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Thread: Finals: Tainted Bushido

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    Finals: Tainted Bushido

    The finals will begin Monday April 24, 2017 at 3 PM EST. They will last 2 weeks. You may post at any pace, including a last minute post dump.

    In Akashima, Fordstein’s ploy was successful. Corone’s united army overwhelmed Akashima’s inferior force, and the former Senator was named Baron. In Gisela, Gum and Phyr failed in their mission to deliver the artifact, colloquially known as the ‘Thunderbox’, to Terrence Edim. The Thunderbox was lost to an agent of Fordstein, the assassin Cherub, and Gum and Phyr were captured by Fordstein following the betrayal of Ceidon Lore’s former shipmate, Saieda. With knowledge of a new world teeming with magic courtesy of Saieda and the ‘Thunderbox’ in tow thanks to the Cherub, Baron Fordstein took command of Corone’s navy and sailed on the new world with an invading force.

    You must write a solo, concluding your character’s role in the epoch. Somewhere in the body of your quest, you must:

    1) Name the new land and its people. Additional descriptions, such as city names, flora and fauna will become canon should you win, but only the first two are required.
    2) Baron Fordstein must die. The method is up to you.
    3) Decide the fate of the Tribe and the resistance (both of which can be renamed).

    Keep in mind, as indicated in the opening narrative, magic does not work like normal in the new land. Your ability to reflect this creatively will impact your score. Any NPCs adopted into the story may be used in your threads. Please avoid using other PCs.
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  2. #2
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    “Bring out the prisoner!”

    The sounds of the wind were nothing compared to the booming voice of the man that issued the order. The sea remained calm and unnaturally still. There was no cry of birds overhead. Anyone who ventured here would have deemed the place unnatural and left, spooked by the lack of life. The ships that had formed into an amassed fleet had steered clear of a side to watch the spectacle, aided with magic to make sure everyone could see. Concerning was how easy it was to expand the spell to the whole fleet as if the magical energies in the area were more than sufficient to fuel such a complex spell.

    The ship bobbed gently in the waters as the sound of rattling chains chimed into the darkness, bringing someone up from below decks. White hair stained black and dirtied by blood, and more hid the face of a man. Around his neck was the broken shards of a mask, letting all know who he was as he was roughly pulled above deck. He had stumbled before a belaying pin swatted across the head. He fell to his knees before he was struck again.

    “Get up you stupid mongrel. Face yer death with pride!” The man said as he raised both hands, daring the man to rise. A brown kimono, stained with blood and other detritus hung off his body, pulled at by the wind as the prisoner stood up. His sandals scraped against the boards of the deck. Two swords lay to his side, but they were not of much use, as he was chained, hands to feet. A small ball of considerable weight in his hands. While a potential weapon, his arms restricted in motion by the chains, and so he could only attack a weak opponent.

    He was hit again but bore the brunt of it before he continued forward, where the sailors had parted around the boarding plank, carefully tied down with the other end over the sea. To anyone watching what was to happen the outcome was a forgone conclusion. Still, silence reigned, a few chuckles of cackles breaking the otherwise oppressive silence. A man in a powdered wig and a suit that was pressed cleanly unrolled a piece of parchment. The true enemy, the one Taka had forgotten to deal with was before him. Senator Fordstein gave Taka a warm smile before he began to read it, his voice bolstered by the magic broadcasting the event.

    “Benjiro Taka, you are accused of the following crimes. Murder of the first degree of General Gregore Lipscomb, interfering with a sanctioned government act, conspiracy against the Coronian government, sedition, inciting rebellion, and high treason to the Coronian government. How does the accused plead?”

    Everyone looked to the Samurai who remained resolutely silent. Time stretched to an uncomfortable amount of time before the man said, “Let the record show the accused remained silent. By not contesting his crimes he is found guilty without admission. I sentence him to execution by drowning. He shall be thrown into the sea and left for dead, and may the Thayne take mercy on his wretched soul!”

    A hand pushed him towards the plank that had extended over the ocean. The ronin stumbled but maintained his footing before he moved out onto the boards. There would be no mercy, even with his blades with him. The weight of the ball he dragged would pull him down to the bottom of the depths. The oni would either keep trying to escape the situation before realising the waves would be its prison, or merely take his soul and be happy with what it could accomplish. There would be no return for the fallen samurai; this was the end of Taka’s story.

    “Have you any last words?” The voice held a hint of amusement. Senator Fordstein seemed to watch Taka with a genuine glint of sadistic glee in his eyes.

    The ronin knew what Fordstein hoped. In Akashiman culture it was customary before execution or seppuku to give a death poem, the last gift of art to the world that needed such things. It was a reminder that while death occurred, life was also important. Taka had half a mind to remain silent; his captor was not worthy of such a gift. He had gathered his thoughts before a flash of insight hit him, and nodded. Taka cleared his throat and lifted the ball attached to his chain, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves...”

    Fordstein gave Taka a cold look as the ronin defiantly smiled, and stepped backwards into the water. He would deny the senator the spectacle of executing the Ixian General. The cries of outrage exploded across the still waters at Taka's defiance. Silence, he was once more in the sea the waters chilled and scratched at his body. He let the ball go, feeling it pull him deeper as his mouth remained shut. He held his breath for as long as he could. The light of the world above him began to fade to a dark blue, and a black before the burning in his lungs opened his mouth. The bubbles of escaping air were the last signs of the fallen General.

    Above on the ship, Fordstein watched, seeing the bubbles pop as the final breath of the Ixian General left the world. In truth, the Senator had expected some display of the General’s prowess and a drawn out execution. He had underestimated the Ronin, and he was happy that this would be the final time he would see such a man. Men like Taka were dangerous; they inspired their others around them.

