SHADOWS AND HELLFIRE



SHADOWS AND HELLFIRE, by R. Michael Burns:

“Dive heedlessly into death, and you will wake up.”

                             — Yamamoto Tsunemoto,

                             Hagakure

All around him, the dead drew closer, faces ash-pale, sunken eyes blazing with hatred.

Hokagé’s hand went instinctively for his sword — but of course he wasn’t armed, not in the dead of night, in his own compound.

“Go on, samurai,” one of the wraiths whispered, waving a claw-like hand at the niche where Hokagé’s swords sat in their decorative brackets.  “Take it.  Use it.”

At once others in the ghastly throng took up the taunts, voices as lost and lonesome as a breeze through autumn leaves.  “Take it . . . use it. . .”

“Take it!” another ghost screeched.  Hokagé flinched away from the shrunken thing — a girl, a child, surely not even ten years old, never to be more than ten years old.  “Kill me with it again!”

Now another word rustled through the deathly crowd, a gust of icy whispers:  “Murderer.”

Hokagé shook his head, speechless, defenseless against such charges.  Murderer.  The word rang false only because there was surely no term in any human language for his crime, no expression sufficiently cruel to describe what he had done to these innocents.

“Your soul is black, samurai,” an old woman’s ghost murmured.  Its nearness chilled his flesh, sent dull pain through the scars that marred the left side of his face.  “It grows darker by the hour.”

“It is a demon’s soul,” said another specter — a farmer once, perhaps.  He crouched on the tatami floor of Hokagé’s bedchamber, glaring not at the samurai but at the nook with its respectfully-stored swords, the short tanto Hokagé had wielded when he’d first earned his place in Lord Kumamuné’s ranks, the longer Toshinaga blade he’d won along with the title samurai . . . and the last, a weapon unlike any other, metal not forged by human hands.  The blade known as Ma-kiba.

Demon-Fang.

He had drawn the sword from the filthy guts of an Earth Spider he’d slain, a gargantuan beast of the ancient world that had emptied an entire village in its gluttony.  Even as he’d first gripped the naked steel, he’d known he was laying claim to the demon spider’s soul.  But the blade had called to him, whispering not only in the lunatic-tones of the beast itself, but in the cajoling, forlorn voices of all those who had died in the monster’s brutal jaws.  Their souls haunted that folded metal, imprisoned there until . . .

“See it,” the old woman hissed, and at once the others echoed her.  “See it, samurai.  See what you’ve done.”

The voices came from all around, a mad cacophony, wraiths circling him like bats rising from their cave, a dark senseless flurry, tearing away the familiar surroundings of his room, the paper screens and cedar beams, the straw mats covering the floor, until nothing remained but darkness . . .

Stars shimmered into view overhead, the constellations of a dead-still summer night.  Hokagé stood at the head of a column of armored men, their weapons ready.

He remembered this night, of course, remembered it with ghastly vividness.  He had fought countless battles in service of his daimyō, but this one alone he wished he could forget, could blot from his own past.  But now, just as on that breathless evening itself, the nightmare was unavoidable.  He could but brace himself in sick anticipation.

Out of the dark came a sound, like hard-driven rain on dry earth.  Then the attackers appeared — goryo, the hateful, vengeance-mad ghosts of the Akkihito, a clan Kumamuné’s forces had all but obliterated years ago.  Even in death the Akkihito lusted for bloodshed, as honorless and savage as they had been in life.  All around, Hokagé saw living men buckle and crumple to the ground, their heads twisted from their shoulders like persimmons plucked from low-hanging branches, their weapons useless against this phantom enemy.

As if in a dream — and surely this was a dream, though no less real for that — Hokagé watched himself swing Demon-Fang, watched the infernal blade cleave through the goryo‘s ranks as easily as a scythe through young bamboo.

And with each goryo he dispatched, he felt the strange agony as one of the blameless spirits trapped in Demon-Fang’s steel guttered out like a snuffed flame.  Such was the price he’d paid — had chosen to pay — to save his village and the lord who had resurrected him, made him a warrior.  One innocent soul for the destruction of each enemy.  Trading the dead for the living.  No other power he knew could have defeated the spectral brigands.

“I did what was required of me,” Hokagé whispered, watching himself at battle, watching the goryo turn again to shadows and dust as Demon-Fang bit into them.  Hearing the otherworldly cries of the helpless as they ceased to exist.

“You spent our souls to buy your victory,” a hollow voice murmured.  “But you knew nothing of what became of us, did you?”

Hokagé’s mouth was dry.  “I could only hope you found your way to the Realm Between, to be reborn into whatever lives your karma earned.”

Even as he spoke, the words sounded insipid, inexcusable.

“Not your choice to make!” a boy’s voice boomed in his head.

