Fear The Dawn: Chapter 35

Karma dragged his tired body over the railing and sprawled out on the deck. He had done it. Somehow he had infiltrated their ship, listened in on their meeting, and escaped mostly undetected. Even the Destroyer would have to be impressed with such a bold plan. He allowed himself a moment to catch his breath, lying on the deck and staring up at the stars. He was still soaking wet, but his body had long since gone numb to the cold, for the first time in a while he actually felt pretty good about himself.

Of course, he couldn't afford to rest too long. The other ships were still nearby, and he wasn't sure if he could trust the black-furred woman not to tell the others that he had been there. Karma picked himself off the deck and peered through his spyglass toward the other ships. Unfortunately water must have gotten into it while he was swimming and he could only see a dark brown blob where the ship should have been. He shrugged. It didn't really matter anymore, he had already learned a lot from that woman, and he really didn't think she would tell them, anyway. Somehow, she reminded him of Line, they both had a kind of naive honesty that was too simple to be deceptive.

By now the feeling in his arms and legs was starting to come back, and with it the discomfort of cold, wet fur sticking to his skin, so he went to find a towel to dry off with, then returned to the deck. He took one last look towards the other ships. Somehow, they had managed to find that stranger they were looking for. According to Lace, they found him on the way back after he met up with the orange one. It seemed like everyone he had seen on that ship had been involved in the search, and it had been quite a while since that girl first asked if he was Steven, so he could hardly believe that was just a coincidence. No, there had to be something more significant there, he just had to figure out what it was.

She had told him a few other things, too. Apparently they weren't trying to bring this stranger back to this world, but rather to deliver some sort of message from another stranger. He hadn't really understood the details of the message, but she mentioned that the two strangers had been separated. What force could separate two strangers so completely that they would need someone from this world to deliver the message for them? He wished he had thought to ask about that at the time.

Karma paced back and forth across his deck, trying to puzzle things out, but for the moment the answers eluded him. He wished he knew more about the world the strangers came from. Line was there now, and he had probably been there, too, when he went away, but he couldn't remember anything about it except for that girl with the light-coloured hair. He closed his eyes and tried to pull some more images out of the back of his mind, but right now it was Lace's face he saw instead.
I don't suppose you like me very much...”
What a strange thing to say”, he thought to himself. She claimed that dancing was something strangers did with people they liked. Had she decided she liked him even before they had even spoken to one another? And she didn't change her mind even when she found out who he was?
She's not my problem right now”, he decided, putting her out of his mind. Whatever her issue was, she was safe on that other ship. It was Line who needed his help. He needed to get away from these distractions so he could figure everything out. It was time to get going again. He took one last look towards the other ships, which still had not moved from that spot.

But something else had.
Damn it, she told them!”, he slammed the railing of his ship with his paws. There was someone swimming out there, heading towards his ship. He couldn't tell who it was, and all his spyglass could tell him was that they had orange fur. The orange-furred man he had met before? Or that woman who had threatened him?
I should just leave”, he thought. There was time for him to get away before they would reach his ship. But then he remembered how tired he had been after he swam all that way. There was no way he'd have been able to make it back, if he left them out here now they would drown.
Serves them right”, the Destroyer said, but the memory of Banshee falling off the railing and sinking beneath the waves blocked out his voice. He remembered his promise never to take another life. There was nothing he could do now except let them come. He swore under his breath and took to his favourite hiding spot as the intruded climbed aboard.

You should not have come here!”, he bellowed at the pursuer as they climbed aboard his ship. “This is a place of great sadness and suffering!”
He had hoped they might decide to run and hide somewhere until the sun came up, and then he could sneak them back to their own ship the next morning, but they just looked around to try to find where the voice was coming from. It wasn't a great plan, but he wasn't used to solving his problems peacefully.
The pursuer finally realized to look up to his perch on the sail.
You! You helped me...”. It was the orange-furred man he had met before, thankfully. He closed his eyes for a moment. The height advantage was no longer necessary, so he dropped down from the sail, landing nimbly on his feet.
You should not have come here”, he repeated, looking at the orange-furred man. It was the first time he had seen him conscious in this world. He was shivering terribly, clearly worn out from the trip, but still he exuded an aura of great strength, not just from his body, which was much bulkier and more muscular than Karma's own lithe frame, but his eyes also exuded a certain forceful determination. The Destroyer would have enjoyed the challenge, but Karma was relieved not to have to fight. The man picked up the towel he had used earlier and dried himself with it.
You helped me”, he repeated. “I don't know how, but I know you led me to the people I was looking for. I owe you my thanks.”
That caught Karma off-guard. “You would thank me, after what you went through?”. He almost asked him about the stranger he had been looking for, but he caught himself before he let on that he had infiltrated their party. He was still very surprised that anyone could be thankful for what had happened that night, he certainly wasn't.
It was... terrible, yes”, the man responded. “But somehow, I know it helped. If I must endure such things to help my friends, then I will.”
He understood that better than most, but the orange-furred man couldn't have known that. Karma looked past him to the horizon. “Are those same friends not waiting for you now? Then why are you here?”. The first streaks of light were just starting to show, the sun would be up soon. There would be no time for the man to rest here and then swim back, somehow he was going to have to bring the ship closer.

