Inside, the castle is as quiet as it was previously—perhaps even moreso, a strange hush gripping the shrouded halls. Servants bow to the samurai as they pass, adjusting the hanging fabric of clan mons and sweeping debris from the polished hardwood floor. Kushiro takes them into a small receiving room and gestures for them to sit, then settles himself before them. The silence stretches between them as Kushiro considers them, the dark eyes above his mempo moving slowly from one to the next.
At last, he says, “I must now speak plainly, samurai-sans, and ask for your assistance. You have demonstrated me that you understand the importance of bushido, as well as a willingness to do what you must.”
He visibly readies himself before continuing, his eyes closing for a moment and his hands steepling atop the table.
“My lord, Shosuro Tokai, is without an heir, for his children died many years ago. I have been honored to serve as his karo. Last year, he informed me I should take more responsibility for these lands, that he intended I take his place on his passing. It seemed best to learn by leading.” He pauses, his gaze settling beyond them. “And I have done my best to manage his household and lands. But as I have done so, my Lord has seemed to… lose interest. He has spent more and more time alone. In his quarters. I have found it difficult to manage without such guidance.”
He clears his throat. “Tokai-sama has been burdened with sadness for many years. Many tragedies have befallen his family line: the unfortunate deaths of his wife and children, sickness. He has spent much time sleeping. For these last few months, he has not left his quarters. He is wasting away. I managed to awaken him, but he will not listen to my words—I am not sure if he knows my face any longer.”
Kushiro stops again, composing himself. “I am not knowledgeable in such things, but I fear that Lord Tokai-sama has become so consumed by despair that he is allowing himself to die in its grip. I have tried to break him from such despair, to no avail. Perhaps strangers can reach him where I cannot.”
Atsu glances at the others briefly before looking back to Kushiro. “Perhaps I could examine Lord Tokai. With your permission, of course,” he ventures.
Kushiro nods, any sign of discomfort or distress swept away again. His eyes do not move. “Of course, Hida-san. You may.”
Atsu bows slightly, trying to be careful in his movements as he steps out to do so. He glances back at Kushiro as he slides the door open. “When did Lord Tokai become bedridden?”
“He fell to despair several months ago and has since rarely been witnessed awake,” Kushiro says. “The last few times I visited him, he barely awoke at all. He did not seem to realize where he was. He fell asleep again within moments, and the servants say that he has not taken food for the last five days—only tea.”
Atsu thins his lips and scrunches his brows together. “Is this, perhaps, before or after your crops began to fail?”
Kushiro’s eyebrows twitch, and his eyes narrow just long enough to catch before he stills his expression once more. “It has been roughly the same amount of time, I must say.”
The samurai bow to him and begin to follow Atsu out. Kushiro adds, his voice soft, “Tokai-sama has always treated me as a son. I consider him a father. Whatever happens here, if he is beyond ability to save, it is my wish that he remain known as an honorable man.”
A waiting servant leads them to the top floor of the castle. A pair of Scorpion bushi stand rigidly on guard beside the door, stepping aside to allow the servant to kneel and slide it open, then bow them into the daimyo’s chambers.
The room is dimly lit, the windows shuttered to allow a slim beam of sunset through. The air is thick and musty with the odors of stale sweat, incense, and dust. Incense sticks burn in the corners of the room, shrouding everything in a haze of smoke. A futon lies in the center of the room, its occupant enshrouded by a heavy coverlet. A tray with a half-empty teacup and an untouched bowl of soup sits beside the futon.
Shosuro Tokai sleeps fitfully, occasionally tossing and muttering. A once healthy man in his early forties, he is now shrunken and atrophied by lack of food and exercise. Atsu rustles around in his sleeves briefly before producing an item like a powder ball for a katana, except it is made from wood. He leads the way in.
The smell of the incense is a cloying musk that grows heavier as the samurai step within. Each step seems to drag; their minds grow fuzzy and slow with incessant, strange waves of exhaustion.
