Heart of Darkness

The Twilight of the Mountains

As we recuperated from the events that transpired during the Festival of the Falling Lights, I was unsurprised to be summoned to meet with Shosuro Mieko.  In return for the aid she had given us, she asked that I travel to the Crab lands to meet with her mentor, Bayushi Tanaka.  It seems he has need for my assistance.  In hopes of freeing myself from her grip, I quickly agreed.

As it turns out, our resident scout, Nairaki, was also summoned to the Crab lands.  And so we left  Kyuden Kurogane-Hana and began our trip south.  After relatively uneventful trip, at least compared to our recent journeys, we arrived at Crossroads Village.  Crossroads Village needs only one word to describe it.  Crab.  A tower standing tall above its namesake, a crossroads.  As we approached, we could see a large number of guards manning the tower, but oddly they all seemed to be nervously watching west.

It did not take long for us to realize why their attention was focused west.  Mere moments later a massive earthquake began, coming out of the west and rolling across the hills like waves.  All around me, my companions fell to the ground as the earth refused to stay steady beneath their feet.  Although I was unaffected for some reason unbeknownst to me, the cloud of dust caused by the moving ground soon obscured my vision.

After the earthquakes subsided, our group collected themselves and started in toward the tower. All except for Osamu-san, who sat down by the side of the road and began to commune with the kami. To his surprise, the only Kami in the area were earth kami.  After much concentration, he was able to pick a single word out of the chaos. “Flee!”

Upon our arrival at the village surrounding the tower, we each went our separate ways. Nairaki-san entered the tower, to speak with the Yasuki seneshal of the town.  He is able to determine that they have sent out several groups of scouts to scout the western mountains, where the earthquakes seem to be originating, but none of them have ever returned. After many terse words between the two, Nairaki-san ordered an assembly of the troops of the town to begin an expedition I not the western mountains to deal with the source of the threat.

As Nairaki-san moved off toward the tower, I made my way to the inn, where I was told I would find Tanaka-sama. As I entered the inn, it was obvious to me where Tanaka-sama was sitting.  As the innkeepers and patrons were moving around cleaning up the mess, one man sat off to the side, making notations in a journal.

As I approached him, he eyed me and nodded to the chair across from him at the table.  After I sat, he filled me in on the task he has for me. It seems he has been tracking something from the colonies that should not exist and yet it is nearby. Unfortunately, that is as specific as he would get in regards to what exactly this is. It falls to me to assist in any action to finding and destroying this… thing…

Katsuchiyo-san went to the fields to talk to the peasants.  It seems these earthquakes have been happening for a time, every day precisely at sundown. No one seems to know what is causing them, but everyone is ready for them to cease.

At about this time, a messenger came to call us all to the tower.  As we arrived, the troops of the village had assembled and were waiting for Nairaki-san’s orders.  The rest of our group joined with Nairaki-san and the troops as we headed out toward the Twilight Mountains.

As we travelled toward the mountains, the sun was quickly covered by dark clouds, obscuring the light.  Several days I in, it was so dark that we could only tell the time of day by the earthquakes that occurred at sundown. After 8 days of travel, scouts returned to tell us they had found something.

They led us to a newly opened pass.  The pass was a new boars head opening into the mountains.  At the back of the cave was a puzzle.  Osamu-san is able to decipher the ancient Rokugani lettering that reads, “In the year 323 by order of the Son of Heaven, this temple has been sealed along with all living in it. Only these who live under the mandate of the Son of Heaven may enter here and only by answering this riddle. Nine stars did fall from Heaven’s gate to crash upon the land. Two apart did stand, One ascended to rule them all. Place the pawns correctly. Let the light of Seppun guide you. If you fail, let Jigoku hide you.”

As we discussed this riddle, it quickly became clear that this was in reference to the tournament that decided that Hantei would rule Rokugan. With the combined knowledge of Osumu-san and Katsuchiyo-san, we were able to find the correct ordering of the pawns and open the portal.

