The Crab caravan’s Sergeant knows who Kuni Yutagi is. To say that he and the other Crab soldiers of the company are shocked to meet this shugenja in person, is an understatement.
Yutagi’s return with the scouting bushi creates a stir among the men. Apparently this shugenja is well known among the Crab people. And has been well known for more than a hundred years, though he does not look it. Eccentric Yutagi seems puzzled by the answers the Sergeant gives in reply to queries about recent events.
On learning out the caravan’s destination and planned route, Yutagi gently berates the Sergeant for wasting time going around the Wall instead of simply taking the shorter, hidden route under the Wall. At mention of this secret, the Crab soldiers bristle and glance hard at the ronin and the Scorpion bushi.
The Sergeant cannot dispute the shugenja’s words. He defers to Yutagi’s authority and agrees to take the hidden passage. Using this route will cut a week off their travel to Shinsei’s Last Hope. The Crab Sergeant demands an oath of secrecy from the ronin and Shosuro Yama, and their word they will comply with his conditions when they near this secret place.
Turning from their path, the caravan sets off in a new direction. No scouts ride ahead; more danger would befall the ronin scouts from Crab agents guarding the hidden passage than from undead.
After three hours, the long line of the Wall appears on the horizon. It grows steadily larger and more impressive. The caravan stops a short time later. Crab soldiers blindfold the ronin and Yama. None of the party makes any attempt to peek.
With no sight to inform them, the party infers from their other senses. They ride for a while on level ground. Then, the sway and gait of their ponies suggests that they are traveling down a slight slope. Soon, the warmth of the sun lifts from their faces and arms. The air grows cooler.
The roar of a waterfall grows loud, peaks, and then slowly recedes behind them. An hour later, the open sounds around them close in. They have entered a tunnel or underground space. The sounds of their ponies and carts echo back at them. Talking has ceased. The Crab soldiers let slip no noise. Neither then do the ronin.
An hour passes this way, in oppressive silence, somewhere underground, meandering along at a slow, plodding pace. Then the echo slips away, there is a breeze from all directions, the air is fresh again. The warmth of sun comes back. Still they ride on, for another hour, unseeing.
The procession halts. The sound of a ruckus comes from off to the left. The Sergeant orders the blindfolds removed.
The bushi blink against the early afternoon light. All around are brown, barren lands. Well behind them is the Wall, the spiked defensive elevation of the side facing the Shadowlands. Most noticeable before them and off to the side, is a huge creature that seems all tentacles and teeth, and a collection of Ogres and undead. This horde clamors toward the caravan.
The shugenja Yutagi calmly offers to attend to the huge creature. None object.
Eager for battle, Akihiro, Kenshin, Tensi and Takeshi are directed to take four Crab bushi and two archers, and engage a squad of three Ogres. The caravan Sergeant directs Crab fighters to different tactics.
The party advances. The battle is met. The Crab archers drop one Ogre. Kenshin is quick with his blade, killing another. Takeshi and Akihiro team up with Crab bushi and slay what seemed to be the Ogre’s leader. This Ogre was stronger and better armoured.
From nowhere, the party is pelted with rocks. Try as they may, they cannot identify the source of the stones. The party spreads out and tries to spot their assailant. The Crab bushi and archers collect their injured men and withdraw from the scene of combat.
As if they had only been resting, two of the Ogres rise from death and resume their attack on the party. Both have become zombies. One was the Ogre leader; the other was the Ogre killed by Kenshin.
Tensi unleashes a flurry of arrows. The Ogre leader makes for him, forcing the archer into tactical retreats. Takeshi easily faces one Ogre while Kenshin and Akihiro attack the leader. Try as the party might, none are able to spot the source of rocks and corpse-reanimation. That shugenja is well hidden.
A flaming ball of gooey substance arcs down from the sky, landing and exploding before Tensi, coating him with a sticky flammable tar. Flailing to remove his armor and extinguish the burning gel, Tensi just barely survives the burns and intense heat.
Takeshi drops his Ogre opponent. Shortly thereafter, Akihiro does the same. The mysterious shugenja antagonist seems to have slipped away; the group is not attacked further by stones or fresh undead.
The other Crab soldiers have dealt with their foes. Yutagi is in the last stages of defeating the tall, massive tentacle horror. The party quickly collects armor and weapons from the twice-killed Ogre corpses, and regroups at the caravan. Akihiro may have been infected with a touch of Shadowlands Taint, though he makes no mention if this is so.
Half of the caravan soldiers had been killed in combat, then re-animated as zombies, then killed again. The Sergeant is not pleased with the losses. When the shugenja has finished off his enemy, the caravan quickly gets under way. It is best not to linger.
That night, the caravan reaches a low, green valley. It stands out as healthy and pleasant amid a barren wasteland of grey and brown and black. It is the location of Shinsei’s Last Hope. The caravan has arrived at its destination.
Passing the outer gates into a sheltering valley, the caravan’s supplies are diverted to a staging area while the party is welcomed by Crab officers, and directed to sleeping quarters to rest the night. Those ronin who have taken the heads of goblins or Ogres turn them in to authorities, and are marked with credit for the trophies against their tally for the 20-Goblin Winter challenge.
(end Part 8)