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I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Wizard and Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they can do no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. History shows the greatest names are coupled with the greatest crimes.

—Lord John Dalberg-Acton,

The Rambler, 1885

Xinjiang, China


The Pathfinder was close.

Okubo could sense its unnatural presence lingering in the air. The gates of the fort lay broken open before him. Several of his scouts had gone inside to investigate, but he already knew what they would report. There would be no sign of survivors. The visible gatehouse told him a too-familiar story, no bodies, only drying puddles of blood, unidentifiable scraps of meat, and stained fabric whipping in the desert wind.

The horse beneath him shifted, protesting, not wanting to get any closer to the dangerous scent. Animals seemed to be able to sense the Enemy long before men could, but that difference no longer mattered. Even those without the slightest inkling or familiarity with magic could feel the wrongness in this place. The entire desert stunk of corruption.

It would not be long now. Their pursuit would end shortly, with what Okubo could only hope would be a battle worthy of legend.

The man astride the horse next to him spoke politely. “You seem particularly intense this afternoon, my lord.”

“Looking inside my mind again, Hattori?”

“Of course not.” Hattori answered. “Attempting to listen to your thoughts would be insulting.”

“Indeed . . .” Okubo nodded in agreement, not that he was worried about a mind reader stealing his secrets. He had already demonstrated on more than one occasion that attempting such a thing had terrible consequences. In fact, an attempt had been made by a Qing spy only a few days before. The man had been subtle in the ways of magic, but when Okubo had sensed the intrusion, he had surged his own Power and ruptured vessels in the spy’s brain so forcefully that blood had squirted from the man’s ears. “Insulting, and sometimes fatal.”

“Of course. That too.” Hattori chuckled. “I do not need magic to know what is on your mind when your concerns are so plain to see upon your brow.”

“I will have to work on that,” Okubo stated. A warrior had to control his public face at all times. To display anything other than complete control was a weakness, and weakness was the one thing that Okubo could not accept. “Yes, Hattori, only a fool would not be concerned. Soon we will find this invader, and the outcome of our struggle will determine the fate of the entire world. I do not fear death, but I will not tolerate failure.”

Passing his horse’s reins to his subordinate, Okubo slid from the saddle with practiced grace. He knelt next to one of the huge red stains in the sand. Having fought in countless battles, Okubo was exceedingly familiar with blood and could usually estimate how long ago it had been spilled. “We are only a few hours behind it.”

“I believe you are correct.” Due to his criminal background, Hattori was also no stranger to blood, most of it shed in the darkened back alleys of Edo by flashing knives. Hattori had once been an honorless collector of debts and inflictor of violence, but Okubo had still recruited the young man into the Brotherhood of Dark Ocean. Okubo did not care what station his warriors had been born into, only that they were useful, and Hattori was extremely useful. “The gap has closed. We are gaining on it.”

Okubo heard his warriors returning from the fort. They were silent as ghosts, but Okubo had no difficulty hearing ghosts either. He did not bother to look up. “So it is like the others?”

“No bodies,” the lead scout, Shiroyuki, reported. “Just like every village along its trail. The entire garrison is missing, at least a hundred soldiers. The armory has been stripped of rifles and ammunition.”

Hattori spoke. “Judging from the tracks leaving the other villages, the creature has recruited a force of at least a thousand men.”

Okubo nodded. Hattori was forgetting the women and children. The Pathfinder did not care. It could manipulate all flesh.

“Pathetic,” said the other scout, Saito. Like Okubo, he was a former member of the samurai caste. Saito had once been an officer of the shogunate. There were new fabric patches sewn onto his clothing, hiding where his clan insignia had once been worn proudly. Some of Dark Ocean’s members had sacrificed much in order to follow Okubo’s grand vision. “Conscripting villagers over a few days does not make an army. I’m not worried about peasants.”

“They will not be peasants anymore.” Okubo shook his head. No matter how brave his men were, they could not understand the horrors Okubo had witnessed the last time such a creature had walked the earth. “It will shape their flesh and control their minds. They are nothing but tools for the beast now. We may not even recognize them as men.”

“Lord Okubo is correct,” said Shiroyuki. “The footprints are odd. The bare feet especially, as if they are changing as they walk. The first gathered, they are more like animal tracks—”

Okubo held up one hand to silence the warrior. “Do not speak of this to the others.”

“But the men of Dark Ocean fear nothing!” Saito shouted.

“Of course. I picked them because they are the strongest there is, and I made them stronger. There is no need to trouble their thoughts before this fight. Man or not, the Enemy’s slaves can still die. That is all that matters.” Okubo adjusted his armor and climbed back into the saddle. “If we ride hard we can intercept the creature before it reaches Yining.”

Saito looked to the sky. There was not much daylight remaining. “Is it wise to fight it in the dark?”

Okubo scowled. “It is not wise for men to fight an alien god at any time, but that does not change our duty.”

Saito, clearly realizing that he had just committed a terrible breach of etiquette by daring to question his superior’s decision, bowed deeply.

