The Hiruma scout leader lacks knowledge of zokujin physiology. He has no way to effectively treat the dying green humanoid they have rescued. The tortured zokujin goes limp and then becomes very still.
Kenshin, Takeshi, and Omar search this odd stone house. As they do, Takeshi realizes that he and the other bushi have misinterpreted their shugenja’s commune with Earth spirits. The “many” down in these mines are not goblins, but nosloks; the “earth” they are wounding is not the rock and soil, but the earth-aligned zokujin. And quite literally, the treasure sought by the nosloks is the blood of the zokujin. It is apparent that the nosloks were torturing and killing the zokujin here, then taking the bodies elsewhere to be drained of blood.
The bushi ask the Hiruma scouts about the zokujin. The Hiruma leader begrudgingly volunteers that the Crab Clan does not know precisely what to make of them. While they are not oni like the nosloks, it is not clear if the green creatures can be fully trusted.
It is time to move on. The group leaves the stone house, and continues along the pathway further into the cavern. A slight headwind greets them as their explorations take them along the crest of a deep ravine. This ravine shallows as the path winds along beside it. The path is still marked at regular points with the staked heads of more unfortunate zokujin.
As the curious forest thins, the bushi spot a raised platform along the cavern wall. Investigating, they see it is an execution site, build for the swift beheading of creatures and the effective funneling of their blood through troughs and channels to a collection point.
They return to the path. It leads to the end of the cavern and a new cave. This cave is a natural tunnel, fifty feet wide and stretching straight into darkness. Cautiously, the bushi enter.
For half an hour, the tunnel leads them onward, slowly descending. At one point it turns sharply. All the while there is the slow movement of air against them from ahead, air which slowly heats from pleasantly warm to oppressively hot. A reddish glow replaces the blackness in the tunnel.
Soon the party finds itself at the entrance to a massive cavern. This vast space is brightly lit in hot waves of orange and yellow and red. A river of molten lava slowly churns through the cavern floor, bridged by a stonework crossing wide enough for six men.
On the far side of the lava, activity centers on an open work area with four active forges. Three noslok smiths and as many helpers work each forge, labouring on some unknown and certainly sinister project. The bushi spot evidence that the zokujin blood is involved in the forging process. Beyond the forges are three tunnels into the far cavern wall. Occasionally, a noslok will enter or leave by these openings.
There is no way to sneak past the forge area, and the nosloks present constitute an insurmountable force. The bushi observe all they can before withdrawing from the heat and the hellish glow of the lava and forges, back into the cool darkness of the tunnel.
They return to the cavern and its strange forest. They have not yet investigated the ravine, so Kenshin leads the way down along the narrow path. The path descends 150 feet, widening to the point where the ravine is 200 feet across.
At its widest point, the bushi notice alcoves cut into the ravine wall nearest them. It gives the appearance of sleeping quarters or catacombs. Their glow sticks reveal the alcoves as empty, and not recently occupied. They are about to move on when Kenshin and Takeshi’s exceptionally keen senses spot something.
Tucked away in the back of an alcove, hidden in shadows and motionless, a glint of light exposes the slightest hint of a zokujin. The creature realizes it has been spotted. When the humans display no sign of hostility, it beckons them closer. The creature looks old and tired. Cautiously, the bushi attempt communication with it. The zokujin speaks perfect Rokuganese, albeit very slowly.
The zokujin laments that few remain of his tribe. Many have been killed by the oni nosloks. The zokujin were once enlisted by the Crab Clan to seal up these mines. This was a deal the zokujin honoured. But in time, an Evil came – one greater even than the hordes of nosloks it employs as servants. The zokujin were captured and slaughtered for their blood, blood required in some horrible ritual or construction that now grows ever closer to completion. Whatever this project, it spells grave danger for humans.
The forges must be destroyed and the work permanently halted before it is too late. The lake above is, in fact, a reservoir. A hidden control room provides magical access to several floodgates that hold back the deep, cold waters of the reservoir from these lower caverns and tunnels. The party must return to this reservoir, find the metal horn and sound it to expose the pathway to the control room. There, they must open the gates and flood these tunnels and the awful workings within.
The bushi offer to escort the frail zokujin and any remaining of his tribe to safety, but the creature knows it too late. His time is at an end. Once he has imparted his wisdom, he sinks down into shadows and moves no more, fading from existence.
