We didn’t get much from the captured bandits. Yes, they were thieves. No, they had not attacked Lady Takara. Yes, there were the spoils of thievery in their storeroom; no sense denying the obvious. No, they had no idea how the cloth from Lady Takara’s temple offering had come into their hands. Daiki finally grew frustrated and ordered them all bound on a line. As we rode back to the Sago Compound with the prisoners led on a rope and surrounded by guards, I pondered what little we had learned. It seemed to me that it might be far more than a first glance might reveal.
“Why lie about the temple offering and the demon and then tell the truth about all else?” I mused. “The penalty for banditry is death, as is the penalty for murder. They can’t be beheaded twice.”
“Because they knew that I would not be so merciful as the governor,” Daiki growled. “I know they’ve hidden Sanji’s trophy somewhere, and they will tell me where. I will find the truth.”
“That is my intention as well. I just do not believe that the truth you’re looking for is to be had from these wretches.”
“Why not?” Daiki asked.
“Because, my lord, I think they’ve already told us the truth.”
Now even Kenji was staring at me. “Yamada-san, what do you mean?”
“Simple: Yamaguchi no Mikio and his followers did not attack Lady Takara. They couldn’t have.”
“Lord Yamada, are you saying the Lady Takara, my wife, lied to me?”
Now Daiki was glaring, and I knew his anger was more than ready to erupt in any direction, including my own. I proceeded carefully.
“On the contrary—it is the truth of her words that speaks on behalf of Yamaguchi and his followers. She stated that Mikio himself prevented his man from killing her during the raid. Why would he do that? What bandit is foolish enough to slaughter so many and let a witness to that slaughter live? More, make a special effort to let that witness live? Does that make any sense to you?”
“No,” he said reluctantly. “It does not. Unless….”
I finished. “Unless the entire point was to leave a witness. Whoever attacked your wife wanted it known that Yamaguchi no Mikio was to blame.”
“Whoever?” Kenji asked.
“Which brings me back to my first point,” I said. “You saw that ‘bandit stronghold,’ Master Daiki, just as I did. Yamaguchi had four men, at most, and they were a sorry lot. Nor was there bedding or supplies at the compound to indicate any more. Lady Takara’s party was attacked by at least a dozen, probably more. I saw the results of their work and would swear to that on my life. It is simply impossible that Yamaguchi is the culprit.”
I could see the doubt creeping into Daiki’s face, but he shook it away. “Nonsense! How else could they have obtained that cloth?”
“That question is more than fair, and at the moment I cannot answer it. But, with your indulgence, I may yet do so.”
“Very well,” Daiki said, “but I will warn you ahead of time that I am short on temper at the moment and not terribly fond of riddles in the best circumstances.”
Kenji leaned over. “I think Master Daiki is just about ready to turn his club on you. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
I smiled. “So do I. But I will need your help as well. I require a talisman of truth. Surely there is something of the sort in that bag of yours.”
Kenji frowned. “As in to compel the truth? I have something that will serve the purpose.”
“Later. Before the truth can be compelled, first it must be revealed.”
As I hoped, the governor’s messenger was waiting for me when we reached the Sago Clan compound, and I took him aside to hear his report. Afterwards I nodded and turned to Daiki. “I need to speak to Yuichi again. Will you and Kenji accompany me?”
He frowned. “If you wish.”
I turned to the messenger. “Your name?”
“Nobu, my lord.”
“Nobu-san, follow us, please.”
I had two weapons, a sword and a short dagger. I chose the dagger and kept its hilt close to hand. We went behind the compound and approached the Sago family shrine. “Yuichi-san? I need a word with you.”
The old man poked his head around the door to shrine. “Ah! Master Daiki. I am so pleased to see you returned safely. What news?”
“The bandits have been caught, though their leader was slain. I’m afraid we did not recover our heirloom.”
“A pity,” he said as he emerged from the shrine, wiping the dust from his hands with a small cloth and awaiting our approach. “No doubt you will find it yet.”
“No doubt,” I said. I took one long step and trapped the old man’s arms with my left arm while I pressed the dagger blade against his throat. His body was as taut as a bowstring in my grip.
Daiki raised his club. “Lord Yamada, what is the meaning of this outrage?”
“If I am wrong,” I said through clenched teeth. “I will apologize with all sincerity. Nobu-san, will you tell Master Daiki what you just told me?”
