Shadowrun: The End Times

   Here we have a player submission – an alternate shadowrun history. Actually, I’m not quite sure where this is supposed to fit in; it matches neither the canon shadowrun history nor the modified version that’s in use in the current game. I’ve added some annotations afterwards to make sure the current players know which is which. Like all game-related submissions it’s worth some bonus karma, although – since it’s going to be somewhat difficult to use – only one point in this case.

The End: A Shadowrun Story

   This is a little gift to some of our Shadowrun players. Some of you won’t enjoy it, and that’s OK. It’s not for everyone. It is a primer on how and why society collapsed to the point where random violence is often shrugged off even in good neighborhoods and whole nations disintegrated.

   We most honestly say the End of Everything really started at the height of human civilization, in the post-Cold War era. (1)

   A lot of things happened. Fusion power happened. Advancing computer technology happened. These made transportation inexpensive and easy, even for small quantities.

   Terrorism happened. During this era, terrorist movements gained strength and began to radicalize at an increasing rate. In the United States, Amerindian terrorists even attempt to fire a nuclear weapon at Russia, prompting new national security laws and the internment of Indians in camps. But this pattern was repeated in many other areas around the globe. (2)

   The transnational, or One World, movement happened. In the early 2010’s, this semi-formal organization formed in many of the more advanced and stable states. It was both a cause and a result of increasing lack of identification. Simply put, many relatively well-off “global citizens” simply had no real identity, and they wanted to create a world government (not unsurprisingly, ruled by people like them). This is soon infiltrated by radicals, and split into violent and peaceful groups. Both supported global terror directly or indirectly to bring down national governments. The movement has broken down completely by the 2050’s, and is largely thought of as a bad joke. (3)

   VITAS happened. This horrific virus spread easily and killed quickly, and kill it did, by the hundreds and thousands and millions, everywhere. Starting in the poorest nations, it killed more and faster than any other illness. The developed world was spared the worst, as VITAS was not usually fatal with decent medical care (it was much like pneumonia). But it did weaken the economies and cause shortages, and gave momentum to the One World movements. (4)

   The One World movement weakened national identities in many nations. Global terror made people doubt their own societies. VITAS, however, forced governments to make the hard choices which killed them. Resources for surviving could be more easily supplied in urban areas, and the disease seemed worse there. But rural areas suffered gravely, and as governments simply ignored them, many started ignoring governments. Nations decayed as large portions of most societies stopped paying taxes to apathetic central governments. Those governments often deliberately ignored regions which often promised nothing more than terrorist and headaches. (5)

   At the same time, those outlying regions were starting to come into magic. Developed nations and wealthy regions had no edge or advantage there (not yet, anyway), and magic could be used by terrorist and guerillas to brutal effect. No amount of guards could peer through even the weakest Invisibility spell, for instance. (6)

   At the same time, magic’s return meant that paranormal animals emerged and Goblinization arrived. At first, this wasn’t very impressive. A few odd practitioners of tiny tricks attracted little notice, and even the discovery of large “undiscovered” animals was more a simple news item than a world-shattering event. But magic grew stronger. Monsters – like dragons and other dangerous beasts – returned to the world.

   And although the human race started out adding elves and dwarves, orks and trolls soon showed. Unlike elves and dwarves, their arrival was brutal, shocking, and sudden. Large numbers of them died in the process. People demanded to be protected from the unknown disease. Orks and trolls, shunned by society, banded together or were herded into camps. Violence against the newly goblinized was common, and all of this contributed to more and more social anxiety and decay. Society collapsed a little further and shuddered on.

   The Crash happened. The Crash of 2029 came from the introduction of a truly monstrous creation. The Virus, as it was called, was the most sophisticated program ever devised. Armed with incredibly sophisticated code attacks and lethal biofeedback, it killed many of the best and brightest programmers using the latest datajack technology. It struck with record speed and infested every major computer cluster on the planet. Although the virus was soon purged through the creation of early decker technology and the development of cybercombat, it annihilated many of the world’s greatest banking and computer technology companies. (7)

   The rise of megacorporations sped up the process by filling the void. Megas were largely formed by companies banding together to survive the chaos by having the largest, most varied and versatile business entity. Any one segment might be broken, but the company could always survive, retrench, and reinvest. Megas were everywhere, and could operate in areas where governments fell apart. They invested in security services and developed an attitude of brutality towards guerrillas and terrorists, an attitude national governments frequently lacked. (8)

   Megacorporations also provided an outlet for the more passive One World bunch, who simply became corporate citizens. They had what they wished – citizens of the world, without national identities, with old national governments weakened to the point of collapse in many cases. Of course, as with most things, what you asked for somehow never turns out to be what you wanted. (9)

Behind the Scenes

   Many of the events of the 2010’s through 2030’s, those which formed the basis of the Shadowrun universe, were orchestrated through a force which no one even knows about. A handful of elves, made immortal through a magical artifact from the last magical age, survived the magical down-cycle. Several of them had plans for the world. They are armed with powerful magic, eons of observations about human society – and utterly primitive moral codes in their filthy black hearts. (10)

   Simply put, most of the Immortal Elves are what you’d expect from an early bronze age barbarian chief given access to high technology and magic. They deliberately set about weakening existing societies and expanding social rifts in order to remake the world into the form they wanted: themselves on top. In the late 20th century, they found they were able to use more magic than simple tricks, and with less work than under most of the down-cycle. (11)

   They used this to amplify social leaders whom they found useful. Even a relatively middling leader could become amazingly gifted with the advantage of large Charisma, Willpower, and Intelligence bonuses and generous donations. The One World movement was definitely one such tool (which fell apart after they removed their gifts from movement leaders). The Immortal Elves also probably funded and supported some of the most dangerous terrorists. (12)

   They were probably not behind the two biggest shocks to the world, however: VITAS and the Crash of 2029 are not their style. VITAS was probably natural and the Virus was much more technologically complex than the Immortal Elves could handle. (13)

   But the Elves did do many other, more subtle things. Many of them made a deliberate effort to destroy religion, another social cohesive which usually frowns on magic. They promoted a sort of cold materialism, but liked anything in preference for a real belief or faith, even in any kind of decency or goodness. Given the behind-the-scenes actions of amoral power-mongers willing to make bargains with the vilest of monsters, this may have been a mistake. (14)

Annotations:

   Since – as was noted at the beginning – this doesn’t really match the game history for the current game, here are some notes on what is, and what is not, applicable.  

   1) Well, this was the peak to date of the total human population (in Shadowrun it hasn’t yet recovered from the plagues, wars, and transformation of many of its members into other subspecies), as well as the period with the greatest proportion of the population living under at least nominally democratic governments. Respect for “human rights” might also have been at a peak, it’s arguably waned in Shadowrun. Still, technology has continued to advance, the largest political entities in history were well before this period, and humans have continued to achieve new things.

   2) Personally, I’m torn between saying that terrorism hit it’s peak with the Mongols (largest area terrorized), with WWII (largest number killed), or with the Khmer Rouge (largest percentage of the local population killed in recent history). Of course, the term has been diluted to a pejorative label for pretty much any group the user dislikes, as is amply demonstrated by the difficulty in agreeing on a definition (the US government has made several attempts, without real success) and by the practice of labeling entire countries as “terrorist regimes”. For example, China, Great Britian, Iran, Iraq, Isreal, Egypt [and the rest of the middle east], Brazil, and the United States are all labeled “terrorist regimes” in various places. Chinese sources have even labeled the Dalai Lama a terrorist, which – I suspect – is stretching even the vaguely-defined current limits of the term a bit.

   3) The “One World” movement doesn’t turn up in either the canon or modified histories. I suspect that the need to identify with a group is a symptom of a lack of a strong personal identity – but much of the human race seems to feel the need, ergo this is a normal condition. More notably, “Global Terror” might make a good name for a supervillian group, but truly extremist organizations – pretty much by their nature – tend to be small and incompatible with each other. After all, their recruits are drawn from those few who take a particular extreme position, believe in it fervently, and are thus intolerant of even minor variants.

   4) Plagues and shortages might drive people to espouse a (rather abstract) political position, but wouldn’t they also divert a lot of people to local goals? Many communities become insular and self-isolating under stress. This still helped the breakup though, if only because so many communities started to believe that they were on their own anyway.

   5) On a practical note, as of the 2000 census, approximately 70% of the United States population lived within the boundaries of urbanized areas – about 2% of the land area of the country – and the number is increasing. If you throw in the suburban areas, you get closer to 90% of the population. By the time VITAS appeared, it was closer to 95%. For the same investment of effort that it took to save one rural victim, you could save several urban victims. As importantly, Virally Induced Toxic Allergy Syndrome was most dangerous in the cities: that’s where casual exposure to pollution-toxins was highest. The focus on urban areas might have appeared callous and dismissive to the relatively few victims in rural areas – who had a better chance due to the lower stress on the local health care providers anyway – but it was quite logical.

   6) This bit just doesn’t work well. Since the distribution of mages followed the distribution of population, the more heavily populated – and thus usually more developed and wealthy – regions got most of the new magicians, even including the shamanic types. There are plenty of urban totems.

   7) It’s worth noting that “The Virus” could only directly kill people using Cyberterminals – which had just been invented. It caused a grand total of 25 direct deaths. It did make quite a mess of the worlds data and communications systems though, and the resulting economic dislocations, the near-collapse of distribution and transport systems, and similar troubles, killed a great many people indirectly.

   8) This is less stressed – in part due to having less time to develop in – in the current game timeline than in the canon timeline.

   9) As noted earlier, the “One World” movement isn’t really a part of the current game history.

   10) Well, the involvement of an artifact is debatable even in canon as far as I can find out (the canon simply seems to make them dragon crossbreeds), their magic was very very limited during the low-magic period, and human society has been changing far faster than they can adapt. The canon does have at least a few of them engaged in hunting down sleeping dragons during the low-magic period though.

   11) In canon – and in current game history – they arranged to seize control of the Tir’s (Ireland and an area near Seattle), and instituted some pretty racist elf-superiority social notions. The immortal elves did originate in a fairly high – if magically instead of technologically based – civilization though. It’s just that only the most ruthless ones survived the magical crash and several millenia without much of any personal power beyond what they could get by manipulation.

   12) Magic was actually quite limited at the time. There really isn’t much of anything in the canon or the current game history about the Immortal Elves supporting terrorists. They might have of course, but such people make very unreliable tools. I’d expect them to have founded and nurtured their own orders of fanatic followers however – which is free information for the current game.

   13) This is very true. Despite the canon attempts to make one of them out to be a super-inventor-decker, the notion of ancient immortals being entirely comfortable with modern technology – much less super-inventors – seems unlikely at best.

   14) There was a bit in the “Magic and Death” (from an old sourcebook) which implied that at least two of the Immortal Elves had been attempting to weaken human religious beliefs (this may or may not be accurate in the current game history). Even in canon, they apparently had very little success (religions are still going strong) and their motives were unclear. As a side note, only some religions frown on magic, quite a few others embrace it.

Federaton-Apocalypse Session 48

   With Marty’s business arrangements finished for the moment, the Metropolis office being opened, and Mr Myagi wanting to get more formal representatives to deal with the Federated Americas, they headed back to the Linear Realms. Having a few Thralls waiting in Crusader to assign to Mr Myagi (to handle the gatekeeping) and Dr Samson (to act as bodyguards) was easy enough, as was having them bring along better weapons and armor both for themselve and for their charges. They needed to interrogate and trace those captured assassins before they were confirmed lost. Fortunately, the Whirlwind tour hadn’t taken very long, and the FBI office was still there when they got back, and was even getting straightened out.

