Prelude to Darkness, Part Three: The Gaijin
By Rich Wulf & Shawn Carman
Rokugan, the year 442
The screams of the dying filled the air. Explosions rocked the ship on all sides, casting up huge waves that washed across the deck. The explosions had been confusing at first. The Rokugani didn't have any cannons, after all. A quick assessment of the bay had shown the truth of the matter: some of the fleet's smaller vessels had apparently been captured by the enemy and were being used as battering rams. The fools couldn't even fathom how to operate the cannons, it seems, so they just smashed their ships into other, larger targets. The explosions were from the panicked crew of other ships trying to destroy the captured ships. They were doing more harm than good, the fools.
At the stern of the Revenant, flagship of the gaijin fleet, the captain watched the battle with a dead expression. A thin cigarette dangled from one lip, trailing a plume of smoke to match the ships that burned in Golden Sun Bay. A young crewman scrambled across the deck to grab the captain by his lapels. His face was bloodied from a scalp wound that was flowing freely. "Captain Garen!" he shouted over the din. "They won't stop! We fire volley after volley and they just keep coming, no matter how many we kill! They're demons, Captain! We were fools to come back! The Mantis lied to us! We have to escape! We have to. . . " The young sailor's frantic shouts died away. With an irritated grunt, Garen pressed his foot against the man's abdomen and drew his cutlass from his stomach.
Shoving the corpse to the deck, Garen glared at his remaining crewmen. They stared at him in shock and terror. "And more of the same to any man who questions my orders!" he hissed in rage. "They're not devils! They die just like any other man!" His crew, emotionally shaken by the Rokugani's sudden attack and desperate for any emotional anchor, responded. They shouted angrily, cursing the Rokugani, redoubling their efforts at the cannons. Garen grinned wickedly. If he could keep them angry, then they had a chance. If they panicked, they would drown in this wretched bay, far from home and surrounded by dull-witted savages.
It occurred to Garen that his mother once told him he'd die like this - far from home with some foreign devil's blade in his chest. Even under the circumstances, the thought made him laugh. He'd proven that old bag wrong about everything else, so why not once more? Garen scooped up a musket from the dead sailor at his feet and leapt to the edge of the ship. He quickly found a samurai in his sights Ð a tall woman wearing robes of gold and green.
The Empress? The fool was directing her army personally?
With a satisfied grunt, Garen pulled the trigger.
The Empress' head vanished in a thin red mist. Garen smiled, chewed his thin cigarette, and reloaded.
* * * * *
Hours later, the sun was setting in the west, casting a hellish hue over the bay. Smoke was everywhere. The intermittent screams and explosions, while less frequent, were no less horrible. The fleet had dwindled to a mere handful of ships, and many of those had sustained damage such that they would be gone in mere hours.
"Ironic, this," Garen whispered to himself. "We only came back for supplies. If our fleet had been this small to start, we wouldn't have needed them."
Well there was no sense in fighting it out any longer. A lifetime of sailing and piracy taught Garen to know when he was beaten. Now was the time to cut his losses and make for the open sea. The command died on his lips when he saw the mouth of the bay. Snatching a spyglass from his navigator, he saw that a large number of small ships the Rokugani called kobune had arrived to block the exit, leaving the remnants of the fleet trapped. Garen's ships continued their merciless barrage of cannon fire, but ammunition was dangerously low and the samurai never stopped their endless onslaught of archery fire and the strange magic of their shugenja.
Garen quaked with outrage. He searched the ships for any sign of the general. His spyglass picked out the banner of a samurai he recognized: Ikoma Genmuro, an old bushi Garen had met in the Empress' court. The old man had always pestered Garen for tales of his exploits at sea. At the time, he had thought Genmuro a senile, doddering old man eager for attention, and had been happy to oblige. Now, of course, it was obvious that he had been planning for just such an event. Genmuro had neatly countered every one of Garen's plans, all of his tactics and maneuvers. Well out of firing range on the high cliffs of White Stag he calmly and quickly signaled his men with those strange fans of his, maneuvering them in response to Garen's every move.
