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Coyote Walks

[TP] The Call for Blood

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The Call for Blood

 

Ideas - Tetsuhiko & Coyote

Words - Coyote

Edited - Raven & Tetsuhiko

 

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             A woman doesn’t travel into the middle of nowhere without a reason. And this middle of nowhere without an especially good reason. No plants grew here, nor did rain fall with any regularity. The dirt was a tired grey, like ash left in the sun too long. And that desolation was all any could see for miles and the woman hadn’t seen another soul since she started walking east from High Tree Village.

 

             This woman bearing the mon of the Hida family moved with great Determination. The pack she carried into this bleak landscape was proof enough of her will to persevere through the dusty and lifeless wilderness. It was so crammed full of supplies that the baggage almost dwarfed her diminutive frame. And in spite of her burdens, she continued on her journey.

 

             No Shugenja went into the Kuni Wastelands without meaning to, especially one that wasn’t a Kuni. The area was completely devoid of the influence of the Kami, a price the Kuni family paid to remove the taint from their lands in centuries past. Without the fundamental Elements of the world present, plants will not grow, rain rarely falls, and the stars struggle for a reason to shine. No spirits existed in the dusty expanse this priest journeyed through and it showed. The sapphire blue of her robes were turning grey near the hem, the dirt of the wastelands clung to her clothes like it was trying to suck the color out of them. She paid it no mind since she came to this desolate place to find answers and she wasn’t going to leave until she found some.

 

             In the past few years the Dark Lord had travelled on to Jigoku and the Clan he left behind had declared war on her second family, the Chuda. The woman did not care, she had found a new home with her loving husband and the Crab. He gave her a reason to love the Empire he defended with his life. This wife was firm in her desire to see her husband reborn into the kharmic cycle so that they could be together again. This Hida would use her maho and the blood magic she developed to stay alive, to stay young, and to hear him sing for her again. Then her life would once again be Perfection.

 

             But someone was trying to take away the love of her life, and erase him from all memory. His name was no longer chiseled onto the memorial at Kyuden Hida, his ashes were gone, and even all of her mementos of him were missing from her home. Even as she used her dark magic to suck the last minute of life from her husband’s best friend, that so-called friend screamed that he didn’t know who she was talking about. Someone was trying to unmake the best part of her and that was something that Hida Ruri would not abide.

 

             So she now stopped and stood now in front of a pool of water, twenty miles due east of Midaki sano Mura, it was the only water she has seen for twenty miles. This is where her divinations told her that she would find out who took her husband away from the hearts and memory of Rokugan, the Empire he loved almost as dearly as he loved her.

 

             The pack dropped off Ruri’s back and hit the ground with a big puff of dust. She didn’t have time to prepare her rituals, as a fog not made by dirt suddenly came to encircle her. A roar, like how she imagined a Dragon sounded, emanated from the suddenly appearing clouds. She set her Will against it, whatever it was. She could feel the presence of spirit-like things in the mist, beyond her sight and the former Chuda gathered her Strength against them all. The former Soshi would take back what they stole from her and they would feel her wrath. All that mattered was that she was a Hida now and she would take back the memory of the glorious man who gave her that name. Hida Ruri planted her feet into the dead soil of the Crab lands and refused to yield.

 

             The mist and the things in it retreated to the horizon as the Jade Sun was revealed again to her. But it started moving much faster than it should and it sank below the mist in front of her, to the East. Darkness came as the dawn flared down, the stars danced in a way that no mortal should see, and the evening brought the light of day back to the Kuni Wastelands.

 

             The sun made this backwards journey from west to east again and again, more quickly each time. For a few minutes the light did not come, but soon the backwards days began their unnatural trek once more. How that specific Knowledge came to our mind is unknown, but Ruri remembered the stories of the Twenty-Seven Days of Darkness and realized that that piece of history had just slipped by her. Hours past as the days rewound and every once in a while, the shugenja glimpsed people traveling backwards past her at speeds that made them seem like they were flying. It felt like more than week had passed since she started resisting the unseen force that could undo time. Soon, the backwards days revealed water and decayed plants about her and as they aged in reverse, color returned to the environment around her. The land was still dead, but soon it wouldn’t be. That Insight would save her life very soon.

