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Blackened Claws
By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf

The Kaiu Wall, near Koten

The Great Kaiu Wall was among the most dangerous places in Rokugan, even near the great fortress, Kyuden Hida. The Shadowlands was a sinister, pervasive enemy and even when there was no full scale attack, occasionally guards positioned simply disappeared without a trace. Some might be deserters, abandoning fleeing the horrors of the Wall. Some, however, simply& disappeared. Were they taken by some great beast, or some vengeful spirit? Or did they venture into the dark lands of their own accord, seeking to court the twisted powers of the Pit? None could say for certain, and it was best not to dwell on such things. Those who vanished from the Wall were dead to the Crab Clan, or soon would be if they showed their face again.

Hiruma Tokimune shifted his weight from foot to foot restlessly. He glanced up and down the Wall, checking for the torch fires that indicated the location of other guards. He was a trained scout, used to moving through the wilderness and not staying in one place long. Standing idle for hours seemed a dreadful waste of time. Still, he was not one to question his duty, and each Crab soldier was expected to guard the Wall at some point in his career.

A soft breeze blew from the southwest, causing a low rustling sound from the withered trees below. The Crab had burned vegetation close enough to touch the Wall or conceal an approaching enemy, but the sounds still reached the sentries on a still night. Tokimune felt something in the air, a feeling of quiet menace. A Crab scout knew not to ignore such instincts.

Tokimune walked along his assigned section, blade in one hand and torch in the other, searching for anything out of the ordinary. Several times he felt eyes upon him, and turned not toward the Shadowlands, but to the town that lay to the north. The shadows cast by dozens of torches were too vast for him to search for signs of movement, and in any case there was no threat from the town. Even so, he could not put aside his sense of danger. With a grimace, he turned back to the Wall, glancing up and down its length before returning to his post.

It was then that he realized one torch had gone out to the north.

----------------

Tokimune quickly lit a signal flare to alert the next post to the disturbance and ran along the wall, arriving at the next guard post in a matter of moments. As he approached he could see two forms lying crumpled on the stone, unmoving. He swore to himself as he approached silently.

A lone warrior stood between the fallen men. He bore no obvious weapon, but that meant nothing in the Shadowlands. He wore armor that appeared blackened by fire, but well-maintained. His long black hair hung in greasy tangles, tied in a loose topknot. His flesh was a pale, sickly hue. He turned, gleaming eyes finding Tokimune easily in the shadows. A wicked smile spread across the man's face. He bore all the signs of one of the Lost, the corrupted samurai that dwelled far beyond the Kaiu Wall's protection.

"Tainted scum!" Tokimune hissed. "Leap over the Wall while you can; the stone below will be more merciful than me."

"Your kinsmen are not dead," the man answered, but Tokimune ignored him. He leapt at the man, blade at the ready, kicking fiercely at his chest. His opponent made no attempt to avoid the blow, taking the kick full force in the chest and rolling with it, neatly avoiding Tokimune's follow up strike with the blade. He moved like liquid darkness, quicker than Tokimune's eye could follow.

"They live," he continued, rising again. "Bruised, but unbroken."

The scout ignored his enemy and launched another attack. The strange warrior turned the Crab blade aside again, exposing Tokimune's back in the process. Tokimune had only a second to realize his mistake, but the deathblow did not come. He spun and faced the corrupted intruder again, no more than ten paces separating them. As if on cue, one of the fallen Crab moaned and stirred on the stones.

"Who are you?" Tokimune demanded. "What treachery do you plan?"

"No treachery," the warrior said. "I have traveled here for a purpose, and the deaths of Crab soldiers do not serve that purpose. I made a simple mistake. I thought you were the one guarding this tower, Tokimune."

Tokimune frowned and shifted his stance to a defensive position. This made no sense. The warrior did not seem to mean any harm, as he could easily have killed the two guards before Tokimune arrived, but the minions of the Shadowlands could not be trusted. Tokimune's instincts said that the warrior spoke the truth, but that only made him even more suspicious of his intent.

"What is your name?" Tokimune asked.

"Soetsu," the man said, watching the Crab expectantly. Recognition flickered in Tokimune's eyes.

