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The samurai, deprived of sleep after the unsettling events of their first night in Beiden, set out to unravel the mystery of whatever darkness is haunting the mountain pass.
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Sunrise clears the last remnants of fog from Beiden, and the city awakens as though nothing has happened. The only sign of the night's horrifying events is a patch of burned, blackened earth in the rice paddies. Though their windows, the samurai can see several workers gathered around it, whispering to one another. In the Emerald Lily's common room, the other visitors' conversations are muted.
Crow is still in her corner when the morning comes, looking the worse for wear from a sleepless night. She looms over an untouched bowl of lukewarm rice. Her eyelids are heavy.
The innkeeper, Miyu, is quick to attend her in spite of Crow’s haggard state and sake breath. Neither dim her smile or the warmth in her round face. She steps quietly over and bows. "Good morning, samurai-sama. Can I—would you like anything else?" She gestures to the uneaten rice.
Crow forces herself to smile faintly and shake her head at Miyu, but she finally picks up her chopsticks and begins to eat—practically grain by grain. Miyu watches her with concern, but does not press. She bows and retreats a step, only straightening to direct her sons as they serve tea, rice, and porridge to other visitors.
Atsu is already onto his third bowl of soup, pausing occasionally to chopstick-shovel some rice into his mouth. Daiyu descends and has a light breakfast, then returns to her room to prepare to hunt down local witnesses.
Shio spent most of her night with her back to the wall in her room, staring out the window with her sword ready. When she finally emerges, her eyes are bloodshot. She sits heavily beside Atsu.
[Shio] “Good morning--may I have some tea?”
[Miyu] “Of course, samurai-sama!”
Torokai also does not look like he's slept, and his usually neat beard is a bit untrimmed. His face is troubled as he crosses from the stairs into the common room. “Tea for me as well.”
He seats himself a short ways from Crow, leaning his palms onto his knees. He seems lost in thought, but bows as his tea is handed over and sips gratefully.
Atsu beckons to Miyu, and she hurries over and bows deeply to him. He stoops a little in his seat in return. [deadpan] "Has anyone mentioned anything about a naked horse?"
[Miyu, stammering] "A—? Forgive me, samurai-sama. I have... heard no such thing. We have few horses here."
Atsu stares for an awkward span, then nods. "If someone mentions naked horses, could you please tell us right away?"
[Miyu, terrified and confused] "I—yes. Of course."
Crow finishes her mouthful and looks up at Miyu. [hoarsely] "Have people seen anything besides deceased relatives? Anything? Any… creatures?"
Miyu blinks nervously and glances to the door, making sure no one is listening, before she turns back to Crow. She swallows, but maintains her smile. "Y-yes, samurai-sama. Some of the villagers have mentioned creatures. Some... Some believe Beiden to be cursed, though we do not know from what."
Crow frowns, eyes focusing and then unfocusing. "Right… I am sorry. You told us this yesterday." She shakes her head and looks back down at her rice.
[Shio, tentatively] "We can find the guardsmen who have seen more. They may be able to help."
Crow only nods at her bowl.
Miyu lingers for a moment, torn. "Is there something the matter?" She looks at Crow, then to Shio, biting her lip to restrain her hope. She bows. "I am sure the doshin will help you as they can."
Atsu rubs his chin thoughtfully. He picks up his bowl gingerly to drink the remaining soup and placing it back on the table. “Excellent soup. Thank you.”
[Shio, forced] "Some...thing."
[Atsu, unhelpfully] "It wore a mask.”
The already muted conversation in the inn comes to an abrupt halt. Shio chokes on her tea. Daiyu, returning from her room, stops in her tracks as she runs into a near solid wall of tension.
Crow exhales a sigh of tired frustration through her nose. She leaves her payment on the table and stands, facing the other samurai. "I am going to speak with the headman." She bows to them and Miyu, then takes her leave before anyone can protest. Shio shovels the remains of her breakfast into her mouth, nearly choking on her rice, and darts after her.
With their departure, the inn’s conversations slowly resume. Miyu bows and shuffles quickly away.
[Daiyu] "I'll speak with the guards." Daiyu doesn’t wait for a response. She sweeps out the door in search of the village doshin.
Tsubo is quick to refill Atsu's bowl of rice and to leave a pot of tea with him. Torokai clears his throat once he and Atsu are alone, and joins him at his table. [Torokai, under his breath, but with a smile] "It would be best not to speak of such things here.”
