The Era of the Heavenly Empress

Into the Serpent's Maw

With war between the Scorpion/Phoenix alliance and the Lion/Mantis alliance successfully averted during Winter Court, representatives from several of the Clans were sent to the Mantis islands to help in the search for and defeat of The Serpent of the East. Having been the key figure in bringing peace between the Lion and the Unicorn, Akodo Sozen was given leadership of the main efforts. With him on the ships were Bayushi Tosen, Kakita Tiru, and Kitsu Kosho. Each of them brought several aides, and while some were left on the main Mantis Islands, most also set out to sea with the fleet of twenty ships provided to Sozen.

The general known as Akodo’s Hope set out a plan to split the fleet into four groups of five vessels each, with three of the groups taking out differing search patterns while the last remained at dock in reserve at Asano Kasia. While two of the fleets performed small, looping paths to the northeast and southeast, Sozen’s fleet, with Kosho named shoryoken of the five vessels, would take a longer, looping path to the far eastern islands of the Serpent’s Maw.

The first few landings were uneventful. An unnamed island little more than volcanos and blasted ash, with barely enough villagers to even count as having a population, spoke of seeing ships heading to the southeast during the night. The next island, Shiro Asahi, received the entire group with agreeable, if suspicious hospitality. Kitsu Kosho however was welcomed as the Savior of Stories, and it was through him that the investigators were able to learn more. The two huge warships that served to protect the island’s export of beiru flew Mantis colors, and the old samurai that served as goekon of the island also spoke of ships heading to the south east during the night. News of a few Tortoise ships, barely seen once or twice a year, was also presented, but regarded as not important.

The next landing was Habaihori-to, Broad Island, was more fruitful. Yoritomi Lin, a samurai of some forty years, received the group and apologized for the poor hospitality that she offered. She spoke of eight ships that had sailed to the east four nights before Sozen’s group had arrived, and it was then that Bayushi Tosen sent his ‘yojimbo’, the ninja Shoshuro Kia, to ask questions that Sozen and Kosho could not. As before, Koshi himself was hailed as the Savior of Stories, and when he spoke to the young daughter of Lin, she had a great deal to say. ‘The military strength and financial power’, she said, ‘of Broad Island was not so great they could afford to pick and choose who to provide supplies to’. Combined with the fact that Kia returned to tell Tosen that the underworld of the island was not a place one could get into without an invitation, resulted in Sozen deciding to return with the reserve fleet to blockade the island, and ensure that the eight ships could not resupply. Tosen himself left Kia, and also Kitsunejo and Kitsuneko at the island. With this done, the group set sail back to Asano Kasia.

Once there, Akodo Sozen waited for the other patrols to return. The first spoke of a collection of ronin, some fifteen or so, on Wolf Island. Supposedly they were quite desperate for work, and in a moment of inspiration, Sozen hired each of them, spreading them out across the various ships under his command, if only to ensure that the Serpent would not do the same! The second patrol to return however arrived in tatters, with only one badly damaged ship returning. The captain apologized to Sozen, telling that during their patrol, they had encountered no less then ten vessels blockading Other Castle Island. The island’s master, Tsuruchi Akinbo told them they were not allowed to land as their ships had been poisoned by Scorpions. When the patrol then attempted to turn back, eight of the ten blockade ships had attacked, powerful magics tearing into the Mantis ships and sinking four of the five. Strangely, the remaining two vessels turned on the first eight after the shugenja display! Acting immediately, Sozen seized two other vessels in port, including the capital ship belonging to Yoritomo Hanako, Kosho’s future wife, who agreed to accompany them to Other Castle Island.

It seemed that only four of the original ten ships remained, but they occupied the only entrance to the bay of the island, a narrow chokepoint. Even though Sozen’s fleet outnumbered them, the superior numbers could not be brought to bear! Thus, it was decided that two ships would circle the island, one east and one west, and that Akodo Sozen, Bayushi Tosen, Kakita Tiru, and Kitsu Kosho would climb the cliffs and move to the governer’s mansion from the rear, while the other ships blockaded the island, and kept other scouts on the move if more of the Serpent’s fleet approached. Hanako agreed, and said that she would ask the shugenja of their own fleet to collapse part of the cliff onto the four boats remaining in the bay, and while Sozen agreed, he asked that she remain in position unless they were attacked.

At the cliffs, the climb was difficult, and while a huge gust of wind pulled Sozen from the cliff, he would not permit his honor to suffer the stain of dying from a mere hundred foot fall onto crashing waves and stone. With his bare hands, he seemed to squeeze the rock in front of him until it gave way to his will, and his fall stopped. From there, he quickly joined the others at the top. There, his keen vision spotted a plum of smoke too thick and large to be from a village off in the forest to the east. Tosen suggested that they make their way there first instead of heading to the mansion.

