Shadow Warriors

Gatac 2019-04-22 08:48:31
IC Thread 29 - The final thread! At last!
Gatac 2019-04-22 10:31:28
It is the morning after and five incredible things are happening.

Incredible Thing #1: for the first time in untold years, the Council of High Lords will actually convene in the eponymous Council Hall of the Imperial Palace. The occasion merits it, but this requires you traveling to the actual Imperial Palace. Situated an hour's ride to the west of the capital, it sits on the side of a mountain, looming over a farming valley. Though its vast grounds, lush parks and splendid additions over the centuries have long since sprawled all over the mountainside, the resemblance of the original palace to the ninja clan fortresses does not escape you.

Incredible Thing #2: The artificial lake in the valley has never seen a ship like the Gungnir, but there it is, its new "fire engine" having proven its worth in getting the ship up the canals without any wind to help it. How Ueki managed the feat of navigation seems unclear, but the refitted Hanse warship doing a round of the lake must clearly be counted as some sort of victory lap. "Well, we're going to need some fireworks to celebrate?" Ueki said when pressed, and you have to admit that a bit of color to the proceedings - assuming the vote goes your way - wouldn't hurt.

Incredible Thing #3: As the guard detail (and what more thankless job is there than guarding a palace that's gone unused for a decade?) undoes the vast crossbars that hold closed the gates to the palace, Ishikawa-dono - in a fine black kimono and a matchingly-painted mask - clears her throat, catching the attention of everyone assembled.

"I know we have not properly convened," she begins. "But I propose that we admit a few...witnesses to the council session." She looks over to you and nods.
"That is highly unorthodox," Shira-dono hastens to reply, Ryusei swinging at his side as if to emphasize his point. "The sanctity of these deliberations -"
"Oh, give me a break!" Boota-dono comments, wiping sweat off his greasy brow. "Sanctity, proceedings, I ate a dictionary for breakfast! Why are we even here? Why even have a vote?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," Hetechi-dono says. Kichirou waves to him from his carriage, clearly enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.
"And, uh, the proper procedure," Tsukareta-dono says. His fingers still have ink stains from the various documents he tried to work on on the way here.
"I don't like to agree with Boota-dono," Shintaro-not-quite-but-kinda-dono weighs in, "but all this for a vote does seem rather ostentatious. Now, about that proposal..."

Everyone looks at him and his ratty, dirty kimono.

"...I see no reason to turn it down," Shintaro adds.
"Neither do I," Homi-dono adds. By his side stand Sidewinder and - Incredible Thing #4 - Copperhead, clad head to toe in armor and looking like one big walking bandage underneath. "There is a certain consideration of merit here. After all, we would not be here without them."
"You say that like it's a good thing," Boota snarks.
"Regardless of the way we took here," Ishikawa says, "I think we're all agreed that a candidate for the Throne must be tested and confirmed by us." Besides Boota's murmurs, nobody disagrees. "So that's settled. Now, my proposal. I count three Ayes. Anyone else?"
"Oh, whatever," Boota grumbles.
"You're abstaining?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah, sure, call it what you want," Boota says.
"I cannot consent to this proposal, as it is highly irregular," Shira says, then turns to you and nods his head. "Regardless of our friendship, I must be full-throated in my vote for tradition. Nay."
"Good thing some of us are voting for the future instead," Shintaro says.
"Yes, the, uh, future," Tsukareta says. "I mean, Aye."
"I see no reason to be intransparent about the most important political event of this decade," Hetechi says. "Aye."
"Five Ayes, one Nay, one abstention," Ishikawa sums up.
"The motion is carried," Shira says. "Come then, friends."

The big gate is unsealed and creaks open. That makes it the only thing in the palace that lacks maintenance, however. As you enter, you see terraced gardens tended to by legions of servants, monks raking gravel in front of the Emperor's family shrine off to the side and several groups of armed guards patrolling the grounds.

"Incredible," Yukio whispers, holding on to Toshi's arm. Befitting the occasion, she is dressed in full Matsumoto family armor with a bow on her back and her sword at her side - a marked contrast to Toshi, whose simple and elegant kimono plainly hides neither weapons nor armor.
"It is," Toshi tells her, holding back tears. "Isn't it."
"I'm here for you," Yukio replies.

Hand in hand, they follow the High Lords up the enormous stone-hewn steps to the palace proper, with their own personal honor guard of friends flanking them, while the palace guards bring up the rear. Behind the procession, with another creak, the gates are closed again.

---

You don't see Incredible Thing #5. Incredible Thing #5 is the gasp from Lady Ikishi as she recovers from a fall onto forest soil and tries to right herself with only one arm. Her clothes and face are covered in dirt, but she's got more important things to do, like casting her gaze around the clearing and turning on hand and knees, looking, searching - oh no. Her eyes see the markers in the distance, the forest graveyard and its legions of fallen soldiers.

"DO YOU SEE IT NOW," a voice booms from the shadows of the trees around her. "THE PRICE OF YOUR PRECIOUS THRONE."
"No!" Ikishi cries. "You're gone! I cast you out!"

She tries to stretch up the stump of her right arm, as if to demonstrate the truth of what she's saying. Still, as she looks around, she considers her options. Being spirited out of her prison cell just like that...well, the chance to escape her fate should not be discarded lightly. Maybe, a little voice inside her pleads, maybe Himiko will understand. There is no punishment to fit Lady Ikishi's crimes, none but death, and who is so righteous as to not want to flee from death? Himiko would understand. Wouldn't she?

"DID YOU," the voice continues. "YOU RENOUNCE MY POWER?"
"I renounce all of you!" Ikishi shouts, scrambling to her feet. "Look what you've cost me -"
"DO NOT PRESUME TO LECTURE ME ON LOSS, SUMIKO," the voice booms back at her; Ikishi feebly tries to cover one ear with her remaining hand, but it's no good. "MY PATIENCE IS STRETCHED FAR BEYOND ITS LIMITS. AND YOUR DEBT WEIGHS HEAVIER THAN YOU REALIZE."

As the voice thunders, its power gathers into shape, drawing darkness from the shadows, life from the trees and wetness from the ground; then, birthed in a five-meter circle of pure desolation, stands the shape of General Noronu, looking just the same as before Kirika sliced him apart. Only the light of the sun shining through his shape betrays the lack of substance behind it. Ikishi's eyes flick to the side of Noronu, where the Ayami clan's "Master" Sinan appears, leaning his shadow form against a tree with his arms folded.

"THREE APES," Sinan and Noronu says in unison, and Ikishi finds herself mouthing along with them. "YOU ALL CRAVED POWER. AND YOU ALL WASTED IT."
"No," Ikishi whispers. "No, it's...it's over..."

In a flash, Sinan's shape is right in front of Ikishi; he stabs a shadowy hand straight into her chest. Ikishi's face contorts into pure agony. She can neither scream nor close her eyes as Sinan lifts her easily off the ground, hand wrapped tightly around her heart - or what would be her heart.

"OH, YOU CAST OUT MOST OF ME," the dark voice says. "BUT YOU FORGOT THIS. OR DID YOU HONESTLY THINK ONE STONE WAS NOT ENOUGH TO ANCHOR ME TO THIS WORLD?"
"Please," Ikishi stammers, the last of her warmth escaping between her tight lips. "My daughter..."

But it's no use. Sinan's shadow-shape flows into her, forcing little glowing trickles of raw chi to erupt from her skin and drip down onto the forest floor. Noronu's shadow-shape bites into her stump, pressing one last howl of pain from her, then contorts itself until it resembles an arm, the same way a bleached skeleton in the desert resembles a horse. Her skin goes pale and taut, and when only her darting eyes are left, frantically searching for one more trick, one more option, one more way out, they flood with shadow, too. What gently sets its feet onto the forest floor is no longer the delicate trickster noble, no longer even vaguely human. Black orbs peer from a face as hard and white as marble, while the body is clad in shimmering chitinous growths, as if someone painstakingly painted Ikishi's family colors onto an enormous rhino beetle.

"No..." she stills echoes from underneath.
"YOU WILL LEARN SO MUCH MORE FROM ME, SUMIKO," the voice booms. "LET'S SET RIGHT YOUR MOST RECENT MISTAKES. NO MORE GAMES. IT IS TIME TO DESTROY OUR ENEMIES."

The Ikishi-shape waves its shadow-hand over the ground. With a rumble from beneath, the ground shifts and shakes. Within seconds, the ashes of the dead rise from fissures in the forest floor; cold though they are, they gather more substance from the shadows until a lost battalion of damned souls marches through the forest - and towards a mountain on the horizon.

---

"...you feel that?" Toshi whispers to you as you ascend the steps. "Like a...tremor? In the distance?"
punkey 2019-04-22 21:40:07
The whole way to the Palace, as Kirika shadowed Toshi, she finally felt at peace. Toshi, her best friend, was finally ascending to his rightful place as Emperor, and...it felt right that she was by his side for it. Kirika couldn't explain it, but it felt like this is where she was supposed to be. As she follows Toshi and Yukio through the gardens and up the steps to Palace itself, it feels as if she is standing in a warm and calm sea, so calm that you even forget the water is there.

And then a cold wave breaks over her head. Something is wrong, very wrong, and it's to the east. She turns with a snap, her hand on her sword. "I definitely felt that," she whispers back.
"We're stopping," Yukio says through her smile, stating the obvious as the honor guard stops behind them and the High Lords turn around to look at them. "Why are we stopping."
Kirika strains her eyes, but can't see anything. "I...don't really know," Kirika replies. "Something is wrong."
"What's the matter?" Boota-dono calls from above, chuckling to himself. "Nervous?" Bound as he might be to deliver a Yes vote, he doesn't miss the opportunity to needle you one more time.
"We're, ah, going to join you in a moment," Toshi calls up to them. With both Homi and Hetechi catching Kirika's glances, they usher the remaining High Lords up the stairs while you hold position on the stairs.
"I don't see anything," Yukio concurs.
"Okay," Toshi says. "We have to get this vote over with. But let's keep our eyes open. Yes?"
"...agreed," Kirika says. She bows to Toshi, a little embarrassed. "Apologies, Prince."
"None needed...Shadowguard," Toshi says, then chuckles. "Better a second look than a knife between the ribs, right?"
Gatac 2019-05-05 15:27:45
After all the buildup to this moment, the council chamber in the imperial palace cannot help but disappoint. It is shaped like an octagon inside an octagon; the middle holds an elaborate mosaic of the Empire's seal surrounded on seven sides by the standing desks of the High Lords. The eighth side has a conspicuously new elevated podium built for speaking. Set back into the wall is an alcove with stairs leading up to an ornate chair - not quite the throne, but clearly the Emperor's place to sit and watch the deliberations if the fancy should strike. Several doors outside lead to individual offices where, once upon a time, a bustling group of clerks, scholars and samurai would assist the High Lords with their daily business. As is, the place - though kept immaculately clean - feels heavy with the weight of history and the silence of the last few years.

However, as everyone fills into the room, Boota stops in his tracks when Toshi crosses the threshold.

"Begging your pardon, Prince," he says, "but is tradition that we deliberate without the heir in attendance." He smiles. "For the sake of things. You understand."
Toshi nods, already having learned that lesson on soft power. "Of course," he says. "For the sake of things. The other witnesses will suffice."
"...I guess they must," Boota replies.

