Authors: Stephen D. Sullivan
Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Epic
The shugenja stood on the ridge above Kyuden Bayushi and watched his life go up in smoke. Pillars of flame shot through the roof of the ancestral home of the Scorpion. Fire ran along the castle's elegant balconies, destroying their hidden supports, sending them tumbling to the courtyards far below. Great sparks flew up where they fell.
The lone figure clenched his fists so tightly that his long fingernails drew blood from his palms. He felt the magic in that blood as it dripped from his hands and fell to the trembling earth. His samurai heart burned. He was one of the most powerful shugenja in the land—a master of spells and subterfuge, a slayer of men, a defender of his clan's honor. Yet he felt powerless watching the carnage below.
In the distance, fierce battles raged, both within the castle walls and without. Figures whirled and shouted in the fire and smoke. Horses charged. Samurai rode down all men
who opposed them. Women and children died, too. Everyone who wore the red and black mon, the symbol of the Scorpion, became targets for the purge. The cries of the dying echoed through the hills. The nearby River of Gold ran red with blood.
The kami of war had pitted clan against clan. The spell-master's clan, the great house of the Scorpion, was losing. They had fought a bloody retreat ever since the death of their leader, Bayushi Shoju—the finest samurai the world had ever known.
Far off, in the great city of Otosan Uchi, Emperor Hantei the 39th sat upon his sundered throne and smiled. Even across the leagues, the shugenja could feel the young emperor's pleasure at the noble Scorpions' fall. The god-descended boy despot laughed at the destruction of the spell-master's people.
The young Hantei had married Kachiko, the Mother of Scorpions, after Shoju died. Now the boy stole everything else from them as well—land, titles, riches, honor, even their name itself. The young tyrant had disbanded the Scorpion, struck their name from the histories of Rokugan. Shoju had died to save the empire, and
was his people's reward.
Fire. Death. Oblivion.
The Scorpion would lose this final battle, the shugenja knew. Then his people would be gone, burnt to the ground like blight-stricken fields.
The shugenja shuddered, despite the warmth of the day, and pulled his crimson and black kimono snugly around his thin body. His hands clutched his precious cache of scrolls—the last remnants of Scorpion knowledge and power. Deep in his soul, he longed to join the fight. He yearned to be with his brethren on the field before the great castle, spilling the blood of their enemies.
A dozen deadly conjurations flashed before his mind. Mystic chants drummed in his ears. The power of the words rumbled in the bloodstained soil. Perhaps, the shugenja thought, he could turn the tide of the battle. Under his command, his people might rally and win the day. If not, at least he would die a samurai's death on the field of battle.
But, no. The great daimyo Bayushi Shoju had given the shugenja a task, and Yogo Junzo knew he must see his duty through to the bitter end. "Protect the scrolls," Lord Shoju had said. "Keep them safe, for with their opening, the end of the world is upon us."
Junzo, the dying clan's foremost shugenja, looked at the scroll case in his arms. It was plain—a small chest giving no hint of the great powers contained within.
Long ago, the world had nearly been destroyed by the evil god Fu Leng. Great kami—Seven Thunders—had risen up to battle the Evil One. The Thunders destroyed Fu Leng's power using twelve Black Scrolls. Now the Evil One slept the endless sleep. The godlike Thunders had long since vanished from the world of Rokugan.
The Scorpion, masters of all secrets, had been charged with protecting the scrolls against the day of Fu Leng's return. For a thousand years, the clan carried out their sacred duty. Six scrolls had been lost to the ravages of time and war. The other six, though ...
Junzo clutched four of those remaining six scrolls to his breast. He held their case tight against his body, as if to shield himself from the carnage on the plain below. Junzo would do as Shoju commanded: He would guard these scrolls with his life. Their dark magic would not fall into the hands of the Scorpions' enemies.
Junzo suspected the location of the final two scrolls as well— though retrieving them would be difficult, especially during this hellish purge. The shugenja would have to rescue those scrolls before anyone else discovered them, before any less worthy, less wise clan opened the scrolls and used them.
Use them.... Use the Black Scrolls....
Use them to what end? Junzo wondered. To bring the end of the world?
The shugenja gazed at the slaughter below. Black smoke wafted up to the ridge and stung his eyes, making them tear. Through the fires, it seemed demons danced among his dying people. The Scorpion would soon be extinct. Surely, this
the end of the world. Nothing could be worse. Nothing.
Dark thoughts welled up in Junzo's mind. Before, he had always brushed these apocalyptic notions aside. There would be another day, another battle—surely the tide would turn in their favor. Surely the Scorpion would triumph in the end.
For months, Junzo had watched the slaughter. For months, he had done nothing, following the command of his dead daimyo. The spell-master had done his duty, but his faithfulness had not been rewarded. Instead, the kami and their accursed emperor had destroyed everything he held dear. As he watched the carved parapets of Kyuden Bayushi fall to fire and destruction, Junzo realized the tide would
turn. This was, indeed, the end.
The end of his people. The end of his world.
