Chapter I, The Crab Tithe

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Chapter I, The Crab Tithe Empty Chapter I, The Crab Tithe

Post by Barbaros on 17/9/2018, 16:56

On the Imperial Road

Month of the Dragon
When the imperial roads are fit for travel, the tithed Samurai begin their march from their homes to the lands of the Crab. Soma has one heimin bodyservant to carry his armour and necessary equipment while Saoki is accompanied by the youth Shiba Tokiru – another tithed samurai - as her yojimbo on the journey. They walk the breadth of the Empire and see sights that they never expected to see. It’s true that each day they wake into a different world as the saying goes. The emperor’s roads are trod by many feet as tithed samurai and their servants travel to the lands of the Crab. Although each of them begins the journey with a group of his clanmates, soon the groups scatter and each of the heroes finds himself travelling among strangers. Few samurai are eager to reach the Kaiu Kabe quickly. Most tarry at road inns and teahouses or follow the imperial road in roundabout routes in order to experience some landmark or other, take care of business or visit distant friends or relatives. They meet all sorts of people and hear many stories on the road during the march, in the sake houses of villages and in the road houses where they sleep. Many are the samurai who shame themselves after one too many cups of sake. The prospect of five years on the wall, facing the Shadowlands, battling monsters and being a breath away from the Taint of the festering pit are enough to unman even proud bushi and wise shugenja. There’s even talk of defectors – spoken in hushed whispers - of samurai who abandon the march to the Crab lands and turn their backs to duty. Such tales are surely cautionary tales to fortify those whose courage teeters on the brink. After all, no samurai would shame himself and his family in such a manner.

Saoki and Lei Kung find themselves together at one stretch of the road. Ikoma Hoturi is a young samurai just past his gempukku and they’ve been travelling with him for the last two days. He is a silent lad and much troubled. He’s been listening to the stories about undead and oni and the taint of the Shadowlands told by other bushi and his struggle to rein in his fear is evident. At nights they’ve heard him cry but you’ve ignored him so as not to insult him. This day is cold and it rains heavily, turning the grassland on the sides of the road to mud and reducing visibility to twenty feet or so. Hoturi seems to stumble and Tokiru reaches out a hand to steady him. The youth shakes off the Shiba’s touch and the three samurai who are close enough hear him mumble,
“I can’t die there or be tainted and be forbidden to marry you Yuriko. I can’t, I can’t. I made you a promise that I will come back to you and I will, I will.”
Hoturi stops walking momentarily and then he steps off the road, into the mud. Saoki bids Tokiru to stop him and the Shiba youth goes after Hoturi to stop him. The Ikoma becomes angry and places his hand on his katana. Tokiru steps back and words are exchanged between them briefly. Then Hoturi stalks off and Tokiru returns to tell Saoki that he’s adamant on this course of action. Saoki goes after Hoturi herself and manages to convince him to not throw his honour away. Hoturi falls to his knees, crushed by the weight of his duty and of the dishonour that he so nearly brought upon himself, his family and his clan. Tokiru and Saoki helped the muddy Hoturi back to the road and on the march towards Kaiu Kabe. During these events the Dragon monk remained an impassive spectator. A few days later Hoturi left the company of the two Phoenix and sped up his march. Saoki would ask about the Ikoma Samurai at the roadhouses and at the border of the Crab lands to make sure that the young samurai remained on the road.

The Crab Lands

Month of the Serpent
When the three heroes enter the Crab lands, their papers are checked and they’re directed to stay on the road and head for Kyuden Hida. The relative starkness of the Crab lands are a sharp contrast with the rest of Rokugan. The sight of the Twilight Mountains also seems strange to those who are used to taller peaks and more rugged slopes. The Crab mountains are old and weathered but they still hold firm and secure the southern border of the Empire. When they reach Kyuden Hida, they see the greatest fortress of Rokugan only from afar and they head to the tent-city erected all around it. They join a line for examination by a magistrate. Crab magistrates check the papers and health of all tithed bushi to judge their suitability for service on the wall. By necessity, the examination is superficial and only ensures that no man of ill health, obvious disability or pronounced weakness of character is going to be assigned to front-line duty. All those deemed fit enough are assigned to an army and legion and are given a bone token.

