From the author: Demon-hunting samurai Shintaro Oba comes to Cripple Mountain seeking the horrifying monster that haunts its desolate slopes, but the gashadokuro is far from the only danger that awaits him there.
The Rotten Bones Rattle
C. L. Werner
Cold as the wintry breath of the northern sea, thick as strands of gossamer, gray fog rolled down the wooded slopes, shrouding all in its spectral mantle. Trees, thin as rails and crooked as the fingers of a crone, leered from the misty shadows. Jagged slivers of shale jutted up from the desiccated ground like daggers of stone, their crumbling surfaces pitted by the elements and hoary with age. Thorny brambles squatted in the blinding murk, their spindly roots enjoying only the most fragile purchase in the rocky soil, their scrawny branches splayed like the claws of jungle beasts, waiting for whatever hapless prey might stumble into their coils.
A lone figure picked his way through the forsaken landscape, stalking past the thorn-ridden bushes and sickly trees. Fog swirled about the traveler as his dark shape drifted through the trees. His was an imposing visage; a tall man of pantherish build, his body encased in thick scales and plates of iron, overlapping to form a skin of metal that covered him from crown to shin. Beneath the bright red sash that girded his waist, two swords were thrust. The hilt of the smaller sword, a fang-like wakizashi, was brilliant even in the gloomy fog, a sea of small sapphires upon which tiny ships of gold rode an endless tide. The slender uchigatana was shabby beside its opulent companion, its sheath of sandal-wood marked only with fading paint, its hilt fashioned from a worn knob of bone.
The samurai’s careful passage through the fog-draped trees came to a sudden halt. His hand fell to the horn hilt of his uchigatana, fingers closing about the worn bone with practiced familiarity. His keen eyes stared long at the gray veil, as though the mind behind them could force the misty shadows to surrender its secrets. Slowly, with creeping step, the warrior moved forward again. A flicker of satisfaction showed on his face as an orange glow appeared behind the fog, the faintest suggestion of flickering light somewhere ahead of him in the murk. He stood once again in silence, training his senses on the hidden light, peeling his ears for the faintest sound.
For many minutes he stood and listened, listened to the muted sounds of coarse laughter and harsh voices. After a time, a flicker of smile reappeared on the samurai’s face and he made his way forward once more. Now his steps were casual, his poise one of confidence and unconcern. Only the fingers still wrapped about the hilt of his sword told of the wariness that yet ruled the warrior’s mind.
By degrees, the orange glow revealed itself as a campfire. Scattered about it were five men and a woman. The men were scarred and ragged, their armor stained by both hardship and neglect, their swords a motley collection of katana and heavy tachi. The faces of the men were as motley as their weapons, unkempt and cruel. They betrayed too mongrel a collection of feature and tone to belong to any proper daimyo’s retinue. As he emerged from the fog and strode into their midst, their reaction to the stranger was sloppy and disorganized, far from the drill and discipline of bushido.
The samurai ignored the cursing warriors as they stumbled to their feet, discarded bottles of sake to fumble at the weapons strewn beside them on the ground. He swept his gaze across the little camp, noting the bundles of supplies, the bed rolls and woolen tents.
The samurai crouched down beside the campfire, seeming to focus his attention on the iron pot boiling above the flame.
“Black Gods of Vuthoom’s Abyss!” swore one of the warriors, a short man with pronounced paunch and flabby cheeks. He drew his sword, threatening the stranger with the edge of his tachi.
“If I meant you ill,” the stranger said, his voice without emotion, his eyes never leaving the boiling pot, “I should have killed three of you before ever you saw me come in from the fog.”
“Listen to the pig boast!” snorted a second warrior, his long face split by the gray streak of an ugly smite.
“He wouldn’t be in any condition to boast if you scum were keeping watch!” roared a third, his pock-marked features as sharp as the face of a rat. “We are lucky half of Torohata’s army didn’t roll into camp!”
“They still might,” the stranger at the fire said, lifting a clay bowl from the ground and dipping it into the pot.
“Nethers of the Snake God!” hissed a fourth warrior, a tall man with a battered helm strapped about his small head. He spun about, glaring at his fellows. “Jiro! Ogata! See if there are more where this pig came from!” He turned back to the samurai, baring his teeth in an ugly snarl. “You had best tell us where your friends are. You won’t collect any gold from Torohata if you are dead!”
“I should not think he is one of Torohata’s men.” The statement came from the fifth warrior. Unlike the others, he had not jumped to his feet when the samurai entered their camp. He continued to lounge on his belly, resting on a nest of blankets while a woman kneaded the muscles of his naked back with her slender hands. The samurai had noticed the man in his quick inspection of the camp. There was a stamp of cruelty and evil about him far beyond the simple stupid brutality of his comrades. The fact that he remained indolent while the others swaggered and threatened spoke of a calculating and analytical mind that chose its battles with only the greatest care.
The other warriors did not relax their guard, keeping their blades turned upon the man by the fire, but the words of their comrade had thrown some confusion into their minds. “Why do you say that, Hanzo?” demanded the rat-faced Ogata.
Hanzo lifted himself onto his elbows, a snide smile on his cruel face. He brushed aside the slim hands of the girl tending him, shoving her away. He fixed his menacing eyes on the crouching samurai. He waited for the stranger to return his notice, but the samurai seemed entirely focused upon the noodles he slurped from his bowl. Irritated by the stranger’s refusal to respond, Hanzo pointed at the man’s armor.
“The scroll-work on his gusoko,” Hanzo said. “That is the work of the Sekigahara clan. The sword he carries is called Koumakiri – the demon blade of Sekigahara. Even Mako Torohata would not hire ronin from a clan with a curse upon it!”
“I am no ronin,” remarked the samurai in a low voice, though keeping his eyes still upon the fire. “Unlike some I might name.”
The five warriors bristled at the scornful note in the samurai’s tone. “We serve the lord Takegashi Shiro as well as any born into his clan!” snarled the short ronin.
“And for better money than some house-kept paper-tiger,” sneered Ogata.
“A samurai understands that honor is a nobler coin than gold,” the samurai said. “Tell me how much honor you have found wandering from one master to another.”
“Who do you call master?” challenged Hanzo, sliding forward on his blanket. “The Sekigahara clan is no more; its line has been scoured from the kingdoms of Mu-Thulan that its curse might die with it.”
The samurai turned, facing Hanzo for the first time. He straightened his back, lifting his head, presenting himself as though within the great hall of a daimyo. “I am Shintaro Oba and I serve Lord Sekigahara Katakura.”
“Katakura is dead!” scoffed Hanzo. His head hangs from the Shogun’s palace in Iwaza and his bones feed the crows! Samurai! Hah! You are nothing more than ronin, like the rest of us!”
Oba did not rise to Hanzo’s baiting, but turned and began to eat once more.
“Say!” exclaimed the rat-faced Ogata. “If you are ronin, perhaps you could use work?” He crouched down beside the samurai, leering at him from above the boiling pot. “They say the Sekigahara clan were all master swordsmen, even before your lord sold his soul to demons.” Ogata laughed. “You must be one of the best of the clan to have fought your way out of your lord’s castle when Shogun Yoshinaga laid siege upon it! I am sure Lord Shiro could use a man like you and he pays well.”
