The horses whinnied within the stables as the tall, dark stranger trudged along the wet grounds of the manorhouse. He walked with a high-bounding step that assured every step caused the puddles of rainwater to splash all over his riding boots and his long riding coat. The rain had made a premature night of the October evening, falling heavily from a black sky. The stranger seemed composed of black, like a shadow made manifest in flesh, his long riding-coat reminiscent of a bat with folded wings. His tricorne hat drooped, slightly aslant of his head, drenched with the downpour that was currently making a mire of Cornwall.
He halted a few feet from the door of the manorhouse. Gazing up at the windows on the second storey, he saw that there were no candles or fireplaces lit in the bedrooms. Only a faint candle glimmered within the dark recesses of one of the first storey windows. Wet gloom otherwise held dominion over the looming stone facade. As large as the manorhouse was, it seemed as an old Scottish castle in the foggy highlands. Even so, it seemed more like a seaside bluff in the rainy murk. It reminded him of his usual haunts, what with its carven stone, its half-drowned grounds, and its fleeting light. Yes, this was the place whereby progress might be made.
A sudden knock at the door down the hall made the lady gasp. She had been sitting in a chair, nodding off after a large meal, and listening to the distant drone of the rain. Now there was the sharp staccato that had cut through the relative silence of the airy house. It seemed implausible that she would have any visitors out here, in the countryside, and at this late of an hour. Feeling rather apprehensive, she rose to her feet and slowly, cautiously, walked down the hall from the library, illuminating her path with a single candle, careful to navigate the clutter with her bare feet. She grabbed an overcoat from a rack and worked one arm through its sleeve, switched the candle, and worked the other arm through. It was a little overlarge for her, but modesty dictated the pretense of it. She went to the door.
A light grew in the window nearest to the door. It was like a luminous ghost approaching from within an abandoned house, or a will o’ the wisp in a deep, dark bog. The door opened with the slightest creak. Leaning out from the door appeared a lovely young lady whose face was as pale as the lacy linen shift she wore. She had golden hair tied tightly in braids beneath a white bonnet. Her expression was one of misapprehension.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he said. “I am lost and it is an inhospitable night. Could you afford me lodgings for a night? I would not trouble for the comfort of your beautiful home. Indeed, the stable would serve well enough for my purposes.”
“You are a gentleman?” she asked, eyeing his sodden vestments up and down.
“Yes, my lady,” he said.
“I am not a lady,” she said. “I am a simple servant girl.”
“As you say, my lady,” he said. “Your accent is lovely. It is difficult to discern. It is not Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. Are you from elsewhere?”
She nodded. “As are you, I should think.”
“No, I am local,” he said. “I am only too far from home by foot.”
She eyed him quietly for a long moment, then opened the door wider. “Then you shall know the warmth of the fire. It is the least I may do for a gentleman.”
She ushered him in, then showed him to the parlour. There was a fire burning in the fireplace. He took the liberty of adding a log to the fire from a pile of logs near to the hearth. He then doffed his riding coat and took the liberty of sitting in a high-backed chair, its soft, comfortable upholstery making him sigh in satisfaction.
She watched him warily for a moment. “There is tea in the kettle,” she said. “Would you like a cup to warm your bones?”
“And to warm my blood,” he said. “Thank you.”
She left him in the parlour, going to the kitchen. The kettle was still hot from when the servant girl of the house had heated it not too long ago. She searched a moment in the kitchen for cups, and found them in a sideboard. She poured the remainder of the kettle’s tea into the two cups, then took the two cups down the hall and into the parlour, the steam drifting behind her like a spectral tail through the cold house.
“Here we are,” she said, handing him his cup of tea. She sat down in a chair across from his own, both facing the fireplace at an angle. She held her cup in her pale hands, but did not sip from it.
“My bones and my blood thank you,” he said. He sipped at the dark, hot liquid, then sighed in great satisfaction. “An excellent brew, I must say. Nothing quite like how the Irish make their tea. Quite malty, it seems to me, which makes a man hale and hearty. Of course, I rather enjoy Indian tea as well. Very spicy, you know. I would rather have spicy than sweet if I have my will in the way of things. Often I take my tea with only a splash of milk. Sometimes even a gentleman cannot buy the amenities of a leaf of tea or a spit of water. Circumstances dictate all, you know.”
“What family do you hail from?” she asked.
“My eldest brother is Lord Blackholme,” he said. “Of the Blackholme estate, naturally.”
“And you are?” she asked.
“An explorer.” He smiled uneasily. “Indeed, in my own manner, and among other trades I venture to undertake.”
Her porcelain brow broke with faint quizzicality. “And what do you explore?”
“An exhausting variety of places. Seaside caves. Old pagan barrows. Medieval catacombs. Whatever strikes my fancy.”
She stirred her tea with a spoon, but did not sip from it. “I was always curious as to what a gentleman of means did with his idle time. Commonfolk do not have such a luxury, I assure you.”
“You are not so common, my lady,” he observed. He looked from his hostess over to the hall. He appeared to strain his ear, also, evidently listening for something. After a moment, he shook his head. He smiled again at the young woman. “Rather, you are the fairest woman I have ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly. I have been to London often enough—and to ever the more exotic cities—and I have seen many a lady of varying recommendation. Yet, you outshine them all, even in your…modest raiments.”
She grew uncomfortable, unconsciously covering her bosom with an arm while her other arm held her cup of tea in the air. She still did not touch her tea. He, on the other hand, sipped at his tea, but now kept his eyes fixed upon her. His gaze cut through the phantasmal steam like the eyes of a wolf aglow while on the hunt. He suddenly turned and looked up at a large portrait hung above the heavy stone shelf of the hearth.
“And who,” he asked, “is that gentleman? He appears a rather resplendent fellow. Your great-great-grandfather, belike?”
Again she was startled. She blinked rapidly, perturbed by his question and his eyes. His eyes were pale blue, almost like ice. “Yes,” she managed to say. “My great-great-grandfather.”
He stared at the ruddy-faced old man with his powdered wig and his white ruff collar. He chuckled lightly.
“My house—excuse me, my brother’s house—brims with portraits of similar fashion and fellows. It is a clutter, to be frank. Had I the choice I would bury all of the portraits and keep only the landscapes and seascapes. I cannot tolerate the eyes of my ancestors following me about in judgment. It is yet another reason I go gallivanting about seashores and graveyards.” He met her eyes again, unblinkingly. “And bordellos, if you do not mind my saying.”
A sudden tremble shook her and she spilled her tea. She leapt to her feet with a start.
“My word!” he exclaimed, rising to his own feet. “You’ve scalded yourself!”
He set his tea down and attempted to inspect her. She flinched from him and wrapped the overcoat more tightly around her body, hugging herself about the waist.
“I am unhurt!” she protested. “See to yourself, sir!”
His frown seemed one more of amusement than rebuff.
“It will be a stain,” he said. “And a shame, too. It will ruin what I presume to be a historied bit of lace. Antiquated lace, I should say. You should have one of your serving girls see to it, lest the tea make a lasting impression. Scarcely do I think you can afford more stains upon it. Indeed, no.”
She stared at him in mute confusion, and increasing perturbation, then stepped farther away from him, toward the door of the parlour.
“No,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper. “It will be quite fine. Truly. Now, if you will excuse me, I am tired and must be off to bed.”
“As must I,” he said.
She quivered. “There are no spare bedrooms.”
“In a house as big as this?” he said, grinning. “Truly?” He chuckled. “I mean it only in jest, of course. I need no bedroom. I can retire to the stables, though I doubt the horses will welcome me. They were strangely affrighted when I first arrived, if their restless screams should be trusted. I can hear them even now, through the rain, albeit distantly. Perhaps they will trust me better if I put a horseshoe around my neck. Demonstrate that I am of similar proclivities.”
“No, you may rest in this house,” she said. “But not in any of the bedrooms.”
“Splendid,” he said. “Then I shall rest here. This chair shall suffice. The fire is burning well, too, and I need no blankets. Do not trouble yourself with fumbling in the dark for my comfort. Nor have I need for these vestments. They shall cling most unwantedly while I attempt sleep. Like a clumsy lover.” He chuckled again. “I have had my fill of clumsy lovers. They will just as soon claw you as caress, whether unwitting or not.”
To her great agitation he loosened his collar, doffed his vest, and began to unbutton his undershirt. She stared at the darkly tanned contour of his neck—just below his ear, where the long black curls of his hair parted away from his skin. There was a white scar near the collarbone, such as would be left by an eagle’s talon.
He smiled meaningfully at her.
“Having the fire’s warmth—unimpeded—upon one’s bare skin is not unlike having the sun’s warmth upon the skin after a long day of swimming. It dries one’s damp, wrinkled skin most pleasantly. Do you not agree?”
Her preoccupation gave way to irritation. “I would not know,” she said sharply.
“Indeed?” he said, having unbuttoned his undershirt to the navel. He suddenly laughed, and she flinched again. Everything he did was sudden and seemingly unprompted, like a wild unreasoning beast. “Ah, but I certainly feel as if I have been swimming for a spell. So much of a downpour today! A shame, too! The day had been so lovely until the clouds came swooping over Cornwall. It was alike a raven come to roost. Or an owl. Have you heard about black owls? They are rare. Rarer than black dogs, I’ll wager, and just as ominous.”