“Not your choice!” echoed an old man, and the cries filled Hokagé’s mind even over the tumult of the long-ago battle still seething around him —

Your soul is black —

See it!

Murderer . . .

Hokagé swung Demon-Fang blindly, as if it might cut the words apart, might slice the sounds to silence.  But they only grew more furious, full of derision, full of hatred, the sort of chorus only a madman would ever possibly hear.  The sounds drew the darkness around him like a funeral shroud, and Hokagé tried to toss the cursed blade away but his fingers would not relax their grip; the harder he fought the tighter they grew until it seemed his flesh and the rayskin-bound hilt were one, the blade an extension of his arm, of his very being — which, of course, it was —

Then, silence.  A deep, blessed quiet, stirred only by the far-off chirping of crickets.

Hokagé found himself in the middle of his bedchamber, bedclothes twisted and cast-aside.  Ma-Kiba sat across his folded legs, the unearthly blade glinting in the hint of moonglow that shone through the paper shoji screens.

Demon-Fang, so seldom silent, began to whisper in his grasp.

Hokagé sheathed the weapon and hung it back in its brackets before the words became recognizable.

For a long time he sat gazing at it, allowing his mind to wander where it might, casting about for some revelation, some salvation.

By dawn, he had given up all but the faintest hope that such a thing would ever come.

*     *     *

“Ah, look who’s come calling.”

Hokagé turned his back on the little shrine that stood almost lost among the weeds and swaying bamboo, and gazed back along the rough trail which had led him there.  Beneath the broad wooden wings of the shrine’s single torii gate sat a small red fox, head cocked.  “What sort of unthinkable horror must I rescue you from now?” it asked, feeling no need, it seemed, to hide its otherworldly nature in that secluded place.  “I assume that’s what’s brought you to my great-grandfather’s shrine, ?”

Hokagé looked back at the leaning structure, the leaf-strewn altar.  How long had ago had the people of Yamagumo Town forgotten the Fox God, Inari, and begun trusting all their prayers to Hachiman, the God of Warfare?  Since the chaos and devastation in Heian-kyo, at least, madness which sent rumors of full-fledged war echoing across the Land of the Rising Sun.  The battles had ended but the threat remained, a fierce storm building on the far horizon.

“The favor I have come to ask is mine alone, Sasa-kun,” he told his strange companion.

The shapeshifter’s ears perked up.  “Selfishness?  I thought samurai were incapable of such things.  Duty to one’s master first, last, and only, isn’t that your way?”

Hokagé stared into the shadows gathered around the little shrine, the stone foxes standing guard there.  He had struggled with the question of duty since the moment he’d understood the path he must take, knew that in some basic sense he was breaking his oath to Lord Kumamuné, depriving him of his best warrior’s greatest strength — perhaps of the warrior himself.  And yet . . .

“A man must be worthy of the duty he serves,” he said, and the statement sounded both true and false to his own ears.

Sasa flicked his tail.  “Of course.  So what is this ‘favor’?”

Still Hokagé did not turn to face the kitsuné.

“I must be rid of the Fang.”

Sasa snorted, ruffled his muzzle.  “Eh?!  Shall I rid you of your head as well?  You would be as well off.”

Hokagé shrugged.  “Nonetheless, it must be done.  I must . . .”  He paused, weighing his words.  “I must emerge from its shadow before it consumes me.”

“That’s no small task,” Sasa said.  “Many a samurai believes his sword is his soul.  But for you, samurai, this is no mere metaphor.”

Hokagé nodded.  “I am aware.”

“Then you also understand that simply tossing such an item into the sea or dropping it down a well won’t rid you of it.  It would find its way back to you — following a trail of blood, no doubt.”

Now at last Hokagé faced the fox he called Little One.    He knew his odd companion spoke the truth.  The machinations of fate had bound their destinies together long ago and, strange as it seemed, he’d come to trust the trickster more than he trusted any man.  But more than that, Sasa’s words resonated with what his heart already knew.

“It must be cast out of this world,” Hokagé said.  “Into the abyss.”

Sasa’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded.

“And what part am I meant to play in this mad little game?”

“You are a creature of the Otherworld.  Who better to show me the way into Hell?”

The fox gave a yelp which might’ve been a laugh.  But all humor swiftly faded from his dark eyes.  “There are places where the boundaries between worlds can be breached.  Bad places.”

Hokagé’s gaze grew sharper, pressing Sasa with his silence.

The fox sighed.  “I know a valley, some days’ travel from here.  A bleak, desolate place — men avoid it without knowing why.  Zetsubō-no-Yūkoku, it’s called.”

Hokagé took a moment to consider this.  Zetsubō-no-Yūkoku.  The Valley of Anguish.  Even to one who’d long since abandoned the way of the gods, it had a doom-laden quality.  Perhaps all the more so.

