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    • Owlbear

    A fiction presented by guest writer and Story Team applicant Maxime Lemaire, discussing the effects of the Shadowlands Taint in the era of the Iweko Dynasty!

     

    Corruption

    By Maxime Lemaire

    Edited by Shawn Carman

     

    Hiruma Fujito stood atop the outer wall of the outpost, one of many such strongholds which dotted the lands of the Hiruma Family. In the rest of the Empire, and even among the other families of the Crab Clan, the Hiruma commanded much respect. Their lands stood between the Shadowlands proper and the Kaiu Wall, which protected the rest of the Clan, and Rokugan beyond it. Centuries of occupation by the Shadowlands followed by a reclamation war had turned the lands of the Hiruma to little more than a barren wasteland, with only castles and strongholds to break the monotony of them. Open to aggression from the Shadowlands at any time, the Hiruma were seen as courageous even among the valiant ranks of the Crab. And yet Fujito could not help but feel it was slightly exaggerated; true, war could come at any time, but for all his life he had seen little more than goblins come the way of his outpost. Moreover, since the Empress had made the Spider into a Great Clan, the Taint had ceased to threaten those who refused its power, removing much of what made the Shadowlands so dangerous before.

    It was not as if Fujito had any particular wish to suffer, or die. Rather, he had heard from his grandfather the legendary tales of the battles of the past, such as the Clan Wars and the March to Volturnum. During these, the heroes of the Crab risked their lives and very souls to protect the Empire, facing abominations almost beyond human comprehension. Now, Fujito would be surprised if he saw anything bigger than a man attack the outpost. Just as he was musing on this fact, an alarm cry rang out, and men started to draw their bows in reaction. Fujito followed suit, and scanned the horizon for threats. There, as he expected, he found a pack of goblins, perhaps a hundred at best, coming towards the outpost in a disorganized horde. Fujito’s officer shouted orders, and while he and his fellow soldiers drew and notched their arrows, more men began maneuvering catapults behind them, ready to rain death on the approaching mass of goblins. Fujito stood there patiently until the order to fire came, and released his arrow. Several goblins perished from the arrows and catapult fire all at once, which only made them hasten their pace. Fujito and the other samurai around him shot again and again, narrowing the ranks of the goblins, wretched creatures who offered little in the way of retaliation. Only a few goblins ever made it to the wall, and those who did were quickly dealt with, swords replacing arrows in the hands of the samurai, who made quick work of the pathetic creatures. Fujito didn’t even have to draw his own katana, as no goblin even made it to his position.

    He was about to sigh in contempt when something caught his eye. In the same direction from which the goblins had come from, a patch of fog could be seen. This wasn’t particularly unusual in the area, but this particular one seemed to move straight towards the outpost, and without any wind to propel it. “Gunso!” Fujito shouted, pointing at the fog in the distance. His officer stared at it for a moment, then understanding what was wrong with it, ordered for his men to regroup and get to their bows again. “Fire a volley of flaming arrows, so that we can see what hides in this,” the gunso directed. Fujito and the other men followed suit, lighting their arrows from nearby torches and aiming as far from the walls as they could. The arrows became pinpoints of light as they hit the ground. As the fog enveloped them however, their light seemed almost extinguished, and didn’t improve vision. Fujito thought he glimpsed something moving in the fog, and couldn’t help but shudder as what he had seen was much, much larger than a goblin. As the fog drew closer, Fujito could feel the other men become nervous as well. Then, with a hissing sound like an arrow being shot, a spur of black chitin came from the fog and found its way to the throat of the man standing next to Fujito, who collapsed choking on his own blood. The other men immediately took cover, as more spurs were shot at them, piercing the stone where they didn’t hit an unfortunate samurai. Fujito tried to peek over to see what was firing at them, but a spur flew just over his head as he did so, forcing him to take cover again. Around him, the men who had been hit and survived were screaming in agony.

    The pair of green, malevolent eyes that appeared over the wall confirmed Fujito’s worst fears, as they could only belong to some manner of demon. The creature crawled its way into the fortress, emerging from the fog at last. It looked like a centipede, only over fifty feet long, and covered in the black spurs which it kept projecting around itself. Fujito drew his bow and fired again, but the creature didn’t even seem to notice, the arrow bouncing off its hardened skin. It kept progressing inside the stronghold, and the forces of the Crab were now in disarray, seemingly unable to stop it and losing more men each time the demon hurled it spurs. Remembering his lessons, Fujito ran straight to the storerooms, trying his best to stay behind cover at all times. When he finally reached them, he took one of his arrows and dipped it in one of the many oil jars lying around the place. Then, Fujito located one of the small bags of jade powder, and covered the arrow in it. He stepped back out of the storeroom, and saw the monster had almost crawled out of the stronghold, as it was currently climbing the North wall. Fallen men lay across the whole courtyard, most of them now worryingly silent. Trying to focus on his target, Fujito drew and released, his arrow finding its way to the monster’s back. To his satisfaction, the creature shrieked in pain, and hurried out of the stronghold. It would take more than that to destroy it, but at least it now knew the Crab could fight back.

