Treachery's Coin, Part 4

Akasha's sleep was troubled. She tossed about on her bedroll, brow knitted in concentration, beaded with sweat. Occasionally, strange sounds would escape her lips, alternating between low moans and disquieting hisses.

In her dreams, Akasha floated in the depths of the ocean. The water was dark and troubled. Torn plants and startled creatures flew by at incredible speeds, caught in some gigantic vortex. Akasha hung motionless in the midst of the chaos. Despite that she understood it was only a dream, she could not help but feel afraid. The sensations were so real.

Amid the swirling waters, a pale form appeared before her. Shasyahkar, the dying jakla who had visited her dreams many months ago. "Why have you not yet done as I asked, Akasha? My time grows shorter."

"I know, sensei," she shouted over the roaring water in her ears, "but there were many things that had to be dealt with before I could…"

"Trivial things," the specter said shortly. "Unimportant human matters. Compared to the survival of our race, were your tasks so important?"

"You don't understand," she began.

"I certainly do not." Despite the figure's obvious weakness, its wrathful aspect was still terrible. "You must complete your quest, and soon, or all will be lost. You are meant to be the Legacy of the Naga, yet if you cannot do what you must, you will instead be our doom."

"Sensei, please," she said, her voice pleading.

"I cannot maintain this meeting," the Naga said. "I am too far from the pearl beds. Do what you must, Akasha. And I shall do the same." With that, the figure receded into the dark waters.

Akasha sat up suddenly, a cry caught in her throat. Her ragged breath began to even out as she recognized her surroundings.

Chen stirred beside her. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly. He was instantly alert and ready, anticipating an attack.

"A dream," she said breathlessly. "It was only a dream."

He relaxed visibly. "What was it?"

Akasha hesitated. She had, until now, kept the truth from Chen. It was not that she didn't trust him, far from it. She had sworn an oath of secrecy, and despite that she was very different from the Unicorn she had lived among her entire life, she valued the sanctity of a vow every bit as much as they did.

Yet now, Chen was about to become a part of it all. If she remained silent, his ignorance could upset the delicate balance she had worked so hard to achieve. Worse still, his life could be in danger, and that was something she would not allow. But where to begin?

Chen was sitting up now, his face a mask of concern. "Tell me."

"Ghedai is not the only Naga jakla left awake," she finally started, "although he believes he is. There is another, a being called the Shasyahkar. He is like a father to me… though the Naga do not know that word. He and Ghedai disagreed over the fate of the Naga pearl beds, and Ghedai attacked him. Shasyahkar removed himself from the Akasha to deceive Ghedai into thinking he was dead, and has been in hiding ever since. Shasyahkar is unable to survive, cut off from the source of his magic. He is dying."

"How do you know this?"

"Shasyahkar came to me in a dream a year ago and told me about his battle with Ghedai. He was convinced Ghedai had gone mad with power. I have studied the secrets of the Golden Pearls with him through dreams ever since."

"Golden Pearls?" Chen frowned. "Such as the one that gave birth to you?"

Akasha nodded. "Shasyahkar claims that Ghedai covets the pearls' power, but I am not certain. Without the influence of the Akasha, Shasyahkar has become… erratic. It is difficult to know his mind."

Chen peered deeply into her eyes. "There's something more."

She nodded again, looking down. "What we spoke of at the Unbroken village, the rituals Ghedai wishes to employ… there is more to the story. I did not know how to tell you."

"Everything is going to be fine," he said. "You have nothing to fear. Tell me."

Akasha drew a deep breath and smiled sadly. Then she began to explain the true purpose of their visit to the vast Shinomen Mori that loomed on the horizon.

o

The bushi of the Moto family had many exclamations they used to show surprise, some of which referred to the anatomy of the Fortunes of Kami in a colorful manner that most shugenja would find somewhat blasphemous. Moto Chen used one of these expressions, drawing an inquisitive look from Ghedai.