Sasa’s voice grew uncharacteristically somber.  “I can lead you there, and perhaps in those depths you can actually be rid of your burden.  But you know well that mortals are not made to walk out of such places.”

“If I cannot be rid of the Fang in this life, perhaps I can find release in death.”  Hokagé ran his fingers over Demon-Fang’s hilt where it hung at his side.  “Take me to the valley,” he said.

*     *     *

“I think sometimes you’re a little too eager to meet death,” Sasa said, bounding through the undergrowth.

They had departed in the predawn silence, leaving the village at the foot of Yamagumo Castle asleep behind them, passing through rice-paddy farms and ever-smaller mountain villages.  The roads dwindled to weed-grown ruts, then vanished altogether.  The slopes grew steeper, the trees gnarled, roots as tangled as snares.

Hokagé drew a deep breath.  All at once he felt too aware of the weight of his burden, bound in oiled cloth and slung over his back where he would be less inclined to reach for it, less susceptible to its call.  The sword wasn’t heavy, exactly, but strangely cumbersome, as if it dragged behind him like an anchor.  And though he wore his banded-iron armor beneath his traveling robe, he still felt Demon-Fang’s insistent chill on his skin, biting cold.

“Death comes for us all, in its own time,” he said at last — but he dared not speak what was in his heart.  After all, how could anyone, much less an immortal like Sasa, comprehend it: the feeling of having missed out on doom?  The feeling that hell-bound was homeward bound?

Sasa paused, narrow snout twitching, almost as if he’d sensed Hokagé’s blasphemous thoughts on the air.  Then he wrinkled his muzzle and flattened his ears.  “Brimstone,” he said.  “We’re close.”

He’d scarcely finished speaking when they crested a sharp rise and stopped, staring.

Beyond the ridge, the mountain fell away all at once, sheer cliffs plunging into a sea of mist, the stink of sulfur rising in poisonous billows.  Whatever lay beneath, Hokagé could only guess.

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing, samurai?” Sasa asked, twitching his ears.  “Some would say only a madman would allow himself to be fox-led — and into the Valley of Anguish, no less.”

Hokagé stared into the cauldron of fog.

“I believe,” Hokagé began, slowly, “that my destiny awaits me there.  Whatever it may be.”

“As you like, then,” Sasa said, and trotted onward.

Before long, the woods gave way to a shaded clearing and they found themselves in another sort of forest — a grove of ancient sculptures.  Jizo statues, dozens of them, the childlike Buddha figures standing like an army of dwarfs among the ancient cedars.  But if this was an army, it was a defeated one.  Severed stone heads lay at the figures’ feet gathering moss.  Carven-cloaked shapes slumped in the brush in broken chunks.  Blank stone eyes gazed from a hundred different angles, all traces of kindness and mercy extinguished.

Hokagé surveyed the scene, feeling nothing.  He tried to recall a time when such images held meaning for him, when the icons of the divine seemed truly sacred.  But even the memories had lost all strength.  The gods had abandoned him the night the Akkihito brigands laid his boyhood village to ruin — had neither saved those he loved nor been kind enough to carry him off with the dead.  And he’d abandoned the kami in return.  Perhaps that was why he felt so little fear now, on the brink of damnation.  Visions of Hell meant as little as all the rest of it.

Across the statue-littered clearing, a lonely wooden torii gate rose, weathered and leaning.  Beyond, the light seemed to lose some of its strength, everything gray and vague, like scenes viewed through smoke.

Sasa snarled, then turned away and sat with his tail curled around him.

“I — you know, I really ought to wait for you here.”

Hokagé raised an eyebrow.  “Frightened, Sasa-kun?”

Sasa snorted.  “Me?  No no no.  But, as you said, it’s your destiny that waits there, not mine.  Perhaps you need to face this darkness on your own.”

“Your great-grandfather gave me to believe that your fate was forever bound to mine,” Hokagé said, with something like fondness in his voice.  “Surely my destiny is yours.”

“Or it might be that this is where our lives become untangled at last,” said Sasa.  “Of course if karma demanded it, I’d traipse straight into the depths with you.  But I think this task is yours.”

Hokagé nodded.  “Perhaps it is,” he agreed, and walked on, alone.

The woods stood deeply silent all around, empty even of birdsong.  Hand on the hilt of his old Toshinaga blade, Hokagé stepped through the leaning gate.

The air felt a touch cooler on the other side, perhaps, but that was all.

“You are lost.”

For an instant, Hokagé imagined one of the fractured jizo statues had spoken.  Then he spotted the shrunken figure in black monk’s robes sitting as if in meditation, eyes pinched shut in deep folds of flesh.  The stranger’s skin was lined and ancient, and as blue as lapis lazuli.

