land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 6

Kidō – the oni's magic. Black magic. Forbidden magic. To command the all-consuming, primal forces of Yomi, a practitioner pays a high price, for the negative energy that fuels the magic inexorably corrupts the user, eating away at the body and twisting the soul.

Because it had been outlawed by the Mikado – the penalty for practicing it is death – and because of the deleterious effects caused by its practice, kidō had always been the province of the evil, of the insane, and of the desperate. Standing before the party with wild eyes and a malevolent grin, blood pouring from the gash in her palm, the lovesick toji of Tsumago Sakagura appeared to be all three.

Fukasu was the first into the room after Musashi. She darted in ahead of Takashi, and, in order to avoid running into the samurai, had to tumble into one of the braziers. As she rolled up to her feet, she reached out to grab the iron plate, but the brazier slipped off the end of her fingertips. The flaming coals spilled out onto the tatami and set the rice paper wall behind Mieko ablaze.

The toji ignored the wall of flame behind her and began chanting in an unknown tongue. The effect, to Musashi, was like the drone of a hundred-thousand flies. The buzzing reverberated inside his head, drowning out the voices shouting around him. At the same time, his field of vision contracted, causing the room and his companions to disappear. The only thing he could hear, the only thing he could see, was Mieko.

"Get out of my head!" the young samurai yelled as he broke free of the woman's hypnotic spell. He stepped forward, drew his katana, and slashed at Mieko, who crumpled under the force of the blow.

"Sprits of water and rain," Kakeru implored as he dashed forward, "come to my aid." A second later, a gush of water burst from his fingertips and smothered the coals and the flames. Only once the last ember had completely faded did Kakeru allow himself to relax.

"Well...that was unexpected," Takashi put words to everyone's thoughts.

"Yeah," Fukasu replied.

"Hmm," Kakeru said, then bent down and checked on Mieko's condition. Her pulse was weak, and her breath shallow, but she seemed stable for the time being. "She's still alive," he said grimly.

"Should we finish her?" asked Fukasu. She looked around at her friends, but nobody volunteered an answer.

"I'll go get Tsumago-san," Kyoji said quietly.

After the straw haired monk returned with the kuramoto, the group spent several minutes relaying their encounter with the ninja and their attempt to confront Mieko, though they specifically avoid mentioning their encounter with the peasant and their subsequent reading of the love note.

"What should we do with Mieko-toji?" asked Musashi.

The kuramoto spent several minutes glaring at the unconscious body of his brewmaster. "She's a witch," he said, finally, "Finish her."

***

The fire burned with the fury of a woman scorned. After Musashi had removed Mieko's head, Tsumago's servants had hastily constructed a pyre in front of the manor. The five heroes had searched her room, finding a diary that chronicled her obsession with Tsumago, a contract with the Kaga ninja clan for the salting of Takayama's fields, a scroll inscribed with the secrets of kidō, and a sheaf of recipes for brewing poison.

"Well, now we can tell Takayama-san what's going on," Kyoji had said. The other four pilgrims nodded their heads solemnly, then filed outside to join the servants, various kurabito, and curious townspeople to watch Mieko burn.

The blazing fire lit the night and cut the spring chill as it consumed the fallen toji's body. Her hair withered, her skin charred, and the fat in her flesh sizzled when it met the flame. Mieko's body was virtually unrecognizable when Kakeru noticed movement coming from within the pyre. He watched in awe as the woman's spirit emerged. Gaunt, translucent, and wearing the same wild expression that she when she died, Mieko's spirit clawed her way out of her carbonized body.

She screeched and wailed as she emerged, though Kakeru couldn't hear her, and once she was free from her corpse, she began floating up toward the night sky. The young shinkan wasn't sure how to react, since he's never seen this sort of behavior before – indeed, he'd never actually seen a spirit leave its body. Is this because she was tainted? he wondered.

Suddenly, he had his answer, for out of the fire emerged two huge, black-skinned oni. His face blanched as he watched the creatures of the netherworld grab Mieko's spirit and drag it, clawing and screaming, back down into the burning pyre.

Fukasu looked over to see her cousin's ashen face. "Kakeru-kun, what's going on?" she asked.

Kakeru shook his head slowly, "You don't want to know." He grimaced as the woman's spirit disappeared from view, and he looked away.

To his surprise, a small, blue-skinned, childlike spirit stood next to him. He was watching the spectacle, and Kakeru could see that his large, black eyes were filled with tears. What? Oh, it's a house spirit. He leaned over, "Why are you crying, little one?"

The spirit looked up at Kakeru, who was easily twice his height and ten times his weight, and sniffled as a tear ran down his cheek. "It's very sad," he said in a voice like a butterfly whispering.