Garen leapt up to stand on the edge of his ship's hull. "I'll make you pay, old man!" he screamed across the bay, using the Rokugani language. "I'll tear your Empire apart!" Almost immediately, arrows began raining upon the Revenant. He heard the choking death of one of his men from behind him as the arrow lodged deep in his chest. Garen did not flinch or turn aside. By all rights he should have taken cover, but his rage was too great even to care for his own life.
"You call yourself honorable?" he shouted, though the Ikoma certainly could not hear him. "Where is your honor now? Murderers!" With a negligent slap, he knocked an arrow from the air with the barrel of his musket. "I'll see you and all of yours burn!"
Garen's first mate tackled him from behind as another volley of arrows landed, streaking through the place where the captain had been standing a moment before. He mumbled his thanks to the first mate, but heard only a gurgled reply in return. An arrow was lodged in the man's throat. His eyes were stared blankly into Garen's as he died.
"Make ready!" Garen shouted, scrambling to his feet but keeping low against the rail of the ship. "Prepare to run the blockade!"
"Aye, captain!" came the reply from his helmsman. They knew as he did that the small ships blockading them bore no cannons or muskets. It would be a risk, for they might have some of their wizard-priests among them on the boats, but it was suicide to remain in the bay. Garen knew he should have taken a few mystics of his own along on this journey, but he had never trusted magic. He could hear his mother laughing at him.
Signaling the other remaining ships, the Revenant turned about and raced toward the kobune with all the speed it could muster. The sudden shift in the rolling waves told him that there were indeed shugenja present turning the very tides against them. It mattered little, however; while the magically created waves might have easily destroyed a kobune, Garen's vessel was far too large and too well crafted to be harmed by such effects. The ship's prow sliced the wave neatly in two and then smashed its way through the much smaller vessels, bisecting one and capsizing two others. Garen saw two other ships slowly sinking into the bay, their hulls shattered on the treacherous rocks or punctured by the kobune. Garen ignored the screams of his dying comrades. Only escape mattered.
As the fleet escaped into the open sea he turned and looked back to see how many had survived. Nine ships followed the Revenant now.
No. Escape no longer mattered.
Nine. Out of forty.
"Hard to starboard!" Garen snarled to the helmsman. "Turn south! South!"
"Captain," the helmsman protested, "the others are returning home, to the north! Don't you mean. . . "
"I said south!" screamed Garen, striking the man hard in the jaw. The helmsman staggered backwards and Garen took the wheel. The rest of the crew scrambled to make the adjustments needed for such a sudden change of course, as he knew they would. The great ship turned toward the south just as the rest of the fleet struggled through the blockade and tacked into the wind to flee northwards. The Eternal, a galleon nearly as large and impressive as Garen's, noticed the Revenant's change of course and veered south to follow.
With the wind at their backs, the massive sails of Garen's ship billowed out and propelled the ship south at great speeds. Soon, there was no sign of their pursuers. It was as if they did not even attempt to follow them. They would regret that decision soon enough.
"We are going to travel far to the south," Garen shared with his men, "and find a the home of the Mantis Clan." His features twisted into a cold, merciless grin. "There, we will find a village or two, and we will take revenge for our dead mates!" A murmur of assent rippled through the crew, and Garen saw more than one of his men adopt a mad grin that mirrored his own. There was no turning back now.
* * * * *
Never had such a storm existed.
At first, Garen had thought little of the darkening clouds to the south. He had seen countless storms in his years on the sea, and it took a great deal more than a stiff wind to impress him. If he had known those few hours ago what he would be experiencing, he would have abandoned his quest for vengeance without hesitation.
