The tall, almost white skinned, man stood back sharply from the crowd trying unsuccessfully to be inconspicuous near an “alley” among the markets. When he spoke it was halting and unsure. “Akane, why we is… uh, um… great expanse the meaning of in here… now again? No.. greshiks do firth… um. What we are doing, yes? Work we outside the expanse beyond heaven’s glory… that wrong is?”
The young girl flitted through the crowd, effortlessly; no one paid her mind. She instinctively made her way towards the three men; a dirty yet, pretty young girl in her late teens. A few quick glances around her, she gave a quick nod and began to talk at a whisper, “The Baku was right, returning early was the right call. Something is underneath the city. The crabs may know what it is. They believe we will know for sure. All squads are being recruited for this mission. It must be destroyed. It’s from the shadowlands.”
The young man moved around erratically, as if he was looking at something, then moved to something else. He spoke with a heightened tone, as if he was excited all the time.
“I was right? O, good that worked out then. The Spirits are abuzz with news of the dark forces”, he said while moving erratically. Something must be done, before all of Ryukugon is destroyed."
He turned to the rest of the group and asked: “So, grand leader? When do we start this??”
The big man’s brows furrowed as the others talked, clearly only catching occasional words as the Ryokogunites spoke in their native tongue. He caught enough, though, to catch on and a broad smile spread across his pocked and scarred face. He reached down and grabbed the handles of two massive hammers that had been nested in leather baskets strapped to his thighs. On the side of each was embedded a small stone etched with a foreign symbol. When his hands gripped the handles both symbols began to glow.
“Here we to be for, uh… expanse of gloom and night, the place of eternal downfall? Is a thing happy making me. Say me the job, head man of my table… um, massacre in the wake of my fist?”
The man with long hair continued to fidget around the edge of the Barracks as though he were moved by some unseen purpose, letting his eyes wander from one place to another. He looked at Akane, then the others in succession. And then, he just… looked. Out there, into the distance. What he saw, no one else knew, nor would he tell them. He just stared blankly into open sea and the sky.
“Grand Leader looks deep in thought”, he said and pondered. “Perhaps to get ready for the next battle. And I agree with the odd talker, I think. We should get moving.”
The Faceless gave a firm nod, “It’s currently beneath the city, using a tunnel system of it’s own design. Come, the entrance is in the temple district.”
She turned back towards the street and began to jog, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to ensure the others were following. The markets were still active during this day, despite the action beneath their feet. If the tremors from the monsters movements were audible, they were completely drowned out by the bartering and happy conversation of merchants and tradesmen.
The military presence wasn’t noticeable until the group arrived at the temple district. Many more guards posted, including some streets and walkways fully closed off. The 4 hammers traveled unimpeded toward the caved-in ruins.
Once he saw the commotion that was the military response, Katashi got a better impression of what was actually happening. He wasn’t used to working in civilized areas, at least no civilized areas that were still civilized while he was there, not since joining the Spectres at least. Even still, with his unusual training and unusual skills it wasn’t like he set up shop in any cities before hand either.
“Getting tight/cluster the meaning of. The skies dim with shadow for the short time blinking,” he said in his remarkably imperfect grasp of the language. Raising one of his hammers to his lips, he growled at it for a moment before the light behind the symbol flared brighter. As the other three drew closer to him he brought the two hammers together in a resounding impacts. Rather than a crash or a clap there was a sucking sound as if all the air were pulled out around them. They could still breath, but all the sounds they made were numbed as if they had wads of wax in their ears. At the same time a bubble appeared around them. Everything inside the bubble remained clear, but everything outside became grayed out and indistinct. They all started rushing toward the entrance, knowing full well that there were only moments before the bubble popped and the world around them could take notice again.
Hibiki ran with the group’s bubble towards the entrance of the tunnel. He understood why the bubble was cast, but this was one of the few times he couldn’t see the spirits, and it frightened him. It felt as though he were slowly losing the ability to see.
