SHADOWS AND FOXFIRE



SHADOWS AND FOXFIRE, by R. Michael Burns

 

 “Everything in this world is but a marionette show.”

–Yamamoto Tsunemoto,

Hagakure, ca. 1700

 

That night, the gods raged.

Fūjin’s winds lashed the towering pines, bowing them before him.  Raijin slammed the narrow valley with fists of rain, his thunder-bellows shaking the earth.  Caught in the heart of their fury, the young samurai bent under his straw rain cloak, his flesh sodden, dull with cold.  Such ferocity in this storm — he could almost believe that the kami had sent it to mock him, to ridicule his failed pilgrimage, leaving him lost and soaked and frozen in this deep valley.  He knew as well as any man the gods’ capacity for cruelty.

Blinking away the icy freshets that streamed down his face even beneath his wide sedge hat, Hokagé searched the darkness before him.

There — light, winking through the trees.

Hokagé quickened his pace, his waraji sandals squelching in the mud.

Such lights couldn’t be trusted, of course — not at any time, and less still on a wild autumn evening like this.  Even a samurai might be lured to danger by ghost-lights and flickers of foxfire on such a storm-cloaked night, but the thin hope of shelter spurred Hokagé onward.  All around, the wind howled like a chorus of demons, driving frigid squalls.

Hokagé cursed the carelessness that had led him here.  Just when he had lost his way, he couldn’t say.  Now, though, he could only seek shelter and hope daylight would restore his senses.

Lightning strode the mountaintops, livid brilliance outlining a shape not far ahead — a thatch-roofed building crouched at the foot of a steep hill.  Four forlorn oilpaper lanterns shimmered under the shelter of the eaves,  ghostly behind veils of rain.  He stumbled onto the veranda and shrugged off his straw raincoat.  Such a lonely and forsaken spot for an inn, he thought, but dared not bless his luck.  The gods were fickle, after all, and baited their traps with false hopes.

His half-numb fingers went to the hilt of the long sword at his side.  Prayer and magic trinkets had never protected him from the terrors of the world, but folded steel served well enough.  If indeed danger awaited him here, he would trust his blade to ensure his safety.

He removed his dripping hat and ran a hand over his fresh-shaven pate, tugging his topknot back into its proper shape.  It still felt out of place, that bound and oiled queue of hair, mark of the warrior class to which he had so recently ascended.  Proof, if any were needed, that the boy called Toshihiro had gone from the world, the last vestiges of him cast away somewhere far behind.

Shivering, Hokagé tugged the sliding door open.

The girl across the threshold stared at him for a moment, an unreadable expression on her face.  More than surprise — shock, almost, or fear?  Or perhaps a flicker of hope?  Then she noticed the swords at his side and her eyes went wide and she bowed deeply.  “Welcome, noble sir, welcome!  Please, come inside!”

She moved aside in a flutter of kimono silks.  Hokagé stepped out of his soaked waraji and into the dim vestibule.  As he did, another figure emerged from the shadows of some inner chamber, a bent and spindle-thin fellow with a withered face and a hooked nose.  He bowed and rose, offering a smile filled with straggling yellow teeth.

“Welcome, honored guest,” he said, voice all rattles and creaks.  “So kind of you to grace my humble inn.  It is a poor place for such a fine gentleman, but please allow me to offer you a room where you may dry yourself and rest until this dreadful storm passes.”

Behind the old innkeeper, other faces peered from the dark, then vanished again with a clamor of mumbles and muttered laughter.  At the sound, the girl seemed to tremble oh-so-slightly.

Hokagé bowed, but not too low, restrained by his new station.  “Your accommodations are . . . most suitable, master.”

The master of the inn gave another broken-porcelain smile.  “You honor me,” he said, bowing.  “Moriko-chan, see our guest to his room!”

He cast a dark look at the girl.  Moriko bowed and quickly ushered Hokagé up a steep flight of stairs, down a dingy corridor and into a tiny room.  The walls were mottled, the straw tatami mats ragged, but Hokagé hardly cared — a warrior had little need of creature comforts.  He was fortunate to have a roof above him and a floor beneath.