She quivered. His chest seemed to burn in the orange glow from the fireplace. He had the touch of the sun in his skin, and merely looking at his skin seemed to make her eyelashes burn. She licked her lips.
“I must be off to bed,” she said, hurriedly.
Without further ado, she hastened to the library. So much was she in haste that she nearly tripped over the clutter in the hallway.
Denuded of all of his vestments save his breeches, he sat in the chair, waiting. It was not an hour later that she returned, standing at the corner of the hall and the parlour. He knew she was there, even if he could not yet see her. Her dainty feet had not made the old floor creak beneath their cautious tread. They were as quiet as a deer’s hooves in Spring.
He watched the flames billow and sashay in the fireplace.
“Fire is lovely,” he remarked aloud. “It reminds me of the bedangled dancers of Egypt. Egypt may be the land of the dead, but those Egyptian dancers were much more alive in their gyrations than I have ever seen women alive in England. It was enough to make me feel quite alive, too. I long for a return to Egypt.”
“Egypt?” she said, absently.
She stepped closer to his chair. He did not look at her, but kept his eyes on the fire.
“I have seen much of the known world,” he said, pensively, “and more than most people would wish to see of the unknown world. I have even witnessed the demimonde. It is a place that will forever change you…if you manage to escape.”
“That so?” she said, heavy of breath.
“From standing stone to standing stone I have wandered. I have seen burial mounds of dirt and wood, and tombs of stacked limestone so tall that they seemed as stairways to the sun. I have been blinded tenfold by the wonders of this world. By sand, by tide, by flowers, by gold, by faith, by fools, by sages, by kings, by lust, and by love. And, so, I could never be blinded by you. I see you clearly. And you are not a common lady.”
He did not look at her, but kept his eyes upon the fireplace. She stepped further into the parlour, bathed in the glow of the fire. She stood in front of him, looming tall over him as he sat in his chair.
“I am not?” she said.
He stared up at her with an insouciant frown.
“Utterly not,” he said.
She no longer wore the overcoat—only the lacy shift. She reached down and took hold of her shift, lifting it up and over her head. She discarded the lacy skin into the fire, her bare body as pale as snow. Denuded, now, she seemed taller.
“You are a handsome man,” she said, her voice husky. “You are no common man, nor a common gentleman.”
“I am unique,” he agreed. “We both are.”
The gold-strewn valley of her womanhood was level with his face and her long fingers clasped his black mane, pulling him toward the juncture of her smooth, alabaster thighs. She leaned over him, arching her spine impossibly while her ponderous breasts rested atop his head with their firm weight.
“Love me,” she said, her voice throaty. “Feed me.”
“To surfeit,” he answered. His words were muffled as she pressed him against her. She crooned and sighed in rapid succession, then groaned, moaned, and shuddered wildly, cackling with delight.
She then shrieked.
She pulled away from him, tripping and falling down upon the carpeted floor, her long pale limbs writhing, knocking over the log pile and a shelf of books in the corner. Her wan breast was encrimsoned with the blood that spilled forth from the iron blade. She tore at her breast with her long talons, yet could not dislodge the iron blade. As a stuck pig she bled, and as she bled she became more and more emaciated until her pale body was all bones with skin stretched taut between their sharp edges and grooves. Her spine was like the ridge of a castle turret, castellated with notches and ridges. He stood and loomed over her, another iron blade in his hand.
“What are you doing here, Baobhan Sith?” he asked. “You are far from Scotland.”
She clambered to try to stand, but he plunged another iron blade into her thigh. She collapsed onto her back, snarling up at him. Her formerly beautiful face was now transformed. She was no vampire or werewolf, and had no need of fangs, but the fair features snapped like a wolf’s even so. Her feet were no longer a woman’s, but hoofed like a deer’s. Her long pale legs were shaggy with sandy brown doe fur.
She lunged at him, rising from the floor to slash at him with her long claws. He leaned back, then caught her wrist. With yet another iron blade he pierced her wrist, then drove the iron blade into the floor, pinning her down. He then withdrew the iron blade from her chest.
“Had I the inclination, Baobhan Sith, you would be dead now,” he said. “My aim is keen and I never miss. But I am offering you a chance…more of a chance than the poor souls you undoubtedly slew in this house. Tell me why you are so far from home. Why are you not in your forest, alighting only where you are invoked by lonely fools?”
Gone was the innocent mellifluousness of her former voice. Her voice was as coarse as a raven’s. “The woods are no longer my home!” she squawked. “Something terrible comes from the North. It devoured my sisters! Devoured them as easily as a trout a worm! Only I escaped. I have fled South ever since, seeking safety. But there is no safety! There is only doom!”
The creature wailed once again, then began to weep. The man frowned, considering her crumpled form as she lay upon the floor. He then donned his undershirt, his vest, and fetched up his riding-coat. He said nothing. After a while the creature’s weeping ceased. She struggled to look at him from over her restrained arm.
“What will you do now, sir?” she asked. “Will you slay me?”
He rummaged through the interior pockets of his riding-coat.
“No,” he said.
“Oh, bless you, sir!” she said, sobbing. “I am so sorry I lied to you. You are a true gentleman.”
His hands alighted on a pouch, which he retrieved from the coat. “I must apologize to you, too,” he said. “For I lied to you as well.”
“Oh?” she said, blinking through her tears.
He righted himself up. There were nails and a hammer in one hand, and horsehoes in the other hand. But they were not horseshoes. They were too small and sharply angled to be used on horses. There were runes etched into the iron bands.
“I am not a gentleman. Nor have I ever been, even if my brother is Lord Blackholme. No, I am—as my half-brother will attest—a right bastard.”
Thomas Blackholme, or Black Tom, explored the house the following morning. He retrieved the bodies of the children from the bedrooms upstairs, and retrieved the parents from the bedroom downstairs. He fetched the servant girl’s body from where it sprawled in a clutter of laundry in the hall leading to the library. The rain stopped and the clouds thinned. Glints of sunlight pierced here and there to the soggy earth, raising up a mist. Black Tom tied two of the horses from the stables to a wagon and piled the dead bodies upon the wagon. He then guided the horses out to a bog. Into the bog he committed the family and their servant. He did not say any prayers or perform any rites. He let the birdsong be the hymns of that Sunday morning.
When finished, Black Tom guided the horses back to the manorhouse. He opened the stables and let the horses roam as they pleased. He then returned inside the house and, moments later, he guided a figure from out of the house, covered with a heavy green cloak. The figure quivered and flinched repeatedly, but followed the black-clad man irresistibly out into the wan sunlight.
Together they walked Northward.
(The preceding is the opening prologue to a horror novel I may or may not continue writing. Currently I am preoccupied with finishing a fantasy novel and am still awaiting judgement on a horror novel I have sent to several publishers in the the hope that someone might take the bait. I have written so much in the past year—while crippled from a car wreck—that I do not know what project to pursue single-mindedly until headwinds simplify my choice for me. Having several concurrent projects can complicate and confuse one’s muse.)
Wherefore come the mists in the vale
but as clouds hung low and heavy
with flights of fantasy to tell
which brim, but not break, the levee?
Such mists might come stampeding wild
lest the shepherd guide them with calm,
ram and lamb and ewe all made mild
with blessings from his phantom palm.
He shepherds half-glimpsed, as a ghost,
amidst the moisture of the morn,
a patient specter on the coast—
who is to say he is forlorn?
Mists and dreams manifest his flock,
fading, half-forgotten at light,
floating far from the lonely loch,
their fleece foggy…drifting…cool…white.
Do not rouse at the passing flock
or the flock is quickly dispelled,
and do not blink at the reed stalk
by the shepherd’s easy hand held—
it is the bane of goblin kin
who covet the flock for their own,
eating dreams of sleeping children
as they toss and turn, weep and moan.
Thus, the shepherd tends his flock well,
though his eyelids may droop down low;
sentinel even when storms swell,
lightning strikes, and the strong winds blow.
Highlands, lowlands, valley and moor,
the flock wanders on hooves unheard,
guided gently from shore to shore,
quiet as his unspoken word.
Up and down, my work is never done;
up, down, up, down: not unlike the sun;
I cheated Death twice to live again,
but now I pay for my clever sin;
up and down, up and down this dark hill,
pushing in vain as I always will…
The snake-eyed die is cast,
unfurled like the ship’s sail
from the creaking oak mast,
while the Westward winds wail.
The man in the crow’s nest
cries out, “Crags down below!”
but the waves surge to crest,
churning, blow upon blow.
The crew shouts to their gods,
clinging as the hull slams
into reef, and then nods
toward the fish and clams.
The die is cast—a loss
for Man against the Fates;
the waves renew and toss,
heaving like strong shipmates.
The ship tips over, now,
as a horse reined to fall,
pitching to starboard bow
as at the siren’s call.
The men abandon ship,
leaping from larboard side
like die cast with a slip
of the hand—they still died.
A temple he had made
with demons as his thralls,
but doom was therein laid
in those holy halls.
Great wisdom could not save
this ruler so reverred
as he became a slave
to endless Lust, steered
far from a loyalty
unto his only god,
a man of royalty
ruled by his own rod,
traitor like his father
for the locust embrace
of a foreign daughter
with a pretty face.
