Two weeks ago, Aka Jin - Eliot Sam's business partner and the man Michkin Right set out to find to fulfill his father's life debt - vanished after charges of smuggling.
Yesterday morning after burying Gimble Throne, the companions approached Alderman Sterra of Chimney, inquiring after Akuma and the Twins. A few minutes passed uncomfortably after Sterra stepped inside to “get something Akuma left for you” before the doors flew open and what appeared to be an entire family of ranchers stumbled from his house clutching an array of improvised weapons.
Reeking of excrement, heads hanging at odd angles, and eyes blank, the seemingly lobotomized locals shambled towards them. Though taken aback by the onslaught, the jerky, clumsy thrusts and swings of the ranchers were no match for the quick efficiency of the now-veteran companions. Though a hard, brutal battle it was over in moments as Maderu crushed those that stumbled from the rear of the house with his staff and the others butchered those that surged from the front. Even more unnerving than their appearance and smell, their assailants all died without uttering a sound.
Their blood up, Eliot Sam and Michkin rushed inside just in time to see Sterra fleeing out the back. Eliot Sam's quick thinking and faster throwing arm hobbled the Elderman and left him writhing and whimpering as he clutched the knife hilt protruding from his calf.
The group hogtied Sterra and set to ransacking his house, hurried by the cries of hunting horns as the townsfolk began to rally in the town square, presumably in response to the apparent slaughter of an innocent rancher family in the midst of an unprovoked assault on their Alderman by a ragtag band of strange foreigners.
As the others swiped whatever they could inside, Pursus probed the dark sorcery on the corpses. Whoever they had once been the ranchers were those people no longer when they attacked the companions, hollowed out and left as mere empty, inhuman shells. Almost as disturbing, the dark magics that had done the foul deed were strangely untraceable, as if it were one spell woven erratically by several people at once.
The companions high-tailed it as an ever-growing posse mustered and armed in the town behind them. They questioned Sterra on the run, asking hard enough to remove one of his fingers in the process, gleaning between the man's fainting spells that Sterra was paid by Akuma to hold the Hollowed rancher family and set them to kill anyone who came asking after Akuma and the Twins.
The dubious safety of the Aetherrun Road was just in sight when a bloody mist drifted across the companions' path, the dozen yellow-robed figures visible within framed by the shifting, monstrous fleshy form of the murder spirit. A small figure stepped forward and pulled back her cowl: the young woman from of the Sixfold Suffering Gang, her eyes gouged from their sockets and replaced by obscene shimmering orbs of liquid blood. A quick skim of the rest of the cultists showed their Sixfold mutilations were similarly regrown with grotesque imitations formed of raw meat and bloody sinew.
“I am Rya Min, voice of 72 Immaculate Sufferings,” she said. Her lips never moved, the words instead reverberating in their skulls and rippling the viscous pools of her eyes.
She demanded Pursus fulfill his side of the bargain he made back in the bamboo groves around the lair – to now provide the lives he promised in exchange for 72 Immaculate Sufferings sparing his own. After a brief debate, Pursus prepared to sacrifice himself again, but his companions held him back. In response the cultists to drew forth razor-sharp human femurs blades from the depths of their robes, the dark spirit's mist thickening around them and his slowly gained size and substance.
Thinking quickly, Michkin quietly poured away the protective sand from the Runic scroll he'd swiped from Raxtus' cart when the Tinker lad wasn't watching, then hurled it at the cultists. With inhuman quickness, what was once Rya Min caught it, unrolled it, glanced at the Runics, and bowed.
As the danger ahead melted from their path in a fading swirl of red mist, the danger behind drew closer as the town of Chimney rousted itself for blood and gave chase. The companions tied Alderman Sterra to stakes on the roadside to delay the posse. Michkin swiped a half-eaten boy's heart from Gorge strapped around the Elderman's neck as Eliot Sam traced Runics in the dirt as further warning. In the process, the group learned first-hand the origin of the Runic superstitions as unstable magic flowed into the Runics as Eliot Sam sketched, the explosion sending the old vagabond sailing through the air and hurling everyone else into the red dirt.
After pulling themselves to their feet, bandaging their word-wounds, and hurling a few final warnings at the terrified, quaking Sterra, the group pushed north - all but for Gorge and Raxtus who decided they'd now was time to take their leave, heading South in search of Gorge's true love, the Courtesan Subtle Jade.
