Shadow Warriors

Gatac 2019-12-21 17:46:58
"We cannot defeat the yokai until it stops drawing life from Ikishi and Himiko," Kirika says. "And we cannot break the link until we have Ikishi's heart."
"So we delay them," Kagemaru says. "How?"
Kirika looks over the walls to the approaching undead shadow army. "Nothing else to do but hold the line."
Takao hrms as he checks his revolving gonne one last time. "Right beside you, Kirika."


There are no more magic illusions. No more speeches delivered from beyond. With thunder rolling over the palace, the shadow army washes against your defensive line. And it is a valiant effort by all, with oil slicks being put on fire, arrows raining down on men once dead and blades parting shadow time and time again.

But alas, it is only buying time. Fifteen minutes at that, near eternity in a pitched battle, but Inexorably, the hundreds of shadow warriors push forwards. Their numbers might dwindle overall as blessed weapons dissipate their magical bonds, but from anything less than that, they just keep rising again. And marching. And fighting.

"To the second line!" Yukio shouts.

Her sword cleaves through what would be the skull of a shadow spearman. Matsumoto style might not be as graceful as the Kamura technique, but it more than suffices against the flailing defense of the undead. Behind her, drums change their tune and horns are blown, signalling an ordered retreat to the palace wall, yielding the grounds before you to the shadows. As your allies make a run for it, a distant THRUM sounds and Ueki's catapult finally enters the fight, flinging explosive barrels into the rows of shadows. The booms are almost deafening, flinging loose earth and grass at you.

How much longer until Toshiba returns with the heart? Can't be much longer. It can't be.

The fog of debris is heavy, resisting even the rain pouring down, but neither can hide the blue glow of Kirika's fire. Rushing from hot spot to hot spot, she holds off the shadows, slicing through sword and arm of one before kicking another into the spear walls of an abandoned defense post.

Following in her wake, Takao distributes headshots and decapitations in equal measure until, finally, his gonne clicks dry. "So be it," he murmurs as he lets the useless gonne drop. Finally, his hand reaches for the sword he has kept sheathed for so long and draws it, whirling off to do some two-bladed damage. If this is not a battle worthy of Mizu, what could be?

"Kii!" comes the cry of Konoko from above, announcing the return of her master - and indeed, Toshiba rockets through the dark skies, dodging the odd lightning strike on his path. Kirika's heart resumes beating when he touches down safely behind the palace wall. they have a chance.
"CRUSH HER," the voice of the yokai calls. "CRUSH THEIR EMPRESS!"

Kirika's eyes fly to Yukio, who - up til now - was doing a good job holding her ground and ordering the troops around, but that was when she was getting her fair share of opponents. Now, all remaining shadow warriors let off their targets and turn to swarm at her, disregarding every other obstacle - one even walks right into Kirika's blade and slices its own belly open, falling to the ground - and continuing to crawl, single-mindedly towards Yukio.

"Toshiba!" Kirika shouts as she barrels and leaps over the shadow soldiers between her and Yukio. "Take it to Nikochi!"
"On it!" Toshiba's voice echoes from behind the wall.

Kirika springs forward, Crane's Dance seeking another soul to drink, but one shadow warrior leaps at Yukio -

- and gets a chunky throwing dart embedded in his back, the wire stopping him cold and then yanking him back. Kirika's eyes follow the wire back to its attachment point, an eave up on the wall, from which Bumi now slides down, using the flailing shadow warrior as a counterweight! Before she hits the ground, she throws her other dart into a nearby overturned wagon, tripping a trio of blindly rushing warriors with it.

"Whoo!" she shouts, releasing the first dart and retracting it. The freed shadow warrior plummets onto a pit of sharpened sticks and continues flailing, unable to free itself. "Yo, Kirika!" she calls. "Where do you want your air support?"
"Protect the injured so they can get to safety!" Kirika calls back, looking around. She sees Karla, a few nasty bleeding slashes showing through her armor and axe nowhere to be seen, sprawled on the back of a shadow warrior, stabbing it with her backup dagger. "Starting with her!"
"You got it!" Bumi calls, retracting her second dart while she releases the first again and whirls it around to build momentum. With a well-aimed hurl, she sticks it into the dazed-looking shadow warrior Karla's riding on and then triggers the reel again, zooming off over the rain-slick grass.

Then, ninjas fall from the sky. Of course.

A wild mixture of Ayami and Red Dragon fatigues drops from above onto their shadow warrior targets, stabbing and slicing as they wrestle the creatures to the ground. Following them are their gliding screens, which crash into what semblance of a front line of shadow warriors still exists. Then a stream of fire rains down from above, setting the gliders on fire - and exploding their blackpowder charges, throwing more debris and shadow warrior components over the battlefield.

"Sorry for being late!" Kiara roars from above, her dragonshape at full size as she lays down more literal covering fire. "Had to go get some friends!"
"Cut their numbers!" Kirika shouts in return. "We will handle the ones close to us!" She finally reaches Yukio, forcing herself back to back. "How are you doing, my love?" Kirika asks.
"Oh, you know -" SLICE "- fighting for my life -" SLICE "- fighting for my friends -" CLEAVE - "fighting for my empire!" KICK "The usual!"

Finally, finally the thick of battle lightens as the ninjas gain the upper hand, literally dragging shadow warriors away from the fray and slicing them apart with the help of the scattered defenders before tossing the wriggling parts into the flames around them. The creatures might not be dead, but they sure aren't getting back into the fight like that. Kirika and Yukio each slice up a few more, then finally get a chance to collect their breath. Behind the semicircle of fire that surrounds the palace gates, the frustrated survivors of the shadow army - maybe a hundred creatures in all? - howl and moan their displeasure, while the tall figure of the yokai's warshape stands in their middle, glaring at them. Other ninjas rush by you, carrying wounded with them, while Bumi zips off overhead, hurling a few leftover firecrackers into the flaming perimeter to spook off the attackers.

"Empress!" Lord Shira calls from above. "We have all the wounded inside! May I humbly suggest you hurry through the gate so we can barricade it?"
Yukio quickly flicks the worst of the viscera from her blade. "Do we have the heart?" she asks.
"Toshiba returned with it," Kirika says. "Hopefully we bought him enough time." She looks skyward. "Kiara! Care to join us inside?"
"Not much left to burn!" Kiara shouts back, doing one last run over the perimeter before gliding over the wall.


You hurry back through the gates and see them slammed shut, with thick beams rushed into place to hold them closed. The smell of burning corpses wafts through the inner courtyard, where the improvised field hospital is already being evacuated into the palace proper.

