Fantasy Horror Mystery Strange Historical

Mukden

By Sean Patrick Hazlett
4,941 words · 18-minute reading time
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From the author: While working with Chinese bandits to track the movement and disposition of Imperial Russian forces operating along the Manchurian rail line, Captain Tanaka Hideki, a member of an occult organization known only to Japan’s senior leadership as Unit 108, discovers something far more sinister.


Manchuria’s biting winds chilled Captain Tanaka Hideki to the soul, but the child-sized frozen corpses piled like cordwood bothered him more. As a father, he shuddered to imagine what it’d be like to see his own three-year old son, Yoshi, among the dead. While the cold blunted most of the odor, Tanaka could still smell the lingering stench of human filth. “Who did this?” he said, struggling to keep down his last meal.

“Not who, what,” Fu Shih said, wiping ice flakes off his salt and pepper beard. The Hung-hu-tze bandit leader pointed to one child’s belly, flaps of skin peeled back like an inverted starfish. “Whatever did this, it ain’t human.”

Tanaka had heard accounts of similar mutilations all along the Russian-controlled Southern Manchuria Railway. It was as if a blight radiated from the tracks—a festering sore of modernity marring Manchuria’s pristine landscape. For Tanaka, the atrocities also evoked an unsettling feeling of déjà vu.

Ever since the Boxer Rebellion, a Russian occupation force of several hundred thousand had hunkered down along the Russian Empire’s Manchurian rail line stretching from Harbin to Mukden all the way down the Liaodong Peninsula to its terminus at Port Arthur. Despite assurances they’d eventually leave, the Russians had been steadily cementing their foothold in Manchuria for nearly half a decade. The Japanese military had landed in Manchuria to force the issue and liberate their Chinese brethren from the yoke of European colonialism.

Tanaka adjusted his bifocals and reluctantly took a closer look at the body. He’d had enough of death, and had hoped to avoid it out here and away from the bulk of the fighting. He’d already seen more than enough killing at Port Arthur’s siege to last a lifetime.

On closer inspection, Tanaka noticed that the child’s viscera were gone. Whatever had been responsible, it hadn’t spared a single villager. The peculiar wounds reminded Tanaka of his mother’s superstitions about keeping his navel covered when he was a child.

As a reward for destroying the Port Arthur necromancer, General Nogi had assigned Tanaka a more conventional mission to help Tanaka recover from the psychological and spiritual damage he’d suffered. Yet, no matter where Tanaka traveled, he seemed to cast a pall of death all around him. So much so, that he felt himself becoming more attuned to the otherworldly with one foot firmly planted in the realm of the dead. Before Tanaka returned to the highly secretive Unit 108, he’d need to seek out a Shinto priest for cleansing lest his exposure to so much defilement infest other Japanese soldiers.

“What kind of an animal does this?” Tanaka asked in fluent Mandarin.

Fu shrugged as though unmoved by the atrocities. “Not an animal. Something else. Not natural. Not good. I seen something like this before near a Cossack camp.”

The hair on Tanaka’s neck stood on end. “What do you mean ‘not natural’?”

Fu laughed. “No wild beast did this. Something else. Probably sorcery.”

Ever since his experience at Hill 203 in Port Arthur, Tanaka had learned not to be so easily dismissive of such claims, but he’d also realized that he shouldn’t trust everything these rustics said. Sometimes they’d make things up just to test him. Oftentimes, they’d repeat a litany of age-old superstitions. But if Tanaka was to work with them, he had to play along. “Explain.”

“Death magic. Rumor has it a Cossack regiment’s creeping around these parts. Some say these ghost faces got a necromancer.”

Tanaka shuddered. He’d encountered one of these dead sorcerers at Port Arthur, and had no desire to face another out here, alone in the wilderness. Yet something about Fu’s claim didn’t seem quite right. It didn’t fit the lore. Tanaka shook his head. “I don’t believe it. Even if it were true, what purpose would this serve the Russians?”

“Necromancers use children’s souls to grant Russian warriors extra lives,” Fu answered in what Tanaka sensed was with the utmost seriousness.

