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Following Ikeda Akimitsu's wedding, the samurai must decide which route to take to Kitsune Mori. Decisions are made, and regret follows close on their heels.
CAST, CREW, & CREDITS
Miyu: Amy Felske
And a HUGE thank you to our patrons and beta listeners!
The morning after the wedding, the sky above Shiro Matsu is a clear, flawless blue. Only on the far-off crags of the Spine of the World do clouds gather. The mood of the Ikeda household is high and boisterous, and cherry blossoms blow in soft pink gusts along the garden paths and streets.
The samurai gather their things in preparation for the journey, with some muttered debate over where exactly they’re going. Chizu’s braid must be dealt with, but none of them know what plans Akodo Torokai has in store.
In the aftermath of the exorcism, Shio and Crow are quiet, withdrawn. Neither seem unhappy to be leaving the Matsu lands.
Atsu casts a concerned look at the box in Crow's possession, questioning the urgency of them returning a lock of hair. He seems to eventually make peace with it--it’s best not to question superstition.
Ryojiro reviews his belongings in a quiet but upbeat mood, content to leave the conversation to others this morning. Daiyu dons her sugegasa in a meditative gesture, stilling her face in readiness.
Torokai pauses in brushing his already well-groomed pony as the samurai approach. He bows in greeting, dressed in simpler clothes for travel. Their mounts stand loosely arrayed beside him, already saddled and packed for travel. [booming] “You look well-rested! I’m relieved. I have not heard from Asako-san in some time. I take that as a...positive thing in times like these.”
Crow brightens a little bit when she sees the ponies. She gravitates to hers immediately to stroke its nose, much more interested in petting it than talking.
[Shio, clears throat] “Might I ask if you have a destination in mind, Akodo-sama?”
[Torokai, stifles a laugh] "The last letter I received spoke of investigations across the Empire. Those have been taken by another. I assume, for now, that we are free to travel for several days before word. I am to be expected in Crane lands soon for court, but that is still some weeks."
Atsu makes a face that spells out his every thought on those subjects.
Crow doesn't know what to make of that, or the situation. She eventually halfway turns away from her pony. "We have been asked to return something to Kitsune Mori, if time allows."
Torokai pauses in scratching his pony’s nose and looks at Crow. [laughing] "Kitsune Mori? May I ask at whose request?"
Atsu’s face wrinkles with concern. Crow’s mouth thins, and a long moment passes as she considers how to phrase it. Eventually, she gives an apologetic bow. “...No.”
Shio bows to Torokai, pupils pinning anxiously as she awaits his reaction.
Atsu, covered in a thin sheen of sweat, presses his lips together. A vein stands out in his forehead. He looks like he might explode.
[Crow, uncomfortable] "It is a matter of some privacy.”
Torokai nods, slowly, and returns their bows with surprising respect. "I should not pry on such a request. I only hope that the Fox Clan looks kindly upon our visit." He tightens his saddle one last time, then swings himself atop his mount, testing the reins. He reaches into his kimono and produces a map, flattening it against the pony’s neck.
Atsu shakily pats his pony and wanders away, taking in a great breath before he shouts "ASA DA!" at the sky. Shio jumps nearly a foot in the air, head swiveling. She shoots him an accusing stare and straightens her haori as if to soothe it into submission. Crow breathes a quiet sigh of relief as she mounts up.
Ryojiro stares at Torokai’s back with a grimace. A detour to Kitsune Mori shouldn’t be too much after all the work they’ve put in for this magistrate.
[Torokai] "We have a choice: ride east, through Crane lands, or south, through Scorpion lands."
[Atsu, clears throat] "I thought you said we had a choice?"
[Torokai, loud appreciative laugh] “We are of the same heart, Hida-san."
[Atsu, gravely] “Mm, mm!”
[Crow, chuckling] "East it is, then.”
[Shio] "But the journey is much longer... With a lot more Crane."