Losing my head
and laughing it off,
not really dead,
though you may scoff.
Come seek me hence
a year has passed
and try your sense,
You may well kiss
my lovely wife,
but be remiss
and lose your life.
Gifts I will give
of Nature’s troves
and you may live
beyond my groves.
The lawn was buried with orange and brown oak leaves. More leaves clung to the branches above. It was mid-Fall. The breeze was cool, chilling Jordan’s bare legs as she stretched in the backyard. The leotard was thin against the Autumn cold, but practice would soon warm her limbs with the heat of her balance beam performance. And she lived for the performance on the balance beam.
Jordan kept her blonde hair shortly cropped, just like her Olympic hero, Kerri Strug, and just like Kerri Strug, Jordan was short. Also much like her heroine, Jordan was compact, stout, and compressed from years of gymnastic tumbling. She wanted to compete in the Olympics within three years, and she knew her strength lie on the balance beam. Her father had built this balance beam two years ago, for her thirteenth birthday, after much pleading and begging. He feared that she would harm herself in the yard. She said she needed more practice at home. Jordan’s father conceded, buying mats and setting them around the beam. These mats were now buried in leaves, much like the rest of the tree-columned yard. The yard itself was a mess. Her father had not raked it in a month. He had been too busy working overtime at the factory. And, with the exception of an acorn here and there, Jordan liked having the Autumnal detritus arrayed around her as she practiced. The leaves were jubilant in their colors and abundance, like tasteful confetti from a crowd that had recently passed through in celebration of her Olympic medal.
On the other hand, the thought of a loud crowd gave her conniptions. She did not like distraction. Cheers—real cheers from a live audience—did not energize her. She was not comfortable with her performance yet to perform for an audience and to feed off its energy. The good thing about living out in the woods—and not in the suburbs—was the silence. It allowed her to concentrate without distraction. That was not to say there was no ambience. The squirrels squabbled sometimes, and the birds chirped, but these sounds were negligible when she was focused.
Jordan stretched, warmed up, and mentally prepared herself. In time she felt ready to face the balance beam. She did not hesitate. Scattering the leaves with her bare feet, the young gymnast ran, vaulted, and wheeled gracefully onto the beam. She began her routine. It was an unbroken series of motions: tumbling, rolling, dipping, and rising into a handstand that halted near the end of the balance beam. Slowly wheeling over to grip the very edge with her toes, she then did a little hop to about-face, steadied and readied herself, then launched into a cartwheel, a back hand-spring, and concluded with a back-flip that triumphed with a peacock flaunt of the arms. It was all muscle-memory. She performed the series again, and then again. She felt like a squirrel as she went foot to hand to foot, vaulting and spinning and leaping and soaring. She felt like a bird, springing and kicking her legs out like the wings of a bird flapping toward the heights. Her soul was chimeric when she was performing gymnastics. The balance beam was a totem along which she traversed spirit animals with grand exultation. She focused her mind on breathing properly and concentrated her eyes on one spot while her body rotated about, so as to not make herself sick. Yet, the motion of the world still blurred and shifted in her vision, and she felt herself totter and sway with dizziness.
And so when she glimpsed the little man sitting on the bough above her, she nearly fell, halting and swinging her arms wildly like a cartoon character trying to fly after coming to the edge of a cliff. Regaining her balance, Jordan took a deep breath and exhaled, hands on her knees and her head feeling dizzy with the blurring motion. She was too heady. Blood beat in her ears like woodpeckers seeking worms. She was seeing things.
Or so she thought.
“What a lovely lass ye be,” a voice said.
Jordan looked up at the bough of the old oak tree. Head steadied now, she still saw the little man. He was real, to her surprise, and not just an image conjured by whirling motion and swirling vision.
“A lovely lass indeed! As an oak and a willow tree made as one! A dryad in the making!”
He was short and had orange hair—bright orange hair, like fire atop his head—and the freckles on his pale body flared like fire, too. A crown of antlers rose crookedly from his head. He wore a skirt of leaves, but, at such a high angle, the skirt did not conceal his furry deer legs, nor the genitals beneath the skirt. His priapism was comically large, and, as such, frightening to Jordan.
“What are you?” she demanded. It never occurred to her that the little man was a human being. Seeing him was like seeing a Unicorn or a Leprechaun: merely seeing them, though absurd, seemed to force the rational mind to surrender to the otherworldliness of it.
“What am I?” he says with a goat’s grin. “Why, ye say it as if I be what is unnatural, but, my lass, I am as natural as ye. And just as unique as ye.”
Jordan stood on the balance beam with her eyes averted from the little man. She could not look at him without looking at the obscene appendage beneath his skirt, and so she looked to the side, and only occasionally looked at him, just to verify that he was still sitting there; that he was still watching her with his lecher’s leer.
“What…do you want?” she whispered. She did not need to ask. She could see what he wanted. It was obvious.
“To ask ye what ye want,” he said.
“I want you to leave…” she whispered.
He stood up on the bough now, hooves apart, hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and the obscenity between his legs straight out at attention. He looked like an absurd Jolly Green Giant, only orange and pale and diminutive and lewd. He scratched his ear thoughtfully. It was the ear of a stag, not a man.
“I will leave,” he said, “if ye wish it. But in the depths of ye heart ye do not wish it so, my sweet dryad.”
Jordan looked at her house. Her father was still at work, and the windows were dark. Her mother lived with a boyfriend miles away from here. The nearest neighbor was a mile down the road. Jordan herself was no pushover, though. She had broad shoulders and arms stronger than most boys her age. She was an athlete, and though she was short, the orange-haired man was shorter. If she wanted to, she could kick hard as a horse.
Yet, his short stature made his obscenity seem all the larger by comparison. And there was a certainty in his grin, a self-assurance, and she did not feel the same confidence that he obviously felt. He seemed to have an invisible audience cheering him on, whereas the applause were silent for her.
Jordan’s indecision prompted the little man to speak.
“Ye seek the Flame, do ye not?” he said. “The old Greek Flame? The Flame of glory? The Flame of Olympus?”
“Flame?” she said, her mind awhirl with the iconic Olympic torch.
“Yes,” the little man said. “The Flame of olden days, and of days to come. It does not belong to the Greeks, nor to any one people. It is the Flame of Prometheus and Agni and Kagu-tsuchi and Loki and Gibil. It is the Flame of glory and celebration and…sacrifice.”
The last word he whispered. Jordan could barely discern it from the rustling of a squirrel amongst the distant leaves.
“Sacrifice?” she said. She fidgeted on the balance beam and, though she was merely standing still, she almost lost her balance. “What sacrifice?”
The little man’s grin spread wider. “Ye know of what it is I speak.” His orange eyes surveyed her, up and down, and he licked his lips. “Ye innocence.”
Jordan was wordless, oscillating on the beam. Unconsciously her hand adjusted her leotard, and the little man’s eyes grew wide with delight.
“Do ye wish to stand for years, my dryad,” he prodded her, “or do ye wish to fall from greatness? There is always a price. There is a price if ye do not feed the Flame. A bonfire is kindled for the village, and the world is nothing but giant villages now, my little leaflet. The bigger the villages, the bigger the bonfires, the bigger the Flame. From Marathon to Munich. Between the seasons of Beltane and Onsen and Burning Man and Thimithi, the Flame must be fed. The Feat must be done and the Flame must be fed. The season’s burning always returns.”
A chill in her bones made Jordan tremble. It was not the wind.
“Will ye bend or will ye break?” the little man wondered aloud, scratching the hairs on his chin. “And for what? Ye innocence slips away even now, so why not surrender it for a greater gain?”
“I will earn my place on my own,” she said. Her voice seemed tenuous in that Autumnal silence, as if it had been drowned beneath the cheer of an audience to which she was somehow deaf and blind.
“Pride precedes the Fall,” the little man said, his grin disappearing. “Just as Summer precedes the Fall. How confident humans are in the splendor of warm days and ample food!” He grinned again, maliciously now. “How bitter they feel when the cold winds rake at their starving ribs. Wouldn’t ye rather be a dryad than a mere human being? Wouldn’t ye rather be eternal than brief as a leaf? Dryads grow on Mt. Olympus, my lass, but no mere woman may go there unless she offers a god something of value.” Again he eyed her thighs, and the place between them where the leotard pinched. “The summit of Olympus is good soil, my lass.”
“No!” she gasped, finding her throat choked with fear…and sadness.
He shrugged, then turned as if to leave. Much to her own horror, Jordan called out to him.
He grinned at her over his pale, freckled shoulder. Seeing his grin, she felt her resolve grow stronger. Her momentary weakness gave way to anger.
“I will succeed on my own,” she said. “I don’t need you. I have talent. I have skills and heart and passion!”
“So do thousands of other lasses,” he says. “But they grow no more than as saplings before wilting away into obscurity. Some are no more than acorns, stagnant and squandered in unfertile soil.”
The little man laughed, then stepped off the branch. He did not fall, nor did he fly away. He simply disappeared into the orange leaves like he never was.
As soon as the little man vanished Jordan forgot about him. She wondered how she had gotten off the balance beam and came to be standing in the leaves. Something else bothered her, too, but she did not know what it was. She could not remember.
