The second in a trilogy of fictions depicting the events of Seeds of Decay, our most recent L5R CCG expansion!
Seeds of Decay: the Mantis
By Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
Daidoji Tametaka stood at the fore of Doji’s Virtue as it cut through the thickening sea air. The weather had been poor all day, and many of the Crane’s vessels in the sea south of the Colonies had returned to dock. However, the Virtue was one of the few ships made to handle the rough weather – one of the few ships that could face the Mantis on the open sea. Like Hachi’s Revenge, the Virtue was a surprise to the Mantis, and Tametaka’s men had already sunk two Mantis vessels easily. The lazy sailors of the Yoritomo were not used to being truly challenged at sea and had grown weak.
The Doji had already seen the value of his ship and the few like it, and soon there would be a whole fleet of them. Cut off from the Empire and slowly becoming shunned in the courts, the Mantis would not be able to keep pace with Crane production in the Colonies. Soon, the Mantis’ vaunted “mastery of the sea” itself would be challenged.
Tametaka looked around, and something in the back of his mind registered alarm. “Watchman,” he called out. “How far are we from shore?” He listened to the reply, but his mind was already racing. The fog that was beginning to roll along the water and thicken was moving in the wrong direction. It was also much too dense. The Daidoji frowned slightly as he realized what was going on. It was a crude but effective trick of the Mantis – their weather shugenja would create a difficult situation for their enemies to fight in by ambushing them in the fog, getting too close to escape from.
Crude, effective, and entirely too easy to counter. They would, of course, attempt to come along the side of the ship so they could board. “Turn the vessel directly towards the fog,” he commanded and reached for his sword. “Prepare archers.”
Something about the fog seemed different than the other time this tactic had been tried and failed against them, but Tametaka could not figure out what. As the sight-impairing fog rolled towards them, he realized that it was just… bigger. The fog was practically a wall, towering over everything. The captain attributed it to the Mantis’ simple need to make everything pointlessly large and ostentatious, and he called out again, “Bushi, ready your-”
The Daidoji captain’s words died in his throat as the fog parted and something emerged from it. In the back of his mind, in a strange, disconnected place, he remembered someone telling him about the Crab years ago. He was told that even though the Taint had been held at bay by the Divine Empress’ will, the Crab and any who faced the Shadowlands sometimes went mad still, or their souls were darkened by what they saw. Beasts of the Shadowlands weren’t simply fearsome – sometimes they would be a thing that a rational mind just could not deal with.
As the impossibly large ship bore down on the Doji’s Virtue, that small part of his mind knew that he finally realized what the man had meant. What he was staring at was obviously a sailing craft of some kind, but it was immense beyond anything the Crane could have conceived of. It was dotted with portholes and odd devices, and it moved fast. So very fast.
The watchman called out, “Tametaka-sama? Orders?” His voice was small and confused.
Tametaka’s mouth tried to move, but he had nothing to say. All he could do was stare on in awe and horror as Aramasu’s Legacy collided with his own vessel, crushing it as a boulder would roll over an insect.
* * * * *
Yoritomo Emoto stood at attention as he waited for the boat to come to a stop. The usual activity and noise of the sweeping ports at Kalani’s Landing were all but gone as the highest-ranking samurai of the Mantis Clan formed a welcoming party for the man who arrived on what could only be called a floating fortress. Emoto had heard of the Aramasu’s Legacy, but had not had a chance to see it as it was being built in Shiro Naizen to the east. To the commander’s left, a Tsuruchi officer’s breathing became a little sharper as he marveled at it.
The tension broke in many ways as a long gangplank was lowered, and after a moment, Yoritomo Hiromi stepped onto the dock. The man known as the Growing Storm narrowed his dark eyes as he surveyed the warriors who had gathered to greet him, and a narrow smile played on his lips. Hiromi grunted quietly in satisfaction and looked back to the boat he arrived on. “Tomaru,” he said loudly, “get out here. Come meet your new commander.” The Mantis Champion strode forward towards Yoritomo Emoto and sized the other large man up.
Emoto met his Champion’s gaze just long enough to show that he was not timid, but not so long that he offered a challenge, and then looked to his side, waiting for whatever it was Hiromi was about to say.
As a man in light armor and small weapons bounded out of the kobune behind him, Hiromi smirked a little. “You look miserable, old man,” he said to Emoto. “Naizen-sama would have had me beaten for letting one of his favorite weapons get into such poor repair. And then he probably would have moved on to you.”
“It is fortunate he is dead, then,” Emoto replied flatly. “I would have hated to embarrass him in front of everyone here.”
Hiromi laughed loudly and clapped his old mentor on the shoulder. Emoto joined his Champion in his laughter, and the two men turned towards the port city that was the seat of the clan’s power in the Colonies. Behind them, the scout waited silently.
