land of the crane: goro

Fukasu poked at the figure with her sword. Nothing happened, so she poked it again. It stood, silent and still, frozen in mid swing. "Huh," she muttered.

Musashi stepped back from the figure, prepared to strike if it began to move again, "What is this thing?"

A voice from the direction of the house drew the party's attention. "Why have you destroyed my automaton?" a young, bald man dressed in a modest kimono asked as he descended the front stairs.

Kakeru's eyes widened. He had encountered automatons only a few times, and all had been gifts to the daimyō from very powerful onmyōji.[1] If he's powerful enough to build an automaton, he thought to himself, he could destroy us all with a single thought.

"My honorable lord," Kakeru bowed deeply, "please excuse our transgression." He smiled sincerely and bowed multiple times as he continued, "We are humble servants of our lord Kurosawa, on a mission of great importance. We are passing through this area at the behest of the great spirit Kadonomaro, the founder of the Temple of Thunder and Lightning. We deeply regret fighting with your automaton, but it attacked us, and we were forced to defend ourselves."

"Please, I am no lord," the man said as he bowed back, "Just a simple onmyōji of very modest power. My name is Isobe Goro." He gestured toward the defunct contraption, "And I'm sorry that my automaton threatened you. I'm not yet sure how to fully control it."

Kakeru introduced his companions, but then looked at Goro suspiciously. Modest power? "Goro-san," he asked, "May I ask where you got this automaton?"

"Certainly. I came across it in my travels, and managed to figure out how to give it some simple instructions." He looked at the black samurai and frowned, "Apparently I missed a few things."

Musashi's patience was wearing thin. "Why have you chosen to build your house here?" he demanded of the onmyōji.

Goro raised an eyebrow, "Well, I thought it would be a pleasant, quiet place to meditate."

"And what of the dam?"

"Well," he continued, the confusion evident in his voice, "There was a stream that was flowing right through the middle of this valley." He shrugged his shoulders, "I couldn't very well build the house in the middle of a stream."

Musashi frowned. I don't know why anyone would build their house in a valley, he thought to himself.

"The reason we ask," Takashi cleared his throat before continuing, "Is that the shrine to my temple's founder sits in this valley, and the dam you've built has flooded it."

"Oh," Goro looked startled. "I had no idea." He scratched his head, opened his mouth to speak, closed it, and then stared at his feet, "Hmmmm."

"Perhaps we could dig a channel to route the stream around your house," Kakeru suggested, drawing out the word "around."

Goro looked relieved, "That's an excellent idea, Kakeru-san." He bowed to the entire group, "Please enjoy what limited hospitality I can offer."

The group spent the rest of the day digging a channel to route the stream around Isobe Goro's home. While the work wasn't especially difficult, it was tiring and time consuming, so by the time they finished, the group was thoroughly exhausted. They all felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction, though, once the dam came down and the water began to drain.

The next morning, the four heroes thanked Goro for his hospitality, and then traveled back to the shrine of Kadonomaro. The difference in the environment was already apparent; most of the standing water had drained off, revealing the solid (albeit muddy) ground.

Musashi and Fukasu elected to stay outside the shrine while Kakeru and Takashi talked to the spirit of the old monk. "Kadonomaro-shihan," Takashi said as he placed a stick of incense on the altar, "We've found what caused the desecration to your site."

The spirit of the old monk billowed forth from the memorial stone. He looked over the shinkan and the monk for a moment before breaking into a wide grin. "Takashi-san, you have made an old spirit very happy."

"Thank you, shihan."

"The temple could use more students like you," he laughed, "Of that I have no doubt."

I doubt sensei would agree. "Thank you, shihan," he said, and bowed deeply.

"Well, you and your companions have my blessing. May you possess the strength of thunder and the speed of lightning itself." As he retreated back into his resting place, he turned and spoke one last time, "I will be watching you, Takashi-san. Bring honor to our art."

"I will do my best, shihan."

The four heroes decided to wait for an auspicious day[2] to resume their journey, so they spent the rest of the day training. Kakeru communed with the spirits native to the valley; Fukasu spent the majority of her time sneaking up behind each of the others, jumping on them, giggling uncontrollably, and then running away; and Musashi convinced Takashi to introduce him to the basics of grappling.

By evening, Musashi felt comfortable enough with his new skills to want to put them to the test. He knew he wasn't quite the equal of Takashi yet, so he approached Kakeru. His childhood friend was physically strong and adept at unarmed combat on a basic level, so he had no hesitation in asking him to test his skills.

Takashi and Fukasu watched intently as the shinkan and the samurai faced off. Both combatants circled around each other, tentatively grabbing at each other's clothing, unwilling to fully commit to an attack.

After half a minute of slapping at each other's heads, Musashi finally got a good grip on Kakeru's lapel. He stepped in, placed his right foot behind Kakeru's left, and pushed. The young shinkan fell backward, landing awkwardly on his hip, but not before catching his opponent in his meaty grip. Musashi landed right beside Kakeru, but ended up with his left arm twisted backward under his body.

The two combatants tried to vie for position: grabbing, grunting, and looking for the necessary leverage to get the other on his back.

"Look at them," Takashi said to Fukasu, "Rutting around like pigs."

