The next morning, it’s as if nothing has happened. There are a few peasants gathered around the rice paddies where the creature burned, talking amongst each other. The commoners in the inn, too, talk quietly over breakfast.
Crow has not slept, haunted by painful memories stirred up by the encounter with the skinned horse-creature. She has not moved from her corner, but has at least stopped drinking by the time the peasants begin to trickle in. Her messy hair hangs at either side of her face like a curtain as he looms over an untouched bowl of lukewarm rice; her eyes are swollen and heavy-lidded with exhaustion.
Miyu is quick to attend to her, regardless of her tiredness—or that she can tell she has been deep in the sake bottle. It doesn’t dim her smile or warm, round face any, and she bows deeply in greeting. “Good morning, samurai-sama. Can I—would you like anything else?” She gestures to the uneaten rice.
Crow at least gives Miyu a faint smile, even if it’s tired and forced. She lifts a hand and shakes her head, but finally picks up her chopsticks with the prompting and begins to eat—practically grain by grain. Miyu gives her a look of concern, but does not press. She bows and retreats a step, only straightening to direct her sons as they serve tea, rice, and porridge to the others.
By then, Atsu is into his second or third bowl of soup, pausing occasionally to chopstick-shovel some rice into his mouth. Daiyu descends and has a light breakfast, then returns to her room to prepare to hunt down local witnesses.
Shio spent the rest of her night with her back to the wall in her room, staring out the window with a hand on her sword’s hilt. When she emerges, her eyes are a little bloodshot. She sits heavily beside Atsu and asks Miyu politely for tea.
Torokai does not look as if he’s slept, and his beard is a bit untrimmed compared to his usual upkeep. His face is troubled as he crosses from the stairs into the common room and requests tea. He seats himself a short ways from Crow, leaning his palms onto his knees. He seems lost in thought, but bows as his tea is handed over and sips gratefully.
Atsu beckons Miyu over after getting her attention, and she hurries over and bows deeply to him. He stoops a little in his seat in return, staring at her deadpan. “Has anyone mentioned anything about a naked horse?”
“A—?” Miyu stammers. “Forgive me, samurai-sama. I have… heard no such thing. We have few horses here.”
Atsu stares for an awkward span, then gives a nod. “If someone mentions naked horses, could you please tell us right away?”
Miyu cannot keep herself from looking both terrified and confused before she bows again. “I—yes, samurai-sama. Of course.”
Crow finishes her mouthful, then looks to Miyu. “Have people seen anything besides deceased relatives? Anything? Any… creatures?” Her voice is hoarse.
Miyu looks nervous at the mention of “creatures”, and glances to the door then back to Crow. She swallows, maintaining a smile. “Y-yes, samurai-sama. Some of the villagers have mentioned creatures. Some of the villagers… they believe Beiden to be cursed, though we do not know from what.”
Crow frowns, eyes focusing and then unfocusing. “Right… I am sorry. You told us this yesterday.” She shakes her head, avoiding eye contact, and goes back to her rice.
Shio puts her teacup down, glancing at Crow. “We can find the guardsmen who have seen more,” she offers tentatively. “They may be able to help.”
Crow only nods at her bowl, presumably in response to her.
Miyu lingers for a moment, looking torn. “Is there something the matter?” She looks at Crow, then to Shio, straining not to look overjoyed at such a thought. She bows. “I am sure they will help you as they can.”
Atsu rubs his chin thoughtfully. He gingerly picks up his bowl to finish off the remaining soup, placing it back on the table with a rumbled thanks.
“Some…thing.” Shio tries to smile. It’s forced.
“It wore a mask.” Atsu adds unhelpfully.
This mention brings a massive, sudden pall to the conversation in the inn. Shio chokes on her tea. Daiyu, returning from her room, stops in her tracks near the bottom of the stairs as she senses the tension.
Crow exhales a sigh of tired frustration through her nose. She leaves her payment on the table and stands, facing the other samurai. “I am going to speak with the guard.” She offers a bow to them, a slighter one to Miyu, then takes her leave before anyone has much of a chance to say anything. Shio quickly shovels the remains of her breakfast into her mouth, nearly choking on her rice, and follows after her.
Miyu shuffles away with a bow when Crow has left and the silence has passed, and the conversation continues.
Daiyu bows. “I’ll speak with the headsman.” She doesn’t wait for any response, sweeping through the common room and out the door in search of the village doshin.
Once the others have left, Tsubo is quick to refill Atsu’s bowl of rice and to leave a pot of tea with him, to which Atsu murmurs his thanks. Torokai clears his throat once he and Atsu are alone, moving to sit beside him. “It would be best not to speak of such things here,” he says under his breath, but with a smile.
