Towers

By Shawn Carman

 

            Bayushi Tai sat in the darkness, his mind racing. He had been working toward this moment for over a year, and now that it was here, he found great uncertainty had settled in his heart. He was loyal, as any true Scorpion should be, but to whom did he owe his loyalty? He wished only to serve his lord and his Empire, but which lord should he serve, and whose vision was best for Rokugan? Tai searched his soul for answers, but there were none.

            A sudden presence in the room told Tai that his sensei had arrived. There was no sound to reveal him, only a sudden sense of someone else being present. After numerous years in his service, Tai had finally become able to recognize when he arrived. “Hello, master Yudoka-sama.”

            The sinister form of Shosuro Yudoka seemed to materialize from the darkness. The man was old enough to be Tai’s father, yet he possessed an ability to move through the shadows that Tai suspected he would never master. His master was the perfect assassin, the perfect spy. Compared to him, Tai was but a novice, and always would be. “You have the information we need, Tai?” Yudoka was not one to stand on formalities.

            Tai hesitated for the briefest moment. The satchel at his side contained information that he had been working to attain for a year. It was everything Yudoka had commanded him to discover on behalf of his lord Bayushi Yojiro, the Scorpion Champion. It was everything he knew about the Shadowed Tower, the conspiracy within the Scorpion Clan dedicated to destroying Yojiro for his perceived weaknesses.

            “You hesitate,” Yudoka said, his voice low. “You have excelled at your task, Tai. You have done all that you were asked and more. You have seen terrible things, and you have resisted the charms of those who would seduce you from your duty. You have endured temptations and horrors that no samurai should be forced to endure. Do not discard that now. Do not succumb when it is already too late.” He leaned in closer, his painted mask terrible in the darkness. “Remember your loyalties, Bayushi Tai.”

            “I remember, master,” Tai said. He held forth the scroll satchel.

            Yudoka took it without preamble. “Well done, Tai,” he said as he disappeared back into the darkness.

            It was the greatest compliment his sensei had ever given him.

            Bayushi Sunetra set the scrolls aside, reclining thoughtfully. If the information they held was correct, then all she had worked toward for in the past year was within her grasp at last. She ran her finger along the edge of her blade, the Scorpion Champion’s blade. When Bayushi Yojiro had chosen her as his successor months ago, it was this blade that had proven her claim was true. It would reveal itself only to the clan’s rightful heir. The chamber where it was held contained dozens of exact duplicates, all of which would kill anyone who touched them. Only the true Champion could recognize the real Celestial Sword of the Scorpion. The blade gave her strength, and reminded her of her purpose when despair threatened to overwhelm her. It gave her the courage she needed to face the Shadowed Tower, and it would soon spill their blood.

            The thought caused Sunetra to frown slightly. “It weighs upon me that my first true military action as Champion will be to order the death of fellow Scorpion.”

            Yudoka bristled. “They are no longer Scorpion, my lady.”

            “Aren’t they?” she asked, pondering her sword.

            “No,” Yogo Koji agreed. “A Scorpion’s first duty is loyalty. Loyalty, above all else. The Tower follows a man who abandoned that. He chose his vision over Yojiro’s. He knows nothing of loyalty. He is a traitor. They are all traitors.”

            “They are traitors with families,” Sunetra continued. “Do we risk turning their loved ones against us? Are we trading victory now for a knife between our shoulders at a later date?”

            “I would sooner our clan be numbered less than a hundred than suffer traitors in our midst,” Yudoka said. “Let those who object voice their complaints.” He smiled cruelly. “I will silence them.”

            Sunetra finally nodded. “We have little choice, it seems.” She regarded both men with an intense expression. “Both of your agents within the Tower have reported back, then?”

            Koji and Yudoka regarded one another with surprise. “Yes,” Yudoka said haltingly, “Tai has supplied us with everything he knows. I trust his information.”

            “Tjeki has as well,” Koji added. “We are ready.”

            “Tjeki?” Yudoka said. “Am I to believe he has been your agent the entire time?” He regarded Koji with obvious skepticism.

