Empire

Gatac 2018-08-09 17:41:29
The trip to the mill has turned into quite the production. Bringing Lord Shira all but inevitably brings Lady Ishikawa with it, and a police carriage to house Shira in, and Copperhead to be in the locked wagon with Shira and watch over him, and Toshi came, and that's before we even get into Yu and Himiko and finally, at long last, Toshiba and Takao, too. But big as the convoy is that sets off on the journey, it also feels like a vote of confidence. Ikishi is out of the way, for now. Shira's heart - and vote - will soon belong to the right side of history. And although Himiko's sight might have come at the price of whatever dark trade her mother forced on her, the ease of her smile seems genuine. Finally, for the first time, closing her eyes and basking in the warmth of an afternoon sun is a choice.

As the convoy moves, Yu steers her horse between Toshiba and Takao.

"It has come to my attention," she says, "that you two are to thank for intercepting Ikishi's messenger to the mainland and that I have been most deficient in delivering those thanks. You have saved the lives of my people, and while I will not soon pledge life and limb to another master, be assured that I am very grateful to you. If there is a boon within my means to bestow upon you, do not hesitate to ask it."

---

Elsewhere, a rather smaller team of Kirika, Yukio and Ueki make the journey to Ikishi's mansion again, though not like before. With their mistress gone, the ferrymen will not take them, so it all comes down to a small fishing boat rowed to the shadowed side of the island, away from possible prying eyes - not that there seem to be many as you make landfall quietly and take stock of the situation from the cover of tall grass. In fact, rather appropriate to its ostensible task as a "family mausoleum", the island is quiet now, with little trace of the servants who prepared and served the meal that revealed to you the dire straits of Lady Ikishi's deal with the yokai. The charred circle of the Hellgate in the middle of the plaza before the mansion looks cold now, soot sunk into stone in a way that a thousand rains might not dislodge.

"It's too quiet," Ueki opines. "But hey, no collateral damage concerns. Everybody's gone! Nobody we need to fight, that's...okay, I'm not gonna pretend I'm disappointed because honestly I really wasn't looking forward to fighting anyone. Let's, uh, get that door blasted open and then get inside, yeah?"
punkey 2018-08-09 18:21:25
"One thing at a time, Ueki," Kirika says. "And we should be so lucky to find our friends without a fight." She surveys the plaza - servant's quarters off to one side, the mausoleum before them, but the number one thing she feels is...emptiness. This place isn't just quiet, it's like no one was ever here.

"Let's check the servant's quarters before we resort to blowing things up, hmm?" Kirika says.
Gatac 2018-08-09 18:25:35
You fan out and go through the servant's quarters, the storehouse, little auxiliary buildings - finding absolutely nobody. The shelves in the storehouse are empty, but free of dust. The servant's quarters are bare, even lacking tatami mats on the floor. Yukio tests the big central hearth with the cloth-covered back of her hand, finding it cold. This has not been fired today.
Gatac 2018-08-18 07:01:05
The stony looks on Toshiba and Takao's faces say it all to Yu: your gratitude is thanks enough.

The mill stands as you remember it, its water wheel still stopped up and the entrance closed. With Ishikawa's nod, the door is breached, revealing that the interior has since been "cleaned", removing all evidence of it having served as a Lightwatch base / hospitality zone. The moan of frustration is audible even behind her mask, but she doesn't comment on it further; it's been a few long days, and besides, Lightwatch has been demolished and Lady Ikishi's schemes halted, so what good would evidence be now?

Instead, you turn your attention to the outside, where you spend a few minutes locating the stone Ikishi told you about. It's subtle, to put it mildly, but you do find the marking, take your paces and then start digging, soon hitting the "vault" - a stone box that protects an ornate wooden chest inside. That chest, in turn, has metal reinforcements and a lock that fits Ikishi's key. On turning it, several clacking sounds are heard. When you open the chest, you find not only what Ikishi said, but also several glass phioles around the perimeter of the chest, filled with a clear liquid - no doubt some sort of acid that would ruin the contents if the chest was forced open.

Most significantly, what looks to be Shira's heart is in there, and it is indeed still beating. Himiko gasps at the grisly sight and turns away.

