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.