Inside Drops of Crimson

 
 
   
 

In This Issue

 
 
 
  Sea Devil by Kenneth Mark Hoover
 
 

The young woman kneeling beside Sugawara wore a plain brown kimono.  Her face was sunburned, weathered from salt wind.

"How do you feel, samurai?" she asked.

Disoriented, Sugawara imagined he still clutched the waterlogged timber used to drift to shore, but it was only his sword.  He lay on a tatami mat, shaded by fishing nets draped to block the glare from morning sun.

"I am alive."  After the destruction of his fleet he had floated upon broken timbers -- the spine of his flagship -- waiting for the ocean to swallow him whole.  The last thing he remembered were smoke columns from burning ships occluding the moon.

The young woman handed him a bowl of pickled vegetables, which he devoured, and a cup of fresh water.  "You were fevered when I pulled you from the ocean."  She bathed his face with cool water.  "My name is Kiyomi."

"I am...Takeo."  Sugawara thought it prudent not to speak his Clan name aloud.  Even in these hinterlands his head might bring a price.

"Two nights ago," she said, "we saw a great fleet from Edo sailing under the moon.  Later, a bright red glow lit the horizon.  We wondered if anyone survived the battle."

"It seems that only I, once again, survive."  He fell silent, remembering the destruction of his fleet, the helpless screams of his loyal men.

Kiyomi helped him to stand.  Sugawara was a large man, his arms and legs cabled with muscles, his eyes deep and penetrating.

He motioned to the fishing nets and boats rotting in the sun.  "Where are your people?"

"Our men have gone to civil war, or are dead from bandit raids.  Only a village priest remains and a few underage boys."

"The women?" he asked.

"Hiding.  They are afraid."

"What do they fear?"

"At the moment, you, my lord."

His eyebrows crowded together.  "Why me?"

"You are samurai, the sea surrendered your life.  We have been praying for the gods to send help.  That's why I risked the wrath of the Pale One to rescue you.  Otherwise, you would have been dashed to death on those black rocks."  She pointed out the door of the fishing shack to the surf pounding like distant thunder.

"Why would the gods send me to help a village of women?" Sugawara mused out loud.

Kiyomi shrugged her brown shoulders.  "If the gods heeded our prayers they would send help from the sea.  We are Ama."

Sugawara had heard of the Ama.  They harvested seaweed, lobsters and abalone.  The occasional pearl, if their karma was good.  They were simple, unassuming people.

He fingered the stiff, dry nets.  "Why aren't the boats harvesting?  Why have the fishing nets not been mended?"

Kiyomi licked her lips.  "Those questions are best answered by our village priest, master.  If you but ask I will bring you to him."

Sugawara saw no reason not to accede to her wish.  She had, after all, saved his life, and he still felt much too weak to strike out into the countryside alone.  He needed these people until he regained his strength and returned to his quest to reclaim the honor of his family name.

Kiyomi led him through empty streets towards a timber and cut-stone house.  Inside, an ancient man sat cross-legged, his thin face and beard both greying with age.  His shoulders were bowed, as if burdened by a heavy weight.  Sugawara and Kiyomi knelt before him.

"Is this the life you saved, Kiyomi?" the priest asked.  His robes were old and tattered.

Sugawara answered, "I was the captain of a vast pirate fleet that harassed Chinese shipping, capturing silks and spices intended for Nagasaki.  The Shogun sent his navy after me and sank my fleet in a great night battle.  Only I escaped the destruction."

"May I touch your sword, samurai?"

Sugawara hesitated.  His katana had been in his family for generations.  It was the only legacy tying him to his father.

"I wish to examine the hilt," the priest explained, "and see if it is the sword I dreamed it to be."

Sugawara gave the priest his sword.  The old man fingered the weapon with claw-like hands.  His face brightened as his thumb caressed the chrysanthemums carved in the hilt shaped like a Black Dragon.

"Yes, this is the katana 'Falling Flowers', a renowned weapon forged by the swordmaster, Ohta, centuries ago.  Only one man carries this sword.  A great warrior...and a dangerous ronin with a heavy price of gold on his head."