In that moment of hesitation, Tokimune heard a familiar whistling sound. It was apparently familiar to the warrior as well, who deftly sidestepped as an arrow clattered against the stone where he had been standing a second before. A second arrow had been slightly off its mark, and thudded into the warrior's chest. He hissed in pain, but made no sudden moves to remove it. Almost against his will, Tokimune held up a hand to the three approaching samurai.

"Stay your blades," Tokimune said. "Take him alive."

"Why?" asked Hida Kosedo, the burly warrior who watched the post south of Tokimune's.

"This man was a Crab, once," Tokimune said. "He was Hiruma Soetsu, my kinsman, who vanished during the Bloodspeaker attack on our home two years ago."

"All the more reason to kill him," Kosedo answered, sneering at Soetsu.

"I will come peacefully," Soetsu said. "I will answer any questions the Witch Hunters would ask. I only ask that you convey a message from me to the Fortune of Persistence."

"What message?" Tokimune asked, blade dropping nearly an inch in surprise.

"I seek an audience with the Great Bear," Soetsu replied.

Tokimune glanced at the other guards, who were clearly as shocked as he. "Kisada would not endure a Lost in his presence."

The Lost's eyes flared briefly. "Do not refer to the great Kisada in the familiar!" he nearly shouted, tearing the arrow from his shoulder and tossing it over the side of the Wall. "He is a god, and deserves your respect!"

Now Tokimune blanched, surprised both by his own lack of etiquette as well as the Lost's genuine outrage. "I& you are correct, of course. But it does not change the fact that Kisada will not see you."

"Do you speak for the gods, Tokimune?" Soetsu asked.

Tokimune said nothing.

"For the sake of the man I once was, take him my message," Soetsu said softly. "Let Hida Kisada-sama make his own choice."

And in the shadows behind the tower, Shosuro Aroru disappeared into the darkened alleys, heading for the western barracks.

----------------

Shiro Shosuro, weeks ago&

Aroru walked quietly through the empty halls. The times he spent within here were rare, but he never failed to appreciate the simplicity of his family home. The castle was perhaps the only place in all of Rokugan where he could walk without need for secrecy or deception. Only here were men and women like Aroru free to relax, to put duty aside, if only briefly. Here, he could walk the hallways dressed in comfort, wearing his favorite mask. It was a blank white mask depicting a single tear falling from his left eye. His wife had made it years ago, before her death.

Aroru entered a small audience chamber, one of many the Shosuro lords used to meet with their visitors and subordinates. Smaller rooms were easier to secure, easier to hide. Aroru had been summoned by his master, Yudoka, and he knew that his time of rest was at an end. It had been only three days since he returned from his last assignment, yet this had ranked among the longer periods of respite he had received in recent years. Ultimately, he did not mind. His work allowed him less time to dwell upon the past.

"Is this him, then?" a quiet voice asked. Aroru looked up in surprise, expecting only to see Yudoka. His lord normally issued his orders alone. Today, however, he was joined by another man. The second man was taller but slighter of build than Yudoka. He reclined comfortably on the dais, his face only partially obscured by a hanging silk mask. His relaxed air and delicate features did not belie his true nature to Yudoka. His eyes were flat black and cold, the eyes of a creature accustomed to killing.

"Aroru," Yudoka said, looking down at Aroru with a frown. "You are familiar with Lord Paneki, the Master of Secrets?"

"Lord Paneki," Aroru replied in surprise, instantly stepping to the dais's base and kneeling. "I am honored, my lord."

"Rise, Aroru," the Scorpion Champion said. "You have served the Scorpion long and faithfully. The sacrifices you have made, one might argue, have been greater than any man's."

"No one who knows me would be so foolish as to compare my accomplishments to your own, my lord," Aroru said quietly.

"Really?" Paneki said, glancing at the somber Yudoka. "And how would you compare us?"

Aroru was taken aback by the request. "I am a knife in the dark, my lord," he finally said. "You are a gleaming steel blade, worn openly in the Emperor's court and into battle. You are the promise of vengeance; your existence serves to weaken, to undermine. Your existence defeats enemies who have not even presented themselve, convincing them that battle is not worth the risk. I& I am an unknown. I silence one man at a time you defeat thousands."