    Splashes echoed through the area as other men met the same fate. It had taken some time, but the fabled Mercenary Company of the Dark Blade was found hiding amongst the ships of Fordstein’s armada. The Senator had taken it as a sign that the Thayne approved, though he needed no such blessing. He was a man of practicality, and destroying the entirety of the Mercenary Company would ensure he had absolute control when he wiped out the Raas and the Mau tribes. It was a definitive statement to those who would oppose him.

    The Ixian Knights were no more, and their light extinguished in the new world.

  3. #3
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    The world was dark, a land he was more than familiar. Darkness, this was the state he waited in, the realm between worlds. Loneliness was the place he returned every time that he died and waited for the Oni to decide if this would be the final time. This realm was Meido, the realm of waiting, where Enma-o awaited the dead to give their judgment. He sat up and took the meditative trance he always did, knowing nothing he said or did matter here. One time he had cursed his misfortunes and screamed for an hour, with no one coming to comfort or calm the Ronin.

    He remained silent, steadying his breath to an imperceptible moment when he heard it. The rustle of cloth, the scraping of leather upon the ground, the movement of dirt. He had never experienced before. Normally he was the cause of such noise, not the observer. Opening his eyes, he looked upon the realm of waiting once more and noticed shadows, people getting up. Hand hovered over the hilt of Rengoku as he rose and carefully approached what he assumed was another waiting dead.

    He saw five figures get up checking over themselves. They were not sluggish in their movements, trained fighters in their right. Taka continued his vigil remaining silent before the first looked at him. A crossbow rose in the darkness, and the Ronin stiffened, preparing for the strike, only to see the figure respond in kind. The crossbow lowered only slightly, a tacit warning of intent before a familiar voice pierced the darkness, “Boss, that you?”

    Taka carefully lowered his hand before he spoke out, “Is that you Erikson-san?”

    The crossbow moved away as the man stood up, “That the rest of you guys? Did everyone make it?” Sounds of affirmation made it into the air as slowly the mercenaries gathered around their leader. For the first time since Yanbo Port fell, the Mercenary Company was together. The looked at each other, checking and finding their gear where it was left. All were in the exact condition they died in, and each was unharmed. Looking upon the men Taka felt a pride swell in him, if they were to move on and go to good places, he would be alright with that.

    Light flooded the plane for the first time Taka had ever remembered, and a gauntlet-clad hand rose to give him some shade from its brightness. The men all reacted similarly with Erikson keeping his shooting eye closed while aiming towards the source of light, Taka turned to face it and noticed a woman approaching them.

    The woman was likely a relative term. In places her skin was as scales, shining in the dark. She wore a skirt of fishnet doubled and redoubled in a pattern that gave modesty to the wearer. Her top was nothing more than what looked like ragged sale wrapped over a modest chest. Tattoos raced along her arms, in much the fashion of a sailor. Some were of Akashiman influence, and others he recognised from a few of the trading companies in Corone. All were patterns lost to the sea. Her hair was as elusive as the ocean, a wavy mass that shifted between the rich blue of the ocean and the white of a wave crest.

    Her eyes were the grey of storm clouds, and while her face would win no beauty pageants, it was a face that certainly had an allure of its own. She was the embodiment of the sea and its sailors, wild with no care for the affairs of others. Her gaze studied the men before her, callously judging them before she spoke, her voice serene, “I see you all made it. I’m sorry General, this is all I could save…”

    Taka moved forward, careful to never get between Erikson and his target as he spoke, “Who are you?”

    “I am many things to many people. To the Akashimans I am Susanoo no Makoto, to the pirates and orcs of Keribas I am Besmara, to the Lavinians, I am Ghorrun, and to the world, I am-”

    “Am’aleh, thayne of the storm and sea,” Taka replied cutting her off. If she was annoyed, she didn’t show it, instead of rewarding him with a smile. Am'aleh reached forward and gently brushed the hair from his face her eyes locking with the Ronin’s own. Taka gently shied from her touch as she let a soft laugh escape.

    “It is a pleasure to see you again; I was afraid you had forgotten me with how many times you had incarnated,” The goddess said.

    Taka was confused by the words but knew that the answer to his question had never come from his mind, but his heart. He quietly put aside the confusion seeking truths instead as he spoke, “You said you rescued who you could, how many are dead?”

    Am’aleh sighed, "Every soldier of the army that turned on Gregore Lipscomb, Senator Fordstein executed. Even if I tried to harness the Tap, it was beyond my ability to save them all. So, I rescued the men who I knew were loyal to you. Men who had followed you into death willingly and not convinced to do so. The six of you have a chance to save this world from a cancer that eats away at it.”

    Taka frowned at the words as he looked back at the others, “Six is not enough. As much as I trust my men and their abilities, I will not sacrifice them on a fool’s errand either.”

    She nodded as she spoke, “That sense of justice was always your more endearing trait. Very well, allow me to explain. Our story goes back in time, to before Akashima and Corone as we know it. To a time when the Durklan were in control of Raiaera and Alerar was a province of the dwarves. Salvar had discovered a source of power that was unlike any other and this lead to a fight over how to use such power…”

    “There is a Tap source here…” Erikson breathed, lowering his crossbow. Taka remained fixed on the goddess while the others looked worriedly at the Ixian. He was in awe at the words he had spoken as he shook his head.

    Am’aleh smiled, "Excellent, I see the lessons of the past are not lost…”

  4. #4
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    Taka turned to his lieutenant who spoke up, “Salvar discovered a fountain of Mana, it was nothing anyone had ever seen. A group of people used that font and developed Adamantine amongst other things. That's why it's so hard to forget. There’s maybe one guy who’s managed to pool enough mana to quench it and give Adamantine the properties it is known for in Kachuk. The problem with the Tap was, it was like...if someone brought a canon to a swordfight.”

