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In a distant land, far across the sea, the Mantis Clan struggles to fulfill the mandate of the Divine Empress and discover the truth behind the seemingly endless horde of gaijin demons plaguing the Emerald Empire.

 

The Ruined Kingdom, Part 1

By Shawn Carman

Edited by Fred Wan

It had been so long since any of them had seen land, land more substantial than tiny islands of jagged rock and reefs that broke the surface of the seemingly endless waves, that Moshi Kalani wondered if it would feel strange to stand upon it again. Much of his life had been spent at sea, but never longer than a week or two at most without putting into a port for at least a few hours. He had stopped noticing the pitch and roll of the ship beneath is feet weeks ago. He remembered how many men from the mainland he had seen be violently sick their first time on a true sea voyage, and wondered if he would be similarly ill when he finally returned to land.

“Land!” For a moment, Kalani thought the word was simply an echo of his last thought, lost in the fugue of the sea. “Commander! Land!”

Kalani stepped to the edge of the kobune, placing his foot on the railing and leaning over. The vessel approaching was one of the smaller ships the Mantis used, capable of carrying less cargo but moving through the sea with much greater speed than the Blade’s Edge, the ship from which Kalani commanded the entire Second Storm. He recognized the smaller ship moving against the direction of the rest of the fleet. Recognized it and frowned slightly. The Unknown Path was a reliable ship helmed by a captain that Kalani considered extremely unreliable. Buntaro himself was leaning over the edge. “Land, commander! Three hours journey north by northwest!”

Kalani considered it for a moment. “Islands?”

Buntaro shook his head. “No, my lord. It is the coastline, and it is definitely not the Shadowlands!”

That was welcome news. The most difficult aspect of sailing to the Ivory Kingdoms was in sailing far enough out to sea that the influence of the Shadowlands and whatever demon-infested nightmare that bordered it could be avoided. The very water around those wretched lands could kill, but then weeks and months spent in the open expanse of the ocean was nearly as dangerous. Now it seemed that the Storm had finally come to ground outside the danger zone. Kalani’s navigators had plotted their course perfectly. “Take Rui and the Fire Blossom and confirm the course,” he said. “Alternate back and forth with the Blossom so the course is assured.” He nodded, then thought. “And find us a good spot to put ashore! Something defensible!”

* * * * *

 

“Ugh,” the old man said with an expression of distaste. “I never thought I would feel sick walking on land.”

Kalani smiled despite the situation. He gazed along the length of shore, where dozens of Mantis crews were setting foot on the first land for months. “I am grateful to have a man of your power and experience by my side, Komori-sama.”

“Please,” Komori said. “You are the commander of this momentous expedition. It is I who should call you sama.” He paused for a moment. “I probably will not, though.”

Kalani chuckled. “My gratitude is sincere, however. I am not certain how Lord Naizen enticed you to accompany the expedition, but I am thankful.”

“The Mantis have been extremely generous ever since the Bat Clan was created,” Komori said. “For that, I have been grateful, but to abandon my clan for so long would have been too much. Fortunately, lord Naizen offered me a truly spectacular amount of koku. So much so, in fact, that those issues that required my attention were resolved quite quickly and neatly.” He smiled ever so slightly. “Have I mentioned how fortunate we are to have our ancestry among the Mantis Clan? It really is a blessing most will never know.”

One of the others approached Kalani and bowed slightly. “Your orders, commander?”

No Yoritomo had ever deferred to Kalani on land, at least not that he could recall. The sensation was uniquely strange. “Ah, yes, thank you Chiako-san. Please use the open expanse of beach slightly to the north to begin setting up a temporary center for operations. I would like the Tsuruchi set up in roving patrols to secure the surrounding area. Overlap the patrols, as I want no mistakes. If this is to be where we are based, at least for now, it must be absolutely secure.” He turned to Komori. “If you will speak to Yuriko and Kinyo, have them ensure that those who remain on the ships assume a defensive formation around the beach as well.” He paused. “Komori-sama?”

“Someone watches us,” the Bat Champion said darkly. He nodded to the north, along the beach.

Kalani frowned. “I see nothing.” He noticed one of the Tsuruchi crouched a little farther along the beach and jogged over to him. “What do you see?”

Tsuruchi Gidayu squinted against the brightness. “A man. A boy, perhaps. Watching us.”

“Gaijin,” Kalani said flatly.

“Hai, commander,” Gidayu said. He smiled broadly. “Can we go find him? I will take Shisuken and bring him back.”

“No,” Kalani said sharply. “No, not Shisuken.” He knew the archer, and found his demeanor ever so slightly different during the voyage. It was probably just that he did not respond well to extended sea voyages. It was the case with many men. But for whatever reason, he made Kalani somewhat uneasy. “No, I should come with you.”

