Chapter II, The Mouth of the Earth

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Chapter II, The Mouth of the Earth Empty Chapter II, The Mouth of the Earth

Post by Barbaros on 17/9/2018, 17:19

The Buried Bones

Month of the Horse
The villagers gather outside the headwoman’s house to learn what has transpired. Johnasi calms the crowd, tells them that Tsuko is a traitor to the clan and she’s gone but that all is well and orders them to disperse. The samurai – except for Saoki – and the monk keep watch for the rest of the night which passes quietly under their watchful eye. Johnasi and Soma visit the house where the Hag that maqueraded as Tsuko resided these past ten days. The house belonged to a family a generation ago but after it was left vacant, the village used it as a guest house for visiting magistrates and for visitors who could pay for lodging. The two samurai find it clean and non-descript. If one didn’t know that a monster lived there, one couldn’t tell from the look of the place. They discover a hollow space under a floorboard and thereing they find an unclean talisman of some sort. Human fingerbones tied with twine to make six full fingers are arranged like bird wings, three on a side and splayed, with hair woven between them to form a membrane. Johnasi picks it up with a piece of cloth, wraps it and brings it to Saoki to examine.

The shugenja has never before seen anything like it. She asks the kami about this unclean talisman but the only reply she gets are the words Kasoumi Gensou. Johnasi and Soma both agree that these words describe a very rare creature of the Shadowlands, rumoured to be a seething mist that engulfs a man and makes him live a nightmare, leaving him helpless. Saoki puts the unclean thing into a box and ties it with paper upon which she writes warding prayers.

Johnasi interrogates Chunhua harshly in order to determine whether there are collaborators of the Hag in the village. It becomes known that Tsuko had seduced several of the men of the village – the reason that she was despised by the women, a fact that also comes out after her disappearance. A personal interrogation of all those he deems suspect persuades the Hiruma bushi that there are no hidden sympathizers of the Hag in the village.

In the afternoon Saoki also visits Tsuko’s house. She takes one look at the interior and at the garden at the back which is now overran with weeds and neglected for too long. She dives into the Void between all things and all life to feel the way everything connects and the way everything exists around her. There’s nothing untoward in her vicinity except for an unusually high concentration fo the basest creatures of the earth – maggots and worms and centipedes, all of them gathered in a specific area, within the neglected garden. She finds the spot and it’s a patch of earth freshly dug and covered with grasses and weeds. Johnasi calls for villagers to dig at that spot and the result is a grisly find – bones. There a lot of them, of different sizes and all of them gnawed upon – the bigger ones even broken and emptied of marrow. Eta are called to continue digging until all the bones but the smaller ones are gathered in a heap beside the hole. The eta are certain that most of them – if not all - are human bones. They aren’t large enough to belong to adults and there are enough of them for two skeletons, perhaps even three. The horror of this mass grave is evident to all since three children have disappeared from the village these past eighteen days.
The villagers gather and mothers wail at the terrible fate of their children. The true nature of Tsuko as a monster in league with the Bakemono is revealed to all and the heimin curse her name. Saoki orders the eta to build a small pyre and lay all the bones atop it. By the late afternoon the preparations are complete and the shugenja summons a kami of fire to consume the bones as she chants prayers for the salvation of the souls of the dead children. Eta fill three urns with the ashes that remain and the bereaved families take one each. A weary Saoki retires after the cremation. The samurai gather for dinner at Chunhua’s house and resolve to hunt the Bog Hag and her Bakemono the next day.

The Scorpion’s Sting

During the business of this day, Soma has found the opportunity to tour the village and speak with various villagers. He’s been asking for certain herbs and seeds and has appropriated the necessary tools that he needs for a secret endeavour. He’s been careful and discreet in his wanderings, questionings and requisitions so that none of his comrades and none of the villagers will suspect anything. After dinner he announces that he will go on a walk to inspect the heimin night watch and the perimeter of the village. He does as he says of course but his real purpose for this outing is to find a secluded spot and with the light of a lantern prepare the ingredients he has gathered into a poisonous concoction that is known as fire bitter. When he’s done he mixes the poison with honey and flour with just a hint of water so that it will adhere to the honed steel edge of a weapon and coats one of his shuriken with it. The rest he saves for later and he returns to the house.