            “No,” Koji readily admitted. “Tjeki has grown… disillusioned with the methods the Tower employs. He believes they have become a liability and has offered his aid in their destruction.”

            “No doubt in exchange for forgiveness,” the Shosuro daimyo sneered. “I cannot believe even you would believe so transparent a tale, Koji.”

            The shugenja frowned, light flashing in his eyes. “Do not underestimate me, Yudoka,” he said menacingly. “I have many means of detecting falsehoods. And Tjeki has asked only that he be allowed to live long enough to see the Tower’s downfall. After that… his punishment has not yet been decided.”

            “Enough,” Sunetra said, her expression hardening. “My own agent has reported similar findings. We have everything we need. There will never be an opportunity of this nature again. We must strike.”

            “Only tell me where, my lady,” Yudoka said.

            “Coordinate your forces to strike every stronghold they have. We three shall personally see to the traitor Atsuki.” Sunetra’s eyes narrowed. “I want to see his eyes when we crush his precious Tower.”

Flames tore through the village all around her, but she paid them little attention. The village of Pokau was among the most remote Scorpion holdings, and while the peasants there had always paid their taxes promptly and without complaint, they contributed relatively little to the clan in terms of resources. Furthermore, they had permitted the Shadowed Tower to establish a stronghold within the village. The traitors’ activities could not have gone unnoticed, yet the villagers did nothing to report disloyalty to their lord. Bayushi Sunetra, still wrapped in the disguise that masked her as her predecessor Yojiro, walked through the streets oblivious to the carnage. Her agents would capture the peasants and interrogate them to determine if they had any ties to the Tower. There would be no escape from this place tonight.

“There, Yojiro-sama,” Yudoka said, pointing to a non-descript building near the village’s center. “He is there.”

Sunetra frowned behind her mask. “You are certain he is still within?”

“Certain, my lord,” Koji offered. “Tjeki provided us with a detailed map that showed no less than four escape routes. Our soldiers have destroyed all of them. Atsuki has nowhere to go.”

The Champion’s frown deepened. She had worked toward this moment for nearly a year. It was to be the challenge that proved her worthy to all who would question her. She and her lieutenants had considered every possible outcome, every conceivable variable that might complicate the matter, and dealt with it ahead of time. Atsuki had no idea that she had replaced Yojiro, and could not anticipate her response to his continued threat. And yet, for all that… it seemed too easy. She had expected the unknown to strike her fully in the face, perhaps some secret plan Atsuki had concocted to deal with such an attack, or an unknown ally who would come to his aid. But so far, nothing. It was unnerving.

“Koji, Yudoka,” Sunetra said, her imitation of Yojiro’s voice flawless in every respect. “At my side.”

“Yes,” hissed Yudoka, eager for the kill.

“Always, my lord,” Koji said, his voice firm and determined.

The three Scorpion lords moved quickly across the village square. Though it was night, the flames from all around them cast the entire area in an eerie, dancing light that was somehow perfectly appropriate. Sunetra nodded to Yudoka, who leapt forward and exploded through the burning door like a madman. Though she and Koji followed right behind him, along with half a dozen of her best guards, the Shosuro daimyo had already cut down three men before she could even clear her blade through the doorway.

The building’s interior was dimly lit, but not so much as to make it difficult to see. Sunetra instantly made out four more guards in the darkness, defending the doorway to some inner chamber. She darted inward and to the left, feinting with her blade to draw the closest guard’s defenses away. The bushi did not succumb to her ruse, but did attempt to exploit her low blade with a rapid overhand strike, just as she had hoped. She easily blocked the blow, her opponent’s eyes widening in amazement at her incredible speed. With both blades locked above their heads, Sunetra darted in with a tanto, puncturing the man’s light armor and burying it in his heart.

A fierce blast of wind flattened the two guards who were advancing on Sunetra, crushing them against the wall with a sickening sound that made her wince. She nodded once quickly to Koji, then advanced toward the inner chamber, following the path of destruction Yudoka had carved to the doorway. She reached the doorway, but found it sealed and completely immovable. “Koji!” she shouted.