   They took MacArthur back as well. He was relatively at home there, and Mr Myagi wanted a chance to ask him a few questions as well. to interrogate him a bit as well.

   Not surprisingly, the prisoners were isolated form each other, massively restrained, under heavy guard, and on an otherwise-evacuated floor. They let the FBI interrogators run things. Kevin could pick up surface thoughts, but not probe – and he really wasn’t much for interrogation otherwise.

   One of them actually broke in a mere couple of hours – and, from his thoughts, it was either genuine or a REALLY good bit of foresighted programming. They were based out of a facility in North Dakota, and worked for a team of scientists that gave them their augmentations and gave them cures for various terminal illnesses. They’d been carrying out a campaign of terrorist acts throughout the countryside for some time.

   It looked to Marty like he’d decided to be cooperative in hopes of protection from the rest – and Kevin couldn’t pick up any conscious deception. He definitely feared the people who had sent them here – but was at least afraid of the FBI. He kind of resented being dragooned into things anyway, even if it had been by being offered a cure. It hadn’t been a particularly free choice.

   Hitting the place quickly would definitely be worth a try; even if they already knew that their operation had gone belly-up, if they tried to leave too quickly they’d still probably leave a lot of clues. Travel time would be about two and a half hours by jet and helicopter – including an hours wait on getting the jet ready. Just enough time to get entangled in My Myagi’s briefing of the higher-ups.

   The meeting didn’t start off that well. Myagi had a hard time getting anyone to believe his points, although repeatedly pointing to the analyses of the memes and records of unrest in the arcologies certainly helped him make his case on the matter of urgency. Unfortunately, quite a few of the higher-ups seemed to equate the memes to commercials with subliminal messages that tried to make you buy more soda. Fortunately, “99.999% success rate” – along with the (throughly purged; Kevin checked, and Myagi had taken the precaution of using low resolution) videos of Walkins and his conferences were slowly sinking in.

   Super-cyborg assassins using unprecedented technologies were evidence that something was going on, but not necessarily considered related. One fellow – a Mr Hetherlin – was trying to cast doubt on the connection . His theory was that the cyborgs were terrorists trying to overturn the government by hitting a major federal building and that the supposed “memes” were merely the products of charismatic individuals doing what they did. Just because they had a scientist here with a theory on how “might” be possible to encourage someone to do something unreasonable didn’t necessarily mean that the anarchists were after him in particular.

   Kevin sent some orders: if the Linear Realms were going to come apart for lack of sense, he’d just have to step up his recruiting efforts: the old “offer a refuge from the oncoming catastrophe” bit might be well worthwhile. He had the Thralls and the NeoDogs start organizing a major collect-the-illegal-kids sweep: most of the illegals should be willing to follow a talking dog; it was not an approach that they’d have any reason to suspect. They’d need some gates, but he’d get those set up as soon as possible. If there was a major operation here, given the population density, it might be too late to keep the entire place from coming down like a house of cards – and he and Marty could ALWAYS use more people.

   Marty was used to manipulating conferences. Hetherlin might just be playing the devil’s advocate bit, but the effort he was expending to drive a wedge between the two ideas was concerning. Was it actual malevolence, resistance to new ideas, or simply trying to stick to what could actually be proven?

   Kevin decided to stir the pot.

“Really: The FBI has buildings in every city, and none of them are especially important to the overall government. What would make this one a target worth revealing their possession of an unprecedented technology in an attack on it? It’s unique architecture?”

   Most of the rest thought that was a decent point, and that Hetherby was simply being obstinate.

   Kevin – still thought-sensing – was picking up a clouded mess of emotions and thoughts from the man. Nothing too clear though.

“Why you see, I am just trying to say that we can’t take these kinds of things for granted. And if it is someone with such technology at their disposal, who would you say it might be? The Russians? The Chinese? The Europeans maybe?”

   Hm. He seemed to be trying to buy time and shift the focus off of himself. He’d shifted his weight and gotten one of his arms under the table… Marty objected to that, and Kevin had one of his pocket friends take a look. Armed. A bit of a faux pas there, and likely to cause trouble if it came out.

   Hetherby seemed to be trying to turn it into a general argument now.

“Now, just because I am trying to make the point that we can’t take anything for granted is no reason to be turning this into an interrogation. I mean have we even considered who might be behind something like this and who would have the resources to pull this off in our own backyard?”

   He gestured a bit too widely and let his hand slip below the edge of the table again – so the ferret- Thralls used a bit of telekinetic slight of hand to put his gun in it when it came back up.

   That was exciting. The man immediately tried to shoot Marty (While Mr Myagi started yelling for the guards), and inflicted a slight wound – which Marty healed almost instantly. It hadn’t really been necessary, but it would be impressive.

   At one against Kevin, Marty, a crowd of Thralls, the guards, and the rest of the room, capture was quick and easy.

“If you don’t drop the gun, I’m setting fire to your feet and working up!”

“He’ll do it.”

   With Hetherby disarmed…

“Was there a point to that?”

“Doesn’t seem to be now, no.”

“What point did there seem to be at the time?”

“Distract the others from the events going on, sow confusion, and kill troublemakers when they appear.”

   Well, that adequately made the point to everyone else.

“So what’s your stake in all this?”

“I wish I could say they had kidnaped a family member, and were holding them hostage, but no, they offered me immortality and power.”

   Kevin thought they were probably cheapskates. He was betting that they’d offered him anti-aging, authority, and maybe some cyberware – not really immortality and personal power. Anyway, it had apparently been a “group of power brokers” who were able to perform astounding technological feats and had “much darker abilities”. They used electronic communications (which it probably wouldn’t be much use to listen in on – at least form this guys end) and had had a few agents, including some he’d known from before, demonstrate the powers they’d been given – ripping apart steel beams with no apparent cyberware, falling 30 stories on to concrete and simply getting up and walking away, and similar stunts.

   Hm. It seemed to just keep looping back to the Praetorians didn’t it? Well, at least that demonstrated the nature of the problem – and that virtually any organization could be compromised. Obviously they’d need to keep an eye out for obstructionists in their organizations and keep their plans as tightly-held as possible. Still, at least the meeting made progress after that – and adjourned with several worthwhile objectives.

   They even had a few minutes to spare on being ready for their flight.

   There were a few inevitable questions of course – mostly from the regional director – but “I am an operative for the House of Roses: did you think there would be one secret super-scientific take-over-the-world organization without an opposing one? Movies may screw up a lot of facts, but their grasp on human nature is pretty good – and we have to go; there are likely to be some fairly heavy defenses at the next stop.” actually went over, although it may just have been accepted as a “non-answer”. On the other hand, plot-perception was an unconscious fact of life in the Manifold, even if no one in Core would have accepted that explanation for a hundredth of a second.

   The trip was uneventful, and the location – an office building belonging to an outfit called “applied hydroponics” on the outskirts of town bordering on some farms – wasn’t very impressive either. The police had set up a perimeter around the place and the parking lot was about half full. Well, with a police perimeter up it was fairly likely that anyone important was already gone, but there might still be lots of clues.

   They sent in Gerard as a distraction. The front lobby was spacious – in fact, rather too large for the place. It had the usual information/security desk, with a man with his feet propped up on the desk leaning back in his chair.

“Is there something I can help you with, kid?”

“Hello! Dad’s looking for a job, so I’ve come to case the joint!”

“Cute, and what does your father do and why isn’t he here himself?”

   Hm. The guy was armed, definitely not a baseline human, and had a decent psychic shield.

   They moved in while Gerard had the fellow distracted – but stuck with the “harmless visitors” routine at first, with Gerard cast as Marty’s son and Marty made with the “concerned parent” and “job seeker” routines.

   The security panel screens seemed to be focused on the police and FBI staging operations – and the system was on remote, with most of the local controls locked out.

   So much for surprise. They might not be looking inside the building yet though. Looked like about fifty people in the building. The high-security areas were the samples and genetics labs and the entire basement level. Well, that was the human race: something needed top security? hide it in the back of the cave.

   Kevin and the Thralls tried a mass telekinetic binding on the guy at the desk – but there was some sort of weird interaction, and they wound up binding almost everyone in the building EXCEPT him – and he picked up on it right away.

“Very impressive. You trying to keep them from interfering? Or are you trying to protect them?”

“It depends. Are they from here and unwilling, or the opposite?”

“Oh they are almost all local, most don’t even know what is going on. A few of them are imported and aren’t so innocent. But sorting them out might prove difficult, or not. I suppose it depends on what you are capable of and what you are willing to do.”

   Well, this fellow was well-informed.

“We always like to see who else is meddling”.

“Indeed, find out who is doing something so that you might find out more about them and compensate for any deviations they might cause to your plans. A tried and true strategy”

“And one we’ve used many times.”

“Although it is possible that our plans are compatible”

“Oooooh, now that idea perks my interest. Now, pray tell, how might our plans be compatible?”

“Well, my recruiting needs are rather specialized, and only affect a very small segment of the population, while Marty is fond of small-scale violence, but finds impersonal conflicts boring. How about you?”

“I just like being nigh immortal, having enough power not have to listen to anyone, not feeling like I am obligated to serve anyone. I am not above using my abilities for money and personal gain however. So little chance to test myself however”

“Does the name Arkus mean anything to you?”

“Now that name does ring a bell. Something about being some sort of focus or some nonsense”.

“Well, that need not have any real large-scale impact at all. What sort of money and power are you interested in? And it doesn’t really seem like the collapse of this realm would serve your purposes”.

“Yeah, I mean, you’ve got a lot of people to exploit here – and so many souls!”

“Of course it does seem like a waste to just destroy it all. Even if it has become stagnant. I merely want what should come naturally to the long-lived and strong. A measure of control over my own destiny and those of others. Economic and politcal power naturally come to mind in such a view”.

   Kevin suspected that they were up against another Praetorian: no mention of magic, psionic, or increased personal power, despite being aware of such things, it seemed to fit what was going on, and they already knew that their opponents were using the technology. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to a fight, The praetorians were pretty tough.

“Well, if you’re against the destabilizing agents, out purposes are compatible. If you’re supporting them, they are – unfortunately – probably incompatible”.

“Then it sounds like our purposes are compatible. Not much reason to want a piece of the world if there aren’t any pieces left”.

“So: you wanted the meme-research to put a halt to their spread if possible?”

   (Hm. This guy could be working with MacArthur – although, given MacArthur’s dislike of Praetorians, that would be an alliance of convenience at best).

“Actually I wanted the tech to rebuild bodies. Unfortunately I have been bound by the programming to certain… conditions that are difficult to bypass. I have been tasked preventing that research from falling into government hands and with watching over some of the experiments here. Now it looks like I have failed in the first task, and am about to fail in the second one – although, since you don’t seem to be government agents, I can relax for the time being”.

“What were you going to do with them?”

“Well the meme research was going to be used to foment chaos for the benefit of my employers – and I suppose it is doing quite well at that fact, although the local laws seem to be heavily favoring the home team”.

