From the author: Demon-hunting samurai Shintaro Oba takes it upon himself to protect Sentoryu, a young wrestler ready to challenge the yokozuna. On the path to the sumo match, the entourage is beset by fearsome monsters and a murderous ninja determined to stop them.
C. L. Werner
Shintaro Oba rushed through the forest, his hand closed about the hilt of the heavy uchigatana he wore at his waist. Shouts, the crash of steel and the screams of stricken men had broken the tranquillity of the forest with such suddenness that the samurai found himself running towards the sounds of battle before he was even aware of what he was doing. A moment’s thought, however, spurred him to greater effort. Even in so civilized and settled a region of Mu-Thulan there were still gangs of bandits waiting to prey upon the unwary and renegade ashigaru willing to use murder to earn their gold.
As the samurai emerged from the trees, however, he found a very different scene than the one he had expected. Instead of the cart of some unlucky farmer or wandering merchant, he found a half-dozen shaven-headed monks surrounding a large sedan chair covered in yellow silk. Instead of bandits, Oba found that the attackers were something all together different. They had the rough appearance of men, but their skin was scarred and leathery, faded into a dull crimson hue. Their faces were twisted, demonic visages with jutting fangs and scrunched, snout-like noses. Heavy straw cloaks drooped about their bodies and in their clawed hands they wielded a motley assortment of swords and axes.
Namahage! Oba recognized the beasts at once. As a warrior in service to the Sekigahara clan, he’d fought against such creatures in many campaigns. Long ages past, demons had sired offspring with human women. The namahage were the degenerate descendants of this profane lineage, mortal like men but possessed of the ruthlessness and evil drives of demons. Almost every mountain range throughout the empire was infested with tribes of namahage and it was rumoured that entire clans of the beasts lurked beyond the northern frontier. However fiercely the daimyo and hatamoto tried to exterminate them, the namahage would always manage to endure and return to raid villages and farms.
For the moment, Oba ignored the question that burned in his mind: what a pack of namahage were doing so far from their mountains. It did not matter why the beasts were here, all that mattered was that they were.
The monks were doing their best to fight back the monsters, warding off their swords with deft turns of the heavy bo staves each of the men carried. Although outnumbered almost three to one, the monks were acquitting themselves well. The blue suns embroidered on their white robes just above their hearts announced them to belong to one of the warrior orders, the temple fighters known as sohei. If the namahage had thought to have an easy time overwhelming the monks, they were now learning their mistake.
Oba drew his uchigatana, the legendary demon-slaying sword named Koumakiri, from its plain sandal-wood sheath and in the same fluid motion brought the blade slashing across the back of a namahage. The creature’s twisted face contorted in shock and pain, its dark blood jetting from the mortal wound it had suffered. The namahage managed a half turn towards its slayer, then the iron axe it held fell from its claws and it crashed into the dirt.
Other namahage spun about, the smell of tainted blood alerting them to the death of their kinsman. The black eyes of the creatures narrowed with hate as they fixed upon Shintaro Oba. One of the namahage, a vicious-looking creature with rust-coloured skin and a leather hood covering his head, pointed a claw at the samurai and barked orders to the other monsters.
Roaring like wild beasts, three of the namahage charged at Oba. The samurai adopted a defensive stance, waiting for his attackers to come to him. Experience taught him again and again that the namahage relied upon fear to overwhelm their enemies as much as brute force. A man who faltered before them was lost. A man who remained in control of himself would prevail.
The first of his monstrous assailants tried to smash his skull with a stone club. Oba twisted beneath the attack, shifting so that the blow connected with empty air. As he dodged, the samurai raked the edge of his sword across the namahage’s belly, opening it from hip to hip. The stricken beast collapsed, dead before it could utter a sound.
Oba did not wait for the second enemy to close with him, but instead lunged across the falling body of the first namahage. The second monster tried to protect itself by parrying the heavy uchigatana with its own sword. Anger flared in Oba’s eyes when he saw the quality of the monster’s blade. No simple shingunto stolen from one of the Shogun’s soldiers, but the finely wrought katana of a fallen samurai. Even the most base ronin would have raged at seeing a samurai’s blade in the paws of such a creature. Oba met the namahage’s stolen sword, the two blades throwing sparks as they crashed together. Then he turned his weapon so that it rolled with the namahage’s parry. Twisting about, he brought the edge slicing across the monster’s wrist.
The namahage howled in pain, staggering back as it clutched its mutilated hand. The katana dropped from weakened fingers. The creature made a futile grab for the sword, but before it could regain the weapon, Oba’s uchigatana came slashing down across its neck, sending its monstrous head rolling in the dust.
In killing the second namahage, Oba left himself exposed to the attack of the third. Growling like a wolf, spittle flying from its fangs, the monster stabbed at him with an iron-capped spear. The samurai’s steel armour turned the point of the spear, the blade glancing off and causing the namahage’s thrust to become an awkward stumble towards Oba. Darting around the creature, Oba sent the edge of his sword slicing through its flesh. The namahage crashed to the ground, trembling as its life-blood drained out of its torn body.
The hooded namahage chief cried out in alarm to his fellows. Glaring at Oba, the beast waved his sword in the air. The surviving namahage slowly retreated back towards their chieftain. Refusing to let the ambushers disengage, the sohei pursued their enemies.
Oba started to follow the example of the sohei, but stopped when he noticed the cunning gleam in the namahage chief’s eyes as he watched the monks pursuing his warriors. Suspecting treachery, the samurai held back, looking across the battlefield. The little path through the woods was strewn with dead namahage and the bodies of a few sohei. Oba could see where the monsters had lain in ambush behind a few piles of brush they had arranged flanking the path.
The samurai could also see what must have been the monsters’ objective. The covered kago was resting on the ground where the monks had set it. An old man in white robes wearing the lacquered hat of a priest was standing beside the sedan chair. At first Oba thought the old man must have been the occupant of the kago, but a moment’s observation made him realise his mistake. The priest was engaged in an argument with someone hidden behind the heavy folds of cloth covering the box-like litter.
“… the fighting is almost over,” Oba heard the priest explaining. “The temple brothers are driving the beasts off. There is no need for you to involve yourself. You must not profane your body with the blood of such corrupt creatures.”
The samurai did not hear whatever reply came from behind the cloth. His attention had instead been drawn to the path behind the kago. The entire forest was littered with leaves as summer gave way to autumn, but the path seemed almost covered in them. Observing the way the namahage had uprooted bushes and moved them to conceal themselves, a horrible thought occurred to the samurai. With a quick pace, he moved away from the retreating namahage and approached the kago.
A slight shifting of the leaves piled upon the path was the only warning. One moment the leaves were still, the next they were shivering as though a brisk breeze blew across them. Oba shouted a warning to the priest and threw himself towards the kago at a dead run.
The pile of leaves exploded upwards as the samurai shouted. The figure that had been concealed in the shallow hole beneath the leaves landed on his feet. Silently he drew a short sword and dashed towards the kago. The priest turned, horrified at the sudden appearance of this new adversary. He raised his seven-ringed staff to fend off the attacker, but the priest was no sohei. The ambusher struck him with the flat of his sword, knocking the old man to the ground.
Before the attacker could exploit his advantage, Oba was upon him, forcing the ambusher onto the defensive with a furious swipe of his sword. The samurai was surprised to find that his foe was not a namahage but a man wearing a tight-fitting green keikogi. The garment bore ugly brown and red splotches across it, spots of paint that had been employed to further help the man blend in with the forest floor. A hood and mask covered the man’s head, only a narrow strip between the bridge of his nose and his forehead being exposed.
If Oba had any doubt as to the nature of his foe, the sharp stabbing point at the tip of his sword and the clumps of rust along the blade’s edge removed any question. The blade was that of an assassin, a ninjato.
The ninja parried Oba’s strike, then kicked out with his foot to try and trip the samurai. He could feel the reinforced steel of the assassin’s tabi boots scratch against his shin guard. The assassin tried to use the low attack to divert Oba’s attention. With the speed of a striking cobra, the ninja’s blade slid around Oba’s sword and slashed at his face.
The samurai darted back, battle-honed reflexes saving him from the strike. He saw the flash of steel before his eyes as he recoiled. Even a scratch from the ninja’s blade would be enough, the rust the assassin had carefully allowed to gather on the edge would make even a minor injury deadly.
