Date: August 5, 2016
The organization known as Fall is seeking out places to set up bases where people are unlikely to find them. One such place is a forest shrouded in fog and steeped in horror…
"First Expedition - Pt. 1"
Road of Fear - Land of Water
The Road of Fear, aka East Mist Forest, is not a fun place to be. All manner of terrible things happen here, and at least half of them have more than horror stories to support them. It's a place that reminds Reikoku of a certain underground facility, where a creature that broke down the boundaries of reality tainted everything around it, twisting it into a place of hellish nightmares.
No. No matter how awful this place may be, it still does not hold even a candle to that place, or that entity. Nothing ever will. But it's a place unhospitable enough that it will discourage most people from idly visiting, and for those brave or foolish enough to dare the dread forest and its darkness and fog, well, the Road of Fear is already known for its strange disappearances and history of death. It will be easy to chalk up anyone going missing to what the forest is already known for.
And that's why it is the place that Reikoku has chosen to set up a new base. The one beneath Kusagakure is well-stocked, and well-maintained, but one of many things she learned from her mentor is to always have back-ups. Infact, she should have back-ups for her back-ups.
As she wanders through the dark forest, chill winds carrying strange sounds to the dark-skinned woman's ears, as blackness tries to deny her vision, she keeps her awareness open to things that her physical senses might not detect on their own. Killing intent, eyes focused on her, the sensation of being followed… That sort of thing.
Following her are two other figures. They need to scout a good location, and if the rumors about this forest ARE accurate, Reikoku isn't going to be the foolish type who comes in here thinking she can take on anyone and walk out unscathed. She may have a low opinion of Kirigakure, but she at least recognizes the skill of their shinobi. She used to be on the same team as one of their Seven Swordsmen, after all, in the Takokujin. Running into one or more of them here would just be bad news all around.
Hakumei doesn't entirely understand why she's here. The animals that follow her around most of the time stopped doing so a long ways back. Around when they crossed the border in to this forest. And she isn't sure she wants to be followed by anything that lives around here. She saw some very creepy-looking spiders… White, bulbous jointed… Almost like they were made out of bones. Like disembodied skeletal hands, crawling through the trees. Ugh, not a mental image she really needed, but the environment provided it all its own. Her sensitivity to Chakra is enough to feel the threat of this forest, the unnatural chill, but not enough to identify anything useful.
In some ways she's glad for that. She doesn't really want to touch anything in this forest with her body, let alone with her mind. Mental contact with the horrors here might do legitimate harm to her psychologically, as untrained as she is compared to her companions. She wants to ask what the purpose of their journey into this forest is, but somehow, she feels that speaking up would invite disaster. To talk would draw attention. So she marches in silence, huffing and puffing along paths choked with bizarre, dark roots that the kunoichi could swear are going to come to life at any moment…
Walking along behind the other two women is a bald man with a scar over one eye, a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face, and attire that seems designed to permit both mobility and defense through an intricate arrangement of armor and reinforced fabrics. He has a sheathe at his side, the hilt of a blade protruding from it, and his hand resting on the pommel. Despite one eye being scarred closed, he seems to be perfectly aware of his surroundings, and to know exactly which wild presences to scrutinize, and which to ignore.
Shinrin, a wandering mercenary swordsman: that's the name and profession of this identity, but it is not the true identity of the one who bears this form and name. If Shinrin detects anything immediately or potentially dangerous, he knows what to do.
Presumably, he knows the purpose of this trip as well, though Shinrin himself might not supposed to, and thus could act as though he is just a hired sword.
Reikoku doesn't have the sensory capabilities that 'Shinrin' does, and has to rely upon jutsu to surpass Hakumei. But her great experience and raw ability is enough that she picks out the silhouettes of human-like forms in the darkness ahead. She doesn't assume they actually are human, but they've made the mistake of wearing black, which doesn't break up their silhouette enough against a starry sky at night. That's a human mistake.
Of course, there are no visible stars, but there's just enough visible light leaking through the canopy that it gave them away. The cerulean-eyed woman notes the figures and continues moving forwards. She'll let Shinrin and Hakumei keep an eye out for ambushers. The former especially will be able to pick out the number of targets more easily. Instead Reikoku keeps her eyes on the environment for signs of traps.
Strangely, encountering human threats is the last thing she expected in a place like this… But maybe they haven't gone deep enough into the forest yet to encounter the REALLY weird stuff.
Hakumei is unaware of the human presences, and there was no signal given to her, so she she's still being freaked out by every stray noise and rustle of the underbrush. Every time something wet drips from the branches above, she fears it's some kind of awful spider monster preparing to descend upon her or something. She keeps darting uncertain glances up, which probably isn't helping their 'street cred' (or would that be 'forest cred'). Then again, just having her along at all might damage that. She isn't very scary-looking.
"So, um…" she dares. Then she can't really think of anything else to say, and goes quiet again.
Shinrin's senses, while more advanced than Hakumei's, seem to fall short of locating any Chakra signatures in the area aside from their own. As he raises a hand in a focusing seal and scans the area, he notes how very unusual it is that there should be humanoid figures ahead and yet no sign of life from them. They could be using some sort of jutsu… But he'd detect the Chakra from the jutsu itself, most likely. They could be suppressing their Chakra instead, like Hakumei can… But if they had that skill, would they really be dumb enough to be detected visually like this?
…Possible, but not probable. Shinrin strides forwards quickly, from his place at the back of the procession and tap-taps Reikoku on the shoulder twice, while using his other hand to make a 'shh' gesture in front of his scarf-concealed mouth towards Hakumei. If the ronin can get Reikoku's attention, he indicates the assembled figures ahead of them with a point of one finger, then a point of two fingers towards the left, and pointing again towards the right.
