Outside, the spring air is warm and thick with humidity. The fog grows heavier as Crow makes her way towards the rice paddies, hand on the hilt of her katana. The figures persist as she draws closer, but their shapes distort with each step she takes.
Atsu storms into Daiyu’s room—perhaps subliminally aware that a fellow Crab won’t take offense—and wrenches her windows open, pointing out into the dark with his tetsubo. “LOOK! LOOK!“
Daiyu is unmoved, not even pausing in her gentle strumming of her shamisen as her eyes follows Atsu’s pointing; she merely blinks a few times to make sure she’s not seeing things. “…Huh.” Whatever faint tune she’s playing becomes noticeably more like a dirge.
The commotion draws Shio from her nest of blankets, hair standing on end. She tiptoes her way into the room with them and peers near-sightedly out into the dark, then back at Atsu. “What is it?”
Daiyu sets her shamisen down and tries to get a closer look out the window. Her eyes narrow as she focuses on Crow, and she reaches for her nearby scroll satchel without looking away.
Ryojiro is happy in his warm room, without a single thought to the improbability that one or more of their group would wander out into the night to be devoured by the hungry dead.
Outside, Crow takes a slow, steady approach toward the creatures, as if testing the rate at which they fade. Despite her unease—her hand has grown tighter on her katana—she keeps walking, her face set in determination. Her steps disturb the fog and the dim, murky water of the paddies; the air is thick, muffling her movements.
Several of the figures fade into the night like black mist until only one of them remains: a strange, distended, four-legged creature with thin limbs and a hunched back. When Crow is within a few steps, its strange, lumpy body contorts to turn and face her; a white porcelain mask is embedded into the dark flesh where a neck would be. It only has pitch black holes for eyes. A high scream emerges from within its distorted form, though it has no mouth that Crow can see.
Crow stops abruptly and curses herself for this stupid idea; all the same, she stands her ground and stares it down, knuckles white around her sword. Despite all her efforts to appear otherwise, she still looks scared.
At the sound of the shrill scream, Shio yelps, whirling to the window again. She crowds up next to Daiyu, trying to see what’s happening, when Atsu takes off downstairs at a sprint, quietly cursing as he’s covered in mud again in the process. Shio grabs her sword and pelts after Atsu as fast as she can, trying not to step on him or be stepped on in the process. Daiyu is ready to help and running down the stairs and out of the building, war fan in one hand, scrolls in the other.
The four-legged creature is hard to track in the darkness, a mix of limbs and a white, featureless face. It moves toward Crow with a wavering, swaying gait, its edges fluctuating like smoke. Crow’s hand tightens on her katana as she takes a few measured steps back, still facing the creature.
Atsu curls his lips back and returns a Yell, hefting his tetsubo and yelling some bestial approximation of “CROW!” in the process. Shio also yells incoherently back, drawing her sword and drawing up alongside Atsu to face down the creature.
Crow seems to notice other people are here, glancing quickly over her shoulder at them before she returns her attention to the creature. “What are you doing!? Get away! What is it?!” Lots of thoughts, only one mouth.
Daiyu throws a glare at Crow as if redirecting all of these questions back at her. She shoves her fan under her arm to grab a nearby stick and chants as she’s running; it bursts into flame despite the moisture in the air, illuminating the area. The creature howls at the light and lumbers faster, swaying and lurching from side to side. In the light, the smoky aspects of it are diminished; it is dark and fleshy, like a body stripped of skin to bare the muscle beneath, then dipped in tar.
Crow falls back beside Atsu and Shio. “What is it?!” she demands again, more urgent and slightly hoarse this time.
“BAD!” Atsu states simply, uncertain of whether they should leave or stand their ground.
Stirred by the commotion outside, Ryojiro wakes in a cold sweat. He quickly makes his way to the door, really hoping everyone didn’t run off to do something stupid. Like it sounds. When he hears “BAD!”, the suspicions melt away. He stops abruptly at the corner of the inn when he catches sight of the situation in the rice paddies.
Daiyu drops to one knee. shoving the makeshift torch into the dirt before bouncing back, readying her other scrolls. The creature shambles forward, toward the light. It stops, like a tree stiffening in a gust, and then mechanically turns, as if listening before taking a swing with a long, spindly something that is maybe an arm.
Crow twists to the side, and in one smooth movement unsheathes her sword and strikes at its head. Her katana cracks into the porcelain mask; it splinters at the bottom and begins to spider upwards, and the creature draws back in an ear-splitting howl. Shio follows after Crow quickly, striking low; one of its legs is sheared off in a single arc of her katana, flying off into the darkness. The creature screeches loud and high, flailing its remaining legs ineffectively and meandering from side to side.
