The Penumbra Extinction

Welcome to Earth
It's an Overrated Place

Maybe seeing all this in writing will help me not go completely crazy.

See.

Writing.

On a smartphone.

NONE OF THIS SHOULD MAKE ANY SENSE. The part that freaks me out the most is that it does for a good part of me.

A part that I didn’t have. I just got it when I arrived. All these thoughts and knowledge that just came in.

I CAN SEE.

So far, overrated, glasses or not. But that might be that secret organization bunker places are, after all, not much to show. Or just part of the same foreign thoughts that let me know that this is Earth and I’m a US citizen of Japanese ancestry. I have a Washington State driver’s license. I know what that means. I know what a pizza is and what trucks are and that Japan is a country across the Pacific Ocean, just like homeland but modern and more… mundane?

Sadly, being in the headquarters of a secret organization that manages travel between different worlds is leaving me cold in light of everything else. Light…

And I’ve lost so much in translation. I can’t feel the Flow anymore. I miss the Flow. I could feel what things were when my mind was clear. I close my eyes and clear my thoughts and I can barely keep myself from tripping over everything. Now I can only see things…

I have the nagging suspicion that I wouldn’t be able to pluck a shamisen to save my life. I may be just glad that they exist around here. I don’t even know my own language, let alone how to tell the old stories. Or the stories themselves…

Yet… does this place have a gym? I’m afraid that of all of Owari’s teachings, only the deadlier ones came here with me. I don’t like what that means. Neither would she if she knew. A rather impractical thing to know around here, going by all of my new memories.

Let’s take a deep breath. Or ten.

I am Hajime Hanako. The flower of new beginnings. Born Sakaguchi Shizuka in the City of Crossroads, blind from birth, given away by my family, eventually became the apprentice of the Courtesan Owari, the Lady at the End. When she died of sickness I fulfilled her last contract and hit the road, becoming a traveling entertainer. It was a new beginning, a new name. I would travel where the wind took me and I could find warm bed and food by my skills.

That is all still true. That is still me.

And the winds have taken me to places I couldn’t even fathom. It is more than I could have wished for when I began anew.

So much to see in Earth. But Alan and Thomas seem intent on staying on Earth as shortly as possible. Let’s then travel to new worlds and embrace them, a new beginning in each and every one, whichever way I perceive them.

A few notes to keep around in case my memory plays games on me:

- I am still no warrior. Nagao’s honorable games of warrior honor aren’t something I ever planned on playing. And they still feel a terrible way to inform your life. I feel dirty spilling blood for such trifling reasons. Dirtier than usual after blades are involved.

- Speaking of Nagao, I’m hoping he’ll grow tired of waiting back in Toshishio and leave. His interest was giving me a growing unease. There may be more to him than appears. He’s no slouch, but he has a knack for being too convenient and not fighting the truly hard fights.

- I am completely sure the thoughts above came with me from the homeland and have remained the same.

- If Amal wants to be a daughter figure, she should figure out how to treat a father figure.

- I get the impression that Amal hasn’t grown up in a normal family. Not that I have first hand knowledge of how that goes. Yet if her dreams of the old lady in white and the Ouroboros are an indication, everyone knows that they aren’t folks known for a healthy growing up experience.

- These Estate folks are far too accommodating. Since I’m sure you’re reading this, hi! I’m sure they mean well after all.

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The Fall of the Mountain of Iye
A tale of a victory and two defeats.

Part I: The Calm Before the Storm

The sun rose on the third day, and the town woke up, dread on the air. There was little talking, not even much drinking. There wasn’t much time left to prepare for the bandits’ arrival.

Ever-resourceful Nagao drafted all those who could into building and installing barriers and palisades around town. Whatever setback the bandits may have suffered by the sabotage the previous day, they were still unlikely to try for any sophistication in their tactics. If they could be funneled through easily defended entrances the villagers and their spears might be able to contain them.

Even the foreigner Devil ended up in the palisade trade. He sounded strangely proud of his barricading artistry, never mind the drafts could be felt through his work by anyone.

The Flower of New Beginnings traveled throughout, bringing water to those working with the sharpest deadline in sight. She needed to learn the new layout of the town were she to help out. As much as she dreaded the thought of more spilled blood by her hand, it may come to her blade to make the difference. Even if not, the townsfolk deserved better.

But for a few feet on the Southern side of town, the job was complete when the bandits made their appearance. A call to arms was heard throughout. The road on sunset and sunrise saw most of them incoming, and the townsfolk raised their spears and hoped for survival.

