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Old 02-22-2007, 03:42 PM   #1
waivren
 
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Default Pervaded Domain




.:| Incursions - Part 1|:.

The old man picked his way through the stone markers outside the shrine with staff in hand, his aging eyes working to adjust in the dusk twilight. A few of the blue-robed Lao’Jin monks continued to converse in pairs as the group began the short trek back down the winding path to the village of Tanvu. The low rumble of distant thunder drew Mordai’s attention briefly to the slivers of horizon visible between the towering rock pinnacles that dominated the jungle island. As if awakened by the approaching storm, a sudden wind swept through the trees and threatened to extinguish the few torches dispersed throughout the small procession.

Although not officially a member of the Order of Lao’Jin monks, Mordai found a certain relaxing satisfaction in joining them on the weekly journey to the isolated shrine to commune with the spirits of the ancestors. The communions were different for each individual. Some could only sense the distant presence of the ancestors, while others claimed to actually see a shimmering manifestation hovering in the air. Yet others related the experience as a sharing of the mind with the many voices of the spirits as they interacted within the after-plane of existence. Regardless, the experience was generally passive. Not since the dire times of the Days of Steel Rain had any but a few claimed to have communicated directly with the spirits, and then only in dreams. Though debates regarding the silence of the spirits were not uncommon among the Lao’Jin, the nature of the Kojani people impelled a degree of quiet acceptance. The monks relied instead on interpretations of ethereal facial expressions, or the tone of the whispering voices, or even the tactile aura of the emotions emanating from the spirits to derive personal meaning from the encounters.

Mordai suspected long practice with the psionic arts provided him with the gift of all these forms of interaction, and the mere presence of the spirits usually gave the old monk a certain peace. The last few visits, however, had imbued Mordai with a mounting uneasiness. Though they never directly acknowledged the presence of the meditating monks, the spirits appeared to calmly observe the rituals. But lately the spirits’ behavior was restless, with some darting about the shrine as though agitated, and the indecipherable whispers were becoming more anxious. And on this visit, the permeating aura of the spirits’ collective emotion seemed to almost suffocate Mordai with its intensity.

As he walked along the path just ahead of the group, Mordai listened to the speculative conversations of concern that now marred the end of a ritual that once brought tranquility. The others were becoming increasingly aware of the changes now, and this trepidation would soon begin to ripple through Tanvu. A balding monk parted from the main procession to walk beside Mordai.
“Master Chosu,” Mordai nodded in acknowledgement.
“You look troubled, my friend.” Chosu said, letting the comment hang in the air.
Mordai gave the elder monk a sideways glance as he stroked at his grey-bearded chin. “And you want to know if I have perceived anything from the spirits that you have not.”
Master Chosu smiled slightly. “For all my years of devotion to Jin, do you know I can only see their semblance? The spirits do not talk to me… well, they might. It would be more accurate to say that I cannot hear them.”
“You can see their faces. What does their demeanor tell you?” Mordai prompted.
Chosu thought for a moment as they continued down the path. “Deep concern - it is as though they wish to speak, but are restrained. There is much conflict in their posture.”
“These are my interpretations as well. You see, my friend, you are a true Master after all. You came to the same conclusion without the aid of a sixth sense.”
“Mordai,“ Chosu said grinning at his friend, “if I did not know better, I would believe you are trying to tell me even the children of the village would be able to make this determination.”
“Don’t be foolish Chosu. You well know the children are frightened of the spirits. What a ridiculous notion,” Mordai chided with a wink.

The two continued silently down the path in the growing darkness, Chosu’s torch flame whipping in the gusts of wind which now carried the scent of imminent rain. Another roll of thunder passed overhead. “You have heard the rumors circulating within the Magistracy?” Chosu asked after a few moments.
“Concerning the Emperor?” Mordai asked, receiving a nod from Chosu. “I have heard that he has been sleeping erratically - something about horrible dreams, and wandering the fortress at night in a daze.”
“There is also word that one of the outlying fishing villages was aggressively searched by the Imperial troops this morning,” Chosu added.
Mordai looked up sharply. “Searched for what, which village?”
“It was Lasong. Brother Naru has family there. From the best he can tell, it had something to do with weapon caches. No one was hurt, but the troops apparently accused the villagers of planning a coup.”
“Nonsense, Lasong has what, twenty people? And rising against the Imperial army? The Royal Guard alone outnumbers them three to one!”
“I agree. It does not make sense. And they were threatened not to speak of it.” Chosu paused briefly. “There are changes happening all around us, Mordai, some more subtle than others. I fear that unless the Order looks into this more closely, things will only get worse.”
“You must proceed cautiously, Chosu,” Mordai said with much concern. “If paranoia such as this is in the air, any questions may be met harshly. First we must determine the truth of these events. I may know someone within the Magistracy I can consult with – don’t place yourself at risk demanding answers from the juritors.”
Chosu sighed, “You are right, of course. But please look into this soon, Mordai. I fear we are missing something.”

A light sprinkle of rain began to fall. The procession neared a section of trail threatened by overzealous undergrowth when Mordai suddenly stopped short with an uncertain expression on his face. Master Chosu began to question him, but the words did not come before a blur of brown and yellow burst from the brush and overtook him from behind. There was a sickening sound of tearing cloth and flesh and Chosu’s eyes went wide as he fell forward to the ground. The light from Chosu’s falling torch briefly revealed the towering form of a horned demon with reptilian skin as it unleashed a threatening growl and reared back a massive claw. Mordai had just enough time to bring his staff to a defensive position before the powerful strike reduced it to splinters, nearly knocking him from his feet. A warm sensation began to radiate from Mordai’s right side as he readied himself to react to another strike, but the demon had already turned his attention to the shouting monks on the trail. Time seemed to slow to a near standstill and Mordai could only watch as the creature quickly tore into the helpless monks. His last vision before he collapsed to the ground was of the creature vanishing into the darkness beyond the mass of fallen bodies.

- - -

Last edited by waivren : 07-27-2007 at 12:08 PM.
 
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Old 02-23-2007, 03:20 PM   #2
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.:| Incursions - Part 2 |:.

The still morning air was heavy with fog as the cloaked rider proceeded down the trail atop a chestnut stallion. The pair came to a distant halt before a cluster of thick brush that covered a low rise overlooking the forest path. The rider pulled back the hood of his cloak revealing young, angular features of the Kojani and the elongated ears of the Braelian elves.

Rynku searched the terrain intently with his gold-brown eyes as an amused grin crossed his face. “You can come out of there, you know. You’re not going to be surprising anyone this morning,” he said to the brush. After watching and waiting for a few moments, he continued to scold the vegetation. “I’m not coming up there, and I’m not moving on until you have, too.”

Eventually, there was a slight hint of movement among the leaves and the chestnut snorted nervously, ears working to isolate the threat. A tiger emerged reluctantly from the undergrowth with a low growl and a roared challenge.

“Go on! No easy prey for you this morning. Go hunt something more challenging than villagers. You’re lucky I’m not taking hides today,” Rynku responded, holding his ground. The tiger growled defiantly, but turned and sulked off slowly into the fog.

“That’s the third time this week, Suri,” he muttered to the horse, “you’d think she would learn by now.”

The pair continued their patrol at a walking pace, encouraging the occasional predator to keep to the forest. Rynku was under no official obligation to monitor the trail, which meandered west from the outpost overlooking the Kojan Strait across the island to Tanvu and Dellerjuba. The patrols had simply become part of his routine, and it kept the villagers, as well as the forest creatures, safe. Resources were not wasted on the islands, and the Kojani understood that needless kills would soon diminish the wildlife in the small archipelago. Never mind that the elves of Ca’ial Brael on the south island tended to take a dim view of anything more than a conservative culling of the forest for food and materials. Brealian and Kojani politics were of no consequence to Rynku, however, and he was motivated more out of concern for the monks who journeyed often to the retreats nestled in the forest mountainsides. The villagers were more than willing to trade with him when he brought in kills and prepared hides for the benefit of the settlements, but it was the Lao’Jin monks that seemed best able to see beyond his half-elf blood and offer true acceptance.