Saoki loses several places on the line in order to get away from the disagreeable presence of a Scorpion samurai and ends up behind Lei Kung and before an impeccable Crane samurai. Most samurai get a cursory examination and are given their assignment but not so with Bayushi Soma. Just before it is his turn to appear before the magistrate, a Hida bushi and a plainly dressed samurai of small stature accost Soma from both sides. When it is Soma’s turn to appear before the magistrate, the small man introduces himself,“I am Yasuki Kuroda. A thousand pardons Bayushi-san but I must ask you to give me your travelling pack for examination. You see, we have found illegal goods carried by Ronin who masquerade as bushi of the Scorpion Clan. I have no doubt that I will find nothing but it is my duty to check.”
Soma surprises the Crab by cooperating fully with Kuroda’s request. Under the watchful gaze of the magistrate, Kuroda examines everything contained in the pack and goes as far as opening the tea set. He excuses himself by saying, “The sterling reputation of your Clan makes dishonourable dogs try to capitalize on it by disguising themselves as Scorpions.” Soma remains untouched b ythe subtle mockery and the insult of Kuroda and in the end he’s handed his pack back. The magistrate, Kaiu Riso, gets up, whispers a few words to his ashigaru aides and stands before Soma. The two ashigaru come bearing one yumi and arrow and a tetsubo and the magistrate asks Soma to choose a weapon. Soma chooses his katana and he’s instructed to draw it and assume a fighting stance and keep it as the magistrate scrutinizes his form and endurance. Soma asks whether this examination is going to end soon and the Hida bushi beside him tells him that on the wall the enemy won’t give him the luxury of attacking at a time of Soma’s choice. He must be able to endure fatigue and discomfort without losing his martial spirit. Soma endures the examination under the hot sun but some time after a mocking voice is heard from the line, “Scorpions can swim so why don’t you send him to Earthquake Fish Bay so that the line can move on?” The speaker is the Crane samurai behind Saoki and his wit draws chuckles from many of those who hear him. The magistrate thanks Soma, hands him a token and tells him where to report.

The Scorpion goes to a well to draw water and drink and watches the magistrate’s examination of the rest of those on the line. None receives the same treatment. Doji Kaetano demands an illustrious posting and the magistrate seemingly complies. The Dragon monk is asked whether he’s certain that he should be on the way to the wall – even though he has papers that prove that he is tithed – and after receiving assurance, Riso hands him a token.
The three heroes, Tokiru and Kaetano all receive the same posting – 2nd Army, 4th Legion, Fourth Watchtower, Emerald Bird Section. They pass through the Kaiu Pass which is jokingly called Little Beiden, enter Ishibei Province and walk the Kaiu Way which runs parallel to the wall to their assigned posting. Many stalls and wandering merchants line the road along with road, tea and sake houses and there’s much traffic of hohei, craftsmen and peasants. Kaetano shows his interest in Saoki and courts her on the way.

Fresh Fish

Month of the Serpent
Each of the three heroes has a short interview with Taisa Kaiu Naomi – a short woman of more than forty years with grey hair and a lined face - who welcomes him and orders him to report to Gunso Daidoji Baniryu. Hiruma Johnasi has been recently transferred to the section and he hopes that none knows of his status with his family. He is called by the Taisa and he’s informed that he’s assigned to Baniryu’s squad and she expects him to perform his duty well. To Johnasi’s ears it’s a mark of disfavour since Baniryu’s squad is a Shinsena Sakana (fresh fish) squad where most of the tithed and untried samurai of the Great Clans are assigned. Only the Lion, Unicorn and Daidoji samurai serve in regular squadrons. Despite this, Johnasi is pleasantly surprised to be named Baniryu’s Nikutai and he proves eager to do his duty. The squad is comprised of twelve samurai and eight Ashigaru. Besides the officers and the three heroes, the other samurai are Doji Kaetano, the second son of the governor of Nishio-shi Toshi who demands the privileges due his station and takes offense easily; Bayushi Riziko, an old woman of 53 years who was recalled from the monastery to serve her clan one last time; Nasuhiro, a 27 year-old ronin who was paid by the Crane to be tithed to the wall; Shiba Tokiru, the 19 year-old samurai who served as Saoki’s yojimbo on the imperial road; Moto Yarita, a young woman who lost her horse on the way and is inconsolable; Mirumoto Arasou who wears a mask because he bears a terrible injury on the jaw that has disfigured him and Daidoji Shirono who asked to serve under Baniryu.