 

             More than one hundred thousand days had raced past her, but she would not yield. Ruri would not be undone, she had too much to do to give up. She had to take back her husband and make sure the things that took him would not take his Empire and she was determined to stop them.

 

             All of a sudden, life resurrected in the land that was ash and waste a few minutes before. Trees revived to their full height while birds bounced in the air and froze, then the sun stopped in the eastern sky for a second. The noises of the world boomed around her as time resume a normal course and let the birds fly as though they hadn’t been dead just moments before. Ruri hadn’t noticed the absence of sound until that instant and it deafened her.

 

             The thing in the mist and its minions were gone, leaving Hida Ruri alone in a land full of life and Taint. She had won the first round and driven off something to could unmake time, now it was time for the shugenja to take Control of the next encounter.

 

 

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             Tap tap tap

 

              “I realize that this is painful. But you must understand that the power you are receiving comes at a price,” Kokujin said. He tried to use words that were consoling, but his voice reflected the menace in his heart. The prone form of Isawa Kido laid out on the table merely grunted in pain.

 

             Tap tap tap

 

              “There is no shame in crying out, Kido-san,” the crazed monk told her. Try as he might, some parts of his past history as a Dragon could not be discarded. Like the urge to taunt the arrogant Phoenix Clan. This one was beautiful and cold, like many of their maidens were. She had come to him and haughtily demanded a tattoo so she could fight in Iweko Seiken’s army. So here she was, letting the few tears she couldn’t stop do the wailing for her.

 

            Tap tap tap

 

             He promised her a special tattoo. A phoenix on her upper back that would enhance her ability to fight. Kokujin could tell from the way this Isawa carried herself that she was favored by the Air Kami and was schooled in the ways of illusion. She needed more than illusions and air spirits if she was going to fight Tomorrow. He needed her to have more power if they were all going to strike a blow against the monstrosity that had entrapped them all. He needed Tomorrow to bleed if he was going to gain its power.

 

             Tap tap tap

 

             A few more strikes into the alabaster skin of Isawa Kido and they would be done. The wickedly barbed tool was coated in Kokujin’s lastest mixture. To mask his own influence on the tattooed, the monk tried a formula for the ink that included the blood he recovered from the arm of Isawa Norimichi, the Phoenix Master of Earth. The plan succeeded in that the pesky Master of Void couldn’t sense his influence, but otherwise failed. His human pawns weren’t strong enough. The ogre, Masajiro, was a good start. But having to hide his genius from the Rokugani was resulting in tattoos that will fail.

 

             Kokujin stopped his hammering and took a moment to look over the completed work. Is was a Phoenix mon wreathed in flame. And just like he promised, it would allow her to fight in his army. Just not in any way that she imagined. He could sense the latent power waiting to be tapped within his work and he could already tell that the blood from his latest acquisition was an improvement over the old recipe.

 

              “Get out,” the monk said brusquely. “Go report to your lord. He’s planning something that I’m sure you’ll be useful for.”

 

             The bruised and inked Shugenja sat up and slid her robe up to regain some modesty. She didn’t thank the monk or even look at him, she merely muttered one word before fleeing the room. “Bastard.”

 

             Kokujin paid her no mind after she left. In fact, she was no more important than a shogi piece to him after he’d finished the tattoo. His mind was already on to greater glories, new designs, and formulas. As the insane creation of Togashi plotted his next move, he wander to the back of his studio. He had discovered before being removed from Rokugan, that he could ward a small room from any sort of detection using skin and ink peeled from his own body. The wards only lasted for a lunar cycle, so it wasn’t a technique he employed often.

 

             Sliding open the partition allowed noise to finally come out of the confined space. Until he entered and closed the door behind him, that was. Once inside, no one could hear him or his guest. Not that his guest was going to say anything. The older man was bound in a kneeling position and gagged with an old rag that was turning red around his mouth. His eyes glared up Kokujin the same way his grandfather’s did, with shame and hostility.

 

              “You should be happy to learn that the new mix is working much better now that I have added your essence,” the darker monk said to the beaten monk. “And once I have Tomorrow’s blood and control over time, I’ll put you all back where you belong.”