Bakemono Hunt

Bohai is the only villager that the samurai take with them on their excursion to the location that the heimin name the ‘Mouth of the Earth.’ Johnasi equips the band with appropriate equipment to delve into the abandoned mining tunnels and Bohai brings them lanterns and carries torches and flint. It is a one-hour trek to the abandoned mine and the samurai begin with earnest at first light. At the mid-point of the trek, they follow a narrow goat path above a deep chasm carved by a river which has almost dried up due to the summer heat. At the end of the path, the chasm becomes less deep and there’s dense vegetation and great platani. Soma notices movement there and informs the rest of his comrades as surreptitiously as he can. Unfortunately, they have no room to maneuver and no cover before they reach the end of the path and so they keep on walking. The bakemono spring their ambush as soon as the samurai’s party is close enough and they throw rocks with slings at them. Bohai is surprised but the forewarned samurai and Lei Kung spring into action. Soma runs ahead to reach the ambush spot and Johnasi nocks an arrow and draws. Lei Kung follows Soma and Saoki begins a prayer to the kami.

The bakemono have selected the spot of ambush well and neither the Scorpion nor the Ise Zumi can reach the creatures quickly over the broken ground. Rocks strike Bohai and Saoki and in response an arrow flies to mortally wound one of the goblins. When the charging warriors reach the bakemono, many of them abandon their slings and rush to face them in battle. The child-sized monsters wear branches and pieces of bark made into crude armour and wield broken tool hafts as clubs and knives or the heads of tools such as shovels and picks as weapons. Soma begins to hack through the opposition with his katana while Lei Kung fights with his bo. Half of the thirteen bakemono continue to pepper the samurai and the unfortunate heimin with slingstones. Bohai also rushes into battle with his nunchaku and fights bravely alongside the monk and the Scorpion. Saoki invokes the kami of fire to burn one and then another of the bakemono while Johnasi continues to send arrows.

Soma dispatches his foes and orders Bohai – who’s seriously wounded by that point – to retreat and guard Saoki. He’s seen that some bakemono – the bravest of them – charge the Hiruma and the shugenja and he also wants to spare Bohai from death. Lei Kung continues to fight against his enemy but Soma pays no mind to that battle and charges against the remaining slingers. The dead bodies of goblins litter the ground but the little horrors still do not retreat. None of the samurai have escaped injury but their determination does not waver and in the end, they stand triumphant over their foes. The last four of the bakemono try to escape rather than face the swords, arrows and fire of the samurai. Three run away but one of them is wounded by an arrow and lags behind. Soma kills that one but refrains from pursuing the other two. Another goblin – the last survivor of the group that charged Johnasi and Saoki – jumps down the ravine and runs like a goat on the rocks. Johnasi sends an arrow through his skull. Lei Kung has also dispatched his foe and rejoins the rest as does the Scorpion. Bakemono blood and bodies litter the stony ground and the stench of burned flesh is everywhere. Bohai is grievously wounded but the monk’s ministrations and Saoki’s prayers to the water kami save his life.

The party continues on past the crag and they find a defensible spot to stop and rest for a while. Saoki tries to meditate but she fails to achieve a true inner peace while the rest share a meal. Soma brews tea and they drink as they discuss what to do next. Bohai states that he will continue to lead them if that’s their wish although it’s plain that he wants to return to Matsa Shati. The samurai decide on a bold course of action and continue to the tunnels to deal with the filthy creatures now that they are defeated. They expect to meet little opposition from now on and believe their foe already defeated.

The Goblin Tunnels

Soon they spy the Mouth of the Earth from afar. It is an opening into the stony slope surrounded by strewn boulders. A sparse wood surrounds the mine entrance because many of the trees had been cut by the miners and only old stumps remain. Crude and small tents made from twigs, deadfall and mud can be seen around the entrance and two firepits as well. There’s no movement or sign of hidden foes but the samurai party proceeds cautiously until they reach the entrance. The stench of goblin is everywhere and the bones of animals – or so the humans hope – are strewn about their camp but no bakemono is about. There’s no question that they hide in the tunnel. Bohai knows not the layout of this abandoned mine because he was little when it was mined out and abandoned. It’s just past the hour of the serpent and so there’s ample daylight yet and the samurai didn’t come all this way to wait out their enemies. The cowardly goblins and their mistress hide in the tunnel but they’ll learn that there’s nowhere to hide.