“Look at it,” Hiromi said. “He would have been amazed by what we have built here. Sometimes I think don’t get the chance to visit as often as I should. I should thank the Daidoji for starting this war, it’s given me a chance to get out more.” The man took in a deep breath of the salty air and then continued his walk towards the city. Emoto fell in slightly behind his Champion, and Tsuruchi Tomaru made a few quick gestures, indicating several soldiers to form an honor guard behind them all.
“I would have assumed you would have to deal with the political ramifications of what is going on, making it more difficult to escape Toshi Ranbo, Hiromi-sama,” Emoto replied.
“The ImperialCity,” Hiromi said lowly. “Do you know that Doji Makoto invited me to tea the week before I left, Emoto? Tea. As if we would perhaps sit down and quietly discuss a nice way to end all of this where the Crane get to somehow gobble up all of our holdings and we thank them for it.”
Emoto shrugged, “It is in his nature to try. Though I think it is for the best you did not bother. The man is oddly likeable.”
The Champion waved his hand dismissively, “They’re all likeable, Emoto, that’s the problem. They tax you, swindle you in the courts, deride you in plays, and you end up liking them anyway. Oh, yes,” Hiromi said, his mood suddenly becoming serious, “that does remind me. I was told that you had sent in a petition months before the war started to marry-”
Emoto cleared his throat and turned to bark back at the honor guard, “Keep a pace, men! No lagging behind when your Champion is here, or I will have you all on shore patrol by the Crab outposts.” The large commander turned to look back at his Champion and inclined his head. “My apologies, Hiromi-sama. What was it you were saying?
Hiromi looked at the man with a critical eye for a moment and snorted. “Nothing, old man. Let’s forget I said anything.” The two men walked on in silence for awhile, and then Hiromi added, “I’ve brought you a fine officer to help coordinate the effort to get pastTwinForksCity. I understand the Crane have completely cut the port off to all Mantis traffic, even those on Imperial business. Can you imagine such a short-sighted move?”
“The Doji are already pleading with the Governor to re-assign the shipments back to Rokugan to their Daidoji vassals,” Emoto said darkly. “It was not short-sighted at all. They are making it difficult to do our duty to the Empress, which lets them argue that we can’t fulfill our orders and perhaps ‘more able’ men and women should be given the task.” The commander glanced in the direction of theSecondCity, frustration clear on his face. “The Governor has responded as she typically does these days. She has assigned the dispute to the purview of the Kitsuki family. It could be weeks or months before this is settled. Meanwhile, many of our men and vessels are locked to the north.”
Hiromi grunted, “Well, I’m sure you and Tomaru will handle this. You’re probably the most experienced general I have now, and Tomaru is excellent with logistics and planning. He’s been in the Colonies for some time, but I arranged to meet him at the Reach before we took the Vengeance out for a bit of hunting. You should see Naizen’s Reach, Emoto,” the Champion gestured off to the east, invoking Shiro Naizen’s informal name. “A fortress the Crab would respect, and a port that could someday rival Kalani’s Landing here. You would be surprised how easy it was to build slowly, without drawing attention. If the Crane think that the Landing is going to be your only marshaling grounds outside of theSecondCity, they’re going to be in for a bit of a surprise, eh?”
“My marshalling grounds, Naizen-sama? Are you not remaining to coordinate the efforts?”
“I’m here to oversee some of the actions of our soldiers, to boost morale, and hopefully get as much Crane blood on my blades as I can. We’re not like the Akodo, hiding back and forgetting the joy of battle. I’m going to lead the men into a few battles and try to make Kanpeki sit down with me for a day, but no – I must return to theIslandsand then perhaps make a visit to the Unicorn or Crab. We don’t need their help, but it’ll be good to make sure the Crane haven’t tried to poison them against us recently.”
Emoto chuckled, “I thought it was the Scorpion who did the poisoning,” he said.
“Bah, who knows anymore? The only difference between those two clans is the shade of silk they wear when they’re lying to you.” Hiromi ran his fingers along the head of hiskamaabsently. “Now, tell me about what’s been happening here since I was at sea, and how you’re going to get our ships past Twin Forks.”
* * * * *
Tsuruchi Tomaru looked at the letter he had been handed. “Phoenix?” he asked, slightly amused. “I wasn’t aware thePhoenixwere even concerned about this conflict.”
The young attendant – Tomaru hadn’t even learned his name yet – shrugged apologetically. “I do not know for myself what their interest is, Tomaru-sama.”
“Guess,” Tomaru said, looking out over the courtyard in the small estate that had been assigned to Yoritomo Emoto. Life was certainly more straightforward when he was coordinating scouting and mapping of the Colonies, but the Tsuruchi found that if you treated everyone like a soldier, they began to react like one.