[Crow] “ ...On second thought." [sigh] Crow pinches the bridge of her nose. "If you are expected in court soon, Akodo-sama, perhaps it would be best for our trip to the forest to wait."
[Torokai] "If we travel along the road, we will make good time. Court lasts for quite some time, and there is... much to discuss." [sigh]
Atsu's nostrils flare.
[Shio, sighing] "I… suppose Scorpion lands will have to be it, then."
Atsu begins tying more knots into his knapsack. Shio sighs heavily, thinking of the Bayushi at the wedding. Crow sighs heavily, thinking of the Bayushi she slept with once.
Torokai folds the map, nostrils flared, and tries to hide his hesitance. He smiles, nudges his pony forward, and begins down the road toward Beiden Pass. The others follow soon after, falling in behind and beside Torokai respectfully. They offer bows and nods to the city guards as they make their way out of Shiro Matsu.
[Crow, conversationally] "Have you heard any word on Asako-san? Is she well?"
Atsu's eyes grow a little more bloodshot with each mile that brings them closer to Scorpion territory.
[Torokai] "I’ve heard that she is preparing for her first venture into a larger court. Any news of her personally is more difficult to say. I’m sure she is well."
[Torokai, understanding] "Things in the Phoenix lands have been strange, of late. It may explain her silence."
[Crow, frowning] "Strange? In what way?"
[Torokai, considering] "What do you know of the Isawa Mori, Crow-san?"
[Crow, shrugging] "Next to nothing, I'm afraid."
[Atsu, darkly] "I’m afraid too." Atsu doesn't seem to realize that he doesn't understand the context.
Ryojiro leans forward in his saddle to listen more closely, his curiosity plain.
[Torokai, deliberately] "It is said to be a haunted place. Many of the roads are hidden by the kami of the forest, and Isawa reaching their gempukku spend a night alone, meditating. Those young samurai have been disappearing.
[pause, sigh] “Those of the Asako family believe that there is a path to the spirit realms somewhere in the forest. Asako-san has been sending samurai in search of it to see if that is where the young samurai have gone."
[Crow, discomfitted] "How long has this been going on?"
Atsu grunts, still sulking, but his brow knits at the information.
[Torokai, frowning] "For some time, I believe. Asako-san confided it in me, but the scholars do not wish to reveal such a thing publicly."
Crow stalls for a few moments at the path, then pats her pony on the neck to rejoin the rest. "I must admit, I'm surprised she hasn't sent us." [pause] "...Unless that is what you're getting at."
[Torokai, smiling tightly] "I believe she fears getting others involved without the permission of the Asako and Isawa. It is what she has confided in me concerning court. I believe she means to bring their theories to bear, but..." [laugh] "The Crane do not always listen."
[Crow, laughs]"I haven't dealt much with the Crane, but that is certainly my… understanding of them."
The road widens and grows steep as they mount Beiden Pass. It seems even wider in daylight, truly large enough to accomodate an army. The samurai quiet as they pass the path to Chizu’s hidden grove, self-conscious that Torokai does not know of their encounter -- and possibly would not approve.
High mountain peaks loom at either side as they make their way along the wide expanse of road. Large caravans with several pairs of guards slowly move past them, their carts burdened with countless crates and barrels. The day is warm and the sky above is cloudless.
Torokai bows to a caravan passing them back towards Shiro Matsu, and straightens enough that his chest is puffed out. The commoners bow deeply in return as they lead their cart and horse. Dust kicks up in their wake. "My understanding of Crane ways thins with the passing of the seasons. I only hope that our two clans may see reason before... well. Before these small conflicts and disagreements may become more."
[Atsu, murmurs] “The Crane are merely winged Scorpions with hairbrushes.”
[Crow, considering] "Winter is many months off. I'm sure your clans can find even footing before then."
[Torokai, deep appreciative laugh] "Were that it were so easy, Crow-san!"
