land of the crane: uzumaki

Kakeru groaned. Why Nakamura? Why now?

For over three hundred years, the Nakamura clan has been the largest producer of jade in all of Tsurukoku, controlling nearly fifty percent of the total supply. For just as long, they have coveted the Watanabe clan's tiny, mountainous han, which produces about five percent of the jade in circulation. And, for just as long, Kurosawa has sent troops to aid Watanabe in the defense of its borders.

The Kurosawa dynasty has aided Watanabe for two reasons. Superficially, a loose alliance was formed between the two clans when a distant cousin of the first Kurosawa daimyō married a distant cousin of the first Watanabe daimyō. More important, though, is the fact that the Watanabe lands lie directly between those of Kurosawa and Nakamura. The tiny, mountainous han acts as a very convenient shield against Nakamura's constant warmongering.

"You are not welcome in these lands, Nakamura-san," Musashi said forcefully as he climbed down from the wagon.

Uzumaki scowled at the young samurai, "I do not care if I am welcome or not." He waved toward the side of the road, "Now move aside."

"Nakamura-san," Musashi punctuated each word with a pause, "You are not welcome in these lands." As he closed the distance toward the other samurai, his hand moved toward the hilt of his sword.

"Kurosawa dogs, your very presence insults my ancestors!" Uzumaki spat.

Musashi's face turned bright red. "Enough!" he shouted as he drew his katana and charged. His iron blade shone in the mid-morning sun, but the other samurai was quick, and the edge of his blade glinted as well.

Uzumaki met the young warrior half-way, his own sword raised high above his head. When the two samurai closed within striking distance, Uzumaki dropped his weight into his lower torso, and slammed the katana down into Musashi's shoulder.

The young Kurosawa samurai suppressed a scream as the razor-sharp blade cut into his flesh, but the pain caused him to panic, and he swung reflexively. As a result, the blow glanced harmlessly off of his opponent's armor.

Oh, crap! Takashi thought as the rest of the party tumbled, climbed, and jumped down from the wagon. While the heroes rushed to their friend's aid, Uzumaki once again slammed his blade into Musashi's torso. Takashi crashed through the trees, snapping off branches and catching leaves in his robes as he circled outside the range of Uzumaki's katana. Fukasu used her wings to loft herself into the air, and then tumbled over the older man's head, landing only a few paces behind him.

Kyoji edged past Musashi and threw a roundhouse kick at the Nakamura samurai's head. Uzumaki saw the kick out of the corner of his eye and ducked. While he watched the kick sail over his head, Fukasu took advantage of the distraction, and plunged her ninja-tō between the tiles of his armor. Takashi burst through the tree line in an explosion of leaves and twigs and slammed his fist into Uzumaki's side. The Nakamura man grunted, but stood fast.

Kakeru dashed up behind Musashi and placed his hands on the center of his back. A bright blue flash of light swirled around the young samurai as the ancestral spirits of Kurosawa restored his vitality. Musashi raised his katana high over his head, let out a great shout, and smashed his blade into his opponent's shoulder.

As Uzumaki thrust his blade toward Musashi's chest, Takashi jabbed him in the ribs. As a result, the blade sliced shallowly, instead of penetrating deeply. Fukasu followed with another precision strike, and then Kyoji stunned the Nakamura samurai with a powerful blow.

Musashi stepped forward, prepared to deliver the killing blow, and then stumbled over a rock. His katana hit nothing but the ground at his feet. Fortunately, Takashi followed his strike with one of his own: a snap kick to the side of Uzumaki's head sent him sprawling to the ground. The young Kurosawa samurai let out another great shout and buried his katana in the unconscious man's chest. With that, Nakamura Uzumaki was dead.

"Burn him," Musashi growled as he yanked his blade out of the corpse.

Hours later, the five heroes from Kurosawa left the lands controlled by their clan. The environment didn't look any different from that with which they were familiar, but it certainly felt different to each of them. Musashi entered a state of hyper-vigilance, nearly flying out of the cart at the movement of every bird and branch. Fukasu fidgeted nervously in her spot in the back of the cart, and occasionally took to the air to stretch her wings. Kakeru's thoughts were consumed by the newly acquired sake, and hoped that no bandits would attempt to steal it.

Over the next few days, the company encountered an ogre, which they dispensed with summarily, and little else. Their time was spent riding, resting, and worrying. On the 20th of Utsuki, Kakeru reined in Yagi when the came to a fork in the road.

Sitting in the lotus position directly in the middle of the fork was an elderly kitsune. As the cart stopped, he bowed respectfully to the group, and said in a wizened voice, "Welcome travelers."

"Greetings, venerable sir," Kakeru said as he returned the bow from his perch at the front of the wagon, "We are humble travelers from Kurosawa, on our way to deliver an offering to the Fire Crane."

"I am Hanzo," the kitsune answered, "and I am here to offer you guidance."

"Guidance?"

"On which path to take."

"Ah," Kakeru replied as he scratched his head in confusion.

Musashi nervously shifted his weight from one leg to the other, for he could feel an air of extreme power emanating from the old kitsune, despite, and perhaps because of, his serene countenance.

"I act as a guidepost of sorts," the old man grinned.

"Ok," Kakeru replied, "Well, what's down the left path?"

"Ah, to the left is the Valley of Spiders. Very dangerous."

"I see," Kakeru said without any trace of confidence, "I presume that it's filled with lots of spiders?"

"Oh, yes, quite."

"Hmm. And down the right path?"

"To the right is the City of Pillars. Also, very dangerous."

Where have I heard of that? Kakeru thought to himself. It must have been one of Grandfather's speeches, he spent a moment trying to recall what he had only half-paid attention to originally. Oh, he finally remembered, that's right. It's supposed to be filled with undead naga. "That's the place with the undead naga, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes, you are quite correct."

Kakeru sighed inwardly - this wasn't going to be easy.

Musashi took advantage of the lull in the conversation to ask his own questions. "What's to the west of here, off the path?"

The kitsune looked off to his left, "Those are uninhabited lands. Much too dangerous."

"And to the east?"

Hanzo turned and looked off to his right, "Too far that way, and you will encounter the Warlords of Xin. Also, much too dangerous."

"Well, I guess those are out," Musashi said dryly.

"That leaves the Valley of Spiders or the City of Pillars, doesn't it?" Fukasu asked. Kakeru and Musashi nodded grimly.

"So," Takashi asked as he turned to the others, "What flavor of certain death do you prefer?"

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 7

The bolt of black, cracking energy leapt from Takayama Keiko's hand and sailed through the air toward Musashi. The young samurai was too stunned to move, so he watched in horror as the tainted magic arced toward him. He gasped as it narrowly missed his face and then shivered when it slammed into the wall behind him.

Kakeru vaulted the table, scattering teacups, bowls, and chopsticks as he dashed toward Keiko. He slammed down on the tatami on the other side of the table, and used his considerable momentum to smash his fist into her face. Her nose crumpled from the force of his blow, and she tumbled backward, landing unceremoniously on the back of her head.

The young shinkan remained on guard for a moment, though the blood gushing from her nose and her glassy eyes indicated that she was no longer an immediate threat.

"What in Yomi?" Takashi exclaimed, "Are all women evil, magic-using witches?" He looked sidelong at Fukasu, who frowned.

Well, at least I didn't set the house on fire this time, she thought to herself.

Kakeru looked up to see Takayama and his son watching from the hallway; the kuramoto was slumped against the wall, his son was crouched beside him, and each had a look of horror on his face. The young shinkan hurried over to the elder Takayama, and, as he knelt down beside him, realized that the kuramoto appeared to be paralyzed. "Takayama-san?"

"What did she do to him?" Takayama Ichiro implored, "He's cold, and he's not moving."

Kakeru reached out to touch the man's shoulder, and recoiled in horror, for his flesh was nearly as cold as that of a corpse. Paralysis, frigid flesh...it must be hadazawari gaki, the ghoul's touch. The kuramoto's breathing was short and shallow, but he was still alive, for which Kakeru was thankful. "Hang on, Takayama-san," he said as he placed his hand back on the man's shoulder, "the effects of the tainted magic will fade quickly."

Musashi remained sitting in seiza, shocked by what had just occurred. How could I have just sat there? He replayed the scene in his mind a dozen times in the space of a minute. I should have been able to react to that! Why did I just sit there? Damn it!

Finally, the magic keeping Takayama broke, and the kuramoto was free to speak again. "My wife," he stammered, "a witch." A tear rolled down his cheek, and he gasped, "How could I have been so blind."

"She deceived us all, father," Ichiro said bitterly, "It's all Tsumago-san's doing."

"Ichiro!" the kuramoto bellowed, "You are not to take any action against Tsumago-san."

"He brought dishonor on our family!" Ichiro yelled as he rose to his feet.

"No, Ichiro!" the elder Takayama yelled, "Your mother, my wife, brought dishonor on our family!" The animated exchange caused the kuramoto to fall into another fit of coughing, and Kakeru waved the young man off.

Fukasu watched the younger Takayama's eyes blaze with anger as be bowed curtly. He turned and stormed off, without so much as a second glance toward his mother's unconscious body. There's something very strange about him, Fukasu thought.

"Perhaps we should take a look at your wife's belongings," Kakeru said quietly, "while your servants prepare a fire."

Takayama nodded between coughs, and, as Kakeru helped him to his feet, said, "Once you are done, burn whatever you find. I have no more need of it."

While Takayama Keiko's funeral pyre was being constructed, Musashi insured that she would never cast another spell again. The rest of the party searched her room, and found a collection of love notes from Tsumago, scrolls containing the secrets of kidō, and a diary.

"Hey," Fukasu said quietly as she flipped through the notes, "Did any of you notice something odd about Ichiro-san?"

"Other than the fact that he's crazy?" Takashi replied as he paged through the diary.

"Actually, yeah, there's something bothering me about him, but I can't put my finger on it," Kakeru replied as he gingerly examined the scrolls. "Did you find anything?" he asked the others.

"No," Fukasu replied, tossing her stack of letters on the floor, "It's all pretty lovey-dovey."

"These are as well," said Kyoji, as he dropped the stack of letters he had been riling through on top of Fukasu's.

"Well," Takashi interjected, "How does, 'My poor, innocent Akira-chan. How horrified he would be if he knew what I was up to. All the more reason to love him. He's not like that impotent old fool I had the misfortune to marry. Soon, I will be rid of him, though, and my Akira-chan and I can be together forever. Let's see how he likes a bout of kekkaku.[1]'"

"Kekkaku," said Fukasu as she wrinkled her nose, "So that's why Takayama-san is sick?"

"I think so."

"We should go tell him what's going on," said Kyoji.

After explaining to Takayama that his wife had been planning to kill him (an explanation that, considering the circumstances, he took fairly well), the group added the evidence of the affair to the funeral pyre.

The senior Takayama stood behind his son as the fire was lit. The amber flames illuminated the men, and everyone in the party could see the tears in the elder man's eyes, and the hard, bitter stare of the younger man.

What is it about him? Fukasu wondered as she looked at the younger Takayama. She shifted her gaze to his father, and then quickly back to the son. She looked intently at Ichiro's eyes, and then at his father's. Oh no, she thought, as she finally figured out what had been bothering her about the young man. Oh, no, it couldn't be.

She turned to Kakeru, and, by the look on his face, she knew that he had just come to the same realization. Her heart sank, and she turned to whisper her observation to her friends. Kyoji grimaced, Takashi silently cursed, and Musashi simply shook his head in dismay. The five heroes looked at Takayama Ichiro in shocked silence, for each could now see that he looked far more like Tsumago Akira, than like the man who called himself his father.

"I think we should go," Kakeru whispered to the others. "We've done enough damage here."

***

After defeating Takayama Keiko, the group quietly loaded up the sake for the offering and rode to Tsumago, where they filled the kuramoto in on the recent events. He took the news that his love was not only dead, but a practitioner or tainted magic, considerably less well than Takayama. After handing over the sake for the offering, he quietly retired to his room and did not reemerge.

The party availed themselves of Tsumago's hospitality for the evening, and the next morning piled into the cart. On the 17th day of Utsuki, the five heroes resumed their pilgrimage to Hizuru, the great spiritual guardian of Tsurukoku.

Rice paddies gave way to fields of wild grasses and flowers as the group neared the northern border of Kurosawa's lands. They followed the winding road through the fields and into a grove of trees. Kakeru was contemplating how long it would take him to drink through the sake they had just picked up when he saw something that caused him to pull hard on Yagi's reins. The cart skidded to an abrupt halt.

A lone samurai, who was easily ten years older than anyone in the cart, was striding down the road toward them. He sneered when he saw the young pilgrims. "You there! Move aside and let me pass," he gestured to the side of the road, "for I am Nakamura Uzumaki!"

[1] Kekkaku is the Tsurukokan term for tuberculosis.

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 6

Kidō – the oni's magic. Black magic. Forbidden magic. To command the all-consuming, primal forces of Yomi, a practitioner pays a high price, for the negative energy that fuels the magic inexorably corrupts the user, eating away at the body and twisting the soul.

Because it had been outlawed by the Mikado – the penalty for practicing it is death – and because of the deleterious effects caused by its practice, kidō had always been the province of the evil, of the insane, and of the desperate. Standing before the party with wild eyes and a malevolent grin, blood pouring from the gash in her palm, the lovesick toji of Tsumago Sakagura appeared to be all three.

Fukasu was the first into the room after Musashi. She darted in ahead of Takashi, and, in order to avoid running into the samurai, had to tumble into one of the braziers. As she rolled up to her feet, she reached out to grab the iron plate, but the brazier slipped off the end of her fingertips. The flaming coals spilled out onto the tatami and set the rice paper wall behind Mieko ablaze.

The toji ignored the wall of flame behind her and began chanting in an unknown tongue. The effect, to Musashi, was like the drone of a hundred-thousand flies. The buzzing reverberated inside his head, drowning out the voices shouting around him. At the same time, his field of vision contracted, causing the room and his companions to disappear. The only thing he could hear, the only thing he could see, was Mieko.

"Get out of my head!" the young samurai yelled as he broke free of the woman's hypnotic spell. He stepped forward, drew his katana, and slashed at Mieko, who crumpled under the force of the blow.

"Sprits of water and rain," Kakeru implored as he dashed forward, "come to my aid." A second later, a gush of water burst from his fingertips and smothered the coals and the flames. Only once the last ember had completely faded did Kakeru allow himself to relax.

"Well...that was unexpected," Takashi put words to everyone's thoughts.

"Yeah," Fukasu replied.

"Hmm," Kakeru said, then bent down and checked on Mieko's condition. Her pulse was weak, and her breath shallow, but she seemed stable for the time being. "She's still alive," he said grimly.

"Should we finish her?" asked Fukasu. She looked around at her friends, but nobody volunteered an answer.

"I'll go get Tsumago-san," Kyoji said quietly.

After the straw haired monk returned with the kuramoto, the group spent several minutes relaying their encounter with the ninja and their attempt to confront Mieko, though they specifically avoid mentioning their encounter with the peasant and their subsequent reading of the love note.

"What should we do with Mieko-toji?" asked Musashi.

The kuramoto spent several minutes glaring at the unconscious body of his brewmaster. "She's a witch," he said, finally, "Finish her."

***

The fire burned with the fury of a woman scorned. After Musashi had removed Mieko's head, Tsumago's servants had hastily constructed a pyre in front of the manor. The five heroes had searched her room, finding a diary that chronicled her obsession with Tsumago, a contract with the Kaga ninja clan for the salting of Takayama's fields, a scroll inscribed with the secrets of kidō, and a sheaf of recipes for brewing poison.

