|King of the Trolls, Part 1|
The King of the Trolls, Part I
Rocks and loose dirt skittered down the mountainside with every step that Otaku Zonoko took up the incline. She heard her companion, Shinjo Naru, curse suddenly below her as the debris she dislodged poured over him. Grinning, she called out "You can always turn back if you need to, Naru-san. I understand this type of thing is not really to your liking. You are a courtier, is that not right?"
Naru chuckled loudly, a clearly forced and false effort. "That is a particularly cunning insight, Zonoko-san. How fortunate that I am blessed with a companion who has such a sparkling wit." It was a running joke between the two childhood friends. In their youth, both had longed for the glory of battle on behalf of their clan. Zonoko had accomplished that dream as a member of the Battle Maidens. Naru, however, had earned a very prestigious, and to hear him tell it, very boring position as a yojimbo to one of the clan's most renowned courtiers. He had never seen so much as a single duel. It was a constant point of irritation to the young man, and one that Zonoko never failed to take joy in needling him over.
"In fact," Naru continued, "you remind me of another friend I have. A wonderful companion, but not too bright, I'm afraid. She once convinced me to take an assignment assisting an imperial cartographer. 'Imagine the thrills!' she said. 'We are sure to face bandits all across the Empire!' she said. A real shame, that one."
"Alright, alright," she admitted grudgingly. "So this duty has not been exactly as we thought. I admit perhaps I was a bit... naive to make the assumptions I did. But our clan has been here for little more than a century, and our experiences will add to the Unicorn's knowledge of this land. And it is preferable to court, isn't it?" As she finished her defense, Zonoko finally reached the ledge. Pulling herself up, she turned and offered her hand to Naru, helping him up the ledge as well. Dusting herself off, Zonoko took in the mountainous landscape before them.
The Spine of the World Mountains were much more jagged here than in the southern lands of the Unicorn Clan's holdings. The peaks reached much higher, and the air was cooler and far crisper. It was invigorating. Zonoko breathed deeply, feeling at home even in a strange place. It was the gift of the Unicorn.
"All things considered," said Naru, "I would have to say yes, this is much preferable to court." He was silent for a moment, enjoying the view as much as Zonoko. Finally, he turned and said, "He will be contacting us very shortly, won't he?"
Zonoko nodded. Wordlessly, she withdrew the jade figurine that her superior, a meek young cartographer named Asako Gohiro, had given her. As he had taught her, she sat it on the ground before her and assumed a meditative trance, clearing her mind of all distractions. She focused only on the figurine. Naru withdrew from her field of vision, standing perfectly still so as not to disturb her concentration.
After several minutes of absolute focus, the figurine began to move. Its anonymous features came to resemble those of Gohiro. The tiny figure pantomimed speech, and Zonoko heard the words in her head.
"We were to make contact almost ten minutes ago, Zonoko-san. I trust there have been no difficulties?"
"No, Gohiro-sama. Naru and I merely found the climb a bit more arduous than expected. There will be no further delays."
"Do not be concerned. These things are to be expected." While Gohiro was not a particularly inspiring leader, and certainly not a man given to physical exertion if it could at all be avoided, Zonoko did admit that he was an accommodating man to work under. "Is the mountaintop as the maps indicate?"
The samurai-ko risked a quick glance around the landscape once again. It was largely as she had expected, allowing of course for several decades of rockslides and erosion. The scrolls she had pored over for days before beginning her climb seemed to represent this particular piece of land quite well. "It remains as the map indicates, Gohiro-sama. I see no need for revisions."
The tiny jade figure nodded solemnly. If Zonoko had not grown accustomed to the sight, she might have burst out laughing. "Very well then. Take as much time as you need to recover from the climb, but try not to take too long. We have much to do in this section of the mountains, and we are already a full day behind our schedule." The tiny figure bowed, then resumed its original pose, all detail fading from it.
Zonoko rose from her meditative crouch, tucking the figurine back into her obi pouch. "We should not tarry, Naru. Gohiro is eager to move on, and for once I think perhaps he..."