An idea clawed up from the darkness in the back of his mind. He'd heard the thought before, but he'd always ignored it. His sense of duty and honor had suppressed the notion until it was no more than a black spider, crawling in the deepest recesses of his soul. Now, though, the idea wound its clinging web around his sanity and reason. The spider in Junzo's brain drew the net tight.
You have the power!
his mind whispered.
Junzo looked at the precious burden cradled in his arms. The scroll chest was opaque, lacquered black and blazed with the mon of the Scorpion. It showed no trace of the artifacts hidden inside. Yet, to Junzo's gaze, the case became suddenly transparent. He saw the Black Scrolls housed within. He felt the pulse of their ancient power.
The energy of the Black Scrolls throbbed within his arms. He held the power: power enough to save his people or, at the very least, to make their enemies pay.
The topmost scroll called to the shugenja, its voice sweet like a geisha's. "Wield me," it said, "and I will make
emperor. You shall sit upon a throne of your enemies' skulls. You will command an army such as the world has never known. Take my power! Use it!"
Junzo's hands trembled, though he couldn't tell whether with fear or rage. The strength to destroy his enemies rested within his arms. Why should he not wield it? Who was he saving that power for?
Bayushi Shoju was dead. There wasn't another man worthy to wield such power in all of Rokugan.
Only him. Junzo. The fate of the Scorpion—
people-rested with him.
He set the scroll case down on the dying grass at his feet. Blood pounded like thunder in his head as he gently opened the black lacquered container.
A small sound, like a sigh, shook the chest. In his mind, Junzo heard a scream louder than all the battles and death in the valley below. He blinked once, twice. The scream died away. Junzo drew the topmost scroll from the case.
The heavy silk was black and wrinkled like the skin of a long-dead corpse. As he looked at the silk, Junzo imagined he saw faces in the furrows—hideous, tormented faces.
Junzo repressed a shudder. He seized the top of the scroll with one hand and rolled it open.
Kanji symbols leapt like green fire off the page and burned into his eyes. Junzo tried to scream, but couldn't. His mouth was already reading the scroll aloud.
The power of the scroll burrowed into his brain and wrapped itself around his spine. Junzo felt as though he was being burned alive. His flesh tingled and seared. He tried to put the scroll down, but his fingers wouldn't obey him. They tightly clutched the tortured silk. Without his volition, his mouth continued to read.
Junzo felt himself being torn apart, ripped down to the very fiber of his being. His muscles, his sinews, his nerves were flayed from his bones. His eyes boiled and exploded. His soul burned to ash. A vortex of screams surrounded him, the obscene music of the damned. Then, in the midst of darkness and pain, Junzo and the scroll became one.
He reveled in the power of the first Black Scroll as it swept out across the battlefield, across the mountains, across all of Roku-gan. It stained the land dark with its touch, as dark as coal, black with plague.
His virulence wormed inside the souls of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. The power of his scroll ravished the land, reaching into every nook and cranny, spreading black spores. Junzo's bitter scream transformed into a joyous cackle. The power no longer pained him; now it thrilled him. He laughed as magic coursed through his body, corrupting all it touched, spreading its sinister taint throughout the Emerald Empire.
Junzo wasn't alone anymore. Now he had allies all across the land, allies who lurked in the darkness, waiting, allies who would support his cause—champion his revenge. Not vengeance for the Scorpion, not for his devastated clan, not for his slain Yogo brothers. Revenge for
Retribution for all the wrongs ever committed against him.
He, Junzo, would set the world right.
How foolish he had been to set his stock in mortal men. Even Bayushi Shoju paled beside Fu Leng. Fu Leng would be the shugenja's ally now; the two of them would sweep Rokugan clean of human pestilence.
In an instant, Junzo's mind rushed back across time and space. His ravaged body shuddered as though struck by lightning. His soul had returned. He felt the power of the Black Scroll in his sinews, in his very bones. His wizened carcass seemed almost too fragile to contain the great energies he now possessed.
Junzo looked down over the battlefield. No longer did he see friends dying, enemies killing them. Now he saw only ants: ants to be squashed under his heel. He smiled. The skin of his face cracked and peeled.
The shugenja rolled the scroll up once more. He placed it with its brethren and retrieved the black chest from where it lay at his feet. New purpose and determination filled his mind. The lost scrolls could wait; these four would serve him for now. There would be time to fetch the others later, once he had mastered his new abilities.
Now, though, he would find a place to gather his strength—a place strong with Fu Leng's dark energy. He would discover a cynosure from which to consolidate his power. He would retreat there while his might grew and his new disciples flocked to him. He had more reading to do.
Much more reading.
The creature who had recently been Yogo Junzo smiled once more. Then he turned his back on the battlefield and vanished into the bloodstained hills.
Isawa Tadaka jumped back, his sword flashing through the air. The demon met him, raking with its talons, but found only the silk of Tadaka's red and black kimono. The blade of Tadaka's katana slashed across the chest of the Oni no Byoki, cutting the demon's festering skin. Black blood splashed from the wound, spurting corruption toward the samurai.