L5R : Jade Winds
Kenichi could hear the Oni bellowing for his blood. For the moment, he was safe. He had squeezed between two towering slabs of rock on the cliff face, finding that it widened into a tiny roofless space farther back. It was midday, but the top of the cliff was so far up he could see stars, when they weren’t obscured by the roiling storm clouds that swept continuously across the sky.
As he leaned against the wall to catch his breath, he watched the Oni as it shrieked and occasionally flung itself against the opening. A misshapen thing, the right leg was longer than the left so that it moved with a rolling gait. Although a head shorter than Kenichi, it was almost as wide as it was tall, covered in a rough green-black skin designed to deflect edged weapons, or so he presumed. He was not willing to risk his dojo’s katana to find out. Its arms had more joints than any creature should, and they ended in long skinny hands tipped with obsidian claws. He grimaced, remembering the claws, and ruefully examined the shreds of his pack. He wasn’t worried about the loss of the food, but it would be difficult to find water in this place. His armor had a new rent in it as well, but the creature hadn’t managed to draw blood. And he had given as good as he got — the Oni’s left shoulder had taken a direct hit from his hammer, making that arm clumsy and slow.
Overall, he felt the fight had gone fairly well, right up until the Oni had tilted its head back and shrieked, and its lumpy, lopsided face had elongated and split like a flower to reveal a mass of ropy grey tentacles that writhed and reached out purposefully towards him.
When his mind had cleared, he had found himself running, his chest aching and a strange guttural noise filling his ears. It had taken him a few seconds to realize that he was hearing his own screams, and a few seconds more to make himself stop. Then he had been able to hear the high-pitched shrieking of the Oni behind him, raging in frustration at not being able to catch him. He had kept running, but now he looked around. He had needed a place to rest and regroup.
He ran on a grey broken plain, cracked with fissures that emitted wisps of smoke or steam. Low thorny bushes occasionally caught at him, but they were easily turned aside by his armor. The air was dry and hot, with a hint of sulfur mixed in with the usual Shadowlands smells of rot, death, and taint. No wind blew.
Ahead, he had seen a black cliff wall rising up, and when he reached it a few minutes later he had angled to the left to run alongside it. A short time after that he had come upon the gap in the rocks, and pushed his way in, shredding bits of armor in the process. The Oni had scrabbled at the opening, but as bulky as it was, it would never be able to get in. Then again, he could not get out without going past it.
He was beginning to think he’d made a mistake by going out alone. Several of his fellow students had banded together, and one group had asked him to join them. But Kenichi had refused. He knew he didn’t fit in with the rest — he was too quiet, too reserved, though his skill with the dai tsuchi could not be denied. He didn’t like to think what they’d say if they could see him now, hiding among the rocks while his chosen victim’s head, tentacles and all, remained firmly attached. He’d felt he had something to prove, but so far all he’d managed to do was get himself cornered.
With a grunt he pushed himself to his feet and looked around. He couldn’t stay here for long. Even if the Oni couldn’t get in, it would attract other… things, some of which might be able to shatter these rocks as easily as eggshells.
He bound his swords together and slung them across his chest, and then did the same with his dai tsuchi. Bracing his back against one wall, and his feet against the other, he began to climb.
It was slow work. His armor hung up on bits of protruding stone, and he had to shift carefully to free himself. There was little light to begin with, but he concentrated on a bright spot on the inner wall about 30 feet above him. By the time he reached it, his legs had begun to tremble. He wondered how long he’d been running. That, at least, was nothing to be ashamed of — even experienced samurai told stories of falling prey to the supernatural fear produced by Fu Leng’s minions. It could not be avoided — one simply had to ignore it as best one could and keep going.
As he had hoped, the light came from a larger break in the rock, one he thought he could fit through. This proved to be extraordinarily tricky, as his painstaking progress had turned him completely around from where he needed to be. Eventually he managed to maneuver himself so that he could get his hands on the lip of the hole, and once that was done, he pulled his head and torso through easily enough.