"Bring out Lord Shira," Ishikawa orders her men, then nods to Yu Lee. "His life is in your hands now."
"I will not fail him," Yu says.

Neither Toshiba nor Takao have much to contribute to the delicate operation - and besides, neither of them is much of a "crowd" type of man, so they quickly find themselves standing watch at the perimeter. Before the dreaded man-to-man conversation can develop, however, something appears on the cloudy sky, a trail of red fire that rapidly closes the distance. Is that...is that Kiara? Holy hells, it is her, but only because you've seen barely enough of her half-dragon shape to recognize elements of it in the actual no-shit dragon streaking through the sky, carrying someone on its back. As the mystical beast curves and descends for a landing, all eyes are on it; leathery wings unfold fully and help it arrest its speed before touching down.

(Fun history fact: the 1917 Fairey Hamble Baby floatplane was the first aircraft to incorporate functional flaps. And yes, I know flaps compensate for loss of dynamic lift due to speed reduction, not being the cause of the speed reduction themselves, so shut up.)

As the dragon comes to a halt, HIRO HOMI! climbs off its back. Before your eyes, the dragon shimmers and folds upon itself, assuming the appearance of plain old human Kiara again.

"Man, flying long-distance over the sea sucks," Kiara says. "Dolphin meat is hella oily. Wicked heartburn, and -"
"Let's spare our friends," Homi says. "I think I can apprehend the basics of what has occurred during my absence. Kiara was so good as to let me in on the...rough outline."
"Oh, yeah," Kiara says. "Like, you guys forget I'm here half the time, it feels like. I mean, the ninja in me appreciates it but the dragon needs some fire, knowimsayin? So I figure hey, let's make myself useful and take care of a loose end like our Homi here. How did you even plan to get back from Olafsen's lair after scuttling the ship?"
"I'm the Shadowguard," Homi says. "I have ways."
"Who needs 'ways' when you have friends?" Kiara asks. "Anyway, that's one long haul! Longer than the flight to the oracle, even." She spits. "Man, that good for nothing jerk. Still mad about that."
"In any event," Homi says, "during my time on the ship, I was able to examine the bodies further. Through means unknown, it appears that their chi was drained completely. That accounts for their strange disposition - without even the barest speck of life in them, these bodies cannot even decay. I suspect Ikishi's arts are to blame, though I cannot yet say for what purpose this was done."

Takao glances up during Homi's explanation; were those clouds so thick and dark before? The question is shortly answered by a distant flash of lightning, with the thunder upon you a few seconds later. Looks like a storm coming your way fast.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-08-23 15:56:27
"Yu, I trust that getting wet shall not interfere with your endeavors?" Toshiba asks. "Should we move into the mill before whatever ill will summoned this weather makes its presence more strongly felt?"

He turns to Takao. "Because it is never just a storm. It would be pleasant were I wrong about this, but I fear I am not."
MikeS 2018-08-29 03:22:46
Takao nods. "These are strange times indeed, when you can make a statement like that and all I can do is agree.

"Yu Lee, how much longer til you are done? "

He turns to the newcomers. "Did you notice when the storm started gathering? Did someone... follow you, strange as that may sound? I suppose we can discuss the philosophical implications of bodies drained of their chi later, and for now focus on making sure our chi stays where it is."
Gatac 2018-08-31 07:26:33
Yu considers the gathering storm.

"Yes, let's move this inside," she says, glancing at Lord Shira's shackled form being led towards her. "This will take a while."

"Follow us?" Kiara scoffs. "Brother, did you clock how fast I was going?"
"Quite," Homi says. "And I did not dare look back during the ride. That said, I am in full agreement that this warrants caution. Copperhead?"
"I shall see what I can do," the be-hatted ninja replies, wandering off from the main event towards nature's fury.

It takes a bit to bustle everyone into the mill, particularly with the "vault" having to be gingerly carried inside lest any of its traps be set off. By the time Takao and Toshiba bring up the rear and make for the door, the wind is whipping through the valley, tossing little branches and loose grass about. Thunder rolls much louder now, with a lightning strike bright enough to flash-illuminate the darkness under the clouds that cover the sky from horizon to horizon.

