01:51 – 10:30 – The group comfort the women as best they can, and after giving them some food and water, everyone settles back down to rest. The night passes with no more problems, through the terrified women sob and whisper through the long dark hours. When the group awaken, Grigori enacts his ritual about them after sending a magical message to Shi, letting her know that they are here (the warrior says she and some of her men will leave at once to collect them and bring them back home safely).
Breakfast is eaten, and with their minds made up to open the portal and hunt down the leader of the Jokiro Shukai, the group turn their attention to the Maho Gate.
“How much blood will it need?” Asks Lia, frowning.
Everyone shrugs. “Thatari, unless my mind is playing tricks on me, you collected the samurai's weapon after he fell. With your permission I would...”
“Hope's Famine”, States the warlock flatly. “It's called Hopes Famine.”
Grigori does not answer immediately, recognising the name as belonging to a truly ancient “anything” item (a device that can shift its form and function to be any kind of implement or weapon its wielder needs), attached to some of the most ill-fated endeavours in history. He knows it was the name of the greatsword wielded by High-Lord Khar'Thoran; the Solumite Paladin that lead the Third Crusade against Draxia in the 2nd Age – the most catastrophic of the seven “Doomed Crusades”. He also remembers it being referred to in association with a long dead warlord, who's troops seemed to fall to a deadly disease on another lost cause of a campaign, leaving him to fight an overpowering opponent alone – and to die in the effort.
“Ahem, well, I would very much appreciate being allowed to work a divination on the item, in order to gain some insight into how much blood the portal requires to open, as well as to what lies beyond it.”
Thatari seems to look at Hopes Famine – now an ornate rod of dark black and gold, surrounded by formless runes of black energy, and bristling with vertebrae like protrusions and unpleasant, insect like antennae. For a second, Grigori gets the creeping impression that the warlock is speaking with the implement; his lips moving slightly, his head nodding as if reaching some kind of agreement. He then fixes his strange, ghostly eyes upon the priest, and hands the item over.
Grigori likes not the way the rod feels warm like flesh to his touch, and likes less the way it seems to shift in his grasp, as if fidgeting. Placing it down on the floor with his fingertips, he then draws a circle of arcane symbols around it, and begins a ritual that will enable him to read its psychometric aura. Power floods through him as he intones the words to the spell, and at once, the runes around the rod flare with pale, bloodless light. All the group stand breathless as Grigori begins to twitch and shudder in the throes of his casting, his eyes, part open, flickering beneath his thin eyelids, their glow wavering in intensity. Power sullenly throbs through the air around him, and the Famine shimmers as if in a heat haze. Moments pass, and then Grigori arches his back and emits a strangled gasp, the runes on the floor flaring, before slumping forwards and with a gasp, erasing the circle, allowing the magic within it to drain away.
“The portal was last opened using all the blood a villager had. Beyond is a maelstrom plane; a place of endless storms, and little else. I saw, hurtling through this void, a great palace, with a path of human skeletons trailing from it. I believe it to be the lair of the monster we seek. The headquarters of the Jokiro Shukai.”
Everyone spends a moment absorbing this news.
“So, are we ready to pass through the portal?” Asks Grigori suddenly, climbing up and holding his forearm out over the bowl, “I have also seen that we should be able to open the portal from the other side, and so feel we do not need copious amounts of blood at this stage fed into it.”
With a quick flick of his other wrist, the priest flashes the warped blade of his melted mace-sword across his forearm, a dark line of necrotic blood immediately welling out and spilling into the bowl beneath. As soon as the blood touches the bowl, a filthy warmth enters the chamber, and the entire portal begins to hum with a dark power. The blood boils as if being cooked, spitting and bubbling, and thin tendrils of black steam begin to rise from it, filling in the perverted runes carved into the “horns” of the portal bowl. Everyone stares with shock, and then moves to prepare to enter the gate. Grigori brings his arm back, and staunches the flow of blood, whilst the women scream and wail in fear of the black sorcery being practised in their presence.
Bloody light wells from the runes as the blood mist fills them, and suddenly the air snaps taut with planar energy. A slight tremor shakes the chamber as the damaged fabric of reality flinches as this latest injury, and all the group watch as a doorways suddenly blinks open between the physical and the realm of the Jokiro Shukai.
At once terrific, howling wind rips into the chamber, throwing several members of the party off their feet. Lightning flickers beyond the gate's frame, throwing twisted shadows around the room, and the boom of the unnatural thunder is almost deafening. Peering through, the group can see a place of ragged, swirling, endless clouds, constantly ripped apart by impossibly powerful and long lasting bolts of lightning. There is little solid matter; only storm tossed chunks of hurtling stone, each gritty and black from repeated lightning strikes. The plane smells of ozone and ice, and appears to the group to be entirely hostile.
