In the long years of his existence, the number of times he had been summoned from Jigoku could be counted on one claw. Other demon lords had been summoned before. Yaburama. Akumu. The oni lords were too powerful not to have some enterprising blood mage attempt a contract with them, though such rituals often ended badly for the arrogant human who thought they could enslave an oni lord. The four of them were, admittedly, a proud bunch, and did not take kindly to an insignificant mortal attempting to bend them to their will. They humored the blood mage long enough to hear what the human was offering, and if it did not interest them, or if the mage foolishly tried to assert dominance, they would rip him apart and do what they pleased in the mortal realm until they were sent back to Jigoku. It had always amused Hakaimono when a mortal tried to summon him. Especially that moment when they gazed upon him for the first time and fully realized what they had done. Narrowing his eyes, he gazed around, peering through smoke and ignoring the brief feeling of vertigo that always accompanied being dragged from Jigoku into the mortal realm. A growl of murderous annoyance rumbled in his throat. Already, he was not in the best of moods. Akumu had been scheming again, trying to weaken Hakaimono’s forces behind his back, and he had been on his way to deal with the devious Third General when black fire had erupted over his skin, words of blood magic echoing in his head as he abruptly found himself in the mortal realm. Now he stood in the center of a ruin, broken walls and shattered pillars surrounding him, the scent of death thick on the air, and contemplated squeezing the head of the mage responsible until it popped like an egg in his claws. The stones under his feet were sticky and had a sweet, coppery smell he recognized instantly.
Lines of blood had been painted over the ground in a familiar circle, with words and sigils of power woven in a complex pattern. A summoning circle, and a powerful one at that. Whomever the blood mage was, they had done their research. Though it wouldn’t save them in the end. “Hakaimono.” The First Oni looked down. A woman stood at the edge of the blood circle, black robes and long hair seeming to blend into the shadows. She clutched a knife in slender fingers, her pale arm covered in red to the elbow. A chuckle escaped him. “Well, don’t I feel important,” he said, crouching down to better see the woman.
She gazed coolly back. “Summoned by the immortal shadow herself. I am curious, however.” He raised a talon, watching the human over curved black claws the length of her arm. “If you rip off an immortal’s head, do you think it will die?” “You will not kill me, First Oni.” The woman’s voice was neither amused nor afraid, though the certainty in it made him smirk. “I am not so foolish as to attempt a binding, nor will I ask much of you. I have but a single request, and after that, you are free to do what you like.” “Oh?” Hakaimono chuckled, but admittedly, he was curious. Only the very desperate, foolish or powerful called on one of the four oni generals, and only for the most ambitious of requests.
Like destroying a castle, or wiping out an entire generation. The risk was too great for anything less. “Let’s hear it then, human,” he prompted. “What is this one task you would have me undertake?” “I need you to bring me the Dragon scroll.” Hakaimono sighed. Of course. He had forgotten it was that time again in the mortal world. When the great scaly one himself would rise to grant a wish to an insignificant, short-lived human. “You disappoint me, mortal,” he growled. “I am not a hound that fetches upon command.
You could have gotten the amanjaku to retrieve the scroll for you, or one of your own human warrior pets. I have been called on to slaughter armies and tear strongholds to dust. Fetching the Dragon’s Prayer is not worth my time.” “This is different.” The woman’s voice was as unruffled as ever. If she knew she was in danger of being ripped apart and devoured by an annoyed First Oni, she did not show it. “I have already sent my strongest champion to retrieve the scroll, but I fear he has betrayed me. He wants the power of the Dragon scroll for himself, and I cannot let the Wish slip away now. You must find him and take back the scroll.” “One human?” Hakaimono curled a lip.
“Not much of a challenge.” “You do not know Kage Hirotaka,” the woman said quietly. “He is the greatest warrior the Empire of Iwagoto has seen in a thousand years. He is kami-touched, but also trained in the way of the samurai. His talents with both blade and magic are so great, the emperor himself praised his achievements. He has killed men, yokai and demons in waves, and will be perhaps the single greatest opponent you have ever faced, Hakaimono.” “I very seriously doubt that.” The First Oni felt a smirk cross his face as he breathed in the bloodscented air. “But now, I’m intrigued. Let’s see if this champion of shadow is as good as you say.
Where can I find this demonslaying human?” “Hirotaka’s estate lies outside a village called Koyama, ten miles from the eastern border of Kage territory,” the woman replied. “It’s not hard to find, but it is rather isolated. Aside from Hirotaka’s men and servants, you won’t be opposed. Find Hirotaka, kill him and bring the scroll to me. Oh, and one more thing.” She raised the knife, observing the bloody, glittering edge. “I cannot have anyone suspecting me of blood magic. Not now, when the night of the Wish is so close.” Her black eyes rose to his, narrowing sharply. “There can be no witnesses, Hakaimono.