One of them goes straight ahead. The other two go left and right to circle around. He didn't detect any traps, but he wasn't looking for any. Unless Reikoku points some out, their main issue is the undetectable figures ahead of them… Who might, themselves, be a trap of some kind.
Reikoku is shoulder-tapped. She stops in her tracks and turns to see what Shinrin needs from her, then looks down to Hakumei. She puts a hand on the younger kunoichi's shoulder and then directs her forwards, pointing ahead without saying anything.
Then the medical ninja puts her hands together and spins Chakra inside of her body, gradually extending it outwards beyond the confines of her flesh until it begins to sweep over her surroundings. Rather than looking for Chakra, she is looking for vital signs. She determines that the figures ahead of them are either skilled at masking not only their Chakra signatures but also their life signs, or they're not living people. Dead bodies, dummies maybe… She can't be certain. But messing with them might be a bad idea. So she looks to Shinrin and makes a back-and-forth gesture with her hand held out flat. Don't interfere with them. If the trio inspect the bodies, it will be from a distance.
Just incase, she sneaks through the trees on the side of the path. She avoids going too high in the branches, because she noticed those awful spider-things as well, but she isn't going to stumble into some lame pit trip or something. Or worse, a non-lame and extremely lethal pit trap.
Wh-wha? Shinrin suddenly moves forward and Hakumei jumps aside. Then people are pointing and poking and prodding, and she's… Quite lost. But it seems Reikoku wants her to try going straight ahead… Only she changes her mind!? Or not!?! …They need a more clear system of communication than this. Or for Hakumei to wise up to ninja sign language. For the time being, she just goes straight ahead as she was told to originally.
And stumbles into a clearing where a bunch of dead bodies are hanging from the branches. She claps her hands to her mouth and closes her lips tight to stifle a scream of surprise, instead letting out only a brief, high-pitched wheeze in her throat. She does not want to walk beneath or between those.
So she backs up, checking where she's going because she isn't going to be the bimbo that stumbles over a root or a trap or something and leaves herself vulnerable for the monster of the woods to pounce upon her.
Once she is back to where she started, she follows Reikoku's path out of her exactly, bounding off the sides of trees, and keeping an eye out or any gross spiders or garrotte wires so she doesn't behead herself trying to escape.
…Don't investigate? Well… Alright. If that's the way Reikoku wants it to be. Shinrin detected that Chakra emanating from the Medic. Presumably, whatever she detected, or failed to detect, is the reason behind the decision. He does as Reikoku does, but takes the alternate route he was going to before, going around the left and letting the two ladies take the right. He is very nimble, agile, and quick… But not as much as Reikoku. He nonetheless spots the bodies hanging from the branches and does not stop to mess with them. Reikoku made the right call. Right now isn't a good time to be poking at a bunch of corpses. It isn't their job to find out what made those. It's their job to make sure they don't join them.
Once he meets up with Reikoku on the other side and is eventually joined by Hakumei, he says quietly, "This may only be a scare tactic. But even if we do not prod at these right now, I believe it would be wise to find out who else lives in this forest, if we are going to be in the area. Using the danger of this place to our own benefit means knowing what dangers there are, yes?"
The dark-skinned Medic checks around once all three of them have assembled on the other side of the grove of hanging corpses. "This is just a cursory examination. We'll do more in-depth analysis of threats in the future, if we can complete a simple survey without getting nearly killed. I'll make a note of this location however." Reikoku pulls a scroll out of her coat and adds to the notes, coordinates, and sketches so far by touching a single finger, with Chakra blazing on the tip, to the paper. Images and writing depicting what she wants to record spread outwards as though her touch alone were exposing invisible ink to mortal eyes.
"That said, keep an eye out for anything that could prove important or useful later. Just don't prod at it right now. We'll make a note of it, and move on." With that said, Reikoku turns and leads the way through down the forest path. There are other threats to keep aware of. Other resources to use. And other sites they can use if this one proves to be insufficient for their needs.
Hakumei isn't so sure about all this. using this place? Why would they do that? It's such a nasty, scary location, and no one in their right mind would ever come here.
…Oh, right. That's why.
Still, she has no desire to prod at hanging bodies so she nods her head in agreement with Reikoku. "I'd like to make it out of this place intact before we start making plans to stay here long-term. Though… Are there really no better options than this? You said there were other sites…" She tries to keep her voice down, because there's still noises all throughout this forest, and none of them sound nice. She doesn't want to attract them. But even more frightening would be if the noises stopped.
Shinrin's frown can't be seen behind his face wrap, but he doesn't argue. This character, this persona, prefers a known threat, even if a highly-lethal one, to an unknown danger that crops up later when it's unexpected. But this is not the time or the place for inter-group conflict. They'll proceed, and deal with what they have to when they get to that point.
Still, there are things in these woods. Things they'll have to fight. And they are a long ways from this first expedition being completed. He can feel the menace of this place. And the ronin feels he'll have to use his blade soon enough.
He looks to Hakumei, however, and says, "We much consider as many possibilities as we can. And places that no one goes to due to how dangerous they are happen to one of the best places to set up shop where we don't want to be found. Not even criminals on the run come here. Not if they want to live. Our main obstacel, then, is to survive… Without sanity intact."
Shinrin turns out to be right. Because only a short time later, they run into another grove of hanging corpses. These number into the hundreds. And at the center of the grove, there is something large, and pulsing. It looks like an egg sac of sorts. And something vast and dark moves through the tree branches above them, preparing to attack…
TO BE CONTINUED…