Toshi gives you each a hug - yes, each and every one of you - then withdraws to the area outside. Hetechi wordlessly shows you to a bench in the back where you can sit, then takes his place as the last High Lord at his desk.

"Order, order," Ishikawa says. "This council will come to order now. This extraordinary meeting has been called by Hetechi-dono and myself to settle the matter of Toshiro Takeda and his claim to the throne. To this end, a motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens has been entered. We will each be granted the opportunity to speak our minds and place a vote - Aye or Nay - with regards to this motion. As is the way of this council, we shall speak in order of seniority. As chairwoman of this session, I will be speaking last, so as to not influence anyone's vote." She bows deeply to Shira. "Shira-dono, we would be honored as always to hear your thoughts first."

Shira returns the nod and coughs into his fist as he prepares to speak. His look sweeps the chambers.

"Fellow High Lords," he begins. "These are trying times. No doubt we have all felt the sting of uncertainty and discontent in the Empire. The throne of the heavens has lain vacant for far too long." He doesn't leave that point up to debate. "Our previous efforts to locate a suitable heir have failed. So it has come to be that we must now adjudicate a most unusual claimant. You all well know that I am no friend of upending tradition. For many generations, my family has upheld tradition in the service of the throne and" - he looks down, fighting back a few tears - "sacrificed much in its name. In the name of duty, we hardened our hearts. In the name of duty, we did as we were bid no matter the consequences. In the name of duty...we were unspeakably cruel to the ones we loved. Truly there is no higher calling." He takes a breath. "It is with happiness and sadness both that I have laid eyes upon Prince Toshiro, gazed at his achievements, his friendships, his moral character. Happiness because I believe he is a rare breed of man, a man who understands the necessities of leadership without having let himself be crushed by them. Sadness because I know that his character will be tested sorely should he ascend to the throne. What a terrible thing it is, to wield power, to have to wield power...to be responsible for everything. It is...the burden hardest to bear. And I believe he would bear it well." Shira takes a breath. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."

"Thank you for your remarks, Shira-dono," Ishikawa comments. "Your vote has been recorded. Next, we will hear from the Shadowguard, High Lord Hiro Homi."
Silence falls over the council chambers as Hiro Homi clears his throat. "I'm afraid I must submit a correction to the council records," he says. There are stares from everyone but Hetechi, and Boota in particular grows more consternated by the second. "I was remiss in informing you all that I laid down my office as Shadowguard several days ago. My chosen successor is Kamura-dono."

All eyes turn to Kirika and Yukio all but shoves her forward from their position as observers at the edge of the council chambers.

"What," Boota says. "You cannot be serious!"
"I never joke about my work, Boota-dono," Homi says. "Kirika Kamura is my chosen successor and has been entrusted with all the duties and responsibilities of my office. Many of the actions you have seen Shadowwatch take in the last few days to ensure order and peace in the Empire have been under her command." He smiles. "And the fact that I forgot to inform you of this change just proves that I am no longer capable of discharging my duties in the manner worthy of this position. As the council rules state -"
"Oh, forget it," Boota says. "Just forget I said anything."
"You withdraw your objection?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah, yeah," Boota says. "But only because I am very interested to hear this next bit." He turns to look at Kirika. "So, what say you, Shadowguard?"
Kirika looks around the room for a moment, and opens her mouth for a few moments before speaking. "I have known Prince Toshiro for several years now, and...he has never been anything less than a steadfast friend and ally. Since we have embarked on our journey to this moment, he has shown more...more grace, maturity, and wisdom than I would have thought possible for any one person. Prince Toshiro has sought justice for those denied it, given voice to those that are ignored, and settled disputes with a look and a few words. He didn't seek the throne until all other avenues had been exhausted, and that alone should prove his wisdom. I trust his judgement above all others, even my own, and I would lay down my life for him without a second thought." Kirika steels herself, stands up straight, and steps into the empty spot at the chamber that Hiro Homi had just vacated. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Oh, get real," Boota says.
"Boota-dono," Ishikawa cautions, "your turn to speak will come."
"Pah," Boota says. "What could I possibly say to sway anyone's mind here?" He looks around. "You are all aware by now, I imagine, that Toshiro Takeda fled the palace, lived for years under a false identity as the lowest of commoners, that he made ends meet through manual labor and - when his talents in that field proved meager - petty crime. Surely your own due diligence has provided you these facts by now. Hasn't it?" He turns to Kirika. "And naturally, you would have known all this from the beginning, Shadowguard. Yet not mention a word to us here. If this is not the last chance for honesty, when then shall we hear some truth? Is this all you have to say about Prince Toshiro, then?"

"I thought that we were keeping somewhat in mind the concept of haste, Boota-dono," Kirika replies. "But if you want, I can give a more full account. Yes, when I first met Prince Toshiro, it was as a petty thief. I was also a thief, and a liar, and made my living convincing nobles of things that were not true so that I could steal from them. I remembered my father and mother, and what my name meant, but I had put that all behind me. I had given up on who I am, what my family is, and what we stand for. And it was Prince Toshiro was the one who refused to let me truly abandon myself. He and I, we were good thieves together - as you well know, Boota-dono. But he also refused to take a copper from anyone who didn't have more than enough of their own. He would never harm those that got in our way. He would make restitution to those caught in the middle of our crimes. He never let me give up on myself - and that kept the Kamura fire alive in me. When he needed help, I was there without question, because Toshi was the most decent man I knew, because he had saved me from my own demons. I say this without hesitation or exaggeration: Toshiro Takeda saved not only my life, but that of the entire Kamura line - and he did not do so with his eye on the throne, he did so as, as you said, a petty criminal."
"Hrm," Boota scoffs.
Kirika fixes Boota with a glare. "I did not take this position through trickery or happenstance. I was Toshi's guardian long before this day, and I would have given my last breath for him long before I knew of his lineage. Toshi is a good man, Boota-dono, no matter what he has done, he has always been one. We need more like him, and we need him on the throne."
Boota glares at Kirika as she sees his strategy unravel. Sure, he was bound by his promise to vote for Toshi...but there was nothing in the deal about not swaying the others away. Yet, as he looks around the chamber, he sees that the gambit has failed.
"I know it is highly irregular for me to speak again and I beg your indulgence in doing so," Shira-dono weighs in, "but I have seen the truth of what Kamura-dono has said. A man chooses his path on every day, with every choice he makes. I am sure you can see the truth in this as well, Boota-dono. Let us not assassinate Prince Toshiro with his past. Nobody is born worthy, but I am quite satisfied that he has become so. If you are not, then vote your own conscience when it is your turn."
"Yes," Boota says quietly. "I believe I will."

As Boota steps back, another chill runs over Kirika's back. Even though she can all but hear Kaede cheering her on as she put Boota in his place, the other ancestors can sense that something is coming this way - and they're getting ready for a fight.

"Thank you for your remarks, Kamura-dono," Ishikawa says. "Hetechi-dono?"
"Yes, thank you," Hetechi says. "As Kamura-dono described so eloquently, I believe a lot can be said of a man by the merest glance at the people he keeps at his side. In this regard I should at least say that Prince Toshiro's company is colorful." He nods to Toshiba and Takao. "What Kamura-dono was too polite to mention is that this Empire cannot sustain itself on high-minded ideals and friendship alone. It needs people of action, and if not samurai, then perhaps somebody who is well-acquainted with all the people of the Empire, from the most noble to the most common. Good leadership arises from perspective, fellow High Lords. A man who has never known hunger cannot feel the joy of a bountiful harvest. A man who has never shed blood cannot know the weight of committing an army to war. A man who has never loved someone else will only ever love himself. And a man who has never made mistakes...will never truly strive to do right. What Boota-dono elaborated on are not flaws to be discarded; they are the marks of true experience. All who have met Prince Toshiro speak highly of his qualities as a human being. I could never endorse a man for this throne who was flawless as a cut gem, for I would know he has been diminished by just this removal of the rough edges, made to conform to someone else's idea of beauty and order." He takes another breath. "To be truly godly, one must first be...human. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
Boota harrumphs over the solemn quiet of the chamber.
"Boota-dono," Ishikawa says, "seeing as it is your turn now, perhaps you would like to share your remarks?"

Boota steps forward at his desk. "I have only ever done what was wise for the Empire," he says. "This is what we were called for here, to do the wise thing. Not the right thing, not the popular thing, but whatever choice was needed to let the Empire flourish. I hear a lot of talk about how Toshiro Takeda is a good man. Well, to hells with that!"
Murmur starts around the chamber.
"Order," Ishikawa says. "Order."
"To hells with good men," Boota continues. "To hells with kindness and eloquence, too. Our Empire has never been more vulnerable to the machinations of outsiders, to subversion by foreigners, to attack from the mainland. What we need is a cutthroat warlord who commands the respect and fear of all. A man unburdened by frailties of soft-heartedness or heavy conscience. A clever man who appeals - just enough - to others that he does not invite open rebellion, but still ceaselessly pursues a singular vision for the Empire. Someone who will make us great again. I ask you, is Toshiro Takeda the man I describe?" He smiles. "I believe so. I've done my due diligence. You all feel free to vote for whatever sappy nonsense you wish, but your Aye will be counted along my clear-eyed vote all the same. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Thank you," Ishikawa says, and Boota finally steps down, smiling smugly at Kirika. He's delivered his "yes" but damn if he hasn't done his best to derail all this.

"We shouldn't have let him go," Yukio fumes with a whisper into Kirika's ear.
"Tsukareta-dono," Ishikawa says, "it is your turn to speak."
"Yes, ah, I will," Tsukareta says, casting a nervous glance. "I - I find myself agreeing with Boota-dono. Never before has the Empire faced such a threat." Yukio's grip around Kirika's hand tightens as Boota's smile deepens. "I'm speaking of the threat of backwardness!" Tsukareta continues, and Boota's grin falters. "Yes, the foreigners are dangerous to us - because of their technology, their way of life, their efficiency. They don't need warships to conquer us! Yes, we must...must make this Empire great again. But not by steel, but by silver!" He looks around. "I've not had the privilege of spending much time with Prince Toshiro but yes, I have met his friends. And they are some of the most forward-thinking, open-minded advisors I could think of. A man who listens to these kinds of people...inconvenient people, radical people, I almost might say - uncouth people! Someone who can keep friendship with them and take their perspective into account and is willing to do what is wise - which is investment! Reform! Modernization! That is an emperor I can get behind. So yes, I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
Boota fumes but says nothing as Ishikawa nods to Tsukareta. "High Lord Shintaro," she says, "your remarks?"

"Yeah," Shintaro says. "Hi to everyone who doesn't know me. Name's Shintaro, no clan, my parents are commoners. Used to be Itanu's numbers guy until Itanu...you know. As he would say, started from the bottom, now we're here." He looks around. "Toshiro's fine by me. That's really all there is to it. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"...that's all?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah," Shintaro says. "I don't have to give a speech, do I?"
"No, but -"
"Then yeah, that's it," Shintaro says. "Your turn."
"...yes," Ishikawa says. "I suppose it is."

As Shintaro steps back, Ishikawa clears her throat.

"I apologize in advance," she says, then reaches to lower her hood and undo the strap holding the mask to her face. Gingerly, she removes it and puts it down on her desk. If anything, the burns and missing facial features look even worse in the brighter light of the chamber. Tsukareta turns white as a sheet at the sight, while even Shira seems taken aback by the grisly sight.

