"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!