Shadow Warriors

Gatac 2019-04-22 08:48:31
IC Thread 29 - The final thread! At last!
Gatac 2019-04-22 10:31:28
It is the morning after and five incredible things are happening.

Incredible Thing #1: for the first time in untold years, the Council of High Lords will actually convene in the eponymous Council Hall of the Imperial Palace. The occasion merits it, but this requires you traveling to the actual Imperial Palace. Situated an hour's ride to the west of the capital, it sits on the side of a mountain, looming over a farming valley. Though its vast grounds, lush parks and splendid additions over the centuries have long since sprawled all over the mountainside, the resemblance of the original palace to the ninja clan fortresses does not escape you.

Incredible Thing #2: The artificial lake in the valley has never seen a ship like the Gungnir, but there it is, its new "fire engine" having proven its worth in getting the ship up the canals without any wind to help it. How Ueki managed the feat of navigation seems unclear, but the refitted Hanse warship doing a round of the lake must clearly be counted as some sort of victory lap. "Well, we're going to need some fireworks to celebrate?" Ueki said when pressed, and you have to admit that a bit of color to the proceedings - assuming the vote goes your way - wouldn't hurt.

Incredible Thing #3: As the guard detail (and what more thankless job is there than guarding a palace that's gone unused for a decade?) undoes the vast crossbars that hold closed the gates to the palace, Ishikawa-dono - in a fine black kimono and a matchingly-painted mask - clears her throat, catching the attention of everyone assembled.

"I know we have not properly convened," she begins. "But I propose that we admit a few...witnesses to the council session." She looks over to you and nods.
"That is highly unorthodox," Shira-dono hastens to reply, Ryusei swinging at his side as if to emphasize his point. "The sanctity of these deliberations -"
"Oh, give me a break!" Boota-dono comments, wiping sweat off his greasy brow. "Sanctity, proceedings, I ate a dictionary for breakfast! Why are we even here? Why even have a vote?"
"Because it's the right thing to do," Hetechi-dono says. Kichirou waves to him from his carriage, clearly enjoying a bit of peace and quiet.
"And, uh, the proper procedure," Tsukareta-dono says. His fingers still have ink stains from the various documents he tried to work on on the way here.
"I don't like to agree with Boota-dono," Shintaro-not-quite-but-kinda-dono weighs in, "but all this for a vote does seem rather ostentatious. Now, about that proposal..."

Everyone looks at him and his ratty, dirty kimono.

"...I see no reason to turn it down," Shintaro adds.
"Neither do I," Homi-dono adds. By his side stand Sidewinder and - Incredible Thing #4 - Copperhead, clad head to toe in armor and looking like one big walking bandage underneath. "There is a certain consideration of merit here. After all, we would not be here without them."
"You say that like it's a good thing," Boota snarks.
"Regardless of the way we took here," Ishikawa says, "I think we're all agreed that a candidate for the Throne must be tested and confirmed by us." Besides Boota's murmurs, nobody disagrees. "So that's settled. Now, my proposal. I count three Ayes. Anyone else?"
"Oh, whatever," Boota grumbles.
"You're abstaining?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah, sure, call it what you want," Boota says.
"I cannot consent to this proposal, as it is highly irregular," Shira says, then turns to you and nods his head. "Regardless of our friendship, I must be full-throated in my vote for tradition. Nay."
"Good thing some of us are voting for the future instead," Shintaro says.
"Yes, the, uh, future," Tsukareta says. "I mean, Aye."
"I see no reason to be intransparent about the most important political event of this decade," Hetechi says. "Aye."
"Five Ayes, one Nay, one abstention," Ishikawa sums up.
"The motion is carried," Shira says. "Come then, friends."

The big gate is unsealed and creaks open. That makes it the only thing in the palace that lacks maintenance, however. As you enter, you see terraced gardens tended to by legions of servants, monks raking gravel in front of the Emperor's family shrine off to the side and several groups of armed guards patrolling the grounds.

"Incredible," Yukio whispers, holding on to Toshi's arm. Befitting the occasion, she is dressed in full Matsumoto family armor with a bow on her back and her sword at her side - a marked contrast to Toshi, whose simple and elegant kimono plainly hides neither weapons nor armor.
"It is," Toshi tells her, holding back tears. "Isn't it."
"I'm here for you," Yukio replies.

Hand in hand, they follow the High Lords up the enormous stone-hewn steps to the palace proper, with their own personal honor guard of friends flanking them, while the palace guards bring up the rear. Behind the procession, with another creak, the gates are closed again.

---

You don't see Incredible Thing #5. Incredible Thing #5 is the gasp from Lady Ikishi as she recovers from a fall onto forest soil and tries to right herself with only one arm. Her clothes and face are covered in dirt, but she's got more important things to do, like casting her gaze around the clearing and turning on hand and knees, looking, searching - oh no. Her eyes see the markers in the distance, the forest graveyard and its legions of fallen soldiers.

"DO YOU SEE IT NOW," a voice booms from the shadows of the trees around her. "THE PRICE OF YOUR PRECIOUS THRONE."
"No!" Ikishi cries. "You're gone! I cast you out!"

She tries to stretch up the stump of her right arm, as if to demonstrate the truth of what she's saying. Still, as she looks around, she considers her options. Being spirited out of her prison cell just like that...well, the chance to escape her fate should not be discarded lightly. Maybe, a little voice inside her pleads, maybe Himiko will understand. There is no punishment to fit Lady Ikishi's crimes, none but death, and who is so righteous as to not want to flee from death? Himiko would understand. Wouldn't she?

"DID YOU," the voice continues. "YOU RENOUNCE MY POWER?"
"I renounce all of you!" Ikishi shouts, scrambling to her feet. "Look what you've cost me -"
"DO NOT PRESUME TO LECTURE ME ON LOSS, SUMIKO," the voice booms back at her; Ikishi feebly tries to cover one ear with her remaining hand, but it's no good. "MY PATIENCE IS STRETCHED FAR BEYOND ITS LIMITS. AND YOUR DEBT WEIGHS HEAVIER THAN YOU REALIZE."

As the voice thunders, its power gathers into shape, drawing darkness from the shadows, life from the trees and wetness from the ground; then, birthed in a five-meter circle of pure desolation, stands the shape of General Noronu, looking just the same as before Kirika sliced him apart. Only the light of the sun shining through his shape betrays the lack of substance behind it. Ikishi's eyes flick to the side of Noronu, where the Ayami clan's "Master" Sinan appears, leaning his shadow form against a tree with his arms folded.

"THREE APES," Sinan and Noronu says in unison, and Ikishi finds herself mouthing along with them. "YOU ALL CRAVED POWER. AND YOU ALL WASTED IT."
"No," Ikishi whispers. "No, it's...it's over..."

In a flash, Sinan's shape is right in front of Ikishi; he stabs a shadowy hand straight into her chest. Ikishi's face contorts into pure agony. She can neither scream nor close her eyes as Sinan lifts her easily off the ground, hand wrapped tightly around her heart - or what would be her heart.

"OH, YOU CAST OUT MOST OF ME," the dark voice says. "BUT YOU FORGOT THIS. OR DID YOU HONESTLY THINK ONE STONE WAS NOT ENOUGH TO ANCHOR ME TO THIS WORLD?"
"Please," Ikishi stammers, the last of her warmth escaping between her tight lips. "My daughter..."

