By Richard C. Shaffer
3rd Place - 2010 Samurai Fiction Contest
"Do you understand the situation?" asked the stocky man in the high-collared
vestments of a Buddhist monk.
"Of course," responded the much-younger man sitting before him in a subservient position. He was dressed like a monk himself, but of clearly lower rank. Unlike the man on the raised dais before him, he was not bald, either. "Snakes are killing farmers in the fields around Shinja village."
"That's right," the bald man cupped his fingers under his chin. His shoulders shook a little as he chuckled, "Ironic isn't it? A village named for a nearby shrine which honors a local snake god, is now being plagued by demonic snakes."
"Mekura Hebi," stated the younger man, "We have no proof it is really the work of a demon."
The older fellow narrowed his eyes and sighed, "Yes I know, only fools rush in like a blind snake. Needless to say, you are to go to Shinja village immediately and investigate the matter."
"If it is just a snake infestation?" asked the younger man.
"Then report the news to the local lord and inform him that he needs to send for exterminators, not Demon Hunters," answered the elder monk.
"And if it's the work of demons?" the younger man continued.
"Act within your means," responded the man as he rose to his feet. "If you think you can handle it on your own, you have permission to do so. If you think you need help, stay and keep track of the situation, but send to us for aid."
"As you wish, your Eminence," responded the younger monk. He bowed to the larger man, who exited the room from a side door.
It was a matter of days to the remote forest village of Shinja. The young monk
was dressed in the usual vestments of a samurai. He traveled by palanquin, a
man-propelled carriage, rather than riding on horseback.
He wore the daisho of a middle-ranked samurai, but lacked any clan affiliated markings on his hitatare outfit. His only identifiable clothing was the symbol on each lapel for the Order of the Demon Hunters.
"Pardon me," he spoke to one of the onlookers who had witnessed him arriving, "I am Suzaku of Yoshizaki-ji. I have been ordered to investigate the recent spate of deaths. Is the village elder available to speak with me?"
"Oh thank the Buddha," cried a woman who overheard, "Our prayers have been answered."
Suzaku looked at her as she dropped to her knees and started bawling, "Do not worry, I am here to help."
"Please, come this way." one of the onlookers led Suzaku to the largest manor in the village. He was treated to a luxurious setting complimented by a feast in his honor with the finest food and sake in the village.
Suzaku stared at the spread of food and frowned. The aged headman made his obeisance to the young monk as he entered the room and sat at the opposite end of the room from him, "What is the matter, master, are you unsatisfied with the feast?"
"Hmph, maybe its not good enough for a member of The Order?" spat a brash samurai on the side of the room, nearest to the old man.
"I assure you all, I am honored by this welcome," admitted Suzaku, "But I have done nothing, yet. This celebration would be better saved for once I have dealt with the deadly nuisance that has called me here."
"A man of action, just as I'd expect from a member of The Order!" cried the old man. "We are most assured to be saved now!"
"He is just a young friar, who has not even attained monkhood," criticized the samurai on the side of the room, who was clearly the best dressed of the room. He wore the Maeda clan emblem on his lapels and was clearly the representation of the local lord, Maeda Munetoki.
"Forgive me for not being better introduced," said the young man calmly, "I am Suzaku of Yoshizaki-ji. Who am I given the honor of speaking to?"
"I am Cho Tsurabuko," answered the man, "My brother is an Elder of the Maeda clan."
"And your rank, good sir?" asked Suzaku.
"My rank is that of Yoriki to the Maeda household," he answered through gritted teeth, "I was sent here to investigate the situation by Lord Maeda, himself. I still do not know why he called you here."
"What success have you had in the time it took me to get here?" the young monk started to eat the pickled vegetables before him. "If you don't mind my requesting a progress report."
"I found a way to eliminate the problem entirely, but the villagers refused my assistance," he glanced around the room at the untrusting faces, "It seems they don't truly want to be saved."
"And what was your plan, if I may ask?"