Just as Toshiba struggles to pull the door closed against the underpressure from the gale outside, another bolt falls from the sky - and directly impacts the outstretched arm of Copperhead, lighting the ninja's armor in brilliant white arcs of raw energy. Before Toshiba can study the phenomenon further, Homi yanks him into the mill, while Ishikawa and her men haul the door closed and finally bar it from inside.

It would be wrong to say Takao's getting a bad feeling about this, because that feeling has already been there for quite a while. But as he backs off into the center of the mill, unsure if this is still just bad weather or a sort of attack, a coldness runs up and down his spine.

"This is where we escaped," Kichirou whispers to him. That's a bit strange, seeing as Kichirou should still be in Lord Hetechi's mansion, recovering from his ordeal. Takao whips his head around to follow the whisper's echo all the way up into the rafters of the mill, but there's nothing to see there from the ground floor. To judge from everyone else not looking upwards, they're either very good at ignoring creepy whispering or they didn't hear it.

---

"They all packed up and went home, it seems," Kirika says.
"The question is what plane they call home," Yukio opines. "The lunch was cooked, was it not? Over what fire?" She looks to Kirika. "Do you recall a single one of them, in any detail?"
"...I hate ghost stories," Ueki blurts out. "What? There, I said it. Ghosts. You got a better explanation?"
"It seems to be the only likely explanation," Kirika says. "Let's go see about that door."

Walking back out to the plaza, the wind picks up as you walk past the scorch marks; Ueki tenses up and keeps his hand on the grip of the gonne in his belt. Kirika forges ahead, however, placing a few solid knocks on the door. There is no reply. Kirika places her hand on the door, trying to reach out beyond the material as blue flame flickers over her tattoos. Whatever life was once in those wooden doors has long been driven from them, and they seem as cold and tough to her touch as the stone walls next to them. Beyond lies...death, but not like a fiery hell or a choking cloud of poison. Instead, it feels as if gazing across a cemetery under a new moon.

Kirika lifts her hand off the door. "I don't think blowing these open is a good idea."
"...thank the Heavens you said it," Ueki says.
"What are you thinking, dearest?" Yukio inquires, with that 'I don't like this but I'm gonna follow your lead' look Kirika knows so well by now.
"There has to be some way to open the doors from the outside, or another way in," Kirika says. "I suggest we find that."
"Well, there's one other way in," Ueki says, eyes straying towards the water. "Not feeling like that either, if I'm honest."
"We should check the roof," Yukio suggests. "It has to ventilate somehow. I recall the ninjas speaking of heavy shutters they dared not force, but they were worried about stealth - between the three us, I am sure we could pry one open."
"Shutters first," Kirika says. "Then hopefully one of us can unblock the door."

Whatever cleared the island didn't strip it completely bare. You manage to find an abandoned little ladder tall enough to put up against the mansion walls to where there are steps hewn into the stone to allow access to the roof for cleaning. Ueki follows reluctantly, but he does follow, to his credit. The roof itself is about three stories above "ground" and mostly flat, with an assortment of ventilation towers sticking out. There are, indeed, metal shutters over the ventilation shafts, but Ueki's brought his tools and after a few minutes of hammering, he manages to drive out all the hinge pins on a large shutter blade, with Yukio yanking it aside. The inside of the tower reveals a dark airshaft, just tight enough to mantle down.

"Stay here," Kirika says as she grabs ahold of the open ventilation shaft.

Kirika climbs inside and gingerly slides herself down the shaft. The stone walls do not yield even a bit, though a few small pieces of stone crumble off and clatter into the hallway beneath. It looks to be about one and a half floors high. Kirika could leap from the floor up to the ventilation hatch, but there's no way a normal human intruder could just drop in and then get back out the same way. Kirika wedges herself in and then lowers herself head first, trying to get a better idea of the hallway. And it's...a hallway, no doors to either side, painted walls, curves around on both sides. It's not a labyrinth per se, but the halls are folded and stacked a bit like the layers of a forged blade.

Kirika looks around for a moment to find her bearings. "I'll meet you at the door!" she shouts up, then proceeds down the one that looks like it leads back to the front.

