The Drowning Empire is a weekly serial based on the events which occured during the Writer Nerd Game Night monthly Legend of the Five Rings game. It is a tale of samurai adventure set in the magical world of Rokugan.
If you would like to read all of these in one convenient place, along with a bunch of additional game related stuff, behind the scenes info, and detailed session recaps, I’ve been posting everything to one thread on the L5R forum, http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=101206
This week’s episode was written by me. I’m the GM, which for you non gamers, means that I’m basically the narrator/manager of the story that the other guy’s characters are involved in. I make up the events, control all the non-player characters, and the players jump in and make the story unfold. And in this case where all the players are writers, GM also means editor.
The players had met Bayushi Kuronobo before (he was the one that investigted the swamp incident) and they know him as a dangerous, capable, very scary individual. After the conclusion of the Topaz Championship, an event occurred which would rock the Empire to its foundations.
After the conclusion of the Topaz Championship, an event occurred which would rock the Empire to its foundations.
Bayushi Kuronobo was not completely displeased.
He could tell by the shock on the young samurais’ faces that his mission had, for the most part, been a success. They still did not understand why they had been invited aboard the Imperial Barge the evening after the finale of the Topaz Championship. Their invitations had simply said that the Imperial Heir wished to meet with them, an unbelievable honor for any samurai, but these young warriors did not know that they had already met Hantei Miike, grandson of Empress Hoketuhime.
Not only met him, but they had eaten with him, told stories with him, competed with him in contests of athletics and martial prowess, had a tea ceremony together, and for these seven in particular, they had actually shed blood together… Not that the Heir had spilled any blood himself, but it was close enough. The fact that the Heir had been in danger was not Kuronobo’s to shame, as he had been given very particular instructions that Miike wished to truly experience life, no matter how dangerous it might be, and that his guards were not to meddle in any of the competitions. At the time he’d given that order, the Heir had probably not known he’d end up in a swamp with a ronin’s knife pressed against his throat.
The seven young guests had been in the Heir’s hunting party in the swamp. Kuronobo had already interviewed each of them in the aftermath of that fiasco, and he was satisfied they were honest… or at least close enough in some cases.
This assignment had been a challenging one, provide a way for the grandson of the Empress to attend a Topaz Championship in disguise, so that he might be able to strive and compete as a normal samurai, and experience the world outside the shelter of the Imperial City. He had done so by fabricating the personage of Bayushi Arashii, a humble young Scorpion from the hinterlands. Of course, the foolish Otomo could not help themselves and had told the foolish Crane, so their hosts had doted on the boy, but such was the way of courtly things.
He watched the young samurai as they were escorted to chambers where they could be ritually purified and provided with clothing of sufficient finery. It pleased Kuronobo that none of them, except perhaps Uso, realized what was going on… The Ikoma was a crafty one. If Uso lived long enough he would probably become a worthy opponent, something rare outside of the Scorpion. Kuronobo had already requested the honor of having the Topaz Champion attend Winter Court at Kyuden Bayushi.
If the lad could survive Maemi’s attentions, there was hope for him yet.
The dinner party was nearly over. Kuronobo stood at the railing, watching the gentle flow of the river through the eye holes of his porcelain mask. The Heir was truly enjoying himself, that much was obvious. One of the best musicians in the Empire was playing a biwa while the Heir spoke fondly of his recent adventures. Once his guests had gotten over their shock, they had begun to warm up to the idea that they had unknowingly been in the presence of the Child of Heaven for several days.
One of the Seppun Guard joined him at the railing. Kuronobo bowed exactly the right amount, and allowed the awakened kami of his mask to take on a pleasant demeanor. “Good evening, Guard Captain.”
“Magistrate-sama.” The Seppun bowed deeply. It was rare for the Seppun to approach Kuronobo, but that was to be expected considering his sinister reputation. “I must congratulate you on your work. Thank you.”
“I did nothing of significance.”
The Seppun looked back at the dining area of their floating palace. “You say it is nothing, but in all the years I have guarded the Heir, I have never seen him so happy… So alive! To hear the Heir laugh moves my soul. He said he wished to truly understand how the regular samurai lived. You helped provide this opportunity to him, so you have our thanks.”
Kuronobo frowned, but the mask remained cordial. He was the most dangerous member of the Emerald Magistrates and one of the finest swordsmen in the Empire. He was a killer, a liar, an assassin, a spy, and above all, a problem solver. Over two decades of service he taken him to the Colonies and even into the interior of the Shadowlands, and he’d fought, bled, murdered, conned, coerced, or blackmailed any who would conspire against the Throne. This was simply another assignment, and a waste of his talents at that, as was any assignment that did not pit him directly against the enemies of the Empire.
In truth, he had not minded this assignment so much. It had given him the opportunity to scout for new recruits for the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu with the right temperament, and he had been able to watch his son Sakai compete in the Topaz championship, an event which Kuronobo had won himself, over twenty years before.
“Thank you. I was honored to serve.”