    A few hours later, the Hiruma outpost looked little better than an abandoned ruin. The eta were already piling the bodies to be cremated, while one of the soldiers had taken up the grisly duty of cutting their heads off, lest they rose back as undead. Fujito was more worried about the wounded, however. Kuni Tomokazu, the shugenja attached to the garrison, gestured for him to come closer. Next to the priest stood five men, who had all obviously been wounded yet seemed to be standing without much trouble. Their eyes were cast downwards, as if they were ashamed, and Fujito cast a perplexed glance at the Kuni as he approached.

    “Look at this,” the priest said as he lifted the kimono of one of the samurai, where it had been torn by one of the spurs. As Fujito came close, he noticed the flesh around the wound looked blackened, in a way which was anything but natural.

    “What is this? Some kind of infection? A poison, perhaps?” Fujito asked.

    “I’m afraid not,” the Kuni shook his head. “This is a sign of the Shadowlands Taint.”

    Fujito immediately drew his katana, and placed the tip of his blade at the throat of the wounded man. “Traitor!”, he shouted, “how dare you give in to the darkness?”

    “Hold on,” Kuni Tomokazu said, placing his hand on his blade. “Samurai, tell Fujito-san what you told me.”

    “I’m sorry, brothers,” the man said while keeping his eyes to the ground. Fujito barely knew him, as he had only recently joined the garrison, but nothing had ever marked him as a potential liability. “I tried to resist, but I couldn’t.”

    “Liar,” Fujito said. “No one contracts the Taint anymore unless they accept it.”

    “True” the man said. “But as the spur hit me… the pain that I felt was beyond anything I ever knew. It was as if every bone, every muscle in my body had caught fire. And I heard this voice in my head, the voice of the creature. It said the pain would stop, if only I surrendered to Jigoku. And I tried, Hida forgive me, I tried. But in the end, the pain was so much that I couldn’t even reach for my blade to end my shame. So I just… gave in.”

    Fujito took a deep breath, his blade still touching the man’s neck. “What should we do?” he said, looking at the Kuni.

    “I will contain the Tainted men here,” he said. “You need to contact Kyuden Hida as soon as possible. The way it was headed, the oni will reach the Wall in less than two days. If it makes it past it, it could spread the Taint to hundreds. If a trained samurai cannot withstand the pain, can you imagine what one of this spurs would do to a simple peasant?”

    Fujito looked around him, desperate for a sign of help. But amid the corpses, the wounded, and the five Tainted men standing before him, he realized he was the only man left to do this.

    “Pray the Fortunes I am faster than it then,” Fujito said as he sheathed his blade.

     

    * * * * *

     

     

    Hida Kisada slammed his fist against the table around which his advisers were gathered, and unleashed a torrent of curses. It was a testament to his presence that despite his small stature, the rage of the Crab Clan Champion completely dominated the room.

    “Five Tainted men. In a single day. This hasn’t happened since the Destroyer War. And caused by a single oni? We must destroy it immediately. What do we know about it?”

    “My Lord,” a shugenja said as he bowed deeply to his Champion. “The scout who brought the message regarding it mentioned it was wounded by an arrow covered in jade powder. Other than this, we know very little. This type of oni has never been encountered before. We can only assume it is of a new breed.”

    “And how is that possible?” Kisada said, his eyes full of anger.

    “There have been reports of Chuda maho-tsukai hiding deep in the Shadowlands, experimenting with summoning demons. This could also be a sign of increased activity from the Festering Pit. There is also the possibility that the Dark Lord created these, to recruit more members to his cause.”

    “Daigotsu,” Kisada said, clenching his fist. “If he hopes he can make Crab samurai join his parody of a clan, he is mistaken. Tell the men they are to commit seppuku or join a monastery if found to be Tainted. If they express the wish to join the Spider, they are to be executed on the spot, on suspicion of being Lost.” The advisers around Kisada nodded somberly. The law allowed Tainted samurai to join the Spider if they could manage the trip to the Colonies, but it was an open secret many clans simply preferred to deal with such men themselves, and the Crab in particular considered allowing their samurai join the clan that bore Daigotsu’s name anathema.

    “What should we do, my lord?” one of the military commanders said.

    “Tell garrisons all across the Wall to stock up on jade powder, and have it ready to use at a moment’s notice. The man who witnessed the creature, Hiruma Fujto, is the only one who has an idea of what its tracks look like. Tell him to rest for an hour, then go back on its trail and alert the closest garrison once he’s found it. We’re running out of time.”