    “An apt description. It gave the handful of people who controlled the Tap the power to defeat entire armies. These few folks would eventually be known as the Forgotten Ones who had their mark on history as the only reminder of their passing, until recently,” Am'aleh explained. “Both the Corpse War, and the subsequent cleansing of the Red Forest were the results of the world trying to lay the Forgotten Ones to rest once and for all. There are however four left unaccounted. Denbriel, Aesphestos, Oblivion, and Esthilda are still at large, and one of them, turned their gaze here after they lost the war.”

    Taka turned back to Am’aleh before he spoke, “Then what happened here?”

    “This is the future if the Forgotten Ones are allowed to work tirelessly. Aesphestos created a Tap forge and took the local race, the Mau, then shaped them with the font. He increased their prowess and lethality in return for worship as a god. The ruling body, the Raas are all his doing and they are loyal to their master who syphons from the Tap for his work in Keribas. They do not realise they have poisoned the land, but there is hope. The land is not gone yet…” Am’aleh replied.

    “If we cut off the source, how long would it take the mana burn from the land to fade?” Taka asked.

    “Not in your lifetime my child, but eventually. The Mau would need several Generations to be able to return here. Nature will require them to go forth, but they would have their home once more. You must destroy the spigot, and in doing so cut the tap off at the source, but if you do this-”

    “We would be declaring war on the third Forgotten One in such short time. The world may not be ready for such a burden,” Taka said sagely. Am’aleh gave him a sad smile. The others had looked to Taka before he spoke, “How much blood must be shed to stop those monsters? The Ixian Knights cannot stand in the door keeping them out for much longer; others need rise to the call as well…”

    Am’aleh shrugged, “The Mau were once loyal to me, now they worship Aesphestos and hope he will ascend them from what they deem their pathetic forms. There is a group that still clings to me for their safety, and I bring you back as my part of the bargain. They have remained loyal when death is the punishment for courting me; I will reward such loyalty, can you say the same?”

    The two looked at each other for what seemed an eternity before he looked down, “I do not know if I can defeat a Forgotten One.”

    Am’aleh carefully cupped his cheek and brought his eyes up, “I see the doubt, I know the source. Taka of clan Benjiro-”

    “That is not my name, not anymore…” The Ronin cut her off.

    “You may have lost your name, but you have never lost your path. You are a Benjiro whether you accept that fact or not. I name you such, will you argue such a thing with a god?” He had glanced at the Storm Goddess before he shook his head, “Very well. You are the soul of one of my children, given to Akashima when it needs it. You have only rest in a handful of lifetimes, but you have never shirked from your duty. Akashima needs you, as does the Mau. I ask you descendent of Benjiro, will you honor your ancestors and take up your blade?”

    The ronin pulled back from her touch. The goddess lowered her hand and crossed her arms as she gazed upon the fallen samurai. Her eyes held that strange glint of a parent that already knew the answer. He struggled to find a way to express it, and in doing so he found the truth, “I cannot turn my back on this. I have died for these people already, to leave them to their fate is not acceptable.”

    Am’aleh smiled as she spoke, “The mana prevents me from stepping ashore. However, I can get you to the Mau, who will help you through the storms off the coast of Odrana. While they use my power as a defence, they forget to whom their power belongs. When the time comes, I will let you through to defeat the threat. In return for giving you a chance to deal with Fordstein, you must promise me two things.”

    The mercenaries began to prepare themselves, not longer listening. They knew all that was going on was the closing negotiations. They didn’t question the orders, and they knew they were being given a second chance at life. To that end, they waited patiently and readied for the war they were engaging. Taka was relieved at the show of loyalty and felt the heat of pride fill his chest when he gathered his thoughts.

    Taka looked at the woman before he spoke, “Speak your terms Susano’o-kami.”

    “Fordstein’s body is mine. I need it to gain access to his soul. Enma-o will not permit me to punish him otherwise. The second is that you bring the artifact of mine to the Tap. Do you accept my terms?”

    Taka glanced at his men, “I do.”

    Am’aleh moved with such speed Taka didn’t notice it. Her hand speared into Taka’s chest. The fingers pierced through flesh and bone with ease. Taka's mercenaries readied weapons, not sure how they could fight a god, but more than willing to try. The ronin spasmed once on her hand, before going limp. She gently stroked his hair before she whispered, “Be reborn Benjiro Taka, Soul of Water, savior of Akashima.”

    ~*~

    He coughed, water pouring from his mouth to the sand below him. The feeling of wet sand comforting as he heard the retching of others beside him. Carefully the men of the Mercenary Company recovered from the experience of drowning and began to look for their leader. As Taka pulled himself upright the men spoke up, “Is this what it’s like for you boss, waking up after dying?”

    The Ronin looked upon the person asking. He was a Coronian commoner, Hawkins, Taka remembered, was a relatively recent acquisition. One that Taka had taken on for the help he had given the Ronin during a mission. He gave the man a friendly smile and spoke, “Every time Hawkins-san…”

    “Still think it’s a blessing Hawkins?” Erikson jabbed. The man shook his head as the brief moment of levity confirmed what Taka suspected. While the men had coughed up water and seemed to have begun pruning from the saturation, their gear was perfectly dry.

  5. #5
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    The group pressed forward, making it beneath the canopy of the trees, though mostly it was dead wood. Some were pulled down to use for a fire as the men dried themselves out and kept warm. The land looked cracked and furrowed, as if it was dry, despite being on the coast and having no reason to be. The trees showed similar patterning, almost as if wreathed in fire, but not burning. The lack of signs of life was even more disturbing. It gave the land a quiet that was unnatural and upsetting.

    The group of mercenaries remained silent, not partaking of the carousing and humor that was common around such campfires. The severity of the situation not lost on them. They should have all been dead. Instead, they had a second chance. The fact that chance was a suicide mission was what kept them sombre. If they succeeded, then they earned the right to live, though what kind of life was the question. Would they be heroes? Villains? Was there a word for what they were about to do?