A thunderous bellow erupted from the covered kago. The roof of the sedan chair seemed to explode, splinters of teakwood and strips of torn cloth exploding in every direction. From the wreckage a huge man rose, dwarfing both samurai and ninja. The man’s balled fists were like ham hocks, his neck as thick around as a normal man’s thigh, his arms so corded with muscle that they ripped the sleeves of his kimono when he raised them.
For a deadly second, Oba’s attention shifted away from the ninja. The assassin was quick to take advantage of the samurai. Reaching into the sleeve of his jacket, the killer hurled a fistful of white powder into Oba’s face. The samurai reeled back, blinded as the cloud of salt burned his eyes.
The ninja sprang away from Oba, turning instead towards the hulking figure standing amid the wreck of his litter. The rusty edge of the ninjato licked out like the tongue of a diseased serpent, slashing at the man’s immense body. There was a sound of shredding cloth as the sword cut across the man’s prodigious belly.
The giant bellowed again, striking out at the ninja with one of his enormous fists. The assassin sprang back from the attack, eyes wide with bewilderment.
Shouting his fury, the giant kicked out the side of the kago and lumbered after the ninja. As he moved, the torn kimono fell from his chest, drooping down about his waist like a peasant’s skirt. The ripped garment exposed the heavy ornamental belt he wore, its golden surface scarred by the ninja’s blade.
Hissing in disgust, the ninja tightened his grip on his sword and glowered at the giant. Luck had preserved the man’s life. It would not do so a second time.
The long edge of Koumakiri came slashing down at the ninja. The killer just had time to block the strike with his ninjato, parrying the heavier sword of the samurai. The two warriors glared at each other across their crossed blades. Oba had recovered quicker than the assassin expected.
Already hard-pressed by the samurai and frustrated in his first strike against the hulking man in the kago, the ninja scowled as he heard the sohei rushing back from their pursuit of the namahage. The element of surprise lost, beset by enemies on all sides, the ninja decided to cut his loses.
Oba grunted in surprise and staggered forwards when the ninja abruptly dropped his sword. The samurai lashed out as the killer darted back in retreat, then ducked as the ninja palmed a round object taken from the sleeve of his jacket. He recalled the egg-shaped explosives used by the Kokoryu clan ninja and wondered if this assassin had decided to kill himself in order to kill his enemies.
Instead of an explosion, however, there was only a cloud of foul black smoke when the ninja smashed the egg-like grenade against the ground. Priest, samurai and giant alike retreated from the cloud, coughing as the filthy smoke choked them.
When the smoke cleared, the ninja was gone. If the sky had reached down and plucked up the assassin, he could have vanished no more completely. Oba knew it would be a fool’s errand to try and find the ninja’s trail. Not without a trace of bitter frustration, he replaced his sword in its sheath.
The sohei now surrounded the kago, their staves held in readiness. Two of the monks broke away from the protective cordon to help the stunned priest back onto his feet. The rest stared suspiciously in Oba’s direction.
Oba looked past the monks, studying the huge man standing amid the wreckage of the sedan chair. Now that he had a chance to really study the man, Oba was impressed by the gigantic stature and tremendous mass he had accumulated. If an ox had been stuffed into a kimono it couldn’t have been any bigger. That he had built his body to such a hulking state in the few decades his young face suggested was even more impressive.
The big man stared back at Oba, but there was no malice in his eyes. His heavy face split in a wide grin and he moved to climb out of the kago. Instantly his path was blocked by the sohei.
“You must not profane yourself!” one of the monks cried out.
The giant glared down at the monk. “If not for this noble samurai, I would be dead now!” he snapped.
The monk remained resolute, shaking his head firmly. “If you touch the earth the purity of the shrine will pass from you,” he insisted.
“Then I will fight the yokozuna without the blessing of the kami,” the giant said, reaching out to forcibly remove the monk.
Understanding came to Oba as he heard the giant speak. He was a wrestler, one of the sumotori. More than that, he was on his way to challenge the yokozuna, the grand champion of sumo. The samurai didn’t know what kind of mystic power the monks believed they had endowed the giant with, but looking at him, Oba doubted he needed much help against anything smaller than an oni.
The monk dropped beneath the wrestler’s clutching hands, abasing himself at the giant’s feet. “If you must leave the kago, please step upon my back,” the monk said, his voice as humble as his posture. It was an insane request, the wrestler’s weight would break the monk’s back like a twig. The wrestler realized this as he lifted his foot and looked down at the prostrate monk. An expression of shame and embarrassment came upon him.
Oba decided to settle the awkward scene by walking over to the litter himself. The sohei closed ranks, cutting off his approach.
“Forgive us our suspicions, samurai,” one of the monks said. “But we are sworn to protect the ozeki.”
The samurai was not in a forgiving mood. Keeping his hand about the hilt of his sword, he walked around the sohei like a prowling tiger. “If I meant your charge any ill, I could have left the ninja alone!” he snarled.
The logic of his words and the emotion behind them did not faze the monks. They knew their duty and would not waver from it unless ordered.
The order came in the sharp voice of the old priest. Recovered from the blow he had suffered, the priest remonstrated the monks for their stubbornness.
“It is to be lamented,” the priest said, turning to face Oba, “that sometimes it is forced upon us to treat even a friend like an enemy.” The priest favoured Oba with a respectful bow. “My eyes are old, but not old enough to be blind to the service you have given us this day. But for you, the attack of the namahage might have succeeded. But for you, the attack of the ninja would have succeeded.”
“You fought like ten dragons!” the wrestler called from behind the ranks of the sohei.
The old priest’s wrinkled face pulled back in a smile. “I believe what Sentoryu is trying to express is his gratitude for the assistance you have given us.”
Oba returned the priest’s bow. “I should have fought like eleven dragons. Then the ninja would not have escaped.”
“Yes,” the priest agreed, wincing as he acknowledged the assassin’s escape. “It is unfortunate such a villain continues to draw breath. Though his namahage are dead or routed, I do not doubt the ninja will try again.”
“Ninja and namahage working together?” Oba asked. “I have never heard of such a thing. If I had not seen it for myself, I would not believe it possible even of ninja.”
“There is nothing that is beneath the Akaikage clan,” the priest said. “Not even working with such low beasts.” The old man shook his head. “Sentoryu is the ozeki. He has beaten all of the other champions. Soon he will challenge the yokozuna. There are powers that would prefer this to never be.”
“Because they know I will beat him,” Sentoryu said. The wrestler clenched his fist, his knuckles cracking.
“The Shogun sent the ninja,” Oba said, his voice a low growl. It had been the Shogun’s armies that burned the castle of Lord Sekigahara Katakura and slaughtered the Sekigahara clan to the last man. Shintaro Oba alone had survived the battle, entrusted with Koumakiri and charged with redeeming the soul of his lord from the demon which had claimed it upon his death.
“The current yokozuna is the champion of Yoshinaga-kubo,” the priest agreed. “He would loose face if his champion were defeated. But do not think the Shogun is alone in desiring to maintain the current champion. The karma of a yokozuna is a powerful force. For evil as well as good. If an evil man holds the sacred title of yokozuna, then the powers of darkness are exalted. Demons may pass more easily through the Kimon Gate. The vengeful dead rise more readily from their graves. Ancient monsters may stir from their slumber. The Shogun’s champion is such a man and for ten years the land has been plagued by all manner of evils. There are many wicked beings who would not want such a state of things to change.”
Oba nodded in understanding. “I am named Shintaro Oba, of the Clan Sekigahara. If you know the story of my clan, then you know I have no cause to love Yoshinaga.” The samurai noticed some of the sohei gasp as he named himself, the monks growing tense as they heard the warrior disrespect the Shogun’s name. Oba raised his hand, a peaceful gesture meant to place the monks at their ease.
“I have less reason to love devils and demons,” he said, patting the sandalwood sheath of his sword. “And they have many reasons to hate me. This sword has sent many of their kind back beyond the Kimon Gate. Whether your enemy is the Shogun or the Daitengu, my sword is at your service.”
There was a puzzled look on the priest’s face as he digested the samurai’s words. “I will not be so foolish as to claim your service would be unwelcome,” he said, “but I must ask what boon you expect for your trouble?”