     

    * * * * *

     

    Fujito crouched behind a rock outcropping, catching his breath. He had just spotted the oni, after hours of tracking. It seemed dangerously close to the Wall, and chances were he wouldn’t have time to warn anyone before it reached the fortification which separated it from Rokugan.

    “We found it,” the woman next to Fujito said. “Now what?” Fujito frowned at her, trying to come up with an idea. She called herself Hiruma Eiko, and had joined him just before he’d left, assigned to the mission by Lord Kisada himself. While she was a skilled tracker, she didn’t seem to be nearly as scared of the demon as she should have been, and Fujito couldn’t help disliking her. Yet she was all he had right now.

    “I will distract it,” he said as he drew an arrow. “You run to the Wall and tell them it is headed their way.”

    “You will probably die,” the woman remarked.

    “Yes. Your point?” Fujito answered, mildly annoyed.

    “Well, that’s actually the best case. If that thing hits you, and you give in to the pain, then I could have a Tainted madman behind me. Or it could torture you for information, and change its plans accordingly.” she said.

    “What do you propose then?” Fujito said.

    “We destroy it,” the woman who called herself Hiruma Eiko said, drawing out a jade dagger from her belt. Fujito frowned, for he had never seen such a weapon, and he doubted a low ranking scout would ever be given one for such a mission.

    “Where did you get this?” he asked her.

    “My family provided it to me. Since we are probably both about to die, I believe there is no harm in telling you my real name is Shosuro Nagako.”

    “A Scorpion spy! Fujito said with disgust.

    “I prefer the term ‘unexpected ally’”, she answered with a smile. “My clan has developed an interest in all things related to the Shadowlands in the past generation, as I am sure you are aware. So we keep an eye on the struggles of the Crab Clan, even if you are not always aware of it.”

    “If we survive this,” Fujito fumed, “there will be consequences.”

    “I’m sure there will be,” she said, “if we survive. Now, would you be so kind as to provide me with cover fire? The oni doesn’t seem to have any obvious vital organs beyond its head, and it would be much easier for me to reach it if it was distracted.”

    Fujito didn’t like to admit it, even to himself, but the Scorpion woman’s logic was sound. He nodded as he drew his bow and notched an arrow covered in jade powder. Shosuro Nagako disappeared behind a rock, circling her way to the oni’s location. Fujito himself made his way to what he thought would be a defensible position, and to his credit the oni didn’t seem to be aware of his approach either. Whispering a brief prayer to Hida, he released his arrow, which hit the creature’s back. It turned around, hissing in anger, and Fujito could see its alien eyes narrowed as it recognized the one who had wounded it before. It arched its back, reminding Fujito of an angry cat, and a sent a flurry of spurs in his directions. Dropping behind cover, Fujito heard the spurs lodge themselves in the stone around him. He could hear the oni skittering towards his position, and hurriedly readied another arrow. As he rose to fire again however, the demon was ready and unleashed another volley of spurs. While Fujito’s shot still hit true, two spurs pierced through the armor plate which covered his torso. He immediately felt a burning sensation, spreading through his entire body, and intensifying all the way.

    Fujito dropped his weapon and tried his best not to cry out, but the pain was unbearable. He had never felt anything remotely close, nor had he believed he could. It was as if every single part of his body was screaming in agony, begging for some sort of release. And exactly as he thought this, Fujito heard a voice in his head, which offered exactly that. He just needed to accept what it offered. Fujito pushed back, trying to fall back on his years of service as a Crab samurai. But the pain was so bad, and only got worse and worse, that he feared he would eventually give in. Still, he held on for just a little more, hoping for something, anything other than the Taint, to end his pain. Part of Fujito hoped he would go mad or die, so that the pain would finally go away.

    It was then both a surprise and a shock when the pain disappeared, only to be replaced by a sickening sensation as the spurs were pulled out of his body. Standing over him was Shosuro Nagako, who held her jade dagger in her left hand. Seeing how it was covered in black ichor, Fujito grinned.

    “You killed it,” he said to her. “I’m impressed.”

    “People underestimate the value of a dagger stab between the eyes,” she told him as she helped him get up. “Are you able to walk?”

    “Those wounds are like pinpricks compared to what I felt a moment ago. Thank you, by the way. One more moment and…”

    “Don’t mention it,” she interrupted him before he could admit anything shameful.

    “What do we do now?” Fujio said as he eyes the Scorpion warily. She might have saved his life, but she had still posed as a member of the Crab Clan, and Fujito couldn’t get himself to fully trust her.

    “We get back to our respective clans,” she said, “and we warn them. Then we pray the Fortunes this was a unique creature.”

    As he looked at the carcass of the oni, Fujito found himself agreeing with the Scorpion on that, if not on everything else.

     

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