"Yukio!" Toshi shouts, running - not every emperor-ly - in his fine robes and spluttering mud all over them. He falls into her arms and embraces her tightly, then draws Kirika into the hug as well. "We're almost done with the surgery -"
"Correction!" Nikochi booms, walking down into the courtyard with a winner's smile and a casual stride. He holds up the bloody stone, still warm from its former resting place inside Lady Ikishi's chest. "The last of the anchor stones is ours to dispose of!"
Yukio looks over to Kirika. "Dearest," she whispers, "I hate to let you go, but..."

Kirika reaches out, and even though she's already caked with shadow goo and bits of long-decayed corpses, she still grimaces when Nikochi drops the blood-soaked stone in her hand. "...any ideas on what to do with it?"

"Were the situation less dire, I would retain it for study," Nikochi advises. "As is -"
"A hammer!" Toshi shouts. "Somebody get us a hammer!"
"Coming!" Ueki says from the launch site where his catapult still stands, now silent. He browses his toolbox, then finally triumphantly lifts a sturdy hammer from it and rushes it over. "So, uh," he asks, "who gets the honors -"
"JUST SMASH IT!" Yukio and Toshi shout in unison.

Kirika drops it on the floor, half out of intent and half out of shock, snatches the hammer from Ueki, and with all her strength and another mighty flare of ethereal flame, brings the hammer down on the stone.



Seconds later, Kirika's vision clears. Her hands feel the slick grass and gravel underneath, and with some effort, she picks herself off the ground. Ueki does likewise from his position, having been flung the other way. Nikochi, infuriatingly, looks like the mystic shockwave passed right by him. But there it is: the stone has shattered and its shards lie surrounded by a little circle of scorched grass. Almost in the same moment, the storm lets up above and the first rays of sunlight pierce through the dissipating clouds. A soft wind blows through the courtyard; as it touches the shards, they crumble to dust and are carried away.

"They're falling down!" Lord Shira calls from the battlements. "They're all falling to pieces!"
"ow" Ueki moans victoriously.

Kirika looks around, making sure all her friends are there and safe.

Kirika's look sweeps the courtyard. There are Yukio and Toshi, of course, holding onto each other, both staring at her in disbelief. The cheers of the defenders echo loudly, with Matsumoto's retainers carrying him out on a stretcher so that he might join the celebration - he certainly still has a warcry worth contending with, even if he can't stand on his own two feet just yet. Kiara and Kagemaru are off to a corner, with the assembled ninjas trying to stand at attention and cheer very quietly at the same time. Takao calmly sits by a crate of supplies, taking a breather. Then, Hiro Homi and Sidewinder emerge from the palace, steadying Copperhead in their midst. He looks more bandage than man, but he's walking, if haltingly.

"Ow," Ueki repeats, wandering close to Kirika. "Ow. Where's my hammer?"

Kirika looks down at her empty hands. Probably in the next province by now, if it didn't fly all the way out to sea.

"I'll get you another one," Kirika replies sheepishly. "Where's Toshiba?"
"Yu Lee and he were quite busy with Lady Ikishi inside," Nikochi says. "I was, as they explained to me, surplus to requirements during the remaining surgery, hence my brief career as a courier."

Kirika turns towards the walls and leaps - in one step - to the top, and surveys the surrounding area. There's a lot of sunlight streaming now over what is, objectively, completely ruined landscape. What hasn't been burned was scourged, there's gravel still burning - how is gravel even burning in the first place? Dragonfire is something else for sure - and even the palace walls are blackened from the fiery perimeter. The areas the shadow army marched through don't look much better, having been drained of literal life on the way through. It's like a scar stretching all the way to the horizon. And then there's all the dead lying around, some fallen defenders, but mostly the long dead shadow warriors now laid to a second and hopefully final rest.

But...there is still one shadow. One creature that yet stirs. Kirika's eyes focus on the wriggling survivor. The yokai! It looks like an eight-foot tall stick man made of shadows and something like smoke rises from it where the sunlight burns off what's left of it, but somehow, incredibly, it is still not quite dead. Instead, it is crawling over the ground on all fours, as if trying to get to something, anything that might shade it.

Kirika narrows her eyes, then leaps off the wall, flies through the air and lands in front of the yokai. As Kirika approaches, the flames of her tattoos flare up again. When she lands, the yokai screeches and tries to ball up, holding its thin claws in front of what might be its face.

"STUPID...APELING!" it says, its voice crackling like fire. "I WILL - I WILL..."
"You will what?" Kirika demands.
"YOU WILL BE...YOU MUST BE...DESTROY" the yokai whines.
There's a warmth to the side of Kirika. She turns her head to see, once more, the ghostly apparition of her father, Ameda Kamura.
"Leave it be," Ameda says, his voice echoing with...more? "It must go back to its place." He turns to the yokai. "We will venture to your Hell -"
"NO" the yokai screeches.
"- where you will serve your punishment."
"NEVER" the yokai says. "never"
Ameda shakes his head. "Or you can be destroyed right here by my daughter. Your choice."

Kirika puts her right hand on the hilt of Crane's Dance, waiting for the yokai to decide.

As the yokai sizzles in the sunlight, it pulls its claw off its face, casting one final hateful look at Kirika.
"i go" it says. And just like that, it's gone - no sound, no flash, no smoke, just gone.
"Such a small thing, in the end," Ameda says. He nods to Kirika. "But as long as it was anchored to this world, it could steal all the power it needed."

The moment the yokai vanishes, Kirika feels her shoulders sag. For the first time in...she can't remember how long, Kirika feels tired. She turns to her father, flames still licking up her hair. "Thank you, father. For everything."

"I wish...we wish...we could have done more," he says, and even with these words, his image begins to fade. "I wish we had more time, Kirika. All I wanted was...more time. To speak to you, even like this...has been the greatest gift." His hand reaches for her shoulder, and though it has no substance, she still feels its weight press down on the tattoos. "Thank you for...not giving up."
Kirika reaches up to her shoulder. Even though she shouldn't, she feels her father's hand under hers. "And thank you for teaching me not to," she replies, tears in her eyes. "I will see you again, father."
"You will see all of us," he says with a smile. "Goodbye...for now."

Kirika watches as Ameda vanishes before her eyes. She wipes her tears, turns around, and runs back towards the fortress, once again leaping over the walls, but from a bit closer and with a bit more effort than last time. She lands in the midst of everyone checking each other's wounds and taking their rest after the battle.

"It's done," Kirika says. "The yokai is gone."
"It's...over?" Toshi asks. "It''s over. It's done. We won!" He turns to the others, his face beaming with pride. "We won!" he shouts. "We won!"

Yukio doesn't mince words like that. She just strides up to Kirika, grabs her and kisses her.