Tanaka worried that investigating these murders would divert him from his primary mission. Mapping the Imperial Russian Army’s location would be difficult enough for veteran Japanese cavalry, but convincing Chinese bandits to do anything in this cold Manchurian waste was akin to herding hungry spiders. Anytime they’d encounter a small Russian unit, the Hung-hu-tze wanted to raid it for booty and blood, motivated by revenge for the Blagoveshchensk massacre. Five years earlier, the Russians had driven thousands of Chinese men, women, and children into the Amur River, drowning them in cold blood.

Part of Tanaka wanted to let them loose, but as the long-range eyes and ears of General Nogi Maresuke’s Third Army, he could ill afford such distractions, especially with thousands of Japanese lives at stake. But ignoring such savagery was also unacceptable, and Tanaka was convinced he’d lose face with the bandits if he let it go unchecked.

“Fine,” Tanaka decided. “We’ll track these Cossacks. But as soon as we deal with them, we’ll return to scouting Russian positions.”

“Feed us,” the gaunt hag said, her voice more rasp than whisper. She wore a white, torn dulcimer gown that swayed with her wispy and frayed gray hair in the windless air. A warm campfire glowed behind Tanaka, where the Hung-hu-tze carried on, drinking cheap, pilfered vodka.

Tanaka could hardly see the pale lady in the darkness, her hazy form shimmering in the moonless night. He approached her tentatively, his hand on his cartridge pouch, gathering a pinch of rice. Tanaka drew closer, the night growing colder.

He offered the crone his rice, trying to convince himself his actions were born out of kindness. He partly believed it. But deep down, he knew that winning peasant hearts and minds was more important to him and the Japanese military effort. Spurred by acts of Japanese benevolence, and a Russian occupation notorious for its butchery, Chinese peasants had become a treasure trove of intelligence, enabling the Japanese to stay one step ahead of their lumbering but numerically superior European foe.

“Feed us,” she groaned in guttural tones akin to crumbling parchment.

Tanaka refused to move any further forward. And why should he? He was offering this poor, starving woman a meal, and she couldn’t walk fifty meters to retrieve it?

“If you want a free meal, come get it,” he said.

Before Tanaka could blink, the alabaster woman had bridged the gap between them, her eyes pure white and her teeth, a riot of rotting ivory spikes. Tanaka felt paralyzed. As an officer accustomed to commanding troops, Tanaka hated losing control, and now, he was helpless.

“Feed us!” she growled just before a gust of frigid wind dissolved her haggard form.

Tanaka woke in the morning twilight, blistery-eyed and drained of energy. His inner thighs ached from a long day of riding. A layer of frost covered his wool blanket, and the sweat from his feet had hardened to ice inside his hobnailed boots.

“So you saw the night hag,” a seemingly unimpressed Fu said by the campfire’s dying embers. “You’re lucky you ain’t dead.”

“You saw her too?” Tanaka said, half-surprised Fu didn’t mock him.

“Course not.”

“How’d you know I saw her?”

“I can tell. The dark rings under your eyes. Your face is paler than usual. I’ve heard ‘bout others seen her in these parts. ‘Specially during these times.”

“What do you mean?”

“The pale ladies come ‘round when people die. War, famine, disease. They come callin’.”

Fu seemed to know a lot about something he hadn’t seen. Tanaka began to feel uneasy, as if Fu were hiding something.

“Have you ever met someone who’s seen these women?” Tanaka asked.

“Aye,” Fu said and then winked at Tanaka.

“What happened to them?”

“You’ll see,” Fu said, smirking as he walked away from the campfire and toward his horse.

Tanaka knew that was the best he was going to get from Fu, so Tanaka didn’t push him any further. Instead, Tanaka put on his khaki military tunic, goatskin jerkin, greatcoat, and pistol belt. When he reached for his Murata-to saber, it wasn’t where he’d left it the day prior. But he was certain he hadn’t misplaced it. Someone had to have taken it.