But it's no use. Sinan's shadow-shape flows into her, forcing little glowing trickles of raw chi to erupt from her skin and drip down onto the forest floor. Noronu's shadow-shape bites into her stump, pressing one last howl of pain from her, then contorts itself until it resembles an arm, the same way a bleached skeleton in the desert resembles a horse. Her skin goes pale and taut, and when only her darting eyes are left, frantically searching for one more trick, one more option, one more way out, they flood with shadow, too. What gently sets its feet onto the forest floor is no longer the delicate trickster noble, no longer even vaguely human. Black orbs peer from a face as hard and white as marble, while the body is clad in shimmering chitinous growths, as if someone painstakingly painted Ikishi's family colors onto an enormous rhino beetle.

"No..." she stills echoes from underneath.
"YOU WILL LEARN SO MUCH MORE FROM ME, SUMIKO," the voice booms. "LET'S SET RIGHT YOUR MOST RECENT MISTAKES. NO MORE GAMES. IT IS TIME TO DESTROY OUR ENEMIES."

The Ikishi-shape waves its shadow-hand over the ground. With a rumble from beneath, the ground shifts and shakes. Within seconds, the ashes of the dead rise from fissures in the forest floor; cold though they are, they gather more substance from the shadows until a lost battalion of damned souls marches through the forest - and towards a mountain on the horizon.

---

"...you feel that?" Toshi whispers to you as you ascend the steps. "Like a...tremor? In the distance?"
punkey 2019-04-22 21:40:07
The whole way to the Palace, as Kirika shadowed Toshi, she finally felt at peace. Toshi, her best friend, was finally ascending to his rightful place as Emperor, and...it felt right that she was by his side for it. Kirika couldn't explain it, but it felt like this is where she was supposed to be. As she follows Toshi and Yukio through the gardens and up the steps to Palace itself, it feels as if she is standing in a warm and calm sea, so calm that you even forget the water is there.

And then a cold wave breaks over her head. Something is wrong, very wrong, and it's to the east. She turns with a snap, her hand on her sword. "I definitely felt that," she whispers back.
"We're stopping," Yukio says through her smile, stating the obvious as the honor guard stops behind them and the High Lords turn around to look at them. "Why are we stopping."
Kirika strains her eyes, but can't see anything. "I...don't really know," Kirika replies. "Something is wrong."
"What's the matter?" Boota-dono calls from above, chuckling to himself. "Nervous?" Bound as he might be to deliver a Yes vote, he doesn't miss the opportunity to needle you one more time.
"We're, ah, going to join you in a moment," Toshi calls up to them. With both Homi and Hetechi catching Kirika's glances, they usher the remaining High Lords up the stairs while you hold position on the stairs.
"I don't see anything," Yukio concurs.
"Okay," Toshi says. "We have to get this vote over with. But let's keep our eyes open. Yes?"
"...agreed," Kirika says. She bows to Toshi, a little embarrassed. "Apologies, Prince."
"None needed...Shadowguard," Toshi says, then chuckles. "Better a second look than a knife between the ribs, right?"
Gatac 2019-05-05 15:27:45
After all the buildup to this moment, the council chamber in the imperial palace cannot help but disappoint. It is shaped like an octagon inside an octagon; the middle holds an elaborate mosaic of the Empire's seal surrounded on seven sides by the standing desks of the High Lords. The eighth side has a conspicuously new elevated podium built for speaking. Set back into the wall is an alcove with stairs leading up to an ornate chair - not quite the throne, but clearly the Emperor's place to sit and watch the deliberations if the fancy should strike. Several doors outside lead to individual offices where, once upon a time, a bustling group of clerks, scholars and samurai would assist the High Lords with their daily business. As is, the place - though kept immaculately clean - feels heavy with the weight of history and the silence of the last few years.

However, as everyone fills into the room, Boota stops in his tracks when Toshi crosses the threshold.

"Begging your pardon, Prince," he says, "but is tradition that we deliberate without the heir in attendance." He smiles. "For the sake of things. You understand."
Toshi nods, already having learned that lesson on soft power. "Of course," he says. "For the sake of things. The other witnesses will suffice."
"...I guess they must," Boota replies.

Toshi gives you each a hug - yes, each and every one of you - then withdraws to the area outside. Hetechi wordlessly shows you to a bench in the back where you can sit, then takes his place as the last High Lord at his desk.

"Order, order," Ishikawa says. "This council will come to order now. This extraordinary meeting has been called by Hetechi-dono and myself to settle the matter of Toshiro Takeda and his claim to the throne. To this end, a motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens has been entered. We will each be granted the opportunity to speak our minds and place a vote - Aye or Nay - with regards to this motion. As is the way of this council, we shall speak in order of seniority. As chairwoman of this session, I will be speaking last, so as to not influence anyone's vote." She bows deeply to Shira. "Shira-dono, we would be honored as always to hear your thoughts first."

Shira returns the nod and coughs into his fist as he prepares to speak. His look sweeps the chambers.

"Fellow High Lords," he begins. "These are trying times. No doubt we have all felt the sting of uncertainty and discontent in the Empire. The throne of the heavens has lain vacant for far too long." He doesn't leave that point up to debate. "Our previous efforts to locate a suitable heir have failed. So it has come to be that we must now adjudicate a most unusual claimant. You all well know that I am no friend of upending tradition. For many generations, my family has upheld tradition in the service of the throne and" - he looks down, fighting back a few tears - "sacrificed much in its name. In the name of duty, we hardened our hearts. In the name of duty, we did as we were bid no matter the consequences. In the name of duty...we were unspeakably cruel to the ones we loved. Truly there is no higher calling." He takes a breath. "It is with happiness and sadness both that I have laid eyes upon Prince Toshiro, gazed at his achievements, his friendships, his moral character. Happiness because I believe he is a rare breed of man, a man who understands the necessities of leadership without having let himself be crushed by them. Sadness because I know that his character will be tested sorely should he ascend to the throne. What a terrible thing it is, to wield power, to have to wield power...to be responsible for everything. It is...the burden hardest to bear. And I believe he would bear it well." Shira takes a breath. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."

"Thank you for your remarks, Shira-dono," Ishikawa comments. "Your vote has been recorded. Next, we will hear from the Shadowguard, High Lord Hiro Homi."
Silence falls over the council chambers as Hiro Homi clears his throat. "I'm afraid I must submit a correction to the council records," he says. There are stares from everyone but Hetechi, and Boota in particular grows more consternated by the second. "I was remiss in informing you all that I laid down my office as Shadowguard several days ago. My chosen successor is Kamura-dono."

All eyes turn to Kirika and Yukio all but shoves her forward from their position as observers at the edge of the council chambers.

