Prelude to Darkness, Part 6
The Dark Lord
By Rich Wulf
The year 1150 by the Isawa Calendar, Nine Years Ago, Volturnum...
In the center of a blasted plain stood the ruins of a once mighty city, and in the center of that city stood a large arena. The true purpose of that arena had been lost to the ages, but in the center of it a great gate there once stood a large circular portal carved in the shape of a dragon swallowing its own tail. Now a section of the portal had been blasted away.
In the rubble beside the portal sat a stranger in robes of shimmering gold. Long white hair hung down his back. He sat calmly, smoking a long pipe and watching the gates of the arena in anticipation.
In over fifteen years, no man had stepped through the gates of the arena. The Phoenix had visited for a while, carting away bits of the broken portal. After some time, when it was clear that there was no more magic here, they stopped coming. Still, this solitary figure remained, waiting.
As if on cue, a quartet of exhausted travelers stepped through the gates of the arena. The first was a tall, muscular man with a shaven head and skin that swirled with dark, shifting patterns. The second was a gangly figure with long, greasy hair and a somewhat predatory expression. The third was massive, concealed head to toe behind armor of jet-black steel. The fourth, however, was the most interesting. He was a handsome man in simple grey robes. His hair, like the one who waited, was a pure white. Not the unnatural bleached white many Crane favored, but a ghostly color like the inside of an eggshell. Such was often the mark of a powerful shugenja. Though he walked behind the others, it was clear that this one was their leader. The others fanned out instantly, eyes scanning the arena for any signs of a threat. When the black-armored samurai saw the man waiting for them, he instantly drew his sword.
"Stay your blade, Kyoden," the stranger said in an even voice. "I do not mean you harm."
"How do you know my name?" the dark samurai whispered. His voice was hoarse, as if unused to speaking.
"It is my purpose to know," the stranger said. "It is my destiny, my curse."
"Careful with this one," the tattooed man said in a strangely eager voice. "I smell his power from here. We should avoid him. Or perhaps attack him!"
"You are an Oracle," the leader said, stepping forward without fear. It was not a question, simply a statement of fact.
The stranger nodded.
"Sheathe your blade, Kyoden," the man said. "If we instigate no violence, he cannot harm us. Should we threaten him, he could destroy us all with a thought."
The samurai sheathed his blade immediately, not out of fear, but out of thoughtless loyalty for his comrade.
"It is true," the stranger said. "I am Tonbo Toryu, Oracle of Thunder."
"What is he doing in the middle of the Shadowlands?" the gangly man asked, eyeing the Oracle suspiciously.
"It is my duty to watch over these ruins, now and forever, Omoni," Toryu asked. "Unlikely, perhaps, but no more surprising than the presence of an escaped Bloodspeaker experiment, a renegade ise zumi, the forgotten son of a wandering ronin, or..." his eyes rested on the group's leader, "or you, Lord Daigotsu."
"I am Lord of nothing, Oracle," the man said with a snarl.
"No, but you might have been," Toryu replied, "and you may yet be again."
"The Oracle of Thunder is the patron of heroes," the tattooed man said in an amused voice. "How strange that he should choose to speak to us."
"Is it so strange?" the Oracle said with a faint grin. "The difference between a villain and a hero is one of choice and opportunity. Surely you, who have known what it is like to be both a champion of right and a slave of darkness, know that better than anyone. Is that not correct, Togashi Kokujin?"
The tattooed man's amused expression vanished, replaced by a scowl of hatred. "Not Togashi," he said, reaching for the swords at his hip. "Not Hitomi. Only Kokujin."
"Kokujin," Daigotsu said in a warning tone. "If you draw your blade on the Oracle I will be forced to stand aside and watch him destroy you."
The ise zumi blinked, then nodded soberly, folding his arms behind his back.
"If you know our names, and you know our past, surely you must know why we have come here," Omoni said slowly, as if piecing together the conclusion in his head.
"I do," Toryu said. "In truth I had hoped to convince you not to go through with this. You do not realize what you are about to do."
"Speak all you like, Oracle," Daigotsu said. "If your words are reasonable, I may yet listen. However, know in advance that I would not have made this journey if I had not been certain."
Tonbo Toryu nodded sadly.
"Now, while you are here, I believe that you are bound by the Elemental Dragon you serve to answer one question for any mortal who asks you to do so. We are mortals." Again, the words were not a question, but a statement of fact.