"I have many enemies, that is true," Sugawara said, resheating his sword in its saya.  A hard smile touched his lips. "But what man does not, if he is a man?"

"Samurai, your past is your affair.  What concerns me is your deliverance, as foreseen in my dream.  You are here, by the will of the gods, to help our village."

Sugawara shook his head doubtfully.  "I have but one fate. To kill the traitor who wiped out my Clan when I was but a boy."

The priest leaned forward.  "Where do you seek this enemy?"

"As foretold by the sorcerer Lung, at the end of my life. There I will hack his heart from his body and feast upon it."

"Until that day arrives, is it not possible you might be called upon by the gods to do less significant work?"

Sugawara considered this.  "The world is full of kami, both malicious and divine spirits who trouble the realm of mortal man."  He rubbed the side of his face.  "I suppose such methods are not above their powers."

"Troops will scour the coastline for survivors of the sea battle," the priest told him.  "There is a cave nearby.  We will hide you from the Shogun's men.  After you defeat the Pale One, you may continue your blood quest."

"Then I accept your terms," Sugawara said, bowing. "However, I must know what duties I am to perform.  What is the Pale One, and why do your people fear it?"

The priest grew solemn.  "Sharks, tides, dangerous currents, they all serve to make the Ama life a difficult one.  But never have we met a foe like this.  Surely, a demon from lower Hell sent to plague us."

"What is it, exactly?"

The priest spread his hands apart in ignorance.  "A manifestation of an angry god, or a monster from the deepest depths of the sea who has lost its way in the shoals.  We are in the gathering season and have not gone onto the water for weeks. Kiyomi, I believe, is the only one to see it up close and live."

Sugawara turned to her.  "Can you describe it?"

"I only glimpsed it, master," she said, "but it skates across the water, leaving a glowing wake.  Two eyes burn like lamps in its horrific face.  It rose quickly from the depths under my boat, capsizing it and my tubs of abalone.  It scraped my side, tearing like shark skin."  She shyly showed him the healing wound.  "It submerged after swimming for about a ri, searching the coastline, finally disappearing west in the evening mist.  I swam to another boat and we rowed home as fast as we could.  We were terrified."

The priest said, "They've gone back onto the water at night to capture squid by lamp light, but this creature will have none of it.  It seems it has the nature of a territorial beast."

"Interesting."  Sugawara was intrigued.

"The last time it attacked, two girls drowned.  Their bodies were never recovered.  Now, no one goes near the water.  We have a few gardens, but the vegetables they grow can not sustain us."

Sugawara looked at Kiyomi.  "Yet, when you saw me drifting in the currents, you swam out to rescue me.  Why?"

Her eyes dropped to her lap.  "I knew of the dream our priest had about a strong man sent from the sea to rescue us.  I thought if you were he, I should make an effort on behalf of my village to accept your help."

Sugawara thought her story sounded too convenient to be the entire truth, but he didn't press her.  He had more important concerns clamoring for his attention.

"I must see this creature," he said, "before I make an assessment of how it might be killed."

The priest frowned.  "No one from this village will accompany you onto the water, samurai."

"Perhaps I can take someone who has already proven her bravery," Sugawara suggested.  He glanced at Kiyomi.

She smiled.  "Yes, master, I would be glad to!"

The priest cautioned them both.  "It's not wise to attempt this expedition until the soldiers have finished searching for survivors.  Until then, you must remain hidden in the cave."

Sugawara agreed.  "I will go there now.  I don't want to bring further retribution upon your village from the Shogun."

Grateful tears welled in the old man's eyes.  "Thank the gods you've come to our aid."

"I have as yet done nothing, ancient one," Sugawara said sternly.  "This monster may be a punishment laid on your village by your ancestors for some past transgression.  In that case, I can do little.  But, if this creature is mortal, then perhaps we can win the day.  We shall see."

Sugawara allowed Kiyomi to lead him down a wandering path along the rocky shoreline.  She carried food and water so his stay in the cave might be as comfortable as humanly possible.

They climbed the black, glistening boulders, the surf spray showering them.  Ducking, Kiyomi disappeared into a narrow passage in the rock face.  Sugawara followed.

