The Twisted Ways (Sessions 94-95): The Breath of the Winter, The Paths of Darkness.
Najite was a bit numb. Amaterasu, the supreme goddess, the light of the world, had told him to “Go to Hell!” and it actually seemed like helpful advice. Had his life really gotten that bad, or was it just that the entire world was actually as insane as Ninsei, Kochige, Michio, Okari, and company?
With Michio diverted with some of the Unicorn Clan children – who didn’t see any reason why, if Ninsei could be safely thrown into the heavens and return, they couldn’t try it too – Najite busy stewing in his own juice, and Okari still off on clan business, that left Kochige and Ninsei to brainstorm up a way to reach the Dark Sun of the Underworld.
Well, they could head for Jigoku and try to find him there (not an attractive notion), head to the West and see if the priests of Senpet were right about the path of the dead sun (which would probably take too long), ask Shigure to make contact (a gambit he’d already tried with no luck), try and have Michio throw them there (although Jigoku, and the private realm of the Black Sun, was likely to be beyond the authority of a minor celestial kami), try to use the blood-link of the Unicorn priests somehow (not that they really had any idea of how to do that), they could consult the Jade Champion (although she’d probably think them quite mad), just ask the Unicorn Priests to pray to Shinjo (although – if that would work – she should have been located long ago), try to summon her (not likely to work with spirit magic, but perhaps the Recondite Weave or Heka could do it), search for the portal outside of Rokugan where Shinjo had originally met Rocan (there had to be one there someplace, but searching or it could take forever), simply invoke the Dark Sun (blasphemous by current standards, but there had been such rituals once according to Shigure – used whenever it was time for something to be destroyed), try the Sea of Void (Michio might be able to navigate it – if the Dark Sun permitted such an approach), or they could…
The brainstorming went on for some time. Eventually they decided to combine several of their possible plans: they would get the Unicorn priests to pray to Shinjo for them, attempt to use the Recondite Weave to trace Shinjo’s bond with her descendants and then combine their powers with Kochige’s status as a dimensional nexus to try and send a message along that link.
For good or ill, with their powers combined with Najites powers over gates and Michio’s ability to blow holes in the cosmos, they had more than enough power to punch their message through to SOMETHING. Sadly, it wasn’t what they’d wanted. Rocan might be a dark and terrible god, but he still heard prayers – especially when they were backed by that much raw power. It was rare that mortals wished to reach his realm, but it was permitted for them – and especially for the Unicorn – to attempt the journey.
The dark fires of the underworld draw the area – along with the group, several priests, more than forty Unicorn Samurai, assorted servants, the children who’d been getting Michio to jump around with them, several horses, and an assortment of other animals and baggage, to the timeless borders of the realm of the Dark Sun. They managed to use Michio’s talents to send most of the children, priests, and other superfluous passengers home – but the Samurai insisted on an explanation, and then – since the group was looking for their clan founder – insisted on inviting themselves along.
While it passed unrecognized, the route to the Palace of the Dark Sun was a dark and icy mirror of Shingo’s route beyond the borders of the Empire. It featured a terrible ordeal on a glacier that hosted hostile demon-steeds to be captured and tamed in place of the desolate ordeal of crossing the burning sands, horses and peasants to rescue from disaster as the Unicorn had aided and been aided by the local inhabitants of the steppes, a frozen avalanche-swept mountain in place of the undead-haunted desert mountains, a brief battle with guardian oni in the place of a the initial battle at the City of Jewels, and a variety of chances to display their combat skills, horsemanship, diplomacy, and the virtues of Bushido along the way.
It would have made it easier, and would probably have helped keep the Unicorn casualties down along the way, if they had realized what was going on – but they bulled through their quest on raw power and determination, no matter how long the subjective duration became. They captured and tamed the heat-drinking demon steeds, survived the glacial ordeal and rescued lost travelers there, surmounted and outrode the avalanches, rescued the endangered horses and peasants, and continued on to the gates of the dark palace.
Well, they had successfully completed the quest, even if they never had figured out what was going on. They were also the first to do so in many centuries – so the servants let them in and stabled their demon horses as the group presented a variety of gifts.
Shinjo hadn’t been aware that Rocan had been blocking out everything he classified as “minor” disturbances (which led to a lively discussion), that Amaterasu had not been passing on her messages to her siblings, or that the Unicorn were – at least at the moment – badly in need of advice over and above the subjective weeks worth of tales of her travels that she told over dinner. Still, she did not want to intervene too directly; Ningen-Do belonged to mortals, not to gods. The order of heaven was not that great an example of how to do things (after all, look at the affairs of her family), and to become too involved with the affairs of Ningen-Do was to allow it to bind you. Mortal form you might assume, but mortal you would never truly be – and all that you attempted would be twisted thereby. She would send dreams for now, advise the Unicorn among her visitors to carry word from her to the Clan Champion, and consider what must be done while she dealt with the message backlog that Rocan had been blocking. Of course, her husband could provide time for such considerations as might be needed. Defining the passage of time in the underworld was one of his minor privileges.
In the meantime, she presented everyone with proper saddle and tack for the steeds they had claimed – as well as some minor tokens of their visit. Rocan – at least to oblige Shinjo – was perfectly willing to send everyone, and their horses, back to the Empire without a fuss. Of course, Shinjo would also be expecting them to visit again in the future, while Rocan – according to custom – granted a gift as well: the dark sight of the underworld. At least for him, it was easier than lighting his palace properly anyway.
Unfortunately, their arrival back with the Unicorn – after a mere hour – meant having to explain just what had happened, how several of the Samurai who’d been swept along with them had mysteriously vanished, where the hellsteeds had come from, just what they had been up to all along, and why they had dragged a bunch of children and noncombatants into Jigoku in the first place. Yes, they had trustworthy Unicorn Samurai witnesses as to that being the action of a dark and long-forgotten god – even if half of those witnesses were from beyond the borders of the empire – but explaining the reasons behind what was going on was decidedly awkward.
It got more so when Najite decided to notify Amaterasu that Shinjo was doing just fine and had entrusted a couple of messages to Ninsei for her siblings since her other messages hadn’t been getting through. While the sun goddess normally made far more remarks about smiting people than actual smiting, this definitely drew her attention – enough so that she sent a minor manifestation to show up and scold Ninsei. Fortunately, Ninsei, Kochige, Najite, and the local Shugenja were able to throw up enough fire-containment, fire-extinguishing, and fire-protection spells to keep the area from being devastated, even if they did lose the council tent. Oddly enough, this was actually helpful; having Amaterasu show up to personally chew you out – and even acknowledge you as being closer family than most Samurai (well, the rest of the group had had their suspicions about Ninsei for quite awhile now: surviving being vaporized, being capable of splitting off a duplicate when infused with dark power, and having that much innate power, that young?) definitely lent some weight to your words.
Come to think of it, they weren’t sure if they should they tell the Ki’Rin Elderthat they’d found Shinjo? He was sort of a living historical artifact – and the only thing keeping him going was looking for Shinjo to deliver his messages. Still, such a long life was not healthy for an old man.
As a game-mastering note, this was the first major plot-sequence that no one ever really figured out – probably because it was too obscure: most of the players had listened to the Unicorn priest’s account of the clan history looking for clues to Shinjo’s current location. Since such clues were indeed present, nobody guessed that the account was also a set of directions for finding Shinjo by undertaking a dark mirror of her travels in Jigoku. Of course, I always make it possible to get through an adventure whether or not anyone figures out what’s actually going on, since you can’t really count on anyone else being able to match your thought processes – but getting through things on blind determination is always a lot harder for the characters than getting through when they know what route to take.