"This is so," Toryu said.
"An interesting opportunity," Kokujin said with a smile.
Daigotsu nodded, his eye suddenly widening with inspiration. Touching Kyoden's shoulder, he stepped aside to confer with the dark samurai.
While they spoke, Omoni stepped forward. The shabby little man's face was torn with pain and madness. "Am I man, or am I beast?" he asked, clutching at the air with his fists. "Which side of me is the true one?"
"I am sorry, Omoni," Toryu said. "You wasted your question when you asked me what I was doing here."
Omoni's jaw opened in shock. He fell to his knees and gave a short, anguished scream.
"Wasted," Kokujin said with a laugh. "Much like your life, eh, goblin-man?"
"And what is your question, Kokujin?" the Oracle asked.
"Me?" the tattooed man laughed. "I cannot ask you a question. I am not mortal!" The ise zumi walked away and sat cross-legged on the ground. He drew his wakizashi and began to polish it with a silken cloth.
"I am ready with my question," Kyoden said, returning to stand before the Oracle.
"Yes?" Toryu asked.
"If we cannot learn what we seek from the remains of the Gate, who has the wisdom we require?" he said.
"He who can have whatever he wishes yet asks for more wisdom is truly wise," Toryu said, though his eyes flicked to Daigotsu as if he knew the true source of Kyoden's question.
"So answer," Kyoden said gruffly.
"You must seek the Order of Tsuno," Toryu said, "They are malicious creatures that prowl the plains of Toshigoku, the Realm of Slaughter."
"How do we find them?" Kyoden asked.
The Oracle said nothing.
"It is no matter," Daigotsu said. "There were some Kitsu among the Lost. The shugenja of the Lion know the Realm of Slaughter like none other. Perhaps one among them can help us find these Tsuno."
"You could ask me, Daigotsu," the Oracle said. "I would tell you."
"No," Daigotsu said. "I will ask you my question another time."
The future Lord of the Shadowlands walked swiftly past the Oracle, toward the broken ruins of Oblivion's Gate. Almost immediately he fell into a deep trance, summoning the powerful kansen that would help him analyze the rubble. Omoni and Kyoden quickly joined him, hauling some of the larger pieces closer so that Daigotsu could study on them more easily.
Daigotsu looked up once, his dark eyes fixing upon the Oracle's with no trace of fear. There was a deep madness in those eyes. Not the sort of rage-filled madness that consumed Omoni, but the clear, focused sort of madness that infected others and drove them to new heights of mania. Toryu could sense Daigotsu's great magical power, but that was not what made Daigotsu dangerous.
He was a leader.
The Oracle looked away, not willing to look into those eyes for longer than was necessary.
Seven Years Later, the City of the Lost...
"Answer the question, Tsuno," Daigotsu said impatiently.
"Only ignorance comes swiftly, Dark Lord," Tsuno Nintai replied with a disapproving frown. "Knowledge takes time."
"You have had time," Daigotsu replied, pacing the halls of the Temple of the Ninth Kami. "Your kind have wandered the Spirit Realms for thousands of years. Surely you must know how to travel from one to the other. You must know the answer to what I seek."
"Traveling is simple, yes," the Tsuno said, reclining on one elbow as he gnawed thoughtfully upon a jagged bone. "Traveling safely is another matter. I assumed that wherever you will be going, you wish to return safely."
Daigotsu seated himself across from the Tsuno and sighed impatiently. "Tell me what you can, then," Daigotsu said.
"Different realms are accessed in different manners," the Tsuno replied. "The Realm of Slaughter grants access in sites that have seen much needless bloodshed. Tengoku, the Celestial Heavens, has a passage in the heart of the Imperial City, and wherever the Oracles of Light work their magic. The depths of Jigoku can be found in the heart of the Festering Pit, and anywhere else Taint is rampant. The grey realm of Meido, where the dead who have not fulfilled their kharma languish, can be most easily entered by dying." The Tsuno laughed. "Or perhaps by going to the site where one died, if the soul was powerful enough. In any case, passages cannot be traversed without powerful magic."
"This much I know," Daigotsu said, " I have power to spare. What I require is knowledge."
The Tsuno shrugged. "What you seek is quite complex. It may well be impossible. A passage where so many realms connect in one place is very rare."