"I think you had a right to see this, finally," she continues. "It has cost me...immeasurably much to stand here today. To live up to a high ideal. And to champion the right thing even when it wasn't wise." She throws a glance at Boota, who averts his eyes. "I've heard many arguments in favor of Toshiro today. But I would be remiss not to mention one quality that has been given short shrift so far: his perseverance in the face of adversity. We are all well aware of what it took to come to this moment, and our own struggles are dwarfed by what Toshiro and his friends went through. At every turn, they had the opportunity to walk away from him. At every turn, he had the chance to abandon his quest. And at every turn, we had the right" - she leaves that hanging for a moment - "we had the right to harden our hearts, to turn away, to not see what he put in front of us. But we have seen, haven't we? We have all had to confront things that were not right. We all had to become aware of our own biases, our own shortcomings, our own mistakes. One such mistake is my own and you will be sure to hear of it soon." She nods to Toshiba and Takao. "What Shira-dono described as giri is the never-ending sacrifice of doing what is best for others without regard to what is best for yourself. I am given to understand that Toshiro - Toshi to his friends - is many things that an Emperor cannot be. That he is willing to forgo all of that...that he is willing to abandon his happy life to be Emperor...is all the qualification I needed to see." She breathes deep. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Then it falls to me to make the proclamation," Shira-dono says. "As of this moment, we are all resolved, unanimously, that the throne of heaven is no longer vacant. Let today be the first day of the reign of Emperor Toshiro."

Everyone, even Boota, intones "Emperor Toshiro" three times together. At Homi's prodding, Kirika joins in.

"Order," Ishikawa says. "I call this meeting of the council of High Lords to order. The purpose we have come to serve has been concluded. I move to adjourn this meeting. All in favor?"

Six Ayes echo through the chamber.

"Meeting adjourned," Ishikawa says. "Kamura-dono," she says, fumbling to replace her mask on her face. "Perhaps it ought to fall to you to inform the Emperor of our decision."
punkey 2019-05-07 12:52:38
Kirika looks at Ishikawa with astonishment, but slowly nods. "Of - of course, Ishikawa-dono." She turns towards the door that leads to the Emperor's waiting chambers - showing how much even the building had cast its vote. The doorway is, like much of the palace, understated and luxurious at the same time. There's no excess of gold leaf or feet of minute engraving and carving, just a beautiful design executed exquisitely. It truly shows the difference between modern buildings and the classics.

Kirika pushes the door open, and waits for Toshi to stand up from the bench by the wall - and then bows all the way down to her knees, resting her head on the floor.
This would be a prime moment for Toshi to fumble it. Run for the door before anyone sees it. Tell Kirika to get up right away, what are you doing, we're besties, remember? But maybe there is something to this day that has truly changed him. He stays silent as Kirika kowtows to him.

"Please, rise," he says after a few moments. He maintains his dignity all the way up to Kirika getting back on her feet. Then, his face shows a bare hint of a grin. "How'd we do?" he asks quietly.
"We did all right," Kirika says, her grin only slightly wider that Toshi's. "They let me go second and decided to vote for you anyway."
"So, five...or six?" Toshi probes.
"Seven," Kirika replies, her grin growing a bit more.
Toshi nods. "Boota kept his word, then," he says. "He's still retiring one way or another but at least that's over with -"

That's exactly as far as he gets before Yukio bursts into the room.

"Oh, hey," Toshi says. "Welcome to Day 1, Empress."
"What?" Yukio asks, eyes darting between Toshi and Kirika. "Oh. Yes. Come with me."
"...sure?" Toshi says as Yukio rushes back out.

Following behind her, you speed back towards the entrance, where Yukio leads you through a side corridor onto one of the ancient battlements of the palace. From there, she wordlessly indicates to the horizon in the east - where you can just about make out something that might be a small force of soldiers marching your way.

"They bear no standard," Yukio says. "I think we need to assume they're hostile."
"They're also a bit late for their objections," Toshi jokes.
"That won't really matter if they kill us all, will it?" Yukio replies.
"Point taken," Toshi says, then turns to you. "Ideas?"
"Get the palace staff to safety, send them out the back," Kirika replies. "Soldiers defend but do not leave to approach them - no one approaches them, not you," she looks at Yukio, "or you." Kirika turns to Toshi. "They're not...that's no regular army."
Gatac 2019-05-13 16:48:15
"Indeed not," Shira comments. "Nevertheless, I shall have the alarms sounded."

---

It's been centuries since the Imperial palace was under honest-to-Heavens siege, but the architecture still remains in place to defend against one. Gongs are rung and signal fires lit. Within fifteen minutes, staff has been evacuated through the backward mountain pass, the guards are at the defensive positions and gates are shuttered. Within that time, you've retreated to the roof of the palace for a better look at the situation. The enemy army - and it is an army, if a small one, maybe a thousand men by Shira's reckoning - has kept moving forward through the woods, obscuring sight at their formation. At this rate, it'll be two hours still until they reach the walls of the palace.

"What a foolish attack," Shira surmises. "They've no siege equipment with them. If we send word to Rock Lee's men outside the capital, they can be here by nightfall and vanquish the enemy. All the while, we can easily hold fast for days here. We've the provisions and fortifications for it."
"I'm not looking to be besieged," Toshi - ahem, sorry, Emperor Toshiro - says. "Any way we can take the battle outside?"
"I do not recommend that, my liege," Shira says. "Even if they are of poor skill and armament, they outnumber us twenty to one. They would overrun any fighting position we could establish outside the walls until they get here. We should instead spend the time until their arrival distributing ammunition to the archers and doing a round of the perimeter to make sure there are no weaknesses they could exploit."
"Right," Toshiro says. "That makes sense." He turns to you. "I don't like that we don't know anything about them, though. You said they're no regular army, but...that doesn't really tell me a lot. Perhaps someone could scout?"
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-05-14 14:59:35
"Konoko can alert General Lee faster than any rider," Toshiba suggests. "In the meantime I shall see what fresh hell creeps towards us."
Gatac 2019-05-19 18:57:43
Said and done - Toshiba writes a quick message and entrusts it to the metal cylinder on Konoko's leg. With a loud "KEEE!" the bird of prey darts into the sky and catches the mountain's downdraft, sailing away towards the capital. Toshiba considers following her, but on a bright day like this, he'd be seen for miles with his boots of fire streaking through the sky. Old school it is, then - and there's always rocketing back in a bind.

---

There are ways, one supposes, to move without being seen, even in broad daylight. However, a woodsman like Toshiba well knows that moving always leaves a trace and makes success depend on the blindness of the quarry. Much easier to spy on a moving army, then, by picking a good hiding spot in its path and letting it pass by. The rich crown of this keyaki tree and the right rags hide him almost perfectly, though he almost misguesses his timing: this army is marching relentlessly with sure step, making little attempt at stealth, but they are doing so in utter quiet - no marching songs, no orders, not even chatter. As Toshiba gazes down at the passing column, he can guess the reason why: these soldiers are scraps of rotted meat and bones sewn together by pure darkness into shapes that mock their bygone living forms. A dead branch fortified with shadow serves as pike, the shattered skull of a boar lashed together with strings of blackness replaces a helmet, and the leg of a fallen deer could be mistaken for a bow, its sinews somehow pulled from its flesh and strung taut against the calcified bones. This must be what the spectres fought underneath Lady Ikishi's mansion looked like. Toshiba's count is up to two hundred of the abominations when he sees their commander, a larger-than-life blob of shadow, two heads taller than the largest brigand, untainted by such worldly concepts as "solidity" or "qi". Still, Toshiba senses something living within it still, and as if on cue, the creatures shoulder ripples and stretches, something pushing against the inside, something like a...hand?

"YOU HAVE BEEN DROWNING FOR AN HOUR NOW, SUMIKO," the foul creature echoes from no mouth, its porcelain white face sparkling for no audience save for whatever...whoever might be caught inside. Wait, Sumiko...Ikishi Sumiko? What has that foolish woman done now? "SOON YOU WILL LACK EVEN THE ENERGY TO TWITCH WITHIN ME. I CAN FEEL YOUR HEART SLOWING ALREADY. DID YOU IMAGINE YOU HAD YEARS, MAYBE, IN THIS WORLD? TIME TO ATONE? YOUR QI WOULD NOT EVEN SUSTAIN US UNTIL SUNDOWN." Something not entirely unlike laughter echoes from within the shadow creature. "STILL, MORE THAN ENOUGH TIME TO SIT ON THE THRONE YOU COULD NEVER HAVE. AND DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE PATH BEYOND. YOU WON'T DIE TODAY. NOT BEFORE I'VE TAKEN YOUR DAUGHTER, TOO. WITH HER FRESH QI...WHY, WE MIGHT MANAGE TO BRING THE ENTIRE EMPIRE TO KNEEL BEFORE US."
Gatac 2019-06-23 09:18:50
Toshiba patiently waits for the army to pass, but then he has to make haste to report. There's no way to be faster than them on foot and while it irks him to alert their enemy, there is little choice but to fly back. Even though he wisely chooses to fly higher than their bows might conceivably reach, he would still expect them to try, to scatter or at least react to the sight of him flying overhead. Yet, nothing. The columns march on, inexorably making their way through the woods. Toshiba does the quick mental math: a thousand of them or near enough that the difference won't matter, perhaps two hours away from the outer walls of the palace.

---

This report is, shall we say, not taken well by Emperor Toshiro back at the palace. Even Yukio looks ashen at the news. Just as the discussion on what to do is poised to begin, however, the "Kiii!" of Konoko sounds and she glides from the skies, perching on Toshiba's outstretched arm. She holds out her leg to him with the message capsule attached, not even making a show of begging for a bit of fresh kill.

"Summons received," Toshi reads off the scroll. "Mobilizing a sonae of my best men. Expect us by noon. Rock Lee." He looks up at the sky. "Damn it all. That's cutting it too close."
"Kiiiii," Konoko interjects, then holds out her other leg. What looked like a little bandage at first glance is actually a small, rolled up banner. Toshi unfurls it to see the family sigil of the Matsumoto clan painted on it.
"Father!" Yukio yelps. "I invited him for the ceremonies, but he had sent word that he was delayed by a surging river yesterday..."
"You could have mentioned that he was coming," Toshi tells her. "Like, at any point prior to now."
Yukio looks down. "I did not...wish for you to be...intimidated."
To his credit, Toshi doesn't hesitate with his response. "We're past that kind of stuff," he says. "How many men is he bringing?"
"He did not say," Yukio says. "Just that everyone important was coming with him. I expect his honor guard...maybe a few dozen samurai?"
"I think we'll take what we can get right now," Toshi says. "If we can get it in time."

At that, Konoko flaps her wings and pulls at Toshiba's arm. As you turn to look at her, you see a small cloud of dust on the horizon - riders making a hard push for the castle, maybe a half hour away. Even at a distance, the Matsumoto colors pop - but fully two thirds of the riders are dressed differently. Looks like he's scared up a few more people for his ride.

"Kiiii!" Konoko adds smugly, cocking her head to the side and opening her beak. Now she wants her treat.
punkey 2019-06-23 17:47:55
Kirika looks out over the fields before the castle - a few stands of trees, but nothing so high or large to be considered "defensive". The only feature of interest are the rows of rice paddies off to the side of the field - isolated and alone, and not in the way of the castle's gates.