Limp seaweed hung from the walls.  A natural chimney opened to the blue sky and he understood why this place was considered special.

"When the tide rises," he said, "this lower chamber is filled.  One must reach those upper ledges to remain dry."

"Yes," Kiyomi said. "Spume from crashing waves blows through the opening to the top, drenching anyone hidden there.  The armies will not find you.  We've used it before to hide armor and weapons taken from dead samurai we found from past battles.  We then sold the goods to greedy merchants."

Sugawara had no doubt the village still kept a hidden cache of weapons on hand.  Most small villages did as insurance against the many wars and battles waged between local daimyos.

Kiyomi spread a coarse blanket, set out the meager food and water supplies.  "You may light a tiny fire during low tide," she said.  "I will bring wood later."

Sugawara noticed the charred remains of an old fire, half buried in the sand, and knew he was not the first to use this chamber.  He settled down to wait.

Kiyomi knelt down beside him.  "Master?"

"Call me Takeo, it is my given name."

"I heard you say you came from a family of wealth and honor?"

Sugawara bunched his fists as the old hate rose in him like bile.  "Yes, before it was destroyed by a traitor, he who was a trusted vassal of my father's."

"You have been to Edo, Takeo-san?"

He nodded.  "Many times, as a boy."

"Are the women in court extremely beautiful?"

"Very much so," Sugawara said.  "But their beauty is fashioned with white masks, wigs and painted features, Kiyomi. With such magic, even old crones can be made pretty."

She laughed.  Finally, she whispered half to herself, "I should like to be beautiful that way."

Sugawara had already seen much of the country in the five years he had been on the run.  During that time he met many people, known many places.  As a result, he had formulated ideas that were not accepted as traditional.  He thought, whenever he allowed himself time to consider it, this was the result of his own hardships, his own fight to understand the world and how it had a habit of grinding innocent people into dust.

"People are what they are, Kiyomi," he said.  "You are not, by the way, unpleasing to the eye."

She dipped her head and smiled.

He covered her hand with his.  "Few have the courage you exhibited by coming to my rescue.  I owe you my life, Kiyomi.  I do not forget my debts."

Her face reddened.  "Takeo-san, there is something I must tell you."

"Speak," he commanded.

"I, too, had a dream about a man rising from the sea."  Her eyes were wide and dark.  "In it, he slew a great sea devil devouring my village.  In gratitude, I gave myself to him and he left me a son before returning to the sea."

"Dreams are often prophetic.  Then again, sometimes they have no more meaning than sparrows' tears."

Kiyomi smiled.  "I will return with a fish oil lamp and wood for a small fire.  Don't forget to climb into the chimney or you will be inundated by seawater.  Goodbye, Takeo-san."

"Goodbye, Kiyomi."

She left him.  That night, as the tide water rose, he climbed onto the highest ledge he could reach.  The crashing waves flooded his chamber.  Spume sprayed past him through the narrow rock chimney.

When the tide withdrew, he climbed down and slept.  Later, Kiyomi brought food and water.  The days passed uneventfully.

Kiyomi tapped her gane, a tool used to pry abalone from the sea bed, on the side of the boat and muttered a prayer for luck.

Sugawara shipped the oars of their boat and helped her lower a wooden cask used to hold the abalone.

She rubbed the juice of mugwort leaves into her mask so it wouldn't fog up.  She wore thin underclothing and a net bag around her waist to hold her harvest.

Sugawara sat in the center of the boat.  In his hands was a great black bow; a quiver of arrows across his back.  A bundle of spears also lay in the boat.  As he suspected, the villagers did have a weapons cache and had gladly given him whatever weapons he thought he would need under the circumstances.

The entire village, even the priest, had seen them off. Sugawara and Kiyomi had hauled the boat towards the water; the villagers were afraid even to do this, fearing it might further enrage the sea devil.

Kiyomi slipped over the side of the boat, her face splotched from the cold water.  "If I see anything, I'll come right up," she promised.

Sugawara nodded.  "Be careful."

