Prelude to Darkness
Part One: The Fox
By Shawn Carman
Several months ago…
As dawn grew ever closer, the aging woman sat motionlessly upon the floor of her large but sparsely decorated chambers. She had spent the entire night in meditation, carefully contemplating the enormity of the decision she faced. There were responsibilities that she must fulfill, and many depended upon her. Yet destiny urged her in another direction, one that she found nearly impossible to deny. Duty or destiny. It was a choice all samurai feared.
At last she could delay no longer. She rose, her aging knees creaking ever so slightly at the sudden movement after sitting so long. She smiled at the sound. This was not the destiny an old woman longed for by any means. A younger woman, perhaps, but not one so experienced as she.
She was still smiling as she slipped silently past the shoji screen and disappeared from her chambers without a sound.
"Lady Ryosei," called Achiko, "we must get you ready for the meeting with the Sparrow diplomat." The wizened old servant wound her way into her lady's room. "I know you dread these meetings, my little one, but there is little choice in the matter." Achiko smiled at the sight of the unkempt tatami mat. She had cared for Ryosei since the girl had been a mere teen facing gempukku. Some things never changed.
"Really, my lady," said the old maid, looking around the room, "I fear we do not have such time for old jokes this morning." She peeked behind one of the shoji screens. "And I fear we are both to old to relieve our youth by playing a game of 'hunter and lost'."
Achiko's smile died on her lips when she saw the rice paper on Ryosei's desk. On it was inscribed the simplest of messages: 'I must know.' The calligraphy was unmistakable.
"I go now to do that which must be done. Let my cousin, Ryukan, lead the Fox until I return."
"Oh no," whispered the maid. "Oh no, you dear sweet foolish girl." The message could mean only one thing: Ryosei had finally gone to seek out her father, the corrupted samurai who had become the Walking Horror of Fu Leng. Achiko knew only one would survive such an encounter.
Ryukan would be devastated. At least Ryosei had been wise enough to leave the impetuous young boy in charge of the clan; such a duty was perhaps the only way to keep him from following her.
The old woman clutched the rice paper to her chest and whispered a prayer to every Fortune she could imagine while tears rolled down her ancient cheeks.
The blissful sounds of the late morning were music to Ryosei's ears. For far too long she had relegated herself to the duties of court, she decided, and denied herself the experiences of nature. No longer. From now on, she would remember what was important in life, and temper her duties with the experiences she needed to put things in perspective. Ultimately, she would be a better servant of her people for it.
"Assuming I survive, of course," Ryosei muttered under her breath. The thought, while somber, nonetheless brought a smile to her face. It was a wild, reckless expression, one that had often appeared in her youth, during the height of the Clan War. If this would be her final adventure, then she would definitely make it one to remember.
As her journey turned into days and days to weeks, however, her mirthful attitude was difficult to maintain. Her quest was not an easy one. Her father Kitsune Gohei, once an honorable and compassionate man, had turned to the legendary Black Scrolls of Fu Leng during the Clan War in order to avoid his own imminent death. The unimaginable power he had unleashed had transformed his body and soul, shaping him into what could only be described as a walking horror. Immortal and insanely powerful, he swore his fealty to the Shadowlands. In her youth Ryosei and her companion, the monk Yoshun, had hunted Gohei, but had never found him.
Ryosei felt tears threatening, even after all these years. The memories of the warm, loving man that had raised her after her mother's death seemed so recent that the pain nearly broke her spirit. Yet she knew that they were a lie. That man, her father, was dead. Only an abomination that bore her father's name remained.
Or was there more? Did her father still exist, buried deep inside that foul, rotten shell? There had been tales of a spirit of a Lion samurai, Akodo Godaigo, who survived for centuries as a corrupted spirit without losing his honor. Was it possible that her father could be saved? She did not know. But she could not die without having at least attempted to save him. If there was any honor left in his soul, she would find it. If there was not, then she would end the disgrace that he presented to their family name for all time.
The majesty of nature slowly faded the farther south that Ryosei traveled. Within two weeks of leaving home, she was deep inside the Crab provinces, heading directly for the Shadowlands. There were no longer any singing birds, nor the sound of the wind rustling through lush trees. No butterflies flitted between gorgeous blossoms, and no tiny creatures scurried quickly into the underbrush at her approach. Here, there was only silence. How terrible a place must the Shadowlands be if even simply proximity to it could so destroy the natural order? Ryosei felt great sorrow at the loss of what must have once been a magnificent and untamed wilderness, now reduced to little more than a preternaturally quiet tomb. The amulet of jade she had purchased from a passing witch hunter glowed with a pale light as she continued onward.
