Swamp Things

Gatac 2014-10-21 14:31:47
IC Thread 26b - Takao
Gatac 2014-10-22 13:38:49
There's something wrong with this swamp and its dense clusters of bamboo growing in the marshes. Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with it, but the most obvious one is this: it glows in the dark, and there's no telling where that glow is coming from. It's not the individual trees of bamboo shoots, but there is something that always seems just beyond sight that cast an eerie shimmer on the path Takao and Kichirou are blazing through the thicket. This would be annoying by day, but with night fallen and the stars only vague flickers between gaps in the woods, the only reliable indicator for direction is that the river to their side still seems to be about the same distance away, judging from the sound of water lapping at the shore, insofar as alternating dense growth and hidden pools of half-rotten water qualify as "shore".

Kichirou swats at his neck as a mosquito tries for a midnight snack. "How much farther do you think it is?" he asks Takao.
MikeS 2014-10-24 13:05:50
"I have no idea", Takao replies, "but we came from a mill. Odds are that there's a way to get grain there. Could be it's just by boat, given that there was water on three sides, but it looked like an awfully inconvenient place to build a mill. Also, if there's a mill, there are probably other buildings not too far off. That's at least how the logic runs."

He looks back at Kichirou. "If nothing else, this is a convenient place to hide when Ikishi's men come looking for us. We can always backtrack if we don't find anything else by morning. We'll get a better look at what's on the other side of the river then, too. Right now, all I can see is light in the distance."

"You know, I'm not a woodsman. I usually stick to places where there are roads, and at the ends of roads are usually people of one type or another. I'll go out on a limb and assume you aren't, either, but if you have hitherto unrevealed trailblazing skills, or even a better idea where we should go, I'm all ears."
Gatac 2014-10-25 08:35:24
Kichirou holds up his left hand. "Hey, don't look at me," he says. "This is my first swamp. Or, well, first trip outside the city at all, to be honest. I wish I had something to contribute, but...right now the only thing I can do is keep following you."

Takao's instincts about agrarian infrastructure serve him well when the next bundle of reeds makes way to a clearing, where a small hut rots away on an ever-so-slight hill surrounded by the remains of paddy fields being overtaken by the swamp vegetation. The glow they've been following seems to have emanated from here - perhaps moonlight bouncing off the stagnant pools of water around the hut? There certainly doesn't seem to be any other source of light around the hut.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Kichirou says.
MikeS 2014-10-25 15:28:21
"Do you know a good song or melody? Go ahead and hum it, loud enough that I can hear it, and stay close", Takao says.

He thumbs the practice sword out of its sheath, runs his thumb over the blade, then sighs and pushes it back in. "Might as well rely on my hands", he grumbles to himself.

"Something tells me we shouldn't be finding anything in that hut, but it would accelerate our escape tremendously if there was someone in there that could point the way", Takao comments quietly as he stalks towards the hut. Takao peers into the hut through whatever openings are available before knocking on the door frame.
Gatac 2014-11-01 11:53:41
"I can do that," Kichirou says. "Here's one I heard on the streets..."

As Takao steps forward, he can hear Kichirou's humming start to pick up the volume. Hm-hm hm-hm hm hm-hm hhhhh-hmmmmmm...hm-hm hm-hm hm hm hmmmmmmm...hm hm hm hm hm hm hm hmhmmm-hmm-hm...hm hm hm hm-hm hm hm hm hmm-hmmm-hmmm!

As Takao creeps towards the hut, he catches a glimpse of...something...inside the hut, but it moves to keep him from getting a good look at it. When he finally knocks on the crooked door frame, a groaning voice answers him.

"Ooooooh," it says. "Fleeeeeeeeee this place, mortal! Don't you know that this place belongs to the spiiiiiiii-riiiiiits?"

Then it's quiet for a moment, and Takao thinks he hears a rasping breath.

"Oooooooooooh!" the voice finally adds.
MikeS 2014-11-01 16:08:07
More likely it belongs to some commoner who's inhaled too much swamp gas and is scared of bandits, Takao thinks to himself.

He opens the door and stands in the frame.

"Please, we will not keep you long. We only seek the most direct path to the nearest village or town, and then we will be gone. Can you tell us where we need to head?"
Gatac 2014-11-02 02:08:07
Within the house stands a thin old man dressed in hastily-patched tatters that have had bundles of swamp shrubs and dead bamboo leaves woven into them, as well as a tall wooden mask apparently carved from a rotten stump and painted with natural colors.

