By Matthew Anderson
2nd Place - 2010 Samurai Fiction Contest
The motives of his Lord were never explicitly stated for the assassin, but in most cases he could fairly accurately deduce at least a basic level of his intentions by the class and station of each mark. This mission is different, however. He knows very little about this mark going in; not their name, not their profession, no description of their appearance, not even their sex. The only thing the assassin knows about the target is where to find them on this night in particular, and that they will be leading a friendly gathering for the hyakumono-gatari, or "one hundred supernatural tales."
The assassin locates the estate hosting the event, and finds a nearby noodle stall setting up for the evening. Taking a seat, he orders a bowl.
"I'm afraid I've only just begun to set up, sir. I haven't even started the fire, and it will be some time before the water boils."
He tells the old man he doesn't mind waiting and proceeds to do so, glancing back occasionally to the gate of the estate. The old man attempts small talk and the assassin goes through the motions, no longer even having to think about alibis or covers on a conscious level. By the time he is sipping on noodles the assassin has witnessed several groups of attendants with their nobles enter the premises. The warmth of the setting summer sun on his back and the heat of the freshly-boiled broth bring beads of sweat forth from his forehead as the drone of the season's few early cicadas gently taper off, one by one.
The streets are congested, but the rabble gradually disperse as dinner commences across the city. The assassin weaves his way around the estate in a pattern that is not obvious circling. He strolls until he finds a moment when all backs are turned to him, and nimbly ascends the outer wall, then perches amongst the roof tiles of a neighboring structure. Veiled behind the winding tendrils of a soon-to-bloom wisteria, the assassin surveys the grounds containing his target, somewhere. Guard is lax and it seems that most of the escorting attendants have been temporarily quartered in another section of the estate. The guests have gathered in a large detached guest room overlooking the property's remarkable garden. A light dinner has been served and a few young courtesans are now throwing scraps off the veranda to a tan puppy, which is wandering freely about the garden. Fortunately, the assassin observed this with time to spare.
He descends from the rooftop, back to the street, finds a nearby vendor, from which he purchases one dumpling, and slips it into his satchel. As darkness sets in, it is easier to find an inconspicuous moment to vault the estate's wall, and the assassin finds himself huddled among the shrubbery of its spacious garden. He waits. Servants come and remove the various platters, utensils, and trays. Sake and tea continue to flow freely. Perched before a blooming azalea, its white bulbs withhold their secret odor beneath the overpowering sweetness of some nearby gardenias; but as the assassin lingers within their aura, the flowers gradually reveal their subtly sweet and spiced aroma. The garden is a testament to the potential beauty of the summer, in spite of its sultry oppression. Nearly every plant that blossoms this time of year is present. Whites, lavenders, yellows, and pinks; even the willow and lotus of its small babbling brook and pond are in bloom.
The evening's festivities commence as a middle-aged man in gaudy attire commands that the guests produce and light the candles they were asked to bring. The first is lit from a lamp in the corner; then it is passed to the next, and so on, until the flame has propagated itself throughout the room. The custom is for there to be one hundred candles, one blown out after each story told, until the last candle is extinguished with the final story, leaving the room pitch black. Then, something is supposed to happen. Of course, the time necessary for that many tales to be told would likely dampen the effect of the last candles, as by that point the sun might easily be at its apex the following day; but the real point is a gathering of friends to enjoy one another's company and bond over scaring the kuso out of each other. In all, the assassin estimates roughly thirty candles accompany their guests.
The candles are placed, in small groupings of three to five, into vertical rectangular wooden frames, wrapped in sheets of blue paper. The resulting light emanating from these azure lanterns is most unnatural indeed. The oil lamps are stifled and the screens closed in order to enhance the intimacy and mystery of the tales to be told. It has the same effect on the outside as the many lanterns cast a multitude of shadows from the guests onto the screens, their manifold silhouettes offering the impression that a hundred tales actually might be told this evening.
Cut off from its benefactors, the tan puppy whines beneath the veranda, then abandons its futile effort to resume the exploration of its vast, verdant territory. The assassin extracts the newly acquired dumpling from his satchel and pushes a small, yellow pebble into its core. He pitches it a few paces ahead of the animal's path and it is quickly devoured without hesitation. The pup continues its typical routine for a few moments, then briskly returns to its designated mat along one of the outer walls. It circles itself a few times, then plops down promptly, produces several muffled whimpers and falls silent, not likely to wake again.
