Back up at the top of the hill, Yani had concluded her rite and then relaxed, smiling at Kai and rolling her shoulders a few times to loosen them up. Reaching down under the table she pulled out a stone jug with a fire-blackened cork in the top, followed by a carved wooden cup. Opening the jug she poured out some fresh, cold, clear water and offered the cup to Kai, who thanked her and sipped at the refreshing liquid. She seemed to be waiting for him, so he finished the water swiftly, then handed her the cup back, watching as she gave it a brief wipe with a cloth, then poured another cup for herself, drinking it down equally swiftly. After wiping the cup clean, she replaced the cup and jug under the table, back in the shade and then stood and adjusted her robes.
"The first part of the rite is completed, but now I must walk the mountain. Please, feel free to walk with me if you wish, remain here, or return to your friends if you so desire."
"I'll walk with you, if I may – as long as I won't disrupt your rite or affect it. I'd like to know more if I may? It's fascinating so far." She nodded to him, grabbed a small pouch from under the table and carefully arranged it over her shoulder, then smiled at him and led him out of the clearing along a path. They were near the summit, and the path seemed to circumnavigate the hill, so it was reasonably flat, leading through the mature woodland in a winding fashion, carved into the hillside on the uphill side and the material used to raise the downhill side to make a level surface about two metres wide. As they walked, Yani explained the fundamentals of Shinto to Kai, explaining a little about the rites she was carrying out.
As they walked, they came across carved wooden totems showing various demonic or animalistic faces, each about the size of a child's head, the wooden posts sunk deeply into the earth so that the faces were about a metre from the ground. At each one, Yani stopped and produced a few leaves from her pouch, reciting lines of verse as the petals were crumbled and scattered over the faces, blowing across the slope in the slight breeze. This set the tone for the next hour, as they slowly ambled along the path, talking about the Shinto shrine here, and Yani's role as the priestess responsible for its upkeep.
Down at the base of the volcano, Isarroko had nodded his acceptance of Shimazu's oath, and then had fallen silent. Rooting around in the back of the forge, he came back with a billet of steel, a solid block that probably weighed a few kilos. Working the bellows for a few moments, he stoked the forge up and bought the temperature up, then grabbed some long-handled tongs and thrust the steel into the fire, working it down right into the heart of the flame and watching it start to heat up.
Shimazu, Tads and Vadim watched him, content to sit in silence and observe the master at his work as he poked at the steel and worked the bellows, carefully watching the glowing billet as it worked up from the grey colour of cold metal through a dull red and into a bright yellow mass. At some point he appeared happy, and he retrieved the steel, swiftly bringing it over to the anvil and then raining down a flurry of blows with a hefty hammer, beating the metal into shape. He'd lengthened the steel to three times it's length, and a third of its original height until the cooling metal made it too tough to work and it was returned to the forge to heat back up. He watched the metal carefully, but then called out to Shimazu as he waited.
"So. You follow the old ways, or at least some of them. If you were to choose a path to walk, would it be that of the Samurai, or the Ronin?" He adjusted the metal, raking up the forge around the primitive sword blank, ensuring it was evenly heated, waiting for Shimazu's reply patiently, without even so much as a glance to him.
"That's an interesting question." Shimazu took a breath, then paused and thought about his words carefully. "Interesting, and quite difficult for me to make a decision. There are merits to both paths, and neither path is without flaws. But, I believe that I would walk the path of the Ronin." He paused again and scratched at the side of his head absentmindedly as he thought about what he'd said. "Yes, the path of the Ronin – holding yourself accountable for your actions, rather than a lord or master. In the eyes of many, it may bring less honour, or be without honour – but that is only from a certain point of view. I believe however that honour comes from within, and only the sense of worth you have for yourself truly has value. We have travelled a significant distance since we became a team, in a short amount of time – but in that time I have learnt much. Seen much. And in that time I have learnt that the greatest honour is that which you can bring to yourself, by protecting your friends and family, defeating evil and staying true to your own values."
Tads blinked and stared at Shimazu – amazed at the passion and depth to his voice. Normally he was by far the quietest member of the team, watching and listening – but when he was given the right subject, he became very engaged.
"Will you tell me of your clan, your people?" Isarroko asked.
"My clan is the Toyohisa. Our lineage is traced back to the fourteenth century, and we were from the Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, where we commanded Sadowara Castle…" Shimazu explained the history of his clan, detailing ancient conflicts and battles, service to ancient lords and emperors, acts of heroism, defiant last stands and betrayals that caused feuds that lasted for generations. Isarroko listened for a while, and then asked Shimazu to sketch out his clan symbol on a piece of light-coloured slate using a stick of charcoal.
