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Ruins of Otosan Uchi, Part 2
By Shawn Carman

The open plains north of Otosan Uchi were called the Plains of Fast Trouble, and once it had been considered an act of treason to move any force of armed men greater than a patrol through them. Obvious exemptions existed, of course, such as the forces stationed at the nearby Castle of the Emerald Champion, or the Imperial Legions that had once marched through the region on their way to combat a Yobanjin incursion in the Phoenix lands, but other than that no clan had dared move their forces through this region without an explicit order from their Emperor. It had been thus for over a thousand years, until the city of Otosan Uchi burned.

Shinjo Shono pulled on the reins, bringing his horse to a stop as he surveyed the village to the south. The horse's breath was ragged, and Shono could tell it was near exhaustion. He regretted that, but his priority right now was something entirely different.

One of the riders following him pulled his horse up alongside. The man was covered in the same non-descript robes as Shono and the others, and there was no immediately obvious means of determining his identity. "The horses are exhausted, Shono," he said, mirroring Shono's own thoughts. "The men are not much better off."

Shono did not turn to look. "We will be in the Northern Hub Village soon. The horses can rest then."

"And the men?" the other man pressed.

Shono turned with a baleful glare. "Each of them volunteered to accompany us, Chen," he hissed. "They knew what they were being asked to do. If they want to rest, they can. I will not. Will you?"

Moto Chen shook his head. "Never," he said. "Not until it's done."

Shono nodded and turned to the men following them. There were a dozen, all volunteers. There had been many more, but taking more than a dozen would have required a significant increase in their travel time, and that was unacceptable. As it was, the trip had taken longer than Shono would have liked, but it would have been impossible to move any faster. "We will be within the village in less than an hour," he said to the men. "The horses will be able to rest. Najato, you must rest as well."

Iuchi Najato shook his head. "I stand with you, my lord."

"No," Shono said. "I may have need of your abilities again soon, and if you are not rested, you will be of little use."

"I will be ready regardless, Shono-sama."

"No!" Shono's tone was far harsher than he intended. He grimaced. "Forgive me," he said more quietly. "It is thanks to you and your Baraunghar training that we have made it so far so quickly. You have my thanks for that. Please do not question me on this."

The obviously weary shugenja nodded. "Yes, my lord."

Shono nodded as well. "Loruko, Xie, when we arrive I will need your hunter's eyes."

"Yes, my lord," both said instantly.

Shono turned back to the village. He said nothing for a moment, struggling with his guilt and rage. He felt guilt for leaving his wife and daughter behind when they clearly needed him. He felt rage for those who had dared threaten his family. "Somewhere to the south are the ones responsible for trying to murder my daughter," he said. "If you are to stand with me, then know this: I do not intend to permit them to see another sunrise." He turned to regard Chen and the others. "Who stands with me?"

"They threatened my family as well," Chen snarled. "I will burn what is left of this city to the ground if I must, but someone will suffer for their insolence."

There was no response from the others. There was no need for one. Their eyes were clear and certain, and they looked to Shono, awaiting his orders.

"We ride," Shono said.

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

Western Hub Village
Agasha Miyoshi stared about in wonder as she and her companions passed one empty building after another. Many had sustained significant damage, and although there were a few that showed signs of attempted repair, they appeared to have been abandoned in the middle of the process. Now, the elements had taken their toll on what little had been done to repair the damage, and the result was row upon orderly row of buildings that appeared to be in the process of collapsing in on themselves. "Everyone simply left?"

"Not everyone." Isawa Angai said. The former Scorpion was clad in robes of brilliant orange, with a subtle pattern of crimson throughout. Her mask, a bold statement of her refusal to abandon her heritage, remained unchanged. "Many did depart after the Lion completed Otosan Uchi's destruction. Life as it had once been simply no longer existed."

"There are people still here," the Dragon samurai-ko at their side said. "I can feel them watching us."

"They are fearful," Angai explained. "There are rarely visitors anymore in West Hub Village. Those who do come here typically want something from them, and they have little left to give."

"Desperate people with little to lose," the Dragon said. "We must be careful."

