SHADOWS FROM FIRELIGHT



SHADOWS FROM FIRELIGHT, by R. Michael Burns

“The way of the samurai is to be found in death.”

 

— Yamamoto Tsunemoto, Hagakuré

 

The figure on the moon-viewing balcony of Yamagumo Castle might’ve been no more than a shadow but for the faintest shimmer of starlight in his dark, attentive eyes.  His face was a phantom’s, scarred flesh hidden beneath a featureless black mask.  The man called Hokagé — Shadows from Firelight — seemed scarcely to draw breath as he kept his post, a deeper shade of gloom in the midnight dark.

In the compound below, other samurai manned the gates, dotting the meandering line of the outer wall, expectant.  Now and then one of them glanced at the balcony then turned away, shaking his head.  Hokagé had seen their eyebrows rise when he’d volunteered to take this perch high atop the central keep where surely no intruder could reach — and where, therefore, no glory could follow.  But their master, Kumamuné-sama, had simply nodded assent, and none dared question the daimyo.

From beyond the sliding screen at his back, Hokagé heard the murmur of Lady Kimiko’s breathing, rasping and labored — the voice of a nameless affliction.  On ordinary nights, the daimyo’s daughter would sleep in the residential quarters below.  But six days ago, the girl had awakened weak and pale, her thoughts slippery and vague.  She seemed somehow less there, her attendants said — insubstantial as a wraith.  The Yamagumo physicians had given her moxa treatments and powders to sip with her tea; the priests burned incense and recited sutras for her.  But neither medicine nor the Goddess of Mercy had restored the girl’s health, and with each new morning her color faded more, her body withering despite the child growing within her.  This morning, delirious, she’d murmured of noises in the night, sounds like knives scraping over the terra cotta roof-tiles, strange lights invading her chamber.  It was absurd, of course — even the shinobi assassins of Iga could never creep past these high, well-guarded walls, nor walk the halls without the nightingale floors singing warnings of their presence.

But Lord Kumamuné knew well enough that threats stranger and more cruel than merely human rivals still prowled the world, demons cloaked in night, and would take no risks with his daughter-in-law’s life while his potential heir ripened in her womb.  Late in winter, his only son, Masahiro, had fallen in battle, and Kumamuné himself was too old to father another child.  If the sun set on Kimiko’s life, eternal darkness would fall over the Kumamuné line.  So his lordship had moved the girl to the room atop the central keep, his highest-ranking samurai guarding every gate and arrow-loop, poised to cut down any night-haunter that dared approach Kimiko.

Hokagé gazed over the landscape, terraced rice paddies marching up the hillsides, the mountains beyond no more than saw-toothed lines against the star-scattered sky.  No hint of danger.  The drum tower remained silent.  But his every instinct whispered warnings of an unknown threat, an evil he could sense too vaguely to name.

Hokagé left his prized Toshinaga blade sheathed.  A warrior’s greatest skill was patience, reacting only when the attack came.  Those who acted early too often guessed wrong.

In her chamber, Kimiko uttered a pitiful moan, then slipped back into that terrible rasping.  Otherwise, only cricket-song and the murmur of the breeze in the eaves of the castle’s plover-winged rooftops disturbed the quiet.  Except . . . hadn’t the wind turned, grown subtly stronger?  And the sky — only moments ago shimmering-clear, now it hid behind a heavy drapery of ashen clouds.

Lightning stung a nearby peak; thunder snarled in its wake.

Below, armored men stole glimpses of the cloud cover.  Hokagé heard them muttering.  Then came another sound, from above — like steel blades scraping terra cotta.  And, very softly, the whine of hinges.

Hokagé came to life at once.  Abandoning the formalities protocol ordinarily demanded, he shoved Kimiko’s chamber door open and stepped in, hand on the Toshinaga blade’s hilt, taking in the scene quick as the lightning flashing outside.

Lady Kimiko lay in a tangle of bedclothes, ebon hair straggling across the straw tatami mats, mouth open in a voiceless scream.  Ghastly green light bathed her pale face, shining from a paper lantern which bobbed on the darkness like a cork in water.  Even as Hokagé gazed in wonder, a pale green flicker appeared in the girl’s yawning mouth, and out flew a single glowing firefly.  It made one dazed turn, then disappeared into the strange, hovering lantern through a tiny gash in the oilpaper.

Hokagé ripped his sword from its sheath and felt its tip snick through something as hard as stiffened leather — a single gnarled birdlike talon, reaching through the bell-shaped window whose wooden shutter he’d heard creaking open.  The sword turned and struck again, but already the monstrous claw had withdrawn into the night, carrying the firefly-lit lantern with it.

He left the whimpering girl to her attendants and dashed onto the balcony.  Monkey-lithe and cat-quick, he climbed the railing, grasped the end-tiles and hoisted himself onto the sweeping slope of the roof.  He scrambled over the fishbone ridges of the pantiles, catching just a glimpse of a shape, a malformed shadow against the angry sea of clouds.  He reached the castle’s summit just as the beast beat its enormous wings and rose toward the veiled sky.

Hokagé leapt.

For an instant he imagined he’d misjudged the creature’s height and speed, saw himself missing his target, tumbling down the corrugated tiles and plunging over the edge to break like a summer-ripe melon on the stone flagging below.

Then the fingers of his free hand closed on the creature’s talon and he dangled there, high over the many-tiered rooftops and shadowed compounds of Yamagumo-jo.

In the beast’s other claw the paper lantern bobbed and swayed, tantalizingly close.

All at once Hokagé felt the weight of his armor, and his body in it, impossibly heavy, and knew he could maintain his grip only a moment longer.  With a practiced stab he slipped the katana into its sheath and made a swipe for the lantern.  At the same instant, the creature beat its wings again, blasting chill air over him and sending the lantern twisting out of reach.  He could do nothing now but hold on and trust the gods — small comfort given how they had failed him in the past.

Hokagé lunged with his dangling hand for the monster’s birdlike toe, caught it.  Even through the tanned skin of his gloves he could feel the thing’s flesh, rough as pine bark.  He stole an upward glance, but saw only long dark feathers.

The air grew icy as they surged through the clouds which had both heralded and hidden the monster’s approach.  The world below sank into gray oblivion, the tide of clouds washing everything else away — even the distinction between earth and sky.  Hokagé felt his fingers slip a notch as mist slicked his gloves.  Gravity would have him any moment now.

The expectation of death touched nothing inside him.  He’d long since learned to think of himself as one already dead.  Even before he’d started down the path of bushido — the way of the warrior — he had understood this concept better by far than most men.