Taking a deep breath, Jordan hopped back up onto the balance beam and walked to and fro, trying to shake the strange chills she felt in her limbs. The fire seemed to have gone out of her. She did some warm-up exercises, trying to rekindle it. All around her the trees were orange and fluttered as if aflame, yet the chill breeze stiffened her limbs. The cold stiffness clamped at her neck and shoulders and hips and knees. The icy claws dug in and clutched at her sinews and her tendons, tightening around her muscles and her bones.
Still, she persisted. She shook out her joints, warmed her limbs, and steadied her breath. She walked across the balance beam as if in a firewalking ritual. A matchstick struck against her heart and flared to life. The warmth spread and she felt her skin grow hot against the cool winds. Energized with heat, she renewed her practice, channeling her whole soul into her routine. She exulted in her speed and technique. She triumphed in her passion aglow with her own inner fire.
The stiffness was sudden and excruciating, seizing the arch of her foot with a paroxysm of pain. She felt her foot spasm with an arthritic grip, felt her body flail wildly as she lost her balance and, with her accrued momentum, tumbled off the beam. She then felt the impact of her head on the leaf-strewn lawn, felt the snapping of her neck, and then, at last, felt nothing at all. She was a broken sapling crumpled upon the ground. Somewhere in the flaming leaves overhead she heard a little man’s laughter. It was the last sound she heard as her hopes and dreams extinguished on the summit of Mt. Olympus.
The scale of the moon carp gleamed in Katashi’s palm, flashing like polished porcelain, or perhaps lacquered bone. He returned it to the pouch hidden beneath his breastplate. The bamboo breastplate was charred and scarred, haunted by the battle from which Katashi had forsaken his sworn service to the Tanaka clan. It had been a sardonic retreat into the woods. He fancied the idea of finding another clan to serve, such as in Kyoto, but halfway there abandoned the plan. Having no home, he made a home for himself here, in this valley beneath the howling mountains, and earning his life as a bandit with a dull blade and sharp threats.
The valley was an ideal place to stake the tearaway remainder of his life. Cutting through its wooded beauty was an important road that led to Kyoto and, so, was frequented by both riffraff and riches. There was a river that flowed like a sacred serpent nearby, replete with fish and frogs and such, and the woods was an assembly of the loveliest trees. Cedars, pines, maples, sakuras, dogwoods, plum, cherry trees. There were momiji trees with their leaves like a fan of sharp spear blades, and mountain ash, and the mighty oaks, their strange limbs frozen in kabuki dances. Katashi cherished trees, and the lovely landscape. He may not have adhered to Bushido now, but the appreciation of beauty still burned warmly in his breast long after all other things—like etiquette and Zen Buddhism—had extinguished. Sometimes, too, when the moon rode the clouds high like a princess in a palanquin, Katashi composed poetry in his head in celebration of the beauty of that hour. Sometimes the poetry visited him in the hot noon when he cooled himself in the shade of the woods, or drank water from the pools that spooled together from the waters of the mountains looming over that valley.
And yet, Katashi was not happy. He could be content, and even feel vacant of want, but such moments ebbed away as the flames and smoke rose again in his memories, reminding him of the Tanaka estate collapsing to ash. Whereas he used to meditate, now he could never sit still long enough to find inner peace. Rather, the memories assailed him on raven wings, like Tengu hellbent on mischief. In many ways, Katashi was a bitter man, and tasted much of bitter fruit. His life under the Tanaka clan had been a sweet fruit of privilege fed on the bitter duty of blood. This was why he had always enjoyed persimmons, whether ripe or unripened. The bitter and the sweet had their place. Green tea, too, was what he enjoyed, and the bitterer the better. It awakened his senses and concentrated his mind before battle. And after each battle in service to his lord, when he had often returned to the Tanaka estate, he was pleased to eat sweet rice and candies. He had taken pleasure in the indulgence of life in all of its diametric opposites.
Nowadays Katashi gathered and dried his own tea, and fished, and stole sacks of rice as he needed them during the Winter. He had few possessions, but they were enough to sustain him: his dull blade, a fishing spear, a tea cup, and a pot with which he cooked his fish, his rice, and brewed his tea.
And then came a day of yet greater change for the ronin. It had begun like all others. He rose, brewed tea, speared his breakfast in the river, cooked, ate, and then surveyed the valley road for passing spoils. He soon found them.
It was a group of monks, three in all, escorted by two samurai. The three monks surely had coins for their journey. The eldest monk looked especially old and presumptuous. The middle-aged monk looked chubby about his jowls and had a protuberant belly, meaning he ate well. The third monk was a young man; slender and almost feminine of feature. Surely, Katashi thought, these monks had coins.
Katashi then studied the two samurai closely, wondering which one he should dispatch first. Before he could come to a decision, however, a volley of roars rose and a group of bandits besieged the small group. They must have been new to the area, for Katashi had never seen them before. They wore bits of stolen armor here and there, used axes and kamas and secondhand blades. One used a fishing spear. Katashi watched grimly as the samurai were overwhelmed. He would have, at least, killed them honorably, not dishonorably ambush them with lackeys to assist. Face to face duels were his way. This, on the other hand, was a shameful display. Even so, one of the samurai managed to deflect the ambush and maim one of his attackers before he was cut down. He died with hatred etched on his face, and without a yelp of protest. Katashi would have felt honored to kill such a man, but the bandits did not indulge such thoughts. The moment the samurai fell the bandits fell upon him like dogs, arguing over who would claim his blade. There were five bandits in all, but the fifth was weeping on the ground, his lifeblood spilling out of his severed arm. The monks huddled together, but were untouched. Either they had nothing the bandits desired or the bandits feared hurting holy men.
Katashi never feared hurting holy men, nor killing them. They were often possessed of more wealth than their escorts.
At length, the four bandits had taken what they desired and fled into the forest. The fifth remained on the road, coiled like an infant and clutching the severed stump of his arm. The youngest monk attempted to tend to his wound, but the other two monks upbraided him.
“Let the dog die,” the eldest monk said. He wore a white robe and his eyes were hard, cold, and black like onyx. “Karma dictates his fate, and his fate will see him as a dog in the next life, or something worse.”
“But master…” the young monk said.
The other monk spoke up, his voice authoritative. “Do not question your better. You must remember how fortunate you are to have been taken upon this journey.” This monk wore a black robe and was of an age between the eldest and the youngest. “Let the dead lie, and let the dying follow suit.”
The youngest monk rose reluctantly and went from the bandit to the two dead samurai. The latter two had been stripped and bled freely from their fateful wounds upon the road.
“Do not touch the dead,” the black-robed monk commanded. “You will taint yourself with the corruption of death, and so doom us all. We must return to Kyoto and acquire another escort.”
“But the mountain…” the young monk protested.
“It will remain until we return,” the middle-aged monk said. “We must not dare the mountains unprotected. A hasty foot leads to a foolish fall. And youthful feet are hastiest of all.”
“But the demons will kill again,” the young monk said. “We have waited too long to protect the people of the village. Too many have died, and many more will die tonight.”
The two older monks reddened at the young monk’s words, scowls drawn on both men’s faces.
“We could not address this problem until now,” the middle-aged monk growled. “Lord Noteru had no Samurai to spare, as you know, and now we must report to him the deaths of two of his loyal men. He will not be pleased and will likely not be urgent in sparing more men in our mission.”
It was then that Katashi emerged from the shadows of the woods.
“The boy has bamboo for a spine,” he said, “or perhaps bamboo for his head.”
Katashi was pleased by the surprise on the monks’ faces. The two older monks stepped back as the imposing ronin approached. The young monk stood defiant. Katashi looked him up and down, grinning.
“Perhaps both, though he looks more a woman than the last I rutted upon.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk asked. “Did your gang not spill enough blood already?”
“I do not belong to them,” Katashi said, a grim smile upon his face. “If I did belong to them I would have cut them down rather than see them fight an outnumbered force so cowardly.”
“A murderer with principle!,” scoffed the middle-aged monk.
“What is a Samurai except that?” Katashi said. “Though also with a master, and since I have none, I am simply a ronin.”
“What do you want?” the eldest monk demanded. “Our escort has been slain and stripped of all possessions. There is nothing we can offer you. We are holy men. We have no need of earthly possessions, and so no wealth to tempt your wickedness.”
Katashi laughed mirthlessly. “The thick robes of holy men have always concealed secret wealth, and secret wickedness. I ask only for wealth, however. Coins. Now.”
The two elder monks exchanged irritated glances, then disdainful glances toward the corpses of their guards. The eldest monk nodded to the middle-aged monk. The middle-aged monk withdrew a pouch from his robe. It jingled.
“You profane man,” the middle-aged monk complained. “It will buy you only your way into the next life as a worm.”
The monk handed the pouch of coins to Katashi.
“A peaceful, needful life,” Katashi said. He put the pouch within his breastplate, beside the pouch with the white koi scale. “Tilling the earth and helping a fisherman’s hook to feed his family. Much more needful a life than that of a monk, I should think.”
“You despicable blasphemer!” the middle-aged monk ejaculated. “You do not deserve that gold!”
