Children of Thunder or War in the Ivory Kingdoms.
Chronicles of Kazuya the Ronin
Kazuya was unsurprised when he received his Lord’s summons – with the latest reports from the Ivory Kingdoms, his own impressions of the situation from his last scouting mission and the recent visit of the Imperial Herald he was fully expecting the Mantis to begin larger scale operations. What he hadn’t expected was that the Emperor himself would order the Clan to deal with the Cult’s threat.
As he arrived in the waiting room outside his Lord’s office, Kazuya spent a few moments observing the others gathered: He recognised Yoritomo Akihito, who had been the captain of some of the ships he had used to visit the Ivory Kingdoms in the past, and he had heard rumours about the small shugenja, Yoritomo Aki’s prowess on occasion, her striking blue eyes and height confirming his identification. The other three he did not recognise, though their mon showed two to be a Yoritomo and a Tsuruchi respectively, the third wearing no Clan symbol at all – another ronin it seemed. Wondering briefly about the reasons for gathering, Kazuya shrugged and continued to wait silently for his Lord to see them.
After a good few minutes, they were summoned into the Champion’s rather luxurious office, with Yoritomo Aramasu himself sat behind an ornate desk covered in paperwork, several guards waiting nearby. Accepting their expected bows and returning their greetings (and smirking in Kazuya’s direction – the ronin suddenly decided he wasn’t going to like what was said next), Aramasu explained that the six of them would be joining a fifteen ship strike fleet as the first part of stepping up Mantis operations in the Ivory Kingdoms. Kazuya’s suspicions about the seriousness of the situation were confirmed when Aramasu explained that they would be operating under the command of Yoritomo Arai – one of the Mantis Clan’s greatest officers and a man who rather distrusted Kazuya on account of his background. If he was not only leading the fleet but also being ordered to put up with dealing with him then things must be even worse than Kazuya had thought.
The fact that he was being assigned to work with a group of other samurai also worried Kazuya – from the time his Lord had become Mantis Champion, Aramasu had used Kazuya’s unique skills to carry out particular solo missions, missions that would be beneath the honourable samurai of the Mantis – if Kazuya was going to have to work with other people for a change, then things were going very badly, make no mistake.
Kazuya’s worries about being able to operate effectively were put to rest when Aramasu explained that the situation developing in the Ivory Kingdoms was so great a threat to Rokugan that they were ordered to do whatever was necessary to resolve things satisfactorily, including using whatever elements of ‘Low War’ they deemed appropriate. From the way Aramasu looked at him and the other ronin in particular, Kazuya figured that they would have to perform the brunt of any ‘dishonourable’ deeds. Samurai, great at doing anything. Except that.
Aramasu also explained that while they were to run interference, they were primarily being deployed to act as the Clan’s eyes and ears, gathering intel so that if the worst came to pass, the Mantis Clan could crash into the Ivory Kingdoms with all the strength of Osano-Wo himself.
Kazuya had tuned out most of Aramasu’s explanations about the current political situation in the Ivory Kingdoms, and the status of Mantis agents in the area as he already knew all of it, but snapped back to focus when the Champion mentioned some new terrible beast, ‘clockwork’ – a suit of armour that appeared to move on its own. He hadn’t encountered one during his travels, but he could tell that he would end up meeting one, that was just how the Fortune’s worked.
With a few concluding orders about behaving properly (accompanied by a pointed yet amused glare at Kazuya), a reminder not to harm the Singh in anyway and the appointment of Yoritomo Akihito as the leader of their little strike team, Aramasu dismissed the others, bidding Kazuya to remain behind for a few moments. Once they had left, Aramasu produced a sketch of the ‘clockwork’ for Kazuya,
“It isn’t the most detailed picture – the man who survived was half-mad, but it’s the best we’ve got, Kazuya-san.”
Kazuya grinned, eyes alight at the challenge before him,
“Don’t worry, Aramasu-sama, I’ll find the best place to put an arrow – your Tsuruchi’ll have it easy when they arrive.”
Aramasu shook his head wryly,
“I’m sure you will, if something can be killed, you’re remarkably good at working out how, Kazuya.” The Mantis Champion turned serious “While I hope that the other members of your team won’t balk at having to do whatever needs to be done, I’m counting on you to make sure – you haven’t failed me yet,” A small smile returned to Aramasu’s face, “Oh, and try to get on with Arai. I know he doesn’t approve of your… methods, but in this case, I do believe they’ll be needed. May the Spirits of your Ancestors guide you in your efforts, Kazuya-san.”
Kazuya bowed low,
“I’ll do what I can, and then I’ll do what the others can’t.”
The two men shared a look, before Kazuya turned and left the office, heading to the inn he and his companions had been given a room at to prepare for departure.
The next morning Kazuya woke early, completing his morning rituals before most of his companions were awake. Once everyone was prepared, they were lead to the harbour to board the Roar of Isora, where they were greeted by Yoritomo Arai, who looked at Kazuya with a measure of reluctance and barely concealed distrust. Kazuya only just managed not to smile.
The trip itself was not the easiest crossing Kazuya had experienced – at about the half-way point of the trip, a freak storm had blown up, and one of the strike team had been washed overboard, the second Yoritomo, whose name Kazuya had never learnt. Thinking quickly, Yoritomo Arai added a Hida to their group, explaining that they seemed a bit lacking in the combat department having lost one third of their effective bushi. Quietly listening in on the Hida’s introduction, Kazuya learnt that he had originally been a Mantis, but events had conspired to see him trained as a Hida bushi instead.
Eventually, the Ivory Kingdoms came into sight, and the fleet was met by a single rather odd-shaped ship (from a Rokugani perspective, of course. Kazuya had seen several Ivory Kingdom ships before and this one was nothing special.) and a Singh captain who hailed them and then guided them into Port Krakarai.
The port itself was a hive of activity, and Kazuya spent a few seconds reacquainting himself with the chaos that was a trading city in the Ivory Kingdoms. Glancing at his companions he saw that they too, for the most part, were having to adjust to the profusion of sounds and smells that surrounded them.
Before everyone could disappear to explore, Arai called them together to remind them that the Singh were the Clan’s closest allies, and that they were not, under any circumstances, to do anything which might cause them harm, as well as emphasising that the Ivory Kingdoms had very different customs to Rokugan and that they shouldn’t get all huffy if someone forgot to use the correct honorific. Arai also explained that they were expected to behave as representatives of the Mantis Clan while they were here and should therefore not engage in any ‘unseemly’ behaviour. Kazuya nearly made a comment, but noticed that Arai was trying hard not to treat him with his usual distrust and, remembering his Lord’s words, merely nodded.
That evening, Kazuya was pleased to discover that one of the few Cheiron he had met previously was staying at the same inn as the strike team had been quartered, and spent several hours discussing weaponry and the most effective ways of killing various threats, with Kazuya hoping to gain some insight into just how he was going to bring down a suit of armour if there wasn’t anyone inside to kill, though he did not say as much to the Cheiron blacksmith.
The next morning, Kazuya awoke to find that Mahela had made a few ‘improvements’ to his daisho, which now featured a skilfully crafted crystal edge, a note lying nearby explaining that he figured it might help killing the things no sane person wished to fight.
Shortly after waking, one of the Storm Legionnaire’s they were sharing the inn with marched in to rouse the strike team and give them their orders from Yoritomo Arai, explaining that they were to spend the morning immersing themselves in Ivory Kingdom culture, observing the natives so as to work out how to blend in more easily. He handed each of them a coin purse with 20 dinars and bade them a good day, before leaving their rooms to bark orders at the many other Mantis samurai stationed there.
While most of his companions wandered through the market to see what they could find, Kazuya quickly made his way over to the smiths’ area to thank the Cheiron for the improved weapons. Spotting him working away at an anvil, Kazuya approached,
The Cheiron looked up and greeted him cheerfully,
“Ah, Kaz! Good morning! What do you think of your new swords, they should help with the darker beasts around, aye?”
“They certainly will, Mahela. I’m looking forward to testing them out.”
“Good, good – I’ll admit I’m not as confident about my work as I usually am; normally I forge the crystal into the blade itself, this is the first time I’ve tried to add an edge to an already forged sword. Let me know how they go. Now then, what’re you looking for this morning, Kaz, anything I can help you with?”
“I’ll report back with how they fare. And I’m looking for what we would call a no-dachi, it’s a sword, with a blade of around 6 feet in length?”
The Cheiron took a few moments to think,
“Ah, yes, I can think of something similar, you should talk to the Rajput, their khandas should serve you well enough, though they’ll be rather expensive.”
“Yeah, I figured. I don’t have the dinar to buy one now, just thought I’d see if anything looked useful. Anyway, I should probably go – I have to meet with Tadaka later, or rather, I’m part of the escort for my Commander.”
“You’re not working alone this time, Kaz? That can’t be good. Anyhow, good luck, and if any of your lot need some metalworking done, point them in my direction.”
“Will do, Mahela, see you later.”
Meeting up with the rest of the strike team, Kazuya rode with the delegation to the Singh capital to meet the Mantis diplomats. The huge white walls of the city were just as impressive as ever, and he heard their local guide explaining that for all the buildings around, only the royal family and relatives lived there, the rest of them were all administration buildings.
Reaching one of the humbler abodes (though that wasn’t really saying much) they were greeted by a Mantis, who politely asked for their weapons, before leading them into an office.
Kazuya knew the two Mantis stood there by reputation only – while he had been active in the Ivory Kingdoms for a long time now, acting under Aramasu’s personal orders, he was hardly of a status that required interacting with the two senior diplomats, (though he had caught glimpses of them on the few times he had delivered messages). Besides, some of his missions from Aramasu were of a sort where the less the rest of the Clan knew about it, the better.
Yoritomo Tadaka introduced himself, as well as the beautiful Moshi Kulani at his side, before quickly dropping all pretence of personable charm,
“Now then, I know that you are here to deal with ‘business’, but before you start doing what it is you do, I’ve been instructed to give you a more detailed briefing about the Singh’s situation, as well as your overall objective here. There is a group of people, the Cult of the Destroyer, who are slowly but surely gaining influence here in the Ivory Kingdoms. This Cult is a threat to the safety not only of these Kingdoms but all of Rokugan as well. It is your task, along with the other strike teams being deployed, to do everything in your power to bring down the Cult. Whether it be through direct military action, unifying the Houses against the Cult, a dirty tricks campaign or anything else, this Cult must be stopped and you will do WHATEVER it takes. Do I make myself clear?”
After murmured affirmatives, Tadaka continued,
“Now then, I have been given discretion on choosing your areas of operations, so, where would you like to go?”
After a brief discussion, with Kazuya chipping in that he knew the Cheiron lands well, it was decided that their first course of action would be to head north and rendezvous with the 1st Singh Ranger Company in the Forest of Silence, who would help show them the lay of the land for future operations. Before they left, Tadaka addressed them again,
“Remember: the Mantis cannot be seen to be acting against the major Houses in any manner that would make us appear dishonourable, so if you do decide to use… more inventive tactics, make sure you aren’t recognised as Mantis. If any of you are caught, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, and may the Fortunes guide you.”
Leaving the capital, the strike team rode to the Forest of Silence, eager to meet up with Singh forces.
Upon reaching the meeting point, they were greeted by an old man, hair and beard both grey, who spoke to them in Ivindi, leaving Tsuruchi Ieyasu completely baffled and Hida Kojirou only slightly better off. After a few comments at being surprised that they had sent people who knew how to ‘speak proper’, Karai Singh began to explain the terrain of the forest, pointing out on a map easily navigable trails and the various animals to watch out for. Kazuya tuned most of this out, as he already knew it, instead keeping an eye on the few rangers he could just about pick out in the undergrowth, quietly impressed with their skills.
Suddenly a dull bell began to ring, and Karai swore, snapping Kazuya out of his musings. A messenger ran up and spoke a few quick words to Karai, who swore again, before turning to explain the situation,
“It seems some of the Cheiron have decided to come out to play, there’s about two hundred of the bastards advancing along a three mile front. Guess we’ll get to see each other fight after all? How about you lot head to the eastern edge of the line – give yourselves a little taste of what real combat’s like?”
Saddling up, the strike team hurried to the far edge of the line, the ronin Feng Xiang streaking ahead on his Unicorn-bred horse, returning to report seven hostiles; three with mechanical crossbows and four with spears. Dismounting, Kazuya ducked into the undergrowth and began making his way quickly and invisibly to his enemies’ flanks, not sparing a second glance at his companions – he was in his element, trained for stealth and surprise, he hardly needed Akihito telling him to do something he could manage on his own.
With all the speed his sensei had praised him for, Kazuya found himself a vantage point, cursing himself for not being quicker as he watched the first volley of crossbow bolts wing their way across the battlefield and punch into Akihito and Feng. Drawing a bead on one of the crossbowmen, Kazuya spared the tiniest thought to notice that one had already been dropped by the Tsuruchi before loosing his own arrow, smirking as it gave the Cheiron the shock of his life, thudding into his shoulder and causing him to drop his crossbow.
The spearmen weren’t faring much better either, as the Hida and Akihito laid into them with their incredibly contrasting fighting styles – Akihito’s use of twin kama saw him fight as a blur of motion, while the Hida’s no-dachi crashed through the spearman’s defences and removed his head from his body.
Suddenly, Aki gave a shout and a massive gust of wind blasted the Cheiron off their feet, throwing the previously unharmed crossbowman into a tree with a loud crack, knocking him unconscious.
The spearmen recovered quickly, and as the Hida pushed on towards the crossbowmen two of them charged Akihito, wounding him as the second attack slipped through his defences. Deciding that having their captain die on their very first mission might not go down too well, Kazuya abandoned cover and his bow, drawing his katana to engage the spearmen in close-quarters. His charge caught his target by surprise, and his sword crunched through armour to leave the Cheiron bleeding heavily.
A third spearman began to advance, but an arrow dropped him to the floor as Ieyasu claimed his second kill of the day. Feng’s horseback charge dropped the spearman Kazuya had wounded, punching her nagamaki through his heart, and Akihito’s whirling blades finished off the last one.
Turning to check for any survivors, Kazuya watched as the Hida finished off the crossbowman he had previously shot with one huge sing of his no-dachi, leaving the last remaining Cheiron to be taken prisoner. Seeing that the battle was finished at their location, Kazuya ducked back into the woodlands, hurrying towards the Ranger positions to see if they needed any support.
The story along the line was much the same as their fight – the Rangers had killed nearly all of the attacking Cheiron, the rest retreating northwards. Satisfied that the skirmish was over, Kazuya returned to his companions.
Kazuya reached the original rendezvous point just as the rest of his party appeared, dragging with two Cheiron bodies, one dead, the other still unconscious. The Ranger Captain wandered over to greet them with an approving grin,
“Well then! Seems like they sent us some competent buggers for a change!”
“Indeed they did,” replied Akihito, “and we’ve brought you two little presents.”
“Ah, he should help with negotiations later then – but what’s with the dead’un?”
“He… appears to be what we would call ‘Tainted’ – you’ve fought Cheiron before, did these men act differently to usual?”
“Aye, I suppose they did – normally they’re a bit more careful with their attacks, they know what we’re capable of, but this time they just marched straight ahead, fairly suicidal really.”
Kazuya nodded in agreement; he’d seen Singh-Cheiron border skirmishes before, and the Cheiron had never attacked with such simple tactics, they knew that the Singh Rangers could strike from the shadows and wipe out a regiment before they were even seen. It made no sense.
Then Yoritomo Aki stepped forwards to get a better look at the symbol on the dead man’s chest, explaining that the black outer hand represented protection from evil spirits, but that the white inner hand meant that the meaning was reversed, and instead the symbol invited evil spirits.
Kazuya tuned out the rest of the discussion, mind working furiously with plans on how to track down the source of the ‘Tainted’ Cheiron: the attack was by a single unit, hopefully that was the only compromised unit, which would mean that they needed to locate one particular barracks, work out who there was linked with the Cult…
Kazuya snapped out of his musings when he heard the Ranger Captain ask if anyone was familiar with Cheiron territory, taking a moment to raise his hand in acknowledgement, before returning to his thoughts as the Captain explained Cheiron ways, only vaguely paying attention as his Captain decided to try and sneak into Cheiron lands disguised as a merchant group, with Karai Singh providing a wagon, traveling papers and some Singh clothes to try and hide the rather obvious fact that they were not natives of the Ivory Kingdoms.
As Akihito and Karai continued their planning, Hubei the quartermaster arrived with a wagon of goods the party had requested, and Kazuya wandered over to accept the goods and thank Bay for his prompt response, receiving a dirty look in reply as the Yoritomo took one of the horses and rode back to the harbour.
Once everyone was changed and ready to go (and with a few weapons hidden) the party set off towards Cheiron lands along a fairly major dirt road, while Kazuya made an attempt to track the retreating Cheiron soldiers. Unfortunately, the tracks muddled together at what was probably a muster point, leaving Kazuya unable to determine any particular direction the soldiers had come from or were returning to.
Eventually the party left the forest and reached a Cheiron border point, manned by three armoured men with crossbows. As they approached, one of the men stepped forward and called them to a halt,
“Okay, that’s far enough. State your business and let me see your papers.”
Akihito stepped forwards, producing the travel papers Karai had handed them,
“We travel on Singh business.”
The guard shook his head,
“That’s not good enough I’m afraid. Step away from the cart and keep your hands where I can see them.”
As the rest of the party moved back, Akihito continued talking to the guard in low tones, trying to convince him not to meddle with them or their cargo. Realising that the guard wasn’t buying his Captain’s bluff, Kazuya stepped forwards,
“Ahem, I was hoping we would be able to resolve this without fuss, you see, we’re transporting some rather… unusual items that a Cheiron blacksmith managed to… acquire which he believes will prove of great interest to Lord Asai.”
That caught the guard’s attention – Lord Asai was a very powerful nobleman, and not someone to be messed around.
“Ah, well. In that case, I’m sure we can settle this quickly enough for the Lord’s wishes. Of course, it would be easier if it were, shall we say, worth my while?”
As his Captain and the guard haggled over the bribe amount, left them to it – he never really liked having to interact with people too much, it was the reason he spent most of his time hunting down targets alone.
With the negotiations completed, Kazuya lead the party onto the main road towards the capital city. Before they had got too far Akihito turned to him,
“So, how do you know this Lord Asai then?”
Kazuya turned to him and smirked,
When they reached the capital, the party spent a few moments staring in wonder at huge white building that dominated the centre of the city and the large white statue of a scholarly looking man stood outside. Noticing their interest, Kazuya put his usual reticence aside and explained that it was a statue of Lord Cheiron himself, the man whose learning had beaten back an invasion of Lost samurai.
With night falling the party headed to an inn and booked themselves two rooms at what Kazuya considered a reasonable price (having stayed in the city several times previously) before splitting up to scout out the city: Feng, Kojirou and Akihito decided to go on a bar crawl, hoping to pick up rumours (or at least that was Akihito’s plan. Kazuya rather suspected that Feng’s chief motivation was booze and picking up someone ‘exotic’ to spend the night with). Kazuya decided to try and track down other members of the Cheiron unit that had attacked across the border, using the copy of the markings Aki had sketched out.
It didn’t take long to locate some, bumping into three from the unit, two of them looking rather worse for wear. Unfortunately, Kazuya had forgotten that he’d changed into Singh Ranger garb, though he soon remembered as one of the drunk Cheiron stumbled towards him,
“Hey! Hey you! You’re one of them Singh bastards, ain’t you! We… we fought in the Forest… you were there, weren’t you?”
Hoping to stay out of trouble, at least for the time being, Kazuya tried to talk his way out of having to hurt the man,
“Nope, I’m only a trader – battles aren’t for me.”
The drunk spat at his feet and drew a knife from a sheath on his belt, pointing it shakily at Kazuya,
“Pah! You’re full o’ shit! You killed my mates, and now I’m gonna have t’ kill you.”
Kazuya sighed, before reacting with blinding speed, drawing his own knife and knocking the drunk’s hand aside, sending his weapon skittering into the darkness, before following up with a swift kick to the side of his knee, dropping the Cheiron to the ground.
“Look, friend, I’m faster than you, I’m stronger than you and, most importantly, I’m more sober than you. If you continue this, you’re going to lose, so leave it be.”
The drunk glared at him, trying to rise to his feet, and Kazuya spotted that his two mates were beginning to inch their hands towards their own weapons. Shaking his head, Kazuya lashed out, catching the drunk on the side of the head with the hilt of his knife, knocking him out, before turning to the two approaching Cheiron,
“I’d really rather not beat you two into unconsciousness as well, but if I have to, I will. You’re too drunk to handle someone of my skill, so leave now before things get worse.”
Fortunately, the more sober of the two realised that the cloaked man before them was way out of their league, and directed his companion to pick up the fallen drunk and help carry him away. Once they’d rounded a corner, Kazuya sheathed his knife and turned to walk in the opposite direction, wandering around the city for a few more hours before returning to the inn to sleep.
The next morning was interesting to say the least, with Kojirou carrying a massive hangover and Feng still absent, having not returned to the inn the night before. Akihito called the rest of the party together to discuss the information he’d picked up from various conversations: apparently, Lord Karai was the one who had ordered the attack on the Singh.
Just then, Ieyasu made a hand signal, pointing towards the door and then his ear. Akihito nodded, and then motioned for Kazuya to head towards the door, while the rest of the party continued to talk, helping to cover the sound of Kazuya’s soft footsteps.
Reaching the door, Kazuya was about to signal the rest of the party when he heard footsteps running away from the door. Reacting instantly, Kazuya swung the door open, throwing a tanto as he did before stepping out of the way to let the hulking form of Kojirou charge through the door after their mystery eavesdropper: It wasn’t much of a chase, with the large Hida tackling the small boy to the ground without any noticeable effort, dragging him back into the room to be interrogated.
As his Captain and the Hida worked on scaring the boy witless, Kazuya tried to stop Yoritomo Aki stepping in – while he disliked the way the two were completely terrifying the child, he knew that the threat they were in the Ivory Kingdoms to deal with would not wait for niceties.
Eventully, the boy explained that a man in a grey cloak had paid him to listen to their conversations and write down what he had heard, before returning it to him a few days later at the Jade Dragon at seven o’clock. While he could not remember the man’s physical features, he explained that he had a similar regiment mark to the one they were looking for, albeit the mark for one rank lower.
Thinking about how best to turn things to their advantage, Kazuya was surprised and impressed with Aki’s suggestion that they forge a replacement letter, one which created the impression that one of the party was rather unhappy with their lot, and might be willing to work against Mantis interests in the Ivory Kingdom. After a brief discussion it was decided that Kazuya was the most likely person to be the ‘traitor’ (Kazuya shook his head – perhaps he hadn’t come as far as he thought he had following Aramasu), though he accepted the logic that if their enemy knew Rokugan, then they would know that a ronin’s loyalty would always be more questionable than a samurai’s.
At three o’clock on the day of the meeting, Kazuya wandered over to the Jade Dragon, found a table against the back wall and settled in for a long afternoon. Over the course of the next few hours one of the waitresses tried a few times to entice him to enjoy some of the ‘special’ services the bar provided, but Kazuya remained focused and declined, despite her persistence (and was suddenly glad that he, rather than Feng was the one who had taken up position in the bar to wait for grey-cloak).
