How Things Pan Out

Washing a pan that was more hope than gold
in a waterfall’s pellucid stream,
he was bent and tired and wasting old,
chasing the elusive American Dream.

He sighed aloud, unhappy with his yield,
the pan but silt and flint and rock,
and a young man approached from afield—
a jolly fop stopping by for a talk.

“Why so glum?” the young man asked.
The old man answered, “In all my many dawns
I have yet to find one golden that basked
in a sunrise, or blessed by Leprechauns.”

The young man glanced up the mountain
and saw the waterfall’s mist-borne cataract.
“There is your rainbow, that pretty fountain
as lovely as any Fairy’s golden contract.

“For poetry is the thing that enriches a man,”
the young man continued to say with a smile,
“and rainbows and beauty and all which can
inspire the spirit— that is what is worthwhile.”

The old man did not look up, not a span,
and continued sifting water over mud and silt,
gaining nothing in his old rusty pan—
not even pyrite, or such half so gilt.

Cursing, the old man smacked the stream
with the traitorous pan that denied him,
then glanced up at the foppish fool of a man
that smiled obliviously beside him.

“Can I buy food with rainbows?” he said,
“Or shelter, or clothes, or a doctor’s care?
“Listen to me, and let this settle in your head
like a dragon on his hoard.” His eyes did flare.

“You will understand more about real needs
when you are older, and by then it will be too late,
because the foolhardiness of youth only leads
to squander and squalor, for that is a man’s fate.

“You speak as if rainbows were themselves
something substantial to bridge empty air,
but they are things conjured by Youth’s elves,
so try walking those colors, if you dare.

“My complacency is as silt washed away
and all that remains are material dreams—
small, it is true, as bits gathered day by day
as I dig the darkness for whatever gleams.”

The old man said no more, standing with his back bent,
and grabbed his bucket, his pan, and his pickax,
walking toward a ragged, moth-eaten tent
where he rummaged for food amidst dirty sacks.

He sat down and ate from a bowl of gruel,
his face devoid, like a hopeless slave’s,
then took up his tools, being his own pack mule,
and walked uphill again, toward the caves.

The young man watched the old man ascend
and vowed never to be such a sad-looking man,
but his high dreams, too, came to nothing in the end
except a few bits of gold in a rusty pan.

Funeral Crasher

The young man flew like Shakespeare’s Ariel
from woman to woman, with great flair,
himself more center-stage at the burial
than the man for whom they had gathered there.

He wore his tears like badges of honor
as he reminisced vaguely about the dead,
talking to each woman, and prevailing upon her
to embrace him, support him, bosom to head.

The coup de gras was the dirge that he sang
as if to conjure from air a chorus of sylphs
in accompaniment, yet his lovely voice rang
not for sorrow or pain, but for the MILF’s.

For he knew the flow of sorrow’s tears
was as good a lubricant for the ruse of Love
as any seduction by charms or beers
and so he sang smoothly, sweet as a dove.

Alas, while he sang without any shame
and with a talent that was duly silver-voiced,
he also sang proudly the wrong man’s name
and immediately dried up all that was moist.

Realizing his deceit, the mourners rebelled,
cutting short his golden-throated verses
and taking him by his arms, whereby held,
he was tied up and put into one of the hearses.

The funeral director said he would see justice done
and so drove the funeral crasher far away
until the hours flew by, and down came the sun
at the coffin-like darkening of the day.

The director was a pale man with a narrow face,
neither young or old, but seemingly ageless,
and he had an accent which nobody could place,
his hair slicked back and his eyes sagacious.

At length they came to a graveyard on a hill
far from the city, in the moonlit countryside
where many people had gathered until
the hilltop was crowded, all around a bride.

The nary-do-well was untied and brought out
and taken to the bride that awaited him there—
a paper-pale woman with her lips in a pout
of fangs, her eyes unblinking with an undead stare.

The funeral director grinned, his fangs agleam,
and he said, “You celebrate Death as we all do—
as an occasion for Love, an advantageous scheme
whereby joy is had while others only rue.

“Thus you will join us in our blood-linked clan
and live eternally, wed to my niece, Natalia,
thriving in shadows, feeding upon Man,
from now and forever a vampire, nox fatalia.”

The young man was brought before the bride,
and she pulled him close to her fetid face,
and no matter how much the young man tried
he could not free himself from her embrace.

As her lips parted, however, and her fangs flashed,
there arose a warcry as men flanked the hill,
their guns firing while their silver swords slashed
at the guests that had gathered in the dewy chill.

The young man was agog with confusion and fright
as a stake entered the bride that held him to her,
Natalia withering unto dust beneath the moonlight—
he ran as fast as he could, slipping in cow manure.

A vampire hunter approached, looming while astride
a horse as pale as Death, the moon at his back.
“I’m not a vampire!” the young man cried and cried,
but the hunter granted the rake no slack.

The young man tried to flee, but slipped once again,
falling as the hunter dismounted his ominous horse
and raised a hammer and stake, aiming to pin
him to the darksome earth without remorse.

Awaking as the stake struck his heart,
the young man found himself at the black gate
to the graveyard where he had plied his art
to women in mourning— the hour now late.

It had been a dream, but his neck still ached
where the mourners had tossed him out on his head;
standing up, he realized it was not good to be staked
out at funerals— a dating app might work better instead.

Broken Upon The Wheel (Part 1)

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A Bloodborne Tale

 

“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’”