The monster carried him up out of the gray, the clouds spreading out below like a vast roiling sea.  Far off a single island prodded the starry sky — a sheer peak, white as fresh-fallen snow.  Hokagé frowned.  No mountain in all Kansai stood half so high.  Only Fuji-san, many days northeast of Kumamuné’s castle, stood tall enough for winter to reign atop while summer held court below.

He had just time enough to regret that death would keep him from ever discovering the impossible pinnacle’s name or nature — then his grip failed and he dropped, grasping at empty air, hands closing on something as thick and bristly as a peasant’s straw raincoat.

Whatever it was, it didn’t save him.

He caught a single last look at the monster’s shape — a fever-dream hybrid of man and bird — then the clouds swallowed him once more.

For what seemed a very long time, he fell, swift as an arrow from the bowstring.  Only when he emerged from the clouds, the trees below rising toward him like a thousand daggers, did his head clear enough for him to recognize what his fingers had snagged: two broad, flat feathers from the monster’s tail.  A wild notion flashed through his mind and he acted on it knowing it was madness.  He grasped the feathers with all his strength and spread them out across the wind in the mad hope they might bear him upon the gales like a great paper kite.

The midsummer breeze billowed under him and he felt himself cutting through the drafts. . . but still downward, the hills and trees growing larger with deadly speed.  Hokagé closed his eyes and offered himself to death, and whatever might follow.

But the rocky earth denied him.  An instant before impact, a gust blasted up from the slopes below and caught his stolen wings.  For a glorious few seconds he rode the draft — then his overtaxed arms gave out, and he fell.

He hit the mountainside with a bone-shuddering thud, toppled and flopped through the brush and came at last to a stop.

For an instant, he lay still, slowing his breathing as he stared into the star-strewn sky.

Then, slowly, he sat up.  His fingers throbbed from gripping the monster’s talon and feathers, and a hundred other bruises and scrapes stung his flesh, but his body as a whole seemed functional enough.  Wincing, he gathered his feet under him and rose.

After a bit of searching he located his flame-horned helmet and the sandal he’d lost in the landing.  He paused a moment to gaze again at the sky — clear now, without the faintest blemish of cloud — then tucked the battered feathers into his belt and started toward home.

*     *     *

The journey home had taken him through what was left of that night and well into the next morning.  Now, not even a full day later, he found himself leaving again, passing through the broad-winged torii gate leading into the vermillion compound of the Hachiman Shrine on the outskirts of town.  For a moment, he paused atop the rainbow bridge which spanned the shrine’s lotus-dappled pond and gazed into the water, watching the koi dart about beneath the glassy surface.  He felt uneasy in this sanctified place, unwelcome.  Coming here mostly served to remind him of his estrangement from the gods, and what had caused it.

Unbidden memories stormed through his mind — the thunder of horses’ hooves shaking the novice priest Toshihiro from his morning meditation like the peals of war drums.  Battle-shouts, sudden screams.  The Akkihito had swept through the village of Aomizu like a legion of demons, spears bristling, torches ablaze.  It had all been a show, a demonstration of their strength and ruthlessness — the slaughter of farmers, women and children.  The brigands had even raided the town’s shrine, cutting down the priests and priestesses as they scrambled in terror, crying prayers to the unheeding kami, the gods suddenly deaf or absent.  A spiked glove to the face had left him disfigured and seemingly lifeless in the dust.

When at last he’d stirred, the killers had fled, night falling in their wake.  But it wasn’t dark.  Flames leapt and danced all around, devouring cedar buildings, consuming heavy thatch roofs with terrible hunger.  Bodies lay everywhere, broken and savaged.  Dazed, Toshihiro had stumbled through the blazing ruin, staring at the mangled remains of everyone who had populated his life . . . and felt nothing.  Even the still-bleeding gashes carved into his left cheek caused him no pain.

And he’d understood, then, what that profound numbness meant:  He was dead, too.  What had risen was no more than a shade, darkness thrown across the blood-damp earth by the conflagration.  Shadows from firelight.  Hokagé.

“You look so lost, so lonesome.”

Hokagé blinked out of his reverie, looked up.

A beautiful girl in an opulent kimono stood a few feet away, a shy blush on her high, pale cheeks.  “Perhaps you would enjoy some company?”

“I have no need of such companionship, Sasa-kun,” Hokagé answered, giving the masculine honorific a wry emphasis.

The maiden’s smile vanished.  “You might at least pretend to be fooled,” she said in a decidedly unladylike growl.

“You’ve become forgetful,” Hokagé said, nodding at the pond.  In the water danced the ghostly image of an intricately embroidered gown, a sandy red fox’s head poking from its neckline, slender paws dangling from the sleeves.

“Water!” the girl sneered.  She shook her head fiercely and her clothing shimmered, disintegrated into a thousand points of color that blew away like cherry-blossom petals on a sudden wind.  When the air settled, only a rather ordinary looking fox remained.  “I thought I was rather becoming,” the animal grumbled.

Hokagé merely grunted.  He’d known the shape-shifter for years, but still found it odd to hear well-articulated words coming from that short white muzzle.

Sasa cocked his head, a sort of canine shrug, taking in their surroundings.  “Strange to find you here,” he observed, “I thought you’d cast aside all faith in the gods.  And dressed in the garb of a mountain priest, no less.  Embarking on some foolish quest for enlightenment or wisdom or whatever nonsense?”

Hokagé studied the shrine on the hillside, a forest of red columns and intricately carved eaves beneath graceful, patinated roofs.  Flocks of gray doves, sacred to the War God, Hachiman, wheeled through the air above.  So many elegant symbols of divinity adorning the grand building, reminders of the omnipresence of the kami. And all just so much wood and paint and metal — a grand, vacant spectacle.  Looking on it, he felt like a bamboo man — hard and hollow.

“The clothes are a disguise for a long journey,” Hokagé said.  “As for my business here, it is none of yours.”

“Whatever you like,” Sasa snorted and, with a flick of his broad tail, turned away to sulk ostentatiously.

Ignoring him, Hokagé slung his pack over his back, then raised his shakujō and strode through the inner gates, the prayer staff’s iron rings chiming with each step.

He paused at a dragon-shaped copper font, poured icy water over his hands, tipped a cupful into his mouth and spat it onto the pebbles around the vessel.  Cleansed now as custom demanded, he strode on, between the lion-like koma inu which flanked the path.  He climbed the broad stone stairs and halted at the threshold of the inner sanctuary, beneath the fierce gazes of the statues adorning the altar.  In the candle-flicker, the wings of the paper doves left as devotions seemed almost to flutter, yearning for flight.  Hands together, Hokagé bowed deeply, then produced a single coin from the purse on his belt and tossed it into the slatted wooden offerings box.  He clapped his hands and bowed once more, whispering the brief prayer he’d composed that morning:

“Venerated Hachiman, Spirit of War, aid me in my noble work, and help me to gain victory over my enemy, who is your enemy also.  Our adversary hides his evil under the cloak of night, with no regard to honor.  His very existence shames the gods — for how can men respect the gods when the gods allow such beings to exist in defiance of the order they created?  Bring me victory, and I shall bring you glory.”