"Well, now we can tell Takayama-san what's going on," Kyoji had said. The other four pilgrims nodded their heads solemnly, then filed outside to join the servants, various kurabito, and curious townspeople to watch Mieko burn.

The blazing fire lit the night and cut the spring chill as it consumed the fallen toji's body. Her hair withered, her skin charred, and the fat in her flesh sizzled when it met the flame. Mieko's body was virtually unrecognizable when Kakeru noticed movement coming from within the pyre. He watched in awe as the woman's spirit emerged. Gaunt, translucent, and wearing the same wild expression that she when she died, Mieko's spirit clawed her way out of her carbonized body.

She screeched and wailed as she emerged, though Kakeru couldn't hear her, and once she was free from her corpse, she began floating up toward the night sky. The young shinkan wasn't sure how to react, since he's never seen this sort of behavior before – indeed, he'd never actually seen a spirit leave its body. Is this because she was tainted? he wondered.

Suddenly, he had his answer, for out of the fire emerged two huge, black-skinned oni. His face blanched as he watched the creatures of the netherworld grab Mieko's spirit and drag it, clawing and screaming, back down into the burning pyre.

Fukasu looked over to see her cousin's ashen face. "Kakeru-kun, what's going on?" she asked.

Kakeru shook his head slowly, "You don't want to know." He grimaced as the woman's spirit disappeared from view, and he looked away.

To his surprise, a small, blue-skinned, childlike spirit stood next to him. He was watching the spectacle, and Kakeru could see that his large, black eyes were filled with tears. What? Oh, it's a house spirit. He leaned over, "Why are you crying, little one?"

The spirit looked up at Kakeru, who was easily twice his height and ten times his weight, and sniffled as a tear ran down his cheek. "It's very sad," he said in a voice like a butterfly whispering.

"Why is it sad?"

"She was very nice to me," he said, bashfully, "She would always feed me some of her natto at breakfast."

"Oh." Kakeru paused for a second as he began to second-guess himself, "Did you know she was using bad magic?"

"Yes," he said as a tear ran down his face, "It was a terrible thing. But it is still very sad."

Fukasu watched Kakeru talk to the empty air and frowned. Is he ok? From what little of the one sided conversation she could overhear, it sounded like he was talking to a spirit. A spirit? She shivered, those spirits are everywhere!

"Yes, it is very sad," the young shinkan reached out and patted the little, blue spirit on the head.

***

The next morning, the five heroes left to return to Takayama. "Welcome, Kurosawa-sama," the kuramoto greeted them from behind the table where they had shared a number of meals. "Forgive me for not standing, but I'm feeling unwell this morning."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Takayama-san," Kakeru said diplomatically as he and his friends took their seats around the table.

In truth, he looked like a different person than the man they had left the previous morning. His face was gaunt, his skin sallow, and his eyes sunken. He turned and coughed violently for a minute into a silk handkerchief, then motioned to Kakeru, "Please, have you found something?"

"Yes," the young shinkan looked over at Musashi, who shrugged, "Well, there's no easy way to say this. It appears that Tsumago-san's brewmaster, Mieko-toji, was the one who hired the ninja."

"Really?" Takayama looked stricken.

"But Tsumago had no knowledge of her activities," Kakeru added quickly.

"I see. Do you know why she might have done this?"

"It appears that she had an extreme infatuation with Tsumago-san, and was doing this to try to improve his station."

"I had no idea."

"Well, neither did Tsumago-san, which was the problem."

The kuramoto launched into another coughing fit, and this time Takashi noticed him wipe a trickle of blood off his lip when he finished. "Are you ok, Takayama-san?" the young monk asked.

"I'm fine, really," he waved off Takashi's concern. Turning back to Kakeru, he asked, "What is to be her fate?"

At this question, everyone fell silent. After a moment, the young shinkan took a deep breath, then exhaled, "Well, it turned out that she was witch. She tried to cast some sort of tainted spell on Musashi-san."

"By the spirits!" Takayama exclaimed.

Musashi entered the conversation, "She was dealt with as the Mikado has commanded all users of kidō be dealt with."

Takayama nodded soberly, "That's very unfortunate."

"Indeed," said Kakeru. "At least, though, you won't have any more problems with your fields being salted."

"Well, I thank you for that," Takayama half bowed from his sitting position.

"Oh, by the way," Kakeru added as an afterthought, "we discovered that Tsumago-san is having an affair with one of your servants."

"Really?" Takayama raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, he's been paying one of his peasants to deliver love notes to her on a regular basis."

"Well, well," the kuramoto said with a half smile, "that's an interesting, if ironic, bit of gossip." He chuckled to himself, which initiated a bout of coughing, but then continued, "Just out of curiosity, did you find out which servant it is?"

"Matsu, I believe it was," Kakeru looked to Musashi, who nodded in agreement.

Takayama's smile immediately disappeared, "What was that?"

"Matsu."

The kuramoto paused for a long moment before continuing, "Are you certain about that?"

Musashi nodded, "I saw the note myself. Why?"

"Matsu...Matsu...is my wife's childhood nickname," Takayama sputtered as his ashen face turned red. He pounded his fist on the table, and the room fell silent. Kakeru looked at Musashi with eyes wide and mouth agape.

Uh oh, thought Fukasu.

Oh crap, thought Takashi.

After an awkward minute, Takayama stood up from the table. The heroes could see that every muscle in his body was clenched, and though he was shaking with anger, he managed to bow politely. "Excuse me, Kurosawa-sama," he said through clenched teeth, then turned and left the room.

Kakeru held his head in his hands as the sounds of an argument issued forth from the hallway. Fukasu groaned, and slumped onto the floor. Musashi remained stoic, but the two monks simply shook their heads at one another. Takayama, his wife, and his son yelled at each other for nearly half an hour, while the group became progressively more uncomfortable.

Finally, the rice-paper door slid open, and the five heroes composed themselves. Each expected Takayama to re-enter the room, but instead, his wife stormed in. "You have ruined everything!" she screamed as she pulled a tanto from beneath her robe.

"Whoa!" Takashi said as he jumped up from seiza, "There's no need to do anything crazy."

Takayama Keiko, the kuramoto's wife, glared at Takashi and then sliced her palm with the blade. The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees as a crackling, black bolt of energy appeared in her hand. "I will kill you all!" she screamed.

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 5

Fukasu found her companions soaking in the kuramoto's baths. Kakeru had his head tossed back and his sake jug pressed to his lips when she entered the room; Takashi and Musashi were both in a state of deep relaxation; and Kyoji was in the process of putting his robes back on. Everyone turned to look at her when she slid open the rice-paper door.

"Guys, I just saw something suspicious," she began excitedly, "I was out flying around and I saw Tsumago-san..." She stopped, slid the door to the bath shut, and continued in a whisper, "I saw Tsumago-san give a peasant a note or letter of some sort, and then I followed the peasant through town. He's headed south toward Takayama."

Kakeru dropped his sake jug, "That's definitely suspicious."

"We can go catch him," Kyoji said to Fukasu as he knotted his belt. Then he turned to Kakeru, Takashi, and Musashi, "You guys catch up."

The winged hanyō and the straw-haired monk took off into the night, leaving the samurai, the shinkan, and the bald monk to hurriedly fumble with clothing and armor. After a few minutes of running and winging, Kyoji and Fukasu caught sight of the peasant's lantern bobbing in rhythm to his step. They slowed their pursuit, and followed well out of sight as they waited for their companions to arrive.

It didn't take long before they heard the clack-clack-clack of Musashi's armor approaching in the darkness. Once the group was reunited, they rushed the peasant, surrounding him within a few seconds. The man stopped in his tracks, shrieked in fear, and dropped his lantern.

Musashi stepped forward, hand on the handle of his katana, and glared at the peasant. "We are the representatives of our Lord Kurosawa," he growled, "You must do as we command." The peasant cowered before the man who had the power and right to end his life at any moment.

"Give me the letter," barked Musashi. The peasant extended a quivering hand, and Musashi snatched the letter away. He broke the seal and began reading the contents. After half a minute, he stopped, looked at the peasant, and frowned. "It's a love note," he said with disdain as he flipped it over to read the name of the addressee.

"Matsu," he read, and then looked at his companions, who simply shrugged. "Who is Matsu?" he growled as he thrust the letter in the peasant's face.

"I don't know," the peasant quailed.

"How can you not know?" Musashi spat

"I mean...she's just a servant. But I've never actually met her."

A kuramoto having an affair with a servant? How vulgar. Musashi leaned in close, "Then how do you deliver the letter?"

"I...I...I just slide the letter under one of the doors in Takayama's house."

Kakeru sighed and rubbed his head, "I thought we had something."

"I'm sorry, everybody," Fukasu said glumly. Steam rolled out of her mouth and rose into the cool night air as she grumbled to herself.

"It's ok, Fukasu-san," said Takashi, "We all thought this was going to be the big break we needed."

"Unless," Kakeru said, "Mieko-toji knows about the affair, and she's trying to destroy Takayama because she can't get to the woman herself." His speculation was greeted by a round of "Aahs" and "Hmmms," but the group came to no particular consensus.

Musashi refolded the letter and handed it to the peasant, "If anyone asks why the seal is broken, tell them that you were clumsy and that you dropped it."

"Yes, Kurosawa-sama, thank, you."

The group watched the peasant's lantern bob and sway as he hurried down the road. Once the light had shrunk to little more than a pinprick, they began the trek back into town. Kakeru rubbed his head, Musashi watched the fields for signs of movement, and Fukasu kept herself occupied by kicking a small stone down the path.

None of the adventurers felt up to making conversation, so they walked in silence – their only stimuli the cool breeze that blew across the fields, the sound of dirt crunching underfoot, and the rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk of the stone skipping down the road. After a few minutes, Fukasu inadvertently kicked the stone into another rock, which caused it to skip off into the fields. It made a small splash as it hit the standing water, and then all was quiet again.

As the group continued their slow journey, they approached a small copse of trees that stood just to the side of the road. Musashi stared intently at it, but spotted nothing out of the ordinary. The five heroes had nearly passed the trees when a flurry of movement startled them; four black-clad figures jumped out of the shadows and drew their ninja-tō.

Kyoji was the first to react. Ninja or not, these were still human beings, and he wasn't willing to commit violence without giving them a chance to surrender. "Lay down your weapons and leave now," he offered, "and we'll spare your lives."

Those who attack my lord gain no quarter from me, Musashi thought as he charged the nearest figure. The combination of his momentum and the speed of his blade sent the ninja's head flying through the night air. A thick gush of arterial blood coated the young samurai's face in the second before the man's body realized that he was dead.

Upon seeing their companion fall, the remaining three ninja sprang into action. The tallest of them revealed herself to be the leader when she pointed to Kakeru and yelled, "Kill the shinkan first!" The two remaining followers tumbled past Fukasu and Takashi, who in turn charged the leader.

Kakeru gasped as the first ninja's sword opened a gash across his belly, then howled in pain as the second one pierced his kidney.

While the ninja took turns shoving their blades into the young shinkan's midsection, the hanyō and the bald monk pummeled the leader. Takashi drove his fist into the woman's plexus just in time to see Fukasu slide her ninja-tō between the woman's ribs. The assault was too much for the leader, who tumbled backward out of their reach.

Once she was out of their reach, she grabbed a bamboo vial from her belt and gulped down the contents. Kakeru followed suit. He staggered out of his opponents' reach and invoked the healing power of the spirits. A warm blue glow washed over his body, sealing the gash across his torso.

"I gave you a chance to surrender," Kyoji said sadly as he charged the first of Kakeru's attackers. Musashi followed, and the combination of the monk's fist and the samurai's blade sent the man crumpling to the ground.

Takashi closed the distance between himself and the leader, lowered his torso, and rammed his shoulder into her midsection. As his momentum carried him forward, he placed his hands behind her knees and yanked upward. The combination of the two forces jerked her off her feet, and she slammed onto the ground with a loud thud. Takashi landed on top of her, deflecting her weapon hand with one arm, and grinding an elbow in her face with the other.

Fukasu turned to see the remaining ninja face off against Kyoji and Musashi. Realizing that he was distracted, she charged across the dirt road. This is what you get for attacking my cousin, she thought as she buried her ninja-tō in the man's back.

He yelled in pain as the blade sliced through his chest, and then gasped for air as his lung collapsed. He stumbled forward, pulled out a bamboo vial of his own, and gulped down the healing liquid contained within. Fukasu glared at the man, and lunged again, yelling, "You get away from him!" He screamed again, dropped the vial and ninja-tō, and clutched at yet another hole in his chest.

Realizing that a blow from his katana could conceivably kill the man, Musashi sheathed his blade, stepped forward, and punched him in the face. The ninja wobbled for a moment, then his eyes rolled back into his head and he crumpled.

Kyoji turned to see Takashi choke out the leader with her own arm, so he took a moment to survey the surroundings for other potential threats. Finding none, he turned back to his companions. "Is everyone ok?" he asked.

"Are you ok, Kakeru-kun?" Fukasu asked worriedly.

"I'm fine!" Kakeru said unsteadily. He bent over, placed his hands on his knees, and vomited. He looked up to see the spirit of his grandfather standing over him with a look of disdain.

"Too much sake!" his grandfather chastised him.

The five heroes bound the two unconscious ninja to a tree, then placed the other two bodies in a pile in front of them. "We've only got one head," Fukasu pointed out as they doused the bodies with oil.

"I found it!" Kyoji said, as he used a branch to fish the missing cranium out of the water. He gently set it down in the pile, and then Kakeru used a minor bit of magic to revive the unconscious saboteurs. A second later, Fukasu ignited the bodies. She found the warmth of the flames to be a welcome, if unexpected comfort.

The two ninja sat - bound to the tree - while they watched their companions slowly turn to ash. After the fires died out, Musashi turned toward them and spent a minute in contemplation. "Who hired you?" he finally asked the woman, confident that, as the leader, she would know more than her companion.

"I can't tell you that," she said defiantly, then spat at his feet. Her companion smiled smugly.

Musashi smacked her across the face with the back of his fist, splitting her lip, then repeated his question, "Who hired you?"

"A Kaga ninja never reveals the secrets of her employer," she said a little less confidently as blood poured down over her chin. Her companion stopped smiling.

Musashi leaned in close and drove his heel into her outstretched ankle. He was pleased to see tears well up in her eyes, so he repeated the action. This time she yelped, but said nothing. He frowned, stood back up, and drew his katana. As he raised it slowly above his head, the woman began to whimper, and her partner began to hyperventilate. As his blade reached the apex of his swing, he was fully prepared to cleave the woman's skull in two, but she finally spoke.

"It was Mieko-toji," she blurted out, then gasped for breath, "the woman from the brewery." She looked up at the young samurai as tears began to run down her cheeks. "Please don't kill me," she said as she began to sob, "Please, please don't kill me." Her partner's breathing was quick and shallow, and he was visibly shaking as he struggled against his bonds. She looked at the five heroes who stood in judgment of her, then looked at her partner before returning her gaze to Musashi, "Oh, gods, please don't kill me!"

"Very well," Musashi said as he lowered his blade. "You will go back to your clan, and you will tell them that the Kaga are not welcome in Kurosawa lands."

Kakeru untied the woman and helped her to her feet. She looked around nervously, then bowed to Musashi. "Thank you, Kurosawa-sama," she said between sobs, "Thank you. Thank you. May the spirits bless you and keep your clan safe." She glanced briefly at her partner, who still sat bound to the tree, then took off running into the cold, dark night.