"He wanted to burn the village to the ground!" cried one of the younger members of the assembly.
"Tsai!" the old headman reprimanded the young assemblyman. "Master Cho suggested burning the fields to kill the snakes, but we would not be able to pay our taxes for the year if this was to happen, so we wished to try a different tactic."
Suzaku glanced at the Maeda retainer, who only crossed his arms and snubbed his meal. He finished his own meal and afterward approached the old man and sat before him, "Tell me, when did all this occur?"
"About four months ago," stated the old man, "The Lord of the nearby castle closed the castle off, no one may enter and no one ever leaves. Shortly after that the snakes began appearing in the fields."
"So it is unremarkable to guess that the events in the castle may be connected?"
"The Lord of the castle is surely plotting something," responded the Maeda samurai, Cho, "He won't even grant me access to the castle. He ignores my calls to open the gate. I am preparing to request a contingent from Lord Maeda to tear down his gates."
"Would it not be more prudent to just send someone over the wall, secretly?" suggested Suzaku
"I sent two of my retainers over the walls a few days ago."
"And what did they report?" Suzaku's question elicited a glare from Cho.
"The honorable men of Maeda did not return," the old headman answered since the samurai would only glare at him, "No one who goes into the castle returns."
"I see," Suzaku pondered the situation for a moment, "When do the snakes usually attack?"
"When the person is alone," answered Cho, "They seem to lay in wait among the crops and attack when the farmer is working by themselves. Occasionally they'll be more bold and attack small groups, but only at night."
Suzaku reached into the small handbag that he wore at his right hip and retrieved a leather-bound book, quickly flipping through the pages of the book. He examined an illustration of a pair of humanoid snake creatures, with blade-like fingernails on each three-fingered hand. "They seem to be like the Yato-no-Kami of Namegata."
"What does that mean?" asked the old headman.
"That means they're easier to kill." Suzaku snapped the book shut and put it back in his handbag, "We already know how to fight them, so I don't have to take time to study them."
"Then what should we do about it?" asked Cho.
"I'll need hemp clothing and a sickle. And someone to direct me to the hardest hit chunk of land."
"That would be the Oka family," announced one of the younger members of the assembly. "Almost the entire family has been murdered, only the grandma and the youngest grandchild have been left."
"That's definitely the style of the Yato-no-Kami," responded the monk, "I'll need clothes that belonged to the deceased."
The dead patron's coat and hat were brought to the elder's mansion and Suzaku donned the clothing. "Good, now I'll need a piece of equipment from my luggage."
He had one of the villagers fetch him a short cane from his luggage. He took the cane and examined it hastily, "This should work. I'll attach the sickle to the end of it."
Once this was done he made his way into the fields and used the sickle to carve a narrow circle in the soil of the field. He carved a smaller circle within that and placed an arrangement of lines around the encirclement. Eight sets of 3 lines, some broken, some full.
"What is the point of this?" asked Cho.
"Hakke," answered the monk as he went on about his work.
"The Eight Trigrams of the I Ching," responded the young man apathetically, "The Yato-no-Kami like to come from behind and they are quick. I will need to sense the presence of them coming from any direction."
"Why don't you just tell me how you want buried, now?" laughed the older man. He went back to his housing within the headman's mansion.
Once Suzaku was done with his work, it was almost nightfall. The villagers pleaded with the young monk to return to the mansion, but he instead ordered them all to go to their homes and bar their doors until morning.
Once they acquiesced to his instructions, he began mindlessly toiling in the weed-infested fields. He used his sickle-on-a-stick as a makeshift scythe and hacked at the weeds haphazardly.
Unbeknownst to him, several reptilian demons were watching from afar. They slithered along the ground in a rapid fashion and surrounded him on three sides. He simply continued his work slashing the bits of weed, which he was unable to tell from crop anyway, into bits of salad.
One of the snake-like creatures made a dash, crawling across the ground, toward the unsuspecting monk. As it crossed over the hardly visible lines in the dirt, Suzaku's senses flared up.