Studying the resultant picture, he grabbed a fresh billet of material, and plunged it into the coals, then started to slowly work the bellows as he heated the forge up, waving for Shimazu to continue his tale. The tale wound on, Shimazu describing how his clan had slowly become mutated, becoming known as the providers of bodyguards of the highest quality, mercenaries of a kind. Sought after by the high-ranking leaders of other clans, their bodyguards were known for their loyalty, honour and integrity.
"Of course, while we take pride in the quality of the service that we provide, we sometimes find the choice of people who have engaged our service leaves something to be desired, or we find their true qualities in the course of our service. Often we find that we provide a service to those that we consider without honour – but we have given our word to provide that service, and we would not lose our honour, as a response to them losing theirs. But, there is little honour to be gained in guarding someone with no honour. And that… that is why I am not with my clan, but here."
While he'd been talking, Isarroko had been working on the metal, bringing it out to hammer upon it, shape and fold it and then plunge it back into the furnace. Over the course of the hour that Shimazu spent describing his clan history, the blacksmith produced a finely wrought version of the Toyohisa clan markings. It was the size of a belt buckle, solid and weighty, but with neat workmanship and intricate construction with various layers of metal threaded under and over each other to form the complex shapes, hammered and annealed down into a single device.
With a final check of his work, Isarroko plunged the symbol into the quenching trough and watched as a cloud of steam emerged from the bubbles. He chanted a prayer as the symbol was moved around the trough, while Shimazu, Tads and Vadim looked on, before finally pulling out the now cool metal and burnishing it with a stiff wire brush, and turning to present it towards Shimazu.
"For you, master Ronin."
"Ahh, let me get Kai so we can pay for your work."
"No, it is a gift for you." Shimazu refused to take it, with Isarroko insisting three times, Shimazu only accepting the piece on the third offer, and accepting it with both hands and a respectful bow.
"Thank you. It's a beautiful piece of work." He turned it over in his hands, examining the piece carefully and saw that two pieces of flatter metal on the rear had been hammered over into loops, allowing it to be threaded onto a small chain or some thonging, so it could be worn as a necklace or medallion, or hung from a cloak or cape as a medallion.
"I would like to go somewhere quiet if I may, and meditate with this? To appreciate the gift you have given me?" Isarroko nodded, and pointed out a path that wound around the house and to the edge of the quarry, describing a large boulder that gave a commanding view over the surrounding area.
"I'm going to go and get a little more sleep, I think. If we are flying on tonight, I suspect we're going to need some spirits and spells, so I should be sharp." Tads excused herself and headed back to the tilt-wing, pulling out a pile of blankets to make a nest for herself and curling up in a tight ball.
"Sir, may I watch you work a little more? I find it most interesting." Vadim politely asked Isarroko. The master blacksmith nodded, and beckoned for Vadim to come closer as he gathered the sword blank he'd been working on and some fresh supplies, then started to heat the forge back up.
For the next few hours Isarroko explained the basics to Vadim, giving him rudimentary instructions on how to craft metal and bend it to his will, demonstrating techniques as he continued to form the basis for a sword from raw metal. As the time marched on towards the middle of the day, he called a halt to the demonstration, asking Vadim to go and fetch Shimazu – or at least let him know that Isarroko needed to go and take part in further rituals up at the shrine, and that he – and the rest of the team – were welcome to accompany him.
When Shimazu had been told and had returned to the craft, a quick discussion took place – Vadim agreeing to stand watch and let Aswon grab a few hours of sleep, while Tads, Hunter and Marius all just rolled over and indicated their desire to sleep more whilst it was quiet, cool and calm. Shimazu wondered if they really did just want to sleep, couldn't be bothered with the religion and rites, or didn't want to get in the way while he did his thing. Not that it mattered – he motioned for Isarroko to precede him up the trail, falling into step naturally one pace behind and one pace to the right of him as they started the climb.
Kai had been accompanying Yani for several hours by now, and had seen her carry out the rites over an extended period. He was pretty much convinced now that the various acts and chants she was carrying out were magical in nature, passed down from master to apprentice and no doubt practiced until perfect. Yani had no magical talent, but Kai was very curious now to know what would have happened if she did. He was certain that there would be some kind of effect if carried out by a magically-active being – he just had no idea what. He'd also asked her why she had been so adamant about not leaving the token on the hill earlier. She'd spent some considerable time explaining the theory of Yin and Yang to him, explaining about balance and how they had swept the sides of the volcano – quite literally – to remove foreign contaminants and to restore the balance to the mountain, which the spirits had reported to be in dire peril. During the discussion, she'd revealed that she'd been the priestess her for five years, but had worked under the previous high-priestess for forty years before that, learning the ceremonies and ways of the priesthood. Kai didn't enquire as to her age, but by his estimates that meant she'd been training since she was a young girl.