Kiyomi took several deep breaths and slid under the choppy waves.  Sugawara waited, an arrow knocked.  A few bubbles swirled to show where Kiyomi had gone down, but soon these were erased by the action of the waves slopping against the hull.

He glanced towards shore.  They were some distance out, near the point of a broken headland.  The villagers were but specks on the beach.  From this perspective he saw the coast was riddled with many small coves.

Kiyomi surfaced, making a melancholy whistle as she gasped for air between pursed lips.  "There's abalone down there," she said brightly, "between a cluster of rocks and seaweed."

"Is this where you first saw the Pale One?"

She hung on the side of the boat, her brown arms sleek with water.  "Yes, Takeo-san, but he's not down there now."

"We'll stay, hoping to draw its attention."

Kiyomi, her breath regained, slipped back under the water. As the day progressed she filled the floating cask with abalone. Later, she rested in the boat and ate a sparse lunch, sharing it with Sugawara.

"Look," she pointed to the shore.

"I see them," Sugawara said.  The villagers were launching boats.  They had finally decided to try their luck and were soon clustered around Sugawara for protection.

He sometimes had difficulty discerning whether the pale shape moving underwater was human.  Once, a triangular fin swirled near his boat.  He let an arrow fly and the small shark thrashed.  The Ama women slipped a noose around its tail and dragged it backwards until it drowned.  The day waned and the boats returned to shore.  It had been a good harvest.  Later that night, Sugawara met the priest, the villagers in tow.

"The beast did not appear," he said.  "We must assume it is not as territorial as previously thought."

"Will you go out again tomorrow?" the priest asked.

The women stood silent, waiting for Sugawara's answer.

"I must see this ocean beast if I am to kill it," he said. "There is no other way to fight a battle."

For the next several days, he and Kiyomi searched the rocky shoreline.  There were many coves and inundations to explore. Twice, they almost hulled their boat, but Sugawara wanted to inspect any underwater lairs which might be usable by the beast.

They found nothing.

Two days later, returning from yet another fruitless expedition, he heard screams from around the headland.  As they rounded the point he saw to his amazement a great shape amongst the Ama boats, the women scrambling into them, terrified.

"There, Takeo-san!" Kiyomi cried.  "The Pale One!"

Sugawara knelt and let fly three arrows.  The first two missed before he got the range right.  The third black shaft hit solid.  To his amazement, the arrow bounced off the creature's tough hide.  It turned towards him, eyes glowing like flames, its many fins churning the water.  Incredibly, its sinister heartbeat sounded like a Taiko drum.  Sugawara picked up a heavy spear and launched it with all his strength as the creature dipped its flat nose and submerged.

Boats fled towards the beach.  The women were crying that they had lost someone.  Kiyomi screamed, her fist to her mouth, when she saw the body of an Ama girl face down in the surf. Sugawara, his heart hammering, rowed their boat towards the body and pulled it from the cold water.  They followed the last boats in.  A minute later he saw the sea creature breach several hundred feet away, following the shoreline west.

The Ama women wept and wailed with fright.  "We thought it had gone," they said.  "We thought it was frightened because we had a man in the village.  But it fears nothing.  You struck it with weapons, and it only killed again."

Sugawara examined the dead woman as much as propriety allowed.  He had seen many dead people in his lifetime, many wounds resulting from the hacking attacks inherent in warfare. He found no wounds on the dead girl.

"This woman died of fright," he said, "and not from any wound delivered by the monster.  Perhaps she swallowed too much seawater in her surprise at seeing the creature, or lost her way underwater.  The monster did not kill her, fear did."

"Then it can manifest an aura of fear about itself, killing from a distance," the priest claimed.  "Such a thing can never be defeated."

Sugawara sat back on his heels, arms draped over his knees. "Perhaps so."  He chewed his bottom lip.  "It is surely a mystery for an animal to behave so."

"We have failed," the priest said.  Many of the women began to weep anew.

Sugawara looked up, his dark eyes fierce.  "I do not give up so easily.  Kiyomi.  I want all the fish oil you can gather. Too, I want the boats outfitted with poles and lanterns so that we may go out upon the water tonight."