"Why is it sad?"

"She was very nice to me," he said, bashfully, "She would always feed me some of her natto at breakfast."

"Oh." Kakeru paused for a second as he began to second-guess himself, "Did you know she was using bad magic?"

"Yes," he said as a tear ran down his face, "It was a terrible thing. But it is still very sad."

Fukasu watched Kakeru talk to the empty air and frowned. Is he ok? From what little of the one sided conversation she could overhear, it sounded like he was talking to a spirit. A spirit? She shivered, those spirits are everywhere!

"Yes, it is very sad," the young shinkan reached out and patted the little, blue spirit on the head.

***

The next morning, the five heroes left to return to Takayama. "Welcome, Kurosawa-sama," the kuramoto greeted them from behind the table where they had shared a number of meals. "Forgive me for not standing, but I'm feeling unwell this morning."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Takayama-san," Kakeru said diplomatically as he and his friends took their seats around the table.

In truth, he looked like a different person than the man they had left the previous morning. His face was gaunt, his skin sallow, and his eyes sunken. He turned and coughed violently for a minute into a silk handkerchief, then motioned to Kakeru, "Please, have you found something?"

"Yes," the young shinkan looked over at Musashi, who shrugged, "Well, there's no easy way to say this. It appears that Tsumago-san's brewmaster, Mieko-toji, was the one who hired the ninja."

"Really?" Takayama looked stricken.

"But Tsumago had no knowledge of her activities," Kakeru added quickly.

"I see. Do you know why she might have done this?"

"It appears that she had an extreme infatuation with Tsumago-san, and was doing this to try to improve his station."

"I had no idea."

"Well, neither did Tsumago-san, which was the problem."

The kuramoto launched into another coughing fit, and this time Takashi noticed him wipe a trickle of blood off his lip when he finished. "Are you ok, Takayama-san?" the young monk asked.

"I'm fine, really," he waved off Takashi's concern. Turning back to Kakeru, he asked, "What is to be her fate?"

At this question, everyone fell silent. After a moment, the young shinkan took a deep breath, then exhaled, "Well, it turned out that she was witch. She tried to cast some sort of tainted spell on Musashi-san."

"By the spirits!" Takayama exclaimed.

Musashi entered the conversation, "She was dealt with as the Mikado has commanded all users of kidō be dealt with."

Takayama nodded soberly, "That's very unfortunate."

"Indeed," said Kakeru. "At least, though, you won't have any more problems with your fields being salted."

"Well, I thank you for that," Takayama half bowed from his sitting position.

"Oh, by the way," Kakeru added as an afterthought, "we discovered that Tsumago-san is having an affair with one of your servants."

"Really?" Takayama raised an eyebrow.

"Yes, he's been paying one of his peasants to deliver love notes to her on a regular basis."

"Well, well," the kuramoto said with a half smile, "that's an interesting, if ironic, bit of gossip." He chuckled to himself, which initiated a bout of coughing, but then continued, "Just out of curiosity, did you find out which servant it is?"

"Matsu, I believe it was," Kakeru looked to Musashi, who nodded in agreement.

Takayama's smile immediately disappeared, "What was that?"

"Matsu."

The kuramoto paused for a long moment before continuing, "Are you certain about that?"

Musashi nodded, "I saw the note myself. Why?"

"Matsu...Matsu...is my wife's childhood nickname," Takayama sputtered as his ashen face turned red. He pounded his fist on the table, and the room fell silent. Kakeru looked at Musashi with eyes wide and mouth agape.

Uh oh, thought Fukasu.

Oh crap, thought Takashi.

After an awkward minute, Takayama stood up from the table. The heroes could see that every muscle in his body was clenched, and though he was shaking with anger, he managed to bow politely. "Excuse me, Kurosawa-sama," he said through clenched teeth, then turned and left the room.

Kakeru held his head in his hands as the sounds of an argument issued forth from the hallway. Fukasu groaned, and slumped onto the floor. Musashi remained stoic, but the two monks simply shook their heads at one another. Takayama, his wife, and his son yelled at each other for nearly half an hour, while the group became progressively more uncomfortable.

Finally, the rice-paper door slid open, and the five heroes composed themselves. Each expected Takayama to re-enter the room, but instead, his wife stormed in. "You have ruined everything!" she screamed as she pulled a tanto from beneath her robe.

"Whoa!" Takashi said as he jumped up from seiza, "There's no need to do anything crazy."

Takayama Keiko, the kuramoto's wife, glared at Takashi and then sliced her palm with the blade. The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees as a crackling, black bolt of energy appeared in her hand. "I will kill you all!" she screamed.