Part II: The Storm

Most of the bandits came in where expected. The largest group, East, pushed by Big Brother. A smaller one, West, commandeered by our old friend Little Brother. As the main thrust of the bandit forces made their way a blessed sound was heard: the galloping of horses. Seven well-trained warriors from the next town over, brought by the monk Alan. Meanwhile the Gentleman Devil commandeered as many of the townsfolk as he could against the one who had become his personal nemesis, Little Brother.

The Blind Flower stayed at the Southern breach, hearing all sides and mulling whether the bandits would notice and whether she may be more needed elsewhere. A racket from the North came to her attention. A dozen bandits were attempting to overrun the barriers there and the few townsfolk patrolling them. Were they to break through, the town would be overrun and the defenders attacked from every side.

There’s much to recommend to the element of surprise. The surprise of the bandits, who realized they were facing a new threat after two of them had gone down. The more pleasant surprise for the Northern defenders, who were in dire need of assistance and redoubled their efforts as much as soon as the invaders stepped back in disbelief. The less surprised and ever-present Nagao, who had joined in the same fight and must have suspected that the Blind Raconteur could hold her own in a bloody world.

The bandits who had attempted to breach the Northern palisades were quickly routed.

As the townsfolk restored the barriers as quickly as they could the two warriors, the well known one and the newly revealed one, split ways. Nagao went West, Hajime went East. To the Blind swordswoman it was clear which way the real threat was. Whether Nagao equivocated or truly didn’t realized it was never made clear. On the Western side, threatening shouting back and forth broadcast a tense standoff between Little Brother and Thomas the Devil, with cuts and casualties on both sides, and the two recent rivals furiously going at each other.

The fighting out West was going… discouragingly wrong. There was the Mountain of Iye, as he’d make sure to bellow to any and all. Swinging his great weapon, reaping anyone who dared approach or couldn’t run away fast enough as dry rice stalks. As a result of that, no one was really fighting but the bandit leader. The townsfolk were wisely keeping their distance. the bushi were forgetting their courage after losing their leader under the Mountain’s onslaught.

Hajime Hanako, bloodied yet unhurt, presented her challenge. The Mountain of Iye took it with amusement. His metal mace, taller than most men and heavier than any civilized weapon, broke the air and broke the earth. It did not break the Blind Flower, who stepped somewhere else with time to spare. Do not be where the Mountain Falls, an easy solution to a deadly conundrum.

She had to be the Secret Prince to Big Brother’s Mountain Monk. And she played the part to perfection, her movements a dance to a much more sophisticated music than Big Brother’s Earth drumming. Her blade punctuated both the rythm and her opponent, yet very slowly wearing down that giant of a man.

With the Mountain distracted, the bushi came back into the fight. From a safe distance. Alan had found a trifle that would enchant a bow with the power of storms and their best archer did his best to hit the Mountain with it. He did but once, a crackling bolt that would have felled any normal man. Not so the Mountain of Iye, who was nonetheless looking very worn down by that lightning and the Blind lady’s poking. Thus her next cut brought the Mountain to its knees. The winner felt mildly despondent about the help needed, however it was no duel but a battle, there had been no dishonor to the archer’s help.

At about that time the Devil Thomas, bloodied and barely standing, defeated Little Brother. Their leaders down the remainder of the bandits surrendered or ran to the fields. On returning to town Hanako found the remains of the Southern defense townsfolk. They had been cut through in the waning moments of the battle, none experienced in a fight to assist.

Part III: The Calm After the Storm

Defeated, the remaining bandits and their former leader behaved, and even helped collect the dead of the day. Alan tended to the wounded as best he could. Hajime was covered in blood, none of it hers. She felt, as she always did after shedding blood, dirty as the worms that crawl the earth. Having half-threatened those in the ryokan staff who had survived the day into providing her with a bath she realized she was no longer the blind singer, dancer and raconteur who had brought sorely needed moments of entertainment to town. She was now the Blind Swordswoman, the blade that broke the Mountain. An object of fear, one who brought danger and trouble. He heart was filled with the most profound sadness.

Thomas took a break from self-satisfaction on having survived, nay, proven himself in battle, to realize that his charge was nowhere to be found. It was an alarming end to a difficult day. Once his companions realized the same Amal was searched for everywhere to no avail. As if snatched from the world, with no leads or hints or anything to show where she may have departed to. The day ended on a note of despair at the disappearance of the strange girl.