“I have business here,” Hokagé said.

“All who enter this place are lost,” the dwarfish monk muttered, “or suffering from loss.  You have lost much, I think.  All those you loved have passed beyond the mists of death.”  He rose, turned to face Hokagé.  A single, raw-veined eye opened in the center of his forehead, squinted at Hokagé with dark appraisal.  “You are haunted,” he murmured, reading some secret in the shadows of Hokagé’s face.  “The dead cling to you like half-drowned rats on a sliver of driftwood.  And yet . . . those you lost are not among them.”

Hokagé’s expression remained stony.  “That’s not why I’ve come.”

“No?” the Blue Monk asked, with a rotted smile.  “Yet you come seeking the Road of Emma-O, the realm of the damned.”  He fixed Hokagé in the gaze of his single eye.  “You wish to be rid of those that cleave to you, to cast them off among their miserable kin.  And what if ridding yourself of them demands that you become one of them, eh?  Would you still make this journey?”

Hokagé gave the slightest of nods.  “I would.”

The Blue Monk cackled, clapped his hands like an excited child.  “Then come!” he said, and turned away in a swirl of tattered robes.

Hokagé followed.

*     *     *

They descended along a narrow seam in the cliff-face, bare inches from the precipice, the stench of sulfur choking-thick, the rock slick with vapors.  Hokagé chose each step with mortal caution, too aware of the yawning emptiness one misstep away, the greedy pull of gravity.  On his back, Demon-Fang seemed to squirm and writhe like a living thing, as if awakened by the evil of the place they’d entered.  Its ghastly voices gibbered in his mind.

The two travelers sank into the sea of fog, into thick, grasping foliage, trees and shrubs ghostly-vague in the mist, their contorted limbs clutching at the travelers like hinin beggars.  Had they been such wretched creatures in lives now lost to them?  In this cursed place, the possibility was all too easy to believe.

The Blue Monk led him deeper into the brush without a backward glance, emerging at last into a blighted clearing.

“There,” he said, waving a plump hand at a second ancient-looking torii gate that loomed from the mists, its gray crossbeams drooping slimy moss.  Beyond, sulfurous water boiled in stone-rimmed pools, belching noxious steam.

Hokagé frowned.  He saw no way around the bubbling pots, no path between, and nothing beyond but gnarled trees and sheer stone.

“You misled me,” he muttered, voice thick with just-restrained fury.

Demon-Fang’s voice rose in his mind, wanting blood, urging him to make the blue-skinned yōkai pay for this deception.  Anywhere else, Hokagé would’ve swatted the urge aside like a horsefly.  But in this doom-shadowed place, it lingered, persistent.

The Blue Monk grinned.  “If you seek the way to darkness, turn from the path of enlightenment.  You of all men should understand . . . or did your Shinto studies leave you ignorant of the Lord Buddha’s wisdom?”

“What would a fallen monk know of such things?” Hokagé asked.

The yōkai rolled his ruddy eye.  “It is because I am a fallen monk that I know such things, so hear me.  If you truly desire the darkness, you will know how to find it.  Speak, and the way will be opened before you.  But know this: passage through the gates of death carries a heavy toll.  I hope you have come prepared to pay it.”

Hokagé gave a slow, silent nod.

The Blue Monk flashed broken yellow teeth, then bowed low, and lower, sinking away into the folds of his robe until he’d vanished entirely.  The empty garment crumbled to the earth in a heap of ashes.

For a moment, Hokagé stood motionless in the shadow of the lonesome torii, feeling the terrible cold of Demon-Fang at his back.  Never before had it seemed so terrible, so truly cursed.

All who enter this place are lost, or suffering from loss.

That’s not why I’ve come.

He’d said it with complete conviction, but was it true?  Or had some darker purpose driven him all along?  Perhaps that was why Demon-Fang had come to him — to point his way to this black fate.

He closed his eyes and saw again the faces, the ghostly throng of all those whose living spirits he had extinguished from Demon-Fang’s haunted steel, souls banished to some darkness far worse than the limbo within the blade.  He felt their anguish as if it were new.  And he knew he would do as he must, whatever the cost.

Turn from enlightenment . . . speak, and the way will be opened . . .

And, as simply as that, the answer whispered itself in his mind, and he heard himself intoning it before he could reconsider, before doubt could overwhelm duty.

Kyo-geren hōmyō muna,” he said, the syllables coming with slippery ease — the sacred Lotus Sutra, backward.  “Kyo-geren hōmyō muna!

Beyond the gate, the sulfur springs rose to a furious boil, bubbles hopping and bursting until steam erased all else from sight.

When the haze broke, gloom awaited.

Where the pools had been, a black cavern yawned.  The stink wafting from within was of something far meaner than sulfur.