But even as he went through the ritual motions, Sasa’s remark echoed through his memory.  Had he cast aside all faith?  He still believed in the kami, to be sure — their presence on the Dragonfly Isle was as obvious as the wind and rain, as the tides and seasons.  Yet he couldn’t forget how they had forsaken him in the hour of his greatest need; how, despite his devotion, the gods had allowed the Akkihito brigands to raze his village and slaughter all those he’d loved — his mother and father, his elder brother and younger sisters.  He could never forgive the gods for that . . . nor for leaving him to live, abandoning him to his grief.  It was an intolerable mockery.

Rage blazed inside him, filling the deathly emptiness he’d felt as he first wandered the wreckage of his village.  He’d hovered over the smoldering ruins of his family home, his father’s trampled corpse, and torn away the bloodied tatters of his priestly robes — abandoning the gods as they had abandoned him.

In time he had offered his services to the warlord Kumamuné, a sworn enemy of the Akkihito, and devoted himself to the bushido.  As a spearman he’d proven himself in numerous skirmishes, earning the right to carry the ō uma jirushi, the standard bearing the stylized bear claw of the Kumamuné family crest.

Then had come the Autumn Campaign and the Battle of Yūkai-jo, when Kumamuné’s forces laid siege to the mountain fortress of the Akkihito.  On the eighth morning of the assault, they had breeched the castle’s eastern gate and swarmed the stronghold, slaughtering the degenerate clan and scattering the few who managed to flee, too cowardly to commit seppuku and follow their masters into death.  The earth had gone muddy with spilled blood; Hokagé himself had claimed a half-dozen Akkihito heads that day.  The viciousness of it all had doused the flame of hatred in him . . . yet even in vengeance Hokagé found no satisfaction, nothing to fill the cooling emptiness.  He’d answered brutality with brutality, and still he was only a phantom, the last lingering shadow cast by that long-dead inferno.

Yet he couldn’t deny the simple truth:  Of all the kami, only Hachiman — the god of war — had offered him any strength, any solace.  Hokagé supposed that if a single deity still involved himself in the petty affairs of men, it must be the god of bloodshed and carnage.  What could a warrior trust in, after all, if not that?

So thinking, Hokagé bowed before Hachiman’s altar one last time, then turned to face the long journey before him.

*     *     *

“So where are we going?” asked Sasa, bouncing along at the samurai’s side, the last of Yamagumo’s rice paddies receding into the distance at their backs.  In the trees all around, cicadas droned away as if the whole forest were vaguely angry at the intrusion.

Hokagé raised an eyebrow at the word we, but let it pass.  “To Kanashii-yama,” he said.  His strange bond with this semi-divine creature made it difficult for him to go much of anywhere without Sasa at his side.

The little fox barked out a sort of laugh.  “The Mountain of Sorrows?!” he said, shaking his muzzle.  “Wouldn’t hara-kiri be a far more efficient form of suicide?”

“A thief comes to Yamagumo Castle in the night,” Hokagé said, “stealing Kumamuné’s greatest treasure — the living soul of his daughter-in-law, even as my lord’s grandchild ripens in her womb.  The thief takes a little each night, letting her recover some of her strength, drawing out the crime for as long as he can.  Last night I confronted the enemy.  The creature escaped, but I have no doubt of his identity.  Half-man, half-crow — ”

“A karasu-tengu, obviously — ”

“Not any tengu.  Such a powerful creature could only be Sōjōbo himself.”

Sasa laughed again, a harsh sound.  “And your gracious lord sent you to face the Tengu King alone?

“That choice was mine,” Hokagé said.  “Alone, I can perhaps travel unnoticed.  And . . . this is a poor time for Lord Kumamuné to dispatch men against enemies from the ancient world.  The world of men offers adversaries enough.”

Hokagé said no more, but his mind churned with thoughts of the seething turmoil.  The Imperial Court had long since declared the battle for succession finished — but the embers still smoldered beyond the borders of the capital, the various daimyo forming prickly allegiances, spoiling for a war that would sweep across the Land of the Rising Sun like brushfire.  When it came, minor lords like Kumamuné would need every samurai and spear-carrier they could muster.

“So you hope to simply enter the realm of the Tengu King and reclaim the girl’s soul?” Sasa asked, ears flattening.  “Madness.  Truly, if I had anything at all better to do, I might well let you go alone.  But there’s only so much fun to be had in abusing farmer’s daughters and teasing merchants with coins that turn to grass.  And it isn’t as if I’ve much of a choice, is it?”

“It was your own failed trickery that bound your destiny to mine,” Hokagé answered.  “Your great grandfather would never have made such a blunder.”

“Yes — my great grandfather!” Sasa said.  “You might at least call me by the name he passed to me!”

” ‘Inari’s Thirteenth Great-Grandchild’?” Hokagé shook his head.  “Inari-no-Gohachi-Himago is too large a name for such a small creature.  ‘Little One’ suits you better.”

Sasa snorted.  “I think I may enjoy watching Sōjōbo pluck you to pieces.  Assuming you even find him.  The Mountain of Sorrows is slippery, you know.  It shows itself only to those it chooses.”

Hokagé didn’t answer.  Sasa-kun spoke the truth — a man might seek Kanashii-yama for a lifetime, might gaze directly upon it and never see it.  Such was the nature of the mountain’s strange magic.  Yet he had no doubt he’d find it.  He could almost hear it calling to him, whispering his name with the voice of doom.

*     *     *

They walked all that day and the next, the country turning ever wilder around them, the slopes steeper, the passes narrower, the air hot and smotheringly still.  As the third day dwindled toward twilight, Hokagé came to a sudden halt atop a meandering ridge.  In the distance a single peak loomed above the landscape, white slopes rising sheer as palisades, summit lost somewhere in the clouds.  Though he’d glimpsed it only briefly, Hokagé knew it at once.

Sasa narrowed his eyes, flattened his ears.  “It shows itself as if at your beck-and-call,” he muttered.  “Your karma must be darker than I’d guessed.”

Hokagé gave a grunt — perhaps affirmation, perhaps dismissal — and walked on.