He thanked the girl with a nod.  Then, with due reverence, he unbound his swords and placed them on the floor — the room had no ceremonial alcove in which to store them properly.  For an instant he paused, admiring the long sword — a Toshinaga blade, from Ômi province, a gift from his master in recognition of his promotion.  Not priceless, but still of greater value than anything he had ever before possessed.  Testimony to what the new man, the warrior called Shadows-from-Firelight, had accomplished . . . and a reminder of all he had lost.

Hokagé turned his eyes away and began to peel off his soggy clothing, mud-spattered haori coat and undershirt . . . then stopped, all at once starkly aware of Moriko still standing just inside the door.  Something about her, something in the shine of her eyes or the set of her lips, made him hesitate, uncharacteristically self-conscious.  Certainly she was beautiful — hair like silken midnight, face pale as cherry blossoms, eyes dark and round.  Her beauty, though, didn’t explain the sudden doubt clouding his mind.

He regarded her with narrowed eyes.  She returned his gaze, face wholly innocent.

“Eh . . . excuse me,” he murmured.

“Oh!” Moriko said, like someone shaken from a dream.  “So sorry.  You must be cold!  Please, wear this.”  So saying, she placed a folded yukata just inside the doorway.  “I will bring saké to warm you up.”  She backed away with a bow, sliding the door closed after her.

Hokagé stripped to his breechcloth and donned the robe — a moth-eaten thing with a lingering odor of mildew to it, but dry.  He had just settled fatigue-heavy and still shivering onto one of the limp floor pillows when the door rattled open and Moriko reappeared.  Kneeling, she placed on the table before him a tray laden with lacquered bowls and a porcelain bottle attended by a single mismatched cup.  From somewhere behind her came voices, gruff, muffled — the men Hokagé had spotted earlier, perhaps.  How many travelers might find this place?  Without some better sense of where he was, he could venture no guess.

“Please, eat,” she said, nodding at the tray.

Hokagé picked up the chopsticks and prodded the food  — ragged cuts of sashimi, clumps of sticky rice, bitter pickled vegetables.  He had scarcely eaten in two days, but this food merely set his gut churning.

“Please,” Moriko said again, pouring the steaming rice wine and pushing the little cup toward him.

He took it and drank.  Warmth spread through him at once, ticklish and vaguely numbing.  Smiling, the girl refilled the cup and he drank again.  With each swallow of wine, the food grew a bit more palatable, and little by little he found his appetite again.

Moriko really was quite lovely, Hokagé thought, so delicate and refined.  Even her gowns were elegant, beautifully draped layers of embroidered silk that fit her small frame perfectly.  It all made her seem quite out of place in this shabby inn on this lost mountain byway.  She sat across from him, silent and watchful, eyes full of thoughts he could only guess at.

“Why do you stare at me?” he asked, again feeling that prickle of suspicion.  “You wonder about these?”  He ran his fingers over the straggling scars marring the left side of his face — scars which marked the night the novice priest had died and this shadow-warrior had risen.

The girl blushed and bowed her head.  “Please forgive me!  I only wondered why a strong, handsome young samurai looks so very weary.”

“I’ve had a long journey.”

Moriko filled his cup again, and he drank, almost reflexively, listening again to those other half-glimpsed guests.  Something odd about the sounds, muddy and guttural. . .  Yet the more he strained to hear, the less he could make out above the storm’s fury.

“It is not my business, of course,” Moriko went on.  “But I will listen if it suits you to talk of it.”

Perhaps the saké had loosened something inside him, or perhaps the earnest light in the girl’s eyes warmed the dead cinder of his turned-to-coal heart, because he heard himself saying, “I come from Aomizu-machi.  Do you know it?”

Moriko shook her head.

“It is my family’s village.  I have not visited in many years.”  He took another swallow of wine.

The girl smiled.  “Your family must have been pleased to see you.”

Hokagé said nothing for a moment, the silence disturbed now only by the constant drumbeat of rain on the thatched roof.  Then he sighed, acutely aware of misery and loss he’d thought properly interred at last.

“I went to visit their graves.”

Moriko lowered her head.

“So sorry.  I did not mean to cause you pain.”