Even as she lamented the silence and desolation of her surroundings, Ryosei was startled by a deep, maddening laughter that suddenly rang out through the foothills through which she traveled. The laughter chilled her very soul, and she gripped her nagamaki tighter in her clutches at the sound of it.
"I spy a little gray fox tromping through the hills!" came an eerie, strangely soothing voice from somewhere above Ryosei. She desperately scanned the rocks for the source of the voice, dropping into a low fighting stance automatically. "Shall I eat it for dinner? Or is it too old and tough? Perhaps it simply came here to die…"
A slight noise came from above and behind Ryosei. A shower of small rocks skittered down the side of the rocky outcropping. A dark form dropped easily to the ground into a low crouch with one massive hand spread open on the ground before it. A wide, deadly grin was visible despite the shadows that seemed to cling to the massive man's figure. Its body rippled with muscles and crawled with strange images and impressions. A pair of swords were strapped across the figure's back, shining golden in the darkness. It was a nightmare, but not one spawned by the Shadowlands. This nightmare had once been human and had long since become both an abomination and a legend.
"Hitomi Kokujin," breathed Ryosei, her voice quivering ever so slightly. "Some Hoshi monks were looking for you."
"Only Kokujin now," the ise zumi replied, grinning broadly as he folded his arms across his chest. "Hello, little fox!" his voice took the shrill tone of a child's, filled with wonder. The sound left Ryosei cold inside. "My goodness, you've gone all gray on top! A little silver fox, you are!"
Ryosei took a step backwards involuntarily. Her father had once called her a little silver fox after an accident had discolored her hair very briefly. She had only been a child at the time, but the nickname had remained for years. "You have no right to call me by that name, you filthy beast," she growled at the Tainted Dragon. She pointed the nagamaki at his chest.
"Oh ho! What's this?" Kokujin's eyes widened in excitement. "The little silver fox bares her fangs! How delightful! But I can call you anything I wish, little fox. Your father gave me that permission after I performed a service for him."
"My… my father?"
"Yes!" The monk straightened up suddenly and clapped his hands. "He and I are great friends. Such a sparkling wit he has! And such a lovely daughter as well, I see. A bit old for my tastes, perhaps. Or, as they say, does the snow on the roof bespeak a fire inside?"
Kokujin's mocking words too much for Ryosei to bear. Her face twisted into a mask of rage, and with a great shout she summoned the air kami to lift her across the distance between the two. Summoning every ounce of strength, she lunged with her nagamaki at the twisted monk. With a satisfying thud, the weapon buried itself in his chest.
Kokujin never moved. The smile never disappeared from his face. The tattoos seemed to swirl around the spear's shaft, buried deep in his stomach. Dark blood flowed freely over the tattooed man's stomach and hakama. In horror, she watched the blood from the wound suddenly stop its movement and flow upward, slipping up the monk's body and back into the wound. A tattoo that resembled an oni looked at the protruding shaft with mischievous curiosity. The painted demon lashed out with its claws, breaking the weapon at the surface of the skin. Kokujin's bleeding wound sealed shut behind it.
"Not good enough, little one," Kokujin said. His eyes were no longer amused.
Ryosei staggered backward, the useless weapon dropping from her hands. Kokujin stepped quickly forward, striking the Fox woman sharply across the jaw, dropping her easily to the ground. Ryosei shook her head to clear it and struggled to rise from the stony ground. She glanced up at Kokujin. The ise zumi was peering curiously over his shoulder, to where the end of the spear still jutted from his back. With an awkward movement, he reached back and tore the weapon from his body. He peered into the bloodstained blade with distaste, then tossed it negligently away.
"That," Kokujin said calmly, "was impolite. To think your father sent me all this way to greet you, and you do so with such rudeness" His smile returned, but the insane Dragon's eyes were no longer mirthful. Ryosei knew without question that he could kill her at any time. She doubted ever her magic could harm this monster. She was powerless.
"Now," the ise zumi continued, stepping toward her, "I have a proposition for you, little silver fox. You come with me and I will take you to your father, just as you wish." He glanced to the south, deeper into the Shadowlands. "You will gain the answers to all the questions that have haunted you all these years." A long, suspenseful pause hung between them. "Or you can go. I promise not to chase."