 

             The man covered in tattoos crouched in front of his captive. “Doesn’t that sound nice?” he asked of the less tattooed man. “I’ll also be able to finally clean up all of your grandfather’s mistakes, Satsu-ko”

 

             Togashi Satsu voiced not a single utterance but let his eyes do the talking for him. He would break these bonds, bring a stop to Kokujin’s madness, and beat him senseless in the process.

 

             Kokujin chuckled as he stood up. “You are welcome to try,” he replied with a sneer.

 

 

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             Asako Kaitoko almost missed the Naga sitting serenely in the beam of sunlight that came into the Ranger dojo. She was so still that she looked like a well painted statue. Kaitoko wasn’t entirely sure that the Naga known as Uloochi was breathing. But she was sitting upright and the head of the Rangers was reluctant to disturb anyone while they were meditating.

 

             Behind Kaitoko, a waif of a woman dressed in crimson waited silently. She bore the convoluted mon of the Shosuro family and a dark mask that covered her eyes and the top of her nose. Her head moved slightly as she looked about the dojo. The small, almost child sized, woman squeaked in surprise when she heard a voice speaking.

 

              “I smell rat. Have you been to see the Nezumi, Ranger Kaitoko?” the Naga asked. After asking her question, she slowly opened her eyes and turned her head to look at the head Ranger and her guest.

 

             The Asako Inquisitor gave a sideways glace to her shoulder but did not turn her head to look at the person behind her. Kaitoko was very displeased with the Naga’s lack of manners.

 

              “No, Uloochi-san. I have a volunteer with me, Shosuro Shiho, who I would like to send along with one of our more experienced people,” the Phoenix responded. “Is anyone available?”

 

             The Naga cocked her head a little, as if pondering the human’s question. Or perhaps it was a lack of understanding of what was being asked. Either way, the snake woman remained silent as she sat there looking at the head Ranger of Yogen-Sha Toshi. Asako Kaitoko was beginning to get irritated.

 

              “Where is Kitsune Hayashi?” Most Rokugani would take offense at the bluntness of her question. But this was a Naga, she told herself. Kaitoko’s anger allowed her to rationalize her break from decorum.

 

              “The Hayashi thinks that something is wrong with the maps. Rangers are arriving before they should. He has gone to investigate and to find a piece of himself before it is lost,” was her calm response. If the one who called herself Uloochi was offended, she gave no outward sign of it.

 

              “Is Shinjo Shono-sama here?” was the Isawa’s next question.

 

              “Ranger Shono has gone to search for the great Moto Chen. He left this morning,” the Naga told her.

 

              “Kitsune Denhei?” Kaitoko asked.

 

              “Out with Ranger Akira,” Uloochi replied.

 

              “Then direct me to Togashi Taiki,” the head Ranger demanded.

 

              “He and Ranger Minoko are out searching for a Champion of the Dragon Clan. They did not give a name. Ranger Taiki also wanted to find a book called Niten,” she answered. The Naga woman was about to say more when another voice joined the conversation.

 

              “Perhaps I can help.” The voice belonged to a youngwoman, who walked into the dojo right at that moment. She looked ready to journey outside of the city, dressed as she was in her Mantis green armor and travelling pack.

 

             Asako Kaitoko turned and gave a relived bow to the woman wearing the white head scarf with a green jewel on it. “Perhaps you can, Aranai-san.”

 

 

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             Michio pondered the scene before him as he ate a rice ball. The scarred and tanned warrior bearing the Spider mon that Michio encountered in the Grey Mist was facing off against sixty plague zombies on a mountain flat. They had wandered out from the mist onto this mountain range and found the things feasting on what appeared to be lizard men. The masked man who claimed his name was Daigotsu Kotoba flew into a rage and attacked.

 

             While the Spider monk had no love for zombies, he felt that it would be helpful to understand what this strange samurai was capable of. Since he seem to have an affection for the dismembered Zokujin, as he called them, Michio felt it was best to allow him to handle the situation. Besides, weak samurais have no place journeying alongside him.