“I have heard much of this Takegashi in my travels, and even more of his enemy Torohata,” Oba answered. “A worse pair of villains this side of hell would be hard to find outside of the Shogun’s palace.”
The words caused the ronin to back away, his sword once again leveled menacingly at Oba. The other mercenaries began to circle around the crouching samurai while the lounging Hanzo furtively slid his hands into the folds of cloth underneath him.
“You refuse!” Ogata snapped. “You think perhaps Torohata will give you a better deal!”
Before Ogata could continue his tirade, his head leaped from his shoulders and crashed into the pot amid a sizzle of boiling broth. In one fluid motion, Oba had risen from beside the fire, drawn his sword and decapitated the raging mercenary.
The lightning-fast blur of violence and the death of their comrade had not registered in the minds of the other ronin before Oba’s body was in motion once more. Spinning about, he slashed the edge of his uchigatana through the belly of the scar-faced ronin, slicing through armor and flesh as though it were butter. The ronin’s body folded in upon itself, cut through nearly to its spin.
The others reacted now. The small, fat mercenary chopped at Oba with his tachi, but the heavy cavalry sword only cut empty air as the samurai twisted from its path. His own sword caught the ronin at the elbow, sending both arm and the blade it held flopping to the earth. A second stroke opened the wailing man from shoulder to groin and he collapsed in a gory heap.
The ronin with the helm came at Oba while he cut down the short mercenary. Snarling like a beast, the man brought his katana flashing at the samurai’s neck, thinking to decapitate his enemy as he had done to Ogata. Oba ducked beneath the stroke, kicking out with his steel-toed boot and smashing the ronin’s leg just above the knee. The mercenary gasped in pain. He had continued to wear his kabuto, but for the sake of comfort he had removed the awkward haidate skirt that should have protected his thighs and upper legs. Now he staggered from the bruising impact against his unguarded flesh.
Oba pounced upon the surprised ronin like a tiger upon a lamb. His uchigatana was a blinding flash of steel as it swept through the ronin’s breast, the razor-like edge chewing through his armor and ravaging the body within. The stricken man swayed drunkenly, then crumpled onto his knees before sprawling face-first against the rocky ground.
Oba did not watch his enemy fall, however. Certain of the mortal wound he had delivered, he was already spinning about to meet a new enemy. He had not forgotten the lounging Hanzo and his so careful motions of his hands.
The samurai was surprised to find Hanzo staring up at the sky, his throat slit from ear to ear, his feet still drumming upon the ground as life fled his carcass. Close to his now lifeless hand was a hollow tube of bamboo and a long copper needle tipped in noxious green paste.
Oba studied his dead enemy for only a second, then lifted his eyes to the man’s slayer. He had almost dismissed the woman from his thoughts. By her cheap dress and servile manner, he had taken her to be a comfort girl provided by Takegashi for the sentries. Now he stared in disbelief at the woman he had so casually forgotten.
She was of striking beauty, a quality that had lent itself to her performance. Now, however, with her docile mien discarded like the old skin of a snake, Oba could see the coiled strength in her shapely limbs, the sharp cunning beneath her pretty face. Hers was the terrible strength of the fox and the minx, to hide her lethal menace within grace and delicacy. The effect was only slightly ruined by the blood dripping from the knife in her hand and the hideously pleased gleam in her jade eyes.
Oba nodded his head to the woman. “Many thanks,” he said, gesturing at the dead Hanzo and the sinister weapon he had been prevented from using. “Even for a ronin, to use the poison of the nata spider is an honorless trick.” He removed a strip of silk from beneath his belt and ran the rag along the length of his sword, cleansing the blade of mercenary blood. When he had finished, he tossed the stained rag aside, but made no move to return his sword to its sheath.
The woman smiled at him, an expression at once both coy and mocking. “Surely you are not afraid of a girl?”
Oba grinned back. “The one they called Hanzo wasn’t wary of you. That was his last mistake. It is unwise to take your eyes off a ninja.”
The woman’s body became tense, her hand tightening about the grip of her knife, her eyes narrowing to the merest points. Challenge and anger rose to the surface of those glaring pools, the fury of a reptile dragged out from its dark cave to be scrutinized in the cold light of day.
“Don’t bother to deny it,” Oba told her before she could speak. “You didn’t kill him by cutting his throat. Too sloppy. A stab between the ribs and straight into the heart. The Kokuryu clan kills its victims in that fashion. Slitting his throat was to make it look like the work of a hapless comfort girl.” Oba’s voice dropped its casual tone, becoming low and menacing. “Why is the Kokuryu clan here? Are you working for Torohata?”
The ninja smirked. In an almost blinding flash of motion, she sent her knife flying at Oba’s throat. Almost as quickly, Oba raised his sword to intercept the deadly missile. The knife glanced off the edge of the blade with a sharp ping, clattering off to be lost in the fog. The samurai swung around, but the woman had made good use of his distraction. She had leaped back, her hands quickly digging through a sack of rice to retrieve the blackened length of a wakizashi. She dropped into a battle stance as soon as the shortsword filled her slender hands.
“Shintaro Oba, of the Sekigahara clan,” the woman said, confidence in her voice. “You have come far to die alone. Better you had done your duty and died with your master.”
“I have no intention of dying and the duty my master demanded of me made it impossible to perish with him defying the Shogun’s tyranny,” Oba replied in a growl. “Whatever your quarrel with Takegashi, or Torohata for that matter, I have no part in it. I did not come to Cripple Mountain to kill men. I came here to kill a monster.”
The woman stared at Oba, trying to decide if the samurai spoke the truth. The grim resignation she saw in his features made her decide that no deceit hid in his words. Carefully, with slow deliberateness, she returned her blade to its oversized sheath and set it down on the ground, then knelt beside it.
“I have no intention of dying either,” she told him. “Looking at you, I find myself doubting my own ability. And I believe you when you say you do not serve Takegashi. Killing his ronin made that abundantly clear.”
“Then the Kokuryu clan is helping Torohata?”
By way of reply, the woman bowed her head, almost touching her nose to the ground. “I am Yasune Meiko,” she said. “If you have truly come to slay the monster, I will guide you to its lair.”
Meiko led Oba up the steep slope of the mountainside. The fog grew thinner the higher they climbed, clearly exposing the wasted, blighted nature of the forested slopes. The trees were utterly denuded of foliage, their limbs dangling in the air like skeletal talons, their trunks pitted and splintered. Strange black burns spotted the wood, marks that looked somehow too unclean to be the work of lightning or fire. Slivers of bark jutted from the muddy ground like stakes, and it did not ease Oba’s mind to see skeletons draped across some of the wooden spikes, half-buried in the greasy black mud of the mountain. He stopped counting after his sharp eyes picked out their tenth skeleton poking from the mud.
Ten skeletons, and not a skull among them.
“The monster’s work?” Oba asked his guide, pointing to the eleventh skeleton.
Meiko nodded grimly. “The gashadokuro eats only the heads of those who trespass upon its mountain,” she told him.
Oba stepped over to the body. He leaned down and ran his glove through the mud, soon uncovering a badly rusted maebashi. He held the steel visor up, flicking clumps of dirt from it. “This belonged to a samurai,” he said.
