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Closer to the Heavens: The Journey East 
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The story begins anew
It had been almost two days since the caravan set off from Hakone. The evening of the second day was approaching, the sun just barely above the horizon now and it was setting fast. Forming a rough semi-circle, the wagons stopped for the night and the travelers disembarked to make camp for the night.

With the protective boundary set up by Mitsuki, the main group of hired muscle assembled by the campfire to listen for further instructions from the caravan master Akane. They were handed the day's rations as Akane looked over them.

Çetinkaya stood on the farthest side, probably afraid of what a naked flame could do to his oiled body. Shu was next to him, some drink in his hands already. Sasaki, Ryouichi and Suzuki stood closer to one another, probably because they wanted to stick close to those from the Empire as well. Nari was the odd one out, his presence suspicious but nobody seemed to mind as he hadn't done anything to confirm those suspicions yet.

Akane stood calmly opposite them and repeated the words she did the night before.

"Time to decide the order for the watch. Any volunteers for first watch?"

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Mon Apr 09, 2012 1:58 pm
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The sun was setting as the group decided to set up for camp. Two days of traveling with this group and Ryouichi is still unfamiliar with most of them. The few that he does remember fought beside him in the bloodshed at Hakone. Looking around,most of them seemed honest people with their own motives. The only one who seemed suspicious was the one named Nari. He sat alone last night at the campfire. Çetinkaya usually sat further away, but he a good reason as bursting into flames would not be a fun experience. Even then, he participated in conversations and was willing to guard.

Like last night, Akane asked the same question, "Any volunteers for first watch?". Ryouichi sat there, taking bites of his share of the rations. After a minute or two, he slowly got up.

"Sure, I'll go first," said Ryouichi, "After I finish, I'll be able to sleep uninterrupted."


Mon Apr 09, 2012 2:30 pm
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The journey thus far had been rather uneventful in contrast to the days that led to their departure. Kutama's funeral seemed rushed, and they truly had no time to mourn as his cremated remains drifted on the wind dissipating to rejoin the life cycle. They had hurriedly prepared the envoy to travel into the east and thankfully a band of volunteers seemed ready for departure. Some Mitsuki recognized, such as the man Ryouichi Zanji, whom she had stood alongside at the battle on the temple hill, others she did not such as the ones who called themselves Nari and Shu. Personally, she did not trust Nari. While he had done nothing to stir her doubts, she just generally had a dark feeling about him, as if he were plagued by wronged spirits. It was for this reason, as well as the ever present danger provided by the yure that she set up a spiritual barrier around the camp. The symbols etched into the ground by her fan cleansed the area and made it holy ground.

Her eyes fell on Çetinkaya, the man glistened in the fire light. "Such an odd man" she thought to herself, he truly was a foreigner. She only hoped that this time he would be more sensitive to their culture. Mitsuki didn't wish to have any further disputes with the man.

Chewing her share of food silently, she glanced sideways at Suzu who seemed to be in a world of her own. The girl was so young yet she composed herself solidly despite her loss. It was for that, that Mitsuki admired the girl. One thing that perturbed her slightly about the girl however, was her miraculous recovery. The girl had always been known for her crippling sickness, but after that night, she was completely fine. She hoped the source had been that of the One True God, but the unusual behaviour of the yure that night made her doubt much of what she'd been told.

While Akane asked whether anyone would like to do first watch, Mitsuki looked down at the ground and idly shifted two inscribed talismans in the palm of her hand back and forth.

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Mon Apr 09, 2012 6:27 pm
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Nari was in deep though. Bunch of odd folk here, let's see, we got some guy named Çetinkaya, looks tough, better not steal from him, he could help me in some situations. He could keep me protected from all sorts of trouble. Nari scouted the caravan some more, looking at all the others. He didn't dare to start up a conversation. Nari may be a criminal, but he didn't like confrontation. Unless he was talking to those dear to him. Nari started to play with his little pocket knife, swinging it around, and tossing it in the air. He liked how sleek and shiny his little tool was, despite how he used it in many situations. Most of them involved slitting throats. Nari popped opened a bottle of Huangjiu, he did love alcoholic drinks. He sipped on it, enjoying one of the things he liked most. He looked at Suzuki, and studied him. Damn, he got a big sword, he looks like a sheepish dog, though, hmm... all that gear must be hard to keep track of, I wouldn't mind bringing home some of his stuff.. Nari shook his head trying to bring himself to senses, God, I can't cause a stir now, they will know it's me and slice me up into little bits, I have to remember to not do these things at their time, I should gain their trust... Yeah, that's it! Nari drank the rest of his Huangjiu, and announced, "Um... If anyone wants the rest of my meal, go ahead, consider it a gift, or... um something..." And he rushed his way back to his bed roll, he got a long, long journey ahead of him.

