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Lost at Sea
By Rich Wulf

1159 by the Isawa Calendar, Otosan Uchi

Garen sneered, or would have, if his face still had sufficient flesh to display a sneer. The undead sea captain clutched his ancient longsword in both hands, swinging it wildly to ward off the spears of the peasant warriors that surrounded him. The bodies of his crew lay dead - now truly, forever dead - in the street around him. In the distance, he could see the Revenant , his flagship, sinking slowly into Golden Sun Bay. The Eternal was nowhere to be seen. He wondered vaguely which of the two ships was more fortunate - the one that was sinking now or the one that would survive to serve the dark powers of Jigoku again?

Garen's foot slipped in the thin grey snow that covered the street, causing him to stumble. One of his attackers lunged forward with his spear but Garen reached out and snatched the blade in one hand, wrenching it from the ashigaru's grip. He pushed the spear back, plunging the wooden shaft through its former wielder's chest. The man coughed up blood and fell over dead, a look of surprise frozen upon his face. The others retreated a pace.

"Come at me, cowards!" Garen roared in his native tongue, a tongue few living Rokugani recognized. Behind him, black smoke rose from the cityscape of Otosan Uchi, painting the snow black before it touched the ground. "I promised I would see your city burn and I have achieved my goal! Now kill me if you can, my death no longer matters!"

"Fall back!" shouted a voice in Rokugani. The peasants quickly did so, moving away from the mad gaijin.

For an instant, Garen thought that he might have some chance at escape, an opportunity to withdraw before his enemies gathered their strength. Then a warrior in bright golden armor stepped into the street before him, the mon of the Lion Clan emblazoned on his armor. Garen thought he recognized something in the samurai's eyes, some memory of the past. He realized the boy resembled Genmuro, the old tactician who had destroyed his fleet at White Stag.

"You&" Garen whispered in Rokugani. "You are an Ikoma?"

"I am Ikoma Otemi, protector of Otosan Uchi," the Lion roared in a defiant voice. He drew his katana and leveled it at Garen's chest. "Ready your sword!"

The Lion charged toward Garen, sword shining in his hand. Garen dropped into a fighting stance; this one was not like the others. This one was a warrior. He held up his sword to deflect Otemi's blow; the katana sliced his longsword in two just above the hilt without losing speed, slashing a deep gouge across Garen's chest. The ancient captain staggered backwards, true pain surging through his body for the first time in centuries. He fell to his knees, the hilt of his useless sword dropping from his hand. He looked up into Otemi's eyes and saw no mercy there. The Lion lifted his sword for a final blow.

"So this is how it ends&" Garen whispered.

In that final instant he thought of Thrane, the homeland he had departed so long ago.

As Otemi's sword plunged down at Garen's skull, time slowed. An inky, wraithlike hand emerged from the shadows, seizing the undead captain by the throat. Garen felt a deep chill pass through his body, colder than the chill of death, and was dragged screaming into the shadows&

Elsewhere&

"Garen&" the voices whispered to him. The sound insinuated itself into his head. It made him do something he had not wanted to do in a long time.

It made him remember.

"Garen&" they whispered again.

"Where am I?" he said at last, his dry voice cracking in his withered throat. "

"Where are you?" the voice repeated. "Better to ask where you are going& do you not agree?"

It was then that Garen realized that he no longer carried his sword. The captain found himself kneeling in a wild jungle, a mass of tangled trees and twining vines. The sun hardly pierced the canopy overhead, casting the greenery into a dim half-light. Garen noticed little of his surroundings. He cared little for them; his attention was occupied elsewhere. The gaijin stared down at his hands in disbelief.

For the first time in centuries, his bones were covered with warm flesh. Breath surged through his aching lungs. He could feel his heart beat deep within his chest. He was alive once more. He was whole.
"How?" Garen asked, voice shuddering. He did not even pause to wonder who might answer.

"Seven centuries ago, a pirate named Garen set sail from the nation of Thrane," replied a sibilant voice, echoing from all directions at once. Garen instantly rose to his feet and scanned the jungle for the speaker, but saw nothing.

"Who are you?" Garen asked.

"An ally," the voice replied. "A fellow wandering spirit who, like you, once made a deal with darkness. But, unlike me, you surrendered your soul to wickedness long before you ever reached the Seas of Shadow. Didn't you, Admiral Hawthorne?"

"How do you know my surname?" Garen demanded. "I left that behind long ago."

"I know," the voice replied. "So many twists and turns your life has taken. Once, you were a hero of Thrane, distant cousin of the king himself. When you saw greater profit to be had in piracy, you abandoned your name and rank. You proclaimed yourself king of the seas. In time, your journeys brought you to Rokugan."