Six o’clock rolled around and two men in grey cloaks arrived, Kazuya picking out the short swords at their waists and what appeared to be similar marks to the ones they were tracking. Sitting down at the table across from him, one of them turned to look at Kazuya, who kept his cool and raised a glass in friendly greeting. The man raised his own glass and then turned to talk to his companion.
As seven drew close, Kazuya knew that the rest of the party would be taking up positions outside the bar, ready for if anything went wrong. Kazuya flicked his eyes to the nearby window, just managing to catch a glimpse of Ieyasu on the rooftop opposite. Confident that they were as ready as they could be, Kazuya leaned back in his chair and waited.
Not long later the boy entered the bar, and after looking around for a bit headed over to the men sat near Kazuya, managing not to look at the ronin as he passed. After handing over the scroll, and accepting a few coins in return, the boy scarpered out of the bar, and the two men began reading the scroll: to Kazuya’s eyes they appeared to be working from another document, slowly making sense of the phonetic spellings on the boy’s scroll. Twenty minutes later, one of the men looked over at Kazuya and indicated he should follow them upstairs in five minutes, before he and his companion stood and walked away.
Waiting the proscribed five minutes, Kazuya stood and gave two subtle hand signs to Ieyasu, indicating that things were (for the moment) okay, and that he was heading upstairs after the two cloaked men. Then, taking a deep breath to steel himself, Kazuya set off after them.
Reaching the top of the stairs, one of the men led him into a room and bolted the door. Kazuya kept calm; as long as he considered himself in control of the situation he would play things their way. He also tried to keep from smiling as the two men turned to address him with their hoods drawn low, covering their faces with shadows… shadows which his eyes could see through clear as day: one of them had a fairly rugged face while the other had a scar through his left eye. Kazuya didn’t know whether those details would become relevant, but the fact he was able to so easily see through one of their attempts at secrecy amused him.
The one with the scar began talking,
“Well, friend, you don’t appear to be from around here.”
“Nope, I’ve only just arrived, from Singh territories.”
The man nodded,
“Yes, but you don’t appear to be Singh either.”
“I’m from across the seas, originally, though I now make my home with the Singh.”
“Indeed, and is it a happy life, I wonder?”
Kazuya made a play of appearing confused and defensive,
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it would appear that we have… mutual goals. A little bird tells me that you are not content with your current conditions – I believe you’re working with a little trade delegation that entered Cheiron lands a few days ago, hmm? I must say, you look like no trader I’ve ever seen; those are the weapons of a warrior.”
Kazuya nodded and then spat on the floor,
“Pah, all that commerce crap. For some reason the Cap’n’s decided he wants to be a merchant, of all things. Me? I’m a warrior, aye. Fighting’s what I know and what I’m good at, not trailing around chasing coin all the time! I work best without someone nit-picking over every little detail on account of they’ve got nowt better to do ‘cept look to the horizon and pray for more coins on the next venture. You say we’ve got mutual goals, what exactly is it you want?”
Under the hood, Kazuya saw the man smirk, the kind of smirk one would often see in the more dangerous courts of Rokugan, when an opponent thought you’d just sealed your fate,
“Well, we would quite like to… destabilise matters for the Singh, so having an ‘in’ with one of their merchants, as it were, would prove rather useful. We also know that there are larger schemes afoot with the Singh, so any warning you could provide would be most welcome. What compensation would you require for your services? You don’t strike me as the kind of man to be tempted by money or power.”
“You’re right about that – as I said, I’m a warrior, and I’ve always been interested in weapons, and the Cheiron have some of the most incredible weapons I’ve ever seen, both for quality and for sheer technology.”
The man nodded,
“Ah, I see. I do believe something can be arranged – if I were, say, to give you a rank in the City Guard, and all the access to weapons that came with it, would that suffice to smooth over any objections you may have about this little arrangement?”
“It would indeed. What do you need?”
“Well, for the time being it would be enough for you to keep an eye on things. If your Captain plans anything outrageous, or if you hear anything about potential Singh reprisals for the battle the other day, then I would expect you to let us know. Otherwise, simply bide your time – if we need you, we’ll get in touch,” the man leaned forwards, dropping his voice to a low, menacing, level, “however, if you betray us, if you even think about screwing us around, I will hunt you down, skin you alive and wear your hide as a cloak. Do I make myself clear?”
Internally, Kazuya cringed: he’d been threatened by professionals, and frankly the guy could use some lessons. Outwardly, however, he hardened his expression and nodded,
The man smiled,
“Then we have ourselves a deal!”
Shaking Kazuya’s hand, the two men headed back downstairs and out of the bar. Kazuya waited for a few minutes, knowing that Aki and Ieyasu would have started trailing them, before he too left the bar, loitering outside and scanning those nearby to see if the cloaked men had left anyone to watch him. Finding no-one, Kazuya spotted Feng Xiang and the two ronin set off after the rest of the party, meeting up with them shortly after they had caught up with Aki.
Heading back to the Inn, the party sat down to discuss what they had learned that evening, with Kazuya explaining that the cloaked figures had asked him to keep an eye on the party and Singh operations in Cheiron lands, as well as providing physical descriptions of the two men who had approached him, smirking at their futile attempts to keep their faces hidden. Akihito added that he had picked up a name during his investigations; a Lord Karai was supposed to be the man in charge of the unit which had attacked Singh lands.
As the party finished their discussion two messages arrived, one from the Storm Legion asking for an update and one from Lord Asai asking for a meeting with the people who had used his name to get past the border guards. Kazuya tried hard not to grin as Akihito’s face fell,
“Well, Captain, I wish you luck with that one.”
“You’re coming with me, Kazuya-san – I’m not dealing with this on my own. Aki-san, Lord Asai is a Master of the University and I know you would like access to their libraries, would you accompany us as well? You too, Ieyasu. Feng, Kojirou, head over to the barracks, see if you can learn anything from the soldiers.”
With that the party split up to continue their investigations.
Upon reaching the gates of the university two stoic guards barred the party’s way. Inspecting the letter from Lord Asai that Akihito produced, they summoned an infantryman to escort the party to Lord Asai’s office.
There they were greeted by an old man with a long grey beard, who dismissed the guards and then turned to the party,
“Right. Which of you is in charge here? Why have you used my name to gain access to these lands?”
Akihito spoke up, sending Kazuya a slight glare for putting him in such a difficult position,
“I am Yoritomo Akihito, and I am in charge Lord Asai, and I apologise profusely for using your name in such a way. However, I felt that it was necessary in order for us to continue with our mission; to infiltrate Cheiron lands and hunt down a Cult.”
“You apologise far too late, Yoritomo. And you openly admit sneaking into our lands? Should I have the guards burn down this room? Are you a threat to my country?”
Akihito raised his hands in a calming motion,
“Not at all, my Lord, we seek to protect the Ivory Kingdoms from an insidious threat, one which we feared might have infiltrated certain elements of the Cheiron. As such we thought it prudent to conduct our investigation in as secret a manner as possible.”
“A Cult? What Cult?”
At this Aki stepped forwards, hoping that a more scholarly approach might appeal to the Cheiron,
“The Cult of the Destroyer, my Lord, a dark cult which uses the power of demons and something called ‘clockwork’. It poses a grave threat.”
“Magic, my dear? There is no such thing as magic!”
“But there is my Lord, and it is affecting the Cheiron. Tell me, did you hear about the recent attack across the Singh border?”
“I heard rumours, though I dismissed it as irrelevant to my interests as it was not one of my legions being used .”
“The men who attacked were tainted in some way – they had a strange tattoo under their skin and their behaviour was very odd.”
Lord Asai nodded thoughtfully,
“Very well then, I shall contact Lord Karai about this, he is something of an expert on religious matters.”
He was rather taken aback when three party members shouted a rather loud ‘no!’. Akihito was the first to explain,
“That.. might not be the smartest idea, my Lord – Lord Karai’s name is one I have heard connected to the attack itself. I would ask you to keep our investigation from him.”
“You dare to cast aspersions on a noble Master? Why should I believe a word you say, given that you readily admit sneaking into these lands through underhanded means?”
At this Kazuya finally stepped forwards,
“My Lord, you say that each Master has their own set of Legions. Tell me, who commands the Legion which attacked Singh lands? The one with the same markings as on the parchment Aki-san holds?”
“Well,” replied Lord Asai, taking a few moments to study the shugenja’s sketch, “That would appear to be the 6th Legion, commanded by Lord… Karai.” He nodded a few times in thought, “Very well then, if you can produce proof that Lord Karai’s Legion is indeed tainted, then I will consider aiding you. You do have proof, do you not?”
“We do my Lord,” Akihito took charge again, and Kazuya stepped back out of the way, “ we took one of the attackers prisoner. We can bring him before you so you can observe for yourself the dark markings, though I would suggest that we do not bring him here, just in case.”
“Very well. Meet me at this location tomorrow. I will bring three guards, and I expect you to leave any and all ranged weapons behind. I will see this prisoner.”
“That is all we ask, my Lord.”
That evening, the party met up in the inn to discuss the day’s finds. Just before they began talking, Akihito walked over and opened the door to find the young boy from previously just preparing to knock. He explained that he had been hired to eavesdrop on them again and figured that they might wish to use the same trick they had used last time. Kazuya nodded, impressed. The kid was smart, he’d give him that.
For the next several minutes they discussed what would be written in the letter, eventually settling on a discussion of mundane matters, as well as a few choice comments on Singh troop movements and a short fight between Kazuya and Feng Xiang after the latter hit on Kazuya rather aggressively, which resulted in the ex-Unicorn being punched in the face. While they were working on the letter, Aki used her magic to send a message to the Storm Legion, asking them to organise a prisoner transfer with the 1st Singh Rangers and the location Lord Asai has specified for the meeting.
Feng Xiang turned to address Kazuya,
“Oh, I met a friend of yours at the barracks today.”
Kazuya blinked a few times. He had friends?
“Yes, lovely man, Captain Tarlack, even with the scar through his left eye.”
Ah. That made sense – apparently one traitor wasn’t good enough for the Cult
“Oh, him. Yes, he is a rather interesting man.”
Feng Xiang nodded,
“Indeed he is. He seems to think himself a master shogi player though, that he can move two pawns around the board and win all his battles that way. What about you, do you play? We should discuss these things so that next time I face him over a board I can show him the error of his ways.”
Kazuya smirked. So, the ronin liked to speak in codes. He could deal with that.
Fortunately, Akihito interrupted to ask for suggestions on how to prepare for their meeting with Lord Asai and the prisoner the next day, bearing in mind the ban on ranged weapons.
Kazuya thought for a bit,
“Well, I would suggest that Kojirou-san, Aki-san and I accompany you, Captain. Ieyasu-san, without access to your bow the skill of the Tsuruchi is somewhat restricted. I would suggest that you and Feng-san keep a watch on the 6th’s barracks – if Lord Karai hears about the meeting he may kick up trouble. Watch the barracks, and if they send out soldiers after us, ride fast and warn us – that way we should be able to escape anything he plans for us.”
Akihito and the others nodded, the plan was sound, and so the next day Kazuya, Akihito, Aki and Kojirou set out to meet with Lord Asai Kazuya handing over his Yumi and prized Han-Kyu to Ieyasu, sure in the knowledge that a Tsuruchi would look after his bows.
At the exact time for the meeting, Lord Asai arrived with his three guards. After a quick discussion with Aki about the strange device on his wrist, and a slightly more heated discussion with Akihito prohibiting Kazuya from doing his damn job and scouting ahead (Kazuya nearly told the old coot that he didn’t give two zeni about what he wanted, he had more important things to worry about) the column set off for the border.
When they arrived at the meeting point the area appeared deserted, though after a few minutes three men stepped out of the undergrowth, appearing as if out of thin air. Kazuya recognised the man in charge, Old Maric of the 1st Singh Rangers, the man who’d helped set them on their way.
For the next several minutes, Lord Asai interrogated the prisoner in a slightly unusual Ivindi dialect, one Kazuya recognised as unique to Cheiron lands. Aki later explained that, as far as she could make out, the soldier was insisting that he knew nothing about the marking, save that his sergeant had ordered him to get it. Lord Asai seemed less than convinced by his story, turning to the party and explaining that he would be taking the prisoner into his custody. In return, he would extend them what little aid he could, as well as a degree of trust, asking Akihito and one companion to accompany him back to the city.
Akihito decided to take Aki with him, and the two set off with Lord Asai and two of his guards, leaving Kazuya, Kojirou and the remaining guard to make their own way back at a more leisurely pace. On their way back, the three came across a squadron of thirty cavalry heading for the border, stopping to ask the guard what was going on. The cavalry leader explained they had heard of a build up of Singh on the border, before asking who the two gormless looking strangers with him were. Kazuya put on his best blank face and resisted the urge to knife the bastard, realising that the odds were rather stacked against them. After a few more jokes about idiot mercs, the cavalry squadron rode on and the three continued back to the city.
That afternoon the party met up in the inn to plan their next step. Akihito decided to hunt out more information on Karai and Aki was almost bouncing in excitement at the chance to visit the Cheiron libraries, special pass from Lord Asai clutched tightly in her hands. Kazuya was going to wander the city hoping to pick up rumours, but a letter from one of his friends put that plan on hold, especially as he noticed that Feng had received one as well. The ex-unicorn stood and invited Kazuya to head for a ride, adding that for once nothing beyond a scout run was implied. Realising that he probably wished to discuss their mutual friend, Kazuya agreed and the two rode out, leaving the party to their own devices.
Their discussion was a rather frank one, covering issues ranging from Kazuya’s inability to relax to the treatment of ronin by samurai, a treatment which Kazuya was rather fed up with – even though he served the Champion of the Mantis directly, samurai still treated him like dirt on their boot. Feng Xiang sympathised somewhat, pointing out that Unicorn samurai were treated like half-ronin anyway,
“I guess it’s due to our less-than-pure Rokugani stock, as far as others are concerned. What about you, Kazuya-san, where do you come from originally?”
“Eh, I don’t like to think about that part of my life too much. I was a nameless, faceless grunt. I don’t think my superiors even knew who I was. Nah, while I might not get the respect I used to as a samurai, at least my boss knows who I am.”
Feng Xiang nodded and dropped the topic, though he continued to try and have Kazuya join him with a smoke and a trip to the pub. Kazuya shook his head,
“What I need is to complete this mission, and to do that I need to be on top of my game – if I relax, if I let my guard down, if I compromise the one skill I have, then I’m worth nothing.”
“Wow, Kazuya-san… you really need to unwind.”
Kazuya groaned and steeled himself against Feng’s various comments as they rode back to the rest of the party.
That evening, the kid Jun arrived to collect the forged letter, and then the party settled in for the night with a slight change of sleeping arrangements: Feng had begun to hit on Aki a bit, so an executive decision was made to split the two up, just in case. Instead, Feng would bunk in the same room as Akihito and Kojirou, while Aki would share a room with Ieyasu and Kazuya.
At some point in the middle of the night Kazuya jerked awake, ears picking out the sound of armoured boots outside the room. Moving quickly and quietly, he pulled the tanto from under his pillow and then, observing that Ieyasu was also awake, slipped past the privacy screen to wake the still-slumbering Aki, making sure to cover her mouth to prevent her from alerting those outside that the occupants of the room were awake.
Kazuya just about had time to grab his katana before the door to their room was kicked down and black-clothed men charged in.
Reacting quickly, Kazuya moved to block the three men from moving further into the room, raising his tanto and katana into a defensive kata, conscious of the fact that neither Ieyasu nor Aki were best suited for close-range engagements.
It didn’t take Kazuya long to realise that they were in trouble as the three attackers unleashed a rapid flurry of slashes with their knives, easily bypassing his attempts at defending himself and leaving several cuts along his torso. When an arrow punched into the shoulder of one of the attackers, Kazuya had time to realise that his wounds were burning unnaturally and he felt his movements slowing. Apparently these would-be ninja (not that Kazuya believed that ninja existed) were using poison-coated weapons.
Keeping up his ineffective defence, he felt his wounds begin to knit themselves together, and recognised the healing power of a water spell wash over him. One of the attackers apparently noticed his slight distraction and attempted to barge past, but Kazuya dropped his shoulder and forced the man back. This was quickly followed by a second attacker trying to push his way past, but again Kazuya kept the man at bay, even managing to stab him with his tanto in retaliation. Unfortunately, this distraction cost Kazuya, as the final attacker managed to hit him twice with his knives, scoring deep gouges across Kazuya’s chest.
Suddenly, Kazuya felt heat rush through his body, before a shroud of bright flames flared up all around him. He wasn’t the only one surprised: the assassin’s attacks were much slower, possibly trying to avoid the flames, and Kazuya was able to block all but two. Of those which hit, one of the attacker’s hands got too close and burst into flames as it brushed against Kazuya’s arm. Flailing wildly, the assassin lost all composure and slapped his hand against his body, trying to put the fire out but instead only managed to set himself alight. He dropped, screaming.
The other two recovered quickly though, and resumed their attack on Kazuya, one swinging wildly and missing twice, while the second tried to vault over Kazuya and throw his knife at Aki. Kazuya reacted in an instant, slamming his elbow into the leaping man’s stomach before twisting to knock the man’s knife from his hands with his katana, finishing off his spin by planting his tanto deep in the man’s side, sliding the blade between his ribs.
Buoyed with this minor success, and realising that he couldn’t keep fighting for much longer as his wounds began to take their toll, Kazuya flung himself forwards, hoping to catch the would-be assassins off guard with his sudden attack. Unfortunately, the poison and his injuries took their toll, and the man was able to easily dodge his attack.
As another arrow flew past his head, Kazuya was just able to pick out a rather annoyed shout from Aki – apparently the kami weren’t listening to her prayers today. Before Kazuya became too downhearted at the sudden lack of magic assistance, the other three party members appeared in the doorway.
Realising that their chances were running out, the two remaining assassins lunged at Kazuya, and while the first two attacks were just about blocked, the second two slid past Kazuya’s clumsy blocks and stabbed deep into his chest. These final strikes were too much for Kazuya, and he felt conscious and his life begin slipping away, though he was pleased to hear the screams as another assassin died to the aura of flames.
Approaching a door, Kazuya was greeted by the spirits of his ancestors, all looking at him with unhidden disdain. Apparently, he hadn’t redeemed himself in the eyes of his kin, despite years of service to his current lord and dying in the protection of others.
Just before his ancestors could attack him in their rage, Kazuya was pulled back to Ningen-Do, waking from his unconsciousness to hear the desperate working of Yoritomo Aki as she cast healing spells on him, somehow managing to drag him back from death.
Having been patched up, Kazuya wandered to the washroom to change his rather shredded shirt and clean off the large amount of blood he was covered with. On his return, he thanked Aki for the healing, glad that he hadn’t had to stay with his still displeased ancestors, and Aki explained that after having talked to an air kami she had learn that ‘Slice-eye’ was the one who had sent the assassins. Recognising the name, Kazuya set off for the barracks, managing to forget to put any shoes on, to have a nice chat with ‘Slice-eye’.
On his arrival, Kazuya had the guard on duty call Captain Tariq to the door, holding a knife low and in as unthreateningly a manner as possible. Seeing the knife, Tariq realised that a serious conversation was needed, and led Kazuya inside, where they discussed the result of the attack and Tariq’s future plans.
Once their short conversation was over, Kazuya returned to the inn to learn that the party’s next planned move was to ambush and capture Tariq and then try and force him to reveal useful information.
The next morning Lord Asai himself arrived with a few guards and after providing the party with some additional information on the group of assassins that had been sent after them, proceeded to execute the prisoner, as well as provide them with the location of a room inside the university which should provide a safe place for them to carry out their torture. Kazuya remained sceptical about the plan – he’d met Tariq a few times, and the Captain didn’t strike him as the sort of man who would buckle under pressure. Nevertheless, when Akihito ordered him to scout out Tariq’s patrol route and find the best place for an ambush he complied, slipping into the evening shadows as if he belonged there.
Tracking Tariq and his patrol was far easier than Kazuya expected it to be, nearly giving in to his juvenile side and stealthing rings around the unsuspecting guards. Despite following them for their entire patrol route, they never even seemed to contemplate the possibility of someone following them. He also succeeded in locating the very best place for Feng to start his bar-brawl distraction, a very rough looking place, The Duck’s Quack – indeed, it seemed more the kind of place where a night without a bar-brawl would raise suspicion.
Just as Kazuya finished trailing Tariq and turned for home, his attention was caught by a man in a dark cloak just on the edge of his vision, hanging near the shadows. Intrigued, and wary that one of Tariq’s men had seen him (though the mere thought of those rookies noticing him nearly made him laugh) Kazuya moved towards the man.
As he did, the man stepped back into the shadows and vanished, leaving behind a small card with a familiar symbol on one side and the phrase ‘Shadows and vapours are both the same’ on the other. Kazuya pocketed the note – that was the second time he’d seen that man, or one of his colleagues, perhaps it was time for him to put some thought into tracking them down.
Before he returned to the inn, Kazuya decided that, while he trusted his take on the layout of the area and ambush site, he could use a second, more informed, opinion, and so tracked down Jun to pick his brains about the streets near the Duck’s Quack and the quickest, and stealthiest, routes from there to the university. With the street-kid’s help, fairly soon Kazuya had the workings of a plan in his head. Now all that was needed would be the knock-out drug and the actual fight.
That evening, with a few hours of spare time, Kazuya hunted down rumours that a smuggler’s ship was entering the city, but having thought long and hard about the possible rewards balanced against the risk of getting himself injured and jeopardising the Captain’s plan, he reluctantly decided against causing some chaos and returned to the inn without investigating the ship.
The next day, having given his report to the party and spent the morning preparing, Kazuya lead Ieyasu and Aki to the best vantage point he had found for them, on the roof of a building overlooking the bar. Once he was satisfied that they were hidden enough to not attract any unwanted attention, Kazuya settled in for the long wait before Tariq’s patrol arrived.
Right on schedule, Tariq’s patrol marched into view at the end of the street, just as the shouting from within the bar began to get louder. Pretty soon the sound of bottles smashing and screams of pain could be heard, and Kazuya watched as Tariq positioned his patrol outside the bar, ready to break up the scuffle inside.
“Freeze, City Guard!”
Suddenly there was a rather loud war-cry and two figures smashed through front of the bar, landing in an ungainly heap in front of the nearby guards. Kazuya was completely unsurprised to see that one of the men was Feng, clutching two broken bottles. Fairly quickly the rest of the bar’s occupants spilled out into the street crashing into the guards with the fury only a drunken man can muster. With all the commotion the guards hardly noticed the eerie fog starting to roll in around them.
Tariq seemed rather taken aback at how quickly things had escalated, and began ordering his remaining guards into formation. From the shadows of one of the side-streets, Kazuya saw Akihito and the imposing form of the Hida begin advancing on Tariq, so nudged the Tsuruchi beside him and then stood up to begin clearing them a path.