"What," Boota says. "You cannot be serious!"
"I never joke about my work, Boota-dono," Homi says. "Kirika Kamura is my chosen successor and has been entrusted with all the duties and responsibilities of my office. Many of the actions you have seen Shadowwatch take in the last few days to ensure order and peace in the Empire have been under her command." He smiles. "And the fact that I forgot to inform you of this change just proves that I am no longer capable of discharging my duties in the manner worthy of this position. As the council rules state -"
"Oh, forget it," Boota says. "Just forget I said anything."
"You withdraw your objection?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah, yeah," Boota says. "But only because I am very interested to hear this next bit." He turns to look at Kirika. "So, what say you, Shadowguard?"
Kirika looks around the room for a moment, and opens her mouth for a few moments before speaking. "I have known Prince Toshiro for several years now, and...he has never been anything less than a steadfast friend and ally. Since we have embarked on our journey to this moment, he has shown more...more grace, maturity, and wisdom than I would have thought possible for any one person. Prince Toshiro has sought justice for those denied it, given voice to those that are ignored, and settled disputes with a look and a few words. He didn't seek the throne until all other avenues had been exhausted, and that alone should prove his wisdom. I trust his judgement above all others, even my own, and I would lay down my life for him without a second thought." Kirika steels herself, stands up straight, and steps into the empty spot at the chamber that Hiro Homi had just vacated. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Oh, get real," Boota says.
"Boota-dono," Ishikawa cautions, "your turn to speak will come."
"Pah," Boota says. "What could I possibly say to sway anyone's mind here?" He looks around. "You are all aware by now, I imagine, that Toshiro Takeda fled the palace, lived for years under a false identity as the lowest of commoners, that he made ends meet through manual labor and - when his talents in that field proved meager - petty crime. Surely your own due diligence has provided you these facts by now. Hasn't it?" He turns to Kirika. "And naturally, you would have known all this from the beginning, Shadowguard. Yet not mention a word to us here. If this is not the last chance for honesty, when then shall we hear some truth? Is this all you have to say about Prince Toshiro, then?"

"I thought that we were keeping somewhat in mind the concept of haste, Boota-dono," Kirika replies. "But if you want, I can give a more full account. Yes, when I first met Prince Toshiro, it was as a petty thief. I was also a thief, and a liar, and made my living convincing nobles of things that were not true so that I could steal from them. I remembered my father and mother, and what my name meant, but I had put that all behind me. I had given up on who I am, what my family is, and what we stand for. And it was Prince Toshiro was the one who refused to let me truly abandon myself. He and I, we were good thieves together - as you well know, Boota-dono. But he also refused to take a copper from anyone who didn't have more than enough of their own. He would never harm those that got in our way. He would make restitution to those caught in the middle of our crimes. He never let me give up on myself - and that kept the Kamura fire alive in me. When he needed help, I was there without question, because Toshi was the most decent man I knew, because he had saved me from my own demons. I say this without hesitation or exaggeration: Toshiro Takeda saved not only my life, but that of the entire Kamura line - and he did not do so with his eye on the throne, he did so as, as you said, a petty criminal."
"Hrm," Boota scoffs.
Kirika fixes Boota with a glare. "I did not take this position through trickery or happenstance. I was Toshi's guardian long before this day, and I would have given my last breath for him long before I knew of his lineage. Toshi is a good man, Boota-dono, no matter what he has done, he has always been one. We need more like him, and we need him on the throne."
Boota glares at Kirika as she sees his strategy unravel. Sure, he was bound by his promise to vote for Toshi...but there was nothing in the deal about not swaying the others away. Yet, as he looks around the chamber, he sees that the gambit has failed.
"I know it is highly irregular for me to speak again and I beg your indulgence in doing so," Shira-dono weighs in, "but I have seen the truth of what Kamura-dono has said. A man chooses his path on every day, with every choice he makes. I am sure you can see the truth in this as well, Boota-dono. Let us not assassinate Prince Toshiro with his past. Nobody is born worthy, but I am quite satisfied that he has become so. If you are not, then vote your own conscience when it is your turn."
"Yes," Boota says quietly. "I believe I will."

As Boota steps back, another chill runs over Kirika's back. Even though she can all but hear Kaede cheering her on as she put Boota in his place, the other ancestors can sense that something is coming this way - and they're getting ready for a fight.

"Thank you for your remarks, Kamura-dono," Ishikawa says. "Hetechi-dono?"
"Yes, thank you," Hetechi says. "As Kamura-dono described so eloquently, I believe a lot can be said of a man by the merest glance at the people he keeps at his side. In this regard I should at least say that Prince Toshiro's company is colorful." He nods to Toshiba and Takao. "What Kamura-dono was too polite to mention is that this Empire cannot sustain itself on high-minded ideals and friendship alone. It needs people of action, and if not samurai, then perhaps somebody who is well-acquainted with all the people of the Empire, from the most noble to the most common. Good leadership arises from perspective, fellow High Lords. A man who has never known hunger cannot feel the joy of a bountiful harvest. A man who has never shed blood cannot know the weight of committing an army to war. A man who has never loved someone else will only ever love himself. And a man who has never made mistakes...will never truly strive to do right. What Boota-dono elaborated on are not flaws to be discarded; they are the marks of true experience. All who have met Prince Toshiro speak highly of his qualities as a human being. I could never endorse a man for this throne who was flawless as a cut gem, for I would know he has been diminished by just this removal of the rough edges, made to conform to someone else's idea of beauty and order." He takes another breath. "To be truly godly, one must first be...human. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
Boota harrumphs over the solemn quiet of the chamber.
"Boota-dono," Ishikawa says, "seeing as it is your turn now, perhaps you would like to share your remarks?"

Boota steps forward at his desk. "I have only ever done what was wise for the Empire," he says. "This is what we were called for here, to do the wise thing. Not the right thing, not the popular thing, but whatever choice was needed to let the Empire flourish. I hear a lot of talk about how Toshiro Takeda is a good man. Well, to hells with that!"
Murmur starts around the chamber.
"Order," Ishikawa says. "Order."
"To hells with good men," Boota continues. "To hells with kindness and eloquence, too. Our Empire has never been more vulnerable to the machinations of outsiders, to subversion by foreigners, to attack from the mainland. What we need is a cutthroat warlord who commands the respect and fear of all. A man unburdened by frailties of soft-heartedness or heavy conscience. A clever man who appeals - just enough - to others that he does not invite open rebellion, but still ceaselessly pursues a singular vision for the Empire. Someone who will make us great again. I ask you, is Toshiro Takeda the man I describe?" He smiles. "I believe so. I've done my due diligence. You all feel free to vote for whatever sappy nonsense you wish, but your Aye will be counted along my clear-eyed vote all the same. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Thank you," Ishikawa says, and Boota finally steps down, smiling smugly at Kirika. He's delivered his "yes" but damn if he hasn't done his best to derail all this.

"We shouldn't have let him go," Yukio fumes with a whisper into Kirika's ear.
"Tsukareta-dono," Ishikawa says, "it is your turn to speak."
"Yes, ah, I will," Tsukareta says, casting a nervous glance. "I - I find myself agreeing with Boota-dono. Never before has the Empire faced such a threat." Yukio's grip around Kirika's hand tightens as Boota's smile deepens. "I'm speaking of the threat of backwardness!" Tsukareta continues, and Boota's grin falters. "Yes, the foreigners are dangerous to us - because of their technology, their way of life, their efficiency. They don't need warships to conquer us! Yes, we must...must make this Empire great again. But not by steel, but by silver!" He looks around. "I've not had the privilege of spending much time with Prince Toshiro but yes, I have met his friends. And they are some of the most forward-thinking, open-minded advisors I could think of. A man who listens to these kinds of people...inconvenient people, radical people, I almost might say - uncouth people! Someone who can keep friendship with them and take their perspective into account and is willing to do what is wise - which is investment! Reform! Modernization! That is an emperor I can get behind. So yes, I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
Boota fumes but says nothing as Ishikawa nods to Tsukareta. "High Lord Shintaro," she says, "your remarks?"

