Kenji’s temple was small compared to the ones we had known in Kyoto but spacious enough and surprisingly well kept, considering his personal habits. I was almost impressed. I wandered the lecture hall, admiring the craftsmanship of the woodwork and generally wasting the time I was likely supposed to be doing something else.
“Come to inspect your investment, Yamada-sama?”
Kenji stood in the doorway, a small scroll in one hand and his priestly staff with the bronze cap and heavy rings in the other, which could only mean he was preparing to leave.
“More like neglecting my duties. The truth of which causes me neither guilt nor regret, I might add,” I said. “Have I come at an inconvenient time?”
Kenji glanced at the small scroll in his hand. “I was just on my way to Nishisawa. I received a request from the headman there to perform an exorcism.”
I frowned. “Nishisawa? Where is that?”
Kenji sighed. “Lord Yamada, the village is within your jurisdiction. Are you telling me you’ve never been there?”
“There are several such within my estates, Kenji-san. If they’re paying their taxes and not causing trouble, I do them the courtesy of leaving them alone... and what sort of exorcism?”
Kenji scratched his shaved head. “In truth, the man was a little vague in that regard. He said all would be explained upon my arrival.”
“So he saw fit to summon the abbot of this temple with no more explanation than that? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
Kenji demurred. “It strikes me as discreet. Likely his mistress is possessed by a fox spirit, or some such. That’s not something you’d want to put in writing. Besides, I am the only priest of any experience within your jurisdiction. Who else would he request?”
“A fair point, but I think I will accompany you, for my own peace of mind.”
“Lord Yamada, honestly... are you that bored?”
As a priest, Kenji had his shortcomings, but as my oldest friend he was very difficult to fool. “Tagako-hime has taken my daughters to meet their aunt in Kyoto. My son is on another horse-buying trip to Mino province. What do you think?”
“Fine, but let’s be off. The morning is ageing, and so are we.”
Ageing indeed. I could see nothing better than a fine long walk to remind me of the fact.
We hadn’t traveled very far on the road before Kenji was forced to comment on the two heavily armed archers accompanying me.
“Since when do you travel your own estates with an escort?” he asked.
“Since Tagako-hime found out about your and my last excursion together. She suggested it would be very unwise to leave the compound without one.”
Kenji suppressed a smile. “I imagine the suggestion was quite forceful. Don’t misunderstand me, Yamada-sama—I enjoy your company. But I would not wish to be the one to bring the news to Princess Tagako if something were to happen to you. Your slight inconvenience does much for my peace of mind.”
I couldn’t blame Kenji for that. The weight of my current position could only be avoided temporarily, not put aside at will. I was now the head of my own clan and responsible for a vast estate. My life was no longer solely my own, and in truth I would not have changed that fact for the world, but sometimes it was pleasant, for a little while, to pretend otherwise.
Admittedly, the presence of an armed escort made this more difficult.
The road we traveled was little more than a well-used cart path with deep forest on either side. As we got closer to Nishisawa, the trees were broken up more and more with small meadows, but I saw no rice fields, and I asked about it.
“Nishisawa is a small village of no more than a few dozen folk, and fishing is their primary occupation,” Kenji said. “They work the stream of the same name, though in truth I’ve seen rivers that are not nearly so wide or deep.”
I knew, certainly, that some villages paid their allotment in salted fish. Now I was going to visit one such community. I felt almost dutiful. “Fisher folk must always be on the alert for water goblins and other monsters of that ilk. Have there been any reports?”
“None that I’m aware of,” Kenji admitted, “though I know the villagers make occasional offerings to appease any kappa in the area. And while we’re on the subject, leave it to you to be looking for trouble where there is none.”
“I merely consider the possibilities. It’s an old habit that’s served me well... wait. Do you smell that?”
Kenji and my escort had already stopped one step behind me. “Yes, I do.”
The scent was faint but unmistakable—death. “Likely nothing more than a wolf has left parts of a rabbit hereabout,” I said. “Such things happen.”
Kenji looked troubled. “Probably, but I fear there might be another explanation. Follow me.”
He led us all off the road, through a thick stand of pines. In the distance I was able to make out an open space, invisible from the road. As we approached, the smell of death grew stronger, and I knew this was no rabbit. I remembered the stench of the battlefields of Hokkaido after a few days of sun. This was the same smell.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“A place no one outside the village is supposed to know about,” he said, “Myself and the temple excluded. Under the circumstances, I’ll have to trust your and your escort’s discretion.”