Life on the wall is unlike anything Sokai, Lei Kung and Soma have experienced in their lives. The Crab laugh at the fresh fish and anyone who doesn’t wear armour. But they offer light armour, bows and heavy weapons to any samurai who serves without such necessary equipment. Soma accepts a bow but he is the only one who partakes of Crab generosity. Wearing armour during the shift and sometimes before and after it becomes tedious and tiresome but one gets used to it. After a few weeks, the smell and the sight of samurai in armour for half the day – even the hot summer days - becomes routine. Practice sessions and athletic competitions are standard every day. Running in full armour on the ground, on the wall (for couriers) and going up and down the stairs of all wall floors in full armour are particular favourites. Rock throwing and wrestling as well as gruelling training by wandering sensei tests the endurance of all of them. Teaching of the Crab battle language is also available for any who wishes to learn. There are so many things to teach a fresh fish that Baniryu takes it slowly and inducts the tithed Samurai into life as a hohei on the wall slowly so as to monitor each hohei’s progress and ensure that no one is left behind.

The heroes are  witnesses of many oddities. The number of Eta in white-painted ashigaru armour is too large. More red meat is consumed on the wall than anywhere else in Rokugan. Many samurai proportionally to ashigaru serve in the legion compared to other clan legions. Armour stands line the corridor of the eleventh floor of the Kaiu Kabe and a painted kanji on the wall identifies the owner. Much traffic on the Kaiu Way – hohei, yasuki, merchants, peasants, entertainers, armorsmiths, workers, monks. Clay statuettes of the fortunes for good luck, sculptors who offer to carve one’s ancestor out of wood, food in a lot of variety, spices, trinkets, tools and implements, rope, string, simple articles of clothing/hats/shoes. Most of all, the hohei learn to deal with the boredom of the watch on the wall and with the sight of the bleak wasteland beyond the wall and the River of the Last Stand.
Saoki is the only shugenja of the squadron and she receives a little more consideration from the bushi who pick on the rest of her squadmates. The most pious of the Crabs even leave her alone and never mock or challenge her in athletic competitions – beyond what is demanded by the daily physical regimen. Soon after she arrives to her post, she casts the kawaru to divine the immediate future. The bowl containing the tokens shakes briefly and she finds herself unable to draw breath – finally succeeding to draw breath after a few seconds.

Soma proves lacking in any sort of athletic activity – compared to the Crab bushi – and coupled with the fact that he’s a Scorpion, he is a frequent target of discrimination and cruel jests but he endures it stoically.
Lei Kung is mostly silent and enjoys the physical regimen of the wall and throws himself into his duty.
Johnasi wants to prove worthy to the eyes of his gunso and the taisa and so he tries to make sure of the smooth operation of the squad to the best of his ability. Training is too slow for his taste but Baniryu is of the opinion that a bushi on the wall must learn all of his lessons well and progress from one to the next without haste. There are a lot of things that a samurai not of the Crab must learn and it is not easy to do so when you have a lifetime of learning in another Clan.

Hida Fuya

Month of the Serpent
The gunso of the squadron next to Baniryu’s is Hida Fuya. He’s a man of normal size, long hair streaked with grey and an unkempt beard. His squad numbers fourteen bushi, Fuya’s budoka – Chiko - and five ashigaru. Fuya is loud, brash and rude to the fresh fish of Baniryu’s squad and all of his samurai – and even his budoka – have the same behaviour, encouraged by their gunso. The heroes are the butt of crude jokes on and off duty. When the bushi gather for their meals and line-up before the cook-fires, Fuya’s men bump into the heroes to spill their broth or take their place in the line.

One day, Fuya takes exception with Bayushi Soma – as so many of Crab bushi often do – and calls into question his ongoing training and knowledge of Shadowlands creatures. Johnasi steps in – rather rudely to his superior - and bets with Fuya that in five days Soma will be able to stand up to examination of the knowledge a hohei on the wall should possess. Johnasi begins to tutor Soma intensively regarding each card in the Crab’s deck of shadow. However, Soma’s tutoring is interrupted often by challenges from samurai of Fuya’s squad for weapon practice or athletic competitions. Coupled with the daily physical training and the watch on the wall, the Scorpion samurai struggles with fatigue and is in a poor condition for learning. Johnasi tutors him while Soma stands watch on the wall which is a time when they are left alone and must be alert and watchful – a state conducive for learning.

