DEMON SONG, by A. R. Williams:
Kenshin Nobuyashi knew the ring was important, but he could not remember why. An onyx stone formed its crest, and within that stone a diamond caught the disappearing light from the sun. The reflection swirled in shadow and light the longer he gazed at it. “It’s just a ring,” he finally whispered, still searching his memories for the ring’s significance.
The woman shifted her weight and the light from the setting sun touched her face. She seemed to glow in the fading light, like a dream being remembered. Her dark brown eyes held a sadness that echoed into her entire being. She studied Nobuyashi for a long, silent moment then turned away, heading down the trail.
“Wait,” Nobuyashi called after her without knowing why. “What is your name?”
She did not respond immediately. The woman stopped and looked at him over her shoulder, almost as though she wanted him to follow her. “If the gods are willing and your will is strong, you will remember me.”
“What does that mean? I know you? What do the gods have to do with this?”
She thought for a moment. Her face a picture of composed beauty. Her mouth turned downward and matched the despair of her eyes. Looking past him, she gazed up at the heights of the mountain. “The gods each choose their champion. It is up to you how you use that gift. Walk down the trail with me. Do not go to the summit.”
Nobuyashi looked down at the ring. An irrational fear gnawed at his belly like a wounded dog. His anger rose and he pushed the weakness down. Gripping his swords, he found comfort in their feel. He would reach the top of the mountain and no one would stop him or convince him of the error of his quest. The woman was obviously a kami, a spirit sent from the netherworld to deter him and lead him astray.
“I will continue on woman. I do not possess the weakness you obviously think I have. I am on a quest to right the wrongs done to me.”
“There are other ways to right wrongs.”
“The ways of the coward.”
“Uyeda lost himself with his vengeance. He only knows pain. Is your vengeance so strong that you must follow his path?”
“Then tell me. What have you lost?”
Nobuyashi could not answer her. He fought with his memories, but the answers eluded him. “I have been wronged. I will have my vengeance, that’s all that matters.”
Tears glistened in the woman’s eyes. She gazed again at the summit. “I too have lost a great many things, yet I remember them. By remembering them I gain something much greater. I gain peace; I gain the ability to keep them.”
Nobuyashi frowned. “What good is peace if I have nothing?”
“If you fail, you will lose everything,” the woman said. “You are the storm, Nobuyashi. Do not let it take you the way Uyeda did. You will do evil things then.”
The woman turned and headed down the mountain. Nobuyashi continued on his way, troubled by the thought that she did not have her child with her. Only later did he question how he knew.
* * *
The sky wept to the graves of hell. The rain pelted sideways as the heavens fought the earth. A streak of lightning lit the night turning somber cliffs from black silhouettes to visages evocative of men long dead. Thunder rumbled in the distance like a tiger followed by a pack of wolves. Darkness returned and the sound of hooves echoed in the valley before another lightning strike turned the night to day.
Kenshin Nobuyashi looked up as three horsemen stopped their mounts in front of him and formed a barrier along the path. He could see the mon that decorated their armor: the tree of the Akamori clan, the black river of Kurokawa, and the temple of Yamashina.
“Our master foretold of your coming,” said the Yamashina. “We have heard of your deeds and have scoured the earth from the seven hells and back to find you.”
Kenshin Nobuyashi loosened one of his swords an inch from its scabbard. “Then you have been looking in the wrong place. I have come to deliver your master a message. When this night is through, you will be able to report to him in hell — if you are willing to await his arrival.”
The three looked from one to the other. The Kurokawa grunted his disapproval. “Demon, we shall return you to where you belong.”
Swords drawn in unison, their steel glistened in the flashing lightning as they charged forward.
Nobuyashi stood his ground. He drew his swords as he stepped forward to meet the riders. He struck, his blade biting into the chest of the white horse of the Yamashina man. The horse collapsed in a tide of blood, sending the rider flying.