“Commander?” Gidayu said. “Are you certain? You should not be placed in harm’s way.”

Kalani smiled slightly. “If there is to be a benefit of command, it is that I can choose those undertakings I prefer for myself.” He glanced at Gidayu. “You know something of that, do you not? You expended the whole of your personal wealth to accept this duty, did you not?”

Gidayu shrugged, but his grin resurfaced. “This is the chance of a lifetime. What fool would pass up the chance?” He rose and dusted the sand from his clothes. “If you wish it, commander?”

“Can you track our quarry?”

The scout laughed. “Oh my, yes.”

Kalani turned to the others. “Chiako, you have command until I return. Komori-sama, will you assist her?”

“Certainly not,” Komori said. “My place is with you, of course.”

The young commander considered attempting to force the issue via his rank, but the sardonic expression of the shugenja lord convinced him otherwise. “As you like. Lead the way, Gidayu.”

* * * * *

 

Kalani had never spent an exceptional amount of time alongside Tsuruchi scouts, given that his duty had typically taken him to sea, but he had a difficult time imagining that all of them swore as much as Gidayu. “Bishamon’s nightsoil!” the archer exploded as if on cue. “I have never seen a trail like this!”

“Perhaps we should return to the beach,” Kalani said. “It seems our opponent is more cunning than we anticipated, or perhaps the terrain is simply too different for your otherwise exceptional skills.”

“I tracked a man along the Crane seashore for six days once,” Gidayu growled. “This ground is much firmer and less prone to shifting by the wind.” He lifted a handful of the loose soil and scattered it in annoyance. “This man moves like a ghost. He can go for dozens of feet and leave no trace of his passing, then suddenly there are a handful of prints.” He paused and looked away. “I think he is allowing us to follow him,” the scout admitted. “We should be aware that we might be led into a trap.”

Kalani’s hand tensed around the hilt of his weapon. After so long on the sea and now a frustrating pursuit, he almost welcomed a fight to clear his mind, but not if it took place on the opponent’s terms. “What can you tell us, Komori-sama?”

“The spirits here are strange,” Komori said. “The kami seem… confused. I do not think that they think they are kami at all.”

“What does that mean?” Gidayu demanded.

“Oh, I am sorry,” Komori snapped. “I can’t explain it in terms of pointy little sticks that fly through the air, so of course you are confused.”

            “Hard to ask the kami for favors with an arrow in your throat,” Gidayu said under his breath.

            “You insolent child,” Komori roared.

            “No more!” Kalani said. “We are all tired and frustrated, but I will not have us take up arms against one another because we cannot find anyone else to fight.”

            “I am a Minor Clan Champion,” Komori began.

            “Who placed his services at the disposal of a Mantis expedition of which I am the commander!” Kalani said. “And I said that was enough!”

            Komori fumed for an instant, then smirked. “I think a few more Moshi like you and the Clan War would have been a great deal easier to deal with.”

            Kalani was still wondering how to respond to such a statement when a bright and cheerful cry of “Hello!” interrupted his thoughts. All three samurai reached for their weapons, with Kalani drawing a blade and Gidayu preparing an arrow while Komori’s hands were wreathed with crackling electricity in an instant.

            On a dune ahead of them crouched a young man, his features and attire instantly identifying him as a gaijin despite that he spoke almost flawless Rokugani. “Have you been following me the entire time?” he asked, surprised. “I suppose mother is right and I should pay more attention.”

            Kalani’s weapon lowered only an inch. “Who are you?”

            The young man’s smile grew wider and he opened his mouth to respond, but froze in mid-reply as his eyes widened. “Oh!” he said, pointing to Kalani’s chest. “You are Mantis! Mantis Clan warriors! From the Emerald Empire! Yes?”

            “I… yes,” Kalani said, feeling confused. “How do you know who we are?”

            “My father!” The youth sprang to his feet and hopped about excitedly. “My father was a Mantis! He came to wage war here many years ago!” He leapt down from the dune to stand in front of them, then bowed clumsily. “Is that right? That is how I remember it!”

            Kalani heard Komori’s sharp intake of breath next to him, but did not consider it at the moment. “Your father was a Mantis? One of those who came to the unknown war against forces in your Kingdoms?”

            “Yes!” the boy said. He looked as though he might burst at the seams from pure happiness. “I have waited my whole life for this day! I cannot believe you are finally here! I knew you would come!” He stopped, covering his mouth as if he just remembered something. “Mother! You must come meet mother! And then later I can take you to the others!” He hopped back atop the dune and withdrew a perfectly matched pair of weapons, causing the color to bleed slowly from Kalani face. “Come! I will show you! Come with me!” With a yelp of excitement, the boy leaped over the samurai’s heads and caught a low hanging branch from the tree line with the intersection of the blade and handles of his weapons, then flipped farther into the trees. “Come quickly!”