Hokagé stood at the threshold, darkness before him and darkness behind.  No escaping it now.

He took a single stride through the gate —

A massive serpent rose from the passage swift as a kite taking wind, the rotten-vegetation stink of its scaly bulk choking.  The creature hung there in front of him, bobbing on billows of steam, eyes a poisonous yellow.  Hokagé knew the beast from ancient tales — a Burrower Between Worlds, guardian of the rifts connecting the lands of the living to the realms of the dead.  A creature as old as the earth itself.

The serpent swayed, slow and cunning — then struck, whipcrack-quick, fangs slicing the air like daggers.

Hokagé rolled away, drawing the Toshinaga sword as he came to his feet.  Monster and samurai moved at once, the serpent coiling and lashing, Hokagé plunging straight ahead.  The blade’s keen edge scraped across coal-black scales as if over slate.  The serpent twisted, angling for another attack, venom weeping from its fangs.  Hokagé ducked beneath the monster’s snapping jaws, slashing at the undulating curve of the serpent’s body.  Still the weapon made no mark.

The Fang would bite that creature to the bone, a chorus of voices whispered in Hokagé’s mind, and surely one of them was his own.  On his back, the haunted blade thrummed with power, hungry for carnage.  Draw the demon sword and finish this.

Hokagé gritted his teeth and fought the urge.  He had given too much of himself to the thing already.  Better to die here than feed that abomination even one more morsel.

The serpent threw its head back, tasting the air with its flickering tongue as if savoring its inevitable victory.

Passage through the gates of death carries a heavy toll, the monk had said.

Hokagé closed his eyes and stood motionless.

The serpent dropped as if in a bow, its jaw snapping closed like a trap even as Hokagé thrust the Toshinaga sword up and out.  Dagger-fangs split human skin; folded steel pierced serpent flesh.

The Burrower-Between-Worlds jerked back, drooling blood, Hokagé’s blade emerging from its shredded throat.  The serpent gave a single thrash then crashed to the ground like a felled tree.  The mad entity at Demon-Fang’s heart mewled with pitiful, cruel joy, relishing a fellow demon’s death.

Hokagé’s balance faltered and he dropped to one knee, the world heaving and rolling around him like storm-tossed seas.  Blood soaked his silken haori jacket, seeped through the bands of his armor.  Already the serpent’s venom pulsed through his veins, blazing with fatal heat.  He imagined he could almost count the precious few heartbeats left to him.

Pushing through the agony, Hokagé stumbled past the dead serpent and into the dark.

Shadows engulfed him.  He picked his way downward, seeing by the feeble light from above, sword probing the gloom ahead.  His strength ebbed again and he stumbled, crashed to a jagged floor he could no longer see.  Dazed, Hokagé gathered himself and regained his feet, the pain of his injuries fading to distant, meaningless aches, his whole frame feeling strangely lighter now, as if he’d dropped something heavy, some encumbrance he hadn’t even been aware of.

The Fang

Panic washed through him, a drowning wave, all the more disorienting for its unfamiliarity — he’d felt nothing like it in years.  Frantic, he clutched at his burden — but Demon-Fang still hung on his back, restless in its cocoon of oiled cloth.

Dazed, Hokagé staggered onward across an ashen plane, only dully aware that he could see again, somehow.

A withered hand burst from the ground between his feet, groping blindly, snatching at his ankles.  He took a staggering step away even as another grasping hand erupted through the broken stone, then another, and dozens more, sprouting like animate weeds.  Vague, semi-human shapes squirmed from the crumbled earth, wraiths with empty eyes and bloated, sagging stomachs, necks thin as rope, mouths tiny, lipless.  Gaki — Hungry Ghosts, lost souls too tainted with corruption ever to be born again.  They dragged themselves toward Hokagé, grabbing and clinging, their knife-slit mouths sucking for sustenance they could never get.

Hokagé choked back a cry of miserable grief.

He knew these wretched shades, every one of them.  They had once haunted the cold heart of Demon-Fang, restless but vital, more angry than miserable.  His actions had sent them here, had banished them to this hell.  In his haste to save his lord, his village, he had made them into these things, these gaki.  Had damned them.

From somewhere in the clawing, pitiful throng, came a single word: Yes.

He had been arrogant, imagined he’d paid the price the night he vanquished the goryo, never knowing what became of the souls spent to extinguish the vengeful ghosts.  Never daring admit to himself that they might be condemned to these unspeakable forms in this unendurable place.

Now they surrounded him, their suffering endless, his crime against them too great to comprehend.

The boy who had once worked to become a priest of Shinto wanted to fall to his knees and beg their forgiveness, however little the man called Hokagé might deserve it.  But no words, no pleas or prayers could put these matters right.  He could only do what he had come to do, and hope against all reason and justice that there might be a measure of redemption in the act.