Kirika returns the effort, smiling afterwards as she and Yukio hold each other, faces cheek to cheek. "We did it, love."
"You owe me a lot of watching you sleep in peace, dearest," Yukio whispers to her.
"Sleep is starting to sound pretty good right now," Kirika admits. "I need to check on the others, but...I must admit a reluctance to leave your side." She steps back, but keeps Yukio's hand.
"Uh uh," Yukio says, not letting go. "No more 'I need to' or 'One more thing', Kirika. You're reporting to my chambers at once. Your Empress commands it."
"But Ikishi -" Kirika starts.
"No buts!" Yukio insists.
"Except yours!" Ueki throws in. "uh i have some tools to fix bye" he stammers as he all but runs away from Yukio's glare.
Kirika looks to Kiara and Kagemaru. "If it is all right, I wish to speak with you both -"
"After I...inspect the shadows!" Kagemaru says. "Never know, might have missed one of the shadow warriors!" He vanishes in a puff of shadow.
"Uh," Kiara says, curling her tail. "I'm a dragon but I'm not messing with this." She looks around. "Anyone have a cow? I could go for a cow right now."
"Stop stalling already," Yukio says, dragging Kirika with her as she starts walking.

Kirika starts walking, but stops for one more moment as they're about to exit the courtyard, and she sees where Hiro Homi, Copperhead, and Sidewinder are seated. She doesn't say anything, just nods to the three of them. Hiro nods to her, while Sidewinder gives her a quick tip of the hat.

Yukio finally manages to drag Kirika into the castle and out of public view. "I'm not tired yet," Kirika says, the flames on her shoulders lower but still enough to light the hall. She runs a hand along Yukio's hip. "You don't need to make me go to sleep."
"First and foremost, I need to get you into a bath," Yukio says. "And after that...we'll see."
Kirika leans up against Yukio. "I love you," Kirika whispers.
"And I love you," Yukio echoes.
Gatac 2020-01-05 18:05:36
Kirika opens her eyes slowly. Last thing she remembers is laying in the polished stone bath as Yukio rubbed her back, the flames licking up her sides heating the water, and then...nothing. Slowly, she rolls over onto her back and yawns as she looks up. Her eyes fall on Yukio, sitting in front of a mirror with three young women working on her hair, detail-stitching her clothing and applying makeup. After yesterday's ceremony got sidelined, this is for the people: a ride into the capital to present the new Emperor and Empress in all their finery, to assure the populace that the years of darkness are now past. (Even if Kirika recognizes the girls as being from Lord Hetechi's retinue - clearly the royal household has not had time to hire its own staff quite yet.)

"Good morning," Yukio says, a soft hand from one of the beauticians on her shoulder keeping her from turning her head and smudging makeup on the clothes. "How are you feeling, Kirika?"
"...sore," Kirika replies, sitting up slowly, carrying the blanket as she does so to keep herself covered up. "How is everyone? Where are they?"
"Well, everyone of interest to the Shadowguard is in the celestial room," Yukio says. "Winding stairs up from the main hall." She sighs. "My father lost a lot of good men, as did the palace guard...but thanks to Yu Lee's skills, all the wounded we could recover pulled through. Toshi is visiting with them right now."
"Is there...something I can change into?" Kirika asks.
Kirika sees Yukio's smile in the mirror. "In the cabinet right," Yukio says, snaking her right arm past the beauticians and pointing to the near corner of the room. The left cabinet is already open, showing the parts of Yukio's family armor not damaged in the fighting. "Ueki's still working on mine, but I told him to rush yours."
Kirika looks over and notices that the two cabinets match each other. "A matched set. For the same room," she says, returning Yukio's smile before striding over to starting to put on a suitably Shadowguard-like kimono.

The cabinet opens up, revealing a set of just such kimonos - and, unmistakably, Kaede Kamura's battle armor. Though structurally repaired and refitted to Kirika's measurements, it still bears clearly the scars of her battles in it, the patched holes where arrows pierced it - even offset with a different color filling to make them stand out - and the Kamura family colors, carefully repainted.

"That turned up when Nikochi had the servants turn the palace upside down for paint," Yukio says. "There are no records of it being brought here as a battle trophy, but...perhaps they have been lost in the intervening years."
"Perhaps," Kirika says. When she touches the armor, soft blue light runs along the lines of the original Kamura colors on the armor, even through where the repairs interrupt them. Just for a moment, she thinks she hears Kaede's voice again. "Thank you, Auntie," she whispers. Kirika slides a kimono out of the cabinet and slides it over her shoulders. "We'll have to get smaller matching ones made for Toshi's quarters," she says.
"There are a lot of things that need fixing around here," Yukio says. "A lot of things to be built anew. It will require a lot of...craftsmen, -"

Yukio trails off.

"Dash it all," she says. "That metaphor did not go the way I wanted it to. Why did I have to sleep through the rhetoric classes?"
"Too tired from the ass-kicking classes," Kirika says as she knots her father's obi around her waist and slides Crane's Dance into its place at her side. "I will see you later." Kirika walks behind Yukio and plants a kiss on top of her hair. "You, me, and Toshi need to coordinate my people for this parade you planned without your Shadowguard's input."
"You don't think anybody might possibly still be left to wish us harm?" Yukio says. "Surely all the lowlifes and corrupt nobles who benefited from the absence of a strong imperial oversight, and all the other pretenders who were waiting their turn to seize the throne, and then the people who hated the previous Emperor and found his absence downright liberating all have abandoned their causes instanter."
"Sarcasm is unbecoming of a head of state, your majesty," High Lord Hetechi comments, breezing in through the door. "Kamura-dono," he says, nodding to Kirika. "Lovely as ever to see you in one piece."
"And you as well, Hetechi-dono," Kirika replies with a nod of her own. "Are the others ready? The capital ward captains?"
"Ishikawa-dono has assured me all is prepared," Hetechi says. "Of course, this is not my responsibility to arrange, it is all hers and yours. I merely inquired out of idle curiosity, you see."
"All the same, your invitation stands," Kirika says.
"If you think a dilettante like me can be of aid to you, then I will of course defer to your wisdom," Hetechi says. "Come now! I've sent for my staff to prepare us a working breakfast. I daresay none of us has yet had time for a decent meal and a full schedule requires a full stomach, don't you agree."
"They can accompany us to the door of the hall only," Kirika says as she steps out the door with a final wave to Yukio. "It's time to make a good first impression."