[Crow, dry laugh, embarrassed] "Yes, I suppose my expertise does not lie in politics..."
Torokai reaches over and claps a hand on her shoulder, breaching propriety for a moment. He gives her a short, reassuring shake. "Nor does mine, Crow-san. Some are warriors, some politicians."
Crow startles a little at the contact, but isn’t bothered. She laughs, less dryly this time, but avoids eye contact and doesn't pursue the conversation any further.
Torokai looks away awkwardly to check on the others. Ryojiro, Shio, and Daiyu follow in various states of saddled doze. Ryojiro is awake enough to give Torokai a polite smile and nod.
It takes several hours to travel the pass, and as they ride the sky slowly begins to darken. The distant clouds of the morning are no longer so far off; by the time they crest the final rise and look down upon Scorpion lands, the afternoon has grown dark and the air feels heavy with impending rain.
[Torokai, sighing] "The unpredictability of spring.”
Crow looks up to the clouds and sighs.
Small villages dot the horizon, their faint lights beckoning the samurai onward. The remaining sunlight casts breathtaking shadows from the mountains and the western horizon across the plain.
Shio shakes herself more awake, straightening in her saddle. She looks up and squints. "Think we can make Beiden in time?"
Atsu is a man resigned to his fate. The growing storm only seems to deepen his despair.
Crow glances at Shio then to the clouds, considering. "Do we want to? These are Scorpion lands, after all..."
A slow, wide smile creeps across Torokai’s face. "Ah, I believe we have some time before the rain sees fit to appear."
[Atsu, hopefully] "Are you certain that camping would not be preferable?"
Shio gives Atsu a deeply pained look. Atsu wrinkles his face, falling silent. They continue on at a faster pace.
They reach a torii arch over a small side road, leading towards the city in the distance. They pause and eye it with trepidation. Daiyu shifts in her saddle to tie her sugegasa on a little more tightly. Lightning flashes, so close that it blinds them, and thunder booms like a temple gong through their bodies. Though the ponies are well-trained, they fidget with anxiety.
[Crow, sighs] "I suppose if we just settle in Beiden for the night and leave early, it would be fine."
[Shio, trying to convince herself] “It will be fine!”
Crow forces a smile at Shio's uplifting words. Shio beams back. They urge their ponies into a reluctant canter, trying to outpace the storm. The wind is picking up, and the sparse trees edging the road begin to sway and creak ominously.
Torokai does not seem thrilled by the prospect of staying in Beiden, but spurs his pony into a gallop down the final slope of the road. The samurai look after him in surprise. Crow follows swiftly, her face split by a wide grin.
The others follow with a little more caution. A few final lances of sunlight crest through the mountains before they are devoured by cloud cover. With a great roar the clouds are torn open, a torrential downpour soaking everyone within seconds.
Atsu lets out a cry of anguish that can only be described as a howl from a person which fate has robbed of everything. Shio screeches wildly.
[Crow, yelling over rain and hoofbeats] "I hope this place has an indoor bath!"
Ahead is Beiden, a merchant city and center of trade and travel both. It's definitely large enough for an indoor bath.
Beiden is surrounded by sparse bits of forest edging wide, open plains thick with rice paddies and other crops. Seven Stings Keep perches in the mountains to the east, overlooking the city from a safe distance. The peasants in the fields are running for shelter from the rain and thunder.
Torokai leads on, producing their traveling papers to a pair of tired looking ashigaru by a small bridge over a creek. After a lot of checking, and some glancing at various mons, they wave them into the city.
The main street of the city is crowded with buildings: tea houses, shops, covered food and merchant carts, and small stalls. Several older, large buildings have been converted to cheap boarding houses. Others have been replaced with what are now larger, better buildings built atop an old foundation. Painted signs for the Emerald Lily, the Lucky Koku, and other inns swing in strong gusts of wind.