In his mind he could see an image of the field, as if watching from overhead, and he could see a vague shadow approaching from behind. Just before the snake creature struck, Suzaku wheeled about and buried the sickle blade into its abdomen.
The creature hissed in pain and leaped into the weeds, but Suzaku drew a blade, concealed within the makeshift scythe's staff, and struck into the bushes, slicing an arm off the creature, "You've invaded my array; you can't hide from me now."
Again, his senses flared as he saw the coming of a second creature and he wheeled about to parry a blow from its knife-like fingertips. He redirected the creature's momentum and cut it across the back, slicing it in half.
It writhed around and he stabbed it in the back of its head. "You won't get a chance to regenerate!"
He plucked a slip of paper from inside his shirt and placed it against the pommel of the sword. In a flash of fire, the creature shriveled into a snake's skin.
Suzaku felt the twinge of a third shadowy figure approaching, but the wounded creature was also coming at him at the same time. He dodged to the side, but one of the creatures leapt at him and struck him in the shoulder.
They hissed and began circling him, waiting for an opportunity to make the killing blow. Suzaku could see their shadows in his mind, still standing within his array. He closed his eyes and let his spirit keep track of them. Suddenly one of them made a move and he turned to engage it, thrusting into the creature's body with his sword and using the makeshift scythe in his other hand to hack the monster's head off.
This time the one-armed demon didn't give him a chance to finish off the other one and attacked him from behind. Once again Suzaku saw it coming in time to deal a blow against its face.
He pulled a pair of paper talismans from his breast and sealed each of the creatures. When daylight came he was calmly sitting in the field, holding a trio of leathery snake skins which looked as though they had been barbecued.
"Is that what was killing the farmers?" laughed Cho as he looked at the frail reptile corpses.
"I assure you they were much larger last night." Suzaku narrowed his eyes at the man before looking to the old headman. "Honorable Elder, could you get someone to wash my wound. It is not bad, but I do not want to develop a fever."
"Yes of course, rest for today and we shall celebrate your success," cried the old man. Suzaku was unable to sway him from the celebration and the entire village held a feast in Suzaku's honor, much to Cho's chagrin.
After a day of festivities and a night of rest, Suzaku announced that he was
going to infiltrate the castle and examine the situation inside. The news was
of little surprise to the villagers present. The young monk looked to Cho, "Can
I ask that you not invade the castle until I return?"
"If you return," warned the older man.
"So be it; give me three days," offered the monk, "It will take that long for your troops to arrive, anyway."
"Fair enough. You have three days from this morning. If you have not returned with good news by then, I shall tear the whole castle down; if I must!"
"Three days is more than I will need," responded Suzaku. He retired to his chambers to prepare himself for the coming adventure.
He packed his information-filled book and a bit of food to keep him going if the investigation did take the three days he was allotted. He also girded on his daisho swords and packed a few throwing knives in the cords of the hilt.
With everything set he tied the leather handbag onto his obi, at the back of his right hip. He went out at nightfall and made his way to the edge of the castle. He had examined the wall during the day with Cho, and they had deduced a few of the best ways to get over the walls.
He found one of the routes and climbed to the top of wall; peering over the shingled ridge, he found no one on patrol. He climbed over the wall and snuck into the front courtyard of the Lord's estate.
"This is odd," he remarked to himself, "If he has barricaded himself into his castle, there should definitely be guards around. But I haven't seen another soul."
He noticed that the main door to the estate was hanging slightly ajar and frowned, "Perhaps soul was a bad choice of words. I haven't seen any living creatures."
He walked to the doorway and peered inside, but could see only darkness. He tried to push the door open quietly, but it was stuck on something and he had to shove it hard to open it.
He gasped at the scene before him, illuminated by the bright moonlight of the night. He covered his mouth and nose with his hand and shook his head, "And I don't think I will see one."
The room was filled with the carcasses of dead soldiers. They were wearing full battle armor and laying about the place in crumpled positions. It seemed as though they had died torturous, painful deaths.