An owl watched silently from its perch atop a stone marker as Rynku rode past the Celestial Retreat. The monks claimed the area was very strong with the flow of Jin and that the ancestral spirits inhabited the region, but the place only made his skin crawl. Continuing down the path, Rynku rounded a bend and suddenly drew reign as he spotted several dark, motionless shapes in the road, obscured by the fog. He dismounted and approached cautiously on foot, scanning the surroundings for any signs of danger. Curiosity turned to anger as he recognized the forms of the drenched, blue-robed bodies. All had severe gashes across their backs or chests. Rynku grew furious and muttered curses at himself for failing to protect the monks. He knew they would be leaving the retreat, but the forest creatures very rarely attacked groups of people unless the animals were trapped or otherwise threatened. It wasn’t until he began moving the bodies uniformly to the side of the road that he noticed the size of the wounds. Even the largest bears on the island could not inflict the sort of damage he saw, and each man was only struck once, with one corpse nearly beheaded by a high swipe. The gashes were widely spaced and deep, indicating an enormous claw. Although severely eroded by the storm, a few massive three-toed tracks were visible among the erratic footprints of the monks, and the creature appeared to have barely stopped as it slaughtered its way into the forest.

A weak groan came from within the fog a few paces up the trail. Rynku immediately moved to investigate and discovered two more bodies – one he recognized as Master Chosu, and a grey-bearded man he had only seen on occasion with the monks. The stranger’s robes were torn and blood soaked on the right side as he lay moaning on his back, semi-conscious among the splintered remains of a staff. Rynku inspected the wounds and whistled for Suri to come forward. He carefully picked up the old man and draped him across the saddle. Leading the stallion on foot, Rynku headed for Tanvu with as much haste as the muddy trail would allow.

- - -
 
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Old 02-28-2007, 04:48 PM   #3
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.:| Incursions - Part 3 |:.

From a distance, the Lao’Jin academy looked nothing more than a secondary fortress positioned just outside the village of Tanvu. The high stone and mortar walls mirrored the design of the central fortress in Tanvu, but inside, the monastery was drastically different. The shops, inns, and markets that littered the inner yard of Tanvu proper were replaced by the ornate design and structured aesthetics of the tranquil followers of Lao’Jin. Several wards of well-kept dwellings and sanctuaries provided areas for focused training in the Ways for the dedicated followers of the Lao’Jin principals. Surrounded by the intricate landscaping and abundant cherry trees of the wards, the central temple of the Masters rose up from the center of the complex on a broad stonework pillar.

Regular villagers were not generally permitted inside the monastery walls as a measure to protect the meditations and study of the monks. Regardless, the watchmen outside the single gated entrance projected a welcoming, administrative presence rather than the aggressive posture of military sentinels. Their response to Rynku’s approach with the motionless body of Mordai secured across Suri’s saddle was universal, however. As one of the watchmen quickly disappeared inside the walls for help, the other young monk aided Rynku with Mordai. As they loosened the straps and moved the unconscious elder to the ground, trickles of precious blood ran down the side of the saddle and fell to the grass, mingling with the morning dew.

A stern-faced man in the garb of a Master strode briskly from the gates, his black hair tied back tightly into a short tail. The first watchman followed behind him, barely refraining from a jog to keep pace. As the Master quickly surveyed the situation, his expression softened to that of concern as he recognized the mud-splattered man on the ground.

“I am Master Haru,” he said as he crossed past Rynku and kneeled down to examine Mordai. “What has happened?”
“Looks like they were attacked by some kind of creature coming down the trail.” Rynku said solemnly. “Master Chosu and the rest are dead. I’ll lead some of your students back to gather the bodies if you wish, they were only about halfway back from the shrine.”

Haru closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly in quiet acknowledgement of the loss.
“We should hurry before the boars find them,” Rynku prompted gently.

Master Haru nodded in agreement as he looked to the watchman that had summoned him. “See to it. Ready horses and gather what students you can. You may interrupt Master Asun. Have him send a few here to aid us with brother Karu.” The Master shook his head gravely, “I feared this when the tigers began frequenting that place.” Rising, he placed a hand on Rynku’s shoulder. “You should have moved him on a litter Rynku, his injury is severe.”

“There wasn’t any time. And I’m not sure what did this, but it was no cat. I didn’t want to hang around and risk another ambush in the fog.” Rynku explained, letting the stranger’s recognition of him pass for now.
Master Haru frowned, “Ambush? You mean to say this was deliberate?”

“I’ll have a closer look when we get back to the place, but there were some tracks left after the rain. What ever did this walked on two legs and was heavy. It could be they just surprised the creature, but it didn’t waste any time tearing through them. If it was just frightened, it should have run the other way.”

The recovery party came through the gates leading several horses. Two students with a hastily constructed stretcher moved around the main mass and made their way to Mordai.
“Take him to Master Zanou,” Haru instructed them. “His talents may be able to save brother Karu.”

Rynku wiped the thickening blood from Suri’s saddle with the sleeve of his shirt, turning the dusty white of the cotton cloth to a dark reddish-brown. Crossing in front of Suri to the stallion’s left flank, he opened the saddlebag and removed a thickly layered leather tunic.
“Protect them Rynku. Discover what you can and we’ll see to Mordai,” Haru implored.

Rynku made final adjustments to his tunic and removed twin bone-hilt swords from their fastenings on Suri’s tack. “How is it you know me, Master Haru?” he asked a little suspiciously as he secured the sheathed swords at his sides.

Master Haru replied with a grim smile, “The Morikanshi clan is well known to me, Rynku. Your father and I have spent many nights debating the sensibilities of his military career when he felt the need. I may spend most of my time inside the academy, but the people of Tanvu are not unknown to me.”

Rynku swung into the saddle and glanced back to check that the rest of the party was ready. “I’ll find out what I can. I don’t really like the idea of this thing running around out there with me.” He turned Suri to lead off as the students fell in behind him.

“You are always welcome here, Rynku. Find me when you return.”
Rynku glanced back and held Haru’s sincere gaze for a moment before prodding Suri forward.


- - -
 
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Old 03-08-2007, 03:00 PM   #4
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.:| Incursions - Part 4 |:.

It was a rare sunny day and a pleasant tropical breeze transported the pink sakura blossoms throughout the myriad dormitories around the temple. A young student led Rynku through the healing arts ward to a section of small one-room living quarters at the Lao’Jin Academy.

“Enter,” Master Haru responded to the gentle rap at the door.
“The woodsman is here to see you, Master,” the student said as he bowed and reversed back through the doorway.

Rynku entered to see Master Haru kneeling in a meditative posture before three scrolls on the floor. His eyes were closed and he did not move, his palms resting lightly on his thighs. The small futon bed in the corner was occupied by the sleeping Mordai. The old man’s long grey hair was loose from the customary knot and splayed about him on the cushions. His shirtless frame was heavily bandaged around the midsection, but showed no signs of bleed through. Rynku noticed that, even though Mordai had to be past his sixtieth year, his form was fit and slightly more muscular than one would expect.

“How is he?” Rynku asked as he leaned back against the door frame and crossed his arms.
Without opening his eyes, Master Haru responded softly, “The effort severely exhausted Master Zanou, but brother Karu’s internal wounds are healed. The bandages are for the superficial remnants that we will heal with ointments. It is always preferable to allow the body to heal on its own, lest it forget how.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Has he talked about the attack? Did he see what the creature looked like?” Rynku asked a bit hopefully.
“No, he has not been conscious since you brought him to us.”

Rynku remained silent as he contemplated the announcement of his discovery.
“After three days, I did not think you would return to us, Rynku,” Haru said quietly as he maintained his meditation.
“It took longer to track the creature than I expected. It crossed the strait and I had to pick up the trail on the eastern isle. The thing headed into the Blighted Lands… I went no further.” Rynku explained.

Master Haru opened his eyes and directed his gaze at Rynku. “The Blighted Lands, are you absolutely sure?”
“Nothing I know of makes tracks like that - nothing natural anyway. That place still has the fog that never lifts around it, and that odd glow from within. I didn’t really like getting that close on foot, but Suri wouldn’t get within a half league. He hasn’t been that skittish in that region before, not since the Ulvari were contained anyway. I have to admit, the sounds coming out of that haze made me want to go back and stand with him.”