When the time comes for Soma’s examination, Fuya peppers him with a questioning that a Crab veteran would have found challenging. Soma cannot stand up to such questioning but there are no jeers or mocking comments from the crowd that has gathered to watch – as Soma would expect, considering his clan and his apparent failure. Johnasi burns with anger at the unfair questioning but does not interrupt. In the end Chui Hida Michiro who had come to watch steps in and announces that Soma’s knowledge is adequate for someone of his station and experience. Fuya accepts his superior’s judgment and without anger tells Johnasi that he has won the five koku that they agreed upon.

One of the following nights, Fuya invites Johnasi over to his fire to share a cup of sake with him and his men and receive the money he earned. Johnasi is stiff and formal at first and doesn’t laugh at a joke that Chiko makes but Fuya claps him on the back and tells him, ‘Laugh while you can. Tomorrow you may be dead.’ The ancient saying never fails to make a Crab bushi relax and the samurai pass the night joking and laughing and Johnasi is generous with the koku he earned and buys sake for all from the nearest sake house. The next day Johnasi gives Soma two koku, two bu and five zeni because in his opinion he has earned them.

Doji Kaetano

Doji Kaetano has been difficult to work with. As the second son of the governor of Nishio-shi Toshi, he expects certain privileges and his arrogance surpasses that of Saoki. His equipment is expensive and splendid and his appearance impeccable and he has two bodyservants to see to his needs – he hired another in the first days of his service on the Emerald Bird section. Unwilling to be a subordinate in a laughed-at squadron, he challenges Baniryu to a duel for the post of Gunso. However, Chui Michiro refuses the duel. Kaetano stews for another few days but the jokes and accidents staged by the hohei of Fuya’s squad infuriate Kaetano.When a samurai of Fuya’s unit calls the Crane a ‘fresh fish’ one  time too many, the Doji kills the grinning ashigaru standing beside the Crab samurai with one stroke.

The incident causes an uproar and many angry Crabs gather. In the midst of all the attention, Kaetano is serene and has a smirk on his face, daring anyone to draw steel without saying any words. Baniryu sends Hiruma Johnasi to bring the Taisa and he stands by his clansman wordlessly, defusing the situation by his mere presence and obvious willingness to stand by him. Things remain tense but peaceful until the Taisa arrives. Kaiu Naomi hears what has happened and hesitates to punish Kaetano. The Doji makes the point of punishing him moot by demanding three fingers of jade and the finest han-kyu in the legion. He announces his intention to go alone into the Shadowlands and return with a worthy trophy to be mounted on the wall. The attitude of the Crabs shifts and they either stop talking or they urge him to reconsider but Kaetano is resolute. After a moment of thought the Taisa grants Kaetano’s requests.
Isawa Saoki tries her best to make Kaetano reconsider in the night before he is to leave. During her conversation with the determined samurai, Saoki realizes that Kaetano has no idea what it means to be alone into the Shadowlands, against goblins, monsters and oni. Noone in the Empire does except for the Crab. All her life the terror of the Shadowlands have been the object of stories and theatrical plays and oni have been depicting as terrible but comical creatures in popular art. The truth of what it means to face one in the flesh – in the cursed soil of the Shadowlands no less – is something no human can truly comprehend until it has happened. The next morning she and the whole 8th Legion are on the wall to see Doji Kaetano emerge from the tunnels and head alone  into the realm of Fu Leng.