—John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A Ballad

Feverish I have been; feverish near unto frenzy, for the blessed blood taints me, as it has done so many among us who Hunted upon the sprawling snowfields and spiraled spires of Cainhurst’s haunts. Too much spillage. How were we to avoid the Vileblood corruption when it rained down all around us in our bladed symphony and wheel-broken mayhem? Were I a stronger man I would not have feared beasthood. Yet, though thrust among the Healing Church’s ranks, I have always known myself to be more a failed scholar of Byrgenworth than an Executioner imbued with strength equal to my faith. Indeed, I had learned too much from the gaping-mouthed ghouls and dull-eyed scholars to have faith in the insidious Church, even whilst beneath the tutelage of Master Logarius, the purported paragon of faith. If I were to fault anything, it would have to be having been in such company as so many revered men. For my heroes have been revealed to me in all of their deficiencies, from Willem to Logarius, and even my most admired confidant, Nicolae.
But how had I come to this land of Vilebloods and its tantalizing heresies? Even now my mind is mingled with pasts and futures not my own— with lives belonging to the sanguine dregs of others and all the temptations that inhabited such individuals. Some things are more clearly branded in my mind than others. The rationale for my restless resettlement has always remained fairly pellucid. Even then I suspected that my addition to the Executioners was Willem’s scheme to rid himself of a scholar too flawed to be of use and too strong-willed to be obedient. After all, I was arrogant, naturally, and increasingly so as my sojourn at Byrgenworth proved my own insufficiencies as a scholar. I had been a feeble practitioner of the arcane arts. Laughably so, I must confess. I had no more eyes on the inside than the common Yharnamite. And the smirks and sneers of my fellow scholars further incensed me, tempting my transgressions. When I had stolen the Chalice and entered the Pthumerian tombs, Willem had no doubt been inclined to let me wander there until my death. But when I returned— my sword broken and my body on the verge of death— I held within my possession a valuable relic hitherto undiscovered. Willem ordered that I be treated well, so I might recover, and then he sent me to the Church, saying I needed to atone for my sins by becoming an Executioner. Knowing that to refuse was to forfeit my life, I obeyed him. I had seen the experiments conducted at Byrgenworth and had no desire to be likewise mutilated.
What an unsuspecting imbecile I was! A naif and fool. I wandered into Yharnam as a lamb unto a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that I was unaware of Willem’s intentions. As I have said, I was a disobedient young man disinclined to conformity. To send me to the Church, it seemed, was as to send an unruly charge from an overwrought governess to a military general. Either I should be disciplined or destroyed, and no additional course was to be considered. I suppose it helped in my “reformation” that Yharnam struck me so overwhelmingly when I first beheld it. It overawed me in a way that not even Byrgenworth and its many secrets could. Indeed, to see it was as to see a grim, black-hearted wastrel lurching out of an alleyway and looming large, his shadow dark and fetid and wholly encompassing you. It intimidated me, in short, and inspired in me a festering resentment.
Yharnam—what can be said of that dizzying edifice of vertiginous hypocrisy? One can see how the edifices and gables and spires of Yharnam rear upward toward the heavens like desperate supplicants to their lofty gods overtopping them. Thus city and citizenry are unified in their desperate conceit for deliverance. It was built upon Old Yharnam, as upon a fuming crypt of cremation. So, too, Byrgenworth was built upon the dead; that venerated seat of learning but a lectern whereat fools in dunce caps preach atop the bones of more learned sages of the Eldritch Truth. There are secrets in Oedon’s Chapel that would drive mad the Yharnamites huddled below it like stupid, blood-glutted farrows at a sow’s teats. I do not embellish when I say that Oedon’s Chapel is a cannibal mother to those of us clear-eyed enough to see it.
Yet, I had little time to accustom myself to that dizzying array of compounding architectural complexities. It was not long after I arrived in Yharnam and was introduced to my compatriots that Master Logarius led us upon the proverbial warpath. I was not yet settled into my quarters in Yharnam when I was rushed along Hemwick Lane with the others, ill-fitted with my clothing and my ridiculous golden helm. It was upon that road that I acquainted myself with my brethren. I had no formal introduction, nor even sufficient time to habituate myself to our cumbersome wheels. Hoisting the weapon upon my back, I wondered if it was merely a contrivance born of absurdity whereby to mock me as the newest recruit. But soon enough I saw that all of my brethren strapped the unwieldy weapon upon their back.
It was, in my opinion, no small amount of tomfoolery that we walked the entirety of the way to the threshold of our enemy’s domain. How ironic that we should walk while bearing upon our bowed backs the wheels wherewith we could outfit enough carriages to carry us. But it was as much a walk of Faith as it was a bonding exercise among our ranks. Master Logarius was, if anything, a man of certain principles. Adversity was his tempering stone. A hard man, he nonetheless inspired faith within the Executioners; perhaps because of his difficult temperament.
There were many of strong faith among the Executioners’ ranks. I felt misplaced among them, and unworthy. They welcomed me happily, and yet despite their camaraderie, I knew I was placed among them too late to be counted brotherly. I was, as a nuisance to Willem, expendable and likely soon discarded. For what was the reason for my swift induction into such venerated ranks except as a sacrificial goat? True, I had proven myself of some worth in the Pthumerian tombs, but much of my survival impinged upon wise retreat and selective killing. But this was war. The Vilebloods were warrior nobles of renowned prowess. They had imbibed forbidden blood and had gained horrendous strength from its occult legacy. How could an unseasoned scholar such as myself fare against such bloodlusting monsters as what enumerated within Cainhurst Castle?
The march was long and hard. I felt half-dead as we approached. Blood was made available upon the journey, to enliven us, and it helped to invigorate me, though it seemed to me to be lacking of essential vigors to compensate for my innate apprehension. My prevalent sense of dread only increased within me as we passed through the woods. It was truly odd, considering I had braved the Pthumerian tombs with nothing but my sword to accompany me. Yet, I would later discover in such apprehension the latency of a conflicted nature and inclination that would, inevitably, elucidate such fears as mere ambivalence arising from divided allegiances. Given time, of course. In the meantime, however, I was as a blind man groping in a hallway, confused as to which direction to go.
Thus, I turned to Nicolae, in whom I believed a trait of amicability presided and whom therein I might confide my apprehensions without derision or flippancy.
“I do not know if I am of merit or mettle to be among you,” I confessed.
He gave the most good-natured smile and patted my shoulder in a familiar way unknown to those cold-hearted minds of Byrgenworth.
“No one knows the worth of any untested tool,” he said. “It must be measured, as they say, when blade bites bone. Only then do we know if any of us are worthy of our call to serve.”
We came, at length, to the sleepy village of Hemwick. Here, in this backwater village, and on any misty morning, the fog rolls up from the sea and mingles with the ashen smoke of those charnel houses and mills, inseparably, as if a great fugue over the land; a forgetful dream rising up from the unplumbed depths. What a dilapidated sprawl of cottages and windmills! They were derelict not unlike the corpses they stripped and burned to fuel the Vileblood’s ambitions.
Women and men both worked united in this purpose. Yet, when they saw our arrival through the woods, they ceased immediately in their efforts. Initially I feared an altercation between our small army and that gaunt peasantry. But this fear did not manifest to form. Though its citizenry were enslaved to their masters, they did not contend our passage. Rather, they fled indoors, among their macabre labors, and did not emerge until we were well beyond their smoky village. Master Logarius commented that such an enterprise would benefit the Healing Church greatly. Ash marrow bullets were much coveted in the Church’s arsenal. Such an arsenal, he vowed, would help pave the road to the Church’s true ascension. Even now I cannot help but see a road cobbled in skulls and pooled with blood when I recall his words.
When I first saw Cainhurst Castle I was mesmerized by its forbidden beauty. Its ancient legacy was attested in every old stone upon which the towering edifice exulted itself. Its spires rose upward from the mountainous island, surrounded by the briny depths of the sea. A pale moon glossed the icy pinnacles and I felt a strange familiarity with such a forlorn image. Nor could I remember such a familiarity in my life. Byrgenworth’s insights had stripped me of my previous life. What memories I had were shattered glass shards. The attempt to summon to mind my past was, and even now is, as futile an endeavor as to draw out the blood from one’s own veins. It cycles, and determines who I am, yet I cannot harness it as upon a spool for closer reflection. What I knew, without one whit of doubt, was that Cainhurst meant more to me than either Byrgenworth or Yharnam could. At the time, however, I did not know if it meant my death or, perhaps, a new awakening.

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When we arrived at the Cainhurst Castle’s bridge we were met by silence. There were no forces awaiting us on that long stone bridge. Nor were there forces hailing us from the castle’s many windows. The wind skirled sibilantly against its tottering beauty, but apart from the elements we heard nothing. Snow fell, as if patting down the silence with its own immaculate hush. My unease grew in such silence. Yet, I was not certain what I was truly uneasy about: my own life and its potential loss, or our imminent disturbance into that silent, stony mistress that lorded over this land. It seemed sacrilegious to intrude there. This excited in me dread and euphoria, as one would feel in taking pleasure from one of Yharnam’s many whores— whether from her gaping thighs or her gaping veins.
The Castle was silent. The moon reigned above it like a skull-crowned monarch, glowing pallidly with its endless life.
“Have they alighted?” an Executioner asked, voicing what we all thought at that moment.
Master Logarius said nothing. He instead pointed wordlessly toward the portcullis. There was an audible gasp from someone among the Executioners. Perhaps it was from myself. Regardless of its origin, the gasp was justified, for the portcullis mocked us with its Pthumerian gawp, it being lifted— as if in betrayal—to invite us in to ravage the castle it was intended to protect. Perhaps, I thought, the Vilebloods had indeed alighted from the castle, seeking sanctuary in a distant land, or some distant sea. I hoped so, for I was in no mood for bloodshed upon such alluring grounds. We followed Master Logarius beneath the portcullis and into the moonyard of the inner walls. There was a water fountain there, frozen in the wintry wastes, and statues allotted here and there in intermittent clusters. To one side I saw the land fall away into a descending hollow that appeared to have been a cave once upon an age. The crush of rocks at the bottom indicated a concerted effort to close that passage. It begged the question as to what had been discovered there, and why it was feared.
The silence was unsettling. Indeed, it reminded me of still waters wherein a predator lurked, circling a fool oblivious to the teeth at his ankles. Instinctively, I drifted toward the center of our army, sheltering myself within our ranks. I feel no shame in admitting myself in want of advantage by their insulating numbers. They were, so far as my untested mettle was concerned, a mobile bulwark within which I might protect myself.
It was as we passed halfway between the portcullis and the Castle’s large, imposing doors that the sinister silence erupted into a clashing cacophony. Two large bodies of Cainhurst knights rushed us from afore and behind. It was a trap! To one flank gaped the hollow of crushed rock and to the other were the sheer walls of the Castle itself. Master Logarius was in front, and met the knights with his scythe, cutting them down like harvest-ready wheat. I had never seen such a terrible bloodletting before. His soldiers did no less in their efforts, crashing into, and smashing, the Cainhurst knights with their heavy Wheels. The Cainhurst knights were fast with their swords, but the Wheels overpowered their thrusts and slashes, turning them aside. Those whom were mounted upon horseback advantaged themselves of their height, slashing down at the Executioners below them. However, the Executioners were trained well— discounting myself—and soon overcame these knights by forming a phalanx with their wheels. Like a carapace of spokes and rims and hubs, they moved together, protecting each other while Executioners beneath them used their swords to cut the horses to stumps, thus throwing the knights for efficient dispatch. My brethren were coordinated and calm, even while surrounded in ambush. I had neither the collection of mind, nor the training of arms, to be of use in such a chaotic fray. I cowered among the Executioners, as a worm among armored beetles. Their power was matched only by their ferocious animosity toward the Vilebloods they smashed and mangled and mutilated. And their hatred was fostered by their faith in the Church. I was not possessed of such faith. I was an apostate.