“Only the honour of helping a worthy cause,” Oba answered, bowing in gratitude. When he rose, he smiled at the huge Sentoryu. “And the privilege of watching you humiliate Yoshinaga before the Imperial court.”
The strange procession of monks, samurai, priest and wrestler journeyed well into the night. The priest, whose name was Hirota Junchiro, insisted that the damage to Sentoryu’s sedan chair be mended before they could continue. Valuable hours were lost fitting a new roof to the litter, a labour made more difficult by the inability of the wrestler to leave his carriage.
As darkness stretched its fingers across the forest, Oba expected the procession to be attacked at any moment. A ninja, even one who worked with namahage, would feel his failure to kill Sentoryu as a stain upon his honour. The killer could only redeem himself by fulfilling his mission. There was no question in Oba’s mind that the assassin would try again. The only question was when and how.
Before night could complete its domination of the forest, the trees gave way, opening out into a wide clearing. To either side of the road were the fields and huts of a village, in the distance the bulk of a timber mill. Closer to the travellers stood a large wooden structure, the only building in the village with two stories and a roof made of tile rather than straw. Paper lanterns swung from the beams of the roof, characters painted upon the shade announcing the building to be an inn and welcoming wanderers to rest within its walls.
The invitation was one that appealed to Junchiro and his monks, even more to Sentoryu, who was becoming quite cramped inside the kago. Oba studied the façade of the building with misgiving, scowling at all the windows and the sliding doors scattered about the inn’s ground floor. There were dozens of ways he could see by which a ninja could gain access to the building, and he knew there must be twice as many only the slippery eyes of a ninja could find.
If it had been the samurai’s choice, they would have avoided stopping at the inn, or even the village. Their chances of detecting the ninja would be better if they did not give him surroundings in which to blend. Camping in the wilderness would be preferable to staying in the village where any innocent peasant could be the disguised assassin.
Oba’s wishes, however, were incompatible with those of the priest and especially Sentoryu. The wrestler was forbidden to set foot upon the earth, therefore he could only exit the kago if he had a floor to walk upon. Among its other extravagances, the inn did sport a wooden floor. The decision, as far as Sentoryu was concerned, was obvious.
The innkeeper, a middle-aged man with the weathered skin and calloused hands of a peasant and the crafty eyes of a merchant, welcomed the monks with evident misgiving. Even the most avaricious tradesmen hesitated to take advantage of holy men. It was one of the few taboos merchants held inviolate, possibly because it was widely believed that priests could cast curses upon those who tried to deceive them.
“My establishment is at your service,” the innkeeper told Junchiro. “I shall have my kitchen prepare a lavish feast in your honour. We have saved a brace of ducks to provide for such august guests.”
Oba’s eyes narrowed as he listened to the innkeeper’s fawning words. They went beyond the reverence a peasant might be expected to show a priest. “You know who we are?” the samurai asked.
The innkeeper licked his lips and looked askance. “Oh yes, indeed. The arena prepared for the ceremony is not so distant from this village. All of us have been expecting the ozeki.”
“How do you know it is the ozeki in that chair?” Oba demanded, pointing at the covered kago. With the monks still standing outside the inn, Sentoryu had not been allowed to exit the carriage. The samurai cast a quick glance at Junchiro, a look of warning which he saw the priest recognize. “How do you know it is not a daimyo or a member of the kuge we convey to the arena?”
The innkeeper’s eyes darted from side to side, sweat beading on his brow. His weathered face began to grow pale as fear surged up inside him.
“Perhaps he noted the way the sohei struggle beneath the weight of their burden,” Junchiro suggested. “If that is so, then your guess is indeed correct. We do convey the ozeki to do battle with the yokozuna at Kiso.”
Relief filled the innkeeper’s eyes, a great smile spread across his face. “I knew it was so!” he beamed. “I am honoured to entertain such revered guests. The ozeki shall have the best room in the house! You shall all have the finest rooms!”
Oba lifted his hand to stem the innkeeper’s assurances of quality and comfort. “One room for the ozeki, please. The monks have taken vows of deprivation and humility. They will remain in your common room. If there is space, of course.” The sohei bristled at Oba’s remark, the hands of a few tightening about their staves, but their agitation went unnoticed by the innkeeper.
“Yes, indeed,” the innkeeper chirped, clapping his hands together. “I have no other guests this night. There will be room for all of you.”
“No other guests?” Junchiro wondered. “This near to the arena, I should think your rooms would be filled to bursting with courtiers and priests.”
“The daimyo no doubt prefer to keep their retinues with them and make camp closer to Kiso,” Oba said. The innkeeper’s head bobbed up and down in eager agreement to this suggestion.
“Just so, just so,” the man said. “That is how I have so much space for you.” He gestured with his hand to a sliding door off the left of the main hall. “Here is the common room, with space enough for all of you. The private chamber for the ozeki is upstairs.”
“Yoshi, Daisuke!” Junchiro called to the monks. Two of the shaven-headed men rushed forward and bowed to the priest. “Follow our host to the room he has offered to Sentoryu. We will carry the ozeki upstairs when you return.”
Bowing to the priest, the innkeeper eagerly led the two monks upstairs. When he was gone, Junchiro turned and spoke to Oba in a low voice.
“You are right,” he said. “There is something untoward about that man. We should follow your advice and press on.”
“That is your decision,” Oba said. “But if we do that, we will have the ninja on our trail. This place is a trap, but knowing that gives us an advantage. We can expect the ninja and prepare for him.”
“I don’t care about the ninja,” Sentoryu growled. The kago shifted violently as the wrestler pulled aside the curtains and squinted sourly at the samurai. “Just get me out of this box! I feel like a clam in a shell! And find me some of that duck the fellow was talking about!”
Oba smiled at the impatient wrestler. He nodded to the monks carrying the sedan chair. As soon as they stepped inside the inn, Sentoryu’s shifting weight forced them to drop the kago to the floor. The wrestler clambered out of the carriage with an ungainly surge of his bulk, then rubbed his hands along his cramped legs.
Oba turned away from the wrestler. Quickly he opened the door to the common room. The samurai studied the room with a sweep of his eyes. He swiftly decided it was safe enough. “In here, fast,” he told Sentoryu. “I don’t want the innkeeper to know you’re out.”
Sentoryu lumbered through the doorway. “What about the duck?” he asked, patting his enormous belly.
“I don’t think it would agree with you,” Oba told him, sliding the door shut.
Oba spun back around, walking over to the now empty kago. He nodded to himself as he inspected it. Glancing back to the stairs to ensure himself that the innkeeper was still gone, he motioned to the monks.
“How many of you can fit inside this thing?” the samurai asked.
“What do you have in mind?” Junchiro wondered.
“We’ve already told the innkeeper we’re going to carry Sentoryu upstairs,” Oba said. “He might be suspicious if we carry an empty chair up. And if our ninja finds a few sohei instead of a lone wrestler waiting for him, it might be just the surprise we need.”
The monks nodded their heads in appreciation of Oba’s guile. Quickly the sohei scrambled into action. By selecting the slightest among them, the monks were able to fit three men inside the kago. When the innkeeper returned, he gave no sign he was aware of the substitution.
“Your men have found the room acceptable,” the innkeeper told Junchiro. “If you will follow me. Once the ozeki is settled in his room, I will see about your dinner.”
“Nothing for us,” Junchiro said. “But you may bring the ducks to the room you have given the ozeki.”
Again, there was a suggestion of relief on the innkeeper’s face. Whatever villainy he had planned or been forced into, the man was grateful to avoid including the priest and monks in it. Oba had the suspicion the man was a reluctant agent of their enemies.
“I’m afraid the ozeki must dine in his room,” Oba told the innkeeper. “There has been trouble on the road. These men have engaged me to see after the challenger’s welfare. I must insist I bring all meals to him and stand guard at his door.”
The innkeeper nodded slowly, his eyes again darting about the inn. Oba noticed the man shift a wary look at the ceiling from time to time. Was the ninja up there, lurking in the rafters?
“Nothing will disturb you,” the innkeeper promised. “You are as safe here as in the arms of the Dominance.”
As the man turned to lead them back up the stairs, Oba hoped the wretch felt guilty about his lying tongue.
