An Oni's Fury
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
Storytellers across the Empire, samurai and peasant alike, told tales of Yugure Yama, the Twilight Mountains. Usually, these tales were told in hushed tones following one too many drinks of sake, or to thrill the hearts of young ladies of the court on a cold night. They spoke of the death of the Boar Clan. They spoke of the birth of the Anvil of Despair. They spoke of the Shakoki Dogu, the mysterious ghost that flayed the flesh from the bones of travelers. Many stories lingered here, and none of them ended well.
"Today will be no different," said the voice. Sezaru ignored it.
Toturi Sezaru cared nothing for myths and legends. Only the truth mattered. Fear and superstition were for the weak of mind. The word weak would never be used to describe the Wolf.
The young son of Toturi surveyed his surroundings carefully. Regardless of whether one believed the tales of these bleak mountains, it was undeniable that they were a stark and foreboding place. Glancing over his shoulder, Sezaru saw that his three servants were trudging along without complaint. Miya Gensaiken, the soft-spoken courtier who served as Sezaru's herald was in his usual good spirits. Toturi Koshei, Sezaru's lanky yojimbo, seemed nonplused by the arduous climb. Asako Ryoma, the Phoenix magistrate, was definitely showing signs of fatigue.
"Ryoma," Sezaru said, "do you require rest?" There was little concern in Sezaru's voice. Indeed, he did not seem particularly affected by Ryoma's plight, nor did he even direct his attention toward the shugenja, focusing instead upon the distant mountains. It was not in Sezaru's nature to show concern about the perceived weaknesses of others. By focusing only upon their strengths, Sezaru believed that he assisted others in overcoming their shortcomings without his interference.
"No, Sezaru-sama," Ryoma rasped. "I will endure."
"Do not be vain, Ryoma," chided Sezaru. "I need you alert and attentive when we reach our destination. It will not do to have you fatigued. Let us move on, for our objective is near." Sezaru inclined his head toward the jagged peaks in the distance. There, a massive tower dominated the skyline. Twisted black vines as thick as adult trees coiled about the tower. At first glance they seemed to cover the structure, but in fact they composed the very body of the tower.
"The Tower of Vines," whispered Koshei.
Sezaru nodded. "Yes. There we shall find the Oracle of Earth, and with him we shall obtain another piece of the truth that I seek." Sezaru's voice came quickly, like the hiss of a snake. As their quest to discover the identity of his father's killer drew on, he seemed to grow more driven by the day. The others were worried for him, Sezaru knew that much, but he did not care. Only the success of his mission was important. Tsudao, Kaneka, Naseru, none of them could avenge his father's murder. They either lacked the ability or the motivation. Only he could finish this.
Sezaru continued forward, picking his way up the nearly vertical mountain path. They had no steeds; even the agile mules they had borrowed from the Crab village had been left far behind. The Twilight Mountains were a rugged place, hostile to life of any sort. Koshei took to the path first, eyes keen for any threat to his master. Sezaru followed, with Ryoma and Gensaiken taking up the rear.
A sharp cry sounded from behind Sezaru. The Wolf turned, a look of irritation on his face. Ryoma lay sprawled on the path, clutching one shin and wincing in pain. Gensaiken crouched nearby, peering at the shugenja with a curious expression.
"He fell, my lord," Gensaiken said, looking up at Sezaru.
"Ryoma?" Sezaru asked. "Are you well?"
"I can... continue," Ryoma said, scowling through gritted teeth.
Sezaru's eyes glazed black for a moment, peering into the depths of the Void.
The Wolf frowned. "The leg is broken, Ryoma," he said with a sigh.
"You are useless in such a state. I cannot spare the magic to heal you; I
do not know what we will face in the Tower. I will need as much of the kami's
favor as I can muster there."
"I will stay with him if you desire, my lord," Gensaiken said. "Truth be told, I am not used to such rough travel, and to be frank I am somewhat fearful of the prospect of meeting an Oracle. I would be more than willing to remain to guard Ryoma and tend his injuries." Gensaiken drew a small nage-yari from behind his back and gave it a small spin, as if prepared to defend Ryoma from the Shakoki Dogu itself.