 

             The first wave fell with a slash of his katana as he pulled the weapon from its saya. This was no florid maneuver of Iaido, but a brutal opening attack that left no room for mercy of its victims. Had these been living, breathing people, their bowels would have been sliced open and they would have bleed to death in a horrific manner. As it was, the sword cut easily enough through the rotten flesh and hit their spines. They all fell back, unable to use their legs and several of the undead were even cleanly cut in half.

 

             Acting in their usual mindless ways, the sitting sohei watched as the unarmored ghouls rushed to their second deaths. Two score of the lifeless things charged at Kotoba, backing him to the edge of a cliff. But it was the fifteen zombies in samurai gear that grabbed Michio’s attention. They slowly drew their weapons and made no move to advance on him or the Daigotsu he was observing. None of them seemed as if they were self-aware, which meant that something controlling them had to be nearby or this was an entirely new breed of undead.

 

             His answer came when the masked Spider seemingly stepped backwards off the cliff behind him. The momentum of the peasant and ashigaru corpses didn’t stop and they all rushed off the mountaintop after their living prey. Michio slide his eyes over to the group of bushi imposters and continued on beyond them to a nearby peak poking out of the mist. On it stood a creature dressed in Scorpion red, watching him. Its eyes were sunk into its head but they still possessed the same cunning they held in life.  The monstrosity that was once Bayushi Paneki had escaped the destruction of Rokugan and was now marauding inside the Grey Mist of Tomorrow.

 

             The Spider monk was about to reach for his naginata when a flash of copper flew into the horde of corpses. A magari yari was lodged in the neck of was once a Crane samurai, stopping it from being able to do anything but fall. The weapon crumbled into stone a bits of metal as it hit the ground. The collective attention of the zombies was turned from the sohei to Daigotsu Kotoba who once again stood on the edge of the cliff. A sudden red glow from the eyes of his mask was the only precursor to his next attack. He rushed forward at the largest of his foes, holding his katana horizontally as he sprinted into the throng of undead hunger. Normally, such a maneuver was used to impale the target’s chest or belly. Kotoba’s grip twisted during the last step and his thrust pierced the soft tissue of its jaw.

 

             The dark samurai had to withdraw his blade quickly to avoid being trapped underneath the falling body. His sword was able to cut off the legs of three more opponents as the Daigotsu spun underneath their armor, but that didn’t stop them from trying to kill him. Had there been fewer of these undead, Kotoba would have seen the strike coming that Michio saw. A plague zombie wielding a tetsubo stuck the masked Spider in the chest hard enough knock him back twelve feet onto his knees and sent his sword flying off.

 

             Michio heard the strange Daigotsu say a word that no human mouth should be able to say. A Zokujin word that called for the aid of the spirits of the earth. He didn’t worry himself with why he could understand it, instead the monk focused on how the samurai wearing the Zokujin Helm of Words, ‘Ktbkji’, would use it.

 

             The eye holes in Kotoba’s mask seemed to glare at the tetsubo wielding zombie as it thundered at him. With his left hand, he raised a stone and metal yari from the earth beneath him that entered easily through the undead’s eye socket. With his right hand, he drew forth a no-dachi from the stone that bore a wicked edge of obsidian. Limbs began to fall with his attacks, as if they were being hacked from dead trees.

 

             Michio focused away from the samurai’s impressive display of anger to see the puppetmaster take his leave from the stage. The Disgrace that had been known by the name of Paneki seemed to lose interest in the performance of his pawns. The warrior monk wondered what such a creature would have as a purpose in such a place as this. By the time that Daigotsu Kotoba was done dispatching all of zombies, the once Master of the Order of Spider found himself no closer to an answer.

 

 

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              “So I take it you’d rather not by paired up with that Naga, Shosuro-san?” Yoritomo Aranai asked her new travelling companion.

 

             The scorpion woman, who went by the name of Shosuro Shiho, looked as if she was barely past her gempukku. She shifted uncomfortably on the seat of the flat bottom riverboat that the two of them had taken from the docks discovered not too far north of Yogen-Sha Toshi. The small craft was the type used to navigate slow rivers and shallow channels. Even though they had no idea how deep the watery path through the mist was, Aranai was able to skillfully propel them forward with a simple pole.