But only the samurai walk in the streets. Despite this emptiness, the eerie, skin-crawling sensation of being watched hangs over them. The windows of the buildings are shuttered, and what few lights to be seen are dim and distant.
The rain continues in a blinding torrent, so thick that they can barely see the rider in front of them. Time seems to stretch as they walk, minutes expanding into hours, as if they aren’t moving, no matter how fast they urge themselves on. Houses promising shelter grow no closer. The rain drums on.
[Shio] “Am I alone in seeing... this?”
Atsu throws his arms skyward. [yell] "THIS IS WHY I HATE COMING INTO THESE LANDS!"
Daiyu, who has not been paying much attention, tips her hat up slightly and slows to a stop. Her eyes slide from one side of the road to the other, considering.
Then, the moment passes, just as quickly as it came. The pressure of unseen eyes eases. The rain slows to an even, steady fall, and movement hiccups into motion once more down the street. Children play in the puddles. A peasant tows a soaked cart. They stand in front of the Emerald Lily, where a young stablegirl watches them warily, waiting for the cue to take their wet, unhappy ponies.
The strangeness of what just occurred halts the samurai for a long moment. The rain feels irrelevant now in the face of what has to be the work of magic or spirits.
[Shio, stating, heavy with suspicion] “What.” Shio’s eyes narrow. When no answer comes, she dismounts with a squelch and offers her reins to the girl to placate her. Atsu does the same, looking VERY UPSET.
Crow looks to the rest of them slowly, then at the box containing Chizu’s braid with deep concern. Daiyu sighs and tries to remember if she's ever heard or read anything about this in the past.
Torokai clears his throat expectantly. His hair and clothing are soaked. He puts his hand over his head in an attempt at shielding his eyes.
[Atsu, stated] "Food.”
[Crow, warily] "If we can find it..."
Torokai points to the doors of the Emerald Lily; while the road is pitted and weeds grow between ruts of a wagon beside the inn, the building seems in good repair. In the distance, the paddies are full of strangely stunted rice.
Atsu hefts his tetsubo threateningly at... nothing that anyone can see. The stablehand’s eyes nearly bug out of her head, and she hurries their mounts away even faster. "I'll smash every illusion if it means my meal!" Atsu trudges grimly toward the entrance.
[Shio, glumly] "Food, then. I think it would be best to stick together, after... that."
As they start to the door, a strange-looking man trots up the street past them, his geta splashing through the muddy water. He is dressed in an odd black kimono, holding up a black parasol in his right hand while staring intently at a metal ring around his left wrist.
He stops in front of Shio and stares at her in complete bewilderment, but it is at once as if he is not truly seeing her. She stares back at him in mirrored confusion until he proceeds, disappearing around the corner of a building behind them. Shio’s head nearly rotates off her shoulders as she notes the lack of footprints in his wake; the mud is thick enough that every passerby has left tracks except him. Crow watches him go, too tired to be surprised by further oddities.
Ryojiro looks to the pair of them, bewildered. Atsu shouts in defiance and outrage. He hefts his tetsubo, minus knapsack, and pointedly shoves the end of it into the mud where the man's footprints should have been.
Daiyu frowns, deeper than normal. "Did.... we ever finish the exorcism? I remember finishing it..."
Atsu gives Daiyu a "Why are you asking us?" stare, mixed with "Did you finish it? You better have finished it." Shio glances back at her, the whites of her eyes showing like a frightened horse.
Torokai glances between them. A tinge of anxiety crosses his face—something he would never admit—before he turns and enters the Emerald Lily, intent on booking their rooms.
Crow’s frustration comes to a head. She huffs and heads off after the strange man. Shio squawks and follows quickly after her, tiptoeing over the puddles. Atsu flares his nostrils, looking in the direction that they are heading. He lets out a growl of frustration and stomps through the mud behind them, Daiyu accompanying.
They soon find that the man has truly disappeared. When they step into the cramped alleyway after him, it is as though he has evaporated.
