The final installment in our trilogy of fictions detailing the events of the Seeds of Decay CCG expansion!
Seeds of Decay: the Scorpion
By Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
One week ago…
Something was wrong.
As Shosuro Hawado leapt away from the smokescreen she had created behind herself, the Scorpion tucked into a flip and rolled out of a nearby window. Such theatrics were usually beneath her, but she had been seen, and her usual method of escape had somehow failed her. The fact she had been seen at all indicated that something had gone wrong, but as she ran through the paths of the Peasant District in the Second City, she did not have the time to examine just what had happened.
Only a moment ago, she had been standing in the estate known as the Spider Champion’s Palace. The name was mostly in jest, as the property was large enough for someone of Daigotsu Kanpeki’s position, but was hardly opulent or beautiful as the name might imply. Entering the main house was easy enough for one of Hawado’s training – not to mention her unique talents. She had moved from shadow to shadow, as if the darkness enveloped her and she truly became one with it. She had even walked right by one of the Champion’s guards without drawing his attention.
Once she was in the presence of Kanpeki, though… something noticed her. Hawado could not explain how she knew she had been seen, it was almost a tangible feeling like being lightly touched or a breeze against her. The Spider Champion’s guards immediately turned to her, and Kanpeki himself straightened up into a battle-ready pose. Hawado had chosen not to remain and see what would come next.
As she fled, she knew the presence that had spotted her drifted behind her lazily, as if it were carried on the humid air itself. Finally, she realized she would not escape, and spun on her heel, readying both a dagger of jade and one of crystal. She was prepared to meet her pursuer.
She thought she was, anyway.
“I am delighted that you have come to visit,” a quiet voice came from around her, and Hawado saw a massive, serpentine claw reach down to grasp her from above. The ninja danced away to the side… but the claw simply shifted its position to match her movement and wrapped around her torso.
In a strange moment, she saw herself from outside her body, helplessly struggling in the grasp of the Shadow Dragon. “Hawado,” it cooed. “You saved me so much trouble by coming here.” With a delicate flick, the Dragon’s other hand easily tore the mask from her face. “I wanted to know so much about you, and now I have everything.”
Hawado’s mouth opened to scream as the Dragon’s grasp tightened, but the noise died in her throat as she saw her own eyes and face distort and vanish like ripples of water on a pond.
* * * * *
Hawado lay on her mat in the darkness, her breathing coming heavily as she felt a weight on her torso and a grip on her mouth. Her eyes adjusted quickly, and she recognized the eyes of Soshi Kodanshi looking down on her. She had been dreaming, again.
“You were making noise,” he said, clearly annoyed.
Hawado said nothing only glaring up at the man. When his hand withdrew from her face, she let out a long breath. “I do not like this place,” she replied.
In a corner of the room away from the two of them, Shosuro Nobu looked out a window, his dark grey garb illuminated by the pale Moon. “The Colonies are unsettling to us all, Hawadao-san,” he said. “But this is where we know the Goju are most active. Away from the eyes of the proper Empire, the spawn of the Shadow Dragon are far more free to move almost in plain sight.“ He paused, and looked at the woman. “If we are to find the information we seek, it is here. Among the Spider’s heart.”
Nobu turned back to the window, which looked down on a small town established by the Spider a decade ago. It was not heavily traveled, but served as a housing junction for the various resources they claimed and used to expand deeper into the Colonies. The three Scorpion had made their way sleeping in the upper levels of their storehouses when they could. “I believe no one heard us,” he said, looking out to the ground level of the city, “But I cannot be sure. We should move.” He turned to look at Hawado and gave her a calculating gaze. “In your dream, was it the Dragon?”
She stood and readied her few items without responding, only giving the man a glance in surprise and then returning to her preparations.
“Good,” Nobu said. “It means we have its attention.”
* * * * *
My Lord Nitoshi-sama,
You will be pleased to know your package has arrived into the hands of those who have requested it. Shosuro Nobu and Soshi Kodanshi have been given your approval to use their own discretion in their mission, and I have asked no questions, of course. However, I would be remiss if I did not say that the arrival of the package has caused some uncertainty among our kin in the Colonies. They say it is of unusual origin, and perhaps it is a weapon that cannot be trusted to serve its masters.