When we arrived, I understood. We were at Nishisawa’s burial ground. The village’s dead were buried in unmarked graves, as was the custom. Only the graves had been disturbed—a rather polite way of saying ‘desecrated’. Several had been dug out completely, and bones and mouldering arms and legs were scattered among the grass. The stench was severe. Takamichi, the younger of my two guards, was turning an alarming shade of green.
“Takamichi-san,” I said. “Please stand watch at the road. I don’t want anyone following us.”
He bowed with obvious gratitude and hurried away, though he didn’t manage to get out of earshot before we heard the sound of retching. I glanced at Kiyomatsu, who seemed to be holding up better.
“Bear it a while yet,” I said. “We won’t be long.”
He simply stared at the scene of carnage. “Who would do such a thing?” he asked.
“Not ‘who.’ I suspect the answer will be ‘what.’”
I went to stand beside Kenji, who was staring at an open pit. “It is as I suspected, Yamada-sama. The bodies have been devoured.”
I glanced at the edges of the pit. No shovel or pick had made the marks I saw there. A more tunnel-like hole had been dug into some of the graves, possibly to test them for the freshness of the corpse before taking the trouble to dig them out. I could almost admire the efficiency of the enterprise if not for its hellish nature.
“It would take a very sensitive nose to find this place prior to the desecration,” I said. “And clearly, digging this extensive is the work of more than one creature.”
“One what?” Kenji asked. “That’s the question, isn’t it? I conducted the rites for many of these burials myself and witnessed the interment. All were done properly. No mere wild animal could have located the bodies.”
Kenji was stating the obvious, to get it out of the way. It was clear to us both that youkai were involved. Monsters existed in many shapes and forms, and there were indeed many which enjoyed human flesh, but not all of those favored ripened corpses. Kappa, the river-goblins, did, and so were natural suspects this close to the water. Yet they were solitary by nature. This sacrilege had clearly been carried out by several creatures—at least a half-dozen or more by my estimate, working together.
“Youkai are dangerous enough individually,” Kenji said. “Can you imagine what could happen with an organized and disciplined band?”
“We don’t need to imagine. You saw how some of the graves had been tunneled into first; I suspect it was to test the quality of the remains before digging them up.”
Kenji looked grim. “Let’s get back on the road to Nishisawa. There have been no burials in at least a month, so it’s possible the villagers don’t even know what’s happened.”
That was no more than sense. On the other hand, if they did know, it was possible they had more information than we did. At the moment all Kenji and I had was speculation.
We found a somewhat-recovered Takamichi back at the road. “With your permission, Yamada-sama, I will go to the temple and fetch Master Kenji’s associates. They will be needed.”
It was a good point, and Kenji agreed. While Kenji was the abbot and only full priest, there were several acolytes and lay-brothers in residence. Now they all had grim work ahead of them, and I did not envy them or Kenji one bit. I sent Takamichi on his way.
“We’ll be days setting this to rights, to the degree it can be done at all,” Kenji said. “Whatever did it, we need to find them before this happens again... you don’t think they might have attacked Nishisawa, do you?”
I wanted to be hopeful, but all my possibilities looked grim. “The thought crossed my mind. While they apparently don’t prefer fresh meat, what we saw back there required forethought and direction of the sort we seldom see in youkai. We can’t assume they wouldn’t kill now in order to feast later. We must proceed with caution until we know what we’re walking into.”
Kiyomatsu insisted on taking the lead position, his bow in his hand. I followed with my tachi while Kenji, with his heavy priest’s staff with the bronze cap and heavy brass rings, brought up the rear.
By the time we arrived at the outskirts of the village. I had come to dread what we might find, so it was with considerable relief that I noted unburned houses and unslaughtered people. The houses were small but well-tended; several fishermen mended nets or built fish traps by the river while women and girls weeded gardens. Yet the air felt strange and puzzling. While there was neither the stench of death nor the smell of blood, I felt as if I’d walked into an invisible fog.
“Kenji, do you feel that?”
I didn’t explain what “that” was. With Kenji I knew I wouldn’t have to. He was sniffing the wind like a cautious hound.
“A sort of miasma,” he said. “Faint, and I can detect no hint of poison or other harm in it, but it should not be here. Perhaps this is what the headman was referring to.”
Otherwise the village seemed normal enough. There were several townsfolk going about their business. Nothing that one would not expect to see in a village whose inhabitants mostly subsisted on fishing. As Kenji had said, the “stream” that marked the western boundary of the village was the size of a river, larger even than the two which snaked through the Capital. There was an old moon bridge spanning the stream at its narrowest point, leading to a path beyond, likely the continuation of the road we had taken to arrive there.
With the river so close, several kappa could easily hide within mere feet of the village, and we would be none the wiser.