The Three Monks

Month of the Serpent
In the first days of the month of the Horse, Lei Kung is visited by three monks on three successive days. Obu of the Order of Heroes is the first of these. He’s an old man, thin and tall, stooped from working the rice fields. He shares his bottle of sake and says, “It is said that the Dragon fulfilled the tithe almost exlusively with bushi of the Mirumoto family. It is said that only seven monks of the Togashi Order were included.”
Lei Kung: “Seven times seven times seven is the number of monks that serve on the wall as the teeth and claws of the Dragon.”
Obu:“Do you believe yourself blessed or cursed for being here?”
Lei Kung: “I am where I must be.”
Shia of the Shrine of the Seven Thunders is the next to come. She’s a non-descript woman, simple and soft-spoken who marvels at the littlest insect and enjoys the slightest breeze or ray of sunlight. She asks, “You have walked the path of the Seven Thunders and now, you are here. You have been called to sacrifice all that you have known, to save the Empire. Are you afraid?”
Lei Kung: “All of us are afraid and none of us are.”
Toronaga of the Temple of Osano-Wo is the last to come. He’s a young man, bald and ritually scarred with the scars forming a flowing pattern on his chest. He tells Lei Kung,“I am glad for this chance to meet one of your Order. We have so much in common since we both know that only a well-trained body can house a worthy soul. Rejoice brother and take strength from the wall. Are you not where you’re supposed to be?”
Lei Kung: “I always am.”
The next day, all three monks sit under a pavilion and play games of Go. When Lei Kung finishes his watch, the three monks ask him to join them. They ask him to give them the solution in a hypothetical situation and Shia puts on the ground a crude doll made with hay, string and dirty cloth. It vaguely looks like a woman or a girl.
Shia: “A little heimin girl is lost in the fringes of Shinomen Mori. Her father is looking for her but he is afraid of the shadows under the leaves and he is an old and frail man.” She puts down a second ragged doll with both hands on a stick of wood to keep it upright.
Toronaga: “A ronin who’s paid to protect the villagers hears of the girl’s disappearance from her frantic mother and he goes to look for her.” He puts down a doll with one stick of wood passed through a string tied around its waist.
Obu: “A travelling band of dragon samurai stays at the road house of the village. The least of them is sent by his superior to find the girl and he’s told to not return without her.” He puts down a doll with a brush of green from brushing the cloth on grass and two sticks of unequal size passed through the string tied to its waist.
Shia: “Will the little girl fall prey to wolves or worse or will one of the three men who look for her find her and return her to her home?”
Lei Kung: “None of them will find her. The girl will either return to her village or she will not.”
“Why did all three of the seekers proved unable to save her?” Toronaga asks in puzzlement.
“We cannot know.” The Dragon answers him and seems disinclined to add anything further.
By that point a crowd has gathered around the pavilion to hear the exchange between the four monks. Soma is one of those and an old woman is beside him. She has laid a bundle of firewood that she’s been carrying on the ground and wonders aloud “Why couldn’t all three work together to find the lost girl?” and she shakes her head, resumes her burden and continues on her way. Soma has already noticed the dejection of the three monks and realizes that something was riding on the Dragon’s answer – perhaps a bet. After listening to the old woman, he steps in and asks the same question so as to revitalize the conversation. Thanks to Soma, the four monks continue to converse on the matter and at length, the three Brotherhood monks are satisfied with the result of this meeting – even if none of them actually won the bet they had placed between them regarding which of the three seekers would find and rescue the lost girl.
The three monks get up to leave but before they do so, they leave a finger of jade on the ground before the Dragon. Then they bow, wish him good fortune and walk away.

The Terror of the Eighth Stronghold

Month of the Horse
Kuni Annaya, introduces himself to Isawa Saoki and invites her to a private conversation over a cup of tea. He also serves in the eighth legion and he regrets that his duties did nto allow him to meet with her sooner. He asks a favour of her. “Do me a favour Isawa-san and speak to the kami of the eighth stronghold. After the stronghold was rebuilt, the spirit that’s housed there is afraid of battle and of its abode being destroyed again. I had to remind it of its duty to aid us against the kansen and to do its part to keep the wall strong. Unfortunately, it strains against the binding I have inscribed into the floor and it refuses to do its duty. Perhaps you could appease the frightened spirit and help it understand that it should not fight against us but with us.”
The Kaiu Kabe is a fertile location for earth spirits that are entreated and placated b ythe Kuni for generations to flock to the wall and keep it strong. Summon and Commune spells with Earth spirits are practiced routinely and the Wall has a mystical resonance that makes the binding of Earth spirits an easy endeavour for one knowledgeable in such lore.

