|Blood & Shadow Part I|
|Written By:||Brian Yoon|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan & Shawn Carman|
|Released:||September 18th, 2009|
The Hida provinces, several miles north of Kyuden Hida
Even here, miles from the fighting, the chaos of battle was infectious. Yoritomo Saburo rubbed his bloodshot eyes and wondered privately if the chaos might not have addled his mind, to have put such a plan together in the first place. But no, he had executed it well before he arrived, and now it was far too late to turn back. He could but go forward. He was also keenly aware of the multiple pairs of eyes boring into him even as he collected his thoughts. "Thank you for coming. Time is of the essence," Saburo said. He bowed sincerely to the old comrades gathered in front of him. They were only six in total and they had rarely met since the last time fate had called them together. Yet Saburo's urgent letter had brought them together once more without question and without hesitation. Now that they were here, however, he could find no reason not to be as forthright and direct with them as possible; there was simply no time for anything else. "We must go past the Wall and venture out into the Shadowlands to save the Empire," Saburo continued, determination put steel in his voice.
The group reacted with shocked silence, broken moments later by Kakita Hideo's incredulous laughter. Everyone erupted with a cascade of words, all overlapping each other in their haste to vent at the Mantis officer.
"Past the Shadowlands in the middle of a full-scale invasion-"
"We wouldn't get three steps in before-"
"We'd be abandoning our-"
"Have you gone mad, Saburo-san?" Utaku Kohana asked, her voice sharply cutting through the others. Saburo turned to face her. Before Saburo could respond, Hiruma Aki slammed his hand against the wall, cutting all conversation short.
"Has she received another prophecy?" Aki asked. His voice was calm, his eyes cold and piercing, and his overall demeanor was that of a man on the brink of violence. The others slowly edged away from the Crab, wary of an episode in the small room.
Saburo nodded and moved closer to the berserker, unafraid of the consequences. "Yes," he answered. "She lies senseless to the world because of the impact of her visions. In all my time by her side, I have never seen her so affected by a prophecy. Not since she saw the shadows in the forest. It is real and it is here."
"But what you ask cannot be done," Bayushi Eisaku said. He slowly rubbed the forehead of his demon mask with his fingers, as if the mere thought of accomplishing such a task brought him a headache. "The Wall is under assault. The fighting spills over into the lands behind it. Half the buildings are burned or aflame. Even if we could get through their line, we would most likely be destroyed by the endless monsters that seem to be crowding northward."
"I do not know how we'll get past them," Saburo admitted, "but it does not matter. We must find a way and finish the task the prophet has given us."
"Forgive me if I am stuck on the detail, Yoritomo-san," Eisaku said slowly. "It seems rather important that we resolve it before we move any further. We cannot serve the Empire if we die before we can uncover the secret."
"Did she tell you what we must find in the Shadowlands?" Kitsuki Taiko asked.
Saburo frowned. "The horned god,' the fanged demon,' the forgotten daughter,' and the Destroyers.' She says that they will destroy the Empire if we do not see what lies beyond the Shadowlands and inform the Empress."
"I have heard these creatures referred to as the Destroyers. Perhaps these demons assaulting the Wall are exactly what she saw," Taiko suggested. "Maybe we have come too late to change things."
"Or perhaps it is the beginning of an even greater threat," Aki responded through gritted teeth.
"Maybe so," Saburo said. "We will not know unless we venture out into the darkness."
"The Shadowlands... you want us to travel into that twisted realm without knowing what we must find," Utaku Kohana murmured. "You ask us to go on a fool's errand, Saburo-san. An implacable foe assails the Crab and you ask us to seek further conflict in the Shadowlands?"
"The end is coming, my friends," Saburo responded. "Narako-sama has seen Rokugan's eve on the horizon. By her words we are the ones who must respond. Can you stand idly by and watch the Empire burn?"
For all their lamentation, they could not.