"What is that?" Naru interrupted her, gazing into the distance. The Battle Maiden followed her friend's pointing finger to the base of a distant peak. There, hidden at first in the shadow of the late afternoon, she could barely make out what appeared to be a cave, or perhaps even a tunnel entrance. At any other time of day, the sun's light or deep shadows would conceal such an oddly placed opening.
"That," Zonoko said, sounding irritated, "is not on our map." She blew a lock of hair out of her eyes, placed her hands on her hips, and considered the situation for a moment. She regarded her friend with a questioning look. "Should we investigate it? I already told Gohiro that there was nothing new up here."
"Well," he responded, "I suppose we should go make sure you are not a liar, then." He laughed and began jogging toward the mysterious entry, ducking to avoid Zonoko's swipe at the back of his head.
The distance between the two samurai's starting point and the entrance was not particularly far, but it was difficult, uneven ground. By the time Naru and Zonoko reached the opening in the mountain's base, they were both panting from exertion. It took several moments before Zonoko approached the edge of the cave walls. "This is definitely not on the map. And it does not look new, either. These edges are smooth, as if worn down by the years."
"Is it possible that this opening has simply been missed over the years? It is in an unusual spot, and it was only luck that we spotted it."
"That you spotted it."
Naru waved his hand, dismissing the remark. "It is also possible, however dishonorable to say, that the ranks of the imperial cartographers are filled with delicate men such as our esteemed Gohiro-sama. Perhaps they have simply not visited this mountaintop as often as the records indicate."
"Look at this," the Battle Maiden called. She pointed to a small, rounded stone jutting up from the cave floor. It was perhaps knee-high, and looked oddly out of place in the otherwise natural cave. It seemed... artificial, somehow. What was more interesting, however, was that a written symbol of some sort, far too elaborate to be a random scratch, adorning the stone marker. "What do you make of that?"
Naru's eyes narrowed. "I have seen something like this before. In the sketches of my great-grandfather's journals. Gaijin sorcerers in distant lands used markers like this to mark the edges of their territory. They served as a warning to their dark masters when someone trespassed."
"Oh, come now," said Zonoko, her tone admonishing. "You used to go on about those journals even when we were children. They were fanciful tales, nothing more." She reached out to touch the marker.
"No!" cried Naru, leaping to stop her.
Zonoko's hand touched the cold stone marker. For a moment, there was nothing but silence. It was a strange silence, one where the sounds of the winds, the echoes of the mountains, and everything else simply disappeared and left an absolute void of sound for a few short seconds.
Then the rumbling began. As the two samurai pulled back from the entrance and bolted for the cliff face, something stirred deep within the earth. From the hidden city far below the mountain, a guardian awoke.
The mountain shattered.
The rumbling in the mountain range caused a wave of fear to grip Asako Gohiro. Not for himself, or even for his young son. He was far enough from the cliffs to be safe from any earthquake or rockslide. His concern was for the two samurai under his command. They mocked him behind his back, of course. He was far too observant not too notice. But their mocking, unlike most he had experienced in life, was good-natured and without malice. And so even though they were strangers and subordinates, he considered their well being his responsibility.
At first Gohiro thought that a new peak was forcing itself upward through the ledge far above. Such a thing was most likely impossible, even with powerful earth magic. Gohiro could not say for certain, however, as his knowledge of earth magic was virtually nonexistent. Air was his specialty. That he had been assigned to survey the Spine of the World Mountains was particularly ironic.
All too quickly, the young Phoenix realized that what he was seeing was not the result of a massive earthquake, nor was it another great peak breaking through the mountain rock to dominate the skyline. The thing was the color of stone, but even from this distance he could make out the leathery creases in its ragged hide. A jungle of thick, matted hair sat atop the things peak, hanging down over two gigantic, glowing red craters that must be eyes. And below that, a hideous chasm of death that could only be a mouth.