Questions arise as to why we do not reveal the Spider’s treason to the Empress and expose their alliance with the Shadow Dragon and the remnants of the Lying Darkness. I have assured them that this information must be held until we are certain the Spider cannot disavow or deny the connection. It would be a difficult thing to prove, and this explanation serves for now.
I say this only because you have requested an account of any unusual activity here in the Second City. I have added several reports from our agents in the city for your perusal, but it is my estimation that the theory of the Soshi is correct. Something is amiss in the Colonies, but we cannot say for certain what the cause is. It is no secret that many of the clans and families have chosen to ship their less refined and more aggressive vassals here in hopes of using that to further the goals of exploration and expansion. To that end, the oddities we have witnessed are largely little more than the typical weakness of the simple-minded and undisciplined.
Beyond that, though, there seems to be several incidents that cannot just be explained in this manner. The Lion are holding clandestine meetings and several of their commanders are executing attacks without even the usual flimsy provocation that clan provides. The Phoenix have made a clever, if sloppy, attempt to infiltrate the holdings of the Crane and Mantis. There is a Unicorn leader who has learned of a contingent of Imperials detached to the Second City and is contemplating barring them from Journey’s End Keep.
There is a force at work, here. The Phoenix seem to realize it, but I do not think they understand that they may be influenced by it as well. It is my sad duty to report that even members of the Scorpion might fall prey to this weakness, whatever it is. The most bothersome fact of this is simply that it is difficult to discern what is happening due to this outside influence, and what is merely the questionable activity of questionable people. To that end, the weapon is being deployed by Nobu-san and Kodanshi-san in search of answers.
On another matter…
Bayushi Nomen looked up from her writing desk as a servant entered. “My lady,” the young man said as he bowed low, “The visitor you waited for is here.”
“Show him in immediately,” Nomen said, standing and smoothing out her kimono. The man was early, but she was not entirely surprised. Bayushi Shibata had a reputation for being somewhat unpredictable – but not adversarial to his clanmates. If he was here now, there was likely a good reason for it.
The aging courtier strode into the room with a pleasant look in his eye as he surveyed Nomen’s offices. “A tad small, is it not?” he asked, his tone sympathetic. “You would think the woman almost solely responsible for our communication with the Crab in the Colonies would have been appointed a better space. Perhaps a few more attendants?”
“I find it better that the other clans do not realize I have any duty of importance here. I think if the Crane or Phoenix figured out where to begin driving a wedge between us and our allies, my life would be far more complicated than a few conveniences would be worth.”
Shibata shrugged and indicated Nomen to sit with a wave of his hand, “Please be comfortable, Nomen-san. I imagine this visit might take some time. I do not move as fast as I did in my youth, and I would prefer not to rush matters of delicacy in any case.”
The woman did as was bid, deferring to the elder Scorpion quickly. Nomen knew Shibata was a man with a great deal of connections and it would be wise to be in his good graces. “Of course, Shibata-sama,” she said. “I hope the seating is comfortable enough for you.”
Shibata raised an eyebrow and replied darkly, “Oh? Do you think I am a fragile old man?”
“Of course not, my lord, I simply wish to extend what hospitality I have,” Nomen said quickly.
The old man narrowed his eyes at her as he sat slowly, then let out a low laugh from behind his mask. “Ah, I forget that so few people in this city have time for a little joke now and again. My apologies. In any case, I think you wished to speak to me about the Spider? Or was it the Lion? Perhaps the Phoenix? Certainly not the Dragon…” his voice trailed off as he looked to the side.
Nomen frowned a little, “Shibata-sama, this matter is of some urgency.”
Shibata raised his head a little, and his gaze seemed to become sharper. “Very well,” he said, the friendliness in his voice turning neutral and businesslike. “Let us get to it, then.” He removed several papers from his obi and laid them on Nomen’s desk. “The information you seek. Understand that this knowledge did not come easily, as the Spider are without any trust when it comes to our clan. You must assure Nitoshi-sama that I have done as I was bid.”
“Of course,” Nomen replied, opening the papers and examining the artwork contained on the pages. It was a complex cipher, of course, with the details of troop movement and activities within the Spider being expressed in curves and arrangements in the landscape. “I should not be surprised you learned I was working under the Champion’s personal directive. Perhaps there is some manner of request or commendation I should submit with my report?”