The massive barge rocked gently on the River Tsuma as they were steered back toward the docks. The servants had come from their hiding places and were ushering the guests out of the dining area. Apparently, the Heir had declared the evening’s entertainment concluded. The seven guests were led out to the deck. Even though they were now trusted companions of the Heir, the always nervous Seppun guard kept an eye on them as their weapons and belongings were returned.
Something was wrong…
There was an unnatural cold in the air. Kuronobo moved his hand to his katana.
One of the guests, the Tamori shugenja Isao, felt it as soon as the Seppun Guard. Alarmed, he pointed at the river. They were now moving away from the dock… It was as if they were being dragged. The captain shouted an order at his men and they sprang into well-rehearsed action. Kuronobo knew that they would be ushering the Heir into the safety of the interior, ready to protect him with steel or magic.
“Look!” one of the guests was pointing at the docks.
All eyes turned in time to see the Daidoji Iron Warriors stationed along the dock being ripped to pieces by…
The river had come alive. Tendrils of water were striking like whips, tearing through armor and flesh as the Daidoji samurai perished. The sounds of screaming became fainter as the Imperial Barge was pulled toward the center of the river.
There was a disturbance off the port side, like the thrashing of thousands of fish just beneath the surface. A dome formed, and then a pillar of water, thick as a tree, rose from the depths. It twisted around, writing like a serpent.
Kuronobo drew his katana. It was a potent nemurani, though he had no idea if it would work against magic of this nature.
“Protect the Heir!” the Captain shouted. “Alert the—”
The water struck with unbelievable speed. The Seppun Captain exploded in a shower of blood and meat. The thing turned, knocking more Seppun Guard aside as if they weighed nothing. It seemed to be intelligent, as it sought out the greatest potential threat, a Seppun shugenja, engulfed him, and lifted the priest into the air.
Kuronobo lashed out. The katana flowed through the beast, and the end of the water snake fell off with a mighty splash onto the deck, but the shugenja washed over the side. The water turned pink as the river attacked him with ten thousand blades.
More giant snakes of water were rising all around the barge.
“Fire!” The Seppun launched arrows, but they simply disappeared into the creatures without so much as a splash. A Seppun shugenja invoked the fire kami and a ball of hot energy leapt from his hands to strike the water with a blast of steam.
CRACK CRACK CRACK
Whips began to fall, dozens of them. Seppun guard died all across the barge. Legs and arms were severed so cleanly it was like the living river was as sharp as steel. Other guardsmen were engulfed and hauled over the side to disappear instantly beneath the thrashing surface. The Topaz guests were fighting like mad, lashing out at the unnatural magic. They were drenched in water and blood, but their weapons had no effect.
“Fall back into the interior,” Kuronobo ordered as he beheaded another water snake. Disconnected from the river, the falling blob nearly swept him from his feet. “Fall back.”
The survivors rushed into the interior of the barge. A Seppun tried to slide the door closed behind them as the last came through, but water engulfed his hands and jerked him outside. He screamed as his arms were plucked from his torso. The big Sparrow shoved the door closed.
For a moment, it was quiet.
“We must protect the Heir,” the young Akodo stated, a look of grim determination on his face.
“Deeper inside,” Kuronobo gestured. “Go.”
Moments before this had been a place of beauty and artistry, but now shadows covered everything as dark waters rolled against the glass. Streams of moisture came from the ceiling and extinguished their lanterns. Paper doors became sodden and ruptured. Ink ran and scrolls bled. Their sandals splashed through puddles as they ran. The Tamori was hyperventilating. Of course… His sources had told him the Dragon shugenja had a phobia of drowning. So this was a rather appropriate way for him to die.
The barge lurched, knocking the samurai from their feet. Paintings fell from the walls and splashed into the growing puddles.
“We are being lifted!” shouted the Mantis, Oki.
Kuronobo could feel that it was true, but a quick look out a small window confirmed it. They were still on the river, but the lights of Tsuma were now far below them. The Imperial Barge was being held aloft on a mighty pillar of water. It was as if the entire river was being drawn up beneath them, like the mighty hand of a god.
The Heir was in his quarters, the most secure part of the shaking vessel. The remaining Seppun surrounded him. The surviving shugenja were holding spell scrolls and chanting, invoking the protection of the kami, yet they had no magic prepared for an eventuality such as this.
“What is happening,” Hantei Miike demanded. To his credit, he was calm, but he was the son of Yuni, so that was to be expected.
“We’re under attack, my Lord,” Kuronobo answered.
“By me.” The unfamiliar voice had come from behind. A man was standing in the Heir’s quarters in a place where nobody had been a split second before. He was older, dressed humbly and had the shaved head of a monk, but he was tall, broad, and carried himself like a man who had been a warrior. “I have come for you, Hantei Miike. I have come to make the Empire pay for its sins.”
Kuronobo swung Life Taker, but a stream of water hit him like a tetsubo and he smashed through an antique dressing screen. Bones broke and Kuronobo spit blood inside his mask. The Seppun charged. What happened next was almost too fast to follow, but the monk merely narrowed his eyes and the samurais’ flesh simply turned to thundering water and their armor crashed to the floor. The last Seppun shugenja died horribly a heartbeat later, water pouring out his open mouth as his lungs filled and burst.