“I would say that perhaps their reputation for meddling in conflicts and urging peace has brought them here. Two members of the Asako Inquisitors are an unusual sight outside of theSecondCity, but this is an unusual conflict for the Colonies, I think.”
Tomaru nodded, “I believe I understand. Well, if they’ve come to plead with us for peace, they’ll find that their luck is no better than the Crane’s.” He was about to give the order to dismiss them, but stopped himself. He was the commander’s hatamoto now, and he should begin to act like it. Part of that would be dealing with things beneath Emoto’s notice. “I will speak with them, regardless,” he added. “It would be needless to turn thePhoenixaway rudely.”
“As you say,” the attendant replied, bowing and returning to the inner chambers of the estate. Moments later, he re-emerged, leading two serious-looking samurai inPhoenixcolors.
“May I present Jirou and Rinshi, of the Asako family. They have come representing thePhoenix, though they are honored appointees of the Inquisitors.”
Tomaru nodded and made a curt gesture with his hand, to which the attendant replied by leaving quickly. “I am Tomaru, of the Tsuruchi, hatamoto to lord Yoritomo Emoto, the appointed rinkugunshokan of Yoritomo Naizen in the Colonies.”
The man stepped forward and indicated his companion, “My cousin and I have asked to speak with Emoto, but we understand he is a busy man and I am pleased we could be accommodated all the same. Our request is a very simple one, Tomaru-san.”
Tsuruchi Tomaru nodded, trying to keep his irritation at having to go through the motions to himself. “Of course, Jirou-san. Your clan is famous for its dedication to peace. However, the insult of the Crane cannot go unanswered, and if you are here to petition for us to call off our attacks, I am afraid I cannot comply.”
“Cannot, or will not?” Asako Rinshi asked, her voice as low and dark as her stern face would indicate.
The scout regarded her coolly, but smirked a little. “An understandable question, lady Asako. Let me be clear – I’ve been ordered my Champion to assist in Emoto’s efforts. Emoto-sama is driven by both duty and honor to comply with the same orders. And I can assure in that in both of our cases if we were allowed the great luxury of choosing to determine the course of action here, we wouldn’t abandon it. So we cannot, and we would not.”
Jirou nodded and sighed. “It is, of course, how I expected you to respond Tomaru-san. I am disappointed, to say the least, but not surprised.” He looked away, considering something, and then said, “If I may then make another request on my clan’s behalf – I would insist on sending several scholars and shugenja as observers and givers of mercy to your conflict with the Crane. We would offer this same to the Crane, of course, but we wish to report back to the Empire and Colonies a neutral accounting of this. And we wish to stem the tide of needless death if we can.”
“A gracious offer,” Tomaru said, raising his eyebrows. “One I am tempted to accept on Emoto’s behalf… if it were not for thePhoenix’s well-known friendship with the Crane Clan. I would never accuse thePhoenixof spying or sabotage, but I would have to see you put yourselves in such an awkward position to have to deny your alliance to that clan.”
Rinshi shook her head, “In this action, the Crane are without thePhoenix’s singular aid. They have chosen to instigate this conflict, and we will not compound their folly by encouraging it. For this conflict, our duty is to the sacred flame of life, Tomaru-san. Nothing else. Though we would prefer the hostilities to end, we understand the choices involved in satisfying one’s honor are not always that simple.”
Tomaru looked at each of thePhoenixstanding before him, and after a moment’s consideration gave a quick nod. “Very well, I will inform Emoto-sama of our new… observers. Your timing is fortunate, I suppose. Emoto-sama has begun marshalling our forces for an assault onTwinForksCity. We have decided that waiting on the word of the Governor and the Kitsuki when we already have the sanction of the Emerald Champion is pointless.” He drummed his fingers on his obi for a moment, then added, “Be aware, however, that if your representatives lack your… neutrality, I can’t vouch for their safety. But so long as they act as you’ve said, we will be honor-bound to protect them.”
“That is all we ask,” Jirou said, and both Asako bowed. Without a further word, they left the area, and Jirou let out a quiet breath. “I was not convinced Tomaru-san would be so accepting of our offer, cousin,” he said in a whisper.
Rinshi gave him a sideways glance, “Yes. All it took was us denouncing our honorable allies in the Crane and lying to a Mantis hatamoto. Such a small price,” she said bitterly. “Will this ruse be worth it?”
“Ruse?” Jirou retorted, narrowing his eyes at her as they walked. “There is no ruse. We will aid the lives of the Crane and the Mantis as we can. Of course, if our access to the remote holdings of those clans allows us to find and study hidden supernatural dangers of the old Kingdom, so much the better.” The Inquisitor cast a glance back towards the Mantis estate. “I find this sudden fascination with the teachings of Fudo in the Colonies disturbing. It is dangerous, and we both know the gaijin ruins can only be home to further blasphemies. Something must be done.”
