Back at the portcullis blocking the way to the vaults, Jethrik fits the disks into the appropriate circular depressions in the wall, matching sun to sun and moon to moon. As soon as both disks are in the iron bars of the portcullis slowly grind down into the ground. Jethrik quickly returns to the rear of the party. Beyond the portcullis the hall winds just a little further to the southwest and they come to a 115’ by 15’ room with walls of smooth stone, spattered with ancient bloodstains and deep, violent gouges. Deep drifts of dust lie on the floor, while two immense stone doors hang open to the southwest, revealing two empty vaults beyond.
Before Toshio, who is in the lead in the narrow winding corridor, can step into the room the dust on the floor swirls into the air, coalescing into an ominous shadowy form that takes on the ghostly image of an old but handsome Tian man. The spirit adopts a defensive posture. His katana held before him menacingly.
Spivey, flying near Toshio, whispers, “ ‘Grandfather waits in the dark, but he knows not who he was…’ that’s what Ameiko said.” Toshio senses the presence of evil in the direction of the spirit but at the same time he recognizes who it is. In Ameiko’s home he had seen a portrait of Rokuro Kaijitsu, Ameiko’s grandfather, and he knows that this is his spirit, warped now by despair and anguish. Is it even possible that any of the man he was might be recalled? The spirit watches, ready to defend the vaults to the death, perhaps not even knowing it has already done so long ago.
“What do you see?” whispers Zeyala.
“Gorum’s Hairy Ball Sack, more ghosts,” Keng grumbles. “This one’s all yours paladin.”
Toshio is saddened by what must have happened to Ameiko’s grandfather to turn him into… this. Nevertheless, Toshio tries to show respect for the man it once was. He kneels, as one would to a daimyo and says in Minkaian, “Lord Kaijitsu, I bring greetings from your granddaughter, Ameiko Kaijitsu. She is in need of help and we believe an item that may restore her is in these vaults. Will you let us pass?” Having spoken, Toshio rises and waits for an answer. Not expecting words to work, he is very much on edge and expecting to be attacked.
The wraith’s eyes bulge and he freezes motionless. He lowers his sword, then says in a mournful voice in Common, “I… know… this… naaaaammmeee…..” A moment later he raises his arms and cries out in anguish, then turns to face Toshio, tears of dust running down his incorporeal cheeks. He says, “Take the Seal away from here – take it to my child – it is no longer safe – and I am no longer worthy of guarding it…” The wraith points to the blank eastern wall and then, with another agonized cry, he flies apart into dust and the presence of evil disappears.
As the apparition fades, Zeyala says to Toshio, “Thank you for releasing Lord Kaijitsu.”
“I didn’t think it would work like that. I thought we were in for a tough fight. But I’m glad if his spirit can finally rest. He was an honorable man in life.”
Keng nods his head vigorously, with a slight smile, his ruddy green color returning and his face showing relief. Like the feeling of relief one gets in a drinking contest gone too far when one is about to vomit explosively and then realizes that moment has passed and you are still able to keep drinking.
Having been pointed out, Jharad is able to find the practically seamless secret door in the eastern wall that opens into a small 5’ square chamber with another secret door on its eastern wall. Past that is a room not quite 10’ square that appears to only be half-excavated – the eastern portion of the room remains a rough cavern wall. Three identical darkwood chests bound with bronze sit against the base of the rough wall.
Toshio goes in as soon as Jharad is clear of the hidden doors.
Jharad stands inside the chamber but close to the door and watches Toshio as he approaches the chests.
Keng stands outside guarding the entrance.
Jethrik also moves out of the vault, not wanting to get caught in any potential trap.
With nothing to distinguish the chests from each other, he opens the middle chest.
Zeyala is curious, but still cautious. She is just inside the portcullis entrance.
With nothing to distinguish the chests from each other, he reaches out to open the middle chest and it pops open as soon as he touches it. Inside is a box roughly 10” in height and about 9” or so wide and long. The box’s top lid is sealed and the top compartment acts as the seal for middle compartment that in turn seals the bottom compartment. The box is covered in red lacquer with a black stylized Tian dragon. No evil radiates from the box. Opening it he finds in the top compartment a stone statuette of a dragon. It is actually a seal with a stylized character on the bottom. As he takes up the seal he collapses and blacks out as it begins to spiritually stamp its mark upon his very soul. The seal’s power, however, radiates outward, not impeded by any barrier or reliant upon mere proximity. Jharad, Keng, Jethrik, and Zeyala all collapse as well.
