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.