“I was only a boy when they died,” Hokagé went on, letting himself tell it as he had only once before.  “Brigands from the Akkihito clan . . . they attacked us, without provocation.  Without mercy.  They slaughtered us and set the village ablaze.  My father, my mother, my elder brother, my two sisters . . . all murdered.  Everyone. . .  Only I survived.  Why the kami chose me, I know not.”

“Such a terrible story,” Moriko said.  She let her fingertips brush the back of his hand, then withdrew them quickly to refill his cup.

“I was to be a priest,” he went on, the words coming slowly, but each a tiny relief, like barbs plucked from a wound.  “To spend my life in the service of the kami.  But they abandoned me.”  He bit back his rising anger, chased it with another swallow of saké.

“So unreliable, the gods,” Moriko said, a strange light in her eyes.

“Lord Kumamuné of Yamagumo allowed me to join his forces,” Hokagé continued.  “I devoted myself to the bushido in the hope that I would someday be given the chance to put an end to the Akkihito — to all such barbarians and murderers.”

Across from him, Moriko nodded, waited for him to continue.  The expression with which she’d greeted him had resurfaced, expectant, or apprehensive, or even frightened.  Untranslatable.  In the warm haze of the rice wine, it scarcely seemed to matter.

“As a peasant soldier, I carried the banner of my Lord’s clan in many skirmishes, and brought honor upon his house.  Last month, we marched on the Akkihito bastion at Yukai-jo.  The siege lasted less than a week.  When we broke their defenses, they did not fight, nor commit seppuku like honorable men.  They fled in cowardice.  We hunted them through the mountains and struck down all that we could find.  I myself claimed thirteen enemy heads.  Perhaps I killed the men who slew my family.  I shall never know.”

“Then you have had your revenge,” Moriko said, a sort of bleak smile on her pink lips.  “Well done, honored sir.”

Hokagé stared into his empty cup and said nothing.  Any satisfaction he had earned in spilling Akkihito blood had guttered out of him before that blood had grown cool.

“After the battle, Kumamuné-sama made me samurai.  I returned to my village to tell my kinsmen of all that had happened.  I hoped their spirits might rest more easily if they knew that their murders were properly avenged.”

“I have no doubt of it,” the girl said with a dark smile — something almost fierce, even a bit cruel, like moonlight flashing from a dagger’s blade.

Hokagé nodded, letting his head hang heavy with drink.  He had felt nothing there, in the wreckage of Aomizu village, the charred remains overgrown with autumn foliage, only his own makeshift sotoba posts to mark the graves of his family.  The rest had been left to the animals and the elements, rendered untouchable by death, their picked-clean bones gleaming among the weeds and ruins.  As for spirits, though, he had seen, had sensed nothing.  Perhaps the ghosts of the dead had moved on after all, or simply scattered to the winds, or faded with the passage of time.  Wherever they might be, they had not been there.

Still, he had visited the graves and said what he’d gone to say, whether anyone might hear or not.  But whatever peace he’d naïvely hoped to find there had eluded him, and he had departed feeling emptier still than when he arrived, solitary as a mountain priest on an endless pilgrimage.

A profound quiet settled over the tiny room.  The storm had ebbed some, and the strangers’ voices from below had fallen still.

Lovely Moriko studied him, eyes intent.  Then, noticing the quiet, she glanced over her shoulder and rose abruptly.  “Excuse me,” she said, turning the empty saké cup over on the tray.  “I should leave you in peace.  Rest now, and think no more of your troubles.”

She backed away, gave a hasty bow, and departed without another word.

Hokagé blinked at the closed door as if unsure what he had just seen.  Then, with a yawn, he pushed aside the low table, slouched to the floor, and let his eyes droop closed.

*     *     *

In the darkness, movement, subtle as a cat on the prowl.

Hokagé’s eyes snapped open.  His left hand lashed out at the shadow hovering over him, latching around a narrow wrist.  His right hand drew his tanto dagger from its scabbard and brought it straight up, its blade kissing the flesh of an exposed throat.  The intruder, a phantom in the gloom, gave a muted cry.

The samurai glared into Moriko’s ghostly face.  The girl stared back, eyes round as twin moons shining down on him.