The terrain grew harder, the forest a thick tangle, the earth shot-through with gaping fissures, crags of jagged stone jutting from the ground like the fangs of some unthinkably huge subterranean monster.  They walked through the murmuring night, into the dawn, until finally the land rose and they emerged from the trees.

Before them rose a chalk-white peak so high it seemed to pierce the sky — the Mountain of Sorrows.

“Impossible,” Sasa said, craning his scruffy neck, gazing up and up and up to where the gleaming pinnacle prodded the clouds.  “No man can scale that!  A fox, perhaps — but frankly, I don’t care for the smell of it.”  He sniffed pointedly.  “Most foul.”

Hokagé caught it as well, a stink on the unmoving air, familiar but impossible to name.  “I have a duty to my master.”

There was nothing more to say.  Kumamuné-sama had remade the broken young priest into a warrior, forged from flame and iron — into this new man, the samurai called Shadows from Firelight.  For that alone, Hokagé owed him allegiance unto death.  But he could muster no great affection for the old man.  The lord of Yamagumo Castle had a talent for ruthlessness that any Akkihito would have respected.

It didn’t matter.  The essence of the samurai was service with absolute loyalty.  And Hokagé hated Kimiko’s suffering — the girl, widowed, round with child and scarcely more than a child herself, had done nothing to earn such misery, withering away like a chrysanthemum deprived of sunlight.  For duty’s sake, and for hers, he would face this impossible peak and whatever waited at its summit.  What more did he have, if not duty?

He struck out with his jangling shakujō, planted it in the strange, soft white stone, and started up the slope.

He’d scarcely taken a second step when someone called out, “Eh?  Who’s there?”

The voice came from behind a lonely stand of bamboo — the last splash of green on the mountain’s alabaster slope — followed an instant later by its apparent owner.  The man was little more than a skeleton covered with skin like tight-stretched vellum, his eyes deep in their sockets, his hair gray and sparse, revealing his liver-spotted dome in ugly patches.  He wore neither sandals nor robes, only a simple peasant’s loincloth, tattered and filthy.  He hobbled nearer, bent over a rough wooden cane as if in a perpetual bow.  He looked as ancient as the Buddha himself.

At his appearance, Sasa darted through Hokagé’s legs, hiding behind the samurai’s broad priestly breeches.

“Excuse me, please, ojii-san,” Hokagé said, bowing.  “I didn’t mean to disturb you.  Forgive my intrusion.”

“Who were you speaking to?” the old man demanded, doddering nearer, shooting a narrow-eyed glance over Hokagé’s shoulder.

“Only to myself,” Hokagé lied. “Prayers for safe passage.”

The old man raised a brushy eyebrow — the only healthy hair he seemed to have left.  “Prayers?!  Take me for a fool, do you?  You’re no more a priest than I’m an emperor!”

From somewhere behind him, Hokagé heard a little snort of laughter.

“I heard two voices,” the old man went on, lips moving over toothless gums.  He hovered over his stick a moment, then darted with startling speed to Hokagé’s left and stared down at Sasa.  “Aha!  So that’s your secret, heh?  Mmmmm.  False priests who keep company with foxes are not to be trusted!  Be off with you, or I’ll cudgel you — see if I don’t!”  He raised his knobby stick in a pathetic display of would-be menace.

“Ojii-san, I have no quarrel with you,” Hokagé said, his voice low and steady.  “I wish only — ”

“No quarrel?  No quarrel, heh?  We’ll see about that!”

So saying, the old fellow leapt at Hokagé, moving with shocking fleetness, walking stick flying like a well-aimed club.  Hokagé managed to half-parry the blow with his own staff, but the glancing shot caught his upper arm with tremendous force.  Pain flared through the limb like lightning.  Instinctively, Hokagé dropped his pack and stepped into a waiting stance, right foot forward and left back, presenting the narrowest possible target to his unlikely enemy, prayer staff held upright across his body.

“I do not seek a fight,” he said, keeping a level tone.  But again the old man attacked, swinging for his ribs.  Hokagé stepped aside, blocking the strike and swinging his staff in a quick upstroke aimed at the old man’s hands.  He meant only to disarm the stranger, though the shot would surely shatter the bones in those twig-like fingers.  But the old man twisted his arms out of the way, turning Hokagé’s shakujō aside with his own walking stick and thrusting straight ahead, landing a stinging wallop on Hokagé’s forward shoulder.

Hokagé fell back and the old man came again, sudden as an earthquake; the heavy knob of his cane came within a hand’s span of Hokagé’s scarred cheek.  The old man lunged and struck, raining down blow upon blow, Hokagé fending them off with absurdly little success despite his staff’s greater reach, pain radiating from numerous injuries.  He found himself wishing he’d worn his armor after all, as if he might have anticipated the attack from this wizened, lunatic dwarf.  He caught sight of Sasa prancing around the periphery of the battle, barking raucously.  No help there, Hokagé thought, unsurprised.

The old man struck again, and Hokagé watched in dumb wonder as his staff flew from his grip and landed several strides away.

With a wicked smile, the old man lashed out at the unarmed samurai yet again.  Hokagé dropped below the hissing arc of the innocuous-looking weapon, then sprang at the man, getting under the stranger’s short arms and grasping a bony wrist with all his strength.  The bones beneath the papery flesh felt as hard as forged steel, but Hokagé wrenched the arm anyway.

The old man offered fierce resistance and finally shoved Hokagé away, immediately chasing after him, pounding the dusty earth all around Hokagé’s twisting body, his walking stick falling like the blows of a smith’s hammer.  A strike like that to his unarmored head would surely kill him, Hokagé knew, and while he accepted death, he could not allow himself to fail at his task — not now, so close to his destination.

He scrambled backward and managed to find purchase on his lost staff.  With a quick twist, he unlocked and cast aside the hollow, ornate pole which had hidden the staff’s upper third — the long, subtle arc of a naginata blade, deadly-bright in the afternoon sun.  The glaive moved as if on its own, up and out, butted against the ground — and went suddenly heavy and very still.

The old man stopped in his tracks and stood looking down.  An expression of almost comic surprise spread across his face as he stared at the place where the blade disappeared into his chest.  The weapon’s tip rose over his left shoulder, bright with blood, like a single emphatic stroke from a calligrapher’s brush.

Hokagé frowned at the impaled man.

The old man’s face contorted — then broke into a broad, toothless smile.  He threw his head back and cackled wildly.

“Good!” he said, “Very good, Hokagé-san.  So nice to see that there is yet some passion in you, some will to live!  Eh, now . . . if you wouldn’t mind. . .”  He waved a frail hand at the weapon piercing his breast.