Shio blinks slowly, like her eyelids are sticky. She stops moving and sways on the spot. Crow rubs her face and stays upright, though she begins to sway. Atsu blinks his eyes futilely, attempting to shake the haze from his mind. He kneels and takes hold of Tokai’s wrist, clutching the wooden thing in the other hand and tapping in time to check his pulse.
Torokai rubs his head, faltering a bit as the door is slid shut behind him. He looks to the daimyo, then around the room. Grumbling under her breath, Shio sways her way over to the window and tries to open the shutters a little, to disperse some of the smell and smoke.
“Have you fed him soup?” Atsu calls over his shoulder, drearily looking at the servants
The servants are outside the door, looking fearfully inside through a crack. They nod. “He—he has not eaten, samurai-sama,” one of them says eventually. “He will not wake.”
Daiyu is struck with a rare look of concern after stepping into the room. She glances at the rest, her hand reaching towards her scroll case. She doesn’t follow them to Tokai’s bedside for a long moment, then abruptly steps in and settles beside Atsu. She searches around, and eventually finds a small book hidden beneath the futon.
“I cannot get away, it will not let me get away…I cannot escape… I cannot escape… someone find me… someone help me… Kushiro…” Daiyu reads it aloud, holding back an eyeroll at the repetition. She’s a critic.
The smell of the incense grows stronger as minutes of searching and examination pass. Crow is the first to succumb: she slumps to her knees, then to the floor. Shio, Atsu, and Torokai quickly follow, Shio’s hands fumbling with the window shoji and then loosening, spilling her to the hardwood; Torokai’s head slumping forward, then his body slumping sideways. Atsu is the last, his body bowing forward to press his forehead against the floor, pulse mallet clattering.
Daiyu alone remains awake, watching this with no particular shock: there is a new sense of awareness in her eyes, of connections being made. Above Tokai’s bed, she can perceive a shimmering pattern of light: a spirit portal.
Shio, Atsu, Crow, and Torokai open their eyes, but as they sit up again, their bodies remain behind, slumped in sleep. They seem to be in the same room, but everything is brighter, more vibrant, and some of the colors seem distinctly odd–the wooden floor is a rich reddish gold color, and the sunlight seeping through the shutters has a blue-green tone. There are no furnishings and no sign of Tokai. In the place where Tokai’s futon lay on the floor, a shimmering, uncertain pattern of light floats about three feet above the floor.
Their garb has changed, forming armor and finery their slumbering bodies do not wear. Shio is no longer in her human guise; she glances down at herself in concern, neck feathers puffing and then sleeking down again. She cocks her head sharply at Akodo, then tiptoes behind Atsu’s bulk… Futile.
“I don’t like this,” Atsu states matter-of-factly.
Crow looks to her own body on the floor, frowning. “Are we… dead?” She looks at the strange light.
Atsu stoops next to his body, waiting patiently until it snores. He shakes his head at Crow.
“I don’t think so?” Shio shrugs arms and wings.
Torokai looks around, then down at himself, armored and with a lion-masked kabuto. He looks for Tokai, but finds no sign. He hums to himself.
Crow frowns. “Consider his writings. Perhaps we were drawn… here. For a reason.”
They can make out the room they came from, their own bodies asleep on the floor, and the waking body of Daiyu.
Shio glances at Crow, her eyes darting. “But Tokai isn’t here.”
Atsu steps closer to Daiyu and shouts at her. Daiyu ignores him, continuing in her examination of the spirit portal. She sits down beside Atsu, closes her eyes, and a few tense moments later, steps free of herself to join them.
The castle is unsettling. While its layout is unchanged, there are no people. The colors are bright, surreal, odd. A green-yellow sun sets in a purplish-blue sky, and sounds echo. Shio shuffles her wings in agitation then sets off out of the room at a quick pace, soon trailed by Crow. Atsu follows after her as well, his expression unhappy.
Torokai goes down the opposite hallway, his hand on the hilt of his katana, followed by Daiyu. “I do not like this. Do you know where we are, Kuni-san?”