Musashi grunted and finally managed to roll Kakeru onto his back. When he tried to straddle him, though, the shinkan kicked his legs and bucked him off. Musashi tried again, and this time, Kakeru managed to roll back onto his side. Both combatants strained to keep the other from gaining an advantage, and Kakeru's face was red from the effort.

Finally, Kakeru made a fatal error: he rolled onto his stomach, and Musashi wrapped an arm around his neck. With the samurai's weight pressing Kakeru into the dirt, the shinkan was unable to fight back, and tapped out.

Takashi shook his head and sighed, "They've got a lot to learn."

By the next morning, Musashi's arm and Kakeru's hip were both sore, but the discomfort wasn't severe enough to prevent the party from getting back on the road. Aside from some stiffness in the joints, the day passed by without incident.

On the following day, though, the party encountered trouble. Yagi had just pulled the cart around a bend in the road when an ogre stepped out from behind a tree, and the party stopped short. The ogre's deep, brick-red skin seemed to glow in light of the spring sun. At nearly ten feet tall, he almost blotted out the sun in the eyes of the young shinkan, samurai, ninja, and monk. In one hand, the ogre held a massive club that looked like a tree with the branches stripped off. In the other, he held two chains, each of which was attached to a metal collar that encircled the neck of a bakeinu[3]. The small, green-skinned, feral humanoids strained at the end of the chains, growling and barking at the group.

Musashi's hand went to the hilt of his sword, but otherwise did not move. Fukasu looked around nervously. Kakeru spoke softly to Yagi, in an attempt to keep him calm, and Takashi rolled his head from side to side.

The ogre flexed his muscles, shook his tree club, and spoke in a deep, gravelly voice, "You pay."

"Excuse me?" Kakeru asked.

"You pay, or no pass," the ogre growled through its massive tusks. It shook its club once again, "You pay."

Kakeru looked over at Musashi. "We kill him, right?" he asked quietly. Musashi simply nodded. "Ok," Kakeru shouted to the ogre in a high, sing-songy voice, "My friend will bring the money right over to you."

The ogre looked confused for a moment, but then shook his head and shrugged. Kakeru mumbled an invocation to the spirits under his breath, and then pressed a few cranes into Musashi's hand. A feeling of well-being washed over the young samurai as he climbed out of the cart, and he approached the ogre without fear.

Musashi walked right up to the big, red monster, dropped the money at his feet, drew his sword, and lunged. Unfortunately, he had to maneuver past the drooling and gnashing bakeinu, so his sword thrust ended up completely off target. The ogre did not look amused.

Fukasu unfurled her wings, drew her ninja-tō, and launched herself out of the cart. Takashi sprinted toward the melee, and Kakeru lumbered down out of the cart. The young hanyō targeted one of the bakeinu, slicing open its throat with a back-handed slash. She then spun and thrust her blade deep into the second one's skull. Nasty little creatures, she thought to herself, as the second bakeinu fell into the pool of blood spilled by the first.

Takashi tried to distract the ogre as Musashi maneuvered into a better position. With the threat of the bakeinu removed, he was able to open a deep gash in the ogre's abdomen with his katana. The blow was not enough to drop the monster, though, and it swung its massive club at the samurai's head. Musashi ducked the blow, but nearly knocked over Fukasu in the process.

Fukasu realized that she was not in the optimal position to use her training, so she attempted to tumble past the ogre. It reacted quickly, and though she ended up directly behind the big red creature, she arrived on the end of its massive club.

The ogre was quick, but Kakeru realized that it wasn't that quick, so he dashed around the other side of it. After Fukasu fell off the end of the ogre's club, Kakeru dropped to his knees and poured the energy of life back into his cousin. "Ow," she gasped.

Musashi leveled his katana and thrust at the belly of the ogre again. This time, his blade struck true, and blood sprayed him in the face. The ogre roared in pain, and raised his club to swing at Musashi again. The samurai instinctively flinched, but instead of absorbing a massive blow, he watched the beast stop suddenly, and then collapse.

Fukasu smiled weakly at him as she put her foot on the ogre's back and pulled her ninja-tō out of its kidney.

***

Fukasu rested in the back of the cart while the party continued on. After a few hours, and around another bend, Musashi spotted a man dressed in monk's robes standing in the middle of the road. Unlike their last obstruction, this man was not red and ten feet tall. Rather, he was covered in russet fur and had the head of a fox.

Oh, not again, Kakeru thought to himself as he brought the cart to a halt. "May we help you?" he asked the monk.

"My name is Shuudoushi Kenjiro, and I am wandering the land looking for worthy opponents."

[1] Onmyōji are practitioners of the mystical tradition of onmyōdō. They study the interaction of the five elements (earth, fire, metal, plant, and water) and the spirits of yin and yang, gaining power as they increase in knowledge.

[2] According to the Tsurukokan calendar, luck ebbs and flows throughout the six day week. The fifth day of the week, Tian, is when luck is at it's highest point, and is therefore the day traditionally reserved for starting new journeys or beginning new projects.

[3] These small humanoids are named "dog monsters" because of their extreme lack of intelligence, pack mentality, and tendency to be used by more intelligent monsters as "guard dogs."