Daiki scowled at the man. “Well?”
“L-Lord Yamada charged me to inquire of Ishiyama no Yuichi’s family when they had last seen him.”
“And their answer?”
“He has not returned home in over a month, my lord. They are becoming concerned.”
Daiki’s gaze narrowed. “Yuichi, what does this mean?”
The old man just glared, and continued to struggle. I nodded at the priest. “Now, Kenji-san.”
Kenji produced a slip of mulberry paper with exquisite calligraphy flowing down its length. He raised a single hand in a blessing gesture and slapped the paper onto Yuichi’s forehead. “Diamond Sutra. Let illusion be dispelled.”
The old man’s form shimmered in my grasp, like a mountain peak glimpsed through summer haze. Another instant and I did not hold an old man at all, but rather an oni. He was perhaps a head taller than myself, with red skin, gleaming tusks and horns, and black hair as coarse and thick as a horse’s mane. He continued to struggle, and it was all I could do to hold him.
“When we think of shape-shifters, we think of foxes and tanuki, but demons have the knack as well, when they care to use it,” I said.
Master Daiki’s hands gripped his club so tightly that I could hear the wood creaking. “In my own home! Lord Yamada, how did you know?”
“I wasn’t certain until Nobu returned, but it was the only answer that made any sense. We know that Lady Takara received a visitor, both she and Aniko confirmed that. Yet Tarou told me that no one entered your compound that day. If the visitor had come from Hino-ji as you believed, he would have come in the front gate. Since no one did, the only reasonable conclusion was that the visitor was already here.”
Kenji frowned. “But how did you know it was Yuichi, rather than one of the guards? Tarou, for instance?”
I shifted my grip, slightly. The demon felt has heavy as stone.
“The same way I knew that our shapeshifter wasn’t Lady Takara or Aniko. Demon-aura, Kenji. They can disguise their form, but their aura is one thing they cannot disguise.”
Kenji smiled. “Ah! Any one of us would have noticed that, including Master Daiki. And Lady Takara—”
“—was being tended in Mt. Hino Shrine. The priests there are neither fools nor incompetents. If Lady Takara had been a demon in disguise they would have spotted the deception immediately. Yuichi, on the other hand…Master Daiki, did you not find it strange that Yuichi-san’s lifelong fear of demons should suddenly disappear to the point that he not only no longer avoided your family shrine but hardly ever seemed to leave it?”
“The demon scent,” Daiki said grimly.
“Precisely. There, he was one among many, and so none of us noticed a thing. Clever, really.” I glanced at my glaring prisoner. “I think it is time you told us where the heirloom you stole is hidden. Kenji-san?”
The priest stepped forward again, this time with a different talisman. “Lotus Sutra. Truth.” He slapped the second talisman beside the first, though now he almost had to stand on tiptoe to reach the demon’s forehead
“Why did you cozen Lady Takara?”
“So the silly woman would remove the trophy from the compound for us, of course. The wards on this place are such that I could not do it alone.” The demon’s voice was like rocks grating together in an avalanche.
“I knew you weren’t working by yourself. Where is the real Yuichi?”
“In the privy. I must have shat the rest of him by now,” said the demon, grinning.
Master Daiki growled and raised his club, but Kenji put a hand on his arm. “Not yet, my lord.”
“Your confederates assumed the forms of Mikio’s band for the attack, and one of you placed the cloth in Mikio’s storeroom to assure their guilt. It was easily done, wasn’t it?”
“Very easily done,” said the demon. “Much like this.”
He broke free. I would have sworn that I had him under control, but he produced a surge of strength I hadn’t realized he possessed, and the force of it threw me back against the shrine wall, knocking the wind out of me. Everything went black for a moment, and when my vision cleared, there was much confusion and shouting. Kenji kneeled beside me.
“Lord Yamada, the demon has scaled the wall and escaped. Perhaps a binding talisman would have been more in order?”
I groaned and rubbed the back of my head. A knot was already rising. “You might have let me know that you had such a thing…. Where is Master Daiki?”
“Right here.” The man stood before me, leaning on his massive club.
I struggled to rise and made it on the second try. “My lord, there’s no time to waste! If you are ever to recover your family’s heirloom….”
He grinned. “Lord Yamada, I am grateful for your assistance in clearing up this matter, but you forget: if there’s anything I do know, it’s how to track a demon.”