Nodding dumbly, Hokagé withdrew the weapon and cast it aside.  His legs wobbled under him just a bit as he regained his feet.

“Interesting,” said Sasa, ambling over to sniff the blood still staining the naginata’s long blade.

“Such a look of shock,” the old man said, heedless of the wound.  “When you prayed at my shrine, you expected me not to answer, heh?  You needn’t say — I know the truth.  I read it in your heart.  Still, I couldn’t aid you without testing your mettle first.  I feared you’d given up all but the very last claims to this life.  But it seems you still have an instinct for self-preservation.  And a willingness to kill an enemy — even a crazed old man — if forced to.  So there may yet be some hope for you.”

Hokagé tried not to let his perplexity show, but perhaps it touched his eyes, for the old man went on:

“Oh, yes, I know — a warrior does not fear death.  But that is not the same as throwing life away!  The warrior who would rather die than live is no use to his master or anyone, Hokagé-san, for he has no reason to defeat his enemy.  You would do well to remember that.”

Hokagé could think of no response but to bow deeply.

The old man cast a glance up the mad slope of the Kanashii-yama.  “You really mean to confront the King of the Mountain of Sorrows, do you?”

“It is my duty.”

“Indeed — and quite possibly more than that,” the old man said with a slight smile.  “So we ought not to waste our breath exchanging banter, heh?  You prayed for help in my name, and it would be most unkind of me to let you go to your fate empty-handed — especially after such a fine display.”  He rubbed at the weeping gash in his chest.   “Please, take these, and may they serve you well.”

As he spoke, he held out his hands, which were no longer empty.  In the right he gripped a tall clay jar, in the left a small black-lacquered box.  “This,” he said, raising the jar, “is a particularly fine saké. Be generous with it, Hokagé-san — it wouldn’t do for you and your companion there to keep it for yourselves.”

Hokagé nodded his understanding, bowed, and took the jar.

“And this,” said the old man, looking at the box as if contemplating it, “contains the one weapon which alone can slay the foe you seek.  Do not open it an instant too soon — and take great care, lest it be turned against you.”

With another bow, Hokagé took the other gift.  The jar felt heavy, the box quite light.

“Truly, I thank you,” Hokagé said, giving another deep bow.

“May fortune favor you, Hokagé-san,” the old man said.  “And if you keep nothing else that I have given you today, at least retain the lesson I offered.”

The old man bowed in farewell.  Behind him, the sky tore itself open and a thousand stars shimmered through, flaring into a single blazing white light.  When the brilliance faded and the world resolved into solidity again, the old man had vanished — walking stick, footprints and all.  Only the saké jar and the lacquered box remained.

“A god,” Sasa said, sniffing the naginata’s blade, now utterly cleansed of its gruesome stain.  “And no less than Hachiman himself!  I should’ve known by the smell of him.  We deities know our own, of course.”

“No doubt he’ll be every bit as much help to me as you are,” said Hokagé, looking at the gifts, the prosaic sorts of things one might find in any farmer’s hut.  “Haven’t the gods anything better to do than play tedious games and hand out trinkets?”

“Even now you have no faith!” Sasa cried, hopping around Hokagé’s legs in delight.  “Even after the god of war himself comes to you!  Even after the kami snatched you out of the air an instant before certain death.”

Hokagé turned his gaze on Sasa, who pricked up his ears.

“Oh yes, I know about that,” the fox said.  “Clever business, the feathers.  But a bit of tengu plumage would never have saved you if the gods hadn’t helped.  Or did you imagine that wind gust was lucky happenstance?”

Hokagé didn’t answer, but knelt to re-dress his naginata in its humble disguise, the iron rings on the staff’s cap chiming against one another with a false merriment.  That done, he reclaimed his pack, tucked the gifts inside, and shrugged it onto his back, then started picking his way up the mountainside.

“Keeping Hachiman’s ‘trinkets’, I see,” Sasa snorted.

Hokagé ignored him and hiked on.  Beneath his feet the rock shifted and cracked, sending up puffs of ashen dust.  The whole peak seemed composed of pumice-soft stones embedded in chalk and strewn with broken shards, all of it crumbling, treacherous.

They climbed quickly at first, the valley soon dwindling to a seamless swath of green far below.  But with each step, the heavy pull of gravity seemed to grow, as if the mountain ached to shrug the intruders off, the green earth below to clutch them.  The air turned cold and scarce, and a deep, terrible lethargy crept into Hokagé’s bones.  The staggering height, the breathless chill filled him with a soul-smothering sense of . . . of what?  Not despair — nothing so substantial.  It was more a sort of futility, an utter purposelessness that denied even misery,  that robbed even grief of all heft and significance.  Action and thought, past and future, the aggregate of everything that was, had been, and ever might be came to absolutely nothing on the Mountain of Sorrows.

Hokagé knew this spirit-deadening hopelessness well — it had kept him company since the night of blood and flames when he was still called Toshihiro.  But even he had never experienced such hopelessness so profoundly.  Every movement was an effort, every step a battle to convince himself of the significance of his task — of the significance of anything at all.  So much easier to surrender, to let death or oblivion have him.

But Hachiman’s words echoed in his memory:  The warrior who would rather die than live is no use to his master or anyone. . .

 

Hokagé gazed up the impossible slope, its summit far out of sight.  With a deep, fortifying breath, he forced himself onward, just one more step, and then another.

Something shattered under his weight, and something else shifted.  All at once the whole mountain seemed to move, an avalanche thundering down around him, pitted round stones pummeling him.  He sank his prayer staff into the slope with all the strength he could and clung to it, head down against the deluge.

Then silence came as suddenly as the landslide.  Hokagé opened his eyes and stared at the strange scree piled up around him.  Empty eye-sockets glared back at him, hundreds of them, staring from the cascade of human skulls that had nearly swept him away.

Not far off, Sasa barked out a shrill, uncharacteristically humorless laugh.  “This is no mountain,” he growled.  “It’s a burial mound.  We’ve been trampling the dead under our feet, thousands of them — millions!  I should’ve known the odor . . . but it’s so old, Hokagé-san — almost as old as the world itself.”

Hokagé nodded dully.  They had been climbing a mound of corpses — all the nameless victims of the Tengu King.  So many lost hopes, so much misery and despair.

He drew a deep breath, and another, pushing aside the grief and focusing his life’s energy, his ki, channeling it into his legs, keeping them going.  Another step upward, and another.  Forgetting hopelessness and nightmare, he cast out for that stony foundation upon which all warriors stood, by which all samurai defined themselves: duty.  He had nothing else.  He needed nothing else, except perhaps an old man’s words to remind him of his warrior’s ways.

Another step upward, and another.

