From the author: A Cthulhu Mythos story set during the Tokogawa Shogunate, where the samurai Shoichi risks body and soul to rescue his friend Yokokawa from a fiendish cult.
The Worm of Edo
C. L. Werner
‘Your forgiveness, but it is not permitted.’
The words were inoffensive and meek, but there was an undercurrent of insolence in the tone that struck at Shoichi Taniguchi like a blade. Everything about the short, fat, grubby man was offensive. His skin was flabby and discoloured; his hair was oily and clung to his flattened skull like a clump of damp weeds. His eyes were mismatched, one set disconcertingly higher on his face than its partner across the squashed nub of nose. His mouth was wide, his grin toothy. Shoichi had passed eta and hinin many times in the streets of Edo and even those social pariahs and outcasts had failed to evoke the intense loathing the fat little doorman did.
The samurai glared at the little toad. The impertinence! Of course Shoichi knew it was forbidden – by order of the Shogun, no less – for warriors to attend the theatre. Such corrupting influences as theater were fit only for merchants and townsfolk, not noble samurai. Just the same, Shoichi knew that no performance went on in Edo without several samurai in attendance. It was something the authorities usually chose to overlook.
Usually. It had been by mere chance that Shoichi had been in the same tea house as two doshin grumbling about their commanding magistrate. It seemed the magistrate was drawing upon all of his constables for a raid upon one of Edo’s theatres. For reasons the two lowly doshin didn’t know, the chief magistrate of Edo had decided to enforce the Shogun’s prohibition against the theatres.
Shoichi hadn’t lingered to hear which theatre it was that the constables would be targeting. There was a bit of philosophy he’d adopted long ago that had never failed him: always prepare for the worst.
For himself, he had no use for noh and kabuki. As far as Shoichi was concerned, the Shogun could ban them entirely. However, there were others who enjoyed such performances and rarely missed an opportunity to see a new play performed or watch one of their favourite actors portraying a new role. It was his misfortune that one such enthusiast was Yokokawa Mitsuhashi.
Family honour and obligations made Shoichi responsible for the young samurai. Yokokawa’s father had accepted the blame for an incident that should have obligated Shoichi’s father to commit seppuku. Since that time, the Taniguchi had been bound to look after the Mitsuhashi. Shoichi had made Yokokawa his particular duty, even if the biggest thing the samurai needed protection from were his own excesses. Many were the times Shoichi had dragged Yokokawa away from a brothel or gambling den before he could bring disgrace on his name. Indeed, beside some of the incidents in Edo’s notorious Yoshiwara district, these illegal excursions to the theatre were tame.
At least until the magistrate decided to be serious about the laws he was supposed to be enforcing. Shoichi didn’t know what the doshin would do to any samurai they caught, but he did know he intended to spare Yokokawa such humiliation.
Which was why when the fat-faced theatre-rat tried to prevent him from going inside, Shoichi’s hand dropped to one of the swords thrust through the sash of his kimono. ‘I won’t stay to see the performance,’ Shoichi growled. ‘I only want to see if a friend is among your audience.’ Every second that this oaf delayed him gave the magistrate’s men that much longer to slink into the neighbourhood and form a cordon around the theatre. It was a big building, but if the magistrate was calling in all the doshin he commanded, and all the non-samurai assistants under each doshin, there could be several hundred men closing on the theatre.
The doorman’s fat face split in a grin as insolent as his tone. ‘It is not permitted,’ he repeated. ‘Once the performance has begun…’
Patience was something Shoichi had never managed to master, despite his daily reading of Buddhist sutras. Before the doorman could finish speaking, Shoichi’s hand flashed up from the hilt of his sword, his fingers jabbing straight into the flabby throat under the man’s broad mouth. The doorman staggered back, coughing and spluttering. Shoichi hopped up from the street and onto the lacquered floor.