Musashi paused for a moment as the remaining ninja looked up at him with wide, wild eyes - but only for a moment. A second later, he took the man's head.

"Well, then..." Kakeru said.

"Yeah," Takashi agreed.

The party burned the last body, and then quickly ran back to town. As they approached the kuramoto's manor, they spent several minutes discussing strategy. From what they had observed, Mieko slept in a room on the far side of the manor, and they figured it should be easy to march right in and subdue her.

"So we go in, grab her, and then present our evidence to Tsumago-san?" Takashi asked.

"Yeah, that's the plan," Kakeru replied.

"Ok," said Fukasu, "We just need to make sure that there aren't any more of those ninja she hired hanging around."

"Good point, Fu-chan," Musashi said.

Once they reached the manor, the five heroes became very cautious. Kakeru and Kyoji scoured the surroundings for signs of potential attackers, but found none. With Musashi in the lead, they crept down the hallway, trying to avoid waking anyone who might get in the way. When they reached her room, the party fell into formation. Fukasu and Kyoji flanked the door, Kakeru stood back to the side, and Takashi hovered behind the young samurai, ready to tumble out of danger.

Musashi took a deep breath to steady himself, slid open the door, and charged forward. Though ready for a horde of ninja to jump out of the shadows, he was fully expecting to find the toji slumbering on her futon. Instead, what he saw chilled him to the bone: Mieko was standing on the other side of the room, in between two smoldering braziers. At her feet was an iron bowl that was emitting a sickly green smoke, and in her hand was a dagger.

As the young samurai dashed forward, she sliced open her palm with the dagger. Blood tumbled from her hand, cascading in rivulets toward the iron bowl at her feet. Musashi reached for his sword, but gravity was quicker. Mieko looked up at him and screeched as the braziers on either side of her burst to life, "I won't let you take Akira from me!"

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 4

Sweet! Kyoji thought to himself. "Yes, I would very much like that," he replied with a slight bow.

"Takashi-san, Takashi-san, Takashi-san!" Fukasu chanted. Everyone turned toward her, so she gave them an indignant look, "What?"

Kakeru and Musashi took up positions at the corners of an imaginary ring, and the two monks walked to the center. After bowing to each other, they assumed their fighting stances. Like he had done in the fight with the kitsune monk, Takashi held his fists at the level of his shoulders, and shifted his weight from foot to foot, all the while trying to make himself appear as tall as possible.

Kyoji, by contrast, stood extremely still. His feet seemed almost to sink into the earth as he settled his weight into his lower torso. He raised his fists to the same level as Takashi, but held them close to his body.

He's going to be hard to take down, Takashi realized. Defensive posture, strong stance. Oh well, I'm faster.

Kyoji nodded, and the fight began. Takashi moved in quickly, and made a grab for his opponent's robes. Kyoji deflected the grab with his arms, stepped forward, and slammed his shin into Takashi's thigh. Ow, Takashi thought as he took a step backward, his shins are pointy!

The monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning decided to press the fight, and attempted a thigh kick of his own. The monk from the Temple of the Silent Lake blocked the kick with his shin. Again with the shins! Then he slammed the side of his hand into Takashi's neck.

Musashi and Kakeru watched Takashi's face contort with pain as Kyoji's ridge-hand strike slammed into the young monk's neck. Takashi backed away and the two monks circled each other for a moment. Takashi bobbed and weaved outside the range of Kyoji's strikes, then darted in with a jab to the head. Kyoji deflected the blow again, and tried to retaliate with a punch of his own, but this time the disciple of the Way of the Storm easily dodged it. The disciple of the Way of the Tortoise advanced, and threw a thigh kick at the same leg that he had hit before.

Oh, no you don't, Takashi thought to himself as he dodged out of the way. The adrenaline coursed through his body, and he was pretty sure that it was the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point. He circled Kyoji for another moment, then decided his best bet was to try to grapple again. He stepped in and reached for his opponent's robes by extending his arms, and, unfortunately, exposing his ribs.

Kyoji saw the opening, stepped forward, deflected the grab attempt, and smashed his fist into Takashi's ribs. The young monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning gasped, then dropped to the ground. Kakeru and Musashi looked at each other with surprise, while Fukasu grimaced.

Musashi stared at Kyoji with admiration. He never got touched. He avoided Takashi-san's throws. He smiled to himself, he is powerful indeed. Kakeru strolled over to Takashi, knelt down, and healed the loser of the match – it was a routine that he was becoming accustomed to.

"Kyoji-san," Musashi said as Kakeru helped a groggy Takashi up off the ground, "the pilgrimage that we are undertaking is certain to be filled with great challenges. Perhaps you would be interested in accompanying us? I have no doubt that we will find many warriors for you to hone your skills against."

The straw-haired monk looked around at the group of adventurers. They seem upstanding enough, he thought, perhaps this is what the fates have in store for me. He bowed to Musashi, "Thank you, Kurosawa-sama. That sounds good." And if they turn out to be not upstanding, I can use them for practice.

Takashi looked over at Musashi and frowned, but said nothing.

"Well," Kakeru said, "We're headed to Tsumago to get some sake for our offering."

"Ah," Kyoji replied, "I just came from there. Tsumago-san was nice enough to put me up for a few days. I can introduce you to him, if you want."

"Really?" said Kakeru, "Hmm. We're also investigating the sabotage of Takayama-san's fields by a ninja group of some sort. Have you seen anything suspicious while you were there?"

Kyoji thought for a moment, "Actually, there were a group of mysterious people that kept coming into and out of town."

"Mysterious?"

"Yeah, the other townspeople didn't really talk to them, but they acted like they belonged there."

"Interesting," Kakeru said as his mind began to race.

"Were these people ninja?" Musashi asked, "Did they meet with Tsumago-san?"

"Uhhh," Kyoji paused for a second before answering, "I haven't had much experience with ninja, so I can't really say. But they never talked to Tsumago-san while I was around. He doesn't seem like the type of guy who would associate with ninja."

What's that supposed to mean? Fukasu thought as she stuck her tongue out at the straw-haired monk from behind his back.

Kakeru smiled, and then continued his questioning, "Can you think of anything else out of the ordinary that you might have observed?"

Kyoji contemplated the question for a minute before answering, "Come to think of it, the brewmaster, Mieko-toji, seems to be very taken with Tsumago-san, but he doesn't seem to notice."

"Is he married?" Fukasu asked, and quickly stuck her tongue back in her mouth as Kyoji turned to face her.

"No, he's never taken a wife, from what he said."

"I'll bet a cask of sake she has something to do with it," Kakeru mumbled to himself before turning his attention back to group. "We should go," he said as he walked over and climbed back into the cart, "I'd like to talk with Tsumago-san and this Mieko-toji." And some sake wouldn't hurt either.

"You should really drink less," Kakeru's grandfather scolded him as the group continued on to Tsumago. "Sake may be sacred, but it is still an intoxicant, and capable of causing very dishonorable behavior." Kakeru rolled his eyes and made a mental note to ask Tsumago for an extra cask of sake - he was pretty sure he was going to need it.

***

Twenty minutes later, the group of five adventurers entered the town of Tsumago. In nearly every way, it was the twin of Takayama: small, surrounded by rice fields, a sparse main street with the kuramoto's residence at one end, and a very busy brewery. This time, the group didn't need to rely on Kakeru's keen nose for sake – instead, Kyoji directed them to the brewery.

Kakeru, Fukasu, Musashi, and Takashi looked around suspiciously, but followed Kyoji as he led them into the brewery. They wandered for a minute, before the straw hair monk stopped and bowed to a middle-aged man in a silk kimono, "Hello, Tsumago-san."

The man smiled and returned the bow, "Kyoji-san, to what do I owe the pleasure of your return?"

"I encountered a group of travelers from Kurosawa right after I left," Kyoji replied. Then he turned to the travelers from Kurosawa, "Kakeru-san, Musashi-san, Fukasu-san, Takashi-san, please allow me to introduce the kuramoto, Tsumago Akira."

Tsumago turned to look at the young travelers, and then bowed deeply. "Kurosawa-sama, it is my great honor to welcome you to Tsumago Sakagura."

"Thank you, Tsumago-san," Kakeru said as each of the daimyō's representatives bowed slightly.

"Allow me to take you on a tour of the brewery," he smiled.

Kakeru nodded his assent, and the kuramoto led them through the process of making sake. Almost every part of the process was identical to what they had seen at Takayama, so each of them spent their time watching the brewery workers, hoping to see something suspicious. Tsumago regarded their attention to the surroundings as interest in the brewing process, so he went into great detail at every step.

When they reached the shikomi – the large wooden tanks where the rice mash fermented – Kakeru noticed a stiff, middle-aged woman staring intently at the kuramoto. She followed his every movement with her eyes: every step he took, every hand gesture he made. She even seemed to watch his mouth form each syllable. Kakeru shuddered internally. That's just creepy, he thought.

After a few minutes, Tsumago turned to the woman and beckoned her over. As soon as he turned his attention to her, her countenance became radiant: she smiled and her whole body appeared to relax. She looks ten years younger, Kakeru thought.

"Kurosawa-sama," Tsumago said, "Please allow me to address Mieko-toji, our brewmaster."

Mieko blushed, then placed her hands on the front of her kimono and bowed deeply. "It is a great honor to have our sake offered to the fire crane," she said demurely.

Tsumago nodded, then motioned to the group to continue on. As he led the group away, Kakeru watched the toji out of the corner of his eye. She gazed longingly at him as he walked away, and, once he was out of sight, her face contorted and she turned away. There's definitely something going on there, thought Kakeru.

The kuramoto continued the tour for another half hour, then invited the group to dinner at his manor. "Tsumago-san," Kakeru began, "In addition to collecting the sake for the offering, there is another reason that we are here."

"Have you hired ninja to salt Takayama-san's fields?" Musashi blurted out angrily.

"What?" Tsumago exclaimed.

Kakeru sighed inwardly, "Tsumago-san, someone has been sabotaging Takayama-san's fields, and we're trying to track down the culprits." He smiled beatifically, and interspersed himself between Musashi and the kuramoto before continuing, "Obviously, we do not believe that you would do such a thing..."

"I should hope not. Takayama-san is no rival of mine, and we have always been on good terms."

"Oh, of course," the young shinkan continued. "We're just trying to eliminate all possible suspects." Musashi frowned and turned away from the conversation.

"Ah, I see," Tsumago nodded, "Is there anything I can do to assist you?"

"Well, would you mind if we talked to your workers?"

"You do not need my permission, but of course," Tsumago said, bowing. "Please, take your time. I will arrange for dinner to be ready after sundown." The group returned his bow, at which point the kuramoto took his leave.

The group spent the next couple of hours talking to the brewery workers. From what they could gather, Kyoji's suspicions and Kakeru's own observations about Mieko's feelings for Tsumago were correct: according to nearly everyone, she loves him, and he is oblivious to her affections.

Additionally, several of the kurabito mentioned the strange workers that Kyoji had noticed. No one was sure where they came from, but no one felt that it was their place to ask about them. As well they shouldn't, Musashi thought, peasants shouldn't be questioning their superiors.

On the way to the kuramoto's manor, the group discussed their findings. "So you believe that the saboteur is Mieko-toji?" Musashi asked Kakeru.

"I think so. Do you think she would attack Takayama in order to impress Tsumago-san?"

Fukasu thought about the woman's behavior and shuddered, "Yeah."

"Probably," said Takashi.

"Shall we tell Tsumago-san?" Musashi asked.

"Hmm, no. Not yet, at least. I think we need more proof," Kakeru replied as they arrived at the manor.

***

Tsumago proved a more than able host. The five heroes enjoyed a dinner of yakitori and rice which they washed down with lots and lots of sake. By the end of the meal, each of the travelers had at least ten empty skewers of the sweet, grilled food scattered around his or her plate, and had had at least ten cups of the sweet, sacred intoxicant. Kakeru, Musashi, and Kyoji had gone after the chicken with gusto, while Fukasu and Takashi had filled their bellies mainly with the shiitake mushrooms. Mmmmm, mushrooms, Fukasu thought to herself. After dinner, the group retired for the evening, vowing to investigate further in the morning.

While the other adventurers got ready to soak in the hot baths, Fukasu wandered around her room restlessly; all the activity in the past few days had jangled her nerves, and she felt the need to get out. She slid open the rice paper door to her room and padded out into the hallway. Kakeru emerged from his room at about the same time, and, when he cocked an eyebrow at her, she shrugged. "I'm too wound up right now," she said, "I'm going to go stretch my wings for a bit."

Kakeru nodded, "Be careful, Fu-chan."

"Don't worry, Kakeru-kun," she smiled, "I'll be fine." He always worries about me, she thought.

As the young shinkan turned to walk to the baths, he shook his head. She always worries me, he thought.

Fukasu tiptoed outside, so as not to attract attention, stretched for a minute, and then launched herself into the air. The powerful beat of her wings carried her aloft, and within seconds she was gliding in circles around the kuramoto's manor. As the cool spring air washed over her face, she felt herself beginning to relax. She sighed, and delighted in the feeling of flight; circling town, she swooped down over rooftops, danced upon the air currents, and tumbled over the tops of trees.

After an hour, she felt ready to return to the baths, and winged back toward the manor. As she approached the residence from the rear, she spotted Tsumago outside, talking to a young peasant. She couldn't make out what they were saying, but she did see the kuramoto hand the man several cranes and a sealed letter. The peasant bowed, lit the paper lantern he was carrying, and headed off into town.

Well, well, Fukasu thought to herself, that looks pretty suspicious. Catching an air current, she circled around to follow the peasant. As the man walked through town, she fluttered from rooftop to rooftop, as silent as a leaf on the wind. She followed him until he passed through town and began walking south on the road that led to Takayama.

Oooh, this should be good, she thought, I'd better go get the others.

land of the crane: kyoji

Sixteen years ago, in the dead of night, a newborn baby was left outside the front gate of the Temple of the Silent Lake. Upon discovering the crying infant the next morning, the monks of the temple reacted with surprise.

They were not surprised that someone had abandoned a child in the middle of the night – three hundred years of unstable shoguns, constant warfare between rival clans, droughts, plagues, and the hard life of being a peasant all produced enough abandoned children to fill all of Tsurukoku's monasteries twice over. They were not surprised that the child was left without any word of explanation – for none ever were. No, the monks of the temple were surprised by the features of the abandoned child, for he had hair the color of straw, and eyes that resembled sapphires.

The monks took the infant into their care, named him Kyoji, after the legendary shodo[1] master, and raised him alongside the dozens of other abandoned and orphaned children that showed up outside their gate every year. Though the kanju of the temple decreed that the strange-looking infant should be treated no differently than any other child ("He is either blessed by the spirits, or cursed," she said, "It is not up to us to decide which."), Kyoji couldn't help but hear the whispers and feel the stares of the other children as he grew into a monk-in training.

Over the years, he formed close friendships with a select few others who were considered "strange" for one reason or another: Sakio, a girl who could see spirits; Dosan, a boy who never stopped talking; Akiko, a slender girl who was at least a head taller than all the boys by the time she was 8; and Issai, a boy who weighed more than all the other boys combined.

Apart from spending time with his friends, Kyoji poured himself into the study of the Way of the Tortoise and the teachings of Zenigame Kamiko[2], the temple's founder. He practiced the defensive fighting inspired by the tortoise during the day and read from the sacred scrolls that illustrated the danger presented by the tainted forces of Yomi at night.