"Why is Shiba's reproductive capability relevant here?" the Naga asked curiously.

"Humans cannot sense one another's emotions," Akasha explained with a smile. "We frequently use… colorful exclamations to express things like surprise or shock."

"Or just when we're struck speechless," Chen added, staring about in wonder. "This chamber is amazing. I've never seen anything like it." The soldier frowned as it occurred to him how often he'd uttered those words in the past two months. The Mantis Storm Riders walking casually across the ocean, the secret village of the Unbroken, and now this. Apparently he wasn't as worldly as he had once thought.

Ghedai's ritual chamber dominated the ground floor of a vast Naga temple. The temple had a certain elegance to it, but its partially ruined state made it seem strangely otherworldly. The interior was filled with long stone tables and altars of some sort, each covered with an assortment of pearls of myriad sizes and hues. Chen could only imagine the value of such a treasure trove.

"Master," Akasha said, staring around breathlessly, "there are so many! Where did all these come from?"

Ghedai's pride was evident. "I have been gathering them from different temples throughout the great forest. At first, I feared that the Tsuno might find and destroy them if they were left undefended, but I have come to realize that there are many great secrets within these pearls that I can unlock for the good of all Naga."

"If the Naga kept scrolls rather than pearls, this would be Kyuden Isawa," Chen remarked wryly.

"We do keep scrolls," Ghedai said, looking at the former general with a curious expression. "We use them to record history, magical theory, and the like. Or was that more of your 'humor?' I fear I do not understand it very well."

"Most humans don't understand Chen's humor either, master," Akasha added.

"In any event," the soldier interrupted, "what manner of rituals do you have in mind, Ghedai-sama?"

The Naga swayed back and forth, opening his arms and turning his head about as if to count his precious pearls. "I have discovered a great many rituals in these past days, yes," he said. "Your Legion has pushed back the Tsuno, though they still move through the forest at times. With them gone, I have learned many secrets from the pearls."

Chen frowned. Ghedai was talking about the Tsuno, the demons that slaughtered the Naga guardians and imprisoned their sleeping brethren, as if they were a minor inconvenience. An odd attitude for the so-called protector of the Shinomen Mori, but then the Naga were a strange people. "What ritual will I need to participate in directly?"

"Yes, General, yes," Ghedai said, as if remembering the purpose of their meeting. "The first is a new ritual. To my knowledge, none like it has ever been used before."

"Master, won't that be risky?" There was uneasiness in Akasha's voice. "The effect of our magic on humans is unpredictable even in the best circumstances."

"There is danger in all new things, Akasha," Ghedai confirmed, "but all my study and experience leads me to believe this will be successful. It is similar to a powerful rite used during your war against the Foul some years ago." He turned to Chen. "What do you know of the Bright Eye?"

"The Bright Eye. That is how you Naga refer to the sun?"

"No," corrected Ghedai. "You humans refer to the Bright Eye as 'the sun.'" He hissed contently then, and Chen realized he was laughing. "Please, continue."

"Oh," Chen scratched his chin. "Well, Lord Sun is Hida Yakamo, a Crab who ascended after serving as Lady Amaterasu's second when she committed jigai."

"And before that?"

"He was the Crab Champion, and was lost in battle at Shiro Hiruma." The former general frowned. "I have heard rumors that he was restored to life by some Naga ritual, though I don't fully understand them."

"Not restored to life, not truly," Ghedai said. "A powerful ritual summoned Yakamo's soul from the far reaches of the Spirit Realms and merged it with our communal life force, the Akasha, the same life force from which our own Akasha takes her name. This allowed the communal mind of our people to inhabit his body."

"It wasn't really Yakamo, then?" Chen asked.