No survivors. Kill everyone there.” “I can do that.” A slow grin spread across the oni’s face, and his eyes gleamed red with bloodlust. “This will be fun.” He would come to regret those words more than any other in his existence. 2 Familiar Shadows TATSUMI The tengu banished us from the mountain. Letting me live was the last straw, it seemed. Their home had been destroyed, their daitengu killed, and the pieces of the Dragon scroll taken by the enemy. A demon on their sacred mountain was something they could not abide, and when Yumeko had refused to have me slain, they informed us in no uncertain terms that we were no longer welcome at the Steel Feather temple.
That the doors would be forever hidden from us, and that, come morning, if they saw the bearer of Kamigoroshi on the mountain again, they would destroy him without hesitation. And so, with barely enough time to bind our wounds, we left the Steel Feather temple and the home of the tengu, fleeing the mountain and the soon to be vengeful guardians of the scroll. Somehow, we made it to the base of the mountains and, exhausted, wounded and still bleeding, found the entrance to a cave, just as a cold rain started falling. The cave was crowded, with five people and a dog crammed inside, but it was empty and dry, and we had no better option. As the ronin started a fire and the shrine maiden began the arduous task of cleaning and rebinding our battle wounds, I retreated to a dark corner, out of the way of everyone, to ponder what had happened. And to answer the question that had been plaguing me since we’d left the temple. Who am I? Was I Kage Tatsumi, or Hakaimono? I didn’t feel like either of them, though I knew I had irrevocably changed. When this body had been possessed by Hakaimono, the oni’s spirit had completely suppressed the human soul, keeping it trapped and unable to do anything. Until Yumeko had arrived, using fox magic of her own to possess the demonslayer and face the oni from within. She had found Tatsumi’s soul, freed it, and together, they had attempted to drive Hakaimono back into the sword.
Though the First Oni had proved to be far stronger than either of them realized. However, before a victor could be determined, Genno had appeared, an army of demons behind him, intent on taking the scroll. He’d betrayed Hakaimono, running him through with Kamigoroshi, and left him to die on the field of battle. To save us both, the souls of Kage Tatsumi and Hakaimono had merged, allowing Hakaimono to use his full power to heal the body and keep it alive. Impossibly, it had worked, and I had been able to kill most of Genno’s army before they could slaughter everyone. But in my weakened state, the temple had been destroyed, and Genno had left with all three pieces of the Dragon scroll in his possession. The Master of Demons had everything he needed to summon the Great Kami Dragon and make the wish that would herald the end of the empire. We had to find Genno and stop him from using the scroll, but it was going to be a long, treacherous journey, and some of us might not survive. Even without the concern that my demon half could emerge at any time and tear my companions apart. “Tatsumi?” I looked up.
Yumeko had broken from the rest of the group and now stood before me with the firelight against her back, casting her in a faint orange glow. She still wore the elegant red-and-white onmyoji robes from the night she had performed for the emperor, though the billowy sleeves were tattered now, her long hair was unkempt, and dirt stained her face and hands. She did not look like a revered diviner of the future. She looked like a peasant girl wearing a costume, except for the tall, black-tipped fox ears poking out of her hair, and the bushy, white-tipped tail behind her. I knew her fox features were invisible to most humans, but ever since the night she had invaded my soul, they were always visible to me. A reminder that Yumeko was kitsune, a yokai. She wasn’t completely human. But then again, neither was I. “May I sit with you, Tatsumi?” she asked in a soft voice, large eyes glowing a subtle gold in the flickering shadows. I nodded, and she carefully picked her way across the stones to sit beside me, that bushy orange tail brushing my leg as she settled against the cave wall.
Odd that the contact didn’t make me shy away like it used to. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “I’m alive,” I told her in an equally quiet voice. “That’s about all I can say for certain.” She stared at me, her gaze searching, questioning, and I felt my lip curl in a faint, bitter smile. “I know what you’re asking, Yumeko. And I can’t answer. I feel…different. Strange. As if…” I tried to find the words to explain the impossible.
“As if there’s a hidden rage inside me, this…savagery that needs only the barest push to come out.” Yumeko blinked, looking thoughtful. “Like when Hakaimono was living in your head?” she asked. “You were always fighting him for control—is this the same?” “No.” I shook my head. “We were always separate, two individual souls fighting each other for control of one body. If…if I am still Tatsumi, I feel as if Hakaimono is part of me now. That his viciousness and bloodlust could come out at any time. And, if I am Hakaimono, I feel that Tatsumi has infected me with his human thoughts, fears and emotions.” I raised a hand before my face; it looked human enough, but I remembered the deadly talons that had curled from my fingertips the night I fought Genno’s army.
