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
We pick up after our 2 year time break. Because the PCs were witness to the attack on the imperial heir, and that is a state secret, they have been picked by the shogun for a special mission. Scholars have found a drawing of the odd gaijin dagger which injured the Imperial heir in Tsuma, on an inventory list from the Imperial Museum of Antiquities. The only problem is that the museum is withing the nightmare ruins of the former capitol city, Otosan Uchi, which has been abandoned for generations and infested with demons.
This week’s episode is by Steve Diamond.
Otosan Uchi: Where Nightmares Fear to Tread
I knelt before the shrine, just glad that I was able to do so again. Just glad that I was alive. I let the monks cleanse my body with blessed water, relishing the feeling—perhaps it was mental, perhaps not—of the Taint and evil being scrubbed away.
Otosan Uchi was a nightmare. No, it was the nightmare that nightmares dream about in the night. The ruined city was a festering pit of monsters and terrors, and we didn’t encounter the worst it had to offer. I closed my eyes to try and forget.
You will forget nothing, descendant.
I repressed a sigh. My ancestor, Satsujin, was back after abandoning me following the events of the museum.
You are lucky I didn’t abandon you permanently, Uso, he continued. I do not put up with stupidity.
Please instruct me on my failings, ancestor, I replied internally. There was no animosity in my thought. I really did want his instruction.
You went into the museum, he said. I could feel the incredulity in his words. You put yourself in needless danger. Explain to me how this was not a failure?
I do not mean to show disrespect, ancestor, I said. But you were not there to see the horrors I experienced. Something in there blocked you out. By the time I noticed, it was too late, and then it was literally impossible to escape. I had no choice but to remain and fight by my fellow samurai.
There was a hesitation, as if Satsujin was considering my words and actions in a different light.
Tell me all that happened, and I will judge.
I let my mind wander back to the events in the ruins. As the monks continued their work, I let my memories bubble to the surface and showed my ancestor everything.
The ruins of Otosan Uchi were telling to Ikoma Uso’s eyes. He could see the opulence that had once been the Imperial Capitol. The high structures. The statues. The vegetation.
But now it was all gone.
Buildings were missing walls, the great rents in their corpses made by hundreds of shugenja over years of strife. Once proud statues were now marred and crumbled, and they took on a sinister and demonic cast in the weak and sickly light of the day. It was as if the sun’s light felt uncomfortable in this Tainted relic of a city, and had left to find a more friendly welcome elsewhere.
The roads—where there were any—faded into shallow streams of fetid water as the group delved deeper into the ruins. In that water Uso would occasionally see a slight ripple. Not from a breeze, for the wind and its welcome touch were not allowed in this place. No, this was from something—or somethings –that dwelt just below the surface, waiting for unwary prey.
Yotsu Ueda, of the Sword of Yotsu, led the group quickly and quietly through the shattered streets, and around the unsafe waters. Uso respected him. The man lived in danger every day. He knew this land as well as anyone. Though he kept the group away from any overt dangers, Uso could feel oppression settling on him with every step. They were being stalked, he was sure. Every so often Ueda would pull the group to a stop. The rest of the group would cast furtive glances around, looking for the source of trouble. But Uso saw the dangers. Oni. Ogres. Things with scales. Things with too many appendages. The big ones were the most impressive—not because of their size, but for how quietly they moved.
Ueda took the group through a water garden where the feeling of menace was so tangible that it weighed on the group like heavy blanket. Uso leapt from one patch of solid ground to the next with relative ease, and noted that Oki did it equally well. The others, miraculously, were able to do the same. In those pools of water Uso could sense the creatures just waiting for one tiny mistake. But they made none.
Surely the Fortunes guide our steps, Uso thought. Or we are just damned lucky. Yeah, the second option sounds about right…
Then the domed structure of the museum was before them.
Even in its current state of decay, the building was an impressive piece of work. It would have been a featured piece of the city once-upon-a-time—a beacon of knowledge in a city that showed the might of the Empire.
And like that Empire, it was now a hulking wreck. Cracks on the outer walls fairly well bled the corruption from within. How far the Empire has fallen, Uso thought. This patch of ground in our own lands, and no matter the lives we expend on it, these ruins and this knowledge will never be reclaimed fully.
Uso cast a critical eye about the ruin. Better to excise it like a blighted wound. Raze it to the ground and scorch the earth.
The smell here was far worse than by the walls that kept the Tainted monsters and evil away from the rest of the land. Here the smell was a queer mixture of excrement, rot, and animal odor. The mix was enough to make Uso want to gag. Beneath it all was a roiling feeling of evil coming from that domed building.
“We go inside,” Toranaka said.
Uso looked into the faces of each of his companions, judging their anxiety. Nervous all, but anxious as well. Shintaro seemed to actually be enjoying this, like it was a tour of the historic district of Toshi Ranbo. Like this would all get written off as some sort of joyful romp later. A grand adventure.
Real adventurers die, Uso thought. Their enjoyment makes them unaware of the enemy slowly suffocating them.