I still doubted the water-goblin explanation, but at this point I couldn’t dismiss any possibility. Kenji went off to find the headman while Kiyomatsu and I had a look around. After all, it was, as I had told Kenji, my first visit. The thought came to me before we saw any more of the place.
Something is very wrong here.
The miasma alone suggested no less, but that wasn’t all. Dullard that I was, it took several minutes for the reason for my discomfort to become apparent.
It’s the villagers.
While Nishisawa was new to me, it was hardly the only time I’d visited one of the communities under my jurisdiction. Then as now I traveled with a very light escort, but somehow word of my imminent presence always preceded me, which tended to cause crowds of varying sizes to gather for no other purpose I could ascertain except to get a glimpse of me. I had always found this habit more than a little disconcerting, despite being repeatedly informed that it was no less than a normal reaction to the presence of one’s overlord. And, while I didn’t think I was ever going to be comfortable with the reality of it, this was the role I filled now.
In Nishisawa? Here and now? I was being completely ignored.
It would have been refreshing if it hadn’t been so contrary to my previous experience that it made me uneasy. Had these few years playing the “Great Lord” turned me into such a dullard?
“Kiyomatsu-san, let us find Kenji. Now.”
We didn’t have to go far. Kenji was walking along the river bank near the bridge, a smile on his face. Or rather, something that passed for a smile. A sort of forced expression I had seen many times in our years together—a façade to conceal the fact something was very, very wrong. When he saw us, he stopped and waited at the foot of the bridge for Kiyomatsu and I to come to him.
“I gather you’ve finally noticed,” he said. “No wonder the miasma seemed harmless. It wasn’t poison—it was a veil. Otherwise one of us would have detected their presence sooner. Whatever despoiled the burial ground is here...it is them.” He nodded toward the villagers.
“And the headman?” I asked.
“Dead. For several days, by my estimate. I presume I was allowed to find the body because my—or rather, our—understanding of the real situation was considered moot at this point.”
“It may well be,” I said. “Look.”
The “villagers” had abandoned their disinterest. Now they gathered together and moved silently toward us as a group. Some were unarmed, but others carried clubs and I noted a few fishing spears and flails.
“Yamada-sama, I suggest we move to more defensible ground,” Kiyomatsu said.
“I quite agree.” We hurried onto the bridge and up to its highest point, about twenty feet over the water.
“The path beyond the stream looks clear,” Kenji said. “We could make a run for it.”
“Run to where?” I said. “The closest aid is on this side of the river, now blocked by those...things, whatever they really are. And I have no doubt they can run at least as well as we can.”
Kiyomatsu spoke up. “Your pardon, Master Kenji, but I believe Yamada-sama’s assessment of our situation is correct. There are no archers among them, so our best chance is here on the bridge. They cannot bring their full weight of numbers against us.”
The bridge was just wide enough for two people to stand nearly shoulder to shoulder. Enough room to swing a weapon, but only just. With luck we could hold them off, but I wasn’t optimistic about our ultimate fate.
“Kiyomatsu-san, how many arrows do you have?”
The phony villagers numbered about twice that number, and even with an archer as skilled as Kiyomatsu, we couldn’t count on every arrow finding its target. “Kiyomatsu, stand behind us and loose as you see fit. I needn’t tell you to be judicious. Kenji and I will form the line.”
I half-expected an argument from Kiyomatsu, as it was his sworn duty to protect me, but he clearly saw the sense in my suggestion. “As you wish, but once my arrows are depleted, I’ll take your place.”
“If the point is not moot by then for all of us, so be it,” I said.
I traded my tachi to Kiyomatsu for his kodachi. The tachi was very effective from horseback or man to man but too long and thin for close-quarters; a shorter blade made more sense. Kenji shifted his grip on his staff and held it more like a spear, for the same reason. Kiyomatsu readied his bow, and we waited for the first attack.
Kenji frowned. “Why are they moving so slowly?”
This was a question I was asking myself by that point. We already knew the “villagers” were not human. As for the real townsfolk of Nishisawa, I did not hold much hope for them, and only a little more for us. We were badly outnumbered and still did not know what sort of monsters we faced. Whatever they were, they clearly had us a great disadvantage despite our better position. The proper tactic would have been to rush us with their superior numbers and either kill us outright or, by the crush of bodies, force us off the bridge into the water, where we would be all but helpless. Yet they were showing distinct signs of hesitation.
“Perhaps, as the sort of creatures which clearly feed on the dead, they’re unused to prey that fights back,” I said.
Kenji frowned. “Wait... do you feel that?”