Ryosei stared at him silently. Was his offer genuine? Why else would he make such a claim? She glanced northward, toward home. The instant Kokujin had appeared, she knew she would never see her home again. Now, perhaps there was a chance to return to the Kitsune Mori. But if she did… could she bear not knowing? Never knowing?
On the other hand, should she be foolish enough to meet her father on his own terms?
Kokujin held out his hand. "Take it from me, little silver fox," he said, a tone of seemingly sincere sympathy in his voice, "Do not die with regret."
Ryosei regarded Kokujin warily for some time, then clasped it. The ise zumi helped her to her feet, and the two of them turned to face the south.
For a long time, she was speechless. When the words finally came, all Ryosei could say was "It cannot be."
"Come now," grinned Kokujin. "How many impossible things have you seen in your time? Surely this is nothing."
"A city…" Ryosei said, staring out at the horizon, "in the Shadowlands?"
"Behold the City of the Lost, little silver fox," Kokujin said with all the pride of a samurai introducing his castle. "Have you ever gazed on such beauty?"
She could not respond. The city that sprawled below them was unlike anything she had ever seen, although beauty was not a word she would use to describe it. On the surface it resembled any other city, but there was something about it that made her blood run cold. The buildings appeared to be constructed from stone and obsidian. Some were too smooth, to curved, seeming almost alive. Even at this distance, she could see that there were towers constructed of bone. It was a true city, but the angles were wrong, the color somehow incorrect. It seemed almost as if someone had built a city according to someone else's plans without ever truly seeing one. It hurt her head to stare at it for too long.
"Come," said Kokujin, "let me show you the majesty that could be yours."
Ryosei barely noticed the climb down the cliff, nor the bleak and desolate landscape that separated them from the city. She was lost in a fog, her every thought on merely maintaining her tenuous hold in sanity.
As the two of them entered the city, she looked on the cursed souls that guarded the boundaries. Some had rotten flesh and gaping wounds typical of the undead. Others looked very much alive, but would never pass for normal outside the Shadowlands. One had skin that glowed like the sun. Another was covered in sharp black scales. One poor samurai-ko was hunched like an animal; great beetle-like wings protruded from her back.
"These are the Lost," Kokujin said, gesturing to them. "A generation born in the Shadowlands. They have never known the pure light of Rokugan. They have never known any law but the law of the Shadowlands."
"I suppose next you will tell me that to them, I am the monster," Ryosei whispered.
Kokujin chuckled. "No," he said. "To them you are prey! I recommend you stay close to me, and do not lose that jade amulet."
The Lost stared at her with open hatred, just as she had seen Crab samurai look on the Tainted. Each of them bowed to Kokujin, however, a show of respect for his station and power.
"Are you frightened, little silver fox?"
Ryosei refused to show weakness. She turned to face the Dragon with her face set impassively and her head held high. "A samurai knows no fear. And even were I prone to such weakness, I hardly think you worthy of it."
Kokujin burst into laughter. "Excellent! You are clearly your father's daughter!" The ise zumi clasped his hands in delight, causing the tattoos across his torso to ripple supernaturally. Ryosei had to suppress a shudder. "Very well then," he continued. "Let us begin your education. We have a very impressive culture here," he grinned at the notion. "I think you will be astounded by the subtlety and diversity of our fair city. Please allow me to show you." Kokujin swept his arms open to encompass the city about them in a grandiose manner.
Ryosei's face did not change. "As you wish."
As the last rays of sunlight scorched the obsidian surface of the City of the Lost, Kokujin led Ryosei to a great temple near the center of the city. "This," he claimed, "is our greatest center of worship, the Temple of the Ninth Kami." The monk sounded as if he had to try very hard to keep from laughing as he said this. Of all the Lost that Ryosei had met, none seemed to share Kokujin's bizarre, humorous outlook. He was disturbingly reminiscent of other ise zumi she had met, though with a notable sadistic streak.
"You have not fulfilled your promise, Kokujin," she said quietly.
"Haven't I?" asked Kokujin quietly. "Haven't I, indeed?" He quickly swung the doors to the temple open. Through them, Ryosei could make out a vast dais that overlooked the blackened waters of the coast beyond. Even from here, she could see gigantic forms moving slowly through the water. But that held little interest for her at the moment. Of far more interest was the silhouette of a figure standing upon the dais, outlined by the fading light of the sun. A strangely familiar outline, even after all these years.