He looked out on a vast barren plain, obscured in places by fog or smoke. He could see the Kaiu Wall, made small by distance, but still towering over everything else in sight. Not as far as he had feared, fortunately. He couldn’t have lost more than an hour to his blind panic.
A sudden noise made him look down. To his shock, the Oni was rapidly dragging itself up the cliff face, its claws sinking into the rock as easily as if it were chalk instead of granite. It isn’t supposed to be able to do that, his mind protested, and he felt the fear start to rise in him again. He had planned to attack it from above, to use his weight and momentum to his advantage. But here, halfway in and halfway out of the chimney, he couldn’t get any purchase. If he went back inside, he would likely fall, and if he pulled himself all the way out, he would have nowhere to stand and face it. There were places to put his feet, but he doubted he could swing his hammer without pitching over the edge.
The Oni climbed quickly, using its right arm to pull and its injured left arm to steady itself. Now Kenichi noticed there were claws on its feet too, which it used with tolerable skill. Its massive bulk dragged against the stone as it climbed, but its tough hide protected it from serious injury.
Kenichi felt as if he were caught in a bad dream. He was going to die out here, and the shame this would bring to his relatives was unbearable. He doubted his body would ever be found, as high up as he was. Perhaps he should try to stand after all. That way he might be able to throw himself on the monster and bring it crashing to the ground. He would die, of course, but so would the Oni, and their bodies might be found. His family would know he had died fighting. And Natsumi would be released from the marriage contract.
Natsumi — at the thought of her, his hand unconsciously went to his waist. She had given him one of her creations before he left, a gift for luck. He worked his hand under his armor, trying to pull it free from the pouch he kept there. He could feel it through the fabric, but had some difficulty getting his hand into the opening.
The Oni paused to throw its head back and roar in triumph as it came within striking distance. The tentacles burst from its face, but Kenichi kept his focus, working his fingers through the contents of the pouch as the Oni moved closer. He plucked out a small sphere, polished to a bright sheen. As the creature thrust its face towards him, he reflexively rammed it into the mass of tentacles, his thumb and middle finger pushing forcefully on two shallow depressions. The creature recoiled in surprise, and an instant later the sphere burst apart in a shower of sharp blades, their edges coated in jade powder. One glanced off Kenichi’s helmet, and another pierced his palm with such force that it came out the other side. He barely noticed.
The Oni let out an ear-splitting shriek. It pawed at its ruined face with its claws. Black ichor was flung from the tentacles, burning wherever it landed and sending up an acrid stench. Kenichi struck at the Oni with his injured hand, trying to keep it off-balance. Still attached to the cliff by the claws on its feet, the creature slowly pitched backwards, howling, until its head hit the wall. The screaming stopped abruptly. Then its feet lost their purchase and it fell, turning end over end, to the unforgiving ground below.
All was silent. Sighing, Kenichi dropped his head in his hands, then jerked it back up again with an oath. He pulled the gritty blade free of his palm, which had begun to throb, and stared at it for a long moment as blood dripped onto the cliff face. Then he began to laugh. He dug into his pouch again, this time with his good hand, and brought out the healing salve. Still chuckling, he smeared the wound with the salve and bound it with a strip of cloth. “She’s got to work on her timing,” he thought, and roared with laughter again.
The climb down took longer than the climb up, with his hand hampering him and no way to see where to put his feet. He slipped twice, once saving himself only by gripping a knob of stone with his bad hand, cursing and swearing at the pain. By the time he made it to the ground, the bandage was soaked through. But before he took the time to rewrap it, he made his way out of the chimney and stood over the broken body of the Oni. He could not stop grinning as he drew his sword and chopped off the head, needing three strokes to cut through the thick hide. Wrapping it in the remains of his pack he set out for the Wall.
“Hida Nakamuro. My name is Hida Nakamuro,” he thought, as he jogged across the plain. His chest felt light, his exhaustion forgotten. He had passed his gempukku and he would be a samurai. It was more than enough. It was everything.