“Help me,” he implored.  “Help me be rid of it.”

The emaciated gaki clutched at him, countless dead hands clamping on, driftwood fingers finding every notch in his armor, dragging him down, down, into the grave earth . . .

Hokagé let himself go limp, let the dead take him.  Leathery hands tugged him deep into the stinking, smothering depths, grabbed and pulled and finally dropped him into a yawning chasm.  He fell for what felt like a very long time, clawing helplessly at the empty darkness.

Flames lashed up from beneath, filled his vision.  Whether they were the fires of Hell or the long-ago conflagration which had reduced his young heart to a dead cinder, he couldn’t tell.

Then he was no longer falling.  Hard RHearth stretched out beneath him, as black and jagged as the high slopes of Fuji.  Above, the cavern’s ceiling loomed distant as the clouds on a moonless night.  Surely, no man could survive such a fall, much less uninjured . . .

It no longer mattered.

Hokagé gathered his feet under him and rose, taking in his surroundings.  He stood on a dais of rock rising from a rampaging ocean of fire and darkness.  All around, other columns of stone rose from the void, pinnacles rimmed with fire staggering off into the distance in every direction.  Atop each pillar, wraiths writhed and wept as demonic jailers held them to the flames or gnawed at their limbs, beat them with savage spiked hammers, plucked at their glistening entrails.  The air itself smelled burnt, stank of cooked blood and charred flesh.

And, standing there, the samurai who had taken the name Hokagé — Shadows from Firelight — felt the shock of destiny.  After all, his life ought to have ended long ago, when death came for his parents, his siblings, the other priests and priestesses of his shrine.  For years now he’d lived as a veritable ghost among men, a phantom haunting his own meager existence.  It was long since past time for him to fade into this endless shadowplay.

Now, at last, he felt as if he’d entered his native element.  As if he’d found his way home.  Shadows from Firelight amid shadows from firelight.

Hokagé closed his eyes, retreated into the emptiness within himself, shutting out all suffering.  Even his own.  Perhaps he was the monster he imagined himself to be, perhaps he did deserve the torments of Hell.  He couldn’t indulge that nihilism yet.  Not until his task was done.

All that mattered now was the void yawning between the columns of stone — darkness so deep, even the black pillars shone clearly against it.

Trembling, Hokagé pulled the cursed weapon from his back.  He had no desire to look on the hellish thing again, but had to, had to see it this one last time.

He tugged at the knot binding the cloth and the covering unraveled, falling away in coils, a steel snake shedding its skin.

At once its voices filled his mind, gibbering and screeching, half-mad in this unthinkable place.

Even as they spoke from within, another, unfamiliar voice spoke from nearby.

“You’ve come far to pay tribute to me.”

Hokagé looked up as a towering man-like figure in flowing robes and a flared crown emerged from behind a curtain of flame.  His tangled black mustache hung around his mouth in an exaggerated grimace, his paper-lantern eyes held no hint of humor, no suggestion of kindness.  Hokagé had seen his image wrought in wood in the temples of Heian-kyo.  But those eyes . . . those, he had looked into only in childhood nightmares.

“What would the Lord of Hell need with such a trinket?” Hokagé asked.  In his grip, Demon-Fang buzzed with power, as if energized by its infernal surroundings.

“Trinket?” said Emma-O, raising a brushy eyebrow.  “I think you know better.  Surely that’s why you’ve come — to trade that ‘trinket’ for your eternal freedom from this damnation?”  He studied Hokagé, his grimace becoming a bemused frown.  “But no.  It isn’t only your own freedom you seek, is it, samurai?  I see the scar on your soul as clearly as those that mar your flesh.  You seek freedom for those you have wronged . . . and . . . for your family.  Your poor, murdered family.”

Deep within him, the dead cinder of his heart blazed to life, burning again with the agony he’d felt the night the Akkihito had left him orphaned and alone.  Never had he dared dream such a thing, never imagined they could live again, his father and mother, his gentle sisters . . . perhaps even the boy priest who had not then taken the name Shadows from Firelight.  He could have them all back, and for such a small token — a found thing, a cold and cursed thing.

This is why it came to you.  This is the path which karma laid out before you . . . 

The voice whispering at the back of his mind sounded both alien and familiar at once.  The demon blade found you so that you might buy your heart’s dearest desire.  You will never again have such a chance.  Not in a thousand lifetimes.

He gazed at the strange weapon in his hands, feeling only relief at the thought of being rid of it.  Then he looked again into the face of the crowned demon.

“You have no power to make such promises.”

The words startled him even as he spoke them.  His voice sounded dead in his ears, devoid even of anger, but flatly, irrefutably true.

The fiend rose to a towering height, quaking with rage.  “I am Emma-O!  All power here is mine.”