Yudoka grunted. "As little as you speak, you're quite a melodramatic one, Aroru," he said with a dismissive wave.

"Nonsense." Paneki said with a laugh. "We are all gifted in different ways. You are a poet, Aroru, and your gifts are why I have summoned you. I have need of your talents."

"Anything, my lord," Aroru said at once.

"What do you know of Hida Kisada?" Yudoka demanded.

Aroru blinked in surprise and thought for a moment. "He was a traitor," Arorou said. "He turned against our Lord Shoju during the Coup and later sought to betray the Emperor Hantei himself. It was only when he realized the Emperor was a vessel of the Dark God that he realized his foolishness and sought to aid Lady Kachiko and her Thunders." Aroru mused. "Emperor Toturi I forgave Kisada his crimes and elevated the Crab to Fortune status after his death. Fortune of Determination, I believe. Or perhaps it was Persistence. A strange gesture toward an attempted regicide, but a clever move by the Splendid Emperor to win the Crab Clan's support early in his reign."

"An accurate recollection, though a Crab might call it biased," Paneki replied. "What of more recent events?"

Aroru hesitated. "Only rumor, my lord," he said. "It is said that Kisada returned to the mortal world recently and aided in the destruction of Iuchiban."

"Rumors indeed," Paneki mused. "You do not believe these rumors?"

"I place little stock in such things," Aroru confessed. "I believe in what I can see, or in what makes sense. It is said that the Emperor's brother destroyed Iuchiban, and that I can easily believe." He shrugged. "Still, the War of Spirits taught us that the dead can return, so I cannot discount what I have heard."

Paneki nodded. "The War of Spirits taught us many things," he agreed. "Lessons we must not forget. But in this instance, you are incorrect, Aroru. Lord Kisada has indeed returned to the mortal realm, and he walks among his descendants even now."

Aroru inclined his head respectfully. "Is he a threat, my lord?"

Yudoka chuckled.

"Is Kisada a threat?" Paneki asked, fingers of one hand clenching. "A serious question, and one that must be answered. Kisada was a hero once, but he was also a villain who might have conquered all of Rokugan. We must determine his intentions, now that Iuchiban is gone."

"He allied with the Shadowlands once," Yudoka added, more bluntly. "We must determine if he intends to do so again."

"As I understand history," Aroru replied, "Kisada swore that he would never again compromise with darkness. His grandson, Kuroda, died fighting the Dark Lord rather than recant that promise."

"And that, Aroru, is why the Scorpion Clan exists," Paneki said with a humorless smile. "To insure that our brothers and sisters remember their promises."

----------------

The western barracks, the present

Daigotsu Soetsu stood in the center of a large, empty room, half a dozen Crab warriors encircling him at a comfortable distance. Aroru eased himself in a tightly coiled crouch high in the rafters of the large room. The dim light concealed him completely, and he had of course made no sound.

After some time, Hiruma Tokimune entered the chamber and surveyed it carefully. "Is he secure?" he asked the guards.

"Hai, Tokimune," one answered. "He has not moved."

The scout nodded and returned to the door, making some gesture. An enormous warrior entered, dwarfing even the Crab guards that stood watch within the room. He was encased in dull blue armor so dark it was nearly black, the emblem of the Crab Clan etched upon his chest. He held a mighty club in one hand, studded with steel and jade. This could only be Hida Kisada. The Great Bear surveyed the room for a moment, then stepped forward. The guards parted to allow him entrance.

"My captain of the guard believes you are here to assassinate me," he said in a deep, gruff voice. "If that is true, then make the attempt. I could use the exercise."

"No, great one," Soetsu said, kneeling. "I would never waste your time and my life with such a gesture."

Kisada grunted and set his club down heavily by its head, crossing his hands atop the tip of its haft. "You were Hiruma Soetsu," Kisada said. "I know you."

The other soldiers looked at one another in surprise. Soetsu had vanished long before Kisada's return, yet none of them would question the Great Bear.

"Hai, Kisada-sama," Soetsu said reverently. "I revere your example. During the Bloodspeaker attack I fell and lay dying in the wastelands for days. When my wounds healed, I realized that I had become a creature of darkness yet I remembered what I saw during the battle. Kokujin and his soldiers fought the Bloodspeakers, as well. I knew in the City of the Lost I could find those who still know honor, those who still fight the greater evils. I offer you my prayers every day, in the temple of Fu Leng."