Atsu glances at Torokai, lifting the teapot in offering. “Would it be? I do not see why—” He trails off, sniffing as he considers his words. It was a screaming horse-ish creature missing its skin. “But perhaps you are right.” He frowns. “And what is your take on all of this, Akodo-sama?”
Torokai leans into the table, idly scratching his beard. He hums and nods. “I fear it is not talk for good company.” He smiles after a moment, as if remembering he should.
Atsu grunts, though he seems confused. He murmurs a quiet excuse and gives the magistrate a bow before stepping out as well.
Crow seems at least moderately comforted by Shio’s presence, slowing her walk enough to make it easier for her much shorter legs to keep up. “I am not even sure what to ask,” she admits. Shio shrugs helplessly.
“If… all of the creatures are like that, perhaps?” she says. “If there’s any place in particular they started appearing. Or… who has seen them the most often.”
Crow nods once in agreement, then a few more times once she’s thought about it a moment. Silence follows, but it only takes a few minutes of walking for them to happen upon the home of Baiku, the headman. As Shio and Crow approach, he and his wife—a loud, angry woman a head shorter than he is with a tongue as sharp as a tanto—are arguing over the proper way to garden. He waves his hand as the two samurai approach.
Crow stops several paces short, not wanting to get involved with…that. She bows and waits. Shio slows beside her, cocking her head to the side in curiosity and bemusement.
“Chimizu—please. We have guests!” Baiku says. This, at least, does seem to quiet her. She bows as they approach and goes back to tending to what appears to be a malnourished bamboo shoot. “Forgive me, samurai-sama. What is it you need?”
Shio bows back, smiling (with some concern).
Crow stares at the bamboo shoot, too tired to care about politeness right now, then looks to Baiku at great, great delay. “We were hoping you might be able to help us. Last night, we encountered something as… unnerving as it was mysterious. It may be linked to the problems Beiden has been…” She trails off, staring at the bamboo shoot for a few more seconds, then back to him. “…that Beiden has been experiencing recently.”
Shio slooowly glances at Crow, then immediately flicks her eyes back to Baiku.
Baiku scratches at his soft stomach, adjusting the collar and fold of his worn kimono. “Mysterious,” he echoes, nods a few times, and folds his arms. “What is it you saw?”
Crow stares at him. Shio coughs. “Well…”
Crow struggles for a polite way to explain. “Some manner of…yokai, maybe. It wore a mask.”
Baiku squints, and then the mention of a mask makes his face go white. “I—see.”
Crow nods gravely. “It seemed to be a…or…it seemed to once be a…horse. Not a pony. A horse.”
Baiku rubs his face, clearing his throat and trying not to look terribly shaken. He mumbles something about a monk and shakes his head.
Chimizu speaks, looking sidelong at Baiku first. “There was a traveling monk. We caught him stealing food from our granary a few weeks ago, before the… incidents began. The doshin beat him and drove him away. But he cursed our village as he ran.”
Shio peers closer at him. “Do you remember what he said?”
Chimizu shakes her head. “No. I only know his name was Fuzen.”
Crow looks up at the sky with the very bare minimum required movement of her head and neck. “Can you recall what he looked like?”
Baiku looks at Crow, scratching at his chin. “Portly. In his forties, at least. Bearded.”
Crow frowns. She looks at Shio, then Baiku. “Do you know of any other masked creatures that have been seen here since then?”
Baiku shakes his head, bowing respectfully. “I have seen no such creatures, samurai-sama. I am sorry.”
Shio hums under her breath. “Do you know who made the first sighting?”
“It’s difficult to say. The reports have been… different, strange. Varied.”
“Can you provide us with any examples?” Crow asks.
Baiku rubs his chin. “Examples, examples…”
He takes too long for his wife’s liking, who grumbles something about his weak-willed heart and replies. “Some have seen those who look like family members that have passed on. Some have seen creatures with two heads, or none, creatures that…” She looks around the road, then leans close and says very quietly, “Shadowlands creatures, samurai-sama. Monsters. Demonic shapes. At night, or when it’s raining.”
Crow frowns deeply, but nods. Shio also nods, eyebrows furrowed. She seems at a loss, shifting from foot to foot. “Have you tried anything to repel the, ah, curse?”
Baiku nods twice, then exhales. He rubs his chin. “We have asked for the assistance of a shugenja, yes. There was nothing they could do, they said.”
Crow sighs, then thinks for several moments. “Do you remember the direction in which this monk left?”
Baiku gestures towards the mountains. “The monk made his way to Beiden Pass. There is a small monastery there, hidden in the hills.”
Crow exhales through her nose and looks to Shio, who glances at her with eyebrows raised. Nothing a shugenja could do?
“We will investigate this monastery.” Shio says after a moment, bowing her head in thanks. “Thank you for your time.”
