Date: November 22, 2014
Atsuro, Taizen and Tsukino has a new mission to escort a wagon of grain to a southern village in the Land of Fire that's suffering from famine. The wagon guide is a young man named Okahito, who's the eldest son of the village elder. On the last leg of the journey, the Leaf shinobi comes to the realization that Okahito is omitting something important. Their guide gets increasingly nervous as they reach the end of the forest road that leads to the village and becomes outright paranoid upon exiting into open land. The Leaf shinobi finally confront Okahito to make him tell them why he's acting that way, but the reason soon becomes clear on it's own. A huge flock of crows attack the group and tries to devour all the grain. The shinobi couldn't do much damage to the crows, which seem to be the result of a clone jutsu, until Atsuro and Tsukino notices a single high flying crow that's hovering above the action. They formulate a plan to break through the flock and kill the leader. All the crows disappear afterwards, showing that it really was only a single crow using a massive clone jutsu. The villagers arrive after, too late to help. Okahito's brother is among them and attacks Tsukino, mistaking her as the one that set the crows on them. Okahito comes clean after all misunderstandings are sorted out. The village is famous for it's dollmakers. They received a big commission from a mysterious Lady Feather two years ago, via a young red-headed woman that acts as Lady Feather's proxy. Every two months, the villagers complete a pair of life sized dolls modelled after the photograph of a six year old boy and six year old girl that they were given. The dolls are dropped off at a specific location in the forest for Lady Feather's people to retrieve and the red-headed woman appears later to make the payment. An apprentice broke the fingers from the boy doll during the latest transaction and didn't tell anyone. As a result, Lady Feather was extremely displeased and sent her red-headed minion to exact punishment for the offence. A special young girl was kidnapped from the village and crows later appeared to devour the village's crows and stored food. Atsuro suspects that this Lady Feather has something to do with the missing Immortality Scroll and promises additional aid from Konoha for the villager's help with the investigation.
Poster's note: foul language filtered in obvious places.
"This Immortal Coil - Murder of Crows"
Southern Land of Fire
"It's not far now," the Okahito driving the large, covered wagon calls back to Atsuro, Taizen and Tsukino. The black-haired young man, little older than Tsukino, sits on the drafting horse pulling the wagon through the wide forest path with the experience of someone that has made many such runs before. This particular section of forested land isn't particularly expansive compared to most others in the southern section of the Land of Fire, but it still seems like the two shinobi had been on escort duty forever. It doesn't help that the weather is still summer hot this far south.
As far as the two of them were told from the mission briefing, Okahito's village is is on the verge of a famine, having lost all their crops and stored grain from some kind of disaster. The supplies in the wagon is to ensure that the village has enough provisions to last out through the cold seasons, with extra left for planting. The exact details are a bit sketchy and Okahito doesn't seem too forthcoming when asked probing questions. "The end of the forest path is just another fifteen minutes away. We'll arrive at the village another half an hour after that."
Tsukino had been happy to accept a mission, though she'd been a little nervous when she had first heard there would only be two of them teamed up. AThat dissipated when she realized the other was actuallly two others: Atsuro and Taizen. She met them at the rendezvous point and from there it had been like a simple walk through the forest. She had brought some snacks along in a pouch including jerky so she shared with Taizen along the way.
When the driver told them they were 15 minutes away from the village Tsukino smiled brightly. "I'm sure it will all be fine."
With his position on top of the wagon removing any need to walk, it might seem like Atsuro is more relaxed than Tsukino — and heck, maybe he is — but even as he sits cross-legged on the rough fabric surface, he keeps a careful eye on their surroundings. And even more importantly, he takes in the smells of the surroundings, inspecting every scent for signs of trouble. Taizen is a bit too heavy for the top, so he's in the actual bed of the wagon. While Atsuro sits near the front of the wagon, keeping watch in front of them, Taizen looks out back, guarding the rear. "What's after the forest?" Atsuro calls back to the driver, "Farmland?" Not that he expects much of an answer, considering Okahito's apparent trouble answering simple questions thus far.
"Yeah, don't you worry, Tsukino-san. We rarely have trouble in these parts. It's a peaceful village," Okahito says. The smile on his lips look oddly stiff and so is the young man's overall bearing. He had been shyly making eyes at Tsukino from the moment that they met, but he couldn't even seem to look straight at her now without jerking his gaze away quickly. This gets worst as the wagon steadily rolls towards the end of the forest, especially when the trees begin to rapidly thin out up ahead.