Ghedai looked confused. "You make a distinction that I do not understand. You humans do not grasp that a soul can be one as well as many. What we restored was Yakamo, and it was also the Akasha. It is… difficult to express the concept using only your crude language. At any rate, that is not important. The process we used to restore Yakamo's soul made him a part of our life force, able to communicate with and understand the Naga as only a Naga can. As you must, Moto Chen."

Chen took an involuntary step backwards as realization dawned upon him. "You are not suggesting that you do the same thing to me that was done to Yakamo?"

"No, of course not," the jakla said with a wave of his hand. "To do so, we would have to kill you first. Terribly inefficient." He gestured across the room to a large pair of matching pearls, each set into short stone altars of some sort. "But using these magnificent pearls I have discovered, I believe it will be possible to bring a single human mind into the Akasha. The pearls will not survive the process, sadly, but I am convinced it can be done."

"Incredible," Akasha said breathlessly. "Where did they come from, master?"

"I found them in an ancient nursery, one that had not been used since centuries before the first Great Sleep," Ghedai answered. "What they were doing there, I cannot say. But whatever their original purpose, they will serve the Naga well now. They will bring a great general to our people."

Moto Chen glanced down, strangely embarrassed by Ghedai's flattery. "Forgive me for saying so, but you hardly seem to need a general at the moment."

"Soon," Ghedai said. "I have found a means to awaken selected individuals within the Akasha. With it, we could awaken enough warriors to provide you with a suitable army to protect the forest, to destroy the Tsuno as well as reinforce your clan's southern border."

"An army of Naga warriors. It's hard to imagine."

"You will not have to imagine it much longer, General. We will begin tomorrow. You will need rest. It will be difficult."

Chen nodded. "Tomorrow it is."

o

"This is all very strange," Chen said as he placed his blades on an improvised weapon rack. "What you told me on the journey back from Crab lands…"

"Do not speak of it here!" Akasha warned in hushed tones.

Chen nodded. "It seems almost impossible," he finished.

"I wish it was," she said sadly, removing her thin, jeweled tiara.

"Don't be afraid," Chen said, smiling warmly. "I can deal with whatever happens. I fought the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang beside Moto Chagatai. I did not survive just to die in some a pearl bed in a haunted forest. Who would ever write a poem about that?"

Akasha smiled back. "Only a poem? For the great Moto Chen? I thought surely a play would be in order."

"Bah," Chen replied with a wry grin. "You know how I hate to sit through plays."

"Oh, but how could a poem do you justice?" she teased. "Moto Chen! General of the Junghar! Slayer of Kolat! Seasoned veteran of the sea and the scourge of the Phoenix coast! Defender of the Shinomen Mori!"

"Well, maybe a play would be in order," Chen admitted, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I know my mother would certainly have been proud!"

The two of them enjoyed the moment for a while, but a cloud soon came over Chen's features. Akasha knew what he was thinking. "Chaozhu's unit is stationed several hours ride north of here. I spoke to one of the Naga scouts who has visited the encampment."

Chen nodded. "I suspected they would be close."

"I will deliver the message tomorrow, just as you requested." She knelt and looked him in the eyes. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"

"I don't know," he confessed. "But I have to try. I have to know for certain." She said nothing, but touched her forehead to his. "Are you certain you can get the message in without being seen? I don't trust anyone under Chaozhu's command, and I won't have you risk your life needlessly."

"It isn't needless," Akasha replied, "and of course I can. They are in the Shinomen, after all."

o

Ghedai placed both hands on the large, bronze-colored pearl in the center of his arrangement. "There will be discomfort," he said, his voice soft and strangely comforting. "Do not be alarmed. It will pass." His tail twitched in anticipation of the power this ritual would awaken.

Chen said nothing, but his mouth formed a thin line. His mask was a face of concentration, and at Ghedai's nod, he reached out and placed his left hand atop the bronze-colored pearl before him. Ghedai's inquisitive look was answered with a second wordless nod.