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Mon Apr 09, 2012 8:30 pm
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The first two days of travel were unnoteworthy. Shu had been hired on the spot to accompany the caravan as a practitioner, a fact that made it obvious that there had not been much planning for the journey. As long as he was paid, though, that was not his concern. Shu maintained very little interaction with the others, mostly because he was from a different country. Being from Talay, he was regarded as an outsider by most who had joined the caravan. The only one to whom he could relate was the man named Çetinkaya, whose nationality remained to be seen. That said, he was an exceptionally strange man. Shu took a swig from the wine flask in his hands, letting the substance warm his throat and stomach. He glanced at the three from Shoken who, as per usual, were grouped together. He knew very little about them, which was fine as far as he was concerned. Familiarity bred contempt, after all. The one named Nari, though... he was interesting. Having seemingly no motivation for joining the caravan, he was a shady character indeed, but Shu didn't suspect he would try anything. No, that would require some level of competence.
Shu finished his drink as the one in charge announced that it was time to decide the order of the watch. One of the Shokunese men jumped at the chance to stand watch first, if only so that he could have the luxury of sleeping all at once. It was surprising that he had the gall to admit his intentions. Before anyone else could respond, Nari succinctly announced that someone else could have his food and headed off to sleep, as if that would somehow exempt him from the responsibility of standing watch.
If you're not going to make yourself useful, Shu thought sourly, at least leave your alcohol next time.
When nobody else spoke up, Shu conceded. "I suppose I'll stand second watch."


Tue Apr 10, 2012 12:32 am
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The caravan had been on the road but two days, and already Isamu was in better spirits than when he had left. The mind-numbing cycle of placing one foot in front of the other for hours on end had been good for him, of that he was certain. His master’s parting words had given him food for thought, and thinking was one of the few cerebral engagements offered travellers partaking in such a journey. “You have been a faithful student, disciplined in training your mind in the way of Mugen undō,” had said Ochi Kaede. “But at your core, in the heart of your being, you remain a selfish man, concerned only with self-preservation. You must learn true humility, reining in your heart as you have done with your mind. Only then will you achieve true peace and honour.”

Sadly, Isamu knew it to be true. He claimed to wield his blade as a Mugen undō devotee, but he had the all too painful proof that if the dilemma presented itself, he would save his own sorry carcass before risking himself for anyone else. “Yet now,” he thought as he sipped his broth by the campfire, “I know. An enemy known is more easily conquered.” He could change. Would change. Even if it meant a journey to the ends of the earth.

Looking up from his bowl, he noticed the one named Nari twirling a knife around and drinking freely from a good-sized bottle. An alcoholic beverage, no doubt. Isamu despised leisurely drinking, indulging in such beverages himself only on ceremonial occasions. It was the way master had taught. As such, he was not enticed in the least by the offer to finish the man’s scraps. "Disgusting," he mumbled under his breath.

Seated to Isamu’s right was a soldier who had introduced himself as Ryouichi. The two had bonded somewhat recalling memories of their battle at Hakone, though neither had actually met the other there. Needless to say, the young Suzuki had left out choice parts of his tales. First impressions were important, and presenting oneself as a coward was not the path to favour with fellow citizens of the Empire.