"Someone will make an attempt soon," Angai said. "But when the others see the great Mirumoto Ryosaki, daughter of the legendary Doji Reju, deal with the offender, we will have no further trouble." She turned to the small Phoenix shugenja with them. "Are you certain that this is the correct place, Miyoshi?"

"Yes," the priestess said without hesitation. "I cannot say how or why, but this area& it is somehow linked to the carving at the Temple of the Seven Dragons."

"Excellent," Angai said with a smile.

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

Ryosaki stared into the cup of tea before her with an extremely doubtful expression. "This is not a teahouse," Ryosaki said with a sneer. "It is a cesspool."

"Don't be ridiculous," Angai said, sipping her tea with a gruesome expression. "I have been in many cesspools,' as you call them. This establishment is a disgrace to their memory."

"Why are we doing this?" Miyoshi asked, glancing around nervously. "It seems unnecessarily dangerous."

"On the contrary, it is necessarily dangerous," Angai said. "We could wander this village for days without any hint as to why we have been drawn here. By allowing ourselves to be caught up in the waters of fate, we will reach our destination all the quicker."

"An odd viewpoint for a Scorpion," Ryosaki mused.

"Of course," Angai replied. "I am a Phoenix, after all."

The three women sat in silence for a while, sipping their tea occasionally and, at Angai's insistence, appearing as non-threatening as possible. The two Phoenix laughed and talked about every inconsequential thing they could imagine, and Ryosaki concentrated on appearing somber as opposed to actively hostile. After an hour, it became obvious that her patience was waning. When the serving girl approached with fresh tea, the three did not seem to pay any attention.

It was nearly a terrible mistake. As the girl raised her serving platter, she bent down suddenly and blew. A cloud of white powder sprang up and coated the two Phoenix. Miyoshi cried out in pain and brought her hands to her eyes. Angai cursed and covered her face with the back of her forearm.

Three men from different tables sprang up at once and rushed at Ryosaki. The young Dragon leapt to her feat and kicked the heavy table over at her attackers in one fluid motion. The wood struck one man in the knees and brought him down with the sound of snapping bones. Another leapt over the obstacle, but was not nimble enough. The short leg struck him in the ankle and he fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs, narrowly avoiding a grievous injury on his own blade.

The third attacker was far more adept than the first two. He attacked with a pair of sai, pinning Ryosaki's katana in one quick motion and stabbing toward her stomach with the other. She blocked the attack with her wakizashi and kicked the man to separate them. He rolled away from the strike and adopted a defensive stance. If she had not been wielding both her blades, she would have received a mortal wound. Her attacker was not familiar with the Mirumoto style, and now he given her the chance to establish the pace of their confrontation. He would not survive to regret it.

"Idiots," Angai snarled, ripping the mask from her face. "As if I would bother with something purely ornamental." Her eyes were red and tear-filled, but she could see clearly. Her hand flashed inside her kimono for a moment, and a tiny dagger suddenly sprouted from the second attacker's throat. He gurgled, his life's blood gushing onto the filthy teahouse floor, and then collapsed. "The one with the broken legs is alive, Ryosaki," she said. "We do not need your playmate."

"As you wish," Ryosaki said. She lunged for the man and saw a glimmer of fear in his face. He moved to defend himself, falling completely for her feint. She knocked both his sai away with a powerful blow of her katana, than plunged her wakizashi through his ribs and deep into his chest. He died instantly, and she kicked him off of her blade.

"Please retrieve some water from the kitchen," Angai said. "I will need it for Miyoshi. And if you see the serving girl, please express my dissatisfaction with the service here."

"Certainly," Ryosaki said.

While the Dragon disappeared, Angai retrieved her dagger and approached the man that lay moaning in the floor, clutching his shattered leg. She knelt near him, careful to remove his weapon from reach. "Many people would not find a priestess of the kami threatening," she said in a low voice. "Perhaps they would threaten you with the Dragon. She certainly is formidable, isn't she? But she is an honorable woman, and she would find the idea of hurting you for information very distasteful." Angai leaned in closer so that the man could see the redness in her eyes. "Unfortunately for you, I am a woman that understands occasionally distasteful things must be done. I am going to ask you questions, and you will answer them, or you will deeply regret it. Do you understand?"