Haru thought for a moment before responding, “We need to know more. That area has not been formally explored for years and if the Ulvari are active again, we must make preparations.”
Rynku eyed the monk suspiciously, “There are a lot of stories of people walking into that place and not coming out. Surely you’re not suggesting that I risk that. Have your Emperor send troops in there and have a look.”
“Rynku,” Master Haru started patiently, “you spend so much of your time in the wild, you are likely not aware of what has been taking place in the village. The Emperor is behaving erratically - rumors abound of strange outbursts during the night. He is said to claim he no longer has a name and that he is simply ‘Emperor’, as that title is timeless and unchanging and he will rule for eternity. He has had several of the outlying villages raided on suspicion of uprising. No, his judgment is highly suspect right now.”
“Then maybe the people should rise up and replace him.” Rynku said confidently.
“His guard is still very loyal, Rynku, as are the regular Imperial troops. These are fishermen and laborers we are speaking of, they have no military training. Besides, such action would not follow in the Way of Harmony.” Haru hesitated briefly before continuing, “There are other problems at hand. We at the Academy believe that the followers of Ra’Jin have been experiencing a revival of sorts…”
“There’s always been stories of secret rituals and hidden followers of that sect.” Rynku said dismissively.
“Yes, but they are becoming more frequent. And some of those that have spoken of it have had fatal incidents in the wild and at sea, or have simply disappeared altogether.” Master Haru’s tone was slowly becoming more urgent.

As the conversation between them continued, Mordai’s mental-self stirred, hearing their words as a distant murmur. His thoughts were hazy and indistinct. Suddenly, he was back on the trail listening to Master Chosu, though no words issued from his friend’s moving lips. In the featureless black behind Chosu, a pair of sinister green eyes appeared glowing in the darkness.
“You are powerless,” a sibilant voice hissed all around Mordai.
“I think you are mistaken,” Mordai thought as he began to move to protect Chosu and block the imminent fatal blow with his staff, but his limbs would not react.
“I will take him!” the voice threatened as the eyes moved closer. Chosu continued to speak to Mordai as though completely unaware of the events around him.
“No!” Mordai commanded. Unable to move, he focused his will at the eyes and released a burst of psionic energy. The outline of the demon became apparent and it was frozen mid-strike for the fatal blow to Chosu.
Another set of eyes appeared behind Chosu as another voice taunted Mordai, “You are powerless and weak. You cannot stop us!”
The effort was immensely draining, but Mordai gathered his energy for another burst as the second demon lunged for Chosu. The effect petrified the demon’s form just as it was preparing to spring forth upon the still-chattering monk.
“We will be free. He will die!” the voices hissed angrily. “You must destroy us, or we will have him.”
Mordai considered the logic of the statement. The realization came over him that these events were past, and he could do nothing to change them.
“No,” Mordai said simply, and he released the focus of his will. The demons descended on Chosu as the vision faded, tearing him to pieces. The monk’s disembodied head lay on the ground, still chattering away.

Mordai awoke to find he was standing. Before him, gasping for air and sprawled on the floor, were Master Haru and a half-blood he did not recognize.

- - -
 
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Old 03-16-2007, 03:23 PM   #5
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.:| Incursions - Part 5 |:.

“Are you alright?” Mordai, visibly shocked and ashamed, asked as he helped Master Haru to his feet.
Master Haru still fought to catch his breath as he helped Rynku from the floor of the quarters. “I believe I will be, my friend.” Rynku’s right hand was instinctively creeping to the hilt of his belted sword as he eyed the old man, who until just a few moments ago had been lying peacefully asleep in bed.

Mordai moved back to the futon and slowly eased himself to a sitting position. His eyes were distant and he began to tremble slightly. “It is most fortunate I adhere to the Lao’Jin principals, Haru. I was one thought away from ending both your lives.”
Rynku looked sharply at Haru, but the monk’s expression was calm and reassuring as he knelt beside Mordai.
“Tell me, what happened?” Haru asked with a hint of awe on his voice. “One moment we were speaking as you slept, and then it was though all time stopped. I could not draw a breath and my limbs would not move. It seemed an eternity passed before you were standing over me just now.”

Mordai nodded sadly, “That which you experienced was the Kotojisou invocation…” Gradually regaining his composure, the old monk related the horrible dream and how the demons had nearly tricked him into destroying them both. “So you see,“ Mordai concluded, “had I chosen to strike them down with the Massatsu…” His voice trailed off, the thought too disturbing to him to speak aloud.
Master Haru stood; his expression solemn. “This is significant, Mordai. I fear the spirit barriers around the village are no longer sufficient to protect us.”
“What?” Rynku scoffed. “The barriers have kept the Ulvari out since the last conflict. So one of those demons is running loose in the forest; we’ll kill it and be done with it. The old man just had a bad dream.”
Mordai squinted up at the half-elf and then turned to Haru. “Who is this? He is not one of those bandits that hang around the tavern is he?”
“No Mordai,” Haru barely answered before Rynku could respond. “This is the one that found you and brought you to us. He is Renketsu’s son.”

Mordai shielded his eyes against the sunlight steaming through the open doorway with his hand and again squinted up at the lithe build, wind-tousled black hair and elfish features of the figure that had resumed leaning against the door frame. The monk’s gaze was returned with only slightly concealed contempt. “Oh, Rynku is it? Chosu has spoken of you on occasion.” Mordai fell silent as the memories of his slain friend returned.
Rynku’s expression softened slightly. “Master Chosu has always been very good to me. He insisted on giving me a packaged meal anytime he caught me hunting around the outer retreats.”
“You can try and hide from the world in your forest, Rynku, but the world has a way of finding you anyway,” Mordai said quietly with a fond smile as he thought of Chosu.

“Did you see the creature that attacked?” Rynku asked after the moment had passed. “I tracked it across the strait and back to the Blighted Lands. The trail continued into the fog, but I didn’t follow.”
“That was wise.” Mordai responded. “It was dark, but I saw enough of it - great horns and all teeth and claws. It was most certainly of the Kojuko.”
“It looked like it was running around in the hills above the village before it attacked you, but I found no signs of it inside the barrier. From the way it moved, I think it was scouting the area.”
Master Haru was still seated, staring pensively at the floor. “A barrier will serve no protection if the Ulvari can invade a trained mind like brother Karu’s.”
“What’s so special about him? I thought all of you meditated yourselves into some kind of euphoria in this place.”
Haru smiled slightly, his worried expression relaxing to that of a patient teacher. “Meditation is just a small part of our methods, Rynku. And there are many specialties and specific talents that can be unlocked within ones self with time and study. Many, like me, learn to hone their martial skills for self defense and defense of others. There are some, like Master Zanou, that can concentrate their will and connection with Jin into a powerful regenerating force. But then there are those few like Mordai, who have a deeper connection with Jin. His mental energy can be focused with deadly precision, as you and I nearly discovered.”
“So he’s one of the Augurs. Then what happened on that trail?” Rynku asked. “They outnumbered the demon ten to one.”

“What happened is that I failed them,” Mordai said sadly. “I sensed an inflection just before the Kojuko struck, but I could not locate the source quickly enough. It seems the demon was shielding itself, and well. Master Chosu never had a chance to react. And the rest…”
“The rest were students, barely here for a month from the surrounding villages.” Master Haru finished. “And even had they been armed, I do not believe they could have stood against this beast. You were ambushed in a calculated attack Mordai; you must not blame yourself for their deaths.”

“You think it was specifically trying to kill Mordai?” Rynku asked.
“Or Master Chosu,” Haru explained. “Both fought the Ulvari during the Days of Steel Rain. However, I think it is more likely the encounter was unfortunate chance. As you say, the creature may have been scouting around Tanvu and was returning to its masters when it sensed them on the trail. The Kojuko lust for blood, and the Ulvari have kept them within the fog for many years.”

“Until now,” Mordai concluded thoughtfully. “Why would the Ulvari take an interest in Tanvu after so long? We really do not have any idea what has been happening within the fog since the war. Someone needs to find out.”
Both men looked at Rynku.
“Yeah, we’ve been over that just before you tried to assassinate us, old man. Have the Emperor send in troops. Walking in there alone is suicide,” Rynku scowled.
“No. The Emperor is not to be trusted,” Mordai said firmly. “Master Chosu warned me of highly irregular behavior, and I want to talk to a few of my old colleagues in the Magistracy before we bring any of this to light.”
“That is what I explained to him,” Master Haru sighed.

