Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
 

Death Storm by Kenneth Mark Hoover

 
 

As among flowers the cherry is Queen,

so among men the samurai is Lord.

-- Japanese Folk Song

The royal palanquin was a wreck of splinters on the blood-splattered snow. Sugawara counted fifteen dead, including the female occupant of the palanquin, her body tumbled in a lifeless heap on the icy road.

He examined the carnage, light snow collecting on his wide shoulders. The procession had been attacked by a fierce enemy. Animal-like in its ferocity, it wasn't satisfied with merely killing its victims. Instead, they were mutilated beyond recognition.

Thundering hoofs made him grasp his sword hilt. His armor was chain and bamboo cuirass, but the dead guards were similarly clad and their armor hadn't protected them.

Five black horses, heavily lathered, steam roiling from their nostrils, reigned to a halt in the middle of the road. One of the riders carried a lantern bearing the official insignia of a police inspector. The riders cautiously surrounded Sugawara, their spears lowered.

"You, ronin," a hard-faced man with the helmet and badge of a feudal inspector, a metsuke, snapped. "What are you doing on my road?"

"I'm traveling alone. I came upon these bodies only minutes before you arrived."

The inspector frowned. "Already dead?"

"Yes. Even the woman."

The inspector leaned over his pommel, eyes like flint as he sized up Sugawara. "Perhaps, ronin, you killed them?"

Sugawara smiled grimly. "I have killed many men in my life, inspector, but I do not mutilate them. These victims all lost their faces, cut deep beneath the muscle. To accomplish such a feat would I not be covered from head to toe in their blood?"

The other man sniffed. "Not if you washed yourself off in a snow drift before I arrived." He ordered two of his officers to dismount and inspect the bodies while he continued to question Sugawara.

"Where is your pass to travel through our fief?"

Sugawara shrugged. "I didn't know one was needed. I entered by way of a valley to the west before I struck this remote mountain trail. I saw no border forts before entering this feudal domain."

The inspector grunted. "Ignorance of our law is no excuse, ronin. Strange. I find fifteen dead and a ronin without a road pass standing hard by." His eyes narrowed. "I think perhaps you killed these people, masterless samurai, and now scheme to save your own miserable hide."

"Think as you like, inspector. Of course, I could say the same about you mysteriously turning up out of the snow fog."

"Explain yourself," the inspector demanded.

"Your face," Sugawara said simply. "When you saw these dead bodies you were not surprised."

The inspector's man approached, face pale. "Everyone dead, their faces ripped. It's not bandits, sir. Gold coins are spilled into the snow from the lady's baggage, only her road pass is missing. No footprints lead in or out." The man swallowed painfully. "It's as if they fought the wind.”

Kura smashed a fist onto the pommel of his saddle. "By the blood of Buddha, what manner of inhuman beast are we fighting?"

Sugawara said, "I take it you've encountered this spoor before?"

Kura examined Sugawara from beneath bushy brows as if he were seeing him in a new light. "Indeed we have, ronin. Ever since this winter set in and the wolves came down from the mountain forests looking for game. Yet they came differently than ever before, running as if for their lives."

The first lieutenant added, "As if someone – or something -- chased them from their lairs." The other officers nodded.

Kura straightened in his saddle. "That doesn't explain your presence, ronin, or the circumstance in which I found you. Your alibi is too thin. You have much explaining to do."

Sugawara gripped his sword. "I will not go manacled or under duress."

"I don't think that will be necessary," Kura agreed. He called to his lieutenant: "Let the ronin double up with you. We must return and report this disaster."

Sugawara climbed behind the rider. Kura wheeled his mount around and started off at a brisk pace. Sugawara asked him, "Inspector, that Lady appeared to be someone of wealth, perhaps even royalty. Who was she?"

Kura's face was impassive. "Lady Hiroko. She is...was the second cousin to the shogun's commissioner of finances. She was supposed to marry the daimyo in the next fief and was passing through our lands." Kura gave a weary sigh. "Now, the eyes of the shogunate will turn to our pathetic little fief and demand answers I do not have." His eyes hardened. "However, do not concern yourself with my problems, ronin."

They rode on. The inspector studied Sugawara from the corner of his eye as they entered a ramshackle village clinging to the steep side of a wooded mountain.