"Yes," the man sputtered.

"Very good," Angai said. She held the man's blade up with one hand. The craftsmanship was exquisite. "You will begin by telling me how a man of your low character acquired such a magnificent blade. And please, be very specific." She smiled a cruel, unpleasant smile. "We Phoenix despise ambiguity."

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

Northern Hub Village
"What have you found?" Shono said quietly.

Shinjo Xie looked uncomfortable at the question, and looked down. "We are not quite certain yet, Shono-sama," he said. "But we think it may be related."

"Explain," he said curtly.

Xie nodded. "Chen-sama went into a sake house and began asking questions about hired killers and the like," he explained. "He was very& vigorous in his questioning. A number of patrons fled, most in a state of near panic. One, however, was very careful to make sure no one was following him. He did not seem overly concerned about the sake house. His movements were deliberate."

"And you were able to follow him?"

"Of course," Xie said. "Loruko and I followed him to a larger building, the only one in an entire block that was inhabited. Chen-sama followed and entered before we were able to stop him."

Shono grimaced, but nodded. "He has every right to be as angry as I am."

"There were nearly a dozen men inside," Xie continued. "We defeated them easily. Several were alive and relatively uninjured, but they do not appear to have been involved in the attempt on your family."

"How can we be sure?" Shono demanded.

Xie licked his lips nervously. "Chen-sama was extremely enthusiastic in his questioning of the captured men. I feel confident that one would have broken if they had any knowledge, but we have detained them in the event that you wish to speak with them yourself."

"Perhaps later," Shono said. "What did you find?"

"This." Xie held out a tattered scroll. It was a hand-drawn map of the Northern Hub Village, with several areas circled and others marked out. "It appears to be a record of some sort of search the men were conducting throughout the village."

"Searching?" Shono took the map. "Searching for what?"

"We do not know," Xie said. "There is no indication on the map. But Loruko believes she has found something of note nonetheless."

"Take me there," Shono ordered.

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

The alley was tiny and cramped, and set so far back from the main roads that it was a wonder it was ever discovered at all. Debris partially blocked the only entrance, further discouraging its discovery. If that was not sufficient, then surely the stench of death would have kept even the overly curious away. Shono wiped his mouth with the back of his hand at the smell, but grimaced and stepped through the rubble to reach the back regardless. "Loruko?"

"Here, my lord," the scout called from around the corner. Shono stepped around the corner and stopped in his tracks, suddenly confronted with a vista of gruesome death. There were five dead men in the alley, and by the stench they had been dead for some time. Four were clad in the same flat brown robes, and the fifth in a mixture of browns and greens. Shinjo Loruko was kneeling above one of the four and gesturing to its exposed wrist.

"Tattoos," she said. "All four have the same one. A skull, I think. It is not a very good likeness."

"The men from the building where we found the map all share the same tattoo," Xie said.

"Some sort of bandit group, then," Shono said. "Or some other fools who thought perhaps it would make them more fearsome."

"Most likely successful," Chen grunted, his tone agitated. "The people in this village are cowed. Someone has been dominating them, and I would wager it was this sad bunch of fools." He pointed to the dead men.

"These incompetents?" Xie said.

"With no one left to protect them," Shono said, "even these bandits would seem threatening to innocent peasants." He gestured to the last dead body. "What of that one?"

"Their target," Loruko said. She gestured to a cluster of three arrows jutting from the man's shoulder, and numerous blade wounds all across his torso. "He did not go quietly. His blade has some sort of residue on it, and several of the wounds these men suffered were not fatal."

"Poison," Shono said.

"A harsh one," Xie agreed. "This man was a Tortoise, from his mon."

"Why would four men attack a Tortoise samurai in this miserable alley?" Shono mused. "It makes no sense, unless he had whatever it was they had been searching for."

"Or if he was guarding it," Chen said.

At Shono's questioning glance, Xie cleared his throat. "There appears to be a trapdoor of sorts underneath the Tortoise's body," he said. "Well concealed, but not invisible, not to a trained scout."

