In the distant Ivory Kingdoms, the commander of the Mantis forces deals with all manner of threats to the clan’s interests there as well as the Empire beyond.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The blindfold covering his eyes was completely saturated with seawater, and his clothes hung heavily on his frame, dripping with the essence of the ocean itself. The wind tore at his hair and threatened to rip his blindfold off, but he had wrapped it far too tightly for that. “Komori!” he roared above the sound of the sea and the thrashing of a huge, violent beast. He could feel its flesh rolling and pitching beneath his feet and hands. “Komori!”
Above the wind and the thing’s near-deafening roar, a whisper came in his ear. “I believe the creature is preparing to return to the depths,” it said. “You might want to hurry.”
“You are not helping!” he shouted.
“It is most difficult to make out anything at this height,” Komori’s voice replied calmly. “This may not have been the best way for us…”
“Komori!” he roared, his voice dwarfing even the thunder.
“Based on the placement of what I believe to be its eyes,” Komori’s voice came again, sounding exasperated, “then I believe you want to strike roughly sixteen handspans to the left of where you are standing.”
The warrior used a dagger to steady himself, plunging it deeply into the creature’s flesh to stabilize himself as he crossed its hide to reach the designated point. When there, he withdrew the steel spear strapped to his back, honestly little more than a sharpened metal stick. He held it high and brought it down with every bit of strength he could muster. There was a moment of significant resistance, and then the point punched through the thick outer skin. The length of the spear’s shaft sank into the creature’s head, and he kept pushing until only the last few inches of the haft protruded. The creature’s roars took on an anguished, panicked tone, and the previous thrashing became maddened throes like the land shifting during an earthquake. The warrior felt himself thrown from the beast’s back and high into the air. He tumbled end over through the air, the mist of the sea a pleasant sensation on his skin. This is what real freedom is, he thought to himself.
Striking the water was a very unpleasant sensation, something on par with having a tree fall on him. He gulped a huge amount of seawater down, then managed to retch it back up while he was still underwater. He twisted and fought to get to the surface and managed to break up to the air, where he gasped and choked and tore his blindfold off.
“There he is!” someone shouted, and a small kobune drifted over to where he was. A trio men, two of them having pushed their blindfolds down around their necks, reached out and hauled him into the ship. “That was amazing, Kalani-sama!”
Moshi Kalani fell to all fours on the deck and threw up more seawater, coughing and trying to keep some vague hint of his composure. One of the men, an archer, grimaced at the sight. “That is disgusting. Sir.” Seeing his superior’s glare, he brightened. “But you did it! The shipping lane should be clear!” He thought for a moment. “Unless there is more than one of those things, of course.”
Kalani struggled to his feet. “If there is another one, you can have my position, Gidayu.”
“Oh?” Tsuruchi Gidayu said. “Well that’s something at least!”
Kalani waved the other man away. The creature that he had just slain, hopefully, or at least drive far away, had plagued the waters along their route back to Rokugan for months. It was like nothing any of them had ever encountered, and even Anshu’s people had no idea what it was or where it had come from. Since the death of the Ivory Kingdoms, it seemed that all manner of terrible creatures once kept at bay by that nation’s people had since returned to their old hunting grounds. This particular creature had been a massive sea predator that defied description, primarily because anyone who looked upon it went at least temporarily insane. The thing had destroyed two kobune and one of the larger vessels from the Fourth Storm before they had finally identified its rough hunting waters. Forging a plan to kill it had taken months, and required the assistance of Komori, viewing the creature from far away via a spell that let him see through a bird’s eyes. When viewed from far enough away, apparently, the creature was indistinct enough that it could be looked upon and merely result in illness, not madness. Regardless, Kalani did not look forward to seeing Komori. His mood would be foul indeed.
“My lord, do you wish us to signal for the ships to set sail for the Empire?”
Kalani frowned. “We wait one day,” he said after some consideration. “I want scouts on the treeline,” he pointed to the beach in the distance. “If the thing reappears, I want to know about it. I will not risk any more ships.”
“As you say, commander!” one of the men said, then ran to the captain to convey he orders.
“It was a glorious victory,” Gidayu said. “I still think you were mad to attack the thing yourself, no matter what that mad monkey prophet said. Regardless, I was glad to be of assistance.”
Kalani looked at the man curiously. “Assistance?”
“Of course,” he said. “I was firing arrows to assist you the entire time.”
Gidayu shrugged. “The arrow knows the way, allegedly.”