The jakla smiled. Soon, there would be no need for words. The comforting embrace of the Akasha would envelop Chen, bringing him into the group mind of the Naga race. He would be an equal among them, a part of the whole.

The perfect pawn.

Could the human really think he would be given a Naga army and the means to control them? It was conceivable he was naïve enough for such a notion, but it seemed almost impossible to believe. Still, Ghedai had long ago learned not to underestimate the humans' capacity for self-delusion. Once he was connected to the Akasha, it would be simple to dominate his thoughts. He was weak, a lesser being, and could not hope to resist the power of a true jakla. Among his people Chen was already viewed with contempt, a fallen general pursuing a scandalous affair with a half-Naga girl. Who would think it out of character if he began ferreting his family's considerable fortune toward the Naga? A fortune that Ghedai could use to seek out more of the lost pearl beds, to gather more power for himself.

With a smile, Ghedai closed his eyes and began the ritual.

Ghedai heard Chen gasp in surprise as he focused the Akasha toward the human's fragile mind. The general's resistance was impressive for such a weak species, but Ghedai concentrated and pushed. The mind of hundreds of thousands of Naga surged outward hungrily, eager to add Chen's thoughts to their own. The onslaught of thoughts and emotions hammered away at Chen's strength of will, weakening it and causing the human to visibly slouch, his teeth clenched against the pain.

Ghedai's lip curled upward in a very human display of distaste. No human mind could resist him. With single-minded determination, he threw all his will behind a single mental assault…

And found Chen's mind open and waiting.

Ghedai gasped, his eyes snapping open. Chen had straightened, his posture firm and unyielding. His eyes were open, but they were not human eyes. They glowed with a pale green light. "Thank you," Chen said faintly, and his voice sounded strangely like a hiss.

"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Ghedai. His voice was full of fury and fear all at once.

"Your madness must end, Ghedai," Chen replied. "I have returned to see to it." Chen's features were shifting now, sliding like water in a brook. A glimmering Pearl of Chameleon Skin fell from his open hand. Chen was no longer Chen. He was no longer even human. Ghedai recognized him immediately, and cursed himself for falling prey to such a simple illusion.

"Shasyahkar!" hissed Ghedai.

"Yes," the Shasyahkar said, nodding his head sadly. "I survived your treachery. Thanks to you, I am one with the Akasha once more." The Naga's pallid skin grew more green and healthy by the moment. He reached out toward Ghedai with his mind, gripping the jakla's mind through the Akasha. Ghedai fought back, seizing Shasyahkar's will with his own. Their two minds seethed in a realm of pure thought and emotion.

"You should have died quietly, fool!" Outrage. "I will destroy you for this!"

Shasyahkar wasted no energy on words, but redoubled his mental attack. The pearls throughout the chamber hummed and shook with the force of the two jaklas' battle.

o

A lone horse crashed through the Shinomen underbrush. The rider looked about, as if seeking something. At last his eyes settled upon a particularly unusual rock formation, and he tugged the horse's reins sharply to the right. After another few moments making a path through the thick vegetation, he emerged into a small clearing with a cliff that overlooked a sizeable lake. A single man stood on the cliff face, arms crossed. Waiting.

"I can't believe you were fool enough to think I'd meet with you," Moto Chaozhu snarled. "Where is your horse?"

"You came," Chen said, ignoring his brother's question. "I knew that you would."

"And what was this?" Chaozhu spat, holding out his hand. A tuft of hair, braided and graying, lay twisted in his palm. "Did you think a lock of our mother's hair would move me to tears and beg for your forgiveness?"

Chen shook his head. "I merely thought it might remind you of better times."

"Better times," the older brother scoffed, hopping down from his mount. "As if any fond memories I have of you had not been wiped away. I will never forgive you for betraying me, Chen, for taking the position that was rightfully mine."

"No?" Chen asked. "Not even now that you have made a deal with vermin to steal the title back from me?"