Atsu glances at Torokai, lifting the teapot in offering. "Would it be? I do not see why—" [trails off, considering] "But perhaps you are right." It was a screaming horse creature missing its skin. He frowns as he refills Torokai’s cup. "And what is your take on all of this, Akodo-sama?"
Torokai leans into the table, scratching his beard idly. [hum] "I fear it is not talk for good company." He smiles after a moment, as if remembering he should.
Atsu grunts, though he seems confused. After he finishes his rice, he murmurs a quiet excuse and gives the magistrate a bow before stepping out. When Ryojiro finally wakes, he finds the common room empty of all save Torokai. He joins the magistrate, and they sip tea together in thoughtful silence. Some time after, Torokai returns to the streets, speaking with the few peasants who do not disappear inside their homes.
Crow slows her walk as Shio jogs up alongside her, her frustration easing. [Crow, admitting] "I am not even sure what to ask.”
[Shio] "If... all of the creatures are like that, perhaps? If there's any place in particular they started appearing. Or... who has seen them the most often."
Crow nods. They walk together in silence. It only takes a few minutes to find the home of Baiku, the headman. He and his wife stand in the stunted garden outside, arguing loudly, gesturing at something on the ground. As Crow and Shio approach, they find the source: a malnourished, drooping shoot of bamboo.
Crow stops several paces short, not wanting to get involved with… that. She bows and waits. Shio slows beside her, cocking her head to the side in curiosity and bemusement.
When Baiku notices them, he waves a hand at his wife and turns to bow. He is a tall man with a slight stoop and belly, his brown kimono a little frayed at the sleeves.
[Baiku] "Chimizu—please. We have guests!"
Chimizu quiets. She is short and stout, with a square jaw and jutting chin. She bows as well then turns back to the bamboo.
[Baiku] "Forgive me, samurai-sama. What is it you need?"
Shio returns their bows, her smile edging on concerned. Crow stares at the bamboo shoot for too long a stretch, exhaustion overcoming etiquette. Baiku’s brow knits when she finally lifts her head to look at him.
[Crow, tired, hungover] "We were hoping you might be able to help us. Last night, we encountered something as… unnerving as it was mysterious. It may be linked to the problems Beiden has been..." [trails off, staring at bamboo] "...that Beiden has been experiencing recently."
Shio darts a glance at Crow, worried, before looking back at Baiku. The headman fidgets nervously for a moment, scratching his belly, straightening his kimono. He squints at them.
[Baiku, echoing] "Mysterious… What is it you saw?"
[Shio, coughs] “Well…”
[Crow, struggling to find polite terms] "Some manner of...yokai, maybe. It wore a mask."
Baiku blanches. "I—see."
[Crow, gravely] "It seemed to be a… Or… It seemed to once be a… horse. Not a pony. A horse."
Baiku rubs his face, clearing his throat and struggling to calm down. He mumbles something and shakes his head. Chimizu huffs at him in annoyance, leaving the bamboo shoot to bow to them again.
[Chimizu] "There was a traveling monk. We caught him stealing food from our granary a few weeks ago, before the... incidents began. The doshin beat him and drove him away. But he cursed our village as he ran."
[Shio] "Do you remember what he said?"
[Chimizu] "No. I only know his name is Fuzen."
Crow looks up at the sky with the bare minimum of required neck movement. "Can you recall what he looked like?"
[Baiku] "Portly. In his forties. And bearded."
[Crow, frowning] "Do you know of any other masked creatures that have been seen here since then?"
[Baiku] "I have seen no such creatures, samurai-sama. I am sorry."
[Shio, hums] "Do you know who made the first sighting?"
[Baiku] "It's difficult to say. The reports have been... strange."
[Crow] "Can you provide us with any examples?"
[Baiku, hemming and hawing, taking a long time to think] "Examples, examples..."
[Chimizu, exasperated and impatient] "Your heart is so weak-willed, Baiku!” [respectfully to the samurai] “Some have seen those who look like family who have passed on. Some have seen creatures with two heads, or none, creatures that..." She looks around the road for eavesdroppers, then leans close. [very quietly] "Shadowlands creatures. Monsters. Demonic shapes. At night, or when it's raining."
[Shio] "Have you tried anything to repel the, ah, curse?"
[Baiku, exhale] "We have asked for the assistance of a shugenja. They said there was nothing more they could do.”
[Crow, sighs, then thoughtful] "Do you remember the direction in which this monk left?"
[Baiku] "The monk made his way to Beiden Pass. There is a small monastery there, hidden in the hills."
