It looks like this particular story prize has been resolved in fiction at last
The Story Prize (Bloodlust by Rich Wulf)
Shouting was audible throughout the streets of Friendly Traveler Village. The peasants moving through the streets, hardy folk accustomed to life among the Crab, went quickly about their business, heads down. It was a matter of pride that these men and women lived side-by-side with those who protected the Empire from harm, but as proud as they were of their lords and masters, they feared them as well. And when a Crab displayed the temper that struck fear into the hearts of the Shadowlands, a wise peasant minded his own business.
A lone figure strode down the path that divided the village in half. A daisho rested in a casual stance on his hip, and a wide straw jingasa covered his features. Long dark hair spilled out over his shoulders in the style frequently worn by the Kakita. This man was no Crane, however. His kimono was emblazoned with a mon detailing a smiling carp. The Yasuki family mon. The image of a stylized ring of iron surrounded the symbol, signifying the man's position as a magistrate.
The man walked calmly and confidently to the front door of a large sake house, the largest in the entire village. Although such a house would be tiny compared to the massive establishments found in Ryoko Owari and Toshi Ranbo, it was easily the largest and most opulent in the small village. Friendly Traveler Village was, after all, home to the finest sake works in the entire Empire. Everyone in Rokugan knew it to be so. After all, the Yasuki told them it was. Smiling at the thought, the man threw open the front door and entered the House of the Smiling Fish.
“You dare insult my family?” a very large, considerably inebriated samurai was shouting. The man was truly gigantic, easily as large as any Hida warrior, but his colors marked him as a Crane. Amazingly enough, his mon was that of the Doji family.
“N…no, no of course not,” stammered a much smaller man. This one wore the same mon as the newcomer, that of a smiling carp. “You… you only heard a part of our conversation. You were, uh… taking it out of context. That's all! This is just a mistake.”
“A mistake!” the Doji roared. “So I'm a fool now, am I?” He swayed ever so slightly, another sign of his drinking. But there was a deadly clarity in his eyes. Drunk he may be, but still very dangerous.
“What is going on here?” the newcomer asked in a pleasant tone of voice.
The Yasuki looked up at the magistrate, relief obvious in his eyes. “Takei-sama!” he exclaimed happily. “Thank the Fortunes you're here!”
Takei raised a hand and cut the other man off. He smiled slightly, in a reproving manner. “That will be quite enough from you, Nuroka. When I want to hear some pathetic excuse for shameful behavior, I'll tell you.” Ignoring the other man's crestfallen expression, Takei turned to the drunken Crane and rolled his eyes. “Please forgive my cousin, Doji-san. He's a bit of an idiot. He can't help it, though. His mother used to drop him a lot when he was a child.”
Nuroka blinked absently. He, too, had apparently been drinking. “She did?”
“Doji-san,” Takei continued. “I'm sure that my cousin here said something very stupid and insulted you. On behalf of my family, I apologize for his idiocy.”
The Crane frowned. “I must have satisfaction.” One hand gently brushed the hilt of his katana.
“Come now, friend,” Takei continued fluidly, “do you really want to do that? I mean, I of all people certainly understand the urge to thrash Nuroka here, but what if matters escalate? He has no chance at all against you in a duel. He's a bit of a clod, after all. You would almost certainly kill him, and then what? Your lord and mine will be angry that a duel was conducted without authorization. You would likely be called home to be punished. And then you could not enjoy our fabulous sake, which is, if I may say so, quite exceptional.”
The Doji squinted and nodded absently. “It is quite good, yes. But…”
“But your honor, of course,” Takei said, holding both hands palmed up. “It would be my great pleasure to discipline my cousin for you, my Crane friend.”
“What?” both of the combatants said at the same time.
“Yes,” Takei said firmly. “As magistrate here, it is my duty. I would be greatly pleased to aid you, my friend.” He bowed to the Crane very respectfully. “Then you could stay and enjoy the rest of your bottle. It would be a shame to waste it.”
The Crane glanced back at his table where the bottle sat waiting. He licked his lips slightly. “Yes, my Yasuki friend. I think I will accept your generous offer.”