As Kirika drops down onto the floor, it feels like something shifts in the air currents - small ports on the far end of the corridor, sliding open to let archers hidden behind them fire down the hall at intruders! Or at least they could, if there was anyone there. Kirika approaches cautiously, close enough to peer through the slots, but finds the hidden redoubt behind them empty. Clearly there must be another system of crawlways and hatches connecting those ambush points with each other, but what good are they with nobody to man them? It's the same way seemingly all the way up to the front door, as various little hidey holes and firing positions - rather more apparently when coming out instead of going deeper inside - reveal themselves to be empty. The front door, then, is reinforced with metal strips and barred with a massive plank of oak. Even Kirika has to put her back and shoulder into it to dislodge it, but when she does and pushes against the doors, they creak open, reuniting her with Yukio and Ueki.

"Are you all right?" Yukio asks.
"Fine," Kirika says, putting a smile on it for her sake. "All the guard posts I came across were empty, so it seems there is no one home."
"It seems that way?" Ueki asks.
"It is conceivable they are all hiding elsewhere, but given what we've see so far..." Kirika says.
Ueki draws his gonne. "Shoulda gotten my bullets blessed," he muses.
"I think I saw a staircase leading down back this way," Kirika says, leading on. "Be sure to close up behind us."

Back into the "mansion", then. Coming in through the winding hallways, the nature of the structure as a strategic redoubt becomes even starker. Whoever built this expected an army to come busting down the doors and was prepared to make them pay dearly for every inch. Yukio remains at the ready while Ueki points his gonne at this shadow and that corner, looking about five seconds away from straight attacking the darkness. But eventually you wind your way through the gauntlet and into the central atrium: a sunken courtyard seven levels deep, surrounded by walkways formed out of an enormous winding staircase. Down at the bottom, you see the facsimile of the Imperial throne room, built for a purpose yet unknown. And still, nobody in sight.

"Presumptuous," Kirika scoffs.
Ueki looks around, spotting the inlets dotted around the walls that must control the flooding mechanism. "So, uh, can't help but notice that the only way is down." He looks at Kirika. "Do you know what's down there? Other than the empire's most wasteful theater set?"
"I do not," Kirika replies. "But Kagemaru saw an even lower level than this, so if he and our friends are here, then they must be even lower."
"...okay," Ueki says. "The pumps," he mutters, "think of the pumps, wonderful marvels of engineering pumps..."
Yukio nods to Kirika. "You lead the way," she says. "I'll cover our rear."
Kirika nods, and proceeds down the pallisade steps to the throne room.

It's a long way down.
Like, a really long way down.
Longer than that, even.

Finally, you and your tired feet arrive at the bottom of the central shaft. Looking at the walls - and knowing that the water they and the rocks around them hold back could crush you in an instant - can't help but fill you with a bit of dread. The throne room set is, well, as close to a facsimile as one could reasonably assemble. Kirika can't judge if it's a 100% authentic, but then again, who but the Emperor's innermost circle possibly could?

"There's no way," Ueki says. "Look at this. The wood, the lacquer, the metal fittings - there's no way this was submerged in water even once."
"Yet that's precisely what happened the last time our friends were here," Yukio says.
But Kirika's already looking on to the wide tunnel/hallway that leads to the true inner sanctum of the mansion. The doors that normally guard it stand open, and the only greeting is a chilly draft emanating from within. "There is a breeze coming from deeper underground," Kirika says.
"I'm not even going to ask," Ueki says.
"Do we press on?" Yukio says.
"We must," Kirika says, and starts down the hallway.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-09-04 20:14:15
Toshiba crouches next to Copperhead, looking to help, or at least cut away ruined fabric so someone more skilled can tend his burns. He looks back to Takao, not having heard the phantasmal Kichirou speak a moment ago. "I hate it when I'm right sometimes."
Gatac 2018-09-29 18:02:57
(Update for Toshiba and Takao pending)

---

The hallway leads down on a subtle grade and curves, spiraling down. Ueki continues to alternate between gobsmacked silence and protesting that all of this is impossible to build, while Yukio's hand hasn't left the grip of her sword since they entered. At the half turn mark, Kirika realizes that the subtle hum in the air is not that of machinery: it is a chorus of chanting voices from beneath. As the thought crosses her mind, the tattoos on her shoulder flare up, and out of her shadow floats Kaede Kamura.