“People have been vanishing into that fog since the war,” Rynku said with forced patience. “You know the stories. Villagers from all over leave at night without telling anyone, tracked to the Blighted Lands. Maybe the Ulvari are controlling them, making them come there.”
Mordai and Haru said nothing, waiting calmly for the elf to make his point.
“Let’s say I get in there. What’s to keep them from taking over my mind and having me run myself through with my own sword?” Rynku asked.
“That would be a bit extravagant,” said Haru. “The Ulvari have a very strong connection with Jin, and I imagine they would simply strike you down with a more direct talent. Assuming the Kojuko do not find you first, of course.”
“Besides,” Mordai interjected, “I do not believe they are able to invade your conscious mind. From my experience, it seems the technique works indirectly and through the back recesses of thought.”
“Oh… well that makes it much safer then, doesn’t it?” Rynku said with mock relief.
“I have been wrong before.” Mordai conceded, quite seriously.
Rynku simply stared at the two monks, but they held their expectant gaze upon him.
“Fine, I’ll have a look around the area again. But the Blighted Lands can rot; I’m not going to just charge in there until we know more.”
“That will suffice for now,” Master Haru said.
Rynku sighed in exasperation at the two softly grinning monks before turning abruptly to leave. “I’ll be back in a few days,” he growled, without looking back.

After he was gone, Haru turned to Mordai. “What should we do in the meantime, old friend?”
“He is right you know,” Mordai responded. “We cannot go into the fog without more information, and it is foolish to go alone. We will need to seek help.”
“Mordai, something he said troubles me. We know the disappearances into the fog are not just fables – it is happening. We are also hearing more stories from the outlying villages about the Ra’Jin gaining followers. People are disappearing into the night and returning days later, offering no explanation. I fear these events are related.”
Mordai nodded in agreement. “It is certainly suspicious. Perhaps our young friend will discover more. Do you think we can rely on him?”
Haru shrugged, “His father is a good man… conflicted, but a good man. Renketsu was never the same after Hanawyn was killed in the war, but by that time Rynku was more than capable of making it on his own. Renketsu buried himself in his Imperial duties, and Rynku has always kept away from the villages. The only time anyone really sees him is when he brings in supplies to trade, and that is more often with our brethren in the outer retreats. I see a lot of his father in him, however.”

Mordai considered his friend’s words. “We must give him time to prove himself. We are going to need numbers to face the Ulvari, but we cannot approach the Emperor with talk of committing the army in his current condition. If he is truly paranoid, he may believe it is a trick of some kind.”
Haru nodded, thinking through the implications, “And we cannot speak to the villagers for the same reason.”
“I know you do not wish to place your newest students in danger,” Mordai continued. “That leaves the Council of Masters and the eldest classes.”
“Yes. I will go make arrangements to gather the Council. What of the Braelian elves? If the Ulvari are returning, this will affect them as well.”
Mordai smirked, “I do not know that I hold any influence with them any longer, but it is something to consider. Let us speak with the Council first, my friend.”

- - -
 
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Old 03-26-2007, 02:32 PM   #6
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.:| Incursions - Part 6 |:.

The islands of Kojan were many, though several were significantly larger in mass. A widely dispersed archipelago, the far northern isles were claimed by the militant clans of goblins and orcs, while the southern isles across the Jade Sea were home to the Kojani and the elves of Ca’ial Brael, sometimes called wood elves in passing. The occasional mingling, and some would say feral weakness, of the southern races resulted in a growing population of half-elves that shared features of both races. Isolated between the perfection-seeking Braelian elves and the status-focused Kojani society, the half-elves tended to align themselves with the Kojani and most chose to settle among them. Some scholars debate this development was hastened by the Braelian elves open and immediate acceptance of the fox-like Raki when they first appeared in the Kojan Isles; a response in direct contrast to the expectations placed on the half-elves.

The three main isles of the southern mass were arranged somewhat like a horseshoe, forming a bay open to the west. The Kojan Strait separated the northern and eastern isles, dominated by the Kojani. The remaining isle to the south served as the domain of Ca’ial Brael. While the massive Raki-built structure named Jalen’s Crossing allowed passage from the southern isle to the east, the Blighted Lands remained a deadly obstacle to any land travel across the lower end of the eastern isle. As such, travel between Tanvu and Ca’ial Brael was conducted almost entirely by boat through the port at Tawar Galan.

After leaving the Academy on the task set for him by the persistent Master and the old man, Rynku rode atop Suri to the Celestial Retreat and arrived late that afternoon. Reasoning that any Kojuko scouts would seek to travel from the eastern isle at night, Rynku intended to watch the three most likely points of entry to the isle: across the rope bridge joining the sheer rock faces of the northern and eastern isle, or the beaches on the north and south edges of the cliff face. He secured Suri near the shrine and removed one of the packs fastened just behind the saddle, along with his bow, quiver, and twin short swords. From the pack, he removed his leather-plated kusari shirt and similarly constructed leggings. Though maille was used sparingly in the construction, the attire was not the most practical for riding. After a few moments, Rynku had outfitted himself under the curious eyes of the shrine caretakers. With the twin swords secured at his left side to facilitate use of the bow slung on his back, he set off on foot to the east through the rain forest.

Dusk was quickly enveloping the isle, and the only tracks Rynku encountered since leaving the shrine were the expected signs of big cats, boars, and the occasional bear. As the sun drifted below the horizon, the birds fell silent and the forest transitioned to the song of insects. Rynku continued quietly among the trees, traversing the shallow valleys quickly and pausing at the hilltops to assess the next stretch of terrain in the growing moonlight. Eventually he reached the southeast coast of the isle, which presented a wide expanse of open ground spanning from the beach up to the fortress temple known as Magi Hold. Rynku knew to expect a few Imperial guards on patrol, stationed at the temple to prevent thievery of the artifacts within. Trusting that a Kojuko would not cross the open terrain in a regularly patrolled area, Rynku skirted the tree line and continued through the hills north of the fortress.

As he neared the mouth of a narrow valley that lie nestled among the towering rock peaks, Rynku became aware of a low hum in the air and a faint, pulsing glow, which appeared to emanate from within a dense section of vegetation. Creeping slowly now, the half-elf made his way to the edge of the brush and peered, kneeling, into the clearing beyond. With its back to Rynku, a lone Kojuko stood before a massive rock archway, swaying slowly as though in a trance. It appeared to be holding something in its outstretched claws. Glancing around the clearing to ensure no other demons were present, Rynku quietly nocked an arrow and rose above the brush.

The shaft penetrated deep into the base of the demon’s skull, but this did not prevent it from turning quickly as it unleashed an infuriated howl and charged towards its assailant. Rynku released a second arrow, this time piercing the massive upper throat of the beast. The demon dropped the object it held and clutched at the fletching protruding from its throat. With a gurgling snarl, it fell forward and remained motionless. Rynku held his position, listening for any demons that might have been alerted. Sensing no movement, he secured his bow and drew a single sword as he cautiously approached the fallen demon.

The emerald-green eyes of the Kojuko remained open, but it did not draw breath. Rynku gazed down at the body, covered by a dark brown, leathery skin that appeared black in the moonlight. The horns were massive - nearly arm length, and the row of intimidating fangs involuntarily cast a sinister grin. Rynku reversed his sword and drove it through the hulking form. Satisfied at the lack of movement, he began to search the area for the dropped treasure. A glittering in the grass caught his eye, and Rynku located a quartz-like shard roughly the size of his hand. One side of the elongated crystal was smooth and gently curved with a small rune etched into the surface, while the remainder was irregularly shaped and multifaceted.

Still watching the edges of the clearing closely, Rynku placed the shard in his belt pouch and moved closer to the archway. A polished stone foundation roughly eight feet across and also engraved with a rune, rested beneath an arch of boulders floating unnaturally in formation. Each violet-hued stone appeared to be striped with a pulsing inlay of dull yellow crystal. The Ulvari reliance on portal magics was well known, and Rynku decided the structure could not really serve any other purpose. His curiosity piqued, the half-elf located a loose stone in the grass and tossed it underhand through the archway. The stone sailed low into the arch, bounced once off the foundation, and came to rest harmlessly in the grass on the far side. Though it seemed his suspicions might be wrong, the thought of something coming through unexpectedly encouraged him to quietly make his way out of the clearing. From the outskirts, he waited and listened over the next hour. There was no further activity, just the low ominous pulsing of the archway.