He still had no idea why the man had come, it didn't seem that he was out for revenge, and they had already succeeded in finding the stranger they had been looking for. Karma could hardly believe he had come all this way just to thank him, though these people did many things that seemed bizarre to him.
The orange-furred man followed him to the helm of his ship. “One is still missing. A woman with brown fur named Lapse. But you knew how to find them. I have to know, too.”
So that was it. He didn't know exactly what they had been up to with Steven, but it seemed that now they shared a common goal. “If I knew, things would be very different. I merely guess and try to remember things long forgotten”. And just “one”? Did they not know Line was missing too, or was he no friend of theirs? He kept quiet about Line.
Well, whatever you did, it worked. We were looking for a specific stranger in the other world, and we found him thanks to you.”
He pretended that he hadn't heard that before. He was close to the other ships now, close enough that anyone looking this way would be able to see him, though that likely didn't matter now. Lace might well have kept that secret, but he didn't expect the orange-furred man would. He brought the ship to a stop.
You should go back”, he said. “This is not where you want to be when the sun comes up.”
You should come with me, there's a place for you here, too.”
No”, he replied. He had already considered the possibility of direct collaboration, but it wasn't feasible. First, he didn't know what their plans were regarding Line, or whether or not they could be fully trusted. He also didn't know what would happen if they found out about his role in past events. If they found Lapse, so much the better, but for now he would continue to work alone.
At least tell me who you are”, the man insisted.
I am Karma. Now go, before it is too late.”
The man jumped off the railing and swam back towards his own ship. Karma quickly brought the ship around, and sailed away as fast as he could, not wanting to deal with any more visitors. The other ships had set off while he had been distracted, though thankfully none were coming his way. He had intended to give some more thought to the information he had learned tonight, but now he was finding himself very tired. It had been a busy night, and right now he just wanted a moment to get his bearings before the sun came up.


The first thing he heard when he came back to his senses was the rustling of the wind through the trees. It was a cold breeze, but very clean, and it carried with it the scent of the forest after a fresh rainfall. For a moment he thought that he was back in the panther's forest, but the feeling of cloth against his skin told him otherwise. He opened his eyes and looked up at the big ball of light in the darkened sky, which bathed the forest below in a pale glow.

Though he had the form of a stranger here, his current appearance was little different from that of the panther. He was clad from head to toe in dark cloth, nearly invisible in these dark surroundings. He stood high above the ground atop a strong tree branch, giving him a clear view of both the sky above and the ground below while allowing him to remain hidden. Apart from the leaves and the big ball of light in the sky, he might well have been back on ship, resting upon his favourite perch.

The tranquillity was soon interrupted by a rustling in the grass. Instinctively, his left hand went to his right sleeve, where he found some small knives had been hidden. He crouched down on his perch, keeping a close watch on the grove below.
Master ninja!”, called a man's voice. Karma's sharp eyes quickly determined the source of the sound, a man with black hair and light skin wearing a long white robe. The man carried a sword at his side, and was clearly searching the grove for him. Karma's fingers twitched restlessly over the blades in his sleeve.
He's no threat”, he reminded himself. “He doesn't know where I am, and even if he did, he could never reach me from there.”
Master ninja!” the man called again. “My lord has need of your services!”
Karma remained silent. After a moment, the man seemed to acknowledge that he could not be found, he just stared straight ahead as he spoke.
My lord has a job that requires your specific talents. Our enemy, the daimyo Tamura, has come into possession of the powerful Phoenix Scroll, which renders his army invincible to mortal weapons. He plans to march upon our lands at sunrise, and we will surely be destroyed. Our only hope of survival is to relieve him of the scroll, but with his invincible guards on patrol we have no hope of storming his temple. Only a ninja could hope to sneak inside and carry out this task.”