The celestial room is at the top of two flights of stairs from the main hall, perched at the very top of the palace. A late addition to the structure, it was commissioned by a particularly astronomy-focused High Lord whose name has been lost to time, as has its original function as a observation room for stargazing, but it retains its large, round shape and the clever baffles that let in light through the roof while keeping the rain off. Its most recent addition is a big wooden table, accommodating twelve chairs around it. As Kirika walks in, balancing the trays of foods in her arms, the room stirs. Seated are Hiro Homi and his two disciples, Shintaro himself - clearly upgrading the invitation extended to his staff -, a man in full-body clothing that could not be more obviously Youta as well as Holger. Kiara, in her human guise, is seated at the far end of the table, feet up on the same. Kagemaru is also somewhere in this room, she's sure of it, but good luck spotting him! Three more seats are taken by unfamiliar faces with the familiar Shadowwatch braid - district cell leaders, as many as could be summoned given the time constraints and ongoing security concerns.

"That looks good," Kiara says. "You bring anything for the others?"
"I had heard of your journey into the royal livestock," Kirika said, squatting down to slide the trays off her arms onto the table. "By my guess, that should sate you for...a few days?"
"Not if I'm going to be flying between the various ass-ends of this empire to get all the clans reporting in," Kiara says. "Or did you want me on pottery duty?"
Hiro clears his throat. "If I may," he says. "Good morning, Shadowguard. The floor is yours, of course."

Kirika stands up and straightens her kimono as Hetechi takes a seat himself. "I have called you all here to form the start of a new Shadowwatch. Under Ikishi's control, our numbers have dwindled severely, and with a new Emperor and Empress, the threats against them and the Empire will be many. I intend to grow our ranks and expand our sight well beyond just the capital, and cooperate with the other peoples living on our islands." She nods to Holger with that. "Most importantly, we need to keep an eye on those that benefited most from Ikishi's rule," Kirika continues, and looks to Hetechi and Shintaro. "That is why you are here, Hetechi-dono, and why you are here, Shintaro-dono. The highest of society and those whose businesses have flourished are the ones to be least trusted, and you both know the moves of those in your respective worlds better than anyone - and I know you both to be honorable men. Shadowwatch requests your aid."
"All due respect, Kamura-dono," one of the district chiefs - a clean-shaven man with a glass eye - says, "but traditionally it has been our job to gather this sort of intelligence. Involving the staff and connections of other High Lords weakens our operational security."
"With our reduced numbers, and the extent and size of the noble class and the power of business, could we not use the bigger picture provided by those in the position of a High Lord?" Kirika asks him. "And believe me, there are doors that only rank and status can open. Our agents are many and varied, but can you see the wisdom in having someone who can simply ask for information without arousing suspicion?"
"I am not saying the intel would be useless," the glass-eyed chief says. "But sources that exist in the light can be...leveraged."
"I think we're past secrecy concerns at this point," another chief - a young, bald man in the dress of a monk - counters. "Our cells were decimated from within by Lady Ikishi's agents. We can't afford to be picky right now."
"We can't afford to be careless," the third chief - a heavyset woman with the sun-burnt skin of a farmer notes. "I think we can satisfy ourselves of Hetechi-dono and Shintaro-dono's sources, however. Perhaps we will recruit some of them. We do need a lot of agents replaced."
"Yo," Holger says. "All that shit you're gonna find out is gonna get to me, right? I ain't got spies in your cities and I don't wanna do you dirty, but I gotta hear if there's shit going down that'll hit Kargbeck, dig?"
"That is precisely why you are here," Kirika says. "As the closest thing to a Hanse intelligence chief, and a man we can trust, I wish to enter into an information sharing agreement with the Hanse living in our empire. It is the will of the Emperor and Empress to ensure that the Hanse remain safe within the land they have been given."
"Safe's the thing, chica," Holger says. "That ninja shit inside our walls gets gone and stays gone, you hear? You get your knifes outta there, 'cause we regulate in our hood. You need shit done, you let me know and we'll get it done, but ain't nothing going down behind my back. Dig that, too?"
"I have a different vision," Kirika says. "We operate together. As the Hanse's influence spreads, you will want your people to operate outside your walls, and I will want to know what goes on within them - but you and I coordinate. As long as our mutual secrets from each other do not endanger the people of the other, we are stronger trusting each other than standing on our respective sides of your walls."
Holger considers that. "I feel you," he says. "And your credit's good with me, chica. But I can't shake on that right now. Got to play the game with my people, too. Be easier if I can tell them straight up that your soldiers get gone for starters, gesture of good will and all that. Where we go from that blank slate, shit, that'll be on us to write."
"Of course," Kirika says. "And I want to make it clear that this would not be an agreement that only moves one way. As much as your presence depends on our good will, ours in your city will depend on yours."
"Tight," Holger affirms.

"May I speak?" Youta says.
"Apologies," Kirika says, nodding to Youta. "This old friend of mine. I believe his expertise will be valuable."
Youta looks around. "You know me as Silent Eye."
"Son of a horse!" glass-eyed chief says. "You compromised five of my people!"
"If that's all of it," bald chief says. "We are...familiar with your interference as well."
"And your expertise," farmer chief adds.
"Operational efficiency was required," Youta says. "Propose we stop working at cross-purposes. Have agents who would be open to Shadowwatch membership." He pauses. "Would like to consult as well."
"...consult?" bald chief asks.
"Work best on my own," Youta says. "...less discussions. More actions. Better results."
Kirika looks to Hiro. "I believe we have names for people like that."
"We do," Hiro says. "Now, traditionally the stipend -"
"No," Youta says.
"" farmer chief asks.
"No money," Youta says. "Do not need your money. Entanglement...unnecessary."
"It's also how we know we can trust our people," glass-eyed chief says.
"Not your people," Youta says. He taps his fingers against his thighs. "My terms are known. Contact me with acceptance." He nods to Kirika. "Goodbye. Congratulations."

Without another word, he gets up and makes for the exit. Kirika looks to Hiro, then to Copperhead and Sidewinder, and raises her eyebrow.

"I'll check on him," Sidewinder says. "How 'bout it, partner?" he says to Copperhead. "Stretch your legs?"
"I have...little use...for your...humor," Copperhead wheezes through his bandages. He might be up and about, but there's still a long way to go on the road to recovery.
"Hell, if you're complainin', you're breathin', that's good enough for me," Sidewinder says. He nods to Kirika, then departs to follow Youta.