The room stunk of death and decay and Suzaku hesitated to enter, but decided that whatever was at fault for the deaths, it was probably deeper inside the castle. As soon as he entered the room, however, he regretted it.
He felt a pang of danger, but could see no creature capable of causing harm, only ones that had suffered it. He crept over the bodies and was unnerved by the sudden closing of the door. He peered back as lamps around the room mysteriously lit themselves, "Well I fell for that trap quite easily, didn't I?"
With no way to go but onward, he continued through the gallant hall of the building's antechamber, stepping over bodies with decaying faces, twisted in agony and despair. He came across a sight he had, at least in the back of his mind, come to expect at this point: The corpse of one of the Cho family retainers.
"Where's the other one, though?" he pondered aloud as he looked around the room. His eyes drifted to the ceiling where he saw something that confused him, "How did the blood get on the ceiling? And how long has it been there, that it has dried?"
He chalked these questions, and more, up to the mysteries of castle and continued into the main corridor of the estate. Here there were more bodies strewn about, although they were dressed in more civil attire and seemed to have been slightly more surprised by their demise than the poor fools in the antechamber.
He found his way to the kitchen, but noted that the food in the pantries were covered with maggots and was decayed worse than the bodies. "Whatever happened here happened a long time ago. I'm guessing around a month. But they told me the strange events started occurring four months ago."
He changed his direction within the castle and found one particular area seemed to be relatively corpse and damage free. It led to the inner chambers, where the Lord and his family would have dwelled.
He came upon a grand door, which was guarded by a pair of armored men who were laying dead at their posts. Their fingernails were torn off and the door had the scratches to explain why.
"Poor fools saw it coming," he held his hand up and offered them a short prayer before pushing open the doors and walking into the pentagonal room. This room was quite different from the others. It was still in nearly perfect shape, give or take a corpse in the corners of the room. "These ones are different."
These corpses were wearing fine silk, unlike the soldiers and retainers in the hallway. They were also sitting, rather than laying in wretched positions. He counted them quickly: One adult male roughly in his fifties, two young boys, early teens, and a young girl, probably no older than eleven.
He took out his leather-bound book and from it removed a smaller book, much like a notepad, "Although the men of the outer compartments seemed to have been killed in a grotesque fashion, the people of the inner compartments have wounds more akin to Seppuku."
The ritual suicide of a samurai, often done to prevent his enemies from getting the satisfaction of killing him, themselves, "Judging by the emblems on their clothing, I'm guessing the Lord of the castle and three of his children: Two sons, one daughter."
He regarded the sight and shook his head, "If I had to guess from the pooled blood and the placid looks on the children's faces, they were poisoned, their bellies cut open afterward."
He gave the man a second look and shuddered as a door in the corner of the room flew open and remained ajar as if to call him. He calmly regarded the door and shook his head, "Wait your turn, demon! I'm in the middle of something."
He drew a crude diagram of the room and the placement of the bodies in the notepad and jotted down a few more notes. "The man looks rather emaciated, like he was probably starving when he committed suicide. Judging by the rancid food, and preservation of the body, I would guess he killed himself rather than starve to death."
As an afterthought, Suzaku pulled one of the dried rice cakes he had brought in his handbag and placed it before the man, clasping his hands together to offer the bodies a silent prayer, "May the Buddha forgive your transgressions, for even a criminal does not deserve to suffer like this."
He rose to his feet and ran his fingers over the hilt of his sword as he gave the bodies one last glance, "And certainly, neither do children."
He strode to the door and saw another corpse, laying near it. He could only see the man's back, which had the Cho family crest upon it, "That answers my earlier question."
He ignored the fact that it looked as though the man had torn his own throat out with his bare hands and went inside the room. "Or at least one of them."
He pulled one of the throwing knives from his sword's hilt and dropped it in the doorway. As expected, the door slammed shut, but was caught by the knife, keeping it slightly ajar to give him room to make an escape if he needed to.