“Cripple Mountain has long been contested by Torohata and Takegashi,” Meiko told him. Even the presence of the monster has not stopped their feud.”
Oba let the visor fall from his hand to join its headless owner in the mud. “No,” he said. “I don’t think even the most vainglorious lord would choose a monster’s hunting ground for his battle. There is something more behind all of this.” His eyes narrowed as he saw the deliberate, masklike expression that spread across Meiko’s face. Her hands were hidden within the sleeves of her kimono, but Oba thought he could see the slightest hint of motion beneath the cloth.
The samurai lifted his hand in apology. “What they really want, does not concern me,” he told the ninja. “I am here to find and kill the monster. That is all that concerns me.”
Meiko’s expression remained impassive, but Oba sensed a lessening of the dangerous tension within her. The ninja held some secret, something she would kill to protect. What puzzled him was why she hadn’t already tried to kill him.
The petite woman turned away, walking with uncanny grace up the steep, muddy ground. “How much do you know of Cripple Mountain?” she asked him.
“I know that in my grandfather’s grandfather’s time, it was called Frosthome and the Doro Emperor built his summer palace upon its summit.” Oba struggled to keep pace with Meiko, cursing the rough terrain.
“The Doro Emperor offended the gods of the mountain and in their rage they sent the fires of the earth dragon to consume his household. The palace was destroyed, the summit of Frosthome scattered into the winds. Five hundred feet of mountain vanished in the blink of an eye and when the earth dragon’s smoke faded, Frosthome had become Cripple Mountain.”
Oba leaned against the trunk of a splintered tree, staring hard at the haunted, hideous landscape. “There are some who say the Doyen Kato sent demons to destroy the Doro Emperor and that they still dwell upon the mountain.”
Meiko favored the samurai with another of her frustratingly enigmatic smiles. “I should trust a member of the Sekigahara clan to know about demons.”
Oba felt his blood boil at the barb. He tightened his hand about the hilt of his sword, glaring at the ninja. “I know enough to never listen to the promise of a demon. My lord learned the peril only too late. The Sekigahara owed their power to a pact they had made with a demon king. They would prosper, but only at the cost of the soul of the clan leader when he died. The lords of the clan were smarter than the demon, father always passing leadership of the clan to his son well before he died so that the debt would pass on to the next generation. For centuries, the trick worked and the souls of Sekigahara did not pass through Kimon, the demons’ gate.”
The samurai shook his head and ground his teeth, remembering the siege of his lord’s castle, remembering the arrow that struck down Katakura’s son. “My master was not able to pass lordship of the Sekigahara clan to another of his blood. When he died, his soul was forfeit to the demon. The last duty he charged me with was to track down this demon and force it to free his spirit.”
So lost in the coils of shame and guilt had Oba been during his account of his clan’s doom, he had allowed his carefully maintained caution to slip. Now, as he freed himself from memory’s snare, he noted the sound of horses galloping up the slope from below. Meiko heard them too, he could see that, and she had probably heard them well before he did, drawing him into an angry explanation of his clan’s shame to distract him from the approaching peril.
Meiko smirked and darted for the trees. Oba lunged after her, no longer feigning the clumsiness that had allowed her to so easily distance him during the climb up. The ninja quickly reached for the knives hidden in the sleeves of her robe, but Oba was quicker still, pinning her arms and crushing her lithe body against his. He held the edge of his uchigatana against her throat, then turned with her so that they could both watch the horsemen emerge from the fog.
There were at least a dozen of them, the sashimono banners fluttering from their backs emblazoned with the characters of the Torohata clan. No ronin, but household samurai of Mako Torohata. Oba doubted if they were a simple patrol. There was some purpose in their riding into the forest and he had a feeling he held that purpose in his arms.
“Your friends have come to escort you home,” Oba hissed in the ninja’s ear. “Call out to them. I will negotiate your release. All they need do is leave me alone to find the monster and they can have their assassin back.”
Meiko’s eyes were filled with scorn. “If they find us here, they will kill us both,” she told him. “My clan does not serve Torohata anymore than we serve Takegashi. The samurai are hunting for the man who stole certain papers from their master’s castle.”
Oba watched the riders as they came closer. Clearly they were following the trail he and the woman had left. “The thief was another of your clan?”
“There are too many for you to face alone,” Meiko stated.
Oba laughed. “Oh no! At least with them I know my wounds will be—”
The samurai got no further. A horrible ringing suddenly struck him, like the buzz of a beehive sounding inside his ears. The weird sound overwhelmed him, his grip on the ninja slackened and like an eel she instantly writhed free of his grasp. Oba shook his head, struggling to focus his eyes. He started to rush after her. The sound of terrified horses and frightened men from the slope below told him he could ignore the horsemen for a time. The ninja was his immediate problem.
Even as he made to rush after the fleeing fugitive, Oba froze. Meiko had not fled more than a few paces away. Now she stood as still and silent as one of the barren trees. Her face ashen, her eyes lifted – even the ninja could not hide the fear she felt.
Oba lifted his own eyes, following the direction of her gaze. Suspended in the fog, some distance above the trees, two immense blue lights burned like bonfires. He could see the eerie flames flicker and sway, shuddering strangely through the fog. There was a peculiar uniformity in the way they moved, but it was only when he felt the ground beneath his feet shudder and heard the crash of some great weight driving against the earth that he understood why the fires lurched and danced in such a manner. They were not fires, at least not true fires. They were eyes, eyes glowing from the face of some immense creature. The eyes of the gashadokuro, the monster of Cripple Mountain!
The sound of the horsemen trying to recover control of their frightened steeds came as a distant murmur to Oba’s ears. His head pounded with the persistent, unnatural buzzing noise, his body trembled with the booming footfalls of the gashadokuro, his eyes were locked only on the immense shape striding through the fog, snapping trees as though they were twigs. He could see the shadowy outline of the monster’s body through the mist, a gigantic man-like shape. He forced himself to look away from the monster, glancing instead at the ninja. Meiko’s face was twisted with a terrific concentration, her scheming mind fighting back the fear evoked by the gashadokuro. Oba could see her move, move with such slowness that almost he thought he imagined the motion. She was creeping away, by inches, carefully retreating from the path of the monster’s advance.
The crack of a tree toppling beneath the press of a titanic foot tore Oba’s attention away from Meiko’s strangely lethargic escape. His eyes returned to the shadow looming in the mist just as it emerged from behind the fog. The samurai’s breath wheezed through slackened lips like an icy wind.
Legends held that the gashadokuro was a giant skeleton, animated by fell magic and fell deeds. Myth and folktale did not prepare Oba for the horror they clothed. It was gigantic, fifty-feet at its bony shoulders, each withered arm longer than a ship’s mast. The hands that swung from each arm were big enough to crush an ox and each finger ended in a blackened talon wider than the head of an axe and thicker than a man’s skull. Each bone of the gashadokuro’s skeleton shape was held against the next by a thin glow of blue fire. Oba noted that the bones were not simply those of a man swollen to colossal size, but each was formed of dozens – hundreds – of normal sized bones that had melted and fused together in some unholy fashion. Each finger was a bundle of smaller bones knitted together, each rib was a swarm of normal ribs bound to each other. Atop it all was the monster’s head, a leering skull as big as a peasant’s hut, its teeth sharp and long like the fangs of a wolf. From the pits of its sockets, the blue fires danced and writhed, swirling with a dull intelligence both inhuman and malevolent.