Crow throws her hands in the air in exasperation. "Is it too late to go the way of the Crane?"
Shio wipes water from her eyes, staring into the gloom. "I hope not..."
[Atsu grunts], leaning on his tetsubo. He storms towards the Lily, followed soon by the rest.
The Inn of the Emerald Lily is a large, two-story building. When they enter, it is crowded with villagers taking shelter from the torrential downpour. They quickly shove each other out of the way to clear a table for the samurai. A middle-aged woman, the innkeeper, bustles forward with a bright smile. She is short and plump, with a round, kind face. "Welcome, samurai-sama! I am called Miyu. Soup, hot tea? The rain is quite rough today.”
Atsu looks at the woman severely. "Yes, two." What “two” means is left open to interpretation.
[Daiyu] "A bed—and a bath—would be best. If there is room.”
Crow shoulders through the too-short doorway once she's wrung out her mass of hair beneath the front awning. She orders hot sake and a giant bowl of udon as she joins the others. Shio seconds the order after she shakes herself on the threshold, tip-toeing to spare the floor her sodden tabi.
Miyu smiles and bows, scolding two teenage boys--one lanky, one stocky--who must be her sons, as she goes. "Soup and sake for the samurai, Tsubo, Kibo." The boys disappear into the kitchen area past a curtain.
Crow calms at the prospect of food and drink. Daiyu eyeballs the peasants with deep suspicion, searching for signs of the man in black. Shio seats herself with a sigh and a slight squelch, eyebrows contorting then smoothing again. Ryojiro politely accepts tea and soup and begins eating.
Atsu makes small-talk with a nearby worker, but they are tight-lipped, giving one word answers or none at all. They are fearful and subservient, even for peasants. He frowns and beckons the innkeeper. “Is there something wrong?”
[Miyu] "Nothing is wrong, samurai-sama. The storm is only intense this afternoon."
Atsu glances over at the nearest group of peasants, frowning. He looks back at Miyu. "They do not speak because of the storm?"
[Miyu] "I... we do not wish to speak ill, samurai-sama. Strange things have been happening for weeks." Miyu pours more tea for those who need it, avoiding Atsu's eyes.
Shio closes her eyes very slowly. Crow glances tiredly to the others. "Yes, it seems there is quite an epidemic of strangeness these days.”
[Atsu] "Ho? Strange things? What strange things?"
Miyu swallows, face tightening with anxiety. [clears throat, anxious] "Several villagers have seen their family...those who have passed on. Or... frightening creatures. Some worry that our village is cursed. Our grain does not grow, nor does our rice."
[Atsu, unreadable] "What kind of creatures do they see?"
[Crow] "And when did this start?"
Miyu freezes in pouring tea, exchanging several hesitant looks with the villagers. She forces a smile. "Nearly two months, samurai-sama. They have witnessed… visions. They see someone in the street, a friend or relative who has passed. They watch them disappear. Or see strange animals. Monsters. Shapes in the night in the rain or fog."
[Daiyu] "Have you sent for any help?"
Crow starts to rub her face, then forces herself to run her hand over her hair instead.
Miyu starts a little at Daiyu’s voice, then immediately bows to her. "I am afraid our fears would be dismissed as superstition, samurai-sama. We have reported these... incidents to the karo. I am sorry--such things are not polite while eating." Miyu waves her sons over, assists them with handing out complimentary bowls of rice, and busies herself with cleaning nearby tables.
[Atsu, grunts, tone “we shouldn’t have asked”] "We asked, after all."
Crow rapid-fires some sake shots once Miyu has turned away. Daiyu takes a quick shot once no one shows signs of being poisoned.
[Shio] "Do not apologize. We—also witnessed something, just as we arrived. Is there anyone who has seen these visions we could speak with?”
Miyu looks up, hope blossoming in her eyes. She steps close again, as if to latch onto even a vague offer of help. "I—the village doshin, samurai-sama. Matte and Kichi."