He whispered silently to himself, “it is OK. They will be back.”
As they approached the cave-in, they began to slow. The other 3 began to assess the hole while Kasumi contemplated her kit for this mission. She approached the large foreigner and tugged on his sleeve looking up at the giant, “Weapons.”
He knew that word.
Oni-Bane dropped the large pack on his back and began to dig through it. Sometimes pulling something out and handing it off behind him.
He rapidly began handing assorted small arms back to the Faceless, who slid them into pockets and hidden compartments on her raggedy outfit. There was a slight pause and he glanced back to see her confused, seemingly searching for words.
“…click-click-pwoom?” as she mimed a trigger being pulled.
Katashi smiled and pulled out a crossbow, small crank and packet of bolts, gently handing them to Kasumi. She wrapped the packet around her waist, and slid the crank through a loop. She ensured she had some flash powder, and a few firecrackers, before adjusting her cowl and slinging the crossbow over her shoulder and head. After replacing the cowl and drawing up the hood, the hunched over old lady gave another short nod of confidence and approached the entrance to the cave-in.
As Katashi handed the arsenal to Faceless the bubble dissolved around them. All at once the dull roar that was the Military’s preparations flowed back to them from past the lip of the cave entrance. When the effect ended the glow from behind the symbol went out and only Hibiki saw as an Air elemental fled from the stone it was carved on.
The big man almost negligently removed the stone from its place in his hammer and tossed it away in between arming the small woman. Once she was satisfied and began to scout the entrance he rummaged through another pack. He removed a stone that looked identical to the previous stone, only with a slightly different symbol, and affixed it to the hammer. Apparently satisfied with his own preparations he stood, towering over the others. Towering so high, he realized with a start, that his nearly white yellow hair might have been visible to the squads behind them. He quickly ducked back down and rushed forward, hoping he hadn’t been noticed.
As the bubble popped, and the Air Elemental Spirit moved on, the rest of the world came into view. Hibiki saw the water and air spirits mix in the clouds and the fire spirits help keep the samurai warm on this spring day. His sight returned, and he noticed Katashi fixing up his hammer.
He says out loud as Katashi rushes forward, “I guess it is hammer time”.
She made her way down the tunnels, noting the tracks in the sand; Some moving frantically, some moving cautiously. Some tunnels, no tracks at all. The sound of small skirmishes could sometimes be heard, along with occasional faint rumbling in the walls. At each bend, she etched a small mark in the path she chose. When she came upon one of her previous marks, she realized these tunnels were much more twisted than she had hoped. She updated her marks so the squad would be able to follow her more easily.
For the most part, she did not encounter many others, friend or foe. When she did expect to cross paths with someone or something, she hid in the shadows. As to where the Spectres should head first, The Faceless had no idea. The other squads seemed to have a system in effect for exploring the tunnels, but the Spectres were not part of that operation. Judging from the lack of action or evidence thereof so far in her exploration, she determined that the main source of danger had not yet been encountered. The Spectres should explore one of the unexplored tunnels, then.
Kasumi came upon a three-way intersection. The left and right paths had the heavily armored footprints of hammer squads. The middle tunnel appeared unexplored; but that wasn’t fully true. Something was making sure to cover up tracks that went down that path. Someone, or something, did not want to be followed.
Kasumi would follow. She etched a mark for her companions, and silently rushed down the middle path.
Hibiki followed the rest of the group into the tunnel with the enchanted mark. As he traveled, the ambient darkness he felt in the air grew stronger.
He stopped to communicate with the Earth Spirits in the walls.
“Spirits, what can you tell me?” he asked.
“The darkness is strong here. Strong like us” said the spirits in unison. “It is strongest at the center, down deep.”
The tunnels were almost unbearable for the Oni-Bane. They were tight for the others, but he towered over each of them. He was forced to walk stooped and crouched, both of his shoulders scraping the walls. Thankfully the walls were remarkably smooth, too smooth, in fact. He realized this seemed to be the path that Faceless was traveling. He had to assume whatever was making these tunnels was the creature they would have to deal with. He hoped when that happened he had more room to move because as things stood he might be more of a liability than a shield.
