No Price Too High
By Shawn Carman

Toturi Tsudao strode through the ruined portions of Kyuden Seppun. The structure had suffered terribly at the hands of the Shadowlands during the siege of Otosan Uchi, but most of the structure remained intact. It was swathed in some sort of foul, silk-like substance left behind by the Great Sea Spider. It gave the castle a deadly, predatory feel. Tsudao felt as though eyes watching her from the expanse of twisted webs.

"My lady," said Doji Jotaro, regarding the webs uncomfortably, "I wish that you would reconsider. This place... it is not safe."

"It is safer by far than the city," she said, nodding to the north.

Jotaro glanced to the north toward the columns of smoke that blackened the sky. Although the forces of the Horde had retreated, there were many Tainted creatures that remained within the city.

"Even more reason to leave, Tsudao-sama," Jotaro said.

"No," she said. "The Empire must have a center. I will provide that center, and I will use Kyuden Seppun as my home. The Seppun were the first to swear fealty to the Hantei, so this site will be acceptable to many of the traditionalists of the Empire."

Jotaro shook his head. "I think this place is cursed, my lady. The Kumo worked its dark magic upon this castle."

"And we will wipe away the effects of its foul magic with the help of Sekawa's Jade Magistrates," she said. She turned and looked at Jotaro. "My brother Sezaru could not injure Daigotsu as I did. Kaneka could not save the Wall. Naseru could not protect Otosan Uchi. If no one else can stop Daigotsu, then it falls to me. I will not fail, Jotaro. Will you stand with me?"

The magistrate lowered his eyes and struggled to find his voice. He could refuse her nothing. "Of course I will, Tsudao-sama."

"Thank you, my friend." She smiled briefly, her eyes shining for just a moment. Then the moment passed, and her face was tight with anger and pain. "What is the status of the city?"

"I fear it is not good, Tsudao-sama," the Crane answered. "The Phoenix and Crane armies are otherwise committed, and the generals cannot marshal their forces to arrive at the city in anything less than a month's time."

"By the Fortunes," she swore softly. "In a month there will be nothing but a blackened wasteland."

"All is not lost," Jotaro continued. "Nimuro's advance forces have pulled back outside the city gates, and the remainder of his forces are on the way. Likewise your brother Kaneka's forces are riding unhindered through the Crane lands. Once it became clear that Kaneka was to be allowed passage by your permission, so long as he did not molest the Crane lands, Kurohito's forces stepped aside. The armies of the self-proclaimed Shogun," Jotaro's nose wrinkled slightly, "have not stopped in days. Combined with the forces Ikoma Otemi is gathering under his banner, the city will be surrounded by the forces of the Lion in short order."

"Then there may yet be hope for the city," Tsudao breathed, her voice thick with relief. "But I must concern myself with the whole of the Empire."

"Your possession of the Steel Throne will greatly aid in that," said Jotaro.

"Yes," she said. "Even more so if Bayushi Tai's associates can cleanse it of the Taint as he claimed." Noting the Crane's discomfort, she asked, "You think my decision unwise?"

"I do not trust the Scorpion," he replied flatly. "They failed to protect your father. They will fail to protect the Steel Throne. They will fail to protect you."

"Daigotsu killed my father," Tsudao said firmly. "The Scorpion are blameless in that. It was only by luck and by chance that I survived my encounter with him. If he could not be stopped from destroying Otosan Uchi, how could one clan have prevented the assassination of my father?"

"I suppose," acknowledged Jotaro grudgingly. "Even yet, not even Bayushi Paneki trusts Tai, and Paneki is a Scorpion."

"Are you telling me that you take advice from Paneki now, Jotaro-san?" Tsudao asked mildly. "I thought you despised one another."

Jotaro said nothing.

"Bayushi Tai stood by me as I faced the most dangerous tsukai that has ever walked the Empire," said Tsudao with a note of finality. "He has earned my trust and my gratitude, and that is the end of it."

"You are right, of course," Jotaro said with a slight bow of his head. He did not sound convinced.

Bayushi Tai struggled to ignore the sound of the screams. The sound disturbed him greatly. He was hardly an innocent man. Indeed, he had performed acts on behalf of his clan that would surely sour the blood of the hardiest Akodo or Hida samurai. But this... this was different. There was a hard, jagged edge to the screams that made him feel like a child, cowering in his bedchambers after dark.

The man walking beside Tai chuckled darkly. "Do not let the... noises concern you, my friend," Bayushi Ogura said, favoring him with a sympathetic glance. "It is a necessary evil, I fear. Once you realize the importance of our mission, it becomes more tolerable. Think of it as the sound of hammers and tongs, fashioning the weapons we will wield in the future. That is what I do. Sacrifices must be made, Tai-san. Remember that, and you will endure."

"It is as you say, Ogura-sama," the young ninja replied.