The long hours of night stretched before Shintaro Oba as he maintained his post outside the door behind which, he hoped, the innkeeper thought Sentoryu was sleeping. Every hour, he would feel a slight tap against the door, a reminder from the monks hiding within that they too were alert and ready. Oba wondered how alert they would have been if they’d eaten the roast duck the innkeeper had intended to feed Sentoryu. Poison was a dishonourable sort of weapon, but the only thing a ninja regarded as shameful was to fail in his mission.
Oba hoped that Junchiro and the other sohei in the common room below were equally on the alert. After carrying up the kago, they had made a great show of taking it back down again in order to satisfy the innkeeper that it was truly empty. It wouldn’t be that way now. Oba had advised Junchiro to have Sentoryu sleep behind the cover of the carriage’s curtains. It was the best way to fool any prying eyes.
A smile flickered on the samurai’s face when he considered how much the wrestler would appreciate being forced to stay in the chair all night. He could picture the colour rushing into Sentoryu’s face when the priest told him Oba’s plan.
A soft, creaking sound put the samurai on full alert. His hand flew to the hilt of Koumakiri, the blade slowly sliding from its wooden sheath. Oba’s eyes stared into the gloom, trying to pierce the heavy shadows lining the hall. Carefully, he raised his gaze to the beams overhead, his ears straining for even the softest sound. He heard a slight scratching noise, like the claws of a rat scrambling through the darkness. The samurai’s eyes narrowed, his expression turning cold. With a ninja around, he wouldn’t trust even a rat to be what it seemed.
The attack came without warning. Before Oba’s eyes, a patch of shadow fell from the rafters, landing upon the floor without a sound. The shadow coiled itself into a crouch, Oba could feel its eyes boring into him, studying him with murderous intensity. Then the arm of the shape was moving, ripping a sword from an oiled sheath. Silently, the ninja charged the samurai.
Oba’s uchigatana met the slashing sweep of the assassin’s ninjato, the smaller blade’s blackened steel ringing as Koumakiri swatted it aside. The ninja rolled with the parry, lashing out with his foot as he turned, kicking Oba back against the door. The samurai could hear the metal spikes attached to the killer’s tabi boots scrape against his armour. It took little imagination to consider what damage such a kick would have done to bare flesh.
The ninja spun about, stabbing at Oba’s face with his ninjato. Narrowly, the samurai turned his head, the point of the assassin’s blade whispering past his ear and slamming into the door behind him. The killer wrenched the weapon free, turning it so that the edge of the blade slashed across Oba’s cheek. The samurai could feel blood spilling down his face from the savage cut.
The ninja glared at the samurai, his eyes the only colour in a face blackened with soot. The assassin had changed his garb after the attack in the forest, wearing raiment black as night, cloaking him from head to foot in shadow. Even only a few feet from the killer, Oba found it difficult to separate the man from the darkness around him.
The door at Oba’s back suddenly slid open. Furious monks burst into the hall, staves clenched in their fists. The ninja backed away from the sohei, but Oba could see a cunning gleam in the killer’s eye. From behind the assassin’s mask, a fierce cry sounded, a chilling sound that made the samurai’s blood curdle.
Below, the cry was repeated, but magnified to such proportions that it made the walls of the inn shudder. Soon the building was shaken even more violently as a tremendous force smashed against it. The sound of splintering wood rose from the darkened floor below. The innkeeper had left lanterns burning at the base of the stair and by their light, Oba could see a monstrous bulk crash through the wall and lumber into the foyer.
It was a huge, grotesque thing, a nightmarish beast that swaggered through the shattered wall like a great bear. The brute’s body was lean and hairy, its powerful legs tipped in massive pads like those of a tiger. A whip-like, scaly tail writhed behind its flanks, lashing the floor violently. Enormous fangs jutted from the jaws of its monkey-like face, its red eyes glowing with a vindictive savagery too feral to be human, too malicious to be purely animal. The samurai recognized the hideous monster for what it was – a nue, the ghastly chimera of the Onmyoza Mountains.
The beast lifted its head, its huge nostrils flaring as it sniffed at the air. With a snarl, the nue turned away from the stairs. Oba could see the hairs bristling along its striped back as the monster crept towards the common room. The samurai could guess whose scent the chimera had smelled.
“Junchiro!” Oba shouted. “Our plan is undone! Protect Sentoryu!”
The samurai was forced back as the ninja lunged at him again. The killer’s ninjato slashed across his shoulder, only the armour beneath his kimono saving him from the full impact of the deadly blow. Before Oba could recover, the ninja’s fingers were in his face, gouging at his eyes. The samurai brought his knee up, crashing into the assassin’s belly.
Sounds of battle rang from below. The monks guarding Sentoryu were converging upon the nue, trying to drive it back with their staves. Blows that would have broken a man’s leg crashed harmlessly upon the chimera’s thick hide. Uttering shrill, bird-like shrieks of anger, the monkey-faced monster turned on the sohei. Claws as big as daggers extended from the tips of its paws. One sweeping blow and a mangled monk was thrown through the wall. Another slash of its claws sent a sohei reeling back, his face reduced to crimson tatters.
The screams of the monks and the roars of the nue told Oba the fight below was not going well. He had to break free from his struggle against the ninja before it was too late. Doing so, however, was proving difficult. The assassin had caught his purpose. It was obvious to Oba that the ninja wasn’t fighting to kill, only to keep Oba and the monks where they couldn’t interfere with the nue’s attack.
“Keep him here!” Oba yelled at the monks around him. He saw one of them nod his understanding. Without any further delay, the samurai darted back. The ninja uttered an angry hiss, hurling a spiked shuriken at the retreating warrior. The throwing star whisked across the short distance between the two adversaries, but failed to strike its intended target. Instead the missile crunched into the wooden skin of a bo staff.
“Help Master Junchiro,” the monk who'd blocked the shuriken told Oba. Then all three of the sohei converged upon the ninja, driving him away from the stairs with the iron tips of their staves.
The samurai flung himself down the stairs, taking them three and four at a time. He sprang into the gory shambles of the foyer, now littered with the wounded and the dead. Junchiro lay sprawled against one wall, his mangled arm clutched to his chest. Oba hesitated only long enough to hear a moan rise from the crippled priest, then plunged through one of the paper walls into the inn’s common room.
Two more monks were stretched out across the bloody floor of the common room. At the centre of the room, however, was a staggering sight. The huge nue, easily the size of a bull, was rearing back upon its hind legs, its body caught in a crushing embrace. Sentoryu’s powerful arms were locked around the beast, coiling like pythons around its body, his clenched fists digging into its spine. The monster tried to slash at him with claws that were pinned to its sides, tried to bite him with fangs that were too high to do more than snap at the wrestler’s topknot.
There was another menace the beast offered, however. The lashing tail was whipping about wildly, slashing Sentoryu’s back, scarring crimson lines across his flesh. Oba charged the chimera, his sword flashing. The beast howled in pain as the samurai’s steel rasped through its scaly tail, cleaving it from its twisted body.
Sentoryu exploited the nue’s pain. Grunting with effort, he heaved the monster around. Combining his own immense weight with that of the nue, the wrestler pivoted and swung them both towards the wooden outer wall of the inn. The timbers snapped beneath the impact, man and beast alike crashing into the dusty street.
Sentoryu rolled as the two combatants struck the ground, pinning the chimera beneath him. Savagely he drove his forehead into the nue’s throat, smashing its neck with hammer like blows. The nue struggled to free itself, clawing desperately at the man lying atop it. Its wails became panicked shrieks. Before Oba could lend Sentoryu further assistance, blood bubbled up between the chimera’s jaws, its shrieks collapsing into a liquid gurgle.
Slowly, Sentoryu released his hold, unwrapping his arms from the nue’s crushed body. The wrestler was breathing heavily as he rose. A lopsided smile spread across his face as he began to appreciate what he had managed to do. He turned and faced the samurai standing in the broken gap in the wall, grinning like a child. A cloud seemed to drift over the ozeki, and his smile fell into a frown. He stared sheepishly at his feet, noting that they stood bare upon the ground.
Hastily the wrestler glanced about him. Except for Oba, there was no one around.
“Don’t tell Junchiro-sama I went outside,” Sentoryu said, a pleading note in his voice.
Oba nodded in sympathy. He wanted to rush back inside and help the sohei with the ninja. But he knew their battle would be meaningless if he left the ozeki alone. He quickly reached a decision, jumping down into the street. “We’ll have to drag your monster back inside.”