The next day saw the last rites for all the dead from the day before. Alan saw to their spirits, the bonfire saw to the corpses. Hajime saw to the sadness of the day. The dead were treated the same no matter the side they had fought for, by everyone who had fought and survived no matter on which side. “To remind us of our humanity” said one of the surviving bushi. The raconteur knew enough stories of the spirits and the corpses of the casualties taking issue with a disrespectful treatment to know that there was more to it than that, but it still honored him to think of the cremation in that way. With such a large battle for such a small town, the pyre still had the unfortunate effect of having everyone who survived smell of burnt corpse by the end of the day. Time for another bath…

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Two Days for Big Brother
Poison and Sabotage

Part I: Separate Ways

The second day started and the expectation was a repeat of the first. Thomas would be getting a remedial education on sword fighting, the townsfolk would try learning courage as much or more as how to thrust a spear. Baths would be had after everyone couldn’t cope with more effort.

Soon that was interrupted. The city guard galloped back from his day trip in search of mercenaries. He had not found any. He had found sickness instead, and he came accompanied by one of the men from the town where it had taken root. By then, many had heard of Alan the monk as a blessed healer and thus they sought him, foreigner or not a healer is a friend when sick. And Alan true to his calling couldn’t even conceive of refusing his help. He soon departed to the next town over, barely holding to the horse’s rider and the horse’s rear as it galloped away.

The less admired and more feared foreigner had his work cut out for him. Pun intended. He may have worked harder on his confidence than his kendo. Could as well, for when holding a sword he started with none of either. With no time for training actual skills, the will to do his best and go for the kill if it came to it was the best the Gentleman Devil or his blind teacher could hope for. Better for him to keep some wisdom, or he would end cornered between a dubious victory and death.

Part II: The Bandits’ Camp

Takekazu-Sama, meanwhile, had plans. The young Bushi was the one eyed man in the country of the blind, and while keeping appearances he must surely have been reveling on it inside. Soon after the foreigner and the songstress returned from their communion with the forest spirits, he proposed to the Devil to seek the bandits’ encampment, hoping to scout their numbers and forces and if possible sabotage their efforts. The Devil was dubious but accepted. The blind flower insisted on accompanying them. For whatever reason, they acceded. In truth the worry was that the two would foolishly get into more trouble than they could handle.

They didn’t find more than they bargained for, but they found better. The encampment wasn’t far from the village, and when they risked approaching it the three found it devoid of bandits. Where they had gone was unclear, but they had left enough there. Takekazu-Sama and the Devil started accounting for all the useful things they could deprive the bandits of: horses, food, weapons, tools… The blind flower, meanwhile, noticed the encampment not completely deserted. The one bandit left behind, no doubt to guard the place, was failing at his job, one snore at a time.

While the blind flower would have never expected mercy from the likes of him, she held herself to a higher standard. She also didn’t want to reveal herself as handy with a blade. The threat of a sharp blade was enough to stop the bandit from trying anything, the blunt end of a walking stick enough to stop the bandit from being able to try anything. He was to be taken prisoner even if Takekazu would rather have had the horses carry other things. The prisoner was unlikely to want to divulge the details of his capture, the townsfolk unlikely to believe him if he did. And the two men were all to easily convinced that there had been no scuffle worth the name. One because he knew of the blind flower’s skills, the other one because he didn’t.

And so they left. They’d be facing the wrong end of their own spears stolen by the raiders, they would have little choice but to charge in town themselves, most or all of their longbows broken beyond repair. Little chance that their morale would sustain with no sake to drink, and empty stomachs would more than hurt their smarts than it would help their fierceness.

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Three Days for Big Brother
The countdown begins

Part I: Night

Barely past midnight and the whole town was woken up. Defiant screams, fueled by liquid courage and the desperation of those hanging to the shreds of what little reputation they think they have left. Threats against the Devil that had shamed them earlier in the day. Threats against the whole town. Better to leave it a smoking ruin than let it be a place unafraid of their antics.

There was a shred of sympathy left for them in this blind heart. They had lost much that day: four of their friends, whatever self-respect they had left. Couldn’t help with the latter, but felt an apology was owed for the former. It had been a senseless massacre, and had Sasuke found wisdom instead of foolish heroics a single death or a deep wound would have been more than enough to scare our assailants off. As it had happened, Sasuke’s wretched death had left them all ronin dead in turn. It wasn’t something to feel proud about.

