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.