“Or perhaps I could devise a need of you, after all,” Katashi said. He drew his katana. “My blade is dull and wants testing. Perhaps I should test its sharpness with a holy man’s neck.” His eyes went from one monk to the other. “But which one?” His eyes fell upon the eldest monk. “The oldest? His is sure to be tough enough to test a blade. His neck is so corded with age, like a tree’s trunk.” He looked at the middle-aged monk. “Or perhaps the fat one would be a better test of a blade. His neck is thickly swollen and surely as difficult to severe as a hog’s head from its body.”
The middle-aged monk backed away, as did the eldest monk.
Katashi turned toward the young monk. “Your neck is young and strong,” he said. “It might prove to be the best test of all. What do you say to that?”
“If you must test your sword,” the young monk said, “then please do so. But please do so after we have cleansed this mountain of corruption.”
Katashi was taken aback, but did not let on. “You care very much about this mountain,” he said.
“It is not just the mountain,” the young monk said. “It is a matter of the villages near here. This is crucial for saving lives and easing suffering.”
“The mountain must wait,” the eldest monk said.
This caused the youngest monk more upset than anything the ronin had said to him thus far. “But master! We must purify the mountain!”
“We cannot even defend ourselves against this wind-blown ruffian,” the middle-aged monk said, turning on the young monk. “How are we to defend ourselves against what we will face in the mountains?”
Katashi sheathed his blade, and laughed.
“Why would you not simply trust in the Buddha to see you safely to your destination? Why would you need armed warriors for escorts? Or is it that Buddha is a matter of your occupation rather than your belief?”
“We do believe in Buddha,” the middle-aged monk retorted testily. “But not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes behaves as if they believe.”
Katashi laughed again. “Very true. Just so, I believe in Buddha, and I carry a blade with me, for Buddha does nothing for us. He is too lost in the bliss of his own Satori to care for us or anyone except himself.”
The monks gasped. The middle-aged monk glowered and spoke with scorn.
“You are an endless well of blasphemies!” he snapped. “Your soul is lost! You will never break the cycle! Instead, you will descend into blood-madness and become an Oni!”
Katashi nodded gravely. “Perhaps I have descended and become an Oni already. I have killed hundreds, you know, and the Buddha never interfered on their behalf. Nor on my own. Rivers of blood have flowed and, in the center of it, like an unfeeling stone, the Buddha has slept, indifferent to the world.”
The two older monks exchanged looks again.
“It is time to depart,” the eldest monk said, folding his arms and turning away. “Come. Leave the wretch to his fate.”
“Do as you please,” Katashi said. “Your coin has bought you your way. Tread your path as you wish, but know the Buddha does not care.”
The two monks began to walk down the valley path. The youngest monk did not follow.
“I will not forsake the mountain,” the young monk said. “I will continue on alone.”
“It will be dark soon,” the elder monk said. “And you have no protection.”
“I have faith in the Buddha,” the young monk said. “I need nought else.”
Katashi should have laughed, and yet he did not. There was a steel-edged resolve in the young man’s tone that reminded Katashi of the battlefield. And while he may have dismissed the Samurai code and the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, he did not dismiss the courage of a man, especially combating that devil known as Circumstance.
“A fool, then,” the middle-aged monk said. “I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you in the hope that you will be reborn into a fairer realm. Farewell.”
The two monks went their way. The young monk went his way, through a torii gate and up a long-forsaken mountain path. Katashi, curious, followed the monk from within the woods. He was in want of diversion, and would find it.
It was not long before the sun set and the shadows stretched, darkened, and pooled as a lake in the valley. Despite the darkness of the woods, the monk did not falter, but continued up the mountain at the same determined pace as when there was still sunlight with which to see.
To Katashi’s surprise, there were lights along the path up the mountain— burning blue lights here and there among the trees and along the path. Voices whispered and murmured as the monk approached. Katashi heard them, too, coming from behind him, beside him, above him, below him. He was used to opponents of flesh and blood, not apparitions which a blade could not wound. Yet, he would not cower so long as the monk did not.
The monk pulled up his orange sleeves, exposing his hands. Within them he clutched prayer beads. As the burning blue flames encircled him, he bowed his head and raised his hands, entwined by the beads. Within the angry convergence of the blue light the monk prayed. The flames drew nearer, as if to engulf him, but he did not mind them, continuing with his prayer. The flames began to dwindle, and their voices became desperate. They cried and they wailed. They vowed revenge, and enumerated their sorrows. Nonetheless, the monk prayed, his voice a steady lullaby in the otherworldly light. By and by, they diminished, becoming so small that they were like fireflies among the trees, and then faraway stars, and then glinting embers. At last, the flames dissipated entirely, leaving only the monk on the path, and Katashi in the woods.
The monk turned and looked directly where Katashi concealed himself behind an ash tree. The ronin stepped forward
“Your blade will not always protect you,” the monk said. “Often it will harm you, even if it never spills one drop of your blood.”
Katashi stepped forward onto the mountain path. “What were those flames?”
“Onibi,” the monk said. “Lost spirits. The victims, I believe, of the evil that lurks atop these mountains.”
“Where did they go? Did you destroy them?”
“I sent them forth from their suffering,” the monk said. “I hope they find peace in the next life to come.”
Katashi snorted. “Doubtful. There is no peace in this life or any other. They go from one storm to another, and there is no refuge.”
The monk withdrew his hands and prayer beads into his sleeves, then crossed his arms. “Why do you shadow me?” he asked.
Katashi ignored the question. “I am surprised you could sense me. I am silent as a fox when I desire to be.”
“Your walk is not of the woods, however much you wish it to be. You are a man too much in disharmony with himself to ever be in harmony with the world.”
Katashi frowned. “You speak with high-hand when you wish. Were you born of a noble family?”
“No,” the monk said, continuing his uphill walk. “I was born of a humble fisherman.”
“And yet the Buddha was a prince,” Katashi said, following the monk with an easy gait. “He knew nothing of suffering, yet is supposed to somehow teach us how to overcome it. Not all of us have castles and kings to keep us sheltered from suffering.”
“You wish to antagonize me,” the monk said. “But you only succeed in revealing the extent of your own suffering.”
Katashi grinned mirthlessly. “I have not suffered more than most, except, perhaps, those whom I met and slew upon the battlefield.”
“You relish in death,” the monk said. He shook his bald head with pity. “Just so, I will pray for you, invoking the Buddha to guide your soul to its inmost peace.”
“There is no peace hidden there, either,” Katashi said, his tone harder now. “No more than there is peace in the inmost of a storm. Lightning crashes all around. The winds howl. The rains fall. The sky grows dark and the people tremble in their splintered homes. Life is dynamic. Only after death is peace attained, and even then it is not stillness, but decay as Life again eats away restlessly upon the ruined flesh.”
“You do not respect the Buddha’s teachings,” the monk said.
“Nor the teachers of those teachings,” Katashi said grimly. “If you only knew how many holy men I have slain, you would quiver in your robe.”
“Why have you not slain me?” the monk asked. “Why did you not slay my brothers? You could have easily done so.”
“I did not slay your brothers because they will return with more coins,” Katashi said. “And you…well, I did not slay you because I judged it more entertaining to witness your failure upon the mountains than to kill you outright. Or, perhaps, I may just test my dull blade on your neck after all.”
The flapping of large wings and the strange cawing laughter of a crow interrupted their conversation. They looked to the treetops and saw a winged shadow pass over the pale moon. Its laughter echoed within the woods; at one moment behind them and another moment ahead; to the left, then to the right. The creature’s laughter was as coarse as an old crone’s cackle.
At length, a branch shook overhead and creaked beneath the weight of the figure.
“What a pair to see!” the coarse-throated voice crackled. “A monk and a ronin. What fun to be had! I can scarcely decide what to do first! Should I eat the monk’s eyes and replace them with his prayer beads? Or should I remove the ronin’s genitals and place them in his mouth?”
Katashi unsheathed his sword and pointed it toward the shadowy figure. The dull blade gleamed white in the moonlight. His voice rang out in challenge.
“Come and face me first, you presumptuous creature! I will cut your grandstanding pride down as a sickle the sapling!”
The branch shook and a great gust of wind rushed downward with the winged figure that landed before them.
“Face me, mortal,” the creature said, “and we shall test how well that dull blade cuts.”
The winged creature wore a black robe and a black raven’s hat, like a priest, but had a long nose extending out from a red face. In one clawed hand it held a black-bladed katana; in the other it held a scroll such as would adorn a temple. Written upon it was the Lotus Sutra, but distorted. Perverse.
Katashi stepped forward as the Tengu grinned. The monk interceded.
“Tengu,” the monk said. He held up his hands with the prayer beads entwined. “You must not face him. You will not win. Tengu were the demons that taught the warrior arts to Man.”
“I can fight him,” Katashi said, “and I will.”
“You will die,” the monk said.
“Then it shall be a glorious death,” Katashi said.
“And a glorious feast, too,” the Tengu said, laughing like a crow. “As are all the feasts provided us by the pride of Man.”
The creature slipped its blasphemous scroll into its black robe and held the handle of his katana with both clawed hands. Katashi dropped his sword into a low stance. The moon disappeared behind a wayward cloud, plunging the mountainside into a sea of darkness. Blade crashed against blade, and the darkness was flecked with flashes of light. Three clangorous strikes sounded and then the moon reappeared. Katashi and the Tengu had switched places. The young monk stumbled back in surprise, the Tengu only a few paces away from him.