"We don't make anything worth stealing you see. We do a -little- farming, but just enough for ourselves with some surplus left over for hard times, Atsuro-san. Some rice, a bit of wheat, private vegetable gardens… The area beyond the forest is a bit too rocky for good agriculture. Wood and clay is a much more abundant resource. My village lies next to some wonder clay banks. Our main product is…"
Suddenly, the entire contraption jerks and nearly tosses the two passengers up top off. Okahito darts frantic glances everywhere. It takes him a few seconds to realize that one of the big wheels had just rolled over a rut in the path. "Ah… hehe… hehe…" he laughs in a forced manner. Okahito ducks his head and grimly concentrates on his task. He taps the side of his mount a few times with his heels, urging the placid beast to hurry up. The wagon wobbles slightly from side to side as the horse puts on a burst of speed.
Tsukino was usually pretty oblivious to guys trying to flirt with her. It had gotten her into some close scrapes recently and she felt bad telling the guys that she was spoken for… But perhaps it's the suden nervous reaction or his plastic smile that made the princess pause a moment, blue eyes watching the driver. She looked back and smiled. "I'll make sure it's alright." And she headed back around the wagon, looking into the wagon where Taizen was with a worried expression. She only let Taizen see it for a single moment but she wanted him to realize soemthing seemed odd to her. Then she was back to smiling and walking along side the wagon again. "The wheel looks fine."
Well, someone seems to have a little crush! Too bad it's the Hokage's girl, Atsuro thinks to himself. "So it's a rocky area then," he summarizes Okahito's explanation, "Okay." He's puzzling over the simple long-windedness of the answer when the wagon suddenly bucks. He grabs onto the fabric to steady himself. "We hit a rock or something?" he asks Okahito. Taizen, catching Tsukino's silent warning, speaks up. "If a rock can bump the wagon like that, maybe we should get off before we go into the rocky area." He hops out the back of the wagon, turning around and walking after it now alongside Tsukino. Atsuro leans back and glances at Taizen, perhaps suspicious at Okahito's behaviour becoming stranger. "Yeah," he says, "Sounds like a good vantage point won't be that useful in this last stretch anyway." He turns and lets his body slide down the side of the wagon, turning to move alongside the wagon at a brisk walk as he lands.
Okahito's hunches down even further in his seat when the wagon breaks free of the surrounding trees. The sun glares down harshly after the soothing shadows of the forest and momentarily blinds everyone. After their eyes clear, they can see that the path continues for some distance towards a small village of tightly packed single or double story houses in the distance. There are only three streets as far as the shinobi can tell, but no people walking in sight. In fact, there's a strangely subdued quality to the place, despite wisps of smoke coming from several chimneys.
The land between the village and the forest is dry and stony with tufts of patchy grass growing every few feet. It's definitely not prime land for crops, but scar in the land to the left side of the village was clearly used for exactly that. That section looks brown and dead now, as if it hadn't been tended to for a long time. The clay banks that Okahito mentioned aren't in sight, so they must be some distance from the village itself.
Okahito gestures for everyone to keep pace, which isn't hard to do considering that the quickest a loaded wagon can move is still less than the speed of an experienced shinobi. "You see that there?" the young man asks over the creak of wheels and clip-clop of shod hooves. He points at a tall rounded building with a shiny metal roof at the far end of the untended fields. "That's the grain silo. We're going to unload the grain there. Watch out for… just keep your eyes open, ok?" A warm breeze whips Okahito's hair around his face and he brushes the loose strands back into place. The breeze brings with it the scent of cooking fires and humans, but also the sharp smell of fetid guano and feathers.
Tsukino was glad Taizen caught her message and casually patted his head as he fell into step beside her. She watched Okihito as he drove the cart faster and seemed to be under some kind of emotional pressure or something. He couldn't look at her anymore and that was more suspicious than his watching her.
Then the village came into view and Tsukino paused at the edge of the forest. The lack of activity, the lack of those clay cliffs he was talking about.. Just the lack of land used to farm.. Something.. wasn't right. And then Okihito started to tell them to be careful of something and cut himself off. That was enough proding for Tukino.