Crow exhales through her nose and glances at Shio, who returns the look, eyebrows arched.
[Shio] "We will investigate this monastery. Thank you for your time."
[Chimizu] "The karo... may be able to tell you more."
[Crow] "We will seek him out. Thank you."
Baiku and Chimizu bow deeply. Baiku offers a wide smile—one that is demolished by a slowly-mounting argument about bamboo shoots as Crow and Shio depart.
Crow turns to Shio once they are distanced enough for privacy. "We should gather the others before we go."
[Shio, frowning] "Yes. I do not wish to encounter anything else without everyone present."
[Crow, sighs, less than thrilled but agreeing] "Let us present ourselves to the karo, then. Since we are staying..."
The castle is certainly a Scorpion structure, made of a mix of black painted wood with red accents, sweeping eaves, and a stone foundation. However, the castle is a small one—nowhere near the splendor of Shiro Matsu. The gardens in front of it are finely tended, and the servants tending it look nearly alarmed by the approach of visitors.
A pair of servants lead them inside, down hallways decorated in red and grey with the occasional splash of black. The dark wooden floor beneath their tabi is pristinely clean. In the center of the receiving room stands a man of modest height and unremarkable looks, his dark topknot oiled and slicked back. His mempo is blood red and featureless, only covering his mouth. He has a calm, still countenance, though there's a sharper edge to the arch of his eyebrows, the glide of his gaze. Something less structured.
[Kushiro] "I welcome you in the name of the lord Shosuro Kai, samurai. I am certain that you’ve been informed that he is indisposed, but we are honored to have samurai visitors such as yourselves—we have seldom had the opportunity of late. I am Bayushi Kushiro. I trust we will meet your expectations."
[Shio, pleasantly, but with an edge of dislike] "They have already been met.” Definitely. Being attacked by terrifying skinned horse monsters? All she expected of Scorpions.
Crow bows respectfully. "Thank you for seeing us, but I am sorry to hear that the lord is unwell. I am called Crow. We wished to make our presence known." When she straightens, she has managed to pry her eyelids wide enough to look awake.
[Shio] "And I am Kitsune Shio. Thank you for your hospitality."
Kushiro bows, pleased. [spoken softly] "I thank you for your appearance. We have heard of your coming, and intended to send a courier today. We wished to send them yesterday, but the night is no time for such things, of late. I would have dinner with you and your companions."
Shio closes her eyes in deep, silent pain. [trying not to sound sad] "We would be pleased to attend."
Crow nods and bows, giving him a smile to try and make up for Shio’s palpable disdain. "You are most gracious. Of course we will attend. We will gather our companions and return in the evening.”
After exchanging bows, they depart for the Emerald Lily.
The peasants near the rice paddies bow deeply as Atsu approaches, muttering quietly to one another. The charred corpse of the creature has vanished, leaving only strangely wilted, blackened vegetation in its place.
Atsu gives the peasants a curt nod. He hefts his tetsubo and prods at a dead plants with the tip. He glances up at the nearest farmer. "Did you or anyone else see anything out of place today?"
The peasants look amongst themselves, tight-lipped, until a slight young woman steps forward. Her hair is fine, cut jaggedly short, and her eyelids are dusted with smudged red shadow as if to make up for it. Her hands are fine and soft. "Nothing out of the ordinary, samurai-sama."
[atsu, frowning deeply] "You must work the rice paddies a great deal, yes? Perhaps you saw someone different? A stranger, aside from me?"
The peasant shakes her head, leaning on the handle of her rake. "We always see strangers, samurai-sama. But never near the paddies."
[Atsu, exhaling, skeptical] “Hoooo.” He stretches out a bit, shouldering his tetsubo and cocking his head to the side. He jabs a finger in her direction. "So diligent, and yet your hands are lacking calluses."
She shrinks back, startled by the accusation, but two of the other paddy workers step up beside her. One pats her shoulder encouragingly. She brushes a hand over her cheek and narrows her eyes at Atsu, opening her mouth to respond in kind, but the old woman at her side tugs on her sleeve, silencing her.
[old woman, anxious] "Forgive us, samurai-sama. Chio is young."
[Atsu, a grunt/laugh/scoff] “HWAH! The youngest of you is the only one who had the courage to speak up!" He shakes his head ruefully.
The peasants falter, taking a collective step back, but don’t speak. Most seem afraid, but one or two watch him with barely-veiled contempt.
Atsu heaves a sigh. His face softens, and he scratches his head sheepishly. Investigation isn’t his forte.