The heavy sense of evil was far stronger once the group entered through the once-grand doors that now hung like discarded trash. The smell of mold and rot was far stronger here, and the ground squelched sickeningly under their feet.
That was the only sound other than steady breathing.
Paint, where it had once decorated the walls and pillars in colorful richness, now looked sickly. Like it was peeling away, being stripped off by the air. By the evil. Paintings and tapestries that doubtlessly had been priceless beyond measure now were half eaten away by decay. Some sort of…material…covered the walls and floor as the group penetrated further into the gloom. To Uso it looked like a slime of some sort. A goo unlike any he had ever seen before. In other circumstances he would have taken a sample to study for poisonous properties. But now…
…but now something told him it would be a fatal error.
It was at that moment when the whispers started.
The whispers began like a light itch in the back of his mind. A light rustle of dry and desiccated leaves. Rocks crumbling into dust. The wind blowing through dead, bare branches.
At first, they were nothing worth noting, and beneath Uso’s attention. He was here to look for information on that dagger that had stabbed the Imperial Heir, and that was what he was going to find. What the Shogun wanted, the Shogun received. The Shogun was an ally worth cultivating. After all, who knew what the future would bring?
With every step deeper into the ruined museum, the whispers grew stronger. Their words were unintelligible.
Ancestor? Uso asked. What are these voices?
He waited a few moments, but received no response.
Satsujin was…gone. Uso probed the mental line where he knew his ancestor always seemed to be as of late. Satsujin wasn’t exactly gone. More like…blocked.
The voices faded, and Uso was left with the impression that they had nothing for him.
He looked around at his companions. To the man, they stared glassy-eyed at random bits of art. Oki stared at paintings. Isao at scrolls. Shintaro at a suit of armor. Subotai at a bow. Torakana at a banner. Our guide, Ueda, at a statue. What these men saw in those items was beyond Uso. The paintings and scrolls were mostly decayed. The armor rusty and the bow useless. That banner was soiled and barely hanging together by its threads. The statue was just an indistinct lump of eroding stone.
And yet they each looked at the items as if they were glorious treasures. As if they promised unseen power and wealth.
Is this what those whispers promise them?
Why do they not attempt to fool me?
Uso tried nudging Oki, then shaking him. But nothing would pull the Mantis from his stupor. Uso thought of doing the same to Toranaka, but had a sudden idea. The Ikoma leaned in and whispered into the Akodo’s ear a battle chant. A prayer. Then Uso stood back.
Toranaka blinked, then began the chant on his own, as if it were his own idea. The words snapped each of the samurai from the trance one-by-one. Uso played along. The whispers faded, held at bay by the chanting that the group recited as one.
At the end of the hall was a gaping doorway that opened into a huge, circular room.
“This is where many of the scrolls were kept,” Ueda said.
“Then we will look here,” Toranaka said.
Before they could do any searching, a voice called out from seemingly every direction at once.
“Who has come to visit me? Who disturbs my museum?”
“Historians,” Toranaka said. “We but look for answers.”
“Who are you?” Shintaro asked.
“I am Miya Waru. I have been working here a long time. There is much work to be done as of yet, but I think I progress nicely, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Toranaka said.
Uso stole a glance behind him, and to his horror noted that the doorway was no longer there. It was gone, replaced by a wall, looking like there had never been an opening in the first place. The others caught his motion and noticed the change too.
“Seriously?” Oki whispered. Uso shook his head in resignation.
“Tell me,” Waru—the apparition that claimed to be Waru in any case—continued. “What are you looking for?”
“Information, honorable Miya,” Toranaka said. “Perhaps…you could help us?”
“Oh? And what would you trade for this information?”
“We have a new weapon that isn’t of this land!” Shintaro said. Everyone’s eyes turned as one to look at Uso.
Oh come on. I’ve hardly had a chance to study it. “Yes,” Uso said, glaring at the group. “It is a…gift…for you, Miya Waru.” He slipped of his bag and pulled the weapon from his bag. The Lion’s Shadow knew of these weapons, of course, but it had been a long time since they’d had one to work with. Guns, they were called. And they used gaijin pepper. Uso had a feeling Oki knew what it was too.
“Oh.” Waru said from every corner of the room. “Oh, oh, oh. You have brought me a marvelous gift. It has been so long since I have seen one of these gaijin weapons. And in such immaculate condition. Place it before you on the ground.”
Uso did as the spirit—for he was sure that was what they were dealing with—requested. The ground seemed to fold and suck the gun down.
“What do you wish to know?” Waru asked.
“We seek a blade,” Toranaka said, and described it. “Have you seen it?”
“Hmm,” came the musing reply, followed by a rustling of paper first from one side of the room, then the next as the ghost searched his scrolls. “Oh yes, you look for the blade called ‘Corruption.’ Quite a name, no? It was found at a temple in the Ivory Kingdoms. Now that you mention it, you are the second one to ask about it. A fellow all garbed up in crimson robes and shining armor—quite a sight for a gaijin—asked about it. Then he just…took it. He angered me, but there was nothing I could do to stop him. He also made a mess of my museum.