But of course they wouldn’t listen. Caught up on the single person that had shown them as cowards to all. In the middle of all of them, paid no mind. Four ronin, the leader drunk as a monkey, his followers not quite so much. Drunkards don’t make for great warriors, but there were too many of them to fight off at once. Worse, they could easily torch the whole place down before being routed.

Fortunately, they hadn’t come to fight. At least it wasn’t their plan, they would have gotten to it at the slightest. They were instead messengers and brought a prophecy of their own future wickedness. One of their leaders was the screaming drunkard. Little Brother, they called him. Real name best left unknown, lest his exploits reach back to his hometown and shame his family. He delivered once the Devil made his appearance. Some bragging and a threat. They would all be back in three days and take over the town with their leader, the unsurprisingly nicknamed Big Brother.

They then left, and as late as it was there was talking to do. A swordsman, Takekazu Nagao, offered his services, for a price. The town’s only guard came out of hiding and offered to be of any help that didn’t involve risking his life. He had at least some money stashed to pay mercenaries. Someone had to travel to the next town over and see if more could be found. A small temple lay half a day away, a common refuge for those who couldn’t fight. Those who could, there’d be a need to teach them how to. And everyone needed to get some sleep.

Part II: Three Days Left

Plans were made. Alan would accompany the women and children to the temple. The local guard would travel to the next town seeking mercenaries. Takekazu-sama would teach the locals how to fight. The Devil, he’d need a fighting chance and there was no one to spare for that. Other than a blind girl who didn’t want it known that she could hold her own in a fight.

So the Devil went to the old abandoned shrine to acquaint himself with the local spirits, and he got a beating to show for it. That was… fun. He wouldn’t become a swordsman in three days, but he showed enough potential to at least surprise the ronin once if needed. They wouldn’t expect the foreigner to know the sharpe end of a blade after all.

Back in town things were progressing. Everything was serious and gloomy, but they were trying their best. Takekazu-sama was… shaky. Maybe he wasn’t sure if the money was good enough, or if he was brave enough. He sidestepped talking about how he had become a sword for hire, and there was probably something there that would explain his off attitude. But that would need more time and sake to divine. Before anything else, it was time to, finally, take a proper bath.

The foreigners took a bit of convincing to join in, but they were receptive to the townsfolk’s displeasure at their smell. Matis-sama related his visit of the temple and they were… bizarre. The temple had been vacated by their occupants. There were no signs of violence or of a struggle, they had just left not long before. Instead of monks, the refugees and Matis found crows. Lots of them. They wouldn’t enter the sacred spaces but would follow around. Crows often were the heralds of Kenku and of the dark portents they announced, even if themselves were at worst tricksters. Not a development worth mulling too much about…

Takekazu-sama left soon to survey the town. They had been talking about installing some defenses. No time or skill to build a wall but maybe they could at least funnel them through to make the fight winnable. It was a good thing to study further, but there was a suspicion that more was going on. They would have to make sure of that later.

Evening went through with no further incident. Everyone needed to unwind after an intense day, to drink a bit and try be merry and not think about the incoming gloom. It didn’t work out too well, the jokes wouldn’t find laughter, but everyone tried. Meanwhile the crows were watching Amal. The portents wouldn’t become clear yet, but they may have little to do with the incoming ronin…

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Fire, Death, Dishonor (An Alternate Reality)
Those who'd rather die and those who'd rather kill.

Part I: Night

Barely past midnight and the whole town was woken up. Defiant screams, fueled by liquid courage and the desperation of those hanging to the shreds of what little reputation they think they have left. Threats against the Devil that had shamed them earlier in the day. Threats against the whole town. Better to leave it a smoking ruin than let it be a place unafraid of their antics.

There was a shred of sympathy left for them in this blind heart. They had lost much that day: four of their friends, whatever self-respect they had left. Couldn’t help with the latter, but felt an apology was owed for the former. It had been a senseless massacre, and had Sasuke found wisdom instead of foolish heroics a single death or a deep wound would have been more than enough to scare our assailants off. As it had happened, Sasuke’s wretched death had left them all ronin dead in turn. It wasn’t something to feel proud about.

But of course they wouldn’t listen. Caught up on the single person that had shown them as cowards to all. In the middle of all of them, paid no mind. Four ronin, the leader drunk as a monkey, his followers not quite so much. Drunkards don’t make for great warriors, but there were too many of them to fight off at once. Worse, they could easily torch the whole place down before being routed.