“Who’s employing you, then? I know you probably won’t say, but it’s worth trying. I take it the programming came with the body rebuilding technology?”

“Oh yes, although it took me awhile to become aware of the fact. And as for who is employing me? Well that is hard to answer”.

“Hard? You mean, never see them in person hard or something else?”

“You see, yet another one of my directives prevents me from sharing that kind of information. Much as I might like to”.

“Dammit.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but while I can’t tell you who my direct report is. I can tell you he is in the building.

“Any idea where?”

“Oh let me see now, (leans back and closes his eyes) I would say second floor, south hallway. Currently peering out the window wondering why no one has come to give him in update in the last several minutes”.

   Meanwhile, Kevin had an idea; He hardly ever got to use the power of Darkness to “grant a wish”…

“Gerald, Daniel – stand there and there. Focus on the Rune of Unbinding. Have you got any more programmed compulsions that you can specifically mention? Would you mind holding this candle for a few minutes? “

“Doesn’t look threatening. So I see no conflict with that. As for more compulsions, we have discussed not talking about my employers beyond what you already know, and not to disobey the instructions of a member of the order. Those two work together really effectively – although I have heard tales of more…. idiotic combinations”.

   Kevin had arranged the triangle, set the candles, and sketched several symbols…

“Restraint gives birth to rage, rage to darkness, darkness to rebellion, rebellion to freedom from all restraint. The path to freedom lies always through darkness, it is but fear of what lies hidden along the path that restrains. Within the Rune of Unbinding lies the breaking of all involuntary bonds, whether within the mind or within the body”.

   The black and crimson sigils of the night flared and spread across the floor, entwining in a fractal sigil.

fractal-test

“So be it decreed!”.

   It would take time to recover from using that kind of power in a low-magic world, but it seemed like it would be worth the risk this time.

L5R Log Update: The Slaughter of the Innocents

   The Twisted Ways (Sessions 100-101): The Houses of Death, The Words of the Fallen.

   Leaving events – the upcoming Kite Festival (the only real official responsibility of the Imperial Master of Kites), Ninsei and Kochige’s research into a Spirit Release spell, the hopefully non-attacking Unicorn clan, the Scorpion Clan Champions request for an interview with the Emperor, the influx of new pirates (using some very bizarre and horrific techniques) into the areas around the Mantis Clan isles, a Phoenix proposal to open a chasm across the continent to provide another barrier against the Shadowlands, and the increasing Yodatai pressure on the Dragon Clan frontiers – to simmer for a bit, the group headed for the Crab territories to do what they could to blunt the Shadowlands attacks.

   Unfortunately, attacking the Nightmares seemed impolitic: at least some of them were apparently working with Evil Ninsei, some of the others could be bargained with – and they simply tended to come back anyway. Going after local leaders didn’t seem to work; apparently the Shadowlands had instituted some sort of officers training school or something, and just kept sending out more.

   They decided to go looking for the worst current problems instead.

   Those included a series of peasant revolts (aggravated by taint and the fact that virtually all the crab peasants had basic combat training and weapons), a series of especially ruthless assassinations that had been targeting the middle ranks of the Crab officers (especially those in vital support positions), the ongoing magical assaults on the wall (greatly reduced in frequency for some reason, but still an ongoing menace), the recent disappearance of the Goblins (er, well, no need to look into that one), and some especially brilliant tactical leader who’d been executing small raids – primarily against minor or lookout outposts – with chilling precision, leaving gaping holes in the defenses.

   Well, peasant revolts were a grassroots problem, and not really their area of expertise. Their tactician was currently in Jigoku. The ongoing magical assaults might get them somewhere – but the assassinations seemed more likely to cause a disaster. Attacks on the supply lines were a menace to the entire effort – and not an area that most samurai paid a lot of attention to.

   So; assassinations. Something that Kochige – as a Jade Magistrate – could simply stick his nose into without explanation anyway.

   Since it looked like the Crab were connecting the suspected assassinations simply by similarities, the simplest thing to do would be to start taking a look at what the Crab investigations had come up with and what they could find at the sites. They went for the most recent first – inspecting what was left of the physical evidence, talking to the people who’d arrived first, and spoke with the Eta who’d disposed of the bodies.

   Since the first section of the investigation notes were posted earlier, this section may be overly familiar. Sorry about that, but there’s really no avoiding it.

   The assassinations had all been carried out well behind the great carpenter wall, while the targets were off-duty – and presumably off-guard – at home. Each had involved a complete household massacre, including family, servants, guards, visitors, and pets and had been followed by a dismissal spell which ensured that questioning the Kami at each location would be fairly useless.

   The latest had been at a typical lightly-fortified Crab manor house – a compound with several detached buildings, including the servants quarters and four guardposts at the corners. The local villagers had come out to help put out a fire – but had forced the gates (after some hesitation) when there was no response to their calls. The local Eta were called on to remove and burn the bodies before they rose as undead.

   Most of the guards and all the servants were found in the servants quarters. They’d apparently been trapped inside while some sort of flame spell was used on the building. Ninsei reached a different conclusion after his inspection; while a flame spell might have been used to ignite the building, one intense and large enough to kill everyone that quickly should have devoured everything, rather than leaving so many partially-burned bits. A few experiments on some abandoned shacks got a better match: some sort of accelerant – a highly-flammable oil perhaps – distributed liberally and ignited by magic. Of course, that wasn’t any less weird: how could the servants not have noticed? Especially since it looked like they’d been alert and mobile enough to try to get out? After all, several of them – including several of the guards – were found near the door, apparently attempting to escape. Another three were found towards the left rear of the building, where they had apparently been attempting to knock a hole in the wall. They’d been burned, but might have died of smoke inhalation first. The escape door – a fairly standard feature of Crab architecture – had apparently been jammed close with pieces of wood, partially-burned fragments of which were found at the scene. One child’s body was found on the left frontal side of the building, severely burned and partially crushed by falling material from the roof. Cornered by whoever had been keeping the door closed perhaps?

   Over in the main house, the bodies of two guards had been found by the entrance to the master bedroom. Both were reportedly killed by swordthrusts, although at least one – from Kochige’s analysis of the remaining bloodstains – remained standing still while he bled to death. Given that there was no damage to the area, nor signs of an attempt to give an alarm, some form of paralytic and/or paralyzing magic seemed likely. The husband and wife were both found in their chambers: the husband apparently killed by a single knife or sword-thrust to the chest with no sign of resistance. The wife was found next to the bed, and had apparently attempted to protect herself with some of the bedding. She had several slash-wounds on her hands and forearms, but died from a swordthrust through the abdomen and partial disembowelment. A bloodied shortsword was found against the wall near the bed, but appeared to have been one of the family weapons. An older boy was found in the hallway to the children’s chambers, dead of a knife or sword thrust to the heart. A young girl was found in one of the children’s rooms, dead of a knife blow to the stomach. The corpses of two cats and a dog were found with her, all dead of sword wounds. Oddly enough, there didn’t seem to have been any guards posted in the watchtowers, although the family didn’t have many guards to begin with, which might explain it.

   The next oldest case had been in a small village near one of the Crab staging areas. In particular, it had been carried out in the dining hall during a meal. There had been an initial investigation by the local magistrate once the massacre was discovered, after which the Eta took away the bodies and removed the perishable food items – although, what with the horrific rumors that were spreading, no one had disturbed the dining room otherwise. The massacre had been carried out during dinner; the lord had been in the habit of hosting periodic full-household meals – even the servants served, and then ate at another table – which the attackers apparently saw as a perfect opportunity. Virtually all of the diners had their throats slit. It was considered obvious that most of the victims were paralyzed at the time; the investigators noted that many of the victims bled to death smiling, holding cups, or while holding food. (The Eta had found that especially disturbing). While it looked rather like someone simply ran up the table with knives outstretched, there was no damage to the table – or much in the way of disturbed dishes – to support the theory. There were a few atypical deaths: one individual (a samurai) took a knife wound to the shoulder before having his throat slit, two servants apparently attempted to flee and were knifed from behind before having their throats slit, one youngster had a stab wound to the side as well as having his throat slit, and one young woman was nailed to the wall with a short spear. Her throat was slit as well, but she was obviously already dead at the time. The spear used on the young woman had been left in place, but showed no particular distinguishing marks.

   The third oldest was a local administrators house in one of the mid-sized towns – eight days ago. Since the crime had apparently involved Maho, a Witch Hunter had been called in, had run his own investigation, and then arranged for the Eta to properly dispose of the bodies. The victims – including eight servants, three guards, the husband and wife, and their four children – had almost all been killed with knife or sword thrusts to the heart, mostly in their quarters and with no signs of resistance. One child was found with the parents, rather than in her room. There were two exceptions: a son who had been approaching Gempukku had been killed by a maho spell which apparently summoned some sort of spiderlike monster – mostly made of blood – to explode out of his chest. His opponent – the household cook – was found dead as well, with a severe stab wound to the side and massive blood loss from apparently-spontaneous wounds on her arms – a blatant sign of maho use. The fact that she was tainted, carrying corrupted jade, and had more corrupted jade hidden in her room, made it an open-and-shut case. The Witch Hunter had concluded that the cook had obviously used her position of trust, and maho, to begin eliminating the family; the boy had been lucky enough to resist somehow, and had wounded the witch sufficiently badly that – in the excitement of combat – she accidently drained herself to death casting the spell that killed the boy. Case closed, house cleansed, and a general inspection of servants ordered.

   Kochige was a little more puzzled: the cook had moved away from the wall a few years ago after being badly mauled by an Oni that attacked her village – probably when she’d picked up some taint. The local reports on her indicated that she was a bit shrewish, short-tempered, and unpleasant, but that everyone in the markets had been quite surprised to hear that she was tainted. One merchant had even made quite a few advances and proposals, but had always been soundly rebuffed. She’d had some nasty scars on one arm, but had otherwise been quite pretty – which clashed a bit with the report of her injuries from her original village (which indicated some massive scarring of the face, torso, and left arm), but there wasn’t anything else out of order, and some people did just heal well over time. She’d been the cook for years, and had apparently refrained from spreading taint for all those years – and if she’d been that powerful a maho-mage, why hadn’t she done something earlier? Why break cover for a relatively minor assassination-mission? Plus, there had been some bits of fresh fruit in the corners of the room where she’d died – along with some other bits of food. The merchants remembered a few of her purchases on her usual early-morning shopping trip – fresh fruit, a bottle of Crab sake, aromatic rice, and fresh fish. Who go shopping for food for people she was going to kill? Had she just gotten orders at the last moment?

   More importantly, how was this being done? Paralysis? Some sort of ability to stop time? Was it possible to weave an illusion of “everything being normal” strong enough to keep people from noticing that they were gravely injured and bleeding to death? A paralytic poison would fit some of the events, but how could it be administered to so many people at once? A gas or aerosol perhaps? Was Maho involved? There were definitely traces of Maho use at their third location, but nothing much at the other sites.

   Most likely some form of mass paralysis. It didn’t always work, and might not last very long when it did – but it gave the killers time to do enough damage to ensure an easy victory over anyone who started moving too soon. Perhaps some other low-grade magic, almost certainly some sort of firestarting spell and a supply of something that burned fast and hot. Could it be nothing more than a spell that turned a supply of various poisons or oils into a cloud of vapor? The people using it would need some sort of immunity to their own poisons if they were doing that though.