After making a final inspection of the clearing for signs of additional Kojuko and coming up empty, Rynku decided to resume his route and made his way further up the hills. He needed the nearly-full moon at his back in order to see any respectable distance, and that meant crossing to the eastern isle. The rope bridge was draped across the highest accessible points of the Kojan Strait, some hundred feet above the sliver of sea. The massive wood planks were wide enough to allow two riders to pass easily, and sufficiently sturdy to allow several horses to cross at once with careful attention to spacing. Taut stabilizing ropes radiated from the sides and resulted in an appearance somewhat like a spider web when viewed from underneath. Though it paled in comparison to the Raki’s craftsmanship at Jalen’s Crossing, the Kojani maintained the bridge through each season. Perhaps out of a sense of friendly competition, one of the more radical Kojani Augurs claimed he could instantly translocate anyone across the strait through a self-discovered rift in the flow of Jin. Most local travelers opted for the more traditional method of crossing, probably in a show of Kojani pride – though the wild-eyed Augur’s unproven stories involving translocations to underwater ruins may have factored in as well. For his part, Rynku simply distrusted the arcane and made his way across the bridge in the still night air.

Once on the eastern isle, Rynku alternated through several vantage points, allowing him to watch both the bridge and the low approaches to the northern isle beaches. He thought often of the portal on the northern isle, but he knew it was impossible to adequately cover all avenues of approach on his own. Since the clearing around the portal was devoid of tracks other than those of the slain Kojuko, Rynku trusted his instincts. The night passed slowly however, and there was no sign of demons sneaking across the bridge or slipping silently onto the beaches. With only a few hours left before dawn, Rynku allowed himself to sleep in preparation for the day of scouting that lay ahead.

---

Nearly a quarter of the eastern isle was consumed by the blood-red haze of the Blighted Lands, and the fishermen of Kashinook village on the bay dared venture only north of their homes when necessary to gather supplies inland. Even though the fog did not begin for several leagues past the village, the dusty violet glow and unnatural sounds emanating from the region were ever present at night. The fishermen and their families had always lived in the shadow of those decaying lands to the southeast, and it was here that Rynku sought information early that morning.

Unlike Rynku, Tankien Surefoot maintained his Braelien lineage through his surname. The half-elf was one of the premier fishermen in Kashinook village, but this morning he was not at sea with the others due to a pierced hull – a parting gift from one of the more aggressive species of sea turtle. As his young children, son and daughter, played on the deck of the beached vessel, Tankien took a break from repairs as he spoke with Rynku.
“Some of the hunters have spoken of odd tracks lately,” Tankien was saying, “but no creature as you describe has been seen for years.”
“And there haven’t been any attacks around the village?” Rynku asked.
“No, but…” Tankien leaned in closer and lowered his voice slightly. “On a few nights I have not slept well. I sometimes rise from bed and gaze out upon the beach. Last night I noticed two figures walking along the water’s edge towards those haunted lands, and this morning two of the fishermen are missing.”
“Missing? Even their families don’t know where they are?”
“They have none. The two have always lived alone on their boats.” Tankien pointed discreetly down the shoreline at two vessels secured at the docks.
“Are you sure they didn’t just go out with the other fishermen?”
“I asked around this morning. One of the elders pulled me aside and told me I should not speak of the incident for my own safety.”
“He threatened you?” Rynku asked with a degree of shock.
“No, it was not a threat. It was out of concern only. He looked very worried and said I should not draw attention to them. It seemed as though this was not the first time they have ventured off at night.”
Rynku glanced down the beach towards the southeast. “They used the waves to cover their tracks, but they had to move off the beach at some point before they reached the cliffs.” He placed his hand firmly on Tankien’s shoulder. “You have been very helpful, my friend.”
“There is one more thing, Rynku. The other day I was returning from Tanvu and noticed a contingent of Imperial troops on the shores at Magi Hold as I sailed past.”
“There’re always guards there.”
“Not this many… never this many.”
“I’ll take a look. Thanks again, Tankien,” Rynku said as he set off down the beach towards the Blighted Lands.

---

The early morning sun illuminated the Academy’s simple council chamber, taking a sepia hue as it filtered through the washi paper panels in the sliding doors that enclosed the penthouse level atop the temple of Masters. The square chamber was comprised of two decks. The upper deck consisted of a railed walkway around the perimeter of the chamber where students would stand at attention on occasions when they were permitted entry, while the inner deck a few steps below housed the Masters as they conducted proceedings.

There were no students present this morning, however. Six mats were arranged on the lower deck; five arced in a perfect half-circle around the sixth – one for each sovereign Master of a discipline of the Academy. Master Haru, as the chosen head of the Academy, kneeled on the center mat with Masters Wansume, Zanou, Asun, and Sumaki assuming their positions around the arc. To the sorrow of all, Master Chosu’s mat was noticeably vacant. Mordai stood at the railing on the upper deck behind Haru, now dressed in a simple dull white shirt with brown vest and rust colored cloth pants. His long silver hair was in the traditional back knot, forming a simple tail while the long sides hung freely, accentuating his bearded chin.

The Masters, clothed in identical ceremonial white robes with dark blue hem, had begun the session at sunrise, and for over an hour they discussed the recent events around Tanvu, as well as the attack on Mordai and Master Chosu earlier in the week. Master Haru eventually turned the discussion towards investigating the activity in the Blighted Lands, and was met with considerable derision.
“Haru,” Master Asun was saying, “the Ulvari have been quiet for years and our barriers still protect the villages. If we disturb their domain, we may unleash a horrific chain of events. The principal of Harmonious Effort dictates that we take no action at this time, as the whole of the people is not threatened. If we act as you suggest, we will be striving to break the existing peace, not preserve it.” The Masters seated around Haru nodded in agreement.
“We have been attacked; the peace is broken already.” Master Haru spoke patiently. “There is a reason a Kojuko ventured this close to our barriers. They are testing us. I fear they are preparing for an unprovoked strike. Does Harmonious Outlook not require us to analyze and understand these events?” Haru looked around at their faces, judging the impact of his words.

“Your Intent has merit, Haru.” Master Sumaki, the eldest sovereign, now spoke. “Harmonious Action allows us to take certain precautions. We can perhaps reinforce the barriers. I agree the Emperor is not approachable directly. We should attempt to discretely inform the lower Magistrates, and allow them to advance the information. In the meantime, we can assign duties to our adept students.”
Mordai quietly cleared his throat. “If I may, revered Masters?”
“You are not of this council or this academy, Mordai.” Sumaki said with a degree of scorn. “Had you adhered to my teachings more diligently, perhaps your mind would not be open to the influences of Ra’Jin and your encounter on the path…”
“Sumaki,” Haru interrupted calmly, “that is long past us now. None of us can genuinely question brother Karu’s talents; you will not dismiss this threat by way of further ridicule.”
Sumaki narrowed his eyes at Mordai, but spoke no further.
“You may, brother Karu,” Haru acknowledged, his eyes still firmly on Sumaki.

Mordai clasped his hands before him and began, “It is not only Tanvu that is in danger. All of the villages in the isles are at risk, and we cannot ignore the threat to them. But that is the least of our concerns – as I recounted to you earlier, the Ulvari may have embarked on a different sort of attack entirely. An invasion of the minds of the people can be more devastating than a direct attack, as we may not fully understand their intentions in time.”
“We must consider for a moment,” Mordai continued, “if the barriers cannot block the Ulvari attacks in the mental plane, then we have been open to attack for an unknown period of time – certainly well before the attack this week. The Emperor’s erratic behavior is an ominous sign given this revelation. The Ulvari practice perhaps the purest invocations of Ra’Jin, and we are hearing rumors of resurgence in that secret sect among the people. These events must be linked.”

There was a tense silence as the Masters considered the implications of Mordai’s argument.

---

Rynku had no problem picking up the trail near the end of the beach. The men he tracked had veered inland as they reached the rocky cliffs, leaving signs among the tall wild grasses that grew in the sandy soil. As he expected, the men had taken a route directly towards the Blighted Lands. Rynku continued up the gently sloping hillside and came to an old forgotten road that led to the ancient fortifications now claimed by the haze, and abruptly froze. The road that should have had only a few animal signs and perhaps the occasional print from a wandering adventurer was now covered in large numbers of fresh tracks and hoof marks, all leading away from the fog.

Rynku followed the tracks down the road, back towards the west. They were only a few hours old, placing the movement in the early hours before dawn. He swore under his breath as he bolted down the path at a full run towards the strait and ultimately Tanvu.

- - -

Last edited by waivren : 07-11-2007 at 04:19 PM.
 
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Old 03-29-2007, 12:47 PM   #7
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.:| Incursions – Part 7 |:.