Many Crab within the room bristled at name of the Dark God, but Kisada seemed unaffected. "Your Fu Leng assaulted the Heavens, killing many Fortunes in the process. His demons and his Lost constantly seek to destroy our people. How can you serve such a god?"

Soetsu did not look away. "Fu Leng attacked the heavens, this is true," Soetsu said. "He challenged a greater power because he believed it to be weak. He learned his rightful place, and is now at harmony with the universe. There is light and darkness in all things, Lord Kisada, good and evil. Fu Leng's existence is necessary, for the powers of Jigoku would be even more wild and destructive without his control. Surely you realize this."

Kisada seemed to reflect upon the comment for a moment. "Why are you here?" he asked at last, brushing Soetsu's words away.

Soetsu drew a deep breath. "My lord, the Shadowlands are in turmoil. You are no doubt aware that the region between the Hiruma lands and the Wall of Bones has become far more dangerous of late. The creatures there, demons and all manner of wild beasts, have become far more erratic. They attack any humans, Crab or Lost. Not only that, but other creatures that are usually more amenable to the Dark Lord's influence, the trolls, the bakemono, lose their senses if they spend too much time within that region."

Kisada glanced at Tokimune. "The Shadowlands is a dangerous place," he said. "If you are afraid, perhaps you should have chosen your allies more wisely."

"The hellish realms of Jigoku represent a delicate power balance," Soetsu said. "Daigotsu is in Fu Leng's favor, but that could easily change. Iuchiban proved that the Dark Lord is not invincible. I believe that this chaos is the work of a rival power, a jealous servant of Fu Leng that seeks to supplant Daigotsu. You know that my lord's forces are greatly weakened since Iuchiban's demise."

"And had I more jade, I would capitalize on that weakness," Kisada replied.

"But not all of our enemies need jade to move through the Shadowlands," Soetsu said. "Many of my Lost brothers and sisters have already fallen to this unknown enemy."

"A terrible loss," Tokimune sneered. "What do you seek from us?"

"Kokujin helped the Hiruma against Iuchiban," Soetsu said. "I ask only that you return the favor now."

Tokimune laughed. "The Hiruma asked for no favors from the Dark Lord," he said. "No Crab would fight beside the Lost."

"You fight beside us every day," Soetsu said. "I know of the Damned, Crab soldiers who have spent too long in the Shadowlands and are now touched by its power. Suicide soldiers, seeking always for a way to cleanse their corruption in battle against darkness. Send them to aid us. You will have lost nothing."

"And what will we have gained?" Kisada asked.

"You already know what you will gain, my lord," Soetsu said. "Surely you hear our prayers. You know that the Dark Lord's servants have not forgotten bushido, though we view its virtues differently. Daigotsu is willing to leave the Empire in peace, at least for now. You would receive no such offer from Akuma, Yogo Junzo, or the Maw."

"That may be," Kisada replied, "but I have made a promise. The Crab will never again ally with the Shadowlands."

"I know of your promise," Soetsu said, "but the Shadowlands is not the same enemy it once was. Daigotsu is a man of honor."

"A man who murdered my grandson," Kisada replied.

"Kyofu is not beyond redemption," Soetsu answered. "The Dark Lord has promised me that if you send the Damned to aid us, he will show you a way to restore Hida Kuroda."

"That is impossible," Kisada said.

"Only if you throw away this chance," Soetsu replied, his gaze fixing on Kisada's.

Kisada was silent for a long time. "Take him away," the Great Bear growled at last. "Let the Witch Hunters question him for seven days. They may use any means at their disposal, so long as they release him alive in sight of the Wall of Bones when they are finished."

"Hai," the guards replied, and two moved to flank Soetsu.

The Lost bushi rose and backed out of the room, his eyes never moving from the Great Bear's until the shoji screen closed.

Aroru was in motion at once. He leapt nimbly through the hatch he had used to enter the roof, losing no speed as he sprang silently from the barracks roof to land atop an adjacent building.

He ran as quickly as he dared.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!