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."