Atsu picks placidly at his rice, looking as though anything out of the ordinary would shatter his calm veneer and send him into an inconsolable rage. [intoned] "Ho.”
[Miyu, stressed] "They have... witnessed these incidents more than most, I believe."
Torokai sighs from his corner, leaning over his rice and soup. Shio seems pained but unable to let it go. She nods to Miyu gratefully.
Ryojiro looks urgently around for more rice, as now he'll inevitably need the energy for an exorcism or midnight stroll to the gates of the beyond.
[Daiyu] "Where could we find them? If we were to ask."
[Miyu, wanly] "You may find the karo, Bayushi Kushiro, at the castle, or the headman, Baiku, just north of here. The doshin are Matte and Kichi--their homes are at the edge of town."
[Crow] "I am going to find a bath before we meet the karo. Should you all decide to investigate later, I will join you." She bows and excuses herself from the table.
Atsu grunts at Crow amiably, forcing food into his mouth at a deliberate, unenthusiastic pace.
The second story of the Emerald Lily is dusty, packed full of villagers and travelers escaping the rain. The way to the baths is not far, and Tsubo briefly escorts Crow before he rushes back down the stairs. The others eventually drift away from the common room as well, either to doze or bathe while they wait for the rain to slow.
It is nightfall by the time the steady drumming of rain fades. The noise of the common room below quiets as villagers begin to disperse back to their homes. The air is cool and damp, mist rising from the road as the sun sets. For a supposedly busy merchant town, Beiden’s night life is strangely non-existent: the ochaya and sake houses remain shuttered. Few lanterns are lit. Several pairs, hanging from poles at either side of the road near the town’s torii gate, flicker in the distance. No one wanders the thoroughfare outside the Emerald Lily, and an almost palpable sense of dread hangs over the streets.
Through the open windows at the rear of the inn—Atsu and Crow’s rooms—the rice paddies stretch out into the distance. The mist is thicker over the embankments, blanketing the strangely wilted plants. As Crow watches, something moves in the dark, stirring the fog: strange, black shapes, four-legged but unnaturally thin and elongated, wrong.
They are headless. They move too smoothly, each movement blurring into the next. The night turns suddenly silent save for the thudding of the samurai’s own heartbeats in their ears. The air seems to warp around the creatures the longer they are observed, turning them indistinct, like ripples in a pool, until they fade from view.
Crow watches them from her window until they become too obscure to make out. Brow furrowed, she takes her daisho and steps into the hallway, stopping before the other samurai’s doors. She stands there for a moment, undecided, before turning abruptly and going downstairs on her own. She steps into the silent street and immediately veers toward the rice paddies.
Atsu slowly sits up on his futon, some sixth sense drawing him to the window. He squints for a moment into the dark, blinks at what he sees, and then shakes his head. With a great thudding of feet, he storms out to wake the others.
The only other left awake is Daiyu. She plucks absentmindedly at her shamisen while looking out onto the streets below, just in case she might catch a glimpse of whatever haunts the town. She is unaware of the creatures--and of Crow slipping into the night.
Outside, the air is warm and thick with humidity. Dense fog grows heavier as Crow wades through the rice paddies, trying to get a closer look at the figures. They persist as she draws closer, but their shapes distort and waver with each step.
Atsu bursts into Daiyu’s room—perhaps subconsciously aware that a fellow Crab won’t take offense—and wrenches her windows open, pointing out into the dark with his tetsubo. "LOOK! LOOK!"
Daiyu is unmoved, not even pausing in her gentle strumming of her shamisen as her eyes follow Atsu’s pointing. She blinks a few times to make sure she's not seeing things. "...Huh." Whatever faint tune she's playing becomes noticeably more like a dirge.
The commotion draws Shio from her nest of blankets, her hair standing on end. She tiptoes her way into their room and squints out the window, then back at Atsu. “What is it?”