The gashadokuro swung its head from side to side, its bony countenance somehow conveying an attitude of terrible observation, the stalking maliciousness of a hunter in search of prey. It took every scrap of strength he could muster for Oba to look away from the monster, to stare at the retreating Meiko. She had moved, there was no question of it now, but she had not gone far. The samurai could see the sheen of fear-sweat dripping from the ninja’s face, the eyes that had almost faded into blind mad panic. Still she maintained her control, moving only by inches and degrees.
Oba swung his head back around to the monster. Instantly the lurching horror snapped its enormity around, bending down, its skull glaring down at him. Oba’s hand closed about the hilt of his uchigatana, but the samurai fought back the instinct to draw his blade. Something about the way the monster moved gave him pause, and he thought of Meiko and her slow fade from the gashadokuro’s path. Every muscle in the samurai’s body froze, even the rise and fall of his chest became only the shallowest suggestion of motion. The grinning skull of the gashadokuro swung from side to side, its bonfire eyes staring down, blindly groping for what had been seen and lost.
The samurai could feel a crawl of terror tingling up his spine as the monster persisted in its eerie search. Though it towered only a few yards from him, the gashadokuro seemed unable to see him. That it knew he was there, Oba could not doubt, but the gruesome horror’s blazing eyes were impotent to find him. The samurai did not question whatever magical deceit hid him now from the monster. All that concerned him was how long it would search and how long he could endure the closeness of its abhorrent presence. Oba knew that only his lack of motion kept him safe, a secret he had discerned from observing Meiko. Like a great river toad, the gashadokuro’s sight depended upon motion; whatever did not move was invisible to it. But he did not know how long he could maintain his rigid, self-imposed paralysis; how long he could fight down the urge to claw the spectral buzzing from his brain.
The gashadokuro’s skull continued to sway from side to side, its actions almost mechanical in repetition. The monster knew it had seen something and its persistence was that of a demon spat from the Gate of Kimon.
Just as Oba thought he could endure no more, he heard a scream from the slope below. The gashadokuro also heard the cry, its towering body snapping upright as though it were hinged. More cries sounded and the monster took a shuddering step. Oba heard a shouted command and then the hiss of arrows flying through the fog. The missiles clattered like so many sticks against the gray bones of the gashadokuro, glancing from its body in every direction. Torohata’s men had discovered the gashadokuro and sprung to the attack.
And in so doing, sealed their doom.
The gashadokuro stomped forward, each step causing the earth to tremble. Oba maintained his rigid pose, not daring even to blink as the skeletal horror thundered toward him. So near did it pass, that a bony ankle brushed against the samurai’s cheek, drawing a bead of blood from his face as its sandy roughness grated past. Fear roared in Oba’s mind as he wondered if the smell of blood would announce him to the monster. The renewed screams of Torohata’s horsemen made it clear that the gashadokuro sought larger prey.
Through sheer force of will, Oba spun his body around, listening to the sounds of desperate combat raging below him on the slope. Through the thinning fog, he could see the horsemen charging around the gashadokuro, jabbing at its bony flanks with spears, slashing at its skeletal shins with katanas. The monster paid no notice to these feeble hurts, but instead reached down with its ghastly claws. A man screamed, the sound terminating in a gargled wail as his steel kabuto was ripped away, taking with it the head within. Like a glutton with a sweetmeat, the gashadokuro popped the gory trophy into its fanged mouth.
Oba did not wait to see more. Torohata’s men were helpless to harm the gashadokuro, that much was clear to him, and whatever distraction they offered for the monster was not going to be a long one. Cold determination flared within the samurai’s soul and he drew his sword, glaring back down the slope. He did not know the name or the shape of the demon that had enslaved his lord, so it was possible the gashadokuro was that beast of Kimon. That possibility had drawn Oba to Cripple Mountain for it was one he could not ignore.
The samurai took a step toward the melee. Such a chance to attack the monster while it was unaware might never come again. Suddenly he remembered Meiko. A glance found the ninja near the edge of the trees, shuffling her body closer with each sliding slither of her feet. Not daring to turn and watch the monster, the ninja could not see the gashadokuro’s battle, nor be certain that its attention was fixed down slope.
The woman decided Oba’s course of action. Meiko knew the secrets of the monster; if there was a way to destroy it, she would know. It was no dishonor to die fighting the gashadokuro, but to fall without accomplishing his mission and freeing his lord’s spirit was a shame Oba could not accept. With quick strides, each step threatening to explode his heart with fear, Oba rushed at the ninja. His strong arms coiled about her, pinning her hands and pulling her to him. Meiko started to scream, then bit down on her lip to stifle the sound.
“I think we should talk,” Oba hissed in her ear. “And if I do not like your answers, you will wish I had left you to the monster!”
His threat made, Oba pulled the woman with him into the fog. Behind them, the death-cries of Torohata’s men pierced the night.
Throughout the night, Oba drove his prisoner onward, not daring to rest until the gashadokuro and its slaughter of the Torohata samurai was far behind them. He had paused several times along the way to frisk Meiko’s kimono. Secreted weapons littered their trail through the haunted forest: a score of needle-thin shuriken, half a dozen knives of all shape and size, a thin blowpipe that made the late Hanzo’s weapon look as cumbersome as a siege engine, five egg-shaped bombs filled with the gods alone knew what kind of foulness, and a coil of hair-thin copper Meiko had worn wound through her hair, an innocent hiding place for a strangler’s cord. Along with her ninjato, the cruelly edged shortsword. Oba was confident the woman was unarmed now, but was prudent enough to still check whenever they stopped to catch their breath.
During one rest-stop, with the sun just peering out from behind the clouds and the gray fog withering into nothingness from its heat, Oba sat his captive down upon the splintered trunk of a tree that had suffered from the attentions of the gashadokuro. His stern eyes were pitiless in his scrutiny of Meiko’s disheveled appearance. Her hair hung in loose coils after his rough extraction of the copper garrote, her kimono was torn and tattered from the rough travel up the slope of Cripple Mountain, her face was stained with mud from the many times she had pitched to the ground or crashed against a tree in the dark. Oba might have been moved to pity the woman’s discomfort if he were not already familiar with her cunning and deceitful mind. A man who felt sympathy for a ninja was almost as big a fool as the one who trusted a ninja.
“What is the Kokuryu clan doing on Cripple Mountain?” Oba asked without preamble.
Meiko glared at him, her lips curled with defiance. Oba smiled back at her, his face as cold as a winter lake. “Keep your tongue then,” he said. “We will just wait here for the monster. When he shows up, we’ll see how still you can stay with me throwing rocks at your pretty head.”
Color drained from Meiko’s face. She licked at her lips, glancing anxiously at the gaunt, barren trees all around them. “I cannot tell you,” she said, her voice a whisper. “But I can show you.”
Oba laughed. “None of your tricks, you’ll tell me what your clan is doing here and how much it knows about the monster. You should understand I mean every word of my threat.”