Okubo could respect his subordinate’s caution, but the more lives the Pathfinder consumed, the stronger it would become, especially if it found anyone else with magic it could turn against them. The only reason he’d been able to defeat the last creature was because it had arrived in such an unpopulated area. Giving it access to more time, more lives, and potentially more forms of Power, could prove disastrous. The others could not comprehend the madness that awaited them if the creature grew strong enough to send a message back to its creator.

“We must catch the Pathfinder before it reaches that city. It must be stopped at all costs. If we die in the process, then so be it, but let them speak of our deaths with reverence for generations to come.”

Okubo had faced this sort of creature once before, back during the decades he had taken to calling his wandering time.

He had been the first that the Power had chosen as a vessel in this world, and his sudden, uncontrollable abilities had been a cause of political embarrassment. He had been cast out of his family, his name—Tokugawa—stripped away. Once free of his homeland, he had taken upon himself the name Okubo, in honor of a friend who had argued, despite considerable personal risk, against his banishment. As a masterless swordsman he had traveled the world, first across Asia, and then Europe and Africa, and finally even the distant Americas, selling his skills to whichever petty warlord made the most interesting offer. The wandering time had helped him explore his strange new magic and introduced him to others that shared his burdens. As the years had passed, the Power had chosen more vessels, and he had found more and more people like himself, none as strong, a few close, but all useful to learn from.

It was during one of the many minor wars he’d participated in that he’d first come across one of the creatures. It was as foreign to this world as the Power itself. His magic had given him an instinctive fear of the new arrival. The Power actually feared the creature. It was a predator, and anyone with magic was its prey.

Yet, even as impressive and dangerous as it was by itself, the creature was merely a scout for a much greater being. If not eliminated quickly, it would alert its master to the presence of magic here on this world. Okubo began to think of the creature as a pathfinder of sorts, blazing a trail for its master. If the master followed, everyone with magic would be destroyed in the ensuing feeding frenzy, and the Power would flee this world as it had fled other worlds before. The Enemy would leave the Earth as nothing more than a lifeless husk.

The presence of such a profound threat had given Okubo the Wanderer a purpose, and he had become Okubo the Hunter. He had been alone and unprepared when he’d caught the first Pathfinder in the remains of a desolate village in the heart of Africa. The encounter had nearly cost him his life, but he had come away more experienced and with the sure knowledge that more of the creatures would come in the future.

That first confrontation had proven that he was the strongest warrior in history, but there was strength in numbers. So he had set out to build himself an army. Okubo was a charismatic leader, and a warrior and wizard without peer. Some followed because they understood the importance of their duty, others for glory, or power, or money. The ultimate reasons did not matter. He now had a small army of four hundred and fifty men at his back, each one picked for their magic, skills, and courage. Recruited in his travels, most were his countrymen, but he did not turn away barbarians as well. He had Chinese followers, a handful of Westerners, and even a young Russian holy man. As long as they were useful, they could serve. All of them were fanatically devoted to his cause. Okubo had named these warriors the Genyosha, his Brotherhood of the Dark Ocean.

They had followed the trail of the new Pathfinder for weeks, across deep forests, treacherous mountains, and scorching sands. Since most of the men of Dark Ocean were Nipponese, the Chinese military had taken them for some mercenary invasion force and attempted to stop them. Each time the fools had paid with their lives, but every skirmish had slowed them down and given the Pathfinder that much more time to gather its strength, which meant that it, too, would be stronger than last time.

If life had taught him anything, it was that the strongest would always prevail.

The army of the Enemy stretched before him like a gangrenous rot across the desert. Flesh mutilated, twisted, and regrown, the leering abominations barely retained any semblance of humanity. These creations were an insult to the senses. Their existence offended Okubo to the core of his soul. He could feel his magic within, recoiling in fear at the hungry presence of the Pathfinder.

Three words made up the totality of Okubo’s battle orders to the warriors of Dark Ocean. Kill them all.

And then he charged.

The first wave of Enemy troops fell before him in an instant, their flesh charring, their muscles twitching with uncontrollable spasms as crackling lightning leapt through their ranks. Okubo followed, a katana in each hand, turning and slicing any creature foolish enough to get in his way. Most human beings blessed with magic had access to but one small area of the Power, but Okubo alone could instinctively choose from many, and as one type of magic was exhausted, he would pick another. The second wave of soldiers burst into flames, the third froze solid and were shattered by his blows.

The men of Dark Ocean followed, but they were mere mortals. They could not keep up, but as Okubo cut a path of blood through the army, the Dark Ocean mopped up the chaos left in his wake.

The fourth wave was channeling their stolen magic, trying to shield themselves from his fury. These poor slaves had been Actives once. So Okubo quickly picked a different point from the tangled geometric mass of the Power, bent space, and stepped through to appear behind them. Another shift, and now he had the strength of ten men, and his swords cleaved through limbs as if they were grass.