“Maybe it’s best if I take my leave,” I muttered. “If I am part demon, none of you will ever be safe.” I shot Yumeko a sideways glance to see if any of this frightened her, but her golden fox eyes seemed only sympathetic. “No,” she said bluntly, making me blink at her. “Don’t go, Tatsumi… Hakaimono…whoever you are. You promised you would help us find the Master of Demons. We need you.” “And what if I’m not Tatsumi?” I asked, turning to face her. “What if I am Hakaimono? How do you know whose soul is stronger, or if Kage Tatsumi even survived the merging of human and demon? Even I don’t know the answer to that.” She continued to gaze at me without fear.
Watching her, I felt a jolt of shock as light fingers came to rest on my arm, sending a ripple of heat coiling through my insides. Yumeko smiled faintly, though there was a sadness in her eyes as she gazed at me, a glimmer of longing that I didn’t understand, but that caused my heart to give a strange little stutter. “I trust you,” Yumeko said very quietly. “Even if you’re not the same, I saw your soul that night. I know you won’t betray us.” “Yumeko,” called a voice before I could suppress my churning emotions long enough to speak. Near the fire, the shrine maiden was watching us with a grave look on her face, her small orange dog giving me a stony glare from its place at her feet. The miko’s dark eyes glittered with mistrust as they shifted to me. “Kage-san. If you would join us—we’re off the mountain and no longer in danger of the tengu’s retribution.
We need to decide where to go from here.” “Hai, Reika-san.” Yumeko rose and padded to the fire, fox tail swishing under the hem of her robes. I stood slowly and followed, noting the dark looks and suspicious glares from the rest of the party. The shrine maiden and her dog watched me with barely restrained hostility and mistrust, as if I could turn into a demon at any moment and leap at them with fangs bared. Taiyo Daisuke of the Sun Clan sat cross-legged by the fire, hands tucked into his sleeves, his expression carefully hidden behind a veneer of decorum. Beside him, the ronin slouched against his pack, looking as unkempt and disheveled as ever, reddish-brown hair coming loose of its ponytail. They were, I noticed, sitting very close for two men of vastly different statuses. I had known samurai who would not deign to be in the same room as a ronin, much less share a fire with them. Glancing up, the ronin gave me a rueful smirk and a nod as I crouched beside the flames, and his dark gaze flickered up to something on my brow.
“You have a little…something on your face there, Kage-san,” he said, motioning a finger at his own forehead. I set my jaw, ignoring the obvious reference to the small but blatant horns curling above my eyebrows. Everything else—the claws, the fangs, the glowing eyes—had disappeared, at least temporarily, but the horns remained. A permanent reminder that I was a demon now. If any normal human saw me like this, I would likely be killed on sight. “Baka.” The shrine maiden stalked up behind the ronin and gave a quick swat to the back of his head. The ronin winced. “This is not the time for jokes. Genno has all three pieces of the Scroll of a Thousand Prayers and is a breath away from summoning the Dragon.
We have to stop him, and to do that, we need a plan. Kage…san…” She glanced at me, stumbling over my name. “You said you know where the Master of Demons is headed?” I nodded. “Tsuki territory,” I said. “The islands of the Moon Clan is where the Dragon was first summoned four thousand years ago. The cliffs of Ryugake, on the northern island of Ushima, is where the ritual will take place.” “When?” Taiyo-san asked. “How much time do we have until the night of the Wish?” “Less than you think,” I answered grimly. A quote came to me, though I didn’t know from where. Hakaimono’s memory was long; he had seen the rise and fall of many eras.
“On the night of the thousandth year,” I murmured, “before the dragon stars fade from the skies and concede the heavens to the red bird of autumn, the Harbinger of Change can be called upon by one whose heart is pure.” I paused a moment, then snorted. “As in the case of most legends, not all of it is true. Kage Hirotaka and Lady Hanshou were not entirely ‘pure of heart’ when it came to summoning the Dragon. That was probably added in the hopes of keeping greedy or evil humans from seeking out the scrolls.” Beside me, Yumeko frowned. “What does it mean by ‘dragon stars’ and ‘red bird of autumn’?” “They are constellations, Yumeko-san,” the noble said, turning to the girl. “Each season has one of the four great holy beasts tied to it. The Kirin represents spring and new life. The Dragon represents summer, for it brings the heavy rains that are essential to the crops.