"Halt, mortal!" he croaks. "Make no more steps towards me! Oooooh, your...your ancestors are very angry with you, young man!"

Kichirou's humming in the distance reaches its surprisingly loud crescendo - boy's got lungs. Hm hm hmmm hmmmmm! Hm hm hm hm hmmm-hmmm! Hm hm hm hm hmmmmmmmmmm! Hm hm hm hm hmmmmmmmmmmm!

"This spirit will not answer your questions!" the old man continues. "Leave me...I mean, leave this spirit alone! Ooooooooh!"

"For what has been dooooooone - cannot be undoooooooone!" Kichirou crones, getting just a little carried away with it.

"Kutabare!" the old man cries, finally ripping off the mask to expose his wrinkly face. "Get lost or come in, but get your friend to shut up, by the Emperor's dingleberries! Do you want to be eaten by the yokai?"
MikeS 2014-11-02 23:09:04
"Oh, have they eaten anyone lately?", Takao asks with raised eyebrow as he waves Kichirou in. "You can stop humming now", he tells him. "That was just so that I would know if anyone had grabbed you while I was paying attention to the hut. And don't make fun of the old man."

"What drives you to live out here by yourself, old man? Look, we don't want to impose on your hospitality. Just point us to the nearest town or village, and we will be on our way. I assume there is one such nearby? Or do you plant your own crops?"
Gatac 2014-11-05 13:38:34
"No, they haven't," the old man says, ushering Takao and Kichirou into what passes for his home. "People don't go wandering through here. That's why the yokai are hungry, my friend, they're starving for fresh blood and bones."

The entire inside of the hut is painted in intricate patterns, apparently designed to ward off the evil of the swamp. Insofar as the old man seems to have lived here for a while without becoming demon chow, it seems to be working.

"The nearest town?" the old man scoffs. "About an hour's walk upriver, there's Hashi. They have a bridge and boats and a tavern. Or just throw yourself into the river and float on down to our great and esteemed capital, where I'm sure they use pikes of gold and jade to grab the flotsam from their canals. Of course you need to get out of this swamp first. Best to wait until it's daytime."

"Crops?" the old man laughs. "Look around you, friend, the swamp would swallow them." He rummages around in a pile of what seem to be about a dozen different masks until he pulls up one that is painted in stark white with black around the eyeholes, and a very large opening for the mouth. "Mainland bearcat spirit. I can eat all the bamboo I want as long as I can channel her. But the connection is getting weaker. If I lose touch with her I will have to move. But I don't know where else I could hide from the chief yokai. Oh, she wants me dead, dead, dead. If she only knew I was so close..."
MikeS 2014-11-06 22:54:02
"I didn't think that you had crops of your own. But really? You eat bamboo, and you have to wear a mask to do it? Sure you don't just get supplies from the village?" The incredulity is written clearly on Takao's face.

"I don't think we can wait until dawn. There are others hunting us, no yokai, but men of flesh and blood. I worry that they will catch up to us before the morning. Do you think we could find it in the dark?"

Takao looks around the hut as he speaks. "You sure take this spirit business very seriously. All these masks and wards and charms..."
Gatac 2014-11-07 00:44:02
The old man chuckles. "Friends, if you can escape this swamp with your lives and make your way to Hashi, feel free to ask them if they know about me," he says. "Look around you! Do you think I am hiding food that I won't share with weary travelers like you? There's nothing in here, friends. And you'd be fools to store your food outside."

"Because it would attract yokai?" Kichirou asks.

"No," the old man barks. "Are you paying attention? Yokai eat people, specifically their blood and their bones. What would they want with our food? No, you can't store it outside because it would rot away in days. And you" - he points to Takao - "how is it that you don't know about me? I'm Seigake Nikochi Soro, the Emperor's Medium! Don't they teach you kids about the eight High Lords?"

"Uh," Kichirou says, matching Takao's incredulous expression. "Eight?"

"Of course eight!" the old man - Nikochi - says. "Eight is an auspicious number, handed down by the Heavens! Seven is foreigner superstition! And I hope I don't have to explain to you about nine. Oh, just say you don't know about nine, complete my despair!" He throws up his arms. "Kids these days!"
MikeS 2014-11-07 11:45:37
Takao scratches his stubble while trying to remember if there had ever been eight High Lords in history. There were two options here: either Kichirou and him were dealing with a highly delusional individual, or something very strange indeed was going on.