I did. I wasn’t as sensitive as Kenji, but years of practice had taught me to distinguish, at least somewhat, the presence of the otherworldly. While the veil of miasma had hidden the villagers’ true nature from us for a time, it was gone now. This was something separate, very close and powerful compared to whatever things were masquerading as townsfolk.
This was pure evil.
“Be on your guard, Kiyomatsu,” I said. “I think the creatures’ true leader is close to revealing itself.”
Whatever the thing was, it was obvious the villagers felt it too. And, either encouraged by its presence—or more afraid of the unseen leader than of us—the villagers advanced.
I had an idea. “Kiyomatsu, see that slightly bulky fellow a half-step ahead of the others? Kill him.”
Kiyomatsu drew his bow in one smooth, practiced motion and loosed. The arrow caught its target in the neck just below the chin. For an instant it stood there, looking surprised, before blood gurgled from its mouth and it fell forward at the base of the bridge. In a moment, death released it from its disguise and its true nature was revealed—a short, squat creature with red skin, dangling ears, and long flowing hair.
“Mōryō,” I said.
While the term now referred to any one of a number of youkai often found in the wilderness, its original use was specific to this one—an unpleasant creature known to haunt graveyards in search of its meals. It was especially fond of rotting entrails. It was also, like the kappa, known to be solitary.
Something brought them together into a band that preyed on corpses. And what could possibly have done that?
My guess was something more powerful than a mōryō; something which also preferred the entrails of the dead and used the weaker creatures to help it get them. The thing that I now knew hovered, still invisible, above the disguised youkai. I had a strong suspicion of what that creature might be. I could only hope I was wrong.
“Yamada-sama, they’re moving again,” Kenji said.
While the death of their comrade had caused some delay and consternation in the ranks, now the others pressed forward. Kiyomatsu found another target in the front rank—which led to another hesitation, then another advance, though it was clear that none of them was enthusiastic about facing us, even with their advantage of numbers.
“It’s almost as if they’re being pushed,” Kiyomatsu said.
“That’s exactly what’s happening.” I turned to Kenji. “Do you have any spirit wards?”
“I always do,” Kenji said. “But what... oh, I think I see. Here.”
Kenji reached into his sash and pulled out a long strip of paper, carefully folded. I passed it to Kiyomatsu. “Tie this on the end of your next arrow. I’ll tell you where to aim.”
“This will likely affect the arrow’s flight,” he said, though he quickly did as I bade him.
“We won’t need great accuracy. Aim your arrow two bow-lengths over the heads of those at the base of the bridge, and sight toward the right corner of the railing. Shoot when you’re ready.”
Kiyomatsu drew and released, shooting, as he thought, toward the empty air. There was a bright flash of white light as the arrow struck something and then burst into flames. In no more than an instant the true enemy was revealed. It floated in the air, surrounded by corpse-fires. A massive creature with great rippling fur, long white teeth, and vicious claws.
There were many varieties of monster cats, the bakeneko. Some were merely annoying, others even somewhat kindly disposed toward humans, but the kasya were not of either kind. They were little less than demons, powerful and evil, and their favorite meal? Human corpses. They had been known to openly raid funerals to steal the body, swooping down from the sky like a feline vulture, but this one apparently was not content with such sporadic meals and had made common cause with the mōryō. Now that its presence was revealed, it roared in anger, and the other monsters, now also showing their true forms and clearly more afraid of their master than the three of us, pushed forward with purpose.
“I don’t suppose you have a ward powerful enough to deal with this?” I asked.
Kenji glared at me. “This is not the sort of thing I need to face every day, Yamada-sama! The kasya is a rare creature... though clearly not rare enough.”
I killed the first mōryō that reached me and shoved it back against the one behind it. Both fell into the water. I glanced at Kiyomatsu. “Your target is the demon. Aim for the head and heart. We’ll handle the mōryō.”
I saw Kiyomatsu’s first attempt glance off the demon’s shoulder, and it howled in pain. It flew towards us but Kenji was reciting a sutra, and his chant not only kept the kasya at bay; it was causing the mōryō considerable discomfort as well, though they did not stop.
I had to concentrate on killing and not being killed, but I was well aware that Kenji would not be able to keep up his chant and fight off the mōryō at the same time. He was even older than myself and was already huffing, although his priestly staff found its mark again and again, and the splashes of the fallen were almost as numerous as raindrops. They had to be, as more and more of the creatures joined in the fight.
There are too many of them.
At this point there was no doubt in my mind that we would soon be overwhelmed. The mōryō were small but stronger than they looked, and the roars of the kasya as Kiyomatsu’s arrows struck home did much to turn their fear into something resembling fortitude. They kept coming. We were forced to retreat one step, then another.
