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
It's a good thing Toshiba is wearing the Blue Oni armor when he tries to strip down Copperhead - he hadn't even noticed the current arcing over his gauntlets when he dragged the lightning-struck ninja inside, but attempting to undo the fasteners on Copperhead's armor sends a bolt right into his chest, tossing Toshiba against the wall with a nice little cloud of ancient flour dust getting shaken loose. As Toshiba dazedly picks himself off the ground, he can only glimpse Copperhead struggling to his feet, then rip off his omnipresent hat and toss it aside.

The good news-ness of Copperhead being able to stand is somewhat undercut by the look of his head. Whatever hair he had has been burned to a crisp and every capillary in his skin seems to have burst, turning his face into one big, oozing mess. And just because that's not gnarly enough on its own, there's a red-hot dot glowing in the middle of his forehead. With a gurgling groan, Copperhead reaches for it, but drops to his knees and hands, barely strong enough to not flop over on the spot.

“...we have to get it out,” Sidewinder says.
“We can’t!” Homi shouts.
“We have to!” Sidewinder shouts back. He doesn’t wait for Homi’s approval and carefully steps toward Copperhead - only for a lightning bolt to jump from Copperhead’s armor to the young ninja, tossing him across the interior of the mill. To your disbelieving eyes, you see Copperhead struggle back to his feet, lightning still arcing off his armor into the metal bands and chains attached to the walls. Seemingly devoid of reason, he starts to shamble towards you.
“Dash it all!” Homi shouts, readying a shuriken. “Take him down or he’ll take us down!”
“Nobody’s taking down anyone!” Ishikawa barks. “Back away!”

---

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."
MikeS 2018-10-30 23:42:42
Takao kneels besides Toshiba and examines the fallen ninja.

"Can you take a quick look up in the rafters?" he asks Toshiba quietly. "Not sure if my head is playing tricks on me, but I could swear I heard a voice from the past."
Gatac 2018-11-03 07:21:40
Takao's request to Toshiba is accompanied by Copperhead shambling further forward. With each step he takes, lightning arcs off his armor into the metal nails holding the floorboards in place.

"How is he even standing?" Ishikawa asks Homi.
"I don't know," Homi admits. "...there's a lot I don't know." He looks at the stunned Sidewinder. "But I know he's my problem."

With a single flourish, Homi loosens a hidden strap in his clothes, dropping a variety of hidden holsters and holdout weapons to the floor. He strips off his kimono, revealing the sarashi and tattoos beneath.

"There, there," he says, slowly stepping towards Copperhead. "It's going to be alright."

---

(FIGHT!

1d20+10 Noronu's Initiative = (1)+10 = 11
1d20+11 Kirika initiative = (11)+11 = 22

The snakest of eyes! Kirika goes first.

ROUND ONE!

1d20+16 Kirika Toppling Swing = (14)+16 = 30 HIT!
1d10+9 Kirika damage = (3)+9 = 12)

Kirika surges forward with no warning at all, her first strike cutting a piece from Noronu's kimono as he hastily jumps back to evade the brunt of the blow.

(1d20+16 Kirika attack = (18)+16 = 34
1d10+9 Kirika damage = (6)+9 = 15)

Without leaving Noronu a chance to catch his breath, Kirika goes in for a second strike, this one barely swatted aside by Noronu's blade.

Just as Ueki begins to aim his gonne into the melee, there is a moaning sound - and a gaggle of people clamber out of the little lake in the cave. Except, on closer inspection, they're not people, not anymore. They're corpses just like the ones revealed to Toshiba and Takao on the ghost ship, free from any form of decay and somehow still ambulatory. The glowing tattoo on Noronu's hand must have something do to with his power of the not-quite-departed.
"Matsumoto, keep them at bay!" Kaede orders. "Kogin, get those doors sealed behind us! I'm going after the light trap!"
"You cannot win!" Noronu shouts after them, less than convincingly, but soon his focus returns to Kirika. "They said you were good. Let's see how good!"

(For his first half-action, Noronu enters the Infinite White Void stance.)

"EMPTY SKY DOCTRINE!" he bellows, swinging his large sword overhead to clear the space around him. As he strikes a pose, the glow of the tattoos on his left hand expands into the form of a...shield? It hangs attached to his hand, built from pure white light. Kirika doesn't have much time to inspect it, however, as Noronu presses his attack!