Each is given the same rapid series of visions. They see an army of terrible fiends – with burning skin, glaring eyes, and sharp tusks, wearing armor and wielding weapons such as would be more familiar in the land of Minkai. They emerge in storm from a vast forest and look out upon the rice paddies, villages, temples, shrines, pagodas, towns, and cities of Minkai. This vision is swiftly followed by another: a young man dressed in royal robes standing over a simple well, a friend at his side. Suddenly they are both standing in the shadow of a giant and indistinct figure. Somehow they know that the young man in the vision is Emperor Shigure of Minkai. He looks up at the giant and his eyes widen in fear. Then he looks for help from his friend, but the friend is now sheathed in a frightening suit of jade armor. The jade warrior draws a katana and strikes down Emperor Shigure, then holds the bloody sword aloft in triumph. A third vision follows, this time a young Tian man handing a beautiful katana to a richly dressed Ulfen man in exchange for a bag of gold. It is Rokuro Kaijitsu as a young man, except that his real name is Amatatsu Tsutoku, the patriarch of one of the five royal families of Minkai – now the last surviving royal family. In the city of Kalsgard in the Land of the Linnorn Kings he sold the legendary katana Suishen to an Ulfen merchant named Fynn Snaevald in order to finance his family’s flight and exile. The katana is actually intelligent and can impart much more knowledge of the Amatatsu family’s legacy if recovered. As this last vision fades they see Ameiko waking from her deep sleep dressed in the finery of an empress. She rises to her feet to find that she is not in some hidden forest camp nor even in a Varisian caravan but had fallen asleep within the arms of a jade throne. Ameiko Kaijitsu is actually Amatatsu Ameiko, the last heir of the Jade Throne, the true empress of Minkai.
As they awaken, Toshio and the others now know what the seal is, what it has done, and what it can do. It is one of the five royal seals of Minkai and represents the Amatatsu family’s divine right to rule the empire of Minkai. Now they too have been invested with the right to rule as adopted scions of the Amatatsu family should anything happen to Ameiko, though they are honor bound to serve and protect her with their lives. Furthermore they realize that the Amatatsu Seal has a daily allotment of five charges that it can use to cast the following spells on an Amatatsu scion: cure serious wounds, remove curse, remove disease or restoration. Each casting takes up 1 daily charge. Alternatively the seal can cast heal on an Amatatsu scion, but doing so expends all 5 charges. Finally, and only at the seal’s discretion, it can cast resurrection on an Amatatsu scion, but doing so renders its spellcasting powers useless for a month.
The Amatatsu Seal itself radiates strong magic, and those with the proper resources can sense this magic across oceans and continents, allowing it to be traced across any distance. Originally meant to allow its rightful owners the ability to track it if stolen, this feature makes it dangerous to remove the seal from its warding box, for as long as the warding box is open, the oni can track it.
One final ward exists on the Amatatsu Seal, confounding attempts to whisk it away from its homeland but also making returning a stolen seal home an arduous task. The Amatatsu Seal can never be transported by teleportation magic or dimensional travel. It cannot be taken from the Material Plane save via special portals blessed by the gods, and those who carry the seal cannot cast or otherwise use teleportation effects.
When Toshio awakens he quickly shuts the seal back into the warding box. Toshio picks up the warding box, planning on delivering it to Ameiko (“Empress Amatatsu” now!). He sits a while, contemplating what they have just learned. “What an opportunity” he whispers, almost to himself.
After another pause, Toshio leaves his contemplation. Looking to Jharad, usually with such sticky fingers, he asks, “Aren’t you going to open the other chests?”
Jharad begins a slight chuckle that quickly grows to a moderate laugh then crescendos into a deep howling guffaw. With tears running down his face it ends quickly, replaced with a wide smile. Eventually he says, “And here I was wondering what I would do with myself for the next few years or decades.”
Keng stands back up a bit shakily. He tries to talk then stops and stares into the room where Toshio is sitting up by the chest. He tries to speak again but the only sound he can make is a croak. He turns to Zeyala and tries to speak a third time, again without success. His mind is spinning and he thinks, ‘Royalty? Me?’ Then he sobers and finally finds his voice, “Paladin! The Empress! We must hurry to her side!”
Jharad takes the seal from Toshio saying, “Let me take this for a moment.” He walks over to Keng and wills it to restore him to his previous power. With a friendly smile he says, “Now maybe you can stop whining so much and be the man I know you to be.”
Keng throws back his arms and bellows, “I am myself!” He then slaps the elf on his back he skips a few steps ahead. “Thank you my friend!”