    The Ronin remained quiet as he gazed into the flames, his eyes never deviating as the mask hang from the saya of Rengoku. It was not yet time to hide his face and kill his heart. He remained passive even as he heard the approaching footsteps. He merely gestured to his men to give them a warning. Crossbows and bows readied as the cats came into the clearing and looked upon the group.

    “Intruders!” One of the cats hissed. It was odd hearing Tradespeak from the feline mouths who up till then had only spoken in sharp and harsh phrases. Taka remained passive, his men holding their fire as they watched a few more cats enter the clearing. One held a staff and seemed to be a leader of sorts, silver fur dyed in reds along with the cloth she used in her choice of clothing. Taka waited for her to step up to stand and moved to face the leader.

    “I am the Ronin Taka from Akashima,” He said firmly. He knew better than to ask questions. Answers would be forthcoming.

    “Ronin Taka? That is a funny name foreigner. I am A’lia keeper of the lore for the Mau. You are not welcome here, leave or suffer the consequences,” The supposed leader spoke.

    “Am’aleh wished us to help you,” Taka replied, taking a guess at the circumstances. A’lia seemed to twitch her ears at the name of the Storm Goddess before she spoke;

    “You are bold to say such a name here, that is punishable by death. Aesphestos does not tolerate worshipping the gods of old.” She seemed to give him a knowing look before she continued, “ We have you surrounded, there is no point in fighting us, you can either surrender or die. Please choose quickly.”

    “Stand down, there will be no fighting,” He answered, looking back at the men behind him. He saw more of the cat folk come from the forest until there was a larger group surrounding the mercenary company.

    “Very well, be silent, there are many ears in this forest,” A’lia spoke. Her gaze seemed to underline those words as Taka followed her. The cats formed a grouping around them as they wandered the dead forest. The other Mercenaries kept their ranged weapons at the ready but didn’t point them at their escorts moving through the woods with a whimsical gate. What seemed to the Ronin like a series of random twists and turned eventually ending at their destination, a cave. Outside the cave A’lia turned to face them, “Thank you, we needed to be sure no one followed. You met with Am’aleh?”

    “We did,” Taka affirmed. The cat woman seemed to relax. She gestured them inside where they saw what looked to be a small shrine to the deity. If there was any place safe from the prying eyes of the Forgotten One, this was it. The mercenaries moved inside and took positions about the shrine some giving a quick prayer of thanks to the shrine as the Catfolk whispered about the humans who seemed to know their God.

    “Praise the storm; she heard our prayers. We have much work to do Ronin Taka; the Tap is a threat. Our lands are a caution to the others what happens to those that meddle in things unnatural,” A’lia replied. She interrupted Taka’s watch over his men as he viewed the Lorekeeper.

    “She explained to us the...larger story, but its intricacies remain a mystery. I know Aesphestos has used your race to secure this font and that he created the Raas to hold it against attempts by the Mau to shut it off. That Odrana suffers from the mana that saturates the soil itself,” Taka offered.

    A’lia nodded as she spoke, “There is a small group of Raas that rule over us all called the Unbroken, they are the chosen of Aesphestos to stand vigil over the Tap. The Raas as a whole are the more, bestial members of our race you have seen. The Tap infuses them and grants them strength and speed in return for eroding their sense of self. Once dipped into the font, they lose all sense of self and begin to become something else entirely. That thing only sees the Mau as a weaker slave to push about.”

    Erikson spoke up, “Sounds like a slave that doesn’t recognise the collar about its neck. I’ve seen it from time to time…” He moved to his leader’s side as he gestured about, “This cave is neat and all, but you aren’t expecting us to live in here while we figure out how to fight back do you?”

    “Do not worry, you are safe here, only the devoted have visited the shrine,” A’lia assured Erikson who shook his head.

    “That’s not what I mean; we need to strike fast and hard. Fordstein is off the coast, and it’s only a matter of time before his mages figure out how to breach the storm you got around here. So we need to know everything we can about what kind of a fight you’re putting up and how many we can rely on,” Erikson replied bluntly. Taka was grateful the man was willing to speak up; it would make convincing A’lia of the urgency that was required easier.

    A’lia sighed, “Those mages will likely kill themselves if they ever got ashore. However, the soldiers would prove problematic. I would say maybe twenty of the Mau, that's all that's left, the Raas easily outnumber us two or three to one. The others are too afraid to fight back.”

    “One issue at a time, Fordstein puts us on a clock that will hasten our defeat. If he provokes the Raas and they prepare for war, we can’t deal with the problem of the Tap. Right now they probably feel they are safe in the storm, and for now we need that to remain so. Further, we need to retrieve one of Am’aleh’s artifacts to seal the Tap for good. If we don’t, Aesphestos will merely turn the Tap back on. If he can’t, I’ve in a few generations you will find the land recovering and have a home once more,” The Ronin explained looking at A’lia before he gestured to Erikson, “My men have two important tasks to complete, and the fate of your people hangs in the balance. Do you fight for the hope of the future, or to maintain the present?”

    A’lia’s ears pressed against her head as she contemplated the choice before her. Her eyes looked to the humans before her, “Am’aleh said we could have a home again?”

    “She did. In several generations, you can come back and help the land heal from what has occurred, but that won’t happen if you do not help us,” Taka said softly, “We have much to plan, are you ready?”

    A’lia looked at the Ronin for what seemed an eternity, “We have work to do.”

  6. #6
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    Carefully a stick was used to carve into the dirt. With water to help it hold sway the six members of the mercenary team laid out the entirety of Baron Fordstein’s fleet. With the aid of A'lia, they then placed it on the right portion of the Isle, filling in information until they had constructed a large map of the coast of Odrana and the invading force. Taka looked at the map intently as he puzzled over different scenarios. His eyes unfocused as he seemed to not even see before him.