Tanaka panicked. An officer losing his sword, even a lower quality, mass-produced one, would bring dishonor to him, his family, and his unit.

Not wanting to draw attention to the missing weapon, Tanaka wandered over to Fu while Fu was busy saddling his mount. Tanaka stopped and cleared his voice.

Fu ignored him.

“My saber’s missing,” Tanaka whispered, “Have you seen it?”

Fu glanced at Tanaka, smiled, and said, “How should I know? I’m not your saber’s keeper.” He returned to his business, then stopped and looked back at Tanaka as if Fu were about to tell a joke. “Besides, ain’t it a great dishonor to lose your weapon? Wouldn’t you have to commit seppuku? Oh wait, you can’t. You don’t have a blade,” he said, then snickered.

The captain mustered every ounce of discipline he had to avoid unholstering his pistol and shooting the bandit on the spot. “Well if you see it, return it to me. Immediately.”

“Ha ha! Brave little Japanese samurai warrior! I shall indeed,” Fu said an instant before he mounted his horse and headed off toward his band. As Fu rode away, Tanaka noticed a scabbard tucked beneath Fu’s saddle.

“Stop!” Tanaka yelled, but Fu ignored him.

Tanaka pulled out his pistol and discharged a round into the air. If not for the rider’s skill, Fu’s horse would’ve thrown the man from its back. After regaining control of his mount, Fu rode back toward Tanaka.

“Are you crazy, you four-eyed Japanese dog?”

Tanaka stood his ground. “Return my weapon.”

“Are you dense? I already told you I don’t know where it is, little man.”

“Liar. It’s tucked beneath your saddle.” Tanaka made his accusation loud enough for Fu’s men to overhear.

“That’s not your saber. I captured it in a raid,” Fu said.

“Prove it.”

Fu laughed. “How am I ‘sposed to do that? All you Japanese devils carry the same sword.”

“That’s not true. Do you have a man who can read numbers?”

Fu glanced at his men. A large, porcine bandit named Chen nodded. Fu turned back toward Tanaka. “Aye.”

Now Tanaka had him. “Every sword has a stamped serial number near the blade’s base. I’ll present Chen with the appropriate markings. If those markings match the stamp on the saber, I trust you’ll do the honorable thing and return it to me. And I’ll consider it a simple misunderstanding.”

Fu’s furrowed brow and intense glare reminded Tanaka of a cornered rat’s eyes. Fu glanced back at Chen and said, “Do it.” Fu tossed the scabbard onto the ground. Tanaka marched toward the saber. When he arrived, he pulled a small diary and graphite pencil out of his pocket, and scribbled down the serial number.

Chen picked up the scabbard, unsheathed the sword and inspected the stamp. Tanaka tore a sheet out of his diary and handed it to Chen. Chen read the number and then glanced at Fu as if seeking guidance.

Fu nodded.

Chen sheathed the saber and handed it to Tanaka. Tanaka waited for an apology, but Fu just spun his horse around and galloped away. Nothing left to say, Tanaka walked over to his horse, mounted it, and headed toward the band for another day of riding. Now, Tanaka was worried. Nothing good could come of Fu’s losing face in front of his countrymen.

Fu shook Tanaka awake. “Dress quickly!” Fu said, his face glowing in the lantern light, “Cossacks!”

Spurred by the chance to be rid of another necromancer and to resume his mission, Tanaka willed himself out of his fur-lined sleeping bag, dressed, and prepared his horse. He noticed that Fu’s bandits were already awake, alert, and on horseback.

Tanaka rode over to the others, seeking out Fu. “Where are they?”

Fu pointed ahead. “In a ravine about two li that way. About fifteen men.”

“Why don’t I see firelight?”

Fu didn’t hesitate. “Because like the Japanese, the Cossacks are very disciplined.”

Now Tanaka knew Fu was bullshitting. According to his pre-war briefings, the term “disciplined Cossack” was an oxymoron. But for the time being, Tanaka deferred to Fu so as not to inflame an already shaky relationship. “What’s the plan?”