Sezaru watched Gensaiken for a moment. "Very well," he said. "Perhaps this is best. Koshei and I will travel more swiftly alone." With that, the Wolf continued up the rugged path.
Koshei gave Gensaiken a final appraising look, then pushed on as well.
"You seem unsettled, yojimbo," Sezaru said after a few moments, his attention still fixed on the path ahead. It was phrased as a statement, but seemed to bear the ring of a question, as did most things Toturi Sezaru said. "You are not masking your thoughts as I have taught you, Koshei. I have little use for a yojimbo with no self-control."
"Yes, master. I beg your forgiveness." Koshei's face flushed with shame and embarrassment. "I will increase my meditations."
"See that you do," Sezaru said. "Now what is it that occupies your mind?"
"I do not trust Miya Gensaiken," Koshei said frankly. "The man is a coward."
"Perhaps," Sezaru said, "but at least he knows his limitations. I find that a curiously rare virtue, one that perhaps Ryoma would do well to emulate."
Koshei chuckled. "Do you find a servant with limitations refreshing because you have no limitations yourself?"
Sezaru looked at Koshei with a mild expression, betraying neither anger nor amusement. "Perhaps," he said.
Ryoma grimaced in pain as Gensaiken bound the splint about his leg. The courtier tied off the makeshift dressing and sat back on his heels, smiling faintly at the shugenja. "An expert job," Ryoma said, wincing as he examined his injury. "Were you trained in medicine?"
"A wise shisha becomes talented in a variety of areas," Gensaiken said with a humble nod. "A herald never knows what skills he may require. We are the voice of the Emperor, and it would not do for the Emperor's throat to be cut."
Ryoma grunted noncommittally, leaning back against a stone as he peered up the rocky path. "To tell the truth, I did not think that I was so exhausted. It is unlike me to stumble."
"You did not stumble," Gensaiken said with a smile. "I tripped you."
Ryoma blinked, sitting up and peering at Gensaiken. "What did you say?" he asked.
"I. Tripped. You." Gensaiken pronounced the words slowly. "I seized your calf and dislodged it from the stone so that you would fall." The shisha smiled brightly. "I had hoped that you would die, but you did not." The young courtier's voice was bright, happy, and vaguely chilling.
"What are you talking about?" Ryoma asked, numb fear spreading through his limbs. "Why would you do such a thing, Gensaiken?"
"You were in my way," Gensaiken said. "You and Koshei. I need to remove you both so that I may influence the Wolf without distraction. I thought surely that you, of all people would understand. After all, was it not you who slew the Jade Champion Kuni Utagu so that he would no longer defame your master in the courts?" Gensaiken smiled even wider, showing perfect white teeth.
Ryoma shuddered. "How... how did you know about that?" he gasped.
"Not even Lord Sezaru knew of that..."
"Sezaru sees what he chooses to see," Gensaiken said. "I see everything. I see straight into your heart. I see that you're terrified of me right now. I can even see that you want to kill me. But you won't."
Ryoma fumbled for the scroll satchel at his hip. "How are you so sure?" he snarled. "I am a Jade Magistrate, an Inquisitor trained by the Asako. I have snuffed the light of life from creatures that would make you cry out in your sleep!"
"I doubt that very much." Gensaiken gave a girlish giggle.
A sudden thump resounded as a massive winged beast landed in the path between Gensaiken and Ryoma. Gensaiken peered around its thick, armor plated leg with a final grin. "Meet Yokubo," he said.
Ryoma peered up into the creature's eyes just as its claw folded around his skull.
Reflected within, Ryoma saw nothing but the Void...
The Oracle of Earth was no longer something that one could truthfully call "human." Unlike Sezaru's mother Kaede, or the whimsical Oracle of Air whom they had already encountered, this Oracle was a grim statue only vaguely shaped like a man. His features were blocky, misshapen. His body was slate grey with veins of bright green spread throughout. He slumped in a massive throne also formed from vines, the snaking roots and tendrils piercing and merging with his body, merging his limbs with the earthy substance of the throne. Even seated, he was massive, a full three heads taller than Koshei. The Crab in the area had told Sezaru the Oracle of Earth had no name, at least no name to which he would answer.