"Yeah," Shintaro says. "Hi to everyone who doesn't know me. Name's Shintaro, no clan, my parents are commoners. Used to be Itanu's numbers guy until Itanu...you know. As he would say, started from the bottom, now we're here." He looks around. "Toshiro's fine by me. That's really all there is to it. I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"...that's all?" Ishikawa asks.
"Yeah," Shintaro says. "I don't have to give a speech, do I?"
"No, but -"
"Then yeah, that's it," Shintaro says. "Your turn."
"...yes," Ishikawa says. "I suppose it is."

As Shintaro steps back, Ishikawa clears her throat.

"I apologize in advance," she says, then reaches to lower her hood and undo the strap holding the mask to her face. Gingerly, she removes it and puts it down on her desk. If anything, the burns and missing facial features look even worse in the brighter light of the chamber. Tsukareta turns white as a sheet at the sight, while even Shira seems taken aback by the grisly sight.

"I think you had a right to see this, finally," she continues. "It has cost me...immeasurably much to stand here today. To live up to a high ideal. And to champion the right thing even when it wasn't wise." She throws a glance at Boota, who averts his eyes. "I've heard many arguments in favor of Toshiro today. But I would be remiss not to mention one quality that has been given short shrift so far: his perseverance in the face of adversity. We are all well aware of what it took to come to this moment, and our own struggles are dwarfed by what Toshiro and his friends went through. At every turn, they had the opportunity to walk away from him. At every turn, he had the chance to abandon his quest. And at every turn, we had the right" - she leaves that hanging for a moment - "we had the right to harden our hearts, to turn away, to not see what he put in front of us. But we have seen, haven't we? We have all had to confront things that were not right. We all had to become aware of our own biases, our own shortcomings, our own mistakes. One such mistake is my own and you will be sure to hear of it soon." She nods to Toshiba and Takao. "What Shira-dono described as giri is the never-ending sacrifice of doing what is best for others without regard to what is best for yourself. I am given to understand that Toshiro - Toshi to his friends - is many things that an Emperor cannot be. That he is willing to forgo all of that...that he is willing to abandon his happy life to be Emperor...is all the qualification I needed to see." She breathes deep. "I endorse the motion to recognize Toshiro Takeda as the true heir to the throne of heavens."
"Then it falls to me to make the proclamation," Shira-dono says. "As of this moment, we are all resolved, unanimously, that the throne of heaven is no longer vacant. Let today be the first day of the reign of Emperor Toshiro."

Everyone, even Boota, intones "Emperor Toshiro" three times together. At Homi's prodding, Kirika joins in.

"Order," Ishikawa says. "I call this meeting of the council of High Lords to order. The purpose we have come to serve has been concluded. I move to adjourn this meeting. All in favor?"

Six Ayes echo through the chamber.

"Meeting adjourned," Ishikawa says. "Kamura-dono," she says, fumbling to replace her mask on her face. "Perhaps it ought to fall to you to inform the Emperor of our decision."
punkey 2019-05-07 12:52:38
Kirika looks at Ishikawa with astonishment, but slowly nods. "Of - of course, Ishikawa-dono." She turns towards the door that leads to the Emperor's waiting chambers - showing how much even the building had cast its vote. The doorway is, like much of the palace, understated and luxurious at the same time. There's no excess of gold leaf or feet of minute engraving and carving, just a beautiful design executed exquisitely. It truly shows the difference between modern buildings and the classics.

Kirika pushes the door open, and waits for Toshi to stand up from the bench by the wall - and then bows all the way down to her knees, resting her head on the floor.
This would be a prime moment for Toshi to fumble it. Run for the door before anyone sees it. Tell Kirika to get up right away, what are you doing, we're besties, remember? But maybe there is something to this day that has truly changed him. He stays silent as Kirika kowtows to him.

"Please, rise," he says after a few moments. He maintains his dignity all the way up to Kirika getting back on her feet. Then, his face shows a bare hint of a grin. "How'd we do?" he asks quietly.
"We did all right," Kirika says, her grin only slightly wider that Toshi's. "They let me go second and decided to vote for you anyway."
"So, five...or six?" Toshi probes.
"Seven," Kirika replies, her grin growing a bit more.
Toshi nods. "Boota kept his word, then," he says. "He's still retiring one way or another but at least that's over with -"

That's exactly as far as he gets before Yukio bursts into the room.

"Oh, hey," Toshi says. "Welcome to Day 1, Empress."
"What?" Yukio asks, eyes darting between Toshi and Kirika. "Oh. Yes. Come with me."
"...sure?" Toshi says as Yukio rushes back out.

Following behind her, you speed back towards the entrance, where Yukio leads you through a side corridor onto one of the ancient battlements of the palace. From there, she wordlessly indicates to the horizon in the east - where you can just about make out something that might be a small force of soldiers marching your way.

"They bear no standard," Yukio says. "I think we need to assume they're hostile."
"They're also a bit late for their objections," Toshi jokes.
"That won't really matter if they kill us all, will it?" Yukio replies.
"Point taken," Toshi says, then turns to you. "Ideas?"
"Get the palace staff to safety, send them out the back," Kirika replies. "Soldiers defend but do not leave to approach them - no one approaches them, not you," she looks at Yukio, "or you." Kirika turns to Toshi. "They're not...that's no regular army."
Gatac 2019-05-13 16:48:15
"Indeed not," Shira comments. "Nevertheless, I shall have the alarms sounded."

---

It's been centuries since the Imperial palace was under honest-to-Heavens siege, but the architecture still remains in place to defend against one. Gongs are rung and signal fires lit. Within fifteen minutes, staff has been evacuated through the backward mountain pass, the guards are at the defensive positions and gates are shuttered. Within that time, you've retreated to the roof of the palace for a better look at the situation. The enemy army - and it is an army, if a small one, maybe a thousand men by Shira's reckoning - has kept moving forward through the woods, obscuring sight at their formation. At this rate, it'll be two hours still until they reach the walls of the palace.

"What a foolish attack," Shira surmises. "They've no siege equipment with them. If we send word to Rock Lee's men outside the capital, they can be here by nightfall and vanquish the enemy. All the while, we can easily hold fast for days here. We've the provisions and fortifications for it."
"I'm not looking to be besieged," Toshi - ahem, sorry, Emperor Toshiro - says. "Any way we can take the battle outside?"
"I do not recommend that, my liege," Shira says. "Even if they are of poor skill and armament, they outnumber us twenty to one. They would overrun any fighting position we could establish outside the walls until they get here. We should instead spend the time until their arrival distributing ammunition to the archers and doing a round of the perimeter to make sure there are no weaknesses they could exploit."
"Right," Toshiro says. "That makes sense." He turns to you. "I don't like that we don't know anything about them, though. You said they're no regular army, but...that doesn't really tell me a lot. Perhaps someone could scout?"
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-05-14 14:59:35
"Konoko can alert General Lee faster than any rider," Toshiba suggests. "In the meantime I shall see what fresh hell creeps towards us."
Gatac 2019-05-19 18:57:43
Said and done - Toshiba writes a quick message and entrusts it to the metal cylinder on Konoko's leg. With a loud "KEEE!" the bird of prey darts into the sky and catches the mountain's downdraft, sailing away towards the capital. Toshiba considers following her, but on a bright day like this, he'd be seen for miles with his boots of fire streaking through the sky. Old school it is, then - and there's always rocketing back in a bind.

