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!"