‘Now, you will help me…’
Shoichi was surprised when the fat little doorman drew a knife from inside the sleeve of his jacket. The flabby face was almost demonic in its expression of savage fury. Croaking and coughing, the doorman dove at him with his bare blade.
The samurai caught the descending arm just behind the wrist. An overwhelming feeling of revulsion impressed itself on him when he felt that cold, damp skin beneath his fingers. With a roll and a twist, he sent the abhorrence crashing to the floor. At once, he drew back several steps.
`Baka!’ Shoichi cursed as the enraged doorman lunged up from the floor. He’d restrained himself thus far, but he had no time to be so lenient. Moreover, the throw he had executed against his attacker had opened enough room between them for him to draw the longer of his two swords. In a flash of shining steel, the razor-edged katana whipped across the fat little obscenity.
Shoichi had killed men in duels before. He was accustomed to the havoc a katana could visit upon the human form. He knew what to expect. What appalled him now wasn’t anything he’d been prepared to see.
As the katana sliced into his foe, it found a disgusting lack of resistance. The doorman’s flesh had the consistency of boiled meat, splitting with an abominable ease. A putrid stench, more foul than a roadside latrine, exuded from the wound along with a translucent treacle that was anything but blood.
The maimed thing recoiled, one flabby hand trying to pinch close the gash in its chest. The other clenched tighter about its knife. Spreading its froggy lips in a toothy snarl, the creature leaped at Shoichi.
Again, the samurai’s sword flashed. This time the edge chopped through the thing’s neck, sending its loathsome visage to roll across the wooden floor. The headless body toppled, flopping about with the stubborn vitality of a reptile.
Shoichi looked on the ghastly carcass. Eta, hinin or gaijin, whatever the doorman had been, he couldn’t have been more than half human. As that realisation struck the samurai, he found a new urgency in his mission. There was something far worse than constables that threatened Yokokawa.
The samurai was just turning away from the noxious corpse when one of the wood and paper partitions closing off the anteroom slid open. The snarls and croaks of the doorman hadn’t gone unnoticed. In a rush, two men and a grey-skinned thing similar to the one he had killed lunged at Shoichi.
It was that initial charge that undid the samurai’s foes. With more coordination, his attackers might have overwhelmed him, but coming at him as they did, each enemy impeded his own comrades. They hesitated when one of their companions strayed too close to the short-bladed swords each bore. Shoichi suffered no such restraint. In a blur of steel, his katana sheered the arm from one of the men, split the other’s belly open and hacked down into the head of the hybrid thing with such force that its skull was bisected from crown to jaw.
Shoichi cleansed the gore from his blade with a silk cloth. He glanced once at his dead and maimed victims, assuring himself that they were no longer any kind of threat to him. With a last uneasy look at the froggy doorman’s corpse, the samurai marched to the open partition and slipped into the darkened hallway beyond.
As he navigated the dark corridor, Shoichi kept an easy grip on his sword. Every step, he expected some new attack from the inmates of the theatre, but as he penetrated deeper into the building he came to appreciate that the ones he had slain in the anteroom must be the only ones detailed to act as guards. The rest must be busy with the performance.
Shoichi could hear strains of eerie music drifting through the paper walls. The hallway bordered one side of the auditorium and the thin walls offered no resistance to the sounds of the performance. He would have been far happier if they had muffled such revolting cachinnations. At the base level, he knew the discordant melody rose from a reed flute and a shamisen, but whatever fiends made sport with the instruments had tortured sounds from them that were endowed with an evil suggestiveness that violated Shoichi not simply on the physical state, but his very spirit as well.
Then, somewhere amid that hellish music, Shoichi heard the voice. It was a cold, insidious tone, at once both shrill and deep. He couldn’t describe why the voice struck him as so horrific, there was no way to put a name to the quality of wrongness about it. Far easier to evoke the gibbering, barbaric words intoned by the voice, words that were recognizable as such only by the repetition of certain utterances. If some demented madman had set down the susurrations emanating from a sack of frogs and snakes, he might perhaps have conceived such sounds as now assaulted Shoichi’s ears.