 

              “I… I am not sure… how to deal with such a person,” the quiet Scorpion said haltingly.

 

             The Yoritomo behind her suppressed a chuckle. “I can imagine. Asako-san told me that you came from the ninth century. Nagas were legend and the Mantis were a far off Minor Clan. The future can be a forbidding place.”

 

              “I was born then but those days are gone. I should thank the Fortunes that I don’t remember much of that time,” Shiho almost whispered. The women let silence sit between them for a while after as neither wanted to continue that line of conversation.

 

              “We’re almost there,” the woman in green announced. “The map said to go four miles upriver and then follow the warm air. And I would know that smell of the Shinano River anywhere.”

 

             This mist brightened as the air got warmer and thicker. Their small boat broke out from the cloying fog and made its way to the busy docks of Twin Forks City. The morning was in full swing as fishermen and porters loaded and unloaded the many boats that were moored there. It was a lively city filled with the sounds construction and industry.

 

             As they got closer, Aranai glanced about with eyes narrowed in suspicion. She cocked head, as if listening for a particular sound. The woman in Scorpion robes didn’t realize anything was amiss until they were standing on the dock.

 

              “It seems smaller than you described, Yoritomo-san. Are you sure this is the right place?” She asked the woman that was leading her into the city.

 

             Aranai turned and looked at Shiho. “This is Twin Forks City. But the Twin Forks City twenty years too soon. Something is very wrong.”

 

             The alarmed look in the Shosuro’s eyes could be easily seen behind her customary Scorpion mask. “The Naga!”

 

             The woman who would have been known as the Warlord shook her head. “The Dark Naga’s forces aren’t going to be a problem here for at least twenty years. It can’t be them.”

 

             This time the younger women shook her head. Her tongue made a noise that almost sounded like chittering. “I mean the Naga back in the City. She said something about maps not working. Rangers showing up too soon.”

 

             Aranai was about to respond to her travelling companion when she felt her attention being drawn back to the docks. What she saw drained the blood from her face and chilled her gut despite the tropical heat. The Grey Mist of Tomorrow was back on the river and something was moving around in it. Make that several somethings. One of those somethings came out from its cover and plowed into a nearby fishing boat. The boat and all aboard dissolved into a screaming mist. Their voices were the last thing to be unmade.

 

              “I wish that was the worst of our problems, Shosuro-san. I need to evacuate these people immediately. Go down that road behind you, turn right at the big intersection. The Daidoji barracks should be there, maybe a third of a mile. Get as many of the Samurai there to go with you out of the city,” Aranai commanded. “Go!”

 

             The Scorpion squeaked at her shout, but to her credit, she turned and ran the way she was told to. Yoritomo Aranai put the young woman out of her mind as she ordered all the hemin and samurai within the sound of her voice to follow her.

 

 

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             It occurred to ‘Shosuro’ Shiho while she was leading a group of survivors away from what was once Twin Forks City that she couldn’t keep pretending to be useless. Acting like she had no idea of what was going on was easy enough, since she didn’t. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t been in the Grey Mist before, unlike these weeping creatures that called themselves men. But if she was to survive, her best chance lie in her group surviving.

 

             The other people in her group were all scared ashigaru. These peasant warriors had just seen all their commanding officers among the Crane reduced to a wailing fog. Along with a few buildings, the street, and the path back to Yoritomo Aranai. A few of the ashigaru kept hold of their weapons with white-knuckle grips. The others dropped them when they ran screaming from the monsters.

 

             The young woman wasn’t even sure of what she had witnessed. The things that attacked were indistinct, like the hemin of Yogen-sha Toshi used to be, but made of smoke instead of flesh. They looked like some sort of flying snake or a painting of a dragon she’d once seen. The details of the voracious beast were hard to make out as parts of their translucent forms would fade from view randomly. Those that stared too long joined them in the mist.

 

             Shiho had wanted to join back up with the future Yoritomo Warlord but the way had been closed. So she did the only thing she could and ran directly away from the carnage. The smart and the scared followed her. She had never considered the Crane to be either of those things and she wasn’t surprised that none of those samurai followed her out of the city.