Garen knew that it was day, yet the skies were as black as midnight. The waves here were gigantic, smashing the ship from swell to swell like a child's toy afloat in a puddle. One of the waves looked almost like a great toothy maw. He had not seen the Eternal in over three hours. And at times, he thought he saw. . . things moving in the water. He could never see them for more than a second, but the shapes filled him with a wretched, irrational fear. He could never show fear now. His men were close to panic as it was. If he showed even a moment of doubt, they would break. Another scream came from the deck behind him. Garen turned to chastise his men yet again for their cowardice and stopped dead in his tracks.
A great rotting tentacle, several times larger around than the largest of Garen's crew, had snaked over the edge of the ship. It flailed about blindly slapping against several of the crew in its violent spasm. Where it touched the flesh of the sailors, their skin smoked and dissolved like paper in water.
Instinct took over. Garen unsheathed his cutlass and leapt down to the lower deck. He deftly sidestepped the flailing tentacle while hacking away at it with his blade. Little by little, he carved great steaming chunks from the rotten mass until it finally withdrew, leaving behind a smoldering ruin of liquid flesh and rotten meat.
"You see?" Garen shouted, his voice strangely shrill in his own ears. "Only some sea beast, nothing more!" It was then that he first heard the scrabbling sound. It was a faint sound, one that should by rights be drowned out over the howling wind. In a moment of horror, Garen realized that there were things scaling the hull.
Finally, Garen's mind snapped. He ran around the deck, screaming at the things he could not see to face him. He lashed out blindly with his cutlass slicing through anything in his path. As he ran to the rail, the sight that greeted him chilled even his black heart.
As far as the eye could see the ocean was covered with a mass of floating skulls. A wall of grey-green fog rolled through the storm toward them. In its depths, Garen could see enormous pitch-black eyes.
"You called to us and we have come," the wind howled in Garen's ears. "We will give you your revenge. . . "
This may not be home, but Garen knew a demon when he saw one.
"No!" Garen screamed. "Not like this!"
The Sea of Shadows swallowed the Revenant, and Captain Garen's screams echoed across the foul, bilious waves.
* * * * *
Rokugan, the year 1156
Nothing brightened Garen's mood quite like the sickening crunch of an oni's carapace shattering against the blackened hull of his ship. The Revenant had survived over seven centuries of never-ending warfare on the Sea of Shadows, and still those pathetic creatures thought they could punch holes in it.
Not that he blamed them for their violent impulses, of course. He had the same urges himself whenever something stood in his path. He smiled at the thought, although few would recognize his expression as a smile. His dead flesh had long ago dried and cracked in the filthy sea air, leaving little more than a leathery skull in its place.
Garen strode proudly across the deck. His movements were those of a strong, healthy man though his withered and emaciated form creaked terribly with every motion. His crew, shambling mounds of rotten flesh one and all, went about their tasks with little or no indication that they saw him. The undead never argued once you showed them who was in control. It was a flawless system. It almost made Garen appreciate his fate.
A dreadful screaming sound came from the mast above. Garen glanced casually up to see the once-human animal trapped in its cage where the crow's nest had once been. The living made better lookouts than the undead; their vision was sharper. Still, this one seemed agitated. Garen wondered if someone had forgotten to feed this one, or if the Taint had already robbed it of its mind.
"No," Garen whispered to himself. "It sees something. . . "
The lookout was screaming and pointing to the north. Garen strode to the side of the ship and looked out over the greasy black water. There, on the horizon, a man was crossing the sea. He moved at a normal walking pace, and with each step, Tainted beasts rose from the water to allow him to walk upon their backs. As he passed, they disappeared once more. Even at this distance, the man's bright red kimono gave him away.
For the first time in centuries, Garen felt what might be genuine happiness. He waited patiently until the man arrived, rising gracefully over the bow of the ship and stepping easily onto the deck, carried by the power of swirling, half-seen spirits. He bowed from the waist and studied the captain cautiously from behind his bone-white mask.
"Greetings, Lord Daigotsu." Garen said, returning the bow.
