As the Empire’s eyes turn toward the events of Winter Court, and upon the battles raging in the north and south, the insidious Spider make their subtle presence known in the heart of the Empire.
Crashes in the Night
By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
The Scorpion lands, one month ago
A light breeze blew across the dying field, wafting the smell of corpses and fire across the village. Takayasu frowned and placed a hand over his nose. The stench was overpowering. The stink had not been unexpected or altogether new. They had warned him once what the duty would entail. Still, the odor was nearly enough to knock him off his feet. Takayasu gritted his teeth and readied his resolve. He knew he would have to enter the town square, where the Scorpion samurai were gathering, but knowing it was one thing. Steeling his senses and weathering the reek was another.
One person seemed to notice Takayasu’s slowed pace. She stepped out of the group and headed back to meet him. He knew it was Shosuro Tomoko even before he could make out her features. Her mask, a fearsome demon’s red visage permanently slung away from her face, did not seem to represent her personality well. The young, vivacious woman had barely left him alone for the entire journey. She had taken a liking to the young samurai, constantly barraging him with innuendos and half stated advances. The attention made him uncomfortable for many reasons, none he could state out loud.
“Abira used to be beautiful, you know,” Tomoko said when she drew near, a tinge of sadness coloring her voice. She stopped next to Takayasu and looked out at the devastation in front of the pair. For once, she did not have a knowing look in her eyes or a flirtatious grin across her face. “My family was responsible for Abira’s tax collection. When I was a little girl, I would come to this place every fall and climb the large trees and play among the branches. The peasants doted on me and fed me delicious mochi. I suppose I will never recapture the beauty of childhood – or this village, it seems.”
Takayasu made a noncommittal noise. Tomoko turned to him, a mischievous grin growing on her face.
“If mochi fits your fancy,” she said, “I know a place in Ryoko Owari where they provide absolute privacy and delicious rice cakes. We can indulge in some dessert, if you are willing.”
Takayasu paled. “Per… perhaps I will accept your invitation another time, Tomoko-san. Excuse me. I have dallied too long. I should help earn my keep, or I would feel unworthy of the rewards your Clan has already bestowed on me.”
Takayasu hurried forward with a respectful bow. He could hear Tomoko’s throaty giggle behind him, and the sound filled his ears all the way to the town square. The sight was rather serious, enough to immediately put focus back into his mind. The group of Scorpion samurai and shugenja were busy as they arranged for the proper disposal of the bodies that lay across the village. Dozens of eta were flitting around the village as the samurai talked. The eta worked at a steady pace, opening doors to houses and checking for corpses. Soon there was a large pile of dead Scorpion villagers lining the town square.
As Takayasu drew closer, Bayushi Sakai waved him closer without looking. Unlike the spirited Tomoko, Sakai had barely traded one sentence with Takayasu before their arrival. In fact, Takayasu hadn’t seen the Bitter Lies Swordsman speak to anyone on the trip.
“You. Ronin.” Sakai said.
“Hai,” Takayasu answered promptly.
“Check the outskirts of the town for signs of any active plague victims. They might need to be stopped before they can approach this position.”
Takayasu bowed. “Where are the plague areas, Sakai-san?”
“It seems something in the fields surrounding Abira was the source of the infection,” Soshi Ganryu interjected.
Takayasu blinked. “You want me to check the plague fields, Sakai-san?” he asked.
Sakai nodded. “We hired you to protect this patrol, ronin,” he answered, without a trace of emotion in his voice. “We paid you handsomely for the privilege. Now earn your keep.”
Ganryu frowned and looked at his partner. “Perhaps it is not necessary, Sakai,” he said hesitantly. “If everyone is accounted for by the servants, we do not need to risk this man’s health.”
Sakai glared at Ganryu with the same venomous intensity he had used on Takayasu. The Soshi shugenja took a step back involuntarily. “You were not there for the last patrol, Ganryu,” he growled. “Your inexperience with the undead makes you foolish. These creatures are clever and relentless. They seem to retain some of their abilities and strength, unlike normal zombies. You cannot ignore the threat they pose.”
Ganryu gestured to his servant, who placed a scroll in his hand. The shugenja unfurled the document and quickly scanned its contents. “There seems to be six men missing from the count,” he said. “It is possible they were not here when the rest of the village took sick, but the eta have spotted at least one to the northern fields. They did not dare approach any closer. The rest of the corpses have yet to reanimate. It appears we arrived just in time.”
“I see. That is exactly what I needed to hear,” Takayasu said.