    He would ponder consequences and contingencies and discarded the ones that would require too much thought. They didn’t have infinite resources or time, it needed to be simple, and it needed to be effective. If he couldn’t accomplish it within an hour, it took too long, and if it required more than what the mercenaries usually carried it was too intricate. Finally, he spoke, his voice soft, “How many Akashimans?”

    Erikson looked at Taka confused before his eyes lit up, “Handful per ship, why?”

    “How many conscripts?” Taka asked again.

    A’lia had brightened at the prospect, “You seek their hearts, not their minds...yes?”

    “Nearly all the men are conscripts of some sort. I’m sure if we managed to take control of the fleet we would be able to convince most of the fleet to stand down,” Erikson said, “But that’s the problem, how do you take control of something like this?”

    “Erikson, Hawkins, Weatherly, Grimes, Smith, you have followed me to hell, but now is the time I let you go. For this to work you will be leading your bands, take the Mau onto the ships that remain loyal. Prepare to take out their gunpowder, and the explosions will by my signal to take out Fordstein aboard his ship. If we hit our ships at roughly the same time, they won’t be able to react. From there, it should be simple to gain control of the fleet. I expect Fordstein to have Am’aleh’s artifact aboard his ship, he would never let such a powerful piece from his sight once he had it, once that is accomplished I will convince the mages aboard Fordstein’s ship to let me address the others,” Taka answered.

    “Boss they have what? Twenty men? Who’s going with you?” Erikson asked.

    “I have relied on you for too long, and you have been forced to endure my burden. For this fight, my burdens are my own,” Taka replied. His gaze turned to each of his men as he spoke, “You have the strength to prevail, and I will do so on my own. You have followed me into death, and I call you each my brother. Am'aleh was wrong, I never lost my family, it has been beside me all along…” His men nodded as he turned to A’lia, “We have finished, we will need to wait for nightfall, bring your tribe. I need to see who will work well with who and go from there. Will they be able to communicate on the waters?”

    A’lia shrugged, “We aren’t sure how it works, only that the Tap is distorting everything here. We aren’t speaking anything different than our native tongue, but you hear us just fine. I would guess that it would last long enough, but I would work out hand signs to use in case we cannot speak.”

    Taka grimaced at the explanation hoping for a more solid fact. However, with everything improvised as it was, what was a few hours to get hand signals when they had to wait anyways? Still, the Ronin knew he would need to prepare himself for battle against a man who would try to evoke as much hatred and anger as he could. Taka could not afford to fall for the traps that Fordstein would surely lay.

    “Right now the only thing we have is that the thunderstorms have not yet dropped and that he won’t risk his ships in them. We have a small element of surprise and every hour is a step closer to losing that. Can you pray to Am'aleh for a night fog as thick as possible? I know it's asking for much from her, but I can think of nothing that would help us better. Especially if we can remain silent and unseen,” Taka finally asked.

    A’lia laughed, “You have asked her yourself. We are in her shrine, all we say and do has been within her view. If she wishes to grant your request, she will do so, but she is the sea…”

    “She will do as she pleases…” Taka finished.

    ~*~

    The small group of Mau huddled on ships as the Ronin squared off with the Lorekeeper. He gazed at her, “Do you not wish to join us?”

    “I cannot leave the island Ronin Taka,” A’lia replied, “Its fate is my own, I will not abandon it now.”

    “We fight to come back and help you,” Taka offered, “Would that not count for your practices?”

    A’lia let out a laugh that seemed odd from the Mau, “You do not understand, but you will soon enough. Am’aleh guide you, Ronin Taka, she tells me you are worthy.”

    The Ronin looked at her, “We shall see if that’s enough. Part of me fears it is not.”

  7. #7
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    The rafts they used moved silently in the night. At first they used long poles to push against the ground to lower the amount of sound that was necessary, but eventually, they needed to use oars. And so they moved, silently towards their targets. As was asked fog was choking the vision of the ships, even as the rafts made it to the chains that anchored the ships off the coast. Slowly one of the cat folk would climb a chain and carefully place a hook with a knotted rope. So far the plan had been an unqualified success.

    It wasn’t until the first man with a lantern that their scheme had to change. One of the Mau took aim only to see the hand signal to stop. Erikson leant close to the Mau’s ear, “Too low, aim above the light.” The cat looked at him and nodded aiming higher before he let it go. The arrow whistled and struck true, hitting the man fully in the chest. A gasp and cry filtered through the air giving away the fight that was to occur. Cursing Erikson pulled his Crossbow and said firmly, “Move quickly, we don’t have time, if they wake up we’re all dead!”

    The lantern was laying on the deck, and so Erikson did the only thing he could think of, he tossed it towards one of the sets of stairs down below and prayed. The oil splashing caused the flame to expand and engulf the stairs as he gestured down a second staircase across the deck. The Mau moved silently using catlike grace to get below decks. Erikson saw the men rushing to the other side as he breathed a sigh of relief. They wanted to save the ship, not scuttle it.

    That was all they needed to light a powder keg and rush above decks. The fuse was cut long, but not forever, and they had chosen one that would be far back. They would have to hope no one came to check the powder in the meantime as they cleared the deck and saw several men rushing about. Buckets of water were thrown overboard and pulled up with a rope to toss on the fire as they struggled to contain it. Erikson gestured to the aftcastle where they had made their ascent, and they moved as one to escape. One of the men spotted the figures running to the back and cried out, raising the alarm. Erikson cursed as he told the Mau without ranged weapons to get on the raft and push off.

    He had two Mau and his crossbow as he took aim and began to fire into the group of sailors starting to form in opposition. More bows were brought up and forced Erikson to take cover as one of the Mau was caught in the open. Arrows stuck out of the warrior as he fell looking at Erikson and nodding. They knew casualties were going to happen, and Erikson was grateful he didn’t blame the caravan guard. Loading his crossbow, he took aim and shot out another lantern, oil and fire spilling onto the deck as he shouted out, “Death to tyrants!”