Nairaki-san is given a bag containing fingers of jade and leads the way into the portal.  As we follow, Osamu-san warns us that an Earth kansen hiding below. As we reached the bottom of the stairs, we were assaulted by a cloin smell, with a strong acrid smell of oil. Channels of oil ran down the floor and walls. As Nairaki-san touched his torch to the oil, it flamed green. The flames shot down the channels and soon the entire cavern was lit by the green eerie flames.

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The Last Stand of Anjuhana

On this, the third day of the Festival of Falling Lights at Kyuden Kurogane-Hana, this humble servant of the Jade Magistrate, Agasha Osamu, bore witness to dreadful and terrible things. Please refer to my previous writings of the events that transpired yesterday as I will not take the time to explain them in this writing.

Seppun Ayuma, having been discovered in the caverns beneath Kyuden Kurogane-Hana, was in the capable hands of healers seeking to restore his broken body. My new companions and I knew we were working against a wielder of blood magic, and that whatever this Chuda had devised coincided with the Festival. Were the festivities to conclude without her identity revealed we knew for a certainty that her identity may never be disclosed and she would go on to terrorize the Empire. There was no doubt amongst any of our number that we must act swiftly. Even still, honor dictated that those who had competed so well in the challenges from the days prior should continue their efforts. Thankfully I had chosen not to engage in any of these competitions and was free to continue my investigations, however it would prove to be nearly fatal to me to do so.

Shosuro Jinko continued into the final round of the Sadane tournament facing off against Shosuro Mieko and Doji Ronshouko. I used this opportunity to steal through the hidden passages and into Ronshouko’s quarters. I have heard that the Sadane competition was quite a spectacle with Jinko summarily removing Mieko from the competition, but then himself falling to the wit of Ronshouko. Truly Jinko is a worthy man to match wits against, I must take care what I say in the presence of such a man.

Ronshouko’s room appeared as one might expect the room of a Crane to be appointed, rich with artistic elements and beauty. I myself was slightly jealous of the beauty and creativity of the room, however I did not let that sway me in my pursuit of the killer. I beseeched the Kami of air to aid me in finding what might escape even my penetrating gaze. Sure enough the kami illuminated Ronshouko’s calligraphy pen setting upon a table. Upon closer inspection I discovered that the pen was coated in a toxic poison. I made a note of this and prepared to leave the room, however my compassion overwhelmed me. How could I let such a terrible device of death lie? Surely Ronshouko did not poison her own favored writing implement. I returned to the writing table intent on removing the offensive object, unwilling to let another soul perish if I could stop it. Gingerly I grabbed the pen, careful to avoid the poison when I heard a noise coming from the hallway. What a perilous predicament I found myself in, for if someone should happen upon me holding this poisonous instrument of death would they not immediately accuse me as the killer. I attempted to move quickly to retreat to the passageway through which I entered the room but alas I could feel the pen slipping from my reluctant grip. The pen slid into open space and I feared it might clatter to the floorboards with such a racket that I would give myself away. I reached out without thinking to prevent the pen from falling and grabbed it full on only vaguely aware that I had now become a victim of the insidious trap which I sought to prevent another from falling into.

Much of the rest of the evening I do not recall, however I did spend the next day with famed storyteller Ikoma Kazue who relayed the following details to me. I have inscribed them in her very own voice so as not to lose the passion and intensity of her beautiful tale.

It is said that the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it. We had sated ourselves on celebration for two and a half days, and while the murder of the Unicorn hung like a black cloud in the back of our minds, we sought to honor his memory in the things he so enjoyed. Many bore witness to Ronshouko’s mastery of the spoken word earlier in the day, still more turned out to see two compete over mastery of the blade. For while it has been said the pen is mightier than the sword, few would fill great halls to watch two men write.
Much and more will be said of Akodo Anjuhana. Few even knew her name before this day and many wondered just how this fair lioness had overcome the competition to square off against Mirumoto Chojiro. The air was thick with the tension of the moment as the two stood in the center of the hall, all eyes upon them, waiting for that first strike. All waited with baited breath for the lightning quick strike to come, anxious to blink lest they miss it. Then the sudden strike came. Mirumoto’s strike fell short and Anjuhana’s strike was true. My heart swelled with pride for this lioness and I foresaw great things in her future as the Seppun’s servants presented her with a dazzlingly beautiful blade.