She was easy to talk to, knowledgeable about her religion, engaging and respectful, and Kai found himself being drawn into her discussion, finding out much more than he'd originally thought about the shrine and the history of the area. As they finished their rites around the summit and found themselves back at the shrine, they spied Shimazu and Isarroko arriving from the path leading down to the car park on one side, and a large delegation of local people on the other. Kai took a step back and let Yani greet the people waiting, watching as she moved easily from one group to another, welcoming them and moving on to the next. As he looked around he spied several carts of supplies that had been bought up, along with what looked like a large bar-b-que pit on a trailer.
After Yani had finished her introductions, she moved to the shrine and the people fell in around her, forming a loose arc at a respectful distance. She sang out another prayer, lighting a number of large candles as she did so, placing them at very precise locations on the shrine. Isarroko was standing off to the side and limbering up, moving through some katas or sword drills that stretched his arms and torso out, waiting patiently for his part in the ritual. After a few minutes, the cadence of the chanting changed, and Yani started to sing about the shrine and its history, calling out events of ancient times and weaving a story the called out several virtues and vices. As each part of the story deal with a specific vice, Isarroko sliced down swiftly with his sword, a blinding flash of steel so precise that he appeared to cut the flame from the candle, leaving just a whisp of smoke behind.
He had completed about half, and they had reached a pause in the story, Yani laying out tea cups and other items as she continued to chant, and Kai watched as Isarroko looked over at Shimazu and raised an eyebrow at him, then flicked his gaze down at the flames and back quickly. Never one to pass up a challenge to his prowess, Shimazu bowed and then padded over to the shrine and stood ready, while Isarroko moved slightly to the side, carefully placing the sword into his belt. As Yani continued the ritual, Isarroko pointed out the next candle in the sequence and waited with a raised hand, slashing it downwards to signal to Shimazu when it was time to strike. Kai was unsurprised to see the metre-long blade almost teleport into his hand and slash out with all the speed of a viper, neatly slicing through the flame and leaving a guttering spurt of smoke behind, the blade being recovered to a ready position ready to strike again while his vision was still catching up with the strike. Isarroko nodded in satisfaction, and pointed to the next candle in sequence, waiting patiently again for Yani to reach the appropriate point in her tale.
When all the candles had been extinguished and the ceremony was completed, the group all bowed deeply to the shrine, Kai and Shimazu joining them in paying their respects. A small ripple seemed to flow through the crowd, some unseen signal or experience of how these things went, and they broke up into smaller groups, laughing, smiling and talking amongst themselves. Several of them went to the supplies and started work, pulling out food and drink, trestle tables and other supplies, while a pair of men set to work on the BBQ, mounting a whole sheep carcass on the spit and lighting the charcoal in the pit underneath it. Neither Kai nor Shimazu were cooks, but they'd seen the tribe back on the steppes preparing the cow they'd bought as a gift, and if that was anything to go by, the animal wouldn't be cooked until dusk, which meant that the rituals were probably going to last until at least then.
Sure enough, once a bunch of the preparations were complete, Yani signalled to the crowd, and they once more fell in around her. They repeated the walk around the mountain, paying their respects to the totems laid out around the path, but this time in a much larger group with more people having parts to play in the rites.
The rest of the team started to stir around late afternoon, dealing with their personal hygiene, getting something to eat and drink and then doing a little maintenance on their gear or having a small run around the edge of the quarry. They could hear the conversation between Kai and Shimazu over their comms, not that the fragments of discussion made much sense without the context of what they were seeing – but it reassured them that everything was ok up the hill.
At dusk, the rites appeared to be drawing to a conclusion, and once more everyone gathered at the main shrine – Yani and Isarroko, the horde of locals in an arc around them, and both Kai and Shimazu standing just off to one side. More candles were lit, incense burned and calls to the ancestors and spirits of the lands were made. Cups of warmed sake were deliberately poured over the earth or flung into the air around the shrine, while tiny slivers of meat were burnt over a candle flame, the smoke being wafted into the night air. The chanting reached a crescendo and then Yani fell silent, the dedication complete. After a moment of silence, the crowd broke out into smiles and a smattering of polite applause rippled through the crowd. With the rite completed, they relaxed, and the ceremony turned into a party – food and drink being served and some orchestral music being piped out from a hidden speaker somewhere. Yani approached Kai and Shimazu, smiling at them, with Isarroko just behind her.