“You are a liar,” Hokagé answered, gripping Demon-Fang fiercely.  “The Lord of Hell may judge the dead, but even he cannot reclaim the past.  No one can restore the dead to their former lives.”  Now anger flared within him, leaping like the flames all around, full of heat and power.  “You are not Emma-O.  You would deceive me with your feeble costume and your false promises, but the truth cannot be denied.  My family — ” the words caught in his throat, but he forced himself to speak them, ” — my family is lost.  And so is this prize you seek.”

The demon’s disguise cracked and shattered, rose in a swirling column of black embers on an updraft, as if he’d cast off a cloak of ash.  The creature beneath wore only a filthy loincloth, its body all wattle and flab, angry black eyes gazing from every fold and seam of its corpulent shape.  Tusks and horns curved from a bulbous face the color of bloated corpse-flesh.

“My master requires that blade,” the oni snarled, “and he shall have it.”  Yet for all his fury, he simply stood his ground, seething.

“What master is that?” Hokagé asked.

“Why should it concern you, samurai?  You wish to be rid of that item, and I wish to have it.”

“It is not for you, or your master,” Hokagé said, holding the weapon before him.

“You will give it,” the oni said, “or I shall take it.”

It strode toward him, walking through walls of flame as thoughtlessly as a man might walk through tall grass, firelight glinting from its countless watchful eyes.

In Hokagé’s grip, Demon-Fang muttered and howled, hungry for demon flesh. Its brutal power surged through him like lightning gathering in a thunderhead.

Hokagé took a single step backward, keenly aware of the precipice behind him, the darkness beyond, fathomless.  Darkness that could swallow Demon-Fang without a glimmer.  He held the blade out over oblivion, its haunted steel shining blood-red in the perpetual blaze.

The oni hesitated, sensing what Hokagé meant to do.  Then a terrible smile broke across its sagging face, and its hundred eyes seemed to sparkle with cruel glee.

“Afraid, samurai?  Do it!  Toss the sword into the abyss and your soul with it!”  The creature gave a terrible, choking sort of laugh.  “You can no more rid yourself of that weapon than you can tear your own heart out and feed yourself upon it!”

Dangling over the yawning emptiness, Demon-Fang jabbered and screeched, its numberless voices chattering madly in Hokagé’s head.  For an instant, there was nothing else.

The oni seized its opportunity and sprang at him, claws drawn back to strike with force.

Yet for all its speed and fury, it seemed to Hokagé to move as if through deep water, every motion exaggerated and slow.  He saw the demon coming, saw his haunted sword hanging over the emptiness; he was so nearly free of it — and perhaps of his life, as well.  So nearly free of all of it.

Toss it away, and your soul with it.

Yes.  It could all be just that easy.

Hokagé swung Demon-Fang out in front of himself, let the blade move as if of its own will.  The haunted sword rose and turned and fell with brutal ease, cutting deep into flesh as hard as rawhide.

The many-eyed demon screeched with shocked agony and stumbled aside, claws sticky with its own black blood.

A feeling like joy surged through Hokagé, a sensation so long forgotten he scarcely recognized it.  It had an edge of savagery to it, but also an element of vitality, vast and powerful.

Hokagé strode forward, Demon-Fang flying, cleaving the sweltering air, opening raw gashes in his enemy’s corpulent flesh.  The demon fought back, claws lashing, jaws snapping, but the sword called Ma-kiba responded to each attack, driving the creature backward, its many eyes weeping bloody tears.

“Fool,” the oni growled, “you’ve bought your own damnation.”

“Not yet,” Hokagé answered, and struck one last time.

The demon toppled backward, its mangled claws clutching at its throat as if it might hold its severed head in place even as it fell away into black oblivion.

Almost at once, that blaze of life ebbed away and Hokagé dropped to his knees on the jagged stone.  His breath came in stinging rasps.  A smothering heaviness came over him, and fresh pain flared from the wounds the serpent had inflicted.  All around, the hellfire brilliance faded, glimmered away to formless gloom.  He could do no more.  Only the gods might save him now, though he could scarcely imagine why they, who had forsaken him in his devotion, would reach out to him now that his heart was empty.  Better to let death have him — death within death.  A nothingness beyond even the great circumference of the wheel of reincarnation.

Perhaps the only enlightenment was to be found in the endless dark.

Hokagé closed his eyes and gave himself to oblivion.

*     *     *

Light poured into emptiness, hectic-gray and muted yet impossibly bright after so very long in the gloom.  How long — ?  It might have been hours or ages, for all Hokagé’s weary mind could grasp of it.

He opened his eyes a bit at a time.  The light dizzied him, but he blinked the worst of the dazzle away and managed a look around.

A familiar wooden torii loomed overhead, vile moss clinging to its crossbeams.

