The sheer strangeness of the moment that had passed stills the samurai for a long moment. The rain feels irrelevant now in the face of what has to be the work of magic or spirits.
“What.” Shio states, her voice heavy with suspicion. Her eyes narrow to slits. When no answer is forthcoming, she dismounts with a squelch and offers her reins to the boy to placate him. Atsu does the same, looking VERY UPSET about it.
Crow looks to the rest of them slowly, then at the box containing Chizu’s braid with deep concern. Daiyu sighs to herself and tries to remember if she’s ever heard or read anything about this in the past.
Torokai gives his stomach a pat and clears his throat, his top knot and clothing soaked. He puts his hand over his head in a sad attempt at shielding his eyes.
Atsu fumes. “Food.” He states simply, looking up and down the street.
“If we can find it…” Crow says, somewhat warily.
Torokai points to the doors of the Emerald Lily; while the road is pitted and weeds are growing between the wagon ruts, the inn seems in good repair. In the distance, there are rice paddies containing rice that has not yet been touched.
Atsu hefts his tetsubo threateningly at… nothing that anyone can see. The stablehand’s eyes nearly bug out of his head, and he starts to hurry their mounts away even faster. “I’ll smash every illusion if it means my meal!” He starts trudging grimly toward the entrance.
Shio shakes her head, water flying. “Food, then,” she says glumly. “I think it would be best to stick together, after… that.”
A strange-looking man trots up the street past them, his feet splashing through the muddy water. He is dressed in an odd, black garment, holding up a shiny black parasol in his right hand while staring intently at a metal bracelet around his left wrist. He stops in front of Shio and stares at her in complete bewilderment; she stares back at him in mirrored confusion until he hurries on, disappearing around the corner of a building behind them. Her head nearly rotates off her shoulders as she notes the lack of tracks in his wake; the mud is thick enough that every passerby has left footprints save for him. Crow also watches him go, looking too tired to be very surprised by further oddities.
Ryojiro looks to the pair of them, trying to figure out how to phrase “that was weird” as a question, while Atsu shouts in defiance and outrage, staring after the man. He hefts his tetsubo, minus knapsack, and very pointedly shoves the end of it in the forming mud where the man’s feet would have been.
Daiyu frowns, deeper than normal. “Did…. we ever finish the exorcism? I remember finishing it…”
Atsu gives Daiyu a “why are you asking us?” stare, mixed with “did you finish it? you better have finished it.” Shio glances back at her, the whites of her eyes showing like a frightened horse.
Torokai looks between them at the mention of exorcism. A tinge of anxiety crosses his face—something he would never admit—before he turns and enters the Emerald Lily, intent on booking his rooms.
Crow’s frustration comes to a head, and she huffs and heads off after the strange man. Shio squawks and follows quickly after her, tiptoeing over the puddles. Atsu flares his nostrils, looking in the direction that they are heading. He lets out a growl of frustration and stomps through the mud after them.
Daiyu groans, outwardly, and follows after them, but they soon find that the man has truly disappeared; when they step into the alleyway he entered, it is as though he has evaporated.
Crow throws her hands in the air in exasperation. “Is it too late to go the way of the Crane?”
Shio wipes water from her eyes, staring into the gloom. “I hope not…”
Atsu shouts yet again, holding his tetsubo like a mop in front of him and stomping forward while leaning his body back. He might be making tracks for the weird man or just being a big baby, who knows. He storms back towards the Lily, followed soon by the rest.
The Inn of the Emerald Lily is a large, two-story building. It is crowded when they arrive, full of villagers taking shelter from the torrential downpour, and they quickly shove each other out of the way to clear a table for the samurai A middle-aged woman, clearly the innkeeper, bustles forward with a kindly smile. “I am called Miyu,” She says, “Soup, hot tea? The rain is quite rough today.”
Atsu looks at the woman severely. “Yes, two.” What “two” can be is left open to interpretation.
“A bed—and a bath—would be best. If there is room.” Daiyu says.
Crow shoulders in through the too-short doorway once she’s wrung out her mass of hair beneath the front awning, ordering hot sake for herself along with a giant bowl of soup as she joins the others. Shio seconds the order after she shakes herself on the threshold, trying to not drip too much.
Miyu smiles and bows, scolding two teenage boys that must be her sons as she goes. “Soup, sake for the samurai, Tsubo, Kibo.” The boys disappear into the kitchen area past a curtain.
Crow seems to calm at the prospect of imminent food and drink, but Daiyu eyeballs the peasants with deep suspicion, searching for signs of the man in black. Shio seats herself with a sigh and a slight squelch, eyebrows contorting then smoothing again. She eyes the surrounding peasants as she drinks. Ryojiro politely accepts the tea and soup and begins pouring it down his throat.
Atsu starts to make smalltalk with a nearby worker, but they don’t seem very readily… communicative. They are quite fearful and subservient, even for peasants. He frowns and beckons the innkeeper back. “Is there something wrong?”
Miyu shakes her head. “Nothing is wrong, samurai-sama. The storm is just very intense this afternoon.”
Atsu glances over at the nearest group of peasants, frowning. He looks back at Miyu. “They do not speak because of the storm?”
