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."