(1d20+15 Noronu's Attack = (20)+15 = 35
Good thing Kirika has the Horror type, reducing Noronu's current threat range below 20, so this is not a threat/potential crit.
1d12+3 Noronu's damage = (8)+3 = 11)

Noronu's strike is slow, but right on the money - and it comes down on Kirika with enough force to almost cleave clean through a human torso! But with absolute certainty, she raises her blade to catch the strike, blue flames lipping from her arms onto Crane's Dance! As the strike hits, the ground beneath Kirika's feet groans and cracks, but with a mighty heave, she throws Noronu's strike aside.
"WHAT?" he cries.

(1d20+16 Kirika Toppling Strike = (15)+16 = 31

Interrupt! Before you roll damage...Noronu attempts a Shield Block.

1d20 + 14 Noronu's Fortitude Save = (2)+14 = 16 nope

Shield Block failed!

1d10+9 Kirika damage = (3)+9 = 12)

Kirika brings Crane's Dance to the ground and twirls toward Noronu, attempting to slice him from the side. Noronu attempts to bring the shield of light into position, but Crane's Dance slips under it and slices open his obi, causing his kimono to fly open dramatically. (Fortunately for everyone involved, Noronu's wearing Hanse-style pants underneath.)

(1d20+16 Kirika Toppling Swing = (20)+16 = 36

CRITICAL HIT! whee Adam's Law strikes again.

1d10+9 Kirika damage = (10)+9 = 19)

Noronu desperately raises his spirit shield to stop Kirika's next hammerblow, but instead Kirika just swings right past it - and raises to her toes to pivot 180 degrees and flip her blade up and through Noronu's untattooed arm. Noronu's severed arm sprays blood as he flails backward, dropping to his knees and pushing the shield of light in front of him - but it's much too little, much too late. At the end of the day, for all his flashy tricks, he was just a pretty good fighter. That won't cut it - not nearly - when facing Kamura-kensei.

"Summer...Summer's Advan-" he croaks, the shield flickering, then disappearing. As it does, the tattoo on his hands grows duller. Just then, the cave above you begins to shudder and there's a roar from deep in the rock. Kirika turns to look at Ueki, who's working away at a well-concealed hand-crank to close the iron door - there's but a small opening still there, but it's still wide enough to admit a blast of sea water through. The spray carries all the way to Kirika's feet, while Ueki struggles to crank the door fully closed. Without a word, Yukio abandons her attempts to keep the approaching corpses at bay and runs to help him, while Kaede still struggles to disable to light barrier around Kagemaru. Noronu coughs, blood running from his mouth as he looks up to Kirika. "Fin-" he says. "Fin-ished."

Kirika rushes over to Kaede, plants her feet, and swings at the top of the barrier surrounding Kagemaru. Kirika's measure is true and the strange glowing stone splits, admitting the barest crack in the barrier. As it does, Kagemaru flicks out through it. He doesn't waste any time: in a flash he's behind Noronu and sticks his arm into the man's chest, ripping out his heart - but it doesn't rip free, being tethered to the inside of the general's chest by means of a brightly glowing wire.

"Little help here?" Ueki and Kagemaru cry out in unison.
"The doors!" Kirika shouts to Yukio as she rushes to push them closed.

(1d20+16 Kirika athletics = (10)+16 = 26)

Soon, it's all (living) hands to damage control as Yukio snatches up Noronu's sword and jams it into the crank to serve as extended handle, while Kirika throws herself against the door to push it forward. With a horrible creaking sound, it inches towards the other side, but the rush of sea water shooting in through the opening is still strong. As they labor, Kaede floats down towards the shamblers, pulls out two arrows from her chest and stabs two of them through the eyes.

(1d20+16 Kirika athletics = (8)+16 = 24)

As everyone strains to force the door just that bit further, most of their efforts seem to go into creating a horrible creaking sound, but the door does finally inch. Just to make sure things aren't getting too boring, though, a fireball shoots out from one of the side caves, announcing the untimely demise of the pump engines. As those go, the ground shudders again and you see water level of the underground lake the diving boat floats in start to rise.
"Put your backs into it!" Yukio shouts.