The sharp cry of some animal in the darkness of the forest made Meiko’s eyes go wide with fright. She threw herself down from the log, groveling at the samurai’s feet. “Do not leave me to the gashadokuro!” she pleaded. “I will tell you what you want to know. Has it not struck you strange that Takegashi and Torohata struggle so for possession of this accursed mountain? It is because there is gold within the broken peak! Wealth enough to awe even the Shogun! That is what the lords fight for and why they dare the wrath of the monster!”
Oba stepped back from the ninja’s clinging arms, glancing suspiciously at the dark forest around them, listening to its brooding silence. “I see now. The Kokuryu clan is stealing the gold out from under the noses of the lords, using the monster to keep their armies off the mountain.” He laughed bitterly. “Only the crooked mind of a ninja would conceive such a scheme!”
Meiko scowled at him, lifting herself from the ground. “The plan is that of the Shogun,” she hissed.
Hate flared in Oba’s eyes, old hate fueled by guilt and shame. “Then I have two duties to perform ere I leave Cripple Mountain. First to kill the monster, second to keep that bloated spider Yoshinaga from getting even more fat off the mountain’s gold.” He looked again at the blackened forest, suspicious eyes studying every tree and rock.
“We should be moving,” Oba said. “I don’t trust this place. Take me to this mine of yours, then we will discuss how to kill the monster.”
Meiko snarled at Oba, lunging for him. The samurai easily sidestepped and the ninja fell into the mud, spattering her face with grime and muck.
“If you are through playing, I am anxious to be moving on,” Oba told her.
The ninja mustered what dignity her dripping face allowed her and glared at Oba. Slowly she turned, picking a path between the trees. The samurai followed close behind, just far enough away to draw his uchigatana should the ninja make a more serious attempt at violence.
He did not notice the little mark Meiko had scratched in the mud when she fell, the little symbol that was so very similar to the ones she had left all along their trail.
True to Meiko’s word, they found the mine situated at the very summit upon a jagged plateau of shattered rock and mangled earth, vivid testimony to the fury that had destroyed Frosthome’s peak. Yet all was not lifeless upon the broken summit. Oba was surprised to see the buildings of a village sprawled below him as he reached the lip of the crater-like expanse at the top of the mountain. He could see men moving among the closely-packed structures of mud and thatch, could hear the sounds of pick and hammer crashing against rock. A plume of dust rose from the crater wall just behind the village, rising above the mine like some spectral flag.
Oba did not study the village long, but cast his eyes toward a pair of wooden watchtowers at either side of the settlement. He could see great brass bells hanging from their roofs, and a sentinel posted upon each tower’s platform. The samurai nodded grimly. Without a doubt, the guards watched for the monster, but they would just as quickly sound the alarm should they notice him and his captive.
“We’ll have to circle around,” Oba started to growl at Meiko. The ninja sneered at him, her dainty foot smashing into his leg with such violence that Oba feared she had broken his knee as he spilled onto the ground. Instead of pressing her attack, Meiko sprang back, vindictive triumph still twisting her pretty features. It was the only warning Oba had.
The samurai did not try to rise, but rolled across the ground. The unexpected move surprised the ambusher who had seemingly popped out of the earth to kill him, yet even so the attacker was quick enough to correct his ninjato in mid-strike, slashing a deep cut along Oba’s side.
Oba’s uchigatana sprang from its sheath in a blinding flash of steel before the ambusher could attack again. The samurai’s sword clove through the man’s waist, just above the rope that held a skirt of woven brambles over his dun-colored leggings. The ninja fell, cut in half by Oba’s blade, writhing hands pawing uselessly at the earth while blood bubbled from his mouth.
Oba observed his enemy only long enough to be sure of his death. Then the samurai twisted around, bracing for another attack. Turning, he caught a spike-like throwing knife in his shoulder, the blade sizzling like a red hot iron as it sank into his flesh. He did not know where the woman had hidden the weapon, nor how long she had awaited the perfect opportunity to use it, but Oba was pleased to cheat her of her murderous intention. He ground his teeth against the pain, stalking slowly toward her like a maddened tiger.
Meiko retreated before him, yet her look of vindictive triumph remained set upon her face. Oba swung around, just in time to meet the attack of a second ambusher. Like the first, the ninja was clad from head to toe in a weird cloak and skirt of woven brambles and grass, only a narrow slit for his eyes betraying the man within. Lying motionless and patient upon the ground, he had blended perfectly into the terrain. Oba’s sword caught the descending ninjato, swatting it aside with a ringing crash. Oba did not follow through on his attack, instead spinning back around. A third grass-cloaked ninja had sprung from the ground. Seeing the samurai prepared for him, the assassin’s eyes narrowed and he sheathed his sword, in the same motion drawing a pair of star-shaped shuriken from beneath his covering of grass.
The sharp-edged shuriken flashed through the air. Oba cried out as they bit into his body, slamming into his chest. Like the knife Meiko had thrown, the wounds dealt by the shuriken burned with hellish intensity. The samurai glared at his enemies, guessing the reason for his hurt.
“Sniveling jackals,” Oba cursed under his breath. “Fight me with honest steel, not poison and tricks!”
Meiko shook her head, her smile becoming even harder. “We do not intend to fight you, Shintaro Oba. We intend to kill you.”
Oba’s eyes narrowed with hate and it was his turn to wear a cold smile. “I should warn you. I have had dealings with the Kokuryu clan before.” His hand fell limply away from his wounded shoulder, but when it reached his belt, all semblance of fatigue vanished. Swiftly, Oba drew from his belt the pouch containing the egg-shell grenades he had taken from Meiko.
“I know your tricks!” Oba snarled, hurling the entire pouch at the three ninja. The assassins covered their faces and recoiled from the missile, retreating as black smoke billowed from the shattered grenades. Oba turned and sprinted toward the village, hoping to lose himself among the peasants and miners, to think of a way to meet the menace of Meiko and her clansmen. The leg the woman had kicked throbbed painfully each time it struck the ground, and his breath came hot and shallow as his lungs fought for air. He could feel his blood almost seeming to boil, lancing threads of agony throughout his body. Fleeing from the ninja pumped their poison through him with hideous speed, but Oba knew that to fight them on their own terms would be just as lethal.
The samurai paused as he rushed down into the village. He had expected the villagers to scatter at the arrival of a bloodied warrior, or at least to stare and gawk. Instead, he saw faces watching him impassively, saw hands tightening about the hafts of picks, fumbling beneath coats for triple-bladed sai and curved kama. A cold chill ran through Oba’s mind as he realized the enormity of his mistake. The Kokuryu clan had not imported slaves or serfs to work the mine. Peasant rabble did not people the village – members of the ninja clan did.
Oba backed away, trying to look as menacing as possible with his uchigatana held before him in both hands. The villagers continued to slowly converge upon him, their own weapons at the ready. Oba reflected that these must be low-level members of the clan, otherwise they would already have surrounded and killed him a dozen different ways. It only made sense, for the clan would not send its master assassins to dig a hole. Even so, there were enough of them to cut him down however sparse their training. Whole, Oba might have relished such a confrontation, but with Meiko’s poison already in his veins, he knew what would come would be less a battle than a slaughter. Butchered like a fattened pig was no way for a samurai to meet his ancestors.