The assassin deftly bounds across the brook and tucks himself beneath the veranda of the candle-lit guest room just as the voice of the gaudily-dressed man finishes his introduction and prompts the first guest to begin their story. From this position he can listen as the evening progresses and await the perfect moment to strike. As is typically the case, the stories begin with the more light-hearted variety before gradually taking a turn toward the morose, and always concluding with the downright grisly.
He has heard one version or another of many of these stories: The Cat of Nabeshima, Hoichi the Earless, renditions of lovers' suicide pacts, random encounters with the mysterious mountain men, accounts of the Yuki-onna's icy embrace, and a wide variety of other tales involving various ghosts and ghouls. There is some deviation in the details, but their overall content remain the same tried-and-true yarns told on such occasions for generations. With the close of each story, the gaudily-dressed man blows out yet another candle and the advancing shadows draw with them an ever-receding veil of quietude. Before long, most of the guests have told their story until but one candle remains. The gaudily-dressed man begins accosting his sheepish clientele for the last story of the evening. His candid expectation for a final tale of superior quality does not lull any of them into a burst of sudden unabashed bravado. After several unsuccessful attempts to elicit a story from the few remaining guests who have yet to contribute, he surrenders.
"Fine, perhaps it is best this way anyhow. We wouldn't want to cap the evening on a dull note." The gaudily-dressed man removes the final candle from its lantern and pulls it to his face, staring through the flickering flame as if it were an eyelet into another world. "I call this one: 'Gara.'"
"There is a type of sprite known as moryo. By definition, moryo come in
a variety of forms and serve many a... 'purpose.' This story doth concern a
moryo of the class which consumes the flesh of the dead. Pray ye not confuseth
them with the jikininki, who were erewhile greedy and impious men; these moryo
are the sole and exclusive manifestation of their own spirits. Their descriptions
are as diverse as the location of their accounts. For the purpose of this story,
their specific appearance is of little import, but one might imagine such a
creature could only be a horrifying apparition to behold and, beyond that, the
aura of stench permeating from such a being... 'twould verily be beyond any
of our own comprehension. Ne'etheless, we must remember that all creatures serve
a purpose. Thusly, were it not for the moryo to strip the bones of the dead
so that they might move onto the next world, other carrion would. Furthermore,
we must respect the burden of kegare such beings shoulder for us, that we might
ourselves avoid it.
Now, many years ago there was a severe plague outbreak which fester'd in the valleys to the east. Some of ye mightst even recall these events. 'Tis during such times that creatures belike the moryo oft thrive and flourish. Many were spott'd rummaging through the remnants of entire villages, feeding off the decimation brought forth by the black winds.
There was but one single village that still surviv'd within such a valley; but, for it, little time remain'd. Several of the elder council had already pass'd on, and nearly all of those remaining in the village show'd symptoms of infection. The villagers had heard of sightings of 'corpse-eaters' nearby and fear'd their own inevitable fate. These villagers, naturally, wish'd to move on to the next world undisturb'd by the taint of such grotesque monstrosities and, so, took measures to somehow ensure that their sanctity might remain preserv'd.
They sent their swiftest runner, yet uninfect'd, to dash out to the city and beseech the counsel of an onmyoji as to the best remedy to their hopeless plight. To some, this might seem an ideal opportunity to escapeth with their life; but the runner was a young man of great honor, who would sooner die in service to the land and folk that rais'd him, than of old age after a life whose prosperity was built upon the foundation of betrayal.
After much toil and frustration, the runner was finally grant'd a brief audience with the onmyoji. The great sage did make an elaborate inscription on a single sheet of paper whilst reciting an ancient verse, and instruct'd the runner to duplicate more of them once he had return'd to his village, recreating the process exactly as he had. They were to make enough of these talismans to seal off every entrance to every dwelling or other structure within which they could possibly entomb the dead in the short time that remain'd.
By the time of the runner's return, half the village had already perish'd. Those remaining stack'd up the bodies, mostly by family, into their respective homes. Gradually, their numbers continued to thin, and the wards were plac'd o'er every entrance to every crypt until, alas, there was naught but a single soul left to place them.