Akodo Shunori decided he was never going to fight the Shadowlands again. He was going home tomorrow and it would be the end of this horrific affair. He would rest, recuperate from his experiences, and hopefully grow as a person. He would do the growing in the safety of his own home, far away from this cursed land.
Fighting the Shadowlands was nothing like anything he had expected. He had spent countless hours in the library, reading scrolls by flickering candlelight. He had analyzed nearly every battle conducted by a Lion general and he had been engulfed by the savage poetry of war. His eyes had been aglow at the brilliant tactics used by both sides and the acts of valiant heroism that had turned the tides of so many battles under impossible odds.
And it wasn't just his theoretical knowledge. He had spent many hours on the field as a soldier of the Lion armies. He had faced bandits and samurai and creatures wreathed in dark fire. It was bloody and painful and rewarding. They used tactics and rules of engagement, as much as they would twist it to fit their own purposes.
But fighting monsters was dirty and sick. Demons did not seem to care that he knew three different ways to counter a cavalry charge. They did not care that Shunori had spent seven months with his unit and had finally gained their respect as the youngest nikutai in the army. They did not care that he loved all of his men and wanted to see each one survive each battle. They spit acid, struck five times in the length of an inhaled breath and they had killed every man in his unit in the blink of an eye. Only providence and quick reflexes had preserved his own life.
He could see it now in his mind's eye. His men stood behind a unit of hardened Crab veterans as they waited for the next charge. The Destroyers approached with flashing blades, gleaming talons, and roaring throats. The Crab roared in response and the two clashed. Shunori's men were to act as support and Shunori kept them in reserve. He was watching for any signs of faltering defenses from the stalwart Crab. When a giant oni of red and ivory charged the group, Shunori believed he saw his chance. The Lion charged into the fray and pushed the Destroyers back. Shunori noticed the oni's nearly invisible tail hanging over the group too late. His warning did not save the men from the gas that seemed to ooze out of the tail. The men and the Destroyers both rotted into corpses in an instant.
Shunori remembered jumping toward the oni to dodge the deadly gas and he remembered thrusting his katana deep into the creature's eye. When he next regained consciousness, healers stood over him and puzzled over the changes that had rippled through his body. Only the tiniest amount of the smoke had touched him but it appeared to have aged him two decades. He felt no physical changes and felt as fit as any teenager.
The shugenja could sense no clinging sense of corruption within him, Shadowlands or otherwise. Still, they could take no chances. Because so many people were wounded at the Wall, they could not afford any more care or attention to his situation. They discharged him from his duties and ordered him away from the Wall so he would not threaten the other defenders with some hidden, delayed corruption. So his war was over.
But it raged on, especially for the group of warriors fighting several hundred yards in front of him. Shunori blinked. In his state of contemplation he had wandered back near the Wall where another attack was underway. An odd group of warriors - from many different Clans, it seemed - were fighting a group of Destroyers. And, in the distance... Shunori's eyes widened as he recognized the large red demon creeping up to crush the samurai. His feet began running without any conscious thought, and Shunori drew his blade. He only hoped the group would notice the threat above them, but in his heart he knew it would take them by surprise. No one, it seemed, ever looked up.
"The tail! Above you!" Shunori screamed at the top of his lungs when he was close. The Mantis warrior looked up (and nearly lost his head to a Destroyer talon for his trouble) and saw the throbbing translucent tail ready to spew out its deadly smoke. He ducked and threw a kama into the pulsing opening. The oni roared in anger and yanked its tail back toward him. Shunori ignored the group and charged past the fighting, directly toward the oni. He stabbed the monster in the same spot as he had with the previous monster, and the creature died. He turned to help the others but it was not needed. The Destroyers were all dead.
"Thank you for the warning, Lion-san," the Mantis said. He walked over and pulled the kama out of the creature. A puff of black smoke shot out of the wound, and the Mantis deftly dodged it. The rest of the warriors, Shunori saw, were cleaning their weapons and getting ready to move on.