    More sailors poured above decks and Erikson gestured to the railing as the last remaining Mau nodded. They ran and jumped over the railing into the water as they swam beneath the sea to reach their target. The raft that had hopefully gotten away from the ship enough to not be caught in the explosion that rocked the harbor.

    ~*~

    Things were going perfectly. Smith’s team had snuck aboard and dealt with the watch guard up top quietly. While he hated slitting throats, he couldn’t help that it was a perfect solution to the problem. Waiting until the men were on opposite sides of the ship they snuck up and killed the guards. With cloaks, two of the Mau continued the vigil while the rest went below decks to light the fuses. Making such quick time, Smith cut his a bit longer, knowing the others would not be so lucky and hoping to get his in sync with the others.

    Moving above he signalled the two lookouts and they slipped off the ship, no one the wiser as the bodies were given to the sea to devour. By the time they figured what had gone wrong it would already be too late. Now it was all in the Boss’ hands.

    ~*~

    Taka moved along the side of the ship feeling the current beneath his feet. His eyes scanned the deck when saw his opportunity. His ship had been smaller, and so he had managed to guide it silently alongside the prize of the Baron’s armada. The flag proudly bearing the red eagle of Akashima surrounded by the black snake of the Fordstein coat of arms was a silent mockery of all Akashima stood for, and so Taka vowed to see that flag burned.

    He carefully climbed the chain of the anchor, moving when he was sure no one was close to where he would ascend. His movement was silent and confident, and he waited, silently with a foot in a link for the signal. He looked out amongst the ships when the first one exploded. Soon others followed, and he mentally counted off at least four such explosions. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of Smith’s ship before it too exploded, heralding the destruction of every loyal Fordstein ship. Taka moved up above decks and landed in the aft castle. He spotted Sailors looking out through the thinning fog at the burning wreckage of the ships.

    There was no mistaking the message delivered. When Fordstein had killed off the Mercenary company he had said he was declaring war on the Ixian Knights; now he had his answer. If war he wanted, it would be war he would get. A shout pierced the air as Baron Fordstein moved to the sides of the ships, from one to the other and shouted, “What in Haidia has happened? Who let this happen?”

    Taka knew an opportunity when he saw one. He carefully placed his mask on his face and began his descent onto the deck as he shouted out, “When you come seeking vengeance, be prepared to dig two graves.”

    Eyes turned to the Ronin who descended the stairs, people moving out of the way. Fordstein turned to look at the ghost of a man he swore free from as he pointed at the Ronin, “There is no way you are alive! I demand you remove that mask and stop pretending to be Benjiro Taka!”

    “You do not respect Akashima. Therefore you don’t know the truth about calling a ronin by their lost name. I refused to answer your accusations because that is not my name, I am cast out of my family. You insult me by assuming you can call me by that name, and if insults you wish to throw, I will oblige you…” Taka replied firmly.

    Fordstein shook his head slowly before he pointed at the Ronin, “Kill him and dump his body overboard. I have no time for these silly games!”

    Thunder rumbled overhead at the order as the sailors looked to the skies. The clouds that had formed around the island to protect it were stretching over the Armada as Taka spoke, he knew the words were not his, “Any who wish to raise a hand against me may do so, but you risk Am’aleh’s wrath for doing so. Step forward and face judgment Baron Alexander Fordstein. You are guilty of Greed that sells your fellow man to others for profit. You are guilty of Ambition that sees you disrupt a careful balance in a nation not your own. You are guilty of a Treachery against those you once called allies. Step forward and face trial by combat before the gods.”

    “You have no authority here! I am the Baron of your hometown! You think you can levy a law against me?! In my place of power? Kill him now! A thousand gold to the one who brings me his mask!”

    The men seemed to look between the two as Taka replied, “If you wish my mask, you need only ask. If you want freedom from him, you need only follow me. If you desire to end your life early, come with weapon drawn.” The sailors moved to let him through, leaving a trio between the Ronin and Fordstein. Taka gazed upon the men, “You wish to champion him?”

    Fordstein looked at the men as he spoke, “I’ll give you your weight in gold to make this man disappear.”

    Taka lowered himself into a stance, hand hovering over sheath as the men moved as one spreading about the Ronin. He eyed each one seemed noncommittal to the fight, their greed masking their true warrior’s spirit. The ronin let a soft snort filter through his nose as he moved swiftly, drawing steel and emptying the first Sailor’s guts to the ground. The other two moved to take him on, one with a cutlass and the other with a belaying pin. Taka recognised the mace-armed man as the one who had hit him before and sliced out, cutting the man on an arm when he failed to move back in time.

    The cutlass was brought out in a cleaving blow that would have cut deeply into his side. Taka was aware of the strike only briefly before he moved once more and felt his heart wrench with the motion. Everything was as in slow motion, the cutlass moving to hit him quickly dodged, and his blade finding the artery of his attacker’s neck. Blood spurt from the wound as a sound like thunder boomed across the waters and Taka felt a piercing pain in his shoulder. The ronin stabbed Rengoku through the third man as he turned, seeing the smoking pistol in Fordstein’s hand.

    Slowly his Kimono darkened about the wound in his shoulder, as blood dripped down his arm.

  8. #8
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    “Good show, I’d have paid to see that again. I wonder, that burst of speed, is it a stamina thing? Perhaps it’s magic? I don’t know, but what I do know is I got your shoulder. I doubt you could repeat that trick again with the same skill,” Fordstein said as he casually tossed the pistol aside and pulled another one. Taka clutched his shoulder, but to his credit remained standing as blackened blood spilt from the wound. The senator turned Baron pushed his advantage and continued, “I could have made you mighty Taka. You don’t mind if I call you Taka, do you? I suppose not as that's your only name. I could have given you back everything, but you still clung to your useless honor. A relic of the past that serves no one, not even your Empress.”

