As the group approached the magistrate’s office they decided that it would be in their best interest to wait till tomorrow to inform Isawa Masanori of what had happened. They came back into the magistrate’s home, giving their weapons and outside sandals to the servant at the door and putting on their inside slippers. Once inside they sat down in the common room while a servant brought them some food and tea. The old Crane magistrate joined them after a few minutes and asked how there exploration went and if they found any ghost. Akodo answered although they had not found any ghost they had encountered some walking dead. The old crane magistrate looked at him accusingly and told him that such a concept was not a joking manner and to explain himself better. Akodo apologized for his jovial tone and said no disrespect was intended. He then told the magistrate of their encounter with the walking undead skeletons, the death of the old man and them saving the young woman and the direction she headed off in after that had reached the houses. The magistrate looked upset at this news and sent his servant to gather some men to serve as budoka and some eta to gather the corpses. He then grabbed his daisho from its stand in the corner, bowed and thanked the visiting samurais for their efforts, and made his way out.
At this point Shinjo asked if they would tell him what exactly had happened. Akodo did so, although with a few storytelling flourishes, and Shinjo was impressed although happy he had not gone since he did no enjoying interacting with ghosts and undead. The Phoenix yojimbo, Shiba, came out during the story and just stood there listening and shaking his head. Once the story was finished he told them that they could tell Isawa Masanori in the morning. When Hida said that it should be Shiba’s job, Shiba locked eyes with Hida and smiled. He decided that Hida should tell Isawa and that Hida should smile his usual smile in the morning. Hida answered that he would be happy to. Not too much longer the magistrate came back and thanked them for their services.
The next morning, 1st of Goat, the group departed from the remains of Oni Mura. The magistrate thanked them for the honor of choosing him to stay with and wished them a happy journey. As they arrived towards the outskirts of the tiny valley in which the village and rice fields rested Shiba told Isawa, still not quite awake and ready to face the day, that Hida had something to tell him about the group’s activities the night before. Isawa called forward to Hida to ride next to him and explain what Shiba meant. In the meantime Shiba dropped back to talk with Shosuro and watch the scene from a safe distance. Hida with his usual morning person smile rode back and bowed to Isawa and asked how he could help. Isawa asked why he smiled so which Hida responded with “If you smile at the day the day will smile at you”. Isawa considered this for a second with a grouchy expression before responding that “If you smile for no reason at Amaterasu she may make you prove your reasons for smiling”. After this he told Hida to tell him what he and his companions had been up to the night before. Hida told him about them going to explore Oni Mura and their encounter with the pennaggolan and the undead. When it came to the part about Shosuro being hurt by the pennaggolan he paused and called for Shosuro to come up and join him and Hida. Hida finished explaining the rest of the story and Isawa thanked him for explaining. He then motioned for him to return to the front and turned to Shosuro and asked if she was ok. She explained she had been able to heal herself and was ok. Isawa nodded at this and then apologized for what he had to do next and summoned a giant stalagmite shaped javelin of jade energy and hurled it at Shosuro. The Jade Strike passed thru Shosuro and shattered behind her. Shosuro looked stunned and frightened while Isawa apologized for the rudeness of his gesture but he had to be assured she had not been tainted by her wound. She nodded in understanding and retreated to her usual position behind the caravan and Shiba came back to ride next to Isawa in between the two wagons.
The following day and a half passed without incident with the group stopping at a waystation for the night before moving on to Yama ue no ho ni Umi Mura (Wall above the Ocean village) which was known for its abundance of splendid temples, shrines and inns. It was named so for it sat at the foothills of Kaba ue no ho ni sa Umi (Wall above the Ocean) mountain range. Once Isawa had arranged for a place to stay the group had the rest of the late afternoon to themselves to do as they pleased. Shosuro looked around for a Scorpion owned geisha house but was surprised to find the only one was run and owned by the Crane. With that she visited the Temple of Benten (Fortune of Romantic Love) to pray and be cleansed from her travels and encounter with the pennaggolan with the scented baths and relaxation that the Temple offered. Akodo and Kakita went off to pray to Megumi (Fortune of Heroic Guidance) and to ask if they were doing as he had planned for them all. Afterwards Akodo went off to the geisha house to relax and relieve his stress while Kakita went to the Temple of Kurohito (Fortune of Perfection) to meditate. Hida had taken the time to visit the Temple of Bishamon (Fortune of Strength) and then the Temple of Hachiman (Fortune of Battle) to ask for guidance and perseverance. They all finally made their way back to the inn where they enjoyed a meal and some sake before retiring to bed.
The next morning they left the foothills of Kaba ue no ho ni sa Umi and headed west towards the Crab lands. Their next destination was Jukami; an important link in the trade with the Crab and Mantis Clan. Many mercenaries could be found there also; among them are ronin, minor clan samurai and Mantis thugs. Anyone seeking to hire warriors often would go there first. They made their way thru the most southern Crane lands uneventfully and only passing a few more Daidoji units heading north. That night they spend another night in one of the many waystations set along the well maintained roads of the Empire.