Sentoryu’s smile reappeared as he heard Oba’s suggestion. The wrestler’s powerful arms wrapped around the dead nue once more. Together, the two warriors lugged the chimera back to the inn.
“Junchiro says if my feet touch the ground I will loose the blessings of the temple,” Sentoryu said as the men laboured with their burden. “He says that without the blessing of the Dominance, I cannot beat the yokozuna.”
“Does he say you are certain to win with the blessing?” Oba asked as they came to the broken wall.
Sentoryu shook his head. “No, but without the blessing, he won’t let me fight.” The wrestler groaned as he bent his back and tried to force the nue’s body up over the foundation of the inn.
“He’s afraid you will get hurt,” Oba said, struggling to lift his end of the beast. Samurai and wrestler looked at each other, then dropped the monster against the side of the building. “Close enough,” Oba decided.
Sentoryu quickly scrambled back into the common room, reaching down to help Oba inside. “I’m not afraid to fight,” Sentoryu told him.
“You’ve proved that,” Oba observed, nodding towards the dead nue. He glanced at the ceiling overhead, straining his ears for any sign of fighting. Again he felt the impulse to rush up and help the monks. Again, he knew he had to stay by Sentoryu.
The wrestler was kneeling beside one of the sohei sprawled in the room. A quick inspection showed that the man would never rise again. “I have sacrificed much to become ozeki, but others have given much more. I will not dishonour their suffering. I will face the yokozuna.”
Oba leaned over the other monk. The man groaned when the samurai touched him. He judged that the monk had suffered a few broken ribs, but at least he would live. “You’ll fight even if you can’t win?”
Sentoryu bowed his head. “Sometimes the fight is greater than the victory.”
Oba turned as he heard footsteps in the passage behind them. He lowered his sword when he found himself looking at Junchiro. The priest was being carefully led into the room by the three monks Oba had left upstairs.
“Five of our brothers have gone to their ancestors,” one of the monks said.
“And the ninja?” Oba asked.
“Gone,” the monk answered solemnly. “When he heard his monster scream, he fled. He was too swift for us to follow.”
Oba’s expression darkened. The assassin was sure to try again. As long there was still a chance to prevent Sentoryu reaching Kiso, the ninja could still accomplish the task set for him by the Shogun.
“The important thing is that the ozeki is safe,” Junchiro said. The priest looked at the broken wall and the shattered nue lying sprawled outside. He turned and regarded Sentoryu’s scarred body. “The monster did not injure you?”
Sentoryu shook his head. “No, Junchiro-sama, I am well and strong.” He cast a quick glance at Oba. “With the temple’s blessing, I will still prevail against the yokozuna.”
Shintaro Oba did not lessen his guard throughout the long miles between the village and Kiso. At every turn he expected the ninja to muster one last, desperate effort to stop Sentoryu from reaching the match. Every farmer the diminished procession passed, every bridge they crossed, every bush that crouched beside the road set the samurai’s hand tightening about Koumakiri’s hilt.
Not until they entered the plain from which the sacred hill of Kiso rose did the samurai relax. The fields around the hill were strewn with the tents and pavilions of the empire’s nobility. The banners of daimyo clans and the flags of hatamoto lords snapped in the wind, the great standards of the Emperor and the Shogun rose above vast encampments that resembled small fortresses with timber fences and tall watch towers. Everywhere there was the buzz of activity as attendants rushed to serve their lords, messengers dashed up and down the slopes of Kiso. Groups of samurai prowled the lanes between the tents, their hands resting easy upon their swords. It was taboo for any warrior to shed blood at the holy festival of sumo, but such a gathering of the great clans of Mu-Thulan inevitably brought the most dire enemies together. It was considered the duty of every samurai, regardless of school or clan, to prevent violence no matter the cause. At least until the conclusion of the ceremonies.
The ozeki’s procession did not linger among the tents, but at once mounted the ten thousand steps carved into the face of Kiso. A gang of monks rushed from one of the stone pagodas flanking the base of the stairway. Belonging to the same order of sohei as those who had accompanied Sentoryu from the temple, the monks hurriedly relieved their tired brethren of their burden, crawling underneath the poles of the kago and lifting the heavy chair onto their own shoulders. A second gang of sohei sprinted up the stairway. Oba could see them stop halfway to Kiso’s summit, waiting in silence for the ozeki to be brought up to them so they could replace the bearers.
“You should see about some rest yourself,” Oba advised Junchiro as he watched the weary monks withdraw into the pagoda. “That arm needs better tending than you’ve had. A sohei knows more about breaking a man’s bones than he does fixing them.”
The priest favoured Oba with a slight nod and a soft sigh. “I thank you for your concern, but my place is beside the ozeki. There will be time to consider my hurts and my needs after the contest.”
Oba shook his head in disagreement. “You have done what you needed to do. Sentoryu is here. Even Yoshinaga wouldn’t dare try to strike him now.”
“You still insist the Shogun is behind these attempts,” Junchiro said, reproach in his voice. “I think differently. If you are right, then the danger is past. If my fears are right, then the danger will not end until the sumo is over.”
“If the Daitengu or other demon lords were trying to kill Sentoryu, why use assassins and monsters?” Oba asked. “Why not send an oni or some other demon to do their work?”
“Demons, whatever shape they wear, are creatures of spirit,” Junchiro said. “The many rituals of purification performed in preparation for sumo are designed to ward away their kind. They could no more come near Sentoryu after the blessings he has received than a snowflake may stray near an open flame.”
A chill ran down Oba’s spine as he remembered the wrestler rolling through the dirt with the nue. “What if Sentoryu was not blessed?”
“No fear of that!” Sentoryu bellowed from behind the curtain. “I haven’t touched the ground, kissed a woman or looked at a mirror since I left the temple! Nothing unclean about me!”
The samurai knew Sentoryu was reminding him of their arrangement, but Oba would not restrain his curiosity. He repeated his question.
“The demons would be free to act upon him directly,” the priest answered. “Though to do so would bring a thousand curses upon their heads. No, they will prefer to work through mortal tools unless they have no other choice. There are protections here in Kiso that make it suicide for any demon to work its evil here.”
“You see, Shintaro?” Sentoryu called out. “There is no reason to worry anymore.”
The samurai was silent as he followed the kago up the steps. He wished he could accept Sentoryu’s assurance, but he knew the ways of demons. There was no treachery that was beneath them. If there was a way they could strike, then they would find it.
The summit of Kiso was encompassed on all sides by a great wooden palisade. Within these walls, tiered platforms of stone descended towards a mound at the very centre of the hill. The platforms were covered with seated figures, dressed in the finest silk kimonos. Once again, Oba saw the pennants and flags of the noble houses, the butterfly standard of the Shogun and the five-clawed dragon of the Emperor. Oba noted that the gem set into the forehead of the Imperial standard was a white pearl, denoting that it was the kotaishi, the Crown Prince of the empire, rather than the Emperor himself who was present. It was hardly surprising to Oba. Dire enemies locked in a bitter power struggle, even the Grand Sumo was not sufficient to bring both Emperor and Shogun to suffer the other's presence.
Around the standards of both Emperor and Shogun were seated the members of their courts, the kuge, aristocrat courtiers who seldom left the capital cities of their respective masters. The kuge were men who did not calculate their domination of the empire in castles and lands like the daimyo and hatamoto, but in influence and power. The right word from the right kuge could raise a clan to prominence in the eyes of the Shogun or the Emperor. By the same token, a single word could visit ruin upon even the mightiest daimyo. As Oba gazed upon the silk-robed courtiers, he wondered which of them had whispered into Yoshinaga’s ear and brought destruction upon the Sekigahara clan.
Above the seats of the noble spectators a tile roof had been raised, supported by thick wooden columns at each converging corner and backing against the outer palisade surrounding the hill. The roof stopped well short of the mound at the centre of the hill, leaving the area exposed to the sky so that the gods might gaze down upon the contest.
The mound itself was small, only twenty feet across. A square of clay tiles covered this entire surface, into which rice-straw bales had been partially buried, forming a ring thirteen feet across. The surface of the ring and the clay around it was covered by a pristine layer of sand, raked so fine by the attending yobidashi that it had an almost glass-like smoothness. Over the entire ring, a small bamboo roof had been raised. From each of its corners, a coloured tassel dangled, honouring the gods of the four winds.