"Shall I find an eta?" Loruko asked.

Shono snarled. "We don't have time for this. The assassins could be fleeing even as we speak." He stormed across the alley and grabbed the dead man by his kimono, tossing him aside and ignoring the gasp from Loruko. "Open it," he said.

Loruko nodded and stepped forward, taking a moment to inspect the door for traps. Apparently finding none, she wrenched it open and lowered a lantern down into the hole to peer around. "By the Fortunes!" she swore.

Shono dropped to his knees and peered downward, catching a glimpse of glinting metal as he did so. His night crystal eye did not need to adjust to the darkness, and he saw at once what had shocked Loruko. "Chen," he called. "You need to see this."

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

Southern Hub Village
In a region with a reputation for being cursed, the arrival of the Jade Legion galvanized the populace. Some rushed into the streets to stare in awe. A few intrepid souls cheered at the sight of one hundred heavily armed and armored samurai clad in brilliant green armor and bearing the Imperial chrysanthemum. Others disappeared into the maze of rubble-strewn alleys, fleeing before their many indiscretions were discovered by a higher authority.

Doji Reju shifted uncomfortably atop his horse and looked around and the dilapidated surroundings. "This is not the manner of entrance I had envisioned."

Asahina Sekawa, radiant in his Jade Champion's mantle, raised an eyebrow curiously. "You disapprove?"

Reju frowned. "We march into an unknown situation against an unknown enemy, and we do so with tremendous fanfare and aplomb. I do find it somewhat inadvisable, yes."

Sekawa nodded. "I trust you remember how Matsu Nimuro seized Toshi Ranbo years ago?"

"Which time?" Reju muttered.

Sekawa smiled at the comment. "Nimuro sent a letter to the Crane general, declaring exactly when and how he would attack the city. He detailed his entire attack plan in every detail, and then followed through on it to the letter. Despite that they knew exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it, the Crane commanders at Toshi Ranbo were unable to stop him."

"You hope to play mind games with out enemy?"

"We are showing them that we have come, and that we have no fear of them," Sekawa said. "If we are fortunate, they will become anxious and make a mistake, and then we can exploit it to our advantage."

"And if we are unfortunate," Reju said, "they will think we are fools and we will be killed.

"Death," Sekawa mused. "That would be an enlightening experience, I'm sure."

"Wonderful," Reju muttered.

"Jade Champion!" someone shouted from the crowd.

Reju had his blade half-drawn in an instant, scanning the crowd for potential enemies and moving his horse between Sekawa and the direction from which the shout had come. "Be easy, friend," Sekawa said softly. "Who seeks an audience with the Jade Champion?" he called out.

"I do." A woman stepped from the ranks. She bore a daisho on her hip, and although she did not bear the mark of a clan, her armor was of higher quality than any ronin Sekawa had seen before, and it bore a formal chop. "I would speak with you in private, if I may."

"The Jade Champion is on a matter of considerable urgency," Reju said. "He has little time for private audiences."

"The rumor is that you have arrived to push forward into Otosan Uchi itself," the ronin said. "As it is your duty to expunge corruption from the Empire, I can only surmise what your purpose within the city of ruins is, and I can be of assistance if you would have it."

Reju frowned, but Sekawa silenced him with a gesture. "What is your name?"

"Yotsu Seou," the woman said. "Daimyo of the Yotsu and master of the Yotsu Dojo."

Sekawa smiled. "August company indeed. Let us adjourn to somewhere more private, Seou-san, and we shall discuss your offer."

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

"There is something terribly wrong in Otosan Uchi," Seou said as the three stood in what had doubtless once been an extravagant home.

"Can you be more specific?" Sekawa asked.

"I do not believe I can," she said with a grimace. "The first few months were the worst, of course. There was little left in the city but scoundrels, Nezumi, and a handful of Bloodspeakers and their ilk hidden in the ruins. We fought with them for a time, but they withdrew to avoid attracting attention, and we were unable to hunt them to ground. There are simply too many places to hide. I could have my men search a single quarter for months and never find all the places that one could hide."