It would be this self-same blade that would so brilliantly illuminate the darkness that sought to swallow the young Akodo that very evening. If only I could have frozen time at that moment of her victory, to allow her more time to revel in the victory of the moment, but it would not be so for that very evening an army of gaki descended upon Kyuden Kurogane-Hana and a savage battle was fought.

One may never know the countless brave and honored souls who spilled their blood in defense of the Seppun’s castle, and on the greater whole, the Empire. Indeed it would seem that in order to revere one, all must be honored. Yet, it is in moments such as these that legends emerge from the crucible of pain and death.

It was upon this mighty field of bloodshed that Akodo Anjuhana revealed the nature of her character. Many of the gaki fell to her prized blade as she rallied the bushi around her continually advancing deeper into the horde and leaving a swath of those she had cut down behind her. I spared only passing glances in her direction as she moved with the strength and power of a lioness. I sought to catch up to her, to stand by her side, back to back as sisters of battle. It was then that Seppun Goro, the standard bearer, took a glancing blow to the arm from one of the gaki. I saw it as if in slow motion. Goro thrown off balance by the blow attempted to land a blow against another foe, but it was batted away. Goro’s head was nearly rent from his shoulders by the gaki and his body fell to the ground along with the Seppun’s banner. Anjuhana saw the banner descending to the dirt, and watched as the gaki trampled upon it in their relentless push toward the kyuden. Anjuhana let out a roar of passion and carved her way to the banner, lifting it out of the dirt and raising it high with one arm as she cut down foe after foe with her left. There was a rallying shout of the Seppun’s forces and they surged further into the gaki, decimating their numbers. My heart swelled once more with pride for Anjuhana’s rallying cry.

Anjuhana then began driving forward into the gaki forces, bearing the standard aloft as she cut down foe after foe. The gaki were infuriated by her, and saw their forces beginning to break under her rallying call. They surged almost as one upon her. I could no longer see her for the press of bodies, yet the standard stood tall. It felt like hours before I could carve my way to her side, but by then it was already too late. The gaki had retreated from her and had taken her life in their wake. Anjuhana appeared at peace, her tenacious grip on the standard not allowing it to fall to the mud once more. Her face locked in a warrior’s cry. She had found her rest among the champions of bygone days. A statue is being cast of her form, bearing the standard of the Seppun to commemorate her sacrifice, and our victory on that fateful day. May her memory ever burn on in the minds of all Rokugani.

I must say, having once again read through that beautiful tale, composed by Ikoma Kazue a tear wells in my eye. I only barely knew the young lion, but she left an indelible impression upon me.

I have also since discovered that it was the ronin shugenja Natsuko who was to blame for the blood magic. It was Hiruma Nariaki along with Daigotsu Katsuchiyo and Shiba Yoto who came upon Natsuko in the midst of calling forth the undead horde. Katsuchiyo and Nariaki are fairly quiet as to what actually happened, but Yoto bravely sacrificed his life in an effort to stop one of the original bearer’s of the porcelain mask. His sacrifice may never make it into the epics of a storyteller, but the empire continues to thrive because of it and for that I know that I am greatful.

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Seventeen Names Upon a Scroll

I, Agasha Osamu, arrived to Kyuden Kurogane-Hana on the second day of the Festival of Falling Lights having been sent by one of Asahina Nanae’s subordinates. It would seem my arrival at Kyuden Kurogane-Hana was a fortuitous one, surely the kami are wiser than man for just the night before Ide Bujun had been reduced to little more than effluvia and gristle by the powerful and corrupt workings of blood magic. I did not hesitate to make myself known to a small group of individuals who were visiting as well and had taken it upon themselves to begin investigating the matter. They seemed somewhat reluctant at first at my convenient arrival, but suspicions and ill-will were shelved in pursuit of that which would seek to tear the empire apart lest great men step in and take action.