"Rokugan," Garen said. The name brought a true sneer to his lips. "The nation that betrayed me."

"Did it?" the voice replied, chuckling. "Be honest, Garen. You intended to conquer Rokugan until you realized your ships and cannons were no match for their powerful shugenja and countless samurai warriors. You left Otosan Uchi, returning only for supplies."

"They attacked us without provocation," Garen said in a low voice. "For all their dedication to justice and honor, the Rokugani murdered us."

"Is that what you tell yourself?" the voice replied. "Do not be so arrogant, Garen. You were the bloodiest pirate to sail the seas. You left a trail of broken villages and ruined nations in your wake. Widows and orphans cursed your name. Word of your exploits traveled swiftly. Most of Rokugan cares little for the fate of foreign nations, but there was one clan that was the exception in those days&"

"The Mantis," Garen hissed.

The voice chuckled. "They knew you, Garen," it said. "Your countryman, Teodoro Cornejo, made a deal with the Mantis to wipe out the threat you posed."

"Cornejo," Garen hissed. "I should have known& How strange that none of his ships were destroyed at White Stag. The traitor."

"Traitor?" came the reply. "By his estimation, he was merely destroying a rabid animal before it could do further harm. So long as your madness was profitable, your fleet eagerly followed. When you proved too bloodthirsty to be trusted, Cornejo arranged for your death. When the king heard news of your death, he proclaimed a nationwide celebration and appointed Cornejo the admiral of his navy."

Garen bowed his head in silence, consumed by emotions and memories. "Why am I free now?" he finally whispered. "Jigoku never willingly relinquishes its pawns."

"Because Jigoku honors its bargains," the voice replied. "You offered to destroy Otosan Uchi in return for power and immortality." As the voice continued, the shadows around Garen deepened. They formed into a sinuous shape, a serpentine dragon coiled loosely around the small clearing. "You have destroyed Otosan Uchi. Now you are free."

"You are the Shadow Dragon," Garen said warily. "I have heard of you."

"Good," the Shadow Dragon said. "Welcome home."

"Home?" Garen replied, glancing around curiously. "This is not my home. This is a wilderness."

"Is it?" the Dragon replied. "Look under those leaves and vines behind you."

Garen turned around cautiously. With one hand he brushed away the ferns and creepers. His eyes widened when he saw what lay underneath. It was a wooden sign depicting a bull and a lion, locked in eternal combat - his family's crest. As he looked up in surprise he realized that the mass of tangled trees before him took a familiar shape. This was his family's trading house, back in the city of Morriston. Looking around, he realized that this was the city, now broken, crumbled, and covered with dense growth. "This is one of your illusions," he said. "This is not possible."

"Isn't it?" the Shadow Dragon replied. "Two centuries ago, a lost ship arrived in this port. It carried a scouting party of Senpet, explorers from a land far from here. They intended to make peaceful contact. Sadly, the Senpet failed to realize that they carried with them certain diseases, diseases that their own people had been immune to for many centuries. Almost immediately after landing here, your people began to die. The Senpet did what they could to save them, but that was not much. Only one in five citizens of Thrane survived. Their nation crumbled. Most took to the seas, seeking their destiny elsewhere. This is all that remains of your land, Garen Hawthorne. How does it feel to spend seven centuries seeking vengeance for a nation that no longer exists?"

Garen scowled. "You are lying," he said. "This cannot be possible."

The Shadow Dragon tipped its head slightly. "Search about, then," it said. "See for yourself. When you need me again, I will be here."

"Why would I need you again?" Garen snarled.

The Shadow Dragon only laughed and vanished.

Garen knelt upon a lonely beach, hands clasped in prayer. He was not a pious man. He could hardly even remember much about his gods, and knew they cared little for him. Even so, there were many men and women in Morriston that deserved to be remembered. He only regretted that he was the only one left here to pray for them. In seven months he had found no survivors. His own family home was now a broken ruin, littered with skeletons of those he once knew.

Finishing his prayer, he looked up at the sea. As he expected, the Shadow Dragon was hovering just above the water, waiting for him.

"Are you ready to hear my offer, Garen Hawthorne?" it asked.

"Yes."

"As you know, the Empire fears gaijin," it said. "All interaction with them is tempered by paranoia. However, some among the clans have begun to relax their hatred toward outsiders. Some have even begun to admit ambassadors. The powers of Jigoku would prefer that this did not occur. The Empire must remain in its self-imposed solitude."

"One Empire at a time, eh?" Garen asked.

"Something like that," the Shadow Dragon replied wistfully. "As you may know, my techniques of corruption are more subtle than those of the rest of the Shadowlands. I can offer you power without fear that your corruption will be detected, and after seven centuries I doubt that any would recognize you as you appear now."