The shugenja said nothing, but drew back his arm and brought it forward as if practicing some martial art kata. The air between his fist and the door shimmered like a heat vision, and the door shattered into a thousand pieces.

Sunetra and Yudoka were through the doorway in an instant. The chamber beyond was larger than she had expected, and dominated the remainder of the building. It was strangely empty, with only two figures standing across the room. Yudoka instantly drew and hurled a knife across the room, aimed for the first man’s heart. Halfway across the chamber, the dagger stopped in midair, where it hovered for a moment before falling to the ground.

“A poisoned blade, Yudoka? How very pedestrian.” The speaker was a tall man whose upper face was covered in a non-descript mask. His robes were unassuming, but voluminous. Sunetra wondered what weapons were hidden within.

“Have your precious words and philosophies failed you, traitor?” Yudoka demanded. “You fall back on magic? I expected better of you.”

Atsuki dismissed Yudoka with a wave of his hand. “Yojiro, please keep your pet on a leash. He should not speak to his betters.”

Sunetra put out one hand to stay Yudoka’s anger. “It is over, Atsuki. Surrender now and die with honor.”

“You must be joking,” Bayushi Atsuki said. “Surely you don’t think that fool Tjeki knew all my secrets? And if you cross the barrier, you will fall as surely as the brute’s knife did. You cannot touch me.” He smiled. “I only waited long enough to see you so that you would know how truly hopeless your cause is.”

“The Tower is broken,” Koji interjected. “Your followers have been destroyed or captured all throughout the Scorpion lands. It is over.”

“Oh no,” Atsuki insisted. “It’s only begun. You’ll soon see.”

“Goodbye,” Sunetra said, knowing it may be the last order she gave as Yojiro. She nodded to the man standing behind Atsuki. Bayushi Kamnan drew his blade without hesitation.

Atsuki turned at the sound. “Kamnan?”

Kamnan said nothing. He struck only once, cutting through Atsuki’s midsection completely. The traitor’s eyes widened, but instantly glazed over in a haze of pain and surprise. He fell to the ground, only the barest scraps of flesh holding him in a single piece. Kaman sheathed his blade and bowed deeply to Sunetra.

“It’s finished,” she said, removing Yojiro’s mask. Yudoka only laughed.

            Ogura forced the door open, snapping the simple wooden frame that held it closed from those who were not welcome within the house. Once, he could have come and gone as he liked. Those days were long past.

            The opulent home’s interior was as dark as midnight. Ogura frowned. He did not remember a time when there were not servants scurrying around, performing one task or another for their admittedly demanding master. It seemed strange to find it so quiet, even at this late hour.

            Silently, Ogura made his way through the darkened house toward the inner chamber, the private study of the man who called this place home. The unnatural stillness continued throughout the house, and his discomfort grew. Something was amiss, but he had no way of knowing what. If he was fortunate, perhaps the master was away. But the Fortunes had not been kind to him of late, and he expected difficulties.

            The shoji screen that led into the study was closed, and a light was on within. It was a dim light, perhaps no more than a single lantern. Ogura frowned. Checking his blade and his scrolls, he prepared himself for anything, then slid back the screen.

            The study was mostly empty. One man sat at a writing desk, a single lantern on the table next to him. Most of the room remained in darkness. Ogura glanced around once quickly to look for hidden threats, but could see nothing. The man at the desk did not turn to face him. He did not even stop writing his letter. “Greetings, Ogura.”

            “Hello, father,” Ogura said flatly. “I am surprised to find you here, like this. Does the Imperial Chancellor no longer deserve his own servants?”

            Bayushi Kaukatsu threw a brief glance over his shoulder. His terrifying mask concealed his face utterly, revealing not a single trace of any emotion or concern. “I sent them away.”

            Ogura frowned again. “Why?”

            Kaukatsu turned back to his writing. “I could not bear the thought of even a peasant seeing the disgrace my son has become.”