Such was the most frequent of the repeated utterances, an intonation that struck Shoichi not merely because of its repetition, but rather because it seemed to be recited by a vast chorus rather than the single, chilling voice.
Almost timidly, Shoichi stepped to the wall and stabbed his finger through the thick paper, creating a peephole for himself. Grimly, he pressed his eye to the opening and gazed out into the auditorium.
The auditorium was very like other theatres Shoichi had seen. At the far end of the vast hall was a raised stage upon which the actors would perform. The rest of the hall was broken up into square compartments separated by elevated walkways. Each compartment was lined with mats and it was upon these that the audience sat, sometimes six to each compartment. Tonight the theatre seemed to boast a full and diverse audience. Shoichi could see not only the expected townsmen and merchants, but also a fair number of women from the warrior caste – wives and daughters of the samurai. There were at least a dozen samurai themselves in attendance, noticeable by their long swords which they’d removed when seating themselves and now held upright beside them. A few craftsmen and even the shaven pate of a Buddhist monk stood out among the crowd.
Regardless of status or class, the audience looked upon the stage with rapt attentiveness. Scenery had been arrayed about the stage to suggest ancient ruins, but Shoichi didn’t think they were the rubble of a castle or temple. There was an impression of far greater size and antiquity about those paper columns and wooden ziggurats, an imagery of cyclopean vastness and impossible age.
Poised atop one of the columns was the flautist, more bloated and horrible than the things Shoichi had killed. The grotesque musician wore only a loincloth, leaving his slimy grey skin exposed. His bald head was flat, almost wedge-shaped and the enormous eyes that gaped above his gash-like mouth bulged from his face like those of an enormous frog.
At the base of the column sat the woman playing the shamisen with frantic undulations of her seemingly boneless arms. It was forbidden for women to become actors and the custom was for men to take up the roles and adopt a female lifestyle when undertaking such performances. Looking at the shamisen player, Shoichi wasn’t sure if this custom had been followed. Certainly the wild-haired, villainous-looking hag was ugly enough to be anything beneath her kimono.
A shock was waiting for the samurai when his eyes strayed towards the source of the inhuman chant. He was horrified to find that he recognized the tall, imposing man with the long black beard and the flowing white robes. He was Gennai, the onmydori from Kyoto. As a gift to the Shogun, one of the kuge from the Emperor’s court, a kugyo named Ichijo no Takashi had brought the astrologer to Edo in order to predict the best marriage for his newborn son. To find Gennai here, in a low place like a theatre was almost as unsettling as the hideous litany slithering off his lips.
The kuge himself was in attendance, not among the partitioned audience but above them in a side-box with his retainers. Resplendent in his courtier’s robes, his white-powdered face framed by the tall hat which indicated his close proximity to the Emperor, Ichijo no Takashi didn’t watch the performance with the same rapt fascination as the others. There was a look of brooding intensity in the nobleman’s expression. It was the hateful visage of an embittered man who sees the hour of vengeance drawing near. There were many in Kyoto who secretly despised the Shogunate and longed for the days when the Emperor and his court truly ruled Japan.
A great, howling ululation turned the spying samurai away from the side-box. He found himself looking at the broad wooden gangway leading up to the stage. It was upon this walkway the more important players in a performance would make their entrances and exits. What waddled along the gangway now, however, was no such actor as Edo had ever played host to before.
In his first glimpse, Shoichi thought it must be a group of men hidden under a bulky cloth costume, in similar fashion to Shinto lion-dancers. As he watched the shape cross the auditorium, he appreciated the absurdity of such a mistake.