Thunder growled as Nobuyashi spun, countered the blow of the Akamori with his left hand and the thrust of the Kurokawa with his right. Lightning struck. An arm was severed. The scream of the Kurokawa man was eclipsed by the roar of the great tiger. The samurai rode away, his horse wild and uncontrolled, his shouts filling the night.
Only the Akamori man remained. He disengaged and stared down at Nobuyashi. “What sort of demon are you?” he asked. His eyes glowed in the darkness.
Nobuyashi raised a sword. Blood ran down the length of the blade. The rain washed it away. “Come closer and I will tell you.”
“Curse you!” the samurai said. He jerked the reins and kicked his legs, then disappeared into the darkness.
Nobuyashi walked over to the fallen horse. It neighed at his presence and tried to rise, but its blood seeped from the wound and turned its flesh red. He sheathed his swords. Grabbing the reins he urged it up. The horse fought against him and tried to pull away.
Nobuyashi’s will was the stronger. The creature stood, reborn on quivering legs, with blood red eyes. He mounted the beast and lightning streaked across the sky. The hell-horse reared beneath him, its demon cries filling the night air. Nobuyashi kicked and it charged ahead, darkness following in its wake.
* * *
Nobuyashi followed the trail of all those who had fled before him. The rain had lessened, the storm abated. He pulled on the reins bringing the mount to a sudden stop. Ahead of him a small campsite had been built. The tent breathed in the wind and a fire cast a warm orange glow in the night. A lone monk sat, hands stretched out toward the fire’s warmth.
“Greetings,” the monk called out. “I would offer to share my fire with you, but I see that while the monsoons pour from the skies you are dry as bamboo in summer. I take it you are the reason samurai have been fleeing past me all night.”
Nobuyashi guided the beast forward. “Where I go my enemies flee.”
“Yes, I can see that,” the monk replied. “The song of the demon follows you.”
Nobuyashi shrugged. “Death is the life of a samurai.”
“Perhaps,” the monk said. He stared into the fire. “Do you remember your calling?”
Nobuyashi stopped. He looked down at the ring he wore on his left hand. The ring caught the light from the fire, light meeting darkness. It troubled him to look at it. He could not remember. The thought echoed in his mind, a wraith of what it once was, and he could not grasp what it was saying.
“I take your silence to mean that you have already forgotten. That is the price you pay to return — to forget that which is most precious.”
Nobuyashi dismounted. The hell-horse’s breath turned to mist as it exhaled.
“Who are you?” Nobuyashi asked.
The monk rubbed his hands together. “A man wise enough to know not to give his name to a kami.”
The monk huddled beneath a kimono made of coarse wool. Nobuyashi looked down at him, his mind questioning the man’s presence in this place. “Only those who are evil have anything to fear from me.”
“That is what you believe.”
“I am an avenger of the weak,” Nobuyashi said. “I will not hurt you.”
“You are a fool,” the monk replied. He looked at Nobuyashi. “The gods do not care about good and evil. Only men do.”
“The gods. What do they know about life?”
“And men, what do they know of death? They would give up an existence of peace for vengeance. They would sacrifice everything they cherish to live for an eternity. All men think they are good, but if that were true then there would be no evil.”
“I know evil when I see it.”
The monk smiled softly. “You cannot even remember what it is you have lost. How is it that you can recognize evil? Did you speak to the woman on the path?”
Nobuyashi found himself wanting to sit next to the fire, to rest, but he was afraid to and he did not know why. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain began to fall more heavily. He noticed that the monk had no cover above him, yet he remained dry as well. Nobuyashi slid his hand onto his sword.
The monk chuckled. “As easily as that? I guess I too am now evil. Will you try to kill me?”
Nobuyashi dropped his hand and walked away. The hell-horse snorted as he approached. It lowered its head and pawed at the ground. Mounting the beast, Nobuyashi turned back to the monk by the fire. The man and the campsite were gone.