With Ieyasu having been tasked with delivering the knock-out drug to Tariq, Kazuya aimed at one of the few guards still near Tariq, putting an arrow through his target’s face and dropping him to the ground. Ieyasu’s shot, unsurprisingly, found its mark, punching into Tariq and dropping him to one knee. At this point, Akihito and Kojirou sprang into action, tacking the guards still surrounding Tariq, who Kazuya noticed was still conscious. Shouting at the Tsuruchi to hit him again, Kazuya turned to fire again, looking for any guards that still posed a threat to the party, quickly coming to the same conclusion as Tariq, apparently, that the fight was effectively over and the City Guard had lost. While Kazuya began preparing to head to the university, Tariq decided to run, but after only a few feet he dropped to the ground unconscious.
As the party members grabbed Tariq and began carrying him to the university, Kazuya spotted another detachment of City Guard heading towards the bar fight, and shouted down to his companions to get a move on, before hunkering down on the rooftop to keep an eye on the new arrivals, ready to act as a distraction to cover the escape of his allies.
Fortunately, the new unit didn’t appear interested in much beyond moving down the drunken civilians, mechanical crossbows massacring all of them within only a few minutes. Once they began their clean up, and Kazuya was sure there was no chance of them catching the party, he too left his position and headed to the university.
Upon his arrival, Kazuya decided to have some fun and snuck past the guards on the gate, working his way quickly and quietly to the room Asai had designated for their use, surprising the party and Lord Asai alike, causing him to wryly re-evaluate the security of the room.
Tariq himself looked rather worse for wear from the battle, and after suggesting to Aki that she heal him so they could begin the interrogation more quickly, Kazuya helped Akihito patch up his wounds, suggesting to his Captain that forcing Tariq into a duel in front of the Court may be a quicker and easier way to settle the matter, given that he knew that in the Ivory Kingdom duels could be used to prove arguments in much the same way as in Rokugan, that he was fairly certain Tariq wouldn’t talk, whatever methods were used, and that the Captain’s own plan seemed to come to a juddering halt at the ‘torture’ stage, with no clear path of progression afterwards. Akihito, however, rebuffed this suggestion, and instead had Kojirou begin beating the now awake and resilient Tariq, who spent his time between blows explaining that the party would learn nothing from him and laughing at how pathetic their attempts to make him talk were.
After several minutes of beatings and near-drownings, Akihito called a halt to proceedings and explained that his new plan was for him to start flaying Tariq alive. Kazuya was horrified at this; not only would it, in his mind, be an incredibly dishonourable act for a samurai, it wouldn’t even change things – Tariq wasn’t going to talk one way or another. If this kept up, their only solid lead on Karai would wind up dead and then they’d be stuck.
Taking a deep breath, and silently asking his ancestors for aid despite their feelings towards him, Kazuya drew from his pocket a small hanabi firework, lit it and threw it into the middle of the room, closing his eyes tightly.
A few seconds later a deafening bang resounded throughout the room, and Kazuya opened his eyes to see his companions all clutching at their face, blinded by the flash. Moving quickly, Kazuya pushed past Akihito, who had just dropped the knife he was about to use to skin their captive, and freed Tariq, half-dragging the stumbling man out of the room.
The Guard Captain turned to him,
“Heh, I wasn’t expecting that – I thought you betrayed me!”
“Well, yes – that was kind of the point. What now?”
Tariq thought for a few seconds, before leading Kazuya deeper into the university,
“We head for court and speak to my patron; he’ll look after both of us. We might even be able to bring down bloody Asai – that’ll earn you some extra points for sure.”
Kazuya nodded, and began thinking through the next stage of his plan. Now if only his comrades would manage to put things together…
When they reached the Court, Tariq quickly located Karai and began explaining everything he had learnt, with a few comments from Kazuya to back him up. The Raja looked rather worried at the idea there were people running around his lands trying to discredit one of his Masters and issued orders that if and when Asai and the foreigners arrived they should be taken into custody.
Not long after, Asai and Kazuya’s companions did turn up, and unfortunately none of them seemed too pleased to see him. Oh well, he had a job to do. Now to sit back and watch as Akihito challenged Karai to a duel and see the problem vanish.
It wasn’t to be: instead of challenging Karai, Akihito stuck to explaining the motives and reasoning behind the party’s actions, as well as accusing Karai of attempting to overthrow the Raja and bring chaos to the Ivory Kingdoms. The resulting argument began spiralling out of control and Kazuya thought hard about how to bring thing back to where they were supposed to be. Why could things never be simple?
With the thinnest veneer of subtlety, Kazuya spoke up,
“My Lords, I know little of your culture, but is there not a way to settle an argument once and for all, rather than sitting back and watching these people continue to verbally attack each other?”
After a few minutes of discussion, the Master of Arms located a book near the back of the chamber and brought it over to the Raja,
“There is a tradition, established long ago, for debates of this kind to be settled through single combat. If Lord Asai will vouch for you, then I will allow you to make such a challenge. Who do you challenge, stranger, and who will fight for you?”
Akihito stood and thought for a moment,
“I challenge Lord Karai, and my companion Hida Kojirou will fight the duel.”
“I accept, though as I am no warrior I will of course nominate a champion to fight in my place, and as Captain Tariq is still badly wounded from the beatings he suffered while captured, I nominate Captain Jekhar to fight on my behalf.”
At this, one of the guards near Karai moved forwards, and Kazuya recognised the second man from several nights previously, who had been stood behind Tariq when he had heard their offer. From Karai’s confidence in him, and the way he held himself, Kazuya assumed he was a very strong fighter. Fortunately, the Hida was tough, and after watching a brilliant bit of deceit from Akihito, he was a Hida with several spells coursing through him, as Aki gave him a ‘traditional warrior’s blessing’.
The fight started slow – Jekhar struck the first blow, but Kojirou seemed unable to get anywhere near the Cheiron, his no-dachi swinging through the air fruitlessly. Eventually, Jekhar’s overconfidence proved his undoing, as he removed his helm and threw away his weapon, taunting the Hida with a quick punch to the face. Enraged, Kojirou brought his no-dachi down and cleaved the man in two.
The Master of Arms chuckled, and announced that the visitors had won, and the Raja rose to pronounce Karai guilty. As he did so, Kazuya noticed that Karai was muttering under his breath, something Kazuya decided was quite probably not a good sign.
“Lord Karai, do you have any last words?” demanded the Raja.
“Why, yes. You’re all going to fucking die.”
With that he pulled a vial from his cloak, but was tackled hard from behind by Feng Xiang, and the vial dropped to the ground where it shattered, spreading a dark liquid onto the floor, sizzling. At that, strange letters appeared all around the centre of the room, and a dark rumbling began. Realising that things were going bad fast, Kazuya hurried to retrieve his weapons from where the guards had stored them, watching as the rest of the party did the same. From the centre of the circle, a giant silver figure rose up, standing a good ten feet tall, with four arms and covered in silver plate.
Kazuya recognised at once that this was the ‘clockwork’ monster Aramasu had told him about. He’d been rather hoping that his first encounter with one of them would be in the forest. At night. Nevertheless, he drew his bow and prepared to attack.
Before he could act though, the creature stared at him. Stared into him. His mind was filled with the images of his ancestors, all staring at him with disapproval and disdain, their contempt for his sullying of the family line all too apparent. Fortunately, Kazuya was used to that particular brand of self-loathing and shrugged it off, though not without difficulty, and focused on the battle at hand, joining with Ieyasu to send an arrow winging its way towards the target, though his shot bounced off the plate. Apparently, the creature’s mental attack had thrown him off more than he thought.
While Kojirou and Feng charged into combat, with the Crab slicing off one of its sword arms in a single swing, Kazuya noticed that both Yoritomo had frozen up, Akihito even having gone as far as dropping his beloved Storm Kama, with Aki also standing stock still crying and muttering something about it not being her fault.
As the other three party members continued their attack on the monster, Kazuya turned to the two Yoritomo and shouted across to them,
“Oi, Captain! Pick up your kama and bloody well do something! And Aki, Hida-san could do with some healing, get on with it!”
While he cringed at his rather brusque manner in addressing them, particularly Aki who he owed a debt to anyway, Kazuya hoped that it might be the kick up the backside they needed.
He was proved correct a few seconds later when Akihito picked up his kama and sprinted forwards to leap onto the monster’s back, with Aki also chipping in by healing the Hida, who was now being strangled by one of the creature’s other arms.
Realising that the Crab was struggling a bit, Kazuya dropped his bow and drew his newly purchased khanda, charging forwards to sever the arm at its joint, distracting the creature for a few seconds as Feng plunged a second spear into its side.
Unfortunately, the distraction didn’t help Feng much further, as the monster swung its sword around to send the ronin flying, dropping to the floor with a crunch and then not moving. Kazuya spared a quick glance at Aki, who was already desperately praying to the kami, and then turned back to the creature in time to see Akihito take its head off with his double kama. As the creature fell, its body began to decay and crumble, leaving little behind.
Ignoring the disgruntled stares of the Captain, Kazuya followed Aki, running over to Feng’s prone form to begin doing what they could to save the ronin’s life, Kazuya calling for any other available aid. Fortnately, the Master of Medicine, Lakshmi was present and using the materials Kazuya had to hand was, after nearly half-an-hour, able to stabalise the still unconscious Feng, confident that he would make a full recovery. Kazuya thanked her for her timely assistance, before moving to fetch the still alive Karai from against the wall Feng had thrown him at, dragging him before the Raja as ordered, only just keeping the surprise from his face when the Raja rammed a spear down through Karai’s throat, before asking Akihito if there was anything else he needed to do to tidy up matters.
Akihito’s reply to the Raja made Kazuya sigh in disappointment – perhaps Akihito wasn’t as clued-in as he thought he was,
“Arrest the traitor Kazuya.”
Kazuya shrugged his shoulders,
“Apparently my dear Captain’s forgotten that he in fact ordered me to set myself up as a traitor to the party – I was only following his orders.”
Akihito wasn’t having that, and he and Kazuya argued back and forth before Kazuya turned to Ieyasu,
“Tsuruchi-san, you have worked as a magistrate for a time so I shall ask you to judge my sincerity. I swear to you now that I am still a loyal servant of Aramasu-sama, despite what Akihito thinks.”
The Tsuruchi thought for a few moments, before confirming that Kazuya was telling the absolute truth. Nevertheless, Akihito would not be swayed, refusing to keep Kazuya under his command any longer.
Kazuya nearly smiled – things were looking interesting.
The ride back to Singh lands was a fairly sombre one; the mood not aided by Kazuya’s cheery greeting to the group as he explained that, despite Akihito’s desire to be rid of him, he had to report back to Arai and would therefore ride with the group back to base, though Kazuya chose to ride at the front of the group, to lessen suspicions somewhat.
That evening, when they arrived back in Singh lands, the leader of the Storm Legion informed Kazuya and Akihito that they were to see Arai the next morning to deliver their report and explain matters. Kazuya sighed – this wasn’t likely to go well for him. He just hoped that Arai could keep his own mistrust from prejudicing his determination on whether Kazuya’s actions had in fact been entirely justifiable, given the orders he had received.
The next morning, Kazuya was shaken awake by a member of the Storm Legion, only just curbing his well-honed combat instincts and avoiding stabbing the unsuspecting Mantis. Mentally bracing himself for the hostile meeting ahead, Kazuya set out to make his report to Arai, fully determined to make his point that he had only acted under orders, as well as hoping to stop Akihito from committing a grave breach of etiquette and bringing the ire and displeasure of his ancestors down on his head. Kazuya knew the weight an ancestor’s disapproval placed upon a man’s soul, and would rather keep such a fate from others if he could help it.
The meeting was as fractious as Kazuya anticipated, with Akihito simply refusing to accept that Kazuya had acted correctly in order to complete the orders he had been given by his captain. He also refused to accept that it was he, not Kazuya, who had reported the more precise details about the strike team’s actions to the raja.
In his defence Kazuya also pointed out that had the party not been in the courtroom at the point of Karai’s arrest, it would have been likely the Cheiron Masters would have been wiped out, as the circle which summoned the clockwork had obviously been prepared in advance. He also pointed out that he considered himself honour-bound to two members of the party, and that even if Akihito was desperate to remove him from the group, his honour dictated that he at least remain with them until he considered his debts paid.
Even Arai pointing out that the fairly paranoid Kitsune trusted Kazuya the ronin enough to teach him the sacred techniques of their Ranger school could not convince Akihito, so eventually, Arai decided to use the most powerful argument he could think of to prove that Kazuya could be trusted, and while Kazuya was pleased in that Arai had fought his corner, which surprised him somewhat, it was still an argument part of Kazuya wished hadn’t been used – he had been working rather hard to keep that particular bit of his past a secret from the party, in the interests of greater co-operation. Then again, considering how well that had gone, perhaps Arai had a point.
Despite Arai’s observation about Kazuya’s impressive loyalty to the Clan Champion, Akihito refused to accept that Kazuya was not an inherently traitorous person, leaving Arai no choice but to sanction a fight to sort the matter out – first one to yield or die would lose the match. Being given the choice of location for the fight, Kazuya opted to fight aboard ship – if he was to prove himself to the Mantis, then it would probably help to fight as one. With an agreement reached, Kazuya retreated to a small, out-of-the-way garden to meditate, and ask his ancestors to not sabotage his efforts – the chances of them actually supporting him were so low there was no point in asking.
Three hours later, Kazuya stood aboard the Roar of Isora, Ranger cloak and accoutrements abandoned beside him, facing off against a very determined looking Akihito, who rather wisely had decided not to wear his full-plate armour for this ship-based combat.
Arai addressed them both,
“Well, this fight is to settle a disagreement. Do both of you accept that the outcome of this fight will be binding?”
The two nodded
“The first to yield, die or fall overboard will be declared the loser. Are you sure you wish to fight?”
Akihito answered first,
“Yes, my lord.”
“Well, I’ve got nothing better to be doing.”
Arai shook his head,
“You’re an optimist. Ok, begin!”
Kazuya instantly dropped himself into a defensive stance, waiting for Akihito’s charge. He knew that he was not as good a melee fighter as the Yoritomo bushi, so his best bet would be to try and keep Akihito from injuring him too badly while looking for an opening.
Unfortunately, this plan didn’t get off to the best start as the roll of the ship beneath his feet distracted Kazuya just enough for Akihito’s two whirling strikes to slip past his guard, crashing hard into his chest. Reacting as quickly as he could, Kazuya swung his khanda round and succeeded in catching Akihito in the side, but the attack moved him out of position and the Mantis managed to draw a long cut across his shoulder.
At this point the weather intervened. While the two had been fighting, a bit of a storm had blown in, and the combination of rain covering the deck and the roll of the ship sent both combatants tumbling. Over the roar of the storm, Kazuya could just about pick out Arai shouting for Aki to ‘turn the weather off’, which Kazuya decided he was rather looking forward to as he picked himself up off the deck, pushing a damp fringe out of his eyes and taking the brief pause in the combat to back up a few paces and allow his foe to clamber to his feet, once again dropping into a defensive stance.
As soon as Akihito steadied himself he charged to attack again, and for the next several minutes the two fighters circled each other in a lethal game of cat-and-mouse, neither able to land a blow on the other.
Eventually, Kazuya decided that the longer the fight drew on the greater advantage Akihito’s combat experience would provide, and so with a quick prayer to the Fortunes (Cowabunga!) he launched himself at Akihito.
To his surprise, Kazuya was able to get past Akihito’s defences, and the heavy khanda smashed solidly into the Mantis’ chest, forcing him to the ground. Even as the blow connected, Kazuya began to worry that his inexperience with the weapon might have just killed the very man he was trying to prove his trustworthiness to. Fortunately, Akihito wasn’t killed instantly and had just enough time to formally yield before dropping into unconsciousness.
Immediately, Kazuya called Aki over to begin using her healing magic on the captain, as well as contributing with his own meagre medical knowledge – what was the point of winning an argument if the person you beat wasn’t around to enjoy it? Once she had healed Akihito, Aki turned to Kazuya and proceeded to heal the wounds he had sustained in his fight.
When Akihito regained consciousness Arai wandered over to congratulate Kazuya and provide a compromise agreement: Having won the fight, Kazuya had proved his loyalty, but to make it easier for the two to work together in the future, Arai suggested Akihito promise to think through his orders a bit more, and remember to point out anything Kazuya wasn’t allowed to do, while Kazuya should make a promise not to stab the party in the back. Both samurai made those promises, Akihito congratulated Kazuya on his win (and Kazuya apologised for nearly killing him) and then along with a mainly subdued crowd of Mantis, headed off to the pub to drink (apparently there had been a great deal of money bet on the fight, and very little of it in Kazuya’s favour).
Soon after the drinking started, Kazuya stealthily extricated himself from the party that was nominally celebrating his win, and returned to the secluded garden to continue his meditations and thank his ancestors for not getting him killed. Kazuya was not normally one for meditation, but sometimes it was useful to clear the mind by spending a few hours alone in his element – he was always able to relax more when surrounded by the shadows in which he made his life, despite knowing the threats they could hide.
Late the next day, having completed a few personal errands, Kazuya re-joined the party as they searched for the missing daughter of a very wealthy and influential merchant. Not being as filled-in on the situation as the rest of the party, Kazuya merely kept his eyes open and allowed the party to get on with their more informed investigating.
Realising that if the girl had left the city one of the gate-guards would have seen her, the party headed for the main gate. Sure enough, one of the guards remembered a young man leaving with a cart. Despite the darkness drawing in Kazuya volunteered to try and track the two, confident his eyesight would be up to the task, though he was surprised when the rest of the party elected to go with him rather than wait at the inn for his report.
For the first few minutes the path was easy to follow, heading out of the city and then turning north-west, leading the party to a small copse where they found an abandoned wagon. In the pitch black, and with less well-travelled terrain, Akihito was sceptical about being able to track the two further that evening. Kazuya, however, was not deterred, and managed to locate horse tracks heading further north-west, though realising that the rest of the party wouldn’t be able to handle night-time exploring quite as well, Kazuya agreed with the party consensus to rest and continue their pursuit in the morning.
The next day the party continued on its way, following the tracks Kazuya had found the day before. Eventually they reached a small village, where Akihito explained to the guards that they were on a mission from Lord Obalesh, searching for a missing door-guard named Kadhir. On hearing Obalesh’s name, the guards were only too happy to point the party in the direction of Kadhir’s mother’s house.
While the party approached from the front, Kazuya hurried round behind the house in case Kadhir was within and decided to make a break for it. As it was, they discovered that Kadir had left already, though they investigated the house anyway, with Kazuya discovering a small letter that was slightly out of place, some fallen petals near the back door showing someone had hurried through the garden outside and a cloak hanging by the door that would be far too small for one of Kadhir’s brothers to wear. Looking more closely at the letter, Kazuya found a short message indicating a meeting place near ‘the prophet’. Passing on the information to Aki, Kazuya sat back and watched the shugenja interrogate the mother, eventually learning that ‘the prophet’ was a shoju that lived in a small hut about thirty minutes travel north of the village.
Interacting with the shoju was an interesting experience, though Kazuya didn’t stick around too long – apparently there was a ‘darkness’ in his soul that the monkey objected to, so Kazuya and the Hida were ordered to wait outside.
Once ‘negotiations’ were complete, the rest of the party filled them in, explaining that the shoju had married Kadhir and Udita, before sending them on their way to a small cabin in a vaguely northwards direction. After a short search, Kazuya was able to pick up the trail and the party set off, hoping they would be able to catch the pair before too long.
Shortly, the party found a small tree-house, and Akihito shouted up, but the young man that appeared denied knowing any Kadhir or Udita, though it was obvious he was lying. Deciding to force the issue, Kazuya began climbing a tree opposite the small balcony, directing the Hida to begin making his way up the ladder.
As they moved, the boy re-appeared on the balcony with a bow and proceeded to put three arrows in Kazuya’s shoulder as he climbed, despite Ieyasu’s best attempts at shooting them out of the sky. Fortunately, this gave the Hida the time to break his way into the house, where he proceeded to beat the boy to a pulp and capture him. In the corner, looking slightly worried at the sudden appearance of several armed men, was the merchant’s daughter, Udita.
Having dealt with the problem of locating the girl, the party then had the issue of what to do with her: Aki voted to let the pair of them escape, as did Feng. Ieyasu wanted to return the girl to her father, but spare the boy, while the Hida wanted to return the girl and hand Kadhir over to the authorities. Kazuya really didn’t care either way, but considering the debt he owed to Aki he voted to let the two go free. The Captain, like Ieyasu, wanted to return the girl to her father and leave the boy alone, but was more interested in the trade implications of getting Obalesh on-side. He paused to think for a few minutes.
“Well,” he eventually murmured, “I think it best we return the girl to her father and hand the boy over to the authorities. Of course, what happens after that is no business of ours. For example, the boy could escape from prison. It’s unlikely he’d manage it on his own, but…” he gave Kazuya a meaningful look, “it would take a terribly dishonourable person to assist him in is endeavours.”
Kazuya smirked and nodded, quickly working on a plan to break the boy out of prison. Satisfied, and ignoring the grumblings about criminal behaviour from Ieyasu, Kazuya briefed the rest of the party on his plan and with their captives in tow, the party returned to the city.
Upon reaching the city, four samurai handed over three criminals to be charged with kidnapping the daughter of Obalesh, briefly returning Udita to her father’s home to assure him of her safety before taking her away again to make some statements to the guards.
Inside the prison, Kazuya made short work of the lock on his cell, watching as Feng did the same with his.
“Well, what’s the plan now, Kaz-chan?”
“We break out. The guard outside the door’s just been replaced, so we have some time.”
“And how in particular are we going to break out, my friend. You never got around to explaining that part on the way back.”
“Well… I’m going to wait in my cell and make a bit of a racket. Guard comes in to investigate, we surprise him, knock him unconscious and then sneak our way out.”
“Okay then, if you think that’ll work.”
The two ronin returned to their cells, but kept both doors unlocked. Once satisfied, Kazuya began hammering on the door, shouting that he was innocent and demanding to be let out. It didn’t take long for the guard to get annoyed and move to open Kazuya’s cell to give him a ‘talking to’. As he reached for the door handle, Kazuya flung his door open, Feng doing the same opposite, smashing the hilts of the knives they’d hidden on their person into the guard’s head, they knocked him unconscious and dumped him in a cell.
All of a sudden, Feng Xiang started removing the guard’s clothes.
“I hardly think now’s the time, Xiang-san.”
The ronin smiled up at him, “Of course it is, Kaz-chan. A disguise is always useful… the stripping is just a bonus.”
Kazuya dropped his head back against a wall and then busied himself with unlocking Kadhir’s cell, trying to tune out Feng’s laughter ringing in his ears.
With his disguise in place, Feng led the ‘bound’ Kazuya and Kadhir out into the main guardroom, where they were challenged by the Captain. After a futile attempt to bluff their way out, Feng and Kazuya resorted to fighting their way past the five guards in the room, dousing the only light source in the room to give the two ronin a serious advantage.
Diving out of the prison block, Feng and Kadhir set off for the rendezvous with Aki, Udita and some horses, while Kazuya hung back to distract the guards and amuse himself by leading them on a wild goose chase in the opposite direction.
Once he finally decided to lose his pursuers, Kazuya headed back to the inn, meeting a rather amused Akihito sitting in the lobby,
“You seem to have annoyed some people, Kazuya-san”
Kazuya smirked, “It’s a skill.”