"You have come to reap the bounty of the Earth's wisdom," the Oracle said. "You have already visited my sister."
Sezaru looked at Koshei. The yojimbo nodded slightly and stepped forward. "That is true, Oracle-sama," Koshei said, bowing gracefully. "My question is simple. I wish to know where I might find the Oracle of Water."
The Oracle did not answer for several moments. When he did reply, his voice seemed to begin as a deep rumble emanating from the heart of the mountain. "Seek the Oracle where rebirth was forged. Seek the Oracle in the flaming castle where no fire burns."
Koshei nodded. "Arigato, Oracle-sama," he said, stepping back behind his master.
The Oracle did not move or speak, but his black eyes focused on Sezaru.
"Where will I find the creature known as Daigotsu?" Sezaru asked without prologue.
The Oracle paused for several moments again When he spoke this time, a look of slow surprise seemed to cross his craggy face, as if even he did not expect the answer. "The Lord of the Shadowlands awaits you at the base of this mountain. Flee, Son of the Heavens. To face him now will end in your defeat." With that, a hearty rumble shook the tower. The Oracle seemed to sink into his throne, vines swiftly growing and encasing his form. In moments, he had sunk into the heart of the tower. The tower itself soon began to shake, harsh sunlight piercing sections of the wall and roof as the vines peeled away.
"What is happening?" Koshei exclaimed, looking about in amazement.
"The Oracle of Earth has fled," Sezaru said. "Daigotsu is here." He reached into his red silken kimono, drawing out a white porcelain mask. The red rose sun upon its brow reflecting the sun's own light. Koshei knew the mask well; it had been a gift to his master from his Isawa mentors. Sezaru wore it only when he intended to go to war. Sezaru laced it about his head now.
"You will face him?" Koshei said. "But the Oracle said--"
"Ryoma and Gensaiken swore their loyalty to me," Sezaru hissed. "I can offer them no less. Koshei, I trust you to be resourceful enough to escape the tower before it collapses completely." With a harsh cry, Sezaru called upon the spirits of the air and vanished from sight, leaving Koshei alone.
Sezaru soared high above the Twilight Mountains, his body buffeted by the spirits of the air like a leaf on a breeze. In his right hand he clutched a handful of curled ofuda, the blessed scrolls which he used to summon his strongest magics. In his left he clutched the same curved silver dagger he had carried since the day of his gempukku. It took only a moment to find what he sought from this vantage point; at the base of the mountain, an enormous creature crouched in the path, hunched over the torn corpse of Asako Ryoma. As Sezaru watched it rose slowly, turning to face the cowering figure of Miya Gensaiken.
With a loud cry to the Fortune of Fire and Thunder, Sezaru pointed at the creature. Osano Wo answered in kind; the heavens vomited forth a column of pure fire, lancing the earth and consuming the beast in its fury. When the flames died, the beast remained in the center of a circle of scorched and melted stone, peering upward with a curious expression. Sezaru quickly swooped down to better appraise his foe and block its path to Gensaiken.
The creature was massive, vaguely human in shape but over nine feet in height with enormous wings. It hide was covered in chitinous plates the color of burnished gold; bright sparkling gems were set into the plates, including a ruby in its forehead the size of a hen's egg. Its wings bore no feathers but instead were covered in black fur the consistency of silken thread. Matching threads formed a mane about its shoulders and a skirt about its waist. Its body was sleek and sinuous, neither male nor female. Its movements were gracefully hypnotic as it shifted weight easily from foot to foot.
Sezaru met its gaze without fear. Its eyes were filled with nothing but inky black. Sezaru was unimpressed. He had never encountered a menace that could truly threaten him, and he expected nothing to be different on this occasion.
"Daigotsu," Sezaru said simply.
"In a matter of speaking," the beast replied. "You are not as intimidating as the legends claim." The voice was deep, soothing, as if echoing through a deep well. There was a certain breathless quality to the sound that made Sezaru feel unclean simply by hearing it. It was the smooth liquid voice of a Crane, or perhaps an Otomo, but filtered through something so wholly evil that Sezaru could not place the accent.