"Say, for which Emperor did you say you were the Medium? And if you are the Emperor's Medium, why are you not at court?"
Gatac 2014-11-08 05:20:04
(Takao's Knowledge Check: 1d20+7 = 24 SUCCESS, plus an extra hint for being one of Takao's studies.)

(EDIT: Should have been at +8, therefore a 25 - already reflected in the result, but I neglected to correct the roll above. This note added for auditing purposes.)

The official histories hold that the Emperor has always been guided by the wisdom of seven High Lords, but Takao knows that even this, regardless of its relation to actual history, is an oversimplification. Although the current lineup has held for living memory, in the early days of the Empire things were not nearly so formalized, and powerful nobles were named to the positions that would become the High Lords by the whims of the Emperor and the court's internal politics. Just as some offices sometimes remained vacant for years until a suitable candidate could be found or raised, great men and women were granted the title of High Lord for specific offices that were either completely disbanded or folded into the retinue of other High Lords upon their death. Given all that, the historian's insistence that the seven High Lords are ordained by the mandate of the Heavens seems...suspicious, and not innocently so.

The specific position of the Emperor's Medium traces back to Emperor Tatsuya, who lived 300 years ago and is said to have tamed the wild spirits of the land with the help of a learned man known only as the Medium. (Back then, even the most influential nobles were lucky to be even mentioned in the court's official histories - the scribes had to fill their scrolls with all the wondrous deeds of the Emperor after all!) Subsequent scholarship has tacitly arrived at the conclusion that Emperor Tatsuya was likely - well, it takes a page or two to very politely and circumspectly lightly imply he was mentally ill, and nobody dared to contradict his wild imagination. Who would believe we needed to make a peace accord with the spirit world today? After all, in this enlightened age we still honor the ancestors, but everybody knows that yokai and demons and spirits are not real real. Right?

Consequently, while there have been other "eighth" High Lords throughout the history of the Empire, nobody has claimed to be the Emperor's Medium since then.

"Emperor Yoshihiro, of course!" Nikochi answers. "He called upon my help to rid himself of evil spirits that had taken a hold of his mind. Oh, I found the yokai responsible! I confronted her! What did I get for it? I was chased out of the palace! Hunted by her demons! Now look at me, hiding in this swamp!" He throws his hands wide, indicating almost the full extent of the little hut. "I've been hiding ever since. I came here - when did I come here?"

He walks over to a wall, then starts to count a veritable army of notches in the wood.

"Ah hah!" he finally says. "It all happened three years, eight months and five days ago! Except, uh...except I was sick a few times. I didn't have the strength to get up and make a notch some days. Also this one time I summoned the bearcat spirit on a new moon and it overwhelmed my senses, the next thing I knew is it was fall! You can tell because the mosquitos were getting sluggish! Also the fox spirits were shedding right on my doorstop because I wasn't there to shoo them away. Do you know how much fur there is on a nine-tailed kitsune? Do you? I'll tell you, it's a lot! I was still brushing it out of my clothes by spring!"
MikeS 2014-11-11 00:34:24
"Emperor Yoshihiro has been missing for over ten years", Takao says levelly.

There is a pause.

"The yokai's name, it didn't happen to be Ikishi?" Another pause, this one shorter.

" Anyway, Yoshihiro's son, the heir apparent, is in need of all High Lords loyal to the Throne. You have sacrificed much for the Emperor's well-being. Are you ready to serve him again, if he asks? There are dark forces at work, trying to usurp the Throne, and the two of us, Kichirou and I, seek to oppose them. But right now, we need help. We need to get Kichirou home, and I need to get to the capital. Do you think you could brave the yokai outside to lead us to the nearest settlement, where we might find a boat or at least a road?"
Gatac 2014-11-13 12:10:34
"...ten years?" Nikochi says. "Ten years..."

His eyes narrow at the mention of Ikishi. "That's the one," he says. "Though I wonder how you heard of her considering you don't seem to know the first thing about yokai. She probably fooled you with her human disguise."