Several peasants are still working in the distance, pulling up stunted rice and planting new seed. Most of the plants in the paddies are dead or barely grown, much too small for the season. The water smells foul, as though tainted.
Atsu grunts thoughtfully, then beckons Chio over to him. "You. Your name is Chio? Come here, girl."
Chio glances at the other peasants. After a moment of hesitation, she crosses to him. He looks at her sternly, fishing in his sleeve for a moment before snatching her wrist and pressing a bu into her hand. [gruffly] "For your courage. Another, if you can tell me what has happened to your harvest."
Chio stiffens in alarm when he grabs her, then looks down at the bu in wonder. Her jaw works silently before she looks back at Atsu, speechless for a few moments.
[Chio] "It has been like this since the... strange things began, samurai-sama. The rice won’t grow."
[Atsu, concerned] “Since? How long has this been going on?"
[Chio, hesitant] "Two months, at least, samurai-sama.”
Atsu nods thoughtfully, dropping a second bu into Chio’s palm. He bellows his thanks and farewell, hopefully not deafening her in the process, as he plods back across the field towards town. Chio stares at the square, silver coin in her palm, then watches him go.
When the sun has crept high into the sky, Daiyu approaches the doshin's dwelling. Two people are present: a tall, older man and a muscular teenager. They are both eating breakfast, and the teenager shoots to his feet at Daiyu’s entrance, nearly dropping his bowl of rice porridge as he bows. The man is a little slower. He sighs, sets his food aside, and dusts himself off as he stands to bow as well.
Daiyu bows politely in return. "Hello. I am Kuni Daiyu, and I've come to ask about certain recent events in Beiden."
[Matte] "I am Matte, and this is Kichi, my apprentice. Recent events, Kuni-sama? What would you like to know?"
[Daiyu, keeping it vague] “I've heard tell of sightings of deceased family, and creatures roaming the rice paddies at night."
[Matte] "Yes, indeed. We’ve witnessed more than most. What is your interest, Kuni-sama?"
Daiyu looks back and forth between the two, gauging their reactions. Matte looks weary and reluctant, while Kichi darts nervous glances at him. "My companions and I were assaulted by one of these creatures just last night, outside the Emerald Lily, so I have taken a personal interest in this. What else can you tell me? Aside from the sightings."
The doshin look between one another, then back to Daiyu. Neither seem willing to speak.
[Matte, reluctantly] "Several weeks ago, a monk stole from our granary. We caught him and drove him away, and as he left, he shouted curses at our village."
[Kichi, adding hesitantly] "He ran for Beiden Pass, back towards the monastery. In the rain, even.”
[Daiyu] "And that's when the sightings began? There were none before this?"
[Matte] "There were sightings before this, Kuni-sama. But they have grown worse with time."
[Kichi, seeming hesitant at first, then picking up speed and enthusiasm when Matte doesn’t stop him] "The daimyo—we have not seen him outside of the castle for many weeks."
[Daiyu] "Has anyone had audience with the daimyo? Any news from the castle at all?"
[Matte, chewing on his lip] "No audience, no. The karo has been trying to keep our village running, but... well." Matte shrugs helplessly.
[Daiyu] "About the monk. What did he look like? His clothes, his face—how did he act? Anything strange besides the thievery and curses?"
[Matte] "There was nothing strange; only that he stole from our granary.”
[Kichi] “He was... portly. Middle-aged. Perhaps in his forties. He was... often drunk. On sake."
[Daiyu, intently] "Often? So you had seen him in town before then? Or since?" The doshin both wilt a little beneath her scrutiny.
[Matte] “Not before, no. But we offered him hospitality when he arrived, and he used it to drink. We have not seen him since.”
[Daiyu, suspiciously] "Can you recall how he dressed?"
[Matte] "A warm kimono. I am afraid I do not remember much else. It was gray, if I recall. Dirty."
[Daiyu, sighing] "Thank you for your help. I wish to stay in Beiden until I've gotten to the bottom of this… mystery. I will be staying at the Emerald Lily; if you discover anything of note please do not hesitate to find and inform me."
She bows and leaves abruptly, glowering as she starts back to the inn.
That evening, the samurai convene at the castle. Bayushi Kushiro leads them personally into dinner, with Torokai leading the yoriki.
The meal set before them is plain and healthy, with few thrills or luxuries. Little rice fills their small, lacquer bowls. The servants who bring each course are silent and attentive. They treat Kushiro with great deference—almost as though he is not merely a karo, but the daimyo himself.