“Clever creature,” Katashi said, “to use the darkness against men. But you fail to understand. I am no mere man, for you face a demon also.”
“Your boasts are most unseemly,” the Tengu said. The laughter was gone from his coarse corvine voice. Now remained only dreadful menace. “Luck struck thrice for you, and so is gone. Now only your dull blade and your skill remain, and what paltry things to safeguard your life! It will tatter like the flimsy threads of a spider’s web.”
“So says the firefly,” Katashi said, readying his blade in the high position. The moon gleamed, reflecting off of his blade to illuminate more clearly the dark eyes near which the blade arced.
The two warriors faced each other silently for a long time, as if waiting for another cloud to blind the moon. When the cloud came, at last, like a raven’s wing, there came five shrieking strikes of blade on blade, and sparks that seemed to alight upon the leaves of trees and burn a moment before fading once again into the uniform darkness.
The moon emerged again, and with her emergence came a gasp from the monk. Katashi stood beside him, and so, too, did the Tengu. But the Tengu remained standing only because Katashi’s blade held him up. The Tengu’s blade dropped to the ground and the Tengu slumped backwards, toward his crumpling wings. The Tengu’s words were mingled with blood and pain.
“Bested by a lowly man. What a pitiful thing.”
“No,” Katashi said, withdrawing his blade and letting the creature collapse upon the ground. “Bested by a superior demon.”
The Tengu dissipated into a flurry of black feathers, all of which were subsumed into the shadows. Only the demon’s sword remained. Katashi stooped and picked it up. Surveying its black blade for a moment, he discarded his old, dull sword and claimed the new black blade in its place. He sheathed it and was pleased by the shriek of its blade in the scabbard.
“A demon’s blade befitting a demon,” he said.
“You may yet be a demon,” the monk said, reproachfully. “But I will thank you all the same.”
Katashi faced the monk with a sardonic frown on his face.
“If the Shogun wished to exterminate these demons,” Katashi remarked, “he should have sent an army, not three defenseless monks.”
“Bloodshed only feeds the demons,” the monk said. “You win only a temporary victory at best. This Tengu will return with the new moon, as will any you happen to slay this night. The portal to the realm of the Oni must be closed with an exorcism, otherwise neither the mountains nor the valley nor the villages will know peace.”
“When I kill someone,” Katashi said, “he remains dead.”
“A human, perhaps,” the monk said, “and perhaps not even then. Perhaps you have peopled this mountain yourself with the deaths you have sown upon previous battlefields. Perhaps you have a burden in all of these ill-begotten creatures and their insatiable bloodlust.”
It was Katashi’s turn to feel perturbation, yet it passed quickly. He had no time or patience for emotions that might disadvantage him on the battlefield. The monk continued up the mountain. Katashi followed.
It was a long hike, and the moon guided them. As the night progressed the howling of the mountain increased. It was a faraway whisper at first, but soon became as a wind just on the other side of the trees. The monk spoke suddenly.
“If you do not commit yourself to the Eightfold Path you will never reach Satori, but will continue in the cursed cycle of reincarnation.”
“It matters little to me,” Katashi said. “I do not care to be part of some divine realm. Does the tiger wish to be declawed and defanged? How happy could such a pathetic creature be?”
“If you persist in violence you may indeed become an Oni.”
Katashi shrugged. “I am worse than an Oni, little monk. Most men are. For we are shameful hypocrites. At least the Oni do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: blood-drinkers. They eat men without justifying it. They do not say, ‘I kill for my master,’ or ‘I wage war for the sake of peace.’ They kill and they enjoy it and they do not taint their tongues with falsehoods to ease their conscience.”
“And you enjoy killing?” the monk said.
“I enjoy surviving,” Katashi said. “And you must kill to survive.”
“It seems you enjoy little,” the monk said, “not living, and maybe not even surviving.” Katashi scoffed.
“And that is the hypocrisy of monks. They claim to live for peace and to avoid bloodshed, but all the while they must employ warriors to kill their foes on their behalf. Monks do not live more peacefully. They simply burden needful violence upon others, like a lord sending his peasants to the paddies to harvest and store the rice.”
The monk was thoughtful for a long moment, and then sighed. “You are not wrong,” he said. “The burdens of this world are often unloaded upon others. And we monks are as guilty.” He took a deep breath. “And, so, if you wish to leave my service, please leave. I will not burden you with the karma entailed in this task.”
“I am not in your service,” Katashi growled. “I am merely sharing the path for a time. I seek entertainment. Nothing else. Well, no, that is not true.” His hand went to the handle of his new sword. “This new blade pleases me. For that, I suppose I am grateful to you.”
“I would rather have died than led you to further bloodshed,” the monk said solemnly.
Katashi snorted. “How did such a one as you come to be a monk? Did the Buddha come to you in a dream?”
“How did you become a warrior?” the monk countered. “Did Hachiman put a sword in your hand and a blood-thirst in your belly?”
“I kill men,” Katashi said. “It is what I am good at, so I do it.”
“What of women and children?” the monk asked.
Katashi took the monk by the arm, halting them both. He looked at the monk directly, and in his gaze was a hardness that cut quick and sharp like a blade.
“If a youth dares to fight me, then he is a man in his own estimation, and I would not dishonor him by refusing his challenge. And I never harm women. Ever.” Katashi scowled. “You did not answer my question. How is it that you became a monk?”
The young monk said nothing. He put a finger to his lips, hushing any talk. In the howling wind of the mountains there was a strange sound of chattering—a creeping, crawling, chattering among the trees. Katashi peered at the shadow-swollen trees. Things uncoiled there; things with sharp claws and gnashing pincers and long segmented bodies.
Katashi drew his black blade as the long-bodied creatures came billowing through the darkness on their many legs. The nearest creature lunged for the monk, but the monk ensnared its pincer-snapping head with his prayer beads. With a quick prayer the beads glowed with white fire, radiating energy as the chattering centipede blazed and burned away to ash.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the monk said.
The other two demons undulated toward Katashi like long ribbons, their movements interweaving with one another so as to confuse and dismay their intended prey. But Katashi’s senses were sharp, splitting the shadows with which the demons concealed themselves. One lunged, and then the other, and with two slashes Katashi had split the giant centipedes in two, their bisected bodies writhing wildly upon the ground. In two subsequent motions he plunged his blade into one head and then the other, swiftly silencing their chattering once and for all.
The monk and the ronin continued up the mountain path.
“You did not answer my question,” Katashi said. “How did you come to be a monk? Was it in search of respite from agonies? Or was it to seek agonies through self-denial?”
“Life is hard and full of agonies,” the monk said. “That is the purpose of Buddha. To offer respite and refuge from the sorrows of Life.”
“What do you know of sorrows?” Katashi demanded. “Monks live apart. They are chosen as children, raised in monasteries, provided protection by the same warriors whose means of life they shun.”
“I was not always a monk,” the young monk said. “I was, for the longest time, an orphan.”
“Born from a bamboo stalk?” the ronin mocked.
“My father was a fisherman,” the monk said. “My family lived in a small fishing village on the coast. I do not remember my parents and siblings very well. They were drowned in a tsunami. I was found afterward, clinging to a bundle of bamboo that floated in the aftermath. I was found by a kabuki group, of all things. They made jokes about it, saying I floated into the Floating World. From then on I grew up in the kabuki theater. I learned how to perform and how to play music on the shamisen. I became a very popular kagema. I performed in the dress of a woman, and even played Amaterasu, and dared to think I could shine as brightly as the sun. Men hungered for me, and paid for me. They used me as they would a woman, and wealthy women paid for me as well, and I made money for my kabuki group. But I hated it. My life was suffering.”
“And so your precious Buddha saved you? Or did he visit you in the night? I have heard that monks enjoy kabuki, too, and hold private audiences when the world is silent except for the chirping of lonely crickets. They enjoy kagema as well.”
The young monk ignored him.
“I shuddered at the touch of men and women both. I wanted to run away, but felt guilt and shame at the thought of selfish flight. The kabuki players had rescued me as a child. I felt that I owed them my life.”
Something in Katashi’s posture shifted. It was not so rigid, even if it was as flint-to-flame ready.
“Why did you leave?” Katashi asked, his voice neither soft nor harsh.
“I was violently abused by one man. When I attempted to tell the others they told me to keep silent about it. The man was very wealthy, and was a noble. Thereafter I cut my hair and fled to the monastery. The monks refused to take me at first, knowing who I was. You are correct, ronin; the kabuki actors are paid to visit monks— some monks, but not all—and I had been very popular among the Zen masters. They hated the shame of my presence on their holy grounds, but I persisted. I invoked the sayings of the Buddha, and the Sutras I had learned while in the kabuki theater. Still, they refused me.”
Katashi may have sighed, or hissed. Something in his bearing shifted. The monk continued.
“Then one night I met an old monk while wandering the woods. He told me to speak his name to the monks. His name was Eiji. I spoke his name the next morning and the monks were astonished. They asked me where I had heard his name. I explained that I had learned the name of the man from the man himself. They immediately accepted me. Eiji, they said, had been the great exorcist in the monastery. He was respected even by the Shinto priestess of a local village for his ability to exorcize malevolent entities.”