As they got closer to the source of the smoke, Kosho noticed many footprints heading up through a concealed trail in the woods. Following the trail, it brought them to an ominous looking door with a strange set of symbols upon it. Upon realizing that the door was open, and that the symbols pertained to no Kami or Fortune in Rokugan, they proceeded inside to find a slaughterhouse. Just inside the entrance were three dead Mantis bushi, and a fourth dead man with a kama through his skull. The three Mantis all bore arrows, likely from the fourth’s tsuruchi longbow. The fourth also had a set of strange orange clothing, with symbols adorning it almost identical to the ones on the door outside. In a moment of realization, it dawned on them that they were in fact the exact same set, but arranged differently. Together, as on the fourth man’s clothing, the symbols were locked together, and arranging them as such on the stone door outside would likewise lock it. Open, as they were now, similarly opened the locking mechanism on the door. It was an incredibly complex design, worthy of the best Kaiu engineer; were it not for having both examples to work from, it would have been almost impossible to learn how to open and close the lock on their own.

Further in were more dead, and a library, containing histories of both the Unicorn families, and also the Yasuki family, once Crane, now Crab. There was also a map present that no one could identify, save Tiru, for he alone had been there; the Jewel, the greatest, most opulent city in all of the Burning Sands. In addition there was a map, written on paper so thin that it could be seen through. Both Sozen and Tosen recognized it as an overlay, meant to be put over another map, and it was decided that the overlay would be kept. While it was ‘known’ that the Mantis traded with the Burning Sands for luxuries that simply did not exist in Rokugan, to find so much information was unsettling, especially the map. Still further they descended down a pair of spiraling staircases deeper into the earth, finding several sleeping rooms in the traditional Rokugani style. But it was in an adjoining room to one of these chambers that they found the true horror that the cult lair contained, regardless of what was to come later.

In a room that stank of death and copper were maho scrolls, and many letters. One such letter stated that the greatest accomplishment ‘they’ could hope to have was to convince the Rokugani people that ‘she’ was one of their own. To make one of their own the most celebrated and divine people in all of the Empire. Meanwhile among the maho spells was one that could stop the divine Sun in his path for a full Rokugani hour. The implications were shocking, staining the honor of all those that discovered them; the Empress Hantei XL may have been placed by a group of conspirators from outside the Empire. The one soul who more than any was unquestionable in the Celestial Order may not have been descended from Heaven at all.

Immediately the group fell to talk. Tosen suggested that it was all too convenient that this spell had fallen into the group’s hand, especially with other letters suggesting that The Serpent of the East may not only have been Mantis, but may have been set upon by the same conspirators that built this place; that the Serpent in fact knew the truth all along! More than that, the fire had drawn them here easily enough, and to find nothing but slaughtered resistance? Sozen argued that as a Scorpion, Tosen would see secrets and trickery everywhere, even in the face of this, potentially the greatest secret and betrayal of them all! Kosho agreed that what they had found was dangerous, but it was too early to tell if it was true, and then Tiru suggested that discussing the conspiracy at what might well be the heart of it was a bad place to do see. The rest agreed, and they moved on to the final room, a grand circular chamber that seemed carved out of pure obsidian itself, shuttered with the same kind of intricate lock as the entrance to the lair itself.

In the very center of it lay a pile of bones, bleached pure white, a dead shugenja with great gouges along his arms laying upon it. The obsidian room was the scene of the greatest slaughter, a dozen slain men, some Mantis, others wearing clothing that bore the strange interlocking symbol seen on the doors. Sets of shackles on the wall seemed capable of holding twelve victims, and while no one spoke aloud of what that meant, they were all thinking of it; twelve Rokugani hours, twelve shackles, and the sun had ceased movement for a full day when the Empress had arrived…

Resolving that they would deal with this place later, and that they might need it intact to show others as proof, they closed the door behind them when they left, locking it into place. The moment it clicked shut, there was a vicious, inhuman howl from inside the room. The four bushi quickly threw open the door, only to see nothing, hear nothing. Closing and locking the door again brought forth the howl, and Tiru said what they were thinking; that whatever was in there, it must be dealt with. However, as the howl only sounded when the door locked, one of the four must remain outside to lock, and then unlock it, assuming the three inside could deal with the source of the soulless howl. After challenging their courage, and then their swordsmanship, it was decided that Kosho would stay outside, while Tiru, Tosen, and Sosen would enter the room.

As the three were locked in, the howl sounded again, but this time it was different…it was hungry, and it came from the center of the room, yet nothing could be seen. All three bushi were still, until Tiru quietly retrieved one of the many fallen kama that lay on the ground. After a glance to both Scorpion and Lion at his sides, he threw the kama at the peak of the bone pile, and watched it bounce off something invisible. All three waited, but there came no sound of movement…perhaps it was the most patient of predators? Regardless, Tiru reached down and took hold of the The Sword of Kalima where it rested in its sheath. As the other two samurai watched, Tiru took a single breath, held it, and then lashed out. A dark wind howled out, a faintly visible crescent wave lancing out at the spot where the kama had struck…revealing a monstrous abomination, a hungry spirit looking like a giant, twisted ant with a scorpion’s stinger; a gaki-mushi!