* * *
The gates of Sakiyurai lay open. The storm returned in force. Lightning streaked across the sky in blue-white flashes creating a dark outline of the surrounding buildings. Nobuyashi listened past the shrieking wind. Thunder rolled in the distance followed by an unnatural silence. No army prepared to greet him. No assassins waited in seclusion. No more samurai appeared with challenges in their lord’s honor.
Nobuyashi rode the mount into the inner courtyard. It neighed softly as he dismounted. All around him the buildings of Sakiyurai were dark and lifeless, except one. Ahead of him, perched nobly on a cliff face lay the temple of the Yamashina clan. A thousand steps ascended the cliff to the top. Paper lanterns along the stairs created a path into the darkness.
Nobuyashi followed the trail of lanterns. When he reached the top of the stairs, he found the doors to the temple open, just as the gates to the courtyard had been. He walked inside, expecting an attack. A single lantern kept the darkness at bay and two scrolls hung from the ceiling, twisting and rocking as a breeze blew into the temple.
On the floor beside the lantern lay a jade kettle atop a small hearth. Two matching cups were positioned across from one another and incense burned in a tiny brazier. Smoke slowly rose from the brazier filling the temple with the scent of sandalwood.
“Welcome,” a voice called from the shadows. “A bad night to go for a ride.”
“There are no good nights when death comes to call.”
The man moved out of the shadows and into the round sphere of light created by the lantern. He was young, his black hair tied in the traditional topknot. His white kimono was adorned with silver thread which sparkled in the light when he moved. On his chest he wore two mon, each adorned with the symbol for house Yamashina.
The man moved silently as he crossed the room, his bare feet padding gently over the wooden floor. “I don’t know, the storm does not seem as fierce as I expected,” he said studying Nobuyashi. He motioned to the door. “I have waited for you for some time now. If you would be so kind as to close the door, then we may begin.”
Nobuyashi slid the screen closed. The door moved effortlessly on an oiled track. He turned back to the young man. “I have come for the head of Yamashina Uyeda.”
The young man smiled. “I am Uyeda, but my head is something you must earn.” Uyeda gestured to the tea kettle and the cups. “Sit. Let us talk about the good things in life.”
Nobuyashi frowned at the offer. “I would not drink with you even if you poured sake from that kettle.”
Uyeda’s mouth pinched up in a forced half smile. “A man who likes to get straight to the point. Very well, so shall I. I will be honest with you. I do not remember which one of a thousand villages you belong to. I do not remember who you may have loved in any of the villages I’ve destroyed. I do not remember if it was I who slew you or one of my cohorts.” Uyeda shrugged. “Nor do I care.”
He walked to the center of the room, studied Nobuyashi once more. “I think you do not even remember why you have returned; you have the look of one who is lost.” He smiled and extended his arms wide drawing notice to twin scrolls that hung motionless from the ceiling. “Honor and justice,” Uyeda said. “Which do you place greater value in?”
Nobuyashi drew his swords. He crept forward, ready, waiting. The blades reflected light from the lantern and also the darkness of the shadows. “I am not a monk. Questions will not save your life.”
“Questions are the meaning of life.”
“Arm yourself then,” Nobuyashi said. “When you meet Shinigami in the otherworld you may ask him the meaning of your death.”
Uyeda clapped his hands. A boy with a shaved head ran out carrying a single sword in a white scabbard. The boy handed the sword to Uyeda and bowed. Uyeda returned the bow and told the boy he may leave. “The gods have waited for me a long time. They have sent assassin after assassin for me.” Uyeda held up his undrawn sword in both hands. He studied the sword lovingly. “They seek my blood and I give them blood in return. May they wait even longer for my death, for I do so love this dance.”
“Not this night. This night you shall drink tea at the feet of Shinigami.”
Uyeda smiled. He drew his sword, a flash of silver in the light, and then threw the scabbard to the side. He stepped back, raised the sword above his head as though it were a snake ready to strike. “The demon song ends this night.”