The beast roared. The sound was like nothing Gohiro had ever heard. It was the sound he would have imagined if the earth itself were torn asunder in some fiery cataclysm. Even at this great distance, the force of the creature's bellow knocked Gohiro to the ground. Regaining his footing proved impossible, as the creature's struggle to free itself from the mountain caused the earth to buck and roll beneath the shugenja, tossing him about as casually as a leaf blown by the wind. He scrambled desperately across the violently churning earth to clutch his young son Kyo, just over two years of age, to his chest. The toddler seemed to find the rolling earth terribly amusing, and burbled with delight while clutching at his father's kimono.
Finally, the beast was free. Its massive foot smashed down into the ground a few hundred feet from Gohiro, and the shockwave tossed him into the air several feet to crash back to the ground quite painfully. The thing's shadow passed over him, blotting out the sun in its entirety, but only for a few terrifying seconds. Then the crashing footfalls began to grow slightly softer, fading into the distance over the course of a few seconds. The creature was not very fast, Gohiro noted absently, but could cover an incredible distance with each step.
Asako Gohiro climbed unsteadily to his feet, still clinging to Kyo. The massive outline of the creature was already disappearing to the north. The cartographer took in the cliffs before him. They bore no resemblance whatsoever to his precious maps now, and would have to be completely remapped, although such an effort would be impossible for quite some time due to the undoubtedly unstable nature of the rocks left behind after the creature's departure.
The realization that his two companions must be dead did not shake Gohiro as much as perhaps it should. Following the terror he had just witnessed, it seemed somehow less important. Gohiro stared numbly to the north. At the rate the creature was advancing, it would reach the nearest town within an hour. He could not imagine a situation in which the town could defend itself against that towering horror, even if the local magistrate was alerted. If the magistrate was not alerted, however, then every living being in the village would almost certainly die.
As a servant of the Emperor, even a simple cartographer, Gohiro could not allow such a thing to occur. He quickly sprang into action, gathering his personal affects from the ruin of his party's camp. Clutching his seal of office and scroll satchel and holding on to his young son, he repeated an oft-recited prayer to the kami of air and disappeared in a gust of wind.
"Let me make certain that I have not misunderstood you, Asako-sama," the magistrate said carefully. The mask that covered the lower half of her face bore a smile, but Gohiro doubted that her own face bore such an expression. "You are asking me to arm an entire village of heimin, evacuate the women and children, and then prepare to battle a giant monstrosity that you say burst out of the mountains to the south? Have I interpreted your tale correctly?"
"Please, Bayushi-sama," Gohiro began, "I know how this must sound."
"Do you?" she asked, her voice perfectly calm. "Can you begin to imagine how... colorful your tale is?" Bayushi Seiko rose from her desk and crossed the room to face Gohiro directly. "Have you considered the possibility that someone is attempting to deceive you? As an Imperial cartographer, I am sure there are those who would seek to discredit one so important as you. Perhaps you have been the victim of an illusion? And while I am thinking of it, may I see your travel papers?"
"I told you, I am an Imperial cartographer. I need no travel papers."
"Yes, of course." She crossed her arms lightly. "And have you been drinking at all this afternoon?"
Gohiro frowned and clenched his fists in frustration. Of course it sounded ridiculous. He had seen it with his own eyes and could barely believe it himself. Yet surely he could not have been fooled, could he? Not on such a massive scale. He opened his mouth to begin yet another attempt to convince the comely Scorpion of the truth of his words, but stopped suddenly, one hand held aloft to silence any conversation. For a long moment he was quiet, then whispered "Did you hear that?"
The look on Seiko's face clearly indicated that what she had heard was enough of Gohiro's story. "I hear nothing, Phoenix," she said sharply. "And I am beginning to think that you are wasting my time."
"Listen!" Gohiro said forcefully, scooping Kyo up from the floor where he sat quietly. It was the most insistent he had ever been in his life, and Seiko's eyes showed a moment of doubt. Only for a moment, however. They quickly narrowed as she took a half step toward him, clearly intending to have him removed.