"A tactical nightmare," Reju agreed. "Why did you remain?"

"We are Yotsu," Seou said proudly. "We swore to defend those who had no one. There were many from the Hub Villages who were left penniless by the Lion's scourge. Those who could not afford to leave were forced to scavenge in the city for survival, and there were many predators remaining after Daigotsu fled. We could not abandon them."

"How many of your family have been lost?" Sekawa asked quietly.

"Too many," she said in a hoarse whisper. "Far too many. We have existed on the slimmest of margins. We must post a watch every night, we have to search for food daily. Much of the water within the city has been contaminated by dead bodies. It is a wretched existence."

"And yet you stayed," Reju grunted, clearly impressed.

"Until recently," Seou said bitterly. "There is something within the city that rules the night. Something that cannot be seen in the light of day, and that cannot be killed with simple steel. It preys not on the flesh but on the mind. I have had several good men, experienced soldiers, that have gone mad while standing guard over the rest of us as we slept. I could no longer keep my people within the city. If we were to die, who would watch over those in the villages?"

"Why have you not sought assistance?" Sekawa asked.

Seou laughed. "From whom? It is not as if the city's state is unknown to the clans. Did not Kisada and Sezaru march upon it to destroy the Bloodspeaker? No one believes the city's evil simply evaporated with his death. It is not that no one knows, Jade Champion. It is that no one cares."

"I care," Sekawa said. He rose suddenly. "I am shamed by your actions, Yotsu Seou. You and your people have defended the Emperor's weakest citizens from a darkness you cannot even see, much less understand. You have lain down your lives against an enemy that cannot be defeated, and you have done so with no hope of success simply because no one else would do it." He met her eyes. "You have done that which I should have done long ago, and I ask your forgiveness for my failure." He bowed deeply before the ronin.

Seou's eyes widened and the gesture, and she hastily returned it. "I do not seek restitution," she insisted. "That is not our purpose."

"You do not seek it," Sekawa said, "but you shall have it all the same. I shall speak to my lady Doji Domotai, and I shall see to it that your people are granted lands in the Crane provinces. From there, if you wish, you can continue your mission in any way you see fit."

"Domotai-sama will agree," Reju said. "She is too much like her father not to."

"Kurohito-sama," Seou said. "A great man. A true warrior and samurai, to the very end."

"All this I will arrange for you without condition," Sekawa said. "There are no strings attached to my offer. Yet, if I might be so arrogant as to ask you for a favor&"

"I will lead you into the city," she said. "We shall go together."

"Yes," Sekawa said. "Together."

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

Deep inside Otosan Uchi
The creature that had once been Chochu folded its hands into the sleeves of its robe. It was not truly a robe, of course, no more than Chochu was truly human. It was simply another habit that had persisted from the days when he was mortal, and it seemed to put its vassals at ease. "My enemies are arrayed against me, it seems," it said into the darkness.

"Your path is chosen," a voice answered. "You turned away from the Shadow Dragon. You and yours chose another path in search of power. Your ambition has undone all you desired."

"That remains to be seen," Chochu said. "Our goal is not yet out of reach."

"You failed to take the girl," the voice continued, seemingly unconcerned with Chochu's objection. "You cannot stand against Satsu. Your only viable target is the Shadow Dragon, and you fear it far too much to attempt to steal that which you desire."

"I do not fear the Shadow Dragon," Chochu answered. "I respect that which it has achieved and desire the same for the Ninube."

"Divinity cannot be seized so simply," the voice said. "It has been done before, and the consequences are always dire."

"Consuming the power of a divine being requires that we adopt their responsibilities and restrictions," Chochu said. "But consuming the divinity instilled within a mortal? A far less binding prospect."

"You delude yourself."

"No," Chochu said. "My enemies come for me, but the Ninube shall turn them away. And when we have, we shall seize the reincarnated Shinjo and the soul of Togashi, and we shall drink their power like wine. Their identities and power shall flow into us like life into the shadows, and we shall reign supreme in Ningen-do as the Shadow Dragon failed to do in the Realm of Thwarted Destiny."

"We shall see," the voice answered.


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