Fu grinned. “You’ll wait here until my bandits kill the Cossacks. We’ll leave the necromancer for you, so you can stab him with your mighty sword,” he said, his voice oozing with sarcasm. “We’ll signal you with this.” Fu held up a metallic whistle suspended from a hemp lanyard around his neck.

Tanaka nodded. Fu and his men trotted into the darkness, while Tanaka waited, shivering.

Shots rang out, followed by screams, then a whistle.

Tanaka led his horse at a canter toward the encampment, now illuminated with fire. As Tanaka spurred his mount into a full gallop, he noticed the wind had stilled.

Several cadaverous hags blocked his path, their gazes mesmerizing him. “Feed us,” they said, their voices a chorus of discordant melodies. In seconds, his horse was on top of, then through them—their ethereal forms disintegrating into oblivion.

Disoriented, Tanaka followed the light of the raging blaze. He rounded a small spur leading into a deep ravine. There, he watched as Fu’s men looted bloody corpses.

Fu was soaking up the fire’s warmth while sitting astride a squirming man-sized burlap sack wrapped in cords of hemp. “Ah, there you are, Tanaka. I’ve bound the necromancer. Why don’t you take out your fancy sword and stab him like you stab your mother with your tiny prick.”

Tanaka bore the insult with grace, but his patience with Fu was running thin. He dismounted his horse, unsheathed his blade, and confronted Fu. “How do you know it’s a necromancer?”

“Boy, I been doing this longer’n you been yanking your twig. Trust me. It’s him.”

Tanaka didn’t sense an inhuman presence inside the man, so he stared at Fu, uncertain what to do, and then said, “Let me see his face.”

“Stupid, fish-fucker. If I show you his eyes, he could hypnotize you. Just cut off his head. Kill ‘em any other way, and a demon can jump into his body. And then you got real problems.”

“Please,” the necromancer pleaded in fluent Japanese, “Let me go!”

Tanaka hesitated.

“He’s just messin’ with ya. He smells fish and rice, so he talks Japanese to trick ya. Kill ‘em quick so he doesn’t cast any spells on us.”

Tanaka opened the sack, locking eyes with a fellow Japanese soldier.

Fu grabbed the man by his hair, dragging him away from Tanaka. With his other hand, Fu covered the Japanese soldiers’ eyes. “What the fuck ya doing, tiny man? That sack needed to be sealed, else that necromancer’s soul escapes and could possess you, me, or anyone else within a tenth of a li. Do it now!”

Then to Tanaka’s horror, he spotted a bandit tossing the Kyokujitsu-ki, Japan’s rising sun flag, into the flames. Fu watched Tanaka. The bandit leader’s eyes gleamed. His left hand gripped the hilt of his knife. The blade rested on the captive’s neck. The soldier stared wide-eyed at Tanaka. In one swift motion, the bandit leader slit the captive’s throat.

“You son of a bitch!” Tanaka said, “You set me up. I almost killed one of my own countrymen. Why?”

Fu blew his whistle and the band surrounded Tanaka. Then Fu said, “Because you’re cursed.”

Tanaka felt a blow to the head.

Tanaka woke beneath a stack of corpses. Frozen blood caked his woolen undergarments in burgundy patches. He was so cold he could barely bend his fingers. He wormed his way out of the pile. The sky was gray, but the light was bright enough that Tanaka judged the sun, hidden above the clouds, was at its apex.

Surrounded by the dead, Tanaka felt utterly and irredeemably defiled. No Shinto priest could purify him now. If he’d had his saber or pistol, he would’ve ended his life.

Then the women appeared. Their razor-sharp teeth marred already twisted faces. Their features contorted in angry rictuses. Their black and gray hair, scattered topsy-turvy on rotting skulls, had the roughshod quality of burlap. They reminded Tanaka of the shikome from ancient myth, Izanami’s fell servants of the underworld.

“Feed us,” they said, pointing west in perfect synchronicity, black, curled nails extending from their index fingers. An instant later, lightning sundered the horizon, punctuated by thunder. The women’s white marble eyes penetrated his thoughts, knowing him for who he truly was. Then one touched him.