Once Daiki was on the trail, it was impossible to keep up with him. We had been forced to leave our horses behind on the thickly wooded hillsides the demon had fled through. I took command of the remaining bushi, and we followed Sago no Daiki as quickly as we could, kept on course by following the crashing sound he made as he hurtled through the undergrowth. I was beginning to understand what had so terrified that first demon that day on the Hokuriku Road.
I glanced up the hillside and knew we had found what we were searching for. No less than a small fortress had been carved into a flat niche on the hillside. It was made of stone and mossy logs, difficult to see unless one looked, as I had, directly at it. I paused long enough to let the straggling bushi catch up and then arranged them in a rough skirmish line. I had no sooner placed them in some semblance of order when I heard the crash of wood on wood from the hillside and realized it was Sago no Daiki breaking in the gate.
Kenji was still catching his breath. “Why…why didn’t he wait for us? Does he mean to take on the whole demon band on his own?”
“That’s exactly what he intends to do. Let’s go!”
The defenders had been alerted by Daiki’s noisy entrance. There were demon archers on the wall in a grotesque parody of bushi bowmen. Two of our number were struck and went down. I grimaced as another barbed shaft grazed my shoulder before our own archers cleared the top of the wall with their own volley. In a heartbeat we were through the gate, our swords drawn.
Dead and dying oni were lying in the courtyard. I spotted Daiki in the middle of a circle of demons. He had been struck twice by arrows, once in the left thigh and again in the shoulder, but the wounds seemed little more than an inconvenience. He howled like a wolf as he swung his great club here and there, batting down any demons who tried to close the circle. Before they could rush him properly, he charged and took out two of the smaller demons with one blow as he crashed through their line.
“To Master Daiki!” I shouted, and a dozen warriors rushed to his side. The rest of our force scattered through the inner courtyard, battling the demons in groups of two or three.
It was impossible to judge the demons’ numbers accurately, but I counted at least two dozen, not including the ones already on the ground. They were all armed like men: some with bows, others with spears and rusty, nicked swords. For demons, it amounted to a level of organization and discipline that I hadn’t believed the creatures capable of achieving. I didn’t have time to consider my admiration before an oni charged me and I killed it with a slash across the throat. Another struck at Kenji, and we killed it together with sword and staff.
“Lord Yamada! Find that demon! We’ll deal with this.”
I head Daiki’s shout from across the battlefield and knew which demon he meant. One or two of the outbuildings within the fortress were already burning, which explained his urgency. The largest building not yet engulfed in flames had the mark of a storehouse. I ran toward it, Kenji following close. When I got nearer, I knew I’d judged correctly. The door was massively thick but slightly ajar, as if someone had just gone in or out.
“Keep watch here. If you need help, shout,” I said.
“Depend on it,” Kenji said cheerfully.
A lit lantern hung on a peg just inside the doorway. I took it and held it up. At first I saw only what one might expect to see in any storeroom: casks of rice and sake, even bolts of rough fabric and racks of weapons. I knew beyond questioning that we had met the chieftain of the demons, disguised as the unfortunate Yuichi, and that this demon was much more intelligent than the usual sort. What I had seen within the demon’s fortress and now in this storeroom bore that out. Whatever he intended, this demon obviously had plans for his followers other than mere survival. So involved was I in examining the more mundane contents that I almost missed the silhouette at the end of the building, the very distinctive silhouette of a demon.
I raised my sword, but it did not move. I took one slow step forward and then another. I noticed that I was not seeing the red glow of its eyes in the lamplight, as I would rightly expect. I took another step and I realized that its eyesockets were hollow.
This is it.
Sanji’s demon sat on a rough seat of hewn timber, much like it would have sat in its place of honor in the Sago family shrine. Even with the demon seated I could tell that it had been about seven feet tall in life, with dull yellow tusks and black coarse hair, though much of that hair had fallen out of its dried scalp over the years. It had obviously been an object of veneration for some time. Rather than the crude loin-cloth or rough clothing that demons normally wore, this one had been dressed in fine robes, though clearly the robes were very old. The cloth was ripped in several places now, practically in tatters, apparently due to its rough handling during the theft.
Sanji’s demon resembled others I had seen before, but there were some differences. Rather than tusks in both top and bottom jaws there were tusks in its upper jaw only, and they appeared more like a tiger’s fangs than tusks. I took a closer look, and the lamplight reflected on something like a design on its skin, now visible in a tear in its old robes.