Only one other guest sits in the dining hall: a familiar woman with eel-black hair, her face elaborately painted beneath her sheer veil. Careful, winged black strokes of kohl line her eyes. Bayushi Reiko. She stands to bow and smiles at Shio. Shio stiffens a bit in recognition before returning the bow.
[Reiko] "A pleasure to see you again, Kitsune Shio.”
[Shio] "A fortuitous crossing of paths once more, Bayushi Reiko."
[Reiko] "A fortuitous crossing of paths, indeed. Are you, too, traveling to Ryoko Owari?" Reiko’s eyebrows tilt upward slightly.
[Shio, adding quickly] "—Unfortunately.”
"Ah, of course! Most unfortunate." Reiko snaps her fan open, hiding her mouth from view. Nonetheless, there is a twinkle of something in her eyes—knowing, perhaps, or calculating. Shio blinks at Reiko as though she’s been presented with a displaying peacock; what on earth is she supposed to do with this?
[Crow, clears throat, interjects softly] "Ah… no. Kitsune Mori. We have a matter to attend to there."
[Reiko, surprised] "Kitsune Mori? And what matter is that?"
Crow takes a bite, chewing long enough to stall and collect a response. "To pay respects to a friend who has passed."
[Reiko] "Ah, I see. My apologies." [long pause]"What sort of… friend?"
[Shio, smoothly] "An old acquaintance of my family.”
Reiko’s eyes slide to Shio again, sated—for now, at least. She smiles and nods, then returns to eating, though the weight of her gaze remains on them.
At the head of the table, Torokai makes stilted smalltalk with Kushiro. He seems nervous, and there are long, awkward pauses in their conversation. Eventually, Kushiro sighs and folds his hands, his gaze faraway.
[Kushiro, thoughtful, troubled] "I wonder if I might seek your advice on a troublesome matter, samurai."
Atsu picks up a piece of meat and chews deliberately while staring at him. Torokai slowly sets down his chopsticks, staring into his bowl for a moment before he lifts his eyes. His mouth is pulled into a frown.
[Crow] "What might that be, Bayushi-san?"
[Kushiro] “Yesterday in the town, one of the local eta dropped a jar of waste he was carrying. It shattered and some of the contents landed on the feet of one of my guards. The guard, Bayushi Kota, naturally demanded that the eta apologize and clean his sandals.
“At that point, however, the story varies by the teller. Kota-san and one of his fellow guards claim the man was being insolent and refused to apologize. Some others who saw it, including two other guards, claim the man was so terrified that his voice wouldn’t heed his mind. Kota-san drew his katana to threaten the eta, and at that point the eta’s daughter threw herself at Kota-san, attempting to keep him away from her father, and begging for leniency. “At that point the other guards in Kota-san’s patrol decided to intervene, gathered everyone and brought them to the castle for Shosuro-sama’s judgment. Shosuro-sama being indisposed, I had to deal with the matter, and after hearing the daughter’s story, Kota-san’s story, and the witness’ story I made a decision.
“However, I have been wondering if it is the same decision Shosuro-sama would have made in my place. For that matter, I have been wondering if other samurai would make the same decision in my place. Tell me, samurai-sans, how would you have dealt with this situation, if the decision was yours?”
There is a collective silence from the samurai as they consider. Atsu purses his lips while he chews, but he's still staring, while one of Daiyu’s eyes twitches very slightly. Ryojiro darts a glance at the others, his eyebrows furrowing in warning. Torokai watches them carefully, sipping a hot cup of tea.
[Crow, clears throat, speaks very carefully] "I would defer to the testament of the witnesses, I believe.” [added quickly] “But I am only a ronin, after all." She bows in her seat.
There is a long silence save the sound of Atsu chewing on the same bite.
Kushiro looks at Crow, and his eyes narrow slowly in something like recognition. He smiles. [softly] "Yes. A ronin."
Atsu gives intermittent "mmh" and "ghh" noises as he chews. He looks feverish.
Crow's chopsticks pause halfway to her mouth. She glances at Kushiro, brow furrowing before she can stop it. She swallows down a look of confusion and finishes taking the bite.
[Kushiro] "And what if Bayushi-san’s word is not entirely true? What then?"
Atsu chews faster.
[Crow, avoiding eye contact, taking another bite] "Well, I would trust the word of the man at the mercy of the sword." She smiles tightly then resumes eating.
Kushiro's face tightens before he smiles in return. [Questioning rhetorically] "Ah, of course. Would you?" [pause]"Kitsuki-san. We do not see many of the Owl. Tell me—what would you do in your lands?"
