Red Fangs of Fuuma (風魔の紅牙)

The Tokaido, Eastern Sea Path, was ideal for reaching famous Kanto castles such as Odawara and Sunpu. However, a parallel but elusive travel was sought for to avoid eyes. Strolling outside a mountainous path stretching between Suruga and Sagami, edging the Suruga Bay and leading to a famous town port, Yasuochi Chigachi (千賀地 保遠) was followed by his three chosen men draped in dark flowing fabric void of identity.

However, when their target Moritoki Ise lay at his death bed, he would have only one excuse: The men of the shadows took him. The furtive toppa: a popular Kamakura term to describe thieves of the valuable, including human lives. They were the only ones capable of doing such things.

The toppa tracked an enemy. It was hard to believe.

Yasuochi contemplated over his ideas, and he couldn't get his mind off a question: was this betrayal?

"Is this alright, Master?" One of Chigachi's men asked, tipping his bamboo manju hat against a passing gust of wind. The Iga folk carried mutual feelings. Chigachi recalled Oshika's words.

"You and I are the same," he had said. "We bear this shadowed blood, which should be given another chance."

A good man, Moritoki Ise was a mediator among the Sunpu Imagawa. Did Oshika burn with some kind of deep, bitter rage? Was it a shadow that was reviving from the Onin era?

Crossing Hanamizu stream, Yasuochi and his men realized why Moritoki liked to travel. Not only to pass the village port, but the sights along the bay. Entering Sagami further, there was also Hakone over Lake Ashi. Norimitsu Oshika said it was monopoly. However, the traveling freedom had provided Moritoki good insight as a strategist. Why did the Iga have to harm such a man?

"He is an outsider", the Sunpu regent had said. "Doesn't this excessive traveling without bounds using mean a shogun spy?" Rumors said that Moritoki was a ronin, so indeed the old habit of wandering died hard. Still, it was dangerous territory to just stroll in freely, ruled by those descended by the Taira, particularly supporters of the Sunpu regent's bid.

"I send you because Iga are truly the best in loyal service, or am I wrong?" Oshika, and superficially Chigachi just to motivate himself to do his task, both agreed that Ise would betray the family.

The four Imagawa followers entered Kojiri Pass. If they wanted to do an assassination, it was both the best and not-so-best place. After descending mountainous area, it was mostly naked. A view of Ashi was clear. Iga Yasuochi Chigachi could probably face Imagawa genius Moritoki Ise head on, but he sought for a slow, unsuspecting death where there was little to no suspicion, a way where Moritoki would first "appreciate" the guardianship Oshika sent him, and later drop sick. It would be an easy cover-up, especially with the coming Winter. There was no rush; aside from thinking over consequences, Yasuouchi earnestly wanted to know what Moritoki was doing.

Reaching the thicker side of the lake, the Iga entered a forest of Katsura trees. At this time of season, they were nearly skeletons, their heart-shaped leaves covering the ground. Yasuochi shrugged his shoulders as a heavier wind swished his cloak. He narrowed his eyes, looking ahead. He stopped; the three men behind him comply with a halt, and observed the surroundings. In this quiet forest path, the air was cold, a familiar suspicious feeling. Yasuouchi saw someone up ahead. He couldn't make out the features just yet, but predicted it to be a ronin or a wandering monk. As Winter neared, poverty grasped the living, made them suffer, and that beckoned those who did the work of the Gods.

"Moritoki? I hope." Yasu said to himself. He was told that he was going to Hakone; reaching one of Oshika's allies, the Miura of Kinugasa Castle, was too far a distance. Closer to Hakone was Odawara Castle, kept by the Omori Family. If Ise went that way, it meant that he was probably returning.

Yasuochi carried a spear in his hand, using it as a walking prop. He kept it butt-down in a neutral pose to not look further conspicuous. As he watched, his spear jolted back and flew out of his hand.

Clang! The sound of metal biting metal rung through his ear. His feet launched off the grass as he flew back.