“Something must be done,” Rinshi agreed, looking down.
* * * * *
Smoke hung thick in the air around TwinForksCity, though the city itself was not burning. The waters of the river were choked with the smoldering and flaming husks of dozens of kobune – mostly Crane. The Mantis assault was swift and unexpected, as the Daidoji believed that the Mantis would have waited for the Kitsuki’s judgment before attacking. Yoritomo Emoto stood on the deck of the Third Kama, wondering idly if the Aramasu’s Legacy would have managed to make the trip upriver and utterly crushed the Crane. There was little point, however. Much of the fighting would need to move to the land, where the power of the Legacy as a base was worthwhile but largely irrelevant in this particular case.
They were not here to sack the city, only break the Crane’s stranglehold on the rivers and allow the Mantis fleet through. Already, the ships from closer to theSecondCityhad begun to move past the Crane’s broken blockade, dealing with the remaining archer fire and meager resistance the Mantis had not yet wiped out.
The wind picked up around him, Emoto immediately stood on his guard. He had not passed the order for the Moshi to beseech the spirits for further aid yet. There could be one explanation only. “The Crane have fielded a shugenja!” Emoto shouted over the now howling wind. He doubted anyone off of his boat could hear it, and turned to signal at Tomaru. The quick scout ran to his side and he shouted orders at the smaller man. Emoto knew it would be too late, though – the Crane were not foolish enough to simply expose one shugenja in hopes of turning the tide of the battle.
As the wind spun outward from the Kama, the water was disturbed heavily, and the boats that were still on fire began to spread around, colliding with Mantis kobune that were having a difficult time navigating in the surprise assault.
Tomaru raised a signal fan and made a series of repeated gestures. From one of the boats in the eye of the spiraling winds, a single arrow fired high up, and Emoto watched them. The Crane shugenja had used a circular wind pattern, making direct fire out of it impossible, but they had underestimated the Tsuruchi. As the commander watched the high-arcing arrow fly up, he followed its probable path, and saw an older Crane man standing on one of the walls between the river and the city. With impossible precision, the arrow curved and fell back to the earth, impaling the shugenja perfectly through the throat.
The wind began to die down, but Emoto knew what would come next. He was merely unable to do anything to prevent it.
Daidoji warriors emerged from the undergrowth on either side of the river just to the south of the city. The soldiers lit flaming arrows and began to fire at the kobune that had already begun to burn from the Crane boats colliding with them.
Emoto frowned, remembering that he had not come here for victory. However, he would have preferred to strike and retreat on his own terms. As he watched more Mantis ships join the Crane in sinking to the bottom of the river, though, he knew that the objective he had come to claim was the only thing that mattered. Pride would wait. He looked to the north, where a fleet of Mantis vessels moved south at a quick pace, Moshi shugenja warding off arrow fire easily. They were close enough to his own fleet that they could move as one. The boats would not be sailing with full compliments of crews, so it was all they could do to break the blockade when Emoto’s fleet arrived.
The commander turned to the shugenja that had rushed to his side. “Now, Rukia,” he said firmly.
The young woman in loose green clothes smiled widely, and nodded. “Great spirits of water,” she whispered, “Honored forefather of the Mantis, I call upon you both to aid us…”
Emoto motioned again to Tomaru, who signaled the retreat to the rest of the fleet. As the Mantis boats turned and headed south, a great cheer rose up from the banks of the city, and more Crane soldiers moved to the shores, attempting to get as many shots off against the fleeing Mantis as possible.
Just as Emoto had expected.
The Mantis vessels moved, retreating under Crane archery fire for minutes until they had finally reached a suitable position. Emoto nodded to Moshi Rukia, who finished her prayer with a triumphant cry and brought her hands down in a sweeping gesture. From the clear, blue sky, a blinding bolt of force descended and struck the water far behind the Mantis but close to the southern ports ofTwinForksCity. The lightning let off a deafening report as it made its impact, and the result was immediate.
Driven not only by the strike but almost of its own will, the water of the river swelled on either side of the lightning strike and great waves rose up in an instant and crashed upon the shores. Many Crane that were not immediately killed by the crushing waves were dragged out by the receding water to drown in their armor. Handfuls of Daidoji scouts remained on the land, clutching to anything that would save them, half dazed.
A gentler wave of water pushed out to the south, hastening the movement of the Mantis ships. Emoto walked to the aft deck and glared atTwinForksCity, but smiled tightly when he caught sight of the armada of boats that had survived the conflict. In the time of a week or two, they would make the trip up the river once again, full of soldiers ready to make the Crane finally understand the great depth of their folly.
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