"Shia-dono," Kirika says. "I am seeing a definite lack of defensible positions here. When was the last time this castle was under siege?"
Gatac 2019-06-24 17:23:21
"Four generations ago," Shira recalls, "during the Northlands Incursion." He turns around. "That time, the outer palace walls held long enough for reinforcements to arrive. The Emperor was summering on an island retreat in any event. When he returned, it was to a fresh battlefield. He ordered it cleaned up and the forward field defenses ploughed over to plant a plum orchard. The orchard was felled by the Century Storm sixty years ago, where a lightning strike also set watchtower number two on fire. Again, the Emperor ordered the mess cleaned away." Shira sighs. "My father carried out the work and, despite his personal misgivings, he did it very well. If the Throne desired to forget those misfortunes and gaze upon a pastoral landscape, who was he to object? Today, you would hardly guess that these defenses once held armies at bay."
"Shikata ga nai," Toshi mutters.
"We still have two hours," Yukio says. "I want all wagons and sleds dragged onto the field, then doused in what oil we can spare. Place some blackpowder underneath them, too. The obstacles will split the attackers and if they attempt to take cover, we can set them ablaze with fire arrows and blow them off the battlefield. Spears rammed into the earth in front of the main gate to stop whatever passes for their cavalry. And send men to help Ueki-kun prepare the Gungnir and safeguard the passage towards the lake. It is our fastest way to escape. We also need its catapult able and ready to fire into the thick of the field and I don't care whether that means it has to walk off his ship."
Shira looks to Toshi, who just nods.
"My liege!" Shira barks, then strides off to put the orders into practice.
"I need to have a word with him," Toshi says. "Your orders are just as important as mine, after all."
"That's a topic for tomorrow, after we survive this," Yukio says. She looks to Kirika. "Shall we go welcome my father, dearest?"
Gatac 2019-07-03 17:19:47
"This will hopefully be the last time we greet your father with battle plans," Kirika says.
"Yes," Yukio says.

As the cloud of dust of dust before you rolls to a stop, the man riding up front is unmistakably Aotaka Matsumoto. Though dressed in a plain riding kimono, his retainers bring with them a second horse loaded down with his armor and a plethora of his personal weapons. One can only imagine what he thought he needed all that for when he packed for the confirmation festivities, but this is hardly the time to question his logistical decisions. He's barely off the horse when he gets down to his knees into the dust and bows deeply to Yukio.

"Empress!" he barks. "I received your summons. My men, my blade and my life are at your disposal."
"...father..." Yukio whispers, then takes a breath and steels herself. "Very good, Lord Matsumoto. Tell your men to report to High Lord Shira with all haste, he is coordinating the defense."
"It shall be done!" Matsumoto says. He rises to one knee and bows his head again, this time to Kirika. "Shadowguard! There are others with me who wish to place themselves at your disposal."

As he speaks, you see the people not in Matsumoto colors dismount. There's Olafsen - now sporting a ponytail and an eyepatch, Karla with a worryingly big axe, Ramma dressed in his Lightwatch outfit sans mask. But most of them are actually the Imperial Sharpshooters in their Hanse-inspired military uniforms, led with casual ease by Feldwebel Aramaki. Riding next to them is Major Von Schneider in his best gold-buttoned uniform, his exotic gonnes secured to the side of his horse.

"Hello...everyone," Kirika says, not sure who should be addressed first from the crowd of dangerous people she had helped over their journeys. "I thank you all for coming so quickly." She bows to them. "You will all be needed this day."
Karla gives a low chuckle as she weighs her axe.
"Feldwebel Aramaki!" the Major shouts. "Bringen Sie die Maenner in Stellung und melden Gefechtsbereitschaft!"
"Ja-wohl!" Aramaki answers in half-decent Hanse.
The Major nods down to Yukio. "Meine Verehrung, eure Hoheit," he says. With clipped, strained words, he struggles out a single phrase: "Love live the Emperor." Another nod and he's off, never dismounting.
"Looks like we're gonna be good on putting holes in people," Ramma comments as he watches the Sharpshooters march off. "Speaking of, who are we fighting?"
"Spectral undead lead by a yokai animating a porcelain form powered by Lady Ikishi's qi," Kirika replies.
"About a thousand of them," Yukio adds.
Karla's face twists into a wild, wide grin.
"You don't do things by halves when you make enemies, do you?" Ramma asks.
"I heard the Gungnir is here," Olafsen cuts in. "Where is it?"
"In the lake," Kirika replies. "Our armorer has made some upgrades."
"...upgrades?" Olafsen spits. "Armorer?!"
"It is now mounted with a catapult capable of flinging explosive barrels a great distance, armored against gonne attacks, and considerably faster than before," Kirika says. "It can now outrun any ship and blow up both ships and buildings without taking a scratch."

Olafsen stomps off wordlessly. Clearly, to his mind, his ship was perfect as is, and he's going to have to have words with whoever's responsible for the modifications.

"Ah, don't mind him!" Karla laughs. "He may have sworn off piracy but he'll always have a weak spot for that old bucket." She's looking, for lack of a better word, healthy. Probably still not as stout as she once was, but her escape from Sarano's mansion has clearly worked in her favor.
"I had heard that his new accessory is your doing?" Kirika asks, and gives Karla a hug. "What happened? How are you doing?"
"I'm great, thanks to you," Karla says, holding her axe out to the side as she returns the hug. "And don't worry about the eye. He actually lost that years ago, but he was so vain he used to wear an expensive glass eye in there. Now that he's an ex-pirate, though, he decided he had to look the part." She shakes her head. "What is it with men and all their frippery? I rode next to Major Von Schneider and he almost blinded me every time the sun hit his uniform. Where that man finds the time to polish his buttons, I have no idea."
"How else will they show off to other men?" Kirika laughs. "But I heard...you and Olafsen..."
"I bedded him, if that is what you're trying to say," Karla says.
"Oh, I bet you did," Ramma says, earning a side glare from Karla. "I mean, that's what I heard."
"That's what you heard," Karla repeats. "On a farm. In the middle of nowhere."
"...news travels fast these days," Ramma says. "You're not exactly...anonymous around these parts."
"It was just surprising, given the givens," Kirika says.
"I guess," Karla says, obviously not seeing what a big deal this is. "I'm gonna get something to eat, if you don't need me right now. We've been riding hard since the morning and that damn bird caught us on our rest stop before we could get a fire going."
"Actually, I have something special for you and Olafsen," Kirika says. "When Yukio and I are away from Toshi - I mean, the Emperor, I would like you both to be his guards. When we return you can rejoin the fight, but I would feel better with you both watching his back when we cannot."
"Oh," Karla says, weighing the axe a bit more. "That's...that's very important, and a great honor. Of course." She thinks for a moment. "I mean, suppose some of them flanked the defenses and snuck in."
"They will send their biggest, ugliest, and fiercest monsters against him," Kirika says. "And if they are at the walls, we will be with him and you and Olafsen can go and have fun."
"It's a win either way," Yukio adds.
"Quite," Karla says. "I'll see you after the fight."
Kirika turns to Ramma. "How do you feel about killing whatever seems most important?" she asks. "You know better than I what to strike, I trust your judgment."
"You got it," Ramma says. "Homestead's doing well, by the way."
"Didn't need saying," Kirika replied with a smirk. "Like I said, I trust your judgment."

She looks around. "Where is that damnable High Lord Nikochi?"
"Woah!" Ramma says. "One, never heard of him, two, since when do you speak that way of High Lords?"
"You would too if you met him," Kirika says. "Love, have you seen him? He was supposed to be here."
"I've not seen him," Yukio says, "but were I to hazard a guess, I would check the wine cellar."
Kirika looks towards the entrance to the castle's cellar, then back to Lord Matsumoto, preparing his collection of arms and armor, back to the cellar, then back to Matsumoto-sama, and groans. "Damn him," she mutters, then puts on a smile and walks to greet Lord Matsumoto. "Matsumoto-sama," she says with a bow.
Matsumoto immediately bows deeper. "You flatter me, Kamura-dono," he says. "News have reached me that you are now Emperor Toshiro's Shadowguard. Congratulations are in order."
"I think some degrees of respect transcend class or rank," Kirika says, taking Yukio's hand. "What is your assessment of our situation?"
"That depends," Matsumoto says. "Have you faced these creatures before?"
Kirika nods. "They are mostly dead flesh and animate forms, but can be dispelled by disrupting their forms. Alternatively, usually destroying the head or heart - whichever it has - will break the magics holding it together."
"Right," Matsumoto says. "I should like to test that theory. Let me take my riders and attack their flanks. We will see how difficult they are to kill on their own, but more importantly, we will see whether these beasts fight with any semblance of strategy or simply march to their doom."
"Only as a testing maneuver to guide them into our archers and gonne-soldiers," Kirika replies.
"Naturally," Matsumoto says. "What greater waste of cavalry than to let them get stuck on an objective." He nods to Yukio. "We shall ride through them and report back."
"Thank you, father," Yukio replies. Only the tightness of her grasp on Kirika's hand betrays her nerves.
"Now," Kirika says, "the final piece of the puzzle. One very drunken High Lord."

---

It's quite easy to locate Nikochi in the wine cellar, vast though it might be - just follow the singing. And what a beautiful singing voice it is! Of course, coming from a disheveled High Lord lying on a particularly nice, cool part of the stone floor diminishes its beauty slightly. As you approach, he flails his arm widely in an attempt to get up, though all he accomplishes is knocking over the little jug of sake next to him.

"Em-press!" Nikochi slurs. "Are the fest...festiv...festi...is the party starting?"
"If by party you mean 'invasion of undead soldiers and evil yokai', then yes," Kirika replies as she stands over Nikochi.
"Hah!" Nikochi laughs, flailing a bit less wildly for the sake, apparently unaware it has all been spilled. He seems to realize that after a few seconds, though, and then his wild eyes jump to look up at Kirika. "You're serious?"
"I am," Kirika says. "We are very much in need of counsel and magic that attacks whatever forces animate the undead. Something like this could make people take a High Lord of Magic and Demons seriously."
"...could even save the day," Yukio says, catching on.
"Yes!" Nikochi yelps, a fire lighting in his eyes. With a snip of his fingers, he literally springs up from the floor and onto his feet. He wobbles forward a step, then holds up a finger and turns around. You don't see what he snorts, but a few moments later, he heaves up a clear liquid that he spits onto the ground. When he turns back around, he looks...together. "More of the magicks you saw underneath Lady Ikishi's mansion, no doubt!" Nikochi says. "Shadow magic is very dangerous, you know," he continues, strolling around and scanning the cellar as if seeing it for the first time. "Yes...yes, this is the place." He turns to look at Kirika. "I need all the paint you have and a few handymen to help me. If we don't get started on the protection sigils now, we might have someone shadowwalk right past the walls outside." He looks to Yukio. "...I assume you're taking care of putting people on those walls?"
"...yes," Yukio says, still wary and untrusting of whatever it is Nikochi does.
"Then get to it!" Nikochi says, turns to look at Kirika and then quickly looks back to Yukio, bowing his head. "Um...I am beyond sorry to impose such a menial task on you, your majesty, but I've more business with Kamura-kensei to take care of before she strides to battle."
Yukio narrows her eyes at Nikochi, but then looks to Kirika. "If he turns you into a frog, I will be very upset," she says.
Kirika gives Yukio a peck on the cheek. "Not as upset as I will be, love."
Yukio returns the kiss. "I'll send a few soldiers down to help." She turns and hustles up the stairs.

