Fortune of Fishermen. He is presented there in his benevolent aspect, a friend to mankind."
Juri grunted in assent. "Yes," he said. "A Minor Fortune that few outside the holy orders would even remember. He was once a humble fishermen, until the day he gave a fish to a hungry stranger. That stranger was Hantei XXXII, an Emperor who had a penchant for traveling about the Empire in the guise of a peasant. For the fisherman's generosity, the Emperor proclaimed the man a Minor Fortune upon his death. This statue is one of the Fortune's few shrines. Commune with it, and tell me what you discover."
Hisashi gave his lord a questioning glance, then obeyed. Speaking a short prayer, Hisashi extended his mystical senses toward the figurine. His brow creased in a curious expression.
"I sense nothing," Hisashi said. "Not even the earth kami that would typically dwell in such a stone. It is a spiritual void. Has the Fortune somehow withdrawn its blessings?"
"No," Juri said with a deep sigh. "The Fortune of Fishermen is dead."
"That is impossible," Hisashi replied. "How can a god die?"
"I suspect Fu Leng's invasion of the Celestial Heavens is responsible," Juri answered. "Haruhiko is the fourth such Minor Fortune who has reportedly ceased answering all prayers in the last three weeks."
"What must I do?" Hisashi asked.
"We must learn how Fu Leng has gained the power to slay gods," Juri answered. "He must be stopped before he scours the Heavens clean. This figurine was once favored by Haruhiko. We may yet use it to open a passage to whatever realm his spirit entered upon his death, and discover what became of him."
"Why me?" Hisashi asked. "Are there not other sodan-senzo here capable of the task? If this is such an urgent matter, why wait for me to arrive from Toshi Ranbo?"
"Why do I not enter the passage myself? That is what you mean, isn't it?" Juri asked with a chuckle. "True, I could easily journey to Haruhiko's spirit. I could even take a large band of Kitsu with me. The risk is too great. I have no idea where the passage I am about to open may lead. It may open into the heart of darkest Jigoku. If I became corrupted, I would pose a terrible danger to our family. I know too many mysteries, too many secrets that the Shadowlands should not be allowed to know."
Hisashi frowned. "I am expendable, then."
"No man is expendable," Juri replied. "I have chosen you because you are a warrior. You have displayed a mixture of mystical power, wisdom, and valor in your battles against the Tsuno. I believe that you are strong enough to face whatever you will find on the other side of the passage."
Hisashi's expression had not changed. He was obviously unconvinced, reluctant. "Very well, Juri-sama," Hisashi said. "Open the passage. I am ready."
The Kitsu family was unique among shugenja. The most powerful sodan-senzo of their family possessed a rare ability to travel through the boundaries between Spirit Realms, to find and open passages into other realities. Though Hisashi was a powerful shugenja in his own right, he had never traveled through the spirit passages before. He had studied treatises written on the subject, and knew how to recognize the denizens of various other Realms, but he had never before ventured beyond the Realm of Mortals.
For some reason he expected the transition to be disorienting. Instead, as he stepped into the shimmering portal he felt a feeling of exhilaration. A sudden clarity came over him, a focus of mind and spirit he had never felt before. He felt powerful, energized. He felt more alive than he ever had before.
The world around him was painted in shades of gray. A plain of dying grass lay about him, covered in a churning fog. Pathetic spirits moved about at the edge of the mist, watching Hisashi with haunted eyes. Some were samurai, some peasants. Their clothing and armor were the same colorless tones as the rest of this realm, leaving one spirit looking very much like another. Hisashi knew of this place. This was Meido, the Realm of Waiting.
"You are not like these others," said a voice from behind him. "Perhaps you can help me!"
Hisashi turned to face a small man in the rough clothing of a sailor. His
countenance was immediately familiar. This was Haruhiko, the dead Fortune of
Fishermen. He looked up at Hisashi with an expression of desperate hope that
quickly transformed into terror. Haruhiko quickly ran away, disappearing into
Hisashi lifted one hand to his face, seeking the mask he knew he would find there. It was a strange phenomenon, and one that had always intrigued him. In their spiritual form, every Kitsu wore a mask that covered their features. Many sodan-senzo believed that this was a natural defense, a way of frightening away potentially harmful spirits. Most Kitsu masks resembled lions, or had some form of feline features. As Hisashi's hands explored the mask that now covered his face, a cold chill spread through him.