Ryojiro smiles politely. [thoughtfully, with introspection] "In our lands, a situation like this would unfortunately differ. I'm afraid my answer of what we would do in our home might be inappropriate here. However, to answer your question...
"...the likely response would be neither of the options presented. There would be shame and likely punishment for everyone involved in bringing the attention of the daimyo over such a matter. Anyone who would soil a person they should not would be fully aware, and there would be quite a length of those who failed their duty to let this occur. We would all share blame for letting this situation arise."
Ryojiro’s expression is impassive as Kushiro watches him. When the karo finally looks away, Ryojiro’s eyes narrow with dislike and challenge.
[Kushiro, thoughtful] "I see. Thank you, Kitsuki-san."
[with finality] “I ordered that Kota-san should spend a day contemplating in the castle shrine, to remind him of all the tenets of a samurai’s life. I also arranged for a monk from the monastery up the road from here to come and help Kota-san cleanse himself from the impurity.
[calmly, with conviction] “The girl I ordered to clean Kota-san’s soiled clothing and sandals, to clean the filth left from the shattered jar, and to apologize properly to Kota-san. The old man I required to apologize as well, though in his case this could not be an apology of words. You see, his daughter explained to me that when he was young, he suffered an illness that made his tongue and throat swell and prevented him from breathing. A local apothecary removed his tongue to save his life. The illness eventually passed… but it seems his tongue almost cost him his life, nonetheless.”
"I apologize for presenting you with such a puzzle, samurai-sans."
He delivers this answer with certainty. It’s clear that his question was not posed for their advice, but for some deeper, unspoken reason.
[Crow, laughing, but forced and weak] "It is clear that your wisdom far surpasses my own, then."
[Kushiro] "Tell me—will you walk with me? In the castle gardens."
[Ryojiro] "Of course."
Atsu finally swallows, and struggles to keep his lip from curling back.
Kushiro smiles. His eyes linger on Crow for an uncomfortable span, dark and knowing, before he bows his head and stands. The servants file in quickly to clean and wipe down the table.
[Kushiro] "We will speak later, Reiko-san. I thank you for your attendance." Reiko bows and wordlessly takes her leave. He looks to Torokai as he falls in step, arms folded behind his back. “I thank you for attending, Akodo-san.”
Torokai smiles. It is delayed - but polite. “Of course, Bayushi-san. I thank you for your hospitality.”
Kushiro leads them out of the castle to the gardens: a tiny plot made up of raked gravel and several sculpted shrubs. A stunted pair of cherry trees are tucked into the far corner of the courtyard. Kushiro regards the trees for a moment, his hands folded behind his back. The samurai, in turn, stare at his back with varying levels of suspicion and wariness: Daiyu is not in control of her fate; Shio wonders if the cherry tree is dead because of the people who live here or the demonic manifestations; Atsu side-eyes the hell out of Kushiro; and Crow wonders why the Fortunes have abandoned them.
[Kushiro] "As you may have noticed, our lands labor under some... strange problems. The peasants have become quite fearful. It is difficult for them to perform their tasks. Many of them blame their troubles on a supposed monk, passing through here on the way to a monastery. I realize it would be an imposition, but would it be possible for you or your yoriki to go and—inquire about this monk, Akodo-san? Unfortunately I cannot spare my own bushi from their duties, and I apologize for asking such a minor task. If your own needs are too urgent, I will of course understand."
Kushiro turns to face them once more, eyebrows arched in question. The silence stretches uncomfortably. Torokai clears his throat. “They would be honored to assist you, Bayushi-san. I will look into this matter as well.”
Ryojiro finally bows politely, breaking the stalemate of the other yoriki.
[Ryojiro, politely] "While I feel honor-bound to accompany, my schooling and expertise are in the investigation of such matters. I would be honored to look into this matter for you if we have the time."
[Shio, wanting to get him out of their hair] “Of course. I would be honored to assist as well.”
Atsu emits a noise not unlike a cabinet being dragged over a wood floor. Daiyu’s expression does not change save for a slight narrowing of her eyes. [Daiyu] “As would I.”
Kushiro nods, bowing deeply in response. "I thank you for your assistance, samurai. The monastery is not far."
From Beiden, the tiny monastery is a six hour ride. The samurai take a narrow dirt path, so lightly used that weeds and grass have nearly overtaken it. The wide fields and rice paddies near the city are replaced by small farms scraped out amongst the foothills and forest. Their passing startles the occasional peasant into staring before they remember to bow.