She never had the chance. There was a dull booming sound, like distant thunder on the horizon. It repeated itself every few seconds, growing louder each time. Within moments, the tea set on Seiko's desk was rattling with the sound. And then the screams started.
The two quickly stepped outside. The streets were chaotic. Peasants had seen the massive silhouette approaching from the south and were running in every direction. Several of Seiko's yoriki stood slack-jawed in the middle of the street, their weapons hanging limply in their hands.
Gohiro knew that Seiko had served a tour of duty on the Carpenter Wall, but surely she must be mistaken. Trolls were rarely much larger than humans, he understood, and he had never heard of one this size. Of course, he had never heard of anything this size.
Seiko grabbed the shugenja's arm, wrenching him back to the present. "How do we stop that thing?" There was no fear in her voice, no doubt. Her eyes were hard, her features set in a mask of deadly intent.
"I... I don't know!" exclaimed Gohiro. "I came here to find troops, to find someone who could fight it!"
"Fight that?" Seiko shouted. "Are you mad? There are no weapons within a week's travel of this meager village that could harm such a beast! Maybe none within the Empire! Look at it! Do you not have some spell to turn it away?"
Gohiro was transfixed by the troll. Could it be that the creature was even larger than when it broke free? It somehow seemed to be. How could that be possible? "I do not know what to do," he admitted. "There is no magic at my disposal that could even get the beast's attention."
Seiko ran a hand through her long black hair nervously. She glanced around, desperate for something that could aid her. Then, as if something had occurred to her suddenly, she fixed Gohiro with a piercing stare. "What is your chosen field of magic? Are you a tensai?"
Gohiro was surprised at her knowledge of the Phoenix shugenja. "No," he responded. "I studied with the traditional shugenja school of the Isawa. I studied the ways of the air kami most prominently, but..."
"That will have to do," Seiko responded flatly. She grabbed the shugenja roughly by his arm and practically drug him through the streets, ignoring his attempts to find out where they were going. Their journey, short yet unpleasant, took them to a tiny hovel just outside the village proper. There, Seiko grabbed her tanto from its sheath and began rapping sharply on a large flat stone in the center of the hut. "Show yourself!" she demanded.
Gohiro very quietly edged toward the door, shielding Kyo with his body. Seiko was clearly mad, and he had no desire to escape the troll's wrath only to die upon the blade of an insane Scorpion samurai-ko. His progress was stopped, however, when a strange scraping sound filled the hovel. Then, as he watched, a small, brown, inhuman head appeared from within the stone. For the second time in one day, Gohiro's jaw dropped and he stood speechless. Kyo squealed with delight and reached toward the bizarre thing.
The brown creature eyed Gohiro and Seiko suspiciously. "Why you call?" it asked the magistrate, clearly irritated at Gohiro's presence. "This not a good time at all!"
"I am aware of that, Zgkol," Seiko said curtly. "What do you know about that beast destroying the countryside?"
The creature hissed. It was an angry sound. "The king troll! Our legends tell about it. Drains the life from the earth spirits to feed itself! Kills the earth wherever it walks! We of Magn F'Chka must stop it, no matter cost!"
Seiko pointed to Gohiro. "This man is a powerful shaman. His magic is strong against earth. Can you show him how to defeat the beast?"
Gohiro could not remain silent. "You want me to... to study with this thing? To take my son near it? And how do you even know this thing? What kind of magistrate are you?"
Seiko glanced at him with fury in her eyes. "My business arrangements with the Magn F'Chka clan are my concern. You, however, are the only chance we have right now. The Zokujin know more about this type of thing than we do. The earth is their home, and that thing is clearly more earth than anything else. Even an uninitiated magistrate like me can see that."
The thought that the beast had grown again occurred to Gohiro. There was a connection there, but he couldn't piece it together. It didn't make sense, at least not yet. And he had precious little time to try and make sense of it all. "I am not sure..."
Seiko ripped open the flap that covered the hut's entrance, eliciting a hiss of discomfort from the Zokujin. "Listen!" she shouted. There was chaos outside. Gohiro could hear crashing and screams, punctuated with the occasional roar of the troll. The smell of smoke began to fill the hut. "How much time do you think we have?"