    If he wanted to get a rise from the Ronin, he was sadly disappointed. The Ixian General remained stoically silent as he regarded the Baron with dead eyes. The blade held resolutely, despite the black river that poured down his arm and onto the edge.

    “Do you know why I wanted Akashima?I suppose not, so let me tell you a story. You see I had a venture in Akashima, very lucrative. Goods were traded in your country, through a small port in Yanbo Harbor. Gold flowed like water, and I increased my influence in Radasanth. Imagine my frustrations when that venture went belly up because of one stupid warrior who refused to die…”

    “Kuroi Taiyo,” Taka managed.

    “Splendid, you do remember. Yes, I was trying to smuggle goods into the country, and you managed to get the entire organization destroyed from the inside out. You not only cut down the plant but uprooted it as well then burned the seeds. We lost thousands of gold on that investment,” Fordstein said, he casually looked at his hand for dirt before he continued, “I should make you suffer for that. However, I’m a gracious god, and I will give you the quick death you deserve.”

    He fired the pistol into the Ronin again, hitting Taka in the stomach. The Ronin groaned from the pain as the blackened blood spilt from his gut. The Baron chuckled malevolently, “Bad form old bean, you should have stayed dead. Someone fetch me a chair, I want to see the life leave his eyes.”

    Taka fell to a knee but struggled and pushed back onto his feet as he looked at Fordstein. The assumption the man would follow the normal rules of duelling had been his undoing, and somehow he had forgotten the man was a snake. Fordstein would honor no rule that impeded his movement. If possible the Baron would kill Taka in a heartbeat and save himself the money to pay someone else for such a thing. Fordstein smiled at the man as he nodded, “I must say, you impress me, a lesser man would have rolled over and died after the second shot.”

    Taka stumbled towards him fighting to keep going, bringing a dark chuckle from the Baron’s lips. The sailors remained silent as they watched this mockery of a fight. Fordstein rolled up his sleeves in a gaudy show, while the Ronin took another haggard step towards him. Fordstein threw a punch that connected with the mask and glanced off, rocking the Ronin’s head, “I always wondered, why the mask? Are you hiding something? Is it because you believe in the vanity of a face? Or is it that you wish to unnerve your opponent?”

    Fordstein punched the Ronin in the bullet wound to his gut, another grunt escaping Taka as he drew back a bloodied hand. He examined the blackened blood with a grim fascination. A haughty chuckle left him before another punch to the porcelain, shattering it and causing a chunk to fall to the ground. He leaned down to look at the face and frowned upon seeing it. He finally choked out, “What is wrong with you?”

    Beneath the mask was the leering grin of a madman. The eyes of the ronin locking with the Baron’s own as he reached out with his wounded arm and grabbed the man by his shoulder. Fordstein struggled, trying to break the Ronin’s grip as the sound of metal upon metal rang out. Taka unsheathed the Tanto at the small of his back and stabbed it just below the sternum of his foe, and he spoke with calmness, “I find joy in battle, it is, however, mine and no one else’s. I wear the mask for you, not myself.” With the last of his strength, he shoved hard, sending Fordstein over the railing. Taka groaned from the effort and leant heavily against it. The ronin slumped to the ground and sat back on the railing as he grimaced and held his belly, trying to stop the blood flow.

    The sailors looked at the bleeding out Ronin as the storm began to strike amidst the ships. The sailors began to mutter prayers as the storm intensified, centred over the Baron’s ship and the Ronin aboard it. The rumbles of thunder echoing across the bay as lightning began to strike, hitting the destroyed ships as if venting frustrations. The clouds slowly paced about the ship, before striking.

    A bolt landed on the ship instead of lighting the ship on fire, the form of Am’aleh left in its wake. The only sign of the lighting strike was the ash singing of the boards while she looked at the bleeding Ronin and clucked her tongue at the sight. Blue hair was brushed back before the stormy gaze turned to the sailors about her.

    The sailors immediately took a knee, knowing they were in the presence of something far greater. Her gaze drifted to each one, studying and weighing their worth before she nodded as if satisfied. Her eyes regarded them each in turn before she turned to the Ronin and spoke, “He is my child, make him ready to fight. He has a promise to keep.”

    The Sailors moved to help the Ronin who groaned and finally slipped into darkness, the last thing he saw was the smile on Am’aleh’s face.

  9. #9
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    Am’aleh looked upon the fallen form of her chosen champion. The blood that marked the Oni’s corruption seeped from his wounds, seeking to ensnare the body in that corruption. To her this was unacceptable, and so she would have to wake him up from his rest amongst the dead before the Oni could. Men moved to rip the bullets out of the Ronin’s body as he lay limp on the deck, having defeated the Baron and delivering on the promise to give Fordstein’s soul to Am’aleh.

    She relished the task of teaching that man what it meant to mess with a Thayne’s plans.

    The bullet lay upon the deck, covered in blackened blood as the Thayne waited patiently. Finally, she spoke, “Is he patched up?”

    “As good as I can make it, I doubt he’s alive…” The man replied firmly. She was grateful for his candor and nodded before she graced him with a hand on his shoulder. He looked to her before she gently pushed him back, clearing the men from about the body on the deck. Her stormy grey eyes never left the corpse of the Ronin as she gestured them back, and the sailors stood back as far as possible Some climbed the fore and aft castles to see the spectacle they were about to behold.

    “Wake up Benjiro Taka, you have not completed your task yet,” She said firmly. The body remained resolutely still before she shook her head, “No, no rest for you oh Samurai. I am your master, and I command you to fight!” Her words underlined by a bolt of lightning striking the dead form of Taka. A scream pierced the night as the Ronin arched, his body convulsing as the energy flooded into him. He hunched forward his chest heaving as tear filled eyes looked up at Am’aleh. She smiled, “You died Benjiro Taka, I cannot allow that. You have a promise to keep.”