Naturally at such a prestigious festival a great number of individuals of all walks of life are present and our first task was to set about developing a list of the most prominent names among the guests of Seppun Ayuma. There are those among the Emerald Magistrate who are only content with apprehending foes in the very act, but I have valiantly stood against these simple practices in favor for what the gaijin call logic, reasoning and evidence. When one applies the full strength of their mind to any given situation it is not necessary to await a foe to commit a travesty in order to show their guilt. Thus, the list of prominent men and women of the Empire who may have had a hand in the despicable practice. I hesitate to put names to paper lest any of them suffer dishonor at the very thought of being so involved, however, it is quite clear that someone among these is a threat to the empire, and if I must besmirch the honor of all in order to protect the well-being of the Empire than that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

Having discussed with my companions what we knew of the seventeen names upon our list we departed one another’s company for it had already grown late into the evening. Already I felt exceedingly positive about those who were working with me, and my confidence was only further bolstered the following day when I saw my new companions mingling about with the individuals we had discussed and asking poignant questions in an effort to ascertain more information. It was even clearer that they bore no particular allegiance to members of their own clan in this and that they sought only the guilt of the one who would be so brazen as to bring doom upon the Empire itself.

I myself ventured into the room of the slain hoping that a first-hand observation may turn up something which the second hand report I had received the evening prior did not. I was not disappointed in this. Despite the quick efforts of the laborers to replace the stains of unspeakable crimes left to linger in the room my keen eye gained much from my own investigation. It is well known that the Iuchi continue to practice Mishuto, a holdover from their many long years traversing the gaijin lands beyond the reach of the Kami’s graces. Many of the Unicorn carry the trinkets of Mishuto with them, and although Ide Bujun had erected a small shrine in his quarters there appeared to be a vast hole in the shrine where some object of significance had been taken. I did my best to guess what such an item might be, but it was beyond even my ability to discern given what I had to work with. However as I pondered I discovered that there was not one, but two entrances to the room of the slain for a secondary, secretively concealed door was revealed. I entered a long, narrow passage, a space between the wall of the room and the outer wall of Kyuden Kurogane-Hana itself. I traversed this passage and discovered that it wrapped around the whole of the living quarters upon the third floor. I had hoped that this information might eliminate some of the names from our list, but alas all of the names upon the list had their quarters upon this level. If nothing else it confirmed our suspicions that one of these seventeen must certainly be the perpetrator.

Whilst I was away exploring my companions were gathering their own intelligence such that it was. Shosuro Jinko used his sharp tongue and clever wit in the Sadane tournament. He was joined by Doji Ranshouko, Asako Nishi, and Shosuro Mieko all three of which appeared on our list of seventeen suspects. Although I was not there the courtiers have not yet ceased in speaking of Jinko’s impressive performance which left the other contestants floundering for a response. Meanwhile Hiruma Nariaki and Daigotsu Katsuchiyo spent some time at the archery range preparing for the tournament to be held there. The two of them spent some minutes getting to know Ikoma Kazue, but also in attendance was Daidoji Ninku and Suzume Hin. Katsuchiyo did not tarry long at the archery competition as he had agreed to a Go tournament where he spent many long hours plying Yasuki Jin with sake and conversation in an effort to garner more information of his character. To say that Yasuki was successful may be an exaggeration, but Jin seems to have taken a great liking to him which may prove beneficial should we need another silver tongue to dig up information for us as we draw the trap ever tighter for the culprit. Hiruma had quite an impressive display as the archery contest began, one that caught the attention of the entire festival, but more importantly of Suzume Hin who agreed to a dinner invitation.

We reconvened at lunch to share the developments we had uncovered, but I kept quiet of the secretive passage, unsure still if this was information too sensitive to divulge to the whole of the group. After all, I was not above suspecting one of them for the crime, though I dared not implicate any of them in this as it was simply too early to do so, and would be counterproductive to our overall effort of locating the true monster behind the slaughter.