The face of the mask was long, narrow, and reptilian. A pair of small horns curved out from his temples, with another pair jutting down just below.
The face of a Tsuno.
"What does this mean?" Hisashi whispered. He could feel no seam, no border where the mask ended and his face began. The mask was warm and leathery, more like flesh than porcelain. Hisashi looked at his open hands in horror, as if his fingers had somehow lied to him.
There was no answer. Hisashi pushed the mystery aside, tried not to dwell upon it. The other spirits continued to shy away, watching Hisashi out of the corners of their eyes. They would be no help. The dead of Meido were souls in transition, individuals who had not yet fulfilled their kharma. So long as they wandered this bleak realm they remembered only hints of their former lives, just enough to know that they had lost all that they were. It was a gloomy place. For those who belonged here, there was no escape but reincarnation.
"So this is what has become of the dead Fortunes," Hisashi whispered. "But how can a god die?"
Again, there was no answer. Hisashi was a man of action. He was almost disappointed that he had entered such a peaceful realm. If the Fortunes had been imprisoned by hungry ghosts or kidnapped by demons, at least then he would have something to fight, some direction to give him purpose. Now he had nothing. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Hisashi was preparing to speak the words that would activate Juri's spell, drawing him back to the mortal realm, when a strange sound reached his ears. The sound of steel on steel, somewhere in the distance. He frowned curiously. There was no reason for battle in Meido; the souls of the dead were too miserable to cause conflict. Could Fu Leng have extended his grasp even here, to the realm that had once been his prison?
With a determined scowl, Hisashi set off across the barren plains to find the answer.
A mighty castle dominated the landscape, surrounded by a still lake of pure silver water. The structure was unfamiliar to Hisashi, but he suspected that it must be the home of Emma-O. The Fortune of Death was the most powerful deity in this Realm, a cold, humorless Fortune whose duty it was to judge the souls of the departed. Only he would dare build such a structure on the endless fields of Waiting. The gates now stood open, one hanging at an odd angle. The sounds of battle echoed from within.
Hisashi moved forward cautiously, using his magic to wrap the fog about himself as best he could. Any foe that could challenge the Fortune of Death in such a manner would make short work of him, but he would not leave this place without learning what was happening. He moved quickly across the bridge, glancing left and right to make certain none lay in ambush.
Near the gates, several figures in ebony armor lay motionless on the ground. Their armor was badly dented, their limbs torn free in places. There was no blood, no gore. Emma-O's guardians had never truly been alive, but were simply automatons animated by the Fortune's will. Whoever invaded had utterly destroyed them. Of their enemies, there was no sign.
Hisashi crept further into the castle, toward the large wooden doors that marked the lord of the house's chambers. These, too, were shattered. The sounds of battle came from this room. Hisashi moved to the door and peered around the edge.
Within, at the center of the chamber, stood Emma-O. His appearance was exactly that of his wrathful aspect, often depicted in the Kitsu temples. He resembled a suit of armor twice the height of a samurai, blackened by fire, moving of its own accord as if there were a samurai inside. Skull motifs covered his helm and breastplate, and trails of black fire billowed from the joints in the armor. He held no weapon, but his steel gauntlets were balled into fists. The floor around him was littered with the remains of his guards.
Surrounding Emma-O were nine skeletal figures, each nearly as tall as Emma-O. The nine skeletons wore fine silken robes and brilliant jewelry, and each wielded a broad, curved blade much like Hisashi had seen Unicorn warriors use. They stood a respectful distance from Emma-O, holding their swords defensively. Hisashi did not recognize them, though they were obviously equal in power to the Fortune of Death. That disturbed him. He was a well-educated priest, familiar with all the deities of the Empire. Even Haruhiko, a Fortune most did not even know existed, was known to him, but he had never seen these nine gods before.
"We are the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang, Lion," said a hollow voice from behind. "The Lords of Death."