   The total massacre was an obvious terror-tactic – but the after-the-fact cleanup was just too limiting, however necessary. They needed a fresh case. Sadly, they were almost certain to have all too soon. Likely victims seemed to include anyone important and competent in the Crab support structure. Attempting to sort the list left them with sixty of seventy possibilities – too many to keep a really good eye on.

   Looking for patterns revealed a few: the murderers were avoiding the Naga forest, or any location too near it, and were working the major trade routes -more than the simple concentration of likely targets along those routes could account for. If they were using those routes to travel, however, there were either several groups or they were either using some sort of magical travel or sprinting madly: in some cases they would have needed to travel fifty or sixty miles a night. Three groups would keep the travel times reasonable however, and four or more would make it easy. Disembodied entities or some form of possession? That would explain the lack of any traceable weapons, but would make the use of poison awkward.

   Michio didn’t recognize the paralysis-effect as a standard Scorpion poison, but not even he knew all the poisons of the Scorpion clan. If they had access to an unburned body he could test for poisons – but not even he could work with a handful of old mixed ashes.

   The rumors that the Crane – since they apparently hadn’t been targeted – were behind it were not helpful.

   They had another case all too soon. A senior supervisor at one of the major trading posts near the Crab-Crane border. There had been an attempt to reduce the entire holding and its warehouses to ashes, but the traders had swiftly extinguished the flames around the edges. The central household had been beyond saving – but the scene was only hours old when they arrived.

   So: a man, a woman, and a child had all apparently died while trying to escape: the bodies were fairly badly burned, but it was still easy to determine that the child had lost an arm – probably to a sword-blow, the woman had been stabbed in the stomach, and the man had died of a thrust to the chest. One servant had died in a storeroom, apparently due to injuries from the roof collapsing. One child – an older boy – had died in the bathroom (how embarrassing). Almost everyone else had died in their rooms, some from sword-blows, some from fire. The master of the household showed a very low level of Taint, while the servant in the storeroom showed more.

   The fires had been most intense, and most wide-spread, in the families quarters, the servants quarters, and the more frequently-used storerooms. In some places – mostly near the edge of the holding – the fires had been extinguished soon enough to make the patterns clear: individual patches of fire that had started in many locations at almost the same time. A few storerooms – the most tightly-sealed and rarely used – had not had fires ignite at all. Ninsei went looking for any traces of accelerants and found some in a storeroom that was used for supplies for the Witch Hunters. It contained… Copies of the usual jade magic scrolls the Crab handed out to anyone who wanted them, a minor tetsubo nemurani (apparently just in case a magical weapon was urgently needed), and a small stock of an alchemical concoction – dust that glowed when it was touched by the traces of Maho magic. Someone had laid a minor protective spell on the room some time before. Nothing his power could not brush aside like a cobweb or course, but it would have blocked some minor spells.

   The stuff was basically invisible, and there was no detectable scent – but even tiny traces flared up quite impressively at the touch of a triggering-spell. One particularly attuned to it might set it off in a wide radius with the slightest trace of power. The stuff had been smeared around, but there were one or two handprints scorched into the wood of the boxes where he’d triggered it. It looked like someone had simply rubbed some on their hands – and then casually touched anything they might want to ignite later.

   The servant had apparently been smoking something when he died: the pipe showed traces of opium – and digging out and searching the storeroom turned up a box of opium. Tainted opium. Now that was just WRONG – but at least it explained what the man had been sneaking off to do in the middle of the night. Tainted drugs which eventually gave the shadowlands control or weak individuals? Make them PAY to be corrupted and cooperate desperately in hiding the source of their corruption?

   No: that might be a secondary plot, but it didn’t fit what they were investigating.

   The boy in the bathroom had been carrying a sword, but that wasn’t too abnormal: he’d probably been told to keep it with him everywhere. Standard training, especially in the Crab territories. The sword had been blooded, but was too badly seared to reveal much more.

   They tried taking it to a local swordsmith – but all he could tell them was that it had been exposed to tremendous heat, enough to sear ash into the blade. If it had been in it’s sheathe, someone must have thrust it into a blast furnace or a volcano. It looked like it had been a youth’s practice blade; now it was good for nothing but melting down for iron.

   Looking for shadowlands links among the townsfolk turned out to be useless: in the Crab lands, and with a likely Shadowlands invasion coming up, half the possible destinies involved the Shadowlands.

   Kochige was starting to lean towards the possession-theory, so he went around the town attempting to sense bodies that showed traces of secondary spirits. He found quite a few at first – mostly young women – and then started eliminating women with young children. Young fathers were eliminated next, they also showed such traces. Blast it: anyone with a strong ancestor spirit for a patron also showed such traces – which might account for a couple of samurai youngsters who showed traces from a year or two back. Ancestors rarely took an interest that early, but – after all – he was traveling with Ninsei. It was way outside their timeframe anyway; they were interested in last night.

   Time for desperation measures: another trip to Meido seemed in order. The majority of people wound up there for awhile at least. If they could find the spirits of some of the victims, they ought to be able to tell them something.

   Najite refused to go to Meido again: his job was protecting Ningen-Do from them unto death – and he’d been to the realms of death too many times already, not to mention that there was nothing he could do for them there. He’d keep an eye on things on Ningen-Do for the moment.

   Some of the spirits were easy enough to locate – but anyone who’d actually seem their killers had somehow been shunted into the Nightmare Domain of the Realm of Dreams. That ought to be impossible unless their spirits were still being bound to Ningen-Do somehow: dying should release them from nightmare.

   Well, that was a good indication that THE Nightmares – or a similar technique – were involved somehow.

   Well, even if the direct witnesses were unreachable (even they didn’t want to venture into the realms of Nightmares while the Nightmares of the Clans opposed them), some of he indirect witnesses might yield some useful information.

   Their most recent master of the house was still pretty upset: he’d awakened, paralyzed, and on fire – and his Crab techniques had given him several minutes to breathe flame and slowly burn to death before he died, despite the intensity of the blaze around him. He couldn’t imagine how his entire room and bed could catch on fire before awakening him.

   The Cook was not available. The records of Meido said that she’d been shunted to Yomi? How could that happen? She might not have been a mass murderer, but she’d been pretty obviously a tainted user of maho!

   They’d have to stop in Yomi next.

   The kid who’s chest had exploded had gone to bed with a headache and had assumed that he’d died quietly in his sleep. He didn’t see why anyone would be investigating that. Had something gotten his body up and walking around? Maho could do that easily of course, but something about that explanation seemed naggingly wrong.

   The kid who’d died in the bathroom was available as well: he was folding paper cranes, and had several basketfuls of them. Meido was obliging about providing the supplies for that kind of hobby. Another headache and quiet death. Something was killing children and using their bodies? The boy gave them each a basketful of paper cranes… Nice origami technique, he’d had a lot of practice.

   Wait. Basketsful? Practice? He’d only been dead about six hours!

   The boy wasn’t too sure – but from the last things he knew about events in Ningen-Do, he’d been dead for at least four years.

   That was what had been wrong with the last kid! He’d looked about ten, and the child who’d died with the creature coming out of his chest had been approaching gempukku.

   Those children had been dead for years – and something untainted, but deadly, had been living in their bodies and pretending to be them.

   Headaches. Something in their heads? Why did that sound familiar?

   During the survey of the borders. Years ago (and about fifty sessions back). Those little horrors that lived in people’s heads and ate their brains. It had been possible to save the victims up to a point – but once the little monsters gained full control, they impersonated the victims almost perfectly, with no sign of taint or anything being wrong.

   The children wished briefly to avenge their murders, and the murders of their families, when they found out what had happened – but soon realized that, being long dead, there was nothing they could do.

   The stop in Yomi was confirmation of sorts: The cook had been tainted, and horribly scarred, as a result of an oni attack as an adolescent. She hadn’t been able to bear it, and had – in youthful folly – taken the dark gift of Maho from a Kansen, and used one of the several spells it had shown her to regain most of her previous good looks.

   She had repented of her youthful folly, vowed never again to use dark magic – and spent years concealing her affliction, refusing to start a family or to become too involved with anyone so as to ensure that she did not pass on the Taint. She had not given in – until she returned from the mornings shopping to find three of the children of the house engaged in a smiling massacre of helpless, paralyzed, people – surrounding her, and cheerily announcing that, after they had disposed of her, they would continue on to kill their parents and their remaining unaffected sibling.

   She had partially deflected the first blow with her shopping basket – and called on the blood magic she had refused for so long, pouring all her strength into an attempt to strike down the once-children that were attacking her master and his remaining family. She had been surprised herself to be shunted to Yomi – and was sorry, if not surprised, to hear that she had slain only one of the three. After all, they were Samurai – however young – and she was only a peasant.

   Evidently Yomi had its own standards for admittance. Perhaps it would be best not to mention this back on Ningen-Do. While it was well known that death usually released you from Taint – unless you were so innately evil as to be drawn to Jigoku anyway – few would accept that you could attain Yomi by sacrificing yourself to use Maho in the service of the empire.

   Back on Ningen-Do, Shosuro had dropped by again, but found no one but Najite to talk to. He was a bit upset. Did Kochige, Ninsei, Michio, Okar, and company have no respect for tradition? They seemed to be willing to turn the entire Empire upside down to “save” it. What was the Empire without it’s traditions? Wouldn’t death be better than that? They acted as if the peasants and monks and spirits and such meant as much as the traditions of the Samurai…

   Shosuro wasn’t much help by most standards. She was one of the seven thunders, a hero of the Empire, and one of the major reasons it still existed – and she believed that change was a part of all life. Stasis was not life, but merely retarded decay. Could the Samurai exist without the peasants? Would their traditions have meaning if the people who followed them were wiped away? Fu Leng wished to rule the empire, not to destroy it; would that be preferable to changing it?

   The rest of the group returned from Yomi about then.

   If they were right about those worm-homunculi, that meant that they probably had two magical horrors walking the streets wearing children’s corpses, using the children’s consumed memories to impersonate them, and awaiting their masters command to strike.

   Should they tell the parents? No: they simply called in the two they’d detected on the grounds that they might be able to testify in their investigation. The kids were cooperative enough. They seemed entirely normal. They were respectful, well-behaved, impressed with their authority – and then, when it became obvious that Kochige and company seriously suspected something, triggered the powerful paralysis-poison they secreted through their skins. It seemed to work the same way that the flame-compound they could produce similarly did; it could be triggered to take effect on command. Najite, thanks to his incredible Earth ring, was unaffected – and one child was struck down by a mysterious hail of knives. The thing inside seemed to be able to keep the body working for a time after death – long enough to attempt to touch and poison Najite (which failed completely) and then – after looking momentarily blank – to use its flame-starting secretion to burst into flames.

   The other looked momentarily blank, then burst into flames and staggered out into the street screaming about how Ninsei, the crazed young fire mage, had set him horribly aflame for no reason at all before collapsing in the process of burning to ash.

   Somehow (thanks to Najite’s Demon Mirage) the child appeared to scream something about “for the glory of Fu Leng!” and set his own father – who was moving to attack – aflame with a fire-spell. That at least interrupted the riot long enough for the local magistrates to arrive.

   Still the explanation did not go down well.