Kirika watches Yukio go, then turns back to Nikochi. "All right, High Lord, what is this you want to do?"
"You've interacted with apparitions of your family, correct?" Nikochi asks.
"Correct," Kirika says with a nod.
"I felt something...off about your enchantments when you sought me out after the encounter at Ikishi's," Nikochi says. "If you are going to do battle with more of these creatures and be exposed to all that, we need to make sure that nothing unpredictably happens. For this, we need to speak to the one who created the Kamura clan enchantment in the first place." The weight of Nikochi's words sinks in. Kouhei Kamura, sword-saint, alchemist...dead for the better part of a millennium. And Nikochi wants to talk to him?
"Uh...okay," Kirika says. "I don't know if this will work, but..." Kirika draws her sword, checks her distances from the walls, closes her eyes, and focuses on Uncle Kouhei's name while she slowly starts her kata.

As Kirika begins her kata, Nikochi retrieves various unidentifiable powders and liquids from within the pockets of his clothes. Definitely some guano, some mold, some pickled garlic...and that's about where Kirika's nose gives up as the ingredients grow more colorful and stranger yet. Some looks like it might have come from overseas, others look like finely ground rocks from deep within the earth, and two or three seem at least partially made of things that are not matter. As Nikochi mixes them, he begins to sing from his throat, a deep melodious chant in time with her steps.

Fire creeps up Kirika's spine as her blade cuts through the thick air. Child, a voice calls from afar.
Uncle, Kirika thinks in return as she steps up the pace.
You cannot cut shadows, the voice calls. When you face one, do not be deceived. There is substance...always, in a man, in a yokai...even in a god. If you can find it, you can cut it.
"Ask him about the binding," Nikochi weighs in from the side.
What holds them together? Kirika asks. How can that be broken?
When the sun is low, even a pebble casts a long shadow, the voice says. Though a shadow is darkness and emptiness, it is cast by light in the shape of something. Without light, the shadows lose shape. Without the substance, light shines through. The voice pauses. Your eyes cannot see the true shape of your enemy. Your mind cannot comprehend its nature. But your heart can feel its center. This is where you must carry your strike.
Is there nothing that can help the others? Kirika asks.
I...don't know, the voice admits. I am Kouhei. I...made this. I forged a blade of life itself. For this you were all cursed to wield it. I knew...I knew so little and now know so much more but I cannot...you would not...there are not the right words for all this. I am sorry. More truth than this I cannot speak.
It's okay, Uncle, Kirika says. Thank you. For everything. She thinks of her adventures with Kaede, the way she's grown, the embrace of her father. She thinks of seeing all her ancestors, and the love and support she felt in that grove. This is no curse.
The voice falls silent all the way, as if a persistent hum in the room had stopped, and Kirika knows somehow that this was the last she will hear of Kouhei Kamura in this time and place. Still, the warmth of her family lingers with her.

"What did he say?" Nikochi asks insistently. "You did speak to him, didn't you? In your trance?"
"When the sun is low, even a pebble casts a long shadow," Kirika recites. "Without light, the shadow loses shape, without substance, light shines through."
"...that's the most meaningless mumbo-jumbo I've heard in years," Nikochi complains. "And I talk to spirits every day so that's saying something." He casts his eyes down, as if thinking about it further.
"They are created by the yokai's power, and anchored to something," Kirika says. "The stones. If we can block the yokai's power, or outshine it, or make it easy for the archers or gonne-soldiers or swordsman to break or disrupt the magic or the stones, would that work?"
"I guess it would," Nikochi says, "but how do you outshine a yokai's..." He falls silent and looks down again. After a few seconds, he's still staring downward, deep in thought. It's not altogether clear whether he realizes that Kirika is still there.
"Nikochi?" Kirika asks. She waves her hand at him, tattoos still shimmering and licking flames up her fingers from contacting her ancestors.
"Woah!" Nikochi shouts, jumping back from her a half-step. "Don't interrupt me! I'm trying to commune with the mountain tengu again and you know how touchy they are!" His eyes flick from side to side. "Okay that's all I need from you now go, go, go, sharpen your sword or something, I'll let you know when I have a plan!"
"Just...make it quick," Kirika says. "Your people for the warding will be down in a minute."
"Yes, yes," Nikochi says. "Go! Shoo!" When Kirika turns to leave, he shouts after her "White and red paint! I need white and red!"
"And some manners," Kirika mutters as she walks up the stairs.

---

Upstairs, Yukio is busy coordinating details of the defense with Shira. A few of the soldiers carrying in buckets of paint does, however, reveal that Nikochi's demands are being taken care of.

"What did he want to speak to you about, dearest?" Yukio asks, frowning slightly as she reads Kirika's mood - not the first time that Nikochi has been a negative influence on it, after all.
"What we can do to even the odds," Kirika says. "Rudely. He said red and white paint."
"We'll scrape the leaf gold off the statues if that's what it takes," Yukio says. "So, painting. Anything else? Anything we can do when we fight?"
"Break whatever is anchoring the magic," Kirika replies.
Yukio considers that. "So, break everything," she says.
"And kill them, yes," Kirika says. "How goes the planning?"
"Well," Yukio says. "Considering we're short by about two thousand warriors it would take to fully man the fortress perimeter." She sighs. "Father's already ridden off to engage the enemy. I just hope he doesn't do anything too reckless."
Kirika puts her hand on Yukio's. "We'll get through this."
Yukio looks directly at Kirika, offering a glimpse of steel in her eyes that sends a chill down Kirika's spine. "Yes," Yukio says coolly. "We will."
"Shira-dono!" Kirika says. "Where do you need me while we wait?"
Shira looks at Kirika right next to Yukio. "You are exactly where you are needed," he says.
"Very well," Kirika says, snuggling up as close to Yukio as she can through her love's armor. "Walk me through it, love."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-07-03 17:37:42
"The yokai is anchored to what remains of Ikishi, and her resistance fails even as we speak," Toshiba says, almost from nowhere. "It seeks fresh qi, and wants Himiko's at the very least. It is the pebble casting the shadow. In other words, cut off the head, the body dies."

Toshiba looks around. "I could follow Matsumoto, unless I am better served doing another task?"
Gatac 2019-08-05 18:55:26
It's been a while that Toshiba has sat on a horse. How long exactly? Difficult to tell. The Blue Oni has sat on many horses in his lifetime(s), horses big and small, swift and lame, trotting through grasslands just as he has galloped through a lightning storm, where the crashing of ironshod hooves on the kaidō beneath was as loud as the thunder above.

When was the last time he took the armor off?

The question soon becomes moot when he reaches the place where Matsumoto and his retainers have stopped, a little grove along the road with a small stream running past the road. Refreshments are taken, armor is fastened and quick prayers are spoken. The men keep their distance from Toshiba as he trots through them to Matsumoto himself, who's being helped into his armor while his longbow is being tensioned.

"Ah, Oni," he says. "Good to have an immortal on our side. Will you be riding with us into their midst or do you have some trickery up your sleeve?"
Toshiba nods. "We face an inhuman, frightening foe, Lord Matsumoto. It is not in trickery but in the heart of good men and women in which I place my trust this day. To that end..." he looks around at the soldiers who gave him a wide berth into the camp. "Would my presence bolster morale or would trusting to an unseen Oni's subterfuge be the salve your people need?"
Matsumoto ponders the question. "While subterfuge might be your stock in trade, I myself believe in the power of a bold rider in the biggest, brightest armor on the battlefield. If nothing else, my men will appreciate you drawing attention." He smiles. "But! What a picture it would be for you to ride into battle with naught but your knives to hand! Perhaps we might convince you to lend us a hand with something...louder?"
"No convincing needed," Toshiba replies, then pauses. "Wait. Is this something Ueki has constructed?"
"...'tis," Matsumoto admits. "Bring out the thunderer!" he calls to his men, then lowers his voice. "Truth be told, I've no eye for the use of gonnes and their kind...and it seems I lack a man crazy enough to wield such in my stead."
"No longer," Toshiba smiles, shaking his head in a what am I doing fashion. "Let's ride."

---

"NOT MUCH LONGER NOW, PRECIOUS SUMIKO," the foul creature intones, for nobody's benefit. Oh, sure, a crowd of a thousand warriors of bone and darkness marches alongside its twisted shape, but they no longer have the faculties to appreciate their yokai master's imminent triumph. There's just enough 'there' there to follow its commands, maybe raise a weapon to strike. And Ikishi Sumiko could no longer not hear the yokai's slightest thought than she could will her heart to stop beating, though, mercifully, it seems close to winding down on its own. No, the vocalization is pure affectation at this point in time...one might say, a shockingly human one. But the rotbeast has spent much time observing apes, learning their ways and becoming embroiled in their petty squabbles. It could no more return to what it once was than it could embrace the life of a mortal.

Perhaps that is why it hates them so much.

Yet the creature is not wholly removed from this world. Its darkness has shape and substance, enough that it can feel the earth underneath its feet - and that earth is rumbling. The yokai pauses and with it, its army stops. This is not them. This is the earth and its spirits, either. The yokai draws back one of its legs, grasps a branch off a nearby tree and hardly watches as its leaves fall and its bark rots away, revealing an iron-hard sword of pure rot. What could give it pause? Does it know...fear?

Lord Matsumoto's cavalry vanguard rumbles into view, cresting a small ledge ahead. As they come into sight, their war cries sweep towards the silent army of the dead.

---

Toshiba's rethinking this whole riding in their midst idea - not because he shies away from battle, but because the "thunderer" he has been saddled with is a gonne beyond description, more lance than firearm in format. With the bore of a ship's cannon yet with a much thinner barrel, it is as long as he is tall, perhaps longer still. The leather shoulder sling that now holds it in front of his chest seems long enough to hang a brigand from, and the buttstock attached to the back of the weapon inspires little confidence. In fact, Toshiba surmises, this weapon was not meant for a man at all; 'tis made to be planted into the ground, its barrel held aloft by a tripod, to lob its shells over the heads of the defender's lines. If, indeed, it could even do that without exploding.

Yet on a day like this, what can he do but embrace madness?

"Forward!" Matsumoto cries, his harsh voice carrying even over the din of the hooves and the shouts of his men.

Leave it to the old fox to not do things by halves; he is at the very tip of the charge, sword aloft like a banner, and damned if his finest men do not follow him. In an instant, they are upon the unyielding lines of the shadow warriors, riding down all in their path while their weapons scythe a path on either side of them. They plow forward, damn near a hundred shadows shattered in their wake before they are upon the large beast that seems the nexus of this army. Perhaps, Toshiba dares hope, it could all be so simple. Perhaps this really is the last dying gasp of a threat long since defeated, paper tigers in a sense, the dead merely having to be persuaded to lie down. Would that all their worries were for nothing!

And yet, when Matsumoto's blade shatters against the unyielding darkness of the yokai's form, Toshiba can only see that their charge was doomed from the beginning. Thoughts of victory flee his mind as quickly as they came, just as many - not all, but many - of the shadow warriors pull themselves together and rise again, cutting off the vanguard's retreat. Toshiba frowns under his armored helmet. For the first time in what feels like months, there are no helpful memories from the Oni, no flashes of insight, no voice speaking words from beyond. Just him and Yukio's father and a handful of samurai against the hordes of the dead.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-08-16 16:18:18
Oh good, this must be new to them, Toshiba thinks wryly. Steel breaks against the yokai, the undying warriors returning to their feet again and again, and Toshiba has a moment where he sees himself rocketing skyward, saving himself, but at what cost? The bitter looks from those he abandoned would be softened in death soon after, and yet he does not leave. For while the yokai is something the Onis before have never witnessed, Toshiba is willing to bet the Thunderer at least is something new as well.