Hisashi turned with a start. A tenth figure, identical to the other nine, stood just behind him. Its hollow eye sockets stared down dispassionately, calmly studying the Kitsu.
"What are you doing here?" Hisashi demanded. He drew upon what courage he could, glaring defiantly at the invading god. "Why have you attacked Emma-O?"
"That is a strange mask you wear, Lion," the Lord of Death said, ignoring his question. "Do you know what it means?"
"I know only that you and your brethren have attacked a blessed Fortune," Hisashi replied. "That makes you my enemy. Leave now or I will return with the rest of my order and force you from this castle."
"Indeed?" the Lord of Death replied, "and I thought the Lion remembered their debts."
"What debt do I owe you?" Hisashi demanded. "I do not even know who you are."
The strange god turned his head slightly, as if recalling a dim memory. "For a long time, we Shi-Tien Yen-Wang have waited outside the gates of Tengoku, seeking our place there. So it was that when the guardian of Tengoku faced her father, Akuma, we were there. If not for us, she would have joined her father, and the stain upon your family's honor would be born anew."
"You lie," Hisashi retorted.
"The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang are capable of much, but falsehood is beyond us," the Lord of Death replied with a sinister chuckle. "If you doubt me, ask Okura yourself."
The tall figure stood aside, gesturing behind him. A massive figure stood just behind it, half-concealed in the shadows of the hallway. It resembled the statue of Okura from the Tombs, but more demonic. Her eye shone golden, like a Kitsu's. Sharp, curling horns jutted from its temple, with two smaller horns jutting just below. Hisashi could sense the Kitsu magic that flowed through the creature's veins. He fell into a deep bow.
"What he says is true, Hisashi," Okura said in a grim voice. "Were it not for the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang, I would have fallen to temptation. I owe them a debt of honor."
"What are these Lords of Death?" Hisashi asked.
"Ancient gods whom the Moto worshipped long before they joined the Unicorn Clan," Okura said. "They have returned to seek their place in the Empire, and help bring about Fu Leng's defeat."
"But they have attacked Emma-O," Hisashi said. "Can they be trusted?"
"In their own lands, their role was similar to Emma-O's," Okura replied. "They were engines of merciless justice, judges of the living and the dead. Yet it is as that one said - they cannot lie."
Hisashi looked back to see that the Lord of Death who had first spoken to him now joined his fellows in the chamber beyond. At the tenth Lord's arrival, Emma-O's posture became more agitated. The empty helm turned to face this newcomer. The other Shi-Tien Yen-Wang all bowed their heads in unison, acknowledging the arrival of an equal.
"You are no fool, Emma-O," the newly arrived Lord of Death said as he drew his sword. "You are strong in your castle, powerful after many centuries of reign. We Shi-Tien Yen-Wang are weak, only recently returned from the shadow of memory. Alone, none of us can face you, but combined we are your match. You have lost your spear, the focus of your power. If we fall, we will rise again. You cannot win this battle. Step down, Fortune of Death. Your time is done."
"No," Emma-O hissed. "I will not be forgotten. I will not step aside and fade away. Not for you gaijin ghosts."
"You no longer have purpose," another Lord said. Its voice was identical to the first who had spoken. "You have failed, allowed too many to escape the Realm of Waiting before their time. You must step down. The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang shall rule Meido now."
"I failed to stop Fu Leng from entering heaven," Emma-O hissed. "I will not let you take my realm as well. I will bring this castle crashing down upon us all if I must, but I will not fail again."
"You know that will not stop us," replied another of the Lords of Death.
"Emma-O!" Hisashi shouted, striding into the Fortune's chamber. "Do not do this!"
The Fortune of Death turned toward Hisashi. The shugenja could feel waves of anger emanating from the lonely god. "A mortal, intruding in my realm, dares to command me?" Emma-O growled. "Begone, little human."
"No," Hisashi replied. "I am a Kitsu, guardian of the Spirit Realms. Heaven and earth are both consumed by war. Are all of you so foolish that you would destroy Meido as well?"
"You must be very wise, human, to call the gods fools," said one of the Lords of Death.