Bigger than an ox, the monster undulated along the gangway like some mammoth slug, a confusion of stumpy limbs oozing from its sides to scratch ineffectually at the wood as it propelled itself along. Its obese body tapered into a trunk that stretched upward like the neck of some obscene swan. The trunk divided midway along its length, forking into a pair of mismatched necks. Each neck ended in a mass of squirming feelers that flailed and writhed in the air. Of eye or ear or nose or anything that might convey sensation to the horror there wasn’t any hint in its awful form.
Somehow, the horror was aware of its surroundings just the same, cognizant of what was around it. As it crawled and heaved along the gangway, it would pause, waiting like some lurking serpent as some member of the audience climbed onto one of the walkways and approached it. Invariably, as the merchant or townsman or woman approached the monster, it would rear back before surging forward and seizing them with the feelers tipping one or the other of its necks.
The victim didn’t cry out, didn’t struggle in that demonic grip. Even as the thing’s coils tightened about them, even then they continued to shout the refrain to Gennai’s hideous chant.
Death in the coils of the monster was swift, but more abominable than anything Shoichi could have imagined. Flesh, blood, bone and marrow seemed to drain into the creature, sucked down into its slimy mass. Bit by bit, the victim was absorbed, denuded of his essence until only an empty husk of skin and hair remained. A husk which the monstrosity dropped and crushed beneath its heaving mass.
A mass that was now larger than it had been before, swollen by the material the creature had drawn from its victim.
Terror gripped Shoichi as he considered how large the monster had grown since he’d first seen it, how many of the mesmerized audience it had consumed to get that large. Then he stared out across the auditorium at the hundreds yet to be devoured.
This was Ichijo no Takashi’s plan! This was why the kuge had brought his sorcerer Gennai to Edo! The onmydori had conjured this demon from whatever hell it belonged in, called it up so that it might feed, so that it might become big enough to destroy the city. Destroy the capital of the Shogunate and the Shogun!
Even understanding the kuge’s plan couldn’t break the paralysing terror that held Shoichi as he watched the squirming abomination draw another victim into its tentacles. Only when the samurai saw a new sacrifice rise from his compartment onto the walkway did he find the courage needed to overcome his fear. When he saw Yokokawa marching towards the demon, the obligations of duty poured fire into Shoichi’s veins.
Howling a war-cry, Shoichi brought his katana sheering through the paper wall and the lattice beyond it. Plunging through the hole, the samurai leaped onto the walkway. The violence of his entrance made the batrachian flautist falter, made the hag with the shamisen skip a note. Gennai, however, maintained the cadence of his chant even as he turned his blazing eyes towards the intruder. The audience remained locked in their oblivious trance, the thing on the gangway interested only in the victims marching towards it.
‘Kill him!’ the enraged voice of Ichijo no Takashi howled. From his side-box, the courtier’s retainers dropped down onto the walkways between the compartments. Despite their extravagant, almost effeminate clothes, the long swords the retainers bore were as deadly as any samurai blade.
Shoichi didn’t spare a moment to worry about the retainers. Swiftly he dashed along the raised partition, leaping from one path to another as he hastened to intercept Yokokawa. One of the retainers, quicker than the others, moved to block the samurai. The man slashed at him with his blade, missing when Shoichi jumped back. Before the retainer could recover from his failed attack, the samurai ploughed into him, cleaving through his leg with a downward sweep of his katana. The shrieking retainer pitched into the compartment below, the hypnotised spectators oblivious of him even as he thrashed among them in his agonies.
Yokokawa was almost within reach of the demon’s squirming feelers. Shoichi mustered strength he didn’t know he had as he sprinted along the walkway and jumped over to the one Yokokawa was on. Another of the kuge’s retainers tried to intercept him. This time the samurai ducked beneath the sweeping blade, spitting the man on his sword. Snarling, Shoichi pushed the retainer forwards, knocking Yokokawa into one of the audience pits and thrusting his screaming enemy full into the monster’s coils.
The samurai ripped his katana free before the beast could snatch him into its coils and claim two victims for the effort of one. The retainer shrieked and wailed as the demon absorbed him, unlike the dazed audience he was fully aware as the monster consumed him. His desperate struggles couldn’t save him. All they accomplished was to prolong his agonies.