When the meal had come to a close, the caravan master asked for volunteers for the nightly guard. Isamu was surprised to see his companion take the first watch, backed by the entirely selfish reason of wanting to sleep peacefully throughout the rest of the night. One of the strangers from Talay, some sort of medicine man if memory served, volunteered to stand guard second. “I will take the third, then,” said Suzuki, not wishing to be outdone by a foreigner. Yes, it would mean dragging himself out of bed in the middle of the night, but Isamu slept lightly enough. "And hey,” he reasoned to himself. “I like sitting under the stars anyway.”

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Tue Apr 10, 2012 2:17 am
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Akane was pleased that there were so many volunteers. The first was Ryouichi. As expected of a proper protector of the Empire, regardless of his motivations. The next was the herbalist from Talay, Shu. Finally, the third and last volunteer was Suzuki. His watch was near the middle of the night, and she silently thanked him for volunteering and lowering her head ever so slightly. All that was left were Çetinkaya, the oiled brute from Tartariya, the shifty Nari and her own pupil Sasaki.

"No one else? Then I will deciding the the remaining time by chance."

Pulling out of her sleeves, were three wooden dice. They had twenty sides in all with numbers carved out. Each one was of a different colour.

"This red one is Çetinkaya's, this black one is Nari's and this white one is Sasaki's."

Thus declared she threw them at who they represented. As they caught them, she took note of the number that landed on top.

"20, 3, and 18, well then, it seems Çetinkaya has the honour of last watch, Nari shall have the fourth and Sasaki the fifth. Until your designated time to stand watch, you are dismissed."

That said, the night was still young and going to bed now was probably not a good idea unless one stood watch for the later halves of the night. Akane retreated to the lead wagon and disappeared inside. Suzu, who had stayed invisible to most of the group slipped away to the other side of camp and out of sight from anyone that wasn't looking for her.

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Tue Apr 10, 2012 4:39 am
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"As a Tartariyan, I shall bear the honor of the watch with my life," Katakurk replied.

As everyone scattered, he glanced around the group. Upon seeing the woman he argued with, Mitsuke, he was reminded of his dishonorable actions earlier in calling for an unsanctioned bout, something he knew should never be done. When it came to the newer people, a few of them looked dishonorable enough to be threat, especially the one called Nari. He walked up toward the man and stared at him as if he were trying to peer inside him.

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Tue Apr 10, 2012 2:24 pm
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Mitsuki nodded, not really caring about what shift she was to be given for the watch. She found that recently she hadn't been able to sleep much anyways. She kept dreaming about the last moments she had with Kutama before she was sent to go protect the temple while he took on the giant Yure. The burden she felt at those times were horrible, and as a result she found herself often meditating as a means to keep her peace. She got up from where she stood and followed Akane to the lead wagon.

"Sensei" she spoke softly "I am troubled by the yure of that night" she said "Never before have I seen them so...aggressive. Had the sun not risen they surely would have overtaken the temple...but that shouldn't have been possible in the first place...it's holy ground...is it not?"

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Wed Apr 11, 2012 7:43 pm
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Nari knew all the looks he got when the very second he showed up to the caravan. He knew people where thinking that he is a crook. He needed to gain their trust if he wanted to not die when trouble arises. Let's see, if they don't trust me, I should do something that wouldn't make them feel even more distant. Hmm, how about I purpose an offer? No, I don't want to make this a deal, I want this to be out of them wanting them to help me... Oh! I got it! Nari took out his money and some pouches out. He divided an equal amount into each bag. Once he made sure every bag was filled with money, he mustered up his courage with alcohol. He went up and announced, "Ok. I know you all think I'm scum or something, but... but I like you all. Ok?" Nari fumbled a bit, tipsy from the alcohol, but he continued anyway, "Now, to make sure I don't steal your stuff on my shift, I'm going to put up some collateral. Everyone, please accept these pouches of money, when my shift is done, and all your gear is intact, please return the money. If you wish to keep it, be my guest. Consider it a gift or something... Now, I'll just leave these pouches here, take it if you will." Nari felt almost proud of what he did...


Almost.

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Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:35 pm
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Whatever the effects Çetinkaya's gaze had on Nari, they weren't apparent. To the wrestler, the sight he beheld was a small man, a fragile man, a man who hid behind the backs of others, a man who could not carry his own weight. By his own code, this man would not be a worthy opponent nor a respectable fighter. Especially even now as he tried to curry favour with coin and tongue.