The samurai go in and are forced to enter single file because of the cramped dimensions of the tunnel. Fighting with a katana will be difficult but none of them has brought a yari because there were none to be found in Matsa Shati. Two lanterns are lighted and carried by Saoki in the middle of the file and another by Bohai at the rear. Soma and Johnasi are the warriors at the front. Loose soil makes up the floor of this tunnel because the rains all these years have carried soil inside it. The first ten metres are a steep descent and then the tunnel levels out. Another twenty metres are crossed without any difficulty before Saoki stops Soma with an urgent command.
“I have seen your future two steps from now Scorpion, and it is a fall into a deep pit, lined with sharp tools and implements,” she tells Soma.
The samurai heeds her warning and stops. Lei Kung comes to the fore to prod the ground ahead with his bo staff and finds it strangely yielding. After the soil is cleared, it becomes apparent that a pit is there cunningly covered by an arrangement of a bamboo skeleton and paper surface, covered with soil. The pit is deep – about three meters – and lined at its bottom with kitchen implements and tools sharp enough to kill a man that falls. The pit is jsut wide enough to make it doubtful whether a man in armour can jump on the other side and only a very narrow path can be used at the left side of the pit for someone to walk across and that too is a risky proposition for the bulky bushi. Therefore, Johnasi descends carefully with lantern in hand, intending to secure a grappling hook on the other side and so cross the pit by ascending its far side.

It is then that arrows sail through the air to break on Soma’s armour and on the wall. They’re small and crudely made with heads of sharpened flint but they’re deadly enough. The cackling of bakemono is heard from the deep darkness ahead and a woman’s voice invites the samurai to head deeper into the tunnel and taunts them with accusations of cowardice should they flee. Soma throws challenges back to her and defiantly remains to the fore, shielding the line of his comrades with his body and armour. Indecision paralyzes the samurai and the monk for a while. They cannot see the enemy and they cannot reach him to engage him in battle. Saoki cannot see a thing and so she cannot employ her magic against the bakemono. And the number of their foes are unknown.

Johnasi despairs at first because he’s trapped at the bottom of the pit but he quickly regains his composure and wraps strips of cloth around two arrowheads, after soaking them in lantern oil. He fires the arrows and shoots them with careful tension on the bowstring so as to not hit the ceiling but land further down the tunnel. He manages this and thanks to the flickering light of the fire-arrows those on top are able to see their foes. Two goblins with bows are at the fore but more are behind them and their numbers can only be guessed but they seem to be many. Johnasi ascends to the tunnel with the aid of the grappling hook. Soma has taken some arrows but most have shattered on his armour or have been deflected by his katana.

When Johnasi is again with them, Saoki makes up her mind about what they should do and orders them all to withdraw. Bohai heeds her and retreats as does the shugenja herself. Lei Kung steps to the fore to replace Soma as a human shield for the rest and the wounded  Scorpion retreats. Lei Kung fulfils his purpose admirably – despite being virtually naked – while Johnasi shoots at the goblins. However when one dies, another takes its place and the goblin arrows continue to come as do the taunts of the Bog Hag that exhorts the bakemono to kill the samurai with curses and threats. Everything is against them and the monk with the Crab retreat as well to join the others at the mouth.

The injured, tired and dispirited samurai remain outside the tunnel for some time, waiting for their foes to come out but after two hours of waiting it becomes apparent that the Hag and her Bakemono won’t do so. It’s dangerous to camp near the stronghold of the enemy or to spend the night exposed to the night-seeing goblins. They haven’t fulfilled their mission but they’ve thinned the ranks of the enemy and determined that it’s weak enough to avoid a direct confrontation with the three samurai and the monk. The wise course is to withdraw, rest at the village and repeat the excursion tomorrow and this they decide to do late in the afternoon.