My attention was drawn to Natsuko, a water shugenja and a ronin I questioned how she had found the status to not only attend such a prestigious festival, but to quarter amongst champions of the great clans. Shosuro Jinko seemed to be in sync with me as he maneuvered the way only true masters of the court might to hold a conversation with her while I attempted to enter her room through the previously discovered passageway to learn more about this mysterious individual. Unfortunately her room was as bare as her clan mon and I met with no success, however Jinko managed to arrange for dinner with her that evening on the condition that I attend as well. Jinko naturally agreed being a man of great intelligence and not wishing to miss an opportunity of learning more about one of our potential suspects.

We met Natsuko later that evening in the gardens as we had arranged. Natsuko was already waiting our arrival and I feared that I had committed some grave insensitivity in making a lady wait upon my arrival, however I was certain that we had not arrived late to our engagement. Natsuko was pleasant for one so wholly wrapped up in water kami but our engagement would soon be cut off by the sound of bloodcurdling screams coming from the temple nearby. It would seem that my old ways have not wholly departed for it was not long before I was rushing headlong toward the sounds of the screams with Jinko by my side. We saw them approaching before we were able to do anything about them. Some terrible monster, most assuredly the same who slew Bujun, had brought the dead back to life through the use of porcelain masks. Even worse these monstrosities were rampantly slaying innocent men and women without remorse.

Through our combined efforts these terrible monsters were stopped, though we discovered that Seppun Ayuma had sustained a grievous injury in the assault which had taken place all across Kyuden Kurogane-Hana. I rushed with Natsuko to his side. Despite my distaste for the efforts of those who would harness waters I cannot deny the efficacy of those healing waters for closing up wounds. I have studied much medicine in my many years, but the ministrations of Natsuko put right what even the most skilled medcinalist would struggle to heal. I discovered afterward that my companions had discovered a secret tunnel leading out of the temple. This same secret tunnel tied into the network of passageways I had discovered earlier, and also lead outside the outer wall of the Kyuden. We also discovered that Daidoji Ninku, Asako Nishi, Shiba Akiko and Otomo Hiroshi were all wounded in the attack. While I am not comfortable wholly writing them off as suspects it certainly makes it unlikely that they would hurl themselves in harm’s way in an effort to preserve their reputation. I also discovered that we must make all haste in uncovering the culprit for whomever is behind this series of dreadful events is not content with waiting around to be caught. We must put all of our efforts of mind, body and will into ending their reign of terror in the most expedient of ways. For now we heal our wounded, bury our dead and pray that we would be given clear eyes and clear minds.

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Blade of Gaki-do

Daigotsu Katsuchiyo grinned as the ronin bandits stepped out from the boulder to the side of the rocky path. At last — an enemy who didn’t hide behind bandied words or half-truths. As the dishonorable cur began to open his mouth to demand their koku — or whatever else such unsavory sorts could desire — lights danced across the rocks as the sun reflected from newly drawn katanas. Arrows flew and battle cries roared as the engagement swiftly began and ended. Katsuchiyo felt his blade drink deeply of one of the lordless samurai, and knew his duty complete when his opponent fell to the ground and joined his ancestors. He turned to face another, while Mirumoto-san and the others, too, rendered a service to the Crab Clan by dispatching bandits along their roads.

Although a few arrow wounds had been suffered, none appeared life threatening, and their task from Doji Haruki remained incomplete. Nariaki reacquired the trail of Seppun Kazumi, and they traversed the rocky terrain. Finally, coming upon Seppun Kazumi, the group saw her silhouetted in the setting sun, just as she destroyed the ancestral daisho with the blow of a heavy ono.

“What business do you have here in the Crab lands?” Nariaki asked.

“I’ve been unlawfully pursued, forcing me here,” she claimed. “I have business here, but you diverted me, and now this course of action had to be taken.”

Shosuro Jinko knew she was hiding behind half-truths, and ferreted out her true purpose — her Lord had sent her to destroy the ancestral blades of Seppun Ayuma, claiming a curse had been laid upon them. “Mine was not to question, but to do,” was her final comment before submitting to the other samurai for judgement.

After some debate, it was decided to return her to Doji Haruki, with the blades sullied and broken. Returning to the village of Tochi, the group informed Haruki of their tale of pursuit, and Hiruma Nariaki presented the broken blades to the Crane daimyo.