"Argh!" Ueki yelps, almost jumping back behind Yukio.
"Two in a day?" Kaede goes. "You really like me, don't you?" She looks around. "...where the hells are we?"
"Ikishi's lair," Kirika hisses. "And I think of this as more a continuation from before."
"Well then!" Kaede says. "Let's get to it."
"...you're a ghost," Ueki says.
"What, ghost?" Kaede goes, then mimes reaching through her body. "Heavens, you're right! I am a ghost! How did that happen?" She tugs at one of the arrows sticking out of her chest. "Oh, right. It must have been arrow-related! Look at us two, figuring this out together."

Yukio chuckles a bit.

"All right, all right," Ueki says. "Forgive me for being a little shocked."
"You're forgiven," Kaede says. "Say, is that tinnitus or is there chanting coming from down the tunnel?"
"That is definitely chanting," Kirika replies. "So if we're done with the shouting, shall we proceed with caution?"
"Sure," Kaede says. "Lead the way, niece."
"Caution sounds good," Ueki agrees.

Proceeding with somewhat less conversation down the tunnel, you clearly make out the chanting further down. The tunnel - past a massive set of sliding iron doors - terminates in an enormous cave. Sitting in an underground lake tethered to a landing bridge is one of those strange foreign ships that can sink and rise under their own power, though it lacks the Devilfish's markings. Various side caves split off via shorter rock tunnels. The source of the chanting, however, is smack in the middle of the main cave: dozens of translucent spirits, dressed in semblances of normal clothes - normal, save for the Shadowwatch pendents on their belts. They look slouched over, their eyes replaced with a solid green glow. In the middle of the commotion, a 50-ish looking man in the garb of a priest works some sort of ceremony on a flat slab of stone, while in the background, a circle of pure light has been drawn on the ground - a cage in which Kagemaru's flickering form sits, as if to meditate.

"I'd call dibs on the priest," Kaede says, "but this is your mission, niece. What's the plan?"
Kirika pulls her Shadowguard sash out of her pocket and slings it over her shoulder. "The direct approach," she says as she stands up. "If this is in my name," Kirika shouts, "I wasn't informed."

Yukio takes position behind her, while Ueki ducks down and checks his gonne.

"Put a little spine into it," Kaede says, floating disapprovingly beside him.
"How'd that work out for you?" Ueki hisses.
"That remains to be seen," Kaede says, floating closer to Kirika.

The spirits turn their heads, and some shuffle their feet to face Kirika. The glow in their eyes overpowers whatever glimmer of recognition they might show for the sash, but at least they're staying in place for now. As for the priest, he puts down his ritual ladle and straightens up.

"Kirika Kamura!" he shouts over to her. "As ever the impatient one. And here I thought the Rose's gambit would keep you a bit longer. I am, as you may have guessed, General Noronu. And your little coalition of bandits, ronin, ninja and...what are you, even?"
"Weaponsmith!" Ueki calls, taking position beside Kirika. "Though I suppose I was a bandit before that..."
"In any event," Noronu says, "I suppose it is a bit much to ask you to stand aside one last time?"
"That presupposes a first," Kirika says as she approaches. "Release my friend, and my people, and come quietly, and I won't cut you down where you stand."
"I think we gave you plenty of chances to work with us," Noronu says. "But you wish to negotiate. Very well, let's see here...there are four of you, while I have the spirits of three dozen Shadowwatch agents under my total control." He smiles. "Your bargaining posture is highly dubious."
Kirika's eyes narrow. "How many of them died by your orders?" she asks, loud enough for the spirits to hear.
A few of the spirits twitch, but Noronu smiles. "Technically? None. I gave the orders to have them captured; Lady Ikishi separated their spirits from their bodies and sucked out their chi to sustain herself. But I guess when it comes to technicalities, one could start with debating whether they are truly dead. They haven't moved on to the hells or the heavens...they still serve a purpose here."
"I don't know if you're taking input, niece," Kaede says, "but I vote we separate his head and his neck and then conduct our own philosophical inquiry into the technicalities of how dead that makes him."
"That was, uh, eloquent," Ueki says.
"Yeah, I got bored with 'let's just kill them' a while ago," Kaede comments.
Kirika's hands tighten around the hilt of Crane's Dance. "Let. Them. Go. They were good people that served with honor, they don't deserve this."
"When it comes to matters of empire, a soldier serves as his general demands," Noronu says. "Allow me to demonstrate."