    “Very well Susano’o-kami,” He replied hoarsely. With a groan and the residual twitch of muscles, he managed to stand. He hunched over the side of the ship and looked to see the rafts containing the Mau and his men come close to the flagship. He remained like that for what seemed forever before he spoke up, “Can I at least wait for my men before we continue?”

    “Yes, you may. In the meantime,” Am'aleh turned and pointed at one of the men on the ship, “Fetch the mages and the artifact onboard. If they refuse, tell them that they risk the wrath of the sea if they do not return my property. If they still refuse, stand back from them, they will learn the folly of angering the sea.” Without a moment’s hesitation, the man ran below decks as the eerie silence of the waters continued to deafen the ships about. Not even a creak of wood as Am’aleh waited patiently, hearing the rumble of thunder she shook her head. Another bolt of lightning struck through the window of a cabin chorused by a cry of pain. She muttered something about meddling mages as the man returned above deck carrying a small black box that seemed to shift and move in the storm charged air.

    She carefully took the box as Taka leant against the side of the ship and rested, gathering his strength. She spoke candidly, “It will be simple, the box will react to the Tap and do all the work for you. You merely need to get it there and toss the Box into the rift. Do not worry. You will get it back. It's merely a matter of how long you have to wait. Once the Tap is shut off, I wish you to throw my gift to the sea and return it to me.”

    Slowly the members of the Mercenary Company and the Mau made their way on deck. The sailors looked at the cat folk with apprehension as they watched their human counterparts with raised hackles. First to arrive was Smith who had apparently been halfway to the flagship when the explosions had echoed through the fleet. Erikson followed soon after as did Grimes and Weatherly. Hawkins raft was conspicuously absent before Grimes spoke up, “Hawkins won’t be joining us. I heard gunfire from his ship. I think he set off the powder keg personally to ensure he completed the objective and took as many of them out as possible.”

    Taka nodded as the men looked down taking a moment of silence for their fallen comrade. Am’aleh gave them their respectful silence before she handed the cube to Taka, “This has many names. The mages who had it were referring to it as the thunder cube, that is a crude but apt name. Its true name is the Heart of the Storm, with this you can pass through any storm unharmed. Further, you will gain the wind as an Ally and hopefully take their citadel by surprise. We shall use nature to close the Tap and seal its power from Aesphestos. Take this son of Benjiro, and be the hero you were born to be.”

    Taka reached out and touched the box. It felt worn as if storm-tossed at sea. The consistency was like driftwood, smoothed down by the sea. The dark colors of the wood seemed to imply an exotic wood unlike any he had seen before. He gently cradled the wood in a gauntlet-clad hand before he looked up at Am’aleh, her gaze that of a mother, “Do not fail me, Taka, I am counting on you.”

    “Hai,” He agreed. He looked to his men who grabbed their bags. The Mau with them picked up the signal as they headed down off the ship. He looked at the sailors, “Prepare for a hasty escape. We will be entering the bear's den, and do not wish to stay longer than we need.” The men nodded as they began to signal the other ships, Lanterns lighting up across the armada as they prepared to set sail for home.

    Taka had the blessing of the Storm Goddess on his side; he only hoped he wouldn’t need more.

  10. #10
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    The rafts made it through the storm with ease. Landing on the beach once more Taka carefully tucked the box into his kimono as the men took up positions with the Mau. The Ronin looked to the cat folk and spoke, “Who knows the way?”

    They looked amongst each other as they nodded, “All roads lead to the Raas stronghold.”

    “But you will need a guide to the one that will be least likely to kill you,” A familiar voice spoke. Taka turned to see the silver haired A’lia standing before him. She smiled, “Praise be to the storm goddess, may the tempest guide us.”

    The Mau returned the sentiment in a religious drone. She looked at the group, “Your Hawkins and several of our number are missing. The sea will guide them home one day. How are you, Ronin Taka?”

    “I have felt better. We need to move swiftly, and I think I have a plan to finish this once and for all,” Taka responded. He then produced the Heart of the Storm from his Kimono. He gently offered it to A’lia, “I am entrusting this to you. Your task is to get it to the wellspring. I will be your distraction.”

    A’lia looked at the Ronin and raised and eyebrow, “You mean sacrifice.”

    “For me, it is my duty. I have a promise to keep, and I think you should do so. Can I trust you to throw this into the wellspring?” Taka responded, ignoring the accusation.

    “How will I get close? The Raas and the Unbroken will not allow me anywhere close,” A’lia replied.

    “You are Mau, and therefore more natural a sight than humans. If we make enough of a distraction, we will rouse the Unbroken. Perhaps in the ensuing chaos, you can get to the Tap?”

    The two looked at each other intently. Finally, A’lia looked down at the artifact in her hand. She carefully cradled it as a child before she whispered, “You sacrifice for us, and we are unworthy of such sacrifice.”

    “Then be worthy of it. Do not let it be in vain,” Taka’s replied pierced the haze as she looked up to him. A soft laugh left her mouth at the statement before it grew. The Ronin waited politely for the woman to calm herself while the others looked at the two leaders.

    She looked upon Taka with mirth in her frame, “You say that as if it were so simple. I will try to be worthy Ronin Taka. Now, where is your mask? Do you not need it?”

    “It broke in the fight against Fordstein, I do not have another,” Taka cut off the unasked question as he looked to his men and sighed, “We will buy you the time you need, but you have to move fast. Lead us to their stronghold, and we will give you a few minutes to get in position. Then we will begin our distraction. Hopefully, we will grant the opportunity you need to get in.”

    “Very well, follow me and be careful. While everything out here has withered and died from the Mana Burn, the further in we go the more you will see what the corruption of Mana does,” A’lia responded.

    Take frowned at those words, “There is still life?”

    “Life corrupted by Mana. Either it died, or became something worse…” the Lorekeeper answered.

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