The next morning, a servant summoned the samurai to meet with Obalesh, though Aki begged off under the guise of ‘priestly business’. Arriving at Obalesh’s house, the merchant informed them that his daughter had disappeared, again, and that the boy had somehow broken out of prison. Akihito made several apologies, explaining that he had thought the city guard would be able to handle the boy, and so had not set up any additional precautions to keep him in custody.
Obalesh accepted Akihito’s apologies, and asked the party if they could remember anything about the first time they had tracked Kadhir down. Kazuya pointed out a few places on a map, confident that Kadhir wouldn’t be anywhere near them this time, but the Hida piped up that they had said they might be heading to Rumas. Kazuya nearly smacked him round the back of the head, but decided it wouldn’t be the best move.
Deciding that the party had, in fact, carried out the task he had set for them, Obalesh asked them if there was anything they would like in reward. Unsurprisingly, Akihito asked for trade contacts, and the Hida asked if Obalesh could get a hold of any interesting weapons while Ieyasu asked for some traditional armour. As Aki wasn’t present, Kazuya asked for some books on religion on her behalf, and books on geography and the other houses on his own. After a bit of thought, Feng decided to ask for directions to the best brothel in the city. The request temporarily threw Obalesh, but he quickly scribbled directions on a piece of paper and handed it to Feng.
A few days later the party was woken by one of the Storm Legionnaires to inform them that it was time for them to return to duty. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent there would have to be a few changes to Akihito’s strike team, as not only had Feng Xiang run off during the night, leaving a note about having found a nice exotic woman to settle down with, but Hida Kojirou had had his throat slit.
Determined not to let the loss of two party members blunt their effectiveness, the remaining strike team members reported to Arai and were given their next assignment: another strike team, led by Tsuruchi Nobukatsu, had disappeared in Rumas territory. Akihito’s team, being one of the few that had succeeded in its original mission, was therefore being tasked with locating the missing strike team.
Noticing that Akihito’s team was missing a few members, Arai assigned three newly-arrived samurai to the team; an Isawa shugenja, a Kitsune Shugenja and a Yoritomo who had trained with the fearsome Daidoji Iron Warriors. Kazuya sighed – he had only just met the Yoritomo, but the pride with which she wore her Rokugani armour, making no concessions to local customs, and the slight sneer directed his way when he was introduced as a ronin made him suspect that he might find life that little bit tougher under her watch.
With only the thinnest bit of information to go on, that Nobukatsu’s team had made contact with a certain ‘Remus’, Akihito ordered the party to gather as much additional knowledge about House Rumas as possible, before leading the party northwards.
They made quick progress, with Kazuya stumbling across some familiar looking tracks – apparently Feng Xiang had also headed North – but the party decided to let the Tsuruchi Bounty Hunters currently looking for Feng deal with him. They had their own mission to focus on.
Eventually the party reached a Rumasan checkpoint and Akihito stepped forwards with their travel papers. Unfortunately, the papers had not been fully completed, but Akihito’s keen diplomatic skills soon solved the problem… by paying the guard captain several dinar to forge the correct authorisation.
A short march later and the party arrived at a small village where they decided to stop for the night, renting rooms at the ‘Call of Conquest’ for a few days to act as their temporary base in Rumas while they searched for Remus.
Chatting to a few people in the inn, the party learnt that Remus could be found at a nearby Temple to Victory. The journey there took a while, and the temple was not what any of the party was expecting – from some rough calculations, Kazuya and Reika worked out that there were in the region of three hundred guards stationed on the walls around the temple alone, and probably barrack space for at least another three hundred inside.
Leaving their weapons at the door, a process which took a surprisingly long time for certain members of the party (Kazuya just about managed to remember where he’d hidden all his various knives) the party were escorted to an ante-chamber where they were instructed to wait for Remus, who was busy overseeing a sacrifice. Deciding to indulge his curiosity, Kazuya went for a walk to inspect the walls, accompanied by the new Kitsune shugenja, and the two of them tried to determine the worth of the Temple’s defences, eventually agreeing that they wouldn’t like to have to attack the place without a hell of a lot of support.
Returning to the party, Akihito informed them that Nobukatsu’s squad had been heading towards a fort to the north-west. After collecting their weapons, Kazuya took the lead, ignoring the actual signposted roads in favour of making his own way through the woods, managing to cut large chunks of time out of the party’s journey.
They passed through the first village they came across without incident, while in the second they stopped to allow the shugenja to commune with the kami. Rather than stand around and wait, Kazuya and Akihito wandered off to speak to the ‘less honourable’ members of the village, leaving a snarling and rather intimidating Reika to guard the shugenja, still sticking out like a sore thumb in unashamedly Rokugani armour.
After a quick chat with an old man, Akihito decided to continue his inquiries at an inn the Mantis had frequented, ordering Kazuya to check out the brothel that one of the samurai had visited. Sighing, Kazuya complied, though made sure to keep his visit as short as possible.
As he headed back to inform his Captain that one of the Mantis, in black armour, had hit one of the girls, he realised that rather too much noise was emanating from the inn Akihito had been heading towards, and that it rather sounded like several someones smacking other someones around the head with large pointy objects. Sighing again, Kazuya sprinted through the already smashed open door, drawing his khanda as he did so. Inside were most of his comrades, and both his Captain and Reika seemed to be bleeding a fair amount.
Reacting quickly, Kazuya charged forwards and cut one of the three remaining warriors in half, eyes darting around the room to spot several other dead bodies before finally alighting on an enemy who wasn’t busy fighting off one of his companions. Drawing a tanto from his belt, Kazuya sent it winging into the man’s eye, dropping him, before turning to watch Reika cleave the final enemy in half, shield and all. He would have to remember not to get on the wrong side of her no-dachi.
With the fight over, Akihito marched up to the poor, cowering bartender and started asking some rather pointed questions, as well as throwing a few glances over his shoulder and a rather blood-stained Yoritomo. Unsurprisingly, the bartender answered the questions as best he could, but refused to name the man who had arranged the surprise welcome.
Akihito turned to Kazuya, “I’ll leave you to finish up this interrogation. Get him to tell you everything.”
Kazuya sighed, he really didn’t like the idea of torturing people, especially as the bartender’s fear for his very soul if he gave up the man who wanted the party dead was almost excruciatingly real. As soon as the rest of the party (and especially Reika) had left, Kazuya slammed his hands down on the table in front of the bartender,
“Can you at least tell us where this nameless bastard lives?”
The bartender nodded, “He.. he’s in the Fort. The Fort the others were heading towards.”
Kazuya nodded, and then proceeded to drop a few dinar on the counter before slowly making his way to the door with a jaunty wave,
“Sorry about the mess!”
With further evidence that the Fort required investigating, the party made the three hour ride that evening, and while the party set up camp for the night, Kazuya decided to do a little sneaking around to see what he could see, accompanied by Aki. A decision that nearly came back to bite him.
Upon leaving camp Kazuya disappeared into the shadows, happy to have a chance to use his skills to the fullest for a change. He was still delighting in the opportunity for a good run out when he heard Aki stumble and fall into a hole… only a short distance away from a rather inquisitive looking guard.
Unfortunately, the guard heard the noise just as well as Kazuya, and began to call out challenges in a language Kazuya couldn’t understand,
“Qui ibi est? Ostende te!”
Kazuya nearly froze as the guard began slowly walking towards the prone Aki, a small timer ticking away in the back of his head. Realising that the chances of having a perfectly stealthy look around were pretty much dead, Kazuya drew his khanda and sprinted towards the guard silent as the night. The guard never saw him coming and Kazuya silenced him with one swift strike, removing his head from his shoulders.
The force of the swing was enough to unbalance Kazuya, however, and he wasn’t quite able to catch the body of the Rumasan guard before it crashed to the ground. After a beat of silence another voice called out,
“Marce? Ubi es?”
Kazuya turned to Aki and helped the fallen shugenja up, whispering into her ear,
“I suggest you return to camp. I fear things might start getting a little messy around here.”
She nodded, and took off back into the woods… or rather started crashing her way through the woods, as other loud noises and cries of ‘Aki, Aki!’ sounded out from the trees. Kazuya would have dropped his head in despair if he wasn’t keeping a close eye on the newly approaching guard. One of these days, he’d really have to teach his companions some basic stealth tricks.
He didn’t have long to think about it though, as the second guard stepped into range and Kazuya launched himself forwards, Khanda cutting a wicked path through the man’s chest. It wasn’t enough, however, and the Rumasan grabbed Kazuya’s sword-arm, pinning him in place before punching him in the chest with a weird bladed fist that didn’t quite penetrate his armour. Unable to pull his arm away, Kazuya dropped his khanda and wrenched his arm upwards, doing enough to distract the soldier while he drew his wakizashi in his off-hand and slammed it into his throat.
With the second guard dealt with, Kazuya tried to regain his bearings – from the sound of it, the party was causing quite a racket as they did whatever it was they had decided to do, and the large number of guards who had been stationed in a ring around the fort were now slowly advancing on where they had made camp. Knowing that a distraction was his best bet for the time being, Kazuya took to shouting at some of the guards in Ivindi, taunting them with their inability to find him, and that he’d already killed four of their number without suffering so much as a scratch.
The taunting worked, and Kazuya was able to pull a surprisingly large number of guards away from the force heading towards the camp, helped tremendously by a sudden eerie fog drifting onto the scene, as well as all the guard fires suddenly going out. Kazuya smiled. Pure darkness, without even much of a moon to light the way. The guards were sitting ducks.
Hoping that the party would be able to escape without further help from him, Kazuya returned to stalking through the night, picking off any guards who appeared to be trying to organise more efficient search parties. It wasn’t much, but taking out the leaders was a reliable fall-back tactic he’d picked up over the years. Eventually, one Rumasan did manage to put up a bit of a fight, leaving Kazuya with a few rather irritating wounds, but none of them came close to truly threatening him.
Eventually, with dawn fast approaching, Kazuya snuck away from the killing fields, heading for the tracks which a bird of air had informed him the party had decided to follow. Tracking the party as he went, and easily avoiding the few Rumasans still looking for him, Kazuya eventually stumbled across the smouldering remains of a funeral pyre, pausing only for a few seconds to pay his respects before continuing on. He so hoped the party wasn’t getting into too much trouble without him.
It took a while, but eventually Kazuya tracked the party to the foot of a mountain range. Fortunately, Yoritomo Reika had decided to wait outside the caves to guide Kazuya to the main chamber, as well as point out the various wards and traps that the slightly paranoid Kuni had prepared, explaining that some sort of demon creature had been plaguing their footsteps.
As soon as he stepped into the chamber with a jaunty ‘sorry to keep you waiting’, the Kuni shugenja turned and sent a wave of bright green energy slamming into him, though it passed through his body without the slightest affect. Remembering what he knew of Kuni, Kazuya gave a bright smile,
“Well, hello to you too.”
Akihito sighed and turned to the two samurai who Kazuya didn’t recognise,
“This is our scout and, while it pains me to do so, I can vouch for him.”
The Kuni shugenja and the Mantis Kazuya decided had to be Nobukatsu nodded and returned to discussing matters with Akihito.
Feeling vaguely insulted that his Captain still didn’t fully trust him, Kazuya wandered over to where Yoritomo Aki sat,
“You manage to get back okay?” he asked, before smirking slightly, “Manage to avoid falling into any holes?”
Aki glared at him, but the effect was somewhat reduced coming from the petite shugenja,
“I got back fine, thank you very much!”
“Good to know. So, what did I miss?”
Aki sighed and took on a rather worried expression,
“It appears we’re fighting a local demon called a Rakshasa, a very powerful creature. Unfortunately, from what little evidence those two gathered while fighting it off it appears that it can only be harmed by jade or crystal, and we’re rather lacking in that department.”
“Well, actually…” Kazuya paused, before reaching for the katana at his right side and drawing it a few inches out of its sheathe, “it just so happens that I do have some crystal – it’s not worked into the blade, but a crystal edge should prove just as effective.”
“Really? That’s brilliant news!”
Kazuya grimaced at Aki’s cheerful tone of voice, not entirely comfortable with shooting down the shugenja’s sudden burst of optimism,
“Well, I’m not so sure about that – I’m hardly the best melee fighter in this little group, and I’m not one for wearing heavy armour either. If this creature is as dangerous as you say it is, I’m going to end up with my insides scattered throughout the province.”
At this Rekia stepped forwards to join the conversation,
“In that case, Kazuya-kun, you could hand your katana over to me or the Captain?”
“No offense, Reika-san, but over my dead body: My ancestors hate me enough as it is – handing over my katana to someone not of my blood? I may as well condemn myself to hell now. Though on the ‘dead body’ note, when the Rakshasa murders me, I am totally okay with you or the Captain picking up my blade and slaughtering it. Seem fair?”
Kazuya could swear that he saw a new degree of respect in Reika’s gaze as she nodded solemnly,
“Very fair, Kazuya-kun.”
The rest of the evening passed quickly and in a fairly serious atmosphere, the Kuni and Nobukatsu taking a welcome respite from their constant vigil. Kazuya’s grim mood was temporarily lifted when Aki related the story of the party’s first contact with the two, of the Kuni shugenja blasting the whole party with Jade Strike and his hilariously stunned and violated expression when the party’s Kitsune had had the nerve to Jade Strike him back.
The next morning Kazuya spent some time in deep meditation, trying to centre himself and calm the turmoil in his soul, as well as trying to prepare himself for his coming date with probable death.
Once the whole party was awake and ready to travel it was decided that the best course of action would be to head back to the temple the party had visitied previously to look for additional information on combatting Rakshasa, as well as asking for any information on local guru who might happen to be in possession of weapons which could injure a Rakshasa even more easily that crystal.
Lending his horse to the Kuni, Kazuya elected to scout ahead on foot, with Nobukatsu following him, grumbling slightly about Kazuya’s insistence that he lead the scouting, rather than simply accepting Nobukatsu’s orders to follow his lead, the ‘I’m a better scout and know what I’m doing’ argument working well.
With a couple of judicious shortcuts, the party reached the temple far more quickly than expected, and Kazuya just about held back a self-satisfied smirk. When the party split up to investigate a few different leads, Kazuya elected to wait outside with Reika – he’d seen the temple the last time, and had no real desire to wander around questioning priest. Fortunately for his impending boredom, Reika got into a minor argument with one of the guards, claiming with complete confidence that his great shield would provide no protection against her blade – she would simply carve straight through it.
Intrigued at the challenge, the guard found a solid wooden post to rest his shield against and stepped back to let Reika make her swing. With no fuss whatsoever, Reika took a half-pace forwards and swung her no-dachi, cleaving through the shield and burying her blade deep into the wood.
Impressed, the guard acknowledged her strength, before inviting her to join him for a drink. Reika accepted, and Kazyua figured that he may as well find something more useful to do with his time. Thinking hard, Kazuya decided that if they were going to be hunting a Rakshasa he wanted to know the lay of the land at least as well as his foe, hopefully negating one of the Rakshasa’s advantages. With this in mind, Kazuya headed for the temple library, just about convincing the priests to let him study their maps. With his natural inclination for geography, it didn’t take too long for Kazuya to feel confident he could navigate the province unaided.
After a while, Akihito gathered the party to announce that he had learned of the location of the closest guru. Quickly purchasing supplies and additional horses, the party set off towards the mountain which the guru apparently lived near. It was a long trip and, wary of the threat they were matched against, Kazuya kept an especially sharp eye out, taking on as much of the night watch as he could manage, catching up on sleep with quick naps during the day instead.
Fortunately, for the three days of travel the party avoided running into any trouble, though on their arrival at the foot of the mountain that changed dramatically, with the Kuni shugenja picking out several recent tracks, one of which was distinctly not-quite-human.
Realising that their enemy had had the same idea as them, Kazuya hurried into the forest after the tracks, disappearing into the undergrowth. Leading the party as quickly and quietly as he could, Kazuya soon found a clearing with a wooden hut situated on the far side. Between the party and the hut, however, lay a rather significant problem – five Rumas in full armour and one slightly inhuman figure that Kazuya decided was most definitely the Rakshasa.
Realising that the small force in front of them was about to attack what was presumably the guru’s house, Akihito called a quick and desperate meeting, hashing out a plan to deal with the situation. While Kazuya wasn’t particularly happy at the role he was taking for himself, namely being the one to distract and deal with the Rakshasa in single combat, he was somewhat heartened as the party’s shugenja began casting as many spells on him as they could.
Tuning out the chanting, Kazuya closed his eyes and tried to focus himself, sending up muttered prayers to his ancestors to leave him alone and not cause him additional trouble. Accepting his likely death, Kazuya opened his eyes with a deep sigh, before springing forwards and sprinting at the oblivious Rakshasa. He debated shouting a war-cry, but decided that silence was more his thing so kept his mouth shut, even as roars of ‘banzai’ reached his ears from Reika and Akihito.
The spells had obviously worked well, thought Kazuya, as the world around him seemed to be moving almost in slow motion. Reaching the Rakshasa, Kazuya drew his katana in one swift motion, cleaving through the plate armour on its chest with his first swing. He didn’t let that success go to his head though, reliant as he was on maintaining razor sharp focus and keeping up his furious attack for as long as he could, trusting the others to take care of the five Rumasan soldiers, save the guru (if he was home) and find a weapon which could kill the Rakshasa more easily that his crystal katana could. His second swing also bit deep into the Rakshasa’s flesh, its inhuman eyes boring into his, aura of annoyance palpable. Kazuya’s ability to annoy anyone was working just as well as usual, it seemed.
From somewhere to his right, he heard a roar of triumph from Reika,
“THE STRENGTH OF YOUR ANCESTORS IS NO MATCH FOR THE STRENGTH OF MINE!”
Obviously whichever poor soldier had bit the dust, and bitten it hard, if the volume of her shout was anything to go by. Kazuya didn’t allow himself time to dwell on that minor victory though, instead tuning out as much of the outside world as he could, focusing solely on the beast before him. A double crash of lighting flashed into a soldier behind the Rakshasa and Kazuya leapt forwards, leaving another two deep cuts in the Rakshasa’s flesh. Its gaze would have chilled Kazuya’s soul, if he cared about such things. He didn’t.
Roaring, the Rakshasa made its move, claws biting deep into Kazuya’s chest. The incredible pain was quickly dulled as one of the spells cast on him went to work. It did nothing for the sudden and terrible pain of fire blazing through his veins mere seconds after the strikes though, and as the Rakshasa stepped back and vanished, Kazuya crumpled to the ground in agony, right arm clutched across his bleeding stomach, left tightening around the hilt of his katana in pain. Apparently Rakshasa were poisonous. Who knew.
As the battle raged around him, Kazuya tried to force down the pain, trying to struggle to his feet and hunt down the invisible bastard. He was the only one that could kill the Rakshasa, and he was dammed if he was going to let the demon hurt the defenceless members of his party. Suddenly, a soothing feeling washed through his body, temporarily calming the inferno raging through his blood. Kazuya had felt that spell enough times before to realise that Aki was doing her best to get him back into the fight. Wait. Aki. Shugenja. Shugenja who had sacrificed their speed and reflexes to boost his.
Realising the danger the unarmoured shugenja were in, Kazuya forced himself to stand. Taking a few seconds to scan the battlefield, he moved quickly and quietly to finish off a legionnaire facing Reika in combat, freeing her up to charge at and then cut cleanly in half a second legionnaire standing over Nobukatsu’s prone body. Satisfied the melee members of the party were on top of things, Kazuya hurried over to the line of shugenja and Ieyasu, taking up a defensive stance, eyes darting around the nearby area, straining to locate the Rakshasa.
Suddenly the demon reappeared, on the other side of the clearing away from everyone. Kazuya just about had time to take a few paces towards it before there was a terrible roar behind him and a blast of incredible heat washed over him from behind. Apparently the Rakshasa was capable of calling down fire on a not unimpressive scale. Turning around, Kazuya was relieved to see that while all of the shugenja and Ieyasu were scorched, they didn’t seem to worse for wear. Spinning round to focus on the Rakshasa again, Kazuya was just in time to see it disappear again.
As he debated the best way to hunt it down, a shout came from the wooden hut, Akihito passing on an order from Nobukatsu to gather in the wooden hut. While he remained dubious at the wisdom of gathering everyone in a confined area, Kazuya nevertheless followed the orders of his Captain, keeping a close watch out as the injured party members bundled into the guru’s house.
Inside, it was quite a tight squeeze, the house not having been built to accommodate ten people all at once. Akihito took up position in the doorway, Reika covering him, while Kazuya waited nearer the centre of the room taking slow, deep breathes to ignore the pain. Taking advantage of the lull in combat, the shugenja began to heal up those who were badly wounded, especially Reika, who looked like she was a few minutes from falling over.
After a few tense moments the Rakshasa appeared again, standing in the centre of the clearing. A split second later, the Kuni shugenja started chanting franticly and with a flash of realisation, Kazuya realised just how much trouble they were in. If it weren’t for the fact that he had more important things to be worrying about, Kazuya would have turned and given Nobukatsu a rollicking for his wonderful plan to gather everyone in a wooden building while facing off against a creature who had already demonstrated the ability to summon massive fireballs.
Fortunately, the Kuni shugenja managed to cast some form of defensive shield, deflecting the flames away from the building. Before the party had time to catch its breath, the Rakshasa charging forwards quick as lightning into Akihito. His Captain realised that he needed to buy the party some space, so swung in low at the Rakshasa, trying to knock it back out of the hut, though his attack hardly fazed the Rakshasa.
Thinking fast, Kazuya took a few short paces backwards, steeled himself against his screaming body and shouted at the two samurai in the doorway,
Akihito heard him and quickly dropped to the floor, causing the Rakshasa’s swipe to sail harmlessly through the space that had previously been occupied by his head. An arrow from Ieyasu slipped though the chaos and shattered against the Rakshasa’s chest. Reika took advantage of the space that had suddenly opened up in front of her to swing her no-dachi through the air in a strike that would have made even Hida himself proud. However, despite the mighty crash the no-dachi made as it thundered into the Rakshasa’s hide, the only actual damage was to the sword itself, though the demon was forced back a few paces. The answering claw strike pushed Reika to the left, opening up the gap that Kazuya had been waiting for and from an uncomfortably short run up he leapt over Akihito, thrusting his katana forwards to pierce the Rakshasa’s chest.
With a howl of pain, the Rakshasa plucked Kazuya out of the air, slamming him hard into the ground before biting down on his neck. For a split second Kazuya thought his fight was over, but instead the demon’s teeth hardly penetrated his skin and Kazuya felt a wave of comforting energy spread out from the pressure points. Apparently one of the shugenja had managed to cast another powerful earth spell on him.
Pulling away, the Rakshasa stumbled as the Kitsune hit it with a crystal spell, causing its flesh to sizzle and burn. Snarling at the man who had dared to hurt it, the demon it leapt through the air towards the huddled shugenja. At the peak of his leap, the Kuni stepped forwards and rammed his crystal-tipped staff into the demon’s chest. With a great flash of light, the Rakshasa was blasted through the roof of the hut and off into the distance.
Instead of turning and berating the Kuni for idiotic decision to blast their badly wounded enemy away from them, rather than, say, blasting it into the floor where he could then be killed with other crystal enhanced weaponry and spells, Kazuya took two deep breathes, ignoring the flames coursing through his body, and sprinted off in the direction the Rakshasa had flown, Reika hurrying after him.