Choking in blackness, Tanaka felt death’s void flood into his empty soul, its filth putrefying his frozen form. Then a surge of dark energy animated his cold limbs, breathing a perversion of life into them, instilling a strange otherworldly sense of purpose that Tanaka couldn’t put into words.

In seconds, Tanaka was on his feet, looting a Japanese corpse for its khaki winter uniform under the ghostly hags’ chilling glares.

“Feed us,” they said, before vanishing.

So Tanaka wandered west, meandering through the furrowed rows of a fallow millet field. Soon, he came across of copse of ash trees, where bodies swayed from a makeshift gallows on barren branches. When Tanaka got closer, he discovered the ripped and bloodied corpses of Cossacks hanging over the mangled meat of horse carcasses strewn about the lifeless landscape. From the Cossacks’ wounds, Tanaka figured someone had either shot them in the back or had cut their throats. And he was certain that someone had been Fu.

Fu’s bandits had stripped nearly everything useful from the Cossacks’ corpses, save the belongings of one dead, scarlet bearded man. Tanaka removed the man’s greatcoat and shaggy papaha, hoping it would help Tanaka pass for a Russian.

All Tanaka needed now was a weapon. But if he couldn’t find one, he’d happily kill Fu with his bare hands. Tanaka didn’t care much more for life. The dead had so violated him that his spirit reeked of filth. The only thing that drove him now was his honor, and he would die to preserve it.

As he reached the edge of the millet field, Tanaka ascended a slow rise until he came across railroad tracks littered with human bodies and horse carcasses. Both man and beast had their abdomens splayed open like inverted starfish.

Fu’s bandits.

Tanaka despaired. Unable to avenge his honor, he searched their remains for his saber and pistol. He found both on Fu’s desecrated corpse.

The lightning and strange wounds suddenly reminded Tanaka of the folklore tied to his mother’s superstitions. Legend had it that a raiju favored the comfort of a child’s belly. During electrical storms, it would seek refuge there. To uncover its companion, a raijin would strike children with exposed navels using lightning to drive out the raiju.

But if either demon existed, the folklore had understated their cruelty given the grievous wounds Tanaka had witnessed here. Then he remembered the story of the goddess Izanami. She’d sent both raijin and shikome to capture her husband, Izanagi, after he’d abandoned her rotting form in Yomi, the death realm. When Izanagi had escaped his wife’s minions, Izanami had vowed to claim a thousand lives a day in revenge. In response, Izanagi had promised he’d breathe life into fifteen hundred more.

Tanaka liberated a pale mare from a nearby village. He’d offered to trade a farmer for the horse, but the man had refused, so Tanaka had taken it by force. He regretted such harsh measures, but he’d needed to salvage his reconnaissance mission.

Before Tanaka had left the village, several peasants had reported large concentrations of Imperial Russian troops in the vicinity of Mukden. So Tanaka rode west beyond the railway. Through dark gray clouds, a faint glow traced the sun’s descent below the horizon, ushering in twilight, and with it, a deeper cold. Foreshadowing rain, the clouds released giant flakes of snow instead.

Along the way, Tanaka happened upon a second village. Expecting to find light and heat from warm hearths, he found a raging conflagration in its place. Thatched huts burned, and the smell of cooked meat made Tanaka’s stomach grumble.

As Tanaka ventured away from the fiery homes and into the darkness, he smelled vodka mixed with borsch.

Cossacks!

A shot rang out. A bullet grazed Tanaka’s arm. Tanaka’s mare whinnied. Its forelegs rose, bucking Tanaka. The captain landed hard. The fall knocked the wind out of his lungs.

Russian voices chattered in the murk.

Tanaka scrambled to find cover. But the men, armed with torches and bayonet-tipped Mosin-Nagant rifles, easily found him. Underneath the cover of shaggy black sheepskin papahas, the Cossacks’ curly moustaches accentuated their grimy yellow teeth, a pack of jackals encircling for the kill.