---

There are ways, one supposes, to move without being seen, even in broad daylight. However, a woodsman like Toshiba well knows that moving always leaves a trace and makes success depend on the blindness of the quarry. Much easier to spy on a moving army, then, by picking a good hiding spot in its path and letting it pass by. The rich crown of this keyaki tree and the right rags hide him almost perfectly, though he almost misguesses his timing: this army is marching relentlessly with sure step, making little attempt at stealth, but they are doing so in utter quiet - no marching songs, no orders, not even chatter. As Toshiba gazes down at the passing column, he can guess the reason why: these soldiers are scraps of rotted meat and bones sewn together by pure darkness into shapes that mock their bygone living forms. A dead branch fortified with shadow serves as pike, the shattered skull of a boar lashed together with strings of blackness replaces a helmet, and the leg of a fallen deer could be mistaken for a bow, its sinews somehow pulled from its flesh and strung taut against the calcified bones. This must be what the spectres fought underneath Lady Ikishi's mansion looked like. Toshiba's count is up to two hundred of the abominations when he sees their commander, a larger-than-life blob of shadow, two heads taller than the largest brigand, untainted by such worldly concepts as "solidity" or "qi". Still, Toshiba senses something living within it still, and as if on cue, the creatures shoulder ripples and stretches, something pushing against the inside, something like a...hand?

"YOU HAVE BEEN DROWNING FOR AN HOUR NOW, SUMIKO," the foul creature echoes from no mouth, its porcelain white face sparkling for no audience save for whatever...whoever might be caught inside. Wait, Sumiko...Ikishi Sumiko? What has that foolish woman done now? "SOON YOU WILL LACK EVEN THE ENERGY TO TWITCH WITHIN ME. I CAN FEEL YOUR HEART SLOWING ALREADY. DID YOU IMAGINE YOU HAD YEARS, MAYBE, IN THIS WORLD? TIME TO ATONE? YOUR QI WOULD NOT EVEN SUSTAIN US UNTIL SUNDOWN." Something not entirely unlike laughter echoes from within the shadow creature. "STILL, MORE THAN ENOUGH TIME TO SIT ON THE THRONE YOU COULD NEVER HAVE. AND DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE PATH BEYOND. YOU WON'T DIE TODAY. NOT BEFORE I'VE TAKEN YOUR DAUGHTER, TOO. WITH HER FRESH QI...WHY, WE MIGHT MANAGE TO BRING THE ENTIRE EMPIRE TO KNEEL BEFORE US."
Gatac 2019-06-23 09:18:50
Toshiba patiently waits for the army to pass, but then he has to make haste to report. There's no way to be faster than them on foot and while it irks him to alert their enemy, there is little choice but to fly back. Even though he wisely chooses to fly higher than their bows might conceivably reach, he would still expect them to try, to scatter or at least react to the sight of him flying overhead. Yet, nothing. The columns march on, inexorably making their way through the woods. Toshiba does the quick mental math: a thousand of them or near enough that the difference won't matter, perhaps two hours away from the outer walls of the palace.

---

This report is, shall we say, not taken well by Emperor Toshiro back at the palace. Even Yukio looks ashen at the news. Just as the discussion on what to do is poised to begin, however, the "Kiii!" of Konoko sounds and she glides from the skies, perching on Toshiba's outstretched arm. She holds out her leg to him with the message capsule attached, not even making a show of begging for a bit of fresh kill.

"Summons received," Toshi reads off the scroll. "Mobilizing a sonae of my best men. Expect us by noon. Rock Lee." He looks up at the sky. "Damn it all. That's cutting it too close."
"Kiiiii," Konoko interjects, then holds out her other leg. What looked like a little bandage at first glance is actually a small, rolled up banner. Toshi unfurls it to see the family sigil of the Matsumoto clan painted on it.
"Father!" Yukio yelps. "I invited him for the ceremonies, but he had sent word that he was delayed by a surging river yesterday..."
"You could have mentioned that he was coming," Toshi tells her. "Like, at any point prior to now."
Yukio looks down. "I did not...wish for you to be...intimidated."
To his credit, Toshi doesn't hesitate with his response. "We're past that kind of stuff," he says. "How many men is he bringing?"
"He did not say," Yukio says. "Just that everyone important was coming with him. I expect his honor guard...maybe a few dozen samurai?"
"I think we'll take what we can get right now," Toshi says. "If we can get it in time."

At that, Konoko flaps her wings and pulls at Toshiba's arm. As you turn to look at her, you see a small cloud of dust on the horizon - riders making a hard push for the castle, maybe a half hour away. Even at a distance, the Matsumoto colors pop - but fully two thirds of the riders are dressed differently. Looks like he's scared up a few more people for his ride.

"Kiiii!" Konoko adds smugly, cocking her head to the side and opening her beak. Now she wants her treat.
punkey 2019-06-23 17:47:55
Kirika looks out over the fields before the castle - a few stands of trees, but nothing so high or large to be considered "defensive". The only feature of interest are the rows of rice paddies off to the side of the field - isolated and alone, and not in the way of the castle's gates.

"Shia-dono," Kirika says. "I am seeing a definite lack of defensible positions here. When was the last time this castle was under siege?"
Gatac 2019-06-24 17:23:21
"Four generations ago," Shira recalls, "during the Northlands Incursion." He turns around. "That time, the outer palace walls held long enough for reinforcements to arrive. The Emperor was summering on an island retreat in any event. When he returned, it was to a fresh battlefield. He ordered it cleaned up and the forward field defenses ploughed over to plant a plum orchard. The orchard was felled by the Century Storm sixty years ago, where a lightning strike also set watchtower number two on fire. Again, the Emperor ordered the mess cleaned away." Shira sighs. "My father carried out the work and, despite his personal misgivings, he did it very well. If the Throne desired to forget those misfortunes and gaze upon a pastoral landscape, who was he to object? Today, you would hardly guess that these defenses once held armies at bay."
"Shikata ga nai," Toshi mutters.
"We still have two hours," Yukio says. "I want all wagons and sleds dragged onto the field, then doused in what oil we can spare. Place some blackpowder underneath them, too. The obstacles will split the attackers and if they attempt to take cover, we can set them ablaze with fire arrows and blow them off the battlefield. Spears rammed into the earth in front of the main gate to stop whatever passes for their cavalry. And send men to help Ueki-kun prepare the Gungnir and safeguard the passage towards the lake. It is our fastest way to escape. We also need its catapult able and ready to fire into the thick of the field and I don't care whether that means it has to walk off his ship."
Shira looks to Toshi, who just nods.
"My liege!" Shira barks, then strides off to put the orders into practice.
"I need to have a word with him," Toshi says. "Your orders are just as important as mine, after all."
"That's a topic for tomorrow, after we survive this," Yukio says. She looks to Kirika. "Shall we go welcome my father, dearest?"
Gatac 2019-07-03 17:19:47
"This will hopefully be the last time we greet your father with battle plans," Kirika says.
"Yes," Yukio says.