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Neither was sheer strength my forte. I was not an Executioner imbued with brute force, nor were the arcane powers mine at easy beck and call, as I had learned alongside my peers in Byrgenworth. Something else was my acuity, though it would be some time before I learned of my latent talents.
The ungaily Wheels we used by the Executioners were cumbersome for me, and so I carried mine only as an observance of my newly acquired duty, preferring my blade in such butcher’s work, as I had during my exhumation of the Pthumerian Catacombs. Speed was an endowment advantaging me, and clever, furtive hands. While I could never wield the Wheels as my brethren did, I made use of the blade in an efficient manner when I could not longer cower behind my brethren. I was surprised at my own bloody work. The Pthumerian Catacombs had not been an ordeal like that of war, and here, in the moonyard of Cainhurst Castle, I discovered that when confronted with annihilation I had, at my disposal, a natural deftness for swordplay. I suppose this should not have astounded me so greatly. Though a thorough skeptic concerning the legacies of the Church, and the first Ministrations of the Old Blood, I still claimed for myself a certain pantheon of figures whom I admired. Ludwig, the Holy Blade, and his strange sword, had always intrigued and inspired me, even when I was an inept scholar at Byrgenworth. My admiration for Ludwig was why I allowed myself the use of the Holy Blade, despite it being a pale imitation of that great glowing moonlight sword of legend. To my shame, however, I must admit my inability to wield the imitation’s secondary form with any aptness or dexterity of hand, my strength being inadequate. Rather, the sheathe remained exactly that: a sheathe. I did not partake in such cumbersome additions when my natural disposition toward speed would have been disadvantaged for no particular betterment.
My inadequacies were mirrored, fortunately, in Cainhurst’s forces as we destroyed the ambushing forces and entered the Castle’s great hall. They had neither strength of numbers nor quality of strength in their warriors to hold the tide. As we ascended the central staircase, and killed whosoever was unwary enough to intercede our path, it became increasingly apparent how minimal their forces truly were. Indeed, they had supplemented their forces with the many stone statues that adorned that gigantic complex, arranging them like farcical imitations of the forces they lacked. It would have been laughable had the circumstances not been so serious. Perhaps they were desperate. Perhaps the were mocking us with their stolid-faced statues. Perhaps it was both.
There were more knights within the castle, and upon every level of its tottering heights, but they fell before us as do sand idols before the thrashing tides. Their armor, forged of thin silver in pompous fashion, offered little protection against the blunt impacts of the Executioners’ Wheels. Rather, the refined finery of those silver plates collapsed inward alongside ribs and skulls, inlaying the crimson pulp with smeared silver wrapping— nothing more.
I was not unaware of the stories concerning the servants of Cainhurst. The nobility had quaffed much of the forbidden blood, and, consequently, were given to inhuman transformations should the blood have provoked their more bestial natures. It was not unlike the Beast Plague in Yharnam, and, as such, these unfortunate circumstances necessitated the employment of Hunters. Only, here in Cainhurst the servants of the nobility were often trained to cull the nobility of the affected among its ranks. The knights, too, engaged in these culling efforts, but I found it endlessly fascinating that such duties should fall to inferiors and subordinates among what I presumed to be an arrogant aristocracy. Perhaps, I thought, they were not so arrogant after all. Perhaps there was a bond between them quite to the contrary as that of the Healing Church and its legion of unsuspecting naifs. Here, the nobility inspired fealty by laying their napes beneath the blades of their servants. The Healing Church, on the other hand, promised salvation with their ministrations, all the while opening veins to greater, more terrible infections than mere Ashen blood.
The Cainhurst servants engaged us as heartily as the Cainhurst knights had. They were formidable with their rapiers and unassuming, slinking ways. Ultimately, they were smashed like the many scores of other bodies left in our wake. Yet, I felt a keen sorrow for them as they ran to meet us on behalf of their masters. The small, withered men and women were half the height and stature of their betters, and still managed a certain nobility in their brave, foolish deaths. Apparent as their mistreatment was at the behest of the nobility, the servants nonetheless were— or wherefore became— dedicated to that ancient bloodline.
I have oft wondered what went through the minds of our victims that night. I would have thought it strange to see a siege led by men in golden helmets and carrying those impractical Wheels about. But I did not doubt that, once the battle had been engaged, whatever mirth might have assumed itself in their minds at such a ridiculous sight rapidly transformed to horror. Having never seen a Wheel utilized in such a barbarous fashion, I was myself quite shocked to see the butchery that followed. Broken bones, smashed guts, caved-in heads— for being such an absurd weapon, the Wheel manifested shockingly gory proceedings. Vileblood blades were either turned away by the cumbersome rims or arms were snapped by the ensnaring spokes. The small, hunkering servants were pulverized to steaming heaps of meat and bone within moments. It was horrifying.
But I noticed a more horrifying phenomenon beyond the mere spectacle of slaughter. Following behind my brethren, like a gosling in the currents of its parents, I could see much what they, in their murderous frenzy, could not see. And I am grateful that I had enough sense, at first, to fear for my well-being. Moreover, I was appalled by so much rampant carnage and delayed enjoining my own blade in service to the Church except in instances where my own life would be forfeit. Yet, among the visceral nausea, there came, parallel and intensifying the former, an Eldritch abhorrence. At first I merely dismissed it as the fanciful notion of an overwrought mind. Yet, thinking back on it now I know it to have been no mere fancy born from the violence arrayed around me. What I saw had indeed transpired: as the Vilebloods perished, their blood circumscribed those abominable Church weapons, girdling them like a torrential stream upon a waterwheel. I do not claim to know if it was a crimson curse of the Vilebloods in the throes of their deaths, or some diabolical upon the Executioners’ Wheels imbued by the Church. But what I saw, as my brethren smashed knights and servants alike, was a literal cyclical curse.
That is not to say that the scholar in me was not intrigued by the apparent phenomenon. My mind subsequently rifled through its admittedly limited tomes of knowledge, seeking a corresponding phenomenon or similar account. The nearest similitude readily recalled was a brief overview of Pthumerian sanguinomancy and an anecdote concerning an incident in a fishing hamlet. Regardless of the unfamiliarity of the phenomenon, I understood it for what it was: a bloody curse. Nor was it superstition that deemed it so in my recognition. The more my brethren killed, the more blood-drunk they became, and consequently the more blind they were to the vengefulness of the spirits harnessed about the rims of their Wheels. Even mild-tempered Nicolae was besot with the crimson lunacy. His countenance was disquieting to behold.
The resistance within Cainhurst diminished by degrees of quality and quantity. Soon the knights were all destroyed, and the servants rapidly fell in succession. We came to a dining hall, and there within it were noblewomen armed with daggers. Attired in flowery dresses, beautiful and damned and damning a man with their winsome beauty and false frailty, they gave me pause. Even the blood-crazed Executioners looked upon them with some hesitation. Yet, Master Logarius had iron in his soul sharper and stronger than any manmade blade and, so, bade us bind and blind those that did not immediately fall in the ensuing violence of disarming them. This, I knew, was to spare his own flock the temptations of their beauty. Indeed, the noblewomen tempted the cloistered scholar in me with their seductive eyes. I felt pity for them, and knew it to be a failure in my human flesh, or perhaps a foible of my beast’s blood, and therefore a vermin of soul to be silenced with a merciless boot. When my brethren slit their throats I felt a great pang crying out to those wretched beauties, even as I abhorred their power over me.
We ascended the Castle, coming to a vast library that would have shamed Byrgenworth with its collection. The scholar in me bemoaned so many unread works. Who knew what arcana inhabited that vast, many-storied library with its labyrinth walkways and oaken staircases and tiers upon tiers of shelves? And yet, even here great butcheries were perpetrated in the name of the Healing Church. Master Logarius was like the Wheels with which the Church armed his followers: ever grinding inexorably onward in his bloody path.
‘Twas easier to gain entry into the depths of the Pthumerian labyrinths than the upper reaches of Cainhurst castle. Battle was bloody up its heights, with both knights and maidens raising arms against us. They all fell, however, as we wound our way upwards, led by Logarius and undauntable Nicolae. The castle was as a puzzlebox, demanding due vigilance and keenness of mind. Many times we found ourselves confronted by dead ends, and barbarous traps, but Master Logarius and Nicolae both persevered, leading us upwards, never once stonewalled for long. I marveled at our progress, for I felt quite heady and troubled by the entire foray, my mind bucking me like an obstinate stallion. The castle itself held some sway over me, it seemed, though I dared not voice such misgivings to my brethren.
One thing was certain, though: the Vilebloods were ill-prepared for our assault. They had not expected the Church to be so bold, or perhaps their pride assumed themselves too strong to be overthrown. We slaughtered their horses and laid waste to their servants long before they could muster a defense.
Logically, I thought of it as no massacre, but merely as an impersonal culling of the beastly herd. It was no secret that the Vilebloods had partaken of filthy blood and in so doing doomed themselves toward the plague of beasts. The ashen plague was of their making as well, and would undo them in time without the Church’s machinations.
Or so I had been told.
We ascended to the very heights of the castle, finding ourselves upon its windy roofs and snowy turrets. The frosted crown of the castle was as treacherous as its inhabitants. A chance misstep and I nearly lost my foothold as we scoured the rooftops for the remaining beasts and royalty. Master Logarius must have had a keener eye than myself, for he led us along the precarious catwalks and spires toward some unseen . I almost thought him mad, for a time, and wondered if he was chasing cold phantoms from the foggy sea.
We were met by the Vileblood King upon the rampart of the remaining expanse of the castle. When he arrived, with his heretical Chikage, we thought our revenge near its end. He was unaccompanied, standing solitary against a score of us. His last stand was hopeless and vain.
Foolhardy as I was, I was caught unawares when the King thrust his sword into his own body. I mistook his actions as a final act of defiance, and aristocratic arrogance to deny us the killing blow, and so I dropped my guard, struck thereupon by his blazing blood as he withdrew the blasphemously steeped blade. I fell and did not rise until after the King had been slaughtered by my brethren. Nicolae knelt over me, surveying the damage. I could see only with one eye, the other benighted by the vileblood fire.
I attempted to stand, but Nicolae ordered me to rest, and so I rested. When I awoke later, I felt delusional, for I saw my brethren manifesting from thin air upon the battlements of the castle. Their demeanors were grave, despite our victory. I rose unsteadily to my feet and asked them what was the matter. They informed me that Master Logarius had been slain during the execution of Queen Annalise. I felt a great pang of guilt, thinking that my absence might have forfeited our Master’s life in the final confrontation. Yet, my remaining eye alighted upon the bloody head of the fallen Vileblood King, and I wondered at his missing crown. It was curiously strange, but I said nothing of it, knowing that discretion in Church matters was holy in its own way.
And yet I recalled it vividly, intimately, as if I had known that crown my entire life. It had been embedded in its long, slender turrets with jewels of jade, amber, ruby, sapphire, and amethyst. It was a garish piece of ornamentation, and yet I had sensed within it a jewel beyond equal; a jewel yet unseen, except perhaps in dreams, and a jewel to which access was granted solely through such a strange crown.
We left that forsaken castle and returned to Hemwick Lane, greeted by its residents as heroes. They were all of them now liberated from their ancient bondage to Cainhurst and its Vileblood dynasty. Nicolae assured us, with his naive smile, that the residents would find salvation in the teachings, and the ministrations, of the Healing Church. Yet, even then I could discern the ravages of the Ashen Blood in their gaunt faces. They were dying slowly, painfully, and cheered us with agonized grimaces. What would the Church do if Hemwick should succumb as Old Yharnam had? Its weaponry against evil was maintained through the blessed work of Hemwick. Without bone ash the Church would lose power, despite having just conquered its greatest enemy.