The party must hurry. There is no way to know how close to completion this nefarious project may be. They hustle through the rest of the ravine, coming back to cavern level as the far end of the crevice rises up. Nothing obstructs their path in the tunnel back to the shore of the reservoir.
The submerged causeway gets them halfway across the water when, most unexpectedly, the walkway abruptly ends. Takeshi pokes the water with his tetsubo but finds no trace of the firm path. There is only deep, dark water.
One of the Hiruma scout archers is volunteered to jump in and swim over to the pier at the elevator’s base. He slips into the water and swims off into the darkness. Silence returns.
When no sign of him is seen or heard in five minutes, the rest of the bushi push aside their fears of the terrifying deep, and swim into the darkness.
They reach the familiar pier and elevator base without incident. The metal horn is still here, on the pedestal. There is no sign of the scout, and the elevator platform is not here. Someone else seems to have recalled it back to the top.
Takeshi takes up and blows the horn, but no sound is emitted. He tries again, to no effect, as does Kenshin. Omar watches the water intently, expecting ambush. The bushi puzzle over the horn for a few minutes until Kenshin has a novel idea.
Sitting on the edge of the pier, Kenshin puts his feet in the water and blows the horn again. Contact with the water seems to be what was missing – this time the horn sounds, obnoxiously loud in what sounds to be a very spacious reservoir cavern. The horn’s echo is answered by a vast rushing of water, drowning out the bushi’s surprised exclamations.
When the water’s echoes fade to quiet, the party discovers that the submerged pathway is again visible, and this time it is above water. They follow it to its midpoint. Here is another walkway, leading perpendicular off into darkness. This walkway takes the bushi half a mile, ending at a worked stone platform above the reservoir. A black stone door is the only entrance to the structure.
As the party examines the door, there comes a crashing of water from behind them. A Sea Troll dwells in the deeps of this reservoir. Now it has murderous designs for the party.
The bushi take defensive stances near the door to the control room, forcing the Sea Troll to leave its comfortable watery environment and fight on dry ground.
This creature is every bit as tough and vicious as its counterpart far above in the marsh had been. All five bushi struggle against it. By fight’s end Takeshi is down, and Kenshin crippled. It is Omar, wounded but well in command of the fight, who slays the troll. He has not the time to take its head, but the Hiruma scouts will vouch for his deed if they all make it out of here alive.
The black stone door has two pressure-plate panels on either side of it. The bushi activate these and the door opens. Inside is a forty-by-forty-foot room, with two pillars in the center and a giant, magically-animated map on the far wall. None were there to see it, but this map is much the same as in the forest sanctuary of the Naga.
Only Omar still has a connection to the Void today. He is able to manipulate the magics of the map.
The map is extremely detailed and responds with ease to the zooming and rotation Omar desires. Its contours show only the places the party has actually visited in this mine and the caverns below it. However, the party has explored enough to surmise that the reservoir is much larger than it appears in the darkness. Tactical assessment indicates that opening certain floodgates will drown the forges and lava river, and presumably all the nosloks.
Omar decides to go for it. He manipulates the magic controls and opens the floodgates connecting to the cavern and ravine, tunnels, and the forge area far below. From outside the control room comes a thunderously loud roaring as the deep trenches of the reservoir open up and massive quantities of water begin to move.
After a few minutes the sound subsides. The party would very much like to stay here and rest, but Takeshi warns that any that survived the flood will come to this control room immediately, seeking vengeance.
Kenshin and Omar brace Takeshi and carry him out of the room, back along the walkway and to the elevator base. The water still rolls and churns from the turbulence, its anger subsiding. It is an impressive sight – the level of the reservoir has dropped about fifteen feet.
The group sets a relentless pace. First they ascend the elevator to the mine tunnels, then quit the mine for the open air of the above-ground Shadowlands. By forced march at best speed, they leave the ravine and the mine behind.
After two days of peaceful travel, the group makes it to Shinsei’s Last Hope. The report is made of what happened at the mine. Then comes healing and food and rest.
The Hiruma scout leader and his surviving associate personally verify Omar’s fatal blow to the subterranean Sea Troll. For this glorious accomplishment, a Crab officer grants Omar completion of his 20-Goblin Winter challenge. He too will be admitted to the Moshibaru family, with Takeshi and Kenshin. That glorious day will come soon.
(end Part 18)