land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 3

Animated by the black fires of Yomi, the corpse of the ninja rose out of the water. In the brief span of time since its death, its skin had turned the color of ash, and its eyes had sunk into dark hollow pits. It groaned again, and then turned its gaze toward Musashi. After a few hesitant steps, it grinned at the young samurai, and charged.

Musashi fumbled for his katana as he stumbled backward. Instead of the broad, powerful slash he had been trained to perform, he barely managed to draw the blade from its scabbard without cutting himself. Within a second, the gaki[1] was upon him, and, as it raked at his flesh, he felt a wave of cold wash over his body, as though he had fallen through ice into a frozen lake. His breath was blasted from his body as every muscle seized up at once. The edges of his vision began to go dark, and he screamed inwardly.

Musashi pulled himself from the dark depths of the frigid abyss through sheer force of will, coughing and gasping for breath as he emerged. "What in Yomi?" he exclaimed. Then, fueled by fear, he swung wildly at the gaki. His katana bit deeply, lopping off part of the creature's face, and forcing it to shuffle back.

Black blood poured from the gaki's missing flesh. It threw back its head, opened its damaged jaw, and let out an unearthly howl. Musashi stepped back out of its reach and shivered in spite of himself. Great ancestors, protect me, he thought.

The gaki shook its head, sending a spray of black ichor everywhere. It growled, then lunged, gnashing at Musashi with its supernaturally sharp teeth. The young samurai felt the wave of paralysis wash over him again, but this time he knew what to expect, and was able to shake it off with ease.

He took a deep breath and raised his katana overhead. Steady, Musashi, he told himself as he stepped forward. Summoning the strength of all the Kurosawa samurai that had come before him, he let out a great shout and slashed downward in a mighty blow. The gaki took one step backward, and then split in two, from its right shoulder to its left hip. The torso toppled off into the dirty water, followed by the collapse of the legs. Both halves twitched for a second before laying still.

Musashi poked at the remains of the gaki with his katana. They didn't move, so he poked them again. Once he was sure that they weren't going to get up and try to eat him, he sheathed his sword and breathed a sigh of relief.

When Kakeru, Fukasu, and Takashi returned with Takayama in tow, they found Musashi sitting in seiza, reflecting upon the lessons he had learned. Fear, he realized, was a powerful force. If I can learn to harness this fear, to make it my ally instead of my enemy, then I will be strong indeed.

Fukasu immediately noticed that the scene had changed significantly since she had left. "Musashi-kun!" she yelled, "Are you ok?"

The young samurai nodded toward the two halves of the fallen gaki. "That one..."

"Yes?"

"It got back up."

Kakeru hopped out of the cart and examined the twice-dead ninja's remains. Hmmm, he thought, it shouldn't have reanimated that fast. Something else must be going on.

"Takayama-san," he beckoned to the kuramoto, "can you come here and look at this?"

The kuramoto climbed down out of the cart, and waded through the water toward Kakeru. When he got within five paces of the body, he turned around and vomited. "Pardon me," he mumbled as he wiped his mouth off on the hem of his kimono.

"Take your time," Kakeru replied.

Takayama spent a moment with his back turned, then took a deep breath, and walked over to the body. He squinted at the face of the young man, and then shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't know this man."

"He's not from Takayama?"

"No."

"Would you know him if he were from Tsumago?"

Takayama considered the question for a moment, and then shook his head. "I would think so, but I can't be positive."

Kakeru sighed inwardly - things were rapidly becoming complicated. "Thank you, Takayama-san. We should probably return to town."

The kuramoto nodded, "I'll have the farmers take care of these wagons tomorrow." With that, the four travelers from Kurosawa returned to town, took a bath, and promptly fell asleep.

The next morning, after a traditional breakfast of miso soup and natto, the four travelers from Kurosawa set out for the town of Tsumago. "We will find the men responsible for sabotaging your fields," Musashi promised Takayama.

The group had traveled for less than half an hour when they spotted a young man in red monk's robes walking down the road toward them. Each watched the figure warily, but Fukasu was the first to notice that something was odd about him. "Uh, hey, guys," she said.

"What in the world?" whispered Kakeru.

"What in Yomi is that?" Takashi asked no one in particular.

"It's that monk that Kenjiro-san was talking about," said Musashi, for the young man walking toward them did not look at all like a normal Tsurukokan. Instead of the black hair and brown eyes that were characteristic of every human they had ever met, the monk had hair the color of straw and eyes that resembled sapphires.

"Hello," the monk waved cheerily as Kakeru brought the cart to a stop. He bowed to the group, and then smiled, "I'm Kyoji."

[1] Gaki are the reanimated bodies of intelligent creatures that have not been cremated after death. The black, corrupting, tainted energy of Yomi fuels these creatures, and they rise with an insatiable hunger for the flesh of the living.