Takeshi returns from the local Temple of Earth. The shugenja were cryptic. They spoke of a hidden message within the text of the Free Ogre’s letter. Somehow it relates to Kuni Yutagi.
The ronin find a surprise at their barracks. Their blacksmith associate was admitted to a family of the Crab Clan. His mastery of the forge and steel won him the honour. For now, he remains in their service of his ronin associates.
Currently he is modifying a helm for Takeshi’s use. The helm was taken from the ogre leader defeated a few days ago. It is a magnificent artifact. The piece will require only a few more days of work before it will fit Takeshi.
The other ronin of the party’s band are currently out hunting for goblin heads. In need of rest, the party lays low for the evening.
The next day there is no desire to leave Shinsei’s Last Hope. Kenshin wanders to the main gate of the town. For a few hours he watches patiently as other candidates of the 20-Goblin Winter return from their adventures in the Shadowlands. The most impressive group is a band of twenty warriors. There are a dozen swordsmen and seven archers. They turn in three or four goblin heads each at the counting table. Their leader, a formidable and charismatic warrior, hands over three full sacks of heads.
A smaller group shows up later. Led by a well-equipped shugenja (actually E.G.’s former character TAKASHI), two archers and two swordsmen produce a modest haul of goblin heads. Past the noon hour, fewer and fewer ronin return from the wild.
Kenshin returns to the lodgings. Akihiro and Shosuro Yama have gone out for tea and strategic planning. Takeshi observes their blacksmith’s work.
Tensi has the whole day ahead but no idea what to do with himself. The aimless bushi takes to the streets, drifting through Shinsei’s Last Hope. His agility saves him from a hideous fate; he dodges the contents of a chamber-pot emptied out an upper storey window.
Though he is alone and anonymous in this unfamiliar town, Tensi’s hidden Disadvantage does not influence his actions even the slightest. The bushi archer even spots a handsome fellow that looks very familiar. However, Tensi hasn’t the courage to come out, and speak to him. Instead, he follows the man through the streets until his trolling is noticed. When confronted, Tensi denies he was spying and hurries off to the marketplace.
Nothing interests the archer here, either. He finds a gambling house. With no understanding of or skills at these games of chance, Tensi spends the rest of the day losing his money.
The next day, the party remains in town. Kenshin’s observations at the gate yesterday give them an idea. They stop in at a local tavern and ask around. The group is disappointed to find that no small parties of ronin are eager to join forces and hunt as a larger team.
Kenshin, Akihiro, and Takeshi go to the main gates. Here, Akihiro attempts to gather information from the clerical worker stationed at the counting table. He gets stonewalled. Kenshin is skilled in Etiquette, and deftly wins the Crab bureaucrat’s favour.
The clerical worker confirms some suspicions. The larger groups of ronin have been going out on horseback. This has allowed them to foray deeper into the Shadowlands than bushi on foot. Some parties have gone out to hunt at night, leaving town by late afternoon and returning after dawn.
Kenshin asks about completing the 20-Goblin Winter challenge. The clerk says that when a ronin has achieved his quota of twenty heads, that bushi’s induction ceremony is scheduled for the next time a ranking Crab official of a family is available.
The next day comes. Takeshi’s helm is ready, so he is eager to strike out into the wild and hunt. Unfortunately, there are not enough ponies for Tensi and Yama. Mounts are for sale in town but at breathtakingly high prices. The group will have to travel on foot.
Leaving Shinsei’s Last Hope after midday, the group this time ascends the south wall of the valley, and marches due west. Again they establish cairns every hour for navigation.
After three hours of walking, Yama spots two figures keeping pace with the party, shadowing them at about five hundred yards’ distance. Tensi sees them too. These spies keep their distance from the group as the party turns in their direction and away from them. Wary of these mysterious figures, the party continues west.
An hour later, there has been no success. The party turns for home. Soon they see a dust cloud ahead. It is mounted bushi. As the horsemen draw closer and pass around the party, Kenshin sees that these are the same twenty ronin he saw at the counting table two days ago. The leader eyes Takeshi’s group, taking particular note of whether or not they carry any heads back to Shinsei’s Last Hope. This observation has unsettling implications.
The horsemen ride on. Shosuro Yama and his fellows, left alone, return to town without further encounters.
The day after, the decision is made to hunt at night. It seems a more effective strategy, though more dangerous. It is four days past the full moon. The waning light will still provide guidance. The party sets out again as they had the day before, south wall and then west.
As darkness sets in, a buzzing sound is heard south of where the party travels. They turn towards it.
In the dim night the party stumbles upon combat in full force. A frantic crowd of goblin warriors, aided at the periphery by goblin slingers, surrounds four human bushi. Kenshin, Takeshi, Shosuro Yama and Akihiro charge in. Tensi reaches for his arrows.
The fight is long and fierce and messy. The four bushi strangers are slain by the goblins. So are their valuable ponies. The pony corpses still serve a useful purpose; Kenshin employs them as cover on his flanks when he becomes surrounded by goblins. An armoured, undead fighter draws the other bushi’s attention for most of the fight. The goblin slingers pester the ronin with stones before slipping off into the safety of night.
The undead warrior casts a spell that draws Akihiro under his sway. Fortunately Akihiro regains his wits and fights off the influence. Tensi and Takeshi are both hit with Curses. What effect these Curses have is yet unknown.
Fortune favours the band of ronin. They win the fight. Heavy Wounds were suffered but no bushi dropped. In no position to hunt or fight further, the bushi collect their goblin-head trophies. Akihiro was the most effective, taking eight goblin heads. Valiant Kenshin was second, with seven. Strong-armed Takeshi slew five, to the three that agile Tensi felled with his arrows. Shosuro Yama, more tactically minded than offensive, loaded two goblin heads into his burlap sack.
(end Part 11)