"You may not speak to me that way!" Chaozhu shouted. His teeth were clenched, his eyes wild. "I am an officer in the Khan's army! You are nothing! I am your elder brother and you will respect me!"

"You always had my respect, Chaozhu," Chen said, his voice rising to match his brother's. "You threw it away. I did not drive this wedge between us, brother. You did."

"Everything that was your should have been mine," Chaozhu said hatefully. "You never deserved it. You were never worthy of it. I possessed the talent and ability; you merely curried Chagatai's favor like a mewling Crane. Now," he gestured to the symbol of rank adorning his armor, the badge of shireikan, "the advantage is mine."

"At what cost?" Chen asked. "You have become the enemy."

"Your accusations are baseless," Chaozhu said, eyes flicking about as if to search for prying ears. "Even so I forgive your accusation and wish you a long life, Chen, alone with your paranoid theories. Accuse me again and I will revoke the mercy I have given you."

The fury that Chen had felt so often for the past months was strangely absent. "It is not too late, Chaozhu," Chen said. "Whatever hold the Kolat have over you, I will help you break it. You are still my brother. We share the same blood."

"We shall see whose blood is in your veins," the larger man said menacingly as he drew a knife from his belt. "Let us see if your inhuman lover finds you so dashing once I have decorated your face with Moto steel."

"So this is the way it will be," Chen said, his voice resigned.

Chaozhu lunged forward, his blade sweeping in a broad strike that would slice Chen's throat. Chen anticipated the maneuver, however, and leapt backwards away from the blow. Chaozhu righted himself and brought the blade upward with a fierce, stabbing motion. Chen desperately caught the blade in his left hand, the blade cutting deep into his flesh just as the tip pierced his side. With an angry cry he landed a closed fist squarely on his older brother's jaw. It was a calculated, deliberate strike that caused a sharp cracking sound to ring throughout the clearing. Chen yanked the knife from his brother's weakened grip, flipped it in his hand, and held the weapon high. Chaozhu looked up at his brother, eyes widening in fear. Chen scowled, balled his fist around the handle of the blade, and struck Chaozhu across the temple. Blood ran into Chaozhu's eyes as he staggered backward.

"Life on the road has made you strong, little brother," Chaozhu hissed. He wiped the blood from his face with the back of his arm and drew his katana.

"Strong?" Chen asked. He tossed the bloody knife on the ground and turned to face the cliff. He could not go back the way he had come without crossing through the reach of his brother's blade, and would not draw his own sword against Chaozhu. "If you define strength as the willingness draw your brother's blood, then I pray that I will always be weaker than you. I hope you will not live to regret the path you have chosen, Chaozhu." With that, Chen leapt from the cliff to plummet into the lake below.

Chaozhu ran to the edge and glanced down at the lake's surface below. Chen was already climbing onto the banks, his horse waiting at the edge of the tree line. Sneering with rage, Chaozhu sheathed his katana and left.

o

The swirling sea that was the Akasha seethed and roiled with fury. There was no form or substance to the battle, only the overwhelming mental presence of two powerful jakla.

"I felt you die, Shasyahkar." Curiosity.

"No." Defiance. "I willingly separated myself from the Akasha to escape you."

"It is impossible to survive for so long separated from the Akasha." Disbelief.

Pity. "Can you have become so twisted by your lies that you cannot accept the truth? Yes, I should have died, but I did not. Akasha aided me. Through her, I was able to draw sufficient strength to prepare for this day."

"Akasha!" Outrage. Betrayal. "Filthy human! Filthy, treacherous human! Her suffering will be unending!"

"A bold claim." Unyielding resolve. "How can you accuse another of treachery? You, who sold the secret of our pearl beds to the Kolat. You, who paid them gold to retrieve certain pearls for you. You knew that their removal would cause hundreds of sleepers to die, unprotected by their magic, but such was unimportant compared to your thirst for power. How many sleepers have you killed, traitor?"