“Do we really need to go through there?” Asks Lia.
“The evil must be destroyed”. Comes Varracuda's grim reply.
“And I like the idea of smashing something powerful in its home world.” Snarls Shnecke with a grin.
“Right then, everyone together.” Mutters Jaeger, his shadowy crossbow materialising in his grasp.
10:31 – 10:33 - On the count of three, the party leap through the sizzling portal, the wind striking them like a physical blow the second they enter the other world. They find themselves on a huge chunk of lightning blasted stone, upon which stands a demon gate of bone and charcoal. Vile symbols are burned into its surface, and Grigori, his voice stolen almost completely by the shrieking tempests of this plane, yells that they are the key to opening the portal home from this side.
The winds are so powerful that everyone struggles to breathe, and the crash and rumble of the thunder and shriek of the tempests enough to all but drown out anything other than shouted communications. Each adventurer fights not to be captured and swept away by the howling gusts, and they all realise that unless they can find some way to safely move from this island of tumbling stone, they will be forced to head back to their own universe.
“Where is it?” Screams Jaeger, his voice a pale echo amongst the winds.
Grigori, his eyes tearing as the winds dry them, glares into the spectacular throat of the cyclonic storm that seems to comprise this realities everything, and through a ragged swathe of grey, flitting cloud, briefly spots a flash of white – the bleached bones of thousand or more interwoven human skeletons; the path to the daemon castle.
“There!” He screams, pointing, fighting as the winds try to lift him into the void. “Far, far over there!”
Everyone looks at each other, their faces clearly asking and how the hell do we get there? Fly?
“Suggestions?” Bellows Varracuda, gripping the glassy stone with whitening fingertips.
“A kite?” Screams Lia.
Most of the party look at her as if she is insane. However, Grigori says nothing, instead running through some plans I his mind. “You know,” he says, too quiet for most to hear, “that idea isn't quite as insane as it sounds.”
“Right everyone that has either a cloak, or a tent, hand them over. Poles and other solid things that can be used as a frame too.”
“Are you absolutely insane?” Screams Jaeger, his eyes red from the drying blasts.
“The Azraelite has a good idea. I calculate we should be able to make a serviceable 'wing' that together we can fly in the direction of the palace. It might fail, but at this moment, what other plan do we have?”
A bolt of lightning strikes nearby, the air shuddering with overpressure, filaments of liquid electricity snaking spectacularly across the glassy stone's surface.
“Besides, sooner or later, we are going to attract one of those, and I doubt any of us are tough enough to survive such unwanted attention.”
“Good point!” Nods the assassin.
10:34 – 10:44 – The portal snaps shut, leaving the group crouched against the stone and wind, holding the curious thing they have thrown together from the items outlined by the priest; a great, crude, curved wing of cloth, oiled leather and straining poles – useless in the comparatively feeble winds of their own world, but potentially, a vehicle in this one. Keeping hold of it in the furious, constant winds is a draining task, and everyone realises that unless they give it a go straight away, they are going to have it torn from them.
“Are you sure about this?” Bellows Shnecke, regarding the wing with clear suspicion.
“No.” Replies the cleric plainly before screaming something indecipherable and running towards the edge of the stone with it, dragging the rest of the party along.
There is a lot of screaming at this point.
10:45 – 10:47 – The flight through the tempest plane is one of the least enjoyable experiences that many of the group have had up to this point – as much falling as flying. It takes them a few moments to form any kind of cohesive plan; their minds torn between trying not to be ripped free of the device and tossed into the void, and trying to make it do something they want. However, with Grigori shouting instructions, they – sort of – manage to get the thing flying in the direction they need.
Vertigo assaults everyone, as there is nothing but shredded clouds and arcing lightning beneath their feet. The wing spins and tumbles on its way, and any sense of “up” or “down” is completely lost within moments. Muscles ache as the group try to keep hold and to force the vehicle to catch the right winds to carry them to their destination, and nausea rises within them as they spin and dive through the storm.
“There” Shrieks Grigori through a clenched jaw, “The daemon's palace. I just saw it. We are headed in the right direction, though Shnecke and Lia, you need to pull the cloth in towards you to turn us in that direction!”
The kite banks sharply, and everyone screams as they feel themselves falling. However, just as the priest says, they all suddenly see a massive chunk of rock, at least a mile across, hanging in the midst of the chaos, apparently unmoving. They can see its crumbling pagoda style roofs piled high on top of each other, as well as extensive battlements (manned by tiny, armoured forms and studded by wind bent flagpoles, topped by fluttering banners). High outer walls surround the place, and a great courtyard stretches between them and the palace proper.