chikagefinalsize

 

Poetic Justice Finale (Rough Draft)

A messenger came to Lord Gou as he and his guests sat in the Main Hall. The refugees were rioting in town, taking whatever food they desired from the stores and the merchants. Lord Gou was furious. His face burned bright red and the sweat of his wrath wet his black beard like sesame oil. He was a candle ripe for flame. Clutching his tanto in his hand, he brandished it at the messenger, telling him to seek all of his samurai and inform them to leave, immediately. No mercy was to be granted to anyone—man, woman, or child— until the mob was expelled and sent fleeing into the wilderness.
“And have the leaders and the instigators brought to me!” he said. “Alive, if possible. There are a myriad of ways I wish to inflict upon them punishment for their willfulness.”
The messenger went at once to inform the samurai beyond the manor. All of the samurai already stationed within Lord Gou’s household emptied, walking with grim purpose into town. Seeing the aquiline look in their eyes, I hoped the mother and her two children had not engaged in the riot. I hoped they were well away from such carnage that was soon to ensue.
“It is good that you have so many samurai in your service,” the musician observed.
Lord Gou snorted, sitting down again and sheathing his tanto. “It is good for them, you mean. They do little to earn their food and land. This is, if anything, the opportunity whereby they may prove their worth to their Master.”
“But what if the malcontent overwhelm the samurai?” one of the newly arrived diviners asked.
“My samurai will not hesitate and are not fools,” Lord Gou said. “They will be as cats among the mice, and they will feast to surfeit.”
“But the karmic toll!” remarked another diviner. “It may well be high, my lord.”
Once again, Lord Gou snorted like a bull. He took a swig of sake— for we had been drinking well that evening— and then slammed the cup on the table “So long as they quell the riot and bring me the petulant leaders, I will be satisfied.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I should employ my samurai in ridding my house of these accursed spirits. They would do as well as you charlatans have done thus far.”
The old diviner, Karasu, smirked like a crow with a beak rimmed with viscera. “Samurai against spirits?” He laughed— a cackling laugh that silenced the Main Hall. “Those molting cherry blossoms. What good is there in any of them but a mess to trample along the way? Spirits do not fear blades, nor demons that melt sword hilts with a fiery word.”
After a long moment of silence, Lord Gou cleared his throat. “You are right, of course,” he said. “To each agent of Order his expertise. Samurai for Man. Diviners for spirits.” Lord Gou’s fury subsided, strangely, into an uncharacteristic deference and humility. “I am just…so tired of these trespasses, Karasu. Sleep comes so uneasy now to me. I…I see her face. And I see his face. I see so much that I wish to expunge from my mind. These pollutants…they cling to me and…”
Lord Gou shook his head and fell to silence. The diviners nodded sympathetically— all except myself and the crow-capped Karasu. He observed that I was observing him, and he grinned at me in a most unsettling way.
As for Lord Gou’s fondness for Order, I understood it well. What was poetry but the ordering of the world into words? What was calligraphy but an art of discipline and control as ink and paper exerted their own wills against your own? I could not abide drips. I could not abide wrinkles in the paper. And yet I was of the Floating World, seeking salve from the rigors of everyday society and its endless rules that imprisoned willfulness. And I could not but remember that great poet Batsuo Masho who traveled the wilds, away from society, to appreciate Chaos and Disorder, finding in them the harmony whereby his masterful poems were extracted. But I was yet too afraid of Disorder. I was too cowardly to go roaming as he had. One day I would need to surrender myself to the wilderness beyond cities if I ever hoped to master the Disorder of the cosmos.
The door slid open and Lady Utano burst in, standing at the threshold uneasily at first, but then mustering her courage and addressing her uncle openly in front of all of his guests.
“Uncle, I have heard that you have sent samurai into the town to kill hungry children,” she said. “Is this true?”
“You will not address me in this manner!” her uncle roared.
“And you will not have children slaughtered on the streets!” she said, as equal a dragon as him. “I do not care if you damn your own soul, but to inflict such…barbarism upon starving people is to offend the Buddha and all of his teachings of passivity!”
Lord Gou’s face quivered and frothed with fury. Before he could say anything, however, the diviner, Karasu, surprised us all by rising to his feet and addressing Lady Utano directly.
“That is very true, my lady,” he said. “Buddha frowns terribly upon such needless suffering and sorrow. But there is a famine upon the whole of the earth now, and so, it seems to me, that the Buddha has not granted a reprieve for these refugees; not as we has this wondrous province so blessed by his love and mercy.” He began to pace up and down the Main Hall, his fingers clamped together behind his back, his back bent slightly forward, his neck hooked upward and his head bobbing as he walked. His posture reminded me of a bird.
“The Buddha works in mysterious ways,” he said, “but his blessings and his curses are apparent to all willing to see them. The refugees were welcomed into this province, and invited to fish the rivers for food, if they so desired. But they spat upon your uncle’s hospitality. They would rather be pampered and served and fed as any lord in his household. But they transgress your uncle’s charity. They overstep themselves. Ungrateful, they demand more and more, and now they take, their perfidious natures revealed at last. It reminds me of someone else,” he said, abruptly wheeling about and staring at Lady Utano. “It reminds me of someone for whom hospitality is repaid in ingratitude, and disobedience, and contumely.” He affixed his dark eyes upon her, his back still bent forward and his neck raise in that avian stance. He smirked with the confidence of Death itself.
Lady Utano appeared shocked, unable to counter his smugness with equal defiance. The rotten-scalped diviner continued, turning about and pacing again.
“And, what’s more, my lord,” he said to Lord Gou, “this seems an excellent opportunity for the reckoning of accounts on all sides. Indeed, there is much profligacy to be atoned for, and penance to be had. Like yesterday’s battlefield beneath the rising sun, truths must be revealed, however ugly.”
The diviner stood solemnly, head bowed and his sharp fingers clasped before him, as if in prayer.
“My lord,” he said, “it will give you no pleasure in the revelations I now present, for while you certainly have apparitions unwanted in your home, another sin impugns your honor, and, I must say, more brazenly than mere specters.”
All expressions were quizzical, from host to guest to servant to niece. Even the diviners appeared confused by Karasu’s words. He paid them no mind. In fact, I had observed a certain contempt in his manner toward the other diviners; contempt and amusement.
“Indeed, my lord,” the corvine diviner said, “all is not as it seems. While you have unrest in your town, there is, unfortunately, a greater unrest brewing in your household— an unrest that may well upset the Emperor and the Shogun as well. It is one of betrayal and lust and sin. It is a sin of willfulness. And that sin begins in your most wanton niece!”
All eyes flew at once to Lady Utano— all eyes save for my own. No, my eyes knew no rest or refuge, like beetles in chaotic winds, searching for sanctuary from the storm. Dawn’s dew was not half so profuse as was the sweat that drenched me in that moment, and I feared the light of the lanterns would betray the dew of my indiscretions, for I could not withdraw the flow, nor feign a calmer visage.
Lord Gou rose like a monsoon— loud, spraying showers of spittle and flinging his sake in the gale of his fury.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he roared. “You insolent old man! You dare question the honor of my household?!”
“I do not question your household, my lord,” Karasu said with a bow, “only a man blessed by your hospitality.”
Lord Gou’s blazing eyes went from the diviner to his niece. “Niece, do you deny it?!”
Lady Utano stepped forward, bowing low. “No, uncle,” she said. “I do not deny it.”
Lord Gou’s mouth gnarled and gnashed. “I will have his blood! Tell me his name so I may flay him and use his skin for the Lotus Sutra!”
My robe was of flame, it seemed. I could not breathe, and I dared not look at Lady Utano for too long, nor her uncle.
“Lady Utano is with child,” Karasu said, shocking me furthermore. “I can sense the growing seed of her bastard even now.”
“Who is he, you willful harlot?!” Lord Gou demanded, more apoplectic than before. He struck the table and everyone’s cup leapt and spilled.
“He is only a coward,” she said, her eyes fallen to her feet. “A shadow through a screen, soon gone and unmourned.”
“Gone, indeed!” Lord Gou vowed. “Gone and unmourned, for soon death comes to him, as it comes for you, you vile whore!!!”
He drew his tanto and rushed forward, to avenge himself upon his niece. She welcomed the blade without struggle. To my great surprise, I found myself kicking the table. Its long body slid and struck Lord Gou’s foot. A great tumult followed with Lord Gou tumbling over the table and falling upon the floor. The blade kissed his cheek and blood spilled. Lady Utano, seeing the blood, woke to her instinct for self-preservation, fleeing from the room while several servants gathered around Lord Gou to see to his wound. Yet, he shoved them aside and rose again, his face red as much from rage as from blood. Still grasping the tanto in his hand, he screamed an unearthly, terrible scream and readied to hunt down his niece.
It was at that moment that the lanterns extinguished, leaving the Main Hall drenched in a darkness that dowsed Lord Gou’s rage. When the lanterns flared again they glowed crimson and shadows appeared upon the walls, receating in silhouette a scene now familiar to the guests of Lord Gou’s home. It was the same scene played out with puppets: two lovers meeting, walking together in sweet serenity, and then a portly lord taking her, abusing her, and her lover being struck down by swordsmen.
Lord Gou screamed in horror and rage.
“It was my right! She had rebuffed me, her master, and then that whelp attempted violence against me! It was not a sin!”
Shrieking, he attacked the shadows upon the walls, slicing the paper apart and leaving it in tattered shreds and broken bamboo.