"Prove me wrong, then," Hisashi replied. "You Shi-Tien Yen-Wang claim that Emma-O has failed in his duties here. Emma-O claims that, failure or no, outsider gods do not deserve to reign here. Perhaps an arrangement can be made?"
"Arrangement?" another of the Lords replied, an intrigued tone in its voice. "Explain."
"Emma-O continues in his duties as the Fortune of Death, but the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang rule by his side. Emma-O continues to govern the destinies of the unworthy dead, but the Lords of Death will determine their punishments."
"Unacceptable," Emma-O hissed. "I will not trust these gaijin."
"Then trust the honor of the Lion," Hisashi replied. "If the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang promise that they will accept this arrangement and intend no harm for Rokugan, then the I will support their vow. Should they defy their oath, let the spirits of my family be tormented in Meido forever."
The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang glanced at one another, jaws chattering in their skulls. Finally, ten pairs of empty eyes fixed on Hisashi again. "Your compromise is acceptable, human," it said. "The Lords of Death so promise. What is more, we swear that we shall aid Emma-O in recovering his spear and restoring his good name among the Fortunes."
All eyes turned to Emma-O. The Fortune of Death nodded silently.
And peace returned to the Realm of Waiting.
Kitsu Hisashi stood on the bridge of Emma-O's castle, staring into the gray
mists in thought. He should return and report what he had learned to Juri; yet
he was reluctant. Emma-O had revealed to him what he had come to learn. It was
the Fortune of Death's spear, the incarnate power of death itself, which Fu Leng
had been using to slay the Fortunes. Emma-O had always been responsible enough
not to use the weapon against his brethren. Fu Leng had no such misgivings.
The bleak plains of Meido calmed Hisashi's troubled soul. He was not yet quite sure how he would explain all that he had learned, all that had happened here, or whether the intervention he had made was even for the best. Had his impulsive act doomed his family, as Kitsu Okura once had? Or had he done the right thing? Perhaps he would never know.
"You should not doubt yourself so, Hisashi-san," Okura no Oni said, stepping out of the castle behind him. "It is not every day that a mortal brokers peace among the gods."
Hisashi looked up at the reformed demon, his eyes full of doubt. "I think there may come a time when Rokugan will regret offering sanctuary to the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang."
"Because they are evil?" Okura asked, looking down at the shugenja with a curious expression. "The same was said of me once. Perhaps the Lords of Death will not change Rokugan, as you fear, but Rokugan will change them. Thus far they have been our allies against Fu Leng. They have earned the benefit of the doubt. Better that we continue to be on the same side, I think."
Hisashi did not reply, but continued to stare into the gray mists. Okura rested a clawed hand on Hisashi's shoulder. The demon was surprisingly gentle. He looked up at her face; as strange and inhuman as she was, he could not help but note her beauty. There was nobility in those golden eyes, as well as a great deal of pain.
"We both look like Tsuno," Hisashi said, looking down at their reflections in the still water.
"We are the true legacy of the Kitsu, you and I," the demon said. "Neither as noble as Juri nor as twisted as the Tsuno."
"The Tsuno are Kitsu," Hisashi replied. He could not believe the words as he said them, but somehow he knew that they were true.
"Yes," Okura said. "The Kitsu were powerful spirits once, noble and benevolent creatures. The Tsuno were Kitsu, but some long-ago crime led to their exile, transformed them into the beasts that they are now. The Lords of Death encountered the Tsuno during the many centuries they roamed the Realm of Slaughter. The Tsuno are the outlaws of the Spirit Realms, bringing torment and misery in their path. Whatever grudge they bear against our family, it is a powerful one. They will not rest until every Kitsu is dead, or like them."
"So is this a warning of what we may become?" Hisashi asked, studying their images on the silver water. "Are we like the Tsuno?"
Okura did not answer immediately. "A mystery for another time," she replied. "Return to the Kitsu Tombs, Hisashi. Tell Juri what you have seen here. In the meantime, I shall remain here and rally the forces of Meido to Tengoku's aid."
"What will you do when you face Akuma again?" Hisashi asked her.
"I think we will both be tested soon," she answered. "Let us pray, when that happens, that we are strong enough."