(1d20+16 Kirika athletics = (20)+16 = 36)

Kirika strains and shoves her shoulder into the door as hard as she can, then flips around, digs her heels in and puts her back into it as much as she can, but first all she does is slide down the iron frame - until a spectral blue hand slams into the door next to her shoulder.
"Brace your shoulders, soldier!" Hinjo Kamura barks at her as he puts his own into the effort.
Kirika's eyes go wide as another hand joins above his: Miyo Kamura one eye and eyepatch squinting with the effort of pushing the door shut.
"And on three - one, two, three!" Hinjo shouts, and the assembled Kamuras, spectral and otherwise, all shove at once.

CLANG! The door finally slides closed and counterweighted pins slam into place, holding it. Kirika turns around to look at Hinjo and Miyo, Tomofumi with his spear and even Genichi, the Scholar of the Sword. They give her a quick nod and then fade back into the blue as Kirika's tattoos dull slightly from the effort. Just as Ueki takes a breath of relief, however, the door groans again, and a trickle of water springs up from a small leak along the upper track.
"It won't hold long," Ueki says, his face pale.
"HEY!" Kaede shouts between stabbing more the shambling corpses with arrows. They're almost upon you now and it seems you're fresh out of a way to retreat.
"Help her, love," Kirika says to Yukio as she races back over to Noronu. "Make them stop or I'll make you stop," she growls.

By all rights, Noronu should be dead. Maybe he is? But the heart in Kagemaru's hand still beats, and with a horrible snapping sound, Noronu's head flops towards Kirika.

"One death," he gurgles, even though its obvious his mouth is no longer connected to his lungs at all. "Two deaths. The hells come for you!"
"...who am I speaking to?" Kirika asks.
Noronu's body guffaws.
"Heavens' sake, Kirika!" Kagemaru shouts. "Cut the string!"
Kirika reaches a hand to grab the glowing threads connecting Noronu's organs together - even touching a wire feels like plunging her hand into a ice-cold glacial stream. Worse, Noronu's voice fills Kirika's head like a thunderstorm inside her.
"IT IS TOO LATE," he says. "EMBRACE THE COLD, KAMURA-KENSEI!"
Kirika grits her teeth and yanks on the cords as hard as she can, bellowing with the effort.

(Chiaroscuro flash, silhouetting a slow-motion spray of blood)

The wires rip free amidst another gush of blood from Noronu's wounds that draws a neat line straight across Kirika's face. As Noronu's body finally topples over, the heart in Kagemaru's hands blasts apart into a thousand slivers of ice that drop to the ground and dissolve in the puddle of sea water that has built up around them. Kirika turns to see Kaede and Yukio hack away at the shamblers, and even Ueki's got a smoking gonne - when did he get a shot off? - but then the corpses just stop moving, momentarily toppling over, seemingly for good. Still, no reason to celebrate just yet - the water is still pressing against the door, more water from the lake is pushing up to your ankles, and the diving boat now threatens to rip free from its moorings.

"The boat!" Kirika shouts as she manhandles Noronu's sliced-up body onto her shoulders. "Get on the boat!"
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-11-05 19:56:22
Toshiba shakes his head. "In a moment - I don't think calm words are going to be enough to stop... whatever Copperhead is enduring." Acting without thinking isn't going to help right now, so Toshiba takes a moment to center himself and studies Copperhead - the flow of electricity, the glowing spot on his head, his wounds, his movement, anything that would shed light on how to free him from this eldritch affliction.
Gatac 2018-11-05 20:41:28
It's funny - despite being half mystical armor, Toshiba had never paid much attention to Copperhead's suit. It seemed like a peculiar metal-banded suit, one of a kind, but nothing of mystical significance...yet it somehow took the brunt of a direct lighting strike? Well, nevermind how it did that, what matters is that it's clearly holding on to that lightning. Pity that the lightning is interacting very badly with the pin in Copperhead's skull that - so he claims - suppresses his nigh-volcanic aggression. Apply enough strength, it might possibly come out...but the prophecy said...

If the needle was ever removed from his brain, he would lose himself and you would all die. Could be as plain as it sounds. Could be loopholes. Could just be something waiting to be defied. But maybe there's another way.

Toshiba's eyes fall on the back of Copperhead's suit, where lightning pulses between several metal discs, apparently devoid of a way out. A way out...when Sidewinder approached, he caught a flash, but it threw him away quickly before it could kill him. The Blue Oni's armor might weather such an assault - might, but would it allow the power to dissipate? Well, lightning strikes the tallest trees, but then it goes through them, it doesn't stay inside...so something metal, but connected to the earth? And how to get it close?