"Thank you for your patience and understanding. The rites are complete, the ancestors honoured and all is in balance. I still do not understand what you are leaving here, but feel free to do so, Kai."
"No, High Priestess, thank you. You have been very gracious to us, and we are indebted to you. I would like to know if we would be welcome to return here, when we come back this way."
"You have been respectful of our ways, taken part in our ceremony and have done all that we asked. Yes, you are welcome to return."
"Thank you – that means a lot to us. To both of us. Now, I suspect you have no need of our services, but here is my card." He dug into his pocket and passed over the slip of plastic with their sat-phone number and matrix address embossed upon it. "We do deliveries, mostly of small things. But we can also do retrievals or recoveries. Say if you needed some artefact that had been found returning to your shrine, or some rare materials for your blacksmithing." Yani took the card carefully, but looked at him somewhat blankly. To Shimazu's eyes she looked to be out of her depth, not quite sure what was being offered here and feeling very much out of her comfort zone. He decided to step in and break the silence, turning to Isarroko.
"Master Rakkashima. You can reach me with the same contact details, should you have any needs or requirements. I would be honoured to try and assist you with any problems you may have, or to provide materials for you for crafting future weapons. And of course, should something happen to me, I will ask the team to honour our discussion." Isarroko nodded at him, his face emotionless and composed, not revealing his feelings at all. "Additionally, I thank you again for your generous gift…" he placed his hand over the pocket containing the clan symbol "and will do my best to bring it honour and respect. Perhaps one day I could return and learn some of the skills you have mastered, and preserve them for years to come." There was a flicker of movement in the corner of Isarroko's eyes as Shimazu effectively asked or offered to apprentice himself to the swordsmith. After a moment of consideration, he responded quietly.
"When you return, with tales of honour and duty. When you can tell me of the respect you have bought to your name and the sword you bear. When you appear before me again with tales of your deeds and legends, we will discuss this and I will consider your petition." Now it was Shimazu's turn to nod, but his bow extended further and deeper, bending respectfully from the waist and he held the bow low for a few seconds before standing again.
"Now, please excuse us. Though the rites are completed, we must go and speak with the local people – if only to satisfy their curiosity about who you are!"
"Of course, Yani. That sounds like our cue to leave, Shimazu. Let's head down to the car-park and plant the token back where we'd originally planned to place it, then we'll head down to our craft and take our leave. Thank you again, both of you."
They parted ways, planting the small yin-yang token in the hole in the rockery bordering the north side of the car park before heading down to the base of the hill, and joining the rest of the team. They'd heard the conversation, and were ready to depart – the engines starting up no more than a few seconds after Shimazu and Kai were aboard, and within a few minutes they were lifting off and turning slowly to the north west, heading back out over the bay and avoiding the city.
Once over the bay, Marius engaged the electronic deception measures, Tads asked a spirit to conceal them and they slipped down to wave height for a minute, losing themselves amongst the ground clutter and changing direction. Cutting between the city of Toyohashi and Takahana, they headed inland through the least-populated area and were soon flying up narrow valleys, twisting and turning around the peaks and volcanic landscape that made up so much of Japan.
They flew north east until they were level with Nagano, then slowly started bending a course northwards, aiming to fly around the city and stay as far away from Tokyo as possible, eventually turning back eastwards as they started to close on the shore – all the information they had was that the majority of sensors covered the approaches to the islands, not the islands themselves, so if they stayed inland they should have far less chance of being discovered.
Passing between Niigata and Fukushima, they continued heading northwards, a nearly silent patch of dark sky flitting between mountains, occasionally roaring low over a road to disappear into the next valley over, staying over the rougher terrain that was mostly lightly populated. After eight hundred and five kilometres they approached Aomori, nearly at the northern edge of the main island of Japan, and Marius dropped down until he was flying only two hundred metres above the ground, electronic sensors questing for obstacles ahead of them while the craft constantly made micro adjustments to its course. There was a quick dash across Mutsu Bay, then a narrow isthmus near the town of Mutsu itself, before they reached open water for the crossing to Hokkaido.