Garen grinned. "You want me to return to Rokugan as an ambassador?" he asked. "I don't even have a ship."

The Shadow Dragon dipped its long snout in acknowledgment and turned to one side. As it did, a ship appeared from nothing. It was the Revenant, whole and strong, as it was before the Shadowlands corrupted it. A crew of sailors busily worked the deck, readying the ship for its journey.

"Who are the crew?" he asked.

"My Goju," the Shadow Dragon said. "Like you, their Taint is hidden. I have made them appear as gaijin. They will aid you. During the journey, you will teach them your language and ways so that their disguises will be believable." The Shadow Dragon looked down at Garen again. "I offer you purpose, Garen Hawthorne. I offer you vengeance. Are my terms acceptable?"
The gaijin captain smiled.

Shrine of the Moon, Phoenix Clan Territory, Present Day&

The Shrine of the Moon was peaceful today, as it always was. The continual chant of the Hitomi monks droned into the background, creating a serene, if grim, atmosphere. In the large library at the rear of the shrine, Asako Bairei and Asako Yuya had separated themselves from their continuous research. They now met with a most unusual visitor - Yoritomo Kalilea of the Mantis.

"An odd weapon," Asako Bairei said, studying the broken sword in its velvet-lined wooden box. His aquiline features creased with a curious expression. "Certainly not of Rokugani origin. Where did you find this?"

"It was discovered in the streets of Otosan Uchi following the invasion," the swarthy Mantis replied. "Our shugenja sensed that there was great magic within it, but they also feared that it was Tainted. Yoritomo Komori said that you were an expert regarding nemuranai. He said that if anyone could cleanse and repair it, it would be you."

"Yoritomo Komori said that about me?" the Phoenix smiled faintly for a moment. "How kind of him. I must admit, I have a great deal of respect for Komori-san as well. I have heard he has made great steps forward in the sciences of summoning, particularly in the unexplored disciplines of&"

Yuya coughed politely, interrupting Bairei. "Bairei-san," she said in a gentle voice. "The sword."

"Oh, yes," Bairei grinned in embarrassment. "I grow distracted so easily." He looked down at the blade, whispering a short prayer as he passed one hand over it. The dull, rusted metal glowed briefly, and Bairei frowned thoughtfully. "Your shugenja were right. The blade is corrupted. Fortunately the process of removing corruption from an inanimate object is far simpler than removing it from a living being." Bairei reflected for a moment. "In fact, a recent report written by the esteemed Kuni Tansho reported that a corrupted tanto discovered in the gullet of an Oni no Tsuburu spawn&"

Yuya coughed again.

"Yes, I believe I can fix this," Bairei said, glancing appreciatively at Yuya. "I would be eager to do so as a favor to the Mantis, in return for an opportunity to study its powers. It is not often I have a chance to study gaijin magic first hand."

"Of course," Kalilea said, nodding eagerly as he rose. "Simply notify the Daughter of Storms whenever your studies are complete. We are eager to see the results, and hope this arrangement might foster a greater friendship between our two clans."

"That would be delightful," Bairei replied, rising and bowing to the Mantis. The sailor returned the bow and departed.

"For a man with such a reputation as a recluse, you have become amazingly political," Yuya said, closing the door behind Kalilea. "First you make an alliance with the Hitomi and now the Yoritomo?"

Bairei shrugged. "Kalilea seems a decent sort," he said, lifting the broken sword's hilt in one hand. "If his daimyo needs help, I am glad to do so. Besides, the Yoritomo do not have the proper resources to care for a weapon as dangerous as this."

Yuya looked down at the blade in concern. "Why?" she asked. "Is it that dangerous?"

"Not in the way I suspect you mean," Bairei said. "It is no Last Wish, no Bloodsword. This sword is not powerful& but I can sense it is important. It is incomplete, unfinished, and in more ways than a simple shattered blade"

Yuya watched him carefully and waited for him to explain.

"Some powerful artifacts radiate a certain& weight I suppose is the best word for it," he said. "In the hands of a specific wielder, they gain power and notoriety. No matter what occurs, one cannot be separated from the other. Such is the power I sense in this sword. It misses its master. It will do all it can to return to him or her."

"And by the same token, whoever owned this sword might inevitably return for it?" Yuya replied.

"An astute observation," Bairei said with a nod, turning the hilt over in his hand.

"So who owned it?" she asked.

"I do not know," he replied, "but I intend to find out."

Bairei returned the broken hilt to the box. Upon the cross guard was emblazoned a strange, exotic symbol - a bull and a lion, locked in eternal combat.

 

 

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