As Toshiba considers the situation, Homi steps ever closer to Copperhead while the others look on in horror. Toshiba's heard Homi's tone of voice before...used it before. You just instinctively want to calm the wounded deer lying on the ground before you cut its throat - or snap its neck, what with Homi now being apparently unarmed.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-11-05 20:48:05
Plan in mind, now Toshiba wall-jumps up to the rafters, but not to look for a way out. He crosses over Copperhead's position, draws two knives - the longest of his many choices - and steels his mind.

Drop down behind Copperhead. Toshiba's heavy enough in the armor that momentum should carry his plan out despite the force of Copperhead's crackling energy.

One knife in the ground.

Reach up, second knife in the back between the discs, intersecting the arcing lightning.

Pain all around, but hopefully survivable for both of them. No time left to reconsider.

Toshiba drops.
Gatac 2018-11-06 19:09:18
(Oh boy. Gonna treat this like a direct lightning strike because, well, it is. But Toshiba still gets a Reflex save v DC 15 for half because he's a fucking ninja.

Toshiba's Reflex save = (2)+15+4 = 21 Saved!
Electrical damage = (6+6+6+4+3+2+4+3+2+1+3+2)/2 = 21 Ouch

Okay, electrical damage also prompts a Fort save vs DC equivalent to damage taken.

Toshiba's Fortitude save = (8)+8+4 = 20 CLOSE...but no cigar
Sickened duration = (6) = 6 Yowch)

It's a bold strategy. Well, there's nothing to fault about Toshiba's acrobatics, not that getting behind the shambling Copperhead was much of a challenge but style is a must, of course. It all goes very elegantly until Toshiba sticks a knife into Copperhead's armor, his hands too quick for even the lightning to arc into the Blue Oni suit and throw him away.

Then it all lights up. Toshiba's been burned, Toshiba's had his muscles locked up by neurotoxins, Toshiba's even had his heart stopped by an atemi strike before Master Sinan brought it back with another punch to his sternum in one of the most terrifying lessons he had to endure. But all three at the same time, that's a different level. The armor does what it can, channeling power through its outside and gripping tight onto Toshiba's chi. It's still the most painful single thing Toshiba can remember going through, the intensity not diminished in the least by its brevity. He drops to his hands and the helm of his suit helpfully slides away to let him void his stomach. If there is some grand accounting in the Heavens of when it is Toshiba's time to leave this world behind, he should not wonder if it is now one or two years off. But he lives, yet, and his greedy breath and thumping heart affirm it. He barely notices how Homi catches Copperhead.

Yu, bless her heart, rushes to help Copperhead first. He needs it, too. Toshiba can wait, even as his hands shake and he feels warmth along his bones, promising a deep pain to come. For now, he just focuses on breathing.

"He should be dead!" Yu says, applying her acupuncture skills to Copperhead's gasping, creaking body. She chances a glimpse at Toshiba. "You should both be dead!" At her side, Homi kneels, grasping Copperhead's hand and begging silent forgiveness.

"In another place," Kichirou's voice echoes through the interior of the mill. The turned heads from the police officers and the others finally let Takao know that no, he's not crazy...no more so than the others, anyway.
"Stabilize them," Ishikawa orders, seizing command of the situation. "Everybody pair up, back to back! Guard the fallen!"
"You have no idea what's causing this!" Homi protests.
"Does anyone here?" Ishikawa shoots back.

---

Kirika's kimono is beyond ruined at this point, so a bit more blood and viscera from Noronu's body won't make things worse. Well, much worse, on account of how bad they already are. You motor towards the boat, pushing through the thigh-high waters - with Ueki even riding piggyback on Yukio. The wooden landing bridge provides only a brief respite from the wading, buckling under your feet from the currents as you rush towards the metal boat. You wince as its topmost mast pushes up against the cave's ceiling and bends - you hope it snaps off before the boat capsizes, and you also hope that when it does snap that it won't turn out to have been structural. With Kaede and Kagemaru helping to fly you up the slippery boat to its dorsal hatch, you jump inside and hope for the best. Ueki rushes for a control panel and gets a flickery light going inside while Yukio pulls the hatch closed and labors to crank it shut tight, even as the boat around you groans.

