Dreams of Darkness
By Shawn Carman
Month of the Hare, Year 1198
Writhing in the darkness. Dark tentacles reaching up from the depths, winding through the air, blacking out the sun. Reaching out, hungry. Hungry for her. Reaching, grasping, choking her, squeezing the life from her body, dragging her into the darkness, down where no one could ever find her…
The Mara awoke with a start. Even after what the humans would consider quite a long time, several decades perhaps, she was unaccustomed to dozing. It was not something her people experienced, this regular bit of slumber, but since the Naga had returned to the exception, the Great Sleep, she had felt weariness come over her at regular intervals. It was something the human shugenja had tried to help her understand. As best as they could determine, it was simply the distant effect of the Great Sleep, wearying her and forcing her to rest in a manner that her people had never truly known. It was not something that she minded, really, for it gave her more in common with her beloved Daini.
Daini. Even after years, his loss still pained her deeply. Among the Naga, love was different. When you could sense your partner’s thoughts and emotions, it was a simple thing to know them. With Daini, she had not been privy to his innermost thoughts because of the Akasha, but because she knew him, truly knew him. It had given their love a fire she had never known in her centuries of life. And now it was gone, but he lingered on in her heart, in her mind, in her dreams.
Dreams. The dreams had always been strange and confusing, but of late they had taken on a sinister air. Something about them deeply disturbed her, but she could not comprehend what it meant. It seemed likely that they meant nothing, for what could they mean, really? Not for the first time, Mara wondered if she simply lacked proper human perspective to understand what a dream meant. Perhaps if she were to contact Mareshi…
But no, that was not his name any longer. He had inherited many of her gifts, her vitality and perception among them, but the virtual immortality of the Naga had not been among them. He was a monk now, studying the wisdom of his people. It was not the fate she had imagined for her son, but it was one in which she took pride.
Still, the dreams plagued her. In all likelihood, they were meaningless. But they persisted, and haunted her waking moments as well as those she spent sleeping. There was more to them than dreams, but less than reality. Was it a premonition? She could not be sure. To ease her mind, however, she knew that she must take some action. There must be something that could be done to put such phantoms to rest. Perhaps… yes. Yes, that would be a sufficient measure, she thought. It would require some effort on her part, and more importantly the part of her allies, for she could not go where it would be required, but she believed that it could be done.
The Mara willed her form to change to that of the two-legged shape with which she had spent so much of her life with Daini. She strode to her office. There were many letters to be written, and something within her assured her that there was very little time in which to do so.
* * * * *
Shinjo Itao hacked away a bit of vegetation from the doorway to the temple and then regarded the crude blade in his hand with naked contempt. “The Mantis use these things as a matter of course?” he said, brandishing the parangu before his kinsman. “They are pitiful. I cannot see how the Yoritomo stomach their frequent use.”
Shinjo Kinto chuckled. “You assume that the Mantis have any notion of taste, cousin.” He wiped the sweat from his brow and gestured to the temple while consulting the scroll he held before him. “I believe this is the building we are looking for. The item in question is on the second floor.”
Itao nodded and gestured to the pair of wave men that had accompanied them. “You heard him,” he said sternly. “You know the procedure. Nothing else is to be removed. Nothing at all. Is that clear?”
“Of course, my lord,” the older of the two ronin said. “We will of course permit you to search our possessions upon our exit, if you feel it is necessary.”
“I think that would be an excellent…”
“That will not be necessary, Chuo,” Kinto interrupted. “You have performed the same duty half a dozen times so far and have not disappointed. In all the years I have known you, you have never been less than your word.” He nodded to the other ronin. “Your nephew will submit to a search, however, until such time as he earns the same trust you have.”
Chuo bowed very deeply. “I am greatly honored, my lord, and of course my nephew will participate. He will not disappoint you.”
Kinto smiled and gestured for the temple. The two ronin entered at once, moving cautiously but quickly. “What was that about?” Itao said. “You cannot trust a wave man.”
“Do not embrace stereotypes, cousin,” Kinto cautioned. “Would you believe everyone who insists that the Unicorn are barbarians despite the centuries we have dwelled within the Empire and the countless lives we have expended in defense of its customs?”
Itao frowned. “Well… if they called you a barbarian I suppose I would not object overmuch.”
Kinto smirked and swatted the older man with the scroll in his hand, but his expression quickly returned to a more severe state. “I have been in this city many times,” he remarked, “but today it feels… different.”
Itao glanced around. “This is my first time, but it feels familiar somehow. Not the place specifically, but the mood. The feel of the place.” He hesitated. “I do not like it very much, I think.” He thought for a moment. “Do you remember when we were children and we explored that cave?”
“The one where we found the sleeping bear,” Kinto nodded.
“That sense of death in the air. The idea that one misstep could bring about complete disaster.” Itao gripped the hilt of his weapon unconsciously. “It feels like that now. Like there is something just beyond the perception. Something waiting.”
“Well if this place gives you night terrors, clearly we should hurry,” Kinto said smartly. “How many of the items have we retrieved thus far?”
Now it was Itao’s turn to withdraw and inspect a scroll. “This would be the seventh. Two more are listed, and then we will be finished here.”