"And that brings me to you two," Kirika says, turning to Kiara, blowing smoke rings up to the ceiling, and Kagemaru, who shimmers momentarily into the shadows covering his seat. She looks over at them, as they both straighten up ever so slightly. "You mentioned flying around, keeping the ninja clans in order."
"Yuuup," Kiara says. "I mean, Red Dragons are my crew now even if Nagiko is running the day-to-day, we're kinda in charge of the Ayami by default -"
"We really should put someone as leader there," Kagemaru comments.
"How about Nagani?" Kiara says.
"One, off to parts unknown with her brother," Kagemaru says. "Two, we can't just put our friends in charge of everything."
"Then what's the point of leading?" Kiara says. "Ugh. You figure it out."
"Right," Kagemaru says. "While you go off flying around the empire?"
"Hey, look," Kiara says, "who'd you take orders from if they showed up at your clan fortress unannounced? Some shadow-thing that has to go kick someone's ass before they even listen to you, or a motherfucking dragon?"
"...that actually makes sense," Kagemaru says.
"'course it does," Kiara says. "That's why I lead a ninja clan and you don't."
"...right," Kagemaru adds.
"See, that sarcasm, not leadership material," Kiara says. Finally, she turns to Kirika. "So, uh, yeah. Touring the empire. Getting the word out. Can you get, like, some scrolls with the imperial seal for me to drop? I feel kinda bad about the people whose cows I'm eating. I mean, they're just regular dudes, right? Shadowwatch could pay their bills, at least."
"I think we can do something," Kirika says with a nod. " between such things...stay close?"
"Same province close or bigger bed close?" Kiara asks.
"I think we can find space in this palace for a hoard," Kirika replies.
"Right," Kiara says. "Plus, you know, clan fortresses? Not exactly prime real estate. We're up there because we have to, not because we, like, hate sunlight and beaches."
"Speak for yourself," Kagemaru says.

Kirika looks around at the table, and sees some confused faces on everyone that isn't Hiro. "Oh, apologies," Kirika says. "Kiara, Kagemaru...introduce yourselves."
"Yo," Kiara says, raising a hand without taking her feet off the table. "Bigass dragon that saved all your asses yesterday? It me. You're welcome. Badly-visible walking carpet over there -"
"Yes, thank you for the kind words," Kagemaru says. "I am...Kagemaru. And before all this craziness, we were just two regular ninja."
"...regular ninja," glass-eyed chief says.
"Hey, look," Kiara says. "Sometimes you seize a magic sword. Sometimes you kill and skin an assassin made of pure shadow. It's called living your life? Try it sometimes. Pretty awesome."
"And you are Kamura-dono's companions, then?" monk chief asks.
"That is correct," Kagemaru says. "Us and the Blue Oni and Takao-senshi, of course."
"'re braver than I thought, Kamura-dono," glass-eyed chief says.
"Hearing some disbelief here," Kiara says.
"Maybe you can demonstrate what you intend to do for the ninja clans?" Kagemaru suggests.
"Right, should probably work on that," Kiara says, then kicks off her legs and gets to her feet, shaking her arms about to loosen them. "Okay, point of note, this is gonna be served with fire but we're indoors, so, less burny. Okay?"

Hearing no dissent, Kiara turns. There's nothing gradual or graceful about it. This is not how someone still struggling with their powers would turn from human to dragon. Instead, Kiara's human shape just rips apart like a popped balloon and from nothing, the enormous scaly body of a dragon emerges. Her snakelike body shoots forward and almost rings the room, her tufted tail swinging just past Hetechi-dono while her wing-claws seek purchase on the walls. It's several seconds of stretching and contorting before her wings finally settle down along her back instead of trying to span out.

"I am Kiara Fireborn, grand beast of the Red Dragon clan!" she bellows. "And from this moment, your clan will bend knee to the orders of the Shadowguard, Kirika Kamura! Swear your fealty now - or burn."
"...bit much," Kagemaru snarks.
"I'm a fucking dragon," Kiara barks. "You ever meet a dragon that says 'please' and 'thank you'?"
"Well, no," Kagemaru says. "In that case, I think it's just the right amount of...imperiousness."
"And a bit less...evil overlord? But I'll leave that up to you," Kirika says. "I understand that some of the clans might respond to that."
"Yes, um," glass-eyed chief says. "Quite."
"Well, I think that covers our plans for the next six months," Kirika says, nodding to the table, encircled by Kiara's serpentine form. "Recruitment, and expansion of our network are the priority. We cannot stop what we do not see or hear. If you have any issues, let me know and we will get you the help you need."

Kiara doesn't transform back to her human form, but she does coil her tail away from the door, letting everyone squeeze past her.

"Bye," she tells the leaving Shadowwatch chiefs. "Real fun meeting you all. Maybe we can do the next one outdoors? Just a thought!"
"Actually," Kirika says, reaching for a crank on the wall, "I prefer this exact room for a reason." She starts turning the crank, and the old observatory ceiling complains as the dust shakes loose from the mechanism, but then the roof slides open like a puzzle box to reveal the open sky above - wide enough for Kiara to easily climb out onto the roof, but closed enough to keep the dark shadows for Kagemaru.
Kirika secures the crank with a knot around the cleat, then looks back to Kiara and Kagemaru. "You are my friends. Trust me, you are not just another asset to me."


"Let me guess, dust?" Kagemaru says.
"No, I'm actually touched," Kiara says. After a moment, she snorts a bit of fire. "You ass."
"And there it is," Kagemaru says. He looks to Kirika and does his approximation of a sigh. "Look, I'm...not someone who lets people close."
"You let me close," Kiara says.
"Your 'people' status is debatable," Kagemaru says.
"Okay," Kiara says. "Okay, we're gonna play it that way, ambulatory nightgown?"
"Trying to have a touching moment here," Kagemaru says.
"You fucked up mine," Kiara says.
"Yeah, now we're even, so shut up," Kagemaru says. "Kirika, I'm...I'm glad to be your friend. Glad we walked this way together. Glad we didn't kill Yukio and call it a day. We both are." He looks to Kiara.
"Yeah," Kiara says. "What he said." Kagemaru stares at her. "Because, it would have been...really bad if we had done that." Kagemaru continues to stare. "At the beginning, you know, when we didn't know how far this would go. When we could have just killed one lady and gone back to our clan and had none of this happen." Kagemaru carries on staring. "I mean, I did get to turn into a dragon because of it so that's pretty sweet."
"There it is," Kagemaru says.
"Oh, I'm sorry, is the 'Absolute Shadow' not happy with his powers?" Kiara snarks. "Do you wanna be a shadow dragon? Maybe there's a shadow dragon sword? Should I go look for it on my way?"
"I hate you," Kagemaru mutters.
"Awww, I hate you, too," Kiara says. Then, she turns to Kirika. "Umm...we're just our things now, yeah?"
Kirika nods, having smiled the whole time. "Please. Be safe, both of you."
"Yup," Kiara says, then flings herself into the sunny skies and flaps her wings outward, pushing a new layer of dust down as she gains altitude. Kagemaru, he's just gone, like he usually is.

