Campaign of the Month: June 2012
Kumori - Journal Entry 1
Rapid, hushed footsteps whispered down the halls of the Shogunal fortress in Kyodai. Three figures, formally but somberly dressed in shades of dark grey and rich purple, hustled through the halls past the eyes of skeletal sentries in centuries-old armor. Such haste was unprecedented in a thousand years of Taira rule, and uncouth for its novelty, but hurry the figures did, for none other than the Shogun had summoned them into his presence, itself an unprecedented event.
Two men and a woman, all young, all pale in the fashionable manner of aristocrats, and all gifted with catlike grace born of twenty generations of breeding. Three young nobles, their hearts pounding with equal parts anticipation and fear. To be summoned like this, by the Seiitai-Shogun himself, must mean a great opportunity. But they knew as all nobles who served the Bakufu knew that opportunity stood on a razor’s edge alongside terrible peril. Kiyomori was generous with those who pleased him, but those who failed him met terrible, lingering deaths. Around them, the castle loomed in sepulchral stillness. In a normal fortress, their passing would have been unnoticeable, drowned out by the sounds of castle life. In Taira Kiyomori’s inner sanctum, where no torches burned and no living heart beat, their footfalls seemed to echo like the throbbing of a taiko.
They came to an almost-silent stop before a great sliding screen, before which stood two samurai in ornate white armor surmounted by richly-embroidered silken jinbaori. The warriors wore no facemasks, for they needed none. Their bleached skulls, lit from within by pinpoints of witchfire where once their eyes has been, served as more terrifying visages than any mempo could match. They turned to face the newcomers, unspeaking.
The woman stepped forward, bowed from the waist. Her companions did likewise. “At the Shogun’s summons, we have come.” The skeletal warriors did not move. The woman continued, trying to keep a shake out of her voice and almost succeeding. “Kurosagi Hachiko, and my cousins Kurosagi Tadatsugu and Kuronami Naosuke.” The screens slid away, revealing the Shogun’s audience hall. From within, a high, quavering voice like a cry of pain called out, “Enter, and kneel with trembling limbs!”
Hachiko and her cousins were loyal servants of the Taira, and had grown up around relatives who had been rewarded with undeath for their service to the Shogun. Nevertheless, they found it easier to follow the wailed instructions than they had expected. Kiyomori was not alone. The audience hall was a hundred feet long, and on either side of the central aisle, court ministers and armored warriors sat three ranks deep, all staring at the new arrivals.
All of them were dead. All of them had been dead for centuries. Some showed their undeath as clearly as the guards outside the door, with witchlight eyes and bleached death’s heads for faces. Others stared with empty eye sockets in withered, mummified faces, or else looked almost alive, if not for their chalk-white complexions and red eyes. As protocol demanded, the Kurosagi cousins knelt, and crawled past those ranks of staring ghosts, feeling the hair on the backs of their necks twitch the whole way. As they approached the Shogun, they felt their dread intensifying. At fifty feet, their hands had gone cold as ice, and their breathing had become shallow and rapid. At thirty feet, the urge to turn and flee was almost overpowering. At twenty feet, the same ghostly wail cried out “Stop!” and they were grateful, for approaching any closer would surely drive them mad. They knelt, hearts hammering to break from their chests, heads pressed to the ebony planks of the floor, and sweated.
A sound like the rasp of an awl over black pine echoed through the chamber. It chilled Hachiko’s heart even further, a feat she hadn’t thought possible. She realized it was laughter, and it was coming from the Shogun.
“You arrived with amazing swiftness. Even dressed in O-kimono and flowing hakama, you are able to run like the very deer of the forests. If all assassins are as skillful, I will eliminate the requirements for formal trousers at court, for clearly they serve no use!” The rasping laugh came again, then died.
Naosuke found his voice first, to Hachiko’s annoyance. “We are your cranes, Dread Lord. At your bidding we fly.”
“Indeed.” The Shogun’s voice was impossibly deep, and soft as a whisper, but every syllable smote Hachiko’s ears like a thunderclap. "You have the opportunity to serve me. Do so well, and you will be rewarded.
“The heir of Yoshitsune lives.” At the pronouncement, Hachiko’s mind whirled. Nothing had been heard of the heir of Yoshitsune for longer than her family had been the Shogun’s chosen assassins. “You are called the best of Ueno; track down this heretic, slay him, and you will rise high in my service.” Into her mind, Hachiko felt images intrude, as if thrust into her soul with ice-cold skeletal fingers. A jungle, strangely-constructed buildings, barbaric languages. Then, a man. A warrior, with eyes like a hunting hawk and strong, noble features. On his breast, the lantern mon of the Enlightened One Heresy. The Shogun spoke again, “The priests of Enryakyu will transport you to the lands in which we have found him. You will track him down, and slay him. When you have succeeded, his sword will allow you to return home. Bring me his head!”
The Cranes departed even more swiftly than they had come, urged on in equal parts by ambition and fear.