Finding the area where the Rakshasa had landed wasn’t hard – there was an impressive dent in the middle of a small clearing, and a great amount of dark blood splattered all around. Apparently the Kuni’s spell had rather badly wounded the creature.
Searching the edge of the area, Kazuya picked up a few tracks but they soon vanished. Stalking back to the small clearing Kazuya took a stuttering run-up and booted a loose rock into the distance, roaring in anger and frustration,
“GODDAMMIT TO HELL!!!”
Panting hard, Kazuya slumped to the floor. Reika patted him on the back,
“Your ancestors should be proud of you, Kazuya-kun.”
He smirked up at her,
“Possibly. But they won’t be. I rather messed that one up a while ago.”
He dragged himself to his feet,
“Right, we should probably get back to the rest of ‘em, Reika-san. I’ve half a mind to ask that Kuni why, exactly, he thinks it’s best to let a badly wounded enemy escape. A wise man once said ‘If you have the force to destroy an enemy, destroy him: A living enemy is dangerous. A dead enemy is dead. Better to have a graveyard of dead enemies than a single angry one’. That thing is gonna be really angry with us and next time, we might not get the jump on it.”
Returning to the hut, Kazuya was almost upset that the Kuni had actually given his life to blast the Rakshasa away. On the one hand, sacrificing his life in an attempt to ‘save’ the party was a noble effort. On the other, it meant Kazuya would have to swallow his anger. Fortunately, before he could unleash on Nobukatsu for his idiotic decision to gather the party in one easily fireballed location, the guru, who had been completely ignoring the desperate combat going on around him, opened his eyes to stare at Akihito,
“It appears that my work is not done. Come, we must locate my brothers.”
For the next three days, the guru pushed the party hard, urging them onwards towards what he would only describe as ‘The Temple. The only time the party stopped to rest was when the horses reached near-exhaustion, and then only for a few hours at most. Sleep became something of a luxury for the party, and as the person most able to guard his companions through the night, Kazuya had to make do with uncomfortable naps in the saddle.
Eventually, the party reached the base of a mountain, with a large pile of stones sat in a small clearing. With a few muttered words from the guru, which Kazuya was just about able to pick up as the priestly version of basic Ivindi, the stones began to move and grow, forming into a twenty foot tall man, giant sword clutched in hand. A few more words and the creature stepped aside to reveal a wall, and with a swift motion the wall opened up to reveal a tunnel.
With nothing to lose, the party followed the guru, though Moshi Keirei remained unconvinced about the stone-man’s power,
“Can that thing really stop the Rakshasa? What if it’s invisible?”
The guru chuckled,
“The golem can easily detect the Rakshasa, and its power is enough to force the Rakshasa to hunt for easier prey.”
From the back of the party, Kazuya thought he faintly heard Reika muttering that she reckoned she could bring the golem down with three swings. He wasn’t inclined to disagree.
Eventually, the party emerged into the light. Spreading out before them was a huge valley, green and verdant. A short way from the tunnel exit was a collection of white stone buildings, with several guard towers. In the centre sat a crystal-clear pool. It could have been someone’s version of paradise.
The guru led the party to the central tower, where they were greeted by an even older man. After a few words with the guru, the elder turned to address the party,
“I hear that you have news of the outside world which might be of some concern to us?”
Kazuya turned to Akihito, but the three days travel had taken its toll on the man and he was hardly in a fit state to handle diplomatic matters. Instead, Reika stepped forwards,
“Indeed we do. There is a Rakshasa causing problems.”
At this, all those within earshot turned and fixed Reika with a glare, and it didn’t take a genius to work out that that hadn’t been the best way to phrase things. Kazuya couldn’t help but lean forwards and mutter just loud enough for her to hear,
“Well done, Reika-san.”
She ignored him.
The elder nodded his head,
“If that is true, then I believe you will need some assistance. Tomorrow, I will summon the Council and we will decide what to do. For now though, you all look exhausted. I will arrange some accommodation for you. If your priests wish to stay with the monks, and the rest of you sleep in the barracks, would that be acceptable?”
“That would be most appreciated, sir.”
The elder motioned to some of the guards to lead the party to their respective destinations and, after a simple but most welcome meal of chicken and vegetables, the party allowed their weariness to overcome them and they rested for the first time in several days.
That night, Kazuya’s dreams were more pleasant than usual: instead of the usual all-encompassing blackness and despair that haunted him, the darkness was warded away with a grin. For once, Kazuya was confident the shadow across his soul would not claim him before he restored what honour he could lay claim to.
The next morning, Kazuya spent some time meditating, as was becoming his habit in a quest to keep himself centred on the goals ahead. Once he was satisfied that his fears were locked away for another day, he rose and began to take stock of the damage the Rakshasa had done in their brief skirmish: his chest-piece had been almost completely shredded, the shirt underneath nothing but scraps of fabric, and he now had several long, rather nasty scars criss-crossing his chest, adding to the two smaller scars he had picked up from the last time he had been hit with a poisoned weapon, the night ambush in Cheiron. Of all the wounds he had taken that night, only the final two, the two that would have killed him if not for Aki’s intervention, remained; one stab wound over his heart, one scrape along his neck. Perhaps the Fortunes were trying to tell him something. Still, scars showed a warrior’s strength, and not many would be able to claim they’d gotten theirs fighting an immortal tiger-demon.
Before he could hunt down a blacksmith to repair his armour, one of the guards who had escorted them the day before arrived to summon the party to the council meeting. Hastily throwing on his spare shirt, Kazuya went to check in on Akihito, the only party member not present. Unfortunately, the Captain was still bedridden, having developed a horrific migraine, meaning that once again Kazuya and Reika were going to have to head up any attempts at diplomacy.
The council opened with the Abbott, the official title of the elderly man who had greeted them the day before, explaining their situation and the dire news that there was once again a Rakshasa active in the Ivory Kingdoms. He ended with asking the assembled guru for suggestions on how to deal with the threat.
At once, Moshi Keirei spoke up,
“I hear that blessed weapons can kill it. Do you happen to have any we might use?”
The Abbott looked thoughtful for a minute, stroking his chin with an age-worn finger,
“Hmmm… Missile weapons are most effective. They were what Lord Vishnu used to banish the Rakshasa in the first place. We do not possess any, but we are able to make some, if you can spare the time. As for other weapons, I believe there may be some, though they are not ours to give away, they are the legacy of another.”
“The man who lead you here, Hafeez. He trained with many weapons with the House that originally ruled these lands, trusted with protecting this Temple, where all manner of lore is recorded, especially concerning the Rakshasa. He may be willing to lend you his weapons, though they will likely not be balanced in the same manner as those you are accustomed to. Do you still want them?”
At this Kazuya spoke up, allowing a degree of confidence he wasn’t entirely sure he felt to enter his voice,
“Hey, I fought it once, I’ll fight it again. Not like I’ve got much else to be doing.”
Reika nodde in agreement,
“I, too, will fight, and our absent Captain is a master of smaller blades.”
The Abbott nodded,
“Very well. We are also able to forge a crystal edge onto your weapons, if that will help you in your mission.”
“That should prove useful. What kind of weapons does Hafeez have?”
Hafeez paused to think,
“It is a while since I used them, but I believe I have some punch-daggers, some knives, long-blades, a khanda or two, some chakram…”
“Sounds good. We should probably start training with them as soon as possible – we’re going to need to master them pretty quickly.”
Having spent the last few minutes thinking through the next stage of their mission to kill the Rakshasa, Keirei spoke again,
“How will we find the Rakshasa? If it can shape-shift and become invisible it is not likely to be an easy target.”
The Abbott chuckled,
“It’ll probably be at the top of any brewing chaos, preparing armies to raze whatever it feels like destroying. As such, it must never learn where this valley is.”
Hafeez joined in, drawing on his experience of fighting Rakshasa previously,
“Well, the easiest way is to draw it out. Rakshasa are overconfident, so if you give it odds where it can’t lose it’ll most likely turn up.”
Kazuya turned to Reika with a smirk,
“Guess we’re gonna be playing bait, Reika-san. What fun.”
The rest of the meeting focused on identifying the Rakshasa they were facing, apparently it was one of the more cunning members of the species, and how they would know once they killed it. Keirei raised the question of trapping the beast, to which the Abbott and Hafeez only laughed. Keirei also asked about the Rakshasa’s poison, inquiring about any antidotes. The Abbott replied that there were none, that the poison was not lethal, it was incredibly painful (Kazuya piped up he could attest to the truth of that, as did Reika) and was designed merely to slow the prey down, ensuring that the Rakshasa could close in and rip out its target’s necks. Kazuya made a show of rubbing his still completely intact neck.
Finally, the Abbott turned to stare each of the party members in the eye in turn,
“This valley must remain a secret, completely unknown to the outside world. Can I trust you to leave us alone, to not bring disaster down on our heads?”
Kazuya slouched back in his seat,
“That depends: you involved with the Cult of Kali-Ma?”
The Abbott blinked in confusion,
“No, we are not. I did not even know such a Cult existed.”
Kazuya smiled at him, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly,
“In that case, no offence, but we’ve got no interest in you guys. We’ll kill your monster, sure, but beyond that you’re not relevant to our mission. Your secret’s safe.”
“Well… I suppose I will take that as your sworn word. Very well, the smith can put a crystal edge on your blades, Hafeez will show you the weapons he used as a young man hunting demons, and the library and all its contained lore is open to your priests. I wish you the best of luck in your preparations.”
As the party filed out of the room Kazuya nearly laughed at the incredible spark in Aki’s eyes: being given free-run of one of the largest repositories of lore in the Ivory Kingdoms had obviously made her day… and possibly her year. Giving the rest of the party a jaunty ‘see ya!’, Kazuya followed Reika back to the barracks, where they collected their weapons and armour before heading off to the blacksmith to get him started on the necessary repairs and modifications.
Arriving at the smith’s, Kazuya handed over his shattered armour to one of the apprentices while Reika addressed the senior blacksmith, sacred no-dachi Kazutoshi drawn and held out for inspection.
“I’d like this blade repaired, and a crystal edge added, if that would be possible.”
“Certainly, miss, though if you don’t mind me asking, what on earth caused this big a notch in the blade?”
“A Rakshasa’s neck.”
The blacksmith turned and spat into the fire, and Kazuya took the opportunity to once again mumble a ‘well done, Reika-san’.
After a quick discussion on how payment would work, with Kazuya urging Reika to leave it to Akihito so as not to cause the entire valley to go bankrupt (Reika’s ability to make large quantities of money turn to dust was not something Kazuya wanted spreading through the Ivory Kingdoms), the two warriors set off to locate Hafeez and the treasure-trove of weapons that awaited them. As they walked, Reika turned to Kazuya,
“Kazuya-kun, did it take you long to master the khanda?”
Kazuya gave her a brilliant smile,
“No, not really. My first attempt nearly killed Akihito-san, but since then I’ve improved greatly. Now I only kill Rumas!”
Reika shook her head and sighed,
“This bodes well…”
Hafeez met them near the central pool and lead them to a private training room, where he presented them with a cabinet of exotic weaponry, some of which Kazuya could never have even dreamt of, let alone work out how to use. Fortunately, there were a few weapons that matched up with similar Rokugani weapons, the giant crystal khanda Hafeez described as his ‘pride and joy’ being one of them. He also had two ivory knives designed for stabbing, which Kazuya was fairly sure Akihito would appreciate once he was able to get out of bed.
Reika took the crystal khanda and began to run through the kata she practiced with her no-dachi, but it soon became apparent that the odd weight distribution was throwing off her style quite severely. After a minute of watching her struggle, Hafeez took back the weapon and demonstrated how it was supposed to be wielded, turning into a whirling dervish, blade never stopping, one swing leading straight into the next. He explained that the key was momentum and that if you could maintain that, things would be much easier. Or you could just stick to hitting things bloody hard.
Kazuya took a browse through the weaponry and picked out a rather odd looking sword: a straight blade with a double-curved and rather spiky tip. Hafeez explained that the spikes were made of ivory, while the rest was a steel blade with a crystal edge. Deciding that anything with ivory in it would be worth training with, Kazuya took the blade, as well as an ivory short-sword and two short crystal weapons for Aki and Kitsune Kenshiro: both shugenja had demonstrated some small skill with a blade and Kazuya was determined that as many members of the party as possible would be able to defend themselves from the Rakshasa.
For the rest of the day, Kazuya and Reika practiced in the training room, under the watchful and demanding eye of Hafeez. Kazuya couldn’t remember having to endure training as hard, even while he was training for his gempukku, but by the time evening rolled around, both he and Reika felt far more comfortable with the selection of weapons they had procured.
That evening there was a festival, elders telling stories of the legendary past, children running and laughing as they played through the streets. Kenshiro even joined in with the entertainment, urging his falcon to perform stunning swoops and dives, flying in low over the children’s heads. Kazuya decided to avoid the festivities, instead wandering off for a few moments of solitude. His peace was interrupted by a strange creature, one he recognised from his dream from the night before. The creature called itself a nezumi, and after confusing Kazuya by insisting that Kazuya was not his real name left him with what appeared to be a rather ornate stick, one which the nezumi claimed would prove useful to one of the shugenja.
The next day began early for Kazuya and Reika, as they threw themselves back into training on their own, Hafeez having decided to focus on training on Akihito and expounding on the beauty of knives. Foolishly, Kazuya decided that the quickest way to improve with their weapons would be to practice against an opponent, and so the two Rokugani set to sparring. Suddenly Kazuya was glad Reika was on his side, as even the blows he blocked shook all the bones in his arms from the impact. It didn’t take long for Reika to force past his guard and, as Kazuya threw himself into a desperate dive, the tip of the crystal khanda whistled a hair’s breadth past the back of his head. Rolling away, Kazuya raised his arms,
“You know what? I think we should probably practice against dummies a bit more.”
Reika chuckled and smiled innocently,
“But Kazuya-kun, I thought I already was?”
Kazuya growled good-naturedly and didn’t press the issue. She was owed a few.
“More seriously, Kazuya-kun,” Reika continued, resting the khanda on her shoulder, “if we are to catch this demon we will need to be more adept at keeping hidden. You seem to be able to vanish by simply thinking quietly, and I can hardly count the number of times you’ve nearly given us heart-attacks by appearing out of nowhere. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to become less of a walking give-away?”
Kazuya ran a critical eye over Reika, noting the modifications made to her armour that should help with things,
“Hmm… from what I can tell, your movements are always incredibly precise; even subconsciously you put a great deal of thought into where to move in order to be in the best possible position to fight at any given time. Unfortunately, thinking too hard while trying to remain quiet can lead to problems, or at least that’s my experience. I try to keep myself… fluid, I guess; I’ve done enough sneaking around that I hardly have to think about it anymore… which doesn’t help you much,”
Kazuya paused to think, dropping to sit cross-legged on the ground,
“Fortunately for you, I can remember some of the tips and tricks I was taught by the first ronin band I had the pleasure of keeping company with, tips and tricks that I relied on until I was experienced enough to react on instinct. I’ll teach ‘em to you as best I can.” He rose to his feet and stretched, causing a twinge of pain in the still-sore Rakshasa scars, “However, in return, would you mind helping me with my swordsmanship? I’m going to need to be much better to stand against the Rakshasa in a straight fight, and you’re by far the best swordsman in our little strike team.”
Reika rolled her eyes,
“Kazuya-kun, I’m the only swordsman in our strike team: Akihito-san wields knives and Ieyasu-san is an archer.”
“I know. My point stands though, as does my offer.”
“It seems reasonable to me, Kazuya-kun.” Reika nodded, turning a thoughtful eye to the sky, “I would suggest that in the evenings you teach me what tricks you can, and while we have daylight to work with we focus on swordsmanship and these weapons, in fact I think it best if I practice with your odd looking sword for a bit and you train with this khanda, just in case.”
“Sounds like a plan, Reika-san. I’ve been itching to give that khanda a swing, if only to see how heavy it must be to cause even you minor problems.”
Kazuya stepped forwards and took the khanda from Reika. The weighting was instantly apparent, and Kazuya nearly toppled over with his first swing. Taking a breath to focus, and remembering Hafeez’s lessons to Reika, he began to spin, building up momentum, and soon he was spinning the sword through the air almost as fiercely as Hafeez had been. Unfortunately, unlike Hafeez, and to a growing extent Reika, he had far less control over his swings than he would ever admit. In fact he had almost no control at all. After a few minutes brought himself to a standstill.
“I think I need to practice the basics a bit more first, Reika-san.”
“Just a bit, Kazuya-kun.”
For the rest of the day, as well the two that followed, Reika and Kazuya devoted all the hours on which the sun shone to practicing with the many new weapons they would need to kill the Rakshasa, while for long portions of the night Kazuya drilled Reika in as many of the lessons of stealth as he could. While her modified armour helped somewhat, Reika was still wearing a large amount of rather noisy metal and Kazuya worried that his lessons might not prove enough. She was a quick study though (Kazuya just about managed to keep back comments querying the nature of Daidoji training) and he was sure that even the slightest edge could prove vital when it came to facing off against the Rakshasa.
On the morning of their sixth day in the valley, during his morning meditations, Kazuya was struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration and rushed to find Reika and Hafeez to discuss his idea. After explaining his plan to train against the Rakshasa’s invisibility, both agreed it was worth a shot and while Kazuya and Reika headed over to the training grounds to prepare, Hafeez went to gather a handful of the soldiers who guarded the valley.
Rolling her shoulders and drawing the crystal khanda, Rekia turned her head to address the ronin,
“I have a feeling today is going to be rather painful, Kazuya-kun.”
Kazuya nodded, drawing the odd sword he’d picked up,
“Aye, that it will, Reika-san, but if this gives us even the slightest element of surprise I’ll suffer it gladly.”
At that point, Hafeez arrived with five guards, all armed with menacing looking steel gauntlets, who took up positions in a circle surrounding the two samurai.
“Right then, Reika, Kazuya, I wish you all the luck in the world with this. You two ready?”
The two Rokugani nodded, moving to stand back-to-back and settling into their stances. Taking deep breaths and relaxing as much as possible, the two samurai closed their eyes.
At a nod from Hafeez, one of the guards moved around the pair, before charging forwards at Reika’s right side. Just before he reached the oblivious samurai, Hafeez took a deep breath,
At once, Reika and Kazuya opened their eyes, searching frantically for the enemy they knew would be almost upon them. Unfortunately they were too slow to react, and the guard landed a hammer blow into Reika’s ribs before stepping back to the circle his comrades formed around the Rokugani.
Hafeez bellowed again,
Kazuya and Reika obliged, closing their eyes and waiting for the order to open them. After a few seconds in the darkness, Hafeez shouted for them to open their eyes, and once again they tried to react in the few seconds they were granted before their foe reached them. This time it was Kazuya who was too slow, earning a stunning left hook to the head for his mistake. It didn’t stop him though, and for the rest of the morning Reika and Kazuya endured blow after blow, their reflexes slowly improving as the day progressed.
At quick lunch break afforded them some respite, and when a concerned Hafeez offered to fetch the healers they both turned him down: they would need to be able to keep fighting through the pain if they were to defeat the Rakshasa. Besides, compared to the poison they had both had the pleasure of experiencing, the aches from the many, many punches they had suffered felt like nothing.
The afternoon was filled with more of the same, until eventually there was a breakthrough, Reika reacting quickly enough to bring her khanda round to clip the charging guard, knocking him away without being struck. Emboldened by her success, Kazuya stopped the next attack aimed at him, catching the guard’s gauntlet with the flat of his sword and batting him back, following it up with two quick sword strikes. From there progress was slow, but steady, and soon the two had even managed to begin calling out warnings to their partner as well as blocking attacks. It wasn’t a perfect method, and they weren’t even close to blocking everything, but it was a start and they practiced the same way for the rest of the week.
The training only changed once Kazutoshi was returned to Reika with its shiny new crystal-edge. From that point on, Reika trained with Kazutoshi, and Kazuya focused on mastering the ivory short-sword, occasionally taking a turn with his katana, practicing fast switches between the weapons.
Finally, the Abbott summoned the party for a second time, leading them to the Temple of Vishnu, where they sat and observed the priests blessing their weapons in a rather long ceremony. Though Hafeez explained that there would be no dishonour in not remaining for the whole thing, Kazuya settled in and observed: if the ceremony would help defeat the Rakshasa then he would respect the ceremony by remaining.
After three hours, those of the party who were to carry the blessed weapons were ordered to stand, and the priests of Vishnu strapped the weapons to each party member, murmuring prayers all the while. Once all the melee weapons had been handed over, the Abbott presented Ieyasu with five arrows carved of ivory, each blessed by Vishnu and hopefully capable of killing the Rakshasa instantly. Somehow, Kazuya didn’t think they’d be that lucky. Nevertheless, he and Reika had practiced enough that he was reasonably confident they would prove alluring enough bait to draw the Rakshasa in, and could keep his attention long enough for Ieyasu to make the shot. At least Kazuya hoped so – if they couldn’t then all the painful training would have been for nought and that would really piss him off.
The Abbott informed them that they were welcome to spend one more night in the valley, but after that they would leave, never to return. Kazuya thought about asking whether they wanted the weapons returned but thought better of it – if they didn’t want them back he was sure a use could be found for them. After one last evening teaching Reika how to walk quietly, Kazuya retired to bed. He wasn’t sure whether the pounding of his heart was anticipation of the hunt or dread about what lay at the end. Either way, he wouldn’t let it affect his behaviour; the stakes were too high for that.
The next morning, Kazuya was tasked with the less-than-ideal job of keeping their rather drunk Captain walking in a straight line. As they walked, the guru explained that they could keep the weapons they had borrowed to kill the Rakshasa – they were weapons from an earlier time, a time he was trying to forget.
“We’ll have our agents keep an eye out, to inform us if we need to act, but we’d rather you managed to kill it.”
Kazuya smirked as he adjusted the rather awkward hold he had on his Captain’s shoulder,
“That’s the plan!”
“May our gods give you their blessing… though somehow, I don’t think the Destroyer will be quite as friendly to you.”
“Eh, occupational hazard for some of us – we’re pretty good at annoying the supernatural.”
The trip back to the guru’s hut took a few days, travelling at a far less break-neck pace than their inbound journey. Upon reaching the hut, Kazuya scanned the nearby woods to locate the trails he had used to speed the party’s travel from the fort in the first place. Having found them, however, he paused to think for a few minutes before ignoring the trails, carving a new route through the forest that in fact proved to be even quicker than the first trail.
Arriving near the fort, it was obviously apparent that there were far less soldiers around than there had been the week before. Deciding that some investigating was in order, Akihito sent Kazuya forward to have a look around, hoping his more native dress would keep him from bringing the guards down on their heads. This plan was somewhat ruined though when Reika decided to head forwards alongside Kazuya, at which point Kazuya abandoned the stealthy approach and went for a far more diplomatic approach, allowing Reika to take the lead, marvelling at the ease with which she convinced the poor guard on duty that they were mercenaries hired by the 9th legion who had been left behind.