The Attack on Matsa Shati

The return of the samurai creates a stir in the village. A messenger is sent to Gorucho to bring news of the ambush and of the victory over the enemy. Johnasi bids Chunhua to gather all able-bodied men that can fight and by late afternoon twenty-eight men and three women who insist that they want to fight for their village have gathered on the village green. Johnasi and Saoki preside over this gathering with Soma and Lei Kung as silent observers of the proceedings. Johnasi informs the villagers that tomorrow the samurai will hunt the bakemono with a squad of heimin conscripts chosen from among their number. Chunhua suggests that Gorucho could provide more conscripts but the samurai do not want to delay their hunt for one more day. Fourteen of those gathered are selected to accompany the samurai tomorrow and the rest – including the three women - are formed into four squads of five conscripts and they are to patrol the village this night and stand ready to defend it the next day. Saoki draws up a document and has each villager’s name written down with a thumbprint as a signature. The samurai are satisfied by the eagerness and readiness of the heimin and they retire for the night to a much-deserved rest after the trials of this day.

But the enemy allows no rest to the weary.

The envoys of the Emerald Bird section were not so careless as to set no watch of their own and it is during Lei Kung’s watch that the bakemono assault the village. Shouting and yelling disrupt the silence and the ruddy glow of a blaze colours the night. Despite their weariness, the sleeping samurai awake and are informed of their dire straits by the monk. Johnasi calls to Saoki but she bids them to do what they have to do and doesn’t leave her room. Johnasi grabs his yumi and arrows and is the first to go outside, followed by a half-naked Lei Kung who holds a sansetsukon tri-staff . They behold panic and fire. Two houses at the fringe of the village are burning and bakemono with torches in hand are running in the village singly or in pairs. The village patrol – augmented by alert villagers – are fighting a group of goblins on the main street. Doors open and villagers come out to fight the attackers but some of them are cut down by waiting goblins. It is chaos and the goblins are many – much more than Johnasi expected. Johnasi nocks, draws and lets loose and a torch-wielding bakemono falls dead. He boldly walks in the middle of the street, his presence a challenge to any foe and chooses his targets.

Lei Kung sees a group of bakemono trying to torch a house from a side alley and he falls upon them. Meanwhile, the men of Chunhua’s family rush out to fight and Soma at last finds himself alone in the living room. The women and children huddle in one bedroom and Saoki still hasn’t come out and her shogi screen is shut. The Scorpion smears poison on the blade of his katana and then he also goes out, not to fight the bakemono but to seek their leader. He ignores the shouts for help and the plight of the villagers and he moves in the shadows, unseen by the eyes of humans or monsters as he searches for the Bog Hag.
When she came awake, Saoki knew that the enemy was upon them and she cursed the audacity of the Hag and her remaining bakemono. She gave them no chance to rest and recover their strength, both physical and spiritual and doubtlessly this was her purpose. The Phoenix has been left with only a fraction of her mystical might and so she seeks help from the kami in this battle. She summons a wind kami and a flighty spirit answers her prayer. She asks it to find the Hag and describes the horrid monster in a woman’s guise to the kami which takes flight to search the village. Saoki waits for its return but fortunately she doesn’t have to wait long although each heartbeat thunders in her ears. The shouts of panic and pain and the sounds of battle fill the night and she knows not whether they signal the village’s salvation or doom but she ignores the battle that rages and sits still as she waits.

The wind kami is swift and alert as it flows above the death and the fire and through doors, windows and chimneys to inspect the houses and the open spaces between them. Soon, it finds its quarry and rushes back to inform the shugenja. Saoki lets go of her futile attempts to calm herself and lets panic overtake her spirit and give speed to her feet. She grabs her daisho and rushes out of the house to warn the young monk that the Bog Hag stalks him and will soon assault him.
Soma has been tenaciously seeking the Hag all this time but he is flesh and blood, not a wind spirit that can go wherever it will and has the speed of a bird. His quarry therefore proves elusive and by the time Saoki rushes out of the house to seek Lei Kung and warn him of the danger, he still hasn’t found the leader of the bakemono. Soma sees Saoki and follows her. Saoki finds Lei Kung bravely battling one bakemono with two more dead at his feet. She shouts her warning to the young monk and he is therefore alert when the Bog Hag – incensed that she’s been found out – bursts out of a window behind Lei Kung and assaults him with her wicked claws. Saoki hangs back and prepares her last prayer to the kami while Soma rushes to the battle.
As the battle against the Hag is joined, Johnasi is involved in battle elsewhere in the village. His presence gives courage to the villagers to fight their foes and his arrows strike like angry wasps, even when bakemono rush to engage him in close combat. The Hiruma bushi fears that the efforts of the heimin and the samurai may not be enough to turn the tide but he shows no doubt or weakness to the people and no fear or mercy to the vile goblins.