"You are not the thing that killed my father," Sezaru said flatly. "The Scorpion who described it said that it had four arms, and armored red hide."
"I am not a 'thing,' Sezaru-san," the creature said with a chuckle. "I am a man, the same as you." He reached toward Sezaru with one clawed hand, the chitin plates clinking like steel armor. "Very much the same as you."
Sezaru's eyes narrowed; the Wolf seemed to sniff the air. "No," he said. "This is not truly you. This is a puppet. Another of your Onisu."
The beast nodded. "Her name is Yokubo," it said, smoothing one hand against its androgynous metallic body. "She was a Crane, once. Or perhaps it is a 'he.' It's difficult to tell, really. I don't suppose it matters much."
Sezaru sneered. "If I am so unimpressive, Daigotsu, then why do you not confront me yourself?"
Again, the laughter came. "You are not prepared to face me," it said, fixing its inky black eyes upon the Wolf. With that, one great silken wing swooped toward Toturi Sezaru, thread-like feathers coiling out to tangle about the Wolf's limbs and throat.
It moved more quickly than Sezaru could see, and before he could react the thing turned and hurled him against the stone wall of the mountain. Sezaru grunted in pain as he slid to the ground, dagger and ofuda still clutched in either hand. The Wolf lay there, still. Yokubo stepped languidly toward Sezaru's fallen form, one clawed hand teasing the silken hairs of its wing. A slow, hissing breath escaped from its hideous face as it loomed over Sezaru.
"I'm not sure what the Dark Daughter sees in you," Yokubo said with a chuckle.
Behind his mask, the Wolf's eyes flicked open. "You will not find me as easy to murder as my father," Sezaru said, slicing the air with his dagger. An explosion of black fire bubbled from a wound in the air itself, curling over Yokubo and hurling it backwards down the path. The beast landed heavily on its back, flipped several times, and finally crunched into the base of a thick tree, splitting the trunk. Crackling black electricity arced across its form, the lingering power of raw Void.
Sezaru rose to his feet, painfully advancing upon the creature. By all rights it should be completely gone. The elements composing its body should have been dispersed by the purity of Void, but there its body lay. He paused to glance down at Asako Ryoma, laying on the stones nearby. The man was hardly even recognizable anymore. For a moment, Sezaru felt pity in his heart. At least Gensaiken had escaped, and Koshei was far from harm.
Sezaru glanced up from Ryoma again, and found that Yokubo was gone.
With a sharp intake of breath, Sezaru scanned the landscape once again. He saw nothing, heard nothing. He extended his senses, reaching deep into the power of the Void. He could hear the heartbeat of every insect, feel the rocks eroding from the power of the wind, smell the scent of the grass growing, feel the pulse of the Shakoki Dogu's spirit deep in the earth, but none of that mattered. As much as he searched for Yokubo, he found nothing...
A whistle of air sounded above Sezaru, fainter than even a dog's ears would hear, but deafening to such a master of the Void. He looked up just in time to see the Onisu crashing downward, out of the light of the sun. He dove aside as the creature landed, its claws gouging heavily into the rocky path. Sezaru felt something bite deeply into his leg; the Onisu had pinned him to the path.
Sezaru twisted, uttering the words of another spell, prepared to blast the Onisu with fire even if it meant taking his own leg as well. Yokubo snarled and backhanded him heavily across the face, cracking his jaw, ending the spell, and sending his mask scuttling across the mountain path. Sezaru reeled but quickly recovered, focusing the power of his magic through his will alone. Yokubo laughed and spoke a single word in the strange metallic language of the oni. Sezaru's ofuda burst into flames in his hand.
"Fool," the creature cackled in its strange, seductive voice. "You cannot defeat me Wolf, no more than you can burn out the heart of Lord Sun with a candle. Why do you think I chose this, of all nightmares, to confront you? Yokubo is the nightmare of desire. You have become consumed by your desires for revenge. In your quest to destroy me, you have disarmed yourself against my power!"