"What are you doing? Where are you going?" Shunori asked, confused.
"We're going to fight more of these creatures and travel deeper into the Shadowlands," the Mantis said briskly. He turned and wiped the black ichor off his weapons. "We need to find the source of the power driving these attacks. If we fail, all of Rokugan may perish."
Shunori looked at the group gathered in front of him then looked at them again. The Mantis was completely serious and so were his companions. Shunori could feel their earnest desire emanating off them in waves. He looked again. The group was made of a Mantis, a Crab, a Crane, a Dragon, a Scorpion, and 2 Unicorns. He thought he recognized Moto Juncheng from the healing tents; he was no longer wrapped in bandages.
He had never seen strong inter-Clan unity like this.
"Oh," Shunori said. He blinked and wiped the sweat off his brow. "Let me help."
"You're mad," Hiruma Akio said. Her voice was flat and brooked no disagreement.
"Yes," Aki answered. "Still, it must be done."
Akio shook her head. "Why you? Ask some Elite Guard to handle it, or better yet, some veteran Hiruma scouts. You can't do this."
"I've heard that before," Aki said. "They were wrong then, too."
"Damn you!" Akio said loudly. "You're in over your head, brother! There's no way you can get past the Destroyers assaulting the Wall, let alone survive in the Shadowlands while the demons are rushing toward us!"
"I can help with that," a silken voice came from behind them, and everyone turned around to face the newcomer. She was beautiful - or so her body suggested. Her face was completely covered by an eerie white mask. Aki's hackles rose.
"Who are you?" Saburo asked.
The woman bowed deeply. "My name is Hiroe and I am a simple wandering ronin shugenja. At least, I used to be. I have spent many years in the Crab provinces of late and I have learned many secret paths that might be of use to us all."
Saburo frowned. "What do you know of our mission?"
Hiroe raised her hands, palms forward. "I mean you no harm. I overheard your conversation with your Lion friend and I wish to help save the Empire."
Aki could have sworn he detected a sarcastic twinge in her voice at the end of her sentence. He frowned.
"Secret paths into the Shadowlands?" Aki growled. "Why does a ronin need to go into that blasted realm?"
Hiroe shook her head. "I only know these routes because of a... shall we say, little friend who I converse with from time to time. I am sure the Hiruma know exactly what I am talking about."
Akio and Aki shared a confused glance. "The Nezumi disappeared a long time ago, Hiroe-"
Hiroe laughed. It sounded hollow under her mask. "So they say, yet somehow I know these trails. They shall lead us past that rampaging horde. Do you want to succeed or not?"
Aki grimaced and turned to Saburo. He didn't like it but the Mantis looked dead set on the mission. "We would welcome you among our ranks," Saburo answered.
"Are you prepared? Do you have enough jade?" Akio asked.
"I am prepared with that as well," Hiroe said. She carefully pulled out a brown pouch from her pocket and threw it at Aki. He caught the pouch and opened it. The jade inside looked like it had already started to decay due to exposure to the Shadowlands Taint, yet there was enough inside for everyone in the group. Aki took one and handed the bag to Saburo.
"Aki..." Akio said quietly.
"You stay with your unit," Aki responded. "They'll need you."
"Does this have something to do with your time at Kitsune Mori?" Akio asked, her eyes searching his face.
Akio took a deep breath. "Then resolve this and come back alive, brother. I don't intend to be the last one of our family."
"Goodbye, sister," Aki said.
Chuda Hiroe led them through the hidden path. She could hear the grumbling behind her and she could feel the distrust stabbing into her. She didn't care. She knew she could not travel through the Shadowlands alone, even with her servant's useful map. All she needed to do was discover the secrets of the Destroyers' and sneak away from the rest of the group. Their undoubtedly heroic deaths would mask her exit and cover her escape. She knew she would be richly rewarded by her master if she were the first to bring such valuable information to them.