Marius felt something…a twitch, a slight niggle on one of his sensors. If he'd been in his meat body, it would have felt like a breath on the back of his neck, setting the hairs a-tingle and a shiver down his spine. As it was, he didn't know what he'd seen, but he reacted on instinct, tipping the tilt-wing hard to port and going to full power as he pulled up on the mental joystick, rising sharply with the engines growling as he dumped fuel into the compressors. A moment later, a powerful radar pulse lashed at the craft as the helicopter off to their starboard side fired up her systems and tried to paint him with a fire-control solution. They were only a few kilometres away, and the radar system was powerful enough to smash through the basic electronic counter-measures installed on their bird, setting his sensors aflame as they recorded values well over the detection threshold required to firmly identify their position.
"Achtung! Enemy helicopter, zero eight zero, range five, active radar. They have us!" A moment later he detected a burst of encrypted radio traffic from the chopper, and over to the west a second chopper appeared out of the darkness. He had no idea why they were lying in wait, covered by emissions control with their systems either turned off or powered down to a point where there was no electronic noise to detect them. Just waiting, like an attack dog lying in long grass – silent, patient and now leaping to attack. "Target Bravo – chopper, two seven niner, range seven, active radar! Tads, we need to disappear – NOW!"
Tads made a snap judgement and threw mana into the spell, holding back what she considered the bare minimum to try and shield her from the inevitable backlash. The tone of voice and the sudden violent manoeuvres told her that Marius was concerned, and that was enough to let her know they were in trouble. The trid-phantasm spell manifested around them, and their form was replaced with a patch of empty sky, just a nebulous black blob in the night. The backlash hit her, a sharp pain between the eyes, and she felt a tingle in her nose as a few blood vessels let go, releasing a small trickle of fluids. She concentrated, ignoring the sensation – she'd had worse, and she looked at the screens mounted at the front of the bulkhead to try and work out what was going on.
A third radar lit up, this one ahead and below them, as a surface warship powered up their systems. Alerted by the helicopter crew, the powerful Mitsuhama Sāchiraito KJ-12 radar threw half a million watts of energy down a ten degree cone, setting every warning system on the craft off. Marius winced in simulated pain as he struggled to tone down the input from the sensors, and almost blinded he reversed his course sharply and headed for the deck. If he stayed up high, there was no escape from a radar that powerful – he had to get below the horizon from them or get lost in the surface effect.
In the seat next to him, Hunter fired up the electronic warfare suite, rapidly entering the commands to begin a pre-packed deception program. He doubted it was going to have much effect on them – not this close and being lit up so strongly, but he figured it wouldn't hurt and if it threw off even one of their pursuers, that had to be worth it.
In the back, everyone grabbed their seatbelts or the handles next to their seats as they reefed into a tight turn, Marius performing a rolling S as he tracked back and forth across his base course. He'd managed to throw off the radar lock from the first chopper with the aggressive move, and even better, had positioned himself so that it was between him and the surface craft. The second chopper was off to their flank though, boring in fast and with his broadside towards them, giving them a nice big target to spot.
"Computers think that's a Hyuga class destroyer down there, helicopter carrier, guided missiles. Um… oh shit." Hunter fell silent for a moment as he scanned the very limited information the computer was offering him as it classified the target. "Thirty knots speed so we can out run it, no problem, but sixteen missile launchers, close-in miniguns and a hanger for several choppers. Fuchi CH101 attack choppers, missile armed with door guns. Or Mitsubishi CH60 sea defence, armed with 533mm air-dropped torpedo systems."
The first chopper that had spotted them tried to bank around and reacquire them, climbing higher in a tight spiral. Marius echoed the movement, keeping them between the destroyer and himself, robbing the warship of a clear line of sight, even though it meant climbing sharply. The second chopper continued to head in their way, radar and sensors lashing at their side with more warnings cluttering the cockpit as they transitioned from search mode to fire-control mode.
"Target bravo getting ready to fire!"
"How about I move the illusion, turn it into a dragon to aim at them?"
"No Tads! There's not been sign of a dragon up to now, that's not believable. Something mundane!" Aswon called out quickly.
"Tads, make it look like a chopper, and send it to ram target bravo. They need to break off!"
Tads concentrated on the spell, morphing the patch of empty space into a duplicate of the old MI-6 chopper and then sent it off towards their left. As far as she could see, that was where the enemy was, though it was hard to tell with Marius throwing them so violently from side to side. She gritted her teeth and concentrated as she felt the spell trying to slip away from her, resisting her control as she was thrown back and forth against the harness, shaking her concentration.