One brute held Tanaka down, while another beat him bloody. Tanaka felt the sharp pain of a broken nose and smashed cheek. The men pounded on Tanaka until blood streamed down his neck, freezing in place. He shuddered as the Cossacks dragged his shattered body toward two crossed railroad ties lying on the snowy ground. They forced Tanaka onto the contraption, his limbs tracing an “X”.

A Cossack grinned, pulled out a hammer and finger-length spike, and nailed Tanaka’s palms and feet to the railroad ties. Each time a nail pierced his flesh, intense stabs of pain coursed through Tanaka’s limbs.

Just when Tanaka couldn’t endure any more suffering, the yelping Cossacks hoisted the structure up, propping it against a small hut. Supported only by the nails driven into his hands and feet, Tanaka struggled to breathe.

The men mocked Tanaka and chortled as he cried. Yet, Tanaka accepted his fate. Better to die in the cold Manchurian wilderness than to live and dishonor his family. Tanaka lowered his head and prepared to die.

“Feed us.”

The ghostly hags glided through the cackling Cossacks with an eerie preternatural grace, their shredded gossamer gowns dancing in the darkness.

No matter how much the hags twisted and whirled, the Cossacks paid them no mind. The men just laughed and drank themselves into a stupor.

The old crones smiled, their needle-fine teeth glinting in the moonlight. Tanaka heard a faint beat in the gloom, crescendoing until it was so intense, it stirred the Cossacks from their torpor.

Boom-dada-boom-dada-boom-boom-boom!

The Cossacks loaded their bolt-action rifles. Several ventured toward the drumbeat.

Then the pale hags pointed toward its source. A lightning bolt struck the ground, punctuated by thunder. For a split second, Tanaka saw something lurking beneath the lightning.

A man shrieked.

The crones pointed again. Lightning flashed, revealing a gnarled squat thing about twice the size of a man, its arms the thickness of tree trunks. Scores of twisted goat horns crowned its skull. A misshapen perversion of man and beast, it had the muzzle of a horse, a snake’s eyes, a boar’s tusks, and a mess of bony ridges on its face.

Lightning struck again. Tanaka watched as the thing eviscerated a man in one blow. Its claws tossed the man’s innards. Something else scurried out of the Cossack’s steaming guts when they hit the ground. The small creature’s compound eyes, scales, and stubby legs reminded Tanaka of a twisted chimera of insect, crab, and reptile. Its pincers gnawed on the dead man’s viscera.

The storm continued into the night until Tanaka was the only survivor. The others lay dead, their bellies splayed open in the same manner as the other desecrated corpses he’d found along Southern Manchurian Railway.

When the storm ended, the spectral hags floated toward Tanaka, hovering over the ground at his eye level. One laid her hands on his, removing the nails binding him to the wooden structure. She lowered him to the ground, put her hands on his forehead and granted him a vision.

In his mind’s eye, Tanaka beheld the railroad tracks of the Southern Manchurian Railway cleaving the bleak landscape, running northeast. Frozen rivers bisected the rail line at various points running from south to north. A network of trenches scarred the desolate plain in a defensive line from west to east, just south of a tributary Tanaka recognized as the Sha River. To the north lay a second river, the Hun, and beyond the Hun, a town.

Mukden.

Like a hawk, Tanaka focused his mystical vision on specific areas of the battlefield, observing the guidons and banners of individual units. He found himself outside time and viewed the Russians’ positions with total clarity.

Just as quickly as his vision began, it ended, and Tanaka found himself lying on the cold soil just before morning twilight, surrounded by mutilated corpses. The white hags watched him.

“Feed us,” they said, before dissolving into the ether.

While the ghost women had vanished, Tanaka’s perfect knowledge remained, and he was giddy with the chance to restore his honor.

As he surveyed the carnage, everything around him was dead save for his pale horse tethered to the crossed railroad ties. Strangely, he felt neither warm nor cold, and he could no longer see his frosty breath.