So the girl used to getting her way stepped up and around front, grabbing the horse's harnes and trying to force it to stop moving while her blue eyes look up at Okihito imperiously. Not just firm, she was in full Princess Mode. Her head held higher, her back straighter, her lips set in a firm line.
"I demand you finish that warning Kokihito-san. What is it you are not telling us? Now! Speak!"
It's a strange set of circumstances, to be sure. Atsuro can see little sign of this place being inhabited, but the scent would seem to contradict that impression. And yet, it also smells as if animals have taken over. Aside from that, just the patterns of the land seem to contradict what Okahito told him less than a quarter hour ago. "So…" he begins, but he gets no chance to try subtle questioning as Tsukino rushes forward and stops the cart. It's not how he hoped to approach the situation, but he figures this might be a good time to play good cop to Tsukino's bad cop. "If there's something at the village that might be dangerous," he begins, walking to the front of the wagon, "you should tell us, Okahito-san. It's for your safety too; we're here to protect you." Taizen has come up the side of the wagon but stopped before he's truly reached the front. "Has something happened in the village?"
"No, what are you doing?! We need to get to the silo!" Okahito splutters when Tsukino suddenly grabs his mount's harness. The placid beast snorts a few times, but doesn't seem perturbed by what's going on. It just starts nosing Tsukino's torso all over for a hidden snack. Okahito, on the other hand, is getting more and more flustered. His composure slowly crumbles as he babbles on. He even cringes back from Atsuro, the good cop, as if he's afraid of that the Jounin's going to hurt him. "I didn't really mean anything by my comment. I just mean… It's best… This is a -peaceful- place, but I don't want to take any chances. My people are going to -starve-, if something happens to the grain, that's all! Come on! You finish the job, get paid and leave. What more do you want? We don't need any more meddling from shinobi or protection that comes at higher fees!"
While the Leaf shinobi are focused on Okahito, something else is happening in the background. Off in the distance, a black speck lifts off the roof of a house and into the sky. A second speck joins it from another roof. Then, one rises from the dying fields. And another. And another. Five… six… ten… twenty… fifty… a hundred… two hundred… The specks gather in a thick cloud that shadows the sun and distant cawing reaches everyone's ears. It swirls towards the wagon in a horde of flapping shapes.
"Oh caw! Oh caw! Now it's too late!" Okahito exclaims. He yanks his mount free of Tsukino and even tries to push Atsuro aside in his sudden panic. The horse also realizes that something's wrong and dances in agitation. "Don't let them eat the grain! Help me get the wagon to the silo -now-! Ya!" The young man digs his heels hard into his mount's side and sends the wagon rumbling down the path, threatening to run over Atsuro, if the Jounin doesn't move in time.
Tsukino was hard pressed to keep from giggling at the horse's nuzzling but she did produce an apple from her pouch for the beast which she fed to him with one hand while she paid strict attention to Okihito. The boy was comming apart… It was always uncomfortable to watch someone's thinking fall to pieces but it was also a telling show. Clearly Okihito was scared of something. But it was when he said 'any more' protection that she seemed to click in her mind.
She didn't really have much time to comment on the slip of the tongue or what it might mean. Okihito's panic was plain. She turned, moving out of the way of the cart as she watched the specks lift from the buildings. What was /that/? She looked to Atsuro for help then looked at the massive cloud of them again and she acted, leaping into the wagon with Okahito. "I'll shield the wagon, Atsuro-san. I don't think I'll be much use against that."
Atsuro closes his eyes for a moment, staying silent. Protection money, of course. This sort of racketeering is common when missing-nin threaten a defenseless village. As Okahito suddenly starts to move the wagon, Taizen quickly circles around back and jumps in the back again. Atsuro steps out of the horse's way, then jumps on top of the wagon, landing near the front so that he can speak to Okahito. "Given the circumstances, I don't think you really have any choice but to trust us. So you should really tell us everything you know about whoever's doing this. And those birds. Are they vulnerable to fire?" Drawing in a deep breath, he makes several seals, then spits a gout of fire from his mouth into the air, hoping he might be able to scare the birds off before they can even close the distance to the wagon.
The swaying wagon makes for a bumpy ride as it keeps listing from side to side due to the way that the heavy cargo keeps shifting. It shudders so hard over bad parts of the road that it sometimes feel like the entire contraption's going to come apart. The ride couldn't be fun for the passengers at all, since the jarring vibrations travel painfully up their bones and clatter their teeth together.