Kalani glanced upward where an arrow was jutting out of the ship’s mast, and said nothing.
* * * * *
When the Wooden Shark returned to port, there were dozens of Mantis gathered around the dock awaiting them. As soon as Kalani stepped off the ship, they began cheering and shouting. They heaped accolades of all sorts on him, making him mildly uncomfortable. Someone shoved a bottle in his hand and he reflexively took a drink. He choked and coughed almost at once, drawing a number of laughs from the men. “This isn’t sake,” he said, handing it back.
“Not enough rice to squander making sake here, sir,” the man with the bottle said. “We found another way. Tastes awful, but it gets the job done!”
“Debatable,” Kalani said. “How much of it do you have?”
“Oh ho!” the man laughed. “Planning a festival, commander? I have plenty!”
“Good,” he said. “Send a dozen bottles to En’you, with my gratitude.”
“Ah,” the man said, his mood immediately suppressed. “Well… yes, commander.”
“Thank you,” Kalani said to the others. “Thank all of you. The deed is done, and we all have a great deal of work to do. Please, back to your duties.” He looked around the group. “Tsuro, will you bring the most recent maps and updates to me, please? I want to review them before they are sent back to Lord Naizen.”
Kalani walked among the wooden buildings in what was rapidly becoming an actual village. Most of them had some stone at the base, but several were made exclusively from wood. It was sturdy and so plentiful, it had proven a simple matter to harvest enough for building. All his men had proper lodging, if a bit cramped, and there was ample storage for the resources they had begun harvesting from the fallen Kingdoms. There was even a small shrine to those that had fallen since their arrival, something that seemed a lifetime ago. He entered the room his men had started to call the meeting hall, pulled off his soaked shirt and retrieved a dry one from one of the crates of supplies that were still stacked around the room’s perimeter.
Tsuruchi Arishia appeared in the doorway. “I have the maps you asked for, sir.”
“How up to date are they?”
The scout commander checked the dates. “These appear to have been finished just two days ago, so allowing for a week to create them, they should have all information my patrols have confirmed up to nine days ago.”
“Outstanding,” Kalani said, holding his hand out for the maps. As he unfurled one, he looked up at his officer. “I understand that you visited the shojo recently.”
Arishia looked slightly startled, then looked down. “I did, commander.”
“I trust all is well.”
Again, Arishia fidgeted. It was the most unsettled Kalani had ever seen her. “It… it was a personal matter, my lord. If you wish to know…”
“The purpose of your visit is not my concern,” Kalani said. “Please just be cautious in your dealings with the spirit. We know very little about it.”
“I have no intention of making it a habit, my lord.”
“That is probably for the best,” Kalani said. He started to say something else, then stopped and frowned. “What are these notations? Who placed these names on the map? Aramasu’s Vigilance? Suitengu’s Torch?” He paused and dropped the map on the table. “Kalani’s Landing? Is this a joke?”
“Uh… no, my lord,” Arishia said. “The cartographer is a younger man named Moshi Higoro. I understand he comes to cartography due to his skill as an artist.”
“Kalani’s Landing?” Kalani demanded loudly.
“He was originally a poet apprenticed to Yoritomo Yoyonagi, but that was not his strength.”
Kalani covered his face with his hand. “Oh Fortunes, a failed poet.”
“I could have the maps redrawn if you like, commander. It would take a week.”
He waved it away. “No, no… that will not be necessary. I do not wish to delay the ships departing for home. But please express to Higoro my disapproval of his naming conventions. I trust they will not be repeated.”
“I am certain, commander.”
“Thank you, Arishia.” He rolled the map back up. “Any significant reports of late?”
“My outermost patrol found two survivors yesterday,” she reported. “While escorting them back to the port, one of them spotted a cult marking on them. I lost a man in the ensuing melee.”
Kalani sighed heavily. “When was the last time we found actual survivors?”
Arishia thought for a moment. “Three months ago, when the patrol found that feral young man in the jungle.”
“Ah, yes,” Kalani said. “There have been too many ambushes. Instruct your scout patrol leaders that they have the option to kill on sight anyone they find in the jungle. I leave it to their discretion whether to trust anyone they find.”
Arishia nodded. “Anshu’s people may be displeased at such a policy.”
“I will deal with that,” Kalani said. “That will be all, thank you Arishia.”
* * * * *
Kalani hesitated for a moment outside Komori’s private residence, listening to the sound of retching and the ensuing, explosive swearing. He took a small step back, thinking perhaps that another time might be better.