Daiyu sets her shamisen down and tries to get a closer look. Her eyes narrow as she focuses on Crow. She reaches for her nearby scroll satchel without looking away.
Meanwhile, Ryojiro is happy in his warm room, without a single thought to the improbability that one or more of their group would wander out into the night to be devoured by the hungry dead.
Outside, Crow takes a slow, steady approach toward the creatures, as if testing the rate at which they fade. Despite her unease, she keeps walking, face set. Her steps unsettle the fog and the muddy water of the paddies. The thick air muffles her movements.
Several of the figures fade into the night like black mist until only one remains: a strange, distended, four-legged creature with spindly limbs and a hunched back. When Crow is within a few steps of it, its lumpy body contorts to turn and face her. A white porcelain mask is embedded into the dark flesh where a neck should be, featureless save for pitch black eyeholes. It gives a high, distorted scream, though it has no mouth that Crow can see.
Crow stops abruptly and curses herself, but stands her ground. She stares it down, hand at the hilt of her sword. An edge of fear tightens her face.
Atsu takes off downstairs at a sprint. He plunges into the street with his tetsubo held high and is immediately covered in mud again. He curses but doesn't slow. When the creature screams, he curls his lips back and returns its cry. Tetsubo hefted, he plods across the paddies, footsteps spraying water and muck. Shio trails behind him, yelling incoherently as she draws her katana. Daiyu is not far behind, war fan flared in one hand, scrolls clutched in the other.
The four-legged creature is hard to track in the darkness, a shambling silhouette of limbs with a white, featureless face. It lumbers toward Crow with a wavering, swaying gait, its edges fluctuating like smoke. Crow’s hand tightens on her katana as she takes a few measured steps back, still facing the creature.
Atsu and Shio fall in step beside Crow, weapons at the ready. Crow glances quickly at them before she focuses back on the creature. [panicked, confused] "What are you doing!? Get away! What is it!?"
Daiyu glares at Crow, redirecting all of these questions back at her. She shoves her fan under her arm, grabs a nearby stick, and chants as she runs. It bursts into flame despite the moisture in the air, a single, fiery beacon in the night. The creature howls at the light and lumbers faster, swaying, lurching side to side, its movements halting and unnatural. The smoke obscuring it diminishes in torchlight. It is dark and fleshy, like a body stripped of skin then dipped in tar.
Crow falls back beside Atsu and Shio. [demanded, urgent and hoarse] "What is it?!"
[Atsu] "Not good!"
Stirred by the commotion outside, Ryojiro wakes in a cold sweat. He rushes to the door, hoping everyone didn't run off to do something stupid. Like it sounds. When he hears Atsu’s cries of battle, his suspicions melt away. He stops abruptly at the corner of the inn as he catches sight of the scene beyond, eyes wide.
Daiyu drops to one knee, shoving the makeshift torch into the mud and bouncing back to ready a scroll. The creature shambles toward the light then halts abruptly, its body stiffening. It turns mechanically in their direction, as if listening, and lashes out at Crow with one of its long, spindly arms.
Crow twists to the side. As its limb whistles past her, she raises her sword and strikes at its head in one smooth movement. Her blade cracks the porcelain mask. A splinter erupts at the bottom, rapidly spidering upwards. As the creature draws back with an ear-splitting howl, Shio quickly sweeps low, shearing off one of its legs in a single arc of her katana. The limb tumbles into the paddy with a dull splash. The creature screeches loud and high, flailing its remaining legs and swaying from side to side.
A halo of iridescent green light flares around Daiyu's hand, blindingly bright. She lunges forward and drives her hand into the mask like a blade. The porcelain shatters. The creature’s voice rises into a howl, and then nothing. Its body slumps into the mud and stills, the remnants of the mask sliding off in countless pieces.
Crow lowers her sword, flicking off sticky black residue and sheathing it. Ryojiro unfreezes at last and sprints toward them, his geta slapping against the paddies.