The inhuman shriek echoed through the village and all who heard it immediately clasped their hands to their ears. Soshi Ganryu stumbled away, blood dripping from his ears. His hands immediately went to the scroll case by his side, yet he was too slow. Takayasu drew his katana and in one swift stroke cut the shugenja’s head from his shoulders. The next three samurai went without a struggle.
Sakai was another matter altogether. Blood trickled out of the corners of his eyes yet they looked focused and calm. He held his katana in a firm and comfortable grip with his left hand and he approached Takayasu with the wariness of a predator facing its prey. Takayasu leapt forward and roared once more. Sakai flinched yet his sword remained steady. Sakai thrust forward in a quick jab, yet his reflexes were slowed by the aural assault. Takayasu glided past the clumsy strike and backhanded the Scorpion in the face. As Sakai fell back, the young warrior gutted him with his katana.
Without warning, a sharp pain flared in Takayasu’s arm. His hands spasmed and his blade fell to the ground. A long needle pierced his wrist bone, its sharp and bloodied edge gleaming in the sunlight. He could see a hint of a green, viscous fluid flowing from the center of the needle. His vision swam and the world twirled into a spiral. He stumbled and fell to his knee. A red clothed knee filled his entire world and his nose exploded. A fist slammed into his forehead a second later and knocked him directly to the ground.
“I knew you were trouble,” Shosuro Tomoko snarled. Her mask fully covered her face. Under the effects of the poison, it looked as if she had become a demon. She moved with feline grace as she stalked closer to the young man. Takayasu could not seem to concentrate. He tried to watch her hands and feet but they seemed to swirl and move faster than his eyes could see. At least she did not seem to have any weapons in her hands. The thought floated across his consciousness, flitting across his mental focus like a kite in the wind.
She attacked with the fury of a hurricane. She struck five times with her fists and feet before he could respond. The poison was coursing through his veins, making each blow explode all his senses at once. He staggered back and raised his hands in a defensive posture. The colors of the world blended together until all he could see was a red blur where his opponent could be. He slowly stepped back as she continued to rain punches and kicks down upon him. His hands did nothing as she struck again and again wherever he could not cover.
Takayasu bit his lips hard until it bled. How do you fight someone you cannot see?
He closed his eyes – his eyes couldn’t see. He held his breath – his lungs couldn’t breathe. He took his anger, his discomfort, his shame, his uncertainty, his fear and spread it into the void. The world fell away. Only the sound of his heartbeat remained within the void, punctuated by brief moments of intense pain. Each of Tomoko’s attacks cracked the stillness, the pain rippling through his consciousness like a raindrop on a tranquil pond. A smile slowly crept up on his face. The Scorpion ninja was a great fighter, but he was not as weak as she thought.
Takayasu’s hand jerked out and grabbed Tomoko’s fist as it flew toward his face. He twisted his arm until the exposed point of the needle, wet with poison and blood, pointed toward the ninja’s wrist. Slowly, inexorably, the needle penetrated her skin. She gasped. The reaction was immediate. She struck with her hands and feet, each blow slower than the last. She shuddered violently then finally went limp. He let her fist go and she crumpled into a heap. He fell down onto his back and tried to remember all the training he had received. He needed to remember, or he would die here, now. He felt a blade caress his neck.
“Die,” Tomoko said.
There was a meaty crunch.
“Adequate,” Michio stated and pulled the naginata from the Scorpion’s back.
Chuda Shuzo laughed. “I’m impressed, Takayasu-san. When we did not hear your signal for hours, I thought you’d been killed by your warriors. Fumiaki-sama’s recommendation seems well deserved.”
Michio pointed at the bodies piled in the town square. “Will these suffice?”
Chuda Shuzo licked his lips. “I will need a little time to look at them. By Fu Leng, I believe these may be the best batch. Mere hours have passed since the plague killed the subjects and we’ll have plenty of time to analyze the effects of this plague. These are fabulous.”
“After I tend to these bodies, Takayasu, I’ll see about the poison that seems to be paralyzing you. If you last that long,” Shuzo added as an afterthought.
“Then do your duty,” Michio said. Shuzo bowed, his glowing eyes fixed on the dead peasants. Michio turned back to Takayasu without a further glance at the Chuda. The young man lay prone on the ground, unable to move. “Are there any more of these… abominations nearby?”
Takayasu drew in a ragged breath. He struggled to fight off the effects of the poison before he could respond. “Y-yes, Michio-sama,” he gasped. “The Scorpion shugenja spoke of six in the fields before he died.”