 

             The jungle changed immediately to the Grey Mist once they reached the tree line. She assured the terrified men that she knew the way to another city, a place they would be safe. If they could just make it through the mist there, she’d believe those words herself. After the first hour of walking, much of the adrenaline from their flight had worn off and shock had set in, rendering most of her entourage silent. A small voice inside her began to whisper words of hope and encouragement.

 

             That voice died when the screaming began. Shiho instinctively drew her wakizashi as she spun around in alarm. Initially, all she saw were the panicked men and the Grey Mist around them. Then the beasts that attacked Twin Fork City stuck and more screaming voices joined the mist.

 

             The first of these mist dragons came at them from the right. It flew around sinuously in the air like any Rokugani would expect a dragon to move. This close to the aberrations, Shiho could see that their eyes were the last rays of sunset. She couldn’t remember anything more about what she had seen of the fiend, her mind was too focused on survival to worry about petty details. That focus allowed her to duck out of its way and to raise her blade to where her head once was.

 

             She wasn’t sure if had stabbed it, but her wakizashi had definitely encountered resistance of some sort. She heard the jaws of the ghost serpent tear off a chunk of flesh from the spearman behind her. She turned and saw the man dissolve from the bloody wound at his side, like a child’s candy dropped into a stream. Another of the beasts dived down to make her a part of the dead fog. The once-upon-a-time ninja rolled away and the mist dragon darted after less agile prey.

 

             No matter how much she dodged and slashed and stabbed, the screams kept coming. The voices made their way into her head until she couldn’t take anymore. She finally remembered why the Shosuro had once given a girl named Shiho to the Lying Darkness right after her gempukku. She had too much pride and not enough On. If these dragons were going to visits such horrors upon her, she would return that villainy on them. The Darkness had made her into a monster and she would become that monster again to defeat these aberrations.

 

             Her lustrous, long black hair faded to grey and then faded from all view. The robes she wore lost all quality and turned black. The features on her face and mask melted together into a colorless mass that vaguely looked like a head. Then it further receded into a skull like shape and a hood appeared on her head. Her skeletal left hand struck out and grabbed the next mist dragon that lunged at her.

 

             She could feel the creature’s connection to Tomorrow and how it and the others like it cleansed the body of Time and Fixed Events. It meant to undo her, to make her food for the time-eater. She had seen too many times what happens when a person is unmade and she wasn’t going to submit to that annihilation without a fight.

 

             She felt the power within the dragon-thing and turned it against the fiend. Instead of reverting to mist, it shrieked and collapsed into a glowing ribbon of dying twilight. The glimmering string gently brushed against her hand and then violently rushed inside of her. The hunger was within now, greater than anything she had felt before. The insatiable appetite of Tomorrow gnawed at her and so she took another of its minions.

 

             Shiho became as the dying star, glorious and terrible while consuming all around her. The dragon-minions of Tomorrow were the first to fall to her gravity. They struggled like fish against a mighty current, ultimately failing and adding to her radiance. The corporeal beings she tried to rescue from Tomorrow’s hunger became the next to feed hers. Their bodies fell into her light and never emerged. Even the Grey Mist was sucked in, leaving nothing in a half mile radius around the luminous Unmaker.

 

             The hunger and her glow subsided as Shiho regained her sense of self. She found herself alone in the center of nothing. The mist, the monsters, and the screams were gone. No one was left to lead back to the City of Prophets. No evidence of her struggle remained save the wakizashi of a Shosuro from long ago.

 

             Looking at the weapon from the 9th century, she wanted to return to person. To once again take up that pretty mask of the past. But the flesh was not willing. She chittered in annoyance as she easily morphed into all the ashigaru that were once travelling with her. The specter was even able to change to and from a number of people she remembered unmaking in Rokugan. She just couldn’t return to the beginning and who she once was.

 

             That young women born to the Shosuro family was now lost to history, never to return. Realizing this, Ninube Shiho reverted to her Nezumi form and collapsed as she wept.

