by Shawn Carman
The sight of their enemies filled Yogo Itoju’s heart with a cold dread the likes of which he had never experienced. On the distant horizon, he could see the unmistakable forms of oni, as well as another he could not distinguish at this distance. Even from here, he could hear their roaring and sense their foul power.
Itoju looked around at his forces. They were few, but they were Scorpion.
Larger forces had fallen before the clan of secrets before, and would so again today. He would not fail his lord Yojiro, not in this task. Itoju was a member of the kuroiban, the black watch. His ancestor, also named Itoju, had been one of the first kuroiban. For generations his family had stood against the Shadowlands. Their reputation had been all but destroyed by the traitor Junzo, but perhaps now was the chance for redemption.
In the middle of the valley stood the entrance to a long-forgotten jade mine. The precious mineral had only increased in value since the defeat of Fu Leng, and was now in short supply all over the Empire. The Crab needed it desperately, of course, and the other clans desired it as well. Where there was desire, the Scorpion prospered.
Only a few short days ago, Itoju had been summoned to an audience with Bayushi Paneki, the Scorpion Legionnaire named Defender of the Empire by Toturi the First. The summons had caught Itoju off-guard, as no one in the upper echelon of the clan had ever paid any notice to his vigilant watch against the darkness. In truth, he had not known what to expect from such a meeting. Whatever he had imagined, though, it could not have been stranger than the truth.
“Itoju-san,” Paneki had begun, “do you know of the troubles afflicting the peasants in the our southernmost holdings?” The lithe warrior had never looked up from the letter he was writing, his mask making it impossible to read his emotions.
“I have heard that there have been allegations of evil spirits among the villages there. But then such reports are not unusual among the peasants, particularly in our southern holdings. They are sure the Shadowlands will explode and consume them at any moment,” Itoju replied.
“Indeed.” Paneki never stopped his calligraphy. “And yet in this case, there have been numerous people who have disappeared. In fact, the local magistrate took several of his yoriki and went to investigate.” He finally set his brush aside and looked into Itoju’s eyes. “The lone survivor of that party arrived yesterday morning to inform us of the ogre that dwells in our lands.”
Horrified, Itoju stammered “My lord, I have no excuse for such a gross failure in my duties! I will gladly slay this creature for you and then perform the three cuts if it is your wish.” The shugenja’s hand strayed to the hilt of his wakizashi.
A disgusted look crossed Paneki’s features. “Itoju,” he said sharply, “if you cannot maintain your composure in the face of adversity, then you will never advance in rank.” The look of disdain faded, and the pleasant facade returned. “As it is, however, this is an excellent opportunity for you to do just that, provided you are willing and capable.”
“Excellent.” Paneki turned to retrieve a scroll from his desk. “This letter authorizes you to take command of the necessary troops from the garrison here and deal with the problem.”
“Of course, Paneki-sama.” Itoju took the scroll. “Do you feel that an armed force will be necessary? I have dealt with ogres personally before.”
Paneki nodded. “I am aware of this. However, there have been reports of larger creatures to the south of our lands. It is possible that you may encounter more resistance than you anticipate.”
“Oni.” Itoju’s features twisted into a mask of hatred.
“Perhaps so,” Paneki nodded. “In any event, take the troops. I am confident you will fulfill your duty.”
“At once, Paneki-sama.” Itoju turned and strode toward the door. Already his mind raced with possible means to eliminate both threats in a single strike.
It would be difficult, to be sure, but it could be done. He was almost to the door when Paneki stopped him.
“Oh, one other minor concern, Itoju-san.” Paneki withdrew another scroll and held it out for the shugenja while returning to his calligraphy. “The yoriki who escaped the ogre’s lair returned with this. He found it in the trappings of the beast’s former victims.”
Itoju took the scroll and unrolled it. Paneki continued in a disinterested tone. “It is a map to a jade mine that lies in a remote valley between our lands and the Crab lands.”
“Jade.” Itoju considered the information carefully. “The value of jade now is considerable.”
“Oh, it is considerable indeed.” Paneki did not look up from his paper. “And the letter attached to the file indicates that this particular mine was used to hide the Armor of the Shadow Warrior.”
Itoju’s head snapped up. “The armor of Kisada?”
“Yes. It seems when the Naga took Hida Yakamo’s body, his father’s armor was appropriated by some Nezumi of the Grasping Paw Tribe. They hid the suit and made a map to its location, with the intent of selling it to one of our agents in Ryoko Owari. It seems the ogre got to our Ratling allies first, and now the map, the armor, and the jade, are lost. Bring all three prizes to the Scorpion, Itoju, and you will have the reward you deserve.”
“As you command, Paneki-sama.”
And now, the battle would soon begin. The ogre had been simple. Itoju had taken control of the beast with a spell he had learned years ago. The massive creature struggled to break free, but it could not overcome his will. When the fighting began, the ogre would die first, preferably taking an oni with it and saving the lives of Scorpion soldiers.
“Smoke,” commanded Itoju with a wave of his hand. Dozens of Scorpion soldiers hurled tiny yet potent smoke bombs, slung at the end of long sticks. They smashed on the ground and released a thick cloud of gray smoke that completely obscured the enemy from view. It was a dangerous gambit, but a necessary one if the army was to be shielded from the foul oni maho.
A mental summons from Itoju caused the massive ogre to stagger to the front ranks, the Scorpions giving it a wide berth. A powerful air spell caused the cloud of smoke to move slowly forward, covering the Scorpion approach. A second spell crafted a gigantic club of air for the ogre to wield. The ogre lurched forward. With a gesture, Itoju commanded the army to march as well.