Nobuyashi nodded. “With your death.”
He charged forward, his blades lightning as he struck.
Uyeda moved with the grace of the wind, his single sword rising, parrying, slashing, defending. Uyeda kicked out at Nobuyashi’s leg and forced him to jump back. His sword slashed high and would have decapitated Nobuyashi if the blow had not been met with steel.
Uyeda moved. Nobuyashi followed.
“Honor,” Uyeda said, “is what causes a man to walk the right path.”
Nobuyashi grunted. His sword strikes seeking and testing Uyeda’s defense.
“The path to honor is paved,” Uyeda continued without hesitation as he ducked the blow of one sword and parried the strike of the other. “By the blood of good men.”
Nobuyashi growled. “Blood can be shed by the noble and ignoble alike.”
Uyeda glided around the room. He countered every thrust. Every strike he did not meet found air. His defense was exceptional.
Nobuyashi forced the fight. It would take only one mistake for him to win.
A blow glanced off Uyeda’s sword as he ducked underneath Nobuyashi’s other blade. Nobuyashi saw his opening and took it. He kicked, his foot catching Uyeda in the chest.
Already off balance Uyeda rolled with the blow and crashed through the silk screen door. Nobuyashi jumped through the hole created by Uyeda’s exit. The storm had grown and the rain hit the earth with the force of the heavens. Lightning burned the sky, strike after strike. Thunder rolled and roared and screamed in waves that drowned out the smack of the rain against the ground. The wind whipped fiercely around them in a long persistent whine.
Nobuyashi stalked Uyeda, who was back on his feet. Uyeda only laughed as he darted around the side of the temple. A bridge had been built behind it, connecting one cliff to the next. A thousand feet below the seas crashed against rock. The rain hit harder. The wind increased. Uyeda continued to retreat along the bridge, then stopped halfway.
Lightning sparked like a silken web filling the sky. “Isn’t it magnificent?” Uyeda shouted. “I have never experienced the feeling of power that I do now.” The wind seemed to rise with his scream.
Uyeda jumped onto the railing and peered over the edge. He untied his hair, letting the wind catch it. Stretching out his hands to the fury of the storm, his kimono floated around him like the wings of a bird.
Nobuyashi pressed forward, the wind fighting him. He lowered his head and fought back, each step a battle all its own.
Uyeda looked on and laughed. “It is magnificent!” he screamed. He jumped from the rail and the air rushed to support him. He rose, hovered above the bridge, his hair flying wildly about his face, his kimono flapping behind him. Uyeda glared at Nobuyashi. “You have lost, my friend. The gods still favor me. Still gift me with their power.”
Uyeda attacked. Nobuyashi struggled to defend himself against the flying man. His swords were too slow, the wind pulled at his hands, forced his body to be where he did not want it. Uyeda cut, Nobuyashi tried to defend, but the parry missed by a sliver of air. Uyeda’s blow met flesh, drew blood.
Nobuyashi screamed out, the pain in his shoulder burning. He staggered backward.
Uyeda laughed as he rose higher into the sky, his sword glinting as a flash of lightning ripped high above his head. “Then there is justice,” Uyeda yelled over the wind. “Justice is a woman. Fickle and blind, she strikes with vengeance. She has no honor.”
Again Uyeda dove downward. His strikes were quick, precise. Nobuyashi defended the best he could, and yet he could feel cuts everywhere. When the barrage was over, Uyeda again took to the skies.
“She is vicious and cruel,” he said, turning around to stare at the raging sky. The howling winds whipped about him, supported him. “She is beautiful.”
Nobuyashi climbed on the rail, struggling to prepare himself for the next attack.
Uyeda cast a hate filled gaze at him and laughed. “I am justice, Kenshin Nobuyashi. I am the will of the gods.”
Nobuyashi shook his head. “The gods have found a new champion. One who will not forsake his honor.”