Lather appears on the horse's flanks as it struggles to gallop with the wagon hitched to it. It screams a challenge in answer to the cawing from the sky and rolls its eyes until the whites can be seen. Okahito clings grimly to his mount and leans forward to whisper encouragement into the horse's ears. The noise is at such a level now that he has to shout to be heard by Atsuro. "The full story's complicated and we don't have enough time to go through it all. We feathered off a powerful kunoichi and her minions a while back. The crows are our punishment until we atone for the imagined slight. They ate -all- our crops and broke into the surplus too. There's no way to get rid of them. You can burn them, shoot them out of the sky and more just appears. It's like they're spirits instead of flesh! Beak! Here they come!"
A storm of slashing talons, pecking beaks and buffeting wings descends from the sky in a vengeful cloud. It blankets the wagon and its occupants so thickly that everything else disappears from sight. The screaming of the crows is like drills piercing through the occupant's ear drums.
Tsukino grabbed a hand full of papers from her pouch and leapt down fromt he wagon, slapping them on each side. Then she climed up to lay a few around Atsuro's position on top. Then she dropped back down into the seat beside Okahito. Turning in the seat she focused her chakra, hardening the paper and threw three of the tags to adhere to Taizen's fur. It would in no way hinder him but it might help put a barrier between him and whatever was comming their way.
"Just in case." Assuming he didnt shake them off of course. The princess turned around to face the incoming enemies. What were they exactly?
That answer was given finally as Okahito told them about the kunoichi and her crows. If they were spirits.. perhaps they were a genjutsu or an illusion of some kind? No time to think, she lifted a barrier to defend Atsuro and Okahito. Her concentration split as it was she was not fast enough to raise her own sheild and the claws raked at her arms, tearing bloody gashes in her skin. She let out a little yelp and grit her teeth, trying to keep her attention on the birds.
Standing, she flashed through several hand signs before holding out both of her palms and sending a wide blast of pure chakra at the birds. If they could be stopped with chakra they could be hurt by it.
Atsuro's take-home from that explanation is that they can be killed, if only temporarily. "Slow down for a second," Atsuro advises Okahito, "It's not going to do us any good if the horse dies from strain." He turns his head back to call, "Tai, we need you up here. Okahito's going to tie you to the cart and you'll help pull. We need to get this thing moving!" He looks back to Okahito, "Just tell him what to do when he gets up here. If you need to stop for a second, we'll keep the birds away." Then he stands up straight and tall, looking into the sky, and takes another deep breath, focusing a large store of chakra. This time he's deadly serious, and when the birds start swooping in, he makes a set of seals and forces the air from his mouth. Mixed with his chakra, the air ignites and a huge cloud of hot flame issues forth into the sky.
The wagon probably would have fallen to the hordes without shinobi on board. Even with the protection, it's speed is hampered by the sheer mass of bodies on all sides. Okahito's sweating and breathing heavily when he fights to rein the horse in. "Taizen-san, grab this!" the young man shouts. He quickly knots a thick rope to the front of the wagon and tosses a looped end down to the ninken.
Sensing an opportunity, the crows hammer at the shields around the front half of the wagon in a frenzy to break through and cripple the horse, so that the grain would be left stranded on the road. There's a shining intelligence in their eyes that's as devious as any human being's. When they couldn't break in that way, they try to enter the wagon from behind. The ones that managed to break through and injury Tsukino flocks her and tries to bear her down with their massed weight. Other's start pecking at the sacks of grain.
Angry squawks fill the inside of the wagon when Tsukino fights back with blasts of chakra. The birds that managed to get into the wagon bursts out again to escape her wrath, but not all of them make it. Several are hit by her blasts and disappear in a cloud of smoke and shadows, leaving nothing behind except a few black feathers. They rejoin the rest of the flock and swoops to attack again, but is fouled by cloud of fire blown into their midst by Atsuro, which forces them to disperse to avoid getting burned.
Crows scatter in all directions for a moment, opening up a cleared area all around the wagon. Patches of blue sky and hot yellow sun can be seen in gaps between the thinned crowd of avian. Someone with a sharp eye that happens to look up at the right time might notice a long crow flying -high- in the sky, watching the attack from above and out of range of any except the furthest reaching jutsu. The observer circles the wagon a few times before letting out a caw that blends in with the rest of the cacophony. Several more crows puff into existence around it and dives into the fray.