"Thousands of deceased souls passed through Oblivion's Gate with no difficulty, descending from three different Spirit Realms," Daigotsu said, "but now you tell me that with all of my power, you tell me what I seek is impossible?"
"Oblivion's Gate was hardly simple," the Tsuno said. "The trolls knew their craft well. The Gate was their second greatest accomplishment. The foolish Darkness spawn that reopened it did not know what they were doing. The gate tore open a portal to Toshigoku, Meido, and Yomi. Not to mention the fact that it created and provided corporeal bodies for all who passed through it, as well. Such a passage was never meant to exist. The Phoenix believe that they destroyed Oblivion's Gate, but I do not think such a thing could be within the power of mortal human shugenja. It is my belief that the portal destroyed itself through the sheer power of the energies it unleashed."
"I care little for the consequences, Tsuno. If this gambit is successful, it is worth any risk," Daigotsu said. "Did you learn anything from the remains of the Gate?"
"Not much," Nintai said. "The Oracle was correct. There is no magic there, save the magic the Kuni used to purify the city. Perhaps we could learn more from the libraries of the Kitsu."
"Your obsession with the Lion can wait until the Horde is prepared," Daigotsu said. "When we attack it will be as one, and not without reason. I will not throw away the lives of my troops and reveal our true strength without good purpose. That is my decision, and so long as you wish to maintain our alliance you will abide by it."
"Fair enough," the Tsuno said with a disinterested shrug. "Some of the Lost speak of a shugenja named Kitsu Okura. They say that he made great breakthroughs in the study of the Spirit Realms. They say that he was able to plant the noble heart of a shiryo within an oni, and redeem its dark spirit. That oni now guards the gates of Tengoku. Such a feat bespeaks a true mastery of the Spirit Realms. If we could seize Okura's journals, I may be able to better answer your questions. And if it gives me and my brethren a chance to strike at the Lion, well, all the better, yes?"
"Perhaps you are right," Daigotsu said. "I will take your suggestion into consideration."
"While you think it over, think on this as well," the Tsuno continued. "As powerful as you are, there is always another more powerful than yourself. These are dangerous roads you tread, Dark Lord. You must be prepared for what you will face in the days ahead."
"My mortality is my strength," Daigotsu said.
"Perhaps," Nintai said uncertainly. "In any case, you will need an anchor, something that once belonged to the one you seek. Otherwise you may never find him."
"I know," Daigotsu said. He drew a white porcelain mask from his kimono and set it upon the table before the Tsuno.
The Tsuno gasped, red-gold eyes widening as he laid eyes upon the artifact. "I have seldom sensed such power," he whispered, caressing the mask's chin with one taloned finger. "This could not have been created by human hands."
"It was not," Daigotsu said, taking the mask back and looking into its empty eyes thoughtfully. "The one who made me what I am created it. With luck, it will serve as my anchor, my compass, and my sword. It bestows much power upon its wearer."
"Power comes with a price," the Tsuno said. "I think that even some gods would eventually be destroyed by daring to use that mask."
"As I said, I care little for the consequences," Daigotsu said, "So long as I succeed."
The Present Day, Otosan Uchi
Daigotsu fell deeper into his trance, his chanting now echoing through the halls of the Imperial Palace. Outside, he could hear the sounds of battle drawing nearer. He could smell the smoke of the fires as the Legions burned away the debris that blocked the roads. He could hear the screams as the demons and Lost samurai who served him died on the swords of the servants of the Emperor.
Otosan Uchi, capitol of the Empire, was perhaps the most poorly defended city in the Empire. The outer walls were in disrepair. Its location was nearly indefensible. There were few resources in the area that one could draw upon to withstand a prolonged siege other than the bay, which was so polluted that few fish lived there. This vulnerability worked to the Empire's advantage in most cases. The Great Clans were unified in their loyalty to the Emperor. If any threat rose up to threaten the Imperial City, the Clans could easily hammer through Otosan Uchi's defenses and take their vengeance. Even the Horde could not hold the city forever.
Daigotsu did not need forever... only another hour.
The Dark Lord's fingers tightened about the edges of the porcelain mask. He continued chanting as the Tsuno had instructed, drawing upon their ancient rituals as well as the newer techniques they had pillaged from the Kitsu Tombs. As the ritual drew on, Daigotsu's vision became cloudier. Images flashed before his eyes, images of all the death and pain that the throne room had seen.