Michio stood still as a statue and stared into the distance for four heartbeats. He moved deliberately, unhurriedly, toward the northern fields. Shuzo paused in his work and shivered as he watched the monk walk into the diseased area. An involuntary groan escaped Takayasu’s lips.
“No one is safe from these plague fields,” Shuzo whispered. “The plague affects everyone who approaches the epicenter. Does he realize what he’s doing? Only the truly mad can be so utterly without fear.”
“Mad,” Takayasu echoed, his eyes fixed on Michio’s disappearing back, “or invincible!”
* * * * *
The present, Month of the Dog, 1171
“No progress,” Daigotsu Hotako said quietly. “The Chuda cannot convert the zombies created by the plague nor can they cure the areas of plague. In this, they are as useless as the Rokugani.”
“I see,” Daigotsu said simply. Hotako and Shahai continued to look at him expectantly, yet he said nothing further.
Shahai turned to the Obsidian Champion. To fill the silence she said, “It goes without saying that the Chuda will continue their research until the answer is revealed. What of the preparations of the Fingers of Bone?” Shahai asked.
Hotako frowned. “I believe the fortress is nearly ready. The Yobanjin armies are on the move again. It’s slowing down progress but nothing worrisome. Rest assured, we will be done before schedule. I will make certain of it myself.”
Again, Hotako and Shahai paused and tried to gauge Daigotsu’s reaction. Finally, he stood from his throne and met Hotako’s gaze.
“Thank you, Hotako,” he said. “You have proven a worthy servant time and time again. But—”
“Of course,” Hotako replied. “Now is not the time. If I may have your leave, I must attend to another challenge for my position. Perhaps you may find the fight a worthy diversion.”
Daigotsu waved his hand. Hotako bowed and retreated from the room. As soon as they were alone, Shahai closed the distance between the pair and placed a hand on Daigotsu’s shoulder.
“You are worried,” Shahai said. It was not a question.
Daigotsu did not reply, but she could see the confusion in his eyes. The look was foreign on him, enough to give her pause. As the leader of the Spider Clan, Daigotsu never had the luxury of self doubt or hesitation. It was a measure of his complete trust in her that his perfect composure slipped for even the briefest of moments.
“You know of the revelations I have recently uncovered,” Daigotsu said. “I have learned much in my conversations with… our guest.”
“Troubling revelations of many different sources,” she mused. “The Rokugani gather within the Mantis lands for their Winter Court. Have you heard anything about the matters at discussion?”
“Nothing,” Daigotsu said. His expression darkened. “Susumu has sent no word. My other sources at court tell me that he has remained quiet and unobtrusive. I wonder if he is truly doing everything he can to further our cause.”
“In these turbulent times, can you trust anyone?” Shahai asked. “Many things threaten our hold on the Rokugani. The Yobanjin. The Shogun. And perhaps the rumors from the south are true. Kali-Ma—”
“I know the true leader of the Shadowlands,” Daigotsu interrupted.
Shahai took the rebuke without complaint. After a moment, Daigotsu turned and faced his wife.
“I apologize, Shahai-chan,” Daigotsu said quietly. Shahai smiled.
“Perhaps Hotako is right,” she said. “A diversion may be exactly what you need.”
* * * * *
Daigotsu Takayasu walked through the fortress with a light step. It had been a difficult month but it was finally over. Shosuro Tomoko had injected him with enough poison to cripple or maim any normal person. The powers he used during the fight had ripped his vocal cords to shreds and left him nearly unable to move. It was just as well that Takayasu was extraordinary. The recovery had been slow and painful as he learned how function and fight once more. It felt refreshing to walk among the people, head held high. Now, all who saw Takayasu would know that he was strong enough to weather the worst the Scorpion could throw at him.
Takayasu arrived at the room informally called the arena by the rest of the Spider warriors. The Obsidian Champion was one of the strongest fighters in the Spider Clan, and there were many samurai who attempt to wrestle the title from the current Champion’s shoulders. Since Takayasu’s return to the fortress, Daigotsu Hotako fought five young bushi who were foolhardy enough to challenge her. None survived the experience.
Takayasu hoped to one day challenge Hotako himself. His firm grip on his abilities kept him from being hasty. After all, his adventure was just beginning. He would have plenty of time to receive the greatest honor of the Spider Clan when he was older and wiser.