“And now you exorcize demons,” Katashi said. “Where is this Shinto priestess? Could she not aid you in your quest to cleanse these mountains?”
The monk inhaled and exhaled. “She was slain but a week ago by an assault of demons in her village. Many holy men and women have been slain lately while trying to protect their villages against the demons.”
Katashi thought about all of the many nights he had spent in the woods, a mere raven’s flight distance, from this mountain. No mischief befell him. No malevolent spirits had stalked and attacked him. Why?
“What hope have you in standing against the source, then?” Katashi asked the monk. “It seems as foolish as a fish trying to hold back the river.”
“It may be foolishness,” the monk said. “But I refuse to stand aside and let more people die from inaction. The Shogun is too concerned with destroying the warlords plotting against him to concern himself with demons. And so long as men wage war the demons shall invade and feast and prosper in our lands.” The monk paused, turning to look Katashi in the eye. “So…you now know this to be a doomed endeavor. Do you wish to continue shadowing me?”
Katashi did not hesitate. “I am bored of stealing from peasants and holy men. I wish for more excitement, and more blades against which to test my mettle. Folly invites much diversion.”
They continued up the mountainside. Summer’s blooming abundance cluttered all around them. The slivers of moonlight led them onward and upward. The night was warm and balmy, the mountain forests thick with foliage and mystery. Long abandoned huts reared here and there, the dilapidated structures sinking into their own bamboo bones and haunted by unnatural fires in their dark depths. A temple, too, sat behind a torii gate. Eyes peered from within its cobwebbed shadows. Whatever kami were worshiped there had long given the temple over to more malignant entities.
“A man’s soul is like a woodblock,” the monk said. “Each life we live, reincarnated, is a print from that woodblock.”
“Another lecture, is it?” Katashi remarked.
“The Buddha helps us cut away the details,” the monk said, “removing the jutting imperfections used to stain the page until all that remains is a flat, smooth expanse until a pure whiteness remains, the impurities of this world slipping off of us, untouched by the ink.”
“I am rather fond of woodblock prints,” Katashi said. “Especially those of Mt. Fuji. Why should we not enjoy what imprints our lives and makes us who we are? Why would anyone not stain the page with the beauty of this world?”
“Why are you a ronin?” the monk countered. Before Katashi could answer, the monk spoke again. “Because this world is transient and fleeting. It is fickle. One day you have a place with a master, and then next day you are adrift after a great calamity. Not even the peaceful trees are spared. The seasons are restless and wait for no man, however painful the cold Winter winds are on his old bones.”
“Even so,” Katashi said, “I love this world. It has beauty. It has strength. Perhaps I will never reach Satori, but what of it? I would rather stay earthbound with the changing of the seasons swirling around me than elevate to a realm of sheer consciousness. The world is a fickle mistress, but she remains beautiful, whether a maiden or mother or old crone.”
The monk was silent for a long time. He stared at the beads entwining his hand. At length, he spoke.
“And that pouch you clutch within your armor? What is the meaning of it?”
Katashi bristled. “There are secrets dear to a man, and he would rather die than reveal them to anyone. Even to your precious Buddha.”
The silence between them opened around them and they leaned into it as they ascended. It did not comfort them, but it did not provoke them either, covering the soreness between them like a scar. Distantly they heard the howling of the mountain’s summit.
They continued to ascend the high path up the mountain.
There was a waterfall somewhere. Its rushing music swelled as they neared it. The land beneath their feet leveled for a time, and the forests opened wide, falling away to let the moonlight play vastly in the mist. Neither the ronin or the monk spoke. They heard the strumming of a koto mingled in with the waterfall’s cascade. Approaching, they saw the heavy breath of the crystalline cataract aglow with moonlight, and, within that heavy breath, the large figure of someone sitting upon a rock in the pool.
“It is a demon,” the monk whispered. “It will not let us pass.”
“We shall see,” Katashi said. “Wait here.” He approached the waterfall.
Strangely, the nearer he came to the waterfall, the less he heard of it, and the more the beautifully sad music of the koto echoed in his ears. At length, the music continued, but the figure leapt from the rock. Still shrouded in mist and shadow, it walked slowly forward. It grew taller as it approached, cradling the large koto in its long arms and still somehow plucking at the strings to haunt the mountains with its melody. Such long, unfolding arms. Such long, unfolding fingers.
A figure emerged at last, tall and imposing, her kimono black and her long hair white. Her face was like a grotesque Noh mask, only it was not carved of wood to frighten children. The sad, fang-cluttered smile was her own as well, as were the horns upon her crown and the glowing red eyes. Even now her long, blood-stained claws plucked and struck at the strings of the koto. She was a kijo: a mountain ogress.
Somewhere behind him Katashi heard the monk muttering incantations. The ronin hushed him with a wave of his hand. He then walked toward the tall creature, listening to her song as if it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. When they came face to face he did not flinch, nor did he unsheathe his sword. Instead, he unsheathed himself, casting his sword, armor and the robe beneath aside. He stood boldly naked in the phantom-spun moonlight. The only things he wore were his scars and the pouch whose string hung from his neck, its singular content being the scale of the moon carp.
The kijo stared at Katashi, her red eyes glowing with hunger. She ceased playing her song and set down the koto. The koto was as long as Katashi was tall. Its board was made of bones and its strings made of sinews and tendons. The ogress gazed at him for a long moment, eyeing him up and down, her grotesque face full of hunger, and sadness.
The ogress raised a taloned hand high above her horned head. Katashi awaited its fell plunge, but when it plunged even he was startled by its boldness. Her hand went to the fold of her black kimono and peeled it away from her tall, angular body. She stood before him as naked as he dared stand before her, her breasts pendulous and her womanhood glistening. He did not flee, but stood fast before her as her long, bony arms embraced him. He embraced her in turn, and she pressed her fetid mouth against his own, tasting of blood and death; a familiar kiss he had tasted many times on the battlefield; a taste that thrilled and repulsed him, enlivening him and sickening him with that katana blade sharpness of contrast. Her fangs cut his lips sweetly.
Katashi sucked at her breasts while she pressed herself atop him vigorously. She kissed him many times, and with each kiss he recalled a blade or arrow or spear that kissed his skin, leaving a scar. He no longer felt repulsed, nor even thrilled. This was familiar; this was his life written in the characters of kisses and scars and terrors, all tracing the imminence of death. Even her grotesque face did not repulse him, nor was it truly ugly after a time. His whole life had been ugly and bloody, soaking battlefield after battlefield; enough blood to drown a dragon. But when the Tanaka clan fell, he saw the fruits of his efforts wither and decay on the shorn vine.
The monk ventured further up the mountain path, moving slowly beneath the cover of the trees. A wide berth he gave to the two lovers. To him it seemed their lovemaking was both sacrilegious and beautiful—grotesque and sincere. He was reminded of the many nights he had pleased men and women after his troupe’s kabuki plays. He never enjoyed any of these encounters, save one. And the pleasure of that encounter scared him, even now.
There had been an older woman that had often attended his plays. He had seen her in the audience, distinguished by her gaze, for she was transfixed upon him, her eyes as bright and hot as two toro lanterns. She paid only once for him, and even then seemed shy and embarrassed as he disrobed before her. Yet, once she had begun to touch him her passion kindled and she was as lively and ferocious as any woman half her age. But there was a tenderness to her, also, and genuine love in her lovemaking. She sought to please him as much as to enjoy him, and he found that he was genuinely affected by her care. Afterwards, when the sakura blossoms had been shaken fully from her desires, she lay within his arms, her forehead against his chest. She sang a song—an old folk song—and sounded almost as a child. The lines beneath her dark eyes had smoothed and she looked fresh and young though she was old enough to be his mother.
Even now her song haunted him.
“Cherry blossoms take flight
the stars of Obon night
like lovers’ eyes
awake in bed, though soon
to drift asleep
beneath the lantern moon
where dreams will keep
living on—ever on
after we part
at the coming of dawn
and the dimming of my heart.”
The monk came to the cresting crown of the mountain. A pagoda gleamed white in the moonlight, towering like a mountain unto itself. It was made of human bones. Perched atop its many eaves were Tengu, their black crow wings arched behind their backs. They cackled and cawed riotously. Down below, and standing on the pagoda’s various stories, were Yokai and Tengu. Worse of all, there were Oni. They were large, grim-faced ogres with sharp teeth and long claws. The monk knew that he had now come to the place of evil infection in the mountains and would need to exorcize the place of infection.
Looking about, he found a circle of oaks. There was a natural power here. He could sense it. It was powerful with benevolent kami. They would lend him their aid. He readied his incense burner, his kindling, his prayer beads, the Lotus Sutra, and his nerves. He began the purification ritual, chanting and rolling his prayer beads in amongst the incense smoke.
The monk went unnoticed for a time. Yet, he was soon spotted by a Tengu flitting about the skeletal pagoda. The Tengu squawked like a crow in alarm, pointing to the circle of oaks. Soon the Oni and other Yokai descended from the pagoda. They came in a languid tide at first, and then rushed on like a wave. The monk knew, then, that he had no time to complete the ritual. He knew he would soon die.