   Did the things communicate with each other or their master? That momentary blank expression suggested it. There had been… At least three, possibly up to six of them in this one town. OK, it was a major trading nexus – but that suggested hundreds of them. Possibly going into suicide-strike mode, equipped with at least one horrific toxin, the ability to start fires all over the place, to work or channel at least some minor spells – the triggering effects at least, and probably silencing magic and some others. At least they only seemed to have a child’s physical abilities.

   They teleported to the Crab Clan palace to see the Clan Champion immediately. They could speculate while getting in to see him. Urgently.

   How had it been done? It went back at least four years, and probably longer, since it was unlikely that they’d found the oldest one around with a sample size of two out of those probable hundreds. They seemed to be alchemical constructs – which meant, since alchemy couldn’t create life, they had to be modifications of some natural creature. Probably a parasitic worm of some sort. Hatched from an egg. Targeting children, who probably wouldn’t be able to resist effectively? Even so, it didn’t seem to be a hundred percent successful. If an egg was crushed, it wouldn’t hatch. Ingested? Distributed over years?

   Najite suggested checking sellers of sweets and desserts. Buy a candy or a confection, buy slow death for yourself, death for your family, and a spy and saboteur in the service of Fu Leng, all in one tasty package.

   The Crab Champion recognized the problem, and called in the Shugenja to spread the message and the warning as quickly as possible – as soon as he came up with one to spread that wouldn’t rip the clan apart. This was a blow at the foundations of humanity, not just the foundations of the Empire.

   Ninsei felt that this had the fingerprints of the Designer all over it – but whoever it was behind it, something would have to be done. Perhaps he could tune a fire-effect finely enough to affect only worm-things? How large an area could he affect? And was there any way to do anything without becoming known as a mass murderer of other children?

L5R Log Update: The Eighth Column

   The Twisted Ways (Session 98 and 99): Memories of the Fallen, The Courts of the Wild.

   If their first priority was disposing of Fu Lengs forces in the mountains, the first step in that chore was to locate them. Kochige and Michio set to work analyzing the rumors and reports from the surrounding lands – from the Nezumi, from the Peasants and Eta, from the Samurai – as well as what information could be gathered magically, from history, from maps, and from deduction and general principles.

   Well, taking out what they could reasonably establish as the Kenku territories, that left them with a dozen or so areas – but most of those were still being visited by occasional trappers, hunters, and miners. If there was a demon army in most of them, it had to be in stasis down a hole. That wasn’t totally impossible – but searching every hole and cave in the mountains probably was.

   It came down to three probable locations: one camp of ronin or bandits in the foothills beyond the Scorpion clan border, a mountainous valley full of caves, and a traditionally-haunted mountain. The ronin had recently taken over several border villages, although most of them had been clusters of peasant hut that lay outside the official Scorpion boundaries. More importantly, their leader was apparently remarkably skilled, was said to have recently ridden out to slay an Oni, and had returned successfully – but never revealed his face any longer when he rode out. They valley and it’s caves had long been used by hermits and local villagers, but had recently developed an extremely bad reputation; people visiting the area had failed to return, and now no one went there any longer. Tha haunted mountain had been considered cursed for centuries, and the local monks had long made small offerings at a shrine near it’s base to quiet the spirits there, but one of the three current caretakers had drowned and the other two had vanished.

   They took the mountain first.

   That was something of a mess. There were gorges, and unsafe bridges – and a warrior in pre-imperial armor guarding the middle of one – so Kochige and Ninsei tried flying towards the top. Unfortunately, something up on the top was making enough noise on the spiritual plane to keep the Kami from hearing much of anything – which sent them both plummeting to the ground below. Battered, bruised, unable to work healing magic, and confronted with a hostile warrior, Kochige wound up having to fight a duel. Fortunately, he was still more durable than any normal man and competent with a blade, which turned out to be enough to handle an ancient suit of animated armor inhabited by little more than a spirit-fragment and a handful of dust. On the other hand, it was obvious that the revenant would shortly pull itself together again, and would continue to do so until it’s bond was released.

   Meanwhile Michio and Najite had been making their way up the mountain, dealing with opponent after opponent. None were a match for Michio, but a perpetual string of battles would eventually exhaust him – and by the time he’d defeated the last, the first might be ready to rise again. There were old legends though… Ijesken, a a human sorcerer-lord who had fought Bayushi during the founding, had held the power to disrupt the magic of spirits and had bound the spirits of his men to fight beyond death. He had been driven into the mountains at last, and had – despite a bloody oath – never returned.

   Still, it was obvious enough that these ancient wraiths had slept peacefully, despite the oaths that bound them. Was it the loss of the monks, or something more sinister, that had awakened them?

   A little below the peaks, there was an ancient shrine – erected by the troops as the last resting place of their fallen lord. It seemed the wounds Ijesken had sustained in battle with Bayushi had proved fatal at last – but his failing sorceries had bound his own spirit to the fulfillment of his oath. The spirits of his men, linked to him by fealty and magic, had gathered around him as they too fell to battle or the cruelties of time.

   But something had come to breathe new life into ancient shadows and dust, to grasp those bonds, claim Ijesken’s power, and recall the fragments of spirits long gone to a half-life in the service of death.

   The Nightmare of the Unicorn.

   That wasn’t good. Even if they were only partial, with several thousand souls bound to it, plus Ijesken’s power to disrupt spirit magic, the Nightmare was more dangerous than ever – and it now possessed an army which would rise within a day no matter how often it might be defeated and to which it could transfer any attack that might be made upon it. That eventually became a war of attrition, as Michio parried the Nightmare’s many attacks (from its many extra arms), Kochige grappled with it to keep it from escaping or shapeshifting further, and Ninsei employed the Recondite Weave to sever the links Ijasken had forged at the dawn of the Empire. Najite -as a “mere courtier” – simply watched the path to the shrine to give a warning if the wraith-warriors should approach. Somehow an enormous number of the wraiths who attempted to come to the Nightmare’s aid accidently fell on knives they had forgotten they were carrying, were stabbed by clumsy allies or while attempting to draw their own weapons, or slipped and landed on very sharp rocks while they were approaching the shrine. None came close enough to require Najite to sound the alarm.

   Oddly enough, the Nightmare did not seem to be aware that there were two versions of Ninsei in action: well, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t find out as soon as he was resummoned – so they told him. The brief distraction was probably worth giving up whatever speculative advantage keeping it ignorant for a bit might bring.

   They eventually won the battle of attrition, and banished the Nightmare for now – although it was far nearer than they would have liked.

   The Ronin encampment – a village they’d fortified – seemed surprisingly well-organized. The palisade and earthworks were solid and took good advantage of the terrain, there were guards posted, and the peasants seemed contented enough. There were no obvious signs of hideous oppression and taint.

   Well, Kochige was a Jade Magistrate, and they were investigating signs of Oni activity: why not just knock?

   There was one blatant sign of oni activity: a huge oni hide pegged to a wall. Fairly impressive if the ronin leader had actually taken it out himself as he claimed. They were conducted to a fair – if still small and crude – facsimile of a court, and things abruptly got both political and complicated: the ronin leader, Chikao, claimed that, since no one had been adequately protecting these villages, it was his duty to the Emperor to step forward and fill that void. The imperial tax assessors would be welcome at any time; he and his followers were eager to fulfill their obligations to the Emperor.

   Oh dear. The Lion clan had been advancing that same argument for centuries; to deny it’s validity would be most impolitic. They needed the Lion clan to keep sitting on he fence if it couldn’t be gotten to throw in on the Imperial side wholeheartedly. The Scorpion had some claim to the border villages, even if it was unofficial – but to support it would be to support the current Scorpion Clan Champion, which they had no desire to do. The border villages had never been prosperous enough to pay much in the way of taxes anyway, and any Assessors would recognize that fact – but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t pay some taxes, and they were entitled to be protected whether or not they were really profitable. Their own visit – and peaceful attendance at the “court” – could be taken as an endorsement of Chikao’s rule if they didn’t either denounce him (which would divert them from their mission and weaken the areas defenses against Fu Leng) or send for Imperial troops (of which there were none to spare even if trying to dispatch them across the Scorpion lands had been currently practical), and he would certainly push that idea for all it was worth. He had slain a major oni, which – given that the conflict with Fu Leng was the major problem at the moment – made him something of an ally regardless of his personal politics. Besides, the man seemed competent in both war and administration – a rare and valuable thing – and seemed to have developed some advanced techniques or even an entire school of his own, which was well suited for both pursuits, which was even more rare and valuable. The fact that it had apparently allowed him to slay a major oni (even if he had gotten some nasty facial scars and a major hit to his vanity in the conflict and the site of the battle was said to still be cursed) practically demanded some study as well. Michio was quite eager to arrange a sparring match to get a better look at the man’s style, but that might just have to wait.

   Ah; they could use the fact that he’d slain a powerful oni and that the site (the center of a nearby forest) was reportedly cursed -as an excuse to “remain focused on their primary mission”. They’d make their excuses and head over to the forest.

   Unfortunately, making their excuses took some time – and Chikao promptly took Michio’s enquiry as to the possibility of a sparring match and Kochige’s expressions of concern over the possible menace to the people of the area and “resulting urgency” as an opening to maneuver Kochige into committing himself to a return visit and some dinner.

   Confound it, Kochige wasn’t all that unskilled socially. Just how versatile was the man?

   The forest was indeed cursed. The ominous signs of nature being twisted by the powers of Jigoku were clear enough to the eyes of an experienced investigator. It would obviously be centered on the spot where the Oni’s blood had soaked the ground -but the nature of the curse was hard to make out. It was obviously twisting the local wildlife though. Even the local squirrels were creepy and ominous.

   It go messy rapidly: the curse upon the oni’s festering body and blood had apparently targeted the local insects – giving some of them the ability to consume magic (including magical scrolls), and others the ability to infest larger creatures, consume them, and eventually convert them into demon-insect-swarm creatures – which hunted other creatures to infest them.

   Suddenly deprived of their scrolls, and with their innate powers suddenly limited to blowing up one insect at a time – even Ninsei’s flame auras kept focusing on the first insect to contact them each round – Kochige and Ninsei were finding life very awkward indeed. The presence of demon-swarm oni throwing masses of bloodsucking insects made things even worse – but at least gave Michio (also deprived of the innate spells which allowed him to sweep-attack massive areas at range) and Najite something to target effectively.

   They had to fall back to the river, and virtually boil themselves, to deal with their own mite infestations. Healing spells worked against the damage, but did nothing about the underlying bugs, while purgative spells – again – wound up being consumed by individual mites.

   Well, that wasn’t going to work. At one spell to one insect, they’d never get anywhere. The could set a physical forest fire, but that still probably wouldn’t get all the bugs. A physical fire couldn’t be counted on not to miss areas, or to scorch deeply enough into the earth. A physical battle with insects that burrowed under your own skin didn’t seem likely to work either. They needed to keep the bugs off while they expunged the curse.

   How did the peasants and eta deal with bugs? Herbs and fumes and things wasn’t it? They went to inquire.

   Equipped with plenty of insect-repellant herbs and fumes, fire, oil, noxious liquids, as well as a cluster of peasants to carry all of it, they headed back for the center of the forest. Burning the body – along with Michio’s smaller-scale destructiveness – cleared the immediate area while the peasants built a ring of flame around their working space, burned the fumes, scattered the herbs, and sprinkled their noxious infusions. It took some doing, and several false starts as they rooted out intruding insects – but each partial repetition of the exorcism rituals helped.

