With the unknown Curse now lifted from two of its members, the party is eager to hunt again in the Shadowlands. Unfortunately, not everyone is available.
Shosuro Yama has departed permanently. He has been recalled to Scorpion lands. Tensi, Akihiro, Huni, and the quiet ronin have all found distractions in Shinsei’s Last Hope. This leaves only Takeshi and Kenshin to keep on with the 20-Goblin Winter challenge today.
Fortunately, the other ronin of their original band have returned to the barracks. They had been scouting in the Shadowlands as their own hunting party. Five members of this seven-man troop are still alive; two have been killed. Those who live have turned in almost enough goblin heads to earn a place in the Crab Clan.
Kenshin approaches his battle-weary affiliates. Using his skills at Etiquette, he proposes a merged hunting party. The hope is to replace his party’s missing members with some of these allies. Kenshin’s diplomacy has some success. The affiliates’ shugenja (not yet named, new character played by T.F.) agrees to a quick turn-around in Shinsei’s Last Hope to set out and hunt again. In addition, two archer bushi, SAKAMOTO and ANOU (both NPC’s), decide to join. They are brothers, and also capable in melee.
With enough men and all equipped with mounts, the ronin gear up and ride from Shinsei’s Last Hope the next morning. Instead of scouting for the buried cache of goblin heads, the party will use their mounted speed to foray deeper into the Shadowlands. They ride southwest.
The first five hours are uneventful. The desolate lands cause mind-numbing boredom. Anou advises that his hunting party had previously sought refuge in a fortified encampment, located a four-hour ride away. The encampment is a common waypoint for hunters, a place that can be easily built up into a defensible post for the night and quickly dismantled the next day to deny Shadowlands creatures a home while it sits deserted. The party heads for that.
By late afternoon, they find it. The camp is as the bushi archer described. The framework of two wooden towers centers a low, broad hilltop. There is a secure place for the ponies, and enough materials around to quickly construct defensive ramparts.
The party takes watches for the night. Takeshi sees nothing in his first watch. On the following lookout, Kenshin thinks he sees something a hundred yards away. It appears to be a rock formation which, very slowly over the duration of Kenshin’s time on guard, seems to be building up into a cairn, by no visible means. He does not leave the safety of the tower to go investigate.
The next watches heed Kenshin’s mention of the odd occurrence, but see nothing on their own. When dawn sets light to the land, Kenshin and the shugenja go to that spot. They find that rocks had been stacked up briefly, then collapsed on their own. The shugenja gets a sense of a strong Earth emanation from these stones; sometimes that is an indication that the Celestial Heavens may have been attempting to send a message. Now, these energies are diminished and fading quickly.
The party dismantles their tower defenses and rides due south. Before noon, there comes an interesting find.
By the roadside, Takeshi and Kenshin spot a broken, bloodied arrow. Dismounting and looking closer, they find evidence of an ambush and site of combat that have been concealed. There was a fight here, not long ago, leaving blood mixed with the earth – but no bodies.
The party is about to leave when Kenshin’s keen eyes notice a path. It leads away from the road they are following, and into the hills. Interested, the party mounts up and follows it.
For twenty minutes they ride, until they come upon a lone traveler.
The traveler appears to be human, an elderly man but in excellent physical shape. He is walking away from the party, at a casual and leisurely pace. This traveler is wearing robes of exceptionally fine silk and craftsmanship, and he carries daisho. He looks like a monk.
Takeshi is immediately suspicious. He turns his mount off the path and to the crest of the nearest hill. From here he scans the lowlands for warning signs of ambush.
Kenshin takes the initiative, and leaves his associates to go ride beside the traveler. Cautiously, the bushi engages the stranger in polite, respectful conversation.
To his surprise, Kenshin discovers that the stranger is friendly and personable, if elusive and clever. The traveler asks the ronin no questions; either having knowing the answers already or not needing to know them.
The stranger answers Kenshin’s inquiries with bemused detachment. There was indeed an ambush back at the main road, but it is nothing the ronin need worry about. The stranger downplays any injuries he received, appreciating Kenshin’s concern.
Without looking in that direction, the traveler suggests that Kenshin’s associate on the hill should come down and join them. Kenshin beckons with a wave, and Takeshi rides to his side.
Producing a small piece of jade, wary Takeshi watches the stranger’s reaction. The old man does not react adversely. He smiles, and observes that the bushi holds a nice piece of jade. He mentions an old jade mine he knew of, a long time ago. The entrance was in a narrow defile not so far from here.
Kenshin and Takeshi exchange surprised looks as the stranger almost exactly describes the cave where Kenshin and Akihiro ended up after falling into the ravine.
The traveler comments that the day is wearing on, and that he would be happy to show the ronin party a safe place to spend the night. Without waiting for their answer, he continues down the road.
Kenshin is hesitant, but Takeshi suspects he knows what this traveler is. They follow the stranger. Anou, Sakamoto, and the shugenja bring up the rear.
The traveler leads them onward without a word. Some time later, he turns from his path and starts up the slope of a tall mesa. The party dismounts when their ponies begin to struggle with the ascent. It is a steep and treacherous climb, and while there does not appear to be a safe path, the party notices that the traveler is indeed following one.
At the top is a broad, flat area, protected on all sides by impassable cliffs. There is an abandoned village here. It is a grove of broken huts and faded walkways.
The traveler assures the party that this is a very safe place, more so even than the hunter’s stronghold where they spent last night. He says that this place is “named”; by this Takeshi knows the site has a protective aura. Evidence they find suggests this was a Ratling settlement a long time ago.
The party sets camp for the night. The traveler, apart from the group, practices with his sword. Kenshin notices that the old man, who calls himself SELEKIC, is agile and highly skilled at his most unusual swordsmanship style. There is much more to this stranger than was initially apparent.
Night watches begin, even though Selekic mildly insists they are unnecessary. On Kenshin’s watch, Selekic convinces him to leave his post. Trusting the old man, Kenshin does so.
Selekic leads him to an open area, and for the next hour the traveler demonstrates and instructs the young ronin bushi in the philosophy and kata of the Kenku Swordsman fighting style. Kenshin is impressed beyond words.
The lesson is concluded. Selekic asks if Kenshin would learn more. Kenshin cannot conceal his enthusiasm. The disguised Kenku tells the ronin he has taken the first steps on the path to the rare and sought-after school of Kenku Swordsmanship.
The sensei tells his student the location of a monastery in Crab Lands, where Kenshin may go and train when he feels he is ready. When his watch expires and he rouses a fellow bushi to stand guard, Kenshin is too excited to sleep. This is an exceptionally rare opportunity.
(end Part 13)