Karma watched the man carefully from atop his perch. He was not at all prepared for this, never in as long as he could remember had the strangers come to him for help, and he could not shake the feeling that it was some kind of trick to lure him out into the open.
You will, of course, be handsomely rewarded for your service,” the man added, which only made him more suspicious.
The glanced around a bit, waiting for a few more moments. “I understand your hesitation”, he said, “it is undoubtedly a very dangerous mission. But we have no more time, by the morrow we will be lost. I must go now, my unit will create a distraction at the temple that will allow you to slip inside. I hope you will accept my master's proposal”.
With his message delivered, the man bowed and left the grove. Silently, Karma dropped down to the ground below and ducked behind a nearby tree for cover. He was worried that the wet grass would give him away, but the strange black boots he was wearing were remarkably quiet, emitting only the faintest brushing sound as he moved through the forest, following the man with the sword. They moved quickly, and it was not long before he caught sight of the temple. It was an impressive structure, a tall building of wood and stone, illuminated brilliantly against the night sky by hundreds of lanterns and fire pits. The courtyard was lit up as bright as day by rows and rows of lights sitting atop tall wooden pools, making it impossible for anyone to approach the giant stone doors at the front without being seen.
The man Karma had followed had joined up with perhaps another hundred men, all gathered around the forest's edge, keeping a close eye on the temple grounds. “Will he come?”, he heard one of the men ask.
We can only do our part”, the man from earlier replied. “Is everyone ready?”

There was a great cheer and a clanging of metal from the gathered men, and all together they charged across the courtyard. Almost immediately they were set upon by arrow fire from within the temple, and several of them fell to the ground, but they did not break their charge. As the army came through the middle of the courtyard toward the giant stone doors, they opened partway and two dozen or so armed men emerged to engage them. Though several more had been lost to arrow fire by now, the invaders still outnumbered the guards at least three to one, and it seemed they would easily gain access to the temple. Karma simply watched as the men engaged in battle. He spotted the man who had hailed him earlier, still fighting near the front lines. His sword cleaved into the side of one of the men from inside the temple, and the man went down, only to rise again a moment later as though he had never been struck. He lunged back at the surprised man, grazing his leg and staining his white robe dark red with blood. To his side he saw one of their men stabbed through the chest. He cried out and fell to the ground as the assailant removed his blade. Others had gone down as well, yet the enemy's number had not diminished at all, and any numerical advantage they held was quickly disappearing.

They cannot hold out for long”, he realized. They were fighting bravely, but it appeared the Phoenix Scroll really did have the power that the man had claimed, as no matter how many times they cut into their enemy, they shrugged if off as though their swords were made of wood instead of metal. They were giving their lives to a futile battle solely to create a diversion, and as he watched another man's head be taken clean off he knew he had to do something to stop it.
Unfortunately, the courtyard was so well illuminated and there were so many guards about that he had no chance of getting inside without being seen. He might be able to avoid the arrow fire if he stuck near the wall, as it appeared that it was coming from slots in the stone high above, but there was no way he could get inside without making it past at least a dozen of the immortal guards. He crept up as close to the back wall as he could, travelling along the edge of the forest to the side of the temple, then once his cover ran out he made a mad dash across the courtyard. A few arrows whizzed by, but he was able to reach the wall unharmed. He slowly inched towards the battle raging near the door, drawing as close as he dared while waiting for some kind of opening. His black clothes were working against him now, while they provided cover in the forest they merely made him stand out in the brightly lit courtyard. Taking advantage of a moment's distraction as another one of their men went down, he darted across the battlefield to the body of one of their fallen soldiers, felled by an arrow to the neck. He quickly stripped off the man's mostly untarnished white robe and threw it over his own black clothes and pulled back his hood. Amid the chaos, he looked not unlike the other swordsmen, and he relieved the fallen man of his blade and charged toward the door. He was greeted by one of the temple's guards, who took a great vertical swing towards him with his sword. Karma pivoted to the side and slashed horizontally right towards the man's neck. In any other battle, the man's head would have been completely separated from his body, but here the sword merely rebounded off his neck, and the guard reeled back only slightly, as through he had been struck with a man's hand rather than a blade. Karma seized the opportunity to plant his foot right in the man's stomach, knocking him to the ground. The man who had delivered the message earlier was still fighting, and he took the same approach, knocking his opponent down by tackling him after he knocked the man's sword aside.
We have to break through!”, he shouted to his troops. Karma wasn't sure if the man recognized him or not, but either way several of them struck down the temple defenders and tried to cut past them into the temple. He heard one man scream as the downed guard sliced into his leg with his sword, and Karma took the opportunity to hop over the man he had been fighting earlier. All told, only three of them made it inside the great stone doors.