On the sixteenth anniversary of Kyoji's arrival at the temple, the kanju approached him as he was training with Akiko. "Kyoji-san," she said as she bowed.

"Yes, sensei?" the young monk replied as he, too, bowed.

"It is time."

Kyoji nodded, bowed to his training partner, and then followed the kanju as she turned to walk out of the dojo. They passed statues of the temple's greatest leaders, murals depicting battles between the temple's monks and armies of oni, and a multitude of tortoises that freely wandered the temple's halls, before emerging onto the balcony that overlooked the placid lake for which the temple was named.

The kanju took a moment to look out across the lake. At the far end, a crane clicked its beak, and then splashed around, looking for frogs. "You've been an exemplary student, Kyoji-san," she said.

"Thank you, sensei."

"The time has come for you to embark on your pilgrimage, and I have the highest confidence that you will become a remarkable warrior."

Kyoji blushed, but bowed. "Thank you, sensei."

"The world outside these walls is complex," she said as the crane's head emerged from the water, a struggling frog clamped firmly in its beak, "and the forces of Yomi will conspire against you."

"Yes, sensei," Kyoji watched as the crane tossed back its head and swallowed the frog whole.

"Remember the wisdom of Zenigame as you fight against the spread of taint, Kyoji-san. It is your greatest weapon."

"Yes, sensei."

"Kyoji-san."

"Yes, sensei?"

"As of today, I am no longer your sensei," the kanju of the Temple of the Silent Lake said with a sad smile.

The young monk fell silent for a moment as those words rattled around his brain. He could hear the click-click-click of the crane's beak in the distance, and feel the gentle breeze of the east wind as it danced across the surface of the lake. He wondered when he would hear that sound and feel that breeze again – the thought frightened and excited him simultaneously.

Finally, he took a deep breath, smiled, and bowed deeply, "Thank you, Midori-sama."

On that day, Kyoji bid farewell to his friends, gathered what few items he possessed, and walked out the front gate of the Temple of the Silent Lake. He wandered south, and, after a few weeks, found himself in the sake-producing town of Tsumago. After enjoying the kuramoto's hospitality for a week, he resumed wandering, at which time he encountered a group of fellow travelers.

"I am a disciple of the Way of the Tortoise," he said as he bowed, "and I am on a musha shugyo."

The fat traveler – the one driving the cart – smiled at him and spoke, "We are travelers from Kurosawa. We are on a pilgrimage as well, to take our offering to the great fire crane." He pointed to himself, "I am Kakeru," then to the others in turn. Musashi bowed slightly when Kakeru introduced him. Fukasu smiled, waved, and then bowed.

Takashi shifted his weight rapidly from one foot to the other as he bowed. Fukasu looked over at him, and realized that he was nearly vibrating with excitement. This should be interesting, she thought.

The monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning stepped forward, smiled, and said "Want to fight?"

[1] Shodo, the "way of writing," is more commonly known as calligraphy. In Tsurukoku, it is performed with a bamboo and animal hair brush on washi (a paper made from plant fiber that is thicker and tougher than that made from wood pulp). The ink used for shodo is known as sumi, and is produced from charcoal. Shodo masters are considered to be some of the greatest artists in Tsurukoku.

[2] Zenigame Kamiko was born into a samurai family, but took on the life of an ascetic monk on her sixteenth birthday. She abandoned her family name and took on the title of "Zenigame," which means "pond turtle." Over the next 8 decades, she developed the defensive fighting style known as the Way of the Tortoise, authored over two hundred scrolls detailing the most efficient way to defeat the forces of Yomi, and founded the Temple of Silent Lake.

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 3

Animated by the black fires of Yomi, the corpse of the ninja rose out of the water. In the brief span of time since its death, its skin had turned the color of ash, and its eyes had sunk into dark hollow pits. It groaned again, and then turned its gaze toward Musashi. After a few hesitant steps, it grinned at the young samurai, and charged.

Musashi fumbled for his katana as he stumbled backward. Instead of the broad, powerful slash he had been trained to perform, he barely managed to draw the blade from its scabbard without cutting himself. Within a second, the gaki[1] was upon him, and, as it raked at his flesh, he felt a wave of cold wash over his body, as though he had fallen through ice into a frozen lake. His breath was blasted from his body as every muscle seized up at once. The edges of his vision began to go dark, and he screamed inwardly.

Musashi pulled himself from the dark depths of the frigid abyss through sheer force of will, coughing and gasping for breath as he emerged. "What in Yomi?" he exclaimed. Then, fueled by fear, he swung wildly at the gaki. His katana bit deeply, lopping off part of the creature's face, and forcing it to shuffle back.

Black blood poured from the gaki's missing flesh. It threw back its head, opened its damaged jaw, and let out an unearthly howl. Musashi stepped back out of its reach and shivered in spite of himself. Great ancestors, protect me, he thought.

The gaki shook its head, sending a spray of black ichor everywhere. It growled, then lunged, gnashing at Musashi with its supernaturally sharp teeth. The young samurai felt the wave of paralysis wash over him again, but this time he knew what to expect, and was able to shake it off with ease.

He took a deep breath and raised his katana overhead. Steady, Musashi, he told himself as he stepped forward. Summoning the strength of all the Kurosawa samurai that had come before him, he let out a great shout and slashed downward in a mighty blow. The gaki took one step backward, and then split in two, from its right shoulder to its left hip. The torso toppled off into the dirty water, followed by the collapse of the legs. Both halves twitched for a second before laying still.

Musashi poked at the remains of the gaki with his katana. They didn't move, so he poked them again. Once he was sure that they weren't going to get up and try to eat him, he sheathed his sword and breathed a sigh of relief.

When Kakeru, Fukasu, and Takashi returned with Takayama in tow, they found Musashi sitting in seiza, reflecting upon the lessons he had learned. Fear, he realized, was a powerful force. If I can learn to harness this fear, to make it my ally instead of my enemy, then I will be strong indeed.

Fukasu immediately noticed that the scene had changed significantly since she had left. "Musashi-kun!" she yelled, "Are you ok?"

The young samurai nodded toward the two halves of the fallen gaki. "That one..."

"Yes?"

"It got back up."

Kakeru hopped out of the cart and examined the twice-dead ninja's remains. Hmmm, he thought, it shouldn't have reanimated that fast. Something else must be going on.

"Takayama-san," he beckoned to the kuramoto, "can you come here and look at this?"

The kuramoto climbed down out of the cart, and waded through the water toward Kakeru. When he got within five paces of the body, he turned around and vomited. "Pardon me," he mumbled as he wiped his mouth off on the hem of his kimono.

"Take your time," Kakeru replied.

Takayama spent a moment with his back turned, then took a deep breath, and walked over to the body. He squinted at the face of the young man, and then shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't know this man."

"He's not from Takayama?"

"No."

"Would you know him if he were from Tsumago?"

Takayama considered the question for a moment, and then shook his head. "I would think so, but I can't be positive."

Kakeru sighed inwardly - things were rapidly becoming complicated. "Thank you, Takayama-san. We should probably return to town."

The kuramoto nodded, "I'll have the farmers take care of these wagons tomorrow." With that, the four travelers from Kurosawa returned to town, took a bath, and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning, after a traditional breakfast of miso soup and natto, the four travelers from Kurosawa set out for the town of Tsumago. "We will find the men responsible for sabotaging your fields," Musashi promised Takayama.

The group had traveled for less than half an hour when they spotted a young man in red monk's robes walking down the road toward them. Each watched the figure warily, but Fukasu was the first to notice that something was odd about him. "Uh, hey, guys," she said.

"What in the world?" whispered Kakeru.

"What in Yomi is that?" Takashi asked no one in particular.

"It's that monk that Kenjiro-san was talking about," said Musashi, for the young man walking toward them did not look at all like a normal Tsurukokan. Instead of the black hair and brown eyes that were characteristic of every human they had ever met, the monk had hair the color of straw and eyes that resembled sapphires.

"Hello," the monk waved cheerily as Kakeru brought the cart to a stop. He bowed to the group, and then smiled, "I'm Kyoji."

[1] Gaki are the reanimated bodies of intelligent creatures that have not been cremated after death. The black, corrupting, tainted energy of Yomi fuels these creatures, and they rise with an insatiable hunger for the flesh of the living.

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 2

"Wait, Fu-chan," Kakeru suddenly said, "Let me go with Takashi-san." Fukasu looked at him, puzzled, and he replied, "You can fly over there quickly, but it'll take me longer to get there. So I should probably go first."

"Ok, we'll cover you."

Kakeru nodded, and he and Takashi crawled up over the road, down the other side, and began wading slowly through the rice paddy. Every time one of the saboteurs paused, Kakeru and Takashi paused as well. Kakeru could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and his own breathing sounded like a hurricane in his ears. Musashi and Fukasu struggled to control their own breath as he readied his bow and she drew her ninja-tō.

Takashi closed to within striking distance a moment ahead of Kakeru. He braced himself, took a deep breath, and lunged at the closest black-clad figure. The ninja looked up just in time to dodge out of the way of Takashi's powerful fist. Unfortunately for the young monk, this gave the ninja the perfect opportunity to jab his blade into his opponent's ribs. Uh-oh, Takashi thought, as the ninja-tō pierced his side.

Now aware that they were under attack, the other two ninja reacted. One identified herself as the leader by barking out orders to the other, who rushed Kakeru. The ninja slashed at the young shinkan, but missed wildly. Emboldened, Kakeru projected his will into the spirit world and beckoned the dancing spirits of flame and fire to come to his aid. He could see them dancing toward him, scurrying across the hazy terrain of the sprit world, when he felt a stabbing pain in his torso.

His vision snapped back to the material world, and he looked down to see a ninja-tō sticking out of his stomach, right above his navel. The ninja smiled and ripped the blade out, sending a spray of blood out across the water. Kakeru coughed once, spit out a mouthful of blood, and collapsed.

"No!" Fukasu screamed as she launched herself into the air. Her powerful wings sent a spray of water out around her with each beat. Musashi nocked an arrow, drew the bowstring, paused to let his breath synchronize with the beat of Fukasu's wings, and then let fly. The arrow zipped across the water, passing just under the hanyō's right wing, before missing the lead ninja's head by less than an inch.

While the shot missed its target, it provided Takashi with the distraction he needed, and he slammed an open palm into the leader's solar plexus. Even from his position across the water, Musashi could hear the breath burst from her lungs. Should I charge? he wondered for a moment. No, he realized, crossing the water will take too long. I will better serve my friends from here.

The ninja followers tumbled into position to flank Takashi, and were just about to strike when Fukasu swooped in from above. She landed in the middle of the group, which caused the two followers to cower in fear, and then tumbled behind the leader.

The first ninja, who Takashi had jumped, screamed and swung wildly, catching the young monk in the side of the face. "Ow!" Takashi cried as blood poured down over his chin. I can't take many more of those, he thought. The ninja leader swung at Takashi as well, but a well timed gust of wind from Fukasu's wings threw off her aim.

The monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning looked to his left to see one of Musashi's arrows pierce the second ninja's neck. The young man collapsed, his arterial blood creating a slick on the surface of the rice paddy. Takashi looked back to see the ninja leader staring at her fallen companion, and he took the opportunity to slam an elbow into her nose, causing her to yelp in pain.

"You die!" she screamed as she swiped at Takashi once again. This time, he easily sidestepped the wild swing, but he ran right into the other ninja's blade. Blood poured out into his robes as the blade was withdrawn, and he began to feel woozy. Concentrate, Takashi, he warned himself.

"You motherless dog!" the lead ninja screamed at Takashi. He raised his arms in an attempt to defend himself against another slash, but watched her face contort in pain instead. She gasped, gurgled, and fell face-forward into the warm, copper-colored water. Fukasu placed her foot on the woman's back and pulled her ninja-tō from between the corpse's shoulder blades.

The first ninja screamed again as his leader's lifeless body joined that of his friend, and he swung his blade blindly. Takashi tried to move, but the loss of his own blood slowed his reactions, and the blade cut deeply into his chest. Oh, crap, he thought as the world went gray.

Fukasu ignored the half-mad ninja and dove to the ground next to Takashi. She placed her hand against his neck to check for a pulse and found one, albeit weak. Thank you, great ancestors, she thought, for keeping my friend alive. She looked up at the remaining ninja and wondered if she would have to kill him next.

A third arrow from Musashi answered that question. The man cried in pain as the arrow sliced through his thigh. He turned and started to run, screamed in pain again, and hobbled as quickly as he could move. Fukasu turned her attention back to Takashi and Kakeru, and she began ripping off pieces of her robe to bind their wounds.

As she tightened the first of the makeshift bandages, she heard another scream, followed quickly by a splash, and looked up to see Musashi standing over the body of the last ninja, the string on his bow still quivering.

"Fu-chan? Are they still alive?" Musashi yelled as he sprinted toward Fukasu, who he could see was hurriedly bandaging their two fallen companions.

"Yes, but we need to get them back to town."

"Will they make it back?"

"They're stable, at least for now," she said as she picked up the young monk's body and placed it on the first cart. "Help me with Kakeru-kun," she said as she grabbed the young shinkan's feet. Musashi knelt down and grabbed his childhood friend around the shoulders, and then grunted as they lifted his substantial weight.

"We need to burn the bodies," Musashi said, nodding toward the fallen ninja.

"We should probably save one to see if Takayama-san can identify it."

"Good idea," Musashi grunted as they set Kakeru down. "Let's burn the two of them, and then I'll stay here with the remaining one."

"Why not bring it with us?" Fukasu said, puzzled.

"I would not disgrace Takayama-san by bringing the corpse of a criminal into his town," Musashi said, indignant. "Once you get Kakeru-kun and Takashi-san taken care of, you can ride back with him. He may also be able to identify anything out of the ordinary about this area."

"I'm not convinced, but this isn't time to argue," Fukasu shrugged.

The two travelers from Kurosawa pulled the corpses of the ninja onto the road. They poured lamp oil over two of them, and then Fukasu ignited them with a spark from a set of flint and steel. They watched the corpses burn for a minute, hoping that it would be enough to sever the tie between the bodies and Yomi, the realm of the dead.

"Will you be ok?" Fukasu asked as she climbed into the cart with her unconscious friends.

"Yes, Fu-chan," Musashi replied, seemingly without concern, "Just hurry."

***

Fukasu entered Takayama's manor with as much bluster as she could manage. Rice-paper doors slid open all over the house as the young hanyō dragged Kakeru and Takashi's unconscious bodies inside, shouting for Takayama all the while.

"What's going on?" Takayama yelled as he ran toward the group. Various servants crowded the hallway, and it took him a minute to push through. "Oh, great ancestors!" he exclaimed once he saw Fukasu standing over the limp bodies of her companions.

"Do you have anyone that can help?" Fukasu implored.

The kuramoto of Takayama Sakagura stared at the scene mutely for a moment before answering, "What? Oh yes, of course!" He turned to one of his young servants and said, "Go fetch Chuichi-san. Quickly!" The servant ran out into the village, and Takayama knelt down next to the three adventurers. "What happened?"

"We ran into three of the ninja that were salting your fields," Fukasu said.

"Ninja?" Takayama looked shocked.

"Yes, ninja," Fukasu said matter-of-factly, "This is the work of someone dedicated to hurting you."

Takayama stared at the two bloody bodies at his feet and let out a great sigh. "This is unbelievable," he said, shaking his head. "Wait, where's Musashi-sama?"

"He's waiting back in the field. We need you to come back with us to see if you can identify the any of the corpses of the dead ninja."

Takayama looked disgusted, "Why would I know any ninja?"