Surely enough, one evening, the moryo did come -- 'twas a single, lonesome moryo, belike the sole remaining yet unsated by the spoils of the catastrophic pandemic which had so thoroughly ravag'd the valleys. As the moryo did creep deeper into the village square, 'twas perturb'd by the dearth of any visible flesh. It could smell the rotting, savory corpses all around, but, typically, they were simply strewn about like scatt'red ashes, ripe for the plunder. Not so here. Where were they? Then, as the fetid creature did approach the central well, it spott'd the arm of a single body splay'd out behind its shabby masonry. 'Twas the body of the village runner. The goblin did tug at the expos'd appendage, dragging the limp body near'r to its gaping, drooling maw; but a shallow, gurgling hiss began to emanate from beneath its presum'd meal. Startl'd, the moryo did roll the strepitous body o'er onto its back.
'Pleeeaase...' whisp'red the emaciat'd runner. Struggling to breath, let alone, speak, he plead'd with the creature to not disturb the rest of the townsfolk, and explain'd the lengths to which they had gone to ensure their pristine slumber. He inform'd it that he was the last of the villagers with but a breath of life remaining and implor'd the creature to move on somewhither hence.
'But I am huuungry. Soooo hungry... It doth pain me, intolerably, and must be dout'd! Wouldst thou have me despatch'd of relief, of mine own dull sustenance?' The moryo did peer deeply into his eyes. The boy could hardly keep its gaze. It took the last wisps of his strength to not look away from its horrendous visage but, scarcely, he did manage to hold fast.
'I am hungry. I suffer from a hunger, surely beyond anything one of thine kind could e'er begin to censure. But, 'tis the dead what I consume. I could devour thee too, thou art... close enough. But, for thee, I shall wait. In the interim, thou might keepest myself company as I feast.'
One final time, the boy attempt'd another hopeless plea unto the creature. Unfaltering, it did respond, 'Drumbe not, good sir, for thou dost not have much longer to remain, thine exigent doth approach with haste. Thou may be my dessert... or mine APPETIZER! I doth suggest thou harry me naught!' and, with that warning, the monster did begin to sack the village, leaving the ghoulish boy where he layeth beside the stone well. The moryo did tear off every last talisman, break down every last barr'd door, and begin piling the carcasses up into one massive heap in the center of town afore the sickly personage of its lone remaining resident.
By this time the boy was half-delusional and drifting in and out of consciousness. Perhaps 'twas the boy's luck what spar'd him from witnessing his kinsmen consum'd afore him, corpse by corpse, limb by limb; but the sounds were far from subtle. Chomping, tearing, slurping, stifl'd breathing, and... swallowing. Deep, greedy gulps. The creature seem'd to make an effort toward being a decent host, offering him portions and attempting menial conversation, but the boy was unresponsive. One by one, upon sucking the last of the meat from off and within each individual bone, the creature toss'd 'em into the well behind the boy. They would ricochet off the lip and stone interior, making hollow, clacking noises follow'd by a solitary, final splash. The boy had no idea how long he had continu'd to lay there, at one point he could have sworn he felt the warmth of sunlight upon his back; but, eventually, these grotesque echoes were the din that accompani'd his soul on its departure from our physical realm.
Thusly, by the time the moryo had finish'd with the last of the grisly pile, there was one more course to add to't. 'Twas true to its word however; it did allow the boy to wait out the rest of his time before it did devour his body as well. Smacking its lips and licking its fingertips, the moryo did toss the last of the village bones into the well, no longer splashing into its waters but, presently, clacking into the heap as't join'd its brethren.
The engorg'd imp did stagger to the outskirts of the desolate village and collaps'd into the moon-cast shadows of a nearby thicket, where it doz'd off in deep, momentary satisfaction.
Anon, the earth began to quake violently, stirring the moryo from its brief alleviat'd slumber. Blurry-ey'd, it did look to the source of this sporadic upheaval. 'Twas the well, crumbling, the ground beneath't seizing and undulating, the nearby homes and buildings toppling over, returning to the soil of their progenitor. The creature star'd on in shock, as gargantuan bony fingers did emerge from the rubble of the well. The first hand did join its twin and they began clawing at the broken earth ensconcing the arms which drove them.
Thence the moryo was on its feet, jarr'd fully back into this state we call wakefulness. A colossal, towering skeleton, compos'd of the bones of all the village dead, did step forth from the crater that was to be their tomb. The moryo turn'd to run, but an enormous ivory foot did crash down afore it, blocking its retreat.