A dark-haired man garbed in black cloth came galloping down the path out of the hills above Tanvu on a steel gray mare. He stopped abruptly several yards before the gate of the Academy and dismounted. One of the two attendants at the gate approached, bowing slightly in greeting. The weathered man waited calmly as the student came forward, and then asked in a quiet voice, “Are you ready, young one?”
The student, in his mid-teens, regarded the man in black for a moment, obviously attempting to remember what it was he should be ready for. “I do not understand, sir. Do you have business with the Masters of the temple?”
“I do indeed. Does your friend not know?” the man asked calmly, gesturing at the second attendant.
The student looked back and motioned for the other attendant to come forward.
“The Masters are currently in Council, sir. May I ask the purpose of your visit so I may relay word?” the student before him asked, but the man only looked on serenely as the summoned student approached at a dutiful pace.
“And you, young apprentice of Lao’Jin. Do you know the significance of this day?” the man in black inquired.
“No sir, I do not.” The two attendants looked at each other curiously.
“Ah, then I shall tell you. This day has been selected as a most grand day,” the man said, his speech paced slowly and drawn for dramatic effect. “And you two will be the first to experience an extraordinary event that I have been waiting many years to witness. In fact, many of us have awaited this day with dire anticipation.”
The young attendants grinned at each other, their excitement obviously building.
“So I now ask you once again, are you ready to fulfill your tasks this day?”
The pair was trying very hard to keep up. The second one began to count off something on his fingers and said with a puzzled look, “Sir, there are no observances on the thirteenth day of Meyanian.”
“Of what tasks do you speak, sir?” the other attendant inquired.

The man in black looked beyond the two students and watched as the last of some hundred-odd similarly garbed men silently reached their final positions, keeping their bodies tight along the outer wall in single file just on either side of the open gate and around the perimeter of the temple. The man smirked, “A task so simple, you have completed it even now.”

The students continued to look at him curiously as he raised is hands to his temples and instantly released a burst of energy that sent both students to the ground in heaps. The flow of blood and fluid draining freely through their ears quickly soaked the ground as the man in black stepped between them and continued calmly towards the gate.

---

Mordai and Sumaki simultaneously looked first in the direction of the gate and then at each other. Master Haru, noting the direction of Sumaki’s alarmed stare rose to his feet. “What is it?”
“I sensed a tremendous release of psionic energy just now. Something is happening below,” Sumaki responded suspiciously, also rising along with the other Masters.

Before they reached the upper deck of the council chambers, alarmed shouts of ‘Ra’Jin!’ had already begun to ring out, and as the Masters moved outside through the sliding shoji doors, the sounds of weapons clashing filled the air. The Masters looked at the grounds far below. Several bodies, garbed in white student robes, lay scattered around the gate inside the walls. Large numbers of the black-clothed invaders surged inside and engaged the alerted students attempting to form a defensive line.

An air of cold resolution came over Master Haru. “We must force them out. Find your students. Protect them. If we cannot hold the complex, we will abandon the temple. Survival is your priority now. Go!” He turned to Mordai as the Masters rushed off the deck. “Come with me, my friend.”
The men sprinted back through the Council chamber and down the flight of stairs to one of the ceremonial halls. From a rack of various weapons along the wall, Haru grabbed a long wooden staff and tossed it to Mordai.
“We must secure the gates and get the students out, Mordai,” the Master said gravely as he removed a broad-bladed falchion for himself, receiving a resolute nod from his friend as he tested the balance of the staff.

The Academy complex was almost maze-like in construction due to the segmentation of the various wards of study. The narrow streets and blind corners resulted in frequent close quarter engagements as the Masters regrouped with their students and fought their way towards the open courtyard before the gates. The clash of weapons and cries of the wounded filled the air.

As Haru and Mordai left the main temple and descended into the wards, three Ra’Jin warriors appeared around the massive stone foundation, each wielding a fearsome claw of blades on one hand. The Ra’Jin stopped suddenly, appraising their opponents. Cautiously, two approached Haru, while the third turned his attention to Mordai.

Grasping his staff with his left hand, Mordai raised two fingers of his free hand to his right temple briefly in a mock salute to the encroaching Ra’jin. The attacker’s body blurred slightly as it shifted out of phase with its plane of reality, and all motion from the Ra’Jin ceased. Mordai then stepped to aid his friend, who was fending off the two other assailants with swift strikes from his blade. The Ra’Jin were unaware they now fought alone, as Master Haru’s maneuvering required their full attention. Seeing that the old man had dispatched his attacker, Haru shifted his stance and sidestepped the Ra’Jin, placing their backs to Mordai. With a leveraged strike to the head from his staff, the old man downed the left disciple. The distraction caused the remaining Ra’Jin to open his defenses and Haru thrust the blade deep into his chest.

“You must conserve your energy, Mordai.” Haru chided as he inspected the phase-shifted form of the Ra’Jin. “Do not let Sumaki’s words influence your actions now, we must survive this day. Now, release him.”
Mordai nodded, and repeated the mock salute, releasing his hold on the warrior. A growing weariness on the old man’s face seemed to vanish even as the warrior blurred back into reality with a thoroughly confused expression about him.
In one graceful spinning motion, Haru closed the distance to the Ra’jin, allowing the momentum of his blade to deftly behead the warrior. Mordai winced, obviously disturbed by the execution style attack.
“It is necessary, my friend.” Haru said calmly, wiping his blade clean. “You could not hold him forever. It is a complex path we walk and I commend your restraint, but our actions are just. Now, let us go. We have students to protect.”

The two men encountered isolated groups of Ra’Jin as they made their way through the wards, though their numbers, in threes and fours, were not sufficient to stop the swift blade of Master Haru. Mordai managed to knock a few more senseless with his staff and even resorted to rendering some unconscious with small impulses from his mind. But the numbers and intensity of the Ra’Jin assault were draining, and Mordai could feel exhaustion approaching quickly. As the pair made their way through the narrow streets following several skirmishes, an arrow struck the wooden wall inches from Mordai as another pierced the loose sleeve of Haru’s robe. Locating the source of the attack, Mordai quickly invoked the Kotojisou again, immobilizing the two archers that had appeared high on the inner walkway atop the ramparts. Spotting additional Ra’Jin further down the alley, Haru pulled his exhausted friend to cover as Mordai was forced to release the bowmen. Both men were drenched in sweat and breathing heavily from their efforts. Peeking back around the wooden partition, Haru saw the confused archers had moved further down the wall seeking their suddenly vanished prey among the buildings below.
“We must stop them, Mordai. They can do much harm from there,” Haru said firmly.

Mordai rose and peered around the partition. Closing his eyes in concentration, he sought to filter through the myriad impulses of thought flowing throughout the Academy. After a brief instant, he located the thread of consciousness emanating from one of the archers. Focusing his will, Mordai implanted the archer’s mind with the distinct impression his ally sought to kill him. The beguiled archer promptly attacked his surprised partner with a dagger pulled from his belt. Both men were skilled, and their defenses swift.
“That will keep them occupied for a while,” Mordai said quietly.
“Very well,” Haru conceded with an amused smirk. The Master glanced down the alleyway. “It is clear, let’s make our way to the courtyard.”

The wards were enclosed by a wooden partition around the perimeter, with a single entry that provided access to the larger pathways of the courtyard and eventually the main gates. Although they passed numerous bodies of both students and Ra’Jin as they moved through the ward alleys, neither Haru nor Mordai were prepared for what they saw as they exited the wards. The courtyard was a mass of black and white-clothed heaps surrounded by dark red pools of thickening blood. On the far wall, near the main gate, Master Wansume and his shield-bearing students fought their way with swords up the stairs to the inner walkway, working desperately to fend off an array of archers. In the center of the courtyard, surrounded by clusters of warring students and Ra’Jin, Master Zanou was fending off four Ra’Jin with his bladed martial staff. Kneeling on the ground just behind him was Master Asun; his hand raised around two arrows protruding from his chest.

As Mordai and Haru rushed down the path to Zanou’s aid, Mordai spotted Master Sumaki in the far corner of the Academy across the blood-drenched courtyard, standing before many wounded students. A lone man in the uniform black garb of the Ra’Jin walked slowly towards the trapped Master, hands at his temples. Sumaki continuously invoked shielding incantations to block the psionic energy hurled at the cornered group and was weakening quickly.