As the cloud of dust of dust before you rolls to a stop, the man riding up front is unmistakably Aotaka Matsumoto. Though dressed in a plain riding kimono, his retainers bring with them a second horse loaded down with his armor and a plethora of his personal weapons. One can only imagine what he thought he needed all that for when he packed for the confirmation festivities, but this is hardly the time to question his logistical decisions. He's barely off the horse when he gets down to his knees into the dust and bows deeply to Yukio.

"Empress!" he barks. "I received your summons. My men, my blade and my life are at your disposal."
"...father..." Yukio whispers, then takes a breath and steels herself. "Very good, Lord Matsumoto. Tell your men to report to High Lord Shira with all haste, he is coordinating the defense."
"It shall be done!" Matsumoto says. He rises to one knee and bows his head again, this time to Kirika. "Shadowguard! There are others with me who wish to place themselves at your disposal."

As he speaks, you see the people not in Matsumoto colors dismount. There's Olafsen - now sporting a ponytail and an eyepatch, Karla with a worryingly big axe, Ramma dressed in his Lightwatch outfit sans mask. But most of them are actually the Imperial Sharpshooters in their Hanse-inspired military uniforms, led with casual ease by Feldwebel Aramaki. Riding next to them is Major Von Schneider in his best gold-buttoned uniform, his exotic gonnes secured to the side of his horse.

"Hello...everyone," Kirika says, not sure who should be addressed first from the crowd of dangerous people she had helped over their journeys. "I thank you all for coming so quickly." She bows to them. "You will all be needed this day."
Karla gives a low chuckle as she weighs her axe.
"Feldwebel Aramaki!" the Major shouts. "Bringen Sie die Maenner in Stellung und melden Gefechtsbereitschaft!"
"Ja-wohl!" Aramaki answers in half-decent Hanse.
The Major nods down to Yukio. "Meine Verehrung, eure Hoheit," he says. With clipped, strained words, he struggles out a single phrase: "Love live the Emperor." Another nod and he's off, never dismounting.
"Looks like we're gonna be good on putting holes in people," Ramma comments as he watches the Sharpshooters march off. "Speaking of, who are we fighting?"
"Spectral undead lead by a yokai animating a porcelain form powered by Lady Ikishi's qi," Kirika replies.
"About a thousand of them," Yukio adds.
Karla's face twists into a wild, wide grin.
"You don't do things by halves when you make enemies, do you?" Ramma asks.
"I heard the Gungnir is here," Olafsen cuts in. "Where is it?"
"In the lake," Kirika replies. "Our armorer has made some upgrades."
"...upgrades?" Olafsen spits. "Armorer?!"
"It is now mounted with a catapult capable of flinging explosive barrels a great distance, armored against gonne attacks, and considerably faster than before," Kirika says. "It can now outrun any ship and blow up both ships and buildings without taking a scratch."

Olafsen stomps off wordlessly. Clearly, to his mind, his ship was perfect as is, and he's going to have to have words with whoever's responsible for the modifications.

"Ah, don't mind him!" Karla laughs. "He may have sworn off piracy but he'll always have a weak spot for that old bucket." She's looking, for lack of a better word, healthy. Probably still not as stout as she once was, but her escape from Sarano's mansion has clearly worked in her favor.
"I had heard that his new accessory is your doing?" Kirika asks, and gives Karla a hug. "What happened? How are you doing?"
"I'm great, thanks to you," Karla says, holding her axe out to the side as she returns the hug. "And don't worry about the eye. He actually lost that years ago, but he was so vain he used to wear an expensive glass eye in there. Now that he's an ex-pirate, though, he decided he had to look the part." She shakes her head. "What is it with men and all their frippery? I rode next to Major Von Schneider and he almost blinded me every time the sun hit his uniform. Where that man finds the time to polish his buttons, I have no idea."
"How else will they show off to other men?" Kirika laughs. "But I heard...you and Olafsen..."
"I bedded him, if that is what you're trying to say," Karla says.
"Oh, I bet you did," Ramma says, earning a side glare from Karla. "I mean, that's what I heard."
"That's what you heard," Karla repeats. "On a farm. In the middle of nowhere."
"...news travels fast these days," Ramma says. "You're not exactly...anonymous around these parts."
"It was just surprising, given the givens," Kirika says.
"I guess," Karla says, obviously not seeing what a big deal this is. "I'm gonna get something to eat, if you don't need me right now. We've been riding hard since the morning and that damn bird caught us on our rest stop before we could get a fire going."
"Actually, I have something special for you and Olafsen," Kirika says. "When Yukio and I are away from Toshi - I mean, the Emperor, I would like you both to be his guards. When we return you can rejoin the fight, but I would feel better with you both watching his back when we cannot."
"Oh," Karla says, weighing the axe a bit more. "That's...that's very important, and a great honor. Of course." She thinks for a moment. "I mean, suppose some of them flanked the defenses and snuck in."
"They will send their biggest, ugliest, and fiercest monsters against him," Kirika says. "And if they are at the walls, we will be with him and you and Olafsen can go and have fun."
"It's a win either way," Yukio adds.
"Quite," Karla says. "I'll see you after the fight."
Kirika turns to Ramma. "How do you feel about killing whatever seems most important?" she asks. "You know better than I what to strike, I trust your judgment."
"You got it," Ramma says. "Homestead's doing well, by the way."
"Didn't need saying," Kirika replied with a smirk. "Like I said, I trust your judgment."

She looks around. "Where is that damnable High Lord Nikochi?"
"Woah!" Ramma says. "One, never heard of him, two, since when do you speak that way of High Lords?"
"You would too if you met him," Kirika says. "Love, have you seen him? He was supposed to be here."
"I've not seen him," Yukio says, "but were I to hazard a guess, I would check the wine cellar."
Kirika looks towards the entrance to the castle's cellar, then back to Lord Matsumoto, preparing his collection of arms and armor, back to the cellar, then back to Matsumoto-sama, and groans. "Damn him," she mutters, then puts on a smile and walks to greet Lord Matsumoto. "Matsumoto-sama," she says with a bow.
Matsumoto immediately bows deeper. "You flatter me, Kamura-dono," he says. "News have reached me that you are now Emperor Toshiro's Shadowguard. Congratulations are in order."
"I think some degrees of respect transcend class or rank," Kirika says, taking Yukio's hand. "What is your assessment of our situation?"
"That depends," Matsumoto says. "Have you faced these creatures before?"
Kirika nods. "They are mostly dead flesh and animate forms, but can be dispelled by disrupting their forms. Alternatively, usually destroying the head or heart - whichever it has - will break the magics holding it together."
"Right," Matsumoto says. "I should like to test that theory. Let me take my riders and attack their flanks. We will see how difficult they are to kill on their own, but more importantly, we will see whether these beasts fight with any semblance of strategy or simply march to their doom."
"Only as a testing maneuver to guide them into our archers and gonne-soldiers," Kirika replies.
"Naturally," Matsumoto says. "What greater waste of cavalry than to let them get stuck on an objective." He nods to Yukio. "We shall ride through them and report back."
"Thank you, father," Yukio replies. Only the tightness of her grasp on Kirika's hand betrays her nerves.
"Now," Kirika says, "the final piece of the puzzle. One very drunken High Lord."