Fukasu shrugged, "We're just trying to eliminate all possibilities."

After a moment, the servant returned with a middle-aged man dressed in robes similar to Kakeru's. "Chuichi-san," Takayama stood up to greet him. "Fukasu-sama, this is Chuichi-san. He is our town shinkan. Please allow him to help."

Fukasu nodded as Chuichi knelt down next to her. He looked at the bodies of her companions, and then looked over at her and nearly jumped out of his skin. Fukasu sighed, and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.

"My apologies, Fukasu-sama," the shinkan said as he recomposed himself.

"It's ok - just help my friends."

The shinkan nodded, and Fukasu watched as he summoned the same blue energy that Kakeru had always used to heal her. Less than a minute later, both of her companions were up on their feet. While Fukasu filled them in on the events that had transpired after they had been knocked out, Kakeru looked down at the hole in his robes. He poked one finger through, and gently rubbed his belly. Well, he thought, that didn't work out too well.

***

Musashi leaned against one of the remaining carts. I hope they get back soon, he thought, it's getting cold out here. A chill ran up his spine, and he shivered. He couldn't see anything out in the darkness, and he couldn't hear anything splashing through the field, so he took a deep breath. Get control over yourself, Musashi. Fear is not an option for a samurai.

The wind whipped across the fields, rippling the standing water. The horses snorted nervously, and a low, deep drone, like a tree groaning in the wind, caught his ear. He looked around in alarm. I can't see any trees, he thought. Was that one of the horses? What was that sound? He looked at the cart he was leaning against, at the corpse of the ninja rising to its feet, at the road stretching off into the darkness, at the two horses, and then back at the reanimated corpse... What the? Oh, great ancestors!

land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 1

For ten generations, the twin towns of Takayama and Tsumago have produced the finest sake in Tsurukoku. Samurai and shinkan, noble and peasant, human and kitsune alike have coveted the amakuchi, or sweet sake, of Takayama and the karakuchi, or dry sake, of Tsumago. It was only fitting, then, that a cask of each of Kurosawa's most valuable exports be offered to the fire crane, Tsurukoku's most potent spiritual guardian.

With his uncanny ability to track down sources of alcohol, Kakeru led the group directly to the Takayama brewery, at which point they introduced themselves to Takayama Takezo, the kuramoto.

"Welcome to Takayama Sakagura, Kurosawa-sama" he said as he bowed to the four representatives of his lord. "It brings us great honor to be able to offer our sacred spirit to the fire crane."

"It is our honor to be the ones to deliver this offering," Kakeru replied.

Takayama gestured to a short, elderly man dressed in a tattered headband and sweat-stained peasants' clothes. "Allow me to introduce Kenji-toji[1], our head brewer."

"Please, forgive my appearance, Kurosawa-sama," Kenji said with a wavering voice as he bowed deeply, "It is hot and very humid inside the brewery."

"Think nothing of it."

"Kenji-san has been with us for a very long time," Takayama interjected, "Even before my father ran the brewery."

"Yes, indeed," the old man smiled, "I started as an apprentice when your grandfather was the toji. He was the finest brewer I have ever known."

Takayama took a moment to smile to himself before continuing. "Oh! Perhaps Kenji-san would be so kind as to take you on a tour of the brewery. Would you like to learn about the process of brewing sake?"

"Absolutely!" Kakeru almost blurted out, before catching himself and responding with a considerably more polite, "It would be our honor."

Kenji spent an hour leading the four young travelers though the sake-making process. He began in the mill, where the hard husk of the rice was ground away, leaving only the pure starch center. Then he walked them past the springs, where the residue left from the milling process was washed away. Next, he showed them the shikomi: large wooden tanks where the rice mash fermented for nearly a month. At each point, he spent several minutes discussing the intricacies involved in getting each step just right. While Musashi, Fukasu, and Takashi listened politely, Kakeru hung on every word.

Finally, Kenji ushered the group into a small room that was warmer and far more humid than the rest of the brewery. Stacks of wooden trays lined the walls of the room, and the old toji tottered over to one stack. He deftly lifted the top of the stack and removed one tray from the center. "This," Kenji said with a smile, "is the secret of our sake."

He held out the tray to show the group. Inside was a layer of rice that looked like it was covered in a soft, black fur. "This is koji - rice that we have cultured with a very special mold. This is what is added to the rice and water mash that causes the fermentation."

Musashi looked at the moldy rice with disdain. It looked neither clean nor proper - certainly something a samurai would leave to others to employ.

That's where sake comes from? Takashi thought to himself with alarm.

Cool, thought Fukasu.

"Would it be proper for me to bless the koji?" Kakeru asked.

"Oh, that would be most gracious of you," Kenji replied, then put the tray back in its place in the stack.

Kakeru stepped forward, held his hand out in front of the stacks of koji, took a deep breath, and thought of all the wonderful sake that would eventually be produced. So much sake, he thought to himself. He imagined how long it would take to drink all of that sake, and realized with glee just how very, very drunk he could be the entire time. That could take years. The thought made him giddy.

"Um, Kakeru-kun?" he heard Fukasu say, "You're just standing there with your eyes closed."

The young shinkan snapped out of his reverie. He wondered how long he had been dreaming about the sake, decided it was best not to ask, and cleared his throat, "Great spirits, honorable ancestors, please protect and bless this sakagura, the people in it, and the sake it produces." Especially the sake.

Kenji was delighted. He smiled and clapped his hands. "Thank you Kakeru-sama," he said with a bow, "We can use the protection of the spirits with what's been going on here recently."

Musashi raised an eyebrow, "What's been going on?"

Kenji sighed, "Someone has been salting the rice fields."

Musashi knew little about farming, but he was pretty sure that wasn't good. "What effect does that have?"

"It kills off the rice and prevents the land from being used for a very long time."

"An assault upon these lands is an assault upon Lord Kurosawa himself!" Musashi cried.

"More importantly, an assault upon these lands is an assault upon the sake!" said Kakeru, aghast.

"Yes, I'm afraid so, on both accounts," the old man replied.

Musashi looked askance at Kakeru, and then asked, "Do you have any idea what kind of dishonorable dogs would do something like this?"

"Yes," Kakeru continued, "Who would try to harm the sake?"

Kenji just shrugged, "I can't imagine. Who doesn't like sake?"

With that, the head brewer of Takayama sakagura ended his tour. The four heroes talked to the kurabito, or brewery workers, for another hour before heading to the kuramoto's manor. "Kurosawa-sama," he greeted them, "I trust that you enjoyed your tour. Please join me for dinner."

"I like dinner," Takashi quipped.

Takayama introduced the four heroes to his wife, Keiko, and his teenage son, Ichiro. Both parties exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before sitting down around a low, round, ebony table. Takayama's servants brought out bowls of steaming-hot rice, plates of pork cutlets, and dozens of wooden bottles of sake.

While Fukasu, Kakeru, and Takashi attacked their dinner with zeal, Musashi simply frowned and pushed the rice from one side of the bowl to the other. Finally, he could hold his tongue no longer. "Takayama-san," he said, "Why are your fields being salted?"

The kuramoto nearly choked on his rice as he looked at Musashi in surprise. "Who told you of this?"

"Kenji-san," Musashi replied, coolly, "He is concerned about the dishonor that this sabotage brings to our lord."

"And to the sake," Kakeru added in between bites of rice.

"Um, well, I" Takayama stammered.

"Do you have any idea who would dishonor our lord like this?" Musashi asked. "Could it be a peasant uprising? Perhaps a rival clan seeks to harm us?"

Takayama's son, Ichiro, slammed his bowl of rice and pork down onto the table. "It's obviously Tsumago-san!" he exclaimed. "That dog seeks to destroy us, I know it!"

"Ichiro! Mind your tongue!" the kuramoto said as he rose to his feet. He grabbed his son and ushered him out of the room. Keiko stood up, bowed politely, and exited the room, sliding the paper screen closed behind her.

The four heroes from Kurosawa looked at each other in confusion, and then they heard the three members of the Takayama family begin screaming at each other. After less than a minute of listening to the argument, Fukasu set her food down. "I don't think I'm hungry any more," she said softly.

Half an hour later, during which time Musashi, Kakeru, Takashi, and Fukasu all sat in uncomfortable silence, Takayama returned to the table. He bowed his head, "I am sorry that you had to witness that. My son believes that Tsumago-san is trying to sabotage us, but that explanation doesn't make sense to me."

"Why is that, Takayama-san?" said Kakeru.

"Tsumago-san and I have been on very good terms for many years, and we're not really in competition."

"Have you set out to catch these criminals?" Musashi asked.

"Well," Takayama looked uncomfortable, "I have asked the farmers to keep a lookout, and to report anything suspicious."

"This is no job for a peasant," Musashi said in disgust.

"Perhaps we can investigate this situation for you, Takayama-san," Kakeru offered. "Earlier, I took the liberty of asking the kurabito where this vandalism was taking place. They said that it was happening in your northern fields."

"That's correct."

"We can stake it out tonight and hope that we get lucky," Fukasu suggested.

"I would greatly appreciate that, but I can't ask you to put yourselves in the way of danger."

"You do not need to ask," Musashi said firmly, "We will do this for the honor of our clan."

"We will do this to protect the sake," Kakeru added. Everyone stopped and turned to look at him, and after a moment, he added, "Err, and to bring honor to the clan."

Later that evening, as the crescent moon reached the apex of its journey through the clear night sky, Fukasu, Musashi, Takashi, and Kakeru took up positions hiding alongside the raised roads of Takayama's northern fields. Each minute seemed to last an hour, as the four travelers strained to see the source of every flickering shadow and every fleeting sound.

Fortunately, they didn't have to wait long. Within an hour, three horse-drawn carts rattled down the road, each piled high with burlap sacks. The carts stopped in the middle of the field, and three black-clad figures descended. After a moment of whispered conversation, they began to unload their cargo. When the first figure sliced into a bag and dumped its contents into the water, the four friends nodded to each other in agreement.

"Fukasu and I have the best chance of surprising them," Takashi whispered. Musashi and Kakeru nodded in agreement, and Fukasu readied her ninja-tō.

"Ok," the young hanyō ninja whispered back. "Let's go kill the bad guys."

[1] A brief sake glossary.

  • Sakagura (also known as a Kura) - a sake brewery. There are hundreds of local sake breweries throughout Tsurukoku, but the breweries in Takayama and Tsumago are among the largest.
  • Kuramoto - brewer, head of the kura. He is the noble in charge of the operation of the brewery and the town that supports it.
  • Toji - the head brewer. He is responsible for making sure the brewing process is carried out correctly.
  • Koji - the rice cultured with mold.

land of the crane: bakeinu mambo

Long cords of saliva streamed from the bakeinu's mouths as they leapt and bounded across the watery terrain. Takashi and Musashi jumped down out of the cart and charged toward the pack of small, green goblinoids, running part of the way and splashing the rest. Upon reaching the lead creature, Musashi drew his katana and swung it in an overhead arc, rising quickly and then descending powerfully. Unfortunately, all he hit was the water at his feet when the bakeinu dodged out of the way. Damn! These things are quick, he thought.

Fukasu, in turn, jumped from the cart, unfurled her wings, and caught an air current in one fluid motion. With two mighty flaps, she covered the distance to the snarling pack, and then splashed down into the rice paddy, grimacing as she sank up to her ankles in the soft earth. She lashed out at the nearest barking bakeinu with her ninja-tō, but it was too fast for her blade.

Upon seeing the inefficacy of his companions, Kakeru closed his eyes and projected his will into the realm of the spirits. "Great ancestors," he intoned, "please guide the blades and fists of my companions." He opened his eyes to see the faint outlines of his ancestral spirits as they shimmered in the midday sun. The spirits watched the fight over the shoulders of his companions, and, he noticed as it progressed, would occasionally bend down to whisper advice in their ears.

I hope that helps, the young shinkan thought to himself, but I better get over there just in case. He hefted himself down from the cart, and felt the mud squish over his geta and between his toes. It was a feeling he was becoming all too familiar with, all too quickly.

As the rest of the bakeinu pack closed in on the party, Takashi kicked ineffectually at the bakeinu closest to him. It lunged and clawed at his chest, scraping and tearing at the skin that was only minimally protected by his robes. A second of the vicious, green goblinoids cut deeply into Fukasu's midsection with its hard, black claws, and a third clamped its jaws down on her forearm. She screamed, and managed to shake the creature off, but not before it had severed her flesh and cracked the bone beneath. She stumbled backward, adrenaline the only thing keeping her from blacking out from the pain, while the bakeinu shook its whole body in a blood-fueled frenzy. Like a dog shaking off water, it flung a mixture of its own drool and Fukasu's blood everywhere.

Musashi took a deep breath, filling his body with power and energy, and swung his ancestral blade once again. This time, the only thing that hit the water at his feet was the head of the bakeinu in front of him.

Kakeru sprinted over to Fukasu, his legs pumping furiously as he fought against the mud. With a whisper and a touch, he channeled the power of the spirits and mended her wounds. Fukasu looked at her mended arm in surprise and then glanced over at Kakeru. That's still really strange, she thought.

She then looked up to see that Takashi was surrounded by three of the creatures, while Musashi and the farmer held off the remaining two. Takashi was a whirlwind of kicks and punches, and while it didn't look like he was hitting any of the creatures, he was successfully keeping them from piling on top of him. Now fully healed, Fukasu charged back into the melee, dodging past Musashi's shining katana and taking a position directly behind one of the three green goblinoids that was threatening Takashi. With a flick of her wrist, she slid her ninja-tō into the back of its neck, severing its spinal cord.

Unfortunately, she was not quick enough to prevent the other two bakeinu from opening up Takashi's stomach. They growled and snarled and gnashed their teeth as they tore into the monk's midsection, and Takashi screamed in pain. He took one look at the blood spilling out of the gashes in his belly and he turned and ran toward Kakeru.

Meanwhile, Musashi and the farmer slashed at the other two creatures with katana and sickle. One bakeinu fell to the peasant's blade, but the second proved particularly jumpy, which made it hard for Musashi's powerful blows to hit.

Kakeru met Takashi halfway and implored the spirits to heal yet another of his friends. A blue glow washed over the monk's torso, and he immediately turned and ran back into the fray. Unfortunately, he ran back into the waiting claws of the two bakeinu who had injured him previously. Takashi yelled as the two beasts dragged him down into the water.

Oh no¸ Kakeru thought. Water and mud splashed everywhere as the two creatures tore at Takashi's limp body. "Hang on Takashi-san!" he yelled as he charged the bakeinu nearest to him. His powerful legs carried him across the distance in less than a second, at which point he planted his front foot, and punted the creature with his back foot, instantly breaking its neck. Fukasu screamed in fury and jabbed her blade repeatedly between the shoulder blades of the other creature, until it, too stopped moving.

Musashi's blade finally found its target, and the last of the bakeinu fell in a lifeless heap. He turned to see Kakeru desperately healing Takashi. Waves of blue energy poured out of the shinkan's hands and into the young monk's limp body, and after a few moments, Takashi coughed, spat out water, and groaned.

With Takashi out of danger, the group turned their attention to the farmer who had originally been chasing the bakeinu. Musashi looked at him and raised an eyebrow, which was enough for him to begin bowing furiously. "Thank you, Kurosawa-sama, thank you, thank you, thank you," he said, grimacing with each bow.

Musashi nodded back, and then wiped the blood from his katana as he sheathed it. He paused for a second, frowned, and then asked, "How did you know we were of Kurosawa?"