He steels himself, arms the gonne like the armorers showed him back at camp, and shoots the damn yokai.
Gatac 2019-10-06 18:18:25
Life is short and strategy is long, Kirika observes. A sword-saint she may be, but no general. This is where Yukio shines. Her training at the Imperial War Academy has steeled her nerves and sharpened her mind, and as she arranges defenses with Shira-dono, the palace guards and the motley crew of helpers that came with her father, it's clear that this is where she was supposed to be all along: a War-Empress, wielding thousands of swords as one.

"This ridgeline will grant them concealment," she says, pointing at a truly ancient map of the fortifications and their surroundings. "Can we spare any scouts to watch from -"

Boom comes the noise from afar, echoing through the valley from the direction that Lord Matsumoto rode to "recon" the attackers. At once, her hand grabs her sword.

"Empress," Shira-dono cautions, "the defenses -"
"Are well in hand," Yukio says. She turns to Kirika. "I don't know what that noise was, but I intend to find out. Would you join me, dearest?"

"Right behind you," Kirika says. Both her desires and her family are pushing her towards whatever is out there, and without even noticing it, her stride carriers her past Yukio's steps. It's time.

A perk of being Empress and Shadowguard, respectively, is that you never have to wait for a horse. As soon as you stride out, two of the best mounts stand ready for your use. Without further ado, you saddle up and ride. The fortress behind you will take care of itself. It's not a long ride, especially not with the way you're pushing the horses. Already smoke and dust rises over the horizon, with yet more explosions peppering the soundscape. On one hand, it's bad that the fighting is still ongoing - so much for reconnaissance - but on the other hand, it's good that the fighting is still ongoing, because that means Matsumoto's vanguard is still fighting back.

The battlefield itself is utter chaos. You ride through and over a few shadow-shapes that seem torn asunder, somehow still ambulatory but not a threat unless they somehow manage to pull themselves back together. Matsumoto's warriors line the road, having dismounted to hold off the hordes of darkness and cover the retreat of the wounded. The Blue Oni thunders overhead on feet of fire, firing a strange oversize gonne into the crowd of shadows and BOOOM! goes the next explosion, throwing shadows and bits of long-rotted bodies all over the place. But what of Lord Matsumoto? Why, he's engaged their leader! Twin blades out, he's exchanging blows with the larger-than-life shadow beast and somehow holding his own, though the torn shoulders and shattered helmet of his armor tell that he is, despite all, only a mortal mixing it up with a terror from beyond.

"Father!" Yukio shouts. "Hold fast!"

Kirika doesn't say anything. She only draws her sword, and as she does so, her tattoos glow and burst into flame once more, but this time the fire doesn't stop at a licking frame of her form. Blue flames spread down her back, the heat lifting her hair without consuming it. The fire races down her arms and legs - and doesn't stop there. Reins, saddle, and even the horse are swathed in a billowing blue fire that her raw speed stretches out behind her. Her eyes are locked on the thing that Matsumoto is fighting - the lord's stubborn refusal to die has made it bored of appearing human, and Kirika sees a third arm tipped with a blade of shadow emerge from its back. She angles her horse towards the creature's back, and readies for a slash to sever it.

"Die, abomination!" Yukio shouts, leaping to her father's aide -
- Matsumoto's wakizashi deflects the beast's strike as his katana comes down on its shoulder -
- and Kirika thunders towards its back, Crane's Dance thirsty for the raw darkness ahead!

All three strike true. Yukio's strike slashes the beast's belly, and something almost entirely unlike blood spills from it. Matsumoto's blade bites deep into the darkness, until it lodges on something of substance. Crane's Dance sings through the creature's arm, and it goes flying with the momentum of Kirika's charge, withering away into a dead branch before it even hits the ground.

"PATHETIC," the beast's voice echoes in your heads.

As Kirika brings her horse around, she watches the beast seize Matsumoto by the arm and fling him away, his sword dropping straight through the shadow as the creature wills itself to briefly lose substance there. Yukio comes in for another slash, but a newly-formed leg kicks her away before she can connect. As Matsumoto's vanguard move to assist their lord and his daughter, Toshiba hovers overhead, his massive gonne hinging open in the middle and relieving itself of blackpowder smoke.

"YOU ARE NOTHING TO ME," the beast says. Yet, the leaking stump that would have been its third arm does show that it can be hurt.
"Well met, Kirika," Toshiba comments, his voice almost entirely lost in the Blue Oni's. "I dare say we have successfully located the aggressor. As it happens, we were just on our way to report back."
Toshiba's aerial attacks have scattered the lesser shadow beings for now, but Kirika can feel every single one of them, and they're still pushing closer. "No need now," Kirika replies. No air passes her lips, no breath fills her lungs, but still she speaks. "Figured you'd find the trouble and get stuck in."
"I am as ever at the service of your expectations," Toshiba says. As he reloads, Yukio and Matsumoto approach the beast again, having sorted themselves out, while the vanguard covers their backs and hacks away at the approaching shadows.
"ENOUGH OF THIS," the beast says. Its skin begins to bubble and pop like a hot cauldron of pitch.

Kirika feels a strange heat start to radiate from the beast as she sees a dimming around it, like it's pulling in the energy closest to it. The echoes of whatever is contained inside it grow more distant, but one whisper comes through loud and clear.

"It's talking too much," Aunt Kaede says.
"I couldn't agree more," Kirika says, and rears back before plunging the flaming Crane's Dance into the center of the beast.

Crane's Dance meets no resistance as it cuts through the dark, plunging straight into the rotten core of - light?
"No!" Ameda Kamura shouts from beyond, realizing too late that -

---

"Kasumi?"

Kasumi Kagawa blinks. Her brow is covered in sweat and her hand gripped tight around the wooden stick the carpenter made for her. The balance is almost right...almost.

"Kasumi!" the voice hisses. "We have customers!"

No, we don't, Kasumi thinks. But we...we do? Of course we do. It is Friday evening. The busiest night of the week. And she's gotten to caught up in practicing her katas, the only thing left of her family -

"Kasumi!" Obasan Ikishi says, walking into Kasumi's room with worry breaking through her makeup. "What are you doing? Why aren't you dressed?"

Kasumi doesn't know. She's...not supposed to work? There's an ache inside her head.

"I'll stall them!" Ikishi says. 'Lady' Ikishi, the owner of the teahouse, can be demanding, true, and a miser to boot, but she's stuck her neck out for Kasumi more than once. "Put on your makeup and join us in the lounge! Quick, quick!" With that, she hurries out.

Kasumi steps up to the simple mirror, the most expensive possession in her simple quarters. The fine kimonos are not hers, nor the makeup she is supposed to cake onto her face. Her face...so gaunt and sad. Not a good night. But there are customers. She has to hurry.
Kasumi rubs the exhaustion out of her eyes and sweat from her brow and quickly gets to work applying her makeup. Base first, then eyes, cheeks, and finally red pigment to her lips. It's careful, detailed work, and she can't have a single line smudged, a single mark out of place. Finally, she looks ready, and slides the fine kimono on, tying it tight. It's..."form-fitting" over her fit but slight frame, and she steps out towards the lounge as fast as the kimono allows her. The smell of the incense is like a punch in her face, but Kasumi is used to it by now. Smile plastered on, she approaches the table. It's...exactly as she feared. Matsumoto's brat is here again, all muscle and no tact.

"What is this swill?" Yukio Matsumoto demands, shattering the porcelain cup of sake on the floor. She's lazily splayed over a couch, with Morita-kun, one of Kasumi's fellow courtesans, already drawn up against her. The fear on Morita's face is barely disguised by her makeup, and she winces when Yukio grips her arm tighter. "Get me the good stuff!"
"Of course, Matsumoto-sama," Ikishi says, bowing deeply. "A thousand apologies, Matsumoto-sama." As she sees Kasumi approach, relief plays over her face. "Heavens's sake, Kasumi, calm her down," Ikishi pleads as she hurries to fetch new sake.

Kasumi's heart is racing as she sits down next to Matsumoto-sama. The brat has a reputation for roughing up courtesans that fail to find her favor, but Kasumi has a job to do. Her heart tells her that someone needs to stand up to that spoiled brat and teach her a lesson about treating people the right way, and there's something nagging in the back of her mind that she just can't place.

"Matsumoto-sama," Kasumi starts. "How was your journey here tonight?"
"Fine," Yukio says. She looks Kasumi over, then pushes Morita off the couch and beckons Kasumi. "Come here."
Kasumi helps Morita up, then gently sits down next to Matsumoto-sama.
Yukio glares at Kasumi. "My shoulders are sore. Massage them."
Matsumoto-sama doesn't move from her spot on the lounge, so Kasumi has to crawl on her hands and knees behind her to start to rub her shoulders. It feels...familiar, massaging Yukio's shoulders, which it shouldn't, as Kasumi can't ever remember getting this close to her before.
"Wha...what brings you here today?" Kasumi asks.
"None of your business," Yukio barks, but as Kasumi works her shoulders, she relents a bit. "16 hours in the saddle today. These damn peasants just won't settle down."
"Oh?" Kasumi asks.
"Not for you to worry about," Yukio says. "Mmh," she adds. "Little to the left."
As Kasumi gets into the massage, Obasan Ikishi finally shows up with a new jug of warm sake. "There you go, Matsumoto-sama!" Ikishi says, putting down the jug and filling a new cup. "On the house, of course."
"Hrm," Yukio scoffs. She takes a sip from the new sake, frowns, then holds the cup up for Kasumi. "Here, taste this."
The sake is...okay. It's all they were able to get for this week, though. "It's smooth, just a little sweet," Kasumi says, which isn't entirely a lie.
"It's cheap," Yukio says. "Just like everything in here. Watch this." She sneers at Ikishi. "How much for this one?" she says, cocking her head towards Kasumi.
"I...I beg your pardon?" Ikishi asks.
"500 silver?" Yukio says. "Don't tell me you couldn't use the money." She looks back up to Kasumi. "And my place could use some new...furniture."

Ikishi looks at Kasumi. Obasan has looked out for Kasumi for years now, but...it's been a long time that this house has had 500 coins to rub together. Kasumi nods to Ikishi. She knows how much Ikishi needs the coin, and...well, after all Obasan has done for her, this is the least she could do.

"That is...very generous of you, Matsumoto-sama," Ikishi says. "Oh, Kasumi-kun, isn't that wonderful? Serving a house of such renown is a great honor indeed."
Yukio pats Kasumi's hand. "I take good care of my things," she purrs. "Actually, why don't we continue this at my place? The cushions here stink." Before anyone can intervene, Yukio rises from the couch and seizes Kasumi by the wrist, dragging her with her. "Come on," Yukio says. "My saddle's big enough for you, too."
"Ah, Matsumoto-sama -" Ikishi tries.
"You'll get your money, don't you worry," Yukio says, continuing to the door - and dragging Kasumi with her.
"Yukio, wait -" Kasumi says instinctively.
Yukio whips around at that. "What did you just call me?" she growls, but between the flash of anger in her eyes, there is also...confusion?
Kasumi stammers. "I - I -"
"I..." Yukio tries. Then it seems like she remembers who she's supposed to be. Her grip around Kasumi's wrist tightens. "You will refer to me as Matsumoto-sama, always. Do not test me again."