Tanaka wondered why the raijin and raiju had spared him and his mare. But ultimately, he decided it was pointless dwelling on such abstract and arcane notions. He had more pressing concerns like delivering his intelligence to General Nogi. Tanaka climbed on his mount and headed west toward Third Army.

Tanaka had ridden all day and night to reach Third Army’s field headquarters. Like iron filings to a lodestone, he quickly sought out and found General Nogi Maresuke’s banner rippling above a simple canvas field tent.

The general was a man of contrasts bridging tradition and modernity. A samurai’s son, he’d fought to put the samurai down during the Satsuma Rebellion. When the enemy had captured his regiment’s banner, he’d fought with suicidal bravery to recover it until his commanders had ordered him to stop. Losing a banner in combat was a terrible shame for any officer. Were it not for the Emperor’s forgiveness, General Nogi would not have survived to capture Port Arthur from the Chinese in 1894, and from the Russians in early 1905.

When Tanaka approached the elderly general, the man’s eyes cast a sad, pensive look. The general averted Tanaka’s gaze and looked toward the horizon. “It’s not natural for a father to outlive his sons,” he said.

Tanaka didn’t know how to respond to the general’s frank expression of emotion, and he wanted desperately to comfort the general. Everyone in the Imperial Army had made heroic sacrifices in this war, but General Nogi had lost more than most. Both his sons had died in this war; one in the Battle of Nanshan, and the other in the fanatical assault on Port Arthur’s Hill 203. Tanaka had great respect for the old man, and would not begrudge him his moment of grief.

General Nogi turned, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You look awfully pale, Tanaka-kun. And it seems your face has taken a beating. I’m happy to see you’re still alive.” He paused for a moment and then said, “What news have you from Unit 108?”

Tanaka bowed to his commander. “Nogi-sama, may I borrow a map?”

“Myake-kun!” the general yelled. A soldier materialized as if by magic, and produced one. The general handed it to Tanaka. Tanaka traced several symbols on the map representing Imperial Russian units down to the regimental level.

Nogi’s eyes widened. “How did you come upon such detail? We haven’t been able to get anyone that close to the Russians, especially in the center of the front. There must be several hundred thousand men there.”

“A shade over three hundred and forty thousand,” Tanaka said before realizing that his supreme confidence must’ve sounded odd to Nogi. After all, it was implausible that one man could single-handedly obtain such detailed and far-ranging intelligence.

Nogi stared at the map. He then pulled out a small book from his cargo pocket, cross-referencing it against Tanaka’s drawings. After several minutes, the general glanced up at Tanaka. “What you’ve shown me is consistent with much of the detail we have. How were you able to gather this intelligence?”

Tanaka nearly told Nogi the truth, but quickly decided against it for the general would never believe him. Instead, he lied. “I could cover quite a bit more ground disguised as a bandit.”

Nogi’s eyes focused on Tanaka’s as if the elderly general were probing for some hint of deception. But Tanaka held firm. Nogi nodded. “Excellent work, Tanaka-kun. I’ll ensure you’re properly recognized for your efforts. Dismissed.”

Tanaka saluted. Nogi returned the salute. Tanaka spun on his heels and made to exit the general’s field tent.

“Wait,” Nogi said, “Come back.”

Tanaka turned and walked back inside. The general smiled. “I’d like to shake your hand,” Nogi said, extending his arm.

Tanaka gripped the general’s hand. Nogi’s broad smile crumbled. His brows furrowed. “Your…hand, it’s ice cold.”

Then, with a deep foreboding, Tanaka withdrew his hand and lifted his tunic, exposing his abdomen. Nogi’s face twisted into a grimace. When Tanaka touched his belly, it was splayed open in the manner of raijin’s victims.

The instant Tanaka realized what he’d become, his corpse collapsed inside the general’s field tent. His grim task completed, he passed through death’s veil into Yomi, where his body would rot for eternity.

Over the next several weeks, tens of thousands of souls would join him, feeding Izanami’s insatiable hunger on an industrial scale as the Russians and Japanese invented new, more efficient ways of killing.

 

 

END

This story originally appeared in Weirdbook.


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