The farmer kept his eyes focused on the ground, "I have seen our great lord's samurai pass through Takayama on occasion. Their armor is the same as yours."

"You're very observant for a peasant," Musashi remarked.

"Oh! Thank you, Kuraosawa-sama," the man smiled broadly, but kept looking at the ground.

Kakeru interrupted, speaking to the man in a tone much less harsh than his samurai companion, "Why were you chasing these bakeinu? They're very dangerous creatures."

"Oh, yes," he looked at the bodies of the dead bakeinu with contempt, "Over the past few days, they have trampled through my rice paddies, killed off a number of my chickens, and frightened my wife. I was getting a great deal annoyed."

"Ah," Kakeru nodded, "I am Kurosawa Kakeru, and these are my traveling companions, Kurosawa Fukasu, Kurosawa Musashi, and Takashi. And you are?"

"I am Korgusai[1]," he said, bowing so far that his torso was parallel to the ground, "I thank you all for ridding me of these terrible creatures. Now, perhaps, my wife can sleep soundly at night."

Oooh, sleep, Fukasu thought to herself, remembering the soft, down-filled futon she used to sleep on back in the daimyō's castle.

Takashi also thought about sleep, but he remembered the hard wooden bench he slept on at the monastery. At least I wasn't in danger of being eaten by bakeinu, he thought to himself.

"If it would not offend you, Kurosawa-sama," the peasant said as humbly as he possibly could, "You would honor me greatly by accepting my hospitality this evening."

Musashi, Kakeru, and Fukasu each looked at each other and shrugged. Takashi merely groaned from his spot on the ground. "Accepting your hospitality would be a fitting tribute to our lord," Kakeru said. With that, the farmer led the four travelers to his home: a square, wooden hut with a vaulted, bamboo roof. Behind the hut were a couple of smaller wooden structures, including a shed and a chicken coop.

The farmer introduced the party to his wife, Etsu, who greeted them with as much bowing and self-deprecation as her husband had. She apologized for the small size of their hut, for the poor quality of the chicken and rice stew she had prepared for dinner, for the dampness of the tatami, and for the trouble that her thoughtless husband had imposed upon them.

Kakeru made sure to complement the woman on all of the things that she had apologized for. The hut was "roomy," the stew "delicious," the tatami "of very nice quality," and the trouble "our sacred duty as defenders of the Kurosawa lands." Musashi, by contrast, spent the evening looking and feeling uncomfortable. I'll never understand why peasants choose to live like this, he thought.

The next morning, Kakeru, Musashi, Takashi, and Fukasu bid farewell to their hosts and resumed their journey. Within an hour, they were in the center of the town of Takayama. "Where are we heading?" Fukasu asked.

Kakeru looked at her and grinned, "To the brewery!"

[1] Noble Tsurukokan names are composed of a family name followed by a given name (e.g. Kurosawa Kakeru), while commoners are not permitted to use family names (e.g. Takashi). Some adventurers give themselves descriptive titles that take the place of their family name (or lack of family name, in the case of non-nobles). For example, the kitsune monk seen previously in the story introduced himself as Shuudoushi Kenjiro. "Shuudoushi" means "wandering monk."

land of the crane: hiro returns

"We should help them," Musashi shouted, and then took off running down the hill, followed closely by Takashi and Fukasu. They could see another samurai slashing at the creature's left claw with a katana; a man who moved like a monk, but who was dressed in elaborately embroidered, sky-blue robes, bashing the other claw with a pair of escrima sticks; a third man in a peasant's outfit jabbing the creature in the tail with a ninja-tō; and a woman wearing the traditional outfit of an onmyōji standing atop the next hill.

Takashi reached the beast and slammed his fist into its chitinous exoskeleton. A second too late, he realized that the oni's carapace was covered in thousands of tiny, hooked barbs. He grimaced as chunks of his skin ripped away from his fist, and tried to fight off a wave of nausea to no avail.

The samurai swung next. Musashi caught a glimpse of the man's sword when he slashed through the tip of the creature's left claw. That sword looks familiar, he thought as he stepped in close. After dodging one of the creature's tentacles, he looked over at the other man, and realized why he looked familiar. "Hiro?" he said, in shock.

The samurai looked over to see his younger brother's look of surprise, and then past him to see a young hanyō girl jab her ninja-tō into a gap between two chitinous plates. Green blood squirted out and hit her in the face, and he suppressed a smile. "Musashi? Fu-chan? What are you doing here?"

The onmyōji woman pressed the tips of her index and middle fingers to her lips and then whispered a mystic phrase. The words flew from her mouth and swirled above the oni, like bats in a feeding frenzy. Then, suddenly, a pillar of flame erupted from the middle of the swarm and struck the tentacled creature, causing it to spasm twice, then die.

The man in the exotic robes looked over at Fukasu with surprise, and then shouted something in a language that she didn't understand. In response, the man in the peasant outfit tumbled out from behind the carcass of the beast, and rose to a fighting stance, while the female onmyōji pressed her fingers to her lips again and began to whisper.

Hiro looked around at the activity of his partners, looked at Fukasu, and then waved his arms frantically. "No, no, no!" he shouted, and then barked out something equally frantic in the foreign language that the other had used.

The onmyōji paused, and the two men looked at Hiro suspiciously. "This is Fukasu," he said, pointing to the young ninja, "She's a hanyō who was raised in my daimyō's palace." He smiled and patted her on the back, "She's ok!"

The man in the blue robes slid his escrima sticks into his belt, placed his right fist against the palm of his left hand, and bowed deeply; the man in the peasant garb sheathed his ninja-tō, smiled broadly, and swaggered up to the young heroes; and the onmyōji woman stepped into the shadow of a tree then appeared by Hiro's side. She placed her hand on the elder Kurosawa samurai's shoulder and smiled cattily at Fukasu.

"This is my little brother, Musashi," Hiro said with a smile. Musashi bowed to each of his brother's companions.

"You've already met Fukasu-san," he laughed. Fukasu smiled nervously and bowed.

"That's Kakeru-san," he said, pointing to the young shinkan who was just now pulling the cart up to the scene.

He turned toward Takashi, "I'm sorry, my brave friend, but I do not believe we have ever been introduced."

"I am Takashi," the young monk replied, "of the Temple of Thunder and Lightning."

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Takashi-san." Hiro said, and bowed just enough to be appropriate; samurai never bowed deeply to those of a lower class. He turned to his companions and introduced them to the four pilgrims. Li Cao, the man in the exotic robes, turned out to be a monk from the lands of Xin, far to the east of Tsurukoku. The man in peasant clothing was named Isobe Jin, and was apparently a ninja in disguise. The onmyōji woman introduced herself as Yamashira Taka.

With introductions complete, the two adventuring parties sat down to rest. Hiro looked over at his brother and asked, "So why are you all out here?"

"We're taking the clan's offering to the Fire Crane."

"Oh, that's right," he nodded, then laughed, "I forgot what year it was." He turned to his companions, "I led the party that took my clan's offering to Tsuchitora, what was it, six years ago?"

"Seven," Taka corrected him.

"Thank you, Ta-chan," he winked at her, "Years and dates really aren't my strong point."

Or numbers, or words, Musashi thought to himself, "What have you been doing lately, Hiro?"

"Hunting oni," he replied with a satisfied smile.

Fukasu looked over at him, eyes wide and mouth agape.

"Oh, uhh, that is," he stammered quickly, "Only bad oni."

Fukasu cringed and Hiro sighed, "At any rate, we're on our way back to Kurosawa. I'm going to introduce Ta-chan to father." The onmyōji woman blushed and smiled, then gazed at Hiro with adoration. "We're going to be married," he whispered.

"I'm sure my father would be happy to perform the ceremony," Kakeru offered.

The two groups talked for a few more hours before moving on. Hiro, Taka, Jin, and Li Cao set to the task of burning the dead oni's body, while Kakeru, Fukasu, Musashi, and Takashi climbed back into the cart and pressed on.

The four heroes from Kurosawa spent the next few days riding along the road, stopping each night to camp in fields filled with wheat and barley – some of the few fields in Tsurukoku that grew grain other than rice. The peasants who worked the fields bowed and prostrated themselves to the heroes as they passed by. Musashi nodded to them as they passed. It's good that they know their place, he thought to himself.

On the 13th day of Utsuki, the heroes left the fields behind and rode into the rice paddies surrounding the town of Takayama. On either side of the road, the ground sloped down several feet, at which point it was covered in a foot of water. Beneath the water grew the life-giving rice that over ninety-five percent of Tsurukokans depended upon to live.

Suddenly, the sounds of shouting and barking startled the group. Fukasu looked over to her right only to see a farmer wielding a sickle chasing a pack of snarling, snapping, drooling bakeinu directly toward them.

land of the crane: shuudoushi kenjiro

Musashi's hand immediately went to the hilt of his katana, while Fukasu simply rolled over and groaned. Kakeru cleared his throat and sighed inwardly, "Define 'worthy opponents.'"

The kitsune[1] monk bowed slightly, and then said, "I am from the Temple of the Fire Monkey, and I have been wandering these lands looking to improve my skills by facing other warriors in combat."

Kakeru nodded, "Are you looking for lethal combat?"

Kenjiro frowned and looked uncomfortable, "No. Though the power of the Fire Monkey is extremely formidable, the members of our temple have vowed never to take a life intentionally."

That must be why I've never heard of it, Musashi thought as he relaxed his grip on his sword ever so slightly.

Takashi stared at the other monk while he and Kakeru spoke. He doesn't look that tough, he thought to himself, and I'd like to see how the Way of the Storm measures up against other styles. "Ok," he said, stepping forward, "I'll take you on."

"Thank you," Kenjiro said as he bowed deeply. Kakeru and Musashi looked at each other, shrugged, then hopped out of the cart, walked over to the grass by the side of the road, and took up positions at the opposite corners of a twenty-foot square.

Fukasu propped herself up in the back of the cart and watched as the two monks walked to the center of the improvised ring. "Go Takashi-san!" she yelled, then blushed slightly when he looked startled.

The two monks bowed to each other, then assumed fighting stances. Takashi held his fists at the level of his shoulders, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. His posture was deliberately straight as he tried to make himself appear as tall and imposing as possible. Kenjiro, by contrast, assumed a hunched posture, and moved erratically, bobbing and swaying, even as he stood in place.

After a moment, the fight began without a word. The kitsune monk sidestepped toward Takashi with a bouncing gait, his arms swinging wildly from side to side. Within a second, he had closed the distance to his opponent. He planted one foot firmly on the ground and let the momentum he had generated spin him around. As he spun, he released a powerful kick directly at Takashi's chest.

Takashi stepped back and twisted his torso out of the way. Then, realizing that Kenjiro had left his leg extended an instant too long, he wrapped an arm around the extended calf, trapping it against his ribs. Next, he stepped forward and buried the knuckles of his other hand deep into the exposed soft tissue of his opponent's inner thigh. Kenjiro grimaced as every muscle in his legs spasmed at once.

The kitsune monk summoned his inner will, forcing his ki to concentrate in his left arm. His first burst into flame, and he swung at his opponent's chest. Unfortunately, Takashi anticipated the blow, and twisted at the waist. Kenjiro's stunning attack struck him in the thick, tough lats, and dissipated harmlessly.

Takashi continued to twist, and, once he had his back to Kenjiro, crouched slightly and hooked his other arm under the fox monk's leg. He twisted, bent forward, and lifted all at the same time, which sent his opponent flying over his shoulder. When Kenjiro reached the apex of the throw, Takashi kicked his rear leg back and yanked downward. The kitsune monk didn't even have time to brace himself for the fall; he hit the ground face first.

Kakeru let out a low whistle, while Musashi grimaced. Fukasu threw her arms in the air and yelled, "Woohoo!" Even from her vantage point, it was obvious that Kenjiro was out cold. Takashi stood up and smiled, "Ha!"

After congratulating Takashi, Kakeru knelt down, placed his hand on the kitsune's chest, and uttered a life-giving prayer. Kenjiro coughed and gingerly rolled over onto his back, at which point Musashi extended his hand and helped the fallen monk to his feet; he remembered all too well what it felt like to be at the wrong end of Takashi's throws.

Over the next few hours, the four pilgrims and the wandering monk sat by the side of the road and shared some food, some sake, and what few exciting stories they had.

"Kenjiro-san, what other warriors have you faced?" Takashi asked after a few cups of sake.

"Sadly, not many. I began my pilgrimage only a few months ago, and have met only three warriors who were interested in fighting me, including you." He sipped at his cup of the sacred liquid, and then took a bite from the rice noodle and rabbit stew that he cooked for the rest of the group.

"Ah," Takashi nodded, "How many have you won?"

Kenjiro fell silent for a moment, then sighed, "None." He smiled wanly, "But I'm confident that I'm learning."

The group slurped at their stew for a moment before Kenjiro spoke again. "I did meet one very interesting monk from the Temple of the Silent Lake. He had a very defensive fighting style. I couldn't get in a single hit on him. But he was strange-looking."

Kakeru couldn't help but note the irony of a kitsune labeling someone as "strange-looking," so he asked the obvious question, "What made him strange-looking?"

"He was a human, but his hair was the color of straw, and his eyes like a sapphire. I've never seen anything like it before."

Musashi felt a sense of fraternity with the kitsune, since he was the only other person he knew who had been dropped on his head by Takashi. "Kenjiro-san," Musashi said, "Would you care to join our pilgrimage? I'm sure that you would be able to encounter a fair number of warriors against who you could test your skill."

Kenjiro slurped loudly from his bowl and chewed for a moment. "I am honored that you would ask me, Musashi-san, but I think my fate lies elsewhere."

Musashi nodded, and chewed on his own noodles. While he knew that the Itsutsu Shukumei[2] gave each person their own fate to fulfill, he couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed; he was fond of the wandering monk.

Before nightfall, Kenjiro bid the party farewell, and continued on his musha shugyo[3]. The group spent the next few days traveling; Kakeru, Musashi, and Fukasu tried to rest along the way, but each ended up being used by Takashi as a practice dummy.

On the afternoon of the 9th day of the 4th month of the year 337 of the Ito shogunate, the four travelers from Kurosawa crested a grassy hill only to see a creature that looked like a cross between a lobster and a squid, but nearly twenty feet from the end of its fluked tail to tips of its hooked tentacles, locked in combat with four other adventurers.

"Oni!" Takashi exclaimed.

[1] Kitsune, one of the playable backgrounds of the Land of the Crane, are a race of mischievous, shape-changing foxes.

[2] The five celestial dragons known as Itsutsu Shukumei are the guardians of fate. They determine the events that affect the lives of every living creature, and dispatch their spirit servants to affect these events.

When each living creature is born, the five fates create an urn, into which they place stones engraved with magical kanji, each of which represents an event that will occur in the creature's life.

[3] The musha shugyo, or "warrior's pilgrimage," is a Tsurukokan tradition whereby young warriors of all stripes leave their families and monasteries and travel the land, fighting in duels to hone their skills and promote the names of their martial schools or fighting styles.

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."

land of the crane: the shrine, part 2

"Aaaaah! A spirit!" Fukasu screamed.

"Aaaaah! An oni!" the spirit of the monk screamed. Fukasu turned and ran out of the shrine at the same time that the sprit turned and fled back into the altar. After a moment, Fukasu poked her head around the corner, and the spirit stuck his head out of the altar. Kakeru rolled his eyes, and decided it was time to intervene.

"Oh venerable master," Kakeru addressed the spirit, "we are but humble travelers, sent by our honorable lord, Kurosawa, to deliver an offering to the great Hizuru."