Saoki complies with the request and goes to work that same afternoon. She goes to an empty room of the stronghold to commune with the spirit and she casts several spells in order to better understand what is going on. The earth kami is afraid of something but it is unclear what that is. After she casts three spells of communion Saoki ponders what she has learned and remembers the divination that she had made during her first days on the wall. She’s reluctant to leave and her continued presence finally draws the elemental terror out of hiding. A huge and amorphous hulk rises smoothly from the floor and stands towering over the shugenja. It’s like a piece of hard clay that the artisan’s hands haven’t began to shape yet. The Toichi no Kansen grows tentacles out of his mass and attacks Saoki. A hit by the flailing, rock-hard pseudopods that move like whips rattle the shugenja but she entreats the fire kami to assault her foe. After it’s burned, the angry Kansen grapples Saoki with its tentacles and sinks into the floor with her. Fortunately for the shugenja, there are twelve floors between them and the ground where the Kansen doubtless plans to bury her. Saoki’s shouts and the unleashed magic cause Annaya – who waited on the wall outside the stronghold – and the hohei on watch to raise the alarm. The brass bell tolls and the defenders of the wall respond instantly to the call of battle. The hohei of Baniryu’s squad who are not on watch grab their weapons and run up the stairs to the wall. Annaya catches up with the Kansen and the trapped Saoki at the ninth floor and unleashes the fire kami himself against the terror. It is then that Lei Kung and Johnasi reach the ninth floor and see what’s happening. Johnasi fires an arrow at the Kansen while the monk covers the distance with quick strides despite the fatigue of the ascent. The fire kami are summoned by both shugenja one last time and the Kansen is destroyed. Its material form blackens, becomes brittle and breaks into a thousand pebbles that scatter on the floor.

The increased alertness lasts for hours as Annaya is afraid of the coming of a greater terror, heralded by the Toichi no Kansen. After things quiet down at the Emerald Bird section, Taisa Naomi calls the two shugenja to report. Saoki corroborates Annaya’s report and casts no shadow upon the Kuni’s actions. Naomi is satisfied and she sends a message to Kuni Nokudo to examine the eighth stronghold and the remains of the Kansen as soon as possible. Annaya for some reason feels indebted to Saoki and remains impassive in the face of her haughty and abrupt manners. He tells her that she may call on him for a favour in the future.

Johnasi becomes suspicious of Saoki after seeing her in the grip of a Kansen. He is not privy to the report of the two shugenjas – he just knows that Saoki went to the eighth stronghold and soon after the Toichi no Kansen appeared. He brings his suspicions  to Baniryu and the Gunso instructs him to give her the test of jade if he’s so deeply suspicious of her. So, Johnasi borrows Lei Kung’s finger of jade. The Hiruma samurai has been distrustful of the Isawa shugenja and angered by her haughty and abrupt manner ever since they know each other. Normally he would be surreptitious in his examination and he would bump into her and touch her with the jade accidentally but he doesn’t bother with this polite deception. Instead he happens upon her at some unguarded moment and touch her exposed neck with the finger of jade. Saoki’s indignation shows through for a few seconds but then she hides her emotions and suffers this indignity on her person since Johnasi is of greater status and her superior. The Hiruma is satisfied that she doesn’t bear any taint and the matter is closed.

Kill the Bakemono

Month of the Horse
Johnasi begins to get restless after serving for two months as a Nikutai to the novice samurai. The 8th Legion is on alert ever since the snows melted on the Twilight Mountains because several Hiruma scouts have reported large concentrations of shadowlands creatures at the vicinity of Shiro Hiruma. An attack is expected any day now and Johnasi feels that they’re not doing enough. He petitions Baniryu for the squad to conduct a scouting expedition into the Shadowlands but the Gunso replies that they have no such orders. Early into the month of the Horse, rumours begin to circulate about bakemono raiders seen behind the wall. The rumours are true as it turns out and the Taisa calls her officers for a meeting. Naomi is reluctant to weaken the wall by sending Crab samurai to hunt down the bakemono reported near two villages to the north and so she sends the fresh fish to do this job. Baniryu informs Johnasi that he is to lead Lei Kung, Soma and Saoki to the villages of Gorucho and Matsa Shati – which lie three days into the mountains – and kill all the bakemono threatening the area.