---

It's quite easy to locate Nikochi in the wine cellar, vast though it might be - just follow the singing. And what a beautiful singing voice it is! Of course, coming from a disheveled High Lord lying on a particularly nice, cool part of the stone floor diminishes its beauty slightly. As you approach, he flails his arm widely in an attempt to get up, though all he accomplishes is knocking over the little jug of sake next to him.

"Em-press!" Nikochi slurs. "Are the fest...festiv...festi...is the party starting?"
"If by party you mean 'invasion of undead soldiers and evil yokai', then yes," Kirika replies as she stands over Nikochi.
"Hah!" Nikochi laughs, flailing a bit less wildly for the sake, apparently unaware it has all been spilled. He seems to realize that after a few seconds, though, and then his wild eyes jump to look up at Kirika. "You're serious?"
"I am," Kirika says. "We are very much in need of counsel and magic that attacks whatever forces animate the undead. Something like this could make people take a High Lord of Magic and Demons seriously."
"...could even save the day," Yukio says, catching on.
"Yes!" Nikochi yelps, a fire lighting in his eyes. With a snip of his fingers, he literally springs up from the floor and onto his feet. He wobbles forward a step, then holds up a finger and turns around. You don't see what he snorts, but a few moments later, he heaves up a clear liquid that he spits onto the ground. When he turns back around, he looks...together. "More of the magicks you saw underneath Lady Ikishi's mansion, no doubt!" Nikochi says. "Shadow magic is very dangerous, you know," he continues, strolling around and scanning the cellar as if seeing it for the first time. "Yes...yes, this is the place." He turns to look at Kirika. "I need all the paint you have and a few handymen to help me. If we don't get started on the protection sigils now, we might have someone shadowwalk right past the walls outside." He looks to Yukio. "...I assume you're taking care of putting people on those walls?"
"...yes," Yukio says, still wary and untrusting of whatever it is Nikochi does.
"Then get to it!" Nikochi says, turns to look at Kirika and then quickly looks back to Yukio, bowing his head. "Um...I am beyond sorry to impose such a menial task on you, your majesty, but I've more business with Kamura-kensei to take care of before she strides to battle."
Yukio narrows her eyes at Nikochi, but then looks to Kirika. "If he turns you into a frog, I will be very upset," she says.
Kirika gives Yukio a peck on the cheek. "Not as upset as I will be, love."
Yukio returns the kiss. "I'll send a few soldiers down to help." She turns and hustles up the stairs.

Kirika watches Yukio go, then turns back to Nikochi. "All right, High Lord, what is this you want to do?"
"You've interacted with apparitions of your family, correct?" Nikochi asks.
"Correct," Kirika says with a nod.
"I felt something...off about your enchantments when you sought me out after the encounter at Ikishi's," Nikochi says. "If you are going to do battle with more of these creatures and be exposed to all that, we need to make sure that nothing unpredictably happens. For this, we need to speak to the one who created the Kamura clan enchantment in the first place." The weight of Nikochi's words sinks in. Kouhei Kamura, sword-saint, alchemist...dead for the better part of a millennium. And Nikochi wants to talk to him?
"Uh...okay," Kirika says. "I don't know if this will work, but..." Kirika draws her sword, checks her distances from the walls, closes her eyes, and focuses on Uncle Kouhei's name while she slowly starts her kata.

As Kirika begins her kata, Nikochi retrieves various unidentifiable powders and liquids from within the pockets of his clothes. Definitely some guano, some mold, some pickled garlic...and that's about where Kirika's nose gives up as the ingredients grow more colorful and stranger yet. Some looks like it might have come from overseas, others look like finely ground rocks from deep within the earth, and two or three seem at least partially made of things that are not matter. As Nikochi mixes them, he begins to sing from his throat, a deep melodious chant in time with her steps.

Fire creeps up Kirika's spine as her blade cuts through the thick air. Child, a voice calls from afar.
Uncle, Kirika thinks in return as she steps up the pace.
You cannot cut shadows, the voice calls. When you face one, do not be deceived. There is substance...always, in a man, in a yokai...even in a god. If you can find it, you can cut it.
"Ask him about the binding," Nikochi weighs in from the side.
What holds them together? Kirika asks. How can that be broken?
When the sun is low, even a pebble casts a long shadow, the voice says. Though a shadow is darkness and emptiness, it is cast by light in the shape of something. Without light, the shadows lose shape. Without the substance, light shines through. The voice pauses. Your eyes cannot see the true shape of your enemy. Your mind cannot comprehend its nature. But your heart can feel its center. This is where you must carry your strike.
Is there nothing that can help the others? Kirika asks.
I...don't know, the voice admits. I am Kouhei. I...made this. I forged a blade of life itself. For this you were all cursed to wield it. I knew...I knew so little and now know so much more but I cannot...you would not...there are not the right words for all this. I am sorry. More truth than this I cannot speak.
It's okay, Uncle, Kirika says. Thank you. For everything. She thinks of her adventures with Kaede, the way she's grown, the embrace of her father. She thinks of seeing all her ancestors, and the love and support she felt in that grove. This is no curse.
The voice falls silent all the way, as if a persistent hum in the room had stopped, and Kirika knows somehow that this was the last she will hear of Kouhei Kamura in this time and place. Still, the warmth of her family lingers with her.

"What did he say?" Nikochi asks insistently. "You did speak to him, didn't you? In your trance?"
"When the sun is low, even a pebble casts a long shadow," Kirika recites. "Without light, the shadow loses shape, without substance, light shines through."
"...that's the most meaningless mumbo-jumbo I've heard in years," Nikochi complains. "And I talk to spirits every day so that's saying something." He casts his eyes down, as if thinking about it further.
"They are created by the yokai's power, and anchored to something," Kirika says. "The stones. If we can block the yokai's power, or outshine it, or make it easy for the archers or gonne-soldiers or swordsman to break or disrupt the magic or the stones, would that work?"
"I guess it would," Nikochi says, "but how do you outshine a yokai's..." He falls silent and looks down again. After a few seconds, he's still staring downward, deep in thought. It's not altogether clear whether he realizes that Kirika is still there.
"Nikochi?" Kirika asks. She waves her hand at him, tattoos still shimmering and licking flames up her fingers from contacting her ancestors.
"Woah!" Nikochi shouts, jumping back from her a half-step. "Don't interrupt me! I'm trying to commune with the mountain tengu again and you know how touchy they are!" His eyes flick from side to side. "Okay that's all I need from you now go, go, go, sharpen your sword or something, I'll let you know when I have a plan!"
"Just...make it quick," Kirika says. "Your people for the warding will be down in a minute."
"Yes, yes," Nikochi says. "Go! Shoo!" When Kirika turns to leave, he shouts after her "White and red paint! I need white and red!"
"And some manners," Kirika mutters as she walks up the stairs.

---

Upstairs, Yukio is busy coordinating details of the defense with Shira. A few of the soldiers carrying in buckets of paint does, however, reveal that Nikochi's demands are being taken care of.