Dragging Kirika outside, there's a harsh wind blowing outside. Winter has come in force, and it cuts right through the silken kimono Kasumi is dolled up in.

"This way," Yukio barks, stomping off towards the horse. As she does so, Kasumi's mind flashes back to her room. The manuals she had redrawn, the practice stick...they're all still there, and she doubts Yukio would ever let her go back for them if she leaves them behind now.
Kasumi pulls her hand out of Yukio's. "I need to gather my things," she says. "It will just take a moment."
Yukio seems stunned for another moment at the sign of further defiance, but then a sneer settles on her face. "I'll buy you new things," she says. "Now come on. Or do I have to make you?"
Kirika - no, that's not right. Kasumi is her name. Kasumi chances a look back at the teahouse. The droning in her head is becoming stronger.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWDYAJ2-Y1E)

"I - I will be right back, Yukio," Kasumi stammers as she backs towards the rear entrance, and her practice sword, and her manuals.
"You will not -" Yukio stammers. "You can't...you can't leave me." More confusion on her face. "I own you!" she shouts, suddenly full of fire. "You are a whore! My whore! Without me, you are nothing! Take one more step and I will cut you down where you stand!"

Kasumi finds herself turning to look at Yukio. Her hand hovers at the grip of her sword, while her eyes sparkle with tears.

Kirika

Kasumi cocks her head into the wind reflexively. Was that...what did she just hear? Her hand tightens around nothing. Something is missing...

"I am not leaving you," Kasumi says. "I would never leave you."
"You...." Yukio stammers, drawing her sword. "Who...are you?"

Kirika

"I...I am Kasumi -" Kirika shakes her head. "Kirika Kamura. I am Kirika Kamura."

Thunder claps in the air as the weather fouls around them. The wind slices across Kirika's face, shredding the fine lines of her makeup. There is no more cold on her skin; in fact, Kirika feels distinctly warmer and warmer. Smoke seems to rise from the sleeves of her kimono.

Kirika!

Her hand tightens around something. A sword? A sword, in her hand. Not the stick, though it weighs about as much. It feels....right.

"No!" Yukio cries, then breaks into a charge, swinging her sword at Kirika!

Kirika's head and shoulders barely move, but her feet and hands snap into the defensive stance her father taught her, sword raised to block any blow. Blades flash like lightning as Yukio's blow meets Kirika's counter. Again and again the blades clash, Yukio's strikes growing faster and less precise while tears of stream down her face.

"Stop!" Yukio cries. "Kirika, stop!"

Kirika!

Yukio's last blow slips just past Kirika's defense, nicking her shoulder. It hurts. It hurts like it's supposed to hurt, like this is...like this is coming from another place more real than this nightmare. But the blow has left Yukio overextended, and Kirika's hands stand ready to guide her blade into Yukio's middle and finish this fight...

Kirika suddenly remembers the name for the voice - Toshiba. And Yukio - that's not Yukio Matsumoto, brat thug, but Yukio Matsumoto, her love. And they are both telling her one thing.

Kirika lowers Crane's Dance to her side, and closes her eyes.

---

A blade clangs against metal and Kirika greedily sucks in a breath. Suddenly she's back on that battlefield, surrounded by heat and death. Just inches from her face is Yukio's blade, while the tip of Crane's Dance has already pierced lightly into Yukio's armor. Gripping both blades with all his strength is Toshiba.

"Kirika!" he shouts right in her face. "By all the Heavens, stop!"
"What..." Yukio stammers, looking around. Just then, her father finally manages to get a good grip on her shoulders and pull her away.

Kirika's eyes take in the situation. Yukio: confused, but mostly unhurt. Kirika herself, same. Toshiba and Matsumoto, freaked out. Shadow warriors: all around them, barely being held back by a defensive circle of Matsumoto's warriors. The big shadow beast they were fighting? Nowhere to be seen. Only the third arm it was growing remains on the ground, still shrinking away to nothingness - but also still proof that it has been hurt.

Kirika's hands untense on her sword as she bursts back into blue flame - sending Toshiba recoiling back. "Wha...what happened? Where did it go?" She looks back to Yukio. "Love, I -"
"A most excellent question," Toshiba says. After assuring himself that neither Yukio or Kirika are going to cross swords again, he turns to the ring of shadow warriors, tossing a knife through the head of a particularly audacious one. "There was but a glimpse of light, then it was gone - and you two turned on each other." Another knife. Kirika chances a look at the empty munitions satchel slung over Toshiba's shoulder. "Might we continue this line of inquiry at the redoubt?" Toshiba asks.
Kirika nods, and falls in next to Yukio, putting her arm around her and delivering a kiss through her love's armor. "Are you all right?"
Yukio's eyes close as she receives the kiss. The fire doesn't seem to hurt her. "I...I think..." Yukio says, opening her eyes again.
"Is this - hah - all you lot have?" Matsumoto bellows, slashing two shadows in half with his blade while two retainers work to keep shadows off his flanks. "Who would have thought - hah!" Another shadow falls before him. "That demons are such - cowards!"
"Not cowards," Kirika says, holding close to Yukio for just a moment. "Tricksters." She stands tall and looks around. "Until we have total victory, we must be vigilant for any tricks."

Kirika's gaze sweeps across devastation. The army of shadows around them is several columns deep, and yet more are pouring onto the fight. They seem only marginally more animated and combat-ready than the shambling souls of the Shadowwatch agents under Ikishi's mansion, but there's a lot of them. More alarmingly, the very ground underneath is grey and lifeless, with grass wilted and once humid earth cracked and broken as if a merciless sun scorched it for weeks at a time. The vanguard holds on still, and Matsumoto's fury seems all but inexhaustible, but this is not the battle you wanted to fight, all alone and surrounded by the enemy.

Kirika looks towards Yukio and her father. "I think it is time we made our way back to the fortress."

With three mighty blades all working in the same direction, you cut a literal swathe through the shadows, thinning out the ring of warriors until you finally break through. As Kirika covers the rear with wide, flaming swipes of Crane's Dance, the vanguard drag the wounded - and a few dead - off the ground and towards the horses, where a few terrified low-rank samurai of Matsumoto's guard still hold position.

Saddled up and knowing that there's no more call for holding anything back, you ride back towards the fortress, leaving the shadows behind. If you spend the horses, it might buy you an hour until the army from beyond arrives at the fortress - enough time, you hope, to prepare for a stand.
Gatac 2019-10-17 18:35:48
You make it about two thirds of the way back to the palace when Matsumoto signals for a halt; not that you have much time to spare, but the horses are spent and what wounded could be carried away need their wounds tended to. You dismount for the moment and help Matsumoto's men set up on a hill close to the road. Several men look like they won't make it through the night, their wounds deep and rotten, but they hardly complain as Matsumoto's surgeons browse through the lot and go on to save what can be saved, trying to get as many of the wounded back on their feet as possible.

"You must hurry on without us, I fear," Matsumoto tells you. "Heavens willing, we will be at the palace in time to flank the demons."
"Father, I cannot permit you to to leave yourself so vulnerable," Yukio says. "What if the shadow army falls upon you here?"
Matsumoto smiles grimly. "Even better," he says. "Then we will buy you as much time as we can."
"Father..." Yukio begins. But she can't bear to continue, staring at him instead.

Matsumoto nods. Then, he hands off his sword to his retainer and walks up to Yukio, drawing her into a deep hug.

"I have always been proud of you, Yukio," he whispers to her, tears forcing their way from his eyes. "Never more than today."
"I will avenge you," she whispers back.
"No, you won't," he says. "Yukio, I beg of you, obey me one last time. Do not let me cloud your thoughts. You must...you must do more than win today. You must be more than ready to die. You must be ready to live."
"...I don't know if I can," Yukio says.
"Funny how all we were taught at the academy was about death, isn't it?" Matsumoto says. "You are what I was never brave enough to be. You are kind, and uncertain, and desperately in love. Do not run away from that now."
Yukio heaves a big sigh, threatening to collapse. But then she stiffens her back, draws new breath and straightens up. "I love you, father," she says, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"And I love you, daughter," Matsumoto replies.

The two separate and Yukio turns away, striding over to Kirika, where the freshest horses have been saved for the two of them.

"Let's go, dearest," Yukio says.
Kirika looks at Matsumoto - he’s trying to put on a brave face, but he knows that he is throwing his life and the life of his men on the fire to save time for Yukio, Toshi, and herself. She turns to Yukio, who knows the exact same thing and is trying not to let on how much this might exhaust the last bit of strength she has. And she looks over her shoulder, back to the advancing horde, and feels the power and strength surge in her again. Her tattoos only glow slightly brighter, but she feels like she could slice through a forest and punch a hole in a mountain if it was what it would take to set things right.

Kirika looks back to Yukio. “You should stay here and help your father and his men,” she says. “I will buy you enough time to make it back to the castle.”
“If they overwhelm us here,” Yukio says, “then they win.” Her voice seems distant, but resolved. “And who knows what is happening at the palace right now? No, we...we have to go there. That is where the battle will be.”
“The battle will be where I am,” Kirika replies. “I will bring them to me.” She kisses Yukio. “I will carry the load, love.”
Yukio closes her eyes and leans into the kiss. It is a desperate one, with the salty taste of tears following it. “If,” she breathes. “If, perhaps, you could...draw them to the West, and then to the palace?” She looks at Kirika. “You would do much to protect us. But you need not win this battle alone.” She puts a hand on Kirika’s shoulder. “This is our fight. Not yours.”
“I have to do this alone, Yukio,” Kirika says, her voice hoarse. “I will see you at the palace.” She looks down to Matsumoto. “I am counting on you to get her there, Matsumoto-sama.”
Matsumoto bows his head. “It will be done, Shadowguard,” he says. “And if the last drop of my blood should be spilled beforehand and the Heavens and the Hells themselves come to claim me, I shall be fighting them off, too.”
Kirika nods, and looks back to Yukio. “To the West, then to the palace,” she confirms. “Tell Shira that is where they will be, and to not hold back for my sake.”
“We will be ready,” Yukio says. Then, she pulls Kirika in for another kiss. “Come back to me,” she says. “Your Empress commands it.”
“And I will obey, Empress,” Kirika replies, unable to hold back a bit of a smirk. One more kiss shared, and she bolts off, leaving the horse behind - not that she needs it with how fast she finds herself running.

---

After Kirika leaves and Yukio goes to survey the site and set up defenses, Matsumoto turns to Toshiba, who has restocked the thunder-gonne with what few shells he didn't take on the previous assault. Desperately few of them remain...and he hopes Ueki can pull one more trick out of his sleeve for the battle.

"Oni," Matsumoto says. "You must make haste as well."
"In a moment," Toshiba says. With no more words, he refills the bandolier slung over his chest.
"Perhaps I am mistaken, then," Matsumoto says, "but did I not see you freeze up after the beast disappeared?"
Toshiba remains silent.
"What did you see?" Matsumoto asks.
"Nothing," Toshiba lies.