The spirit eyed Fukasu suspiciously, but re-emerged from his altar, "What business do you have here?"

Fukasu shivered and decided that she'd had quite enough of spirits, so she fluttered up to the roof to wait.

"Kadonomaro-shihan," Takashi said as he bowed deeply to the spirit of the founder of his monastery, "I am a student at the Temple of Thunder and Lightning, and I've been selected to represent our temple on this journey. So I have come to ask for your blessing."

"Ah," Kadonomaro nodded, "so you are not the ones who have defiled my shrine."

"Oh, no, no, not at all," Kakeru assured him.

"Hmmm, very well," the spirit grumbled. He looked around at the three travelers for a moment, and then grumbled again, "That does not change the fact, though, that my eternal resting place has suddenly become a swamp."

"Perhaps, venerable master," said Kakeru, "If we can figure out how to restore your shrine to its former state, you would see fit to grant us your blessing." He smiled reassuringly, though he had no idea whether or not they would be able to accomplish what he had just offered.

"Mmmm, yes, I would certainly offer you my blessing if you were to accomplish that," Kadonomaro replied.

"Shihan, can you tell us when this happened?" Takashi asked.

The old spirit closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment. Time becomes an unimportant concept to immortal spirits, and they often have great difficultly translating their experience into terms mortals can understand. "I believe it happened about a month ago," he offered.

"Thank you, shihan," said Takashi.

"We will do everything in our power to restore the sanctity of your shrine, venerable master," said Kakeru as he bowed deeply. The spirit nodded and then floated back into the altar.

Only when the spirit of the old monk was out of sight did Musashi allow himself to react. I don't like spirits, he thought to himself as he shivered visibly. Fu-chan had the right idea.

The four heroes regrouped outside of the shrine. Though night was rapidly approaching, they set off downstream, illuminated only by the golden glow of the setting sun. Tromping through the swampy muck proved to be both dirty and exhausting, though, so when Kakeru misjudged the solidity of a patch of ground and fell into a waist-deep pit of mud, the group decided to call it a night. Takashi, Fukasu, and Musashi found relatively dry places to curl up, while Kakeru decided to climb the hill and fetch Yagi and the wagon.

The next morning, everyone woke up damp, muddy, and covered in mosquito bites. Kakeru rejoined his three companions in the valley, and the four intrepid heroes pressed on. After an hour or so of slopping through the muck and pushing through the reeds, the party finally arrived at the cause of the backed-up stream: a dam built from bamboo, lashed together with rope, and sealed with pitch. The dam wasn't particularly large; it stood no higher than Musashi's waist and stretched only a hundred feet from end to end, but it was big enough to block off the stream.

Beyond the dam, lay, presumably, the reason the obstruction was built in the first place: a small, thatched-roof house that was not much bigger than Kadonomaro's shrine. Takashi hopped over the bamboo obstruction and headed toward the house. The rest of the party followed, but stopped short when a strange figure appeared from the opposite side of the house.

A samurai, or, at least, someone wearing black ōyoroi[1] armor and bearing a katana, began walking slowly toward them. Every inch of the figure was hidden under armor of some sort. Even the face was concealed from view by a black mask.

Kakeru stepped out in front of the group and began to speak, "Honorable sir, we are but humble travelers. We have come from the shrine of Kadonomaro, just upstream, and are concerned about this dam that you've built." The figure paused while Kakeru spoke, but then began advancing once he stopped.

Takashi decided that waiting was futile, so he leapt into action; he sprinted across the dry ground and threw a roundhouse kick at the samurai's torso. Musashi charged, his hand on the hilt of his katana, muscles tensing, waiting for just the right moment. To his friends, it seemed like he waited forever; he was mere inches from the black-clad figure when he planted his feet and transferred his momentum into a massive swing that slammed into the figure's chest.

The figure made no sound as it swung at Musashi. Fortunately for the young samurai, his own haramaki[2] deflected the blow. Fortunately for Fukasu, the figure's swing left a small seam under his left arm exposed, and she took full advantage of the opening. She drew her ninja-tō and plunged it directly into the seam, which resulted in the figure stopping in place with a loud "klunk." Fukasu withdrew her blade and looked at her companions with a puzzled expression, "Klunk?"

[1] This heavy, boxy suit is the archetypical samurai armor. It is constructed of leather and steel scales laced together, which hang from the shoulders. A full suit also includes kote, leg guards known as suneate, armored tabi, and a helmet, known as kabuto.

[2] This medium weight armor is constructed of leather and steel scales laced to a leather plate. It is intended for mass production, though, and is, thus, more bulky than the domaru armor on which its design is based.

land of the crane: the shrine, part 1

Musashi woke up in pain. He opened his eyes to see a very blurry Kakeru hovering over him, with what he could only assume was a look of concern. Realizing he was lying on his back, a very indefensible position, he tried to sit up. He only made it about halfway before a wave of nausea washed over him, forcing him to lie back down. "What happened?"

"You landed on your head," Kakeru answered.

"Hard," Fukasu added as she appeared next to Kakeru.

Musashi held his head and groaned. That's right, I was testing the monk...

"Satisfied?" Takashi asked as he, too, appeared in Musashi's field of vision.

"Yes, you've successfully demonstrated your ability to defend yourself in combat." He forced himself to sit up, suppressed another wave of nausea, and continued, "The Way of the Storm is powerful, and worthy of its reputation." It is powerful, indeed, he thought, exactly the kind of power I could use to my advantage.

Musashi suffered from a pounding headache for the rest of the day. While he relaxed with Fukasu and Kakeru, Takashi received final instructions from Sanjiro.

"Takashi-san," the kanju addressed his student, "Before you leave these lands, you must seek the blessing of Kadonomaro-shihan. Have you visited his shrine yet?"

"Yes, sensei. I accompanied Kazuko when he took the offering last year." When Kadonomaro, the founder of the Way of the Storm, chose a location to build his monastery, he picked a place with great strategic value, but no esthetic appeal. When, in his last days, he chose the location where his shrine would be built, he picked a small valley a day's ride to the north, where a solitary cherry tree stood by a trickling brook.

The next morning, the four heroes left the Temple of Thunder and Lightning, and headed north. As before, Fukasu and Musashi rode in the cart, while Kakeru took the reins. Takashi walked alongside the cart; he liked walking, and he wasn't sure he trusted these people yet.

The group said little as the day progressed. Musashi, as usual, scanned the horizon for signs of potential trouble while occasionally throwing sidelong glances at the monk. Fukasu curled up in the cart and took a nap, while Kakeru ignored a lecture from his grandfather's spirit on the declining use of honorifics by the younger generation.

Near sundown, the group reached the valley that held Kadonomaro's shrine. The path that led down the hillside was too steep to take the cart down, so Kakeru offered to stay with Yagi while the others went with Takashi.

The new member of the group started down the hill, then stopped suddenly. The scene that confronted him was very different from the one he remembered: now the hillside was marshy and covered in reeds taller than he. His skin turned to gooseflesh as a strong breeze swept down the valley, carrying the pungent scent of decaying leaves.

"Something's wrong," he told Fukasu and Musashi, "this is different than I remember it."

"I'll take a look," Fukasu replied, unfolding her wings.

As she took off, Takashi looked at her with concern. That's just not natural, he thought to himself.

Fukasu returned after a minute, "The entire area is covered in standing water. I could see the shrine, though, and it looks like it's still intact."

Takashi considered the information for a second before responding, "I need to see what it looks like inside."

"I'll take the lead," Musashi said as he placed his hand on the hilt of his katana. The group cautiously advanced, watching for signs of trouble. Then, halfway down the hill, a movement off to Musashi's right caused him to signal the others to stop.

Out of the reeds emerged a dog or rather, the remains of a dog – all bone and gristle and dried skin that fluttered like paper in the breeze. Its eyes, where the soul of a canine should be found, were devoid of flesh, and burned with the black fire of Yomi[1] itself.

Musashi regarded the skeleton with horror. He could tell that it was barking at him, but all that he could hear was the clack-clack-clack of its desiccated jaws snapping together. Then, just as a second skeleton appeared from the opposite direction, the first one lunged.

Musashi stepped to the side, drew his katana, and sliced at the first skeleton, but it was much faster than he expected something without the spark of life to be. At the same time, Takashi aimed a kick at the second skeleton, and discovered that he, too, had misjudged the creature's speed.

Fukasu drew her ninja-tō and, following her training, slipped the blade between the second skeleton's ribs. She quickly realized that this tactic, which worked so well against living, breathing creatures, was utterly useless against the undead.

The second skeleton ignored Fukasu's attack, and focused on the young monk. With a disturbing silence, it began to maul Takashi; bite after bite drew fresh blood, and it was all the young monk could do to keep himself from taking a mortal wound.

Fukasu realized that she needed to intervene. She bent down, lowered her head, and slammed into the side of the skeleton with her horns. The sound of popping tendons and cracking bone gave her hope, and she pressed the attack.

Takashi freed himself from the distracted skeleton's jaws and stumbled behind Fukasu. He looked over to see Musashi having slightly more success. With two mighty swings, Musashi cleaved through the other skeleton's torso, extinguishing the tainted spark that animated the creature.

The remaining skeleton barked soundlessly at Fukasu, but found itself unable to penetrate her defense. A moment later, it too became a jumble of bones, as the hanyō[2] smashed into it with all the force of a ram at a full charge.

"Ow," Takashi gasped as he fell into the mud.

"Kakeru!" Musashi called, "Takashi is wounded!"

Kakeru hefted his bulky frame out of the cart and hurried down the path. Mud squelched over his geta as he ran. It took him only a moment to reach his companions, but it seemed like an hour to him. He was certainly not going to let anyone die on his watch, so every moment it took him to channel the healing power of the benevolent, honorable kami[3] seemed like a moment too long.

Fortunately, he arrived in plenty of time, and the power he transferred was potent. Takashi thanked Kakeru, and then leapt back to his feet. "Ok, let's figure out what's going on," the young monk said before marching off.

Fukasu, Musashi, and Kakeru followed, splashing through a hundred feet of standing water to the small building that housed the shrine. The single-story building measured twenty feet on a side, with rice paper walls and roof made of wooden shingles. The front was open to the elements, which allowed the four heroes to step up out of the water and onto the tatami, which were thankfully still dry.

Directly across from them stood a small wooden altar topped with a memorial stone, some offerings of rice and bean paste, and a brazier for burning incense. As they stepped forward, a mighty thunderclap shook the floor, the walls, and the air itself. Then an opaque mist bellowed out of the memorial stone and took the form of an angry, old monk.

"Who has defiled my shrine?" he bellowed.

[1] In the Tsurukoku cosmology, Yomi is the land of the dead. It is a realm of negative energy that gradually corrupts and consumes everything it comes in contact with, including the spirits of the deceased. This negative energy is responsible for animating undead and spreading taint throughout Tsurukoku.

All souls arrive in Yomi upon death, though very powerful souls may eventually make their way to Takama no Hara, the realm of heavenly spirits. Only the souls of the enlightened can circumvent passage through Yomi, by traveling directly to Takama no Hara.

[2] Hanyō are the children of mortals and oni.

[3] Kami are Fenist deities, though they are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. They can represent natural phenomena, abstract concepts, or specific powerful historical figures. In general, the word "kami" refers to any spirit powerful enough to be worthy of respect.

The number of kami is not fixed, and, in fact, continuously grows as great mortals enter the spirit world. As a whole, they are known as Yau-Yorozu no Kami, or the Ever-Increasing Myriad Deities.

There are three categories of kami: amatsukami are the gods of heaven, who reside in Takama no Hara. They are the guardians of the natural order, ensuring that the cosmos continues to function.

The kunitsukame are the gods of the land, who reside in the Mortal Realm. These kami protect the land and people of Tsurukoku.

The magatsuhi no kami are the malignant gods who bring disease, pollution, and disaster into the world. They are native to Yomi, the land of death.

land of the crane: takashi

Takashi, a young man of sixteen years, had come to the Temple of Thunder and Lightning under unfortunate circumstances. In the summer of his thirteenth year, a group of wandering ronin raided his village, slaughtering any who dared resist them. Takashi escaped with his life, but his parents weren't so lucky. Orphaned, alone, scared, and burning with rage, Takashi was taken in by the monks of the temple. They clothed him, fed him, and trained him in the Way of the Storm.

Unfortunately for Takashi, the monastic lifestyle did little to quell the rage he felt. He trained relentlessly, and refused to pull punches. He had broken a dozen noses, kicked twice as many groins, and smashed so many toes that most students refused to be his training partner. He had therefore been relegated to practicing with a wooden training dummy out behind the dojo. If they would just learn to block correctly, this wouldn't have had to happen, he thought to himself.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted one of the youngest monks watching him. He punched the dummy one last time, hard, then turned. "Yes?"

"Takashi-san," the monk bowed apologetically, "Sensei wishes to see you."

"What? I did my chores!"

"I don't believe it has anything to do with your chores," this time.

"Fine," he sighed, and followed the monk into the dojo. He ran through the list of things he might be in trouble for, but couldn't think of anything that he'd done (or not done) within the last few days. He was really thrown for a loop when he saw the group of non-monks sitting in front of Sanjiro: a samurai, a shinkan, and an...an... oni?

The outsiders stared at Takashi as he approached. The samurai, in particular, appeared to be examining him, which made Takashi feel somewhat uncomfortable. He bowed to the visitors and to the kanju, then dropped into seiza.

"Takashi-san," the old monk said, "It is time for you to take the knowledge you have gained here, and practice applying it in the world." He gestured to the three visitors, "Our honorable guests are representatives of Kurosawa-dono."

"Uh, ok," Takashi replied, looking back at them. The shinkan looked nice enough. The oni was a bit weird...well, a lot weird; but what really bothered him was the samurai. The guy kept staring at him. He decided to stare back, and the samurai scowled.

"They are taking the offerings of Kurosawa-dono to Hizuru. Their success will ensure good fortune for all of Kurosawa-dono's subjects, including this temple."

"Mmm-hmm," he said, continuing to stare.

"Takashi!" Sanjiro snapped. The young monk looked startled, and then returned his attention to the kanu. "Takashi, you have the great honor of representing the Temple of Thunder and Lightning on this journey."

"Huh? Me?" Takashi looked stunned, "Why me?"

Sanjiro paused for a second before answering. "I have meditated on this question for many days," he said, taking a deep breath, "and the spirits," he exhaled, "say that it should be so." I'm going to pay for that, he thought to himself.

Musashi, who was still examining the young monk, frowned, and then turned to the old monk. "This journey is bound to be very dangerous, and I am not convinced that this one has the ability to defend himself," he said, gesturing toward Takashi. "Perhaps we could arrange for a test of some sort."

"Oh, bring it on!" Takashi replied, jumping to his feet. Musashi looked shocked, but Sanjiro suppressed a smile; there were times when the young monk's extreme enthusiasm was endearing.

With a nod from the kanju, the monks of the Temple of Thunder and Lightning quickly fell into rank, and lined the edges of the tatami. One monk, who Musashi had guessed was the senior student, walked to the center, and motioned to the two combatants to take their places.

"Hold these," Musashi muttered as he handed his swords to Fukasu and Kakeru, "This will be over quickly." At the very least, this will be a good test, he thought as he took his place a few feet away from Takashi, of my own skill.

The two competitors bowed to each other, then turned to bow to the shinban[1]. Then, all three turned and bowed to Sanjiro, who nodded to them to continue.

The shinban pointed at Musashi. "Ready?"

"I am a samurai, I am always ready."