"What did he want to speak to you about, dearest?" Yukio asks, frowning slightly as she reads Kirika's mood - not the first time that Nikochi has been a negative influence on it, after all.
"What we can do to even the odds," Kirika says. "Rudely. He said red and white paint."
"We'll scrape the leaf gold off the statues if that's what it takes," Yukio says. "So, painting. Anything else? Anything we can do when we fight?"
"Break whatever is anchoring the magic," Kirika replies.
Yukio considers that. "So, break everything," she says.
"And kill them, yes," Kirika says. "How goes the planning?"
"Well," Yukio says. "Considering we're short by about two thousand warriors it would take to fully man the fortress perimeter." She sighs. "Father's already ridden off to engage the enemy. I just hope he doesn't do anything too reckless."
Kirika puts her hand on Yukio's. "We'll get through this."
Yukio looks directly at Kirika, offering a glimpse of steel in her eyes that sends a chill down Kirika's spine. "Yes," Yukio says coolly. "We will."
"Shira-dono!" Kirika says. "Where do you need me while we wait?"
Shira looks at Kirika right next to Yukio. "You are exactly where you are needed," he says.
"Very well," Kirika says, snuggling up as close to Yukio as she can through her love's armor. "Walk me through it, love."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-07-03 17:37:42
"The yokai is anchored to what remains of Ikishi, and her resistance fails even as we speak," Toshiba says, almost from nowhere. "It seeks fresh qi, and wants Himiko's at the very least. It is the pebble casting the shadow. In other words, cut off the head, the body dies."

Toshiba looks around. "I could follow Matsumoto, unless I am better served doing another task?"
Gatac 2019-08-05 18:55:26
It's been a while that Toshiba has sat on a horse. How long exactly? Difficult to tell. The Blue Oni has sat on many horses in his lifetime(s), horses big and small, swift and lame, trotting through grasslands just as he has galloped through a lightning storm, where the crashing of ironshod hooves on the kaidō beneath was as loud as the thunder above.

When was the last time he took the armor off?

The question soon becomes moot when he reaches the place where Matsumoto and his retainers have stopped, a little grove along the road with a small stream running past the road. Refreshments are taken, armor is fastened and quick prayers are spoken. The men keep their distance from Toshiba as he trots through them to Matsumoto himself, who's being helped into his armor while his longbow is being tensioned.

"Ah, Oni," he says. "Good to have an immortal on our side. Will you be riding with us into their midst or do you have some trickery up your sleeve?"
Toshiba nods. "We face an inhuman, frightening foe, Lord Matsumoto. It is not in trickery but in the heart of good men and women in which I place my trust this day. To that end..." he looks around at the soldiers who gave him a wide berth into the camp. "Would my presence bolster morale or would trusting to an unseen Oni's subterfuge be the salve your people need?"
Matsumoto ponders the question. "While subterfuge might be your stock in trade, I myself believe in the power of a bold rider in the biggest, brightest armor on the battlefield. If nothing else, my men will appreciate you drawing attention." He smiles. "But! What a picture it would be for you to ride into battle with naught but your knives to hand! Perhaps we might convince you to lend us a hand with something...louder?"
"No convincing needed," Toshiba replies, then pauses. "Wait. Is this something Ueki has constructed?"
"...'tis," Matsumoto admits. "Bring out the thunderer!" he calls to his men, then lowers his voice. "Truth be told, I've no eye for the use of gonnes and their kind...and it seems I lack a man crazy enough to wield such in my stead."
"No longer," Toshiba smiles, shaking his head in a what am I doing fashion. "Let's ride."

---

"NOT MUCH LONGER NOW, PRECIOUS SUMIKO," the foul creature intones, for nobody's benefit. Oh, sure, a crowd of a thousand warriors of bone and darkness marches alongside its twisted shape, but they no longer have the faculties to appreciate their yokai master's imminent triumph. There's just enough 'there' there to follow its commands, maybe raise a weapon to strike. And Ikishi Sumiko could no longer not hear the yokai's slightest thought than she could will her heart to stop beating, though, mercifully, it seems close to winding down on its own. No, the vocalization is pure affectation at this point in time...one might say, a shockingly human one. But the rotbeast has spent much time observing apes, learning their ways and becoming embroiled in their petty squabbles. It could no more return to what it once was than it could embrace the life of a mortal.

Perhaps that is why it hates them so much.

Yet the creature is not wholly removed from this world. Its darkness has shape and substance, enough that it can feel the earth underneath its feet - and that earth is rumbling. The yokai pauses and with it, its army stops. This is not them. This is the earth and its spirits, either. The yokai draws back one of its legs, grasps a branch off a nearby tree and hardly watches as its leaves fall and its bark rots away, revealing an iron-hard sword of pure rot. What could give it pause? Does it know...fear?

Lord Matsumoto's cavalry vanguard rumbles into view, cresting a small ledge ahead. As they come into sight, their war cries sweep towards the silent army of the dead.

---

Toshiba's rethinking this whole riding in their midst idea - not because he shies away from battle, but because the "thunderer" he has been saddled with is a gonne beyond description, more lance than firearm in format. With the bore of a ship's cannon yet with a much thinner barrel, it is as long as he is tall, perhaps longer still. The leather shoulder sling that now holds it in front of his chest seems long enough to hang a brigand from, and the buttstock attached to the back of the weapon inspires little confidence. In fact, Toshiba surmises, this weapon was not meant for a man at all; 'tis made to be planted into the ground, its barrel held aloft by a tripod, to lob its shells over the heads of the defender's lines. If, indeed, it could even do that without exploding.

Yet on a day like this, what can he do but embrace madness?

"Forward!" Matsumoto cries, his harsh voice carrying even over the din of the hooves and the shouts of his men.

Leave it to the old fox to not do things by halves; he is at the very tip of the charge, sword aloft like a banner, and damned if his finest men do not follow him. In an instant, they are upon the unyielding lines of the shadow warriors, riding down all in their path while their weapons scythe a path on either side of them. They plow forward, damn near a hundred shadows shattered in their wake before they are upon the large beast that seems the nexus of this army. Perhaps, Toshiba dares hope, it could all be so simple. Perhaps this really is the last dying gasp of a threat long since defeated, paper tigers in a sense, the dead merely having to be persuaded to lie down. Would that all their worries were for nothing!

And yet, when Matsumoto's blade shatters against the unyielding darkness of the yokai's form, Toshiba can only see that their charge was doomed from the beginning. Thoughts of victory flee his mind as quickly as they came, just as many - not all, but many - of the shadow warriors pull themselves together and rise again, cutting off the vanguard's retreat. Toshiba frowns under his armored helmet. For the first time in what feels like months, there are no helpful memories from the Oni, no flashes of insight, no voice speaking words from beyond. Just him and Yukio's father and a handful of samurai against the hordes of the dead.
Admiral Duck Sauce 2019-08-16 16:18:18
Oh good, this must be new to them, Toshiba thinks wryly. Steel breaks against the yokai, the undying warriors returning to their feet again and again, and Toshiba has a moment where he sees himself rocketing skyward, saving himself, but at what cost? The bitter looks from those he abandoned would be softened in death soon after, and yet he does not leave. For while the yokai is something the Onis before have never witnessed, Toshiba is willing to bet the Thunderer at least is something new as well.

He steels himself, arms the gonne like the armorers showed him back at camp, and shoots the damn yokai.