“What is the purpose of this excursion, do you suppose?” Kinto mused.
“All I know is that the orders we received were of high enough rank to make the commander sit up and pay very, very close attention. And it bears the mark of the Naga Embassy in Toshi Ranbo, which I do not have to tell you is considered a branch of the Imperial families, for all intents and purposes.”
“I suppose we should hurry then!” Kinto said. “Chuo! Are you in there?”
The two ronin emerged from the temple, one of them carrying a cloth bundle that was tightly wrapped. “The item is secured, my lord,” Chuo answered. The normally stoic wave man glanced over his shoulder with a look of uncharacteristic anxiety. “How much longer will we be required within the city, my lord?”
“Not long,” Kinto said. “Too long for our tastes, I’ll wager, but not long.”
* * * * *
Karui moved through the forest effortlessly despite the cloak of night that obscured virtually every detail. The few shafts of moonlight that penetrated the thick canopy provided him with all the signs he needed to navigate. It was a familiar landscape, one he had explored a great many times over his young life. His uncle Chuo knew that Karui had been abducted from a village during his teenage years and forced into service with a bandit gang that had used parts of the Shinomen as their headquarters before being wiped out by the forces of the Emerald Champion. Karui had escaped and survived, with no one but his uncle knowing his terrible secret. Of course, his uncle had no idea that the entire story was a fabrication. Karui had not been abducted, but joined willingly, and delighted in the violence and wealth he had enjoyed in that life.
Now perhaps he would enjoy it again. When he and his spineless uncle had entered the Naga temples, he had seen wealth beyond his wildest imaginings. The ridiculous serpent-men had apparently possessed no notion of how to use wealth. He had seen gold, pearl, and jewels in truly outrageous amounts, used for the most inane bits of decoration and adornment. He could carry enough from one building to ensure he did not have to work for any of the self-righteous Great Clans ever again. Of course, he had no intention of making merely one trip. He would become a warlord of the greatest order, and the Empire would quake in fear at his name. The Emerald Champion himself would suffer for ruining the greatest time of Karui’s life. He would see to that himself.
His mouth practically moist with anticipation over the delicacies he would afford himself, Karui moved closer to the city through the mossy darkness. He could see the outlines of the buildings in the distance. They were ominous in the darkness, but he was not afraid. Men who were afraid were too weak to forge their own destiny. Karui was not one of those men. He would show everyone exactly what kind of man he was.
Something else moved in the darkness. Karui froze in place, absolutely motionless. His weapon had been in his hand a long time now, but he was keenly aware of the texture of the grip against his palm. He knew the dangers that lurked in the forest. Many were familiar terrors, bears, boars, and the like. Many more were things that mankind had never given name to, creatures from the depths of the forest that emanated from different worlds. Karui was comfortable with his ability to defeat or evade them. He was master of this domain.
Something moved again in the darkness, bringing the sinuous sound of flesh against the moss. It sounded enormous, and Karui’s confidence evaporated almost instantly. He licked his lips and thought of the riches that were so close at hand, so near to being his. Then he heard the sinister sound of a hissing predator, and he felt his innards twisting in primal terror that was like something an animal might feel.
Something surged in the darkness, moving forward with such speed that Karui had only the vaguest inkling of movement, and then there was pain. Terrible, earth-shattering pain as his flesh tore away. It was only a moment, and then he was simply cold. He heard a sound, something he didn’t recognize, but it was similar to liquid dropping onto the earthen forest floor. He thought that odd, as it had not rained in several days, but anything was possible in this strange forest.
Karui fell to the blood-soaked ground, and thought no more.
* * * * *
In the dream, he moved across the land like a shadow, like a storm, like a force of nature that could not be denied. None could see him unless he wished it, and those he wished to see him were prey. Prey was washed from the face of the world with a fast, violent flash of his talons. He had no need of a sword. Nothing could stand before him. He was unstoppable, invincible. He bared his fangs before the Bright Eye and released the primal howl of a predator. Humans were weak, insignificant, unworthy foes. He was the hunter. He was the warrior. He was Naga.
The Balash stirred from his slumber and opened his eyes for a moment. The veil of the Great Sleep was heavy upon him, but he was aware for a moment. It could not have been long since he reentered the slumber, perhaps no more than a century. His muscles ached as if from vigorous use, which was peculiar, but then the sleep affected his people in strange and unpredictable ways. He imagined that he still felt the tang of blood on his fangs, that he still smelled it in the air. These dreams were powerful things, and ones that should not be allowed to influence his conscience mind. He had discovered the worth of humans long ago, after all, and it would not do to become the angry soul he had been once before. Still, there was no harm in the dreams themselves, was there? It was simply a lingering memory, a momentary diversion. Harmless, in the grand scheme of things.
The sleep overtook him once more. The Balash shifted his position to a more comfortable one and settled in among his coils for many centuries more sleep. As his mind drifted back into the depths of the Akasha, he reflexively reached out for the comfort of his familiar blade, but it was not there. Strange. When he awoke, he would find it. It was nearby, he was sure of it. Where else would it be?
The Balash slept.