Kakeru groaned. Why Nakamura? Why now?
For over three hundred years, the Nakamura clan has been the largest producer of jade in all of Tsurukoku, controlling nearly fifty percent of the total supply. For just as long, they have coveted the Watanabe clan's tiny, mountainous han, which produces about five percent of the jade in circulation. And, for just as long, Kurosawa has sent troops to aid Watanabe in the defense of its borders.
The Kurosawa dynasty has aided Watanabe for two reasons. Superficially, a loose alliance was formed between the two clans when a distant cousin of the first Kurosawa daimyō married a distant cousin of the first Watanabe daimyō. More important, though, is the fact that the Watanabe lands lie directly between those of Kurosawa and Nakamura. The tiny, mountainous han acts as a very convenient shield against Nakamura's constant warmongering.
"You are not welcome in these lands, Nakamura-san," Musashi said forcefully as he climbed down from the wagon.
Uzumaki scowled at the young samurai, "I do not care if I am welcome or not." He waved toward the side of the road, "Now move aside."
"Nakamura-san," Musashi punctuated each word with a pause, "You are not welcome in these lands." As he closed the distance toward the other samurai, his hand moved toward the hilt of his sword.
"Kurosawa dogs, your very presence insults my ancestors!" Uzumaki spat.
Musashi's face turned bright red. "Enough!" he shouted as he drew his katana and charged. His iron blade shone in the mid-morning sun, but the other samurai was quick, and the edge of his blade glinted as well.
Uzumaki met the young warrior half-way, his own sword raised high above his head. When the two samurai closed within striking distance, Uzumaki dropped his weight into his lower torso, and slammed the katana down into Musashi's shoulder.
The young Kurosawa samurai suppressed a scream as the razor-sharp blade cut into his flesh, but the pain caused him to panic, and he swung reflexively. As a result, the blow glanced harmlessly off of his opponent's armor.
Oh, crap! Takashi thought as the rest of the party tumbled, climbed, and jumped down from the wagon. While the heroes rushed to their friend's aid, Uzumaki once again slammed his blade into Musashi's torso. Takashi crashed through the trees, snapping off branches and catching leaves in his robes as he circled outside the range of Uzumaki's katana. Fukasu used her wings to loft herself into the air, and then tumbled over the older man's head, landing only a few paces behind him.
Kyoji edged past Musashi and threw a roundhouse kick at the Nakamura samurai's head. Uzumaki saw the kick out of the corner of his eye and ducked. While he watched the kick sail over his head, Fukasu took advantage of the distraction, and plunged her ninja-tō between the tiles of his armor. Takashi burst through the tree line in an explosion of leaves and twigs and slammed his fist into Uzumaki's side. The Nakamura man grunted, but stood fast.
Kakeru dashed up behind Musashi and placed his hands on the center of his back. A bright blue flash of light swirled around the young samurai as the ancestral spirits of Kurosawa restored his vitality. Musashi raised his katana high over his head, let out a great shout, and smashed his blade into his opponent's shoulder.
As Uzumaki thrust his blade toward Musashi's chest, Takashi jabbed him in the ribs. As a result, the blade sliced shallowly, instead of penetrating deeply. Fukasu followed with another precision strike, and then Kyoji stunned the Nakamura samurai with a powerful blow.
Musashi stepped forward, prepared to deliver the killing blow, and then stumbled over a rock. His katana hit nothing but the ground at his feet. Fortunately, Takashi followed his strike with one of his own: a snap kick to the side of Uzumaki's head sent him sprawling to the ground. The young Kurosawa samurai let out another great shout and buried his katana in the unconscious man's chest. With that, Nakamura Uzumaki was dead.
"Burn him," Musashi growled as he yanked his blade out of the corpse.
Hours later, the five heroes from Kurosawa left the lands controlled by their clan. The environment didn't look any different from that with which they were familiar, but it certainly felt different to each of them. Musashi entered a state of hyper-vigilance, nearly flying out of the cart at the movement of every bird and branch. Fukasu fidgeted nervously in her spot in the back of the cart, and occasionally took to the air to stretch her wings. Kakeru's thoughts were consumed by the newly acquired sake, and hoped that no bandits would attempt to steal it.
Over the next few days, the company encountered an ogre, which they dispensed with summarily, and little else. Their time was spent riding, resting, and worrying. On the 20th of Utsuki, Kakeru reined in Yagi when the came to a fork in the road.
Sitting in the lotus position directly in the middle of the fork was an elderly kitsune. As the cart stopped, he bowed respectfully to the group, and said in a wizened voice, "Welcome travelers."
"Greetings, venerable sir," Kakeru said as he returned the bow from his perch at the front of the wagon, "We are humble travelers from Kurosawa, on our way to deliver an offering to the Fire Crane."
"I am Hanzo," the kitsune answered, "and I am here to offer you guidance."
"On which path to take."
"Ah," Kakeru replied as he scratched his head in confusion.
Musashi nervously shifted his weight from one leg to the other, for he could feel an air of extreme power emanating from the old kitsune, despite, and perhaps because of, his serene countenance.
"I act as a guidepost of sorts," the old man grinned.
"Ok," Kakeru replied, "Well, what's down the left path?"
"Ah, to the left is the Valley of Spiders. Very dangerous."
"I see," Kakeru said without any trace of confidence, "I presume that it's filled with lots of spiders?"
"Oh, yes, quite."
"Hmm. And down the right path?"
"To the right is the City of Pillars. Also, very dangerous."
Where have I heard of that? Kakeru thought to himself. It must have been one of Grandfather's speeches, he spent a moment trying to recall what he had only half-paid attention to originally. Oh, he finally remembered, that's right. It's supposed to be filled with undead naga. "That's the place with the undead naga, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, you are quite correct."
Kakeru sighed inwardly - this wasn't going to be easy.
Musashi took advantage of the lull in the conversation to ask his own questions. "What's to the west of here, off the path?"
The kitsune looked off to his left, "Those are uninhabited lands. Much too dangerous."
"And to the east?"
Hanzo turned and looked off to his right, "Too far that way, and you will encounter the Warlords of Xin. Also, much too dangerous."
"Well, I guess those are out," Musashi said dryly.
"That leaves the Valley of Spiders or the City of Pillars, doesn't it?" Fukasu asked. Kakeru and Musashi nodded grimly.
"So," Takashi asked as he turned to the others, "What flavor of certain death do you prefer?"