The fifth wave had firearms. Time seemed to slow as ball and shot streaked through the falling bodies around him. The Power answered his plea, hardening his flesh to the consistency of rock as the projectiles ricocheted away to tear through more of the twisted peasants. Moving faster than the gunners could aim, he attacked. Okubo broke one of his swords cleaving through a pelvis, so he picked up the dropped musket, shot another corrupted solider, then used the musket as a club to bludgeon four others to death.

Sixth wave. This Pathfinder was a manipulator of living flesh, and did not limit itself to humans alone. The mighty beasts before him may have been oxen or horses at one point in time, only now they loomed over him like the oni from stories used to frighten children, but they burned like anything else.

He stepped through the fire. Seventh wave. Okubo turned his body to mist and stepped through a shield wall. A wave of telekinetic force rolled outward, flinging the troops away. His other sword had been left lodged in the skull of an ox-man-beast, and his musket club had been reduced to splinters, so he took up a spear and returned to his work.

Move. Slash. Lunge. Stab. Block. Repeat. The Power was a living thing. It needed time to rest and regain its strength just as any living thing would during such exertion. So Okubo took a moment to simply rely upon his own natural skill. The spear moved in a blur, piercing hearts and slashing throats. He stepped between the blades, relying on years of training against the clumsy yet incredibly strong attacks of the Enemy’s forces. Move. Slash. Lunge. Stab. Block. Repeat.

Yet no warrior, no matter how well trained, could survive for long in such a storm of steel and lead. They were closing. The enemy strokes were drawing nearer. His arms were tiring. The Power refreshed, Okubo reached deep inside and caused the very energy in the air to collect and then explode.

There were no waves now, only a red circle in the middle of the Pathfinder’s army. The world was carnage. The desert was wet with slaughter. Okubo was its king.

“Face me, coward!” Okubo roared.

The Pathfinder itself appeared.

The warrior Okubo prepared for the greatest fight of his life.

Okubo knelt on the rocks, facing the rising sun, deep in thought. Over half of his Dark Ocean had died gloriously in the battle, their bodies strewn across the desert, intermingled with the corpses of the Pathfinder’s army. Okubo’s armor was broken and hanging loose on his body, his clothing was tattered, and all of it was coated in sticky blood, though not a single drop of it was his. His body had suffered wounds sufficient to kill a mortal man fifty times over, but the Power had saved him, hardening his tissues against blows and immediately healing any internal damage.

The Power had kept him alive for a reason . . . It required a champion.

He recognized Hattori by the sound of the young man’s footsteps upon the rocks. “You may approach.” Okubo did not open his eyes, but he could feel the new sun on his red-stained face. Okubo was already scanning the skilled mind reader’s thoughts, a feat that he had not been capable of even a few hours before. “No, Hattori. I do not need food or drink, nor do I need rest.” In fact, Okubo was fairly certain that he would never need any of those things again. He was the greatest protector the Power had ever had. He understood now that as a reward for this victory, the Power had rendered him functionally immortal.

“Very well, my Lord.” Hattori joined him on the rock overlooking the battlefield. Okubo could sense Hattori’s well-earned pride. “After all that . . . We did it. We won.”


“But . . . We slaughtered their army. The Pathfinder died by your own hand!” Hattori’s questioning tone could be taken as disrespectful, but Okubo understood and forgave his subordinate. No warrior wished to be stripped of their glory after such a battle.

“There will be another, and should we win, surely more after that. I think I know our Enemy better now. This creature was far stronger than the last, and as the greater Enemy’s hunger grows, so will the desperation of the Pathfinders it sends forth.”

“I do not understand, my Lord.”

Of course he didn’t. How could he? He was not in direct contact with the Power like Okubo. He knew now that it would continue to escalate, each new Pathfinder being greater than the last, as the Enemy grew hungrier, until either it found the Power, or it starved. Things had become clear. Because of this victory, the Power would grant Okubo even greater access to its magic, allowing him to become far stronger. Even this very minute he could feel new areas, new spells, new geometries opening up to his mind. The Power now knew that Okubo was its best chance for survival, and it wound entrust him with all of its secrets. There would be no limits set upon him any longer. The Power would allow him to take whatever he wanted, whatever he needed, to ensure their mutual survival.

Such magical ability would be vital. Dark Ocean would need to succeed every time. A Pathfinder would only need to be successful once.

No. Okubo needed something greater than a small brotherhood of warriors for the next time. He would need a mighty army. No. He would need an empire . . .

Nippon was rotting from the inside, hollowed by weakness, led by the corrupt. There was no one there strong enough to oppose his will. With Dark Ocean by his side and fueled by the Power’s favor, he could conquer and build the army he needed to ensure Man’s survival. But why stop there? Why conquer only Nippon? Why not the entire world?

Nippon would be first, but only a united world would be sufficient to defeat the Enemy once and for all. “It is time to reclaim my name.”

“I do not understand,” Hattori said again, sounding exhausted.

“I am the only one who can truly understand.” Okubo opened his eyes and looked to the east, toward his homeland. “But that is all that matters.”

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