The piteous moans from behind the door taper off, the stairwell filling with thick, uneasy silence once more. Crow, alarmed, slams her shoulder into the door. It flies open, the hinges squealing, to reveal a dark, stinking stone chamber, its walls coated with foul-smelling mold.
Chained to the wall by heavy iron manacles is the ragged, shrunken form of Shosuro Tokai. His body is covered with the scars of torture, and his eyes roll piteously towards the door as it is shoved open. He moans weakly.
Standing before him in the middle of the chamber is a swollen, distorted humanoid form, its knobbly skin colored in overlapping blotches of blue, red, and yellow. A quartet of slit-pupiled yellow eyes gaze at the samurai with malevolent intelligence, and slaver drips past massive yellow fangs. A long purple tongue emerges to lick off its elephantine snout.
“He is mine,” the thing gurgles. “You cannot interfere, little samurai.” Black claws slide free from its thick fingers.
Atsu scowls. “But we are interfering! Look, right now.”
Crow’s hand flies to the hilt of her sword. “It seems to think otherwise.”
“It is Baku-no-Oni,” Daiyu snaps, narrowing her eyes. “A servant of Jigoku.”
The baku gives a wet, smacking laugh, licking its snout, before lumbering forward with surprising speed. Atsu responds in kind, roaring a kiai and swinging his tetsubo; it swings with an audible, echoing whoomph past its head. The momentum makes Atsu stumble, and the baku lashes out at him, digging its filthy claws into his shoulder.
Crow follows Atsu at a run, bringing her katana down in a powerful slash across the baku’s chest; the blade skitters against its leathery hide, but purple-blue blood sprays as she sprints past. The baku grunts and falters backward, releasing Atsu to grab at its wound.
Torokai growls and unsheathes his katana, falling into an aggressive attack stance and following up on Crow’s strike. His katana cuts clean into the thing’s hide once, then again for his ancestor, opening up another spray of blood. He retreats a step, the form complete, and shouts to the others, “Do not let it get hold of you!”
Daiyu scowls under the brim of her hat and draws forth a scroll. Her incantation manifests as a coiling, serpentine flame: a fire kami that wraps itself around her arm like a viper. She gestures at the baku and the kami lances at it, splattering against its chest and setting it alight. Yume-Do tints the flames an eerie green and red as they roar and bite at the beast’s multicolored hide.
Shio draws her blade and rushes in, wings flaring to add height to a leap as she strikes at the baku’s face. Her katana clatters against its nose and tusks, drawing more blood. She lands beside it and whirls away from the flames. Crow follows her, going for its snout with an arcing upward slash.
The baku grabs after them both, but its movements are sluggish. With a grunt, it shudders away to rush at Torokai, massive claws spread. He meets its charge, locking the blade of his katana with its claws. The baku snarls and twists, its massive strength throwing Torokai’s balance enough that it can strike, cleaving the leather of his sode and drawing blood.
Shio gives a rattling, metallic cry and comes in low after it, another leap cleaving the snout of the baku clean from its face. It leaves a writhing, bleeding stump and reveals the malformed shadow of its mouth, gaping in pain. The baku rears back, roaring wetly, and Torokai presses the advantage, cutting at its burned, bleeding chest with measured, powerful blows.
Crow seizes the opportunity that its snoutless-ness presents, thrusting her sword right between its four eyes and into its skull. The awful sound of the blade penetrating bone is punctuated by the baku’s cacophonous roar of pain. Its head twists away and Crow loses grip on her katana; the blade remains embedded in its skull like a monument, blood pouring down its ruined face in rivers of thick, sticky plum.
Screaming, it lunges forward again, its whole body weight crashing down on Torokai. The magistrate is half-crushed beneath it, and he cannot contain a yell of pain as the baku’s claws and teeth scrabble at him, tearing at his armor and shattering bone. The baku’s colors are whirling across its body in dizzying spirals and whorls even as it continues to smolder from Daiyu’s spells.
Face grim, Atsu reaches back, tetsubo above his head, and hammers the hilt of the katana deeper into the baku’s skull like a nail into a beam; Crow gives a cry of horror at the sight of her katana at his tetsubo’s mercy. The baku’s colors freeze, and its four eyes wide in something like shock. The bellows of its breath hitches, and with a high-pitched gasp, it slumps over.
For a long moment, all of the samurai stare at its unmoving body, as if waiting for it to get up again. Then, they are all motion; Crow rushes over to pull her sword free from its skull, expression frantic. When she finally extricates it, there is a curious glow near the tsuba, but it is otherwise unharmed. Atsu’s tetsubo has a similar light to its handle, as though the wood has been dipped in honey. He frowns at it, turning the weapon over in his hands to examine the pommel, but the glow quickly fades away.
Shio helps Torokai free himself from the weight of the baku, and her feathers stick out at odd angles with blood. Torokai looks at her scaled hand as she helps him stand, wariness and curiosity warring in his eyes, before they crinkle in a hesitant smile above his lion-mouth mempo. “I am… unsure if this injury is real. The pain certainly is, though!” he says with a laugh, then grunts as he turns abruptly stoic, moving toward Shosuro Tokai’s crumpled form.
Tokai barely has the energy to look up as they approach him, his wasted body supported only by the chains on the wall; he is skin and bones. Atsu quickly shatters them with his tetsubo; the baku’s power is gone, and they dissolve like dust. Crow grabs his body as he begins to fall, supporting his weight. Torokai quickly helps, balancing the daimyo between them.