Shoichi looked around him. The rest of the retainers were spreading out now, seeking to box him in, to herd him back towards the monster. Worse, Yokokawa was climbing back onto the walkway, still intent on marching straight into the beast’s tendrils.
Faintly, a clamorous note was carried into the theatre, the frantic ringing of a bell somewhere outside. No city-dweller was unfamiliar with that sound. It was a sound they learned to anticipate and dread. It was the clatter of a fire bell.
The retainers looked away from Shoichi, staring to the side-box and their master. Already the sorcerer’s chant had fallen silent. Gennai was retreating back into the scenery littering the stage, snarling orders to the grotesque shamisen-player and flautist to continue their music.
Shoichi seized his chance. In a forward thrust, he struck Yokokawa behind the ear with the flat of his sword. As the stunned man started to fall, Shoichi caught him and heaved his unresisting weight up onto his shoulder. Without further preamble, the samurai ran along the walkway, rushing to the wall and the hole he had made. Already in retreat, the retainers made no move to stop him.
A weird susurration sounded from the monster when it found no fresh victim marching to embrace it. Shoichi risked a look over his shoulder, fearful that the thing would come lumbering after him in pursuit of Yokokawa. He felt ashamed by the relief that flooded through him when he saw the demon stoop over one of the compartments and drag two hypnotized men into its feelers.
Shoichi didn’t dare use the front entrance, but instead made his exit from the theatre by means of a service entrance at the back. His escape came just in time. As he dashed into the dark alleyway between the shops of a rice-peddler and a candle-maker, he saw a group of doshin come running around the corner of the theatre. They were easily distinguished by their over-jackets without the flowing leggings of higher-ranked samurai. Moreover it was the steel wand of a jitte rather than a short sword that accompanied the long swords thrust through their sashes.
As he watched the constables complete their circuit of the theatre, Shoichi was struck by the appearance of a second group of men, men who attacked the building next to the theatre with hooks and axes, pulling the wood-and-paper structure down and dragging the wreckage away. The clamour of the fire bell continued, and the samurai now understood the purpose behind it.
The bell wasn’t warning of a fire already threatening the neighbourhood, it was warning of a fire not yet set. The magistrate must have been informed of what Gennai’s sorcery was attempting to do. Arson was the worst crime a man could commit. No official would resort to it lightly.
As soon as the adjacent structures were pulled down, teams of townsmen rushed up to the walls of the theatre, splashing them with oil. Several men, ragged-looking ruffians that stank of leather-working – only the outcast eta could be expected to defile themselves with arson – came next, brandishing torches.
Shoichi watched the flames as they gathered momentum, as they spread through the structure. Never had he wished a fire to burn so fiercely, to purge Edo of the demon that had been evoked by Gennai’s sorcery. Every moment, he expected the abomination to come bursting through the burning walls, to rampage through the streets devouring helpless victims.
The flames, however, did their terrible work. For hours the theatre burned, continually stoked and fed by the men surrounding it. By nightfall, all that was left was a great swathe of blackened earth and piled ash. Of Ichijo no Takashi, Gennai, the demon they had called and the audience they had enslaved, there was no trace.
No trace except one. For as Yokokawa regained consciousness, his eyes remained locked in a blank, empty stare. His lips moved and when he spoke, it was to utter words never meant for human tongue. Shoichi looked down at his friend, the man he had risked so much to save. As he looked, as he listened, the samurai knew that despite their escape from the theatre, he had failed to rescue him. He had failed to satisfy the obligations of family honour.
This story originally appeared in Tales of Magic and Mystery.
This collection of short stories from author Tim Marquitz boasts an array of fantasy and horror. I provide a supporting feature with 'The Worm of Edo' which sees Lovecraftian horror poking its tentacles in feudal Japan.
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