The ceiling of cloud loomed near, roiled overhead, then took the two travelers in.  They hiked through a world of undefined gray, gasping with the effort, the leaden damp clinging to their skin.  Hokagé felt the sightless eyes of countless empty skulls gazing at him from the cliffs above, hating him for refusing to join them in death.  For so very long now he’d thought himself a phantom among the living, yet here among the dead he was equally outcast.  Icy fatalism whispered on the wind, daring him to deny it.

Finally, some nebulous time later, they emerged into a dazzling brilliance above the clouds.  And there, where the white of the mountain met the blue of the sky, crouched a shadow, a tiny smudge of darkness at the very summit of the grim peak.

Hokagé glanced down at his panting companion.  “You’ll be far less conspicuous if you assume a disguise like mine,” he said.  “If you can manage it.”

Sasa huffed.  “I can manage very well, thank you.  My pretty maiden isn’t the only human shape I can put on!”

So saying, the little fox rose on his hind legs, his tail fanning out around him, spinning itself up like a cocoon from which emerged a young man in a mountain priest’s broad-shouldered white shirt and billowed breeches.  The youth smiled at the samurai with sharp white teeth.

Hokagé looked him up and down, then gave a nod.

“Seems a good time for some of that saké Hachiman gave you,” Sasa suggested.  “He did insist that you share it, after all.”

“Better we keep our wits about us,” Hokagé said, and resumed the climb.

Emerging from the clouds had been like breaking some unearthly barrier — the profound sense of meaninglessness and emptiness had faded to a dull ache which diminished with each upward pace.  He chose not to ponder what this change in him might mean.

Near the summit the slope grew steeper yet, and Hokagé had to scramble monkey-like up the escarpment, spitting bone-dust off his tongue.  A single misstep would surely send him hurtling into the abyss; the yawning emptiness pulled at him like a lead weight.  Then, with a lunge, he dragged himself over the rim and stood atop the impossible peak he’d first seen from the heights above Yamagumo.  Sasa stood just ahead, waiting, a sardonic expression on his youth-smooth face.

“Well, there’s a sight,” he murmured.

Mere paces away loomed a massive temple gate, its wood leached gray by age, its guard-post niches occupied not by the traditional fierce-eyed niō figures, but by twin images of a savage deity wearing a necklace of slack-jawed skulls — Emma-o, Lord of the Dead.  Beyond, a graveyard bristled with slender sotoba, wooden planks bearing the names of the departed in characters faded past the point of legibility.  Past the cemetery an ancient temple sagged on its vast foundations, its roof shedding tiles like scales from a dead fish.  A single moss-dappled stone lantern sprouted like an otherworldly mushroom in the center of the courtyard, its windows sealed with rice-paper; a faint, shifting greenish glow came from within, just visible in the gloom of the temple’s long shadow.

Hokagé gave Sasa a curt nod, then started ahead.

Even before they reached the dark gate, a figure appeared within its central passage, shuffling ahead on high-platformed wooden geta. The man wore the brown robes of a monk which were as tattered and as ill cared-for as his temple home.  An absurdly long, blunt nose poked from between his large black eyes like a downturned thumb.  His face had a drunk’s ruddy cast to it.

“Welcome, brothers,” he proclaimed, observing his visitors’ priestly garb, then bowing deeply.  “What brings you to our lonesome temple?  We receive so few visitors here!”

Judging by the thousands of grave markers, Hokagé gathered that the temple had received a great many guests — but had seen very few of them leave.  “We come seeking shelter and fellowship,” he said, answering the red-faced man’s bow.  “But we are wearied from our climb.  We never imagined this peak rose so high.”

The priest beamed, his features strangely unmoving.  “Yes, our mountain confounds all who happen upon it.  But come now, rest yourselves.”

He wagged his fingers for them to follow, then disappeared through the shadow of the gate and down the narrow path between the sotoba, toward the crumbling temple.

Casting a warning glance at Sasa, Hokagé followed.

The ruddy-faced priest led them up a low flight of stairs and into the temple’s vast inner chamber.  Beams of moon-pale light slanted through tattered holes in the roof, falling askew over tatami mats all moldered and sunken.  Cobwebs choked the eaves.  The dust of ancient bones covered every surface.

Their host waved them to a long, low table, where several other men in equally ratty robes sat muttering to one another over a haphazard scattering of bowls and plates.  The grubby men looked up, spying their guests with expressions of naked, animal eagerness.  Their eyes shone a bit too large, their shaven heads and overlong arms shadowed by random clumps of wiry black hair.  The stink of death was stronger here — a raw, feral stench of fresh decay.

“Sit, please,” their host said, waving them to two filthy cushions as he took his place at the head of the table.  Hokagé sat with a nod of thanks, then gazed at Sasa until the disguised trickster sat as well.

“I am sorry our fare isn’t better, but we are happy to share what we have,” their host went on.  His words were properly polite, but beneath them Hokagé heard unmistakable tones of dark levity.

One of the other men scooped rice from a large pot into two cracked bowls which he passed to the visitors, then went on shoveling his own meal into his broad mouth with grimy fingers.  Hokagé glanced at the stuff in his bowl — gray gruel thick with rice as plump as maggots bursting from sun-ripened carrion.  Beside him, Sasa prodded playfully at the things in his own bowl, watching them writhe, a wicked smile on his lips.

“I too have something to share,” said Hokagé, and drew Hachiman’s gifts from his pack.  Setting the box aside, he uncorked the clay jar.  “Most excellent saké — the finest in Kansai.”  He poured a generous portion into the ruddy priest’s proffered glass, then waited politely for his host to return the favor.

After a moment, the man with the improbable nose remembered his manners, and filled a cup for his guest.  Immediately the jar started around the table, the men in their threadbare robes making an elaborate show of pouring for one another as if the little display of etiquette amused them greatly.

Kanpai,” said Hokagé, raising his cup.

Kanpai!” the others echoed and downed their wine in a single swallow, smacking their lips loudly.

“Excellent,” the host declared, thumping his empty glass down where someone might easily refill it for him.

Hokagé did so at once, then shared out more of the sweet, clear rice wine to the others, keeping the jar out of Sasa’s reach as best he could.  The odd company tossed back their drinks and immediately went to filling one another’s cups yet again.  And so it went, drink after drink, the saké flowing freely long after the jar ought to have run dry, none of the men seeming to notice or care.  They drank and chattered in incomprehensible grunts and cackled and drank more, until one by one they slouched to the rotten straw mats and lay in untidy heaps, snoring loudly.  Asleep, the rag-priests looked all the less like men, their bodies awkward, their flesh stony.  Only the red-faced host remained upright and lucid, still beaming that strangely wooden smile.