This was the dohyo, the sacred fighting arena of sumo. Upon the smooth surface of the ring, Oba could see the white lines painted across the sand where the two wrestlers would stand before the match. As yet there was no sign of the yokozuna, Shogun Yoshinaga’s champion. The only man the samurai could see as they approached the dohyo was a priest wearing a purple robe of silk adorned with purple tassels. He crouched upon the clay ledge surrounding the ring, a folded wooden fan in his hand, a dagger sheathed in his belt.
Oba asked Junchiro who the purple priest was.
“That is the gyoji who will referee the contest. It will be his decision who wins and who fails. He will declare one of the combatants shini-tai, a dead body, if there is no obvious winner.”
“What if he makes a mistake?” Oba wondered.
Junchiro’s expression was sombre. “Then he will use his dagger and open his own belly to make amends for his error.”
The samurai was still digesting this piece of grim news when the procession reached the foot of the dohyo. The monks carrying the kago lowered it to the ground. With a grunt of relief, Sentoryu emerged from the sedan chair, rubbing feeling back into his cramped limbs. The wrestler wriggled his toes in the soft grass around the mound.
“Holy ground,” he told Oba when he saw the samurai’s questioning look. “It’s okay for me to walk around… here.”
Junchiro broke away from the smiling wrestler to confer with several priests of his own temple. Oba noticed one of the Emperor’s kuge hovering about the periphery of the conference. At a nod from one of the priests, he came forward and presented a box to Junchiro. Oba could not hear what was said, but Junchiro accepted the box, waving one of the monks forward to take it from the bowing kuge.
The priest bowed in return and made his way back to Sentoryu. “You have been given a gift by the Crown Prince. It is his hope that you will wear it during the match.” Junchiro handed the box to the wrestler.
Carefully, Sentoryu lifted the teakwood lid. There was a broad grin on his face as he removed a heavy blue garment. It was a kesho-mawashi, the belt worn in the ritual of sumo by the wrestlers. The apron-like front of the belt was embroidered with the five-clawed dragon of the Imperial Court, a great pearl gleaming from its forehead. Silk tassels dangled from the edge of the apron, each supporting a tiny ornament of gold. Oba could read prayers for strength, perseverance, purity and courage woven into the embroidered pattern of Sentoryu’s belt.
The samurai lifted his gaze, staring across the arena to where the standard of the Shogun stood. He could see Yoshinaga dressed in a blood-red kimono, scowling down from his ebony throne. The gift Sentoryu had been given and the symbolism behind it was not lost upon the warlord. One look at the Shogun, and Oba felt justified in his conviction that Yoshinaga had hired the ninja to kill Sentoryu before the match. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he considered the despot’s frustrated plot.
Junchiro led Sentoryu away to prepare him for the match, herding him towards a large tent erected some distance from the eastern edge of the ring. There was a similar tent standing to the ring’s western side, a standard bearing the Shogun’s butterfly waving boldly above it. This, Oba knew, would be where the yokozuna was preparing himself for the contest.
Throughout their journey here, Junchiro had emphasized speed, but never had he revealed to Oba just how narrowly they had arrived at Kiso in time. All of the preliminary rituals had been conducted, only a few hours remained before Sentoryu’s absence would have been counted as a forfeit by the gyoji.
An attendant in white livery, one of the yobidashi, emerged from Sentoryu’s tent. Hastening to the edge of the dohyo, he announced the ozeki’s name in a loud ringing voice. Seated attendants began to bang out a rhythm on taiko drums. Sentoryu emerged from his tent, stripped down to only the silk kesho-mawashi. The wrestler’s body was deceptively obese, great rolls of flesh flapping about him as he moved. Beneath that mass were powerful muscles, strength enough to subdue a chimera barehanded. The fat clinging to Sentoryu’s body was there to add mass to compliment his strength in the coming contest.
As Sentoryu lumbered towards the ring, a yobidashi exited the yokozuna’s tent. Racing to the edge of the dohyo, he waited until the drums fell silent before crying out the name of the Shogun’s champion. In a loud, clear voice, he shouted “Yasuda Tomitaro, Yokozuna of the Yamajin!”
The yokozuna emerged from his tent. He was a gigantic man, looking more like a bear the Shogun had shaved and stuffed into a kesho-mawashi. The giant dwarfed even Sentoryu’s enormous bulk, his feet gouging the ground as he strode towards the ring. The apron of his silk belt was red and bore the butterfly of Yoshinaga’s clan embroidered upon it in gold. Around his waist he wore a thick coil of rope, the sacred tsuna which denoted his purity and fitness to hold the title of yokozuna.
Ahead of Tomitaro marched another wrestler, a man only slightly smaller and wearing a kesho-mawashi that matched that of his master. This man employed a straw broom to sweep the ground before the yokozuna’s feet, a ritual designed to reinforce the appearance of purity on the part of the champion. Behind Tomitaro walked a third wrestler, again garbed like his master. This man didn’t carry a broom but instead held a sword in his arms, a sheathed katana. The sword-bearer and the dewsweeper accompanied the yokozuna to the very edge of the ring, then quietly sat down in the grass.
Both wrestlers circled the ring, facing out towards the audience. At each corner they paused and clapped their hands together, then brought their legs stomping down in an exercise meant to drive off evil spirits. After circling the ring, each wrestler turned to their edge of the arena. One of Junchiro’s monks lifted a ladleful of water to Sentoryu, another monk did the same for Tomitaro. The huge wrestlers rinsed their mouths with the blessed water, then dried their lips with slips of paper inscribed with prayers for victory.
The two men turned back, striding into the ring. Squatting down, the wrestlers stared into each other’s eyes. Each man brought his hands crashing together in a thunderous clap, then slowly spread his arms wide to show his foe he bore no weapon. Again, the two opponents withdrew, returning to the edge of the platform. This time they were given a handful of salt by the monks, which the wrestlers then cast into the ring in a final ritual to purify the dohyo. Sentoryu lumbered back into the ring of sand, taking his place at one of the lines painted there. Tomitaro removed the rope tsuna from his waist, handing it down to his attendants, then took his own place in the ring.
The two wrestlers lowered their huge bodies into a crouch, placing their hands upon the sand. It would be the last such contact allowed – from the start of the sumo, if any part of the wrestler’s body touched the sand other than the soles of his feet, he would lose. Similarly, if either man could force his enemy from the ring, he would defeat his opponent.
Sentoryu studied the hard face of his foe. Tomitaro had held the rank of yokozuna for years, but his accomplishments had not softened him. Sentoryu could see hunger and ambition in the other man’s eyes, the fierce lust for triumph that burned in the challenger’s own heart. It would be no easy thing to break such a savage will, but Sentoryu had known from the start that victory would not come easy.
Almost in unison, the two men roared and flung themselves at each other. The enormous wrestlers crashed together like an avalanche, their massive bodies shaking from the impact. Sentoryu charged headfirst at the yokozuna, crashing against Tomitaro’s belly as the bigger wrestler thrust at the challenger’s chest. The two men emerged from the bone-rattling impact in a fierce grapple, swaying and shifting as each tried to unbalance the other.
Oba turned his head from the sumo, gazing out across the crowd instead. He could not forget Junchiro’s warning about the persistence of demons. Was their ninja here even now? If so, the killer would be sharpening his sword. Most sumo matches were decided in the first charge. Sentoryu had withstood Tomitaro’s initial assault. That meant anyone expecting the ozeki to fall quickly would be getting nervous.
The samurai rested his hand upon the hilt of Koumakiri. He cast his eyes across the arena. The spectators had unfolded fans, displaying the colour of the combatant they favoured. Around the Shogun and his court was a sea of red fans, spreading across the ranks of the hatamoto and daimyo. Only around the Crown Prince could blue fans be seen, and even among the Emperor’s kuge there were pockets of red. Overwhelmingly the crowd favoured the yokozuna, whether out of loyalty to the champion or fear of defying the Shogun.
Oba studied the ranks of the Shogun’s retinue, watching for anything suspicious. Bitterly he cursed himself for a fool. Even if the ninja was working for Yoshinaga, he wouldn’t be hiding among the Shogun’s retainers. The samurai turned his head, watching the pocket of blue fans near the Crown Prince. His brow knitted in concentration as he saw one of the courtiers rise and excuse himself. The action wasn’t particularly unusual, even now there were messengers weaving among the crowd bearing tidings that could not wait even for the sumo. No, it was something he noticed as the kuge unfolded his legs and stood, something that was incongruous with the aristocrat’s silk robes. The kuge was wearing stiff tabi boots beneath his robes.