---

"I know you are troubled Mitsuki. Otherwise you would have forgotten to return my die."

Akane smiled as she traded the die in Sasaki's grip with a cup of freshly brewed ginger tea. She stepped out and stood next to her pupil. Despite the occasional crackling from the camp fire, the forest was relatively quiet with a gentle breeze every now and then. It was cool, soon to be cold and the stars were out. Akane took a sip from her own cup before looking up and towards their destination.

"It must be frightening, to see these horrors at such a young age. You should never be afraid to fear. In time you will master it and be better for it. As for that night, I like to think that somewhere up there a test of faith was decided upon. That the Yure could have gotten so close would mean that we are lacking. It really does help in putting self reflection back in to our list of priorities doesn't it?"

Stepping towards Suzu's direction, Akane turned back and asked her pupil,

"Would you care to come with me? I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to know how you parted with Kutama."

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Thu Apr 12, 2012 9:02 am
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After Ryouichi volunteered to guard first, another man named Shu volunteered second and then Isamu, a fellow soldier who Ryouichi has come to like, volunteered to guard third. The remaining three were chosen by a simple dice roll. Nari was acting quite odd, choosing to leave the campfire early, offering the rest of his meal. Odd, he seems in a rush, Ryouichi thought to himself. As he stood up to begin his guarding session, Nari came back with an "offer" of sorts. Ryouichi was thrown off by this sudden offer, so he decided to ignore him and begin his guarding shift.


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Shu retired to his mat without a word, deciding it would be best if he stayed up until it was time for his watch. In the meantime, he rifled through his satchel and withdrew a pair of medicine balls, which he proceeded to spin around in his hand with the precision of a surgeon. The small spheres wound around each other smoothly in Shu's palm, testament to his considerable manual dexterity. Aside from keeping his skills sharp, Shu found that the medicine balls helped to take the edge off of his anxiety. He had closed his eyes, beginning to relax, when Nari boisterously announced that he would be offering money as collateral. Shu's concentration broken, the medicine balls tumbled out of his palm and into the dirt. He glared coldly at the Nari fellow, who was obviously still under the effects of alcohol. Some people simply couldn't hold their drink. The now irked practitioner decided that he would take any of the coin pouches that were left when it was his turn to stand watch, if only to punish the man for his foolishness. Until then, he retrieved the medicine balls from the ground and once again began to twirl them in his hand.


Thu Apr 12, 2012 8:34 pm
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Mitsuki accepted the ginger tea with a thankful smile and took a sip allowing the warm liquid to warm her body. She nodded as her senior spoke, it was true, perhaps they had been lulled into a fantasy of safety and allowed their faith to waiver. She knew that for herself, the days spent after the invasion, aside from preparing for the journey and mourning the loss of Kutama, she had also made sure to travel with all her talismans and her spell tags. That night she remembered how pressed she was for making sure that she did not waste her tags in a futile exorcism and she had spent a lot more time meditating. The amount of people lost to instill such fear back into the hearts of those who survived though, was it worth it?

She watched as Akane walked towards where she thought she had seen Suzuki slink off to by herself, and she could only obediently nod "yes" to her sensei's proposal. Even though it would serve to further put a wedge between the girls. She didn't want to be hated by Suzu, but even she knew that the girl probably wanted to know what his final moments were. She bowed her head, inhaling the tart scent of ginger and followed Akane.

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Fri Apr 13, 2012 12:49 am
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Katakurk, having seen enough, grabbed Nari's arm and tugged him close to scold him, his eyes alight like a vindictive torch. After what he had done earlier in the temple, he felt he had to make up for his dishonor by righting a man who lacked any honor whatsoever.

"If a man has to use collateral so that he feels better about what he is about to do, then he lacks the integrity to live. The world is driven by harmony, and harmony driven by honor. If there is no honor there is no balance; if there is no balance man falls and cannot even wrestle with his own flaws. You lack what makes the world just and harmonious and so you try to hide behind stale bribes, not even able to face yourself. You are pitiful and are not worth a drop of oil."

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Fri Apr 13, 2012 1:09 am
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