In the dim light of dusk, the blades of Seppun Ayuma began to glow with a sickly green light, and Ningen-do began to bend and warp as Gaki-do parted reality, and a ghostly visage of a samurai rose up from the blades, and reaching into the now empty saya, withdrew a glowing blade of nothing. Shiba Yoto reacted quickly, slashing at the gaki with his katana, but only received a life-draining slash in return for his efforts. Before the other bushi could react, however, Shosuro Jinko, courtier of the Scorpion Clan, struck at the gaki with his wakizashi — and surely the kami of Bayushi himself guided the blade, as it bit deep into the essence of the gaki. The pale green light of Gaki-do slowly faded, and the ghostly samurai bowed to the group, returning his weapons to their saya and merging them with the broken blades.

Haruki understandably desired an explanation, and the group attempted to explain the actions and supposed motivations for Seppun Kazumi’s actions — and her unsuccessful and foolish attempt to lift the curse. Doji Haruki decided to bring Kazumi-san to the party at the Festival of Falling Lights, where the party would meet with her lord and discuss the final resolution to the stolen blade saga.

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Shattered Nights
December 5, 2012

I, Shosuro Jinko, had finally arrived in the village of Tochi. As a relatively young courtier of no great standing, it had fallen to me to represent the Clan at Seppun Ayuma’s party as well as at Doji Haruki’s ostentatious pre-party the week before.

Upon my arrival at the village, I was directed to Doji-sama’s estate, where I was to be his personal guest. Once i had gotten settled in my private room, I was introduced to his other guests.

I was first introducd to a Dragon who called himself Mirumoto Chojiro. I’ll never understand the Dragon obsession with forsaking worldly goods. Especially as it does not seem to apply to their daisho, as his was of exceptional quality and was obviously well used and well taken care of.

It seems that Doji-sama has yet to learn of the danger represented by the Spider clan, as the next individual introduced himself as Daigotsu Katsuchiyo. Unlike most Spider I have had the ill-fortune to meet, he was of slight build and yet still obviously a bushi.

Finally, a Crab standing uncomfortably off to the side of the gathering caught my eye. After introducing myself, he informed me that he was a scout, by the name of Hiruma Nariaki, sent to represent the Crav at the festivities. It was obvious to any semi-intelligent observer that he would rather be else where than at this Crane village. While he was definitely no fellow courtier, it still was reassuring to have such an ally close at hand.

The center of the gathering was not a person, but rather a finely wrought daisho. Doji-sama informed us that this daisho had been given to his family by one of Seppun Ayuma’s ancestors and it was his divine pleasure to return it to the Seppun at the festival.

After not nearly enough small talk, the guests all retired to their rooms for the night. After only a few hours of slumber a loud shriek awakened the entire household. Seeming to come from the area of the earlier gathering, I quickly dressed myself, took my wakizashi, and hurried to the area.

Upon entering, I saw that I was not the only guest with the same thought as the other three had already arrived. Near one of the outer walls of the estate stood what remained of the daisho stand, obviously empty and partially broken. Kneeling before it, wailing in a loud voice, was Doji-san.

Quickly turning away out of respect, I looked around the room. Interestingly enough, a window above the daisho stand was broken, seemly an escape route for the thief. The daisho stand itself, while made of dark wood, had several darker stains, likely blood, and what looked to be dark-colored hair caught in one of the cracks in the wood.

In a few short moments, Doji-sama composed himself, stood and ordered all of his staff from the room. Turning toward the four of us who were guests in his home, he implored us to help him figure out who had perpetrated this heinous crime and recover the stolen daisho. He was needed to lead the caravan to Toshi Ranbo and could not stay and oversee the investigation himself.

Quickly we all agreed to help out. Thanking us, he left us with travel papers allowing us access to anywhere in the Empire for the next two weeks.

Turning to the scene of the crime, Hiruma-san quickly jumped up to the broken window and investigated the method of retreat the criminal took. Mirumoto-san closely examined the daisho stand, remarking at how odd it was to find such dark hair, especially here in Crane lands. Hiruma-san stuck his head back in the window and informed us that he had found a path of bloody handprints that lead out of the estate to where the thief mounted a horse.