Then he turned, and Ryosei saw him for what he truly was. His skin was withered and desiccated, exposing bone in many places. His teeth were bared in a hideous grin. Only hollow sockets remained where eyes once were, now glowing with an impure light that burned deep within.
"Come, daughter," croaked Kitsune Gohei. His voice seemed little more than a whisper, but it echoed throughout the temple. "Come and greet your loving father."
Ryosei stifled a hurt cry and stumbled forward awkwardly. She shuffled wordlessly across the chamber as if in a daze. When she finally reached the platform and gazed up at the tattered decaying figure that once had been her father, all the things she had waited so long to say were gone. Nothing would come. She stared at him blankly for long moments. Then, at long last, she managed to sputter a single word.
Gohei clicked his tongue sharply. It was the sound a wise father might make when a child asks a foolish question. "Do you have to ask? Behold all that I command. In Rokugan, I was the lord of a tiny clan that struggled every day to survive. Here, I command legions of tireless warriors and am feared by the entire Empire." He turned to overlook the blackened bay. Ryosei followed his gaze to see to great, shimmering ships floating in the harbor.
The ships were gigantic, and not of a make familiar to Ryosei. They did not look like Mantis, Crab, or Crane vessels. She could barely make out the form of a man commanding others who were boarding the vessel. His features were impossible to make out, but his clothing was very strange indeed.
Gohei deftly stepped in front of her, obscuring her vision. "There is nothing there that concerns you, daughter." His voice was chiding, slightly reprimanding. Impossibly, Ryosei felt her cheeks turning red. She turned away quickly.
"How could you turn your back on us, father? How could you abandon it all?"
"Because our lives were meaningless." Such blasphemy was astounding, and rocked Ryosei to her core even coming from the diseased corpse her father had become. "Living a life devoted to honoring the dead, restraining one's self from urges that are only natural, never thinking of the present, struggling to survive! It is a false system, daughter. Men should revere power and those who wield it, not those who have managed only to die." He fixed her with a pointed stare. "You know as I do that there are far more fools in Rokugan than honorable men."
Gohei turned suddenly and withdrew a box from a blackened stone altar. Opening the box, he drew out a single scroll and held it out to Ryosei. "Join me, daughter. Rule by my side. Serve a true Emperor, and not the pale shades that seek to control Rokugan - the pathetic Four Winds."
Ryosei could not breathe. She was transfixed by the ancient scroll her father held in his skeletal hand. The parchment was black and weathered. Strange kanji the likes of which she had never seen were scrawled across the surface. The scroll seemed to radiate shadows.
"That scroll…" she finally whispered.
"The Tenth Black Scroll," he said.
"It cannot be," Ryosei said. "They were destroyed. The Scorpion said that they destroyed them all."
"Yes." Gohei's voice was tinged with amusement. He might have smiled if he truly had a face. "Of course they did. They came and took it from me so that they could burn it, I suppose. I do not recall such a thing happening, but then again I am an old man. Memory can be a fickle servant. The honorable Scorpion would never lie about something so important." He did not withdraw the scroll.
Ryosei looked back and forth from her father to the scroll apprehensively. She did not have the words to express the horrible range of emotions warring in her soul. After several quiet moments, she slowly reached out her hand… then drew it back sharply. She felt a sharp pain in her heart, like regret. The scroll wanted her to take it.
"Is this not what you are seeking?" Gohei asked. "The spell within may grant you the wisdom to destroy me… or become like me. Whichever you prefer. You are old now, Ryosei, as I once was. I would not abandon you to the ravages of mortality. I give you this choice."
"I cannot," she whispered. "I need… I need time to think."
"Of course, daughter," Gohei's voice was warm and soothing. He tucked the scroll into his sleeve. "I will have you shown to a room. We will speak again in the morning." He gestured, and a black armored figure appeared by Ryosei's side.
"I… I don't… thank you, father," she finally said, bowing her head. She turned to follow the creature that appeared at her father's command. She could feel Gohei's inhuman eyes boring into her back as she crossed the length of the chamber.
There seemed to be little difference between night and day in the City of the Lost, but when she waited long enough Ryosei noted that most of those in the streets below returned to their homes. Seizing upon her chance to escape, Ryosei crept to the window of her chamber. Her "hosts" had taken her spell satchel, of course, but she knew dozens of prayers by memory alone. She began to whisper under her breath, summoning kami of air to bear her safely to the ground.