“Outstanding!” Takei said with a broad smile, holding his arms wide. “I hope I can join you later for a drink?”
“Yes,” the Crane rumbled with a great grin. “I would enjoy that. You can even buy!”
“Wonderful!” Takei said again. He turned to Yasuki Nuroka, his expression growing sullen. “As for you,” he withdrew a folded fan and struck his cousin one sharply across the cheek, leaving a red welt. “You will come with me. Now.” With one last smile to the Crane, the magistrate led Nuroka outside, closing the door behind them.
Once outside, Takei's expression changed to one of exasperation. He struck Nuroka again with the fan, this time playfully on top of the head. “What is wrong with you? Are you trying to get killed?”
Nuroka rubbed his head. “It's not my fault he has such good hearing.”
Takei weighed the fan in his hand, perhaps debating another strike. “Did you pick the biggest Crane you could find on purpose?”
The other man shrugged. “I thought he was so drunk it wouldn't matter.”
The magistrate shook his head in defeat, sliding his fan back in his obi. “You really are an idiot, then. Than man is expecting you to be severely beaten. Either you can take a few bruises for show, or you can spend the rest of the week drinking down the street at the Laughing Mujina.”
Nuroka frowned. “The sake there is too watery. It might be worth the bruises.”
“Get away from me,” Takei said with a grin, shoving his cousin from the porch and sending him staggering down the street. “And tell your mother I will be there for dinner tomorrow.” He watched his friend and cousin head down the street with an ever so slight sway in his step. Nuroka was a good man and a loyal servant of the Crab. His only true flaw was that he succumbed easily to temptation. It was a terrible failing for a samurai to possess, but thus far Nuroka had avoided any major disasters. Takei hoped he could continue to do so.
The sound of sandals kicking up dirt as they ran through the streets reached Takei's ears. He turned and searched the many roads that met in this portion of town for the sound's origin. The failing light of late afternoon made him squint, but his eyes widened when he saw the boy running toward him.
“Jubei,” he called, stepping down from the sake house's raised stone porch. “Jubei, what is it?”
The boy said nothing, only stood there gasping for breath. He was terribly pale, and his eyes were wide with fear. His hands were trembling, and Takei's smile disappeared in an instant. “Another?” he asked the boy.
Takei felt anger and sorrow flare within him. “Show me.”
The house was little more than a shack that sat on the edge of Earthquake Fish Bay. There was a crude but sturdy dock right behind it, obviously built by hand. It was painful for Takei to look on something that was obviously a labor of love, the house and dock together the very picture of a simple fisherman's dream. Knowing what awaited him inside made it all the more agonizing.
Kyuru stood waiting for Takei, his face nearly as pale as the boy's. He inclined his head respectfully. “Hello, Takei-sama. We have touched nothing, as you instructed. We sent for you as soon as we found it. Him. As soon as we found him.”
“Thank you, Kyuru,” Takei said absently, looking past him toward the house. He looked at the yoriki expectantly. “Is it like the others?”
The younger man swallowed. “It is worse, Takei-sama.”
Takei clenched his fists and nodded, saying nothing. Without a word he slipped past his deputy and entered the house, ducking his head to keep from striking it on the overhang. The air inside was heavy and rank, smelling of rotting meat and copper. The magistrate wrinkled his nose in disgust, but maintained his silence. Inside the tiny house, his second deputy stood waiting with another man clad in filthy robes. Takei nodded to them both, then examined the body that lay twisted and broken in the floor.
This man, a simple fisherman, had died a terrible death. His body had been twisted and warped in ways that nature had never intended, and the expression on his cold, dead face told Takei that he had suffered enormously before the end finally came. Blood was scattered all about the interior, so much so that Takei had to take care to keep from getting it on his clothing. He could see that his men had done the same. There were places where the blood appeared to form writing, but it was nothing that the magistrate could read, nor had any of those he had contacted about the strange symbols been able to tell him anything further. Takei had had ample opportunity to seek such assistance. This was the eighth such body to be discovered over the past four months.