Next, the shinban pointed at Takashi. "Ready?"

"Let's do it."

Finally, the shinban brought his hands together, "Hajime!"

As the two opponents closed, Takashi threw a short jab toward Musashi's face, just to see if he could get a reaction. To the samurai's credit, he didn't flinch. Musashi replied with a jab of his own, and Takashi smiled to himself. Ok, it's on, he thought.

The two circled each other for a moment, and then Takashi attacked. He led with a roundhouse kick to the head, which Musashi raised his arms to block. Doing so, though, left the samurai's midsection completely exposed, and Takashi seized on the opportunity, delivering a side kick to his ribs. By my ancestors, he's fast, Musashi thought as he felt the air rush out of his lungs.

Musashi retaliated with a solid punch to Takashi's jaw. The blow was powerful, but he overextended, and left his guard open again. Takashi took advantage and snapped a backfist to the samurai's face. Ow, he's strong, Takashi realized as his face began to throb, oh, he's going down.

Takashi stepped in close. He placed his right foot just outside of the samurai's stance, pivoted his hips so that his back was now to his opponent, and reached his right hand under Musashi's arm. His left hand came up to trap the arm, and he squatted ever so slightly. Before his opponent could react, he popped back up while leaning slightly at the waist, and suddenly the samurai was in the air.

What the... Musashi thought, as his feet left the ground. In the brief instant that his head cleared Takashi's shoulder, he looked down. Wow, he marveled, the ground looks really far away.

[1] The referee in a martial arts match.

land of the crane: temple of thunder and lightning

On the first day of Utsuki, 337 Ito, Year of the Fire Crane, the three heroes reached the Temple of Thunder and Lightning. A stout stone wall nearly twenty feet tall enclosed the monastery, leaving the iron lightning rod on top of the temple's pagoda the only thing visible from the road. Kakeru maneuvered the cart up to the temple's massive wooden doors, and the three heroes hopped out.

While Kakeru and Fukasu looked at each other expectantly, Musashi walked right up to the doors and knocked loudly. Then, they waited. After five minutes, he knocked again. He could hear the sound of the knocking echoing beyond the doors, and looked back at his friends with satisfaction.

After ten minutes with no answer, Musashi began pounding on the door with the scabbard of his katana. After a minute of extremely loud pounding, he was rewarded with the sound of a creaky door opening somewhere beyond, the sound of footfalls on stone echoing from inside the compound, and then, a few seconds later, the sound of the door being unbarred.

The door swung open only far enough to allow the monk on the other side to poke his bald head through. He looked suspiciously at Musashi, then directed his gaze toward Kakeru. After a moment of examination, he turned to look at Fukasu, and his eyes opened wide in surprise.

"Oni!" he screamed, and promptly slammed the door shut. The party could hear the bar slide back into place, the sound of running, and then the creaky door being slammed shut.

"Well, then," Kakeru grumbled.

Fukasu sighed and hung her head.

Musashi clenched his fists and took a step back. "Is this how you treat the representatives of your lord?" he yelled with all his power. "Is this how you treat a samurai?" He fumed for a few moments before returning to pounding on the door.

After less than a minute, they heard the sounds of the creaky door opening once again. Footsteps followed, and again the sound of the door being unbarred. This time, it was thrown fully open, revealing a very old monk in saffron robes. "My deepest apologies, Kurosawa-sama," he said, bowing very deeply, "I assure you that the young man who insulted you will be properly disciplined." He gestured for the group to enter, "Please come inside, I have been expecting you."

Musashi looked at Fukasu. She was silent for a moment, and then shrugged. "Thank you sensei," she said, bowing, "It would be our honor."

The old monk smiled and bowed once again, "I am Sanjiro, the kanju[1] of this monastery." Inside the stone walls lay a complex of wooden buildings, which Sanjiro deftly navigated the party through. He led to them to the back of the complex, to a large building which possessed a roof that reminded Fukasu of a lotus blossom unfolding.

"The students are engaged in their morning exercises," Sanjiro said as he opened the door for the party. An echoing cacophony of ki shouts, barked instructions, and occasional yelps of pain greeted them as they stepped inside. Hundreds of monks were engaged in various forms of physical activity: in one corner, several lines of monks threw punches and kicks in unison; in another, pairs of monks practiced throwing each other on the ground in various, painful-looking ways; other monks practiced sparring, grappling, tumbling, and balancing throughout the building.

As the group walked past the students, Fukasu noticed them staring and heard whispers of "oni" filter through their ranks. For a few seconds, she contemplated doing nothing, but then she turned to look at them, opened her mouth wide, and exhaled a cloud of steam. The whispers stopped, and she smiled to herself. Ha!

After leading the party to the center of the room, the kanju motioned for the party to sit. "So," he began, "I understand that you are making the pilgrimage to Hizuru?"

"That's correct," Musashi said brusquely. "We require you to..."

"Ahem," Kakeru interrupted. Musashi looked sidelong at him, but said nothing, "Sensei, it would be a great honor for the Kurosawa clan if you would send a representative of your temple to accompany us."

"Yes, of course," the old monk smiled, "The fate of the Kurosawa clan is our fate as well. It would be a great honor for the temple to have someone accompany you."

"Thank you, Sanjiro-sensei."

I wonder who I should send, Sanjiro thought to himself as he looked around the dojo. Toji? No – he's too good a practice dummy. Miho? No, too cute. Kazuko? Too industrious. Riku? Tomoe? Koyo? No, no, no. Who then? Who can I afford to lose for several months, he thought, then looked at the three teenagers sitting in front of him, or permanently? He mentally ran through the roster of his adepts for a few moments before settling on one name. Ah yes, he smiled to himself, yes, he'll do... He turned and motioned to one of the young monks standing nearby.

"Yes sensei?" the monk said, bowing deeply.

"Bring me Takashi."

[1] Head abbot of a monastery

land of the crane: musashi

Musashi couldn't help but grin as the ninja rushed toward him. Since he had been old enough to hold a bokutō [1], he had spent the better part of every day training for battle. Now he would finally be able to test himself for real: on the field of battle, rather than on the straw mats of the dojo.

The last time he had drawn his sword, his father had been watching from across the room. As the daimyō's general, his father expected nothing less than perfection from his son, and often observed his technique with an extremely critical eye.

"Musashi!" he roared, as his son drew his katana, "Your feet are out of alignment. How can you possibly generate the power to cut down your enemy with your body held like that?" He roughly rearranged his son's stance, and gestured to him to continue.

Musashi attempted the maneuver again, and this time his father nodded in approval. "Good," he growled, "You learn quickly, Musashi. You have the potential to be an even greater swordsman than your brother; perhaps even greater than I."

"Yes father," he said, bowing deeply. I will be the greatest swordsman of all, he thought to himself.

"Musashi, you know of the pilgrimage that our clan must make to Hizuru."

"Yes father."

"You remember that your brother, Hiro, made the pilgrimage to Tsuchitora[2] seven years ago."

"Yes father."

"You remember that he brought great honor to our clan," Akuma smiled.

"Yes father," Musashi said, knowing full well what was coming. As the son of the daimyō's general, it was inconceivable that he would not have been selected to lead the pilgrimage this year.

"You, Musashi, now have the opportunity to bring even greater honor to our clan, for you shall be among those that deliver our offering to the greatest of the spirit guardians."

"Thank you, father," Musashi said, bowing deeply yet once again.

His father bowed in return (though not as deeply), and turned to leave. When he reached the door, he stopped and turned back to his son. "Musashi," he said sternly.

"Yes father?"

"If you fail, do not bother to come back."

"I will not fail." It is not possible for me to fail, he thought.

Musashi recalled this conversation as he waited for the ninja to reach him. I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail. He repeated those words to himself as time itself slowed down. Each breath came deliberately and seemed to last minutes. He could feel his pulse reverberate throughout his body – a bloody metronome ticking off the rhythm of his life. The interval between the footsteps of his opponent became infinitely and unbearably long. Finally, the man drew within range of his blade, and every muscle in his body tensed.

At the last possible moment, in one smooth motion, he drew his katana and slashed open the belly of his attacker. Time returned to its normal flow, and as the lifeless body fell at his feet, he turned his gaze to the third ninja. This one, who had ordered the charge, stopped in her tracks. After a moment of hesitation, she turned and ran.

Only when she disappeared back into the shadows did Musashi relax. He wiped the blood off of his katana as he sheathed it, and then he turned his attention to his friends. Fukasu was already attending to Kakeru as the young shinkan healed his own wounds, so he moved the bodies of the two fallen ninja next to the fire.

After taking a few minutes to catch their breath, the three heroes burned the bodies. "Great spirits of fire," Kakeru intoned, "I command you to burn brightly." They watched as the flames consumed the remains of the two attackers, then, with the threat of the bodies spontaneously reanimating gone, decided to return to sleep.

This time, Kakeru and Fukasu rested while Musashi took watch. As the young samurai sat in seiza, intently watching the shadows, he replayed the earlier battle in his mind. He had been strong, he had survived, and he defended his friends - that much was true - but something felt incomplete. He had let one of the attackers escape, and that simply would not do.

I need to be stronger, he thought, I need to be much, much stronger.

[1] A wooden training sword. While it isn't designed to cut, it can still be deadly in the right hands.

[2] Tsuchitora, the Earth Tiger, guards the Eastern border of Tsurukoku.

land of the crane: fukasu

Fukasu woke up to the confusing cacophony produced by Kakeru and Musashi both yelping in pain, Yagi snorting aggressively, and someone shouting "Charge!" Unfolding her wings, she looked up to see Kakeru clutching at a crossbow bolt sticking out of his shoulder, and Musashi pulling one out of his side.

Uh-oh, she immediately thought, ninja! Looking to her right, she saw two figures clad in black running toward her. She jumped to her feet, drew her ninja-tō, and tried to focus on her training.

Yesterday, she had received a final lesson from her sensei - the only remaining member of the party that had scaled Hizuru sixty years ago[1]. After reminding her to watch her footwork, he had admonished her to be careful.

"The world outside these walls is dangerous, and filled with those who have fear in their hearts," he said, solemnly.

I'm six feet tall, breathe steam, and can fly, Fukasu thought, I can take care of myself.

The old samurai cocked his head and pointed his finger at the young hanyō, "That's exactly the kind of attitude that's going to get you in trouble."

Fukasu started to object, but then grinned sheepishly and bowed - he knew her too well. Later that evening, as she wandered the halls of the daimyō's castle, she reflected on her sensei's words: "the world outside." The more she thought about that concept, the more worried she became. Finally, she sought out her uncle, Kakeru's father, who had raised her as his own.

"Uncle, I'm worried," Fukasu began cautiously.

"Fu-chan, what do you have to be worried about?"

"I've never been outside these walls. I don't know how people are going to react to me," she paused, "To what I am."

He grimaced. She was right of course - everyone in the palace treated his niece with great respect, but the outside world would be full of people who would fear and hate her. He took a moment to gather his thoughts, and then said, "The spirits of our ancestors will watch over you and protect you from harm."

"I know they will, but I'm still worried about how I should react."

"Ah," he paused and took a deep breath, "Well, the Daruma teaches that those who sow anger and fear will reap anger and fear, while those that sow compassion and happiness will reap compassion and happiness. You must treat others with the same tolerance that you wish to be treated with."

Fukasu nodded - it was a teaching she had heard a hundred times before, but one which she always found relevant. "Thank you uncle," she said.

Unfortunately, her uncle hadn't mentioned anything about ninja, so she only had her sensei's training to rely on, and he had trained her to kill. As the first black-clad figure approached, she made her figure as imposing as possible: expanding her wings to their fullest extent, drawing her six foot frame as tall as possible, angling her head so that her black ram horns caught the light of the fire, and exhaling deeply – sending a cloud of steam rolling up toward the night sky.

The ninja stopped in his tracks, and Fukasu could see the fear in his eyes. Seizing the opportunity, she closed the distance between them, and slid her blade between the ninja's third and fourth ribs. He gasped before collapsing at her feet. She breathed a sigh of relief, then looked over to see the second ninja rushing directly toward Musashi's katana. In the firelight, it almost looked like he was smiling.

[1]The Tsurukokan calendar follows a sixty year cycle.

land of the crane: kakeru

The three heroes set out from the city of Kurosawa equipped with a cart, a horse, a koku[1] of rice, a few hundred cranes[2], and little else. Kakeru, a young shinkan of 16 years, sat in the front of the cart, holding the reins of Yagi, his horse.

As the only son of the daimyō's chief advisor, Kakeru was not surprised to have been chosen. His father had given him a very long speech about the honor he would bring to the clan, to his ancestors, to his mother, and to his six very silly sisters by embarking on this journey. He had sat patiently, smiled beatifically, and nodded. Honor was great, but he was excited to get out and see the world.

As he flicked the reins to direct Yagi, he looked over to his right. Floating next to him was the spirit of his grandfather[3], Hiroshi, who was delivering a lecture on the proper way to greet those of higher station, lower station, the same station, and those whose station one was unaware of. Kakeru sighed and looked back over to his left. In the sky above him, he could see the albatross spirit, Wataridori, making slow circles around the cart.

Sitting behind him were his two companions: Fukasu, his cousin on his father's side, lay with her large black wings curled up around her to ward off the cool morning air; Musashi, their childhood friend, sat in seiza, diligently watching the road in front of them for any sign of trouble.

They rode this way for a day, saying little, each wondering what kind of adventures they were in for. By sundown, the city and the safety of the daimyō's castle were twenty miles behind them, so they pulled off the road into a small clearing surrounded by red maple trees. Kakeru prepared a small campfire, set Yagi to graze, and prayed to the spirits of his ancestors to give them guidance and protection.

"How long will it be until we reach the monastery?" Musashi asked. The Temple of Thunder and Lightning was supposed to be the first stop on their journey. As the premier monastery in the Kurosawa lands, it had the privilege of sending an emissary with the party.

"Two days, at the rate we're traveling," Kakeru replied. Everyone sighed; being outside of the castle for the first time was exciting, but also nerve-wracking. "I'll take first watch," the young shinkan offered.

Fukasu had already rolled over and pulled her wings in around her. "Good night, Kakeru-kun. Sleep tight, Musashi-kun," she said sleepily.

"Good night, Fu-chan," the shinkan and the samurai replied in unison.

Musashi looked at Kakeru, "Are you sure you want to take first watch?"

"I'll be fine. I have Hiroshi-san to keep me company." He looked over at the spirit of his grandfather who had his eyes closed and his chin resting on his chest. He smiled at Musashi as Hiroshi began to snore.

Musashi was unable to see Kakeru's spirit guardians, so he shrugged and lay down next to Fukasu. "Watch well, Kakeru-kun," he said as he closed his eyes.

Kakeru settled into seiza and looked around. He couldn't see much with the fire going, so he contented himself to listen: the spring crickets chirped rhythmically, and the spirits of the wind rustled the leaves of the trees. After three hours of staring out into the darkness, Kakeru began to get bored - this was not shaping up to be the exciting kind of adventure he had been expecting.

He yawned, and at that exact moment, a crossbow bolt flew from behind a tree and pierced his shoulder. Suddenly, Kakeru no longer had any reason to be bored.

[1] A koku is a quantity of rice sufficient to feed one person for one year.

[2] The "crane" referred to here is the standard unit of currency in Tsurukoku: a square of rice paper stamped with the Emperor's seal, a flying crane.

[3] Hiroshi is actually Kakeru's great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, but it is customary in Tsurukoku to refer to any ancestor as "grandfather" or "grandmother."