Matsa Shati

The team departs within hours of the order and they travel to the mountain villages. When the path forks and a stone marker informs them that each of the paths leads to a different village, they elect to go to Matsa Shati. The village is comprised mostly of stonemasons who quarry and work stone and also a few farmers that tend small orchards of vegetables and fruit trees. All but Johnasi find the fact that the peasants are armed with nunchaku and tonfa to be curious. Their Hiruma Nikutai informs them that this close to the wall, all the peasants are allowed to bear such arms and have some basic training in their use.

The headwoman - a 45 year-old woman named Chunhua - welcomes the samurai team and guests them in her house alongside  her extended family. The samurai learn that the first goblin raid happened three weeks ago. The doshin of the two villages – two men named Heng and Qiao - led armed peasants to patrol the surrounding territory and they encountered and killed many goblins. However, jsut a few days ago they were beset by a spirit or oni or monster - the peasants that returned alive describe the creature in many ways - and they were undone. As the peasants fled, the goblins killed some of them. The two doshin and eleven more heimin died in that battle which happened at a location the villagers call the Mouth. Many more people have died from goblins and animals and tools have been stolen. Children are counted among the dead or those that have disappeared. The samurai call villagers who served the doshin to give their accounts of the last battle. Johnasi tasks one of them, a burly  but none-too-bright fellow called Bohai, to make torches and lead them to the abandoned mines that the locals call the Mouth the next day.

The Bog Hag

While the samurai question the headwoman and the villagers, Saokki is annoyed by the presence of so many people in the house and she asks for her own room. She’s given Chunhua’s bedroom and she retires there. Alone, she delves into the mysteries of the Void and casts a spell to examine the flow of humanity around her. She senses a gap in the flow of human life around her but she cannot be sure who it is that fills that gap – the only thing she’s sure of is that there’s either a monster of some sort or a creature of the Shadowlands in their midst!

Saoki rejoins her comrades and says nothing. She is rattled and prefers to be in the company of those she can be sure of that they are human. Just before sundown, a woman named Tsuko visits the headwoman’s house to pay her respects to the samurai. She’s a beautiful woman and she catches the eye of Soma and Johnasi. She’s a visiting merchant who arrived about ten days ago and a beautiful woman. She’s been touring the villages to make purchases for her patron, who’s none other than Yasuki Taka, who will send others to take the goods. She offers her own modest room to Isawa Saoki so that she can have privacy and offers to stay in the headwoman’s house instead. Ever distrustful of people and rattled by the results of her earlier spell, Saoki interrogates her. The male samurai also join in in this interrogation since they trust the judgment of a shugenja and an Ishiken no less. Tsuko becomes uncomfortable and then frightened at the treatment she receives. When Saoki openly invokes the kami and casts a spell, Tsuko waits  with her head lowered. Saokki again senses this gap in the flow of human life around her but there are so many people in the house that she cannot be sure who is the false man or woman. After she reveals this fact to her fellow samurai, Johnasi asks Lei Kung’s finger of jade, presents it on his open palm and commands Tsuko to touch it. The woman trembles as she cups Johnasi’s hand with her own and withdraws it without ill effects. However, the Dragon monk nnotices that Tsuko expertly pretended to touch the jade but her palm never touched the mineral. When he speaks, Tsuko’s demeanour changes instantly. Her face shows such hatred that it becomes malformed and long claws grow from her fingers with which she slashes all those near her. She uses the momentary confusion to bolt by breaking through the flimsy shogi screen.
Both Soma and Johnasi react quickly. Each  of them grabs his wakizashi from where it stands against a wall and throw it at her as she flees down the road. Johnasi manages to wound her at her thigh but the false woman doesn’t slacken her pace and she’s quickly lost among the houses. The sun has set and it’s dark outside and so Soma grabshis katana and a paper lantern and makes to follow her but Saoki stops him. It is unwise to follow that creature in the darkness. She knows the village and the lay of the land and it’s night. It’s  better to pass the night at the village and protect it from possible retaliation by the false Tsuko or by bakemono and begin their hunt in the morning. The samurai heed the shugenja’s words and do not pursue. Throughout the incident Lei Kung had not moved form his spot on the floor.

Johnasi is certain that the creature is a Bog Hag and puts the village on alert. Each of the samurai will keep watchduring the night and armed villagers will patrol the village road until sunup.

Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that two stood against many. That's what's important! Valour pleases you, Crom... so grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!

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