The crows only disperse for a few minutes before they gather for attack again. This time, they don't close in on the wagon, but try to attack it from afar. Pitter patter plat! At first, the shinobi might mistaken the sound of liquid hitting the ground as sudden rain, but the liquid is a thick, white and smells strongly of urea. It also gives off acrid fumes that sting the eyes and threaten to choke anyone that breaths it in. Not to mention make a mess of -everything-.
Tsukino stuck her head out of the wagon as the crows flew away and spotted the one up above that was more coordinated. With Atsuroo up top and Taizen in front Tsukino pointed up."Atsuro-san! THat— Ahh!" She ducked throwing up walls that missed defending them all rather badly, only to be saved from the foul attack by Atsuro's quick reflexes. She peeked out wiht a single eye then lowered one hand and pointed again. "That one seems to be in charge." She crawled back on top with Atsuro and flashed out her hands with seals ready to go. "I can give you my shields to jump up on to get you closer. I'll catch you too." She tossed both hands out and two levels of golden chakra walls laid themselves out horizontally like a long staircase. Atsuro would have to jump to reach each one but they would bring him closer to the target crow…. In her mouth was a tag with another seal for catching him if need be…. And on each of the platforms of chakra was a separate tag. The moment the sheilds popped into existence they exploded with that pure chakra blast upwards to clear the path for Atsuro.
Taizen grabs the rope, catching the loop in his teeth, then maneuvering so that his head is partly bound by the rope as well. Putting himself behind it, he gets in line with the wagon and starts to pull, adding his own immense strength to that of the horse. "Probably won't be too hard on your horse now," says Atsuro, "Try picking up the pace." He looks up at the sky again, alert for any sign that the birds are returning. "Suspicious," he mutters to himself, watching the crow high above. "Tai — eh, just a sec."
He jumps down from the wagon and jogs up to Taizen's side, pulling his two ninjato from the dog's vest without interrupting the wagon hauling. "Thanks," he says, but the word almost dies in his mouth as he sees the crows gathering again. "Bomb." Literally! He quickly exchanges the two ninjato for a single nodachi, then jumps back up to his position on the top of the wagons. Carefully observing the drops of white paste, he holds up the huge sword and begins to twirl it with both hands. Just as the crows reach the wagon, his movements suddenly become faster and sword becomes like the blade of a giant fan. The purpose isn't to blow the droppings away, though, but rather to rapidly catch them, then sling them out to the side of the wagon.
That handled, he wipes the sword off on the fabric of the wagon cover. The blade is probably doomed after that, but it's probably got enough life left to finish things here. He looks back to Tsukino and nods. "Don't drop me." He jumps, using his legs to propel him up and up, going after the head crow.
He looks the in the eye when they reach the top. "Careful," he warns, "This move was made to kill birds far more agile than you." He jumps off the last platform into the air. As soon as he's in range of the crow, multiple strokes of the sword seem to flash out in unison, seemingly covering every possible route of escape.
Tsukino nodded firmly when Atsuro told her not to drop him. She was reinforcing her chakra the entire time. She had never supported anyone with these before.. not that she'd tell Atsuro that… His feet left the first wall and she let it dissipate, leaving one. The next part was harder to manage as she had to create another wall while keeping that one together /and/ guessing wher he'd land. Luckily it wasn't as solid as rock and she caught him as he landed from his attack. The impact showed cracks in her hold, the final step down held until the last second. "Hurry!" She grit her teeth, urging him to jump back to the wagon. Then it fractured and shattered like so much glass, putting Tsukino on her knees panting. That was a lot of effort she'd just thrown around all at once. Her hair pooling around her on the fabric of the wagon she looked up. "D…di..did it.. work?"
The crows dive again with intent of injury as soon as the volley of guano ceases. Their angry battle cries cut off when Tsukino sends multiple blasts of chakra at them. None of the blasts catches them head on, but still forces sections of the cloud to flap heavily into the sky to avoid getting splattered. This opens just enough of a gap that Atsuro's able to bound up Tsukino's chakra walls and reach the highest flying crow.