"Kill me," Sezaru scowled, his voice garbled by his cracked jaw. "The others will destroy you."
"The others?" Yokubo laughed. "You are the strongest of them all, and you are nothing! Naseru's heart is filled with betrayal. Tsudao is filled with regret and fear. Kaneka's ambitions drive him to destroy wantonly. Any of them would be nothing more than a momentary diversion for my Onisu. Children of Toturi. Winds of Change. Bah. You are nothing! Merely obstacles to be removed. Like your father, upon whom you place a value far greater than his worth. Why do you think I sent the Fushin to destroy him, Sezaru? Why do you think Betrayal served as such a capable opponent against Toturi the First? Why is that?"
Sezaru's eye narrowed in anger.
"No answer?" Yokubo asked mildly, clicking the ends of one finger and thumb together. "Or perhaps you plot your next move. What will that be? The more you despise me, the more the desire to slake your thirst for revenge grows in your heart the stronger Yokubo becomes." Yokubo stretched the claws of one hand wide, reaching for Sezaru's throat. "But enough of this. Give my regards to your father, Wolf."
Sezaru closed his eyes, surrendering himself to the power of the Void. He wondered if his mother would be waiting for him on the other side.
A loud banzai cry snapped Sezaru to alertness once more. He opened his eyes to see Toturi Koshei charging at Yokubo, katana clutched in both hands. The oni staggered as Koshei's blade carved through its chest, leaving a streak of bright red blood from right shoulder to left hip. The creature howled in pain and kicked savagely with one leg, driving Koshei to one knee. As the yojimbo stumbled, Yokubo savagely backhanded him across the face. Koshei staggered painfully, but did not fall. he wiped the blood from his face with one sleeve and shouted to his master.
"Flee my lord! I am nothing, but you must survive! Rokugan needs you!"
Sezaru sat up quickly, watching in surprise as his yojimbo charged the Onisu again. The man was clearly outmatched. There was nothing he could do to defeat such a creature. Even yet, a slash of red blood trickled across its chest where Koshei had wounded the thing.
"Selfless fool!" Yokubo snarled, its voice now high pitched and furious. "What do you hope to accomplish?"
Koshei said nothing, but only attacked the creature again. There was nothing in Koshei's eyes but a readiness to sacrifice himself for his lord. No fear. No anger. No regret.
Sezaru looked at the Onisu again, and a smile crawled painfully across his broken face. The Wolf called up on his magic again, directing it not against Yokubo this time but to strengthen Koshei. He suffused the yojimbo's arms with the strength and power of fire, his heart with the raw courage of earth, his legs with the swiftness of the wind. Koshei slashed at Yokubo repeatedly, his speed and power gaining with every stroke. Yokubo reeled, uncertain how to combat this new threat. With one mighty lunge, Koshei cleaved one of the beast's wings from its socket. The thing staggered backward, breathing heavily as its blood stained the rocky earth and its severed wing flopped upon the ground.
"No more!" the beast roared. It uprooted a large tree with one hand, wielding it against Koshei as a club. The yojimbo rolled to one side, avoiding the weapon. The Onisu howled in fury, cleaving all about with its weapon. Koshei withdrew, returning quickly to his wounded master's side. He wrapped one arm about Sezaru's shoulders, helping him to his feet once more.
"Master, we must flee," Koshei said.
Sezaru only nodded, his mind overcome by pain and the haze of his connection to the Void. Summoning up what little of the kami's favor he had at his disposal, he bound spirits of air around himself and his yojimbo. The two of them rose rapidly into the air, swiftly leaving the carnage of the mountain behind. Yokubo could only howl in fury and shake its claws, unable to fly with its severed wing.
"Perhaps," Sezaru mumbled painfully. "Perhaps knowing one's limitations is not such a virtue after all, my friend."
"The beast has your mask," Koshei replied, pointing below. Yokubo clutched the white porcelain mask in its long metal fingers. The rising sun on its brow glinted briefly before the Onisu vanished among the rubble.
"We will return for it," Sezaru snarled, "but not today."