The household was all frenzy and disarray. People clambered over each other to flee. Even the diviners were panicked unto a stampede. I slipped away, unnoticed, to the garden, seeking silence and solace from the madness of the evening.
It was a clear night, scintillating with stars, and the moon was high. As I approached the pond I saw shooting stars streaking across the heavens. A heron, hitherto unseen next to the weeping willow, shrieked and flew away. Watching it, I composed a poem. Sometimes I wondered if I composed poems to cope with life’s disappointments and tragedies.

“The gray heron shrieks
as a star flies and burns out,
knowing its life now.”

The figure on the bridge leaned upon the railing, gazing evermore into the pond below.
“It is time, now,” he said. “Justice will be served. As below so above, as above so below.”
A woman smiled up at him from the pond, sadly and beautifully, among the Lotuses. When I looked upon her directly, however, she had vanished beneath still waters, as had the faceless man upon the bridge. Things at last became clear in the fog and moonlight. The man upon the bridge had been cut down and his lover had drowned herself in the moon pond. It would have made for a beautiful poem had I not wearied of such rigors of emotions already.
Tired of spirits and of people, I walked toward my room, intent on sleeping until the world reemerged from the dissolving mists. I hoped that Lady Utano had escaped her uncle’s wrath. Perhaps I would be awakened later, with his tanto in my throat. Perhaps we were all ghosts already and did not yet know it.
Suddenly I heard growling, and shouting, and pleading. Lord Gou came stomping into the garden, flanked by his servants and his consorts. They tried to soothe him, but he would accept no solace or appeasement. He scattered them with an upraised tanto.
“Out, you sycophants! You whores! Harlots! Snake women! Or my rage will burn all of you, too!”
He carried a torch and his eyes flared within its angry light. The diviners attempted to persuade him from his fury, but were quickly silenced. The old diviner, Karasu, stood by, smirking with strange anticipation. Lord Gou paid him no mind at all, seemingly unaware of the rotten-headed man’s eager countenance.
I stepped aside—for the angry bull of a man nearly trammeled me in his wrathful single-mindedness— and glanced about, wondering if Lady Utano was nearby. I found that the manor’s screen doors had been opened and all of the household’s many occupants stood now upon the veranda, facing the courtyard garden. They stared in disbelief and fear as Lord Gou approached the moon bridge. His shadow was a wild, flailing demon as the torch flame flickered and writhed with hunger.
“I will abide this taint upon my house no longer!” Lord Gou roared. “His stain will be lifted, even if it means I have to burn down this damned bridge!”
One of Lord Gou’s eldest servants attempted to intervene, and was struck aside for his efforts. Other servants helped the incautious man to his feet, all while cowering from their vengeful master.
“I will do what these worthless diviners could not!” Lord Gou continued, sneering at the diviners. His beard shimmered wetly with sake. “I will purge my house, and my soul, of this corruption!”
Forthwith, Lord Gou set light to the beautiful moon bridge. The torch’s flame was hungry and unhesitating, enveloping the bridge quickly. Yet, the flames were not satisfied. As we all looked on in horror, the flames caught upon Lord Gou’s beard, setting it alight. He roared in agony, yet did not try to extinguish the flames. Rather, his roars heightened to exultant laughter— devilish laughter. The shadow became the man and he transformed amidst flame and fury. Where Lord Gou once stood there now stood a large, flame-haired oni with a bull’s horns and a fiery beard. Teeth as sharp and as long as tanto blades flashed within his grin, yet his grin was all mirthless wrath. Those servants near at hand fled, screaming.
“I did not dismiss you!” he proclaimed, snatching at a nearby servant attempting to flee. “I will teach you for your presumptuous impudence!” He raised the hapless servant until they were face to face, and then he breathed upon him, burning the man’s head alive. He then cast the corpse down, its face blackened and smoking like a used incense stick.
“The flames!” Lord Gou cried. “The flames! Do you not see that the purge me of my corruption?! I shall purge all of vile corruption!”
The demon that was once Lord Gou stomped about the garden, setting fire to the chrysanthemums and the plum trees and the cherry blossoms. The willow tree was as a weeping widow aflame above her husband’s grave. The courtyard was now a fiery pit of Jigoku, and all who witnessed it screamed in horror.
Only the lotuses in the moon pond remained untouched. Soon the flames greedily pounced upon the veranda, and then everyone screamed and fled, myself included. Panic was contagious as the flames. I went inside to gather up my scrolls and brush and ink. My heart ached to think of the Lotus Sutras I had already given to Lord Gou, wanting to retrieve them before they could burn, but I knew not where he had kept them in the meantime. They were my finest works!
How fast the fire worked its masterful destruction! What was once dreaming midnight mist was now wakeful smoke and flame. I fled through the manor as the flames rapaciously ate the paper walls and the wooden beams and floors. The ofudas which the diviners had hung all over the interior halls were quickly eaten up with contemptuous fire. It was as I emerged from the front of the manor that I saw him standing upon the street leading into town. The yin-yang diviner grinned—a devilish grin that sent chills cascading through my body like an icy waterfall. He had such a long nose now, and wore a black-crested cap atop his bald, rotten egg head. Black wings spread from behind his back, flapping up great gusts of air that fanned the flames and spread their riot ever the more wildly.
The diviner rose on his black wings. He croaked a laugh of glee, like a crow.
“I sensed innocent blood had been spilled here and was not disappointed!” Karasu exclaimed. “Rot and ruin make for wonderful meals. All the demons of the pits shall feast well tonight!”
He rose and rose up into the air, soaring so high as to surmount the Great Pagoda, flying toward the Western horizon with a caterwauling chorus of attendant crows. At his cry the demons sprouted upward from every impure heart. A legion of demons reared their heads through the town and beyond.
Lord Gou rampaged through his household, exploding through a wall and out onto the street. He snorted and fumed within the flames, his body grotesquely large and his beard flaring wisps of fire. His head was crowned with the long horns of a bull and where he stomped and clawed there erupted flames riotously. He smashed into his household again, charging through the corridors and walls and rooms, destroying all in his wake. Nothing was spared his fury.
I called for Lady Utano. I truly did. Do not doubt me in this. I went searching for her among the consumed household and the flames. I found only servants fleeing in terror, or screaming as they burned alive. The flames of Jigoku had come for Lord Gou and all of his household. They were inescapable.