“Please forgive my companions,” he said, pulling a broad uchiwa from the folds of his robe and fanning himself rather extravagantly.  “They are weak drinkers.  Unlike me.”

Hokagé nodded politely, watching the fluttering uchiwa. The fan was made, he noticed, not from paper, but from long, silken black feathers.

“Ah, ah, it is far too rare that we have such excellent company,” the host said, aiming that rigid grin at Hokagé as if it were a weapon.  “And such unusual guests,” he continued, his tone taking on an edge of cruel mockery, “a samurai and his pet demigod!  Truly, you bless our home with your presence!”

“Pet demigod indeed,” snarled Sasa, starting to rise.

Hokagé clamped a hand on his arm, tugged him back to his seat.

“Did you truly think to pass yourselves off as priests?” the host asked, shaking his head.  “An impotent forest spirit and a spiritless spear-wielder?  You reek of weakness, Hokagé-san.  You believe in nothing.”

“I believe in duty, and I intend to do mine,” Hokagé said.  One hand closed around his disguised naginata, twisting free the hollow staff concealing the blade with all the swift subtly he could manage.  With his other hand he clasped the black box.

The host snorted laughter that no longer even attempted to mimic human tones. “You’re as blind as you are foolish,” he said, sneering.  “You climbed my mountain to its very height, yet you failed to know it for what it is.”

“It is a grave,” said Hokagé.  “The tomb of all those you’ve slaughtered.”

The rag priest shook his head slowly.  “No, Hokagé-san.  There is only one man interred here.  One man born through ten thousand lives and more.”

Hokagé thought again of the forest of sotoba bristling in the compound between temple and gate, all the smeared, illegible names painted on them in what was surely blood.  Not thousands of names, he realized now — only one, repeated countless times.

The host nodded, his false smile growing broader.

“Time and again, life after life, you come hunting me,” he said.  “And each time, you fail.  Look in your heart, samurai.  You came here not to save some child, nor to serve your little lord.  You came to die at my hand once again.  As you shall for ten thousand lives yet to come.”

Hokagé said nothing, but the words chilled him to the marrow.  Had he ever intended to leave this place?  Or had he left Yamagumo secretly expecting never to see it again, at least in this lifetime?

“Best to just draw that dagger you’ve hidden in your pack and commit sokotsu-shi,” the host said, rising slowly from his place at the head of the table.  “That is the proper action for a warrior who has failed his master, is it not?  No noble seppuku for you.”

“I shall be proud to serve as your kaishaku, if you like,” Sasa volunteered.

“I need no one to assist my suicide, thank you,” Hokagé answered, not looking at his companion.  “If I am to die here, let it be in battle.”

The crimson-faced host went on grinning, and went on rising from his seat — but not rising, Hokagé saw.  Growing.  “Die upon your own dagger or upon my claws.  It matters little to me.”

So saying, he reached up with one long-fingered hand, grasped the edge of his ruddy face and wrenched it off.

Hokagé saw with revulsion that the false visage was not a face at all, but a hideously animated wooden mask.  Beneath, eyes as hard and dark as polished obsidian glared down the length of a sharp black beak, studying Hokagé with a raptor’s deadly focus.

“Sasa,” Hokagé whispered.  “Find the paper lantern I told you of.  Go!”

Sasa’s human form vanished.  A red fox sprang from within the white garments he’d been wearing, which fell to the floor in a drift of cherry blossoms.

Hokagé sprang to his feet, raising his naginata.  The Tengu King — revealed now for what he was — towered over the table, his robes hanging in ribbons from his feathered body, broad wings spreading out behind him.

For the span of a few heartbeats, the opponents merely regarded one another, each awaiting the other’s first move, only the thick, halting snores of Sōjōbo’s sleeping companions upsetting the silence of the decrepit temple.

Hokagé feigned a lunge, spun and struck from the opposite side.  The Tengu King swung his feathered uchiwa, wielding it like an iron war fan, sweeping Hokagé’s glaive aside.  Bird-quick, Sōjōbo bobbed forward and buried the tip of his beak deep in Hokagé’s left shoulder.  Pain blazed and blood flowed; Hokagé stumbled backward and flopped to the sunken floor, waving his weapon even as he did.  It struck the Tengu King a glancing blow, raining down bits of feather but delivering no meaningful injury.

“Pitiful,” Sōjōbo said, a terrible glee in his shrill voice.

Hokagé planted the butt of the naginata on the floor behind him, pushed himself up and away as the Tengu King attacked again, talons digging ruts in the rotten straw mats.  Hokagé brought the glaive’s long blade around in a broad, flat arc, aiming at the creature’s belly.  He felt it hitch as it sliced through feather and flesh.  He let the momentum carry him a few steps away, dodging another strike from Sōjōbo’s spear-sharp beak.

The Tengu King ducked right, then struck again, his left talon tearing breechcloth and the calf beneath.  Hokagé dropped to one knee, swung the naginata over his shoulder and down, but again Sōjōbo parried the blow with his oversized fan, and again he struck, talon and beak.

The blows came hard and fast, brutal, relentless.  Hokagé flopped and twisted, swatting each attack aside with increasingly frantic waves of his glaive, unable to land a single blow of his own.  Never in battle had an enemy so overwhelmed him, never had his best defenses and attacks failed him so utterly.  Whether or not he’d come to this haunted place meaning to die, it seemed clear that death would soon find him here.

He thrust his weapon once more, aiming for Sōjōbo’s throat.  The Tengu King slapped the blow aside with force that wrenched the naginata from Hokagé’s grasp, sending it clattering to the floor beside the table where only moments ago they’d sat drinking together like companionable gentlemen.

“Poor little spear-carrier,” Sōjōbo said, drawing himself to his full height.  “No spirit left at all.”

Hokagé did not rise from where he had fallen.  “Much like your friends,” he said, looking over at the motionless creatures sprawled around the table.  “Seems the saké went to their heads.”

A prickly quiet fell over the shadowed chamber.  The Tengu King’s strange associates had stopped snoring, their chests no longer rising and falling, their half-lidded eyes gone milky and dead-blind.

Sōjōbo cocked his head.  “The feeble get what they deserve,” he said, glancing at his lifeless companions.

Hokagé moved at once, springing to his feet with all the strength he could summon.  Just as quickly, the Tengu King bobbed forward, bringing his beak down for the kill.  Hokagé slid over the ragged tatami and came to a jarring halt as the tengu rounded on him and pinned him down with one powerful talon, clawing bloody divots from his back.  The naginata lay an arm’s span beyond his grasp.

The black box sat within easy reach.