The Imperial Explorer looked down at his hands. “It will be sufficient that Lord Nitoshi knows I still serve without question, despite my activities in the Colonies. I have had to move among the Explorers, the Governor, and the clans in the Colonies and make decisions that could be mistrusted. A great deal of the connections I have made were strained to obtain this information – questions were asked and favors granted that have put me under some scrutiny. However, it is for the clan.”
The woman appeared to listen without reaction, but internally it was concerning to hear someone like Shibata say such things. How difficult had it been for the Spider’s movements to be tracked? How much could they possibly know about how the Scorpion’s gaze fell upon them? As she considered the artwork in front of her, she frowned. “This does not make sense to me,” Nomen said quietly.
“The landscape is-”
Nomen waved a hand, surprising herself at how she interrupted the man, but forged on, “This,” she indicated a series of broken buildings, small on the horizon. “I do not understand this.”
Shibata looked at her evenly and did not say anything for several seconds. “It is an indicator the Champion will understand when you pass it along. I apologize that it is an unusual message, but I could not risk our usual ciphers being broken if it were to be intercepted somehow or stolen.”
“This will not be sent to Nitoshi-sama,” she argued. “I have been appointed his representative in this matter. Explain this to me.”
The older Scorpion fixed her with another silent stare, and then nodded. “Indeed, Nomen. The message is to say we have found something unknown, and it is in the hands of the enemy. Nitoshi would know what it was in reference to, but perhaps he has not shared this information with you.”
Nomen said nothing.
“I will let you know, then, as you are his representative. When the Spider finished with what they believe was the remnants of the Cult of Ruhmal, they took the last ruined temple of that cult for themselves. There was… something they found within. It has been difficult to gain information on what exactly the nature of this weapon is, as our infiltrator near those trusted with it has wisely avoided direct contact with it so far. However, we understand the Spider believe it is something that can cause a great deal of destruction.”
“Is it a relic, some manner of cursed magic?”
Shibata shook his head. “No. I… perhaps it is better that Nitoshi choose to share this information with you. In any case, the Spider have been quietly attempting to test the uses and power of this weapon, and have met with great success. They have ruined entire outposts and small fortifications out in the wild. Things that the rest of the Colonies and Empire would dismiss as acceptable unexplained losses in the expansion effort.”
Bayushi Nomen let out sigh and leaned back. “The idea of the Spider in control of such a thing is … unsettling. Perhaps we should let the Crab know about this.”
“A reasonable conclusion, but needless. Nitoshi-sama has already sent word to the Crab about this weapon. In a fashion.” Shibata flicked an unseen mote of dirt from his sleeve and continued, “It appears the Crab cared little for our tactical assessment of the Spider’s capabilities, merely wishing to know their relative strengths and numbers. I am certain Hida Kisada will put this information,” he indicated the landscape art, “to good use. We have done our part for this alliance.”
“It seems unfortunate timing for the Spider,” Nomen said with only a trace of sarcasm. “I understand there has been some conflict with the Lion, and now the Crab have begun an attack on them.”
“Yes, which is why we did not provide the Crab with our previous information until recently. They were waiting to strike until our initial reports reached them. We, in turn, were waiting for a suitable distraction for the Spider.”
Nomen gave Shibata a confused look. “I do not understand.”
Shibata waved vaguely in the direction of the west. “The Spider have this weapon that can destroy swaths of land, and they are of a mind to test its capabilities. We knew that it was a matter of time before the Crab confronted the Spider, with or without the judgment of the Emerald Champion or Empress. It was simply a question of scale, though Ji-Yun-sama’s judgment has made it all the easier for them to bring about a large force rather than just a series of small skirmishes.” He pointed at a tree in one section of the drawing, “We needed to make sure the Spider had an enemy to focus their aggression on first before our allies moved in for the attack. When the Lion encountered the Spider by mere… ‘chance’, the Spider realized their secret weapon was in danger of being discovered. They decided to attack the Lion rather than allow them the time to scout and spy on them to find out more.”
“You mean the Lion will suffer the brunt of the Spider’s use of this weapon?”