"What do you plan to do, samurai?" asked the priest.

"Bait a trap," Sugawara said grimly.  "We will put out to sea, lamps shining to draw the monster up from the depths.  Then, if I can get close enough, I will use a naginata to cut into its eye.  Without a doubt, that is its most vulnerable spot.  If I can pierce the naginata into its brain, it might die."

"A bold plan," observed the priest.  "And reckless."

Sugawara shook his head.  "I can think of nothing else."

After the preparations were made Sugawara, using commands and even threats, had the women row the boats into the lagoon. They were tied together so if one was swamped or overturned the others would stay afloat.  He had made them, also, reveal the entire weapons cache and he now stood in the bow of a boat, resplendent in bamboo armor, a great bow in one hand and a naginata, a long spear with a curved blade, at his feet.

Earlier, he had practiced with the naginata, his feet cutting deep shapes in the sand as me moved back and forth.

As darkness fell he ordered the lamps lit.  Pools of light illuminated the dark water as they waited in silence. Kiyomi was with him, a yari clutched between her hands.  She looked frightened, but, Sugawara admitted to himself, so was he. In fact, all the women were armed.  Only the priest and the children had remained behind.

Sugawara reviewed his army of Ama women and his castle of flimsy boats.  He smiled grimly.  Many times he had led armies into battle, but never one like this.  They were willing to fight the unknown so that they might resume their unadorned lives.

Sugarawa knew men would fight men, even when the odds were against them.  But he doubted few would find the courage to face a sea monster if they didn't have to, no matter what the reason.

"The tide changes," Kiyomi observed.  "And, look, an evening mist spills across the water from the land."

Sugawara's eyes ranged over the water.  Occasionally a small squid would rise up to the light cast by the lanterns and dip back down.

"Takeo-san," one of the Ama women, an old maiden whose muscles were still supple, said, "I see the beast near the shoreline.  It's coming this way."

"Yes," another woman said, sharpening her spear point.  "See how its eyes glow like hell fire?  They frighten me."

Sugawara had Kiyomi row between the floating boats and the approaching monster.  Its fins churned the water in unison as it approached.  He heard its terrible heartbeat.  It was huge, over twenty feet long and half as wide.  The wake from its flat nose washed over its red flaming eyes and ornate armor.

"It sees us," Kiyomi cried, "and turns!"

"Prepare yourselves," Sugawara ordered the women.  "It will dive...there it goes!...and breach in our midst."

"Should we light the torches, Takeo-san?" a young Ama girl, no more than twelve, asked.

"Yes, light them," he ordered.  Several torches blazed forth in the surrounding boats, illuminating faces.

"We are ready," one woman said.  "We must fight," another old Ama said.  "Yes," Kiyomi added, "fight until we win."

The Pale One rose under the boats, capsizing two of them. The women, now knowing what to expect, knowing the creature did not kill unless they let its fearful aspect terrorize them, dove cleanly into the water and scrambled into other boats.  The remaining women hurled spears at the thing as two lead boats, a fishing net strung between them, captured the monster, tangling its many fins.

Sugawara hopped across three boats so he could be in the thick of the fight.  He stood in the rocking swells, firing arrow after arrow at the thing.  They bounced off its armored hide.  He threw the bow aside.

The women poured casks of oil into the water.  They flung their torches and the sea went up in a fierce blaze, ringing the creature.

With a war cry, Sugawara, the naginata gripped in his hands, threw himself at the monster.  The point of the spear broke against the huge eye of the Pale One.  He scrambled for purchase against the side of the monster, flaying skin from his hands and arms on the lacquered shark hide.  Before he went under he saw movement behind the sea monster's transparent eyes.

His hand caught the fishing net snarled around the monster's fins.  Sugawara pulled himself up, careful not to entangle his legs, until his head was above water.  The monster's fins sculled in unison, driving it across the sea and through the ring of fire.  Sugawara heard shouting behind him, but the noise diminished as he and the monster quickly distanced themselves from battle.

The thing raced across the surface.  Any faster, and the water flowing across the flat projecting beak of the beast would drive it under the waves -- at least for a short time until its natural buoyancy brought it up again.