A halo of iridescent green light appears around Daiyu’s hand, so bright that it quickly becomes blinding. She strikes at its mask as well, driving her hand into it like a blade. With a horrible shriek, the porcelain shatters, scattering into the rice paddy. The creature slumps over and drops like a heap of flesh, its howl deafening before abruptly cutting off into nothing. The remnants of the mask slide off.
Crow lowers her sword, sheathing it after flicking off the sticky black residue.
Atsu glowers distastefully. “Set it aflame!”
Crow nods slowly, still staring at the heap of the creature’s body. Shio also nods, warily wiping her own sword down and sheathing it. She stays carefully away from the creature, not wanting to see it any closer than she has already.
Daiyu nods and strikes forward, taking her torch out of the ground and trudging through the paddy towards the corpse. She reaches and carefully touches the flame to it; it catches quickly like dry wood, and is devoured at a frantic pace. Soon, all that remains of the creature is the broken half of its mask and some bones wrapped in charred skin.
Ryojiro unfreezes at last and bolts into the fastest run he can muster before something else ill-advised happens. He arrives just as the flames flicker out again, stumbling to a stop beside Atsu. There’s a flash of disappointment across his face—now there won’t be any investigative evidence—that is quickly replaced by clinical curiosity. He steps a little closer to look over what remains.
Crow glances back at the others, suddenly sheepish. “I am sorry, I… when I thought I saw something, I thought I would investigate. I didn’t intend for it to see me.”
Shio stares at the mask for a long moment. “What… was that?” Her voice is sharp and metallic.
Crow shifts uneasily. “I don’t know what it was or why it was here… but it seems to be dead.”
Torokai appears shortly after the thing has been felled, jogging at an even pace and carrying a lantern. He looks to the flames and covers his nose from the smell of burning flesh, then sees the mask and goes very pale. Shio whirls at his approach then relaxes a little again—but only slightly. She peers into the night beyond the lantern-light with hands clenched.
Ryojiro does not look up from examining the remains. “It’s here because someone sent it.” He draws his wakizashi and carefully makes sure that the head has been removed from the rest of it.Shio winces.
Daiyu nods at Jiro. “This is merely a messenger.”
Crow gives Ryojiro a sharp look, then turns back to the mask, trying to get a better look. Its long limbs are misshapen and stretched, the bones charred—but upon a closer look, she is able to discern that it was almost certainly once a horse. Crow’s expression of horrified disgust quickly shifts to one of despair as she is overcome with emotion. She swallows dryly and turns to walk away without a word.
Torokai looks to Crow as she leaves, then to the thing that was once a horse. He covers his mouth and runs the back of his hand across his lips.
Atsu looks at it with an expression of “there goes another one; when’s breakfast?“
Shio watches Crow go with sympathy before turning back to Daiyu. “A messenger?”
Torokai exhales heavily through his nose and leans to look. He’s careful not to get too close and prods the remnants of the mask with a stick. There appears to be no power in it, now, with the mask broken.
Daiyu shrugs slightly. “Well… Something like it. These things don’t roam alone… Kitsuki-san is right: someone sent it. As to who, I wouldn’t know, but there’s more to this than one…monster.”
Ryojiro decides it’s best not to keep everyone in the dark. He carefully wipes his wakizashi in the vegetation and sheathes it. “These masks are usually rare and powerful, and the creation of them thankfully forgotten. It has a master, who could not be very far away. I am most perplexed as to why it was used on a horse.”
Shio’s expression shutters, and she looks again at the broken mask. “This seems much more serious than apparitions of lost family.”
Torokai picks up the largest remaining piece of the mask with a gloved hand. He is obviously tense about having to touch it, even though it shows no signs of its power now that it has been cleaved apart. He quickly tucks it into a bag, keen to either make the evidence disappear for now.
Shio turns to Torokai, eyes questioning. “What now?”
Torokai exhales, his face serious and grim. “We inform the village daimyo at morning.”
Daiyu nods in agreement with Torokai. “I will seek out those that the innkeeper mentioned as soon as possible.” Daiyu takes a last look back at the corpse before returning to the inn, lost in thought.
Atsu pinches his nose. Oh, good.
Torokai lessens his grip on the hilt of his katana, his jaw tight. He turns on his heel, walking away from the smoldering corpse, back toward the inn. Atsu hefts his tetsubo and follows, intent on taking another bath. Ryojiro follows soon after, reluctant to stand alone in the night.
Shio frowns again at the smoking pile of meat, a shudder running through her as if she wishes to rouse feathers that aren’t there. She turns and walks quickly back to the inn, careful to stay in the light of Torokai’s lantern. Back in the inn, Crow orders a bottle of sake with no more words than what is necessary to make the order. She finds her way to the back corner of the common area and begins to drink, her back to the door.