Ogura smiled again. It was very a disturbing expression, and one that summarily failed to put Tai at ease. Tai wished Ogura would put his mask back on. "We are all very impressed with your handling of the situation in Otosan Uchi, Tai-san. That you so deftly maneuvered the Sword, and that you were wise enough to bring the Steel Throne to us... it has done much to solidify your position within the Shadowed Tower. None dare question your loyalty now." Ogura gave Tai a thoughtful, calculated look.

"I am honored, Ogura-sama. I only wish to serve. I have seen the state of the Empire, and I know, like you, that drastic measures must be taken. There is no alternative. We must use all resources that are available to us, whatever the cost to our own honor or souls."

"Yes," Ogura stopped short, clapping Tai on the shoulder in an enthusiastic, if uncharacteristic, gesture. "Yes! You see! You understand what we must do! Bayushi Yojiro and those that follow his blind junshin ways are fools! They cannot see the truth!"

Tai took an involuntary half step backwards. The blaze in Ogura's eyes was unnatural. Tai had seen it before. His sensei had taught him that men with such a look could not be predicted, nor be reasoned with. They were the most dangerous sorts of men. Madness was their weapon. The only way to deal with such individuals was to drive them to destroy themselves and pray that you were not there when it happened.

Ogura drew back suddenly, seeming to come back to his sense. "Forgive my outburst, Tai-san. I am... passionate about our work here, and I fear sometimes I can become a bit... enthusiastic. Whenever I find someone else who sees how Yojiro has failed us, I become rather excited. Again, I ask your forgiveness."

"Of course," Tai said, somewhat shakily. Quickly, to cover his anxiety, he continued, "Do you believe that you can cleanse the Steel Throne?"

"There is no question," Ogura answered confidently. "We have perfected a means of drawing the Taint out of subjects, both the living and the inanimate."

"Truly?" said Tai, clearly fascinated. "Why have you not notified the Kuni of this astounding breakthrough?"

"The methods are... imperfect," Ogura replied. "The Kuni would not accept the ritual in its current state. We discovered the method through means no one else has the courage to explore." He looked at Tai cautiously. "If you wish to know the origins of the process, then I will show you. Are you prepared? Are you prepared to commit yourself fully to the cause of the Master of the Shadowed Tower?"

"I am," answered Tai without hesitation.

The sounds of screaming were even louder down here. Tai discovered to his surprise that the walls had been insulated to buffer the sounds, and despite the fact he had still heard the screams from upstairs. The sound was just that intense. The young ninja wondered as he descended the stairs what sort of torture could make a man produce such sound.

The dark chamber was mostly empty save for the circle of men and women sitting around the center of the room. Some were smiling blissfully with heavily lidded eyes. Others were writhing in pain. Some were beyond pain. In the center of the circle was the Steel Throne that Tai had brought to the agents of the Shadowed Tower. It looked somehow less ominous, less threatening than it had before. Finally, there were a number of black-clad shugenja outside the circle, chanting and waving their hands in esoteric patterns.

Tai was reminded of the scene when he and Tsudao had entered the throne room and faced Daigotsu only a few days ago, the blissful looks in the eyes of Daigotsu's maddened cultists as they died to open the Dark Lord's portal home. The comparison did not make him comfortable.

"Several years ago," Ogura began softly, "our agents discovered a Bloodspeaker cell operating in the Scorpion lands. After some discussion, it was decided to infiltrate the cell to try and determine if they had information that would be valuable to us. We discovered that they were researching a means of drawing out the Taint from others. They hoped to use it to cure some of their more... focused members. Combining their research with our own allowed us to perfect the process. We of course destroyed the cell once we mastered the technique. They could have proven dangerous."

"And they were of no more use to the cause," added Tai.

Ogura smiled wryly. "Very true. As you can see," he gestured to the men and women in the circle, "the ritual requires the use of willing subjects to draw the Taint from an object into their own bodies, absorbing it like a sponge."

"They voluntarily become Tainted?"

"After a fashion, yes. We use some of our own... materials to ensure they are cooperative and compliant."

Tai did not ask what that meant. He had seen firsthand the expansive poppy fields the Shadowed Tower used. The seeds were corrupted long before harvest in order to make the final product more addictive and euphoric. "And once they have served their purpose? Tainted peasants could prove to be dangerous."

"That's why we kill them," Ogura said dismissively. "They are only peasants, after all. Their sacrifice serves the greater good."

"They are only peasants," Tai acknowledged, "but not even peasants deserve this." He winced as one particularly piercing scream tore through the chamber.

"It is for the Empire," the shugenja replied. "As we would lay down our lives, so must we be willing to lay down the lives of others. The good of Rokugan is more important than any one life, or any number of lives. And besides, they feel little. The screams are a reflex action, nothing more."

Tai changed the subject. "The shugenja are overseeing the ritual, I presume?"