The pair reached Master Zanou’s position first. Mordai struck with his staff, the upward blow to the chin knocking the target from his feet. Haru removed another Ra’Jin from combat with a thrust of his blade to the ribs, quickly rotating into position and penetrating the back of the third Ra’Jin with a reverse thrust. Master Zanou, now free to focus his attention on the remaining attacker, quickly disabled the man with slashing blows to the chest followed with a strike to the head with the flat of the blade.

“Move Asun towards Wansume’s position back along the wall and do what you can for him,” Haru instructed Zanou. “We will clear the way to the gate.”
“We must aid Sumaki,” Mordai shouted, turning towards the corner. The small skirmishes that lay between Sumaki and the other Masters continued, mostly in the favor of the Ra’Jin who now moved to reengage. Mordai readied himself and glanced over the approaching men at Sumaki’s position. The cornered students now combined their efforts to desperately maintain a defensive barrier against the lone Ra’Jin’s attacks as the exhausted Sumaki, half-kneeling with arms extended over his head, began a long invocation. As Sumaki lowered his arms slowly, his image and those of the students began to shimmer. In a blinding flash the group vanished, provoking an enraged scream from the man in black. He quickly composed himself and made a visual pass around the courtyard. He then began a similar invocation, vanishing as well.

Haru glanced at Mordai. “Sumaki translocated them blindly, and it appears the Ra’Jin followed them, or at least attempted to,” Mordai answered the unspoken question.
“Can he do that? Why would he be focused on Sumkai and his students?” Haru asked.
“I do not know, perhaps to lock down their talents during the attack. That man exhibits extraordinary power, and he appears to be the only Ra’Jin here gifted with the arcane knowledge.”
“We must warn Tanvu and bring guards to defend the Academy. Can you escape in the same manner?”
Mordai shook his head, “I am not well versed in the technique, and Sumaki’s solution was far too risky.”
Haru glanced around the courtyard. Zanou had moved Asun to relative safety, but the unrelenting attacks prevented him from tending to the stricken Master. Wansume had now fully fought his way onto the inner wall alongside his students, forcing the archers to either fallback along the wall or engage at close quarters. Scattered throughout the courtyard, the remaining Lao’Jin students appeared to outnumber the Ra’Jin.
“We’ll fight our way to the entrance. You must bring soldiers from Tanvu, and warn the city. The Ra’Jin may strike there as well,” Haru repeated with concerned desperation.

As the pair moved towards the gate, they aided students engaged in combat who then likewise moved to aid their brethren, and the Lao’Jin quickly began to gain the advantage. Mordai was several yards from the gate threshold when an intense light illuminated the courtyard. As the effect dissipated, the old man was horrified to see an entire contingent of Ra’Jin fanning out from the man in black, standing with a defiant smirk on his face in their center. Several of the reinforcements spotted Haru and Mordai and quickly moved to engage. Fending off the sudden flurry of attacks, the pair backed towards the gate, unaware of the sentries holding the grounds just outside the walls.

From his position in the corner just down from the gate, Master Asun still clutched the twin arrows that pierced his chest. He watched helplessly as Zanou and a screen of students defended the corner from the renewed attacks. They had just begun to move towards the gate when the reinforcements appeared, blocking their path. As he watched Mordai and Haru desperately fending off several Ra’Jin as they backed towards the threshold, the sorcerer saw the opportunity he had been waiting for. Previously, the courtyard had been hopelessly intermixed with students and Ra’jin, requiring precise attacks in the confined area. Now, however, the lines of battle were much better defined. Summoning his remaining strength, Asun uttered an arcane command. The air around the Ra’Jin assaulting Haru and Mordai began to fog. In an instant, ice crystals rapidly formed along the line of Ra’Jin soldiers, simultaneously encasing them and blocking the main body of troops from the gates with a great wall of ice. This immediately drew the attention of the man in black, who visually searched across the sea of combating bodies for the source of the incantation. Finding his mark, the Ra’Jin Augur raised his hands to his temples and unleashed a powerful burst upon the wounded Master. Sensing the incoming wave of psionic energy, Master Asun acted to shield himself from the retaliatory strike, but the burst overcame him. As Master Zanou fought off the relentless attacks before them, Asun slumped in the corner, blood draining through any available path from the head.

Shocked by the sudden appearance of the ice wall, Haru looked conflicted at being isolated from the battle within. He turned to Mordai, who stood with a pained expression as he stared blankly through the ice wall towards the corner of the temple. Before Haru could speak, the sound of swords being unsheathed behind them brought both men around and into renewed defensive postures. Three swordsmen and two archers, arrows already nocked and drawn, stood in a loose arc around Mordai and Haru, trapping them against the Academy’s outer wall. One of the swordsmen gave a cruel smile as he motioned for the archers to fire.

The whisper and impact of a released arrow accompanied the quad staccato beats of a horse at full gallop. The archer to Mordai’s right fell, his throat pierced by the phantom projectile. The remaining Ra’Jin turned to face up the trail leading to the hills as Rynku rushed full-on towards them, half-standing in Suri’s saddle with another arrow nocked. The second archer released, but missed the charging Rynku even as the half-elf’s arrow invaded his chest. Seizing the moment, Haru downed two of the startled swordsmen as Mordai’s impulse touched the mind of the sole remaining Ra’Jin, dropping him to the ground in unconscious slumber.

“You must get Mordai to safety – he knows of the Ulvari’s intentions,” Haru shouted as Rynku reigned in Suri before them. “I must help the others. Warn Tanvu and send troops to aid us, but do not return here under any circumstances.” Haru aided Mordai onto the saddle behind Rynku and slapped Suri’s flank. “Go!”
Rynku nodded as Suri leapt forward. As they charged down the hill towards Tanvu, Mordai glanced back and saw Haru assault the ice wall at the gate with his falchion. The heat-weakened wall gave easily, and Haru vanished inside to rejoin the battle.

It was only a short distance to Tanvu, and Rynku and Mordai quickly reached the outer palisade of the city where two guards stood watch at the entrance.
“The Academy is being assaulted by the Ra’Jin,” Rynku shouted at the guard. “They may be coming for the city next. We need to get troops up the hill to aid the Masters!”
The guard looked at his partner uncomfortably and then back to the half-elf. “We were ordered to take no action – only to be sure the gates are protected.”
Mordai frowned at the guard, “Ordered by whom? Someone knows the attack is taking place? There are only two of you here. What kind of defense can you mount by yourselves?”
The guard shrugged, “We were told only to expect a conflict at the Academy and to ensure that it did not advance into the city.”
Mordai stared at the guard in disbelief and then grumbled in disgust. He then focused his gaze on the apathetic guard. “You – go up the hill and aid the Lao’Jin.” The guard’s eyes glazed over slightly and he rushed up the hill. Mordai repeated the same phrase at the second guard, who also immediately bolted up the hill.
Rynku threw a confused glance back at the old man, but before he could speak Mordai commanded him to get to the city as quickly as possible. The stormy look on the old monk’s face prevented any argument.

As soon as they crossed through the massive stone walls of the citadel at Tanvu, Rynku and Mordai saw that a large mass of people were gathered in the streets. All were looking up to the high center wall that surrounded the Emperor’s fortress. Standing atop the wall surrounded by his Imperial Guard, the Emperor was addressing the people.
“… they alone have raised the ire of the Ra’Jin,” the Emperor was saying. “The ceremonies and rituals of the Ra’Jin give them greater insight to the Ulvari, and the Ra’Jin Masters have informed me that the acts of the Lao’Jin threaten to bring the Ulvari down upon us yet again. As your grand and eternal Emperor, I must act to protect you, my citizens, from anyone that would seek to cause you harm. Therefore, I instruct all of you to avoid the Academy. It will now be the domain of the Ra’Jin so that they may insulate us from the Ulvari and watch over Tanvu to ensure our security. The Lao’Jin are not to be entrusted with your safety, as even now they seek to rally the opinion of the people and the Magistrates against me, your eternal Emperor. I command you - do not aid the Lao’Jin.”
“Now,” the Emperor finished, “go about your lives as you always have, knowing that you are secure in the protection of the Ra’Jin.” With that, he turned and disappeared from atop the wall as his Guard fell in behind him. A series of low murmurs coursed through the crowd, and Rynku looked back to see Mordai’s face had gone pale.
“What’s going on here?” Rynku asked.
Ignoring the question, Mordai said urgently, “It is not safe here, get us to the docks.”
“What? We have to go back,” Rynku half-shouted at the old man. “If that bastard isn’t going to send troops to stop them…”
Mordai shook his head sadly. “We are the only ones that know what is truly happening here, and that is why the Ra’Jin are eradicating the temple. We can do nothing more here except hope that the Masters have escaped. Now, we must go to the docks. This city is tainted. We will seek aid in Ca’ial Brael.”

