The Power of Jade
By Matt Dalen
As Kaiu Yumi released the catapult's bindings, Tamori Shosei watched in silence as the fiery green ball of naphtha and jade powder arced over the wall and into the center of the group of bakemono attacking the encampment. The fire splashed, covering the bakemono with jade. Their screams pierced the air as they succumbed to the combination of fire and jade.
"It worked." Shosei exhaled in relief. "We did it."
"Congratulations, Shosei-san. You may have found a way to extend our supplies of jade for weeks, if not months. Let's just hope that this new technique of yours works on Oni and the Lost, as well." The grizzled engineer began ordering crews to wind back the catapault.
"It should. The basic idea is the same - we may just need to increase the concentration of jade powder dissolved in the naphtha. The only hard part is the spells needed to keep the jade from losing cohesion due to the fire. You see…"
Yumi held up a hand, cutting him off. "You're the shugenja, I'm just an engineer. You concentrate on getting the jade fire to work, and I'll concentrate on getting it to the enemy."
Shosei smiled. "Sorry, my lecturing tendencies are taking over. Well, I should get back to the Kuni barracks, and report on the success of the test." He turned around and walked back into the camp.
As he walked into the Kuni barracks, Shosei was accosted by a young shugenja. "Shosei-san, Michinori-sama wishes to see you at once."
"I'm on my way." Shosei headed for the office of Kuni Michinori, commander of the shugenja in the encampment, both the Crab and the visiting members of other clans, such as himself. In the office with Kuni Michinori were two people Shosei didn't recognize, although both wore the colors of the Hida.
The commander turned to the young alchemist. "Shosei-kun, these are Hida Okami, a leading member of the diplomatic corps, and Hida Keitko, one of the Crab's top commanders. They would like your cooperation in a project they are working on. I'll let Okami-sama tell you about it."
The burly diplomat stepped forward. "We are trying to create a cross-clan group of samurai and shugenja, whose sole purpose is to fight the Shadowlands. It is called the Legion of the Jade Hand. We have already enlisted the aid of some, but we need more shugenja. You are well known for your innovative ideas in combining traditional warfare, alchemy, and magic, and for your hatred of the Shadowlands. We believe that you would be a boon to the Legion."
Shosei was quiet for a few seconds. "I would be honored to join such a noble cause. I am merely a humble alchemist, but I have dedicated my life to eradicating the taint."
"Excellent. Report back here tomorrow morning, and we will travel to the headquarters of the Jade Hand. We have a few other potential members to pick up."
Shosei bowed, and left the tent. He was surprised by the fact that they had singled him out, although not by their reasoning. His hatred of the Shadowlands was well-known throughout the camp - Shosei's father had been taken by the Shadowlands. He had lasted long enough to take his own life, but the Oni who had tainted him had managed to get away, with its summoner. This was why, after his training in magic and alchemy was complete, Shosei had traveled to the Kaiu Wall, to learn with the Kuni.
* * *
The next day, they left for the headquarters of the Jade Hand. Over the next several months, Shosei and the others spent every day training for combat against the Shadowlands. They drilled in stealth missions, as well as out and out combat and anti-siege techniques. The Unicorn members taught most people how to ride horses, which the Legion had managed to obtain from the Moto. The Crane duelists helped members to improve their skills with the katana, and the Crabs taught anti-Shadowlands techniques and siege warfare. Shosei himself was kept busy working with the shugenja, developing new anti-Shadowlands techniques using jade powder.
After three weeks, Hida Keitko called some of the members together. "We have received word from our contacts in the Nezumi that Daigotsu may be massing for an offensive, gathering troops at Kaiu Kabe. It has been decided that this would be a good first mission for the Legion. Our job is purely reconnaissance. We are to cross the wall through the passages which the Kaiu know, discover exactly how many troops and oni Daigotsu has gathered there, and return. If all goes well, we won't be discovered. We're only sending five in, so that there's less of a chance of discovery. If you are discovered, we need at least one of you to get back alive and untainted."