“Wait!” she sputtered.  “Please, I came to warn you–”

“Indeed,” Hokagé whispered, sitting up, keeping his blade at the girl’s throat.  “Your wine may have loosened my tongue some, but I am not fool enough to surrender my senses in such a place as this.  What is your game, girl?”

“No!” Moriko said, frantic, “Not my game!  My master, he insisted.  He wanted me to be sure you drank yourself into a stupor.  Then he and his associates would kill you as you slept and steal your belongings — my master especially covets your swords.  But I couldn’t allow them to do it, not after the tragic tale you told.”

“You associate with thieves, yet I am to believe that you are not one yourself?” Hokagé asked, the blade unwavering.

Moriko’s face shattered with grief.  “I am their prisoner here,” she said, tears shining on her cheeks.  “They keep me like a cur. . .  If I ever tried to flee, they would surely kill me.  I’ve had no choice but to serve them . . . until now.”

“Eh?”

“You are samurai,” Moriko said, breathless.  “You can help me.  Protect me.  Together, we can escape this place!”

Hokagé said nothing, only studied the girl’s face, naked with fear.

“We must hurry!” she said in her tiny, fragile tones.  “They will come at the hour of the tiger!  I dared not warn you sooner, and now time is so short — ”

Even as she spoke, there came from the hall beyond the chamber the low moan of ancient floorboards shifting under some prowler’s weight.

Hokagé gave Moriko a last look, trying as best his instincts could manage to read her eyes in the dark.  Something in them denied trust, but her fear seemed genuine enough, and he could see no option now but to accept her strange tale and prepare himself for whatever might come next.

Still clutching her fine wrist, Hokagé traded the dagger for the long Toshinaga blade, then rose and stood beside the doorway, dragging Moriko along with him.  He released her and placed his hand over her mouth.  With a glare, he demanded her silence.  She nodded and pinched her rose-petal lips tight.  In the deep gloom, she looked as pale and insubstantial as a specter, a wraith there beside him.

Scarcely breathing, Hokagé stood, waiting.

The shoji door slid open a hand’s span, then further.  A rawboned figure in ragged garb the color of thunder clouds slipped into the room, feeble light winking from the knife in his hand.  Noiseless, he crouched beside the neglected table and tossed aside the tangled blankets.

“Where — ?” the intruder demanded, voice a strangled croak.

Hokagé struck even as the bewildered man rose to look for his missing prey.  The Toshinaga blade plunged through the dark, deep into the fellow’s chest.  The man gave a snarling cry, something more fury than pain, as if outraged at the samurai’s audacity, his knife slashing the air blindly.  He raised his head and for the first time Hokagé saw his face — an oblong, misshapen thing, corpse-pale and green with mold and decay, sunken eyes as red as blood-blisters, mouth filled with teeth that jutted and leaned like splintered chopsticks.

From somewhere behind Hokagé, Moriko gave a most unladylike cry of shocked disgust.

The impaled creature screeched at its attacker, then staggered forward, driving Hokagé’s sword deeper into its chest, heedless of pain.  It lashed out again with its knife, and Hokagé saw the hand that gripped the blade was  emaciated, the nails yellow and jagged as claws.  He ducked away, just avoiding the weapon’s path, and gave his sword a twist, snapping balsa-brittle ribs under moldering gray skin.

Moriko gave another yelp as a second sickly figure lurched into the chamber, a rusted short sword in its corpselike grip.

Hokagé sidestepped, slamming the run-through intruder into its companion.  Wrenching his sword free, he feinted left, fell back and struck again.  The Toshinaga blade flicked and stabbed, biting into rotten flesh, brackish black water splashing from the wounds.  The monster gave a horrible sort of cackle, then came on again, its knife darting about like a wasp, swift and stinging.  The second creature followed, gnashing its gruesome fangs, waving its sword.

Hokagé took another pace away, backing Moriko into the corner of the room, keeping himself between her and the mewling creatures.  The second beast, an almost-perfect twin of its companion, took a sudden swipe from behind the first.  Hokagé parried the blow; a severed claw flopped to the floor, still holding its rust-stained sword.  The creature spluttered with wrath, then came again in a flash of teeth.  Pain blazed up the samurai’s arm as fangs tore into his naked flesh, but his sword responded quick as a serpent’s tongue.  The creature’s jaw dropped open like a sprung hinge . . . and then its head fell free of its spindly neck.  The body crumpled to the floor — but still its claws lashed and clutched, still its legs kicked and flailed, its every impulse bent on attack.  The severed head worked its rotten lips and wagged its wormlike tongue and gnawed chunks from the rotten tatami.