"Some are, yes," Ogura responded. "Others are preparing the throne with spells to allow us to see and hear what transpires in Tsudao's court."

Tai frowned. "Is that not difficult? So powerful an artifact as the Steel Throne will have protection against such things, surely. And will the enchantments not be detected by the Seppun?"

Ogura smiled again. "That is what most believe, but the truth is far simpler. Drawing out the Taint easily allows us to replace it with another, subtler magic. And the power held within the throne is such that our meager enchantments will be lost in the forest, so to speak. No, the Seppun will never suspect. Even Sekawa's Jade Magistrates will never note the difference, for this form of magic is not maho at all, but pure magic of the kami. Best to keep all of one's options at hand in these matters, I think."

"Brilliant," breathed Tai respectfully.

"It is a masterful plan, and one that will serve the Scorpion well. Yet for all his vaunted wisdom, would Yojiro and his loyalists ever have taken such measures? No. The throne would remain Tainted, the Scorpion would not have the Sword's favor, and we would know nothing of what happens in her court. And what would be gained? The lives of a few worthless peasants." He looked at Tai appreciatively. "By your courage and vision, you have advanced our cause considerably. Do you see what we have accomplished by walking the path others deny?"

Tai nodded. "It does seem to promote our best interests, even if there is a price."

Ogura held up one warning finger. "There is always a price, in everything a samurai must do. Even in denial, there is a price. We find that price too high. If what we do is for the good of the Scorpion and the Empire, then any price is one I would pay gladly."

Bayushi Tai sat in his darkened quarters in Ryoko Owari. He had returned from his trip to the Shadowed Tower several days ago, yet he still had not received the visitor he was expecting. He knew the visit would come, however, and so he sat waiting in the dark each night. He would continue to do so until the time came.
As luck would have it, he did not have to wait long. Shortly after midnight, there was a slight rustling from the window. It was a faint sound, and one that would easily have been dismissed by all but the most trained observer. To Tai, it was as clear as a signature or voice.

"Hello, master."

"I trust your mission is proceeding as planned, Tai?" The white mask of Shosuro Yudoka appeared in the shadows, his massive figure sheathed in darkness. The ninja master moved easily and silently into the room and away from the window. He took up a spot in the room where no one could see him from beyond the window, and looked at Tai expectantly. "The Tower has accepted you as one of their own?"

Tai nodded. "Hai, sensei. I believe they have. I have impressed upon them the intensity of my belief, and they were impressed by my gift of the Throne. Their philosophy is... intriguing"

Yudoka scrutinized his pupil. "You are not beginning to believe their philosophy, are you, Tai? Their methods are seductive. I have seen their like before. Do not be swayed from your path."

The younger man bowed. "No, sensei, I will not be swayed. My loyalty is to Yojiro-sama." In truth, Tai wondered if Yudoka could sense his doubts. The legendary Shosuro was a hunter first and foremost, and Tai knew he would be killed in an instant if the older man sensed that some part of the Shadowed Tower's rhetoric appealed to him. Fortunately, he had planned for a demonstration of loyalty to his sensei. Reaching into his desk, he withdrew a package and cautiously unwrapped it, careful not to touch it with his bare flesh. "I found this within the throne room, Yudoka-sama. I felt it best to conceal it from the Tower."

Yudoka took the item from Tai and regarded it appreciatively. He ran his hands over the cool porcelain surface. "The mask of Toturi Sezaru. An impressive prize." He looked at his apprentice with an unreadable expression. His eyes narrowed curiously at the blackened fingerprints on the forehead. "And what would you have us do with such a treasure?"

"I would not presume to say, Yudoka-sama," answered Tai. "As I see it, however, it could either be studied for more information or used to gain Sezaru's favor. That decision is best left to someone wiser than a simple spy."

"Do not be foolish, Tai," Yudoka reproved. "You are an exceptional spy."

"Thank you, master." Tai bowed, though he was not certain if his master meant the statement as a compliment or a warning.

"I will deliver this to Kaukatsu," Yudoka said, tucking the mask into some hidden pocket in his broad cloak. "He will doubtless use it to curry favor with the Wolf and strengthen our pact with the Dragon." He leapt up to the window with a smooth, fluid motion. "You have done well, Tai. Continue your infiltration of the Tower and report any important findings immediately. When the time is right, we will crush the traitors, but not until we know everything we need to know to finish them utterly. We must learn the identity of the Master of the Shadowed Tower. I will not have my prey escape."

"As you wish, master." Tai bowed, touching his head to the floor in reverence. When he rose, Yudoka was gone, as Tai had known he would be. Tai had learned that technique from him, after all. With his mission complete, the young ninja retired for the evening.

Sleep was long in coming. Thrones, masks, Emperors and scorpions filled Tai's mind until darkness finally claimed him.