He saw the Steel Chrysanthemum watching in glee as his Hida Tsuneo crushed his mother's skull in his hands.
He saw the Black Lion duel with Bayushi Shoju, and heard the Scorpion's scream of torment as his sword shattered the Jade (err, Emerald??? - KB) Throne.
He saw the looks of terror on the faces of the gaijin ambassadors during the Battle of White Stag when the Mantis Champion ordered their execution.
He watched as Hantei Yugozohime's soldiers invaded the throne room, brutally slaughtering any Gozoku who resisted the young would-be Empress' rise to power.
He saw the pain on Bayushi's face as he watched Shosuro leave to save the Empire from Fu Leng, and the resigned look in Togashi's eyes.
He watched as Toturi, driven mad by the power of the Lying Darkness, ordered the slaughter of the Imperial Court.
He watched as Fu Leng stood against the Seven Thunders, possessing the mortal form of Hantei XXXVIII. He watched as Doji Hoturi and Toturi slew the god's mortal flesh.
Daigotsu closed his eyes. When he opened them again, all around him was grey. It looked as if the throne room was filled with smoke. The room was filled with huddled figures, all dressed in drab colors. They watched the Dark Lord with sullen faces. Some of them, he recognized as the courtiers he and Kyoden had slaughtered only hours before when they had first invaded the city. Daigotsu paid them no mind. The one he sought was not among them. Rising, he tucked the porcelain mask back into his robes. Daigotsu exited the throne room and strode purposefully through the halls of the Imperial Palace.
When he stepped into the courtyard, the world shifted around him. Suddenly he stood in a barren field, featureless as far as the eye could see. A few paces away, a lone samurai stood, leaning on a long spear. His helmet was empty, as if there were no one inside, though Daigotsu could sense a powerful presence there.
"What business have you in the Realm of Waiting?" the figure asked in a sepulchral voice. "You do not belong here. You are not dead. Yet."
"You are Emma-O," Daigotsu said, stepping forward with a fascinated expression. "You are the one the Phoenix call the Fortune of Death. You guard the mortal souls that dwell in Meido."
"You have thrown the realms into disharmony with your Tsuno magic, Dark Lord," the Fortune said. "You would do well to leave now and reverse your spell. The punishment the Great Clans have reserved for you is nothing compared to what will occur if you draw my wrath."
"Then why bother to warn me?" Daigotsu asked, stepping toward the Fortune of Death. "Why not attack, if you have the power? Why do you warn me? Why do you hesitate?"
"Because I am curious," Emma-O said, leveling his spear at Daigotsu's chest and halting his movement. "What do you want here?"
"Do you not know?" Daigotsu asked with a small smile. "Are you not a god?"
Emma-O said nothing.
"No," Daigotsu said. "You are not a god. You are a minor Fortune, a slave to some abstract aspect invented by mortals. You possess no true power. You are a shadow, nothing more. I come here seeking a mortal soul. I intend to remove him from Meido, and you will not bar my path."
"The one you seek is well protected in the heart of my realm," Emma-O said. "You will not find him."
"Then bring him to me," Daigotsu said in a calm voice. "I am more than happy to wait here."
"Leave now, whelp," Emma-O said, his voice taking an angry edge. "I do not care who you are among mortals, or what magic the Bloodspeakers taught you after they stole you. You nothing of the power of Death."
"And you underestimate me because I am mortal," Daigotsu said.
With that, the Dark Lord impaled himself on Emma-O's spear.
The Fortune of Death laughed, surprised at the Dark Lord's foolishness. It was not until the Dark Lord pulled himself down the length of the spear that he realized how close Daigotsu was. Smiling as blood streamed from his mouth, Daigotsu drew out the Porcelain Mask of Fu Leng and pressed it into the Fortune of Death's empty helm.
The scream that echoed through Meido was like none other heard in the history of creation. The Fortune of Death threw his spear aside, causing Daigotsu to fall limply on the ground. Clawing at his face, Emma-O staggered backwards. Black fire erupted from the empty eyes and mouth, and shone through the chinks in the Fortune's armor. With all his power, Emma-O could not remove the mask.
"What have you done?" Emma-O roared. "Do you realize what you have done?"
"I have given a god more power than he can handle," Daigotsu said weakly, leaning on one arm. "Now summon the one I seek. He is the only one who can remove it."