***

I walked the long road leading to Kyoto. All behind me was flaming fear and smoky confusion, but I floated along easily through the mists. Giants walked the outskirts of the province, their skulls gleaming in the luminous moon. Tengu flew through the air near them, or perched upon their collar bones, cawing with laughter and proclaiming blasphemies upon the land. Lord Gou’s bellows resounded throughout, deafening the screams of his dying servants and subjects. It was a grand feast of death and destruction. I wondered what happened to that mother and her two children that were among the refugees. I wondered what happened to Lady Utano.
I did not look back, but walked forward with my heart and mind upon Kyoto. Everything was clearer out here, in the country, even as the mists rose along the nocturnal border between the living and the dead. It was quieter. No raging infernos. No demons to terrorize the earth. Not even a breeze shivered the trees. All was silent. All was still.
I recalled seeing the Chrysanthemums burning, and was not in the least sorrowful for them. Why should they not burn? All else had. Part of me wished that the flames would march to complacent Kyoto and roost all Winter long. It only seemed right and just, for there was a harmony in Chaos. I had realized it while the flames gathered around me. They were beautiful, in their own way.
The musician— of all people— suddenly appeared upon the road. He ran past me, gasping and weeping in turns. He was pale and his robe was coming undone with the rigors of his frantic motions. He did not seem to care, however, until the belt loosened and his pants slipped down, tripping him and dropping him into a roll. He sprawled out in the dirt, tears on his cheeks and his eyes wide to the whites. Calmly standing over him, I offered my hand to help him stand. He did not see me at first. Rather, he glanced around the mists with fright, trembling. His chest rose and fell as if to shed the upper swaths of his robe. Suddenly, he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. His face contorted with great horror. Scrambling like a beast, and screaming wildly, he fled farther down the moonlit road, never looking back. His pants remained behind, trodden in the dirt.
Lord Gou had been correct. The musician was an idiot.
I walked on for some time before coming upon anyone else. When I turned a bend in the road I saw two figures ahead of me: a man and woman walking, arm-in-arm beneath the moonlight. I called out to them and they paused, looking back at me. I could see their faces clearly, and they appeared contented: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man. I realized they shared a name, though I did not understand how I knew this. They were Ren and Ren. They walked arm in arm toward a lake of lotuses. They soon disappeared. I continued upon my path, coming to a large field. Fireflies were as stars above the wild grasses. A figure waited there, playing a song among the moonlight. I knew who she was, and I nearly walked away, thinking I might escape as if having not seen her. But the despondency in her song gave me pause, and soon I found myself compelled toward her.
She played until I was within arm’s reach of her, then she ceased. She wore a kijo’s face, its snarling grin full of wooden fangs.
“You tried to leave without saying goodbye,” she said.
“I have many roads to walk,” I said, “and many Sutras to write.”
“And many women to woo?” she said, the notes of her scorn like a snapping shamisen string.
I held my tongue, for I had never heard her so angry before; nor any woman. It was…beautiful, in its own way. It had an appealing novelty and music akin to passion within the moonlight. I wished to embrace her, if only to absolve myself of her fury, or transform her fury into ardor once again.
“The spirits are on their way, then,” she said, gesturing toward the ghosts. “That is good. They shall find peace together.”
“You can see them?” I said, surprised.
“I have known of them for a long time,” she said. “I have commiserated with them in moonlight. It was I who asked them to seek their revenge through you, and the others. It was a selfish suggestion. I knew what kind of man you are, and wished them to influence you with their truer love.”
I only grunted, baffled by the revelations.
“You do not seem to realize it,” she said, “but you are as the blacksmith, and you are as my uncle. You condemn yourself to die by condemning the love you harbor for me. You will condemn both of us to terrible fates if you abandon me. As for myself, I am like that girl, drowning in the love of you.”
I attempted a laugh, but the stillness and the silence behind her Noh mask disquieted me quickly.
“Only a fool laughs where hearts are concerned,” she said. “Whereas the spirits of the lovers have been reconciled, you and I will be as Izanagi and Izanami. And I will relish tormenting you for eternity.”
“You have a dragon’s tongue,” I said. “But you breathe more smoke than fire.”
“I will have more fire to quell than that if you leave me,” she said. “I will return to you as a demon if you . I will haunt you for the rest of eternity, and beyond. My uncle is not the only heart that knows terrible flames.”
She doffed the demon mask, yet there still seemed a demoness in her visage. There was darkness in her eyes, and a twinkling flame. She was in earnest, as is a monsoon against the unwary shore. It was a novel passion, and I cherished it. Her hair had been undone with grief and framed her pale face with its black silk. Smoke wafted from her kimono, as it wafted from me.
“You haunt me even now,” I said. I thought of the ghosts, then, and of Lord Gou, and I realized that to allow another greedy man to separate two lovers again would only lead to more tragedy. I went to her. “Come,” I said. “Haunt me forever, if you must.”
I entwined her with my arm. The moon was underlined by the single stroke of a cloud— a diaphanous mark as if to underline the meaning of the moon. We began to walk together, following the firefly field. A terrible scream rose in the distance, and we paused.
“They are oni,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
“You must be a diviner, too, I said, “to behold them.”
“Like can spot like,” she said, black smoke rising from her black hair.
I patted the flames off of my robe, and waved away the smoke from before my eyes. Just then, from down the road, came a procession extraordinary in its size and assortment. Seeing it should have frightened me, yet I felt a keen need to join them as they proceeded along the road toward Kyoto. Foremost among them was a mother and her boy and girl, and they struck me as familiar, only happier now, and more colorful than they had ever been in life. They danced and chanted together, making motley merriment along the road.
“What a bustling group!” I remarked.
“Indeed,” Lady Utano said.
“Should we join them?” I said.
“I will follow wherever you go,” she said.
Lady Utano and I joined the procession, she and I walking together, hand in hand, surrounded by hundreds of creatures in wildly colorful robes and kimonos; singing willful songs. And why would we not? We were of the Floating World! We chanted and danced all the way to Kyoto, and then all the way to the Emperor’s palace, for we would be heard, and not even the Buddha would know rest in the meantime.

“Free as hot embers
we were, dancing on wild winds
to burn paper walls.”

Pyramid Schemes

They sell you on being made a useful
idiot,
telling you that you may have as many
wishes granted
as you wish
if only you would enslave yourself
to their lamp.
Meanwhile your dreams come true
only in your dreams
and they charge you a profit
for Sandman’s glitter.
It is a cynical alchemy
that transmogrifies hopes into
labor, like turning the
stardust
in your head
into
ones and zeroes
for some other person’s bank account.
I used to scoff at
ponzi makeup saleswomen
who sold the overpriced makeup
which had been sold beforehand to them;
women who gathered in
sales-pitch parties
to sell the same junk to each other
and their tight circle of friends,
all hoping to become rich
and yet all so
blind
to the Chinese Whispers
hat-trick
being played on them.
Now I see my reflection in their
gaudy “compact” mirrors—
a reflection
done up with a rich lather of
egg on my face.
It is the kind of dream-baiting
that only hopeful
capitalists
born among the proletariat
can fall prey to,
whereas real
capitalists
born into pharaoh’s family
sit comfily atop the pyramid capstone
and let the rest of the us break our backs
at the bottom as we yearn so badly to
move up one rank
that we fail to see the
Tetris entrapment
we’ve fallen for.
The weight of the pyramid
presses us deeper into the sands.
To be conned by a conman
you must first
con yourself,
make-believing all you can
so you can believe that your
blog
will be a hit,
that your
ebook
will make you rich,
ignoring the fact that
the most popular blogs
are the ones that claim they can show you
how to make your blog popular,
that the best-selling ebooks
are the ones that claim they can show you
how to make your ebook a best-seller.
It is recursive absurdity
with diminishing returns for you
and exponential returns for the
pharaoh
wearing the gimmicky crown.
Sinking pyramid.
Sinking ship.
Keep rowing, oarsman,
upon the sinking galley
and hold your breath
within the submerged deck
because your head might someday be
above water.
And keep following that carrot
always out of reach;
keep reading that blog
about reaching that carrot;
keep reading that ebook
about eating that carrot,
and keep ignoring the fact
that you are being led
straight to the glue factory
by someone happily straddling a
workhorse
pulling its own foundation block.
That pharaoh needs
that block, that glue,
to build up their pyramid
and keep it together.
Rejoice, genie.
You’re making the pharaoh’s
wish
come true.

Oni Onanism

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Kosaru was an aspiring monk in service to the legendary yin-yang diviner Kamo-no-Tadayuki. He was a devout student and keen to become a powerful diviner himself. Tadayuki had confidence in Kosaru and was proud to have him as a disciple.
One day Tadayuki was summoned to the Emperor’s palace in Kyoto. It seemed the Empress was suffering from a terrible malady and only the best yin-yang diviner could heal her. Tadayuki brought with him Kosaru to learn how to handle strong evil spirits, and to help him in the pursuit of cleansing the Empress. Thus, Master and Pupil traveled many miles by horse and came to the Emperor’s palace within a week. When they arrived, Tadayuki insisted that they see the Empress at once, rather than rest and eat after such a long ride, and so they were taken to the East Wing of the palace by several women-in-waiting. The Empress sat behind a screen, attended by her servants, and the Master and Pupil conducted their rituals on the opposite side, so as to afford her strict privacy and not commit any improprieties.
The rituals were intricate and taxing. Tadayuki was overcome with fatigue after the long journey to Kyoto. He felt he must rest, but in the meantime he instructed that Kosaru— being such a prodigal adept—should continue in his stead. And so Tadayuki retired while the young monk labored energetically, wanting to both prove himself and not disappoint his Master.
Late into the evening did Kosaru conduct the rituals. The women-in-waiting succumbed to sleep as night fell, and yet Kosaru persisted. After a time the Empress began to giggle. Kosaru thought her possessed by a fox spirit, for he could see her silhouette through the candlelit screen, and her silhouette appeared to be shedding its skins. Soon, he thought, the fox spirit would flee and the Empress would be saved.
Instead, the Empress stepped around the screen, standing denuded before him. She had not shed her skins—she had shed her robes! Kosaru stared in disbelief at the beautiful woman standing before him, her voluptuous body as ripe fruit and her skin glowing orange in candlelight. Having borne the Emperor an heir had not left any mark upon her, save a little puckered curve of belly fat which only accentuated her navel and the curves of her body. She was as pristine wilderness longing for a traveler to glimpse its vistas.

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Kosaru gawped for a time, and the Empress smiled as if in invitation. He felt himself stir, but remembered his vows— and the Emperor’s fury—and so sat upon the floor, cross-legged, covering his eyes with both hands and rocking back and forth like a monkey sitting precariously upon a tree limb.
At length, Kosaru uncovered his eyes and saw that the Empress had returned to the other side of the screen, assuming her robes once again. Temptation now passed, Kosaru hurried to find Master Tadayuki, the Empress’s giggles echoing after him.