Hokagé forgot the fallen thing at once, and the pain sizzling through his arm, his whole attention focused on his remaining opponent.  The ghastly creature swung its knife wild but fast, slashing and stabbing mindlessly, so random in its attacks that Hokagé could scarcely anticipate a single action.  He turned aside each strike as much by luck as skill.

“Swords,” the thing hissed, “mine.”

The creature took a stumbling step forward, thrusting straight ahead with its knife, burying the blade in the rotten plaster wall inches from Hokagé’s scarred face.

Hokagé saw his chance and seized it.  His sword whickered through the air with the precision of a calligrapher’s brush dancing over parchment.  The creature, all rage and hunger, gave up its trapped weapon and came on unarmed, teeth questing for Hokagé’s unguarded throat.  It managed one last step before the samurai sliced its legs out from under it, and had scarcely hit the floor when the Toshinaga blade fell again, cleaving its head from its shoulders.

On the mildewed tatami, the broken bodies and severed limbs went on twitching, writhing.

Hokagé prodded the ghastly things with the tip of his sword, eyes narrowed.

Jikininki,” he muttered, and the dismembered things seemed to flinch from the word.  No mere thieves, these, but ghoulish monstrosities, their karma poisoned by their avarice, their wretched souls doomed to be reborn into these debased forms through countless lifetimes, forever failing to satisfy their insatiable greed.

Deep within him, the ghost of the priest he had never fully become mourned for these pitiful beings, and for his own inability to help them.  But he had long ago abandoned the way of the kami in favor of the way of the warrior, just as these creatures had abandoned their humanity for covetousness.  He could do nothing for them now.

Instead, he tore several long strips from their tattered robes and bound his wounds as best he could.

“Horrible,” Moriko said from behind him — too overwhelmed, it seemed, to offer any assistance.

His injuries dressed for now, Hokagé took in the rest of the room, seeing it fully for the first time since he’d awakened — the water-stained ceiling, the crumbling wattle-and-daub walls, the mats sunken and insect-eaten.  It all had the look of long abandonment to it, as if no living soul had set foot within for many years.  Only some now-broken magic, Hokagé guessed, had given the shunned place any hint of civility at all — enough, just, to lure in the occasional wayward traveler, to tempt lost men to their doom, like cicadas snagged in a spider’s web.

“Come,” Hokagé said, quickly tugging on his still-damp clothes, “I should get you to safety before their master comes for us both.”

But Moriko only shook her head.

“Forgive me, but I cannot leave — not yet.”

“There is no time to –”

“I cannot!” the girl said, weeping now.  “The master, he took something from me, something precious, and I cannot leave without it, I dare not –”

“This is no time to concern yourself with trinkets,” Hokagé growled, stealing a peek into the darkened hall then scowling at Moriko.  But again she shook her head, adamant.

“Please, I must have it!” she said, fighting back a sob.  “It is an heirloom of my family — I would disgrace myself and all my kin were I to lose it.  Leave me if you must, but I cannot retrieve it by myself, and I dare not go without it.”

Hokagé stared at the girl.  She looked so tiny, so helpless in her corner, flinching with each quiet thump and scrape of the cut-apart things scattered over the straw mats.  Again instinct warned him not to trust her, and again some voice in his heart begged for compassion.

The samurai let out a slow sigh.

“Where is your master’s chamber?” he asked.

*     *     *

They paused outside the door of the inn’s topmost room, listening.  At first, Hokagé could hear nothing over the sounds of the tempest outside, water dribbling through the rotten roof, pattering to the floor.  Then he perceived a sort of guttering snort, as of some feral thing sleeping fitfully.  It was all the help he was apt to get.

Hokagé gave his companion a warning look, then wrenched the door open and stepped into the room, sword ready.