"I would not do that, Ryosei-sama," said a voice behind her.
Ryosei gasped, losing concentration on the spell. She drew a sharp dagger from the folds of her kimono and struck out at the intruder. A withered hand seized her by the wrist. A pair of green eyes glowed in the darkness, illuminating a withered face hidden within a deep hood.
"I mean you no harm, Ryosei-sama," the man said, "but if you use your magic in the city, your soul will be forfeit. Do you not realize where you are? This temple is sacred to the power of Jigoku. No kami dwell here, only kansen."
"Who are you?" she demanded, wrenching her arm out of the man's grip and stepping away from him.
"I have no name," the man said, "In this place, I am called Omen."
"What do you want?" she demanded.
"Is it not obvious?" he said. "I wish to help you escape."
"Why?" she asked.
"That is complicated," he said. "Does it matter?"
"This could be a trap," she said.
"If we wished to kill you, we could have done so at little time," he said. "At this point you have already trusted Kokujin and the Walking Horror of Fu Leng. Compounding your foolishness a third time could do little additional harm."
Ryosei blinked. "I suppose you are right," she said. "What is your plan?"
Omen merely held out one hand. She took it carefully and he whispered a short spell, the same spell Ryosei had been prepared to cast. The two of them leapt from the high window, drifting gently to the earth like leaves in a breeze.
"I thought you said to use magic here is to risk one's soul," Ryosei whispered once they had ducked into the shadows.
"I did," Omen said, glancing about the street carefully.
"What will we do know?" she asked.
Omen looked at her, his face unreadable. "It is said that many Fox are skilled in stealth and tracking. Are you?"
"I like to think so," she said with a small smile.
"Good," Omen said, shoving a small bag toward her. "Take these."
"My scrolls!" Ryosei exclaimed, quickly shouldering the satchel.
"Outside the temple, you can use your magic with little risk," Omen said. "Within the bag you will find a map. Use the map to find the village of the Crippled Bone Tribe. A Nezumi named Te'tik'kir will help you return to the Empire, if you mention me. There is also a crystal within. I will use it to contact you."
"Me?" Ryosei asked. "Why would you wish to contact me?"
"It is complicated," Omen said. "Suffice it to say that I am fortunate you appeared when you did. I am here seeking information."
"You are Tainted," she said.
"But not yet Lost. The price of wisdom," he said with a humorless grin. "My sacrifice is nothing. I will learn the truth of Daigotsu."
"The new Lord of the Shadowlands," he said. "Are you familiar with Iuchiban?"
Ryosei nodded. "The founder of the Bloodspeakers."
"A Tainted soul who claimed to have the blood of the Emperor," Omen said. "He has escaped his Tomb twice already. I have hunted the Bloodspeakers for a long time, Ryosei-sama. I have learned that they revere a man named Daigotsu, even above their dark mistress, Shahai. Some speak of him as if he were Iuchiban himself. Now this Daigotsu leads the armies of the Lost. He built the city you see now." Omen gestured at the darkened streets.
"Is Daigotsu Iuchiban returned?" Ryosei asked.
"Or possibly one of his descendants," Omen said, "The similarities are too numerous to ignore. Iuchiban's life was a complex one. Few know the truth now."
"But you do," she said.
"And who are you?" she asked.
"That is not important," he said. "Keep the crystal safe. When I learn more, I will contact you. I trust you will take the information to those who can use it against Daigotsu."
"I will," Ryosei said. "You are not coming with me?"
"You are not safe with me," Omen said. A strange flicker seemed to pass behind his eyes. For a brief instant, he seemed to scowl. "I must go now."
"Thank you, Omen," she said.
"In time it will be me who thanks you," he said. He quickly turned and ran off into the darkened streets.
Ryosei wasted no time. Already she was planning her escape from the city. When Kokujin had brought her here, she had noted the darkest streets, the swiftest alleyways. In minutes, she would be outside the walls one more. She paused only a moment to check the pouch to make certain she carried everything she would need.
Ryosei's jaw opened in horror.
Inside the pouch of scrolls, she found her scrolls, the map, and Omen's crystal.
She also found the Tenth Black Scroll, rolled within a case of pure crystal.
For a moment, she considered dropping it in the street. Instead, she carried it with her and swiftly made her way from the City of the Lost.