“Thought you could break our contract so easily, eh?”

Hokagé unbound his helmet, let it fall aside, and gazed sidelong at the speaker.

The little red fox cocked its head in imitation.  “Look alive, samurai!”

Hokagé sat, head pounding.  He saw the raw, knotted scars through the holes in his armor where the serpent had struck, but despite all that had followed, there was no trace of injury, save for vague ghosts of pain.  He frowned at his odd companion.

“I said I’d come if I was truly needed, didn’t I?” Sasa said.  “I may not like to enter the Hell Realms, but I know the way.  And I know your scent.  I found you just inside the cavern — before it vanished again, obviously.  You collapsed not two hundred paces from the entrance, oh honorable warrior.”

Hokagé’s head thudded in rhythm with the ache in his shoulder, his exhausted mind spinning in whirlwind circles.  Collapsed not two hundred paces from the entrance?  Had everything beyond those first few stumbling paces into the gloom been some fever-dream inspired by the serpent’s venom?  Had any of it — the wraiths, the pitiful damned and their demonic torturers, the false god with the nameless master, any of it at all — been real?

“Then I have failed,” Hokagé said, head in his hands.

“Have you?” Sasa asked, ears perking up.  “Why would you say that?”

“The journey was nothing more than a hallucination,” Hokagé said.

Sasa snorted.  “Hokagé-san, you were dead when I found you.  Not asleep, not dreaming.  Your body may not have traveled far into the Hell Realms, but your spirit certainly did.”

Hokagé said nothing for a moment.  He dimly recalled a sensation of casting off some heavy burden, just where Sasa said his body had fallen . . . and the feeling of that weight returning as darkness had overtaken him there on the edge of oblivion.

He lifted his head, gave Sasa an appraising look.  “And I suppose my spirit carried Demon-Fang to the brink of the abyss?”

Sasa gave a gesture that might’ve been a fox’s version of a shrug.  “Why not?  That pointy plaything of yours has always belonged more to that world than to this one.”

Hokagé closed his eyes, breathed slow and deep.  He had never felt quite so lost in the penumbra between flesh and spirit, between the world of humanity and the many hidden realms beyond.  Yet of one thing he could be certain: he had made his choice.  And whether he had wandered through a vision or through the Hell Realms themselves, the decision was real.

As if to confirm this, he looked down at the blade lying beside him, so familiar yet alien now, as if he were seeing it for the first time.  The long, slender blade lying naked beside him.

Naked.

He frowned, struggling to grasp what it meant, to find it here stripped of its wraps.  The mere contemplation made his head throb with weariness.

“It’s a rare man who walks into the underworld and is allowed to walk back out,” Sasa said with a sort of scrutinizing glare.  “It seems the kami want you alive yet, né?”

Hokagé frowned.  He dared not speculate what more the kami might want from him, what other puppetry they had in mind.  And he couldn’t help but wonder: had their strange influence guided his decision, there on the edge of eternity?  Had the choice been his at all?

“I notice you seem to have held on to that glorified farmer’s sickle of yours,” Sasa continued.

Hokagé nodded.  “I thought that by casting away Ma-kiba, I could purge the darkness from my heart.  But I was a fool.  It is as much a part of me as the marrow of my bones.  I cannot be rid of it.  I can only attempt to master it.”

Sasa gave a sort of growl.  “Mmmmm.  Might have been nice if you’d made this decision before dragging me to Hell and back.  Fool’s errands are well enough for fools, but I have better to do with my time.”

“Like tormenting merchants with haunted trinkets and leading lost pilgrims into endless forests?” Hokagé asked, finally able to gather his feet under himself and rise.

“Among other things,” Sasa replied.

Hokagé gave Demon-Fang a long look, then hefted it, feeling its familiar weight in his grip again, and that sensation of the blade guiding his hands even as they guided the blade.  But . . . had the exchange shifted, oh-so-slightly?  Did the sword follow the subtlest bit more than it had before, answering his actions rather than provoking them?

Sasa shot the strange weapon a dubious glance.  “I certainly hope you made the correct choice, samurai.”

Hokagé hung Demon-Fang once more at his side above the two shorter swords.

“As do I, Sasa,” he said. “As do I.”

 _______________________________________________________

R. Michael Burns is an October child, a Colorado native and a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, and the Gainesville Fiction Writers.  His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines and his first novel, Windwalkers, was released by Evil Jester Press in May.  He lived for four and a half years in Japan before returning to the United States in 2005.  He currently resides in the deep dark swamps of Gainesville, Florida, with his feline familiar, Lilith.   More of his work, both fiction and non, can be found at www.rmichaelburns.com.  “Shadows and Hellfire” is the third of his tales of Hokagé the Samurai to appear in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly


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