The Devil and the Monk were making their way out of town, unseen by the ronin. It wasn’t a plan but it worked as one. They distracted the wannabe arsonists from their torching goals. Stopping the arson was still a long shot. Slowing them down felt the least bad of a menu of bad ideas and so the ronin leader felt his left leg pierced by a straight blade. They wouldn’t even realize who did it, but it was then that they saw the one they were looking for and… off they went.

It was at that point that the distinct whistle of arrows was heard overhead. The gasps and screams… fire, help, water that followed made it clear: the drunk ronin themselves were a distraction, the town would be set fire from afar. What to do was clear if the town was to be saved. Run into the darkness, towards the twang of the bows.

The two archers were sober, and they knew what they were doing. Surprising traits among this lot. They had done a good job of staying outside the light and outside sight. Which was to prove their undoing. Given no time and no desire to reveal their location to the townsfolk or the devil they so feared, they fought in the darkness against one who always did.

It was a lopsided duel, the two swinging their swords at darkness and air. The first one fell of two true swings of the staff blade. The second one saw enough, and heard enough, that he could have chosen differently. He could have plied his trade elsewhere. The Kagame clan sure needed warriors for the upcoming war, there was little need to follow his companion to the next life. Yet, he proclaimed, he would rather die a warrior. That provided some comfort while the deed was done. That they would accept a death by a blind girl as an honorable one. They had to be stopped, they didn’t have to be killed, but they would insist. It wasn’t too bitter a fight. It remained a bloody one.

Things hadn’t been so… clean between the torch-bearing ronin, the Monk and the Devil. Making the way back to them with the bows of the defeated archers, aiming to discourage the ronin from more fighting. Needn’t have bothered. Whatever fearsome reputation the Devil had gained earlier in the day had gone down in flames. Literal flames, for the Devil was on fire, bloodied from two good katana cuts. He was also beating up the ronin leader and had set on fire one of the others. Truly stroke the devil figure, unconcerned by his wounds and his burns, hellbent on being feared again.

Even the Monk had joined in, beating down the ronin with his bo. They both sounded, acted like people who were feeling too close to the receiving end of a massacre. They weren’t anymore, but they were too worked up to realize. There was little on display but the reckless pursuit of survival. The ronin, they knew of losing battles and were making distance. But for their leader, crippled and left behind.

It was then that the Devil truly embraced his nickname. The ronin were retreating, scared and battered. But he wouldn’t let go, he wouldn’t let his enemy escape alive no matter how little fight there was left in him. The dazed, crippled ronin found his head grabbed from behind, his neck a fountain of blood as the Devil took his due. A shocking end to a dirty, exhausting fight.

Part II: Aftermath

The fires had not spread, the townsfolk had not been hurt. There had been threats of revenge by the escaping ronin. No one needed to hear them, everyone knew they’d be back looking for payback.

No love lost for the bandits, but everyone knew that there were more than enough left of them. The risk that the next fight wouldn’t end the same was too high. No one was expecting the bandits to be gone for good. The townsfolk would stay and face the consequences. It was time to cut their losses and hope that the bandits know to spare those who, after all, provided for them. It was time to say goodbye to the Devil. As a token of gratitude, they would still let him and the rest of us sleep the night.

Us three, we all took it differently. The Monk, he later told us, spent the night in the forest, meditating. Calming himself down, reflecting on the fight, his own actions and Tomas’. The Devil just went to his room and, best as we can tell, got precious little sleep. Myself, got enough rest.

The morning was bittersweet. Alan came in soon, can’t reach enlightenment without breakfast. He smelled like someone who had slept outside, of morning dew and the forest underbrush and stains of dry blood on unwashed clothing. The devil was nowhere to be seen, not even the aroma of grilled trout would bring him out.

It was worth worrying. Rather, Amal was worth worrying about. Tomas the Devil could take care of himself. So I went check them out. Amal sounded tired, and she admitted she had not slept well. Strange dreams of an aged lady surrounded by weaponry, with the banner of the ouroboros behind her. They must have been vivid dreams for she was shaken. She was also hungry and left for breakfast when prompted. The Devil himself, he didn’t feel as if he had rested at all. There was more to talk with him.

He was defensive, angry and frustrated. He was excusing himself. He deserved it, he said. Maybe. There would be no lack of people glad to hear of that ronin’s fate. But there are things even those lowlifes try to avoid, like stabbing defeated enemies in the back. We call them lowlifes because we think they are the kind of people who may do that. I had no pity for the ronin, but if he Tomas wanted to truly be though of as a Devil, he was doing an exemplary job of it.