"Greetings, Captain Garen," the Lord of the Shadowlands replied amiably. "As always, it is a joy to behold your magnificent vessel."
"The Revenant is rarely host to such a prestigious guest," Garen added politely. He had not spoken to another intelligent being in nearly a year, and he found the strange tsukai's presence oddly comforting.
"It is a magnificent creation," Daigotsu continued, gently touching the rail with one hand. "Seven hundred years upon the sea, and still it retains the strength it possessed when it first entered the Sea of Shadows."
"No," Garen insisted. "It is stronger. The Eternal, as well." He gestured to the port side where the second vessel sailed alongside them. Its hull was now a bleached white, like exposed bone.
"Yes," Daigotsu agreed. "It is strange that so many have ignored the strength of your forces for so many years, Garen. It seems that even in the Shadowlands prejudice against outlanders is a recurring theme. I hope that we can correct that oversight. . . " His eyes narrowed sharply. "That is, assuming that you have done as I asked."
"I have indeed, Daigotsu," Garen's skeletal face twisted again into its foul mockery of a grin. "For over a year I scoured the coasts in search of it. At last, I found it hidden in a collapsed shrine, beneath a rice field in the Crane lands. The foolish villagers there had wondered what brought so much sickness to their lands. I ended their suffering."
Daigotsu raised an eyebrow. "You destroyed the village?"
"Of course. But only after I took all the villagers. They are below in the hold. The governor sits in the crow's nest. I will use them for ammunition when the great cannons are needed again." The captain gestured at the great black cannons that ridged the edge of the decks. They, too, had been changed by their time in the Shadowlands. Their clawed feet gouged the deck of the ship at the prospect of being fed once more.
Daigotsu frowned. "Your eccentricities are no concern of mine," he said. "Do with them as your conscience demands. Where is my package?"
"Right here," Garen said. The first mate appeared at Garen's side, offering a black silken bundle. Daigotsu accepted it reverently.
"What is this it is wrapped in?" Daigotsu asked, touching the corner of the bundle. "Leather?"
"Sort of," Garen said with a chuckle.
"You gaijin," Daigotsu laughed in reply. "Your sense of humor is so intriguing." The Dark Lord's nimble fingers quickly unwrapped the tanned hide that concealed the object within. Releasing the wrapping, Daigotsu lifted the item to study it carefully in the sunlight. He grasped a porcelain mask between his fingers, so thin that the light shone through it.
"This is it," Daigotsu said, voice choked with emotion. "You have found it!"
"Wasn't easy," Garen said. "Why go to all the trouble, though. You already have a mask."
"Not like this one," Daigotsu said, wrapping the mask carefully and tucking it under one arm. A broad smile spread across his think face.
"I hope I've proved my worth to you, Daigotsu."
"Oh yes, Garen," Daigotsu said. "More than you know."
"Then let us talk of what you will give me in return. . . "
* * * * *
Rokugan, the present day
"Vengeance. After so long, finally. . . vengeance." Garen turned to the Tsuno standing on the deck beside him.
The Tsuno looked at him, snorted, and looked away again.
Strange creatures, Tsuno. Garen didn't understand them. They seemed rather full of themselves, but were all too willing to hop and fetch when Daigotsu asked.
"I understand you have a matter of vengeance to settle yourself, Takuma?" Garen said. "You're not too fond of the Lion Clan, I hear."
The beast him snarled, saliva dripping from its enormous fangs. "The affairs of the Tsuno are no concern of yours, corpse," it snapped.
"Oh, come now!" the undead captain reached up to clap the Tsuno on its broad shoulder plates. The beast recoiled from his touch. "That's no way for crewmates to talk! You have much to learn of the sea."
A menacing growl emanated from the hulking monstrosity. "If you touch me again, filth," Takuma hissed, "I will kill you."
"As you are so fond of pointing out, I am already dead." Garen said.
