Picking up from releasing Kochige and Shosuro from the Crystal Tomb beneath the Scorpion Clan Palace.
Using the back door to get out of the catacombs beneath the Scorpion Clan Palace was easy enough – although it exited in a chamber that was popularly considered cursed. Apparently a trace of poison drifted up the secret stairway occasionally… Of course, anyone who emerged from the room unexpectedly was also considered cursed (and probably a Gaki) as well – certain to be carrying the deadly touch of Bayushi himself.
On the other hand, considering the amount and variety of toxins which they seemed to have absorbed and be carrying on their skins, the “curse” idea was pretty easy to understand. If it wasn’t for their enhanced abilities (and extraordinarily high Earth rings), all of them would be dead already. As it stood, they were carrying enough toxins to kill a small army.
They didn’t object when the castle staff rushed them out as quickly as they possibly could. They needed to spend the next few days – or perhaps a week or so – purging the toxins from their systems anyway. The mountains in the fringe of the scorpion lands would do; lots of pure spring water – and a long ways from anyone else they might imperil.
Meanwhile, in Jigoku, Shigure was attempting to approach the Lords of Destruction. Unfortunately, Rocan, The Black Sun of the Underworld, seemed unapproachable at best and mad at worst. He didn’t even seem to notice Shigure’s presence, much less be carrying on a conversation with him. Maybe his quasi-divine attention was on a conversation with someone else? Useless anyway – despite all the work he’d done reaching the temple of dark pillars.
The interview with Jinshin Uwo, the Lord of Earthquakes went a little better, despite his tendency to continue shaking the earth and forging horrific implements of destruction while he was talking – and despite his noting the link with Kochige and hauling him into the discussion. Was being casually entrusted with a dagger containing a single major earthquake sufficient to destroy Fu Leng’s palace – and a few clues as to how Kochige’s status as a nexus might be used to seal the Festering Pit – actually “support”, or was it just a whim? Still, he did seem to want the power of Jigoku returned to Jigoku.
Maryukosou, the Mistress of Black Witchery, offered to teach him black magic, fed him a bunch of philosophy about the general unpleasantness and inherent unfairness of the cosmos, inflicted a talisman on him that temporarily turned him into a giant dinosaur (without telling him how to turn it on and off – not that he ever wanted it on again; the form was tough and strong, but it totally negated most of his skills), and gave him a bunch of zombie (replicas?) of the bodies she said he’d had in some of his past lives. Was this actually intended to be helpful? They seemed vaguely familiar yes, but that just made it even creepier!
Animari, the Mouth of the Grave, complained about the people of the Empire burning their dead instead of burying them and properly invoking here to take them into her custody, told him some tales of the most evil man to ever live in Rokugan – Shoda, a “simple” peasant, who had filled his life with hatred, casual malevolence, and perfecting the art of subtly twisting the hearts of others. He had managed, out of sheer viciousness, to create a technique that allowed him to imprint both his evil and the technique, and thus both the ability and the desire to pass both on, on the village children. In the end, the malevolence of a single man had consumed the entire snake clan – a feat that few Oni had ever equaled. Shoda held a record that might never – and perhaps should never – be equaled: the fastest ascent to major demon status after his arrival in Jigoku in all history. Still, she was happy to accept his offering of those Zombies from Maryukosou – who were swallowed up into the earth – and was apparently willing to be invoked; she had not been properly invoked in a millennia.
Were they so inhuman that this was the best they could do to relate to humans? Were they playing with him? Trying to upset him? Aware of so much more of the universe than a human was that they were basically incomprehensible? Simply crazy? It would have made more sense if they hadn’t even acknowledged his existence like Rocan. On the other hand, they were primordial powers. Were they indicating their support by simply being willing to speak to him?
Come to think of it, most of the ones who’d actually spoken directly to him had given him something. Was gift-giving even normally in the nature of a Lord of Destruction? OK, he had been making gifts and offerings of his own (the steady flow of grave-offerings that his allies had arranged once they knew he was alive was actually coming in useful) and promising more, trying to deal with them with respect, promising to try to restore their position in the ancient religion of the Empire, pointing out that he was trying to restore the proper order of their realm, and otherwise doing his best to give them a reason to support him – but how much did that actually matter to things that thought in ages and who’s ultimate goal was the annihilation of the cosmos?
Maybe they were just amusing themselves while waiting?
Did he even want to TRY approaching the rest of them? Who was left? Hayashikoka the Destroying Flame, Mistress of Desolation and Destruction, Seiraku the Strangler, lord of Decay, Entropy, and Slime, Mirensei the Poisoner, Mistress of Venom, the Lady of Whispering Madness, Shiisosen the Devourer of Ancestors, master of senility and forgetfulness Arbiransei, Mistress of Destructive Storms and Spirit of Nothingness, and Anoq the Corruptor, the Master of the Abyss, the Unmaker.
He was going to have to think about that a bit more. Several of those seemed a bit more oriented towards the destruction of life, rather than simply physical destruction.