"Get us the Hells out of here!" Kirika shouts. She naturally finds herself with her arms wrapped around Yukio.
"I can flood the ballast," Ueki says as he quickly scans the controls and tries to correlate them with Toshiba's second-hand explanation, "but I don't know if we have enough air to blow -"
"DO IT!" Yukio, Kaede and Kagemaru shout in unison.
"Heavens preserve us," Ueki mutters, then hits the appropriate levers. There's a horrible hissing sound and then the boat churns from side to side, tossing you around for a bit. "He didn't mention that part!" Ueki cries, as if it would help.

Then, for a hot second, the boat actually straightens out and groans a bit and then CLANG from below. The boat rocks a bit from side to side, but otherwise now seems settled.

"I think we've bottomed out," Ueki says. "That's....that's good. I think." He looks around. "Okay, so...engine starter. Anybody see a lever to start the engine?"
Kirika spots it - a red lever marked "Engine" on a brass plate - and after an experimental pull reveals some resistance, yanks it as hard as she can.

SPUT SPUT SPUT SPUT! The engine cranks over and hisses as its flywheel picks up speed. As Kirika opens the throttle, the engine finally comes to life completely. Experimentally, Ueki puts it in gear - creating a very slight forward movement and a not slight at all scraping sound.

"Okay!" he shouts, clutching out again. "Yukio, Kirika, get the horizontal emergency screws!" He points to two cranks to either side of the centerline in their cramped little pressure hull. "Kage, get the rudder!"
"What should I do?" Kaede asks.
Ueki gives the ballast tanks a partial blow from your precious pressurized air. "Praying would be good!" he shouts.

Everyone does their best to get the boat off the bottom and into forward motion. The success of this endeavor is quick in coming, but Ueki's shout of joy is short-lived.

"Oh shit," he says.
"What now?" Yukio demands, cranking the screws with Kirika to keep the boat level.
"We're blind!" Ueki says. "Charts, charts, there's got to be -"
"....I could go out," Kaede suggests.
"YES!" Ueki shouts. "Do that! I need to know how the tunnel is shaped!"
"All right, all right, keep your fundoshi on."
Kirika puts a hand on Ueki's shoulder as Kaede steps through the metal walls of the ship. "Just tell us what to do, Ueki," she says, trying her best to keep her voice even.
"I don't know, first time I'm trying to steer a ship in three dimensions!" Ueki yelps. He takes a greedy breath. "Okay. Keep up with the screws. If we list forward, crank faster, if we list backward, stop cranking."
"You got a thirty foot drop ahead of you," Kaede says, poking her head straight through the hull. "And a right turn after that."
"DIVE DIVE DIVE!" Ueki shouts. "Screws stop, planes thirty degrees!"
"Aye aye!" Yukio shouts back.
"You got it!" Kagemaru concurs.

With a second, the boat pitches sharp forward and "falls" deeper into the water.

"One samurai, two samurai, three samurai," Ueki mutters. "All screws to max, planes negative as far as they'll go! Rudder hard starboard!"
Kirika starts cranking as hard as she can.

(One last Athletics, for the encore.

Kirika athletics = (15)+16 = 31)

The boat shudders and groans as it just bounces off the bottom of the access tunnel, then rolls to the side, tossing Kirika back into Yukio's arms.

"The turn's too sharp!" Kaede says, popping her head back in. "You have to stop!"
"ALL AHEAD FLANK!" Ueki shouts.
"WHICH FLANK?!" Kirika and Yukio shout back.

CLANG! The boat shudders as it hits rock on its port side, and a single rivet pings out of its hole, accompanied by a spray of water. Miraculously, the boat still holds up and still powers forward, but it seems today isn't quite done with giving you wet feet.

"How much further?" Ueki shouts.
"Fifty feet!" Kaede says as she pops back in. "You're off a little to the left -"
"RUDDER FIVE DEGREES STARBOARD!" Ueki bellows. As the boat rolls slightly again, he cranks the wheel on the pressure tank.
"Uh...you're not out yet..." Kaede says.
"Have to balance it with the water we're taking on!" Ueki shouts back. "Kirika, Yukio, get back on the screws and keep her level as best you can!"
"Got it!" Kirika shouts, and returns to her crank.
When Kaede shouts "CLEAR!", the water is just about to everyone's knees.
"EMERGENCY BLOW!" Ueki shouts, opening the valve on the air tank as far as it'll go. "SCREWS TO MAX, RUDDER TO NEGATIVE MAX!"
"AYE!" the crew shouts back.