Noronu begins a deep hum that changes the chant around him: individual spirits seem to come into focus and "solidify" into corporeal forms. One by one, the ghostly Shadowwatch agents draw weapons and advance on you - all but a few, who seem confused and shuffle a bit towards Kirika, then turn around and advance on Noronu.

"Useless!" Noronu shouts, then draws a gonne and puts a bullet into the spirits advancing on him. They each burst into little puffs of smoke before disappearing.
"Hey!" Ueki protests. "That's one of my gonnes! He has one of my gonnes!"

Besides Kirika, Yukio prepares to draw - but still waits for a sign from Kirika.
Kirika, as expected, draws her sword. "Hear my words!" she shouts. "This traitor to the Empire has slain you and is slaying your comrades! Men and women you fought and you died to protect! Are you slaves? Or are you Shadowwatch?"

(Kirika's Impress: 1d20+14+4+2 = (1)+14+4+2 = 21
yikes)

The spirits stop momentarily, looking at the Shadowguard sash Kirika is wearing.

"It's a fake!" Noronu shouts at them. "Hiro Homi is the Shadowguard! Do not fall for such a simple trick!"

The spirits remain confused, though some start moving towards Kirika again.

(Kirika's Knowledge check: 1d20+6 = (13)+6 = 19)

"Even a blade that is not drawn remains a blade, until it breaks," Kirika shouts. "So it is with our path. There is no certainty when we will be called upon, and even when we are granted respite, we take our duty to the grave." She pauses to look each spirit in the eyes. "Hiro Homi is the Shadowguard, as he will always be. Kirika Kamura is the Shadowguard, as I will ever be. And you are the Shadowwatch - as you will always be. You laid your lives down for your friends, your family - what has Noronu done?"
"Oh, spare me -" Noronu says - but just then, Kagemaru stops meditating. Instead, he starts...buzzing around his prison, slamming his shadowshape against the walls of light. As he does so, the spirits lose substance again, though some of their eyes seem to clear as their former selves return to them. "Your defiance is as ill-timed as it is futile!" Noronu shouts at him, then casts off his robes to reveal the armor beneath - and draws a sword. With a wave of his hand - and a glowing tattoo visible up his sleeve - the Shadowwatch spirits are tossed out of the way.

"Enough talk!" Noronu shouts.

(Kirika's Impress: 1d20+14+4+2 = (4)+14+4+2 = 24)

"We are Shadowwatch," some of the spirits repeat. Noronu turns around to see that some of them are floating back into position - but not yet quickly enough to catch up with him as he backpedals, then turns again to stride at Kirika.
"We all would give our lives in defense of the Empire - and what has Noronu done? What has Ikishi done?" Kirika asks. "Remember who you are and what he did to you! Rise up and help me strike him down!"
"SHUT UP!" Noronu shouts, swiping his sword at the approaching spirits. He raises his hand again, a force from beyond grabbing a trio of spirits and slamming them into the cave wall where they disappear into more puffs of smoke. "Do you care about them?" he demands. "Then tell them to back off!"
"Let them go first!" Kirika growls back.
Noronu swipes through a few more, but as they set upon him, he raises his tattooed hand and holds it to the sky. When he closes it into a fist, a light shines from it - and under its glow, the spirits fade away into sparks until they are all gone.
"They're at peace," Kaede mutters.
"That was...very inconvenient," Noronu spits, turning to look at Kirika. "You cannot possibly comprehend the profound irritation you have just caused me!"
"Blah blah blah," Ueki says. "By the way, I checked your math. Looks like you did okay counting us, but it turns out you're just one stupid old bastard." He cocks his gonne. "Tell me you're not gonna try to arrest him."
"We don't know how many others he holds in bondage," Kirika replies.
"Well then," Noronu says. "New equation: you need me alive. However, to me, you're all expendable." He smiles, then lifts his sword to point at Kirika. "Shall we?"
Kirika nods. "Yes, I believe we shall."