The Tsuno leaned closer, red eyes glinting. "Then I will tear you apart and devour you," it said, "and we shall see how arrogant you are then."
"Ah," Garen said. He was quiet for several moments, watching the sea rise and fall. "Tell, me, Takuma," he said suddenly. "Are Tsuno good swimmers?"
"Is that a threat?"
"An ultimatum," Garen said. "If you want a ride to Otosan Uchi, I suggest you be more respectful. Otherwise, you can swim there."
With a snarl of rage, the Tsuno stalked across the deck, smashing aside one of Garen's lumbering crewman along the way. The ancient sailor crumpled in a heap of twitching limbs. Garen frowned. He had already lost half a dozen of his men to those meddlesome beasts. At this rate, he would have to put into port in the Mantis Isles and conscript some new crewmen if he hoped to reach Otosan Uchi.
* * * * *
Some weeks later. . .
Garen lounged idly against the rail as his fleet sailed slowly north. Six other ships now accompanied the Eternal and the Revenant. These had built since the undead captain had joined forces with Daigotsu. None were quite as good as the two originals, of course, but the builders were only Rokugani so he really couldn't blame them. The captain looked up at the cliffs as they sailed slowly past. At the top of those cliffs, he knew, was the home of the Doji family. Their homes, it was said, were rich beyond all imagination. Perhaps on the way back from Otosan Uchi he would pay them a visit. . .
A sudden cold sensation raced across Garen's body, causing him to jerk upright from his slackened posture. This was a sensation he knew well, but not one he should have experienced this far north of the Sea of Shadows. There was something dead here, something that had once been human.
Focusing his energy, Garen reached out with his mind, searching for the presence he sensed. There, hovering just at the edge of existence, he felt several beings lingering. They seemed to be ghosts of some sort. After seven centuries, Garen had learned to harness the dark energies that animated his body; there were few dead spirits that could defy him. Summoning all of his force of will, he commanded the spirits to manifest before him.
Several vague outlines appeared, indistinguishable at first, but then growing more and more detailed. Finally, the hazy images of half a dozen tattered samurai stood before him. Just beyond the rail of the Revenant, a large phantom kobune bobbed in the waves.
"Who summons us?" demanded one of them.
"I am Garen, captain of the Revenant, commander of the navy of the Shadowlands," he answered in a stern voice. "What links you to this realm?"
"Failure," hissed one of them, reaching plaintively for the captain. "We are trapped in the realm of mortals, bound here by our greed." When one stopped speaking, another would resume as if they had been the speaker the entire time.
"And what binds you here?" Garen asked.
"A sword," the ghosts said, "and a curse."
A thousand possibilities came to Garen's mind at once. Spirits such as these were deadly in combat. If he could bind them to his will, even for a short time, his vengeance would be so much sweeter. "If you aid me in my quest, I will help you break your curse."
The spirits remained motionless for several minutes before one responded. "We accept your offer. Your vengeance shall be ours, and our vengeance shall be unspeakable."
Garen grinned yet again. This was certainly a fortuitous turn of events. Now he would have the crew he required to operate at full efficiency during the attack on Otosan Uchi.
The irony that the ghosts were Mantis was just a bonus. . .
* * * * *
A few miles away, on a cliff overlooking the sea, a young samurai maiden gazed out over the endless waves. At her side stood a strange figure wrapped from head to foot in heavy silk robes. Every so often, a strange clicking sound came from within its hood.
"So you see, now," he said in his strange, high-pitched voice. "You see what you stand against."
"Yes, master," the woman said, her hand resting on the hilt of her blade. Her eyes were fixed with determination. "I am ready."
"No," the sensei replied, shaking its head. "You only know who you fight against. You do not know why. . . "
"Is that important?" she asked. "Is not the fact that they threaten my lord and cousin enough?"
"You must always know 'why,' little sparrow," the sensei replied. "Otherwise, all we do is meaningless. Now come. There is little time. . . "