“There's millions of them down there!” Screams Varracuda.
“Good!” Replies Shnecke.
“We should try to aim for one of the flags.” Yells Grigori, “Snag this thing on them and drop down to safety.”
“Are you sure that's a good idea?”
There is no reply.
10:48 – 10:50 – To the oni that man the walls of the fortress, the kite seems at first to be some kind of broken bird; screeching and flapping wretchedly towards them. However, as it nears, their glowing yellow eyes spot the shrieking mortals hanging and flailing from its lower side, and they realise that they are about to be invaded.
Ugasho Zor'Ugano, an ancient Oni Mage sworn to his master, the Zanki-No Oni Gasharo, watches the curious device as it swoops in towards one of the flagpoles that stud the high outer walls, apparently doomed to snag on it. However, as the first alarm horns begin to sound, the thing is caught by a sudden updraught, and climbs high above the central courtyard, the mortals upon it screaming with horror. Ugasho grins, his wide, fanged mouth dripping with saliva, and he turns to speak to one of the common oni nearby, looking down to regard the pathetic brute.
“Warn Shihezzu of the breach, and tell the others to prepare for battle. It seems the slayers of Hiyazaki have come to seek his master too.”
He then closes his eyes and allows the potent energy of this world flow through him, using it to fuel a summoning. As the wing drops suddenly towards the courtyard, he enacts his spell, and at once two spheres of dazzling, snarling lightning energy appear besides him – each a Xap-Yaup Energon; a living manifestation of raw, elemental electricity. Over the far side of the courtyard, several of the common oni have begun to charge the outsiders as they plunge -wailing – towards the shattered courtyards cobbles, whilst the rest of the troops fight to turn the daemon cannons on the walls round, to unleash their fury upon them.
“This should be fun.” Growls the oni mage. “What a shame poor Shihezzu won't get chance to play with them all.”
10:51 – 10:53 – The impact is agonising, and no one is spared it. Bones fracture, and the wind is smashed from each adventurer as they crash into the decrepit courtyard. Prone, they find themselves looking up at the looming daemon palace, as well as at the piles of rubble that litter the yard, clustered around great yawning pits that lead to open air. Oni charge from the walls, or roar as they try to turn deadly looking cannons mounted on the battlements to face them. From the great, battered steps leading to the palace's wide double doors strides a truly monstrous foe; a 10' tall oni with blue skin and dark green hair, dressed in nightmarishly decorated o-yoroi armour. It has three white eyes, and bears a gigantic katana. Either side of it hover spheres of lightning, from which issue constantly vanishing and re-appearing tentacles of fluid electricity. It regards the group with utter scorn, and before they can right themselves, shouts a harsh spell.
Three shuriken of brilliant red and green flame appear in its hands, and it sends them streaking towards Grigori, Shnecke and Thatari. Each one finds its mark, exploding in a burst of flame and leaving a cloud of stinging, toxic smoke in their wake, blinding each adventurer. Ugasho does not lose a second working his next spell, and the groaning, dazed adventurer's know they are going to be unable to avoid it.
Ice begins to creep across the ground around them, and a million tiny, glittering shards of it begins to form around the oni mage's hand, swirling with sorcerous animation. Suddenly the summoned frost is sent out towards the group on the wings of a spell, and everyone is simultaneously frozen and blasted by it, their limbs growing heavy and leaden with the cold, their flesh waxen and frostbitten.
Lightning jags down from one of the Xap-Yaup, the energon moving with the speed and freedom of a spark. This rips into Lia, jarring her, and she tastes blood as her jaw contracts and she bites her tongue.
“Weak.” Grunts Ugasho with a chuckle, “Barely worth my time and effort.”
Unfortunately for Ugasho, the group are far from beaten, and despite his glorious opening assault, he and his allies are doomed.
10:59 – Shihezzu, Ken-Sun, Elemental Mage of the Scouring Tempest can feel as the warding prayers on the palace doors are skilfully stripped away. He has listened to the bufoon Ugasho and the footsoldiers fighting in the courtyard, and has listened as his chief rival died at the invader's hands. There is no fear in him as the great doors heave inwards, pushed by almost inhuman strength, and a sense of supreme confidence swells within his frozen heart as he takes in the weakened and battered state of the invaders – all of them ragged, bleeding and weary, having had no time to catch their breath between their crash and this moment.
They pile in, and draw the great gates shut behind them, shutting out the common guards who roar and bellow outside.
“Just you and me then.” Whispers the monstrous spirit. “And unlike Ugasho, I shall not be defeated”.