The guard, who appeared somewhat infatuated with the Yoritomo, explained that the legion had marched off towards the capital to prepare for the invasion. Kazuya nearly spoke up when one of the other guards dismissed their party as looking ‘a bit rag-tag’ – he decided that reminding him that this ‘rag-tag’ bunch had lead his men on a merry chase through the woods and killed several guards probably wouldn’t go down to well.
For the next few days the party tracked the legion as it travelled along one of the well-paved roads that lead towards the capital. Eventually, Reika announced that the army was only about a day ahead of them. That afternoon there was a strange occurrence however, as Aki nearly fell off of her horse after falling into some sort of trance. If Kazuya hadn’t been keeping as sharp an eye on everything as he usually did, she might have actually fallen from her horse. Shaking herself back to focus, she explained that it had been as if she was flying, soaring through the sky above the army ahead of them before flying down to land in a nearby tree. None of the party had any idea what to make of the vision, but kept a close eye on Aki for the rest of the trip, just in case the visions struck again.
As they finally approached the city they were stopped by a patrol of guards. After a quick bout of ‘creative bureaucracy’ (meaning the party’s coin purse was rather lighter) Akihito had the right papers with the right authorizing marks to get into the city and surrounding army camps.
Deciding it was imperative to find the Rakshasa before it could cause too much additional trouble, the party elected to split into two groups; one, consisting of Akihito, Ieyasu, Kenshiro and Nobukatsu would head into the city, while Kazuya, Reika, Aki and Kirei would investigate the 9th legion. The Rakshasa would be pulling the strings somewhere and the quicker they could positively identify its human form, the quicker they could kill it.
Arriving at the 9th legion’s camp, Reika once again took the lead, laying the charm on thick to convince the guard that they should be admitted into the camp. The guard seemed more than willing to believe Reika, but still queried why it was necessary to hire mercenaries such as them.
Kazuya smirked as he replied,
“Well, I’m the sneakiest bastard in the Ivory Kingdoms, and she has the unique skill of cutting Rumasan shields in half for fun.”
Deciding to follow her captain’s example, Reika handed over a modest sum of dinar to the guard. As they walked into camp, Kazuya cheerily congratulated her on sowing the seeds for the destruction of the Rumasan economy. The glare she sent in his direction would have given a lesser man concussion.
Setting up some tents in a far corner of the camp near the other mercenaries, Kazuya and Reika left the shugenja to plan while they gathered information. Reika borrowed Kirei’s crystal monocle to scan for the Rakshasa and Kazuya wandered off to gather as much information as he could on the legion’s senior officers, thinking that if the Rakshasa’s influence could be felt anywhere, it would be among the senior ranks.
After a good ten minutes wandering, Kazuya had picked up more than enough; the legion’s commander was Manlius Publius, while his most trusted officer was Battiatus Tullius, his chief military advisor. Meeting back up with Reika and the shugenja, Kazuya learnt that none of the officers wandering around the camp were Rakshasa, but Reika hadn’t been able to get a good look at the most senior officers as they were in the main command tent debating strategy.
While they tried to work out how to draw them into the open, Aki and Kirei came up with an answer, and soon giant lightning bolts smashed into the ground in the corner of the camp. Funnily enough, two large potential omens caused the officers in the tent to poke their heads out to see what was happening. Unfortunately, while Manlius Publius was there (and Kazuya’s borrowed crystal monocle revealed he was human), Tullius was not. Still, that at least helped them narrow down their suspect list.
As they sat and considered their next move, Kenshiro’s falcon appeared carrying a message, asking the party to meet them near a ‘bathhouse’. Hoping that the other half of the team had had more luck, the four samurai quickly made their way into the city.
It didn’t take long to find the bathhouse and they made good time to get there, something for which Kazuya became incredibly glad of when Akihito and the others emerged looking clean and shiny, as well as a little bit violated. Beside him, Reika chuckled and murmured,
“At least now the Captain smells as pretty as he fights.”
Kazuya only just held back a laugh (and a comment about fighting pretty being a secret technique of the Crane).Iinstead he merely grinned,
The party who had been investigating the city explained that the senate was still busy deliberating in the senate, and that they had not yet been able to secure somewhere from which to keep an eye out for the Rakshasa if it was indeed busy manipulating the senate’s discussions. After a few minutes of explaining that the party hardly met the required ‘dress code’ for the places close to the senate house, Nobukatsu piped up to explain he had a plan and to wait for him.
Ten minutes later, Nobukatsu reappeared, now looking for all the world a Rumasan nobleman. Taking the party purse off of a reluctant Akihito, Nobukatsu marched to one of the best situated hotels and proceeded to browbeat the owner into giving him and his bodyguards the balcony room, perfectly situated to keep an eye on the senate house.
For the next several hours, Ieyasu kept up a watch with the crystal telescope, hoping the Rakshasa would show itself. Eventually, the doors of the senate chamber opened to allow a few members a quick breather and Ieyasu called out in victory as he spotted the unmistakeable shape of a Rakshasa mingling with the senators. Unfortunately, before he could draw his bow and take a shot the senators returned inside and the opportunity was lost, though they did at least now know where to find the Rakshasa for when they made their move.
Suddenly Aki, who had been sat pondering the mysterious writing on the nezumi stick Kazuya had handed to her, spoke up,
“Kazuya-san! I think this might contain a flight spell of some kind – I bet we could use it to get that carpet working!”
The grin nearly split Kazuya’s face, as he ignored the utterly confused looks of the rest of the party to drop down in front of Aki,
“Really, Aki-san? That would be incredible! It’d definitely be easier if this thing could carry itself, I’ve been lugging it round for far too long!”
Finally Reika voiced the question the rest of the party was thinking,
“What are you two on about?”
“Well, you see,” Kazuya started, still beaming, “When I raided the office of Karai, before we left Cheiron lands, I happened to pick up most of the components for a Flying Carpet. Aki-san thinks that this stick might help complete our little project and get this thing off the ground!”
“Yes, I do,” said a much calmer Aki, making a slight shooing motion, “Now go away and let me work on this in peace. First I Have to try and work out how on earth to activate the magic contained in this stick.”
“Well, not sure how much help it’ll be, but the nezumi who gave it to me seemed to spend a lot of time gnawing on sticks that looked a bit like it.”
“A nezumi?” this seemed to pique Aki’s interest, “It’s unusual to see one of them, they’re rather elusive creatures. And I could gnaw on it… I guess.”
Unsurprisingly, Aki biting down on the stick produced no result and rather than provide any more ‘assistance’, Kazuya was smart enough to realise that things had moved far out of his expertise, it was now up to Aki and the other shugenja, so he should probably leave them to it. Instead, he amused himself by joining in with a quick archery competition between the two Tsuruchi, Ieyasu and Nobukatsu, surprising everyone (including himself) when he beat both of them. Twice.
Deciding not to make too much of it, lest he bring the wrath of all the Tsuruchi in the fleet down on his head, Kazuya sat down to meditate, keeping half an eye on what the shugenja were doing. Slowly, an odd sort of ‘buzz’ started to fill the room. It wasn’t a noise, but Kazuya could almost feel the energy building up in the room as all three shugenja started chanting under their breaths.
The pressure built and built and built, giving Kazuya somewhat of a headache. A few times Aki gave out a yelp, as if the massive amount of energy in the room was escaping her control, sweat pouring down her face as she struggled to draw upon the power contained within the nezumi stick and fuse it with her own. Fortunately, she kept focusing and with the support of her fellow shugenja a light glow began to shimmer around the edges of the carpet. After seven agonising minutes, the carpet slowly, slowly began to rise up off the ground. Kazuya immediately gave up on his meditation in favour of whooping in triumph and congratulating a rather tired looking Aki. They now had a Flying Carpet. A. Flying. Carpet. Kazuya couldn’t wait to have a go, so happy what it was finally working that he only half-heard Aki’s warning that the carpet wasn’t as strong as it could be – she hadn’t had much fun trying to use the stick’s power, and had actually almost failed completely.
With the spell casting out of the way, the party spent a great deal of time discussing a plan of action for the next day, eventually settling on Akihito presenting himself as an ambassador from Rokugan, taking Nobukatsu and Kirei as his guard and advisor, to gain access to the senate house and scout out the Rakshasa, as well as trying to keep Rumas from allying with the Rafiq. In the meantime, Kazuya would lead the rest of the party and find a place to hide on the roof of the senate building, ready to act if things went badly wrong. Akihio stressed the last part, Kazuya was only to act if things went very wrong, there was to be no repeat of the events in Cheiron lands. Kazuya nodded, now that Akihito had given him guidelines to work within, he’d be able to make sure anything he did wouldn’t ruffle the Captain’s feathers unnecessarily… or at least not ruffle them tooo much.
Satisfied that he’d had a good day (Flying Carpet: check, Rakshasa found: check, annoyed the Captain: check) Kazuya settled down for the night.
The next day the party was woken early when a rather well-dressed man appeared at the door to explain that a package had arrived for Akihito, who headed down stairs to collect it. He returned shortly after Kazuya finished his morning meditation, explaining that he had been sent some climbing equipment, a lot of money, and a rather odd barrel, which the couriers had been told could prove ‘especially useful’.
Kazuya recognised what it was at once, and explained that it was Hanabi, the same stuff he had used to create the flashbang he had used previously, wincing as he saw the light of recognition in the eyes of a few of his teammates. Hurrying on, Kazuya explained he could create a good number of small charges designed purely to cause chaos rather than kill. If everything went wrong (and he was therefore allowed to act) twenty over-sized firecrackers could provide enough of a distraction for the party to take control of the situation. Deciding that it was a reasonable idea, if not a good one, Akihito hande over the Hanabi and left Kazuya to it, heading back to the street to explain to the three Mantis bushi who had accompanied the supplies that they would need to visit the bathhouse before they were able to accompany him into the senate house as his guards. Kazuya, Reika and Aki shared a chuckle over the fate of the poor, unsuspecting bushi before returning to their preparations.
After some consideration, it was decided that using the Flying Carpet to reach the roof of the senate house was the best idea – it was unlikely most guards would even bother looking to the sky for intruders. Kazuya also decided that in the interests of keeping everyone safe, and knowing the guards would confiscate all weapons from whoever tried to enter the senate house, he would hold on to Akihito’s Ivory daggers, that way if the Rakshasa did make an appearance Kazuya would be able to ensure that everyone who had weapons that could harm the beast would have them to hand.
With the plan agreed, Kazuya tried very hard not to whoop with joy as Aki expertly flew the Carpet up into the air and then over to the roof of the senate house.
As they dismounted and moved to slightly more hidden positions Kazuya kept a close watch on everyone, just in case someone failed to keep their footing on the roof. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Aki or Reika but Ieyasu whose attempts at moving carefully came unstuck, and Kazuya was only just able to grab the Tsuruchi and pull him back onto the roof before he tumbled off and onto a guard patrolling underneath. Fortunately, the guard dismissed the noise of two bodies falling back onto the roof as a figment of his imagination and continued his patrol. Settling themselves in for a potentially long and fruitless day, Kenshiro communed with the Earth kami of the roof, making sure he could open up an entrance at a moment’s notice.
After quite a long time, Ieyasu signalled that a party of people were leaving the senate house for the temple, and that while the Rakshasa was not among them, it did contain Akihito and the others. Working on the basis that wherever the party went, trouble was soon to follow, Kazuya ordered the group to remount the Flying Carpet, and they moved over to the roof of the temple, eyes peeled at all times.
It didn’t take long for something to catch their attention, though it wasn’t quite what they expected: groups of what seemed to be about three hundred Praetorian Guard were approaching each of the four gates, but something didn’t seem right. Upon closer inspection and consultation between Reika and Aki, it was determined that while they looked like Praetorian to a casual observer, the uniform and battle honours weren’t quite right. Realising that a problem was most definitely brewing, Aki cast a spell to send a message to Akihito, while Kenshiro began preparing to open a hole in the roof of the temple.
Their fears were proven correct a few seconds later when, as the Praetorian allowed the newcomers into the compound the newcomers fell on them with incredible fury. Deciding that this very much counted as things going wrong, Kazuya signalled to Kenshiro and quickly took hold of one of the ropes they had prepared.
As soon as the hole in the roof opened up, Kazuya was abseiling down into the room, closely followed by Reika and Ieyasu. The two most important looking Rumasans sin the room stared at him with confusion,
“What is the meaning of this?”
Deciding now was not the time for carefully thought out words, Kazuya answered,
“You’ve got over a thousand fake Praetorian trying to kill you.” He turned to his captain and threw him his Ivory daggers, “Here, you may need these.”
Before he could head out of the temple to engage the traitors, a shiver went down his spine and he spun back around, eyes darting around the room. There, in the corner, stood a single, solitary soldier only just visible. Trusting his gut, Kazuya called out to the figure,
“Hey there! Good to see you again, demon. Fancy a rematch?”
The soldier’s features morphed into the instantly recognisable features of the Rakshasa, who spread its arms,
Realising the consuls were in grave danger the few other guards in the room began escorting them back to the senate house, Kirei and Nobukatsu going with them as they realised without their spells or special weapons they would only serve as a distraction to the others.
Instantly slipping into the routine they had practiced for days, Kazuya moved forwards to stand beside Reika, catching the giant crystal sword she threw to him (which they’d decided to nickname Banjaku, after Reika explained some Crab lingo she’d picked up), confidence flowing through his veins. Confidence which took a bit of a dent when Ieyasu’s first ivory arrow punched into the Rakshasa’s chest, appearing to merely irritate the demon, rather than outright kill it.
The demon smirked and leapt forwards with incredible speed, (indeed, Kazuya was sure it was moving even faster than it had the last time they had fought) lashing out at Reika. Both swipes of its claws cut into the Yoritomo but she stood firm, not even grunting in pain. Before either of the bushi could strike back, the Rakshasa vanished. Moving to stand back to back, eyes scanning the room, Kazuya decided to push his luck and called out to the Rakshasa again,
“Running away again, you bastard? I thought your kind were supposed to be powerful warriors?”
Getting no response, Kazuya called to his Captain to throw him the crystal monocle he had borrowed to scan the senate. He nearly wished he hadn’t taken it back, as he instantly spotted the hiding Rakshasa. It was just behind an oblivious Aki, claws raised ready to strike.
For what felt like an age Kazuya was unable to move, and even when his body did begin to start obeying his commands it felt far too slow. He wasn’t going to be able to reach her in time. The Rakshasa was going to rip her apart
NO! I will not fail again. I will NOT fail again. I WILL NOT! MOVE, GODDAMIT! YUZUKI! MOVE!
Suddenly, another ivory arrow flashed across the space between Kazuya and the Rakshasa, burying itself between the demon’s eyes. The demon reappeared and glared at the Tsuruchi with empty eyes, before collapsing to the floor. As Aki gave out a rather undignified scream (which the party would later insist they hadn’t heard) Kazuya leapt past her to bury his ivory short-sword in its neck, just in case, calling back to the Tsuruchi with a cheer of victory,
“Good shooting, Ieyasu-san!”
The Rakshasa made no sound, gave no resistance, and with a second swing Kazuya cut the demon’s head from its body. One of the Rumasan priests approached with a banner pole and Kazuya proudly mounted the Rakshasa’s head on top, before handing it over to Ieyasu,
“I think this is yours, Ieyasu-san,” he turned to address the rest of the party, “Well, while that’s dealt with, I do believe there’s a bit of a fight going on outside. I reckon we should go lend a hand!”
“That sounds like an excellent idea, Kazuya-kun,” replied Reika, “I was rather looking forward to pummelling that tiger demon for a bit while Ieyasu-san prepared his shot. Seeing as he dealt with the problem so quickly I’m rather disappointed, and imposter Praetorian sound like just the sort of thing to work out my frustrations on. Wouldn’t want to let the wonderful spells Kenshiro-san and Aki-san cast on me go to waste now, would we?”
“Indeed we wouldn’t, Reika-san. Let’s go have some fun!”
Charging out of the temple, the party took a few seconds to digest the situation; the traitors had broken through most of the gates, and in some areas were beginning to push into the senate house itself.
Turning to the rest of the strike team, Akihito motioned towards the beleaguered defenders by the senate house as they were pushed backwards,
“If they kill off all the senators we’ll hardly be able to negotiate an alliance with them. I’ll take Kenshiro and try and locate Nobukatsu and Kirei – they’re probably in that mess somewhere. Kirei won’t be hard to find once he’s got his scrolls back, after all. Once I’ve found them, we’ll work on protecting the senators. The rest of you, help the Praetorian as best you can.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Kazuya nodded, “Ieyasu-san, Aki-san, it’s probably best if you two get back on the roof, it should provide a nice vantage point for you to snipe from, and a helluva view of the battlefield for one of your light shows. Reika and I’ll deal with things on the ground. Just, you know, try not to drop something nasty on our heads.”
“Seems fair, Kazuya-san. Good luck you two!”
Aki smiled, before hurrying off with Ieyasu to reclaim the carpet they’d dropped onto the floor of the temple.
“Now that those two are out of harm’s way, Kazuya-kun, I believe we should get on with punishing traitors. I can show off that ‘unique skill’ of mine.”
“Lead the way, Reika-san. No offense, but I’d rather not get between you and your target!”
Sharing a quick smile, the two bushi charged forwards to aid the Praetorian nearest the South gate, who had been almost entirely slaughtered. Reika crashed into the flanks of the traitors with the force of Yoritomo himself, cleaving through several soldiers with each swing of Kazutoshi. An officer tried to stop her, calling out a challenge in Rumsan, but she simply cleaved through both him and his shield in a single downward stroke.
As her charge forced her deeper into the mass of fakes, some of the soldiers decided to try and attack her seemingly unprotected flanks. As they moved to do so, however, Kazuya appeared behind them, swinging the giant crystal blade in devastating arcs (he hadn’t quite got the technique down perfectly, but fighting in such a ‘target rich’ environment, it hardly mattered). He wasn’t quite as destructive as Reika, not that he expected to be, but he managed to cut down anyone who tried to stab his comrade in the back and fairly soon the traitors gave up on that plan in favour of simply attacking Kazuya.
Reika’s charge seemed to have rejuvenated the remaining Praetorian, who threw themselves back into combat with renewed vigour. Between the forty Praetorian and the two Rokugani the traitors stood no chance and began to break off in a rabble. One man tried to stem the tide but quickly received two arrows between the eyes for his trouble. Kazuya would have thrown Ieyasu a quick salute, but he was too busy charging after Reika as she honed in on another struggling group of Praetorian.
As they ran, a group of traitors broke off from the desperate fight by the East gate running to intercept the small unit that Reika apparently now lead. Just before they reached them, two giant bolts of lightning crashed into their midst, shattering their formation. With the traitor’s panicking, and their formation broken it was almost easy for Reika, Kazuya and the men with them to rout their second opponents of the afternoon, forcing the fleeing traitors into the back of another unit, causing even more confusion for the bushi to exploit.
With Reika slowly gathering her own little force of Praetorians, Kazuya broke off and began doing what he did best – hunting down officers. He hurried from combat to combat, seeking out anyone with a rank badge to take down. He picked up several wounds for his troubles, but gritted his teeth and kept moving. If he could take out the leadership, Reika would have a far easier time smashing formations.
Of course, as well as aiming to take out the leaders, Kazuya couldn’t resist to sow some chaos as he went, and the coconut bombs did need field testing at some point. Unsurprisingly, the minor explosions going off all across the place proved quite the useful distraction, and Kazuya was able to duck and dodge between confused Rumsans and take out anyone who seemed to be controlling the near-frenzied rabble.
His task was greatly helped by the brilliant sniping of Ieyasu, who alternated between dropping the officers Kazuya couldn’t reach, to taking out soldiers aiming at Kazuya’s exposed flanks while he worked on relieving another officer of his head. Occasionally, great booms of lighting flashed down from the sky, and after not too long a veritable storm of fireballs joined the action, ripping through the traitors and giving heart to the Praetorian still fighting.
The fight seemed to go on for years to Kazuya, still unaccustomed to such large engagements – as a ronin he’d fought his fair share of small skirmishes, and as a Ranger he’d been part of several ambushes, but never before had he fought consistently at the heart of such a large battle.
Eventually, Kazuya noticed that the Praetorian Guard had won. Mainly because the fireballs stopped and he couldn’t see any more targets. The few traitors still alive were surrounded with walls of steel, but the majority of the enemy lay dead. The adrenaline left his body in a great whoosh, and if Reika hadn’t appeared, bloody but undaunted, to hold him up by the shoulder he would probably have collapsed to the ground. After a few seconds to steady himself he waved her off, panting,
“My thanks, Reika-san, that was rather more excitement than I’m used to.”
The Yoritomo grinned, hefting Kazutoshi onto her shoulder,
“It was pretty good, wasn’t it? Think we might just about have proved the case for allying with us against the Rafiq – I heard one of the prisoners wailing about how they were only following Tullius’ orders and as he was pressing for the alliance with the Rafiq…”
Deciding that he’d rather appear weak than fall and give himself a concussion, Kazuya dropped to the floor, resting the great crystal blade across his knees,
“Wonderful. Excellent. Guess that’s our mission completed then,” he gave a short chuckle, but cut himself off as it caused a surge of pain through his chest – one of the officers had smashed into him with his shield, and if felt like it’d broken a few ribs, “I’d forgotten that was what we were actually here to do – the Rakshasa thing was just a side-show. Still, its head makes a nice bit of decoration. More grist to the mill of Ieyasu-san’s fan club!”
Reika chuckled too, before joining him on the floor, wincing in pain as a few of the wounds she’d suffered started to make themselves known. Her arms feeling heavy as the blessing from the Kami fading (the Kami probably had their fair share of jealousy at the strength and reflexes the woman had temporarily been granted by the shugenja), she began to pull out her medical supplies to tend to them both with an unusually quiet smile,
“Our planning may have been for naught, but our teamwork at least held strong… Kaz-san.” She chuckled as she bandaged a rather long gash along Kazuya’s arm,
“And I think I’ve picked up a bit of a fan club of my own; one of the Praetorian accidently called me ‘Centurion’… I’m not sure if I should be offended…”
“One of the traitors called me ‘cinaede’. Somehow, I think I probably should be offended!”
The two bushi sat and caught their breath for a few minutes, watching the organized chaos as the Praetorian Guard hurried backwards and forwards rounding up prisoners. Eventually, Akihito and the rest of the party moved to join them, and Aki set to work healing everyone’s wounds. Kazuya considered grabbing his pack and helping bandage the wounded but decided not to – he was far too exhausted.
Things progressed quickly after that – the senate found Tullius guilty of highest treason and had him nailed to the senate doors, his surviving men adorned crosses flanking the road to the lands of the Rafiq. Before the sun had set, the Rumas voted unanimously to ally with the Mantis and the Singh against the forces of the Rafiq, and satisfied that they had done everything possible, the party set off back to Singh lands, Ieyasu leading the way, Rakshasa head born aloft.
It took a while, but eventually the party made it back to the docks in Singh lands, where they were greeted with an awful sight as several horrifically wounded Mantis were laid out on stretchers on the pier awaiting transport back to Rokugan. Darting forwards to provide what aid she could, Aki spent the next hour or so pushing herself right to her limits, healing as many of the wounded as possible. Realizing that she would burn herself out healing every single wound if left unattended, Kazuya went with her, dealing with minor wounds himself and ensuring that Aki focused her energy only on those who had no other chance. While she was able to save most of her patients, there were still a good number who would never fight again.