"Damn!" the surprised crow boss squawks when it sees Atsuro coming at it. The avian probably didn't expect any of the wagon's occupants to have enough reach to hit it, even though several are shinobi. It flaps it's wings vigorously in an attempt to get out of the way, but when it's clear that it won't be able to make it in time, the crow boss shakes several chakra infused feathers loose. The feathers rapidly multiple into a storm of drifting black pinions, which in turn puffs into a hundred fully formed black crows just like the rest… only to get sliced apart by Atsuro's sword. One by one, they disappear in a cloud of shadows and smoke until only the boss crow itself is left. Then, the boss crow itself is ripped into pieces of quivering bird flesh, which rains down against Tsukino's shields in sickeningly wet plops. The entire flock of crows disappears in that instance.
Okahito watches all of this with wide eyes. "Whoa! WHOA!" he exclaims at a loss for words. In fact, he seems to regard Tsukino, Atsuro and Taizen with greater fear now. The young man's nearly groveling in his gratitude. He slides bonelessly off his horse and land on his knees, where he proceeds to press his forehead into the guano fouled ground. "Thank you! thank you so much! You might have just saved our village. We thought that nothing will get rid of that vermin. I—" A shout in the distance interrupts him, coming from a small group of young men that's running towards the wagon from the direction of the village with pitchforks and hatchets in hand. Okahito jumps up to wave vigorously at them.
"Actually, I could probably have just let myself fall from that last one and been fine," Atsuro says calmly. His feet thud against the fabric and he lands on the roof in a crouch. He looks over to where the head crow's body fell. "Yep," he says, "Now, was that the actual ninja who did this, or a summoned crow, or…?" He looks to Tsukino, "I think we might wanna investigate, anyway." He looks down at the sword hanging from his limp hand. It's still heavily stained by the acid. "Definitely a loss," he says sorrowfully.
He jumps down to Taizen and puts the sword inside the vest, though doesn't actually sheath it — no sense in ruining other wonderful crafts. He looks up and over at the approaching crowd. "That your friends?" he asks Okahito. "Their choice of tools seems a little… uh, threatening."
Tsukino watched the boss crow swear and flinched as Atsuro's attack ripped it to shreds. In fact she paled visibly as the bits of poultry rained down around her. A shield protected her from the falling gore at least. She looked up at Atsuro as he landed on the canvas by her and it took a moment for her to slip down herself.
The Uzumaki princess looked down at the groveling man curiously but the men running at them made her nervous at first. Was this more shinobi comming to finish the job? But no Okahito was waving at the running masses. She turned to look atAtsuro when he questioned the boy on who his friends were. It had taken her a few minutes to stop panting. Finally she stood up, ready to react if the crowd posed a real threat but offering them a bright smile — her trademark — as they approached.
"Okahito! Okahito! Are you ok?" the young man at the front of the group calls out when he gets close enough to be heard. He looks similar enough to the wagon driver that he must be a close relative. "All the crows flew off in this direction and we realized that you must be arriving with the food. I gathered up everyone to help, but they suddenly disappeared! Did the Leaf shinobi do that?" Similar questions are rising from the lips of the rest of the young men behind him.
Okahito turns to bow deeply at Atsuro. When he straightens, his expression is alarmed and he lifts his hand in a calming manner. "That's just my younger brother and some of the villagers. You don't need to use that sword on them. Please, they're completely harmless—" Unfortunately, that's the exact moment that the leader of the group charges forward with a roar and tries to plant a pitchfork into Tsukino's smiling face. "Ahhh! Stop, Genya!" Okahito tackles his brother before the other young man can get everyone slaughtered. The rest of the group points at Tsukino and steps back while waving their own weapons nervously.
"Murderous red-haired talon! This is all your fault! The crows were your doing! Let go of me, Okahito! I'm going to kill her!" Genya flails against his older brother with all his strength, but he couldn't get out of Okahito's grip. His pitchfork drops and nearly impales both young men when they fall down almost on top of it. The two roll over and over on the rocky ground, getting dust and bird guano smeared into their clothing.
"It's not her! The red hair fooled me at first, but this isn't the same one that came to our village! Her features are different and she's shorter! Tsukino-san is a Leaf shinobi!" Okahito shouts into the back of his brother's head when he finally manages to pin Genya down. The wagon driver looks at the rest of the crowd. "Look closely and tell Genya that the Tsukino-san isn't -her-!" This leads to Tsukino suffering from some intensely uncomfortable stares, after which most of the villagers start shuffling their feet and adding their agreement to Okahito's statement. Genya finally begins to calm down with so many testimonies.