The tunnel began to open up into a small natural cave; debris littered the walls. On the other side of the small cave, on each side of a masoned entryway, were two goblins. One twirled his dagger in the dirt while the others head seemed to bob under his ill-fitting helmet. Whatever was past those goblins was her objective.
If she killed one, it would surely alert the other, sleeping or not, they were too close together. She slid behind some rocks along the wall and pulled out two well-polished daggers. She laid one on top of the rock she hid behind, and began to slowly tilt and twirl the other, attempting to reflect the dim torchlight at the conscious goblin. After a few attempts, the glint finally caught the goblins eye. She ducked behind the rock and peered through a crack.
The goblin looked up and saw the well crafted dagger sitting on the rock. He glanced to his companion, seemingly thinking for a second, then he stood up and quietly snuck over to the rock, peering back from time to time at his companion. As he reached out for the dagger, the Faceless silently shoved the dagger through his throat, pulling him over the rock and out of sight. Barely a gurgle was let out, leaving the sleeping goblin undisturbed.
Still unsure what could be in the tunnel beyond, Kasumi decided to keep herself hidden. She unslung the crossbow and rested it on the rock. She draped her shawl over the crossbow, taking aim at the sleeping goblin, and waited to see what happened.
“REPORT!”, the Goblin jumped awake and quickly looked around. His companion was gone.
The armored man came out of the tunnel looking to the goblin for an explanation. He quickly scanned the room until his eyes rested on the crossbow being steadied on the rock, pointed right at them. “Intruder! Get them! Now!”
The man broke into a sprint, sweeping to the side, while the goblin jumped up to his feet. With a twang, a bolt pierced through the goblins chest, knocking him to the ground. The man drew his wakizashi in one fluid motion as he reached the rock and brought it down upon the shuffling mass under the shawl.
The Spectres entered the hall at a sprint, hearing the commotion ahead. They saw a glint of steel as the head behind the rock rolled off into the middle of the cave. Goblin blood pooled underneath it. The man looked down at the head at his feet, seemingly confused. As he looked up towards the newly arrived Spectres, he took a step back, directly into Kasumi’s waiting dagger. Pushing that one deep, Kasumi leveraged him to his knees, before pulling the still waiting dagger off the rock and slitting his throat.
She pulled the dagger out of his back, wiping it down on her rags, and slid them back into her boots. Grabbing her crossbow, she rejoined her companions.
Katashi bellowed as he emerged into the open space as the first thing he saw was the Faceless hood sliced by some man and a head rolling out. He knew there was no way he could reach anything in time. Whatever had happened had already occurred, but he could certainly finish it.
Then he saw the trick, and knew he needed to keep up appearances. He charged forward, immediately outpacing his companions, his two mauls held out threateningly. The man died quickly, but as he fell the blacksmith realized she had made a mistake, a negligent mistake that he didn’t expect from her. She picked up her crossbow and strolled toward the others as the second goblin picked up a spear that was laying right at its feet and chucked it almost gracefully at her back.
The Oni-Bane shouted a word that was barely speech at all and crashed his hammers together. The symbol on one of them glowed bright and a shimmering dome spread out ahead of them. He immediately barked out another wordless sound and smashed the other hammer, its symbol glowing, into the ground. A fissure erupted from the head of the hammer, blasting its way toward the goblin, passing under the shield at the same moment the spear bounced harmlessly off it.
The goblin made to move, attempting to jump the fissure as it reached him. Instead it was skewered in place as three spears of rock jutted out from the ground simultaneously, converging on its soft flesh.
The big man negligently flicked the spent runes from his weapons and fished out appropriate replacements, all while tut tutting at the faceless.
Hibiki came into the room to witness the ground being broken up. Noticing the surroundings, he involuntarily switched from enigmatic to serious, and took out some weapons.