Unfurling a new scroll, Daiyu steps forward, entreating the kami to cleanse Tokai’s wounds. Atsu meanwhile digs in his satchel, withdrawing bandages and herbs. Between the magic, poultices, and herbs, Tokai perks a little, but his eyes are still distant and delirious.
“How do we… how do we return to our bodies?” Crow asks, hesitant.
Shio nods towards the staircase out. “The… doorway of light? Perhaps now that the creature is gone, we can step back through?”
Torokai nods, carrying the shriveled man easily up the stairs. He makes a “hmm” noise that’s probably yes and moves into the fields, out of the dungeon.
Atsu stares at Shio uncomfortably, unused to seeing her in her true form. “Wherever we go, let it be away from the mold!”
The castle is quiet as they approach, but Mugo still sits in the main hall. He looks up as they approach and jumps to his feet at the sight of Tokai. “Papa! Papa, you’re back! I was so afraid!”
Tokai strains weakly to hear the voice, turning in Crow and Torokai’s grasp. “Mugo,” he mumbles, “Mugo, you are here… Mugo.”
Atsu cranes his neck around to peer at Tokai, making sure he isn’t about to suddenly defecate and die.
Shio blinks at the “Papa” and files it away with a thoughtful click of her beak. “Mugo-kun,” she says. “Do you know if there is anyone else here? Or—anything?”
Atsu adds, “Perhaps, someone else here? With your father?”
Mugo rushes over to them. He blinks forward faster than the eye can follow, then reappears. Standing up, he is smaller, more frail. The boy shakes his head, smiling. “No one else,” he says.
Shio’s beak gapes in a smile back, hesitantly. “Thank you.”
Crow looks around at the others, then to the boy, and then back to the others. “We should make haste.”
Mugo tugs Tokai’s bloodied kimono. “I’ll see you again, Papa. I love you.”
There is a moment’s pause. The boy continues staring, watching silently, as Torokai begins to move forward, leading them away.
“Stay, let me stay,” Tokai murmurs, his head lolling on his neck. His arms strain weakly at the samurai’s grips. Torokai’s eyes harden, but he continues on, leading them back upstairs towards the daimyo’s room.
“You will see him again.” Crow reassures as best she can.
The daimyo’s room is the same as it was left. The colors are just as bright and eerie, and a shimmering pattern of light is above Tokai’s futon.
As they step through, it is like waking from a particularly arresting dream or deep sleep. They again return to their bodies. Immediately, Tokai wakes, gasping for breath and sitting bolt upright in his futon. His face crumples with shame.
Shio, once again human-seeming, immediately sits up and bangs her head hard against the wall she’d slumped against. Crow rubs her face, brow knit, as she sits up. She scrambles to her feet once she realizes what’s happened and goes to check on Tokai.
Tokai’s voice is raw and dry from lack of water. “I… I thank you, samurai-sans. You have saved me from my grief. But I cannot forgive myself for making myself the victim of an oni. I do not deserve to be daimyo. Or samurai.”
Crow looks sympathetic to Tokai’s words, but decides it’s not her place to argue. “Worry about such things later. For now, you should eat.”
Bayushi Kushiro rushes up the stairs as he is bid by the servants, sinking to Tokai’s side. “Shosuro-sama—you are alright!”
Atsu frowns at Tokai. “Defeating oni is no easy feat,” he rumbles.
Tokai shakes his head several times. His kimono is like clothing on a scarecrow. “I—I must ask you to be my second, Kushiro-san. I cannot live with such shame.”
Shio glances at Atsu, then back to Kushiro, blinking rapidly.
Kushiro freezes, looking torn. He stammers. “Surely you are exhausted, lord.”
Crow frowns deeply, but says nothing at first. She steps away once Kushiro is there, standing next to Shio. “What happened was beyond your control, Shosuro-sama. Perhaps it would be best to meditate on this decision after eating and resting.”
Shio shakes her head, frowning. “I must agree. You have been under great duress for quite some time, Shosuro-sama… It is not a decision made lightly, not under the circumstances you have suffered.” She folds her hands away and closes her mouth, looking tired.
Tokai bows his head, his eyebrows pulled together in thought.
Daiyu eyes him balefully. “Imagine if the Crab had abandoned the wall when the forces of darkness first showed their fury.”
Atsu glances at Daiyu, backing her up. “Even on the Wall, we do not face oni alone. That you were able to stand up to it for so long, by yourself!” He clenches a fist audibly. “It is inspiring!”
Tokai nods, slowly, still looking torn. He shakes his head and sighs. “I… thank you, samurai-sans. I will think on this wisdom.”
Kushiro stands in one, smooth motion, folding his hands behind his back. He bows. “Thank you, samurai-sans, for your assistance in retrieving my lord. I hope that this land may see some renewal, in time.”
The samurai bow, but share an uneasy glance with one another once Koshiro has returned his attention to his lord.
By the time they have made their way back to the inn, it is clear that Torokai is as eager as anyone to leave this place. That night, they pack their things and prepare their ponies to continue their journey. The dawn is fine and clear as they travel south.
As the samurai move on, Shosuro Tokai’s shame sees its end. Bayushi Kushiro acts as his second.