The others may have been gullible but they were not completely without sense. They made little noise as they followed her exact steps into the Shadowlands. They touched nothing else and kept a grim silence as time dragged on. Grudgingly, Hiroe admitted that her travel companions were making good time.
Despite herself she could feel anxiety begin to crowd her other thoughts as the sun began to set in the horizon. Nighttime in the Shadowlands was not something she wanted to see without several powerful maho spells set ready to cast. If she did not find the secret of the Destroyers soon, she might be in significant trouble, she thought.
The sound of stamping feet rumbling in the distance reached her ears, as if to answer her worries. The group slowly moved forward to meet the source of the sound. As they approached closer, they slowly broke apart from their tight formation and loosened out into a small group. They crested the hill and saw it.
An army marched north, toward the Kaiu Wall. Multi-armed Destroyers made up most of the army, though many larger oni marched with them. The army seemed to stretch on and on beyond what they could see.
Worse still was the red creature at the head of the army. The demon was dwarfed by some of the larger oni, yet it was clear that the red demon was in charge. It vaguely resembled the form of a female human with six powerful arms. Its horns glistened violet in the sunset. It absently struck one of the Destroyers that wandered out of formation too closely to the demon. The thing simply ceased to exist, disappearing in a puff of metal fragments and red mist.
Far worse than the sight of the thing, however, was the malevolent power that came from it in waves. The landscape seemed to shift around it, deforming due to its presence. It was as though massive stones had been set atop the samurai's shoulders, pushing them down, drilling into their very souls with fear and panic, as if there was a bird within them that fluttered and screeched to escape.
"What... what is that?" Taiko whispered.
"A horned god," Saburo answered, his voice barely audible.
"It looks like..." Aki murmured, his face set in a frown.
"Your master traveled to the Burning Sands?" Aki interrupted.
"We found it," Eisaku whispered. "Now what?"
"Hush!" Kohana whispered. "They'll hear you!"
Kohana was right. Despite the great distance between them, the dark god turned slowly and rose to its full height. It stared at the group of samurai at the top of the hill. It smiled and bared its fangs to the Rokugani. One among them, no one was certain who, stifled a scream of panic as its gaze lingered upon them.
A thousand panicked thoughts raced through Hiroe's mind as the dark god's peered across the divide at them. The presence of its magical strength was overwhelming to her senses. "It sees us," she said. "It sees us," she said again. She could see her own death in those black eyes.
"Be quiet," Saburo hissed. His hands reached for the kama at his side. His knuckles grew white as he grasped them with all his might.
Kali-Ma, the Destroyer, Horned Death of the Ivory Kingdoms, raised a hand and the army around her stopped at its feet. It spoke, its words spitting in some foreign guttural language that burned the ears of the samurai who heard it. The dark army waited in place as its leader began to walk toward the group. Alone.
Hiroe's hands fumbled at her sleeves and she lifted them. She knew a spell that could shroud them from all sight. It will not work it will not work it will not work -control yourself, she told herself. She raised her sleeves and dug in deep with her fingernails. Her flesh, used to the abuse, gave in easily. Blood dripped from five tiny gashes on her arm, and Hiroe began to murmur and pray to the kansen that flew around her. The trail of blood dripping down her arm lit with an unearthly green flame. The kansen were only eager to answer this deep into the Shadowlands. They began to swirl around her and the spell began to cover the entire group in its concealing darkness.
Hiroe gasped and toppled to the ground. Her eyes rolled back and her blood began to pool around her head. The spell immediately ended with a loud shriek as the damned spirits loosed its hold on the world. Kali-Ma spoke once more in its strange tongue, its words tinged with anger. It knelt low to the ground and began to charge.
Hiruma Aki stepped forward, his tetsubo still dripping with Hiroe's blood.
"No compromise," Aki said harshly. "Now we die. Pure."
Continues in; Blood & Shadow Part II