The elite Seppun Guard were all gone. Heedless of the danger, Miike’s guests threw their bodies between the intruder and the Heir.
“What do you expect to accomplish?” The monk took a step forward. The barge shook, and they could all feel that they were very high in the air, carried on an evil wave. “Ah, but I know you… There is so much destiny in this group. I can feel it. I knew it from the moment I first saw this group enter Tsuma, but destiny exists to be thwarted.”
The Mantis fired an arrow. It sped through monk’s cheek. His flesh seemed to ripple for the briefest instant, like a stone cast into a pond, and then he was whole again. The monk looked at the Heir’s guests sternly. They young warriors raised their weapons, ready to fight to the death, though they already knew it would be futile.
“I told you that you were correct to fear the water.”
The monk disappeared.
Then the barge was falling.
When I awoke, the barge had been broken into pieces and was sinking rapidly. It was dark and chaotic and the barge had rolled upon its side. I did not personally witness the servant of the monk, this strange gaijin in the golden armor who attacked Hantei Miike. They said that he came from out of the river, and had the strength of ten men. The Sparrow, Suzume Shintaro and the Unicorn, Moto Subotai fought him, and he easily defeated them both, nearly killing Shintaro in the process. From the description, it sounds as if his armor was from the Yodotai Empire far to the west.
Then this gaijin inflicted a single stab wound upon the Heir with a strange gaijin dagger. He could have taken the Heir’s life, but he did not. For what purpose, I do not know. Was it to mark him? Was it a warning? We must learn more. The gaijin fled, allowing Moto Subotai and Ikoma Uso a chance to carry the Heir to safety, but I am certain the gaijin did not flee out of fear.
…Yes, Shogun. These young samurai did well. There should be no dishonor upon their names. When a unit of elite Seppun are slaughtered in minutes, how can seven samurai just past their gempukku be expected to fare better? They were all wounded, nearly dead in a few cases, and one had even been forced to cut his own arm off to avoid drowning, but they still managed to get the Heir back to shore. If it were not necessary to keep the details of this affair a secret, they would be known to the Empire as heroes.
As for the other witnesses, there was no sign of your clan mate, Hiruma Akio. I believe she drowned in the river. The cabal has already read the testimonies of Akodo Toranaka, Tamori Isao, Ikoma Uso, Moto Subotai, Yoritomo Oki, and Suzume Shintaro. They have been sworn to secrecy. The Empire must never know that a gaijin was able to injure the Son of Heaven.
… You are correct, Shogun O-Hinku-sama. It would be wise to utilize these young samurai. They have proven themselves capable and they already know the truth of the events. That is wise. For now, we will continue our investigations and let these samurai return to their duties. Should the need arise, we will call upon them.
…No, Magatsu-sama. This attack was like nothing in the history of the Empire. Thousands died in Tsuma, consumed in the crash of that wave. The river destroyed half of the city within seconds. The aftermath overwhelmed the Crane. It was the Crab guests of the Topaz that suggested throwing all the bodies into a great bonfire. Many of them were too damaged to separate samurai from peasant from eta.
All of our planning, all of our preparations, the strength of the Seppun Guard, all of it was totally insufficient to protect the safety of the Imperial Heir. We are facing a new foe, and his power is unlike anything we have seen before. We were aware that the balance of the Celestial Order has been upset, first by the madness of Lord Moon and the Destroyer War, and now this. I know you have long suspected that this day would come. The Empire has been infiltrated. The elements themselves are being corrupted. This mysterious attacker has not revealed himself since Tsuma, but I believe he will bide his time, and he will strike again. I fear that the time of reckoning predicted by Hida Makoto so many years ago is now upon us, and should we fail, the Empire will be no more.
It was my duty to ensure that the Imperial Heir was able to compete in the Topaz Championship in anonymity and secrecy, not in safety, by his own command, as he wished to truly live as any samurai would. In this endeavor, I was successful, but nonetheless I was present at the attack against the Imperial Barge, and even as skilled as I am, I was helpless against our adversary. I have already offered my seppuku to cleanse this failure from the Scorpion Clan, but you have denied this request…
That can only mean one thing. You intend to keep me alive because you know that I will not rest until the secret traitors to the Empire are rooted out and utterly destroyed. It has been said that I was born with a black heart, incapable of remorse, mercy, or compassion. These things are completely true. I am an unrelenting killer, but I am your unrelenting killer. Feel free to use that to your advantage. With the Voice’s permission, my subordinates will begin compiling a list of all the suspects we should execute. I warn you, this may be a very long list, but better the streets should flow with blood than the Celestial Wheel itself be destroyed…
…Very well, Todo-sama. The purge will wait… For now.
-From the secret transcripts of the Imperial Investigation into the “Tsuma Incident”, eye witness testimony provided by Emerald Magistrate Bayushi Kuronobo, senior commander of the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Special Higher Police).
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/the-drowning-empire-episode-14-the-topaz-champion/