The days following the attack by the tainted Mantis were spent in meditation and preparation. While Akodo-sama rested from the rigors of the previous days’ battles, the other Great Clan representatives discussed strategies, and consulted Kuni Kaizen’s wisdom about the Shadowlands and what dangers they might face within Kitsune Mori Mura. Doji-sama met with the Fox Clan representatives to reassure them of the Crane Clan’s support, reminding them that the movement of Lion troops was only at the behest and allowance of the Crane.
The day before the tournament was set to begin, the Great Clan representatives left Kitsu Kibou-sama in the capable hands of the others who would stay behind to protect the Great Clans’ interests at the Tournament of the Emperor’s Chosen. Rather than enter the forest, Bayushi –san opted to remain behind Phoenix Clansman, Isawa Tetsuya, would venture into the forest in his stead.
Together, they took an initial reconnaissance into the forest. Shiba Takehiko consulted with the capricious air spirits for guidance through the wood, using his flute to whistle up a breeze which would lead them deeper into the forest.
After several hours of travel, with Akodo-sama blazing the kami’s trail, the company found the Fox Shrine within the forest. Careful not to disturb the tournament tokens, they continued deeper into the forest until the chill of night began to descend over them.
As the cold eye of the Obsidian Dragon peered down upon them, a sense of dread filled the air. The baying of wolves could be heard in the distance, drawing ever closer to their camp. During Doji-sama’s watch, a tiny wolf pup came in snuffling about. Doji-sama approached the small creature and coaxed it into the camp with bits of fish. Eventually, as if coming to recover the pup, the howling moved closer and a pack of huge wolves entered the clearing where they slept.
Standing six feet tall at the shoulder, it was clear that these were no ordinary wolves. The greatest of them, at eight feet, spoke up. “Leave this forest,” he said, “there is taint within this wood, and taint among you. Though my pack hunts bigger game, I warn you that my sisters will likely tear you apart.”
“We understand, kami-sama,” Shiba Takehiko replied. “But we, too, seek the taint within this wood. We shall not turn back until we have cleansed this forest.” And so the rozoun departed their company, resuming their hunt of the forest’s blight.
When the light of morning returned, the Jade Dragon’s light barely gleaming though the thick canopy, the company resumed their course deeper into the forest. The air grew chill and snow began to fall lightly through the leaves, but as they traveled deeper, the snow grew stronger. The biting cold took its toll upon some of the men. One of the Kuni’s attendant, a Yoritomo, began to wear from the harshness of the wood. As his strength wane, he collapsed into the snow in a heap.
In the distance of the wood, a mellifluous sound began to flow through the leaves. Shiba Takehiko reached for his flute and attempted to produce a countermelody in the hopes of communicating with whoever was creating the sound, but there was no sort of reply to his melody. Hoshi-san ran ahead to investigate the origin of the sound, but later described an intense pull exerted upon his body when he attempted to turn back to share his reconnaissance. The company eventually caught up to Hoshi-san and together carefully approached a clearing up ahead from whence the sound seemed to originate.
As the company approached closer to the clearing, others of the Kuni’s entourage succumbed to the cold, falling into sudden slumber in the snow. Emerging from the wood and into the clearing, the haunting melody was clearly imminent, though somehow unseen. Instead, there was only a chest seemingly constructed from ice, like a frozen shrine offertory.
Hiruma Hata-san, the youngest of the Kuni’s attendants began carrying on a seemingly one-sided conversation. He wondered at our inability to see the small girl in the clearing and her kitsune spirit companions, one of whom was playing the haunting flute melody. Translating through Hiruma-san, she demanded that we surrender our weapons to her offertory, or else she would not allow us passage.
“She would dare demand that we surrender our souls??!” Akodo-sama bellowed. He placed his hand on the hilt of his blade as though prepared to draw at a moment’s notice.
“What else might we do to appease the spirit, Hiruma-san?” Shiba-san asked.
For a moment, Hiruma-san appeared to be listening intently to the spirit. “She says she will let us through if we agree to play a game with her. But she says that if we lose the game… then I must stay with her here in the forest and play with her, forever.”
“Very well, spirit,” Doji-sama said. “We accept your challenge – bring on your game.”
A stick floated in the air, carried by the invisible spirit child. Hiruma-san explained the rules of the game as the stick began to draw a series of circles and lines in the snow. While Doji-sama engaged in the game for Hiruma-san’s freedom, Shiba-san reached out his senses into the Void. In doing so, he was able to pierce the frigid illusion and see the bodies of the spirit’s many other victims. Though dead, most of the unfortunates wore the mask of sleep, peacefully drawn into their dooms.
Finally, Doji-sama’s wits allowed her to prevail against the spirit. The company was to be allowed passage beyond the clearing, but was warned that her “mother” would be very cross, both with her and with them. As a parting “gift,” she enigmatically shared that by finding the Golden Willow they would find Agasha Nangen.
With the spirit’s departure, the snow began to melt and the Crab attendants began to regain some of their strength. Desirous to perhaps provide a more honorable death for the men here, Shiba-san attempted to identify any sort of familial mon to whom he could report their recovery. However, based on their lack of any mon and their somewhat shabby armor, he concluded that the poor men must have been ronin, and so would be nearly impossible to honor in death given their position in life.
The company resumed their course deeper into the forest, though the barely concealed whispers of the Crab attendants hinted that this mission to aid Kuni Kaizen was not the ideal respite from duty on the Wall that some had hoped for. As nightfall again approached, the company set up a small camp while Akodo-sama ventured slightly beyond the campsite to procure some small game. While hunting, Akodo-sama spotted Kitsu Kibou off in the distance, clearly lost in the woods during the final test of the tournament.
Although he would not compromise the competition, he seemed pleased to have encountered a friendly face within the forest. He provided Akodo-sama with a small package – a delivery from Kuni Kaizen’s companion who had remained behind at the tournament.
(MORE TO COME)