Jethrik throws stones at Jharad and Keng. “Of course she’s an empress! Hasn’t it been obvious all along? Open the other ones! Maybe we’ll find out Keng is a god!”
Jharad walks back over to the chest on the left. “Quite right Toshio. Quite right. Lets see what there is to see and then return ourselves to our…” He gives another throaty chuckle then finishes, “… to our Empress.” Jharad then tries to open up the chest on the left.
“I don’t suppose there’s a bottle of wine in there…” Jethrik wonders.
“Has this become our fate? Our destiny?” asks Zeyala of no one in particular. Then, snapping back to reality, she adds, “Yes, we must return to Amieko.”
Seeing that Jharad is making no progress with any of the keys he’s collected, Jethrik tries to use his dagger to bust the locks on the other two chests but that the locks are too sturdy.
Keng, frustrated with all the dithering and wasting of time when they need to get back to the Empress who lies vulnerable in the woods, strides over to the chests and says, “By the gods you are a chatty bunch,” and hacks open the locks of the other two chests with his axe.
“Thank you, Keng. You’ll make a fine rogue some day.” Toshio hands the items out to various people so nobody is overloaded, and then says, “Okay, let’s get back to Ameiko” and starts walking out.
Keng takes a moment to swap breastplates, leaving his old one behind. He shrugs his shoulders and flexes his chest to settle it. With a nod of satisfaction he follow the group.
“Keng, my friend, you have found a treasure worthy to be savored by kings and princes!” continuing with some surprise in his voice, “Which, I suppose, Ameiko is the former and we are now the later!! When we get back to the caravan, I will set forth a feast of good ole Gnome cookin’. This whiskey will crown it! We’ll start with my mother’s horseradish soup! Mmmm… That’ll clear your sinuses, my friend. And then, sautéed scotch bonnets. The vinegar really wakes up the spice. Curried chili for an entree, I think. I’ll have to give dessert some thought….”
Keng utters a low rumbling sound like a small avalanche of talus stones, which if you know orcs at all, understand it as a mix of laughter and excitement of things to come. “Gnome, I look forward to your mother’s recipe! And, the fine drink!”
Grabbing his new quiver Jharad claps Toshio and Keng on their backs then says to everyone, “Toshio, lead us back to your… um, the Empress if you would. It is time we leave this castle behind.”
“Let us forth with with all due haste and aclarity!” Jethrik barks. “Off we go, like a herd of turtles in a cloud of cookie dust!”
“Now the Paladin is really going to have performance anxiety,” Keng blurts out impulsively then falls into loud guffaws.
Toshio, in particularly high spirits, refrains from whistling as they go – there may yet be trouble and there’s no reason to draw it to them.
“Wait! Wait!” shouts Spivey buzzing around them all. Kelda also looks like she’s full of questions, esp. after having been handed a new shield from the secret vault. Spivey continues, “What happened to you all! Are you okay? You all just fell to the ground at once and now you’re all fine! And who is this empress you keep talking about? Say, you don’t mean…”
“What! An empress? What empress? And I too want to know what happened to you all,” Kelda adds.
“Ooh,” Jethrik shudders. “Performance anxiety. I had a terrible case once. I had memorized the full track of Callistria’s Loves. You can imagine how that draws a tough audience. Just as my father calls me to the stage, I blanked completely. I think I even forgot how to walk. Thank the gods the musicians played long enough for me to catch a breath. Oh wait… do you mean the other kind? Eww, does that really happen to humans?”
Jethrik puffs out his chest “Secret stuff!” He’s waves off their questions. “Much too important for you!” He laughs. “We were given a vision…”
Jharad hastens to interrupt the overly loquacious gnome, “I would like to wait until we get back to camp so that all questions can be addressed at the same time.”
“And Spivey,” he continues, “Now is the time you should think about what your future holds. I would like it very much if you accompanied me on our journey ahead. My guess is that it will be long and arduous, but rewarding. It is your decision though, one which you should not make lightly.”
Spivey stops buzzing about, hovers for a moment with a thoughtful look on her face and nods. Then resumes flying about.
“You know Jharad. I admire a man who isn’t afraid of sounding like an arrogant jerk.”
Back at the camp, Ameiko is finally awake and drinking some broth. Shalelu watches over her carefully. When she sees Toshio and the rest enter the clearing she blushes and looks away for a moment. Turning back to them she asks, “So you know…”
Jethrik holds up his hand to the others to try to stifle any further response and says simply, “We do.”
Entering camp, Jharad walks over to Shalelu and caresses her back in a silent ‘Hello’ then stand with her as Ameiko speaks.