They were met immediately by two more guards, and the ones who had been fighting outside had already caught onto their strategy and were quickly making their way back inside, trapping them in the middle. One of the men who entered the temple was quickly struck down by a guard, leaving only himself and one other man. Karma quickly tore off his robe and threw it in the face of the guard who was coming at him, briefly blinding him, then immediately cut to the right and hid behind a stone pillar. It was still very well lit on the inside, but with fewer guards and some viable cover he had a chance to hide again. The guards were still after him, but more swordsmen broke through the door and distracted them. They were quickly struck down, and the main force returned to the battle in the courtyard. The guard he had covered with his robe had gotten free, and the two of them were patrolling the room, but they seemed to have accepted that the men who broke into the room likely lay among the dead and went back to guarding the staircase which undoubtedly led to the lord's chambers. Karma's fingers once again reached for the blades stored in his sleeve, but he couldn't get a clear shot without emerging from behind his pillar and giving himself away. Instead, he pulled out one of his knives and threw it towards the other end of the room, where it landed with a loud clank. One of the men went to investigate, but one guard still remained on the stairs. He had no choice but to throw another one to his own end of the room to draw the other guard away. As he approached the pillar, Karma went around the other side and ran for the stairs as quickly as he could. He was sure he would not get away with it, but as he was running he heard the sound of fighting at the entrance. He didn't look back to see what it was, but it created the opportunity he needed to reach the stairs. He bolted up the stairs three at a time until he was out of sight. The stairs led to a second floor, which was not nearly as open as the first floor had been, beyond the staircase were multiple narrow hallways with doors leading to enclosed rooms. He quickly ducked around a corner to avoid a guard and watched carefully as he went by.

He had no way of knowing which room held the scroll, the hallways were mostly barren except for occasional lanterns and there were far too many doors to check them all. He proceeded towards the back, keeping a watchful eye out for any more guards. Twice he had to duck around a corner to slip past one of them, but up here it was not nearly as difficult to get away as it had been earlier, it seemed that they did not expect anyone would get past the forces below. He finally came upon a large room at the back that he was sure had to be the one. Unlike all of the other rooms, a soldier was guarding the door, and its location suggested that something important was stored inside. Karma used the same trick with his knives to lure the man away from the door, and quietly slipped inside.

The moment he opened the door he was nearly blinded by a brilliant flash of white light. It was all he could do to slip inside and close the door behind him.
You have done well to make it this far, Master Ninja”, the leader said. He was a large man, with a bald head and an ordained robe of white and gold. “As you can see, I like my quarters nice and bright, it helps ward off pesky intruders. You have nowhere to run now.”
The daimyo drew his sword, a magnificent long blade. In his other hand, Karma saw that he held a rolled up piece of paper that must have been the Phoenix Scroll. He drew his own blade to defend himself as the man charged and attacked. Despite his size, he was still rather quick, and skilled in the art of swordplay, it was all Karma could do to fend off his assault. He finally found an opening to attack, and he thrust his sword into the man's stomach, but the blade merely bent in his hands, as though he had stabbed a stone instead of a man. The useless sword fell from his hands, revealing a small cut on the daimyo's stomach that couldn't have been more than half an inch deep.
It's useless!”, he laughed. “As long as I hold the Phoenix Scroll I am invincible! Now you will die!”
Karma grabbed a small ball from his waist and threw it to the ground. It exploded and let out a cloud of black smoke, momentarily giving him a chance to escape from the man's attacks. He reached to his sleeve, drew out three of his knives, and threw them towards the large man, whom he could still hear well enough. There was a soft noise of the knives striking the cloth, then they fell to the ground below with a clank.
How many times do I have to tell you? Your pitiful weapons are no more to me than the... haaugh... sting of an... insect...” The man's speech was becoming slower with every word. “What is this...? “sleeping... poiiiison...? It.... can't......”
The smoke cleared, and the daimyo was standing perfectly still, slumped back against the wall with his eyes closed. A moment later the sword dropped from his hand. Karma looked at him for a moment, then carefully pried the scroll from his fingertips. The man didn't react at all, he just stood there, against the wall, breathing loudly.

Karma strode out of the room, scroll in hand. The guard outside tried to attack him, but with the Phoenix Scroll he could do him no harm, and Karma merely knocked him down with a quick strike to the neck. He could hear screaming from below, it seemed that with the scroll no longer in the daimyo's possession, the swordsmen had finally broken through the defending forces and taken control of the first floor. He walked down the stairs to the cheering of what remained of the lord's men. There couldn't have been more than a dozen left.
You've done it!”, said the stranger with black hair whom he had met at the beginning. He had been wounded a few more times since he had last seen him, but he was still walking. “Now, just give me the Phoenix Scroll and victory will be ours!”
You've already won”, Karma noted, keeping the scroll to himself.
This battle has been won, but there will be many more. With the power of the Phoenix Scroll, none shall stand against us! We will conquer this land, and then the lord will reward you for your service with riches beyond your wildest imagination! Now, hand me the scroll, and let us be out of here!”
Karma raised the scroll, but rather than handing it to the man, he instead dipped the end into a nearby lantern, where it quickly burst into a brilliant orange blaze.
I will aid you in the manner I choose”, he said, dropping the scroll to the ground where it was quickly consumed by the flames, leaving nothing behind but a pile of ash. “Your master can keep his gifts”.
Karma smiled to himself and disappeared into the night as the man stood there in stunned silence.

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