"So demon, shall we cease this mindless hunt?" He pulled a paper talisman from his breast and with a twitch of his finger it ignited into flame. "I am Suzaku, a Sire of the Pure Land's Holy Order of Purification. To beings like you I am mostly known as Suzaku the Demon Slayer."
He hurled the talisman to the ground with a growl as he drew his sword. "Show yourself, foul beast!"
The lamps in the room lit themselves, illuminating the room. Even Suzaku, who had slain numerous demonic creatures in his short life, was appalled by the sight. There were corpses of young women hanging from each wall.
They were skewered through the shoulders and hips, skinned, and many were missing organs which were visible on the floor beneath them. Judging from the condition of the wall around them, they had been alive for most, if not all, of the torture.
"Am I really so foul a beast?" asked a beautiful young woman sitting on a relatively untouched bed of cushions on the opposite end of the room.
"Demon, why have you done all this?" demanded Suzaku, although even he had to admit that the scene was disturbing.
"Done what?" she asked with a subtle shrug, "All I did was tell everyone how insulted I was by their actions and they died out of pity and grief. Do you want to know my story?"
Suzaku's mind was filled with images. They were so strong he could barely concentrate. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees, clutching his head in agony. Suddenly he understood what had happened to the men in the castle.
He saw the Lord of the castle trying to revive his children, dead from poisoning. Time shifted in his mind and he saw the Lord stripping his young daughter's body naked. He eyed her voraciously, but not sexually, no he opened his mouth and sank his teeth into the girl's abdomen. Coagulated blood spilled out and he dropped her to the floor, unable to eat his own kin.
"Wretched woman," snarled Suzaku as the images continued to assault his mind. He saw the soldiers of the castle worked into a frenzy by the woman's foul images. They began slaying their more strong-willed leaders, in the corridors and their own beds. Haunted by images of a war that was only raging in their minds.
Once the residents of the castle had been eliminated, the soldiers were rewarded with even worse images. Death, destruction, betrayal, abuse; they tried to escape the castle, clawing at the door and beating it with their fists. They killed each other to try to escape the torture; killed themselves to alleviate it.
Some of the stronger willed warriors deduced the culprit as their lord and tried to kill him, but were treated to even more grotesque renderings within their minds and died in failure.
Suzaku saw the deaths of the two Cho retainers in similar fashion and then saw images of the girls stapled to the walls. Unlike the men outside, their deaths were caused by hand. The hand of the castle's lord.
Driven into a madness by the images, he murdered the women, his own concubines, after he skinned them alive. Afterwards he presented the hides to the woman before Suzaku as if they were gifts to appease her.
"My mind is not so weak as the others, demon." Suzaku clapped his hands together and took a deep breath, exhaling as he purified his mind. In a moment the images faded. He breathed a sigh of relief, "Namu Amida Butsu "
"So, you have survived my memories?" asked the woman with a callous chuckle. "Once, I was a beautiful woman. Cherished by my husband, the lord of this castle. But that was many years ago."
"Why did you force him to death?" asked Suzaku as he tried to gather his concentration, recovering from the horrible thoughts he'd been subjected to.
"I loved him, you know," she sighed, "But when I grew old, I was no longer beautiful to him. I was of the purest blood in the province and I bore him three beautiful children."
"What are you getting at?" he snapped at her.
"He began taking in girls from the farms who were young and pretty." She bared her teeth, which showed snake-like fangs among her more human appearance. "He would lay with them, then come to sleep on a bed beside me, right in the same room as the woman he had just betrayed. No less than five of these dirt-whores he took in!"
"So you wanted revenge?" asked the monk.
"Revenge? I wanted more than that," she rose to her feet and dropped her silken garments to her feet. Her naked legs dangled unused around a scaly body. "I wanted everyone to suffer my pain. And I wanted all those dirty peasants to die like the wretches they are!"
She was amazingly fast as she erupted forth, the body of a large serpent tearing through the stolen flesh of one of the young women. Suzaku did his best to dodge her and he managed to parry her fangs with his sword.