He gestured to the map. "You will be entering the passages here, and traveling to what used to be a sentry tower, here. From what we can see, this sentry tower is lightly defended by some of the Lost, and maybe a few bakemono. Take out whatever sentries they have there without setting off an alarm, and then work from there. Discover exactly how many oni there are in this section of the wall, as well as approximate amounts of the Lost, bakemono, and undead. If you see someone you know, either in the Lost or the undead, don't let it distract you. They're the enemy now. I'll let you plan the expedition now."
After a few days of final planning, the group was ready to leave. The team consisted of a scout, Hiruma Masu; two Crane duelists for fighting, Kakita Tomoe and Kakita Rei; a Kaiu engineer to deal with the tunnels, Kaiu Hideaki; and Shosei as magical support. They met at dusk, in the woods outside the entrance to the tunnel. The tunnel itself ended on the outside of the foundation of a barn just inside Shadowlands-controlled land.
Hiruma Masu gave a grim smile. "We're lucky - it looks like they haven't discovered the tunnel yet. There are few sentries out this far." He motioned the engineer forward. "The sentries won't be by again for another three minutes. Is that long enough to open the entrance?"
"I'll have it open in thirty seconds, if it hasn't rusted. If it has, give me a minute."
"Then let's go." He waved the group forward, and spoke to the two Crane. "Tomoe, Rei, be on guard, in case the sentry comes back. Shosei, have a jade strike ready. Go!"
The group dashed forward in unison. Hideaki immediately started feeling around the rocky foundation for a latch. Within a minute, a small door silently opened. "Perfect. No rust, and it doesn't look like anyone's been here for months - the dust hasn't been disturbed." The small man smiled.
Masu grinned back. "Good. Tomoe, you've got point. Rei, cover our rear. Everyone, inside, now." The Crane duelists moved quickly, and within seconds, the group was inside the tunnel, and Hideaki had the tunnel door closed. Shosei raised a small glass ball, which began to glow with a faint yellow light.
The tunnel extended down for about 3 meters, and then straightened out into a long, flat path, barely high enough for a man to stand. The walls were old, but not yet crumbling. Obviously it had been well cared for up until a few months ago. The floor was also stone, but with a thin layer of dust that gave no evidence of intrusion. The only sound emanating from the opening was the occasional scrabbling of a rodent moving. Along the walls, at periodic intervals, were empty torch brackets, presumably there if a large-scale exodus was required.
The party moved along the tunnel for what seemed like days, but was more likely less than three hours. The silence was deafening. The air smelled stale, like one of the deeper caves that Shosei had explored as a child. Finally, they came to a steep, narrow staircase that made a left turn about ten feet in, leading up to the top of the watchtower. . Masu turned to Hideaki. "Is there a peephole at the top?" he whispered.
Hideaki nodded. "But the latch is a little complicated. I should come with you."
"Very well. The rest of you, stay here." Masu and Hideaki quietly moved up the stairs. After about fifteen minutes, Masu returned. "Ok, here's what we're going to do. Shosei, do you have that jade mist spell ready?"
"Got it. It'll knock out anything tainted that breathes it."
"Ok, everyone, come with me. The watch just changed, so we should have the time we need. We have maybe a half-hour to dawn, an hour at most, so we must hurry. Tomoe and Rei, you're at the back, but be ready to fight. We're dealing with two of the Lost - it looks like a Mirumoto and an Akodo. If Shosei can't knock them out, be ready to duel. Tomoe, you take the Mirumoto, Rei, take the Akodo. We have the element of surprise, and we don't want them getting out the alarm." The group moved single file up the narrow stairs to the secret door. Shosei reached into his spell pouch and pulled out one of the scrolls, and started muttering under his breath. Sweat beaded at his brow as he concentrated on casting the spell. Then Hideaki opened the door.
* * *
The door swung open quickly and near-silently. The Lost barely had time to react before a cloud of magically enhanced jade dust billowed into their faces. The Lion collapsed in a fit of coughing, and fell silent. The former Dragon was a bit quicker to react - he fell to the floor and rolled to the far side of the room, coming up with both swords drawn. Shosei's breath caught in his throat. If he chose to call for help... The fallen Dragon's face was showing the effects of the jade he had inhaled, but he remained standing. Rei and Tomoe drew their katanas, and advanced on him.