And then Katashi arrived, crashing into the beastly creatures like a divine wind. He drew his blade and slew a handful of the twisted creatures without ever clashing swords. He moved like water through a sieve, seemingly untouched by the horde. But the horde was numerous and boasted many formidable foes. His initial attack was effective, but the element of surprise was gone. The larger Oni gathered around him, even as the smaller Yokai attempted to slip past him only to be cut down. The Oni grinned and could have easily overpowered him, yet their pride did not allow it. One by one they faced him, and one by one he tested the black blade on their thick hide and horns and heads.
The moon reddened, like a basin of blood. All that was touched by its light was stained with a crimson glow. The mountains seemed drowned in blood. A strange castle could be seen in the night sky. It, too, was made of bones and sat in a lake of blood.
Katashi’s black blade dripped blood, and his ferocity was whetted by his bloodlust. He struck at the Oni and Tengu with such power that it forestalled them, even pressed them back. But Katashi could not truly defeat them, and soon suffered injuries. Slashes and lacerations bled him; the trenchant pains of war staggered him and belabored his breath. He felt so alive, though, and determined. He exulted in the battle.
But then the demons began to mock the ronin. They called to him by his name.
“I remember you, Katashi!” a two-headed Oni said. “You slew my brother and I upon the field! We did not expect to see you here!”
“Did I slay your courage as well as your bodies?” Katashi said. “Why did you never seek me when I was so close to you?”
“The Oni value your contributions to their armies!” the two-headed Oni said, grinning his canine fangs. “You have been a faithful servant of blood and carnage!”
As before, Katashi cut down the two brothers, though now he was more shaken than when he had dealt them their first deaths. For the first time in his life he paled and trembled. Another demon sprang forward: a one-eyed giant with a spear and gnashing fangs. Katashi tightened his hold on his sword, raising it upright beside his head. The blood oozed down the black blade. It was red like human blood; like the countless crimson ponds Katashi had spilled upon countless battlefields.
“Katashi!” the giant yelled in joy through his fangs. He laughed a deep, bellowing guffaw that shook the heavens. “So many warriors and generals!” The giant gestured to the expanse of demons. “And all because of you, Katashi! You have made the demon world strong! So strong! So numerous! So unstoppable!”
“I will cut you all down again!” Katashi vowed.
The giant laughed. “Cut me down and I will return! I return every night, Katashi! Every night since that night beneath the sakura tree! Remember? Remember me? The one whom they called the Spear-Tongued Giant? You challenged me for the honor of being Lord Tanaka’s personal guard! You slew me without mercy, though the duel was meant to be bloodless.”
“You drew blood first!” Katashi roared, slicing at the giant with his sword.
The giant deflected the strikes. “True! If only I drew enough to kill you! Then, perhaps, I would have been the one peopling the demon realm and be esteemed among the legion! But you won, running your sword through my eye and killing me!”
The giant laughed again, seemingly as joyful of his fate as if he had won the duel.
Katashi circled the giant. “I will run you through your other eye, fool!”
The giant swung his club and Katashi rolled beneath the knotted wood, rising to his feet with a slash of his sword splitting the giant’s eye. The giant roared, his bellowing voice staggering into lunatic laughter as he clutched his ruined eye.
“Katashi!!!” he laughed. “You have not changed!”
The giant swung his club blindly, his muscular arms whirling in a frenzy. Katashi retreated discreetly while the giant’s blind attacks struck the other Oni rushing past him to confront the intruders. Small and large Oni were flung away, broken and crushed by the giant’s club. The horde did not baulk, but laughed as if the carnage was the greatest merriment to be had. Eventually a Tengu swooped down and beheaded the giant with his blade, if only to cease his flailing, and the blinded giant’s head fell to the mist-glimmering grass, still laughing.
“I will be back, Katashi!” he vowed. “Upon the next moon I will eat your eyes and drink your blood and welcome you among your true brethren for all eternity!”
The Tengu that had slain the giant now flew toward Katashi. Katashi raised his crimson-cloyed blade with one hand. With the other hand he stealthily drew his tanto blade from its concealed sheath. As the Tengu swooped, Katashi threw his tanto, piercing the crow-demon’s chest. The creature collapsed to the ground, barreling over the smaller Yokai below in a tangle of limbs and feathers. Stepping through this cobbled road of mangled bodies was a horned Oni with red skin and a large scythe. He seemed in a good mood.
“What are you trying to be now, Katashi?” the Oni said. “A nio? Laughable! And where is your fellow guardian?” The Oni looked past Katashi, seeing the monk in the woods. “Ah! A monk? To think you would ally yourself with a monk! I will sully his soul with the filth of his own flesh!”
The Oni dashed toward the trees, his scythe raised for a bloody harvest. Katashi dashed after the Oni, slashing the demon’s leg. It was a feint, however, and the demon spun about, his scythe seeking Katashi’s neck. Katashi twisted sideways, throwing his left arm up against the crescent blade. The blade drank deeply and Katashi nearly fell. Instead, he rallied himself through the blinding pain with a flaming fury and swung his black blade with his one good arm, beheading the Oni at a single stroke.
The Oni’s body fell, and beside it Katashi sagged to one knee, clutching his sword. The wounded arm hung limply, bleeding from the shredded socket. He was pale and a clammy sweat drenched his forehead. His eyes blurred in and out of focus and he felt drowsy; so tired that he should sleep forever.
The horde of Oni gathered around. They did not rush. They pleased themselves by mocking the ronin and his . Their taunts roused Katashi. He glanced back at the monk, his figure wreathed in white fire as he continued his chants. In among the white fire he saw other figures: small and large, strangely shaped; some humanoid, others not nearly so. These figures clustered around the monk protectively, driving back the smaller Yokai that had slipped past Katashi. He realized, after a moment, that they were kami. Nature spirits. It was then, at this realization—when he knew that Nature itself was aspiring to protect the Buddhist monk—that Katashi could not surrender. If the land of Nihon would aid the monk, then Katashi felt that the monk was worthy of Katashi’s service, even if the Buddha wasn’t.
Grimacing, Katashi wobbled as he righted himself up to his feet.
“I will rest in my death,” he told himself. “But for now…I must test my blade.”
The exorcism continued in earnest, and the battle continued in desperation. The floating castle began to fade, as did the howling of the demonic winds. The crimson moon waned, bleeding out until it was pink, and then dull white. Katashi bled out, too, and paled as he weakened. Still did he swing his blade against the horde, even as he fell to his knees again and again. Blood flowed from one eye, and blood clouded the other eye. His whole being was fury and pain.
The Oni and Tengu realized what the whitening of the moon meant. They fled in fear, as if from the chittering of a hungry Shinchu. It was too late for them. The castle faded from the sky and the pagoda faded from the mountaintop. With the latter faded the cursed creatures that had inhabited its towering stories and eaves. Soon all that remained was the mountain, the moon, the monk, and a dying man. The young monk hurried to his side.
“I will perform the rites,” the monk said, kneeling beside Katashi. “You have served the Buddha well and should be rewarded.”
“I served…Nihon…” the ronin said. A burst of blood in his throat shook him. Dropping his sword, he withdrew the pouch beneath his shattered breastplate. Out of it he took the white koi scale and held it up to look at it with his remaining eye.
“Your secret,” the monk said, softly.
“Yes,” he said. “The joy of my life…a smiling face…reflected in the moon pond…” He coughed up more blood, his breathing labored. His face was white and his lips red, like a kabuki actor. “Her smile…she loved the koi…”
“She was your lover,” the monk said.
“And my master’s concubine,” Katashi said, his voice slowing. “She…loved the moon pond…the koi…she said…she was like the koi fish…gave me…gave me this porcelain scale from…her hairpin…”
“She cared for you very much,” the monk said.
“Yes…she would…play the koto for me…sometimes…before we made love…” His bloody brow furrowed with pain. “During the invasion…she killed the lord of the Tanaka clan…herself…and fled to the woods… I do not know…what happened to her…”
“I will pray that both of you are united in your next lives,” the monk said.
“I do not…wish for much,” Katashi said, grimacing as a laceration in his gut broke and bled freely. “Just…just a peaceful life…of isolation…silence…without violence… without…wrath…and with the…beauty of the seasons…all around…such as when…when I told her…she was my moon…”
Katashi’s final breath faded away. The monk prayed over the ronin, repeating the Lotus Sutra to bless his passing. When morning came, so, too, did the sun, and the mountain was bathed in purifying light. The Oni and Yokai were gone. The kami rejoiced in their silent, subtle way. The monk purified Katashi and buried him, marking his grave with a stone. He then descended the mountain path.
Where the monk passed he met with no demon or ghost. The mountain had been completely cleansed. When he came to the waterfall and its pool he did not see the kijo anymore. Rather, the place was serene and uninhabited. He glanced at it for a moment, then turned to leave. The gleam of white motion caught his eye and he turned to look at the pool again. Floating in the pool, serene and content, were two pale white kois. They gleamed with a porcelain luster as they floated up. They were so white that the carved edges of their scales were invisible in the sheen along their flanks.
A leaf fell from a maple tree—burning orange like a phoenix’s feather. The monk bowed and then left the kois to their reward.
Cursed with an unnatural lust
she hid in a wooden statue
for a horny suitor whose bust
her son would inherit too true.