            “This is insane,” Gidayu said, turning to the others. “We cannot honestly… what is it?” He looked alarmed at the expression of the two older men. “What is it?”

            Kalani turned to Komori. “Did you see?”

            Komori nodded. “His eyes,” the shugenja whispered. “He has Aramasu’s eyes!”

            “What?” both the other men said suddenly.

            Komori stared at Kalani. “You didn’t see? What were you talking about, then?
            Kalani looked into the jungle after the young man. “The kama he carries,” he said. “Those are Yoritomo’s kama.”

* * * * *

 

“This cannot be possible.”

Komori raised an eyebrow. “You never struck me as an imbecile, Kalani. Please do not disappoint me at this late stage of the game.”

“You believe him?” Kalani was incredulous.
            The old shugenja spread his hands wide. “Why would he lie? The boy clearly has some degree of familiarity with our ways. He should understand at the very least that claiming to be the son of one of our venerated dead is a death sentence if proven false. And besides that,” his voice trailed off, and Komori finally simply shrugged. “His eyes do not lie. I have seen those eyes before.”

Kalani wiped at his eyes with his hand, suddenly exhausted. “And I have seen the weapons. There is no question, none at all, that they are the kama of our lord Yoritomo.”

“How is that possible?” Yoritomo Chiako demanded. For the first time in the entire voyage, her expression displayed emotion, and that emotion was anger. Kalani thought perhaps there was fear there as well. “How can weapons lost to the sea on the Phoenix coastline be here, in the Kingdoms? As you said, my lord, it is impossible.”

“And yet here we are,” Komori observed. “Perhaps it was the will of the Fortunes. Perhaps it was the will of Aramasu. Who knows? Perhaps it was the will of Yoritomo himself that the boy find them and carry them in his father’s name.”

“Blasphemy!” Chiako struck the table in the tent that served as Kalani’s personal command center with both fists. “This is blasphemy and I will not hear it!”

Komori’s expression grew stormy and Kalani would have sworn that the light in the tent dimmed at the same time that the wind outside picked up with a sudden gust, but he held his hand up. For a moment he was uncertain that the old shugenja would acknowledge him, but after only a moment, the old man nodded slowly. “This response is not what I would expect from you, Chiako,” Kalani said quietly. “Why does this cause you such consternation?”

The young officer clearly struggled to maintain her composure as she answered. “I remember the war between Kumiko-sama and Kitao,” she said quietly. “I will not stand by and permit another war of succession. If need be I will take the boy’s life and then my own.”

“What?” Komori burst out. “Are you mad, woman? Has the Mantis Clan changed so dramatically since my departure that they would even consider the notion of a half-gaijin Champion? As if the Empire at large would tolerate such a thing!” He chuckled. “You worry for nothing, captain.”

Chiako frowned severely, but Kalani could see the relief in her expression. “Gidayu, you were there,” he said, addressing the tent’s fourth occupant. “What is your assessment?”

The archer shrugged lightly. “I never met Aramasu-sama, nor have I ever seen Yoritomo-kami’s kama up close, so I have no opinion on those issues. What I do know is that the boy is fast, stealthy, and clearly knows his way around. If I had to hunt him in the jungle,” he shook his head slowly. “I think I might just quit before I started. He would be incredibly useful as a guide, and if his mother can lead us to others who are sympathetic to the Mantis as she seemed to indicate…” He shrugged again. “It seems foolish to waste an asset.”

Kalani slowly nodded. “I am inclined to agree. So we will use the boy as a guide for now, so long as he understands that he is not to discuss his lineage until we have time to… process that information.” He shook his head. “I do not wish to think what chaos such a thing could unleash. In the meantime, we need to assess our current situation.” He gestured to the tent flap and Gidayu nodded. The archer stepped out for a moment and returned with another Tsuruchi in tow. “Arishia,” Kalani said. “We would hear your report, if it is ready.”

Tsuruchi Arishia bowed sharply. “Of course, my lord. As per your request, we sent multiple patrols in a broad sweep of the surrounding area, reaching as far afield as six miles of our current location. As a precaution, I have stationed five groups in concealed overnight camps within that area as well, in the interest of preventing any sort of midnight approach by an unseen enemy. I hope that I was not presumptuous in doing so.”

“No, no,” Kalani assured her. “It was a wise decision. Well done. Did the patrols find anything?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Arishia said. “There was evidence of one small settlement, a village of sorts, roughly five miles in from the beach. It had been completely wiped out.”