“Of course,” Shibata scoffed. “We would not allow that to happen to the Crab. The Lion would thank us, I suppose, if they saw our hand in this. It gives them an excuse to strike at the Spider as well. In turn, we get to see fewer Lion in the Colonies. A situation we can all be satisfied with, no?”
“So the meeting between the Lion and the Kitsuki several weeks ago…” Nomen muttered aloud.
“Oh, yes,” Shibata said, chuckling a little. “I do feel a little bad for our friends among the Dragon. But they are an industrious people. They enjoy mysteries and puzzles, so when they solve the riddle of what the Spider did, they will find themselves faced with an all new one – what to do about it. Though the duty is completely clear, they are honor bound to avenge the deaths of their clanmates at the hands of the Lion. The Lion will refuse to back down from the fight even to allow the Mirumoto and Kitsuki to investigate, and it’s unlikely they’ll apologize to the Dragon in any way. We should thank the Fortunes for Lion zeal – it will make the path less clear for the Dragon.”
“… and their efforts to stop our manipulation of records of ownership in the Colonies will likely slow as the Kitsuki deal with this more urgent matter,” Nomen reasoned.
“Slow, if not stop completely, yes,” Shibata agreed.
“Quite the enterprise,” Nomen said. “The Crab get what they want from us, and in doing, we are able to further our own goals.”
“Nothing like striking at one’s enemies without losing the life of a single soldier. More satisfying than watching a Crane trip over his own kimono.”
Nomen shook her head, looking at her letter. “Not quite,” she said quietly. “There are some who may lose quite a bit more than just their lives.”
* * * * *
Soshi Kodanshi despised the Colonies. As he struck out at the Spider agent in front of him, the strange, cold fog of the southwestern hills made it unusually difficult to judge exactly where his opponent’s indistinct form ended. They had come here seeking contact with the minions of the Shadow Dragon after it had become clear that none could be captured alive in the settled areas of the Colonies.
His open hand attack went wide, and he tumbled forward in an attempt to mitigate his enemy’s counterattack. Behind him, Shosuro Nobu brandished a crystal blade and swung it in tightly controlled arcs, holding three Goju warriors at bay.
Things were not going well for the Scorpion.
“Back, abominations!” Nobu hissed, and flung something from his off hand. Strange motes of dust hung in the air for just a moment, and the ninja blew out a large breath to propel them further towards the Spider. Dirt, matted powder, and finely ground crystal carried on the air and clung to his enemies, and they staggered back. They were not significantly hurt, but the distraction of the pain and their natural aversion to the substance gave Nobu a moment to turn and assist his clanmate.
Kodanshi lay on the ground, his chest and face against the rocks and earth while a Goju stood with a foot planted firmly on his back and a blade tip resting against his spine. “Foolish of you to come here,” the Spider said to Nobu, and his mask twisted slightly, forming the indication of a smile. “Did you not realize these are our lands? Do you know so little?”
Nobu reached into his wrist brace and produced a small knife, holding it high for a moment… and then launched himself at the thing, barreling into it in an extremely graceless way. He heard a surprised noise escape the Goju’s mouth just as he gutted it with the crystal blade he carried. The Scorpion made a mental note to thank his Hiruma friend for the lesson if he ever made it back to the Second City.
The threat removed, Kodanshi rolled towards the three ninja that Nobu had distracted, coming to his feet and tripping one in a fluid movement. He saw a blur of movement, something like the fog but darker and faster, and he dropped once again to the ground to narrowly avoid an attack from another Goju that had joined the fight.
“A repulsive weapon,” one of the Spider said, stepping towards Nobu with a blur of speed and grasping the arm that held the crystal sword. Nobu bit back a cry of pain as his arm was twisted, and his grip failed. There was a clattering noise as the Spider laughed, “You thought you came prepared,” he mocked.
“You have no idea,” Nobu said through gritted teeth. “Hawado,” he commanded.
There was no dramatic pooling of shadows or condensing of the heat-sapping fog. Instead, Shosuro Hawado was simply there – behind the Goju who held Nobu’s arm. She reached forward with a hand and struck it squarely on the back of the head with her fingertips.
Her fingertips sank slightly into her target’s form.
“I have this one,” she whispered as the Goju let go of Nobu’s arm.