Yet this dangerous creature took only the first of Tiru’s cuts; the second all but causing it to explode into a burst of black gore and gristle. Calmly sheathing his blade, the Kenshinzen missed Tosen’s faint frown behind his mask; the Scorpion had taken note of the power displayed, and correctly guessed it belonged to the blade, not its wielder.

With the creature destroyed, the four emerged from the lair, only to find the mansion now flying the colors of Yoritomo Hanako. Despite Sozen’s orders not to attack, after crushing two of the ships blocking the harbor, she’d stormed the city and taken the mansion by force. Quickly making their way there, the four found that despite being outnumbered, the bushi in the city had fought to the death right up until their lord Tsuruchi Akinbo had surrendered. Hanako had denied him the right to commit seppuku until Sozen, the rightful commander of the fleet, had spoken to him. The Lion elected to have Tiru, Kosho, and Tosen with him as well, and all four listened to the disturbing tale that Akinbo wove.

He said that his reason for asking for seppuku was not that he had lost his island to invaders, but because he had failed the Empire for more than seventeen years. When questioned, he explained that his son had come to him a short time ago and confessed that he had been in league with forces practicing the forbidden art of Maho, and that he had allowed them access to the island for some time. Those present knew at once that the ‘access’ Akinbo’s son had spoken of had allowed for the construction of the vile underground chambers they had earlier found and explored. Before his son could speak further, he had begun to spasm and choked to death on his own blood. Sozen demanded a list of all those that his son may have spoken with, and to the group’s dismay, Akinbo provided a list of more than 120 Mantis vessels, from small fishing ships to military kobune’s. With the accompanying names also provided, Sozen allowed him the mercy of seppuku, before Tiru asked to speak with him outside the room. They were both joined by Kosho and Tosen after a moment, arriving in the middle of Tiru’s words.

The Crane samurai grimly asked Sozen which Clan would make the perfect target, the most necessary target, for a gajin invading force. The answer was obvious; the Mantis. Even if half the ships they had on the list were influenced by outsiders, or worse, maho, the clan might never recover. For the past three years, Tiru reminded the group, the Mantis had been humbled, embarrassed, and humiliated. Tosen recalled the almost half-dozen Mantis duelists he had personally bested and shamed in the tournament for the Empress, as well as the humiliating loss of face he’d help to deliver in the courts, with the help of Isawa Banasu’s damning information, of their failure to eliminate The Serpent of the East. Now it appeared as if, in the best case, the Mantis were being discredited in order to prepare for a future attack from outsiders. In the worst case, their fall was a mere smokescreen for the fact that the Empress herself may have not been divine at all! Such blasphemous thoughts could not help but stain the very soul of all those present, yet, how could they be denied?

It was then that Tosen revealed to Kosho and Sozen what Tiru had already known; that for some time now he had been gathering together a group to server the Empress in a way that no other could. To bring together one member of each Great Clan, to work together to ensure that the gathering could be powerful enough to challenge any foe, from without, or within. Originally, with Tosen having no love for the Mantis, had never planned to include them, but with the Mantis now targeted so viciously, he was grudgingly forced to admit they deserved a place within the group if gajin considered them so dangerous as to target them first! With so few to trust, Tosen and Kosho both agreed to join the group, with some reservations. The four discussed whom else might join, planning for the future, and Tiru suggested that each of them take one page from the eight page Maho spell that could hold in place Lord Sun, in order to be able to prove the truth of their word. When Sozen pointed out that carrying such a thing, let alone displaying it could result in their execution, Tosen countered that he was willing to die for this.

So it was that The Council of Thunders was formed, with the following membership; Akodo Sozen would speak for the Lion, Bayushi Tosen for the Scorpion, Kakita Tiru for the Crane, and Kitsu Kosho for the Mantis, once his marriage was complete. For the other members, Isawa Banasu would be contacted by Tosen to speak for the Phoenix, Moto Michimo was to be released, if Sozen could manage it, and speak for the Unicorn. Hida Maki, as a Jade Magistrate would lend the Council a good deal of credibility, and would also speak for the Crab. The group agreed to meet again to discuss who would speak for the Dragon, and Tosen also mentioned that the Council would have a Chair, if needed a rotating 9th member, able to break ties in the case of even support.

For now, the Council, such as it was, would pursue the The Serpent of the East in an effort to learn more of the conspiracy that had been uncovered. Their duty, once so clear, was now uncertain.

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