Tadayuki had forewent all else and retired to bed with a fever. He was not to be disturbed. A servant to the Emperor relayed to Kosaru that Tadayuki had entrusted his best Pupil with attending to the Empress until the old diviner had regained his strength. Feeling at a loss himself, Kosaru went to his own guest room and lay down to sleep. He told no one of the Empress or her salacious behavior. Instead, he tried to sleep. Sleep did not come but fitfully. He tossed and turned all night, unable to escape the haunting smile of the Empress, and her gleaming torso and legs. Anxious, he paced his room for a time, then went to the palace shrine before daybreak.
Kosaru had intended to invoke aid from benevolent spirits and the Buddha. Yet, as he tried to meditate he found his mind scarred with the candlelit form of the Empress. Before he knew what he was doing he had reached into his robes and began to pleasure himself to her figure. He knew he should stop, and yet he could not. Forcefully, he chaffed himself— half in pleasure and half in frustration— until he had finished. Red-faced as a snow monkey in rut, Kosaru wiped his hands clean on his robe and left the shrine, his eyes averted from the statue of the Buddha whose face, in a furtive glance, was full of disappointment.
Kosaru had slept little, but ate a lot. Servants inquired after his success and he demured, saying only that further rituals were required. Thereupon, he was escorted again to the East Wing to continue his services to the Empress. All day the young monk undertook the rituals. His bald head gleamed with sweat and drooped with fatigue, yet he persisted. Once again the women-in-waiting succumbed, one by one, to sleep, until only Kosaru and the Empress remained awake. Hereupon, the Empress doffed her robes and brazenly stepped around the dividing screen. Kosaru once again sat cross-legged and covered his eyes. Yet, the Empress knelt beside him, whispering in his ears of things he knew he should not hear.

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“I am your Empress,” she said, “but you may call me Okame, for I find that I can trust you with my sorrows, young man.”
Kosaru held as still as possible, staring straight ahead of himself; trying not to gaze upon her nakedness. His body trembled with fear and desire.
“The Emperor has no fondness for me,” she said. “I am overripe fruit in his eyes. Unplucked and young is how he prefers his persimmons. Now that my son is a man, and is away in training to ascend after his father, I am a forgotten possession misplaced in the corner of my husband’s palace. I have not seen my husband for a year, and even then only to speak in formalities.”
She leaned closer to the monk, nearly kissing the lobe of his ear.
“I have not known the touch of a man in fourteen years,” she continued, “and even then but a greedy fumble of fingers and a slight pain between the legs. I have had more joy from my own hands than anyone else’s touch. Before I die I wish to know true passion. Will you grant me this boon, handsome boy?”
Kosaru could hear her still, and so pressed harder against his ears.
“You are a shaman,” she said, “and so you explore the boundaries between Heaven and Earth. Why not explore my boundaries. I believe we will find a Heaven of our own in such Earthly pleasures…”
More such scandalous whispers followed until Kosaru pressed his hands over his ears as if to crush his own skull. He deafened himself this way for a time, and it hurt him grievously. Eventually, the Empress returned to her side of the screen, speaking no more. She donned her robes and went to sleep. Hesitatingly, Kosaru stumbled out of the East Wing and found himself at the shrine once again. He slipped off his robe and pants, swathing and blinding the Buddha’s head with his clothes, and stood and gripped himself with both hands, angrily abusing himself as he imagined Okame’s husky voice rising and falling in pitch to the rhythm of his strokes. When he had finished, he dressed himself and stumbled off to bed. Sleep did not come easily, for his desires burned ever afresh. He moaned while abed.
“I feel I must climb to the highest mountain peak and bury myself in the snow,” he said, “and still this burning would not abate. I burn for her embrace! I must throw myself into an icy river and let it freeze over me, drowning me in its cold waters to slake my passions! And still it would not abate!”
The next day, before dawn, Kosaru returned to the shrine to pleasure himself to her image and her voice. He then ate a great deal, once again, and checked on his Master. Tadayuki remained a convalescent, though he was now able to drink herbal teas and speak weakly in a few words. He asked his favorite Pupil if the Empress had improved. Kosaru could not tell his Master of the Empress’s shame, nor his own, but assured him that she was growing in confidence. Tadayuki then fell asleep and so his Pupil returned to the East Wing to continue his dubious rituals for the betterment of the Empress.
The day proceeded as the two days before. Kosaru was diligent and tireless, even if sleepless and fatigued, and he worked his rituals from his side of the screen while the Empress’s women-in-waiting observed him for the sake of propriety. However, they fell asleep once more as the day darkened to night, and once more the Empress let fall her robes and tempted Kosaru with her beautiful body and her beautiful words.
“My handsome boy,” she said, kneeling before him, “you need only ask and I will pleasure you as only Paradise can. Can you not see how I adore you? How I crave you? I know you crave me, too. I can see it in your eyes, and in the way you tremble so. You need only say you want me, and I will gladly give myself to you. I am Empress Okame, and I ache for you. Do you not ache for me?”
Kosaru’s mouth moaned of its own compulsion, but before the moan could become a “Yes” he slapped his hands over his lips and bound himself voiceless. The Empress cajoled and whispered and pressed her breasts out toward him as offerings, but his words were silenced behind the cage of his hands, imprisoned mercilessly behind his clamp-like fingers and sweaty palms. She was a great persuader, and so he fled before she could sway him with her comely body and sweet words and gentle touch.

For a week or so Kosaru tended to Empress Okame. At night, and in the morning, he sequestered himself in the palace shrine— not to be disturbed by anyone—and satisfied himself to image and sound and touch of her. Sometimes he would weep with shame afterwards; sometimes he would not. Sometimes he wept with frustration, or screamed and roared until nearby servants thought him wrestling demons within the shrine. Nor was this a total misconception. Rather, Kosaru knew that oni and tengu and other malicious spirits were most interested in holy men and aspirants, for they were more challenging and the vexation they caused more rewarding. While holy men were indeed stronger against such spirits they were also most susceptible, the paradox being that suppression implicated exploitable weaknesses and, so, it led to greater chances of corruption. Tadayuki had warned Kosaru several times about temptations and the traps therein provided to evil spirits. That was why Kosaru had vowed to abstain from most pleasures, including those between a man and a woman. By denying himself pleasures he hoped to display his devotion to the Buddha and thus be granted greater powers over wayward spirits. Yet, it was easy to be celibate in a monastery where no temptations dwelled. It was much more difficult when a beautiful woman tempted him with every visitation.

Tadayuki gradually improved. In time he felt so hale and hearty that he resumed the rituals once again, dedicating himself to curing Empress Okame of her mysterious affliction. He said he was impressed with Kosaru’s dedication; so much so that he let his Pupil have the day off. Kosaru was conflicted, naturally, since he both wanted to see the Empress again and since he did not want to see her again. To keep his mind off of her, as much as he might, Kosaru went into town. He walked about for a long time until he came to a small temple that resided near a larger Buddhist temple in Kyoto. What caught his attention were the amulets hanging from the small temple’s ornamental eaves. The talismans were kukurizaru, or hanging monkey amulets. They looked like little cloth balls formed like monkeys with their hands and feet bound together with string. There were hundreds of them dangling from the small temple. Kosaru had heard of such amulets before. He knew they were supposed to help a man with a wish, if he only sacrificed a desire to them.
Kosaru looked around the temple, and noticed that he was the only one there. Reaching up, he took a monkey ball down and hung it from the belt of his robe. As he was leaving the small temple, he noticed a graven image of wood serving as ornamentation upon the temple itself. It depicted the Sanzaru, or three wise monkeys, and he knew this was a good omen. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil— that was what he desired, after all. He would sacrifice his desire for the Empress and in return be granted his wish to become a powerful yin-yang diviner.
Feeling reassured now, Kosaru went upon a walk near a bamboo forest. He was pleased with himself, and his good fortune. The air never seemed so fresh, nor the bamboo so vivaciously green with life. Birdsong enchanted him and he felt at ease. Suddenly overcome with the toil of the week, and the exhaustion of his desires seemingly unburdened, he laid down in the cool shade beneath a copse of bamboo and quickly fell asleep. He slept for an hour or so before the chattering woke him. It sounded as if drunkards were laughing. Opening his eyes, Kosaru was surprised to discover a group of monkeys playing nearby.
There were several monkeys, their faces red and their furry bodies either white or brown as they chased each other around playfully. Kosaru said nothing, but quietly thanked the gods, and Buddha, for yet another omen to confirm that his wish would be granted. Yet, as he watched the monkeys, the monkeys took notice of the young monk. They were all alerted by his stare, but instead of fleeing in fear, the monkeys laughed louder and frolicked wildly. They rolled and somersaulted and leapt over one another like jesters in front of a king. Their behavior only reassured Kosaru’s conviction that he was blessed. Then their behavior changed. The female monkeys walked themselves backward toward the male monkeys, their tails raised and their buttocks red. What followed horrified the monk. The monkeys yammered and laughed and howled, and the monk fled in disgust and fright. He did not stop running until he reached the royal palace.
Sweating and breathless, Kosaru heaved and coughed until the pain in his ribs subsided. He began to weep again, for the monkeys were an ill omen. Clutching the monkey amulet in his sweaty, feverish hand, he prayed that the deity Sarutahiko would grant him guidance. Sarutahiko was the god of the crossroads, and the Mediator between Heaven and Earth. Kosaru pleaded to that great deity to save him from himself.
From somewhere in the thin, blue air he heard the wild laughter of monkeys.