 

 

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             Ikoma Akiyama sat along to wall of the war room with Yasuki Jinn-Kuen and a number of his indistinguished scribes. They were keeping themselves busy recording the proceedings and were, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the rest of the room. It didn’t bother Akiyama in the least, as he understood the value of listening, but he was amused that a Daimyo of the Yasuki family would tolerate such treatment.

 

             The Keeper of Armies brought his attention back to the center of the room, where she stood at a table with what passed for a tactical map of the inside of Tomorrow. She had just finished presenting to Iweko Seiken the current strength of the City’s Army.

 

              “Simply put, we do not have enough forces for an offensive of this scale,” Matsu Tsuko concluded. The slight emphasis on that last word told Akiyama that Tsuko didn’t fully trust the information she was given. Her body language was that of a general that expected to be obeyed and listened to.

 

              “You mean that you haven’t come up with a strategy that you think will work, Matsu-san,” Iweko Seiken corrected her. The Keeper of Records saw the Lion Champion clench her fists under the table. Were this anyone but a member of the royal line, Akiyama suspected that she would have flipped the table over and beaten him with it. As it was, most of the room looked away after those dishonoring words.

 

             The Naga, ever immune to any Rokugani sense of propriety, did not look away and came to Tsuko’s aid. The Qolsa was in the meeting as the representative of the Rangers and the Naga, and he had no compunctions in speaking against the Imperial Heir. “The Keeper of Armies is correct. The warriors that would be fielded are too few. Most of the Rangers that have encountered the minions of the Time-Eater are now lost to the mist. A wise war leader understands what they fight against. We still do not understand the Time-Eater or its children.”

 

             The words of the Naga gave an opening to the Keeper of Courts, who looked like he was waiting for the right moment to say his piece. Susumu Takuan approached Seiken and gave a respectful bow. “My Lord, there is merit in what the Qolsa says. We need to know what we are fighting if we are to seize victory here. A defeat could be quite demoralizing at this stage of the City’s development-“

 

              “Enough!” Seiken shouted as he cut the Spider courtier off. “I promised the Rokugani of this city a victory over the beast that besieges us. And you so-called Keepers want to hide in this little oasis and pretend you’re Champions? Ha! And you, Qolsa-san, siding with these cowards. Is that why the Three Legged Fox likes you so much? You both lack any sense of honor or glory?”

 

              “The Hayashi, just like the Iweko, strives for the betterment of the world,” the Qolsa said, referring to his people’s title for Seiken’s mother. “And neither of them would belittle the Naga in anger.”

 

              “Then I hold you to your oaths. Show me your valor. You and the Keeper of Courts here will accompany me to the front lines in two days and you will both learn to respect my wisdom,” the son of the last known Empress of Rokugan declared.

 

             His yojimbo, Kakita Toshimoko, place his hands on his daisho and the message was clear. There would be no disobeying this order. Yasuki Jinn-Kuen and Ikoma Akiyama turned to look at each other and silently share a worried look.

 

 

************************

 

 

             Yoritomo Aranai and her group of refugees had been walking for hours when they came out of the Grey Mist into a wide flood plain. The craftsmen and porters she had spirited away from the docks of Twin Forks City were overcome with joy to see the sun again. They hadn’t seen anything since they made their escape and they were relieved to have finally made it to safety.

 

             The Mantis samurai looked around in confusion. The City of Prophets was nowhere in sight and this unkempt watershed looked nothing like the farms around the city. The air felt to her like that of southern Rokugan, lacking the oppressive humidity of the Colonies she was so familiar with. She didn’t know this place and she was eager not to over stay her welcome. While the hemin relaxed, Aranai found a rise with a fallen tree on it to keep watch.

 

             None of the creatures that attacked the Crane river town followed them as she led the survivors of the docks away. The Yoritomo feared that she had somehow sent the Scorpion she was traveling with to her death, since the monsters didn’t seem to be interested in her doings. Her original plan was to meet up with the Crane that the Shosuro should have found, but the back alleys that Aranai remembered sent her entire group into the Grey Mist. At that point, all they could do was try to return to Yogen-Sha Toshi and hope for the best.