Eventually, the party were summoned to meet with Arai on the deck of his ship, who explained that the expedition to the Rajput had not gone well: the Maharajah had sided with the Rafiq, and as loyal subjects the Rajput had followed, turning on the Mantis among them urging action against the Rafiq and their allies.
“You, however, appear to have done far better,” said Arai, “Just as expected, really. We would hear your report.”
Akihito blinked a few times before replying,
“’We’, my lord?”
The voice that answered was not Arai’s, and the party turned to watch the speaker as he stepped out into the light. At once they dropped into respectful bows, as Yoritomo Aramasu strode forwards to stand before them,
“You have done well, but the time for small teams attempting diplomacy is over, and as members of my House Guard I expect you to lead the fight. Akihito-san, as of this moment you are no longer just a Yoritomo bushi, you are Storm Legion!” Aramasu turned to rest his hands against the side of the ship, staring into the distance as three hundred warships slowly sailed into view, “The Third Storm approaches. It is time for war!”
That evening Kazuya was summoned to Aramasu’s study for a private meeting, the guards outside giving him odd looks, but they knew him well enough by now to not consider it odd. Stepping into the room, Kazuya bowed low,
“You summoned me, my lord?”
“Indeed I did, Kazuya-san,” replied Aramasu, moving to stand before him, “I have heard from both Arai-san and Akihito-san about your tireless, if sometimes unconventional, efforts. You have proved yourself not just here but over all the years of your service to me. You played a key role in securing the assistance of both the Cheiron and the Rumas, two valuable allies, and I feel that it is only right to recognise your accomplishments. As well as the position in my House Guard, I offer you, Kazuya, the name ‘Yoritomo’. You have served me well as a ronin, I believe it is time you served me as a sworn samurai.”
For the next few seconds, Kazuya could only stare at his lord, blinking, expecting something, anything, to happen and explain what had just happened. Realising that his lord was waiting for an answer (and also smirking slightly at the unusually speechless ronin) Kazuya tried hard not to say something stupid,
“M-my lord! I… a Yoritomo? I don’t…. Is that…?” he cleared his throat, buying him precious seconds to think, “You honour me, my lord, but I do not yet think myself worthy of such an honour.”
“You disagree with my judgement, Kazuya-san?”
“N..no, not at all, my lord, I merely wish to avoid bringing shame upon you and your Family. You know my history; you know who I was, what I did and why I was cast out from my Family. I still feel that dishonour in my blood and there is a dark stain across my soul which worries me. I would not wish to accept the honour of the Yoritomo name without being sure that I will not repeat the mistakes of my past and dishonour my Family twice over.”
Kazuya took a deep breath, trying to reconcile himself with his choice – he had been striving for this since his banishment; acceptance, a Family, an honourable existence, but he would never forgive himself if he brought ruin down on Aramasu or the Mantis Clan,
“If you consider it reasonable, my lord, I will accept your incredible offer if I am able to rise above my past and help save this land from the terrible menace that now confronts it, the same menace which could threaten Rokugan. If I can help win this war, I will have proved to myself I can once again be trusted with a Family name.”
Aramasu nodded gravely,
“If you think this best, Kazuya-san, then so it shall be: I see how much it pains you and accept your reasoning as justified: No one knows a man’s heart better than himself. Survive this war, and I will offer you service a second time.” The Clan Champion smirked, “And no, we’re not going to play the ‘two refusals’ game. Never understood that tradition.”
Kazuya bowed low,
“Of course, my lord. I will not let you down.”
After a few days of rest and preparation, Akihito’s squad was summoned to meet with the Clan Champion aboard his flagship. As the party entered, Aramasu looked up from his desk and gestured towards the food set out next to him,
“Would you like some breakfast? I assume you haven’t had time to eat yet.”
“It would be most welcome, my lord.”
Aramasu snapped his fingers and some servants brought in food for the party, and Kazuya was relieved to see that it was good, proper Rokugani food – he didn’t mind the stuff the Ivindi served, and had in fact got quite used to it during his several visits, but Rokugani food was still better.
Once everyone had finished eating, Aramasu had his servants bring in three rather large maps, showing the whole of the Ivory Kingdoms, the Maharajah’s Capital city and the large river which flowed from the city to the sea.
“We’ve brought along the 3rd Storm, some one hundred ships, but we’re still outnumbered – we need to ends this war quickly. As such, we intend to sail our ships down the river Khratan and launch an all-out assault on the city. However, there is a slight problem,” he gestured to the third map, “as you can see, the Metai maintain a rather large and impressive fortress across the river, meaning that to reach the Capital we will need to either capture it or destroy it. From the slight intel we’ve managed to gather, it is a rather impressive construction, and we estimate there are around ten to fifteen thousand troops currently stationed nearby.”
Aramasu leaned back in his chair and smirked at the party
“Seeing as it’s a rather difficult task, I’m putting you in charge of the operation, Akihito-san. You and your team have proven rather successful thus far, ‘heroes of the Mantis’ and all that. You’ll be commanding a strike force of ten War Kobune, about a hundred and fifty men each and, of course, a navigator aboard each. Get that fortress out of our way. Capture it, destroy it, I don’t much mind; just get rid of it, and quickly. Any questions?”
Yoritomo Reika raised a hand,
“Do we know of any war machines deployed as part of its defences?”
“There are none that we know of, though our strategists believe it unlikely – the area on either side of the fortress is flat, open, rather water-logged terrain – a perfect killing ground for their archers. The walls are some 60’ high, with towers at each corner rising maybe 100’. I’m not sure war machines are needed.” He ran his gaze over the other party members, “nothing else? Fine. I do have some good news for you however – you’ll be accompanied by a detachment of our allies, the 1st Singh Ranger Company.”
Kazuya smiled: From their encounter in the Forest of Silence near the beginning of their deployment, the 1st Rangers were good men, good soldiers… plus their uniform was one of the comfiest scout uniforms he ever donned. Perhaps he’d be able to pick up a new set, given the Rakshasa had rather ruined his first, and the monk-esque outfit he’d picked up to replace it in the valley of guru’s wasn’t really his style.
Once the meeting was finished, Kazuya headed off to find the Ranger Company’s quartermaster to try and pick up a uniform. Unsurprisingly, it devolved into using dinar to ‘ease the quartermaster’s administrative burden’, but Kazuya was more than happy to pay for clothes designed for soldiers of his speciality. He even managed to pick up a few extra uniforms for his comrades, if they wanted them (though he knew Reika wouldn’t go within ten feet of them). They weren’t as high quality as the uniform he himself donned, but they’d help as slight disguises.
The trip to the chosen anchor point just downriver of the fortress didn’t take too long, but it gave the party ample time to come up with a plan to scout out the fortress, specifically the tunnel through which ships passed which formed the central part of the fortress.
Unfortunately, the original plan of Kazuya sneaking onto a food-barge to get inside the permanently pitch-black tunnel fell through rather quickly; there were no food barges heading from the Singh controlled land towards the Metai fortress. It wasn’t a stumbling block for too long though, as Kazuya pointed out to his comrades,
“I can swim.”
With all agreeing that it was probably the easiest method, though Reika pointed out that if he ran into trouble, there would be 15,000 Metai between him and safety, Kazuya set about finding a pair of shorts from the Mantis quartermaster, quickly changing out of his Ranger uniform and leaving it in his room (he’d only just got another set, he wasn’t going to give it a soaking so quickly). He also spent several minutes covering his face, chest, arms and legs with the camo paint that had been sat in his bag hardly used. Tucking a sheathed parangu into the back of his shorts, and sheathing two tanto at his waist, Kazuya picked up his daisho and wandered out to the river, where he was stopped by a rather confused Reika,
“Kaz-san, what are you wearing? Or more appropriately, what aren’t you wearing?”
“Shirts, trousers, armour – all that would weigh me down, make it harder. Shorts and paint are rather light.”
“They also don’t provide protection from arrows.”
“No, but the chances of an archer spotting me in the middle of the night anyway? If he manages it he deserves a shot!” Kazuya smirked, before handing Reika his daisho, “Here, look after these for me. I’ll pick ‘em up again when I get back. See ya!”
With a jaunty wave, Kazuya hurried down to the river and slipped into the water, taking a few seconds to get used to the temperature, before pushing away from the bank and swimming into the middle of the wide river – if he could swim straight down the middle, it would lessen the chances of any of the thousands of soldiers on either side spotting him.
While he could feel the current flowing downriver, the swim wasn’t particularly taxing on someone of Kazuya’s skills, and he soon reached the closed portcullis. A quick check revealed a guard station on either side of the river, staffed by two groups of drunks from the sound of it. Satisfied that he was in no danger of being discovered, Kazuya took a deep breath and dived underwater, hoping to find a gap in the portcullis he could get through to scout out the inside of the tunnel, and possibly the rest of the fortress.
At the bottom of the gate, Kazuya could feel that two of the bars had warped and had bent apart slightly, though the gap still wasn’t enough for him to slip through. Deciding that he may as well try and make the gap bigger, Kazuya drew his parangu and gave the rusted bar a solid whack. All he managed to do was dent the parangu, which he abandoned at the bottom of the river.
Surfacing, Kazuya held onto the portcullis while he got his breath back and wracked his brain for his next move – while he could make out a huge number of murder holes along the walls of the tunnel, enough that any assault starting from there would end up a massacre, he wasn’t satisfied with his scouting endeavours.
Suddenly a thought struck him, as he took a tighter grip on the bars: if the guards stationed on the banks of the river were drunk, then there was a good chance the guards on the walls would also be drunk, and what was a portcullis but a glorified ladder?
Kazuya gave himself a few seconds to think rationally about his plan; the fact he would be climbing up 50’ of portcullis and then 10’ of wall in the open in the middle of 15,000 troops, wearing a pair of shorts and armed with two knives with no back-up whatsoever. Then he smirked, and began climbing.
It didn’t take long to reach the top of the portcullis; the bars made things easy, but the 10’ of bare wall was slightly trickier, in theory. In actuality, Kazuya raced up the jutting and pitted stone, even going as far as to allow himself a little acrobatic flip over the top to land on the ledge inside the walls.
Fortunately, the two guards stood not more than ten feet to either side remained oblivious, tossing crude jokes backwards and forwards. Leaving them to their fun, Kazuya ran his eyes across the interior of the fortress, picking out two barrack blocks that appeared to be filled with soldiers, opposite another large building, where drunken men and half-naked women seemed to be mingling happily. He wasn’t able to make out either of the buildings on the opposite side of the fortress, but he did spot a clever cross-walk system of pathways running from each wall into the centre, allowing the rapid re-deployment of troops in case of a siege. Taking the fortress in a straight battle would prove costly for the Mantis.
As he continued to memorise the fortress’ interior layout, Kazuya noticed that the guards had stopped joking and were now slowly walking towards where he was stood leaning against the wall. Finally, one of them had wised up to the third member of their group not belonging and began calling out an alarm.
Took them long enough, oh well, guess it’s time to go
Reacting quickly, Kazuya drew his two knives and sent them spinning through the air at the two guards, catching one in the throat and the other in the shoulder. With a small hop backwards onto the wall, Kazuya waited just long enough to hear the guard’s death throes before launching himself backwards off the wall in a graceful swan dive, entering the water with hardly a ripple.
It didn’t take Kazuya long to make his way back to the Mantis ships, leaving chaos behind him, and despite being eventually discovered, on balance he’d managed to gather some useful information. The fact he’d also enjoyed himself was neither here nor there.
Pulling himself back up on to the ship, Kazuya asked a passing Mantis sailor to let Akihito know he’d returned (giving the sailor a minor heart attack in the process – apparently the Mantis lookouts hadn’t spotted him), then headed back to his bunk to grab a towel and retrieve his daisho from Reika.
Unfortunately for him, Akihito called a strategy meeting for Kazuya to present the information he’d learnt before he’d had a chance to scrub off the camo paint, so he wandered along to the Captain’s cabin still dressed in just a pair of shorts and a lot of dark paint, towel resting over his shoulders. He got some rather funny looks from the rest of the party, and Akihito simply sighed.
“I trust your trip went well? From the sound of it someone noticed you poking around.”
“Eventually, but I was on the verge of leaving anyway so it didn’t make much difference. I did manage to learn two rather important details: 1) making an assault through the ship-tunnel is suicide – there were more murder holes along the walls than I’d know what to do with, and the darkness would put everyone else at a disadvantage. 2) they’ve got a rather impressive series of walkways up-top – they’ll be able to rapidly redeploy troops from one wall to another if we hit them with a straight up siege. Of course, to do that, we’d have to deal with the thousands of troops between us and the walls and cross enough killing ground for a Tsuruchi to wipe out an army. No, the plan of sneaking in as a food convoy is probably our best bet, we just have to make it a land convoy.”
Akihito nodded slowly,
“Unfortunately, the guards meet the food convoys a fair distance from the walls and replace those delivering the food with their own men – it won’t get us inside.”
At this Kitsune Kenshiro spoke up,
“I may be able to help with that one – do you think they’d let us inside the walls if we were being chased by a fifty-foot earth-demon?”
Reika gave a bark of laughter,
“You can do that? This I want to see. And yes, I think they probably would let us hide out for a bit. Unfortunately, that’ll still only have six of us inside the fortress, and I don’t think we can take it on our own.”
Kenshiro smiled and raised his hand,
“What if all we had to do was get inside the fortress? Because I think I can handle it from there: a spell to strengthen the walls and then a localised earthquake would flatten everything inside and throw the enemy into disarray, right? If you can get me inside the castle and keep me from being disturbed for a bit, I think I can win us this battle.”
“Sounds like a plan, Kenshiro-san,” Akihito said, standing and signalling that the meeting was finished, “Tomorrow, you start preparing for that, we’ll go and obtain ourselves a food convoy.”
Capturing a wagon of food didn’t take much effort, the guards easily dispatched by Tsuruchi Ieyasu before they even knew what was happening. After a quick discussion, it was decided that certain members of the party would be hidden inside the food crates, mainly to keep their rather overly-honest natures from ruining the plan (that and Reika would’ve refused to wear ‘dishonourable gaijin clothes’ anyway). With Kazuya, Akihito and Kenshiro leading the way, the hijacked food caravan continued towards the imposing walls of the Metai fortress.
About a mile from their destination, the party were stopped by a Metai patrol of about twenty guards and ten or so civilian workers. After providing the guard captain with their authentic paperwork (a first, from what Kazuya could remember), the Metai ran a scrutinising eye over the party,
“You’re not the usual lot, what happened to Mahendra and his team?”
Kazuya grimaced theatrically, before leaning back against the wagon,
“They had an unfortunate encounter with some dodgy curry – they’ve not been able to leave the bathroom for the last several hours.”
“Ah, I bet it was that weird Rajput grub,” replied the guard captain sagely, “I tried some of their stuff once, nightmare, never been so ill. They do eat some terrible shit up there.”
“Aye, I’m sensible though, stick to the stuff I know and trust, helps me avoid such incidents.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Kazuya could see Kenshiro working on his spell and launched into a discussion debating the pros and cons of the different regional cuisines to buy some time. They’d just reached the Maratha when the guard captain’s eyes went wide and he pointed over Kazuya’s shoulder,
“HOLY HELL! THE FUCK IS THAT?”
Kazuya turned to look and was rather impressed at the fifty-foot golem stomping towards them,
“HOW SHOULD I KNOW! LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!”
“Right, you lot bugger off that way, we’ll get the food convoy in.”
Kazuya was suddenly glad he’d watched a few theatre productions in his time, slipping into the persona of a scared-shitless civilian,
“OH NO! WE ARE NOT GOING ANYWHERE BUT THAT WAY,” Kazuya shouted hysterically, pointing at the walls, “THAT THING IS FIFTY FEET TALL! I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE NEAR IT!”
Akihito’s stoic performance wasn’t quite the terror-filled drama-fest Kazuya was hoping for, but the slightest crack of the mask was picked up on by the guard captain who eventually relented,
“Okay, okay, you can come with us while that thing’s around. Now grab the stuff and LET’S GO!”
The party was quickly bundled through the solid steel gate of the fortress, and as the hundreds of nearby guards watched the walls with fascination, Kenshiro cast his spell to strengthen them. Apparently, the earth golem hammering its fist into the towers didn’t appreciate this, and its roars of rage added nicely to the distraction. With the attention of most people diverted, Kazuya pulled his flying carpet from the food wagon, surreptitiously laying it out on the ground near Kenshiro, before moving back to the wagon.
Unfortunately, one Metai remembered that he had a job to do and opened up one of the crates. Inside was a fully armed and armoured Yoritomo Reika, and before the guard even had the chance to speak his head was bouncing across the floor. As she leapt down, Reika knocked on two other crates, and Ieyasu and Aki emerged into the light, moving to stand near Kenshiro who, realising things were starting to go wrong focused even harder on his crystal-tipped staff.
The guard’s bouncing head had been enough to alert all the nearby soldiers that something was not right with the unusual visitors, and when they realised that the enemy had got inside the fortress they launched a concerted charge against the small group.
“I need you to hold them off for a few more minutes!” bellowed Kenshiro, “I’m nearly ready!”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” remarked Reika, stepping forwards with Akihito and Kazuya to form a barrier between the shugenja and the approaching soldiers “If we can’t hold off this lot we’re hardly qualified to be heroes of the Mantis.”
Her only response was Aki frying two senior officers stood on the wall shouting out orders with bolts of lightning.
The skirmish was chaotic; there were far too many soldiers attacking them for the bushi to do anything but dodge and block as best they could – any attempt at counter-attacking would leave them open. Charging forwards, Reika tried to take the bulk of the danger, confident in their ability to survive, albeit in rather different ways – while Reika was struck several times, the pain seemed to have no effect and she kept up her defensive position even as blood streamed form the multiple wounds. Kazuya, on the other hand, was ducking and diving past attacks with something approaching ease, taking time to smirk at his enraged opponents and maintain a running commentary.
Finally, three of them had enough and launched a tightly co-ordinated attack. Kazuya slipped past their strikes without letting up, laughing at how frustrated the soldiers were getting at their inability to touch him.
Suddenly Ieyasu called out a warning that it was time to go, and the party swiftly climbed aboard the flying carpet as Kenshiro slammed his staff into the ground. A quick word from Aki and the carpet leapt into the sky, giving the party the perfect vantage point from which to watch the carnage.
Just as Kenshiro had planned, the fortress’ outer walls remained strong, but everything inside was shaken to pieces, barrack and brothel alike crashing down on those inside. On the banks of the river outside the castle, panic spread like wildfire as tents and troops were sent flying. In the distance, Kazuya could just make out the Mantis armies advancing, their years fighting on the unstable decks of ships giving them an edge in keeping their footing.
The battle didn’t take long, and soon the castle was under Mantis control. The only major disappointment was far as Kenshiro was concerned was that the magic strengthening the walls hadn’t been enough to keep his earthquake from destroying the fortress – when the magic faded late the next day the whole structure would come crashing down. Fortunately, with the help of the shugenja stationed aboard each of Akihito’s war kobune, they were able to get all ten of his ships through the tunnel and, after a few skirmishes on the river (which Akihito handled superbly, fighting off several enemy ships for the loss of a single ship to fire), establish a forward position upriver, ready to protect the salvage operation that would be required to clear the river and open the way for the 3rd Storm’s assault on the capital.
As the evening drew in the party were summoned to meet with Aramasu to report on their mission.
“First of all, congratulations on an impressive victory – the strategists all predicted a bloodbath here, but you removed the obstacle with surprisingly few losses. I would have preferred to capture the fortress intact, of course, but I’ll take a pile of rubble and minimal Mantis casualties over that any day. Who’s plan was it, anyway? I assume it was Kenshiro-san here who provided the earth magic, of course.”
Akihito gestured to the Kitsune shugenja,
“Actually, my lord, the plan was Kenshiro-san’s in its entirety.”
“Hmm…” Aramasu gave the Kitsune an appraising glance, “Impressive, both the planning and the earthwork. Perhaps I’ll commission you to help remodel Kyuden Gotei once the war is finished. Now then, it’s late and I imagine you’re rather worn out. Report back here at 10:00 tomorrow morning to begin planning our assault on the capital. Dismissed.”
As the party filtered out, a civilian courier approached Kazuya and handed him a letter, sealed with a familiar symbol. Opening it, Kazuya was directed to a meeting with one of his native contacts at a local tavern. Fortunately, there was enough time before the scheduled meeting for Kazuya to clean off the camo paint and don his comfortable Ranger gear and weapons before he set off to the meeting.
He arrived early (as per usual) and sat in the corner of the tavern waiting, nursing a drink and fending off a few advances from people who’d had a bit too much to drink. The scheduled meeting time came and went, but there was no sign of his contact. Eventually, Kazuya decided something had gone wrong so left the tavern and began searching for his contact, though it was to no avail. He couldn’t even spot anyone suspicious following him away from the tavern. Deciding that the perhaps the messenger had been compromised, Kazuya hurried over to where the courier lived, and was relieved to see him sleeping alongside his wife.
Suddenly a thought struck Kazuya that the meeting could have been a ruse to get him away from the ships – knowing the enemy he faced such a slip could prove costly, so he took to the roofs and sped back towards the ship, grateful for his training as he made the jumps with ease.
Back at the ships nothing seemed to be out of place: the sentries were still patrolling and the only tracks he could find were from scouts the Mantis had dispatched. Writing the night off as a waste, Kazuya decided he might as well make his own patrol before heading to bed, given that he was up and armed, so made a loop back down to the fortress, across the river and then back up past the ships.
As he ventured upriver from the Mantis fleet, Kazuya picked out a group of twenty Metai scouts and decided that it was his duty to stir them up. Drawing his bow, he sent two arrows winging into the night, and was pleased to see two solid hits; one in a shoulder and one in a second man’s hip, dropping both to the ground in surprise. Fairly quickly a flurry of arrows shot out towards him, but most of them missed by a considerable distance, though one was only a foot wide.
Deciding to push his luck (a rather unusual move) Kazuya lined up another shot, this time putting his arrow through one scout’s throat. The return fire this time was much closer, with one arrow actually striking him in the shin.
Well, they’re starting to annoy me now.
Moving along to his left, Kazuya knocked and loosed another arrow, putting it into an archer’s eye. He fell, clutching at his face, but unfortunately it didn’t seem to be the only skilled member of the group as another arrow flew through the night to punch into Kazuya’s shoulder.
Okay, which of you bastards keeps doing that. I’m taking you down and then heading for home.
Ignoring the pain as best he could, Kazuya strained his eyes to pick out his target; unsurprisingly, it appeared that the archer who was actively making use of cover was the one who was skilled enough to keep hitting him.
For the next tense few seconds, Kazuya and his designated opponent traded shots; Kazuya putting two in trees the archer was hiding behind while the two in return had one whistle past his ear and one penetrate deep into his chest.
Realising he was losing their little duel, and that the infantry portion of the patrol was forming up to charge his suspected location, Kazuya moved back around to his right, looping around quite a distance to try and draw a bead on his foe’s flank.
All right, this is it. One last shot and then I’d better fade, else I’m gonna miss the big finale.
Focusing hard, Kazuya knocked one last arrow and fired it off into the darkness, praying to any air kami that felt like being friendly to help his shot strike home.