The bravo chopper saw the MI-6 chopper appear in the night sky before them, a small blur at first but rapidly growing and becoming huge as it bore down upon them. It headed directly towards them, closing at a combined speed of eight hundred kilometres per hour, a deadly game of chicken. The pilot of the Japanese chopper threw the stick hard over and cut power, dropping rapidly out of the way as he spun around to bring himself up and behind the target, turning his nose away from the tilt-wing towards the more obvious threat. The surface based radar also slewed around, following the illusion and then questing back and forth as it faded away into the night as Tads recalled the spell and wrapped it back around them.
While target Bravo and Charlie had been fooled, Alpha – the first chopper they'd detected – had broken out of the spiral and was now giving chase, reacquiring the tilt-wing with a solid radar paint that once more sent alarms into a sea of red lights and howls. The speakers rang out as a call came in over the radio, on the general guard channel.
"Unidentified target. Cease manoeuvres and cut speed or you will be fired upon. There will not be a further warning!"
"Alpha is on our tail and closing fast – I cannot shake him."
"He's seen through the illusion then… all I have left is the spirits!"
"If we attack with magic directly, we cross a line of engagement! That is a definitely hostile act!"
"I know, Aswon, but what choice do we have. Sending the spirits to jinx the chopper behind us!"
Tads grabbed the headset and pulled it down over her eyes, squinting as she flicked into astral space and tried to ignore the mild headache and effort of sustaining the illusion spell. Calling the spirits she had summoned at dusk to her, she let the astral image of the chopper fill her mind, glancing at the low force ward that surrounded it.
"Go get that chopper, get through the ward. Then land on the nose if you can and manifest. Create a distraction, do a dance. Scream at them. Just buy us a few seconds." The spirits accepted her request and sliced through her ward, heading towards the chopper and slamming into the protective ward surrounding it. The first spirit didn't manage to stop its movement in time and physically impacted on the ward, pretty much destroying itself but taking the ward down for a moment, allowing the rest of the pack through who appeared over the front of the nose, gibbering and waving, distracting the pilot and clogging the view from the sensors. They couldn't really harm the craft – they weren't powerful enough for that, and they also knew that wasn't Tads' intention. Distract and annoy, but not damage.
They did the job though, the leering faces of manifest earth gnomes filling the sensor feeds, hands plucking at the windscreen wipers and flipping them back and forth, and one spirited gnome trying to unscrew the warhead from the missile body suspended under the port wing. It was enough to make the pilot freak out, and pull the bird around into a tight turn, trying to dislodge the gremlins that had suddenly appeared on his chopper, and in the process he lost lock on the tilt-wing.
Kai had unbuckled himself from his seat and was heading towards one of the door guns, convinced that they were going to need to take some kind of action against the pursuing enemies to shake them. Moving carefully from one handhold to the next he was about halfway across the cabin when the spirits distracted Alpha and broke the lock. As soon as Marius detected that, he chopped power to both engines and threw the rudder over hard while twisting the controls to induce a spin. The tilt wing rolled up onto one wing, stalled and then plummeted down towards the ocean in a tight corkscrew.
Everyone felt their stomachs rise as the unexpected manoeuvre caught them off guard, that strange feeling as their chest contracted to the unnatural flow of fluids in their digestive system. That was the least of Kai's worries, though – as they dropped like a stone, he experienced a few moments of weightlessness, his feet rising up into the air leaving only his hands to hold him in position. As the spiral tightened he was twisted until he was almost standing on the side wall of the fuselage, arms straining to hold position.
A scant twenty metres from the water, Marius threw power to the engines at the perfect moment, powering them up and breaking out from the spin that looked more like a crash. He was so low now that he was flying below the crest of a wave to either side of him, and he had to kick the rudder to crab sideways and stay in the trough, water rising up on either side of him. But – to the craft behind him, he just abruptly disappeared from their screens and visual scans, lost against the dark waters of the seas. Tads adjusted the illusion again, generating an image of a series of waves behind them, and checked that the spirit was still concealing them. The tilt-wing gave the occasional shudder as they got a little too close to the water, spray or wave barely clipping a wing tip or part of the fuselage, but Marius was well in the zone, perfectly in tune with his metallic body and rode the very edge of performance as they streaked away from the encounter at five hundred kilometres per hour. At least over the water, the occasional slightly higher wave was all he needed to watch out for – there weren't any pylons or radio masts.
Hands grabbed at Kai to help him up from where he'd fallen to the deck as Marius broke out of the spin, dragging him back to his seat and strapping him in. He didn't appear to be wounded, just slightly stunned from having the breath dashed out of him as he was slammed into the floor.
"Hang tight, crossing land."