In an instant, he took in the whole scene — the ghoul’s den, the thieves’ cache.  Heaped clothes and scattered coins, lacquered boxes and porcelain ware, worthless farmers’ tools and countless other trivial things, all the plunder from previous victims.  And scattered throughout, human bones, too many to count, gnawed and broken and discarded, black with long-dried blood and scraps of crusted meat.

For a heartbeat’s time, nothing stirred.

Then the master of the inn sprang from its bed of rags, robes hanging in filthy tatters, all pretense of humanity abandoned now, in the deep of night.  Its jaw gaped in a sort of madman’s grin, revealing row after row of thorny teeth, maw as wide and deep as a stone well.

“I will have those swords,” it rasped, snatching up a long, elegant blade, one of the finer things in its stash, and brandishing it.  The master, Hokagé saw, moved with greater control, greater deliberation than its companions had managed.

Hokagé stood motionless, reading his enemy and waiting, letting instinct guide his response to whatever it might do.

The creature lunged, its pilfered sword held straight out before it — but even as he batted it aside, Hokagé realized the thrust had been a ruse, leaving him open to the jikininki‘s following claw.  He turned the Toshinaga sword just in time to intercept the attack with the flat of the blade.  Unfaltering, the ghoul pressed forward, holding its place between the samurai and its treasures, using its steel to keep Hokagé’s sword occupied as it snatched his shoulder in its free claw.  Hissing, it tilted its head, jaws angling for his throat, deadly-quick.  Hokagé gave a mighty heave, forcing the creature back a precious few inches, fangs snapping shut just shy of their target.

With a warrior yell, Hokagé sank the Toshinaga blade into the spongy hollow at the base of the ghoul’s throat, then twisted and tore the sword free, shredding rotten flesh and brittle bone.  The katana turned and fell, cleft the creature’s forearm from its elbow — and still the claw kept its crushing purchase on his shoulder, blood pulsing from five deepening wounds there.

Hokagé put out one foot and kicked the master away, the creature’s sword narrowly missing his leg as he toppled to the floor.  He yanked the disembodied claw from his shoulder and flung it aside, then rose into a crouch, forcing himself to wait.  Let his every action answer his enemy’s.

“There!” Moriko cried, shattering the moment.  “It’s there!”

At the edge of his vision, he saw her waving frantically from the doorway — pointing at a small silk bag slumped up against a pile of other stolen belongings, no more than a hand’s span from where the hideous master stood.  Something about the bag — its delicate stitching, its simple elegance — seemed to mark it as hers and hers alone.

The jikininki‘s eyes flickered, following the girl’s gesture.

Hokagé struck.

The Toshinaga blade clove the dark, a wink of polished metal in the black.  The ghoul flopped backward, diving just under the sword’s deadly arc, scrambling across the rotten straw mat to its treasure.  It cast its sword aside and snatched up the bag with its remaining hand, clutching the thing like a crazed woman cradling an infant.

Then Hokagé saw that he hadn’t missed the creature after all.  As it crouched, clinging to its prize, brackish, watery blood spilled down its face, and a lopsided bowl of skull, garnished with ragged flesh and wiry hair, dropped to the floor at its feet.  The ghoul glanced down at its severed skull cap, then up again at Hokagé.

And grinned that lunatic’s grin.

“You waste your strength, boy!” it bellowed, its voice a ragged snarl.  “You cannot take what’s mine — and now you are mine, too!  Even the gods won’t protect you here, foolish child.  They have forsaken this valley and all who enter it!”

Despite the press of his sword in his hand, the jikininki‘s words sent a chill through Hokagé, a sensation of ice and darkness he hadn’t experienced since the night of the Akkihito, the slaughter.  Fear.  The vast, suffocating horror of utter abandonment.  How easy to accept that this haunted vale was shunned by the gods — that he, too, was shunned, cut off from them for this lifetime and countless others to come.  For all the times he had said and thought it, he had never fully believed it.  But here, in this hellish place, faced with an undying foe, it had the sting of absolute truth to it.

“Drop your sword and try to run, boy!” the ghoul screeched.  “You will get nothing of mine!  All you’ll find here is death!”

With that fatal word, it lurched again.  Acting purely on instinct, Hokagé ducked and whirled, striking out for the embroidered bag.  The ghoul master yanked back with his remaining talon, screeching with fury.  “Mine!” it cried, like a petulant child.  “It’s mine!  It’s all mine!

