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?