Whether the air kami listened or he just got lucky, Kazuya would never know, but his last shot slammed into the pest’s head and dropped him to the ground. Throwing a quick salute at the (hopefully) dead man’s skill, Kazuya made his way gingerly back to the Mantis fleet, not looking forward to a session of rudimentary first aid when he made it back to his bunk.
Slipping past the Mantis sentries (again) Kazuya sat on his bed and went to work with a tanto, digging the three arrow heads out of his body before bandaging them tightly. Satisfied that he’d at least achieved something that evening, he climbed into bed, slipped another tanto under his pillow (just in case) and soon fell asleep.
The next morning came slightly too soon for Kazuya’s aching body, but he still managed to drag himself out of bed early enough to complete his morning meditation before being summoned to the war council, where the final planning session for the assault on the Maharajah’s capital was underway.
Kazuya took up his usual position in a corner out of the way and watched as Aramasu worked through several different plans with the commanders of the various allied forces; there were Rumas present, Singh, someone who appeared to be Suresh. All were staring intently at the map of the fortress in the middle of the room, hanging onto every detail the Cheiron engineer could provide.
The general consensus seemed to be they outnumbered the enemy, but the Maharajah had some superb heavy cavalry, and a huge number of siege engines, as well as some strange ‘guns’ on the inner wall, which the Cheiron engineer assured everyone would easily wipe out a company in little to no time.
Deciding that the simple ways were the best, the generals agreed on an offensive focused on the western wall with a small force of soldiers guarding the bridge to their right flank, over which enemy cavalry might decide to ride. Aki and Kenshiro were given command of the limited (but incredibly deadly) shugenja forces the Mantis had brought with them, and Kazuya rather looked forward to seeing what sort of carnage they could inflict. Ieyasu would lead 3,000 Tsuruchi archers and volunteered to take a small contingent of infantry and deal with the eastern bridge, hopefully securing that flank against cavalry, as well as possibly providing the archers with a nice open killing field. With the right flank hopefully secured, Kenshiro and Aki said they could create trenches across the plain between the fortress and the forest to the north, hopefully slowing any cavalry charges from that side.
Just in case their magic was insufficient, Reika volunteered to lead a thousand Rumas on the left flank, ready to take the brunt of the hopefully redirected cavalry. Kazuya nearly chuckled at the look Reika was getting from the Rumas Legate – apparently her heroic deeds saving the Senate were rather well-known.
Akihito, having proven himself a formidable leader during their time in the Ivory Kingdoms, was given command of 3,000 marines and 4,000 ashigaru, and was tasked with leading the assault once a breach was made. Kazuya was assigned to Akihito’s unit, with Aramasu smirking as he told Kazuya to ‘watch Akihito-san’s back’.
With the meeting finished, Kazuya joined Reika and Ieyasu on a short scouting foray around the fortress, checking for any issues the native scouts may have missed. Their fears about having exposed flanks were unfortunately proven correct, with Ieyasu spotting a formation of heavy cavalry waiting hidden from view on the eastern side of the fortress. However, having scoped out the bridge nearest the cavalry, Ieyasu remained convinced he could ‘remove it’ with the help of most of the remaining stores of Hanabi.
For his scout run, Kazuya checked on the gate nearest the allied forces and was surprised to find it guarded by what appeared to be a rabble of tribesman – they certainly weren’t Rajput. This worried Kazuya – why set what looked to be unreliable troops right in the path of the enemy’s main attack?
Returning to Mantis lines, Kazuya moved to the 1st Singh Ranger staging post and sat down to re-bandage his wounds; he hadn’t done a very good job of it the first time out, and he’d rather not go into battle still injured.
Unfortunately, just as he’d shrugged out of his shirt Yoritomo Reika turned up, having just finished giving her scouting report,
“Kaz-san! Wounded already? I’m surprised anyone managed to spot you.”
Kazuya gave a weak chuckle as he debated lying,
“Actually… these are from yesterday… or this morning, not sure really. I had a bit of a run in with a few Metai when I went on a quick scout last night. One of ‘em was a bit good with a bow.”
Kazuya winced at the expression on Reika’s face, fully expecting her to cuff him around the back of the head. Instead she crouched down and started helping him bind his wounds. She quirked an eyebrow,
“How many are ‘a few’, Kaz-san?”
“About twenty give or OW!”
Kazuya gave a yelp as Reika thumped his arm,
“Taking on twenty enemy on your own… and you think I’m reckless.”
They finished wrapping his wounds and Kazuya stood to replace his shirt and armour, while Reika stepped back, a thoughtful look on her face,
“Anyway, now that you’re not leaking blood everywhere, I had a thought Kaz-san; the Cheiron mentioned that there are several thousand allied soldiers imprisoned within the fortress. They could prove rather useful in taking the place. Reckon you can get them out?”
Kazuya stood stunned for a few seconds, glancing from Reika to the walls of the city behind her,
“You want me to climb over those walls, in the middle of a battle, sneak through several thousand enemy soldiers and then rescue half an army from prison? Sure, why not. Should prove an interesting challenge. Might need to borrow some gear from these boys though,” he turned to shout over to a huddle of Rangers checking their bows, “You lot have any decent climbing equipment?”
A young looking Ranger stepped out to face Kazuya, chest puffed out arrogantly
“We might, though why should we give it to you? Our unit will need it for the assault on the inner keep.”
“You’ll lend me some because I’m going to do the alliance a favour and find us some more troops. Where’s Old Malik, he’ll let me have a set?”
The young man sniffed disdainfully,
“Malik Singh is no longer in charge of this unit, I am.”
Kazuya took a few moments to digest that – from what he knew, Old Malik had been Captain of the Ranger Company for years, and he’d rather enjoyed fighting alongside him and his men in the first skirmish Akihito’s strike team had been thrown into,
“Well in that case, you find me some climbing gear. I’ve fought alongside the Rangers often enough, and visited the quartermaster enough, to know that if anyone has good quality equipment for this sort of thing, it’s the 1st Singh Rangers.”
“What do you want it for?”
Kazuya turned to point at the imposing walls of the fortress,
“I’m going to wander up to those walls, I’m going to climb up them, I’m going to get inside that fortress and then I’m going to release the thousands of allied soldiers imprisoned there.”
He turned back to the Ranger Company with a ready smirk, blithely asking,
“I don’t suppose any of you lot fancy going for a stroll with me?”
Kazuya was not having a good day as far as keeping calm was concerned, as the answering roar from the Ranger Company nearly gave him a heart-attack. Apparently the Ranger Company had kept up to date on how Akihito’s strike team had been doing (in the belief that as they had fought with them first, it was ‘their’ strike team) and were rather impressed. Some one hundred Rangers volunteered for what Kazuya considered a frankly suicidal mission, but they would not be deterred.
Giving up on his attempts to keep them away (and laughing at the impotent rage on the young Captain’s face) Kazuya threw Reika a jaunty salute as he wandered off to collect several sets of climbing equipment.
With this lot behind me, I’ll get the prisoners out. I’ll be waiting for you on the inside.
Less than an hour later Kazuya was sprinting through the plain to the north of the castle, one hundred suicidal idiots behind him. Behind him, Reika was organising the Rumas into formation, preparing to face whatever charge came their way. Off to his left, the siege engines of the main force were opening up, and pin-point lightning bolts courtesy of Aki were crashing into enemy weapon emplacements. Even further to his left, across the river, Ieyasu was urging his men forward as fast as they could run; if they couldn’t take out the bridge before the cavalry got across they would be in deep trouble.
He and his team hadn’t got too far when the enemy siege engines decided to engage in some target practice, sending ballista bolts and large chunks of masonry winging towards them. His cry of ‘incoming!’ was enough to get most Rangers out of the way, but several were crushed by a boulder, and a shard of stone whipped across his cheek, nearly spinning him off his feet. They kept running though, determined to show their arrogant Captain that their charge wasn’t some forlorn hope. A second barrage of enemy fire crashed into their ranks and another twenty or so Rangers were turned to bloody pulp. Still they ran, following Kazuya towards the wall and relative safety.
As they reached the bottom of the wall and began preparing their climbing equipment a dull thud echoed towards them from the south-east and Kazuya smiled – Ieyasu had dropped his bridge, though whether it was quickly enough he didn’t know. He hoped the Tsuruchi was alright. Behind him, a force of several thousand Rajput charged towards Reika’s formation, and Kazuya sent up a quick prayer to the Fortunes, before turning to address his Rangers,
“Okay, the plan is quick and quiet – we get up these walls and then down the other side as fast as we can. Stop for nothing. Ready?”
They nodded their affirmative and began their climb, impressing Kazuya with their utter silence as they made light work of scaling the walls.
Half-way up, Kazuya nearly had another heart-attack (it clearly wasn’t his day) when an old man with a beard appeared hovering next to him. The old man gave Kazuya a pointed look, then raised his finger to his lips,
“Shhh! You’re being very noisy.”
Like hell I am, old man!
Kazuya ignored him and continued his climb, reaching the top of the walls slightly before the rest of the Rangers. Taking a few seconds to prepare himself, Kazuya flipped over the wall, drop kicking a soldier as he landed. A split second to hook his grappling iron to the nearest siege engine and he was off, sprinting past the rather stunned guards to dive off the edge of the parapet, sliding down the rope fast enough to leave slight burns on the material of his gloved hands. On either side of him, Rangers were abseiling just as speedily as him, though he could spot some stood on the wall fighting to maintain a breach for the others to move through. As he hit the ground Kazuya forced all thoughts about their noble sacrifice out of his head and started marching to the north-eastern barrack block, the remaining fifty Rangers forming up behind him.
A few guards tried to stop them, but most were more interested in running around carrying messages and the quick lie of ‘reinforcements’ satisfied most of them. After all, who would be stupid enough to wander around a fortress filled with several thousand hostiles with only fifty men?
As he approached the barrack block, the noise of war was briefly shattered by an almost inhuman roar, it was nothing like Kazuya had ever heard and he watched as all the soldiers around him stopped whatever they were doing to stare at the sky in fear. It did rather sound like a god somewhere was voicing his displeasure.
Shaking his head to restore his own focus (he wasn’t scared by the noise, not at all) Kazuya marched up to the group of ten Metai guarding the entrance. One of them stepped forwards, running a critical eye over Kazuya and his Rangers,
“Who the hell are you then? You look like Singh to me.”
Kazuya puffed his chest out in his best imitation of the young Captain outside the city,
“Indeed we are, and proud of it. We’re here to fight for the Maharajah.”
The man looked confused,
“Eh? But aren’t the Singh fighting against the Maharajah?”
“Unfortunately, yes. We, however, are loyal to the Maharajah, as should be expected of all true Ivindi, and so are here to help repel the traitors outside.”
“Come off it, mate, we’re supposed to fight for the Maharajah and all, but no way you turn against your House for it!”
Over the years, Kazuya had had plenty of time to study indignation, and was rather good at it now,
“Well! If all the soldiers of the Maharajah are as devoted as you, the enemy’ll be inside the fortress within the day!”
“Ah, the walls’ll hold. Now then, do you have your paperwork with you?”
Kazuya tried very hard not to smile as he reached into his back pocket. He’d been saving this one for a while after all,
“Indeed I do. Here!”
With that, he sparked the fuse on his one remaining hanabi flashbang and tossed it into the middle of the guard unit, turning away as he did so. As soon as the device had gone off he drew his khanda and charged at the stunned unit, his Rangers following him. The ten Metai died without putting up a struggle. Searching the bodies, Kazuya found a set of keys and lead his Rangers into the barrack block, carving through the guards still inside as he went from cell to cell opening doors.
The Rangers weren’t far behind, hurrying round the prison area taking out anyone they met. They did receive help from a rather unexpected source, though, as no few numbers of guards were found slumped up against the bars of cells with snapped necks, smirking prisoners standing nearby.
Once all the guards were dead and the doors opened, one of the freed prisoners approached Kazuya,
“Who the hell are you then?”
“I’m with the Singh, fighting to capture this city. Figured you lot might be willing to lend a hand.”
The man smirked,
“Hear that, boys? We’ve got a job to do! Everyone to the armoury!”
With a cheer, several thousand Suresh soldiers hurried off to collect their weapons, and Kazuya took a few moments to reflect on a job well done. Now all he had to do was run around causing chaos with an army at his back. How hard could it be?
Once the Suresh were armed, Kazuya began leading them towards the keep, convincing anyone that questioned them he was leading a detachment of reinforcements, ready to shore up the western wall. In actuality, he hoped to get the Suresh, who assured him they were brilliant climbers, to the walls of the inner keep without the dreaded ‘guns’ ripping them to shreds. Kazuya had no idea whether it was plausible or not, but for his first and only shot at leadership, he figured he’d done okay winging it so far.
Suddenly he noticed a figure stood a few feet in front of him, who somehow managed to both be there and not there at the same time. Kazuya couldn’t make anyone out, but his finely-tuned warning bells were ringing.
The figure laughed, and Kazuya could swear he was talking from inside his own head, a disturbingly cheerful yet gravelly voice,
“Ah, there you are. Did you miss your friend? That’s a pity. You’ll be missing all of them now: they’re all gone! All dead!”
Like hell – they’re better trained than me, no way you took them all down.
“As for your other friends, they’ll all die soon enough!”
Now I know you’re talking shit – I’ve seen them fight and no shadowy voice is going to bring them down.
“I won’t need to, that’s the beauty of it! They’ll die because of you, shadow-heart! All because of you! You invited the Darkness in and it’s already half-way to your soul! It’s living in your heart rent-free and you’ll never be able to get rid of it!”
I doubt I could kill my allies; they’re far better warriors than that. You’re forgetting that when I ‘invited the Darkness in’ I kicked its arse and bent it to my will – it’s only living there ‘rent-free’ because I wanted a house-slave and the Darkness fit the bill nicely.
“Ah, such confidence, such arrogance! You will fall, and your friends will die.”
So you keep saying, now either show yourself so I can but a sword through your face or bugger off, I’ve got a siege to win.
“If you really want to stop me, come north. I’ll be waiting!”
Turning to the Rangers, Kazuya told them to follow the Suresh Captain’s orders for the time being, he had something else to deal with. Giving one last look at the area of shadow and detecting nothing, Kazuya gave a jaunty salute before sprinting towards the northern gate dodging past anyone that tried to stop him.
Just as he sprinted out of the gate, Kazuya’s attention was grabbed by an almighty thunderclap. Turning to his left, he spotted the biggest lightning bolt he had ever seen moving across the plain behind the Mantis forces. Despite the distance, he could just about make out figures being vaporised as the raw power of Osano-Wo himself flowed from the sky. He’d bet good money his shugenja friends had something to do with that.
Stealing a horse that happened to be wandering with others through a field of dead cavalrymen, Kazuya rode into the forest heading north as fast as he could. As he rode, a feeling of wrongness and unease swept over him, getting stronger the further north he rode. He ignored it. It took all night, but eventually he came to the border of Rafiq lands. In the distance he spotted a mountain smoking ominously.
A few hours later, as night fell Kazuya heard a rustling noise behind him,
“Kaz-san, you’re safe? What the dark hells are you doing out here!”
Kazuya tore his gaze away from the mountain to look at Reika, still in full armour and covered in blood. Hopefully it all belonged to someone else.
“Ah, Reika-san. You look a mess! Though from the fact you’re here, I take it you wrapped up things in the capital? Good, good.” He nodded before shruggins his shoulders, “I’m fine, I think. Some shadowy bastard decided to play hide and seek with me and I’ve not yet been able to stab him. Everyone else is ok, right?” He didn’t quite manage to hide the note of worry in his voice, “He seemed to think you’d all die. Utter nonsense, obviously.”
After glancing around, (possibly checking the shadow wasn’t around), Reika began filling him in on the events he’d missed,
“Akihito’s busy looking after our heroic shugenja, they’re rather warn out after all their work today and Ieyasu’s currently trying to escape his ever-growing fan-club; his operation to bring down the bridge and trap the cavalry in a killing field worked perfectly. As for me, well, you know what I’m like – takes more than being outnumbered ten-to-one and losing my whole platoon to ruin my day,” she was grinning a little, “Some bastard almost cut me in half!”
Stepping forward, she rested her hand on Kazuya’s shoulder,
“I spotted the freed prisoners running round causing chaos. I knew you were the only one who could get to them, but you had me worried when I couldn’t find you afterwards…”
Kazuya couldn’t help but smirk at that, rolling his eyes good-naturedly,
“No-one ever finds me, Reika-san, it’s what I do. Got the prisoners out without much trouble – those Singh Rangers are insane, by the way – but then this bastard, whoever he is, decided to set me a challenge. ‘Come north’ he said. I was kinda hoping he’d be here to greet me. Apparently not.”
The easy smile fell from his face and he allowed a hint of his worry to show through,
“There’s something wrong here, Reika-san, I can feel it. Something unnatural. Bastard’s inside my head. Reckons he’s wiped out some of my native contacts, all more skilled than me. And then he taunts me into following him. I rather think he has something in mind for me, and I’m not looking forward to it.”
Reika looked a bit confused at Kazuya’s claim that he could feel something wrong, but turned to look at the mountain again,
“You know… I don’t feel what you do, but I don’t think we’re going to win this one without losing some. The shugenja’ll be safe at least, if we do our duty. Maybe I won’t be growing old in a dull Captain’s post in the House Guard after all! Stick close, Kaz-san. You know there’s no-one I trust more to watch my back. And if your shadow ever grows a head, I’ll be there to cut it off.”
“I agree – I can’t see all of us surviving this one,” Kazuya tried to force the smile back onto his face, but failed miserably, “though if there’s something in there that can kill you, well, frankly we’re all fucked! I just hope that the bastard being in my head doesn’t mean he’ll use me to see us coming: failing to sneak up on someone thanks to the stealthiest bushi in group? That’s just insulting!”
As Reika’s final words registered, Kazuya dropped all pretence of joviality, fixing her with a hard look,
“I’m not worried about my shadow growing a head, Reika-san, I can try cutting that off. I’m worried about it borrowing mine. If it does, I’ll hold you to your word.”
“If you think he’ll use your eyes we could always blind you?” she paused, smirking, “Temporarily, of course… with a flashbang.” She nodded towards the mountain, “Whatever it is, we’ll find out soon. But this shadow worries me. I don’t think I could strike you down, Kaz-san, nor let another. I’ll drag you back from the spirit realms myself if you dare leave me alone with Akihito-san and his next ‘bath-day’!” She tried to laugh it off, but it didn’t reach her eyes, and the Daidoji-trained Mantis’ expression was coloured by an uncharacteristic, quite unsisterly, look of distress at the thought of having to hurt Kazuya, having rushed from the battlefield to ensure his safety.
Kazuya smiled at the first bit, glad for any hint of humour,
“Unfortunately, I used up my lat flashbang getting the prisoners out – worked a treat,” his humour didn’t last long, “I don’t intend to let him in, Reika-san, if he tries it, I look forward to kicking him out, but he’s right that I’m a weak-link. It isn’t being sent to the spirit realms I’m worried about, beyond my ancestors still being rather angry with me – it’s NOT ending up in the spirit realms”
Kazuya took a pace back and pulled off his left glove, holding it up to show Reika his palm and the pads of his fingers, which were completely black,
“Near the start of our deployment, I was inducted into an order dedicated to fighting darkness wherever it could be found, fighting it from the shadows, the shadows where I live and work. The ceremony involved taking part of the Darkness into my soul and overcoming it – easy enough for someone like me, eh? I passed the test, and the skills of the order have kept me a step ahead of our enemies ever since. Now, however, it seems our foe knows about it, thinks he can use it to his advantage. I won’t let him, of course, but it’s nice to have a backup plan.”
He sighed, trying to untangle his thoughts,
“It’s a Loyalty thing – only tenet of bushido I can remember my ex-clan’s teachings about. Loyalty to Aramasu-sama is the only thing which separates me from the honourless dogs most ronin become. He offered me a name, you know? Offered me the chance to join the Yoritomo, become a true samurai again. I refuse to disgrace his judgement: if I start acting in such a way as to bring shame to the trust Aramasu-sama places in me, I need you to end me. I disgraced my last lord. I will not do so again.”
Taking a deep breath, Kazuya tried to smile again, and while it was more genuine it barely concealed the storm of worry raging inside,
“My preferred course is simply to stab the bastard, win the war and go home heroes. And really, mentioning Akihito and his baths while trying to convince me to stick around? You never trained as a courtier, did you?”
“We do what we must sometimes,” Reika nodded gravely, wincing at the black flesh of Kazuya’s sword-hand, “If it comes to it, I’ll do it, at your request. I won’t let you die in dishonour like my father. Just don’t make me have to, Kaz-san. I’d rather not mourn THAT,” she seemed to skim over the ritual induction and strange gaijin order, her mind more focused on the possibility of having to kill Kazuya, “Court life was never for me. Too unafraid to censor myself in most things.”
She winked and started walking back to the forest,
“Of course, we’ll keep this shadow talk between us, blackpaw: I just repelled thousands of men with a war cry, can’t let them see me all emotional now.”
Kazuya finally found it within himself to give a genuine smile as he hurried to catch up with Reika,
“I thought I heard Bishamon shouting at someone earlier. Should’ve known it was you, really. Seems I missed quite the party. I’ll just have to make up for it in the next one… assuming you leave me any. One of the few disadvantages of fighting at your back.”
“Oh, I think we’ll have plenty to share in the next one, Kaz-san. This one’s going to be big, and I don’t think we’ll be able to burn them to glass this time.”
“That giant lightning bolt? Don’t tell me – Aki-san and Kenshiro-san had something to do with that. The Fortunes seem to be keeping a close eye on us, alright.”
He took a few quick steps to get in front of Reika and take a proper look at the bloodied state she was in,
“Now, I’m knackered, and should probably find us a medic – those siege engines did more than tickle and YOU NEARLY GOT CUT IN HALF, bloody hell, woman! Time for a trip to the healers, if you haven’t already been. Plus your armour and Kazutoshi probably need a clean – you seem to have a bit of blood on you, right about… “ Kazuya motioned with his hands to indicate the entirety of Reika’s armour, “there.”
Reika gave a slight laugh, and the two bushi made their way towards the Mantis forces marshalling on the Rafiq border.
While he sat outside the healers’ tent, listening to them effectively stitch Reika back together, Kazuya was amused to hear a group of young Mantis bushi chatting animatedly about the fight. One in particular seemed to have a skill for imitation, and was currently giving a thoroughly epic re-telling of Reika’s speech to her near-beaten troops, just before they forced the enemy to turn and run,
“We’ve tasted their strength! And WHO prevailed? US! They have many, yes, thousands ride to face us. And they are WEAK. Do you fear a swarm of ants? No! Or a flock of crows? We’ve fought across the oceans. We’ve defeated and conquered and captured the like of these already. So look to these frightened men! Their honourless master sends them to die! Fear rules them, fear of the Rafiq commands their weak hearts! But now they have US to fear! Rumas shields to break their bones! Singh spears to pierce their hearts! They have me to fear! And the strength of our mighty ancestors! Our unbending strength!”
Apparently Reika heard him chuckling to himself outside,
“Hey! It worked, didn’t it!”
Wisely enough, Kazuya simply agreed.