For the slightest portion of a second Hokagé hesitated, doubting the gift, doubting everything.  Then he grabbed the lacquered case, plucked off the lid and peered inside.

And despite everything — despite the pain in his flesh and the hollowness in his heart — he laughed.  For the first time in longer than he could recall, and on the brink of death, Hokagé laughed, loud and full.

Sōjōbo, poised for the kill, hesitated.

“What is that?” he asked, the red feathers atop his head rising in a spiny bristle.

“A gift from a friend,” said Hokagé, recapturing his composure, but still smiling.  “Look.”  He tried to lift the box, but flopped back to the floor, unable to move under the pressure of the Tengu King’s claw.

Sōjōbo, crow-curious, relaxed his grasp ever-so-slightly, just enough for Hokagé to roll over and hold the box up for his inspection.  Narrow-eyed, the towering creature bent and snatched the box from Hokagé’s hand and stared into it.  The Tengu King appeared to frown, as much as his features would allow.  “Eh?  What — ”

He broke off mid-word, confusion filling his black eyes.  The lacquered box fell from his hand and he stared down at the moldered tatami at his feet.  Something black and wet splattered between his claws: a spreading pool of thick, dark blood.  It poured over his feathered breast in a gruesome cataract, splashed his scaly gray skin.  Perplexed, Sōjōbo frowned at the blood-slicked blade of the naginata in Hokagé’s hands, then grasped at his throat.  He took a staggering step backward, then crashed to the floor, wings spread out across the breadth of the temple.

Hokagé scrambled to his feet and bounded onto the monster’s chest, the naginata’s blade spinning like a waterwheel.  With a ghastly-sounding snick, the bloodied blade parted the Tengu King’s head from his body.

For a moment, stark quiet filled the decrepit hall.

Then a terrible screech rent the silence and the Tengu King’s severed head sprang into the air, darting forward, dragonfly-swift, beak aimed squarely at Hokagé’s heart.  In the last eyelash of an instant, Hokagé sidestepped the attack and grappled the bloody-feathered thing.  It squirmed and thrashed in his grip, cawing in fury, beak gnashing for any purchase, hungry to disembowel him.

Gritting his teeth, Hokagé twisted the lopped-off head around and dug his fingers into its eyes until they burst in gouts of vile jelly.  Then he wrestled the still-flailing thing out of the temple, through the whispering cemetery and to the precipice.  With a great heave he sent Sōjōbo’s head over the side of the mountain.  It fell for a very long time, until at last the clouds swallowed it.

Hokagé sank to the ground, breathing slow and deep, absorbing the pain from a dozen or more injuries, letting it dissolve through him until it became minimal, distant.  He was battered and torn, but he would survive.  This time, he would survive.

“Is this the one you meant?” a voice behind him called.

Wearily, he turned to see Sasa standing a pace or two away, a frayed paper lantern dangling from his white muzzle.

Hokagé merely nodded.  Grimacing, he regained his feet and took the paper lantern from Sasa, then limped over to the great stone lantern amidst the silent grave-posts.  He studied it a moment, listening to the soft pattering coming from within, then tore open one paper pane and held up the lantern he’d first seen floating over the sleeping Kimiko on that night that now seemed so long ago.  At once a stream of fireflies, a dozen or more, swarmed out of the stone cage and disappeared into the paper globe Hokagé was holding.

“Have no fear,” he whispered, smiling as much as his fatigue allowed, “we’ll see you safely home.”  As he said it, it rang true in his heart.

“Hokagé-san!” Sasa barked, “Look!”

The little fox sat gazing up at one of the narrow grave markers.  Where once sanguine, unintelligible characters had marked a forgotten name, there was now only blank, weather-grayed wood.

“It’s over, then,” Hokagé said, unable to keep a note of wonder from his voice.  He ran his fingers over the unmarked grain of the wood, then turned away.  “We should be on our way,” he said.  “There’s a long road before us.”

Sasa trotted along at his side as Hokagé reclaimed the clay jar and the black box from within the temple.  He turned the naginata into a humble prayer-staff once more, and hung the lantern with its precious contents from the staff’s jangling rings.

“So — what was it?” Sasa demanded, sniffing at the lifeless creatures around the table.  The Tengu King’s companions now resembled nothing so much as lumps of mud covered in rotten rags.  “What was Hachiman’s secret weapon?  I saw nothing but your tired old swine prod.”

Hokagé looked at Sasa, then smiled.  “I suppose you’ve earned the right to see,” he said, stooping and tilting the box so that Sasa could peer inside.

The fox squinted, then hopped back.

“Me?!” he asked.  “I’m flattered, but I don’t understand — ”

“Look again,” Hokagé said.

Sasa hesitated, then peeked into the box once more.

“A mirror,” he said at last, still sounding rather mystified.  “So, that mad Hachiman was a prankster.  Hmph.  I could’ve done far better — ”

“You misunderstand,” Hokagé said.  “But this time, I did not.”

“Eh?” Sasa asked, following the samurai out of the temple and toward the gate beyond which lay their path home.

“When I looked into the box, what did I see?”

“Well, yourself, of course.”

“Just so,” Hokagé agreed.

Sasa cocked his head, frowning . . . then his ears sprang upright and he bounced at Hokagé’s feet.  “Ah — you were the one weapon that could kill the Tengu King, if only Sōjōbo didn’t turn you against yourself.”

“Sasa-kun, you are wise indeed,” said Hokagé, holding aloft the paper lantern with its mysterious treasure.

And with that, the man called Shadows from Firelight started down the slope, a little red fox trotting along behind him.

___________________________________________________________

R. Michael Burns is an October child with a background in philosophy, theater and other occult arts.  He is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, and the Gainesville Fiction Writers Group.

His fiction has appeared in various magazines and e-zines, including Dreams of Decadence, City Slab, Dark Regions, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Dark Recesses, and Lovecraft’s Weird Mysteries, as well as in the anthologies Orphans of the Storm,  Bell, Book & Beyond, Cthulhu Express, Extremes 5, Goodbye, Darwin, Bound for Evil, and Horror Library III.  A second tale featuring the samurai Hokagé has been selected to appear in Fantasist Press’s forthcoming anthology Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel.  His article “Creative Writing 301” was picked in a Predators and Editors poll as the second-best non-fiction article of 2006.

A Colorado native, he lived for the better part of five years in Japan, where he taught English to Japanese students from 1 to 70.  He currently resides in the dark swamps of Gainesville, Florida, with his feline familiar, Lilly.   Other examples of his work (fiction and non) may be found at: http://www.coloradospringsfictionwritersgroup.org/members/r-michael-burns/index.php


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