Master Tadayuki succumbed to sickness yet again and had to retire to his room to recuperate. Kosaru was once more obligated to attend the Empress, and the Empress was once more obliged to tempt Kosaru with her body and her delicious promises of pleasure. Kosaru lost sleep and, like his Master, was prone to fevers and shakes, albeit fevers that did not overtake him with illness. His loins burned hotter than any hot spring, his complexion so ruddy that it seemed he cooked in the flame of his fevers. Meanwhile, his inability to sleep and his lack of appetite cut deep grooves around his eyes, hollowing his sockets while emboldening the ridge of his brow. His solemn-lipped mouth became inexpressive and drooped seemingly down to his chin. He failed to shave his pate and a strange white mane grew very thick very quickly upon his scalp and down his temples, and even thickened around his cheeks. The women-in-waiting were all aflutter upon seeing him, for he both repulsed them and thrilled them with his strange, handsome features. As for the Empress herself, she could hardly contain herself, and gyrated upon his lap as he sat, cross-legged, whenever he came to perform rituals to cleanse her. Kosaru, however, never succumbed to temptation, and tactfully withdrew every night to the palace shrine where he vigorously exorcized himself of her seductions. His arms grew larger during these rigors, and longer, and his back bent over with the exertions of the motions and stance, his legs bowed. His manhood increased manifold, his priapism ungodly and not to be concealed, even as he swathed it in his monk garb.
And then the farce worsened. Word reached the Emperor and he dispatched his samurai to apprehend Kosaru for his indecent appearance and behavior. Taking him by force, they locked him away in a cage made of wood and bamboo, binding him with threaded rope until Master Tadayuki recovered and could come see him. When his Master finally did arrive, Kosaru’s priapism was larger than ever before.
“My greatest Pupil!” cried Tadayuki. “And now my greatest shame!”
Kosaru would have wept, but his mind was consumed with thoughts of Empress Okame.

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“I must perform a cleansing ritual on you, my friend,” his Master said. And so he began, burning incense and arranging talismans around Kosaru’s cage. He performed many rituals in the morning, before attending Empress Okame, and then retired to bed. Tadayuki was old, and had just recovered from sickness, but his supernatural powers supplemented his age and natural vigor.
Kosaru did not improve, and neither did the Empress. To the contrary, the Empress lashed out at her women-in-waiting, becoming temperamental and angry. She refused to eat, and only drank water occasionally. Falling ill, she nearly died, despite Tadayuki’s efforts. She cried out for Kosaru in her sleep, as he called her name throughout the night. At last, the Emperor had Kosaru taken away from the palace, keeping him caged in a remote area of Kyoto. Since he was so far away, Tadayuki could no longer visit him, and so Kosaru’s condition worsened; or perhaps it worsened because he was so far away from the Empress.
And then one night, while Kosaru’s guards were drunk on sake, monkeys from the bamboo forests gathered around his cage, mocking him with their play and their mating. Kosaru tried to ignore them at first, but their laughter and their mockery became too much for him. He roared wildly, his face brightening to an unnatural crimson, and white whiskers sprang from his chin and eyebrows, and all over his body, the mane upon his head thickening all the more, and a white tail sprouted from the base of his spine. His body grew much larger, and his muscles and sinews elongated and engorged like the branches of trees. His shoulders broadened, tearing open his monk robes. He easily snapped the ropes that bound him and smashed through his wooden cage. Guards ran to meet him, but upon seeing him totter upward, growing even larger, they fled in terror. His face, too, grew, extending longwise until his nose was nothing more than crescent slits in his flattened face, and two giant horns rose from his forehead. The oni transformation should have been agony, but his mind was already pained with the all-consuming desire for Empress Okame. He hollered maniacally, then hastened toward the palace, loping like a giant ape, his priapism like a dowsing rod seeking the Empress’s sacred waters.
Where he loped, terror and destruction lay in his wake. He leapt over the palace walls and hurried to the East Wing. Now the size of a man-and-a-half, he smashed through the hall and came to her chambers. Her women–in-waiting roused at the commotion, then fled, screaming as the whole household was beset with terror and panic, everyone scattering like insects in sudden light. All except the Empress. She rose, in her fine kimono, and dared to gaze at the large demon heaving before her. She was scared— it was true—but then Kosaru knelt before her, trembling and moaning in abject prostration.
The humble monk was an oni now— a demon born of untempered desire. Empress Okame recognized in his weeping red face the eyes of her Kosaru. She saw, too, his engorged manhood, and though alarmed at first, she at last smiled and, with calm, easy motions, undid her kimono and let it slip from her body. She took his ruddy cheeks in her hands and pulled him down with her to the floor.

The servants of the Empress were in hysterics as they rushed through the palace, begging help from anyone who would provide it. Quickly word reached the Emperor and he commanded his guards, samurai, and anyone else who could wield a weapon to hurry to the East Wing. Master Tadayuki attempted to intercede on his Pupil’s behalf, and nearly lost his head for it. If not for his spirit companions spiriting him away, he would have fallen to a samurai’s blade.
The Emperor’s small army went, en masse, to the East Wing with a collective war cry heralding their advance. However, they lost their momentum, and their bravado, when they entered the Empress’s chambers to see her in joyful congress with the demon. Stunned, they stood aside for a moment, glancing around everywhere but at the oni they were ordered to slay.
“Mediate between Heaven and Earth!” the Empress cried. “Mediate until the Earth and Heaven are one!”
At length, the most hardened warrior among them— a samurai who had strewn the earth with many corpses— stood forth, breaking free of his disgust and horror. He raised he sword and charged the large ape demon rutting upon the Empress.
Kosaru withdrew from the Empress and presented his gigantic phallus against the warrior’s blade. His phallus grew larger still, and struck the blade with a counter slash. The sword shattered to the hilt and the seasoned samurai was thrown against the other men, knocked insensate upon the floor.
Three more swordsmen, rallied by the warrior’s bravery, approached the oni, attacking Kosaru all at once. The monkey monk broke two swords with his priapism and caught the third sword with his horns. Meanwhile, the Empress gyrated upon the floor, moaning for Kosaru to return to her. The other men approached now as a mob, at last driving the Oni back with the flashing flurry of their blades. He roared defiantly, ready to fight them all for his mate. Suddenly, the Empress’s moan transformed into a roar. She rose from the floor, her body elongating and sprouting white fur also. The men had seen enough and fled. No one remained behind as the two oni embraced once again.

The oni remained in rigorous congress for a week until the East Wing was set ablaze by the apoplectic Emperor. This fire would consume the entire palace, forcing the Emperor’s staff and guards to relocate to another palace. The Emperor was never quite the same again. His desire for sex with virgins— and sex with any woman for that matter—was utterly ruined. He suffered terrible dreams at night, and it was said that the image and the sounds of the two oni haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.
After the fire, Kosaru and Okame were never seen again, but it was rumored that they lived on in the snowy peaks of the mountains, away from human eyes and ears and gossip. Master Tadayuki later told his son of his greatest Pupil, confessing that he believed Kosaru to be the avatar of the monkey god, Sarutahiko, and stating that he believed the Empress to be the avatar of Ame-no-Uzame-no-mikito. When his son asked him why he had not attempted to save his Pupil, he responded that gods needed no saving, and did as they pleased. It was fate, after all, and no yin-yang diviner could interfere with fate, nor was there wisdom in trying to do so.
His son eventually married and became a powerful yin-yang diviner in his own right. Some say he became powerful despite having married and raised a family. Wiser people claimed he became powerful because of his wife and family, for they helped temper his life with a balance that many holy men fail to observe. He would later confirm, with his own eyes, that his father had been correct about his father’s former Pupil. Kosaru and Okame dwelled in the mountains, given to their bestial pastimes. Being witness to such things could ruin all but the most godly of appetites, but when Tadayuki’s son returned to his wife he found that he was not ruined in his amorousness for her. Rather, he knew that immoderation in one extreme or the opposite was the death of balance. And what was a yin-yang diviner but someone who strove for balance?

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Nordic Skies

Hooves within the thunderstorm stampede,
hammering the black anvil of night,
rain falling like Valhalla mead
as clashing blades spark bolts all alight.

The gods are feasting in honor of war,
hobnobbing drunkenly amongst themselves:
Odin, Heimdall, and the thunderous Thor
with mortals, dwarves, Valkyries and dark elves.

With their fists the drinkers drum the wood planks,
shaking goblets, plates, and many a bone,
and thrum their chests and give many thanks
to Odin for claiming them as his own.

The sonorous spaces of Valhalla boom
with merrymaking and bitter barroom brawls,
like the sky itself, knowing so much room
that battlefields of men can enjoin its Halls.

A bard is commanded to strike the lute
and sing a sweet song in honor of Death
and as he strums, all others fall mute
to hear the bard’s faintest lullaby breath.

“You, warriors among these hallowed Halls,
have your fill of milk and honey and roast
to honor having answered the calls
to war, and so wish now a goodly boast.”

“And a boast I will give, equal to measure
of your worth now, your bodies gone to rot
so the worms may feast, at their leisure,
or else you were burned to ash and to naught.”

“Regardless of honor, your lives are forfeit,
some of you slain at home, some in foreign lands,
and the most you may boast for good of it
is that you grow flowers plucked by a child’s hands.”

The thunderstorms subside at long last
and the clouds move on, the sky now clear,
and the stars shine bright, moonbeams cast
while fog ghosts mourn and the Dawn draws near.