They felt the craft tilt up, and they shot across the twelve kilometres of land east of Mutsu before dropping down again towards the sea – but nowhere near as close as they had been before. With the land mass behind them, there was no way they could be spotted by the destroyer's radar now, which left only the two choppers to worry about. If they pursued them, it would require more evasive techniques to throw them – but they would at least see them coming. They crossed the hundred and thirty kilometres of open water without any sign of pursuit though and approached the island of Hokkaido.
"What are we looking at here, Hunter?" Kai asked, now that he'd gotten his breath back.
"Tokachidake volcano, active but quiet, no reported activity for some time. Peak is at eighteen hundred and twenty metres, so pretty high, and we don't have a lot of room above it based on the flight ceiling, but it's enough that we can just fly right over if we need to. I've got some basic maps, and it looks like there are a couple of walking trails that go right up to the top, so its not that rough in terms of terrain. Popular with walkers it seems – I've got multiple car parks and camping sites down at the lower levels, scattered around."
"So we need to be careful with placement to make sure a random person doesn't spot it easily walking by," Aswon murmured.
"There is a spot we can land at, right near the peak. It's likely to have a lot of gravel and loose rock – the top is pretty bare. Lower down though it's heavily wooded and the slopes are covered in lush vegetation, so it should be pretty easy to hide stuff."
"With the situation we had earlier, I do not wish to land at the peak. We will be too exposed, and have very few options for escape if something happens. I would want to land lower down, even if that means a walk for someone to get within range."
"Fair enough, Marius. Say – Tads. Are you feeling up to a levitate spell?" Aswon glanced around at the others, then peered forwards towards the cockpit. "Say if Hunter and I get strapped together, can you lower us out of the ramp and down towards the summit as we over-fly it. We can work down the mountain then and look for a good spot, while you come down to land. We'll radio as soon as we're on the ground and you can drop the spell, and once we've done the job, we can just run down the rest of the way. I think we're going to be the fastest to do that?"
"It should be ok. Difficult to lift that much weight with the power of the spell I have, but it won't matter if you're not moving quickly, right. As long as I can get you down to the ground without injury, it doesn't matter how fast you move horizontally?"
"Yup – sounds perfect in fact."
"Ok, that sounds like a plan. This should be a nice simple one… Hunter, how long have we got from here to the next smuggler base?"
"Twin peaks is six thirty-five klicks away, so about ninety minutes I'd say."
"Great, I'll get on to them next then and make sure we're cleared to approach. Patch me through, will you?"
Hunter fired up his deck, linking the communications system through to the sat-phone, adding a few extra hops and scrambles along the way, then called up the matrix address they'd been given for the Twin Peaks stop, patching the audio response through to Kai.
"Twin Peaks? We've got your details from a fellow crew of moving specialists. We're the er…. New Fish. Looking to come for a visit and to refuel, we're about ninety to one hundred twenty minutes out. Just wanted to check in and make sure we had landing clearance."
"Yeah, you can come. Air or sea?"
"We're arriving by air."
"How big are you?" Kai swallowed the urge to respond with a flippant comment, and waited a moment, knowing that either Hunter or Marius would ping the information over to him.
"We're about fifteen thousand kilos." Kai responded as he read the text message from Hunter.
"Oh right, no problem then. Yeah, come in from the south east, you'll spot the platform. Do you have goods for sale?"
"Negative, we're flying light. We may be available for work though, if the terms are right."
"Roger. Twin Peaks out."
They flew onwards, Aswon grabbing the headset and scanning the terrain around them for signs of any astral presences or signs of metahumans out in unusual numbers that would complicate their plans – but all seemed quiet and calm as they flew over the rising terrain heading towards the centre of the large island. There was an edge to the mana, a strong taint that he could detect, but on examination it appeared to be natural, not twisted. Probably an expression of the ancient and rugged mountains and the creatures that lived there. It felt a little like some of the areas back in his tribal lands, places that reflected their beliefs and practices, built up over centuries of worship or just people living to a code of ethics and morals.
Nearing the peak, he relinquished the headset to Shimazu, and moved to the doors to stand next to Hunter. With a little fiddling they got themselves strapped together, Hunter grunting as he lifted himself up off the deck, biceps bulging as he held both their weight – but the strapping held firm, Aswon dangling freely from the back straps and leaving Hunter's hands free to hold his rifle.
"Ok Tads, ready when you are." She nodded at them and then cast her spell, grunting a little with the 'effort' to lift their combined weight. It was no physical effort of course, the noise being psycho-somatic, but it helped her focus, and a moment later Hunter lifted up into the air – just enough to float around a little until the slack in the connection was taken up.