Begrudgingly, Rynku turned Suri back towards the West gate. As they made their way through the huts and fields dispersed around the outside of the citadel, Mordai gazed mournfully up the hills towards the Academy as the faint sounds of combat drifted on the wind.

- - -
 
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Old 07-27-2007, 12:07 PM   #8
waivren
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
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.:| Incursions – Part 8 |:.

Metallic foot falls echoed from the stone walls of the winding corridor as the armored elf made his way towards the heart of Pankor Zhi. The flickering firelight from the torches imbued a ghostly iridescence to his narrow goatee and white shoulder-length locks of hair - a direct contrast to his dark violet skin. As he neared the war chamber, the sentries stood aside and opened the chamber doors with barely concealed contempt. Their condescending stares were met with equal animosity through dark red eyes that spoke volumes of the elf’s opinion of the so-called higher caste. These noble-born swine were content to stand safe and secure guarding a chamber no enemy would ever approach, while his brethren in the outer Hathor Zhi province risked their lives to meet the real threats to the Queen’s dislocated Empire. The elf smirked as it occurred to him that these ‘pure-blood’ soldiers were probably the first to flee from Stiirhad when the Elementals struck.

The center of the war chamber was dominated by a massive solid stone dais. Priori Traketh Kamar looked up from the map of Qalia draped across the polished surface as a pair of advisors continued to scribe notes and place symbolic tokens in strategic locations along the continent. As Priori Kamar moved around the dais, he considered his words while he quietly appraised the soldier at attention before him. His appearance seemed to be in order, though the armor, steel plate over mail base, was spattered heavily with drying blood.

Priori Kamar removed a small black cloth from within his breastplate and tossed it to the soldier. “I do hope that all of that is not your own, Asraithe.”
Catching the cloth, the elf casually brushed at the more offensive areas. “I assure you it is mostly Aeokor blood.” Asraithe tossed the cloth back to his superior.
“Haven’t those rebels been contained yet?” Kamar asked calmly as he started to replace the cloth in his breastplate, but instead flung it at a startled page standing at attention near the wall. “Burn that.”
“They still hold the majority of the ground between Hathor’s Sentinel and the Queen’s Ward. But they will not move beyond those walls. We still hold Dragonweir fortress at the mouth of the canyon. Reports from Evendusk fortress indicate a small number of Aeokor have made their way up to the south plateau, however. If Ahgram has their scouts out, I’m sure word of the uprising will begin to spread.”
“That could pose an interesting problem, but we will deal with that as it becomes necessary,” Kamar nodded dismissively.
“There is also speculation that the Aeokor are attempting to solicit aid from Lomshir. Centurion Relkyr is looking into it. However, I doubt you summoned me here for a simple status report.”

“No. I have another assignment for you. I’m pulling you from the Aeokor front and you will proceed to Martok. There you will establish formal relations with the Martok Clan and assess their viability as allies. The details are in here,” Priori Kamar said as he pulled a scroll from the table.

“What would we possibly want with the Orcs,” Asraithe asked somewhat sardonically as he took the scroll and began to examine the orders within.
“In short – ships. We have no means here. There is no direct access to the sea, and every move we make outside this canyon is watched by those pestilent humans. If we are going to strengthen our position here, we must expand out of Pankor’s Vein. The canyon simply makes it too easy to keep us contained. And to expand, we must be able to move troops at will. Naval power will hasten that goal once we control the northwest coast and Lomshir. It will also, in the long term, allow us to expand beyond Qalia.”

Asraithe continued to listen as he moved through the scroll. “Those are some very long term goals. This originates from the Queen?”
“From her advisors. I am sure I have no need to remind you that this must remain a closely held secret. If the Qalian races discover we are contemplating naval power, they will surely fall upon us with full force. The Thestrian races may even join them. As it stands, our diplomats are attempting to cover the build up of the Legions by approaching the Ahgramun Empire with talks of an alliance. The idea is to focus their attention on aiding us in our return to Stiirhad, rather than continually concern them selves with us in this damned canyon. Pankor Zhi will make a nice outpost one day, but I do not wish to spend the rest of my days here. As long as the humans believe our true aim is to return home and stay there, they will not be as suspicious of the Legion’s activities.”

Asraithe moved to the dais and braced the ends of the scroll with a few of the stone weights scattered about the surface. The exposed portion contained a map of the Kojan Isles. “The island of Martok lies well north of the Kojan territory, but the smaller islands in between concern me. There are sure to be villages scattered among them, and with that comes any number of fishing vessels with prying eyes. How are we going to keep a massive ship building effort hidden? As soon as the Kojani learn of this, their diplomats will notify Ahgram and New Targonor.”

“That is going to be your determination,” Kamar responded with a slight smirk. “However, General Zowt did indicate in his communiqué that the Kojani will soon have other problems on which to focus their attention.”
“The Orcs have been sea-faring for ages. Can we not simply arrange to purchase ships from them?”
“We offered, and they refused. Apparently they have need of all their existing vessels and manpower. That is something else I want you to discover. The agreement you are to work for will involve a location in their territory. They will have to provide the engineering knowledge – we will have to provide the labor… and the materials.”

“It seems we should begin collecting Aeokor prisoners rather than slaughtering them all,” Asraithe said thoughtfully. Priori Kamar considered his words for a moment and then reached for a parchment. “I’ll dispatch an order. By the time you return, we should have a decent labor force. Now, there is an Orc vessel holding some distance off the northwest coast. Once darkness falls, they will sail in close and bring you aboard. The location is in your orders. Send word to me within two weeks on your progress.”
Asraithe crossed his chest with his right arm and bowed his head in salute before pivoting and leaving the chamber.

Shielding his eyes from the midday sun as he descended from the dark corridors, Asraithe passed through the immense granite façade etched into the canyon wall which marked the entrance of Pankor Zhi. One of the young wyrms roared and stretched its massive wings before its rider prodded it back into patrol along the promenade. As Asraithe progressed down the stairway he spotted Vylar lying on her side in the shade of a tree, her head propped on one hand while she toyed at the grass with one of her daggers. She looked up as Asraithe approached, the scroll in his hand indicating there was an assignment.
“So where are we off to this time?” she asked, her voice low and smooth as silk.
“Martok,” he responded simply.
Her brow furrowed as she rose to her feet and adjusted her leather vest. “You’re joking, of course.”
“No. Where is Folkoth?”
“He’s off toward the cave with that… thing.” She gestured down the gentle hillside with her dagger before wiping it clean and placing it back in the sheath at her belt. “I think he was able to teach it something new. Said he was going to reward it… probably letting it feed,” she said with a hint of disgust.
“Well go collect him. I’ll get the horses. We need to prepare quickly - a ship is waiting for us and we leave tonight.”

Vylar gave a shrill whistle which prompted the dark-robed elf far down the hill to turn and consider her for a moment. He began to calmly walk towards her, arms folded in the large sleeves of his robe. Just behind him, a gruesome beast with glistening dark-grey skin began to follow. It moved as a simian, propelling itself with clawed feet and using a talon-laden hand for balance between strides. In its free claw it secured the mangled corpse of a rockspine lizard, and as they neared, Vylar saw its quad fangs were still dripping blood.

She was accustomed to Folkoth’s practices and peculiarities by now, but she was never especially comfortable around the resurrected and horribly corrupted abominations he seemed to hold dear. Her preferences tended towards a silent blade and a quick poison. And while Vylar respected the dark arts of her fellow elves, the results of the craft were disturbing nonetheless. This particular beast was only about half her height, though it could tower over her petite form if it stood fully upright. She believed this one used to be an Aeokor elf, or at least it was before Folkoth ‘improved’ it. The stench of the beast and the cold, clammy skin did not have as profound an effect on her as the fact that the eyeless creature seemed to have the ability to stare right at her – and penetrate to her soul.

“We’re leaving,” she informed Folkoth as he approached, keeping a wary eye on the beast.
“It is happy I think. It was most effective in its pursuit,” he replied, looking down at the abomination. The hood of his robe concealed his features, but Vylar knew the dark, sinister grin was there. “I believe it has proven itself worthy to be named.”
“Wonderful,” she said sarcastically as she turned towards Asraithe and the waiting horses.

- - -
 
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