            “Bah,” Ogura snorted. “You’ve always had a weakness for melodrama, father.”

            “Melodrama?” Kaukatsu seemed mildly surprised. “You think this melodrama? You have thrown away everything I worked my entire life to provide for you. You had opportunities none other could claim, and the blessings of magic to augment them. And what did you do with them? You threw them away for some pathetic attempt at power. I honestly cannot say if I am more embarrassed by your treachery or by your stupidity in thinking that this Shadowed Tower could ever hope to succeed.” He shook his head. “I was too generous when I spoke before.” He turned again to face Ogura. “I have no son.”

            Ogura’s disgusted look changed to one of fury. “You deny me, old man? Too late! I despise you and all your kind! Look at you! So eager to be Crane! To lord over the courts like a petty little Doji or a pretty Kakita! The Scorpion should rule from the shadows, as our ancestors did. I know it. My master knows it. The only fools who cannot see it are Yojiro and his lapdogs.” He sneered. “Like you, father.”

            “Do you truly Bayushi Atsuki is even remotely concerned about what happens to you and all your kind?” Kaukatsu’s tone was piteous.

            There was a long moment of silence. “You… you know our master’s true name?”

            “Of course I do. Unlike you, I am not a fool.”

            “How?” Ogura demanded, taking a step forward. “How do you know?”

            “Yojiro-sama told me.”

            Ogura’s forward advance stopped instantly. The color drained from his face. “Yojiro?” His hand flew to his face and rubbed his mouth nervously. “Yojiro knows?”

            “Of course. He is, after all, the Master of Secrets.” Kaukatsu finally turned and sat facing his son. “And he chose to share it with those who have proved their loyalty. Like me.” He shook his head. “Did you really think the attack upon your pitiful refuge tonight was an isolated incident? Oh no, I’m afraid not. The same scene replays itself a hundred times throughout our lands. You seek to escape, Ogura, but where will you run? There is no more Tower.”

            The shugenja shook his head as if to clear it. “But why would he tell you if he knew your own son was involved?”

            “Because, unlike you, I am a Scorpion,” Kaukatsu said fiercely, “and Yojiro knows that my loyalty to the clan extends even beyond my own son.” The old Chancellor paused, a strange sadness crossing his eyes before the normal jaded icy glare returned. “I pledged every resource at my disposal to aid in the Tower’s destruction in return for one small favor.” He pointed at Ogura. “I wanted to bring you to him personally, to wipe away the shame you have brought me.”

            Ogura drew his blade. “You’re a fool, old man. Your art is words, not steel or magic. You cannot stop me. I will take what I need from this place after I kill you.” He smiled cruelly. “After all, as you said, I am not your son.”

            “You think me defenseless?” Kaukatsu seemed genuinely surprised. “Of all the lessons I taught you, you have forgotten the simplest. Find unknown assets. Make them your own. Turn them against your enemies.” The old courtier lifted his head as if addressing the room. “Now, please.”

            A form appeared from the darkness, leaping through the air from the shadows at incredible speed. Ogura saw it and threw himself to the side, but it was too late. A shoulder hit him dead center, and he felt the cold steel of a tsuba crash into the side of his face. His vision went black on his right side and his sword disappeared somewhere in the darkened room. He tried to scramble away, but a second strike to the back of the head dropped him to the ground, struggling to hold onto consciousness.

            The dark form leaned over him. Ogura could make out a powerful, athletic form and bright, fierce eyes. The skin was strangely mottled, as if recovering from some terrible trauma. “Do not feel shame, cousin,” the man above him whispered hoarsely. “The Dark Sword of Bitter Lies cannot know defeat.”

            “I believe you have met Kwanchai,” Kaukatsu said with a disinterested air.

            “D… Don’t trust… Kaukatsu, cousin,” Ogura stammered. “He… only cares… for himself.”

            Kwanchai shook his head. “The Dark Sword sees through all deception.” Kwanchai leaned in close held his sword to his cousin’s throat. “You are the traitor here.”