Kirika's silent smile is interrupted by Hiro Homi approaching from the side. "So, Shadowguard," he asks. "What are your plans for me? This position is not usually passed between the living...or the willing."
"Well, swordswoman, con artist, geisha, these are things I know," Kirika says. "Ninja...I could use some training. And having your advice will never not be welcome."
"I see," Hiro says. "Maybe I knew this. Maybe I just like to be flattered." He smiles. "I'll see what I can do to help you with the cleanup. After that...we'll start with your entrances."
"And for my friend...Pit Viper?" Kirika asks.
Hiro smiles. "I've heard worse." He pauses. "I showed up to a muster without securing my shuriken correctly. My predecessor named me Rattlesnake on the spot."
"A lesson learned," Kirika says, wrapping an arm around Hiro's shoulders as they walk out together. "So many more to learn, and so much more to do."
"A shinobi's work is never done," Hiro concludes.
Gatac 2020-01-05 18:05:57
Away from all the hustle and bustle, Takao Shinmen has staked a room of the palace for his own use. There are no gaslamps here, just candles and incense burners, but this suits Takao just fine. Laid out before his lotus position are his two blades and the repeating handgonne that has of late become his steady companion. All were quickly wiped down and oiled after the battle as a matter of course, but now it is time to clean them in earnest. Gently, he first lifts Mizu into his lap, turns it edge up and gently slides the blade from its scabbard. Still as smooth and elegant as the day it was forged. Laying the sword across his lap, Takao takes a clean cloth and gently wipes along the side of the blade, wiping off the thin coat of yesterday's oil on it.

He pays no heed to the sound of the partition to his room sliding open. The merest lift of the blade reveals the reflection of RZA.

"Heard I'd find you here, cutter," RZA says. "What's the good word?"
"Pleased as I am to see you alive again -" Takao says, keeping his focus on the blade. Slow and steady. "- might I ask you to be quiet for a moment. I came here to escape the chatter."
"Hmm," RZA says and leaves it at that. He draws the partition closed behind him and then limps past Takao, where he laboriously sits down.

Several seconds pass in silence. With the blade free of oil, Takao dabs the blade with the silken uchiko ball, leaving puffs of fine stone powder on the metal.

"If you've come to enlist me for some new task, you will leave disappointed," Takao says, wiping the stone powder across the blade with another fresh cloth. "I am unavailable."
"Everybody and their bloody uncle wanting you for trades?" RZA asks. "I didn't think you were real popular like."
"I am not," Takao says, "and I don't aim to be. But my skill is in demand, as ever." He turns the blade and lifts it to the light, inspecting the edge for nicks. "I have come to something of an epiphany, however."
"Seen a lot of samurai get notions and write them down," RZA says. "Usually shite. But I'll hear you out."
"I don't like this," Takao says, dusting the other side of the blade. "I don't like doing this. I was taught to be a swordsman and I am of decent skill, but my heart was not in it. It just felt like something I had to do. And when my master was killed, hunting his murderer felt like something I had to do. I've kept to it but now that that quest is concluded, I have no desire to seek out a new one. I tire of 'adventure' and 'justice' and the life of a ronin, in general."
"Hmm," RZA says.
"...I've seen my death," Takao says. "I've tangled with things from beyond and come off stranger for it. The future is in constant motion, but it is easiest to see the drops of water in a river where it spills down a mountain. So it is with my life and its ends in particular. Many of them, most in combat, chasing after one noble goal or another. It is not that I fear death or wish to live forever - I can see a death in a cold bed forty years from now, just as clearly. But the other deaths were so...meaningless. They meant nothing to me. I am not invested enough in the politics of the empire to feel great stirrings within my breast for such. A few have used me decently and I would want to be decent to them in turn, but I have no more use for loyalty."
"You're a real miserable bastard, you know that, right?" RZA says. "I have not seen you really smile since I met you, not bloody once."
"That is exactly why I intend to live a little, if I can figure out how," Takao says, finishing the cleaning. "I will ask the Emperor to grant me some land and a stipend. I will retire there, for the time being, and seek a different way. Perhaps marry a good woman. Or found a dojo."
"Right then," RZA says, rising to his feet. "Good luck with that. Be seeing you, cutter."
"One moment," Takao says. The oiling must wait a few seconds. "RZA, I you said, a 'miserable bastard', but I desire to change that. We never quite dropped our guard with each other but, if it is agreeable to you, I should like to consider you a friend. And if you wish to continue meeting me, I that."
"You'd like that, huh?" RZA says.
"I think I would, yes," Takao says. "Also, you give the impression of someone who has some experience with life's brighter sides. You would make a fine guide."
"If you cover the tab I'll guide you anywhere you want, me beauty," RZA says. With some effort, he rises to his feet. "Now, lovely seeing you, but I do have to be off. There's some paid work waiting on me. Nothing ragged like, don't you worry."
Takao looks up to focus on RZA's face. "...I won't keep you," Takao says. "...good luck."

RZA nods and hobbles out of the room the same way he came in, sliding the door shut behind him. Takao regards Mizu one more time, then slides it home into its scabbard. Bowing his head, he holds the blade up in front of him.

"Master," he whispers. "Sore wa owatta."

Nothing happens. Nothing stirs in the room. Nobody tells Takao what to do next.

With a snort, he puts Mizu aside and grabs his other weapons, then leans back and jumps to his feet. Fixing his weapons in his obi, Takao hastens his steps, catching sight of RZA as he tries to make his way up the stairs to the main hall.

"Wait up!" Takao calls after him. Before RZA can react, Takao hooks RZA's arm over his shoulder and steadies him for the next steps. "I will be coming with you."
"I don't remember asking you to come, cutter," RZA says. "Or you wanting any more entanglements."
"...I changed my mind," Takao says.
"And you want to make sure this job's really on the level," RZA suggests.
"There is that, yes," Takao says. "You're in no position to refuse my help."
"Guess I'm not," RZA says, taking a few more steps. "But I do the talking, yes?"
"Indeed," Takao says.
Gatac 2020-01-07 18:02:51
The faded flag of the Ayami clan flutters in the mountaintop's cold wind, the only extravagance afforded to the otherwise spartan clan fortress high above the fertile valley below. It's almost summer now, with bright sunlight chasing away even the last bits of ice from under the sparse trees, but the cold wind up here is just gonna be like that, no matter the season. But it's not just the weather that has the ramparts all but empty: in the wake of Master Sinan's death / betrayal of the empire / entanglement with things what go bump in the night, even many of those who survived the defense of the imperial palace have left. Shadowwatch was recruiting on very generous terms, there's always mercenary work for those who can rightfully claim to have saved the emperor's life, and beyond that, there was just too much bitterness between those who are glad to see Sinan gone and those who could not turn their loyalties against their former master, no matter his deeds. Accordingly, many went down the path and didn't come back.