Suddenly, the dull crash of an alarm bell thundered over the village. The ninjas’ faces went pale, their eyes going wide with alarm. An instant later, Oba knew why as the supernatural, ghastly buzzing sound invaded his brain, the ghostly herald of the gashadokuro’s approach. Like statues, the murderous villagers froze all around him, their eyes darting between the samurai and the distant watchtower. Some fingered their weapons, debating how close the monster was, wondering if they had enough time to settle their enemy before it drew close enough to see them.
Oba seized the opportunity afforded by the confusion of the ninja. He sprang past the nearest of his foes, pushing them into the mire of the village street. The samurai ducked the bladed head of a naginta one of the villagers thrust at him, then drove his shoulder into a man who came at him with a pair of sickle-like kama. The wiry ninja was sent flying by the blow, crashing in a spray of filthy water. Oba kicked the man’s face as he started to rise, splattering his nose in a burst of blood.
Antagonized by Oba’s violent escape, other ninja rushed toward him. A ninjato slashed across his back, only his armor keeping the blade from cleaving his spine. A sai punched through his forearm, only force of will enabling him to maintain hold of his sword. A claw-like grapple fitted to a slender chain of steel whistled out and wrapped about his leg, pitting Oba in an uneven struggle against the man at the other end of the chain to remain standing.
As abruptly as the violence of the ninja erupted, they became once more as still as statues. The alarm bell had fallen silent now, but in its place had come a dull, ponderous sound, the impact of a huge weight against the earth. Again and again, the thunderous footfalls sounded, the ground shivering with each step. With agonizing slowness, the ninja lifted their heads, staring up at the grimy sky above the village. Oba followed their gaze, knowing what he would see.
The titanic shape of the gashadokuro, even more hideous in the dusty light of dawn, loomed over the village like some primordial god of death. Its witch-fire eyes glowed weirdly in its skull, boring down with malignance and rage. Oba trembled as he saw the head sway back and forth, like a dog sniffing for a hidden bone. Sweat ran down his face as he remembered the last time he had stood stiff and still waiting for the blind monster to find him.
He would not go through such an ordeal again! Oba tightened his hold on his sword. He tugged at the chain wrapped about his leg. The ninja at the other end stubbornly refused to release his hold. Oba glared at him, then risked a look at the gashadokuro. He waited until the skull swung around, until the eyes were staring in his direction. The samurai put his full strength into another sudden yank on the chain. His enemy was not ready for the effort and was jerked off his feet. The ninja stumbled after Oba, then released his hold on the chain. White with horror, the assassin turned and shrieked as death reached down for him.
The skeletal paw of the gashadokuro closed around the staggering ninja with the fury of an avalanche. Oba could hear bones crack beneath the brutal grip. A spray of blood burst from the ninja’s mouth as something ruptured inside, but he still had life enough in him to scream as the monster lifted him to its face. Oba saw the fang-ridden jaws of the skull snap open…
The samurai tore his eyes from the gory spectacle and flung himself down the narrow lane between the ramshackle buildings of the village. Fire pulsed through his body, but he ignored the pain, ignored it with the fatalistic determination demanded of his caste. He could feel the ground shudder beneath him, hear buildings splinter as the enormous bulk of the gashadokuro crashed through them in its pursuit of him. The discipline of these low-caste members of the Kokuryu clan was remarkable. They remained frozen in place even as the monster raged past them, not uttering a sound when its skeleton feet crushed them in its unseeing rage. They remained statues as Oba ran past them, only the hateful gleam in their eyes betraying the life within them.
For all its size and power, the gashadokuro’s peculiar motion-based vision encumbered it. Oba would duck behind the wall of a hut, then emerge a moment later from the other corner, gaining a valuable instant of freedom while the monster sought to seize him where he had been instead of where he was. The samurai was not fooled that it was anything but a respite. The monster showed no sign of losing interest in the hunt, displaying the same single-minded obsession it had shown before. The ninja, dying beneath its feet in silence, were not going to distract it from its prey as Torohata’s samurai had. The weathered buildings of the village offered no shelter from the monster’s claws, it could knock them down as easy as Oba might swat a fly.
Oba’s eyes darted to the plume of dust rising from the pit of the mine. A deep hole gouged in the earth, he could see no way that the monster’s hand could fit in an opening only a little larger than a man, nor could he imagine it tearing through the rock of the mountain as easily as it had the decrepit huts.
The desperate plan decided upon, Oba ran toward the pit, knocking aside any ninja who stood in his path. The chill shadow of the gashadokuro fell across him, blotting out the sun. Oba dove as the monstrous claw of the skeleton reached for him, the fiend’s talons slashing through empty space instead of his neck. The samurai rolled as he landed, then threw himself forward in another dive. Earth exploded behind him as the gashadokuro’s claw slammed into the ground. Oba heard the skull’s jaws snap angrily, frustrated in its effort to grind him into the earth. The pain pulsing through his body was now almost unendurable. Oba felt the impulse to lie down and let the monster destroy him, but such a useless death enraged his very soul. The pit was near now, ninja miners ranged around it, their clothes caked in dust, an array of picks and hammers clenched in their fists. The assassins shivered in terror as Oba and the thing pursuing him closed upon them, but they knew that to move would bring certain death upon them.
Oba plowed through the paralyzed ninja, pitching them into the dust, leaving them for the gashadokuro’s feet to crush or spare as capricious fate decided. He lunged for the black opening of the pit without hesitation. He could feel the claw of the gashadokuro whip through the air above him as he hurtled down into the shaft of the mine. Cold darkness rushed up, enveloping him, blotting out pain and fear in the chill embrace of oblivion.
Pain flooded through Oba’s body as awareness slowly returned to him. He could barely remember the impact of striking the bottom of the shaft. A dim suggestion of sunlight at the top of the pit made the samurai shudder to think how far he had fallen. He rolled onto his side, instantly regretting the maneuver, stabbing agony exploding within: broken ribs digging into his flesh and scraping his organs. He was more careful as he tried to move his limbs. One arm was snapped, hanging like a broken twig from his shoulder. His wounded leg felt numb, possessed of all the feeling one might expect from a boiled haunch of ox, but at least it moved when he willed it to do so.
The samurai took stock of his surroundings. Sputtering torches set into roughly hewn niches in the ragged walls of the pit did more to illuminate the mine than the feeble sunlight filtering down from above. There were no ropes or pulleys rising from the shaft, only a series of handholds gouged into the walls for miners to climb up from the pit, bearing their quarried ore upon their backs like beasts of burden. The dark mouths of tunnels spread outward in every direction, radiating from the shaft like the spokes of a wheel. Oba could feel the icy clutch of their black depths stretching out for him. Any ninja who had lingered behind in the mine would find a thousand places to lurk in ambush for him. Oba’s skin crawled with the sensation of a knife sinking into his back.
The walls of the shaft trembled and a tiny stream of dust and rock rained down about Oba’s head. The samurai took shelter in the mouth of a tunnel, watching as something huge blotted out the sunlight trickling into the mine. Skeletal claws the size of oxen tore at the rim of the shaft, trying to widen it so that the gashadokuro might reach down and claim its prey.
Oba removed a torch from its niche and turned back toward the tunnel. Better to risk the lurking blade of a ninja than the monster’s mercy. At least with the ninja, he might take his killer with him when he died. Dragging his numb leg, his broken arm hanging limp against his body, his side afire with dripping pain, Oba started down the winding tunnel.