Amidst more groaning and hissing, the boat seems to rise - at least, until the hissing stops.

"You're thirty feet below!" Kaede calls in.
"We're not gonna make it," Ueki says. "We're not...we're not gonna make it to the surface like this."
Kirika looks to Kagemaru. "Get Ueki to safety."
"HEY!" Ueki protests, but without another word, Kagemaru grabs him and tackles him into the dark water, where they both disappear.
"...you don't expect him back before we flood, do you?" Yukio says quietly.
"No," Kirika says. "Not for me."
"Dearest..." Yukio says. "...no!" she protests, getting back on her screw even as the water comes to her waist. "Come on!" she shouts. "We can't just...do nothing!"
As the ship tilts to one side from Yukio's effort, Kirika has an idea. "Keep turning," Kirika says, and cranks her screw the opposite direction, starting to tilt the ship over. "When it's on its side, we crank the same way and try to move it to the surface - but if the water gets too high, you will be leaving first, you hear me?"
"Make me!" Yukio shouts back, but goes along with the plan. As the ship tilts, Kirika's screw station submerges, but she dives down and keeps cranking. When she comes up for air one more time, the water's literally to Yukio's neck. "It's not working!" Yukio cries. "We're not going up fast enough!"
Just then, Kagemaru pops back in. "Ueki's safe," he says.
Kirika grabs Yukio and kisses her as hard as she can, just in case. "Take her!"
"NO!" Yukio cries. "Dearest, no!"

But it's no use protesting; Kagemaru grabs her and the two fade into the black of the water. Just then, the last light inside conks out, and all that's left is the soft glow of Kaede's spirit and Kirika's tattoos, along with a small air pocket at the top of the pressure hull.

"Seven hells, Kirika," Kaede says. "You're gonna be a fucking story."
"Not written yet," Kirika says, and grabs Yukio's crank, working it until the ship turns completely over.

Taking a last greedy gulp of air, Kirika dives into the water and works the crank. The boat continues to roll and proceeds to sink back down, reaching "flopped over" position just as the last air goes out and the pressure hull floods completely. Kirika grabs one last breath from the pocket of air, and dives down to work the hatch open. Ugh, Yukio, why'd you have to crank it shut so tight? Kirika's tattoos glow bright enough that bubbles form on them as she muscles the hatch open. With a final groan, it unseals and flops downward. She dives through, pushing herself through the hatch. The ship now slowly starts to sink, giving Kirika just enough of a bearing as she kicks as hard as she can towards the surface. Following the trail of bubbles upwards, Kirika kicks towards the surface and the light and a final escape from Ikishi's crazy lair.

(Fun history fact: Robert Boyle first described the physical manifestation of decompression sickness in 1670.)

Finally, Kirika breaks the surface and immediately gasps for air, coughing up a little sea water sucked in during the process. As she kicks her leg and wipes the seawater from her face, she hears a groan to her right. She looks just in time to see Ikishi's "mansion" start to cave in at one side, apparently collapsing on itself. As she looks around, she sees Kagemaru and Yukio on a hijacked rowboat, speeding towards her.

"Hells," Kaede says, hovering just above the surface of the water. "Watching you from the world beyond isn't half as fun as being here. I'm afraid I can't stay much longer, though."
Kirika looks over to Kaede as she treads water. "It was nice while it lasted, and I'm sure I'll see you again," she says, then thinks better of her words. "I mean, before I see everyone again."
"Keep it heroic, Kirika," Kaede says, tugging at one of her arrows as she slowly fades away.

Just then, the boat slides past Kirika and a strong hand grabs her by the collar of her kimono, pulling her out of the water. She goes a-tumblin' onto the floor of the boat, with Yukio embracing her so tightly that it might actually crack a rib or two.

"I'm sorry," Kirika whispers, returning the embrace just as strongly. "I'm so sorry."
"NEVER do that again," Yukio whispers to her.
Kirika manages a chuckle through Yukio's grip. "I'll try my best, love."
"I would thank you for the rescue," Kagemaru says, "but I think we're even at this point."
"Thereabouts," Kirika replies. "Do you need any help rowing -"
"Nope," Kagemaru says as Yukio pulls down Kirika for more hugs and kisses. "But thank you for offering."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2018-11-06 19:17:55
The dirt sputters from under Toshiba's face where he tries to speak. "One death... spread to two lives... gggggghhhh... kills neither..."