Framed in the doorway, Moriko watched like a spectator at some mad sport, eyes wide with fear.

Hokagé swung the Toshinaga sword, one-handed.

The ghoul gave a last desperate tug.

The bag’s seams split, spilling its contents to the floor at the samurai’s feet — just beside the ghoul’s still-grasping claw.  Moriko yelped again, a pitiful, plaintive sound.

For a single thunderstruck moment, both Hokagé and the jikininki gaped down at the thing that had fallen from the bag — a pearl-bright orb about the size of a man’s clenched fist, starlight-vivid in the darkness.

The ghoul master made a low noise in its throat: aaaaaahhh.

Hokagé glowered at Moriko, his gaze piercing.  Knowing.

The girl, still barred from her strange treasure by the ghoul and its enemy, stared back with a hopeless, naked expression on her round white face.

Hokagé bit down on the rage that flashed through him, extinguishing it by force of will.  For a rare moment, he found himself at a loss, unable to choose his next action, unsure what path wisdom suggested.

The ghoul master had no such qualms.  It seized the opportunity, snapping at the samurai like a rabid dog, snatching a ragged divot of flesh from his upper arm.  Hokagé spun and dropped to the floor, snatching up the orb in fingers that sizzled with pain.

For the barest of instants, he felt it in his grasp, warm and curiously alive, measured its weight and worth — and its owner’s worth as well.  So much to be gained by keeping it, so much to be lost by returning it . . . and yet. . .  He cast doubt aside, and cast the ball away with it.  He and the ghoul master watched together as the sphere arced through the air, a pale moon scudding across a winter sky.

Moriko caught it, gazed down at it with an expression of wondering relief . . . perhaps even a twinge of regret.  Then she lifted the fold of her gown and cradled the shining sphere to her chest.  The light blazed — and winked out.  Gone, along with the sphere itself.  And yet, Hokagé thought, the glow shone still in her dark eyes.

Ever a slave to its greed, the ghoul master spun to chase its lost plunder.  Hokagé leapt to his feet and struck one last time, the Toshinaga blade splitting the dark like lightning.

The ghoul master took a single wobbling step, then twisted to the floor in a hideous heap, its body split from crown to groin.  Even as Hokagé sheathed his sword, the jikininki went on thrashing, mindless as a beached fish, maggots and tiger beetle larvae squirming in its fetid black viscera.

In the doorway, Moriko gave Hokagé a final glance — then turned and fled into the night.

Acting on some incomprehensible instinct, Hokagé followed.

*     *     *

He chased her through thickets and streams swollen with rainwater, followed flashes of movement between the trees, splashing through the mire of mud and dead leaves, until it seemed he was only a shadow following a shadow.

Then he burst into a clearing, and stopped.

Not ten paces away, a single lonesome torii gate rose among the trees, weathered yet graceful, austere.  Beyond, a miniature shrine hunkered beneath a green copper roof, its little altar empty but for a few tenacious cobwebs.  It stood flanked by two carved-stone foxes, their ears upright and alert, their tails rising in elegant curls behind them.

Moriko knelt at the foot of the altar, her silken kimono pooled around her.  Though the rain still fell in driving veils, the gown, he saw, was perfectly dry.

Lightning flashed behind the hills, painting the foreground an unspoiled black.  In its aftermath, Hokagé saw a new shape perched atop the steep-pitched roof — a great fox, as white as fresh-fallen snow, nine broad tails fanned out behind its lean form.

“Great-grandfather,” Moriko said, her voice reverent but no longer even mildly feminine.  Indeed, it wasn’t the girl at all, Hokagé saw, because the girl had vanished just as the great spirit had appeared.  In her place sat a small red fox, fur matted with rain and mud.

“Sasa-kun,” the great white fox said, in a voice as resonant as the thunder, “again you disappoint me!”

The fox — Little One, as the other had called it — bowed its head meekly, ears folded.

“I only meant to have some fun.  Isn’t that what we kitsuné do?  Is that not your legacy, oh venerated Inari-sama?”

Hokagé caught his breath.  Inari-sama.  So — he was in the presence of the Fox God himself, and one of his countless pups.