I leaned closer. Not a tattoo. Stitches. Very skillfully done. I examined the corpse and found others. I examined the teeth again, closer this time. I hadn’t gotten far when I heard Kenji’s shout.
“Lord Yamada, if you would be so kind…?”
I dropped the lantern. I raised my sword and rushed to the doorway.
Two of the larger demons were approaching Kenji. “Take the left, Kenji-san,” I said, and took up position on his right side.
The rightmost demon roared, but in pain, not rage. It dropped its sword and reached around as if trying to swat a bee. Then it fell to its knees, an arrow protruding from its back, before toppling face-first into the dirt. While its companion was distracted, Kenji crushed its skull with one sharp blow from his priest’s staff.
“With all the talismans and whatnot worked into that staff, you hardly needed—.” I didn’t finish. The blow from above caught me completely by surprise, and I slammed to the ground as something large and reeking of demon-aura fell on me. Only then did I curse myself for not checking the roof of the storehouse.
I had dropped my sword. I tried to grasp my dagger but a taloned foot pinned my arm. I recognized the demon chieftain from the compound.
“You,” he growled. “You ruined everything!”
He stabbed down at me with a long dagger, and it was only Kenji’s staff, thrust between me and the demon, that blocked him. In its rage the creature swatted the priest’s staff aside as if it were a twig. I struggled, but I was trapped, and the demon’s second blow had already begun.
Then there was a loud swoosh, as if someone had thrown a tree trunk at us, and then a very loud and wet thud. The demon flew off me as if it had sprouted wings. I heard it slam into the storehouse door and then silence.
Sago no Daiki leaned on his club, panting. Young and strong though he was, he was clearly near his limit. Both his arrow wounds were bleeding now, and his clothes were torn and mired in blood, both demon’s blood and his own.
“That’s twice I’ve been overpowered,” I said, as Kenji helped me to stand. “I think I’m getting too old for such things.”
Kenji just shook his head. “And yet you live still. Luck favors you, Lord Yamada,” he said.
“If this is favor, then the Gods of Fortune have a twisted sense of humor,” I muttered.
Daiki tried to catch his breath and didn’t completely succeed. “Is…is it here? Did you find it?”
“It’s here, Master Daiki.” I looked behind me. The flames were already emerging from the eaves of the storeroom. “In there.”
He cursed and stumbled to the door, which the demon’s body was still blocking. He yanked its arm, and the demon’s corpse fell several feet away from the building in a crumpled, bloody heap. Daiki grabbed the iron ring bolted to the door, but the impact of the demon chieftain’s body had wedged the door against the frame and it would not budge. He tried to raise his club again to smash his way through, but he was so weakened that the club fell out of his hands.
“Lord Yamada, Kenji-san…help me!”
We did try, all of us together, but in the end we could do nothing but watch the storehouse burn.
Later as we took stock, it was clear that most of the demons had been killed; a few had escaped but not very many. Our losses were heavy enough as well: five dead and as many again hurt, including Daiki. Kenji got busy binding up wounds and offering prayers to the dead. I cleaned my sword but otherwise tried not to move any more than I could help. There was little that I claimed as mine that was not battered, bruised, or aching.
Daiki sat down on an empty cask by the demon chieftain’s body. He was still a little shaky, but thanks to Kenji’s expert care the arrows had been removed and the wounds were no longer bleeding. We would likely both live, though we might not be proud of that fact for a few days.
“I feel I’ve let my ancestor down,” he said. “It was our family’s greatest treasure. It’s gone.”
“Your family’s greatest treasure is your reputation and honor. Both of which you have defended here today. The loss of Sanji’s Demon is unfortunate, but that is all.”
He sighed. “Yet there is this empty place in our shrine now. I will always be reminded of my failure.”
“Then perhaps it is time for a new heirloom.” I nodded at the stiffening body of the demon chieftain. “You can start with that troublesome fellow. I think it would be in your descendants’ best interests to remember him and what he almost accomplished. In case they ever feel the urge to underestimate their enemies.”
Daiki smiled then, faintly. “Perhaps you are right…who’s that there?”
A rather odd procession was making its way up the trail and through the shattered gates of the demon fortress. Abbot Hideo, in a palanquin borne by two young monks and flanked by two others, was being escorted in by the bushi we’d assigned to guard the path.