Nearby, Kodanshi moved between the remaining four Spider, only attempting to remain untouched as his opponents sought to trap him. Nobu moved to the fight, quickly beheading one of them with his recovered sword and kicking out the legs of another before they realized he had joined the skirmish.
Prepared as they were, the two Scorpions were suddenly more than a match for their opponents, and they knew it. As Kodanshi made another attack, he felt his hand move through nothing but air. The forms of the Goju faded like colored smoke on a breeze.
The two ninja turned to look at their comrade. “Taking them prisoner has been impossible,” Kodanshi muttered.
“Not now,” Nobu replied, pointing at Hawado, who was holding her captive in the same manner. The seasoned warrior found himself slightly unsettled by the sight of it – her hand was pressed into the Goju’s skull, and where the two forms met, there was a distortion of light similar to the air above a fire. “We need to find the Dragon,” he said to Hawado. “What have you learned?”
Hawado looked at the two other Scorpion. “What do you mean? Did you believe I would be able to simply read the thing’s mind because I am like them?”
Nobu began to retort, but Kodanshi raised a hand. “The why does not matter, Hawado-san,” Kodanshi interrupted. “It was simply a hopeful possibility.”
“Poor Scorpions. If you look for secrets, you should be ready to find them,” the restrained Goju said, suddenly animated.
Hawado’s eyes blinked in surprise as she withdrew her hand. Something was wrong. She felt the presence from her dream. The gaze.
“Nobu, Kodanshi-” she started to try and warn them, but an impossibly fast and powerful elbow strike from the Goju sent her tumbling backward. The two other ninja readied themselves for a fight, but the enemy was upon them in an instant.
Somehow, the Goju never moved, but Nobu saw it dart towards him and strike him firmly in the chest. He felt all of his energy drain out of him, as if he were suddenly exhausted.
To Kodanshi, it was as if the Goju opened its mouth wide – a mouth that had not been there only a second before – and his entire world became a roaring cacophony of air and howls as the Goju’s mouth spread wider and wider until it consumed everything the Scorpion could see.
Hawado regained her footing, and looked at the Goju, who was now standing between her comrades. They writhed on the ground, gasping and moaning. Instinctively, she reached for her crystal dagger, though she knew it would be useless. “I expect you know why we have come for you,” she said. She felt strangely without fear, knowing that if the Dragon had wanted her dead, she would not be standing right now.
The Shadow Dragon smiled – or Hawado thought it was smiling, as the mask was still over the Goju form’s mouth. “Truthfully, no,” it spoke with a voice filled with laughter. “Oh, Hawado, I have been so eager to meet you, but it would be difficult to infiltrate the Empire and find you with all of those Soshi and Yogo keeping vigil over you. But you saved-”
“I saved you so much trouble by coming here,” Hawado interrupted, remembering her dream.
For a moment, the Goju’s eyes narrowed and the mirth seemed to fade from its demeanor. “Yes,” it said slowly, cautiously. “Those would have been my exact words. How interesting. So very interesting. Hawado, you are something of a puzzle to me, something of a mystery that I cannot unravel.” The Dragon regarded the Scorpion at his feet for a moment and nudged one a little. “You are not one of them, you know.”
“Why have you turned against the Spider?” Hawado asked, trying desperately to ignore the implications of what the Dragon was saying.
Laughter echoed in the fog all around her. “Turned against them?” the Dragon chuckled. “My dear, I think you have something in that unique little head of yours a bit confused.”
“Your manipulations in the Colonies are going to lead to a great many deaths among the Spider Clan, Dragon. I would know why.”
Laughter again. “And you believed that I would tell you everything you wish to know because… you demanded it?”
Hawado opened her left palm and dragged her knife against it. Instead of blood, a faint dark substance like smoke drifted out. She waved her hand in the air, and the darkness moved towards the Shadow Dragon… and through it, continuing on. “I believe I have something you wish to know. And you have something we wish to know. You could kill me if you wished, but then you would be left with your unsolved puzzle. Meet with my commander, however, and you will have the answers you seek.”
The Dragon’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but the feeling of a smile never went away. It reached for the drifting substance with a hand, but found it could not grasp or command it.
“So,” Hawado said, looking at her hand. “Do we have a bargain?”
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