Takei looked to the eta that accompanied his second yoriki and nodded. The little man bowed very deeply and stepped forward to move the body as Takei directed. At his nod of approval, the eta pulled aside the tattered remnants of clothing that covered the dead man's torso. The wounds there were the same as the others. Takei would have been sickened by them, by their extent and the obvious ferocity with which they were inflicted, except that he had become disgustingly accustomed to them.
Mikoru, his second yoriki, looked to be struggling. He had only joined Takei two months ago, after the murders started. This was the second dead body he had seen in his short life. He coughed violently, struggling to keep from retching. “What manner of beast could do something like that?” he finally managed, not looking at the body.
“This is no beast,” Takei said firmly. His voice held no trace of the humor and mirth it had only a short time ago. “The creatures of the Shadowlands rarely venture to Friendly Traveler.”
“It's always a possibility,” Mikoru insisted.
“I do not think so.” The magistrate shook his head. “The corpse is mutilated, yes, but nothing is missing. A ravenous beast would have devoured the flesh. That leaves the possibility that this was a sacrifice by some Shadowlands tsukai, but the murder scene bears no symbols of Fu Leng, no trappings of dark magic. As wicked an act as this is, it does not smell like the Shadowlands to me.”
“What is it, Takei-sama?”
The Yasuki glanced around the room, his trained eyes taking in every detail. “A man did this.”
The yoriko wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “What sort of man would do such a thing?” The greenish color in his face had not subsided, and he did not glance down as he spoke.
“A sick man,” Takei answered. “The Hida call it ranshin . It is not unusual for madness to strike so close to the Wall. Sometimes the horrors in these lands light a fire in a man's mind. He tries to ignore it, to bury it deep and extinguish it. But no matter how much he tries, he cannot control it. It builds and builds, until the burning is all he can feel. When that happens…” He gestured to the room around them. “He must find fuel to slake the fires… he must kill.”
Mikoru looked perplexed. “Do you mean that he cannot help himself? That whoever did this is not responsible for their actions?”
“Not responsible, perhaps” the magistrate said. “Not accountable? That is a different story. It falls to us to help this killer… and to help others by making certain he does not kill again. We will ease his pain, at the end of a sword if need be.” He rested his hand on the hilt of his blade as he continued to study the grisly scene.
Two weeks later, Takei wondered if his words had brought a curse upon him for his pride. The desk in his infrequently used office was completely covered in scrolls, each carefully describing every detail of evidence and every testimony of the murders. There was so much information, and so little that was of any use.
The first murder had been almost exactly four months ago. At the time, Takei had taken testimony from at three witnesses, peasants one and all but men that Takei believed were trustworthy. They had each identified a strange ronin woman that had been traveling through the village at the time. Takei had sent word to the next village, and the woman had been taken into custody. Before her execution, however, the second murder had taken place. Given the already tenuous circumstances around her arrest, namely the testimony of heimen, the Crab had no choice but to let her go.
Since that time, there had been three more bodies. Four, Takei corrected grimly, four more murders, all spaced out at seemingly random intervals. With each body, Takei had struggled to find some link between the victims. Each time, his theories had been shattered with the appearance of some new body that seemed completely unconnected to the previous victim's death. The most recent one, a reclusive, unmarried fisherman, had ties to almost no one in the village. His death was utterly without reason. Takei could find nothing that made him similar to any other victim, most of whom had been farmers or merchants of some sort. Indeed, the only time the fisherman would have seen other villagers would have been during trips to the shrines around it. He had been a pious man, it seemed.
Takei frowned. Why did that seem important? It seemed familiar. Why? He rummaged through the heavy scrolls for several long moments, occasionally unrolling one and looking over the contents. A former monk turned wheat farmer. A housewife. A miller. And in each case, the victim had at one point been a firmly dedicated to religion. One had even studied with the Kuni Witch Hunters for a time before being expelled for incompetence. Not all had maintained their piety, but some had. What did it mean? He couldn't be sure.