"So this is the vaunted honor of the Crane? Two healthy duelists against one wounded sentry? I challenge you to face me one at a time, dogs!" He spat on the ground in front of Rei. Shosei breathed a sigh of relief. If the Crane duelists could take him out, they were safe.
"Very well, I accept your challenge," Rei whispered as Tomoe stepped back. "Although you may have forsaken Rokugan, you are a samurai, and therefore deserving of an honorable death." Lightning-fast, her katana sliced through the air, only to be blocked by his wakizashi as his katana arced towards her side. She quickly stepped out of range and countered, scratching the arm holding the wakizashi. The fallen samurai pivoted, and his katana came down in an overhead slash, biting deeply into Rei's left shoulder. Her arm hung limply. Fighting with one hand and bleeding heavily, Rei twisted, wrenching the katana into her own bone, as she brought her katana around at the samurai's side. Thrown off balance by the unexpected force on his katana, the fallen samurai was unable to parry in time. The sword sliced into his side, and he fell to one knee. Blood flecked with black sprayed onto the wall of the small room. Rei pulled back her sword and lunged, thrusting her sword directly into his chest. As she did so, the fallen samurai stabbed upwards with his wakizashi, burying it in her throat. They both collapsed to the floor.
Tomoe rushed forward and checked Rei's pulse. She looked up at Masu. "She's dead," she whispered. "They both are."
Masu nodded somberly. "Very well. She died an honorable death. We're lucky that the samurai chose to fight honorably, rather than sound the alarm. We should make sure that she does not rise again to fight us, though. Behead her. I will not allow her to become undead." He spoke the words defiantly.
Shosei walked over to the former Mirumoto samurai and looked down. There was a silent rage in his eyes as he spoke. "This man is too young to have been corrupted at Oblivion's Gate. He must have chosen this path willingly. I spit on traitors such as him, who dishonor my clan so. I swear, I will not rest until the threat of the Shadowlands is destroyed."
Masu placed a hand on the alchemist's shoulder. "Remember our duty. We are here to observe only, not to pick fights. These two were necessary - we needed to secure the watchtower. Hopefully, we can get all of the information we need by observing the camp from the tower. We chose this time so that we could observe both during night and day. As of now, Shosei, refrain from using magic unless it's strictly necessary - we don't want to attract undue attention. Tomoe, you guard the entrance to the watchtower. Our sources say that they use six-hour shifts, but we don't want to be interrupted. Hideaki, return to the tunnel and observe us. If anything goes wrong, it's your job to get back to the camp with what we've learned so far. Shosei, be ready with your jade. I'll start observing. Everyone got that?" There was a chorus of nods. "Then let's go!"
While the remaining members of the team moved to their assigned positions, Masu started assembling a strange looking instrument from his pack. A strip of hard leather was wrapped into a tube, and two strangely cut pieces of glass or crystal were fitted into the ends. He held it up to his eye, and started pointing it at the ground inside the Shadowlands camp.
Shosei looked on in surprise. "Is that a spyglass? I've heard of them, but never seen one. I didn't think the Unicorn gave them up lightly."
"They don't. I got this from a Moto back in camp - Maratai, I think her name was. She agreed to loan it to me for the duration of the mission, as long as I returned it in one piece. Now be quiet - I need to count." Masu continued to scan the camp, his lips occasionally moving as he tallied up buildings, weapons, and people.
Shosei rummaged around in his pack, looking for his alchemical weapons. Most were variations on the jade dust he had used on the two Lost, minus the magic. There was a small bottle of jade-infused naphtha, in case he needed to take out a large group quickly. At the very bottom of the pack, Shosei fished out some of his deadliest weapons - a bag of explosives - and began inspecting the bag and the explosives for signs of wear and tear. One hole could mean the difference between it exploding in your hands or where you wanted it to. Since Shosei had inspected the bag prior to leaving, everything was as it should be. He readied the explosives, just in case they were needed.
After a while, Masu looked up. The sun was still low on the horizon, but it was daylight. "Beware. We may have company. An undead warrior is coming towards the tower."