"Come or go, it makes no difference to Zgkol. We stop the troll with or without you, orange human." The Zokujin shook its head in an expression Gohiro could not understand, then disappeared back through the rock leaving an open tunnel behind it.
Seiko looked at Gohiro expectantly. He took a deep breath, uttered a brief prayer, and disappeared into the earth after the little creature.
Three days later, five villages lay in ruin. At last count, at least a hundred samurai had been killed fighting the troll, but none had managed to maneuver an armed force of any significance into the beast's path. Gohiro had heard that the Lion were charging an army northward to try and catch the creature, but it was simply too fast and never stopped moving. Chances were slim that they could intercept it before it reached the Dragon lands. Behind them stood a city, one far larger than any of the villages the beast had destroyed. Servants of the Dragon Clan, the inhabitants of the city had refused to evacuate. They would face their death with open eyes, they said. Gohiro was not certain if they were valiant or fools. He had left Kyo with them, however, so he preferred to think them valiant.
Gohiro and Seiko stood on the southern edge of the Northern Wall Mountains. The beast was approaching rapidly from the south, on the same mindless course it had been following since it appeared days ago. Even from this distance, Gohiro could see that it had grown to unbelievable proportions.
"The king troll draws its power from earth," Zgkol had told him. "Everywhere it goes, earth dies. Turns soft and weak. Zokujin can't live there, can't eat there. The king troll poisons the earth. Earth brings life, creates Zokujin. King troll must be destroyed."
"How do you know so much about this beast?" Gohiro had asked.
Zgkol grew strangely quiet for a long time. "King troll is a legend to the Zokujin. A story to tell little ones when they misbehave. King troll been imprisoned for thousands of years. Why your friends have to wake it up, anyway?"
Gohiro had not had a response, of course. He had no idea what had happened on top of that mountain, but he knew that there was something the Zokujin weren't telling him. Whatever it was, it was unimportant. The little creatures were willing to make whatever sacrifices they had to in order to destroy the troll.
Including teaching the basic elements of their most secret magic to a human.
Three days had not been enough time to learn more than a fraction of the simplest concepts of the zokujin ways. Had Gohiro not already been a rather scholarly shugenja, he would never have gleaned anything from their strange teachings. As it was, he knew just enough to know that what he needed to do would be virtually impossible.
"Explain it to me again," Seiko said softly.
Gohiro straightened his posture. "The Zokujin's greatest shamans will focus their energies on disrupting the link between the troll and the earth. This will be a very brief interruption, and will likely cost many of the shamans their lives. During that briefest of moments, the troll will be vulnerable, but only if we can distract it. Although mostly mindless, it can still defend itself with powerful, innate magic. If we can distract it, however, then I can attempt to suffuse it with air magic, which should force its spirit from its body and back into slumber."
Seiko was quiet for a while, then asked the inevitable question. "Will this work?"
"I do not know. It is unlikely, but there is no one else to try. Either the troll will be stopped here, or I will die trying. The beast shall not pass while I live."
"It is time," said Gohiro curtly. He could not afford to be distracted from his intent with emotional conversation. "Do you have what we need?"
"It is probably best if you do not ask," she replied.
Gohiro nodded silently. The troll's thunderous footfalls were quite audible by now, and it was approaching the spot where the zokujin would begin their attack. "You should go now," he said.
"I trust you to keep me alive, Gohiro. I would appreciate it if you would not disappoint me." With a slight grin, the samurai-ko broke into a run toward the creature as it approached.
Gohiro focused his attention on the ebb and flow of the elements around him, allowing his eyes to close. He could sense the slight tug of the troll as the earth spirits around him drifted from their normal positions toward it. The kami were confused, but could not resist the draining effect of the great troll. There was another sensation, one that Gohiro did not recognize. It could only be the gathering energy of the Zokujin shamans far beneath the earth.