Atsuro holds up his hands. "Just wanted to be safe," he says, "I've already had to fight for that grain's safety today." He helps Taizen out of the roop that holds him to the wagon. Once the dog is free, the two of them step off to the side of the action, with Atsuro only dipping in briefly to kick the pitchfork away from the two boys as they wrestle, then stepping back and letting the situation take care of itself. Once things have calmed down, he clears his throat loudly. "So this kunoichi who's been exploiting you, she has red hair? Can you tell us anything else about her? Was she with anyone?"
Tsukino watched Okahito step in to protect the people from Atsuro's blade. The moment of distraction was short. But it was long enough that the pitch fork grazed her cheek and she stumbled backwards, wide eyed, a line of blood on her cheek to match the marks from the crows' talons on her arms. She looked at the villagers as they swore at her and promised to kill her. Tsukino was caught coompletely off guard. She had never been around that kind of language in her life let alone having it directed at /her/. She backpedaled, ending with the backs of her thighs against the wagon's hitch. She held still as the villagers studied her so closely, flushing a bit under the scrutiny.
It struck her that Okahito must not have been attracted to her as much as afraid of her. But once the people seemed to calm down She stood straighter and let Atsuro do the speaking. She wasn't really a leaf shinobi but she wasn't about to point out the spiral on her forehead right now… She let the Jounin take over.
Okahito cautiously allows Genya to get up, but he keeps a strong grip on his younger brother's arms. He waits until Genya finish inspecting Tsukino's face and give a sullen nod before he finally lets go. Genya mumbles a barely audible sorry and walks off to cool his head, shouldering aside several of his peers in the process. The crowd of men lower their pitchforks and axes, but keep worried eyes on the shinobi.
Okahito looks like he's about to drop to his knees, but a glance at the other villagers helps him gather enough shreds of pride to avoid the pitiful display. Instead, he infuses his voice with the most entreating tone that he can muster up. "I'm so terribly sorry. Genya is just extremely upset by what happened." He sucks in a deep breath and gathers his energy for the story ahead. "You see, my villager specializes in making dolls and sculptures. That's our main produce. Stone, clay, wood, straw, hair… name a substance and someone here probably knows how to work it into art. We're actually a little famous for it in these parts."
Okahito absently brushes at the stains on his clothing. This gives him an excuse to look down and not meet the shinobi's eyes. "True be told, we don't actually make that much money. That's why we were so glad when we received that big commission two years ago. This red haired girl, I can't really call her a woman at that time, come to us with an offer from her mistress, a Lady Feather. She gave us a faded photograph of two children, one boy and one girl, probably twins and looking about six years old. We were offered a lot of money to make life sized dolls of the children. Each one had to be unique and we dropped the dolls off at a specific clearing in the forest at the end of every two months. This went on fine until recently. The latest pair of dolls were -perfect-, but one of the apprentices accidently broke a few fingers on the boy doll's hand during the delivery. He didn't tell anyone…"
Okahito's shoulders hunch and he seems to draw deeper into himself. "The red haired girl, a young lady now, showed up a week after. That's when she usually appeared to give us the payment. Except -this- time, she told us that Lady Feather was greatly insulted by our deceit. She told us that we'll be punished appropriately and it'll get worse unless we drop off -two- pairs of perfectly made dolls on the next date. Then, she grabbed one of our girl children as an 'appeasement for Lady Feather' and took off. The girl was the daughter of Genya's friend."
Closing his eyes in thought, Atsuro folds his arms, one hand lightly squeezing the opposite bicep through his sleeve. "Six years old…" he mutters to himself once Okahito has explained. "And this mysterious Lady Feather seems to use birds to do her bidding. Can you answer a few questions for us?" He opens his eyes and looks directly into Okahito's. "The girl who was abducted, did she have any special talents? How recently was she taken? Do you have anything of hers that might have her scent on it, or just a photo? Where's the spot where you had to put the dolls? And do you still have the photo she gave you?" He pauses, then adds, "I know that's a lot, but I think this Lady Feather might be a criminal we've been trying to track down."