“Oh!” the ghost exclaimed. “I have just had an idea. You have a historian among you?”
“Indeed!” Shintaro said cheerfully. Uso just looked at him. There’s no way this ends well, the Lion’s Shadow thought.
“Good,” Waru said. “You will help me clean up the mess. Then, we will go through this museum and bring it back to its former glory. Won’t that be wonderful?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have time for that,” Toranaka said.
“Oh,” Waru said, his tone changing. “But you do. And you will stay. My servants will see to that. I must continue my work, and you will help me.”
Old corpses, previously unnoticed, stood of their own accord. There was no wasted time, no moment of shock. Oki drew an arrow and loosed it before two heart beats had passed. It thudded into one of the corpses.
“Dip your weapons in jade powder!” Ueda shouted.
As one, like the group had been a unit forever, they all rushed forward to take cover behind the base of a huge broken statue. Waru’s laughter rang out from every place at once, and with it came the sounds of shuffling feet. Arrows bounced harmlessly off the statue base.
Uso unslung his own bow and dipped an arrowhead into the jade powder. He leaned out to the right and saw a group of zombies slowly advancing towards their position. On the upraised area further back were three zombies shooting bows.
And behind them, Uso thought he caught a glimpse of subtle movement in the shadows.
Uso called out the numbers, and Subotai echoed an equal number from the opposite side. Oki shot arrow after arrow into the zombies shooting back at him, and Uso chose the same targets to shoot his own arrows at. One fell, then another.
Over it all, Waru cackled hysterically.
“We need to move!” Toranaka shouted. “Subotai, guard our back. The zombies are slow, but there are too many of them.”
“I think Waru is on the elevated area to the back,” Oki said, shooting another arrow with deadly accuracy. Living beings would have died with each arrow he shot, but these undead knew no pain. They knew no wounds or weakness.
“As one, we run for stairs!” the Akodo said as a reply.
“Aim for their necks!” Ueda shouted as the group moved to break cover. “We’ve seen these before. Decapitation always works.”
There was no reply. The samurai all knew their jobs. As one they rushed out, dodging arrows. Isao hurled boulder after boulder into the undead, and Oki finished them off with arrows. A few of the zombies blocked the way, but Shintaro cleaved through their necks with ease using his bisento.
Waru finally appeared, a wraith with barely any humanity left. He charged at the group of samurai, floating above the ground. Oki’s first jade-coated arrow took Waru in the chest. Waru shrieked in pain, and behind the group, Uso noticed the wall flicker where the door should have been.
He drew his own arrow and sent it thudding into the wraith’s chest. Oki shot again and again, his last arrow taking Waru in the eye.
The Miya historian exploded into gossamer thread s of cobwebs and dust. Uso covered his ears as Waru’s death-scream tore through the air, threatening to burst his ear-drums.
I see, Satsujin said. Only moments had passed as the memories flowed through my mind.
Now you see why I could not just run? I asked.
Yes, he said in my mind. And you did well.
It was as much of an apology I was apt to receive. I opened my eyes and the monks were just finishing up their cleansing ritual. I wasn’t expecting anything further from my ancestor, and he didn’t disappoint.
I walked back to the quarters Yotsu Ueda had given me. The night passed slowly for me, so I used the time to see what my companions were up to.
Toranaka wrote a letter, and when he’d fallen asleep I read the contents of it. This Akodo was a good man. He wanted aid for these Yotsu, and was requesting it from the Shogun. I found I agreed with him. These Yostsu were brave men and women, and they deserved more help than they were currently receiving.
Oki was pouring over a map that was in a journal. It was easy for me to steal a glance into it after the Mantis had drowned his troubles in sake. He needed to go to the south-east, to the Sunset Tower. I recognized some of the writing in the journal as not being Oki’s own. Then I smiled, as I recognized it. Bayushi Kuronobo.
In a sake house close to our lodgings I found Isao, Subotai and Shintaro trying to wash away the memories of those nightmare ruins with sake. I’ve learned over the years that people who survive terrible situations always seem to tell the events far different from how they actually were. Sometimes the storyteller minimizes his own involvement, preferring to give credit to his companions. Sometimes the opposite was true. Shintaro was a good samurai, and he relished a chance to tell a good story. Sake had turned him vaguely boastful in a good natured way. The trip into the ruins was being told to any who would listen. Shintaro spoke of things that were said in the heat of the battles; witty lines that had the patrons laughing.
I let him have his story. Sometimes the truth isn’t worth sharing.
I returned to my room smiling. I first composed a letter to Yasuki Dokansuto to leave at a drop, asking him to give the Sword of Yotsu a discount. He would see the value in it. They brought out treasures from the ruins from time-to-time.
Not to mention the Yasuki was always on the lookout for another “friend”.
Tomorrow, I would do my best to lead our group to thinking the Sunset Tower was our ideal destination.
But it would all be their idea of course.
Because I’m just a bard.
To be continued next week: http://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/the-drowning-empire-episode-24/
Check out Steve’s Hugo nominted book review blog: http://elitistbookreviews.blogspot.com/