Panic. Desperation. "I allowed the weak to die that the strong might live!"

"No. You took the lives of those who you know would oppose you before they awakened and saw the darkness in your heart. Traitor. Murderer."

"I will destroy you! Rage. I will reign supreme over the Naga! Only I am fit to be Qatol!" Anger. Power!

"Never." Serenity. Courage.

"You are too weak to stop me!" Disgust. "Your separation has left you all but dead, while my power has never been greater! I regret only that I will be denied the satisfaction of killing an equal!"

Ghedai gathered his power for one final, brutal attack. Sensing a weakness in Shasyahkar's defenses, he unleashed his power and found, to his surprise, that his enemy dropped all his defenses.

"Giving up, Shasyahkar?" Mockery. "Where is your defiance now?"

Pain. Anguish. "Where is your soul, Ghedai?" Triumph.

As the Ghedai's power tore through the last vestiges of the Shasyahkar's soul, a backlash of fiery energy tore into the Ghedai as well. Too late the Ghedai realized that the ritual meant to bind Moto Chen's soul to his own still held firm, maintained by the Shasyahkar. The two were as one.

And as Ghedai slew the Shasyahkar, he slew himself as well.

The two jakla slumped dead in the pearl bed. One's face was caught in an expression of joy and contentment, the other's a mask of shock and disbelief.

o

Chen drug himself from the lake, ribbons of water plants clinging to his body. He brushed them aside without thinking, glancing up to the cliff face where his brother had been only moments ago. He sighed in disappointment and mounted his steed, riding off into the forest.

After a time, he dismounted and sank heavily onto a large stone outcropping, lost in thought. Moments stretched on into hours as his clothes dried and he watched the sun begin to touch the horizon beyond the trees.

A soft rustling sound came from behind him, but Chen did not care. "Chen?" came Akasha's voice. "Chen, are you hurt?" He grunted noncommittally. "Chaozhu, then," she said. "Is it done?"

Chen said nothing for several moments. Finally, he answered her. "He would not abandon the Kolat," he paused for a long moment, "and I could not kill him. Even after everything he's done, I couldn't do it."

A soft hand touched his shoulder. "He is your brother."

He shook his head. "No, not any longer. I see that now. The man that was my brother is dead. All that remains in an angry, treacherous wretch that looks like my brother."

"I am sorry," she said sadly.

He placed his hand over hers. "Don't be. I know my duty. I know what I must do." Chen turned to face her, stroking her hair with one hand. "Even if it costs me my soul."

"It isn't your fault, Chen. You cannot control what your brother has become."

"I know," he said. "But when I kill him, I'll still be damned for it. What of Ghedai and Shasyahkar?"

Akasha looked away, face downcast. "His plan succeeded," she said. "I could sense their battle even from here."

"So your sensei is dead," Chen replied quietly.

"Both my sensei are dead," she replied. "Do not judge Ghedai too harshly. He was not always as you saw him. He was a scholar, a Naga with a true gift for magic. Greed corrupted him so greatly that he turned against his own people."

"Human greed," Chen replied. "Like the sort that possesses my brother."

Akasha looked into Chen's eyes. "Not all vice is human vice," she replied. "Ghedai made his choices, and has paid for them. As do we."

Chen took Akasha in his arms and held her tightly. He felt the pain and exhaustion diminish, but not disappear. He knew now they would never truly disappear.
"Who will protect your people now that Ghedai and Shasyahkar are gone?" Chen asked.

"There are others," she said. "The soldiers Ghedai intended you to command still awaken. I can feel them stirring. They will be confused, disoriented. Someone must tell them what has happened. The Tsuno still prowl these lands. Presumably the Kolat still have plans here as well. Someone must prepare them for the dangers they will face."

"Then let us be the ones," Chen said. He mounted his horse and extended his hand to Akasha. Smiling, she climbed into the saddle behind him and they disappeared into the Shinomen.