The weather is clear after the previous day's torrential rain. Ahead, the mountains loom higher and higher, filling the sky.
It is early afternoon when the samurai find the monastery: a small collection of buildings and gardens surrounding a two-story pagoda temple. A worn-down staircase made of wooden logs laid into hard-packed earth ascends to the complex. The samurai tie their horses amongst the trees and approach.
The temple is only large enough to house several handfuls of monks at most, and many of them seem to be taking advantage of the fine weather, tilling the vegetables and pulling weeds. Several others are cleaning and repairing the other buildings: a tiny barracks, bathhouse, storehouses, and what appears to be a winery. A sizeable plum orchard spreads up the hill behind the temple. The trees are in full bloom, and the occasional gust of wind sends showers of white petals flying.
As the samurai crest the top stair, the monks immediately cease their work and bustle to greet them, bowing and smiling anxiously. One of the eldest, a stately, graying man leaning on a gnarled cane, steps forward.
"How may I assist you, honorable samurai? You have come far to this place. I am called Jotei."
Crow bows respectfully to the elder monk, a tired smile on her face. "We are honored to be received into your monastery." [uncertain pause, pained] "Unfortunately, we do not come under pleasant tidings… we have been sent on behalf of the karo of Beiden."
[Ryojiro] "Yes, we have heard a monk bound for your monastery may not have been treated fully with the kindness and respect due to him on his way here, and we wish to see if there is a way to restore the honor and dignity of all who were involved. As such, we came out of concern for your brotherhood. We do not wish to impose, but is there more we could know?"
Jotei’s eyebrows furrow with concern. "Ah, yes, Fuzen. Oh dear. What has he done this time?" The other monks shuffle their feet and lower their eyes.
[Shio] "Has he... been a cause for concern before?"
[Daiyu, trying to be casual and failing] "There seem to be those there who believe, as ridiculous as it sounds, that he has stolen from their granary."
Jotei nods slowly and rubs his temples."Fuzen is... perhaps not as dedicated to enlightenment as he should be."
[Crow, frowning, with empathy] "Some of the villagers say that he has...well, that he has cursed the village."
[Jotei] "Ah. Forgive me, samurai-sama. I quite doubt that Fuzen is capable of placing a curse upon anything—well, a magical curse, that is. He certainly tosses out angry oaths when he has indulged in too much plum wine."
[Ryojiro] "Yes, it does sound very strange, and beyond the ability of a simple monk. Very serious allegations to level over superstition. Could we talk to him and see if there is any way we could smooth over these troubles?"
[Jotei, pained] "Ah, yes, of course. He is... well. One of the younger monks saw him in the orchard this morning when they were tending the plum trees."
[Crow, smiling] "Thank you. We will be quick with our business, I assure you."
Jotei bows and smiles in return, beckoning one of the younger monks to lead them onward. The young man, flustered and curious, bows to them repeatedly before starting toward the grove of plums behind the temple.
In the orchard, Fuzen is sleeping against one of the plum trees, snoring loudly. He is a portly man in his forties, with a three-day-old beard shadowing his chin and jaw. Several empty bottles of plum wine lie overturned in the grass at his side.
Atsu frowns disapprovingly at the plum wine bottles, though he does pick one up to see if there's any left. Ryojiro walks over and kneels by his side, while Crow gently prods him with her foot. Fuzen starts awake and looks up, blinking blearily at them for a moment before groaning and standing up.
Ryojiro stands again as well, smiling at him. "I am Ryojiro, good afternoon! I hope you are well?"
Fuzen, squinting against the light, straightens himself and wipes off his dirtied gray kimono. He eyes Ryojiro’s clan mon warily before giving a swaying bow. "I am Fuzen, samurai-sama. What has brought you here?"
"What would you say if I asked what you knew of the troubles facing the town of Beiden?" Daiyu folds her arms together and straightens her posture. Ryojiro shoots her a look of disbelief.
Fuzen’s ruddy face screws up. It takes him a long moment to relax again. "Beiden? I am only an innocent monk, samurai-sama. The villagers are liars."
[Ryojiro, chuckling] "Yes, they have difficulty carrying away garbage without causing a town-wide incident."
Fuzen’s face reddens. [bursting out] "I wasn't stealing from their cursed granary, just looking for a place to sleep! I thought it only right to frighten them in return. To treat a holy man with such disrespect! I hope they did get cursed... not that I have any such power, of course."