Today, two people are coming back.

The two figures - both hooded, one clearly having a hard time getting up the mountain road - approach all too closely, minutes of possible defensive action wasted as the few remaining clan members furiously debate among themselves how to react. Nobody tells them how to, not anymore. Some say to bring out the archers and fire warning shots. Others caution that it might be better to pretend the fortress is completely abandoned instead. Whatever their debate might have yielded, the time to deliberate runs out when the two figures reach the main gate.

"Ho!" one of them - a woman - shouts. "We are yours!" She lofts up a band of fabric in Ayami blue. "We seek shelter within."
"...who are you?" one of the ninjas on guard ventures to ask from behind the main gate.
"I am Ayami Nagani," the woman says, lowering her hood. "And this is my brother, Ayami Sadatsugu. Our exile is void by nullfication of its proclaimer. We claim our right of return."

Nobody says anything, but after a few seconds, the gate is unbarred and opened.

"Nagani," one of the older ninjas says as he walks out to nod to her, taking care to stay out of weapons range. "We thought you had left."
"We still have business here," she says.
"Business," the old ninja asks. "Would you challenge for the title of master, then?"
"No - that is my purpose here," Toshiba says, stepping out from the gate's shadow.

Easily a half dozen ninja react in various ways to this pronouncement. The ones already in the open back away from Toshiba, some reaching for their weapons, others merely trying to assess the situation. A few shuriken are readied in the shadows. Toshiba wanted to be seen - he's very seen right now.

"Toshiba," the old ninja says. "Or do you prefer 'the Blue Oni' these days?"
"Toshiba will do," he replies. "The Blue Oni's purpose has been fulfilled in battle with shadow demons and armies of the dead." Toshiba eyes the old ninja directly, daring anyone to doubt the veracity of his tale. "Sinan - whatever he was at the end - twisted the Ayami to serve these evil forces. Those of you who remain have your own reasons for doing so. Examine those reasons again, and consider this. I intend to forge the Ayami into a weapon against yokai and their ilk. If you would stand against true evil, join me now."
" would have us hunt yokai?" the old ninja asks.
"Be better than serving one," one of the younger ninja counters.
"Is there one among you Sinan has not wronged?" Nagani speaks up. "Why should we let him determine our future, beyond his death? Toshiba's plan is as good as any. He's seen the dark forces that threaten this empire. They are very real and nobody is equipped to fight them - yet."
"Hrm," the old ninja says. Then, he spits on the ground. "Never much cared for Sinan. Too much showmanship, too little coin earned for it." He eyes Toshiba. "I don't trust you one bit, Toshiba. You're a runaway and a highwayman and Heavens only knows what happened while you were in that armor." Then, he nods. "But I trust Nagani. When she was to be killed, I knew Sinan was rotten. And if she thinks you can pull this off, I can get behind that."
Nagani looks to Toshiba. "We can pull that off, right?" she asks.
"I don't know," the runaway and highwayman says. "But I have seen enough to know that noone outside the odd swamp hermit is handling it. And I know that given recent events, there is good coin to be made hunting demons for the new Emperor." Toshiba considers his words for a moment. "What is your name?" he asks the heckler.
"Ayami Ichizen," the old ninja says. He bows his head.
"All in favor?" Nagani asks.

There are a few silent ones, but by and by, most of the ninja assembled get to an "Aye". Hey, it's a band of assassins. They don't stand on ceremony much.

"Excellent," Nagani says. "I'll get to an inventory of who and what's left, what contracts are still on the books and how we're set for supplies." She looks to Toshiba. "If that finds your approval, Master Toshiba."
"All right." Toshiba nods to Nagani. "Thank you." He pauses. "And Ichizen? If you wish, I would have you hold on to your doubt. Be another voice here in the Ayami. You had but one path to follow for too long. I left when I could no longer see light at its end and was hunted for it. I am not telling any of you what to do. I am saying what I intend to do, and you may follow me. If you have nowhere else to go, you may stay here even if you disagree. The Empire needs skilled shinobi, yokai or no yokai. The Empire will always need its brigands to keep it honest."
Ichizen nods to that. "Indeed."
Gatac 2020-01-13 20:52:53
Even shadows leave their mark on history.

Ramma Yadonoshi's recovery at the Kamura homestead lasted a long year. Even the scouting work he did in the defense of the Imperial palace was too much, too fast on his weakened body, and many frustrating weeks passed where he had to let his arm heal fully before he could even think to string a bow again. It was during this time that Ramma developed another use for his dexterity and took up painting, catching the essence of the Empire's people with a few brush strokes as his growing strength permitted longer and longer "excursions". Even after he had regained full use of his arm, he would return to the homestead time and time again over the years, bringing with him new sketches, new tales and coin from every province of the Empire. But something inside Ramma seemed to never truly heal, and just after his fiftieth year, he was found dead in his bedroom, though none of the learned scholars called for the autopsy could quite say what had killed him.

The mainlander by the name of Falsedge did not tarry long in the Empire. She made her passage out west as sellsword, carving a bloody path across the Empire for whoever would retain her services. Nobody knows what she went in search of - fulfillment, redemption, a warrior's death? - and where she ultimately ended up. The most credible tale sees her in league with the Lees and their returning army, leading a crusade against the strongest kingdoms on the mainland to win a new home for their people, building the Dynasty of Light that still rules the greater peninsula today. But even this victory could not hold Falsedge's interest and she wandered farther still, into the great deserts to the west and the mountains beyond. Some say that, to this day, if you stray from the long roads cutting through those inhospitable lands, you might find yourself challenged by the roving band of a warlord wielding her crescent blades.

Wayward inspector Aiko Inaba's mission to Shinju, the pearl of San'in, still remains one of the Empire's most jealously guarded secrets. Stories claim that another threat from beyond, such as the swamp yokai, was stopped under her leadership. What the public records do show is that Aiko chose to remain in San'in, finding the islands in dire need of a protector. In time her efforts to bring law and order to the archipelago led to official recognition as High Commissioner of the province, answerable only to High Lady Ishikawa in matters of law enforcement. Despite bearing no children of her own, Aiko made it her policy to sponsor an orphanage, believing that helping people in need was the best way to fight crime. By the time of her passing, more than a hundred people had taken up the Inaba name as her "children", many of them - and their children in turn - going on to serve as police officers themselves.