“I can hear you out there!” Komori shouted. “Just come in!”
Kalani grimaced, but opened the door and entered. “I thought perhaps you might be feeling a bit better by now.”
“You thought wrong!” the older man roared. “I was staring at that accursed beast for the better part of an hour while you fumbled around like an addled child trying to kill it!”
Kalani shrugged. “Try to look at the bright side.”
“What bright side?”
“You did not have to fumble around like an addled child trying to kill it for the better part of an hour.” Kalani said with a glare.
“Oh, fine, play the hero,” Komori said miserably. “Do you need anything or did you come to delight in my suffering? I could curse you, you know.”
“What kind of priest curses people?”
“The kind trapped in a tropical wasteland for almost a year!”
Kalani stood up. “You are quite insufferable when you are ill.”
Komori sat up sharply. “Is my wife here?”
“Just tell me if your people have done it or not!” Kalani said.
“Fine,” Komori said, lying down again. “Yes, they have managed to sever the connection.”
“Thank you,” Kalani said with a sigh of relief. “I appreciate your assistance. Would you like me to have some soup sent in?”
“Oh Fortunes, he’s trying to kill me,” Komori croaked.
Kalani rolled his eyes and left the room.
* * * * *
The only entirely stone building in the port was a very small one, set apart from the others and placed under guard. Two Yoritomo stood nearby at all times. Kalani nodded at them and one opened the door. He entered cautiously, but the building’s only occupant was chained tightly to the wall opposite the doorway. The gaijin was stripped bare to the waist and covered in a number of strange religious symbols. “Good afternoon,” Kalani said in the strange, pidgin version of the gaijin’s language that Anshu had taught them. When the gaijin did nothing but glare, Kalani smiled. “I want you to tell me everything there is to know about Yuna.”
The gaijin registered very slight surprise. “Do not speak that name! You are not worthy to speak his most holy name!”
“Your dogma is tiresome,” Kalani said. “You might be interested to know that we are now aware that members of your cult were using their blasphemous magic to bolster your will and communicate with you.”
The cultist gave a fierce grin of triumph.
“We have now severed that link. They can no longer sense you, or lend you any form of aid. They will doubtless think you are dead and abandon any hope of retrieving you.”
The man’s face fell. “You lie!”
“Do I?” Kalani asked. “I think you know I speak the truth. And of course now any attempts to extract information from you will be much more… unpleasant.”
“I am not afraid of you!” the man shouted. “You are nothing! Filth!” He spat at Kalani.
“I thought you might think so,” Kalani admitted. “And so I have decided to turn all matters pertaining to your questioning over to one of my subordinates.”
“I fear no samurai!”
Kalani smiled. “We will see.” He stood and opened the door again. Yoritomo Singh entered, his eyes full of malevolent hate, and a blade in his hand. “I need information, Singh,” Kalani reminded him gently.
“I need many things,” Singh said darkly. “Information is but one of them.”
“As you like,” Kalani said. “We will speak later.”
* * * * *
Kalani entered Singh’s chambers later that evening. The gaijin had changed into white robes and was busily cleaning his blades. In the center of the room, where his fire pit was positioned, his clothes from earlier were burning. There was an acrid tang in the air that Kalani found distasteful, and he resolved not to stay long. “I trust all went well.”
“As well as can be expected,” Singh said plainly.
“Does he yet live?”
Singh looked at him with a cold expression and said nothing.
“I thought not,” Kalani said. “I know that you need to quiet the demons inside you, my friend, but I hope that you were able to get information from him before he… passed into the next world.”
“Some, yes,” Singh said. “He says that this Yuna we have heard the cultists speak of is a vessel of the gods, a chosen servant of Kali-ma. It is through him, it seems, that the cultists channel the rituals they perform here in the Kingdoms to the demon goddess back in Rokugan. Yuna consumes a small portion of the power in the process, growing ever stronger as a result.” He stopped and placed his blades on the table. “I think the threat this Yuna poses is greater than we imagined.”
“Do we know where he is? Or how many cultists there are?”
Singh shook his head. “If he knew that, he would not speak it. I think perhaps he did not know.” He looked to his writing desk. “Do you wish me to prepare a report for Lord Naizen?”
“No, that is my responsibility,” Kalani said. “I thank you for your help, Singh. I have been… worried.”
Singh picked his blade back up and absently wiped away a blemish of what seemed like blood. “Whatever for, my lord?”
Kalani said nothing and stepped back out into the humid night air.
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