“Still you speak of honor?” Uyeda asked. “Even after I have explained to you the power justice possesses.”
“Justice is useless without reason.”
Uyeda came at him, yet before he could strike a gust of wind pushed Nobuyashi from the bridge.
Nobuyashi tumbled downward; the wind whispered in his ears, then almost seemed to slow his fall. As the ocean rose up to meet him Nobuyashi formed himself into a ball to better control his body, then untucked and knifed into the raging sea. He fought to rise, but the currents forced him back down, deeper, deeper, until he thought he would die from the lack of air. He cried out, the water forcing itself into his lungs. The pain of his wounds subsided and he knew the gods would come for him then.
But the ring caught his attention — it no longer shone with light. Instead it captured the blackness of the ocean and was now far darker than death.
The woman. The child. How could he forget them? It was for them that he fought. He struggled to rise, but the current pulled him down deeper, until it was so dark he could no longer see the ring on his hand in front of his face.
* * *
Nobuyashi opened his eyes and found himself washed ashore on jagged rocks. He lay on his stomach trying to catch his breath. The air tasted like heaven. He realized he did not only lie on rocks; one of his swords lay beneath him.
“Ah, there you are,” Uyeda said, floating above him. “Not even the seas want you.” A look of contentment crossed Uyeda’s face. “I guess I will have to burn your body in order to be rid of you.”
Nobuyashi pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. The folds of his kimono covered the blade from sight.
“Yes,” Uyeda said. “Rise and meet your doom. Your death will be a fair thing.”
Nobuyashi looked back.
“Face justice,” Uyeda said. He raised his sword above his head, the executioner ready to strike.
Nobuyashi thrust. The air parted before him and Uyeda’s eyes opened wide. He gasped as Nobuyashi’s sword slid into his heart.
“Justice?” Uyeda groaned while floating backward, Nobuyashi’s sword impaled in his chest. “A cruel mistress,” Uyeda said, a trickle of blood staining his lips.
Nobuyashi stood and watched as lightning streaked across the sky and struck Uyeda. The blast flung Nobuyashi back. He gazed up to see Uyeda shiver in the air, his flesh burning in blue-white fire. The winds died and Uyeda tumbled into the sea.
Nobuyashi stood. “I am not justice,” he said. “But I am more fair than death. Give my greetings to Shinigami, Uyeda.”
* * *
Nobuyashi rode until the break of dawn. When he reached the site of his grave he dismounted from the hell-horse. A fringe of sunlight cast a golden ray across the marker where his body would find rest. Beside his grave were two more markers.
He peered down at the graves and questioned what awaited him at his return. He could not remember, but knew that he would be reunited with those he loved.
The ring was a vow he had made to the gods, a vow to fulfill his promise and nothing more. He cast his eyes on the markers next to his. Miyoko was the childless woman on the mountainside that had pleaded with him to give up his quest for vengeance. Suma, the child that he could not remember, but Miyoko could.
The hell-horse neighed. Nobuyashi stared at it and it at him. Its blood red eyes were unnatural — not the eyes of a living animal. Nobuyashi saw himself reflected back. He had forgotten. Uyeda had forgotten. Their lives and their deaths were not only about them.
He touched the creature on its muzzle. Released it. The horse lay down by his grave, its eyes gradually changing to deep dark brown. It lowered its head. Its breathing slowed, then ceased.
Honor or justice? Uyeda had asked him. Nobuyashi stepped forward, his foot sinking into the ground.
A.R. Williams developed a love for books at a very young age. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and comic books captured his imagination and helped light the desire to craft tales of his own. Besides Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, A.R. has had work published in Three Crow Press and Every Day Fiction. “The Blessed and The Damned”, an e-Book novelette, will be released in April 2011 for the Kindle, Nook, and various other e-reading devices.
To learn more about A.R. Williams and his work, please visit his website: http://A-R-Williams.com