Tagako-hime will mourn me, but not before she curses me for a fool.
I knew I probably deserved it, but then I thought about what would have happened had Kenji come alone. Not only would I have lost my friend, but the kasya with its mōryō allies could have kept up the charade and used the village as a base for their predations. Scores of people would have died, people under my protection. As it was, Takamichi’s report would likely bring enough unwelcome attention that the monsters would be forced to move on. At least I hoped as much, since I had little for our survival.
“Yamada-sama, I fear I was unsuccessful,” Kiyomatsu said. His quiver was empty. I took back my tachi and gave his sword to him. I could see more than one arrow or arrow-stump protruding from the demon cat, and it was moving more slowly than before, but no arrow had struck a lethal area. The creature was in pain and enraged, but Kenji’s chant was quickly fading, along with his strength.
“It was unlikely a lone archer would be able to do more than you did, Kiyomatsu-san. That is a very tough creature.” I killed another mōryō and turned to Kenji. “Behind me, Master Kenji. Rest a moment.”
“Thank you, Lord Yamada, but I must decline. If I am to die fighting evil, I will not count it as wasted effort.”
The demon cat was floating toward us, and the leer on its face told the tale. No doubt it was imagining the fun it would have killing us and later feasting when our bodies were ripe enough. I was determined to give it a few more gashes to remember me by.
The familiar command was loud and clear and did not come from any of us. I looked toward the shore and was both amazed and relieved to see a squad of Yamada-clan archers in perfect formation even as a dozen arrows struck the demon cat from behind. It howled again, but its howl was not rage this time—it was pain and fear. The next volley ripped through our attackers at the base of the bridge, and a third quickly followed. The mōryō once pressing us hard now turned their backs and attempted to flee, even as the arrows struck them down with almost methodical precision.
I saw Morofusa, the captain of my guard, at the end of the line with Takamichi beside him. I raised my tachi and pointed at the kasya, now attempting to flee, and Morofusa directed the next swarm of arrows at the demon. It slumped, slowed, and then fell out of the sky onto a pile of dead mōryō. Kiyomatsu, Kenji, and I struck down the last few as they attempted to flee the bridge.
The kasya was weakly trying to crawl away when we reached the foot of the bridge. I took no small pleasure in separating its head from its body, which by now resembled one of Morofusa’s archery targets. Kenji stuffed a ward into the creature’s open maw for good measure.
Morofusa hurried up to us, with Takamichi close behind. “My Lord, are you unharmed?” Morofusa asked as he kneeled before me.
“I am tired but quite well, Kanchō. Your arrival was much more than timely, but how did you know?”
He grinned. “Blame this one.” He nodded at Takamichi, who did indeed appear a little nervous.
I made myself appear fierce. “And may I ask how you knew we were in trouble, Takamichi-san?”
He was kneeling also and did not look at me. “I didn’t know... but I was under orders, Yamada-sama.”
I blinked. “Orders? Whose orders? What were they?”
“Tagako-hime’s orders. She knew I was assigned to your escort, and I was given strict instructions. She said if it appeared that you, with or without Master Kenji, were about to pursue anything odd or potentially dangerous, I was to make an excuse to return to the compound and bring your full guard. No exceptions. Forgive me, but Tagako-hime made it very clear what would happen to me if I did not do as she said.”
I frowned. “You told me you were going to inform the temple.”
“I did,” he said. “The acolytes are at the burial ground now.”
Kenji just shook his head wryly. “I had better go help.”
I assigned three archers to escort him there, though it occurred to me that my caution was somewhat belated. “Send for whatever aid you require.”
“Likely quite a bit,” he said, and limped off with his guard close behind. I directed Morofusa to have the rest of our men divide into teams and search for the true villagers. I had a feeling there would be many more funerals involved. I instructed Takamichi to remain with me. He still had not looked up.
“Tagako-hime said you might be angry. I am prepared to accept your punishment.”
I almost smiled. “For saving my life? No, Takamichi-san. In your place I would have done the same. You and Kiyomatsu can expect suitable rewards.”
He bowed lower. “Thank you, Yamada-sama, but it was no more than our duty.”
True enough, but then Tagako-hime, even so far away as the Capital, had somehow managed to remind me of my own duty, and it was no longer simply to myself. It was also to six villages just like Nishisawa. Continuing to pretend otherwise was not the best course for me, my family, or the people who were now my responsibility. I made a vow to be more careful in the future, now that there would be one.
Or at least as careful as the situation allowed.