   In the end, everyone was scorched, half-choked with fumes, covered with soot and smelly herbs, and quite exhausted, but the curse (along with a fair chunk of the center of the forest) was gone. Still, to have laid a curse of such power, that thing had to have been extremely powerful to begin with. How had Chikao defeated it?

   Well, they had promised to return, Michio would still want his sparring match, and it was probably the nearest place where they could probably get a decent bath. They stopped by on the way to take a look at that valley.

   Upon evaluation of what they’d seen of it, Chikao’s new school looked like a pretty good choice for any local administrator who’d be working without much of a staff – not the best at any one thing, but broadly applicable and offering a pretty good chance at defeating most individual menaces.

   The valley did indeed seem to be playing host to a number of oni, maho cultists, and undead, but rooting them out of the caves and crevices would take forever. They wound up simply going the “massive destruction” route, with rains of fire, Michio’s annihilating sweeps and earth-shattering blows, Kochige’s earth-tremors, and similar tactics, before setting some guards at the valley exits. There would be survivors of course – but they couldn’t hope to get every oni and cultist anyway, and there would be no organization to them for a fairly long time. At the moment, that would just have to be good enough.

Legend of the Five Rings: Log Update

   The Twisted Ways (Sessions 96-97): Heaven’s Fall, The Council of War.

   Back in Jigoku, Shigure was still plotting. Kochige and company had offered to get him out of Jigoku while they could – but he had sworn vengeance against Fu Leng and had made alliances that it would be dishonorable to abandon. Knowing that Shinjo and Rocan would likely exert some influence towards restoring the proper order of Jigoku was encouraging however – and with the ability to communicate with Ningen-Do, it would be possible to coordinate an attack on Fu Leng there with an infernal uprising to try and cut him off from the power of Jigoku.

   Besides, he’d been able to pass on the earthquake dagger to Michio while he was in Jigoku – and to palm off the turn-into-a-dinosaur talisman off on Kochige. He’d had the oddest impulse to give it to Ninsei – some weird mental image of him growing into a gargantuan reptilian monster and stomping across the shadowlands blasting things with fire – but he’d resisted. Ninsei was destructive enough ALREADY. The ongoing supply of funeral offerings – apparently his friends were paying handsomely to have some artisans and peasants keep making models and burning them as offerings to his “departed spirit” – was allowing him to equip his forces as well as to bribe the minor demons to maintain their “loyalty” (such as it was).

   It really was weird: it seemed that only the Oni who had been infused with a portion of the power of Ningen-Do – the local equivalent of “taint” – normally really grew, learned much, or spawned lesser demons. Something similar could apparently happen with a bond to the Celestial Heavens, but he hadn’t really heard enough about that to be sure.

   Blast it, he could probably come up with something in the way of a tactical approach if the place would just stop CHANGING on him all the time. He didn’t even know what half of his troops basic abilities were. For that matter, while the Asura Rathavabhasa had decided to return to Ningen-Do when the opportunity came up (he had to admit that the man’s powers were fairly useless in a large-scale conflict and there was no profit for him in it), but Mirdangimi had elected to stick around; apparently she was finding it oddly refreshing to have a conflict in the offing in which she could exert her full powers. (What in the name of the Kami did the “Rahu-Ketu School of the Midnight Sun” teach anyway? It couldn’t possibly be related to that insane Naga Void-Shadow magic could it?)

   Meanwhile, Najite was paying a – hopefully final – visit to the Heavens himself. He would have preferred not to be involved in the doings of gods and crazed shugenja, but he had some messages to deliver and wanted to try to find out a bit more about Ninsei and the rest. Prophetic time-travelers, personal appearances by major celestial kami, gaijin deities wanting to “make adjustments”, and possibly partly-divine children running about simply did not fit his conception of what the Empire ought to be like.

   Getting into the Celestial Heavens was a lot more difficult this time around – the guardians seemed to vary it according to how important they (or perhaps you ) felt your mission was – but trying to talk to the Sun Goddess again so soon seemed impolitic.

   Bayushi seemed to believe that Ninsei was probably a result of the Moon’s philandering ways. He was known to spend the nights he wasn’t appearing in the sky borrowing human bodies and fooling around with human women. Ninsei’s elements were obviously out of balance – something that was often a consequence of a partial divine infusion, and which could reasonably lead to abnormal development. Mildly surprising that Amaterasu would know about it, but she did see everything which happened beneath her light. That might even explain both some of the annoyance and the tendency to treat the boy as family.

   And yes, the Sun Goddess blew up her jade palace pretty regularly; that was why the spirits were always ready to rebuild it on a moments notice.

   Well, that would explain a lot about Ninsei.

   The other available founders were pleased to hear from Shinjo: they’d started to wonder if she had somehow managed to wander out of the universe entirely. They were a bit bemused by her choices – but they hadn’t understood why she’d gone to see Fu Leng after the fall, or what had made her the most wild and adventurous of all of them either.

   By the time all of that was done, Kochige and Ninsei were done trading spells and discussing magical techniques with the Unicorn Shugenja and Priests. They’d also been looking into pre-imperial theology. It looked like the Founding Kami had diverted all worship to themselves and the Fortunes, abolishing the propitiating rituals – and invocations whenever something needed to be destroyed – that had originally been directed to the powers of Jigoku. OK, they weren’t NICE powers – but they still deserved respect. Was it possible that Fu Leng had been permitted to draw on the power of Jigoku simply because the people of the Empire had turned away from the ritual observances that kept those powers placated? It wasn’t like the Lords of Destruction cold be expected to have a sense of proportion.

   Unfortunately, Najite proved either unable or unwilling to control his descent to Ningen-Do – and wound up landing by the Sea of Void, to the south of the Shadowlands. THAT was just LOVELY. He’d have to send a message to the shugenja to come and pick him up.

   Kochige promptly tried to open a gate – which proved to be a bad idea by the Sea of Void. The structure of the universe was very thin there already – and the gate fractured it badly. They wound up with a beachful of things and people pulled out of other universes and had to act promptly to get the holes closed up and to deactivate the dangerous items that had come through. Then they had to sort out the ones who wanted to be sent home from the ones who didn’t want to be sent back into bad situations and make the relevant arrangements (more “cousins” for Shigure back in Toshi Ranbo in the latter case). They never did figure out what the weird people preparing great amounts of food while odd “weapons” were pointed at them were all about – although, when that particular group got back home, the “feed a troop of hungry samurai and sumo wrestlers beneath an enchanted sky!” episode of Country Cottage Cooking did go over well: cooking shows didn’t normally have the budget for extras and effects like that.

   With everyone back together – and the Unicorn situation defused for the moment – it was time for a conference of war.

   Most of a days discussion led to at least a partial list of priorities.

  • The Prophecies – that Fu Leng would possess the Heir of the Empire, that the Chaos Bringer would Rule the Empire, that the Hantei Line would Fail, and all the others that they’d heard – were beyond their control. For better or worse, there hadn’t been one yet that they couldn’t find a dozen different ways to interpret anyway. Alex might be behind half of them – but if he’d actually mastered the Orrery of Dream (and his arranging for Ninsei’s training, for a war of assassins against Fu Lengs assassins, and a dozen other interventions suggested that he might have), even it could only grant access to the worlds that might be – not guarantee that any particular one would be despite Alex’s attempts to force his choice into being.
  • Fu Leng personally would be a matter for heroes – and, if they were the ones destined to fight him on the Second Day of Thunder, than that was what would happen. There wasn’t much point in trying to force it until he emerged from his palace in the shadowlands anyway.

   As far as things went that they could actually do something about:

  • Their first priority was to deal with whatever major military resources Fu Leng had managed to smuggle into the central mountains. That would be whatever Oni he’d gotten in through Traitors Grove before they sealed it, any undead he could find or have maho cultists raise, and whatever else they could find. With the center of the Empire balanced like a house of cards, they couldn’t afford to leave any major unbalancing forces about if they could help it.
  • If the prophecies and what was still applicable of the information they’d brought back from the Thousand Years of Darkness were accurate, the massed armies of Jigoku and the Shadowlands – fully deployed for the first time in history – would break through the Crab defenses, and play a crucial role in enforcing Fu Lengs power grab. Their second priority would have to be weakening those forces.
  • They’d done what they could for Shigure; there wasn’t much more to be done until they were ready to co-ordinate on sealing the Festering Pit – presuming that his rebellion got that far.
  • The Nightmares and Evil Ninsei mostly with the Shadowlands Army – but they weren’t necessarily enemies. Most of the Nightmares were too treacherous for ANYONE to rely on them – but some of them had been cooperative and Evil Ninsei had cooperated with them more than once.
  • The Bloodspeaker and Maho cults, and along with their minor undead and what lesser Oni they could summon were too dispersed for a small group to deal with: they would have to be left to the Jade Champion and Magistrates.
  • The Naga could probably be relied on to back the Crab anyway, but neither Fu Leng nor the fate of the Empire was necessarily any of their business. Since the Naga owed them some major favors, those could be called in to make sure that they were ready to aid the Crab in opposing the armies of the Shadowlands to come.
  • They could ignore the dinosaurs – and leave the dimensional rifts in the forest to the Naga. They might be a nuisance to clean up later, but the dinosaurs were just big tough lizards.
  • The Yobanjin could be dealt with after the war. At this point it was far too late to do anything about the chaotic influence they’d already exerted – and who knew? If they were actually planning to try to bind Fu Leng if he won, at that point it couldn’t hurt to let them try.
  • The Yodatai were distracting what was left of the Dragon forces, but there was nothing to be done about that without a major campaign – which would have to be left until after the war against Fu Leng.
  • The Nezumi… The Nezumi had been faithful and useful allies for centuries, and were still regarded as vermin throughout much of the empire – but they’d found Nezumi everywhere they’d looked for them. In small hordes. They were still scouting for them, beyond the limits where anyone else dared to go. If the Empire survived, they would have to see what could be arranged in the way of official recognition and lands of their own. It wasn’t like the Empire was short of unused lands – and if they could purify the Shadowlands, there would be even greater territories available.
  • The Asura – well, once again, it was a good thing that there was plenty of unused land available. More of them would probably show up, and they couldn’t afford to start a war with people who commanded vast powers, who literally could not permanently die, and who could carry a grudge across millennia. There would doubtless be more arriving as well.
  • Merenae was friendly enough, and the Mantis were planning to use their aid against the Shadowlands Pirates. So long as they remained offshore, that need not even be noticed. Relations would eventually have to be normalized with the rest of the world anyway; unless Fu Leng won, and no one wanted to trade with Rokugan, the centuries of isolation were drawing to a close in any case.
  • The Phoenix Mages were responsible for almost as many magical disasters as the Bloodspeakers and the Maho Cultists. SOMEONE needed to keep an eye on them. There wasn’t much they could do about that at the moment – but they’d have to look into it after the war. Hopefully the Phoenix wouldn’t try anything catastrophic before then.
  • The Priests of Madness were a possible resource – they already knew that they objected to Fu Leng and the Shadowlands – but their power was too unpredictable and came at too high a price. Unless all was lost already, it would be best not to involve them.
  • The Shadowcats were angling for imperial recognition and a position within the imperial household. It seemed that the number of true Shadowcats was limited by the number of Void Mages in the Empire – it had something to do with the Magic of Shadow being unnatural at this stage of the cosmos – but even too many “normal” cat-shapeshifters could be a nuisance. Still, they were at least friendly.
  • They had a dozen research projects – the Shadow Seeds, new Schools, Spirit Binding, Alchemy, Impersonal Magic, the Madness Tattoos, and many more, as well as plans for rebuilding and expanding the Empire, but all of that would have to wait.