The ranks fell in almost silently.
“To victory,” whispered Itoju.
Above him, the battlefield stank of blood and charred flesh. Scorpion bodies lay scattered everywhere, most broken so badly that they only barely resembled human beings. Itoju himself crawled slowly through the mine tunnel, every inch a new agony. His body was shattered. Ribs jutted out from his chest to tear holes in his ruined kimono as he moved. He drug his crushed and useless legs behind him. One eye was completely gone, the other blinded by blood and ichor. One hand pulled him slowly toward the mine’s entrance, the fingers bloody and shredded to the bone. The other hand clutched tightly to a massive piece of old and well-worn armor.
“Yesss, bring it to me, little one,” whispered an oily voice in his mind.
“Bring me the precious toy.” Itoju struggled with all his might to resist the voice, to simply stop where he was and succumb to death. He could not.
He could not disobey any more than the mindless ogre he had bent to his will earlier that very afternoon.
“Excellent,” the voice bubbled from the gelatinous mound that was Tsuburu no Oni, rolling in pleasure as the last scrap of Hida Kisada’s armor fell in a pile at its swollen feet. “Now join us, little one,” Tsuburu purred. “You could have great power with the Horde. We welcome those of your line in our number.”
Despite the pain wracking his body, Itoju gritted his teeth against the voice. “Never,” he whispered through blood-flecked lips. “Never. No punishment you could ever imagine will make me join you, abomination.”
“Oh, we will see,” chuckled Tsuburu no Oni. “I know the secrets of persuasion. I will show them to you.” The creature’s massive, flabby hand scooped the battered Scorpion from the ground, opening a dozen new wounds in the process. Held aloft, Itoju rolled to see the oni’s unholy toothless maw open wide, looming closer. His resolve not to scream was broken when he saw the faces pressing against the oni’s flesh from inside, souls screaming to be released from damnation.
Yoritomo Aramasu regarded the mysterious vessel with both interest and distrust. His men had reported the abandoned ship floating off shore early this morning. A cursory investigation revealed within it a large crate, apparently magically warded, bearing a single kanji upon it: Scorpion.
Clearly, this was a message of some sort. To whom was clear: the Scorpion Clan still considered Aramasu a Bayushi, and a traitor. Who precisely had sent it was a more complicated question. The Scorpion were rarely so obvious, yet somehow he felt their hand in this. In any event, he had forbidden anyone to open the crate until he was present. Whatever this mystery might be, he felt sure it involved him.
Aramasu turned to a Moshi shugenja and nodded. “Open it.”
The young woman nodded and closed her eyes. A soft chant escaped her lips as she attempted to dispel whatever enchantment held the mysterious package sealed. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open, his mouth agape. “My lord!” she exclaimed. “It is a trap!”
Aramasu leapt back from the crate just as it exploded, dropping one Mantis bushi to the sandy beach, peppered with wooden shards. A lone figure emerged from the noxious pile of mud-like filth that filled the crate. It was a man, but one that had died long ago. Its body was twisted into a horrible mockery of a human posture, and its flesh was bloated and discolored like pickled meat. It was dressed head to toe in a suit of dark black armor that seemed to be one with the night itself.
“Traitor!” the thing croaked. “Traitor to the Scorpion! Soon you’ll pay the price! No one escapes!” It lunged forward toward Aramasu, but was brought to the ground by a Mantis warrior who tackled the creature from the side, saving his Champion from its assault. The two writhed in combat. The creature’s great black helm rolled free across the sand. The creature ignored blows from the warrior’s sai that would have killed a mortal man. It turned with a swift movement and tore the man’s throat out with its teeth.
The Mantis fell to the side with a sickening gurgle. Spitting out a wad of chewed flesh, the creature crawled to its feet and laughed. It looked up, red eyes searching for its prey.
It found Aramasu, who with a deft movement severed the top of the thing’s skull from ear to ear. Its scalp dropped to the sand with a splat, eyes blazing in anger. The other half remained atop the creature’s body, its mouth working noiselessly. With a rasping exhalation of air, the thing slumped to the ground, twitched, and was still.
“By the Fortunes,” choked one Mantis soldier. “The stench… I’ve smelled the undead before, but that thing… it’s almost unbearable.”
“Behead that man before he rises as well. Tend the other’s wounds when you are finished,” Aramasu ordered to the Moshi, gesturing toward the two warriors lying on the ground. While his command was being obeyed, the Champion looked down at his foe with a look of hate and disgust. “A Yogo.
Itoju, I believe.” When he looked at the blackened, filth-encrusted armor the creature wore, however, his statement changed to one of shock.
“You know him?” asked a surprised bushi.
“I make a habit of knowing my enemies,” Aramasu said mildly. “Bring more shugenja here. Now. We may need to purify the area.” Aramasu knelt and scraped the slime from the dead thing’s armor with a bit of broken crate.
The crest was unmistakable. Aramasu gasped. “This is the Armor of the Shadow Warrior, worn by the Great Bear, Hida Kisada. Hida Yakamo died in this armor.” Aramasu’s lips pressed together in silent fury. “It has been tainted by this foul abomination’s touch.” He turned to face the Moshi, who was tending to the wounded warrior. “When the others arrive, have them take this armor to my palace. It is to be purified, no matter the cost. No expense is too great.” He turned to face another Mantis soldier. “Go to the docks. Have my ship prepared.”
The Mantis Champion placed his hand upon his weapons. “I will go to Otosan Uchi, and question the Scorpion there. I will find the ones responsible for this blasphemy. And I will kill them.”