"As you see," Kura pointed, "we are desperately poor. There is little arable land. Winters are hard. However, my family has held the position of metsuke here for many generations." He dismounted outside a dilapidated building. "I must not further disappoint my ancestors by failing in the duty bestowed upon me." He lowered his voice. "Inside, ronin, where we can talk freely."

Kura brought Sugawara into a room with polished floors and frayed tatami mats. A yellow, guttering candle was the only available light source. Kura sat cross-legged behind a low table. Sugawara followed suit.

Sugawara watched Kura deputize a party of villagers to retrieve the bodies from the road. He then made preparations to inform the government currently residing in Kyoto of the tragedy, taking full responsibility. Finally, when the necessary paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvers were complete, a male secretary served sake and, bowing, let himself out.

Sugawara drank the warm sake. The sun had lowered in the west, slanting shadows across the low desk between them.

Kura set his empty bowl down with a steady hand. "Well, there can be but one outcome." He smiled faintly. "As samurai I must atone for my failure to my Lord." Without warning he banged a fist on the table. "But by all the hells of Buddha, I'm furious that I can't find a solution to the problem plaguing my district before I forfeit my life."

Sugawara said into his sake bowl, "I think, Inspector Kura, that you have found such a solution."

Kura blinked. He poured more sake for Sugawara. "You see much, ronin. Yes, it's why I allowed you to watch me go through the official motions. I have nothing to hide. If we are to do business, as I think we must, surely this is the better way? Everything out in the open."

"I am no longer under suspicion?"

Kura grimaced. "I begged Lady Hiroko to wait, or better yet go along the main road, east of the mountain range. She would hear none of it. We were on a direct path to her future husband. The quickest way was that lonely mountain trail." Kura spread his hands apart. "What else could I do? No one would believe our story."

Sugawara put his sake down. "What story, inspector?"

Kura said low, "The cedar forests above this village are haunted by a clever demon-witch. She always kills when the weather turns cold. This year she began taking faces. At first we thought it was bandits. I sent five good men up there last month to flush them out; they never returned. That's when I instituted the enactment of road passes, more to absolve myself of blame than anything else. I've hidden the truth for years from Kyoto. The death of the commissioner's cousin will bring everything out into the open when my messenger arrives there four days hence."

Kura's voice dropped lower. "However, before I commit seppuku to atone for my failure, I must try one last gamble to erase this demon-witch from my fief." He rocked back on his heels. "To do that, I need the help of a famous sword, and the warrior who wields it."

Sugawara had noticed Kura's sidelong stares on the road. He drew his katana and laid it on the table. Flickering light fell on the gleaming, naked blade with its blood groove, and the chrysanthemums carved into the hilt itself shaped like an angry Black Dragon.

"It's true!" Kura's face came alive with wonder. "The sword 'Falling Flowers', fashioned by Master Ohta centuries ago. Only one man carries it, a ronin with a price of gold on his head. Even in this secluded district your name is known, Sugawara."

"All men have enemies," Sugawara said. "A friend is more rare."

Kura nodded sagely. "As I hoped. We are two of a kind. We are samurai, but I fight with paper and pen and law books; my sword arm is not strong. I need a man of your mettle. I'll overlook the fact you are a wanted criminal. To be honest, I think only a desperate soldier, one who lives day by day with blood lust, can battle the demon-witch and survive. Simply put, I want her head on a spike before I am forced to commit seppuku."

Sugawara cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. "I have sold my sword before," he said. "However, I am set upon my own quest to avenge the deaths of my Clan from a traitor, he who was once my father's vassal. I don't know if I have time for detours."

Kura held up his palm. "I am familiar with your story. Your family's crest, a cherry blossom clutched in an eagle's talons, is banned. You are gathering money to build an army so your crest might one day fly again. Of money I have little: fifty gold pieces from the official treasury. However, I can give you something else: Paper armor that will make you invulnerable."

Sugawara was intrigued. "Please explain."

"A letter of transit bearing the shogun's crest, signed by a metsuke in his employ. It allows the bearer to travel the width and breadth of Japan for one calendar year. Such a device, in the hands of a man seeking vengeance, could well nigh be invaluable. Do we have a deal?"

Sugawara slipped his sword back into its saya. "Agreed. What must I do?"

"Bring me the head of the demon-witch so I can look upon it with pleasure as I disembowel myself."

"Where might I find this demon?"