“You were careless!” boomed Inari, with an angry flick of his tail.  “Didn’t recognize those jikininki for what they were, did you?  And so you let them steal your fox-orb.”  Inari cocked his head, made a deep, disapproving sound in his throat.  “Had it not been for the kindness of that samurai, you would have been trapped in that human shape until old age claimed you just as it claims them!”

“But . . . but I did fool him,” the fox said in its boyish voice, cocking its head.  “Obviously he fell in love with me, just as I’d planned — poor helpless maid, pressed to horrible crimes by murderous thugs.  Surely only a man mad with love would risk his life to return a poor girl’s bauble!”

“Oh?” Inari boomed.  “Shall we ask him?  Samurai-sama, come forth!”

Even one who had abandoned the way of the gods could not deny that summons.  Hokagé strode forward, legs half numb, and bowed deeply before the alabaster figure.

“Tell me, samurai-sama,” Inari said, an edge of amusement in his resonant voice, “did you return my fifteenth great-grandson’s orb because your lust for his maiden’s disguise had blinded you?  Or did some other motive move your hand?”

Eyes downcast, Hokagé said, “I . . . felt pity for your great-grandchild.  It seemed the correct action.”

“Is that so?” said Inari, with something like a smile on his long white muzzle.  “We shall see just how correct.  Sasa-kun, you were careless, and very nearly lost the heart of your power.  I suppose I might have warned you about the jikininki — but where would the fun have been in that — and what might you have learned?”  Now the Fox God turned his gaze down on the young warrior, still bowed before him.  “Samurai-sama, your kindness was brave indeed — but even great kindness may have unintended consequences.  My great-grandson owes his life to you, and this makes you responsible for that life.  Well, better you than me!”  The Fox God smiled then, a gleam of fierce glee in his eyes.  “You imagined yourself forsaken by the gods, eh?  Then from this day forth you shall have one for your constant companion — whether you would wish it or not!  Forever hereafter your destinies shall be intertwined, joined as are the strands of a spider’s web — separate, yet crossing frequently, and always dependent each upon the other.  Break one and all are weakened.  Sever but a few, and all fail.”

Hokagé felt objections rising in his throat, but again Inari spoke before he might give voice to them.

“Do not curse me, samurai,” he said, and there was a gentleness in his tone now.  “You passed this way because you sought to be free of the loss of your family, and of the man you might have become.  But you cannot retrace your steps and bring the dead back from the past with you.  That path leads only to sorrow.  Even among your comrades, you are a solitary man, Hokagé-san — yes, I have seen it.  You have walked alone for far too long.  It is time you had a companion.”

Hokagé could only answer with a low bow, knowing that no words would alter this decree.  This was karma, and karma could not be undone.

Sasa had no such sense.

“Wait!” he barked, looking straight up into his great-grandfather’s eyes.  “Don’t I have any say in –”

“It is done, Sasa-kun, so I hope that you shall make the best of it.  I suggest you begin by learning something of humility!”

As the Fox God finished, lightning flared and thunder droned.  By the time it fell silent, the rain had stopped and the shrine’s patinated rooftop stood empty, illuminated now by the faintest glow of daybreak.

The little red fox looked up at the samurai.  The samurai gazed down at the fox.

“So,” Sasa said at last, the word perfectly clear despite the vulpine snout that shaped it, “what now?”

Hokagé thought a moment, but the future seemed more uncertain to him than it had since the day he’d first raised a katana — a road cloaked in fog, keeping its secrets.

“I shall return to Yamagumo,” he said at last, “to the service of Lord Kumamuné.  I cannot say what may happen beyond that, or along the way.”

“Well,” Sasa said, “I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?”

Hokagé felt the slightest of smiles rise to his lips.  “Yes, Sasa-kun,” he said.  “I suppose we will.”

 ____________________________________________________________

R. Michael Burns is an October child and erstwhile English teacher who has published more than two dozen short stories as well as the novel Windwalkers from Evil Jester Press.  He lived in Japan from 2000 to 2005 before moving to the deepest darkest swamps of central Florida.  “Shadows and Foxfire” is the fourth tale of the samurai Hokagé. 


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