The effect was far faster than Gohiro expected. There was a sudden explosion of energy from where the beast strode across the plains. He could hear the grunt of surprise from the mammoth beast, and could feel the sudden surge of energy from it as it instinctively lashed out toward those who attempted to deprive it of its energy source. Then there was a great bellow of pain. Gohiro could not help but to open his eyes.
The shugenja gaped in surprise as he saw that somehow the Scorpion magistrate had not only crossed the distance to the troll, but also had somehow scaled fully half of its length and was mercilessly hacking at its midsection with her crystal blade. The beast slapped absently at her, trying to dislodge the insect that caused it such pain. Seiko was too agile for such a fate, however, and leapt from handhold to handhold to avoid its massive talons.
Gohiro closed his eyes once again and focused. There was nothing he had ever done in life that was as vital as this one single spell. It was a simple counterspell, the sort taught to every shugenja student in Rokugan. This one had been changed, however, to target the opposing element and to incorporate the strange elemental alterations of Zokujin magic. The power began to flow through Gohiro's being, and it was not a pleasant sensation.
The young shugenja ground his teeth against the pain and focused on the huge reservoir of earthen magic that lay upon the plain before him. He channeled the energy through him and poured it out across the field to the troll. There was the rewarding sound of another cry of pain, this one more guttural than the last. Whether the beast's pain was from Seiko's blade or his spell, he did not know, but he dare not stop.
The pain increased, and Gohiro cried out as he felt his skin blistering with the raw energy of the magic he was wielding. He could feel the energy of the troll beginning to waver, and the beast screamed again. This time, it shook the mountains around them. Gohiro had to take care not to stumble and fall with the force of the troll's pain. Somewhere behind him, he could hear a low chant. The Dragon peasants were chanting a mantra of strength, willing him their ability to withstand the wracking spasms of pain that coursed through his body.
After an eternity, Gohiro felt a horrible wrenching sensation. At first, he thought that his soul had been torn from his body, but he realized with a burst of exhausted relief that the troll's spirit was ripping free of its corporeal form. Gohiro redoubled his efforts while the troll shrieked, although weaker this time.
There was a final great tearing sensation, a burst of incredible pain, and then all went black.
"Try not to move, Gohiro. You are badly injured."
The sweet sound of Bayushi Seiko's voice brought Gohiro back from the darkness. Immediately, he wished he had not awoken. Everything burned across his entire body. It felt as if he were still channeling the energy.
"You are burned, Gohiro. It is bad, but I have seen worse. You will recover, but it will take much time."
The shugenja struggled to speak, but found that he lacked the energy.
"The troll is no more. Whatever you did worked. It collapsed into a massive heap of rock. I was nearly killed myself, but managed to escape after only a few hours of unconsciousness. At first I thought you were dead, but fortunately I was mistaken. The Dragon have been caring for you while I recovered."
"You are a hero, Gohiro. They will doubtless erect a shrine to your memory here, and to the enormity of the service you have performed. You saved thousands of lives, including your son's, and perhaps the Empire itself."
"That doesn't matter," he forced himself to speak the words. "None of it matters. All that matters... is that my son lives."
"He does. I will see him safely to your family, if that is your wish."
"No family," he rasped. "Only Kyo. My wife died... in childbirth."
"I am sorry, Gohiro. But you will recover. You will see him grown to a man."
"I am not a fool, Seiko," the Phoenix smiled, his cracked lips splitting with the expression. "You are the bravest samurai it has ever been my privilege to know. Please, swear to me that you will raise my son to serve his lord as valiantly as you serve yours."
"Gohiro, please," Seiko began.
His hand clutched Seiko's wrist with surprising force. He fixed her with an even, lucid stare despite the pain that overwhelmed him. "Swear it. Please."
Closing her eyes, the Scorpion nodded. "It will be my great honor, Gohiro. If your son is as courageous as you, then any lord would be deeply honored by his service."
But her final compliment was lost. Seiko felt the young Phoenix's hand fall away from her arm as he died. She sat with him for several minutes before saying a soft prayer and leaving to find the Dragon shugenja.
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