"Coming up on drop point, thirty seconds." Marius called. They felt the craft slowing and dropping a little, then banking as he arced around the landing site a little to confirm it was empty and safe to approach.
"Marius – down the bottom of the mountain. Um… to the east. There's a structure, just by what looks like a car park. Looks like a really good place to land. We should head down there after we drop the guys off."
"Very well." It was a bit unusual to hear Shimazu asking them to land somewhere in particular, but it did make sense to find somewhere relatively flat and empty to put down in. They banked again, then the door slid open under Marius's control as they crossed the peak of the volcano. Wind whipped through the door, and a handful of loose items flew about before they could be secured. Hunter and Aswon waddled forwards, then with a barely noticeable shudder, stepped out of the doorway into the air, hovering for a moment before they started to sink. Tads moved up behind them and clipped her belt to the safety point by the side of the door, watching the pair carefully and slowly lowering them down towards the ground.
Robbed of their forward motion, the linked pair descended gently, just the rush of the wind over the top of the volcano providing any indication of their speed. Hunter had his rifle in hand and scanned left to right, ready to engage any target he might spot, while behind him Aswon held his spear tightly, trying to keep it out of the way but ready to fend off any magical assault. As he looked around him, he spotted a flash of astral motion down below, at the treeline.
A glowing green shape appeared, melding directly out of the tree and striding forwards with impossible speed. Clad in archaic armour and wielding a translucent blade made of green ichor, the ghost slid across the terrain towards their projected landing spot. To either side of the first, two more appeared, then two more beside them.
"Tads! Lift us up! We've got some kind of Ghost Samurai or something up here, closing on our position. UP!"
"I can't move you that fast, the spell's not very powerful!"
"I don't care about fast, I just care about up! And bring us over to you as well!" Tads concentrated and bought the pair around, bringing them towards her as fast as she could. It wasn't very fast with the low power spell, and the pair diminished in size behind her as they started to head down the slopes towards the landing spot Shimazu had found.
"Marius – slow down, or I'll lose sight of them. And keep us higher as well, or they'll go behind trees!"
"We will be exposed – if we go higher we will be visible for kilometres in every direction. And I can slow to only a certain speed, after which we need to transition to a hover, and we start to consume fuel at an accelerated rate."
"Better that than slam Hunter and Aswon into a tree or a rock, or let them get caught by whatever is up there!" She felt the craft lift and slow – not as much as she'd like, but she'd take whatever Marius would give her. She had to lean out of the doorway now to keep sight of them, the wind grabbing at her hair and clothing and rippling the fabric violently. She didn't have time to pay that any attention though – she was too busy guiding the pair down the mountain as quickly as she could.
"I can't see these ghosts – they're below the treeline now!" Shimazu warned as he manipulated the viewing prism, trying to get a bead on the strange astral manifestations.
Up in the air, Hunter could hear all the communications over the radio, but so far couldn't see anything. There was the occasional faint ripple below him, normally a sign of a powerful spirit or elemental being present in astral space and distorting the world around it a little – but he knew that his rifle would be almost useless against spectres, ghosts or other purely astral entities.
"Sod this for a game." He pulled out the token from his zippered pocket on his combat vest, noted the GPS location and then dropped the stone, tracking it down until it disappeared into the night below him, one dark rock landing amidst the craggy slope.
"I'm seeing at least twenty targets now, maybe as many as thirty – hard to keep track. All astral beings, all look similar – traditional Samurai-style dress. Green and transparent, with facemasks or helmets covering their features. All got their swords drawn, though, so I don't think they're friendly!"
Marius bought them into a very slow arc over the car park, cutting speed until they were just above the stall limit and trying to keep a constant height so Tads wouldn't lose sight of the two team-members, who continued to travel down the slope of the volcano at the speed of a slow jog, floating through the air serenely and steadily, while a horde of ghostly warriors pursued them on the ground below. Aswon wasn't sure why they weren't floating up to engage them - as spirits they were free to move in all three dimensions with equal ease – but he was glad that they couldn't. He might fend off the first one or two with his spear and use the reach of the longer weapon to his advantage, but if a couple of them rushed him all at once, he and Hunter were doomed.
A few minutes later Hunter and Aswon were visible down the wide trail, and Marius could bring them in to land, Shimazu vaulting out of the door before he'd even landed with his sword in hand. As the two figures drifted down towards them, Shimazu faced off against the small army of ghosts, feeling the rest of the team starting to assemble behind him.