The fight was already underway. Takayasu hurried forward to get a better view, but the crowd was impenetrable. He could see glimpses of Daigotsu Hotako as she slowly circled her foe. Takayasu realized with a start that it was Daigotsu Toshiko facing the Obsidian Champion. Toshiko was one of his closest, oldest friends. She had stood next to him as they passed the gempukku ceremony. And now, she wanted to prove her strength in front of all. Toshiko fought with eagerness and spirit, yet it was clear that she was completely outmatched.
The fight was over in moments. Takayasu watched with a heavy heart as Hotako ended the fight with a decisive cleave of her katana. Toshiko fell headless to the ground, and the crowd roared in approval.
* * * * *
The clamor surrounding the Obsidian Champion’s bout began to finally wound down. Takayasu turned to leave when another stepped forward from the crowd. “The Obsidian Champion has proved her strength once more. It is past time for Fosuta to do the same!”
The crowd gave a shout and moved to circle the new challenger. Takayasu pushed forward to reach the forefront of the fight. He looked over the challenger from head to toe. He had never seen the shugenja before. The Chuda was an old man, covered in scars, the most prominent of which split his mouth and trailed down his neck. His milky left eye seemed to stare out at nothing. He did not appear to be a patient man, and he tapped his feet as he waited for the arrival of Isawa Fosuta.
Finally, the Onyx Champion appeared from the crowd. He laughed as he moved into the circle. The distinctive cackle reached Takayasu’s bones, sending a shiver down his spine. Ever since birth, undead, ogres, oni, and other creatures of every type surrounded Takayasu. Still, something about Isawa Fosuta made him seem more fearsome than anything in the Shadowlands. “Who are you, boy?” Fosuta sneered.
The old man tapped the mon of the Snake Clan on his chest. “I am Chuda Serimon, Fosuta. I am a blood member of the Snake Clan and I will crush you under my heel.”
Fosuta rose to his full height and his eyes hardened. His voice chilled with anger. “Call me Isawa Fosuta or I will shred the soul from your bones.”
Serimon did not reply, yet his fingers fidgeted nervously over his scroll case.
“And what makes you believe you are ready to face me?” Fosuta asked.
“You have accomplished nothing, Isawa Fosuta!” Serimon shouted. “You are not worthy of the title.”
“A strong accusation from a powerful gossip,” Fosuta said. “Of late you’ve been whispering into every ear who’ll hear it about your great prowess and how you will strip the title from my person. Whispers travel fast, even reaching recluses like myself.”
Serimon nodded and opened his scroll case. “What of it?”
“That is the crux of the matter,” Fosuta said. He grinned, showing yellowed old teeth. “Are you sure you are ready to face me?”
“Of course!” Serimon shouted. He took a martial stance. “I am ready for everything!”
As the words left Serimon’s mouth, the look on his face changed to one of surprise and horror. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and the man collapsed in place.
“It becomes apparent you were not,” Fosuta cackled. “It looks like my presence may not be needed here. A pity. I was looking forward to defending my championship.”
The smile on Fosuta’s face, Takayasu pondered, proved otherwise.
* * * * *
The disappointment of the crowd was palpable to Shahai, even though she was far from the rest of the group. Fosuta laughed one more time as he disappeared into the gathering, his screech cutting through the indistinct murmurs. She frowned.
“How distasteful,” Shahai said loudly.
“He does not have the decency to face his enemy on an even footing,” Daigotsu said. His lips curled with distaste. “But victory forgives much and Fosuta does not lose.”
“He is a coward,” Shahai responded.
“Yes, my heart,” Daigotsu agreed, “but a triumphant coward. In the light of victory, I can forgive all but disloyalty.”
“Disloyalty? Are we speaking of the Onyx Champion?” Hotako said as she made her way to the pair. Daigotsu chuckled and began to walk away from the dais.
“You may have your misgivings but he has done nothing to betray my trust,” Daigotsu mused. He began to walk away, with Shahai and Hotako in step behind him.
“Yet,” Shahai said.
“Yet,” Daigotsu echoed. “Fosuta must stay in line. He may require additional eyes to guarantee it.”
Hotako bowed. “I shall see to it, my lord.”
Without further discussion, Daigotsu nodded to Shahai and turned away. He walked, alone, toward the very heart of the fortress. Hotako frowned. The last time she had seen the audience chamber, the large doors were marked simply with the mon of the Spider. Now, complex protective runes marked every inch of the door and steel reinforced its frame. Daigotsu disappeared into the chamber and closed the door behind him.
“Something is within that troubles our lord. What is in there, Shahai-sama?” Hotako asked.
“What is within guides our future,” Shahai replied, her eyes fixed on the closed door. “We must place our faith within him to find our salvation.”
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