[Atsu, with distaste] "Set it aflame!"
Daiyu pulls her torch from the mud and trudges to the corpse. She carefully touches the flame to its body. It catches quickly, as if the thing is coated in oil, and the fire devours it. Soon, all that remains are the shards of the creature’s mask and bones wrapped in charred, leathery skin.
Ryojiro stumbles to a stop as the flames flicker out. Torokai jogs up behind him, a lantern held high. The flash of disappointment across Ryojiro’s face is quickly replaced by clinical curiosity. Even with the bulk of the investigative evidence destroyed, there could still be something left on the body. He steps a little closer to peer at it. Torokai blanches as he catches sight of the mask.
Crow stares at the heap of the creature’s body. Shio warily wipes her sword and sheathes it. She steps back, loathe to see more of the creature than she already has.
[Crow, sheepish] "I am sorry, I… when I thought I saw something, I thought I would investigate. I didn't intend for it to see me."
Torokai looks at Crow and gives a shake of his head.
“It is fortunate it didn’t draw closer to the city.” He steps forward, his expression grim. “Or the temple.” He stands behind Ryojiro as he looks upon the corpse, who kneels before it but is careful not to touch.
[Shio, sharp and metallic] “What… was that?”
[Crow, uneasy] "I don't know what it was or why it was here… but it seems to be dead."
Ryojiro does not look up from examining the remains. "It's here because someone sent it." He draws his wakizashi and carefully makes sure that what passes for its head has been removed. Shio shudders.
[Daiyu] "This is merely a messenger."
Crow gives Ryojiro a sharp look. She turns back to the body, trying to get a better look. With its skin and muscle burnt away, the creature's bones are revealed to be just as misshapen--but, to Crow, still intimately familiar. Her horrified disgust turns to despair. This creature was once a horse. Emotion bubbles up around the edges of her expression, nearly overcoming her, before she swallows dryly and walks away without a word.
Torokai watches Crow leave, then glances back to the corpse. He runs the back of his hand across his mouth.
Atsu looks at the corpse, unimpressed, before glancing back at the inn, as if to consider whether the cooks are preparing breakfast yet.
[Shio] "A messenger?"
Torokai exhales heavily and leans to look closer. “Yes. It may well be.” He prods the remnants of the mask with his wakizashi, careful not to get too close. Whatever power it held has fled with its shattering.
[Daiyu, with a shrug] "Well… Something like it. These don't roam alone... Kitsuki-san is right: someone sent it. As for who, I wouldn't know, but there's more to this than one… monster."
Ryojiro carefully wipes his wakizashi in the grass and sheathes it. "These masks are usually rare and powerful, their creation thankfully forgotten. It has a master, who cannot be very far away. I am most perplexed as to why it was used on a horse."
[Shio, shuttered] "This seems much more serious than apparitions of lost family."
Torokai picks up the largest remaining piece of the mask with his sleeve over his hand, tense about having to touch it despite its lifelessness. He quickly tucks it into a bag, keen to hide it from view.
[Shio] "What now, Akodo-sama?"
[Torokai: exhales, then serious, grim] "We inform the village daimyo in the morning."
[Daiyu] "I will seek out those the innkeeper mentioned as soon as possible." Daiyu takes a last look back at the creature before returning to the inn, eyebrows drawn in thought.
Torokai loosens his grip on the hilt of his katana, his jaw tight. He turns on his heel, walking away from the smoldering corpse. Atsu hefts his tetsubo and follows, intent on taking another bath. Ryojiro trails after, reluctant to stand alone in the night.
Shio frowns at the smoking pile of meat. A shudder runs through her as if she wishes to rouse feathers that aren’t there. She turns and follows after them quickly, careful to stay in the light of Torokai's lantern.
Inside the Emerald Lily, Crow orders a bottle of sake with as few words as possible. She finds her way to the farthest corner of the empty common area and begins to drink, her back to the door.