Tomoe moved to behind the door as Shosei readied a handful of jade powder. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, the door was pushed open, and a tall human figure stepped in. Flesh was sagging from its bones in an advanced state of decay, but seemed to be firm enough to support its frame. It may once have been a Mantis, or a Crab - the armor was too damaged to tell for sure.
Tomoe immediately jumped out and sliced for the creature's neck, but it
managed to block the katana with its arm, and let out a shout of surprise. Tomoe
quickly disabled it with three quick arcs of the katana, and the creature fell
to the ground.
Masu grabbed his pack and started moving towards the tunnel entrance. "Hurry, someone's sure to have heard that shout. Hideaki, open the door!"
Nothing happened for a few seconds, and then a section of the wall silently swung inward. They could hear a large amount of footsteps and shouting behind them. Masu entered first, followed by Shosei, with Tomoe taking up the rear. Hideaki moved to let them by, and then began shutting the door. As he did this, a group of bakemono burst into the outer room, just in time to see the wall close. Hideaki cursed. "They've seen the passage. This tunnel is now useless to us. We need to seal it."
"Let me handle it." Shosei began reaching for his explosives, but Hideaki moved to stop him.
"There's no need to do that - all of these tunnels are fitted with deadfalls. Crabs think ahead."
"But someone needs to be here to trigger the deadfall," Shosei countered. "I can set my explosives on a timed fuse, so that we can get out of here."
"Very well," Masu intervened. "But be quick. We'll go on ahead. Hideaki, you carry Rei's body."
Shosei pulled out his bag of explosives, and set to work laying them out along the sides of the tunnel and at the base of the stairs. He attached them all to a fuse which he ran further down the passageway, and lit. As he started heading up the tunnel, he heard a faint crash as the entrance to the tunnel was knocked down. He began running. As he counted to twenty, Shosei heard a sequence of loud explosions from behind him, and couldn't help but smile. No one was going to get through that tunnel for quite a while. The heat and dust from the explosions followed him down the tunnel, but he had left enough time to get clear.
He caught up to the group just inside the tunnel exit. Masu waved them to a halt. "We have to be careful here. We have no idea if the sentries are around. There should be a group of Unicorn heavy cavalry waiting for us, once we get far enough away. Everyone, be on your guard."
Hideaki operated the levers that opened the tunnel, and the dim light of dusk illuminated the black tunnel. Masu slowly moved out, motioning them to stay there until he had given the all clear. Within a few minutes he was back. He took the lead, waving to Tomoe to guard their back. The four moved slowly through the underbrush, alert for an ambush.
From behind them, Shosei heard a loud roar, and turned around just in time to see a large rock flying at him. It struck him in the shoulder, knocking him down. The last thing he felt was the pain his head hitting the ground, and then the world faded into blessed blackness.
* * *
Shosei opened his eyes groggily. Figures began to come into focus. He gradually became aware that someone was standing over him, looking away at someone outside his field of vision.
"He appears to be coming to. How do you feel?"
Shosei groaned. "My head feels awful." He blinked, and the figure addressing him came into focus. It was a shaven-headed monk.
The monk grinned. "That's normal - you had a pretty nasty fall. Happily, you're okay. Nothing a little bed rest won't fix. You're lucky that ogre was only throwing rocks. If he had been using arrows, you'd be tainted right now."
Shosei groaned again. "Where is everyone? Did we make it?"
"Hideaki, Masu, and Tomoe are fine. The cavalry arrived a few seconds after you got knocked out, and got you back here. You've only been unconscious for a few hours."
Another figure moved into his field of vision. It was Masu. "I'm glad you're all right. When you feel better, Hida Keitko-sama would like to debrief you. The mission was a success - we got all the information that we needed, and more than we expected. You should be happy. Congratulations on your first mission as a member of the Jade Hand."
Shosei smiled faintly, and closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep, content that he had done his job, and was now a useful member of the Jade Hand.
To be continued… or something.
Moto Maratai for proofreading and assistance in the final project
The entire Jade Hand list for being a generally great group.