He chased down one of the goblins, stabbed them with a small knife. Immediately, he pulled it out and slashed some others in the same vicinity.
Some earth spirits called out to him, “the darkness is this way, come, quick”. He finished the goblins, and continued in the direction the spirits pointed.
The Faceless gathered her wits about her. This was turning into chaos, and not the sort she controlled. This was going to be a battle. She looked to Akane. He seemed unshaded. He had drawn his wakizashi and watched the other two rush forward towards the carved tunnel, the sound of goblins and clanging metal coming this way.
“Get a good position to cover that door. Kill everything that emerges. Ono-bane, keep one alive! We need answers.” Akane pulled Kasumi gently to the western wall and boosted her up onto some rocks.
She dropped to one knee, spilling out the bolts on the ground in front of her. She cranked the crossbow and loaded the first bolt. Akane took a defensive position under her. The other two flanked to the right of the tunnel, skirmishing the few that had emerged. The second the noises seemed loud enough, she fired into the dark passage, reloading before she even heard the bolt hit.
Hibiki continued down the hall. While the rest of the group handled the goblins, he wanted to investigate the darkness further to see what he could learn. Perhaps he could begin some countermeasures, or learn of its weakness.
Upon entered the next room, he sees written on the walls “Fumio is watching”. As he sat there, he wondered if Fumio is the name of the shenguja who died recently, the ground opened up and some tentacles popped out.
“RUN AWAY” screamed the earth spirits.
As Hibiki disappeared down the dark corridor, the Faceless let out a curse as she barely aimed her crossbow away from him in time. The bolt clattered off the wall and disappeared with Hibiki.
“Do we follow?”, she asked while reloading her crossbow.
“It’s not safe yet. We clear this room first. May the spirits protect Baku.” Akane parried a goblin spear and threw him to the ground.
Kasumi was uncomfortable with this decision. No one had died since she had joined, mostly, she liked to think, due to her scouting skills. She hadn’t been down that hall. She didn’t know what to expect for Hibiki. Most. Importantly, she couldn’t warn or prepare him.
She drew her crossbow to her shoulder and let off a bolt into a goblin rushing Akane. She jumped from her perch, drawing her daggers and the pair moved forward to assist Oni-bane at the mouth of the tunnel.
Goblins seemed to be swarming from everywhere. Oni-Bane was certain there had only been the one guard that Faceless had missed, but perhaps it had done the smart thing and alerted more while she was finishing off the humanoid in the armor. Stranger things had definitely happened since he became a spectre.
It was really more unfortunate for the goblins than anyone else as he almost rhythmically crushed them with his huge hammers. He almost felt like he was at a forge. Hammer swung down, ding, crushed skull. Hammer to the side, ding, stoved chest. For a big and thick man, Katashi was remarkably agile. Despite having very little in the way of armor on, every time one of the creatures small blades lashed out at him they only found spirit forged steel.
He had nearly lost track of time, and the corpses were a pile not worth counting when he realized the tide was ebbing. Akane wanted one alive. Just before they broke, or simply ran out of bodies, the Gaijin kicked out at one just hard enough to sweep its legs from under it. He flipped one hammer head down and drove it into the creature’s legs, crushing them beyond repair. While it was shrieking in pain he grabbed it around the torso in one massive hand and tossed it back across the cavern at his leader and scout. “Life stays with.. uh.. an allegory of time in the form of a virgin princess,” he shouted, then returned to the grim work of slaughtering goblins.
As the earth opened up, steam rose up from the crevice. The atmosphere dampened, and lights shone through. Water spirits came through the crack, panicking, as if to run for their lives.
Hibiki, not wanting to die, drew out his kusarigama, and threw it across the room. It bounced off of a wall, wrapped around a stalagmite, hooked onto itself and he pulled himself away from the crack, breaking away from the tentacle.
“That was close”, he sounded with relief. “I’ll need to tell the rest before they get here”. He sat and started to meditate.