Daiyu is quiet for a moment as she tries to get her bearings. “I believe we are in the realm of Yume-do, Akodo-sama. The realm of dreams.”
In the hall is a pretty, young girl, dancing silently through the castle. She is dressed in a child’s kimono of black and red. She smiles at them as they pass, but does not speak.
Atsu stares at the girl. “Oi, who are you?”
The girl does not respond, and skips slowly along an invisible line. Shio glances at Atsu, then back to the girl, feathers slick with anxiety.
Atsu’s face grows unhappier with each step the girl takes. He follows her, against every sensible survival instinct a normal person would have. The girl continues to smile at him, giggles once, but does not speak. Shio stares at the girl intently for a moment before following as well, not wanting to leave Atsu by himself in this horror show.
Atsu is still getting unhappier, but keeps trailing the girl. “Where are you going?!”
The girl starts toward the stairs, dancing along the hall on the way there, but does not respond.
Atsu glances left and right suspiciously, growing more concerned the longer this continues.
They chase the girl down the stairs, back down into the main hall of the castle. There, in the dining hall where Kushiro greeted them the first time, a young, kind-featured boy sits. He is dressed in a kimono more red than black. “Who are you?” he calls to them.
Shio stops, startled. “Shio,” she answers.
Atsu pauses as well, turning his attention to the boy. The girl skips on, disappearing down a hallway. “Hida Atsuryokunabe. And you are?”
“Mugo-kun,” he says, but in a confiding way, “but I will be called Kushiro-san soon.”
Shio blinks at him rapidly, her head cocking to the side in surprise. “Mugo-kun… Would you happen to know where Shosuro-sama is?”
“Hoo.” Atsu frowns, turning his head to Shio briefly. “We are here to help him,” he adds.
Mugo’s face scrunches with concern. “I think he’s in the fields. I can hear him calling from there sometimes. But I can’t find him.”
Shio nods. “Calling for help?”
The boy shrugs, frowning. “I can’t find him,” he says again. “He’s too quiet.”
When Crow steps into the courtyard, the sound of hoofbeats is immediately apparent. It draws her attention to the left, then the right, but there is no horse in sight, and neither are there tracks in the dirt. She frowns and moves to follow the sound, but they are always just turning the corner ahead of her, just beyond her grasp. When she is finally led outside of the castle grounds, she finds the village empty, devoid of both animals and people—save for a single woman dressed in a white bridal kimono, walking between buildings with her head lowered.
Crow gapes for a moment, but then calls out to her. The woman continues on silently, her back turned, and when Crow attempts to pursue her, she seems to only grow further away. Crow’s mounting frustration ultimately leads her to give up the chase, and when she turns back to the road, she finds a small army amassing on the horizon, marching back and forth. Aside from the woman, it is the only sign of life she has seen outside of the castle so far, so she approaches cautiously.
Those gathered remain oblivious to her presence, pacing in their fruitless march, awaiting battle that does not come. Their standards are hazy, and though she rubs her eyes several times, she cannot make out the mon, or even the clan colors.
Just as she feels that she is on the brink of making it out, there is a loud, distant scream from somewhere outside of the castle. Crow turns abruptly and rushes toward it.
In the castle, Shio jerks around to stare in the scream’s direction. Atsu hefts his tetsubo and thunders past Mugo with a shouted “excuse us“.
“Thank you,” Shio calls to Mugo before darting after Atsu.
Torokai is leading Daiyu toward the cellar when his head whips around. He looks to her and nods. “With me, Kuni-san.”
There is another scream. It comes from the fields, where crimson-headed stalks of grain wave in an unseen breeze. Atsu and Shio find Crow outside, and after a bit of searching, catch sight of a dip in the grain. Torokai and Daiyu join them as they approach.
They find a perfectly square hole in the earth with a stone staircase set into it, leading down to a heavy, iron-bound wooden door. Greenish sunlight tints it sickly, striated like pulsating scars as the grain sways above. As they descend towards it, there is the sound of pitiful whimpering from behind it: the sound of a human being in pain and terror.