[Ryojiro, sympathetic] "They should have taken in a traveling monk with more courtesy, this is certain. There are dark things that happen to those that leave the wanderer to starve in the street. Dark things like Kwaku-shin.” [pause] “You wouldn't know about those kinds of things, would you, being a simple monk?"
[Fuzen, sweating, bewildered] "I—no, samurai-sama, I do not."
[Ryojiro] "Of course not. The villagers should know you're not the evil sorcerer they believe you to be."
[Atsu, mumbled under his breath] “We do not want to ‘owe’ a Scorpion…”
Fuzen goes still at this, squinting.
[Ryojiro] "The truth has great power. Perhaps being honest and humble to them for your indiscretions—however justified you may have been—will move them to mercy?"
Fuzen blanches, speechless for a moment. "Samurai-sama, I am innocent! Surely you would trust the word of a holy man over--"
The collective look the samurai give him silences him, and he bows. Quivering and muttering to himself, he lets himself be herded from the plum grove.
Jotei is still standing by the path out of the monastery, leaning on his cane. Fuzen brightens and starts to hurry forward, only for Atsu to clap a hand on his shoulder in warning.
[Fuzen, whining] "Jotei--Jotei, the villagers are blaming me for their curse! Surely you can tell these honorable samurai that I am innocent?"
[Jotei sighs] "Every man is the architect of his own fortune, Fuzen." Jotei steps aside for the samurai as they pass.
They nearly have to drag Fuzen down to the ponies, and eventually settle on tying him atop Crow's. Jotei and the other monks watch with veiled relief as they ride away.
Dark clouds begin to gather as afternoon fades into dusk. The wind picks up, and it begins to rain once more. Despite the shelter of the trees, the samurai are quickly soaked through. Fuzen's whining increases tenfold, only pausing when one of the samurai orders him to silence or when thunder booms overhead.
The rain is cold, and soon a dense, low-hanging fog obscures the path, stretching and warping the way ahead. The trail is steep enough that as the rain picks up, water begins to stream around the ponies’ hooves, making the way slick and treacherous. It is a slow and utterly miserable journey.
It is well into night by the time they find even ground, but the rain has only grown heavier. The lights of Beiden are discouragingly distant. Lightning flashes, too close for comfort, and in the harsh, flat light, a bone-white figure rears up against the darkness, mere meters from the path. Then, as thunder cracks overhead, it is consumed once more by night.
Fuzen looks up, the whites of his eyes bright. Crow, leading the pony they’ve tied Fuzen onto, stops abruptly. Atsu thins his lips and un-shoulders his tetsubo.
Ryojiro pulls out his wakizashi. "We are not alone."
Shio's head swivels to stare at Ryojiro in alarm. She leans towards him over her saddle, blinking rapidly against the dark and the wet. "Another—whatever that was, from last night?" He nods sharply to her.
There is another flash of lightning illuminating the figure: skeletal and elongated, but featureless. It disappears once more.
Shio swings off her pony, not trusting herself to fight atop a large, panicky animal in the dark. She unsheathes her sword and peers into the blackness. Crow grits her teeth and steps ahead of the group, her hand at the hilt of her sword.
There is a flicker, a flash of lightning. The figure is gone.
Fuzen looks around frantically, fighting against the ropes holding him onto the pony. [Fuzen] "What? What is it!"
[Atsu, snarling] "You are the one that lives in this land!”
Crow doesn't relax, but the hand on her sword falls away. Her gaze narrows and she continues walking slowly, very alert now. She continues leading the monk's pony.
In the next flash, there is a large, elephantine creature in the distance, far more distorted than its likeness. It is pitch black with distended, lengthened limbs, and is quickly devoured once more by darkness.
Shio leads her horse, hoping that it won't panic at the lightning and thunder, and keeps her sword at ready in the free hand. Her wary, nearsighted squint becomes a wide-eyed gape at the figure in the distance. She inhales sharply.
Crow tenses, startled. [decisively] "We should run. To Beiden."
Shio mutters under her breath, urging herself and her horse to a fast shuffle through the muck. Crow jumps onto her pony, jostling Fuzen, and quickly spurs it into a gallop. Atsu falls in behind, egging his horse on with a motivational shout.
Their flight back to Beiden is uninterrupted, and they arrive as the rain begins to slow. The city is shrouded in a low, dense, midnight fog. Barely any lanterns pierce the gloom as the samurai slowly drag themselves back to the Emerald Lily, tired and shaken, and none sleep well--too wary of the darkness to close their eyes for long