---

It wasn't nothing, of course. An endless void without substance, light or sound...was still not nothing. A poet like Toshiba could appreciate that distinction. An immortal like the Blue Oni could suffer the experience. Suffer...Toshiba felt like he could finally plumb the depths of the Blue Oni's suffering through the ages. Cursed to know neither the Heavens nor the Hells, cursed to roam the shadows of empire and see to its continued prosperity through means most dishonorable. All because a thief had sworn it so many lifetimes ago. Was the foolishness of humans truly this powerful a force in the world?

"Such arrogance," Master Sinan told him, the voice echoing in his head. "Must it all be about you? How can a single being look at the world through so many eyes and still only see their own reflection?"

No, Toshiba protested, that was not an all what this was about. His pain and privations were real, damn it, not to be swept away with some highfalutin' babble about perspective. How could he not see this from his own point of view? What was he supposed to do? Sit back and give it all for the greater good? Wasn't that the whole story of what the Blue Oni had done, time and again, only to be mocked now? It wasn't -

"Fair?" Sinan asked. "Of course it's not fair. Did I teach you nothing? The only fair fight is the one you lose. Do you think the universe plays by different rules?"

Yes it does, Toshiba said. The Heavens and the Hells were proof enough that there was order in the worlds beyond.

"Order is not justice, another lesson you refuse to learn," Sinan said. "Truly, your self-enforced ignorance must be something like a magical power. Leave it to the apes to believe a falsehood so strongly that they can bend the world to their desires."

I know who you are, Toshiba said. I know what you are. Yokai. Rotbeast. You spit ceaseless prattle of our shortcomings, but nothing you say will justify the evils you have done for your own petty reasons. Everything started with your own attempt to defy the order -

"It started with humans craving power beyond their station!" Sinan screeched, his voice fading into something darker.

And you took it upon yourself to punish them and all others, then, Toshiba said. But you achieved nothing. Your pawns are defeated. Your scheme unmade.

"THEN I WILL JUST HAVE TO SETTLE FOR TORTURING YOU MYSELF," the yokai thundered, dropping its disguise. "I HAVE BROUGHT YOU TO THIS PLACE WHERE ALL YOUR GUILE AND YOUR PHYSICAL PROWESS MEAN NOTHING, APE. HERE YOU WILL LEARN THE FINAL, TERRIBLE LESSON: YOU. DO NOT. MATTER."

And then, there was light. A pale blue glow, at first, but as it drew closer, it cast its rays upon the nothingness, revealing shape where there had been none before. Toshiba looked down to see the Oni's armor, empty...yet still moving in accordance with his thoughts.

"You are quite the tiresome fellow," the Oracle said, a soft drone that filled the entirety of the measureless cavern. As it spoke, the glowing spirit of the dragon traced a path through darkness, leaving a bit of its glow behind as ghostly scales dropped from its body. "Did I not tell you you would lose, in the end?"

"YOU PROMISED ME REVENGE!" the yokai said.

"I said you would see the ones who tried to use you poorly come to a bitter end and I should say you have," the Oracle said. "One can get a most fond desire and still lose in the end. If you did not understand that, then I feel only pity for you, yokai. If you understood the order as well as you claim you do, you would give up now, before you are ended."

"YOU DO NOT SCARE ME, DRAGON-GHOST!" the yokai said. "YOU'RE JUST AN ECHO! YOU HAVE NO POWER."

"If by that you mean that I have no parlor tricks to inflict injury upon your form here, then you are quite correct," the Oracle said, swirling around Toshiba. "I gave that up a long time ago to prolong my own existence...and to help one hopeless romantic. A thief, so grieved by his own inadequacies that he wished to be better. He was never perfect, I should admit, but none of us are."

"...IMPOSSIBLE!" the yokai cried. "YOU MADE THIS...ABOMINATION?"

"I helped many mortals, some more than was wise," the Oracle said. It dove straight through the Blue Oni's armor, shedding its glowing scales and the rest of its substance as it did so. "My time in this world is long past. As is yours, Blue Oni. Toshiba Shiretoko, you shall have the only boon I can still grant you...freedom."

And then there was light again, and a battlefield, and Kirika and Yukio about to kill one another. Toshiba knew, all too clearly, what to do. With his hands moving like lightning, he caught two blades in mid-strike and held on.

---

"Nothing at all," Toshiba confirms. "But all will be right, Matsumoto-sama. When this day is over, the past shall finally be at peace...and the empire made whole."
"You seem quite confident in this," Matsumoto says.
Toshiba smirks. "Call it a hunch."
Gatac 2019-11-21 19:39:22
The years have not been kind to Takao's station. Without a master to turn to, he was living as a sellsword before he made a fateful encounter in Kargbeck - but even working for bowls of rice was better than carrying jars of paint through a palace basement. But Takao does not dream of complaining. Laboring though he might be, he retains his dignity. There are no low jobs, only low men.

It is quite the surprise, then, to turn the corner of a storeroom and stand in a field of silvergrass, with a field of clouds hiding the setting sun. Gazing wistfully at the horizon is Tatsuyuki-sensei, his old master. No, his current master, as this is...this is the evening. This is that evening, just hours before the assassin will come and murder Tatsuyuki-sensei and turn Takao from promising young samurai to wandering, disillusioned ronin. But if it is, if it truly is, how does Takao know this? As he squints, the image before him wavers. An illusion! But the enemy is nowhere in sight.

"Ah, Takao-kun!" Tatsuyuki-sensei says, turning and favoring his best student with a warm smile. "You surprised me."

Play along, Takao thinks, keeping his eyes open for signs of danger. "I hope I am not disturbing you, teacher," Takao says. The same words as all those years ago come from his mouth almost unbidden. No matter how steeled his mind might have gotten, his heart well remembers this moment. "I have come to you with a question that I...did not think prudent to ask among the company of the others."

"I have not known you to be circumspect, Takao," Tatsuyuki-sensei says with a nod. "Tell me, what is the question that could trouble you so?"

"Honor is the sword that never dulls," Takao says. "Yet loyalty is the iron which cannot be cut. Suppose then that they meet. Which will falter?"

Tatsuyuki-sensei considers this. "You ask several questions," he says. "If we look through history, Takao-kun, we find that all too often, honor and loyalty falter together. I hope my instruction will lead you to correct thought, which - with correct heart - will lead to a perfect, correct action. Yet I cannot change your fate or mine. If you are to live this life, you must find your way in the great order." He turns back to the setting sun. "The ultimate answer is that neither can falter because they will never meet. The honor that thinks itself above loyalty is arrogance. The loyalty that pays no heed to honor is thoughtlessness. Both arrogance and thoughtlessness are false and must be destroyed."

"Yes," Takao says. Tatsuyuki-sensei, for all his skill with the sword, was long on the sentimental. "So if my lord gives an unwise order -"

"Never betray yourself," Tatsuyuki-sensei says. "Death before dishonor."

"Yes," Takao repeats, "but what if somebody else would then be ordered -"

"I do not speak of your death," Tatsuyuki-sensei says, and finally turns to face Takao completely. Takao squints again. This...this is wrong. "Protect your lord's honor. If that means opposing him, do so. Such is the true loyalty."

"You...would counsel me to turn against my master?" Takao asks.

"If it serves bushido," Tatsuyuki-sensei(?) says. "And thereafter, protect your honor. Face your true destiny ready to die. You have done what you have done to be true to bushido; the judgment of your lessers need not burden your soul in the next world."

"This is wrong, master," Takao says. "No samurai would do such a thing."

"But this is what you would have liked to do, isn't it?" Tatsuyuki-sensei(?) says, and finally Takao hears the true voice behind it. The yokai. "When you finally learned that our liege played a part in my death, you wished so fondly that you had killed him before he could sign away my life for coin...and damn the consequences. You would have gladly died a traitor and murderer to save me, wouldn't you?"

"That...I would have done everything for you, master," Takao says. Where is the yokai hiding? His eyes sweep beyond the silvergrass, the glint of the evening sun on it, to search the cellar's shadows.

"What if you could simply tell me, now, of the plot?" the yokai-as-Tatsuyuki says. "You look up to me and my wisdom. Surely I would have found a wise way of dealing with this. Perhaps if I had done the deed, we could have fled together? Or if I had confronted our lord, he would have thought better of his scheme?" The yokai-as-Tatsuyuki smiles again. "Takao-kun, you have spent years searching for the right way to avenge me and haven't found it. You had your suspicions this evening, but you knew nothing of the plot and there was nothing you could have done to stop it, then. If you did not fail, then you had no cause to kill yourself. And you never considered killing our lord - you have forgotten his name, have you not? That is how little he matters to you now."

Takao gulped. Could the yokai be reading his heart? "What are you saying?" he asks.

"I am saying you have been stuck for years trying to figure out what to do about your pain," the yokai-as-Tatsuyuki says. "You must know by now that there is no logical response to your feelings. But I can offer an illogical one." He reaches out his hand. "Come with me. Stay in this moment. Dwell with me here, that I might not go to my death, and maybe tomorrow the sun shall rise on a better world. A world without your pain in it."

Takao snorts as he catches the glint of a polished stone in the middle of the shadows beyond the illusion. Be it ever so small, there is light shining in the darkness beyond. "What touching melodrama, shadow-creature," Takao says coolly. "Would that this theater had a flute player to accompany our earnestness. Have you visited such honeyed words upon the others yet or have I earned the honor of being tempted first?"

The yokai grins through Tatsuyuki. The illusion does not disappear, but twists on itself, becoming poorer and less clear without the attendant focus on its magicks. "YOU ARE AN ANNOYANCE TO MY PLANS AT BEST, APE," the yokai says. "YET YOU HAVE NOT DEALT ME SUCH INJURY AS YOUR FRIENDS HAVE. AM I THE FIRST TO MEET YOU WITH KINDNESS? NO WONDER IT IRRITATES YOU SO."

"I've heard plenty of sweet lies," Takao says. "You're not very good at them, by the way. I am actually feeling substantially less respect for Lady Ikishi now that I know she fell for your act."

"SPEAKING OF SUMIKO AND KINDNESS," the yokai replies, "I WAS QUITE FASCINATED TO LEARN OF HIMIKO -"

Takao's reply is swift; he draws the repeating handgonne from his belt and fires at what he can make out of the stone. It's a glancing hit, sadly, as the stone whirls away in the moment between the trigger pull and the powder charge igniting, but it is enough to make it spark in the shadow - and shatter the illusion immediately. Takao blinks to push himself free of the false image and fans the gonne for another shot and another, chasing the stone through the cellar until it disappears. He looks around, tries to spot the yokai around, but that seems to have done the trick of chasing it off. Still gripping the gonne, Takao advances on the shadow across the room, then feels the wall behind where the yokai was a few seconds ago. The stone is slick with a spatter of fresh blood - human blood. Takao frowns. Whatever else that might mean, it does reveal one thing - the rotbeast can be hurt.

"Takao! Takao!" comes the shouting of High Lord Nikochi, strutting into the room behind him. "What are you doing? I need that paint delivered, not you setting off your...your toy down here! My ears are still ringing! Now come, we have to finish the sigils!"

"...you can handle it," Takao comments, breaking open the gonne to reload. "I have to go check on someone." He strides past the stunned Nikochi to make for the stairs up to the palace. Is the creature really after Himiko, or was that a ruse? It's a chance he can't take.

"Pft!" Nikochi calls after him. "Rude and disobedient! Some samurai you are."

Takao snorts again. "I'm no samurai," he says. "Not anymore."