She grinned as her lower half twisted about and wrapped around Suzaku's legs. She squeezed until one of his legs made a loud popping sound. He cried out in pain, but he was able to draw his wakizashi and stab it into her body, making her release him.
Suzaku limped away from her and tried to catch his breath. She plucked the shortsword from her scaly tail and tossed it to the side of the room. She seemed to ignore the crashing sound that came from the antechamber. Suzaku could only imagine what else was coming for him.
He narrowly escaped a second attack and drew a pair of paper talismans from his breast. "I summon the rains and the winds of--"
The snake woman reached out with her scaly arm and grabbed him by the wrist, halting his incantation. They struggled for a moment, before Suzaku was able to twist his wrist around and grab her as well. He pulled her closer and used his sword to sever her arm.
She howled in pain, then regarded the severed limb with a caustic scoff. "It will regrow before the next fool impedes upon my chambers."
"I am the last fool who will need to," chided the monk. He shifted his weight to keep as little of it on his injured leg as possible, holding his sword toward the monstrous woman. "I feel sorry for your lot in life, but that does not excuse the agony you have inflicted upon others."
"I will show you agony," cried the serpentine woman, "I will rend your very soul from your corpse and burn it!"
A loud thud struck the door to the chamber and this time the woman looked to see what the sound emanated from. "Who impedes upon my chambers, now?"
Suzaku saw his opportunity. Biting back the pain from his leg, he leapt at the reptilian creature and struck her in the breast. She recoiled in pain, but Suzaku did not let up. He plucked a talisman from his shirt and hurled it at her, "Taste the bitterness of regret."
He held up two fingers and spoke the provocation of the spell, "Enyoku."
The slip of paper erupted into a burst of ground salt which sprayed all over the snake-like creature. She howled in pain as the salt burnt into her wounds. Suzaku fell upon her with his mighty blade and severed her head from her neck.
Her body writhed in pain as her head bounced upon the floor and rolled to face the young monk. She grimaced and barred her fangs. "You have killed me, monk! My quest to rid the world of philanderers and farms is at an end."
"I bare you no ill will, personally," the monk watched the woman's body revert to that of a human before his eyes, "Your life was truly a tragic one, indeed."
"I was old and wretched and so my husband forsook me," whined the humanesque head of the woman. "I bartered my soul with the snake demons of the nearby shrine for revenge, but now I will become that which I feared most: An ugly old hag!"
He gazed upon her face as her mouth drooped and her eyes closed, her headless body's writhing coming to an end. He could not help but be moved by her situation, for she was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Her husband's philandering must have pushed her to believe that her beauty was nonexistent. Suzaku wanted to blame the castle's Lord. But like many things in life there were so many people and events at fault one couldn't lay the blame fairly.
Suddenly the doors burst open with Cho at the helm of a score of riflemen. "What happened here?
"Whatever happened to my three days?" joked the young monk as he quietly sat upon the floor, nursing his broken leg.
"Three days? You were gone a week," cried the Maeda retainer. "We broke down the gates as soon as these men got here!"
Suzaku realized the power of the demon he had just struck down. Able to bend time within her territory: The castle, "She had power over this dwelling and this dwelling had power over her. Thanks to you disturbing her palace, her powers wavered just long enough for me to strike her down."
"I'm not sure what you mean, but it sounds like you're thanking me," mused the samurai.
"In that case, I welcome you to go on," laughed Cho and he ordered his troops to help escort the demon slayer back to the village to receive medical care.
Once he was healed, Suzaku returned Yoshizaki temple. In the meanwhile, under orders of Lord Maeda, Cho had the castle torn down and burnt. The abbot of Yoshizaki also sent several priests to enshrine the dead woman's body and seal the evil influences of the castle before anything else was built upon it.
The farmers of the village took over the land, plowed it, and planted seeds in it the following year. However they reported that nothing would grow in the field and that it would become infested with baby snakes every time it rained.