Kalani raises his head sharply. “The Destroyers?”

“Possible, but I doubt it,” Arishia said. “I inspected the site myself. There was no sign of a large force arriving, although clearly some of the villagers had departed. It makes no sense, but it appears the village was destroyed by an internal conflict of some sort. The paths were almost completely overgrown, as were all paths in the jungle that we were able to locate. And there were no remains at all.”

“I do not find that reassuring,” Kalani muttered. “Is there no sign of anyone?”

“None,” Arishia said. “At least no one that we can see. My men reported multiple instances of being observed by unseen parties.”

“How did you know an unseen party was there?” Komori inquired.

Arishia smiled slightly. “A hunter’s intuition, lord Komori-sama.”

“No signs of life at all,” Kalani repeated.

“Other than those you met today,” Arishia confirmed. Everyone in the tent turned to look at her, to which she raised her eyebrows slightly in surprise. “Surely you realize how quickly news travels?”

“Wonderful,” Kalani muttered.

* * * * *

 

The young gaijin darted back and forth across the deck of the ship, smiling from ear to ear the entire time. Despite his age, he seemed to delight in the experience as a child would. A Rokugani youth of nearly two decades would be considered an adult, and entrenched within his duties by such an age. This gaijin seemed trapped between the world of child and man, and Kalani wondered if it was a function of their strange culture, or if the youth had perhaps been sequestered because of his apparently diverse ancestry. Kalani could not imagine that such an individual would have an easy life or find any degree of acceptance, but perhaps the world at large was not like the Empire. The thought made Kalani distinctly uncomfortable.

“Left!” the youth shouted. “Move to the left!”

The ship’s navigator looked to Kalani with an annoyed expression. “I see nothing, commander,” he said. “No reefs, no breakers, nothing.”

Kalani frowned. “I know,” he said. “Do as he says.”

The annoyance on the navigator’s face redoubled in intensity, but he bowed sharply and adjusted the ship’s course. Moments later, he heard one of the men on deck yelp in surprise as the ship passed narrowly between two razor sharp reefs that were all but invisible. “What…” the navigator sputtered.

“The plants that cling to the reefs in this region are blue, sometimes green,” the youth shouted out. “It makes it almost impossible to see unless you know what you are looking for! That is one reason that my father selected this place, one reason that no one ever comes here.”

“One reason?” Kalani asked. “There are others, I presume.”

“Certainly,” the young man said. “The shojo here are particularly dangerous. Or so the outsiders believe.” Seeing the curious looks on the faces of others. “Sea spirits. Sort of, at least. It is a rather complicated story and I seriously doubt you would be interested. Sufficed to say, our people are safe among the shojo, and the outsiders are not.”

The youth’s repeated use of the term outsider gave Kalani pause, but he did not mention it. Did the boy’s mixed ancestry cause him to view himself as Rokugani, and the citizens of the Kingdoms as outsiders? It was probably something of that sort, and it was not the kind of thing that could be discussed without great complication, so Kalani made a note to discuss it with his officers. It would not do to have their only guide so far offended.

“Here!” the boy shouted. “Here!” He pointed with the kama that was to him his father’s weapon, but to every member of the fleet a sacred relic of unimaginable importance. “I will show you what my father left for you! You will see!”

            Kalani found himself frowning as he leapt over the side of the ship and splashed through the thigh-deep water following the young scout, followed by Gidayu. He moved through the water like he had spent his entire life in the surf, and given his familiarity with the area, Kalani thought perhaps that he had. The scout scrambled across the dunes and began scaling a tall rock wall that seemed naturally occurring, but which so conveniently and thoroughly concealed the interior of the peninsula that Kalani suspected magic might have been used to create it. Regardless, it was not as jagged and razor-sharp as it appeared to the eye, which further suggested it was a deliberate deception. The guide stood at the top, having darted up it in an instant. “Here!” he said, his smile broad. “This is my father’s legacy!”

            Kalani hefted himself to the top of the rock wall, his breath coming quick and labored. “Too long at sea,” he rasped, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

            “Fortunes,” whispered Gidayu, his mouth hanging open.

            “Eh?” Kalani said, and followed the archer’s gaze. He felt the strength depart from his legs in a rush. The peninsula was not a peninsula at all, but rather an atoll. Just inside the rock wall was a massive body of water, likely connected to the greater sea, or at least a great lake. And it was not empty. “Lady Sun preserve us,” Kalani said, lapsing into an oath from his childhood.

            “Are they not magnificent?” the youth asked.

            “They are enormous,” Gidayu said. “I have never seen anything so large, not even the koutetsukan.”

            The youth smiled. “My father instructed us that they were to be called the Fourth Storm.”

To Be Continued

 

     

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!