The red bird of autumn is the Phoenix, ready to die and be reborn anew in the spring. And the White Tiger represents winter, patient and deadly as a land covered in snow.” “So, if what Kage-san says is true,” broke in the shrine maiden, sounding impatient, “and the Night of the Summoning will be held on the last day of summer…” She jerked up, eyes widening. “That is the end of the month!” “Less time than we thought indeed,” mused the noble, his eyes shadowed. “And Genno already has a head start on us.” “How are we going to get to the Moon Clan islands?” Yumeko wondered. “Well, hopefully we’re not going to swim,” the ronin said. “Unless either of you can call up a giant turtle from the sea, I’m guessing we’re going to need some kind of boat.” “There are ships in Umi Sabishi Mura that make the journey to Tsuki lands,” the Taiyo informed us. “It is a modest village along the coast, but it has quite the impressive harbor.
Most of the trade from the Moon Clan islands comes through Umi Sabishi. The problem will not be finding a captain willing to take passengers on to Tsuki lands, but what we will do once we get there.” Yumeko cocked her head. “Why is that, Daisuke-san?” “Because the Moon Clan is very reclusive, Yumeko-san,” the noble replied, “and they dislike outsiders coming to their shores. Visitors need special permission from the daimyo to move freely through Tsuki territory, and we have neither the time nor the means to acquire the necessary travel papers. The Moon Clan is very protective of their land and people, and trespassers are dealt with harshly and without remorse.” He raised one lean shoulder. “Or so all the captains will tell you.” “We’ll have to worry about that when we get there,” the shrine maiden said. “Stopping Genno from summoning the Dragon is our first and only concern, even if we must defy the clan leaders and daimyos to do it.
” The noble looked slightly horrified at the thought of defying the daimyo, but said nothing. Beside him, the ronin sighed and shifted to another position. “It’ll take us a couple days to reach the coast,” he muttered. “And we have no horses, carts, kago or anything that will make the journey faster. I suppose tomorrow we start walking, and hope we don’t run into any demons, blood mages or Kage shinobi still after the Dragon scroll. One assassination attempt was enough, thanks.” I stirred, glancing at Yumeko. “The Kage came after you?” She looked faintly embarrassed. “Ano… Lady Hanshou asked us to find you,” she answered, making my stomach turn. “She sent Naganori-san to find us, and we walked the Path of Shadows to meet with Hanshou-sama in Kage lands.
She wanted us to save you from Hakaimono, to drive him back into the sword so you could be the demonslayer again.” One of her ears twitched as I raised a brow at her. “I guess this isn’t what she was hoping for.” I felt a bitter smile cross my face. Hanshou’s relationship with the demonslayers had always been a point of contention in the Kage. It had been Hanshou’s decision to train young warriors to use Kamigoroshi rather than have the Cursed Sword sealed away in the family vault where it would tempt no one. The official reason was that this allowed the Kage to manage and control Hakaimono rather than risking the sword falling into the wrong hands. But everyone suspected—though no one would dare suggest—that Hanshou kept the demonslayers around because of the fear they inspired. The Kage demonslayer was trained to be efficient, emotionless and fanatically obedient. A perfect assassin who also shared his soul with a demon.
There were whispers in the Shadow Clan that Hanshou kept her position mainly because no one dared challenge her and the pet oni she could unleash at any time. But even this was only partially true. The real story between Kage Hanshou and Hakaimono went far deeper and was more sinister than anyone could imagine. “No,” I told Yumeko. “This isn’t exactly what Hanshou was hoping to achieve. And now that you’ve failed to contain Hakaimono and find the scroll for her, she’ll likely send someone to kill you all.” “Forgive me, Kage-san, but I fear I must ask.” The Taiyo noble turned a solemn gaze on me. “Technically, you are still part of the Kage. Did not your daimyo send you to retrieve the scroll for her? What will you do if that order still stands, or if she commands you to leave no witnesses behind? Will you kill us all to retrieve the Dragon scroll?” I felt Yumeko stiffen beside me.
“I…ceased to be part of the Shadow Clan the moment Hakaimono took control,” I told them. It was a sobering realization; I had been part of the Kage my whole life. Since the beginning of the empire, the expectation had been to serve clan and family unflinchingly, without question, for as long as you lived. I’d owed the Kage my loyalty, my obedience, my very existence. If they had given the order to face a thousand charging demons alone, I would have obeyed —and died—without hesitation, as would all loyal samurai. But now I was an orphan. I had no clan, no family and no lord. Like the ronin wandering the empire, dishonored and lost, except I was something even worse.