The Devil also claimed self-defense, that his mind was clouded by survival, that it was the way of his homeland. They must truly be barbarians there. But it felt like much had happened to him before the last night, things that had brought him to the edge. He didn’t appear to have traveled to our fine country but under duress, he sounded as he had lost much and carried the kind of grievances that would darken any man’s heart. Even then, I implored him to aim to conduct himself with some honor. If not for its own sake, to make his travels in this country safer for him and his charge.

He stormed out of the town soon after. Amal was left to depart with us two, angry and tearful. I couldn’t make out their discussion before the devil’s departure, but there was thunder.

As we walked away from the nameless town I found myself cheerful, much to my own surprise. Whatever else may have come from the events of the last day, we had all found company for the trip. Now if only we could figure out where to go… Our only lead, the Ouroboros of Amal’s dream. Scary, for dabbling in the affairs of the powerful is a surefire way for the humble to find doom. And yet, there we go. If only we could find that pesky devil again…

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The Strangers and the Ronin
A Devil, a Saint and a Blind Woman walk into town.

Part I: Dawn

This is a story that begins with a tragedy.

Sasuke was young, brash, and promising. He had taken on the harsh life of the itinerant musician, away from parents well worth running away from. What he lacked in practice and technique he more than made up in heart, and the folks at the inns and taverns where he plied his trade understood that well enough to keep him sleeping in warm places with a full stomach.

He had been grateful to find a companion to take his show one step further. It was an agreeable arrangement. Someone to travel safely with, to let me dance, my better art. A new life meant new ways of doing things, teamwork could well be one of them.

We had taken refuge in an abandoned shrine, unknowingly but less than a mile from the nearest town. Barely standing, no longer a barrier against rain or wind, barely enough to stop forest animals. It was also, I learnt soon after, a staging place for the local bandits.

Bandits are rarely accused of being morning people, yet a few were making their way to the abandoned shrine at the point of dawn. They must have had plans to spend the day there, resting off their hangovers and picking up on merchants traveling the nearby road. They found themselves face to face with a young musician and a blind dancer and new, lurid plans were made on the fly.

The encounter couldn’t end well. Hungover as they were, the bandits had the bravado of numbers and the morals of impunity. Sasuke had the misplaced courage of a young man with a head full of stories of noble heroes protecting helpless damsels. Few words were exchanged before blades were drawn. The bandits wasted no time in skewering Sasuke.

He died as the bandits fell around him, unable to understand what went on as his vision faded out. “You die a hero, Sasuke” were the last words he heard. A new story needn’t be a happy one, I hoped those words would give the young man a kinder departure.

Part II: Morning

The first warmth of the Sun. Shaken but couldn’t afford to stay around that scene. Had to make my way onwards. Soon back on the road, wide and flat if fraying, a testament to past times of commerce and a poorer present. Only a few minutes after that I arrived to town.

It was early, an hour were a town would wake and noisily go about preparing the long day and yet it only spoke in whispers. Children, dogs, roosters, farmers preparing for a long day of work. All muted. Even the smells were. An empty stomach and a new town, I’ll usually make my way to the best ryokan in town by smell alone. It took an effort this time. Walking forward, seeking hints of where to go, realized this was a one ryokan town. A bit of a disappointment. On their way there were two aged men, discussing matters they could not affect.

The ryokan, like the town, was afraid to raise its voice. Why was immediately obvious. Those voices coming from the back room, loud and demanding. I had heard them before many many times. Those at the lowest places would always seek someone worse off, that minute relief from their sad lot in life. I was often assumed to be that person. For a while, I had been. Not an hour before those same voices were taunting Sasuke and myself. Those were silenced now, these were to be borne for now.

Noticing the local ronin thugs was a good reminder that the morning hunger would had to wait for more important matters. As briefly as Sasuke and I had known each other, it fell to myself to make sure that his remains would see a better fate than being left to rot under the sun. And there was still a trade to ply, meals to earn, and a desire to seek a warmer, safer place to rest the next night. The ryokan owners, an elderly couple, were accommodating, glad to find in promised stories and song a respite from their predicament even as the ronin made it a constant preoccupation. They promised to keep my things safe, I set out to inform the authorities and find a priest to give Sasuke rest.

Both were found at once. A tiny outpost of the regional clan, barracks for half a dozen warriors at most. None of the activity one would expect from such a place. A pair standing by, unsure of how to proceed, whatever it was they wanted from the local authorities. A horse on the ground, breathing heavily. Ridden hard, barely made it through. The clan’s messengers were relaying urgent news. Those were never good news.