A moment of insight struck. Takei stood up so suddenly that his thighs crashed into the edge of his desk, nearly knocking it over in his haste. He barely noticed. The murders made little sense, perhaps, but he believed he knew who the next victim might be. As magistrate, he must prevent any further deaths, and as a Crab, he must protect his brothers. Brothers like Yasuki Nuroka, a barely adequate soldier who had, as a child, shown the capacity for speaking to the kami. He could have been a shugenja, but his mind simply wasn't keen enough to deal with all that he would be required to learn. Instead, he became a passable yojimbo, and drowned his dishonor with sake.
Takei ran through the streets, the glare of lamps illuminating the night only intermittently as he raced toward the sake house. He threw open the door and leapt inside, looking all about for his cousin. Many familiar faces greeted him, and some lifted their cups to call out greetings to him. Most died before they finished when they saw the look on his face. “Nuroka! Where is he?”
“He… he left almost half an hour ago,” one rare sober patron said weakly.
Takei cursed under his breath and bolted back out the door as quickly as he had arrived. Again, his course took him weaving through the village toward Nuroka's meager home. He knew that there was no reason to suspect the murderer would strike again so quickly. No two killings had been so close together save for the first two. And yet, he could not put aside his feeling… no, his certainty… that his cousin was in danger. In moments, he reached Nuroka's home. He did not hesitate for one moment, but smashed through the thin wooden door with the tetsubo he had grabbed from his office on his way out.
The stench of blood was so thick it was choking. The interior was almost completely dark. Only a single candle illuminated the small room, and it was lying on its side near a smashed desk. Across the room, his cousin lay sprawled at a sickening angle on the ground. Hunched over him was the form of a man, sitting down on his haunches like an animal might. The figure glanced over its shoulder at the noise of his approach.
Takei shouted a battle cry and hurled himself across the room, swinging the tetsubo with all his might. His target dove to the floor, missing the strike by inches. The tetsubo crashed into the wall and opened a hole the size of a man's head.
The murderer lashed out with a vicious kick that caught Takei right beneath the armpit. He hissed in pain and threw an elbow, striking his opponent across the top of the head. He grappled with the stranger for a moment, desperate to get a glimpse of their face in the darkened shadows, to no avail. The other head came forward once, twice, and then a third time, crushing Takei's noise and opening a gash on his forehead that send blood streaming into his eyes. He rolled away, cursing.
The sound of wood splintering forced Takei to his feet. He grabbed the discarded tetsubo and stumbled through the hole that had once been a rear wall of his cousin's home. The choppy waters of Earthquake Fish Bay greeted him, and he saw the faintest glimpse of someone as they disappeared beneath the waves.
The murderer was gone.
Convene the Imperial Assembly
As members of the Imperial Assembly, you have the opportunity to shape the future of Rokugan. This sordid tale of murder and betrayal is far from over, but its outcome has not yet been written. Your votes will determine how this saga, to be continued through fiction and flavor text, will develop.
• Where will the murderer strike next?
• Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
• Ryoko Owari, the City of Lies
• City of the Rich Frog, the City of War.
• Friendly Traveler Village.
• Where did this murderer come from?
• A member of the Great Clans.
• A ronin, driven mad by experiences on the wall.
• A peasant, unhappy with his life under the samurai's rule.
• A member of the Imperial Families, indulging in madness and using wealth and power to conceal his activities.
• A gaijin, lost in the Empire and taking out his mad rage on its people.
• What is the terrible secret behind the murderer's identify?
• Madness . Sometimes, mankind needs no assistance to commit great evil. The murderer is an existing personality from one of the Great Clans, driven to commit these hideous crimes by a burning insanity that he struggles to conceal deep within the innermost regions of his soul.
• Possession . Something utterly beyond the murderer's control drives him to sate dark, sinister urges. An item or being that the individual cannot control consumes him with its dark power, driving him to kill again and again, no matter the toll it takes on his honor.
• Corruption. The murderer is lost to the Taint, though he may not yet realize it. The dark powers deep inside the Shadowlands reach out through their pawn, paralyzing entire villages with fear and weakening the Empire's precious unity.