Miyu bows slightly and smiles, “I… we do not wish to speak ill, samurai-sama. Strange things have been happening for weeks.” She pours more tea for those who need it, avoiding Atsu’s eyes for a moment.
Shio hears this and closes her eyes very slowly. Looking tired, Crow glances to the others. “Yes, it seems there is quite an epidemic of strangeness these days.”
“Ho? Strange things?” Atsu stares. “What strange things?”
Miyu swallows, a tinge of anxiety tightening her face. She clears her throat. “There have been… strange happenings, yes. Several villagers have been seeing their family members, those who have passed on. Strange creatures. Some fear that our village is cursed. Our grain does not grow, nor does our rice.”
Atsu looks at Miyu with an unreadable expression. “What kind of strange creatures do they see?”
Crow nods. “And when did this start?”
Miyu looks hesitant, frozen in pouring more tea, and exchanges several looks with villagers. She turns back to them and forces a smile. “Ah, about two months, samurai-sama. They have witnessed… strange visions. Seeing someone in the street, a dead friend or relative, then watching them disappear. Strange animals. Monsters. Shapes in the night, during fog or rain.”
Daiyu’s eyes flicker over to her. “Have you sent for any help?”
Crow only halfway resists the urge to rub a hand over her face. She reroutes it halfway through to run over her hair instead.
Miyu jumps a little at Daiyu’s voice, then immediately bows to her. “I am afraid our fears would be dismissed as superstition, samurai-sama. We have reported these… incidents to the karo.” She bows again. “I am sorry, samurai-sama. Such things are not polite while eating soup.” Miyu waves her sons over, assists them with handing out complimentary bowls of rice, and busies herself with cleaning nearby tables.
Atsu grunts softly, shaking his head. “We asked, after all.” His tone suggests that maybe they shouldn’t have. Crow rapid-fires some sake shots once Miyu has turned away. Daiyu takes a quick shot as well, once nobody else shows signs of being poisoned.
Shio shakes her head. “Do not apologize,” she says. “We—also witnessed something, just as we arrived. Is there anyone in particular who has seen these visions we might speak to?”
Miyu looks up at this, unable to hide the look of someone latching on to the mere whiff of help. “I—the village doshin, samurai-sama. Matte and Kichi.”
Atsu placidly picks at his rice, looking as though anything out of the ordinary would shatter his calm veneer and send him into an inconsolable rage. “Ho,” he intones.
Miyu bobs her head again, looking distinctly stressed now. “They have… witnessed these incidents more than most, I believe.”
“Hooo,” Atsu repeats.
Torokai sighs from his corner, leaning over his rice and soup just far enough to conceal his Emerald Magistrate’s mark. Shio seems pained but unable to let it go. She nods to Miyu gratefully.
Ryojiro looks urgently around for the rice, seeing as how he’ll inevitably need the energy for another exorcism or midnight stroll to the gates of the beyond.
Daiyu nods to herself. “Where could we find them? If we were to ask.”
“You may find the karo, Bayushi Kushiro, or the headman, Baiku. The Doshin are Matte and Kichi, you may find their homes at the edge of town.” Miyu smiles wanly.
“I am going to find a bath before we find the karo,” Crow says to the others. “Should you all decide to investigate later, I will join you.” She bows and excuses herself from the table.
Atsu grunts at Crow amiably, still forcing food into his mouth at a deliberate, unenthusiastic pace.
The second story of the Emerald Lily is a bit dusty, but packed full of villagers and travelers alike escaping the rain. The way to the baths is not far, and Crow is escorted briefly by Tsubo before he rushes back down the stairs. The others eventually drift away from the common room as well, either to doze or bathe while they wait for the rain to slow.
It is nightfall by the time the steady drumming of rain dissipates. The noise of the common room below quiets as villagers begin to disperse back to their homes. The air is cool and damp, mist rising from the road as the sun sets. For a supposedly busy merchant town, Beiden’s nightlife is non-existent: the geisha houses remain shuttered, and barely any lanterns are lit. No one wanders the thoroughfare outside the Emerald Lily, and there is an almost palpable sense of dread.
Through the open windows at the rear of the inn—Atsu and Crow’s rooms—the rice paddies stretch out into the distance. The mist is thicker over the embankments, blanketing the strangely un-harvested plants. As they watch, something moves in the dark, stirring the fog: strange, black shapes, four-legged but… attenuated, like a child’s charcoal drawing of horses.
They have no heads. They move too smoothly, and the night it suddenly silent save for the thudding of the samurai’s own heartbeats thudding in their ears. The air seems to warp around the creatures the longer they are looked at, turning them indistinct, like ripples in a pool, until they fade from view entirely.
Crow watches them from her window until they become too obscure to really see, then quietly makes her way downstairs and out the door to the rice paddies. Atsu bristles (or would, if he had any hair). He squints for a moment, blinks, and then shakes his head. With a great thudding of feet, he storms out to wake the others.
By then the only other samurai left awake is Daiyu, absentmindedly plucking at her shamisen while looking out onto the streets below, just in case she might catch a glimpse of whatever haunts the town—unaware of the creatures, and of Crow slipping into the night in search of them.