Daigotsu-san questioned, or shall I say intimidated, the estate’s gardener who had happened to be tending to one of the estate’s gardens at the time of the theft. He saw a small dark-haired woman quickly leaving the estate with a bundle on her back. She mounted a horse and left via the western road, toward Crab lands.

From the outside of the estate, a guard house near the western road and a tea house were both immediately visible. Taking the initiative, I walked over to the guard house and asked if the guards had seem anything in the last few hours. Obviously unaccustomed to dealing with courtiers of any skill, the two guards there attempted to deceive me. Easily seeing through their deception, I cut to the quick and discover that the third guard, Daidoji Ginso, who was supposed to be on duty left the post unexpectedly several hours earlier.

Daigotsu-san and I went to the tea house to see if the mystery woman had been there. The owner of the tea house immediately approached Daigotsu-san when we entered. He was able to determine that there was a merchant present that had several ponies that we might be ale to procur. While he attempted negotiations with the drunk merchant and his bodyguard, I further questioned Shimoko, the mistress and owner of the establishment.

While Daigotsu-san was unsurprisingly unable to procur us four horses for travel, I was far more successful in my search for information. The strange woman had spent some time here alone, drinking tea. She had no visible mon on her clothing, carried a daisho as if she knew how to use it, and dissuaded others from joining her with an intense silent stare. Unfortunately, no one managed to survive the stare and find any information out about this strange woman.

So, that left us with one option, to follow her route south into the lands of the Crab. As we set off down the Western road out of the village, it was obvious that Hiruma-san was finally once more in his element. There was almost visible relief on his features as we crossed into the densely wooded area that was the northernmost part of the Crab lands. His keen eye for tracking easily kept us on the trail.

Several hours into the forest, Hiruma-san motioned for us to stop and be silent. Growing nearer, we could hear the movements of several men. Out of the dense forest stepped 3 Crab bushi. One quickly stepped forward and demanded to know what we were doing there and if we had travel papers. Upon showing him our papers, his demeanor only slightly changed. Demanding to know what we were doing for a Crane in Crab lands, things escalated quickly and before anyone could intervene he and Mirumoto-san had engaged in a duel.

In a flash of steel, the duel was over. Mirumoto-san stood, unbloodied and as calm as always. The crab sergeant, visibly bloodied, took a moment to compose himself and oddly enough welcomed us to Crab lands. He mentioned that we were near a village and if we were to stop in there, we should let them know we were friends of Sancho. With that, his underlings helped him off and they disappeared noisily into the forest.

Hiruma-san quickly led us to the village, where we were able to determine that the thief had stopped and tied her horse on the outskirts of town and gone in for some period of time before returning and riding off further into Crab lands. Given the choice between investigating why she entered the town and potentially cutting down her lead, we chose to investigate the town.

As to not offend the governor of the village, Hiruma-san and I went to his estate to declare our presence and see if he had any information that could be of use to us. While not pleased that we were there and that we had not brought our entire party, he was able to provide us some information through one of his servants. The thief called herself Seppun Kazumi and had visited the village several weeks prior, inquiring about Daidoji Haruki and his recent rise to power.

At the local tea house, Daigotsu-san and Mirumoto-san received a warm welcome after declaring themselves friends of Sancho. The patrons thought the woman might have visited the blacksmith, as he is the most popular attraction the village has to offer. However, after a brief discussion with him, they learned he had not met her.

We finally made our way to the Inn and there met with more luck. It seems that Seppun Kazumi had been there not too long before, had rested for a few hours and even helped the village fend off a goblin attack. About an hour before we arrived, she left the way she had come in.

Having seemingly exhausted the information this village had to offer, we picked the trail back up outside town and followed it farther into the Crab lands. After entirely too much time walking, our travel was interrupted by several Ronin. Obvious bandits, several stepped in front of us and several behind. By the sound of the bowstring being drawn, there was at least one more off in the underbrush somewhere.

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