Back on Ningen-Do, with the poisons in their skins and systems purged down to a passable level, the group was ready for the next step: hopefully the rumors, the Traitor’s Grove mess, the sudden changes in the Champion, and the schism, would neutralize the build of the Scorpion Clan forces throughout the spring campaigns. With the Lion split (and apparently mostly focused on holding their position), the Crane on the defensive, the Dragon and the Phoenix diverted by damage from the Demon Winter and troubles with the Yodatai and the Yobanjin, the Mantis being both very new to great clan status and primarily a sea power (very nice, but kind of ineffective in an inland war), all they needed to do was convince the Crab to stay on the defensive and the Unicorn to behave and they’d have the entire empire in a standoff – almost as good as peace when the point was to get everyone ready to face the armies of the Shadowlands.
So, it was off to the Crab territories, where the Crab – apparently in the belief that the rest of the Empire was falling to subversion, maho cults, and treachery because the other clans hadn’t even been able to manage their internal security, much less defend the wall – were inching towards the idea of a death-or-glory strike against – well – pretty much everybody else. After all, if the center of the empire had fallen to treachery, their long defense had been in vain. They were even making sure that the peasantry was all armed and at least somewhat trained; if the Empire was coming apart at the scenes, next years harvest was irrelevant. There were some plans to get the noncombatants out – but, as might be expected, they were something of an afterthought.
Maybe there was just something that had gotten a little bit off-kilter in a philosophy of life that saw “Everybody Dies!” as a good ending?
Well, if they could just manage to hold that off for a few months, there would be other things for the Crab to worry about. It wasn’t an entirely invalid worry, so they couldn’t just try to prove it wrong or oppose rumor with rumor – but if they could reduce other worries a bit, maybe they could delay things for awhile, which might be good enough. So; the usual worries for the Crab were food, military supplies, taint, reinforcements, jade, and the integrity of the wall. They were being harassed by goblin raiders, a magical attack group which kept using firebolts to blow holes in the wall to let the goblins in (now who could that be, hmm?), infiltrators, and maho cultists.
Well, food, military supplies, and jade they could manage. They could try to deflate the rumors a bit – hopefully down to a realistic assessment – even if they couldn’t outright deny them. There were already reinforcements from the Crane on hand, if the Crab could only be persuaded to fully trust them, they could try to patch some holes in the wall – or at least try to dissuade the enemy from making so many. Infiltrators and Maho Cultists were a constant problem, but that had been true for centuries.
Well, they should be able to rachet down the urgency level. Okari went to work on supplies, Najite on rumors, Kochige (with the Nezumi) on the goblins and the wall, Michio on the more dangerous commanders, and Ninsei on goblin encampments. Of course, that left Tobei and Hazuki to run Toshi Ranbo, Shosuro wandering around on her own (she could certainly take care of herself, but who knew what she’d get up to?), Shigure still trying to raise a rebellion in Hell, Alex warping space and time to arrange favors for himself, the Demon Ninja Cats trying to become part of the Imperial Household, the Asura raiding the Shadowlands, the Devas hunting for Rakasha, a small army of assassins and Shigure’s Yodatai “cousins” in Toshi Ranbo, Kochige’s son and his Madness Tattoos, Ninsei’s spirit-bonded siblings, and the Imperial Princesses. Who knew what they might get up to?
And those was just the sources of chaos which were nominally on their side. At least they could probably count several of the Nightmares, “Evil” Ninsei, the Yobanjin, and a variety of others in the “Neutral” column.
That notion got a little more reinforcement after an encounter or two with the Goblins: it seemed that some of them were being used as messengers on the side – and Evil Ninsei wanted some information. He wanted to know what Shigure was up to in Jigoku – and was willing to trade a bit of pulling back on the attacks in exchange for a little information. Well, if Fu Leng had wanted Evil Ninsei to know, he could presumably have told him – so giving out that information was presumably not to Fu Lengs advantage. Ergo, no reason not to do so. One deal there.
The Goblins mostly just wanted to hide. Oddly enough, that opened up a possibility. OK, they were tainted little monsters – but if they helped the Goblins hide, there wouldn’t be any swarm of disposable troops for Fu Leng to swamp the defenses with – and without Fu Leng or some other competent leader behind them, the Goblins wouldn’t be much of a menace. There was plenty of space towards the ends of the wall – but explaining that they’d intentionally let Goblins into the Empire would be pretty close to impossible. It would be best if no one ever knew – so Kochige kept the arrangements between himself and Ninsei as much as possible.
Meanwhile, even with the Nezumi to help with the scouting, Michio was finding it difficult: there just seemed to be no end of reasonably competent subcommanders, even if none of them were good enough in a fight to make it interesting. There wasn’t any progress – and it seemed like there should be more important things to be doing.
They decided that it would be best to settle for what they had – which should be at least a month or twos delay in the Crab rush towards apocalypse – and to get out before they had to answer too many questions.
That left the Unicorn – and the armies were already gathering. It would be a couple of weeks before they were ready to march, but time was getting very short.