Aotaka Matsumoto returned to the Forge to find that "Old Man" Han had gone back on his earlier forgiveness and persisted in opposing him. From his journals, we know that Aotaka's contrition over the death of Han's sister was genuine, but his patience in the face of Han's bitterness was hardly infinite, and Aotaka's pride in being the father of the Empress turned - without her influence - to anger that he should be so disrespected. When Han, in one furious confrontation, carelessly offered to have another duel with Aotaka, the samurai agreed without a second thought. Both were shocked, realizing the awful consequences of their feud, but neither felt they could back down. Han's death, then, seemed inevitable. It was only when Olafsen and Karla - by then respected citizens - personally interfered in the duel that further tragedy was averted; both entered the ring and interposed their bodies between the two old enemies, wielding no weapons themselves. Shamed at how far he had come for his anger, Aotaka surrendered and offered his blade to Han instead, who in turn found that for all his spite, he could not bear to strike down his old enemy. The duel ended then and while it would be a stretch to call this the beginning of a friendship, Aotaka and Han never came to blows again, both agreeing that they could live very well out of each other's way. As for Olafsen and Karla, their jointly-written account of their adventures - The Tale Of The Pirate Warriors - went on to become the most popular work of literature within the Empire to be written by foreigners for well over two-hundred years.

Although Kargbeck remained on good terms with the Empire, it ultimately never became the foothold the Hanse had sought in the Empire. Distances were too great and Governor Holger's strict adherence to the laws and treaties governing Kargbeck's existence made it less attractive to foreign traders than the rather less regimented San'in shadowports. Even the Emperor's personal intercession on generous trade treaties and financial aid could not convince the Hanse to maintain its outpost. Only ten years into Emperor Toshiro's rule, Kargbeck's citizens voted by large majority to dissolve their treaty enclave and be annexed by the Empire. Today, Kargbeck's unique history is still evident by some of its old buildings and street names, such as Champagne Plaza and, of course, the venerable Von Schneider School of Artillery.

The Valley of the Masters as it existed in the Lost Dynasty era soon changed irrevocably. Many of the blacksmiths and metalworkers common to the area found themselves forced to either relocate to the growing cities or futilely try to compete against new, more efficient mass manufacturers such as the then newly-formed Kogin Ltd. - today still formally the "parent" company of Kogin Kinetics International, the Empire's foremost exporter of small arms. By Imperial decree, the War Academy expanded its land holdings and added expansive training grounds for mounted warfare, gonnery and infiltration tactics. The nearby Red Dragon ninja clan was chosen to instruct common soldiers in the latter in particular. Though some wondered aloud whether this was not debasing the secrecy of the ninja arts and many clans indeed protested the training, this move was covertly supported by Shadowwatch, who found the new, officially acknowledged "Special Warfare" units a useful smokescreen for their own, more discreet operations.

For Emperor Toshiro's cabinet of High Lords, much upheaval still lay ahead. High Lord Boota would soon after the coronation be found dead in his quarters, and though Lady Ishikawa's exceedingly detailed investigation ruled his death a suicide the High Lord had himself staged to look like a Shadowwatch assassination, many uncomfortable questions arose in the wake of his death. The doubts would follow - quietly but persistently - the career of High Lady Kamura, whose struggles in reconciling her post as Shadowguard, consort of the Empress and scion of the Kamuras have been well-covered by such accounts as "The Crane Makes Her Nest", "Fire & Shadows" or even last year's smash movie drama "Kirika". Lady Ishikawa's efforts were better appreciated in other regards, such that she would serve as High Lady of Justice for an unprecedented - and to date, never repeated - forty-three years. High Lord Shira went on to serve his post until the end of the Northside Crisis, where he took the unprecedented step of resigning his office and offering himself as hostage to the rebels for five years to guarantee the fragile peace. Though he ultimately returned unharmed, his daughter Himiko would ably serve in his stead and be a major force for renewal in the Imperial armed forces. When Shira returned, he refused to take up his office again and dedicated the rest of his life to poetry. Today, his famous sword Ryusei is the centerpiece display in the Capital History Museum's Blades of the Empire special exhibition.

Another loss to the council was High Lord Shintaro, who determined after three years of service that he did not have the ability to run the Empire's economy as efficiently as needed and requested of the Emperor that he be transferred to a more scholarly position. In his stead, the famously reclusive High Lord Youta took over, of whom it is said that he would only speak to the Emperor directly and "attended" council sessions through long, detailed letters. After two decades of transforming the Imperial economy according to his will, he was replaced when six months of silence led the council to conclude that he had "probably" died, and on the day of said replacement being announced, financial markets across the Empire immediately posted losses of more than 10% across the board. High Lord Hetechi's contributions to Imperial foreign policy, scholarship and culture need no explanation at this point, of course; his family shrine still draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, many of them students wishing to be inspired by the Rooster's wisdom. As for High Lord Tsukareta, his contributions to Imperial infrastructure were similarly enormous, though his reputation continued to be stained by his efforts to achieve clemency for Lady Ikishi, whose life sentence for high treason had made her a martyr in the eyes of many nobles who felt their influence and wealth fading under Emperor Toshiro's policies. Though Tsukareta never made common cause with the "Rose Wing" nobles and by all accounts served his office honorably, news of Ikishi's death in prison shattered him; when High Lady Himoko went to check on him the next morning, she found him dead by his own hand. Rumors that he had left a letter of apology for Emperor Toshiro were, of course, never substantiated. Finally, what of High Lord Nikochi? His fate is not recorded. In fact, no council minute shows his attendance at any session. Some said that he was needed to broker peace with the many restless spirits in the wake of the yokai crisis, which consumed him to the extent that he could not be spared for any "worldly" concerns; others claim that he was politely but firmly asked to leave soon after the yokai crisis and returned to a nearby swamp.

But to return to the start of our story - what happened to the Ayami? Well...some look at Ayami Dynamics, the notorious "security consultant" juggernaut, as the last ninja clan still around, and they certainly do claim lineage from some clan members of this vintage. Others say the Ayami were the first to lose their way in the new dynasty, foregoing the clan life and working directly on Imperial commission, apparently unworthy of the honor of being absorbed into Shadowwatch. What is known is that they were one of the few to survive the bloody upheaval of the Second Shadow War, where even such long-standing clans as the Killer Bees were defeated and the renunciation of the Old Charter made all remaining "traditional" shinobi outlaws overnight. In the coming months, many powerful warriors and ancient artifacts of immense power were lost to the darkness, and within a generation, the battlefield stories of swooping dragons and living shadows became legend, then myth, then fairytales. Today, most would have you believe that they are flourishes, dramatizations and exaggerations.

They would be wrong, though. But that is a story from another time, for another time...