Oba lifted his eyes to watch Sentoryu trying to get a grip on Tomitaro’s belt, to use the added leverage to knock the huge wrestler down. Quickly he looked back at the kuge. The aristocrat was hurrying quickly through the crowd, but at an angle that would take him away from the arena gates. Oba wondered what the man’s purpose was, then noted the thick wood pillar supporting the roof. The kuge’s attire was flawless except for his shoes. They should have been soft silk slippers with wooden soles, instead they were hardened tabi boots. If it was a disguise, why make such an obvious mistake?
The samurai tightened his grip on his sword and plunged into the sea of red fans, hurrying to intercept the suspicious courtier. Noblemen glared at him as he pushed his way past their seats, jostling elbows and knees as he passed. At another time, in another place, those looks would have been followed by curses, even challenges to duel. Here, however, violence had been forbidden by sacred tradition. Even without the ban, Oba would not have hesitated. He knew why the ninja was wearing tabi boots regardless of their impact on his disguise.
The assassin needed them to climb!
Sentoryu’s breath was an inferno burning through his lungs. Sweat dripped from his face. His muscles felt as though they would rip themselves free of his arms and the vein at his temple felt as though it would burst. Every second felt like an eternity as the yokozuna mauled him with his brawny grip. The huge champion bent the challenger’s body back until it felt his spine would snap, then with a grunt Tomitaro would change tactics, wrenching at Sentoryu’s arm in an effort to spin him off balance.
The ozeki refused to budge. He knew Tomitaro outclassed him in strength and skill. The yokozuna was almost a hundred pounds heavier than his opponent and with such a broad girth that Sentoryu’s arms couldn’t close around his body. There was only one thing Sentoryu felt he had on his side, the determination to win at any cost.
That determination withered a little each time the ozeki looked out across the crowd. All he could see were fans displaying the colour of his foe. The eyes of every great lord in Mu-Thulan were upon this match, watching his every move. Their silent support of the yokozuna was a blow more crushing to Sentoryu’s spirit than Tomitaro’s giant hands were to his body. He had come all this way, achieved so much to become the ozeki, yet as he looked out at the crowd, it was as though he were nothing. Even the support of the Crown Prince and his retainers was bitter to Sentoryu. He knew they cheered him out of spite for the Shogun, not because of anything he had done.
Tomitaro suddenly lurched around, spinning both of the wrestlers. At first it seemed to Sentoryu that the yokozuna had made a mistake. He could see the gyoji thinking the same, the wooden war fan poised in his hand. Then tearing pain shot through Sentoryu’s body and he understood the reason for Tomitaro’s manoeuvre. The yokozuna’s clutching hands had discovered the cuts across Sentoryu’s back where the nue had lashed him with its tail. Now the champion was digging the nail of his thumb into one of the cuts, savagely opening the wound again. Sentoryu could feel blood trickling down his back.
The yokozuna sneered at him, a triumphant gleam in his eyes. Give up, the champion was telling him with that look. Give up, you never should have been here in the first place.
Give up. You are not worthy of being yokozuna.
Oba ploughed through the crowd, desperation in his every step. He climbed over the sitting figures of nobles, headless of rank or caste. Ahead he could see the pillar and the robed figure of the disguised ninja crouching beneath it. The assassin removed a pair of wooden braces from where they had been tied to his legs beneath the robes. As the samurai struggled to force his way through the crowd, he saw the ninja snap the pieces together. His stomach went sick when he recognized the instrument the killer was assembling. It was a recurved bow. The ninja had no need to go to the ring. He would strike Sentoryu down from the back of the arena.
Snarling, the samurai rounded the edge of the crowd. Some of the spectators around him turned in surprise, watching the curious spectacle of the lone samurai confronting the crouching kuge. A few moved to rise from their seats, ready to seize Oba. Sight of the bow in the kuge’s hands made them hesitate. Oba did not wait to let the daimyo make up their mind.
The ninja dropped back as Oba charged him. Deftly twisting his body, he whipped the bow up from the ground, cracking its edge against the samurai’s face. Oba recoiled, shaken by the stunning blow. The fake courtier’s face contorted into a hate-filled mask. Slinging the bow over his shoulder, the ninja picked up his fan, unfolding it. Sunlight gleamed off the sharpened edge of the fan. No instrument of wood and paper, but a deadly weapon of iron and steel.
Scowling at his staggered foe, the ninja lunged at Oba, slashing at him with the iron tessen. The murderous fan’s blade rasped across Oba’s arm as he instinctively tried to block the assassin’s blow. Blood bubbled up from the gash, drenching the sleeve of the samurai’s kimono. A hiss of satisfaction whispered past the ninja’s lips.
The next instant, blood dribbled from the ninja’s mouth. The killer stumbled back, his noble raiment darkening with gore from a deep cut that had slashed him sidewise from shoulder to hip. He stared in amazement at the stained length of Koumakiri in Oba’s hand. The ninja had supposed himself safe from the heavy uchigatana, that no man could draw such a long weapon with such speed. He had not appreciated the skill of the samurai with his blade, a weapon that had become closer to him than his own skin. When Oba had caught the bladed edge of the tessen on his left arm, his right had drawn his sword and struck.
Oba stood over the ninja as he crumpled to the ground, broken and shattered. The bow dangled unused from the assassin’s shoulder, the steel fan fell from trembling fingers. Coughing blood, the dying ninja glared at the samurai.
Sentoryu’s body shuddered as Tomitaro smashed the flat of his hand across the challenger’s chest. The yokozuna tried to shove him back with a series of brutal chops, the noise of their meaty impact echoing through the arena. It was a struggle for Sentoryu to stay standing under the brutal slaps, his feet sliding through the sand. Again, he felt a wave of hopelessness rush through him. It did not matter what he did, he could not win.
He looked out across the crowd, felt sorrow as he saw that sea of red fans. The only men in the entire arena who thought he should be yokozuna were Junchiro and the others of his temple. None of the others cared if he won. To them, he was just another shini-tai, a dead body waiting to be ground underfoot by the real yokozuna.
Resentment boiled up inside Sentoryu. It was he who had trained, who had led a life of seclusion and privation to build body and spirit into that of a wrestler. It was he who had fought across the empire for five years to achieve the rank of ozeki and the right to face the yokozuna. The hopes of the temple were resting upon him. Whatever the crowd thought, Sentoryu knew no man had stood so long against Tomitaro as he had. More, if he had no chance, then why had the ninja tried to murder him?
Sentoryu’s teeth clenched, his arms tightened about Tomitaro’s belt. With an almost superhuman effort, the challenger wrested the champion off the ground, swinging him towards the edge of the ring. Tomitaro’s bulk squirmed in his grasp, trying desperately to wrench free.
The effort was too much for the ozeki. After swinging Tomitaro around for a few steps, he was forced to drop the yokozuna. Tomitaro glared at his foe, his feet only a few inches from the edge of the sand, the referee crouched low, watching him with rapt attention. The champion had never come so close to losing. Panic flashed through his mind, panic he instantly changed to anger.
Grunting like a blood-mad boar, Tomitaro hurled himself at Sentoryu, crashing into the challenger with every ounce of his tremendous weight. The wind rushed from Sentoryu’s lungs and his feet slid in the sand as he was knocked back. Again he could feel Tomitaro’s fingers clawing at his wounds, digging into his flesh where the gyoji could not see.
Others, however, could see Tomitaro’s underhanded tactics. Sentoryu, looked across the crowd and saw some of the red fans close. The spectators might not be willing to support Sentoryu and defy the Shogun, but they had no stomach for a champion who resorted to kinjite – forbidden moves – to win his fights.
The sight brought a smile to the struggling ozeki. His arms came crashing down on Tomitaro’s elbows, forcing the yokozuna to release him. Before the champion could react to the unexpected attack, Sentoryu’s hand cracked across his face. It was the most humiliating move one wrestler could visit upon another, an insult that could not be forgiven. It was Sentoryu’s way of telling Tomitaro that he would fight to the very end.