Baiku and his wife both bow, and Chimizu speaks up before they have a chance to depart. “You may wish to present yourself to the karo, if you have not already.”
Crow bows, then hesitates before nodding. “We will do so. Thank you.”
Baiku and Chimizu bow deeply, and he offers a wide smile—one that is demolished by a slowly-mounting argument concerning bamboo shoots as Crow and Shio depart.
Crow turns to her companion once they are distanced enough for privacy. “We should gather the others before we go.”
Shio nods to her, frowning. “Yes. I do not wish to encounter anything else without everyone present.”
Crow sighs, but nods in agreement. “Let us present ourselves to the karo, then. Since we are staying…” She doesn’t sound thrilled, and Shio grunts tiredly. Crow nods in agreement, then sets off in that direction with her.
The castle is certainly a Scorpion structure, but it is a small one—not nearly as grand as Shiro Matsu. The gardens in front of it are finely tended, but the servants look nearly alarmed at the approach of visitors.
“Welcome, samurai-sama. We are honored to have such visitors, but I must regretfully say that our lord is… indisposed,” one of them says, bowing. Crow and Shio bow in return, though their concern at this turn of events is apparent in their drawn brows.
The servants lead them into the castle, down hallways decorated in red and grey with the occasional splash of black. The floor is pristinely clean, the wood dark under their tabi. In the center of the receiving room is a man of modest height and unremarkable looks, his dark topknot oiled and slicked back. He is well-mannered, but beneath his calm exterior is something else less structured.
“I welcome you in the name of the lord Shosuro Kai, samurai-san. I am certain that you have been informed that he is indisposed, but we are honored to have samurai visitors such as yourselves—we have seldom had the opportunity, of late. I am Bayushi Kushiro. I trust we will be able to meet your expectations.”
Shio greets Kushiro pleasantly, her smile going fine and careful, knife-like. “They have already been met,” she says. Definitely. Being attacked by terrifying skinned horse monsters? All she expected of Scorpions.
Crow bows respectfully. “Thank you for seeing us, but I am sorry to hear that the lord is unwell.” When she straightens, she looks moderately less sleepy than she did at the headman’s, at least. “I am called Crow. We wished to make our presence known.”
Shio bows her head. “And I am Kitsune Shio. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Kushiro bows, looking pleased. He is soft-spoken. “I thank you for your appearance. We have heard of your coming, and intended to send a courier today. We wished to send them yesterday, but the night is no time for such things, of late. I would have dinner with you and your other samurai visitors.”
Shio closes her eyes for slightly longer than is necessary in deep, silent pain. “We would be pleased to attend.” She tries not to sound too sad.
Crow nods and bows, giving him a smile to make up for Shio’s palpable disdain—or at least that is her hope. “You are most gracious. Of course we will attend. We will gather our companions and return in the evening.”
After exchanging bows, they depart for the Emerald Lily.
The peasants near the rice paddies bow deeply as Atsu approaches, speaking amongst themselves but being as quiet as possible about it. The area in which they encountered the creature shows no signs of change save some blackened grass.
Atsu returns the peasants’ bows with a curt nod, un-shouldering his tetsubo and prodding at a darkened patch with the tip. He glances up at the nearest farmer. “Did you or anyone else see anything out of place today?”
The peasants look among themselves, pause, before one of them—a small, short-haired woman—speaks. She wears what appears to be red eyeshadow, and her hands are fine and soft. “Nothing out of the ordinary, samurai-sama.”
Atsu frowns deeply. “You must work the rice paddies a great deal, yes? Perhaps you saw someone different? A stranger, aside from me?”
The peasant shakes her head, leaning on the handle of her tool. “We always see strangers, samurai-sama. But never near the paddies.”
Atsu exhales a skeptical “hooo” in response. He stretches out a bit, shouldering his tetsubo and cocking his head to the side as he juts a finger in her direction. “So diligent, and yet your hands are lacking calluses.”
For a moment, the peasant is intimidated by his sheer size alone, and two of the other paddy workers approach behind her in support. After a moment she brushes a hand over her cheek and narrows her eyes, caught between responding in kind and cooperating.
One of the other peasants—a much older, hunched woman—is quick to silence her with a tug on her kimono. She looks stressed. “Forgive us, samurai-sama. Chio is young.”
“HWAH!” Atsu lets out a scoff that sounds something like a grunt and a laugh combined. “The youngest of you is the only one who had the courage to speak up!” He gives a rueful shake of his head.
The peasants seem genuinely fearful at this, but they do not speak. Some seem to hide contempt—others fear—but they do not speak up after this. Even Chio.