Lei Kung was already hurt and had fought hard this night when the Hag appears and slashes his flesh. Although warned, he wasn’t quick enough to avoid the monster’s claws and he’s at the limit of his endurance. Even worse, he fears that his purity is no more now that he is wounded by a tainted creature. He assumes a defensive stance but does not flee from his foe. The Scoprion arrives with a vengeance and with a masterful stroke delivers punishment to the Bog Hag. Soma smiles because he knows that now that the fire bitter poison is delivered, there will be no escape for the Hag – and the best part is that the creature is ignorant of this. Saoki invokes a wrathful kami of fire which leaves the burning houses to answer her prayer and happily assaults the Hag. The monstrous woman’s vitality is unearthly and wounds that would have killed a human she endures and continues to fight. Her rising panic however is evident in her call for bakemono to come and defend her. The samurai and the monk allow her no room to escape and so she continues to fight, turning upon Soma this time. Her speed and ferocity surprises both of her foes and are taken aback by the vicious claw-strikes. Soma is also slashed – his armour failing to protect him – and despairs because he also suspects what this means.

More bakemono arrive and Saoki draws her katana and enters the fray. She has no more strength to appeal to the kami for aid and she can only turn to the steel of her blade. Lei Kung continues to defend and occupy the foe’s attention while Soma matches swordplay against the Hag’s claws and Saoki falls upon the newly-arrived goblins. And in a flash of steel, the battle is over and the Hag falls dead. Soma cuts of her head and it is over. Lei Kung feels a warmth at his neck and brings out the finger of jade that he had forgotten that he wore on a string. The young monk is uplifted by the sight of this small drop from the tears of Amaterasu since it gants him protection from the foul touch of the taint. He calls upon Soma to remove his armour and be quick about it. When the Scorpion does so, Lei Kung touches the jade to the samurai’s wounds as he’d been taught to do by the Crab instructors on the wall. The jade loses some of its lustre as it absorbs the taint. Soma breathes a sigh of relief and allows himself to hope that he remains pure, his flesh ignorant of the touch of Fu Leng.

News of this victory embolden the heimin defenders and demoralize the remaining bakemono. The battle soon turns to the favour of the village and the goblins are cut down. Those that attempt to flee are hunted down by the samurai and bands of heimin. After the foes are dealth with, the fires are put out with great effort and the village is spared from destruction. And then the grim business of collecting the dead begins. The eta gather the slain humans on the green and carry the goblin corpses and the hag’s headless corpse outside of the village and heap them together. The wounded are tended and the sun rises before the samurai decide that their job is done and go to Chunhua’s house to rest.

Rest and Recovery

The corpses are cremated and the two villages enjoy an uneasy peace and mourn their dead. For the next week the samurai rest and convalesce from their wounds. Even with Saoki’s ministrations and prayers, Soma takes many days to recover but the monk gets worse. When he realizes that he’s the victim of a disease – one probably transmitted to him by the Hag – he secludes himself to the empty house – the one that Tsuko inhabited – to avoid infecting anyone else. There he ministers to himself over the next few days and manages to beat back the disease. The monk’s spirit continues to be troubled however because he knows that some of the wounds he suffered may scar him forever and nothing can be done about them. It is a sentiment that is shared by the Scorpion as well. Neither man shares his private fears with anyone else. How can a man admit to another that he is tainted by the unholy touch of Fu Leng? Each man searches within himself to try to determine whether their bodies and minds are corrupted. Johnasi and Saoki do not shame their comrades by voicing such concerns aloud but they both suspect that a sad fate may have befallen their unlucky comrades. However, no man shows any signs of the taint and the final verdict – that each of the envoys of the Emerald Bird arrives on his own and holds to himself – is that neither Soma nor Lei Kung carry the seeds of darkness within them. Victory is theirs and after reflection, the fruits of it are sweet. Their job done, one week after the battle for Matsa Shati, the samurai and the monk prepare for the journey to the Emerald Bird.

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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