Kura retrieved a map of the countryside and rolled it out. He stabbed a finger at the paper. "She lives here in the mountains, deep within an icy ravine where once stood an old mill. Few men have glimpsed her and lived. They say she flies through the trees and makes fire with her open palms. Her laughter is like crows tearing at the flesh of the dead."

"She sounds a formidable enemy indeed."

"No one who has gone into the mountains to kill her has ever returned," Kura warned. "But, if you are successful, I humbly request you honor me further by acting as my second."

Sugawara stood, casting a large shadow from the wavering candle. He clapped his hand onto his sword hilt. "If I do not return within three days, Kura, consider me lost."

"I will give you a horse and rations."

Sugawara shook his head. "No horse. This will be a stalking game. I must move silently through the forest to catch this supernatural creature. I must fight on her terms or lose."

He looked out the slatted window.

"I can make several ri before the sun sets. I want to be deep inside the forest, learn its rhythms so I can use them to my advantage. As Sun Tzu dictates: 'Use the land to defeat your enemy.'"

Kura nodded his understanding. "Yes, but after four days my messenger arrives in Kyoto and I must commit seppuku. If, however, you return with her head I can send a carrier pigeon to Kyoto bearing the news we've destroyed the demon-witch. Then I will commit seppuku."

Sugawara bowed deeply and left the inspector's office.

***

Sugawara moved up the flank of the mountain. The night was cold. Moonlight fell between branches laden with snow. Around midnight the sound of howling wolves, their voices echoing, arose in the distance.

He came upon a clearing, paused. His eyes ranged over the snow-covered ground. If the map was correct, the icy ravine began on the other side, leading up in a zig-zag toward the summit of this mountain.

With his bow in hand he went out into the open, senses alert. The wolves stopped their music; the forest was deathly quiet. Movement along the wood's edge caught his eye and he dropped to one knee, an arrow knocked.

Low, pale shapes moved quietly between the boles of the trees. One turned to look at Sugawara, continued to trot onward.

Sugawara smiled grimly to himself. The wolves hadn't wasted anytime getting themselves downwind of his scent. It only remained to be seen how desperate they were, what kind of toll starvation had taken upon their natural wary instincts.

Sugawara had hoped to at least reach the ravine before the wolves found his scent, hoping their fear of the demon-witch would then keep them away.

That hope was a foregone conclusion as the pack -- forty strong -- shuffled into the clearing. They were starved past the point of emaciation. Their coats were dull and their ribcages and hips clearly defined beneath the loose skin. Red tongues lolled from their mouths; their eyes blazed in the moonlight.

Sugawara moved toward the ravine. The pack edged forward, keeping their distance. He saw boulders up ahead, possibly the mouth of the icy ravine where the demon-witch lived. He judged the distance. The pack came nearer, the animals slipping around each other like streams of grey smoke over the snow.

Sugawara fired an arrow into their midst and they broke, yelping. They quickly reformed. Meat lay ahead, perhaps the first in weeks, and nothing would deter them from their grisly intent.

Three arrows whizzed through the cold air, their slim shadows racing over the broken snow. Two found the throat of a lone wolf at the edge of the pack, killing him instantly, the third caught a female in her hindquarters. The pack, growling and snarling at the smell of blood, fell upon their wounded companion, fangs tearing into her exposed belly. Sugawara ran, his breath sawing in his lungs, for the relative safety of the boulders ahead.

He leaped wildly and found a handhold, scrabbling for a better purchase. He stood on the cold, naked rock, heart pounding.

The pack had become a vicious tangle of snapping jaws and bloody fur. Sugawara watched them feed. The wolves sniffed the snow back and forth until they found his scent again.

"How much do you fear the demon-witch over your desire for fresh meat?" he asked them. A wolf paused to howl at the sliver of moon.

Sugawara glanced at the dark tumble of ice and boulders in the ravine, back down at the wolf pack slowly approaching. He smiled.

Turning, he jumped from boulder to boulder, making sure he stayed in sight of the pack. He climbed down the side of the ravine. There was a lot of ice here and the going was more difficult. He knew he had bought himself time: the wolves would have to find an easier way through the maze of boulders. Toward dawn he thought it safe enough to sleep in the lee of a fallen cedar, and this he did, sword drawn.

When he awoke he ate part of his rations and moved up through the steep ravine. Twice he had to climb, but he made sure there were detours nearby for the wolves to follow.