Pleasantries exchanged with the pair of confused travelers. Strange accents, none I had heard before. Tall, both of them, one more than the other. The shorter one presented himself as a monk, a seeker of enlightenment, precisely what Sasuke needed. The one good coincidence of the day. The other one was curt but respectful. A small girl was with them, making herself hard to notice. There was only one soldier within the station, if not manning it. Anyone could tell from the loud snoring coming from within.

The soldier was woken up kindly, the better to avoid startling him. Needn’t have worried, the pair who were following did so by their mere presence. He nearly panicked on seeing them “foreign devils!” he called them. That explained the accent. Some kind words would hopefully calm him down enough to have a conversation. “There is no need to worry, he’s a gentleman devil” I said to the soldier, aiming to let a bit of humor prod his courage. That turn of phrase ended up sticking. The way he behaved from there on, it’s either prescient or he ran with the joke. Everyone else, I don’t know if they got it.

Still, we managed to find out what we could. He was truly exhausted, confirmed he had rode here overnight. The information about the bandits he was glad to write down but he made it clear that nothing would be done about it as long as the clan had its eyes elsewhere. The town would remain the playground of a gang of ronin.

Part III: Midday

The pair of foreigners presented themselves. Alan the monk, Tomas the… Gentleman Devil. Amal, their charge. Tomas was acting as her adopted father, a hopeful hint of what may lay beneath his brash demeanor. They were not very familiar with the local customs and were well aware that they were scaring everyone out. Still, they needed lunch, and a room for the night, and new clothes for Amal. They seemed very worried that her outfit made her stand out, and it did feel a fabric unlike anything commonly worn around these parts, a tighter fit than anything we’d find comfortable. Why they thought such an urgent problem that the girl would stand up when the two of them were causing general panic by their mere presence it’s hard to tell. Throughout the day no one made a fuss of Amal, yet the reaction to her guardians…

They politely requested that I help them make all those arrangements. Desperate times indeed if they’re asking to be guided by the blind. Go ahead and laugh, I too find it funny. They were interesting company and besides helping the monk navigate the scared townsfolk in exchange of his help with Sasuke was a fair deal. First thing to do was to secure them a room to rest the night, and there was only one place for that around…

The ryokan owners had more pressing issues than foreigners. A devils who pays for food and drink and behaves can still be a welcome guest. The ronin thugs who were still around, more drunk than before, were another matter. I, for one, had no desire for more violence that day. Tomas, on the other hand, was soon filled with righteousness worthy of a guardian demon. It was then that “Gentleman Devil” became a fitting epithet. Not that he was very gentlemanly about it, but he wouldn’t suffer fools like those. As for the devil part… he was soon floating a foot above ground, a visage most terrible no doubt. How he did it, where he learnt… he hasn’t told.

What little courage those five drunk ronin may have found in their numbers evaporated faster than spilled sake. They ran in any direction that would take them far from the Devil, leaving even their swords behind. Rusted blades, wouldn’t cut pickles clean. It takes little to threaten those who wouldn’t dare make their lives through violence.

We all knew that wouldn’t be the end of them. They lived by the fear they instilled, if word ran out that half of them ran away from a stranger with a funny face shouting at them their racket would be done and good. Yet there was nothing we could do about it right there and then. We did not know where the gang’s hideout was, they could be anywhere spending the day anyway. Meanwhile there were other businesses to attend. Amal was fit with the clothes worthy the cute girl that she is. She stayed at the ryokan getting to know the other kids there. We left town to the scene of that morning’s carnage, the dead deserved respect.

Part IV: Afternoon

We arrived to find the corpses cleaned up. We would all rather not get too furious about that now… the looters will be accounted for that, in this life or the next. Alan, a better man than most, insisted on giving them all, not just Sasuke, the proper send up. But not before Tomas brought more devilry to commit. Intoning harsh, indecipherable incantations, he summoned the soul of one of the departed ronin and subjected him to a harsh interrogation. Alan, who had been acting so far as a friend of Tomas since long ago, seemed incredibly surprised about this, as if he had never known of his friend’s ability to do that.

From that we got an idea of the location of the ronin’s hideout and an audience. The townsfolk, walking back from the fields, were more attracted by the show than repelled by the dead. The dead had been laid to rest and it was time to rest the day’s sadness.