It finally turned towards shore, heading for a deep inlet in the side of a monstrous cliff.  They entered a watery pen.  A curtain of seaweed could be lowered to hide the sheltered inlet. He noticed the pen would be completely underwater at high tide, thus insuring the sea devil would stay hidden from prying eyes.

Once he knew he was safely in the lair, he released the net and swam to the pier towards which the monster drifted.  He clambered upon the warped boards, waiting.  A rather complex three-inch bamboo tube was cleverly concealed in the creature's dorsal fin.  Used, he surmised, to provide air.  There was also a clever locking mechanism which closed the tube when the creature was underwater for brief periods of time.

To build such a device, he realized, required great expenditure of money.  Only the Emperor, or a very rich daimyo, could afford such an unbelievable project.

An opening forward of the dorsal fin sucked open, a great wound rimmed with pitch to provide a watertight seal.  When the first man came out Sugawara's sword flashed.  Others tumbled out, drawing knives and short swords.  Sugawara met them, felling men left and right.  One sailor went spinning away, disemboweled. Another fell helpless, his legs chopped off at the knees.

The small chamber echoed with battle as the fierce fighting raged.  Spattered with blood, Sugawara turned in his fighting stance, seeking more enemies.

Silence reigned in a pall over the damp cavern.

"Once again, I alone survive," he muttered, chest heaving.

"No, warrior, I, too, live, but only for a moment."

Sugawara found the man crumpled against log pilings.  He wore a blue kimono with gold thread.  "Have no fear, samurai.  I am dying; I cannot attack you."

Sugawara waved his sword at the sea devil.  "What is that thing, this place?"

Blood flecked the dying man's lips.  "An underwater chamber, used to house my daimyo's most prized secret weapon."

"For what purpose?"

"Raids upon convoys, foment fear among superstitious villages, spying missions in enemy harbors.  We were testing the limits of the craft when you attacked us."

Sugawara was filled with awe.  "To imagine such a thing, to build it first in one's mind, must have taken incredible imagination."

"Thank you, samurai."  The dying sailor smiled when he saw Sugawara's startled reaction.  "Yes, I am the father of the White Dragon.  I, through the resources of my daimyo, built this sea weapon.  My name is Ono."

Ono grimaced, fighting his wound.  "But now the secret dies with me, I'm afraid.  It is too dangerous, too deadly for one man to possess.  I spent a lifetime perfecting the design, studying new materials and glues, new methods of construction.  Now, with my death, I wish to destroy it.  I ask for your help."

"Tell me what I must do."

Ono motioned to a chest containing flint and steel, casks of oil.  "Burn it from the inside.  Burn its heart so no trace will remain, and nothing like it can ever be built again."

Sugawara climbed down through the hatch.  In the dim light he saw thwarts and oar handles to provide movement to the craft, sand bags for ballast, cables to direct a rudder, and a Taiko drum to beat out a rhythm.  The eyes were made of translucent oyster shells.  He set the fire and hastily climbed out.

Smoke roiled from the opening in White Dragon's head. Crackling flames consumed the framework, the fire fed by the waterproofing lacquer covering the sharkskin.

"Leave now, warrior," Ono warned.  "You cannot be caught in this chamber when the tide shifts or you will drown.  There is a stairway cut in the rock behind me.  Follow it to safety."

Sugawara hefted his sword.  "I will ease your pain, if you but ask."

Ono's mouth and nose ran freely with bright red blood.  "No, I wish to die with my progeny, my life's dream.  Go."

Sugawara mounted the stairs, following them until he stood under the stars.  He struck a trail towards the Ama village.  In the grey morning light he saw a lone figure waiting for him.

"I have killed the monster," he told Kiyomi.  "It will not trouble your village again."

She fell to her knees.  "You honor us!"

Sugawara pulled her to her feet.  "It is I who am honored."

She searched his bloody face.  "Now you return to your quest, Takeo-san.  But, what of my dream?" 

“I am a man of war.”  He touched her hair.  "However, I will return for a brief time to your village; it is on my way."

 
 

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.