How many hours he spent wandering in the darkness, the samurai could not say. It felt like days to his pain-maddened senses, but cold pragmatism told Oba that even his endurance would have reached its limit long before then. He was nearly at his limit now, unable to focus his eyes in the half-gloom of the mine, his lungs choked by dust and the smoke of his torch. No lurker had set upon him, nor could he hear the sounds of the gashadokuro digging down to find him, both of which he took as good signs until he realized his wanderings might simply have taken him so deep into the earth that he was beyond the reach of both ninja and monsters.
Despair was just sinking its fangs into Oba’s spirit when he saw the door. In all his wanderings through the tunnels, he had found only bare walls pitted and scarred by the attentions of pick and hammer. Here stood a sturdy door of solid oak, banded in iron and fixed to the rock with thick staples. Such a door a lord might fit to guard his treasure vault. That thought made Oba consider the purpose of the mine and the Kokuryu clan’s presence on Cripple Mountain. He scowled at the thought of the all that wealth going to the Shogun. Only freeing the soul of his lord would give him greater pleasure than cheating the Shogun of his gold.
Oba tried the door with his shoulder, finding it stout and unmoving. The samurai tried to balance himself on his numb leg and set his torch on the floor. Drawing his sword, he chopped at the iron staples. The keen blade passed through the iron bands as though they were river reeds. The oak door groaned and sagged, then its own weight completed the job, ripping it free of its last moorings. With a deafening thud, it crashed to the floor.
Oba recovered his torch and staggered into the vault beyond the door. He felt somehow cheated when the glow of the light did not reveal piled gold and treasure. Instead, he found himself looking upon a little man sitting in a straw chair. The man was old, incredibly so, his snowy beard falling to his knees, his face an almost shapeless mass of wrinkles. He wore crimson robes daubed with fantastic symbols and a blue sash adorned with silver poms of fluff circled his chest. The sharpness in the steely eyes that stared from the ancient’s wrinkly face surpassed even the keenness of Oba’s sword.
“Did the Kokuryu vermin forget to give you the key?” the old man asked, his voice high and strangely youthful, incongruous with his appearance. The elder smiled at Oba and made an expansive gesture with his hands. “The hospitality of Eiji of Cripple Mountain is yours just the same. And I think you had better accept it while you can. The poison of ninja is not wise to ignore.”
The samurai felt a wave of weakness seize him and he crumpled to his knees. It seemed strange to him that he should succumb to his wounds just as the old man spoke of them, but such suspicions vanished as the elder left his chair. As he moved, Oba could see that the man’s legs were missing, only empty robes hanging about his waist. Even so, the elder crawled across the vault toward him. The ancient’s hands, clothed in paper-thin skin, probed Oba’s wounds, kneading his mangled flesh. Oba could faintly hear the old man whispering into his beard, whispering words the like of which the samurai could not understand, words that were more like the hisses of serpents than the language of men. Gradually, Oba felt the burning agony in his limbs lessen and fade. When the pain had lessened enough, he summoned the strength to stare into the old man’s penetrating eyes.
“What are you?” Oba demanded. “Why have the ninja imprisoned you in this place?”
Eiji chuckled, continuing to minister to the samurai’s wounds. “Here is as good a place as any to keep me, I suppose. Even if there were anyone interested enough to look for me, they would hardly do so in the depths of a mine. As for why they keep me here, I am a yamabushi.”
The word lingered in the air after Eiji spoke it, seeming to echo of its own accord through the tunnels. Oba nodded with new respect to the old man. The yamabushi were hermit mystics, solitary wizards who sought the isolation of the wilderness while they mastered the black arts. The skills and powers of the yamabushi were known far and wide throughout Mu-Thulan, admired and feared by everyone from the lowliest peasant to the Shogun himself.
“I’ve been in these mines a long time,” the wizard continued. “Years, I should think. Ever since the Kokuryu clan came to steal the mountain’s gold.”
“Why do they let you live?” Oba asked. It was a natural question. If nothing else, ninja were cautious; keeping a yamabushi alive and prisoner was an act of foolhardiness he found it hard to accept.
The yamabushi chuckled once more. “They know I can control the gashadokuro.” The statement brought a look of shocked disbelief on Oba’s face. “They are right,” Eiji assured him. “You see, it was I who created the monster.”
Oba’s mind whirled. This wizard had created the gashadokuro. A thousand questions raced through his thoughts, but one rose more prominently than the rest. If Eiji had created the gashadokuro, then it could not be the demon he hunted, the fiend that had claimed his lord’s soul.
“I’ve lived on Cripple Mountain a long time,” Eiji continued. “Longer than you would credit, I fear.” He pointed a crooked finger to the roof of the vault, gesturing at the surface far above. “That village was once home to honest folk, not a crumbling lair for ninja. They were peasants, honest farmers and hunters trying to claw a precarious existence from the mountain. They were so poor that neither Torohata nor Takegashi saw fit to claim them or their settlement. Yet even so, these poor people shared their humble charity with the old ascetic who lived in the forest. A ball of rice from the table of a peasant is a richer feast than the banquet of a nobleman.
“In my way, I watched over the village, keeping the attention of wandering ghosts and malicious tengu from their homes. But I could not protect them from the malice of the mountain itself. One day, a farmer tried to dig a new well and in his labors, he discovered the mountain’s secret. The news that gold had been discovered on Cripple Mountain seemed to be carried upon the wind. No longer did Torohata and Takegashi ignore the forgotten village and the accursed mountain. Their samurai surrounded the mountain, guarding every approach to prevent anyone from stealing away with the gold each lord considered his by right of rule. The villagers could not leave the mountain, fresh seed for their fields could not be brought up to them from the farms below. While Torohata and Takegashi fought on the slopes below, those trapped upon Cripple Mountain withered and died in the agony of starvation.”
Eiji”s eyes burned with hate as he remembered the scene and its cause. Oba was chilled by the malignity of the wizard’s stare. “I could do nothing to provide for them, as they had for me. But when they were all dead, their skinny corpses strewn about their hovels, I determined that their killers would not prosper by such villainy. From each body I took the bones and with my magic I bound them into an engine of destruction and vengeance that would kill any who dared approach the mountain and the cursed gold within it!”
“But your plan failed,” Oba said. “The gashadokuro serves the ninja now!”
The yamabushi shook his shaggy head. “It does not serve them, anymore than the mountain does. They simply know how to avoid its wrath. A ninja is subtle, he knows when to hide and when to strike. Their craft is such that even an old yamabushi, wise in the ways of gods and demons, may be deceived by them. They came and caught me and put me in this place. They cut away my legs to keep me here, thinking such mutilation would weaken even a yamabushi and make him safe.” A malicious grin split the wizard’s face. “But perhaps Eiji will still have the last word.” He looked into Oba’s eyes. “I will need your help, and I can promise only danger in return.”
Oba thought for a moment, then nodded. “To keep the mountain’s gold from the Shogun’s coffers, even death would not be too steep a price to pay.”
Eiji leaned over him, his claw-like hands pulsating with unnatural energies. Oba felt his skin writhe where the yamabushi touched him, the gaping wounds closing upon themselves like melting butter. “I will need your strength to win free of this pit,” Eiji told him.