Carefully Ameiko lays down the bowl of broth and stands up. For a moment it looks as though she is going to break down into tears, but then she composes herself. Her cloak lifts up into the air and falls upon her shoulders, guided by the hands of her invisible servant. She tosses her hair back away from her eyes and in that moment there is not a member of the company who can think of anyone more striking or beautiful. Her face takes on a determination and confidence no one, not even her childhood friend Toshio, has ever seen before.
“Now I know who I am and where I come from. I used to think it didn’t matter. I would forge my own destiny. I didn’t understand the pain of my father, my grandfather, my ancestors. I didn’t know what they had lost. What they had to give up. And they did it all so that the family… our heritage… would not be destroyed. Now I am the last.” She pauses to stare at the earth, and with hands clenched look up into the heavens, and then looks again at her companions. “I only wished to manage a business of my own, but the gods have made me to be an empress. I have a people… a people that need me. They are a people oppressed and exploited, murdered, raped, and enslaved by these oni who govern with fear and terror instead of justice and righteousness! So, those of you who wish to may return to your homes and your own destinies, but I am going on… to Minkai.” She draws her enchanted mithral rapier and holds it aloft continuing in a voice that could command armies, “To save my people. To throw down the oni and whatever other fiends may be their allies. I will take back my name. I am Amatatsu Ameiko! I will take back the throne for the people of Minkai. I am the Empress of the Jade Throne!”
Toshio, nearly in tears himself, steps up to Ameiko. Kneeling as he did with her grandfather, he says “My Empress, I am yours to command, if you will have me. I could not be more proud to serve in such a quest. And I could not be more proud to have such a leader.”
Keng also kneels before her, right fist clenched upon his breast, axe laid at his left side, “I left the Cinderlands on a quest. I knew then not what the quest was. Now I know. I am yours. Command me.”
Zeyala bows before Amieko. “If this is my destiny, I follow it willingly,” she says. “I have already begun to uncover mysteries about myself, my powers, on this journey. I believe that in helping you, those mysteries will continue to unravel. Empress Amieko, I am ready to serve.”
“Six against an empire of supernatural evil?” Jethrik shakes his head “I’m in as long as the wine holds out.”
“Seven,” says Shalelu. “I have had enough of Varisia for a time. I think I would like to see the rest of the world. Empress Ameiko, I will gladly go with you.”
Jharad smiles at the others, “And I will be the eighth. Like Shalelu I have a thirst for travel and will gladly keep you all as company as I go about it.”
“Huh,” noises Kelda. “I didn’t expect to be rescued by the retainers of an empress, or empress-to-be, from a land on the other side of the world. I hope you will not take it amiss your ladyship if I decline to go with you. We haven’t really even been properly introduced and I my only wish now is to be home.”
Keng looks at Kelda for a long time, and then shakes his head thinking, “Too bad. She was good with a blade.”
Jharad looks over to Spivey, “And how about you? Had time to think it over yet? As said before I would be very happy to have you join me and this journey of ours would certainly benefit from one with your skills.”
Jethrik says to her, “Spivey, I’ve only just met you. So I am not in any position to know what you should do or what your calling should be. I’m not terribly spiritual, but I believe in the Dream as did the people who died in this castle. They believed in the Dream also, but the darkness stole over them. They are beyond our aid now. This place was once sacred to Desna and I can see why it should be protected. But the people who came here left a land that is now fighting darkness. We hope to give them a better Dream for the future. You could bring forth that Dream with us. We need your help and we greatly enjoy your friendship.”
Spivey shrugs and smiles. “After Ameiko’s speech, and all you have done and all it seems you plan on doing, how can I refuse? Besides, there is nothing more for me to do here. You’ve cleaned out the place and it is time to leave the dead for the dead and help the living.”
With a wide smile Jharad says, “I am so very happy to hear that Spivey. I look forward to our travels together.”
Toshio offers Ameiko the warding box containing the Amatatsu Seal. “You did get the part about keeping it in the warding box except in dire need, didn’t you?”
Taking it from Toshio with both hands, Ameiko raises it up for a moment to her forehead in a gesture of reverence. “Yes, we must be very careful with this and only use its powers in dire need.” She carefully puts it away in her pack.
“Now that the oaths have been taken, it’s time to toast them!” Jethrik runs around the camp gathering cups, bowls and anything else that would be useful.
Noting what Jethric is looking for, Jharad prestidigitates up several rough whiskey glasses for them to use.
Jethrik pours out shots of whiskey for all around. “To life, health and dreams!”