Toward noon he came upon the frozen, impaled bodies of Kura's men. Five men, only their torsos remaining, were planted on sharpened cedar stakes. Their legs and their arms were gone -- ripped free by wolves. What remained was set too high for the animals to reach, but served as a warning sign to whoever was foolish, or lucky enough, to reach this far.

Sugawara pressed on. The ravine emptied into a dry river bed that tracked half a mile deep along the side of the mountain. The trees and foliage were thick and he had to sidle between the trunks to make any progress.

He emerged from the dark forest and entered an area where the trees were spaced farther apart. Tired and thirsty, he scooped a handful of snow, melted it in his mouth, and drank.

As he flung the remaining snow onto the ground, the tops of the trees came alive. Three figures dressed in bark and cedar camouflage armor leaped down, a net spread between them.

Sugawara's sword flashed, slicing the net as it unfolded over his head. He whirled, cutting an upward stroke at the nearest opponent. The woodman stumbled away with a hideous scream. Two woodmen attacked from either side. Sugawara quickly stepped behind one, using him as a momentary shield. His sword rang as he cut both men down.

Three more jumped from the trees, swords glinting in the cold noonday sun. Sugawara met them face on. One woodman spun away, blood spraying from an open artery. The last two crouched, reached into pouches and flung razor-sharp discs at Sugawara. He dodged and rolled, came up on his feet. Sword singing, he decapitated the first man and critically wounded the second.

He looked at the dead and dying around him. One man was trying to crawl away, his black tabi boots digging into the frozen earth to find purchase. Sugawara kicked him over onto his back, stripped the camouflaged face mask away. He pressed the point of his sword into the ninja's neck.

"Where is your leader? Speak, or I'll kill you like the diseased reptile you are."

The dying ninja grinned through blood-stained teeth. "You're too late, samurai. Our Mistress is already on her way with her face magic."

"What do you mean? Speak, dog."

"Bestowed upon her by the deceased Elders of an ancient Clan." The ninja then swallowed hard. Sugawara tried to pry open the man's mouth to free his swallowed tongue. The ninja shuddered and died at Sugawara's feet.

Sugawara straightened. He whipped the blood from his sword and slowly resheathed it, thoughts racing.

He stripped the bodies and pulled them to a ledge that looked out over the ravine. After throwing the bodies down, and watching them smash through the branches into an inaccessible gorge below, he turned to explore the dry river bed. It led him to an abandoned water mill and the overgrown foundations of deserted village houses.

He thought it likely this was once a thriving mountain community until the water source, for whatever reason, had dried up. He inspected the inside of the rundown mill house and found weapons, sleeping pallets, a fire pit and food. Everything needed for a secret camp to survive the severe winter. He even found extremely wide snowshoes made of pine straw which would enable someone to walk across fresh snow and leave little trace.

Sugawara discovered several clay jars hidden under a blanket. Most were empty, but five sloshed when he shook them. He poured the contents of one out. Something wet and hairy plopped at his feet. Using a bamboo pole he stretched it out on the ground.

A face looked up at him. Sugawara searched further. A corner of the mill was set aside for a woman: a wooden chest with fine silk, makeup, hairpins, a jade comb. Included were detailed drawings of a woman's face, hair and modes of dress, even her daily habits.

Written on the back were the words: Lady Hiroko.

Next was a tiny shrine, folded paper rectangles with writing in gold ink on them tied all around. In the center of the shrine lay a mirror inlaid with ivory, the word "Hiroko" written in blood across its face. Sugawara touched one of the paper rectangles; it crumbled to dust.

The magic from this has already been drawn out, he mused.

Sugawara got to his feet. He backed out of the mill and started down the slope of the mountain, hurrying in the direction of the icy mountain road far below. He tried to recall the lay of the land as he had crossed into Kura's fief from the western border, remembering that the mountain road made a great sweeping curve through the foothills before entering the next province. He knew he might be able to get ahead of the procession if they were using a palanquin for the "new" Lady Hiroko.

The last was a certainty. These ninja had gone to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate the province next door to Kura's, even to the point of setting up a myth about a demon-witch to dissuade the curious. Posing as Lady Hiroko and her entourage, they could cross the border and assassinate the daimyo himself, if such was their target. Or they might be on a mission to gather intelligence of the fief's defenses as a prelude to invasion by another enemy.