“You will need your strength to escape what follows,” the wizard added.
Oba’s body still throbbed with the icy echoes of Eiji’s magic. His wounds had healed with supernatural speed, his bones had set and knit of their own accord. Even his blood was clean and pure, divorced from the poison Meiko and her clansmen had used upon him. His mind recoiled to consider the fact, but he had never felt stronger than he did now. The wizard’s wasted frame, clinging to his back like some grotesque child, was an insignificant burden to his pulsing muscles as he climbed the wall of the shaft. Oba kept his eyes trained upon the dim disk of sunlight above him, dreading the bony claw of the gashadokuro to come reaching down for him. Whatever mastery the yamabushi had over the monster, he hoped it was enough to fend off such an attack.
An eerie silence clung to the walls of the shaft. It was only when he was nearly at the top that Oba’s ears began to ring with the spectral buzz of the monster’s presence. However long he had been in the mine, the gashadokuro had lingered, waiting for him. That was the reason the ninja had not returned to their diggings, still trying to escape the monster’s attention. Oba was thankful in a way. The gashadokuro would keep any lurking assassins away from the pit. A light burden or no, the wizard was still slowing him down and he knew he would make a prime target for the arrows of the Kokuryu clan if any of the ninja saw him ascending the wall of the shaft. Oba muttered a prayer to his ancestors that the monster would keep his enemies at bay until they were free of the pit.
Oba could feel the earth shudder beneath his hands as he reached the lip of the shaft. A sharp cry rang out and he could hear the booming falls of the gashadokuro’s skeletal feet. With a final burst of endurance, the samurai threw himself up the last length of shaft and pulled himself onto the surface. Instantly his eyes scoured his surroundings for lurking enemies. The crushed bodies of a few ninja who had been caught in the monster’s path were smashed into the ground, but they were beyond threatening him now. Farther away he could see the ravaged village, many of its huts shattered into splinters. Several ninja were standing about its streets, still and silent as statues, their faces turned toward the giant skeleton that loped through the muddy lanes.
Oba could see a lone ninja fleeing from the monster. Abruptly the man froze, becoming rigid as a post. Instantly a ninja further down the street gave voice to a sharp cry and started to run. The gashadokuro’s burning eyes swung from the ninja who had stopped moving and it began pursuing the new runner. Instantly Oba appreciated the cunning of the Kokuryu clan’s ruse. They were leading the monster away from the mine by means of this lethal relay. Before the gashadokuro could close upon the second runner, a third took up the cry and started to sprint toward the edge of the crater. The samurai closed a hand around the hilt of his sword. As soon as the monster’s threat was removed, the ninja would return to settle with him. He only hoped to take some of them with him when he died.
“Set me down!” snapped Eiji from behind him. Oba knelt against the ground, helping to lower the crippled yamabushi to the earth. Eiji pushed the samurai’s hand away and raised himself awkwardly into a sitting position. The wizard’s eyes gleamed as he watched the ninja leading the skeletal horror from the village. “So they think they are clever?” he growled. “What do slinking assassins know of magic!” He turned and regarded Oba with some degree of guilt. “You must make the most of the time I can give you. I can control the gashadokuro only so long as I can give it enemies to kill. After that…”
“How can it kill what it can’t see?” Oba asked, watching as the blind monster stomped obliviously past a small group of ninja. He saw that it was Meiko and the grass-cloaked killers he had fought before. The woman seemed less interested in the monster than in the two men who had suddenly appeared at the edge of the mine. Oba could see her lips moving as she whispered orders to her clansmen.
“We will have to fix that, won’t we?” Eiji said. The wizard nodded grimly. “Yes, indeed, we will fix that… whatever the price.” He bowed to Oba, then made an angry gesture with his arm. “Leave me to work my sorcery, samurai. There is no work here for you or your sword.”
Oba started to protest, but his blood went cold as he saw the change coming over the yamabushi. Eiji’s skin was darkening, becoming the color of soot, his hair falling from his head in bloody clumps. Loathsome words slobbered from his lips and when Oba looked at the wizard’s hands, they were knotted into hawk-like talons. Still chanting, Eiji lifted his deformed claws to his face. Blood spurted from beneath his fingers as he dug into his own sockets, ripping and tearing at what they contained. Crimson tatters of pulp clung to the yamabushi’s fingers as he lowered his hands. Where Eiji’s eyes had been was only a dripping vacuity, but even as Oba looked in horror, he saw a flicker of light begin to grow in the depths of the gory wreckage, a light that soon blossomed into orange flames.
Shrieks sounded from the village, wails of terror that tore at the sky. Oba turned from the mutilated wizard and watched as the gashadokuro lifted a hapless ninja from the ground. It was not the one who had been luring it away, but was one of the unmoving grass-cloaked assassins. As the gashadokuro’s jaws closed about the struggling man’s neck and decapitated him, Oba saw that the fires shining from its skull had changed, losing their blue light and turning into raging orange flames. Eiji’s magic had given the monster new eyes at the cost of his own. Now the ninja could hide from the monster no longer.
Oba caught the glare of Meiko’s hate-filled gaze as she stared at him before fleeing over the edge of the crater. The other ninja were less calculating in their panic. Some brought a dizzying array of weapons against the gashadokuro, spears and grapples, arrows and bombs, all alike in their uselessness against the skeletal titan. Other ninja fled into the huts, desperately trying to find some manner of sanctuary from the marauding beast. Still others held their ground, staying stiff and still, hoping against hope that the monster would ignore them.
It didn’t. The screams of the dying split the air each time the gashadokuro’s claw came reaching down, tearing another ninja’s spirit from its body.
The samurai watched the massacre impassively. Honorless killers, spies and thieves – the Kokuryu clan was beneath his pity. They did not even have enough dignity to die well. Oba eased his way through the now deserted street, striding boldly past the rickety refuges of the last survivors. The gashadokuro raged and slaughtered, its claws and fangs wet with blood. It had turned to the village now, ripping apart huts, shredding them in its hunt for its prey.
Oba held his head high as he stalked toward the monster. He felt a tremor of fear as the beast swung its skull about and glared down at him for an instant. But Eiji’s promise held true. While there were still ninja in the village, Oba was free of the monster’s wrath. The gashadokuro turned back around and soon an agonized shriek rose from the battered hovel.
Shintaro Oba marched past the rampaging behemoth. The Kokuryu clan were doomed, their scheme to fill the Shogun’s coffers with gold finished. Eiji’s terrible revenge would continue and the gashadokuro would protect Cripple Mountain from Torohata and Takegashi and all those who would steal its treasure.
Wherever their spirits had fled, Oba hoped that the peasants appreciated the terrible vengeance the yamabushi had invoked in their name. He knew only too well the weight of sacrifice and obligation. He hoped that when the time came for him to redeem the soul of his lord, that he would be equal to whatever ordeal his own vengeance would demand of him.
This story originally appeared in Rage of the Behemoth.
An anthology of fantasy tales pitting heroes against all manner of huge and monstrous creatures. This features the first of my stories with the demon-hunting samurai Shintaro Oba. In 'The Rotten Bones Rattle', Oba stumbles across a mountain haunted by a colossal skeleton that eats the heads of those who trespass on its domain: the gashadokuro.
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