            “Do not kill him, Kwanchai-san,” Kaukatsu said in a warning voice. “We have a fate reserved for him already.”

            “Yes, my lord,” Kwanchai said, clutching Ogura’s throat with one hand.

            Darkness claimed Ogura.

            Three days later, a small number of Scorpion samurai stood in the gardens outside Kyuden Bayushi. The sky was filled with dark clouds, and there was no sunlight to speak of. A dozen Scorpion bushi in full armor stood in a semi-circle around Bayushi Ogura, bound in steel chains. Ogura stood facing six other Scorpion.

            For the first time since her appointment, Bayushi Sunetra stood in public without the benefit of her disguise. Her attire and air radiated confidence and authority, and none questioned that she was the Scorpion Champion. On either side of her stood Shosuro Yudoka and Yogo Koji, her two most trusted advisors. Also present were Kaukatsu, Kwanchai, and Bayushi Baku, the legendary Scorpion guardian spirit. “Bayushi Ogura,” she said clearly and crisply. “You have been found guilty of treason against your Champion and your clan.”

            “You are not my Champion,” he hissed.

            “You are correct, as you do not deserve to be a Scorpion,” she replied. “You have been consigned to the fate of all traitors.”

            “Fine,” Ogura retorted. “Execute me and be done with it!”           

Sunetra continued as if he had not spoken. “Your name stricken from all public records. Your soul will be bound in Traitor’s Grove, as an example to others.”

            Ogura began to retort, the stopped. His mouth hung open absently as his eyes widened. He sputtered, but was unable to respond. Only when the guards seized his arms did he begin screaming. “No! No, please! Mercy! Mercy!”

            Sunetra only looked down at Ogura coolly. Her pale blue eyes were unmoved by his pleas.

            “Not the grove!” Ogura screamed raggedly as he was dragged away. “Please! Not the grove!”

            “Bring another,” she ordered the guards, prepared to condemn the next of many prisoners.

• 

            Beyond Rokugan’s borders, there was a field of barren, blasted rock. It extended for miles in every direction, making it impossible to approach by stealth. In the center of the field, a lone tower rose high above the cracked stone surface. From the tower’s peak, it would be possible to see all who approached hours before they arrived.

            Two figures made their way across the treacherous field. One was clad in light blue, and occasionally staggered. The other, a samurai in golden robes, aided his comrade when necessary. Slowly, very slowly, they crossed the field, never wavering from their path to the tower.

            When the two finally reached the tower’s base, a pale-skinned man covered in tattoos stood waiting for them. He said nothing, but hefted his weapon menacingly and took a step toward them. The strange crystal head atop the polearm was vaguely luminescent.

            The blue-clad samurai held up a hand, then spoke something in a language originating from far beyond Rokugan. The strange warrior lowered his weapon and nodded in acknowledgement, then turned and entered the tower, leaving the two men alone.

            “Master, are you well?” the golden robed man asked.

            “I will survive,” the other said with a wince. “The magic that allowed me to control my duplicate also allowed me to share his pain. You struck a deadly blow, to be sure, Kamnan.”

            “Forgive me, Atsuki-sama,” Kamnan said, bowing his head.

            “You only did as you were commanded,” Atsuki waved the apology away. He looked at the warrior carefully. “And you are certain that there was no doubt in their minds? They truly believe it was me that died?”

            “The spell was flawless,” Kamnan confirmed. “The Ashalan talisman was dismissed as a simple netsuke. Koji was watching only for maho, not other forms of magic, and did not sense anything unusual.”

            Atsuki smiled. “Yes, I knew his unfamiliarity with gaijin magic would prove useful in that regard. So they believe the Tower destroyed and me dead, and have conveniently destroyed all out allies who dabbled in blood magic. Yet the bulk of the resources and information we obtained during the reign of the Tower remain ours.” The Scorpion villain withdrew his traditional mask from the folds of his blue cloak and slipped it over his face. He turned to Kamnan, a satisfied look in his calm blue eyes. “Then it is time for us to truly begin our work.”