"Speaking of!" he says as he turns around and starts rummaging through his box of masks before pressing one each into your hands. "You look like you would be a passable crane!" he tells Kichirou, passing him a mask with a very, very pointy wooden beak painted white and gold. Takao, however, gets a green mask with bulging eyes and bleached balls of bamboo fiber hanging from the 'cheeks'. "You might pass as a frog. Can you hop and croak?" Nikochi puts on a brightly painted tanuki mask. "I will channel the trickster. The yokai will let us be if we act the part." He steps towards the door, but then turns and stabs a finger at Takao's chest. "Beware, friends! No matter what happens, do not take off your masks until we are out of this swamp! If the yokai pierce even one of our disguises, they will set upon us all, and then we'll be done for!"
MikeS 2014-11-15 13:30:03
Takao groans inwardly as he is handed the mask. Well, the old man still represented the fastest way out of the swamp.

"Alright, not until we are out of the swamp, but not a second longer", he growls as he takes the mask. "Lead on, old man, and I will stay in the back."

Takao had never been good at acting, even animal play as a kid had not been his thing. As the group left the hut, he held the mask in front of his face. There was no way he was going to hop, but perhaps long, abrupt steps would make Nikochi happy, stiff as they might be.

"Don't forget to croak!", the old man called.

"You couldn't find a bull mask, or perhaps a bear mask, could you?", Takao complains. He is certain that Kichirou is sniggering under his mask. At least the preening becomes him. "Umm...ribbit? Croak, croak? How long do I have to keep this up?"
Gatac 2014-11-15 14:41:53
"Do bulls or bears live in a swamp?" Nikochi replies. "Now stay in character!"

Takao's mask-wearing experience is a miserable one: not only does he have to play the part, the mask is also good and moldy with a downright offensive odor, and the clammy swamp air that seems to get wetter and heavier by the second isn't helping. It's also not exactly easy to see Nikochi through the small eyeholes in the dark, but the faint shimmer that guided them to the old man still seems to be lighting the way, and so they press on.

Until Kichirou stumbles.

A slick wayward root proves the dancer's undoing as his extra-wide step sees him lose his footing and faceplant into the swamp. He yelps in surprise and drops the mask as he tries to catch his fall. He comes up a moment later without said mask, dramatically gasping for air and trying to wipe the dirty swamp water out of his eyes while the muck drips from every part of his clothes.

"The mask!" Nikochi hisses to Takao. "Quick, before they're here!"

A chill creeps up Takao's spine at the scene. He can't see or hear anything out of the ordinary, but it feels like something's just...wrong here, and getting worse.
MikeS 2014-11-16 13:38:23
Takao quickly grabs the mask, wipes it on his kimono, and then holds it close to Kichirou's face while he is recovering, all while holding his own mask in the other hand. "Ribbit, ribbit. I swear that if this tense feeling I'm having right now is Firebolt and the swordsman hiding in the reeds and laughing their asses off, there will be thrashings all around."
Gatac 2014-11-16 14:30:40
"Oh, they're coming" Nikochi mutters, reaching into his bindle before reaching into his bindle for a...jockstrap? As he pulls it over his pants, Takao can clearly make out the bushy tail attached to the back, and at the front - well, there's no nice way to put it, but these are clearly two leather balls packed with dirt dangling between Nikochi's legs. Takao feels more than a slight burn in his lungs from the bad air, and it's making his eyes water, too.

Then, after a few moments, silence.

"They're here," Nikochi whispers.


"Hahaha!" Nikochi suddenly laughs, then bows his legs and skips around in an exaggerated stomping motion, letting his...balls...dangle. "Hello, friends! Do you want to play?"


"I made new friends!" Nikochi says, swinging his rear as if to wag his tail. "A frog spirit and a crane spirit! Oh, they're just passing through! I wanted to take them to through the swamp so they wouldn't be so alone!"


Kichirou does his best to imitate a crane's gait as he paces around. "Oh, Gods..." he mutters, then seems to find his voice again. "Yes, I am the Kurēn! I flew here, and I was tired after this flight, so I took a bath!"


"Yes!" Kichirou says. "Yes, so...very tired!"


Takao's ears are ringing now. But it seems like it's almost over...


This one actually makes him wince; it feels like a firecracker going off inside his skull.

MikeS 2014-11-17 11:19:33
This can't be happening. I'm imagining all this, Takao thinks to himself.

"CROAK!", he says, and makes three large hops with both legs at the same time.

"Er...a human caught me, but she let me go. I am splashing through the mud to get her stench off me. " Takao stamps into a puddle for emphasis. "Raccoon is leading me away through the swamp so she can't catch me again."