Tsukino watched Genya push away and once the other villagers were calmed down a bit she felt brave again, at least enough to step forward and listen to Okahito's words. A bright smile crossed her face, lighting up her eyes as he told them that the village made dolls. And lovely works by the sound of it too. They did what they could for materials and Tsukino remembered the clay doll a servant's daughter had played with once when she was little. She toned the look down as he explained what had happened. The red haired girl and the mysterious Lady Feather. Atsuro had this well in hand, though too and Tsukino moved over toward an elderly woman and a young girl with a doll in hand. She bent down and looked at the doll then spoke softly to the old woman. She made no sudden movements and spoke softly so as not to upset anyone.
Whatever Tsukino's saying makes the old woman break into a toothless smile. She nods her head at Tsukino and reaches up to pat the Uzumaki girl's cheek with a wrinkled hand. Meanwhile, more villagers are arriving, mostly women and a few children. After an initial bad reaction, they crowd around Tsukino to timidly finger her hair or describe their wares to her, hopeful for a buyer. It's pretty clear that red hair is very uncommon in these parts.
At the same time, Okahito's shifting uncomfortably under Atsuro's gaze. "The little girl was taken about a month ago and she has a special way with glass. None of us know how she did it, but she can shape solid glass with her fingers like wet clay. Look, we'd love to help you after what you did for us. It's… It's just that we don't want to risk angering Lady Feather and her minions again. You can't let anyone know that we helped you, Atsuro-san. I'll get a copy of the photo and the little girl's belongings for you before you leave for Konoha. I'll also show you a map of the spot where we leave the dolls and when the next batch of dolls is supposed to be dropped off there."
Atsuro spares a glance for Tsukino's interactions with the crowd, but turns his gaze back to Okahito. "I understand," he says, "We'll try our best to make sure this doesn't make its way back to you, but I suspect we've put you in trouble anyway just by killing the crows. You might have actually just given us a huge lead, so I can probably convince the Hokage to have some of our ninja keep an eye on the situation here until the matter is settled." He quickly adds, "Free of charge, no strings attached."
Tsukino's smile returned when the old woman patted her cheek and nodded. She sat down on a nearby stump and waited, letting the women and children grouped around her, allowing them to touch her hair and sharing a few cheap and effective ways to get shiney hair even without being a princess. When the appointed person came up with the scissors Tsukino smiled and showed her a spot about a foot from the bottom of her hair which would give them plenty for at least 5 regular sized dolls. Unless stopped by Atsuro or Taizen, she would allow them to cut her hair carefully and gather the materials. Real hair made the finest dolls and so she managed to give the village a bit of charity without impugning their honor or simply giving them a hand out. She also promised to make an order for a couple of dolls within the month as her cousin was having a birthday soon and would surely like a fine doll. She smiled finally as the job was done and stood, with a tad shorter length of hair that still reached past her hips… Daisuke shouldn't notice…
Atsuro's response to Okahito brings out a murmur of excitement from the villagers close enough to hear. Okahito himself is close to throwing himself at the Jounin's feet again. He settles for bowing deeply at the Leaf shinobi instead. "We're extremely grateful, Atsuro-san. There's no words to describe just how grateful. Let us house and feed your group tonight free of charge. We'll have everything ready for you by tomorrow morning. My father's the village elder. He's in bed with a cause of autumn fever right now, but I know that he won't object to giving your entire group a lifetime discount of twenty percent on all purchases too." The offer is a generous one, especially for people that can't spare much at this time, but what they're getting back from the Leaf shinobi. Protection personally appointed by the Hokage is no small matter and Tsukino's hair alone will make dolls that sell at exuberant prices.
"House and feed us?" Atsuro repeats, "Geez, you might regret that promise. I accept." He glances over to Taizen. "Here that?" he asks Taizen, "There's gonna be a party tonight." He looks back to Okahito, "Twenty percent? I gotta admit, I don't really need much in the way of dolls, but maybe I'll buy something. But with that discount, your profit margins'll be — well, I'll worry about that later." He glances back to the wagon. "Don't we need to get that grain into the silo?"
"We'll take care of the grain. We won't have any trouble now that the crows are gone," Okahito says with the first hint of a smile that he's give the group since they left the safety of the forest. The young man whistles piercingly and waves a few of the men over to help him with the wagon. At the same time, he gestures for one of the older matrons to approach. "Kimiko-san will take you to your lodgings."