Part V: Evening

The evening was the strangest part of a strange day. Because it was so… normal. Many of the locals came by to rest their day, have a drink, talk about matters small and large. A blind woman sat on a corner, playing the shamisen and telling stories. Many paid attention to them. The foreigners started apart, then grew closer with drinks and song and the stories of the day spreading through the halls. The young Amal played and listened and generally enjoyed herself until, exhausted, she went to rest the night. The ryokan owner’s granddaughter asked the awkward questions, but did so with the wisdom of youth.

The missed opportunity to have a bath did grate. The night wouldn’t prove so peaceful…

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The Bull, the Fox and the Raven
An approximately accurate account

So, guys, I started on a slightly-fictionalised account of our time in Ardeyn so far—I figure if we’re on an adventure in a fantasy world, it ought to read a bit like a fantasy novel, no? Haven’t got to the big fight yet. Just yell if I need to change anything!
—Daniel

PS Sorry about the bad Latin but you know what we used to do in my Latin classes!


The three brave adventurers met in a tavern, as adventurers are wont to do. Marcus Taurus, thruster of spears, and Maximus Corvus, weaver of dreams, sat at the table quaffing ale while the eager young mage, Danierin Vulpes, wielder of flame made his way through the crowd to the bar.

‘Ho there, keeper of liquor, I require another whisky and would know what rumours abound in this place—rumours that might interest a stout band of adventurers!’

‘Uh… yeah, that’ll be two crowns for the whisky. And just look at the sodding adventurer’s board if you’re trying to find something to do!’

‘Oh.’ Daniel took the whisky, tail somewhat between his legs. Or would’ve been if he’d still had it. He put two crowns on the bar.

The barman sighed. ‘Well, now I feel like I kicked a puppy or something. Fine, fine…’ He cleared his throat. ‘There is a dreadful pox upon the… uh… neighbourhood to the west. Zig the Swindler takes openly from the poor what they cannot afford—a nastier piece of work there hasn’t been in many a moon! I’m sure many would be grateful were a band of brave adventurers to end this scourge!’

Danierin grinned broadly and tossed down an extra five crowns.

The barman returned the grin. ‘Thanks, mate,’ he said adding a hefty dollop of whisky to the fox’s mug. ‘And you really should have a look at the board too. Good luck!’

❧❧❧

‘Well, the barman did mention this Zig guy to me, and he sounds like a dick so we should probably head there first.’

‘Yes but, Daniel, should we go rushing into a fight?,’ asked Maxwell. ‘Why not just see what the Smith wants? Think of the side-quest XP!’

The little mage grimaced. ‘But it’s a fed-ex quest, I just know it!’

Maxwell thought a moment. ‘Daniel, have you considered that Ivan the smith is probably working shirtless in a hot room? Sweat and muscles and leather…’

Mark snorted a half-suppressed laugh as Daniel shifted in his seat and scratched an entirely phantom head itch.

‘I’ll take that as a yes.’

Daniel shrugged then wiggled his fingers and an illusory chalk board appeared. A spectral hand drew a chalk line next to a Raven’s head and the board vanished.

❧❧❧

‘Well, at least it wasn’t a fed-ex quest,’ said Maxwell as they stepped back into the street.

‘No, it was a random loot drop quest! A wander the wilderness until you happen on a chunk of metal quest. And he had his shirt on!’

Mark shook his head and chuckled a little. ‘Are you ever not horny?’

‘It’s the Adderall!’

Maxwell’s eyebrows shot up. ‘You take that here? Does it work in a magic world?’

Daniel shrugged. ‘It’s not Adderall exactly. I got a potion. And, well, it’s definitely having an effect.’

Maxwell shook his head. ‘Well, if you notice you’ve had an erection for more than four hours, be sure to tell us so we can find you a leech!’

‘Oh, ha ha!’ said Daniel, rolling his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something then shut it and was quiet a moment, stroking his chin. ‘Actually, that would probably work.’

‘Are you saying we need to find you a leech?’

‘No.’ Daniel smirked. ‘I’m saying I can use my magic powers to jerk off under this robe and you have no idea I’m doing it.’

‘Oh god! I did not need that image!’

The board appeared and a line was drawn next to the fox head before it disappeared.

‘Hey, not so fast, Danny boy! I get a point for the leech comment!’

Daniel sighed. ‘Yeah, I guess. Actually, you probably get two for that.’

‘Hey, what do I get points for?’ asked Mark.

‘Breaking things?’ suggested Daniel.

Mark grinned. ‘I am so going to win this! So, I’m a bull? Why not a bear?’

‘Because you do not want him thinking of you as a bear!’

Daniel sniggered and added another line to Maxwell’s score.

❧❧❧

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