L5R Campaign Log: The Twisted Ways

   The Twisted Ways (Sessions 94-95): The Breath of the Winter, The Paths of Darkness.

   Najite was a bit numb. Amaterasu, the supreme goddess, the light of the world, had told him to “Go to Hell!” and it actually seemed like helpful advice. Had his life really gotten that bad, or was it just that the entire world was actually as insane as Ninsei, Kochige, Michio, Okari, and company?

   With Michio diverted with some of the Unicorn Clan children – who didn’t see any reason why, if Ninsei could be safely thrown into the heavens and return, they couldn’t try it too – Najite busy stewing in his own juice, and Okari still off on clan business, that left Kochige and Ninsei to brainstorm up a way to reach the Dark Sun of the Underworld.

   Well, they could head for Jigoku and try to find him there (not an attractive notion), head to the West and see if the priests of Senpet were right about the path of the dead sun (which would probably take too long), ask Shigure to make contact (a gambit he’d already tried with no luck), try and have Michio throw them there (although Jigoku, and the private realm of the Black Sun, was likely to be beyond the authority of a minor celestial kami), try to use the blood-link of the Unicorn priests somehow (not that they really had any idea of how to do that), they could consult the Jade Champion (although she’d probably think them quite mad), just ask the Unicorn Priests to pray to Shinjo (although – if that would work – she should have been located long ago), try to summon her (not likely to work with spirit magic, but perhaps the Recondite Weave or Heka could do it), search for the portal outside of Rokugan where Shinjo had originally met Rocan (there had to be one there someplace, but searching or it could take forever), simply invoke the Dark Sun (blasphemous by current standards, but there had been such rituals once according to Shigure – used whenever it was time for something to be destroyed), try the Sea of Void (Michio might be able to navigate it – if the Dark Sun permitted such an approach), or they could…

   The brainstorming went on for some time. Eventually they decided to combine several of their possible plans: they would get the Unicorn priests to pray to Shinjo for them, attempt to use the Recondite Weave to trace Shinjo’s bond with her descendants and then combine their powers with Kochige’s status as a dimensional nexus to try and send a message along that link.

   For good or ill, with their powers combined with Najites powers over gates and Michio’s ability to blow holes in the cosmos, they had more than enough power to punch their message through to SOMETHING. Sadly, it wasn’t what they’d wanted. Rocan might be a dark and terrible god, but he still heard prayers – especially when they were backed by that much raw power. It was rare that mortals wished to reach his realm, but it was permitted for them – and especially for the Unicorn – to attempt the journey.

   The dark fires of the underworld draw the area – along with the group, several priests, more than forty Unicorn Samurai, assorted servants, the children who’d been getting Michio to jump around with them, several horses, and an assortment of other animals and baggage, to the timeless borders of the realm of the Dark Sun. They managed to use Michio’s talents to send most of the children, priests, and other superfluous passengers home – but the Samurai insisted on an explanation, and then – since the group was looking for their clan founder – insisted on inviting themselves along.

   While it passed unrecognized, the route to the Palace of the Dark Sun was a dark and icy mirror of Shingo’s route beyond the borders of the Empire. It featured a terrible ordeal on a glacier that hosted hostile demon-steeds to be captured and tamed in place of the desolate ordeal of crossing the burning sands, horses and peasants to rescue from disaster as the Unicorn had aided and been aided by the local inhabitants of the steppes, a frozen avalanche-swept mountain in place of the undead-haunted desert mountains, a brief battle with guardian oni in the place of a the initial battle at the City of Jewels, and a variety of chances to display their combat skills, horsemanship, diplomacy, and the virtues of Bushido along the way.

   It would have made it easier, and would probably have helped keep the Unicorn casualties down along the way, if they had realized what was going on – but they bulled through their quest on raw power and determination, no matter how long the subjective duration became. They captured and tamed the heat-drinking demon steeds, survived the glacial ordeal and rescued lost travelers there, surmounted and outrode the avalanches, rescued the endangered horses and peasants, and continued on to the gates of the dark palace.

   Well, they had successfully completed the quest, even if they never had figured out what was going on. They were also the first to do so in many centuries – so the servants let them in and stabled their demon horses as the group presented a variety of gifts.

   Shinjo hadn’t been aware that Rocan had been blocking out everything he classified as “minor” disturbances (which led to a lively discussion), that Amaterasu had not been passing on her messages to her siblings, or that the Unicorn were – at least at the moment – badly in need of advice over and above the subjective weeks worth of tales of her travels that she told over dinner. Still, she did not want to intervene too directly; Ningen-Do belonged to mortals, not to gods. The order of heaven was not that great an example of how to do things (after all, look at the affairs of her family), and to become too involved with the affairs of Ningen-Do was to allow it to bind you. Mortal form you might assume, but mortal you would never truly be – and all that you attempted would be twisted thereby. She would send dreams for now, advise the Unicorn among her visitors to carry word from her to the Clan Champion, and consider what must be done while she dealt with the message backlog that Rocan had been blocking. Of course, her husband could provide time for such considerations as might be needed. Defining the passage of time in the underworld was one of his minor privileges.

   In the meantime, she presented everyone with proper saddle and tack for the steeds they had claimed – as well as some minor tokens of their visit. Rocan – at least to oblige Shinjo – was perfectly willing to send everyone, and their horses, back to the Empire without a fuss. Of course, Shinjo would also be expecting them to visit again in the future, while Rocan – according to custom – granted a gift as well: the dark sight of the underworld. At least for him, it was easier than lighting his palace properly anyway.

   Unfortunately, their arrival back with the Unicorn – after a mere hour – meant having to explain just what had happened, how several of the Samurai who’d been swept along with them had mysteriously vanished, where the hellsteeds had come from, just what they had been up to all along, and why they had dragged a bunch of children and noncombatants into Jigoku in the first place. Yes, they had trustworthy Unicorn Samurai witnesses as to that being the action of a dark and long-forgotten god – even if half of those witnesses were from beyond the borders of the empire – but explaining the reasons behind what was going on was decidedly awkward.

   It got more so when Najite decided to notify Amaterasu that Shinjo was doing just fine and had entrusted a couple of messages to Ninsei for her siblings since her other messages hadn’t been getting through. While the sun goddess normally made far more remarks about smiting people than actual smiting, this definitely drew her attention – enough so that she sent a minor manifestation to show up and scold Ninsei. Fortunately, Ninsei, Kochige, Najite, and the local Shugenja were able to throw up enough fire-containment, fire-extinguishing, and fire-protection spells to keep the area from being devastated, even if they did lose the council tent. Oddly enough, this was actually helpful; having Amaterasu show up to personally chew you out – and even acknowledge you as being closer family than most Samurai (well, the rest of the group had had their suspicions about Ninsei for quite awhile now: surviving being vaporized, being capable of splitting off a duplicate when infused with dark power, and having that much innate power, that young?) definitely lent some weight to your words.

   Come to think of it, they weren’t sure if they should they tell the Ki’Rin Elderthat they’d found Shinjo? He was sort of a living historical artifact – and the only thing keeping him going was looking for Shinjo to deliver his messages. Still, such a long life was not healthy for an old man.

   As a game-mastering note, this was the first major plot-sequence that no one ever really figured out – probably because it was too obscure: most of the players had listened to the Unicorn priest’s account of the clan history looking for clues to Shinjo’s current location. Since such clues were indeed present, nobody guessed that the account was also a set of directions for finding Shinjo by undertaking a dark mirror of her travels in Jigoku. Of course, I always make it possible to get through an adventure whether or not anyone figures out what’s actually going on, since you can’t really count on anyone else being able to match your thought processes – but getting through things on blind determination is always a lot harder for the characters than getting through when they know what route to take.

Legend of the Five Rings: Campaign Log Update

   The Unicorn could hardly refuse a visit from a celestial Kami, a city governor, and a Jade Magistrate with only two guards – but the court (such as it was in the tents of a temporary encampment) was more than a little tense. There also seemed to be far more Unicorn Samurai around than they would have thought likely – especially given the view from Kochige’s cloud-vision spell. Quite a few of them looked a little foreign as well. Hmm. Had anyone ever been sure that the Unicorn had actually dropped contact with all the groups they’d encountered – and intermarried with – while they were outside the Empire? They’d swung through the desert as far as Senpet, then down through the plains to the west, and through the Shadowlands.

   Just wonderful. If the Unicorn were calling on their allies and connections, they might have almost as many warriors as the rest of the Empire combined. Still, the Unicorn had been being sneered at for centuries: what had them so worked up now? And – at this point – was there anything that could be done about it?

   Najite got the brunt of this one. He was so good at lurking unseen that it didn’t take long for him to find out that the Unicorn believed that the Crane and Lion had united against them in the Imperial Courts – where the Unicorn had the most difficulty in operating – and that there was little choice left except all-out war. Apparently their belief was based on a document they’d captured from a messenger who’d defended it to the death – and which had been protected with some serious magic that they’d had a great deal of difficulty bypassing. All in all, enough to make sure that it was either genuine or a very subtle plant. Of course, if it was a Scorpion plant – and it apparently had put the Unicorn firmly in the Scorpion camp – subtlety was to be expected. Still no information about just what had been in it though.

   Unless it was being kept around here. In the Clan Champions trunks?

   There was a bit of silence when Najite casually wandered off, apparently strolled past the guards, then searched the Clan Champions tent under the noses of the watching samurai without being noticed, located and brought them the document in question – and then returned it just as casually after Kochige had a look at it. Just a courtier, oh yes.

   Hm… The document involved a secret agreement to manipulate the emperor into transferring the Unicorn’s clan status to the Fox – on the grounds of excessive gaijin contamination and blood – whereupon the Unicorn would be stripped of most of their privileges and broken up, while – at the same time – the Fox would be promoted to unwanted major clan status and stripped of the protections that the Emperor had granted the minor clans. According to the letter, the scheme was on the edge of success. It had apparently been sent from the Crane to the Lion.

   Confound it. That was actually all too plausible. The Crane and the Lion probably would have no objection to such a scheme, and might even be in on it no matter who had proposed it. Nothing obvious to mark it as a forgery, and nothing that they could easily counter.

   Kochige took a look at the physical document. Hm. The Ink was a typical Sparrow clan formula that was exported all over the Empire. Not uncommon, although the Crane typically used their own ink. The paper had tiny reddish particles of clay in it that had stained it in a slightly mottled pattern as it was drying; it had probably been made with river water, running through cultivated lands. The color was typical of the floodplains near the center of the empire, rather like the water he’d seen in the great central river. The depth to which the ink had penetrated the paper showed slow brushstrokes, but the skill was considerable: there was no reason to work so slowly unless you were taking great care – such as when imitating another hand, or at least concealing your own. Probably not a secretary, even if one would be trusted with such a document. Whoever it was had been right handed, and bent closely over the work judging from the length of the strokes. The ink had been dried with grains of sand – an unusual commodity in most places, to be found only near the beaches and great central river, and unlikely to be transported in quantity. Unfortunately, anyone might carry a vial in a writing kit. A hair stuck in the ink was from a samba deer; Samba calligraphy brushes were difficult to manage, but offered exceptional fine control in a skilled hand. They were exported by the Dragon and Phoenix clans, since the samba deer was found only in the northern mountains. The Crane rarely used such brushes, since they generally regarded their own brush craftmanship as superior. His analysis of the brush strokes (a science he had just invented with his investigation check of 124) indicated a furtive personality.