"Never!" Emma-O cried, falling to his knees.
"Fine," Daigotsu said, lying back on the ground. "Once you are gone, he will escape regardless. Your sacrifice is for nothing, though it will be amusing to see if Death can die. It will be a pleasant final memory."
Emma-O screamed in pain and frustration. Finally, the Fortune of Death relented. He gestured with one hand, and a gaping black hole opened in the air.
A tall, handsome figure stepped out. He wore robes of green and gold. The symbol of the Hantei family was emblazoned upon his robes. He looked around himself with a curious, strangely innocent expression then looked down at the flailing form of Emma-O.
"Hello, Emma-O," the man said. "I believe this is mine."
The man pulled the mask easily from the Fortune's face and placed it on his own.
"You will pay for this affront," Emma-O roared.
"I think not," the man said. "I am a lion and you are a flea. You bound my spirit because I was weak and disoriented. Now I am whole once more. Flee, little Fortune, before I take this realm for my own."
"You may be beyond my power, Fu Leng," Emma-O snarled, "but the one who saved you is not. One day you will be mine, Daigotsu. You will know no peace in death." The Fortune of death stepped backward and vanished into the mists of Meido.
Daigotsu ignored the pain of his mortal wound and struggled into a kneeling position, head bent low. "Dark Kami," he whispered through bloody lips. "I live only to serve."
Fu Leng smiled at Daigotsu and rested one hand upon his head. "I wondered when you would arrive, little brother. If any of those who called themselves the Lord of the Shadowlands during my absence have earned that title, none have been as worthy as you." Reaching out with his other hand, Fu Leng seized the end of Emma-O's spear and drew it out of Daigotsu's body. Daigotsu looked down at his chest as the wound healed instantly at the Dark Kami's command.
"Few could do what you have done," Fu Leng continued, tucking the Fortune's spear under one arm. "You have stolen your way into Meido, defeated a Fortune, and freed my spirit. But I wonder to what purpose. My mortal form is dead, and without one I cannot return to Rokugan for a thousand years."
"Why be a mortal," Daigotsu asked, "When you can be a god?"
"Explain," Fu Leng said, suddenly interested.
"The Tsuno taught me how to open passages between the Realms using items of great power," Daigotsu said. "I used your mask to find you, but it is not the only item I carry."
Daigotsu drew a second mask from his robes. The forehead was marked by the symbol of the rising sun.
"What is that?" Fu Leng asked.
"It is the mask of Toturi Sezaru. It was crafted by the most powerful shugenja of the Isawa family, including Empress Kaede. Kaede is the Oracle of the Void, and this mask bears a hint of her power. Using this, I can open a passage to the Celestial Heavens."
"I can return?" Fu Leng asked. "I can return to Tengoku? I can return to my home?"
Daigotsu nodded, holding the mask out in both hands. "The spell is complete. Once you touch the mask, you will be transported to the gates. It then falls to you to fight your way inside."
Fu Leng's eyes shone blood red. "I have waited a thousand years for this moment. Onnotangu himself will not bar my path."
"Onnotangu is dead, my lord," Daigotsu said. "The Dragon Thunder has taken his place."
"The harlot who opened the Twelfth Black Scroll?" Fu Leng hissed.
"All the better," Fu Leng said. As Fu Leng reached for the mask, a cloud of darkness billowed around him. Forms hovered in the darkness. Daigotsu recognized them - Akuma, the Maw, and the Oni Lord that took the Sun's name.
"Come with me, Daigotsu," Fu Leng hissed. "Together we will slaughter the Fortunes and the Dragons and build a castle from the bones of the Kami."
"I cannot," Daigotsu said. "I must return to Rokugan so that I might protect your temple in the City of the Lost. So long as the Tainted worship you there, you should have power enough to wage your war against Tengoku."
"Be strong, little brother," Fu Leng replied. "For what you have given me, know that you will always have my blessings."
Then Fu Leng's fingers touched Sezaru's mask, and the Dark Kami and his minions were gone. Two black fingerprints were left upon the mask, marring the perfect circle the rising sun formed.
Tucking the mask back into his kimono, Daigotsu prepared for the ritual that would draw him home. He felt elated by his success, but his joy was numbed by thoughts of the battle that lay ahead.
Once he returned, he still had to lead his armies free of Otosan Uchi.