Atsu heaves a sigh. He softens his expression, resigning himself to being not so good at investigation. Sheepishly, he scratches his head and surveys the peasants one last time. A few are still working, re-planting the rice and checking on it. Most of the plants in the paddies is dead, or only small sprouts—too small for the season. The water smells foul, as though tainted.
Atsu grunts thoughtfully, then beckons Chio over to him. “You. Your name is Chio? Come here, girl.”
Chio looks among the others, still leaning on her rake. After a moment of hesitation, she crosses to him. He looks at her sternly, fishing in his sleeve for a moment before snatching her wrist and pressing a bu into her hand. “For your courage,” he states gruffly. “Another, if you can tell me what has happened to your harvest.”
For a moment Chio looks alarmed, her body stiffening in his grasp. She looks to the bu in both thanks and wonder, but can’t quite express it. She looks at it as Atsu speaks, her jaw working.
“It has been like this since the… strange things started happening, samurai-sama. The rice does not grow.”
Atsu creases his brow in concern. “What strange things have happened?”
“People have been seeing things at night, and dusk and dawn. Dead people… And monsters.”
Atsu grunts in a noncommittal fashion, fishing around in his sleeve again. “And how long has this gone on?”
Chio looks hesitant for a moment, but keeps on going. “Two months, at least, samurai-sama.”
Atsu nods thoughtfully, handing over the second bu to Chio. He softly bellows his thanks and says his farewell, hopefully not deafening her in the process as he plods back across the field towards town.
When the sun has crept high, Daiyu approaches the doshin’s dwelling. Two people are present: a tall, older man and a muscular teenager.
Daiyu bows politely once they notice her. “Hello. I am Kuni Daiyu, and I’ve come to ask about certain recent events in Beiden.” She directs this to the older man.
The older man’s response is a little slower than the teenager’s, who bows deeply —probably too deeply—and seems rather starved for human contact.
“I am Matte, and this is Kichi, my apprentice. Recent events, samurai-sama?” Matte sighs, standing from what appears to be breakfast. and dusts himself off. Finally, he bows. “What would you like to know?”
“I’ve heard tell of sightings of deceased family, and creatures roaming the rice paddies at night.” Daiyu keeps her questions vague, only repeating what Miyu had said for now.
Both of them nod, Kichi with more enthusiasm, though Matte is still the one to reply. “Yes, indeed. We’ve witnessed more than most. What is your interest, Kuni-sama?”
Daiyu looks back and forth between the two, gauging their reactions. “My companions and I were assaulted by one of these creatures just last night, outside the Emerald Lil, so I have taken a personal interest in this. What else can you tell me? Aside from the sightings.”
The doshin look between one another, then back to Daiyu. For a moment it’s obvious neither wants to speak, but eventually, Matte does. “Several weeks ago, a monk stole from our granary. We caught him and drove him away, and as he left, he shouted curses at our village.”
“He ran for Beiden Pass, back towards the monastery. In the rain, even.” Kichi adds eagerly.
Daiyu narrows her eyes. “And that’s when the sightings began? There were none before this?”
Matte shakes his head. “There were sightings before this, Kuni-sama. But they have grown worse with time.”
Kichi speaks up, seeming hesitant at first, then picking up speed and enthusiasm when Matte doesn’t stop him. “The daimyo—we have not seen him outside of the castle for many weeks.”
Daiyu frowns. “Has anyone had audience with the daimyo? Any news from the castle at all?”
Matte chews on his lip. “No audience, no. The karo has been trying to keep our village running, but… well.” He shrugs helplessly.
Daiyu nods before continuing. “About the monk. What did he look like? His clothes, his face—how did he act? Anything strange besides the thievery and curses?”
“He was… portly. Middle-aged. Perhaps in his forties. He was… often drunk. On sake.” Kichi says, miming a potbelly with his hands.
“There was nothing strange; only that he stole from our granary, Kuni-sama,” Matte says.
“Often? So you had seen him in town before then? Or since?” Daiyu keeps her eyes trained on their faces, watching their expressions intently. They both seem to wilt a little beneath her scrutiny.
“Not before, no.” Matte says after a moment. “But we offered him hospitality when he arrived, and he used it to drink. We have not seen him since.”
Daiyu narrows her eyes slightly, but pushes past it. “Can you recall how he dressed?” A suspicion nags at the back of her mind.
“A warm kimono, Kuni-sama. I am afraid I do not remember much else. It was gray, if I recall. Dirtied.,” Matte bows.
Daiyu sighs, and her frown deepens a little. “Thank you for your help. I wish to stay in Beiden until I’ve gotten to the bottom of this…mystery. I will be staying at the Emerald Lily; if you discover anything of note please do not hesitate to find and inform me.”
She bows and leaves abruptly, her expression a glower as she starts back to the inn.