The following afternoon, the 4th day of the month of the Goat, they arrived in Jukami. After finding an inn Isawa went upstairs as he was not feeling good from the fast pace they had been maintaining for the last couple weeks. Shosuro disappeared into the city on one of her usual unknown errands. Shinjo went off to see what sorts of things were being traded in the city. Hida wanted to relax and take the time to clean his armor so he stayed in his room at the inn. Akodo wanted to find a good weapon sharpener. He tried asking some of the local magistrates but they were not too keen to help him and advised him that he would be better off going home to the Lion lands to find such services. Akodo looked around after this until he spotted some ronin with well maintained equipment and politely asked them where he could find a good place to check on his weapons as it was obvious that they took such good care of their own. They advised that any of the shops on the main street could do a good job but to stay away from any of the ones near the ports as they tended to be overpriced and do poor workmanship as they had little fear of people returning to harass them about it. He thanked them politely for their assistance and made his way towards the shops advised. As he walked away he could hear the head ronin tell the others that “It would be a shame to have to kill a Lion like that one on the battlefield”. He quickly found the shops mentioned and they were able to clean and sharpen his weapons.
Meanwhile Kakita had stayed at the inn relaxing and drinking some tea. After a while a ronin sat next to her and started a conversation. He was clearly trying to impress her and get some sort of positive reaction from the lovely Crane samurai-ko. It was also obvious that she was not impressed. His name was Kouki and was the leader of a small, but skilled and well trained, group of ronin called the Red Ocean and were currently sitting all around them. When asked what she was doing she explained her group’s mission and went on to explain the capabilities of her comrades when he pressed that for such a mission she would of course need help. When she told him about Hida’s eye tearing techniques he exclaimed “Oh yes, Kobo Ichi-kai! I know it well. Several of my men are well versed in its techniques” while five of his men gave a hollering salute. At this exclamation Hida heard a bit of the conversation and quickly started putting on his armor before going down stairs to see what the commotion about Kobo Ichi-Kai was about.
Kouki tried to get Kakita to take him along on her adventure but she responded that such a decision was up to the Shugenja Isawa Masanori although she did not expect him to know of Isawa. Kouki responded that of course he knew of the great Void Fire shugenja and would be honored to join such and expedition. He went on to explain his many adventures including a barely plausible story about fighting gaijin riding flying beasts while escorting a caravan of Dragon Clan Mizugusuri items for the Dragonfly Clan. Kouki was about to sacrifice himself valiantly right before a Ize Zumi jumped high above the gaijin and landed on them from above breathing fire from his mouth and jumping from obscene mount to mount knocking off the riders. The raiders quickly disappeared back north. Kakita nodded at the mention of Mizugusuri and was amused of the little knowledge that the ronin had about them. Hida found finally finished putting on his armor and headed down stairs and was not pleased to see Kakita surrounded by ronin and one of them clearly sitting, in Hida’s opinion, way to close to Kakita. He tried to move closer but Kouki’s men had made a wide circle around the table while Kakita and Kouki were sitting and there was no way to politely get passed them. They talked a bit about martial arts with Kouki explaining his own knowledge of the Lion martial art “The Way of the Sword” and that Hida would obviously wish to learn the ronin martial art of Nagai Michinori which assisted the practitioners in mastering other techniques. Kakita explained she was teaching Hida Mizu-do but she was more of a duelist then a martial artist. Kouki bragged that he had served four times as a champion in duels losing only one of them to a swift Bayushi. When prompted to prove such skill Kouki asked what he would get in return. They finally agreed on a private biwa song to be performed by Kakita for Kouki in his room if he were to participate in a mock duel with her much to Hida’s distress.
They gathered outside and the two participants stretched and prepared themselves while a couple of Kouki’s men used brooms to clean and flatten a circle in which the duel was to occur. A great crowd started to gather as the news of the pending duel spread. A magistrate was found to authorize and judge the duel. He questioned both combatants individually and got their agreement that the duel would be to first blood and was not intended to be to the death. At this point Akodo was making his way from the weapon sharpener’s to a shop on the other side of the inn when he spotted the large crowd. He was able to notice Hida’s towering armored figure over everyone and made his way over to his companion to see what the commotion was about. Shosuro noticed the crowd as well noting the bobbing golden mane of Akodo above the crowd and was able to pick out Hida as Akodo’s destination. Upon the arrival of Akodo and Shosuro, Hida explained what was going on while Kakita finished preparing herself mentally, physically and spiritually for the duel. They also noticed Shinjo a couple hundred feet away standing on the saddle of his horse with his hand near his bow. He nodded to Kakita when he saw her looking at him and gestured towards Kouki who was now entering the center of the circle.
The two combatants came together and the center of the circle and handed their weapons over to the magistrate to examine. He carefully looked over each weapon and their sayas expecting them for any signs of misconduct. There was a general murmur at the obvious antiquity and quality of Kakita’s saya and the Tsi crafted katana it held. Finding both weapons to be in good condition he handed them back and explained that the following duel was to first blood only and meant as a demonstration of skill and not to resolve a dispute. If death were to occur the victor would be held responsible for the death of the loser. With that he stepped back and bowed to the contestants who bowed to him in return and then to each other. They then placed their hands on their weapons and prepared for the first strike. Although it was clear that Kakita was the more attuned of the two she allowed Kouki to focus himself first. Several quiet, tense seconds passed as the air stilled, the crowd was silent while the will and focus of the two duelists pitted themselves against one another. Kouki was the first to lose focus and Kakita drew her katana in a movement that only a few eyes could follow and held the point a paper width’s distance from Kouki’s throat. With a bow and a nod Kouki graciously accepted his defeat and said that it was no wonder that Kakita Hikaru had won the Topaz Championship. With a small bow he retreated into the crowd and Kakita returned to her companions who congratulated her on a magnificent performance. But now Kakita would have to decide what song to perform for the boisterous ronin….