I didn’t let Daiki see me smile. At last, the final lines of this poem are written
The abbot surveyed the carnage in obvious bewilderment. Daiki bowed. “My lord abbot. You’re a bit off the pilgrim trail, are you not?”
“Well, I…what’s happened here?”
“This was a demon stronghold,” I said. “With the aid of the governor, Master Daiki has dealt with it in appropriate fashion. May we ask what brings you to this place?”
The abbot then told at least part of the truth. I’m not sure if he meant to or if it was just impossible to think of a plausible lie with such little warning. “Well…I received a messenger who said that he had information embarrassing to the Sago Clan. Naturally, I played along to discover who the miscreant was.”
“Naturally,” I said. “Then it was doubly fortunate for you that Master Daiki got here first, else you would have walked right into this demon’s nest. In addition to saving my own life today, he saved yours as well.”
“Well then,” the abbot said, looking uncomfortable. “Umm…thank you?”
“You’re welcome,” Daiki said, then he turned to me. “You think the demon messenger meant the fact that my heirloom was stolen out from under my very nose? Did the chieftain need someone to gloat to, and chose Abbot Hideo?”
I smiled. “Yes, my lord. I’m sure that’s what the demon meant.”
Kenji managed to hold his tongue for the several days it took us to recover and begin our journey back to the Capital along the Hokuriku road.
“Such a pity,” he said, “that the demons burned the storehouse before we could recover Master Daiki’s property.”
“Such a pity,” I agreed.
He went on. “Though I am curious as to how it was managed. You were in there for several moments. The others didn’t see, but I did. The fire,” he said pointedly, “began on the inside.”
I nodded. “The demons didn’t set the fire, Kenji-san. I did.”
Kenji’s mouth opened, then slowly closed again. For a moment or two he just stared at me as we walked. “You know,” he said finally, “I didn’t really expect you to admit it.”
“I am not responsible for your expectations, Kenji-san,” I said.
“But why? Why did you destroy Sanji’s demon?”
“There was no demon. It was a fake.”
Kenji just blinked. “You are joking.”
“I am quite serious. A first-class fake, I grant you. Very skillfully done by a master artisan. Only a close examination would reveal the deception, but Sanji’s demon was no more than a clever arrangement of boar’s tusks, leather, and dyed horsehair.”
“No wonder he wanted it back so badly,” Kenji said thoughtfully.
“To the contrary—Master Daiki wanted it back because it was his family’s sacred treasure,” I said.
Kenji frowned. “You mean he doesn’t know?”
“Of course he doesn’t know. It’s only when the heirloom’s clothing is removed that the stitching becomes visible, and no one had touched those robes for centuries. I doubt the demon chieftain himself knew until after the theft. Before that, it was just a clever ruse to embarrass the Sago family. After he discovered the deception, well, Sanji’s demon potentially became so much more. That’s why the demon chieftain didn’t abandon his deception once the theft was accomplished. He had to wait for the Sago family’s utter destruction, and witness his triumph firsthand. As demons go, this one had pride.”
Kenji understood then. “If this information had become known—”
“It would have been the end of the Sago clan as demon-quellers. That’s why Abbot Hideo had been summoned to the mountain fortress. I have no doubt the oni chieftain intended to turn the fake over to the abbot and let the monks of Hino Temple do his dirty work for him.”
“You still haven’t answered my question. Why did you destroy the fake demon?”
I shrugged. “To protect my patron, of course. What other reason could there be?”
“Anyone else might believe that, Yamada-san,” Kenji said. “I know you too well.”
“You met Master Daiki,” I said. “You saw what he was and what his family has accomplished. Perhaps his ancestor was not the demon-slayer that he was reputed to be. Perhaps the real demon fell to a god of disease or simply left for a new place to terrorize. Perhaps Sanji, like his demon, was a fake and a fraud. But the clan he founded most definitely is not. That is what I chose to protect.”
“A lie,” Kenji said.
“No, the truth,” I demurred.
“That’s a contradiction, Lord Yamada.”
I shook my head. “Facts are whatever facts may be,” I said. “But truth? That is something we humans create, Kenji-san, and it belongs to us.”
Kenji just sighed. “Buddha be merciful.”
I nodded in agreement. “Someone needs to be.”