'No! Thou mayest NOT scamble away, caitiff! Thou who couldst not leave us unmolest'd, thou shall not leave us AT ALL! Engross'd, thou hast riggishly taken us into thineself; gain'd sustenance from that which was our very ESSENCE! WE shall return the courtesy! By answer, thou shalt remain with us, encag'd ETERNE!' The hulking skeleton did bend down and snatch the terrifi'd goblin 'twixt its sallow fingers, lifting it up off the ground. 'Nnnooowww!!! Rightly obsequious, we shall slumber.' And the o-dokuro did bring its jagg'd hands to its chest, pressing the swollen moryo into its stony sternum. It attempt'd to screech something out -- mayhap a curse, mayhap a plea -- but all that depart'd the moryo's greasy, fetid lips was a paltry, subdu'd whimper.
From a fully-erect stance, the giant skeleton did topple backwards on its heels, crashing back to the gnarl'd earth from whence it had pounc'd, and sank back therein with puissant quakes, as if aided by the rage of Namazu himself.
The reverberations gradually began to subside into an eerie, pestilent silence. Overhead, the ravens continu'd to circle, circumspect at the prospect of alighting to the rubble below. As the dust settl'd, they orbit'd a few more times, then gather'd and promptly flock'd off toward the west."
Concluding the story, the gaudily-dressed man extinguishes the final flame. The crowd of guests stare, dumbfounded. A chill winds its way down the assassin's spine as he contemplates the idea of a towering behemoth, made up of the remains of all the victims he has slain over the years, searching relentlessly for their shared maker, plotting their vengeance. The guests sit silently, anticipating the grand invocation or whatever finale their host may have up his sleeve. Nothing happens.
One of the men jokingly ambushes one of his peers, startling all present but himself and two more. They erupt in the uproarious laughter that follows a relieved break in tension. Having recently passed into the hour of the rat, it is quite late. The patrons thank their host for the evening's entertainment and quickly begin to trickle out onto the veranda, through the gates of the grounds, and back to their respective domiciles, brimming with banter of the evening's stories and the better ones they know of and should have told. They are accompanied by their attendants who have been waiting patiently, though no doubt eagerly, for this moment. Most depart in a jovial mood. However, "I was expecting the Ao-andon!" whines one particularly boisterous courtesan as she canters disappointedly through the outer gate with her retinue.
Abandoned like an oniwaka, the gaudily-dressed man has re-lit one solitary lamp to illuminate his final preparations as he collects and packs up his things, including his payment, ready to move on to whatever destination wherein his travels may lead him next. For the last time, he extinguishes the final remaining lamp. There is the silhouette of a solitary figure standing in the open screen behind him, a distinctive shape clutched in its hand.
"So the stories are true. Those who cross The Flyswatter are swiftly swatted down, and The Carver is his preferred paddle... Consider ye this: One day ye too may find wings beginning to sprout from thine own shoulders; who will do the swatting then?" The gaudily-dressed man's words carry little weight.
The assassin approaches, a large maru-nomi in hand. It's as if he was prepared for this, for the gaudily-dressed man makes no attempt to flee, or even dodge the blow, as the assassin fluidly thrusts the instrument's keen, curved blade into his left eye-socket. A thin rivulet trickles down the man's cheek like a crimson tear and pools at the thin wisp of facial hair encompassing his typically open mouth. He falls onto his back, eyeball dangling from its tattered lids. The assassin descends upon him, striking the metal pommel of the tool sharply with his palm, forcing the blade all the way through the dense bone and into the brain. Cord trailing behind, the liberated oculus sails through the air, bounces several times, and rolls off the porch, out of sight. Then, there is a rustling in the foliage below and the left. The assassin readies himself to address the inevitable confrontation that is surely to follow.
Tiny footsteps preface the approach of the tan puppy as it rounds the corner
beneath the veranda on the garden floor. It carelessly trots up to the gaudily-dressed
man's expelled eye and begins eagerly nibbling at the orb. The scream of a maid
pierces the night from the darkened room behind the assassin, followed promptly
by the sound of scores of heavy feet plodding rapidly toward it. He has already
tarried too long. There is no hope of recovering his maru-nomi from the successful
mark, but he has collected himself enough to beat a hasty retreat. He hurdles
over the railing, landing beside the puppy, which looks up from its heaven-sent
meal with little more than a passing glance. That pup has quite the will to
survive! Resigning the passing moment of acknowledgment, the assassin vaults
the outer wall and vanishes into the chaos of the night.