Whatever the reason, Sugawara knew he had to hurry. First, though, one last detail.

He returned to where he had battled the camouflaged ninja and scooped handfuls of bloody snow into clay jars taken from the mill. Then he ran far enough down into the ravine, the wind at his back, and smashed a jar against an ice-incrusted rock.

He set a quick pace, striking off into the forest as the howls of the wolves increased behind him. He occasionally poured the bloody slush of a jar onto a tree, or down a steep incline so the pack could keep the scent.

The yipping and howls of hunger behind him increased. Sugawara was running flat out. He judged they were ten minutes or less behind him. He stopped long enough to scan the forest.

His blood froze as he saw a great mass of grey fur stalking silently through the woods, eyes gleaming.

The wolf pack knew they had him. He had moved away from the lair of the demon-witch and down into the foothills. There would be no escape. The came on silently, hungrily.

Sugawara burst out of the woods onto the road. The procession had to have moved down the wooded flanks of the mountain; he had not met them in the ravine. If so, he should see them soon. He examined the pristine roadway. No tracks. He was ahead of them.

He had three jars of blood left. He marched down the roadside, keeping as much distance as possible from the wolf pack on the other side.

Sugawara heard the sound of the procession coming fast: a cadence was being called as the retainers quick-marched to the border.

He stood alone in the middle of the roadway. The procession, fifteen strong, stopped.

"Out of the way, ronin!" one of the guards shouted. "We're on important business with the daimyo in the next province."

Sugawara smiled and loosened his sword. "I've been waiting for you, and the demon-witch inside that palanquin. While I waited I composed your death poem."

The lead guard stepped back. "You're insane, ronin. Stand aside! We have no patience for poems."

"I drive my enemies before me
Like leaves before a typhoon.
I, and my army,
 Are their Death Storm."

Incredulous looks crossed the faces of the guards. The leader laughed, "What army? You're alone, and you'll die alone." He whipped his sword out and rushed headlong with the other men.

Sugawara smashed the three remaining jars in their midst, pleased to see that one spilled most of its contents onto the palanquin. He crossed swords with the first man to reach him, and felled him quickly. Another man came for him but turned as shrieks of terror arose from the remaining guards.

Wolves were launching themselves from the embankment, tearing out the throats of their victims. They swarmed over the snow, driving men backwards. Sugawara scrambled away from the carnage. The wolves had been following a particular blood spoor for most of the afternoon and were honing in on that, oblivious to everything else. Sometimes, as men fell, their face masks came loose, revealing terrified features.

The bearers dropped the palanquin and ran for their lives. A woman inside screamed as the wolves hit the front of the palanquin smeared with blood. She crawled out the side on hands and knees, her beautiful face white with terror. A wolf jumped on top of the palanquin, spotted his prey, and landed on her back, bringing her down. Her face and wig came off in the bloody snow, revealing the frightened profile of an old, grey-haired woman.

Sugawara stepped in front of her, sword raised. She looked up at him with pleading eyes.

"The real Lady Hiroko welcomes you to your Death Storm," he said. The ninja woman screamed. Sugawara's sword flashed. He grabbed her head.

Many of the ninjas abandoned all pretense of their disguises and floundered in a deep snowbank, intent on escape. Wolves brought them down, slashing fangs into throats and bellies.

Sugawara grabbed a pike and tore a strip of white silk off the woman's body. He backed away from the frenzied feeding. As he watched the wolves fight over their feast he painted a crest on the silk with the woman's blood: a cherry blossom clutched in an eagle's talons.

He looked at the wolves and their grisly banquet. They would feed long enough to allow him to reach Kura's village.

He mounted the head of the ninja woman on the pike. Her bloodless and stark features stared down at him.

"Inspector Kura awaits us, demon-witch."

His banner snapping and fluttering in the cold air, Sugawara marched toward the village.

 
 

About the Author

 
Kenneth Mark Hoover
 

Kenneth Mark Hoover has appeared in various print and online magazines such as Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons, Challenging Destiny, Drops of Crimson and many others.

In 2005 his first novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press. The novel sold out its first print run and received several good reviews. He is currently working on short stories and meets another writer twice a week at a coffee shop where they write together, vent, and talk about publishing. He lives in Dallas, TX.

   
Copyright (c) 2008 Drops of Crimson. All rights reserved.