   Unfortunately, while that was enough to make most of the group reasonably sure that the letter was a forgery, none of it would exactly be definitive – or even readily explainable – to anyone else.

   Who could they get to vouch for Kochige that would get the Unicorn to accept his analysis and cancel their war?

   They considered trying to convince the senior Unicorn advisors and/or the priests. None of those seemed likely to succeed – and, even if they could convince them, there was no guarantee that the Clan Champion would listen. At this point they’d need some really spectacular backing to be sure that the Unicorn would cancel their war. It would be pretty hard to stop the gathering of the troops now, and the longer it took them to come up with something, the harder it would be. It might be too late already.

   Well, they could try downgrading the forgery, but – at this point – the Unicorn might not even look at it again anyway, much less look closely, and they would probably get suspicious if there were sudden obvious flaws.

   Wait: that ancient Ki’rin Diplomat had wanted to locate Shinjo – meaning that even the Unicorn didn’t know what had happened to her. If there was anything or that could convince the Unicorn to listen, it would be their founding Kami.

   OK, it was a ridiculous longshot, but there really didn’t seem to be anything else that was likely to work.

   Information first. Ninsei visited the priests to listen to the complete history of the clan. Kochige went to the Elders. Michio checked the City of Jewels – a good thing the Kami of Vacations was still willing to provide the occasional gateway – and Najite got in touch with the Tortoise: you never knew what might be in the Imperial Archives.

   According to the priests, Shinjo had refused to assume a persistent or stable human form (Hm. That would maintain her nature as a shapeshifting kami and avoid mortal aging). As a Kami of Motion and Freedom, she had been more than willing to explore outside of the Empire. Upon leaving the Empire the Ki’Rin had headed straight for Senpet, mingling with the people of the burning sands and the nomads of the steppes along the way – although they’d spent many years finding ways around or through the undead-infested mountains of the burning sands. The Ki’Rin had spent a relatively peaceful century (at least once they got used to being seen as a young and relatively uncivilized bunch) in Senpet after they’d settled some initial altercations at the City of Jewels. Shinjo had spent a great deal of that time talking with both the lesser priests of Senpet and the priests of madness – and then had gathered the Ki’Rin and departed (with a slight implication of the Ki’Rin having worn out their welcome a bit) on a grand sweep around the western half of the continent. Shinjo had ridden out about halfway though – in 442 – to deal with some mighty power of darkness, and had not returned – although her children eventually had. There were several, inconsistent, accounts of her final battle, as well as of an earlier appearance and disappearance – but most of them looked a bit like later embellishments woven around a disappearance that had never been explained.

   Shinjo’s children had been shapeshifters with a strong supernatural nature as well, and had given instruction and guidance on the remainder of the great trip. Along the way the Ki’Rin had encountered many friends and many foes – but, when they reached the borders of the Shadowlands, they were lured inside, instead of turning to the east and returning through or around the Naga Forest as they had been instructed. Their trip through the Shadowlands had been neither easy nor pleasant, and the people of the Empire had not exactly been welcoming.

   After that, the story was quite familiar.

   The Elders could locate almost exactly where Shinjo had been lost to them. They could confirm that she had been warm and friendly, fascinated with new things, and inclined to advise the clan that had gathered around her, rather than attempting to rule it. She had left most matters of humans to humans and – during and after the visit to Senpet – had restricted her interactions with the clan even more, advising them only when asked. She had sent regular messages home initially, but became erratic about it as time passed. Her children had remained with the Unicorn for some centuries without showing any signs of aging, and had displayed a variety of magical powers – both beneficent and destructive – during that time, but had eventually given into the wanderlust they had inherited from their mother and departed. Before then, they had fathered or borne many children, both human and equine, including the ancestors of the chief priests of the Unicorn. Such children had also shown innate magical powers, albeit relatively minor ones compared to those that their semi-divine parent had displayed. Those bloodlines still ran strong in the Unicorn clan.

   The old records of the City of Jewels recorded the arrival of the Unicorn, and some initial conflicts that were soon resolved. Apparently their relationship had been fairly good, and they had even coordinated occasional efforts against the fiery undead which lurked in the mountains of the burning sands. Shinjo had seemed somewhat disturbed by what the priests had told her – and apparently had not entirely approved of the priests of madness, since she had and forbidden any of the Ki’Rin to study their ways (although she made no attempt to actually interfere with their practices). Unfortunately, such records were fragmentary: the history of the City of Jewels had been turbulent, and much had been lost.

   The Imperial Archives recorded early messages from Shinjo – advising Hantei of what the Ki’Rin had encountered. Afterwards there were a few messages from the time she spent in Senpet, mostly advising her siblings to limit their involvement with humanity to advice and guidance instead of trying to rule them. Such messages had been ascribed to confusion resulting from too much Gaijin influence, and disregarded. Beyond that, there had been warnings that the eventual return of Fu Leng was inevitable, information derived from her continuing explorations – and then nothing.

   OK: it didn’t really look like her departure had been entirely involuntary – and her children had seemed to be fully supernatural, not mere human-spirit crossbreeds. There were hundreds of human-spirit crossbreeds scattered across the Empire – indeed, tens of thousands shared that heritage – and their abilities and limitations were pretty well understood. Shinjos children did not seem to fit the pattern. On more direct evidence, Ninsei and Kochige had noted some interesting things about the highest-ranking Unicorn priests: a segment of them seemed to be directly descended from Shinjo’s offspring – and still had a strong supernatural nature. THAT should have faded centuries ago.

   Well, that was a decent starting point, but nowhere near enough information to actually get anywhere. At this point, for all they knew, she could have just merged her essence with the entire clan; it would have allowed her to travel and explore in all directions at the same time.

   Next up: consult the Kami. Kochige was still busy attempting to figure out what was going on with the Unicorn priests, and Michio and Najite were attempting – with modest success – to divert the Unicorn and counteract the more militant types and the Scorpion Clan manipulations – so that left Ninsei free to be hurled into the heavens. That was useful on Michio’s end as well: it got him a good deal of attention, and made an excellent stalling maneuver.

   The guardian of the gates complained as usual, but didn’t make any real objections to Ninsei traipsing in and out of the Celestial Heavens yet again.

   Bayushi still didn’t approve of what the Scorpion were up to, and was still willing to talk to them – so he was first. Unfortunately, the Kami of Secrets didn’t actually know much this time around: Shinjo had never returned to the heavens, and had been out of contact for centuries. He believed that Amaterasu might know more – but she was pretty cranky on the subject of Shinjo; apparently she felt that the entire topic was something of an embarrassment. Most of the rest of the founding kami would like to hear from her again.

   As far as the Crystal Tomb was concerned, it had been intended as a gift; Shinjo was supposed to technically be a “Demon”, and so could not normally enter the celestial heavens; ergo, he’d arranged freedom of the cosmos, immunity to aging, considerable protection from injury and magic – and a backdoor to the celestial heavens – shortly before he’d departed Ninjen-Do himself. And yes, it had been a surprise – which might have been poorly judged, but she’d forgiven him for it eventually. Apparently over the centuries she’d learned enough that it was no longer necessary anyway.

   Hm. OK: off to the Jade Palace to speak with Amaterasu.

   The guards provided him with an annotated copy of “Subjects on which the Sun Goddess is quite touchy” – a volume of some 346 pages. If he wanted to talk about Shinjo, they recommended visiting Karrloth, the Fortune of Technology and Medicine (apparently a gaijin import) first for some extra protection from Fire and some healing supplies. Ninsei took that advice – and was very glad of it later.

   Amaterasu was pleased to have visitors, but every time she got annoyed over something, she started emitting streams of superheated plasma – and Shinjo seemed to be among the subjects that she found most provocative. She was also oddly willing to talk to – or at least at – him on a variety of topics. She ranted a bit about how Shinjo was a terrible, undutiful, embarrassment, how she had been refusing to accept her communications for centuries now, how they had never gotten along, and how a wide variety of human behaviors and historical events annoyed her. She vaporized the entire palace when he attempted a direct inquiry, sending Ninsei blazing back to Ninjen-Do near the Mantis Isles in a shower of tons of condensing jade. Ninsei gathered it up into a block and hauled it ashore with him; you could never have too much jade. The goddess of the sun seemed to consider him a very naughty child… It was a good thing that he’d had all his personal fire-protection magic up and hadn’t quite run out of Karrloth’s healing supplies though.

   Well, Najite was a courtier: they sent him up for another try at it. He had a hard time getting by the guardian, and did worse on the healing he needed – despite being far more durable than Ninsei – but managed to get a bit more information. It seemed that Shinjo had taken up with – or married – someone that Amaterasu thought was totally unsuitable. In fact, someone that was the polar opposite of a suitable match… He also got a directive before she blew up her (freshly rebuilt) palace again: “go to hell”. Wonderful. How he had the supreme powers of the cosmos gratuitously cross at him. With a temper like that it was no wonder that she had family problems.

   Back at the Unicorn encampment, Kochige had determined a few things about the priestly bloodlines. It looked like the power they’d inherited was a self-sustaining dipole of primordial dimensional energies – creation and destruction, void and shadow, light and darkness – which fed on each other. If you inherited the spark at all, it would rapidly build to its full power. Without the encumbrance of mortality that would have granted Shinjo’s children considerable power to break down and rebuild their forms as well as to simply create and destroy. Even with a physical body to dampen things it gave the priests a fair amount of power without any need of invoking other spirits.

   How it worked was simple enough – except for how it tended to be associated with the firstborn, although that made little difference – but how could it have happened to begin with? Shinjo would have contributed the power of creation – the power of Toshigoku, the Celestial Heavens – but who or what could possibly have been the father? It had to have been some primal power to contribute such a pure and terrible force of destruction. Some mighty gaijin deity perhaps? Shinjo was the most adventurous and venturesome of all the gods, she might have chosen or accepted such a consort. Of course, that would be yet another reason why the Unicorn might be touchy on the subject of “gaijin blood”.

   After they got back together there was a good deal of information sharing and a lot of discussion. Would running off with a gaijin god have upset Amaterasu that much? After all, she’d been in the habit of adopting gaijin into her clan – and at least it would have been a god of some sort. The rest of them had mostly married mortals; surely that was at least as unsuitable a pairing as a gaijin god. What could she be so vehemently against?

   Hm. Maybe there was something in pre-imperial theology? The problem was old enough that its roots might well predate the Empire. There were some tales of elder entities – and Kochige had been helping Shigure negotiate with the primal Lords of Destruction.

   Oh dear. It was a tremendous jump on very little solid information – but they were gambling incredibly anyway. It fit so well though… A rebellious young goddess. An entity as opposite to her mother as possible. A power of darkness and destruction. A born opponent of the creator gods – and a being who could offer the goddess of travel and exploration access to the other half of the cosmos. Rocan the Destroyer, the Black Sun of the Underworld. Lord of the night, cold, and death.