The savage and the tinker had barely passed out of sight when sounds of mounted pursuit clattered on the Road – but not the posse of angry ranchers they expected. Instead a troupe of excellently-equipped Saitese soldiers, led by a haughty, sharp-faced man in fine black silks thundered towards them, reigning just shy of the companions. At the tail-end of what sounded like an argument in Saitese between Mideru Shigan and the newcomer, the man tried a new tactic, announcing himself in accented Aedaric as Blisseru Migan, agent of the Heavenly Bureaucracy of Chiain.
He ordered the group to reveal what they knew of the Twins and Akuma. When they resisted, he pressured them instead to leave Mideru and join him, calling Mideru and his order of Jade Warriors “sad, outdated relics”. Eliot Sam succinctly summed up the groups' thoughts on the matter by telling Blisseru to “f!*k off”.
Blisseru rode off in a huff while Mideru told them the man was actually a “secret” member of the Continuum. The old warrior spoke sadly of the growth of power of the Continuum within Chiain – originally a secret order dedicated only to ensuring the line of Twin Emperors remained unbroken which recently had began assuming more and more power. Compounding the surge of the order's growth, most of their gains were at the expense of the Jade Warriors, long the protectors and servants of the people of Chiain but no being slowly pushed into irrelevancy. Given the breadth of the conspiracy to murder twins in Chiain, Mideru declared that he trusted a group of foreigner barbarians more than any agent of the Continuum.
They stopped for lunch, consuming the last of their rice in the dust of the 13th Legion, when Pursus suddenly shouted a code word “canolli” and was quickly hogtied and gagged, the group then witnessing the Soul Banker's bizarre one-sided and muffled conversation with no one. When the episode passed, they ungagged him and questioned him. His revelations: his Ghost Bank manager Alban had shard that he could “Step Behind the Heart” sharing Pursus' senses and surface thoughts. Further, he now knew the Bank was comprised of individuals with many different goals, the powerful ceo bosses able to Grip the Soul and directly control any Managers or Initiates below them for greatly varied ends – some altruistic and benevolent, some selfish to perverted.
Alban had told him he hated their ceo, Salga Rethe, calling her a twisted sadist and seeking Pursus' aid in bringing her down. Pursus agreed on condition Alban release his curse if and when they removed Salga's threat. Alban agreed, hinting that Pursus might “listen in” when Salga Gripped his Soul to catch feedback that might give clues to who and where Salga was.
The new information filed away, the group pressed on, reaching the Legion follower's camp in the late afternoon. Marching down the “street” between the chaotic sprawl of tents, Eliot Sam spotted the business sign of his shop back in Heaven's Gateway, the Relic Roadshow. Curious, they entered. Within: piles of cheap junk and Aka Jin's shriveled junk all on display.
While Eliot Sam and the crude Aka traded ribald insults, slurs, and vulgarities, Michkin realized to his horror that this deprived old man was the same Aka owed the life-debt Michkin had inherited from his father.
After Eliot Sam collected his share of the business' recent earnings, he hatched a plan to gather information about the Legion, a plan involving some cheap whores, cheaper moonshine, casual inquiries, and an elaborate story of the evils of inter-family kidnapping woven by Pursus to garner sympathy.
While this transpired, Michkin played with the Magpie Ring Aka had identified, sending his new winged pet to seek something shiny that might fulfill his new oath to Aka to bring him something the jaded old Saitese wanderer had never seen before. The magpie returned with a bizarre bloody coin twined with wire. The young man stared at it in confusion while his more worldly companions gave him contradictory explanations of what it was for.
That aside, the sum total of the information gleaned in the shindig that followed: Praetor Ralius was marching his legion slowly, taking time to whip his troops into shape with hard training and harsher discipline, including decimation of two cohorts for sneaking off to go whoring as they passed Heaven's Gateway. As hated by the artisans in camp: Quartermaster Philia, known for iron-hard dealings. Lastly, Akuma and the Twins had been spotted by several witnesses, riding north around the Legion several days back.
This morning, after spending some of Alderman Sterra's confiscated silver on arms, armor, and horses, the group circled around the Legion themselves. An hour later and half-way past the marching Legion, sounds of pursuit clattered through the scrubby forest through which they passed.
As the group readied weapons, Eliot Sam rode ahead, just in time to see a stunning far-eastern Eiberian woman fall from her horse, the sounds of her pursuers close behind.
As she met his eyes, a spark seemed to jump between them.
“Help me,” she said in Eiberian.
“I'm coming,” Eliot Sam promised, in the same tongue.