 

             Movement beneath her feet drew the samurai’s attention. Something was crawling from underneath the log she sat on. An arm with barbed talons reached out, quickly followed by the head of the creature. It was round and smooth, with no features that could be considered a face. But the oni did have a mouth, a mouth filled jagged stone teeth that split its head like a crescent moon.

 

             The fiend didn’t even have a chance to make a sound before Aranai’s kama had cleaved into its skull. She left her weapon suck through the monster and into the log in case it decided to move again. She was about to warn the peasants when the screaming began.

 

             Looking around, the cries came from two different spots. To her left, a group six of fishermen were on their hands and knees vomiting blood. Plants they had eaten were discarded around them. On the right, two men were being garroted by a willow tree. In between were the rest of the survivors, huddled together and visibly frightened of the place they had found themselves in. The path to the tree was on solid ground so the Yoritomo ran over there first.

 

             A priest could stop sickness, so maybe I’ll be able to stop a tree, she reasoned. Once the Mantis warrior was in reach of hanging pair, the willow leashed out with it whip-like branches. She would cut and more of the animated greenery would grab at her. The ground soon became slick with the blood that dripped from the severed branches. The more she fought the possessed flora, the more desiccated the dangling porters looked. The willow dropped its first two victims and the vine-like appendages that held them moved to entrap Aranai.

 

             The samurai was able to kick back and avoid becoming the tree’s next meal. It was only after she stood up, that she notice that another person was under the willow’s canopy. An eta woman, one of the untouchable, lay prone next to the tree’s trunk. A half-eaten fruit lay next to her as her unmoving body remained undisturbed by the ravenous plant.

 

              “If you want to live, you should leave this place”, a voice called out loudly.

 

             Yoritomo Aranai spun around on her heel at the sound of the feminine voice. On the log she sat on but a few minutes ago, stood a woman at least ten years her junior wearing Crab colors and a scroll satchel. She hopped down and easily wrenched the kama from the fallen tree and the dead oni. A whispered prayer to the kami had the bladed cleansed and the demon burning in short order.

 

             Aranai waited until the Crab shugenja handed her back her weapon before she asked the obvious question. “Do you know how to get to Yogen-Sha Toshi from wherever this is, Crab-san?”

 

              “These were once the Kuni Wastelands, Yoritomo-san. Tainted and teeming with poisonous plants, murderous trees, and odd faceless oni,” the Crab woman said as she smiled politely at the Mantis.

 

              “So you’re a Kuni then? That explains much,” Aranai remarked dryly.

 

              “I’m actually a Hida by marriage. And don’t worry, the way back to y-“, the unarmored woman said, but then stopped as she looked past the refugees. “Oh my! That isn’t supposed to happen.”

 

             The three corpses under the deadly willow tree stood up and were walking towards the group. The Yoritomo Warlord made quick work of the weak zombies, as the two porters had been drained by the tree to the point of being paper and bones and the eta was never very strong to begin with.

 

             A flash of green light drew Aranai’s attention behind her to the fact that the six fishermen that she assumed were dead were now attacking them too. The Hida shegenja was able to stop one of blood soaked undead, but the other five were now eating three of the survivors. Save but a few, the remaining hemin panicked and ran. The ones that stayed picked up heavy rocks to throw at the zombies.

 

             The hungry dead were soon put down and the Hida woman thanked them all for their assistance. “If you head due east from here along the dry path, the way will suddenly change to north. When that happens you should be able to see your city.”

 

              “You have been most helpful, Hida-san. You will come back to the city with us, won’t you?” Yoritomo Aranai asked.

 

             The younger looking woman shook her head as she answered. “There are still oni in the swamp that those hemin are feeding themselves to and I should find out why the dead are rising.”

 

             After moment Hida Ruri smiled courteously and added, “Crab have a duty to stand against the darkness, no?”

 

 

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Link to the story on the blog, complete with art, including an exclusive piece!

 

https://tomorrowsprophets.wordpress.com/

 

A big thanks to Steve Argyle and Carlos NCT for giving us the right to use these images on our blog. We are deeply grateful for this gift to the community.

 

Feel free to go on their websites and support them!

 

http://www.steveargyle.com/

http://carlosnct.com/

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