Oba walked cautiously towards the dying ninja. The assassin’s hand feebly reached into his kimono. Oba drew back a pace, expecting the killer to fling a shuriken or grenade at him. Instead, the ninja’s hand emerged with a golden amulet, a large ruby set into its centre. A twisted smile crawled onto the ninja’s face as he looked into the stone.
The hair stood on the back of Oba’s neck. Without realizing it, the samurai began to retreat from the dying ninja. He could hear a nervous murmur run through those spectators who had turned their backs on the sumo to observe Oba’s fight with the ninja. Whatever black magic was at work, the nobles sensed it too.
“Stop him!” a voice cried out. Oba turned his head to see Junchiro rushing towards him. The priest pointed with his good hand at the crippled ninja. “Don’t let him smash the jewel!”
The old priest’s warning had Oba spinning around. Defying the chill running through his blood, the unreasoning fear gnawing at his mind, the samurai charged the fallen ninja. His attack was swift, but not swift enough.
Oba’s sword lashed out, slicing through the ninja’s head, almost bisecting the assassin’s skull. Even as he struck, however, the assassin’s hand brought the medallion crashing against the ground. The ruby-like jewel exploded into fragments and from its destruction, a greasy grey cloud rose. A stink of brimstone and decay filled the air, gagging all who stood near the ninja’s body. A moaning shriek hissed through Oba’s ears, a slimy that sickened the samurai more than the stench filling his nose.
While the samurai reeled, the grey cloud swept forward and surrounded the ninja’s body. Swiftly the vapour receded into the mutilated corpse, sinking into the lifeless flesh like water into a sponge. A ghastly blue light glowed from the ninja’s dead eyes and the assassin’s body lurched into motion.
“The demon!” Junchiro cried. “It has taken possession of the ninja!” The priest fell to his knees, struggling to recite prayers of protection and exorcism. He winced as he forced his broken arm from its sling, knowing he would need both hands to make the sacred gestures needed to empower his prayers.
Oba was not willing to wait on the priest’s magic. Clenching Koumakiri in both hands, he stalked towards the reanimated corpse. The ninja moved like a marionette whose master was unfamiliar with the strings. The corpse swung first in one direction, then in another. At last its glowing eyes stared into Oba’s. One side of the ninja’s ruined face pulled back in a leering smile.
“One of the Sekigahara,” a slithering voice spoke through the ninja’s lifeless mouth. The eyes shifted to the sword in Oba’s hand. “You would strike us down with that terrible blade?”
“And send your spirit screaming back to hell,” Oba promised.
The demon giggled. “But we know the name of the demon lord you seek,” it told him. “Spare us and we shall tell it to you.”
The samurai well knew the lying ways of demons, but he could not stifle the hope that suddenly rose within him. If the demon told the truth, then he could free the damned soul of his master. Despite everything, he could not allow that chance to slip away. Still, Oba could not completely forsake his honour. “Forget about Sentoryu and my sword will not touch you.”
A harsh laugh answered Oba’s stern demand. “We will not do that, fool samurai. We would not displease the Daitengu.”
Oba lunged at the mocking demon, but the creature was faster. Coiling its legs beneath it, the fiend leaped through the air, colliding with the wooden pillar. The corpse’s legs wrapped around the pillar as the demon unslung the bow from its shoulder.
“Faithless cur!” Oba shouted up at the monster. He swiped his blade at the demon, but the creature was perched higher than he could reach. “Come down here and face me!”
The demon ignored Oba’s threats and curses. Slowly, deliberately, it removed an arrow from under the sleeve of its kimono and nocked it to the string of the bow. Carefully it aimed down the length of the shaft, then loosed the missile.
Sentoryu had forced Tomitaro to the very edge of the sand ring. There was genuine fear in the yokozuna’s eyes now. Seeing that emotion in the champion’s eyes made Sentoryu’s heart pound faster. The yokozuna was already beaten, all that remained was to show make that defeat unquestionable.
Pain seared through Sentoryu’s body. He could hear a collective gasp run through the crowd of nobles. The challenger’s left arm fell limply from Tomitaro’s waist, all sensation driven from it by a cold, withering numbness. He could feel blood gushing down his back. He could not see the black-fletched arrow piercing his back, but he could feel its jagged point grind against his shoulder as he moved.
Shivering as the ninja’s poison oozed through his veins, Sentoryu was thrown back by Tomitaro, flung into the centre of the ring. The ozeki trembled, swaying drunkenly on his feet, struggling to hold his balance.
Casually, making a great show of his lack of concern, Tomitaro strode towards the wounded wrestler. A sharp cry from the gyoji warned the yokozuna that if he touched the arrow it would be counted as kinjite and he would be disqualified. The traditions of sumo had no rules regarding one of the wrestlers being struck from outside the ring, but the referee was determined that Tomitaro would not further exploit such a treacherous act.
The yokozuna spread his hands wide, making it clear he had no intention of using the arrow. The gloating expression on his face told Sentoryu that Tomitaro felt he didn’t need any more advantage over his opponent than he already had. He hesitated as he approached the ozeki, almost as though he was waiting for Sentoryu to collapse all on his own.
Sentoryu’s legs felt like blocks of ice now, the knees quivering beneath his weight. It would be so easy to just drop, to let it all be over. His huge body began to sag, his legs began to buckle. Gritting his teeth, the wrestler forced himself to rise before the teetering motion of his body made him fall.
The challenger blinked in wonder as he looked past Tomitaro and out across the noble audience filling the arena. Where before there had been a sea of red fans, now they had been replaced with blue. Even as he watched, more daimyo and hatamoto reversed the colours they displayed. From his stand, the Shogun scowled down at them, but his displeasure could not keep even some of his own kuge from throwing their favour behind Sentoryu.
It was an act of defiance that touched the ozeki’s soul. His determination, his refusal to accept defeat had inspired the great lords of the empire. He could not allow that faith in him to be betrayed.
With a roar, Sentoryu flung himself at the sneering Tomitaro. The ozeki’s huge bulk crashed into the yokozuna with the force of a typhoon. The surprised champion was sent staggering backwards, arms windmilling as he fought to keep his balance.
Sentoryu did not see Tomitaro retreat. His last effort sent him crashing forward, slamming facefirst into the ring of sand. A final ragged breath wheezed from his body as the ninja’s poison reached his heart, then the ozeki was still.
“Shini-tai!” declared the gyoji.
Tomitaro smiled, nodding with satisfaction. He motioned for his aides to bring him the rope belt that was the mark of the yokozuna’s rank. The referee angrily ripped the tsuna from the wrestler’s fingers. “Shini-tai,” he said again, pointing his wooden fan at Tomitaro’s feet. Sentoryu’s last effort had caused the other man to stumble past the boundary of the ring.
With great solemnity, the purple-robed gyoji walked over to Sentoryu’s body. Bowing, he held the rope belt out to him. It did not matter to the referee that the victor was dead. Sentoryu had fallen only after Tomitaro was knocked from the ring. The dead man had triumphed. He had earned the rank of yokozuna.
Across the arena, the silent crowd rose to their feet and bowed towards the ring. Even the Shogun paid honour to the man who had defeated his champion. There was no disgrace acknowledging the bravery of one who had fought to his dying breath to triumph.
Beneath the wooden pillar, Oba tightened his grip on Koumakiri and threw the sword into the corpse-shell the demon had possessed. Like a javelin, the hurled sword impaled the ninja’s body. There was no harm it could work upon the already dead flesh, but the weight of the heavy blade was enough to drag the demon down from its perch. It crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
Before the demon could rise, Oba leapt upon it. He still had a sword sheathed at his side, the short wakizashi. He drew this weapon across the neck of the possessed corpse, severing the mangled head.
Blue fire continued to shine in the dead eyes of the ninja. The demon infesting the corpse could not use the severed vocal cords to crow its victory, but it pulled the face back into a mocking sneer. Oba slammed the filthy head down on the ground. Dragging Koumakiri from the side of the ninja’s body, he brought the keen edge of the uchigatana slashing down, cleaving the head in half. The blue light vanished as the enchanted sword vanquished the demon’s spirit.
“A fine blow,” Junchiro said, rising to his feet.
“But struck too late,” Oba scolded himself. He had heard the horrified gasp that had swept through the crowd. He knew the demon’s arrow had struck its target.
“Perhaps,” conceded the old priest. He reached for Oba’s arm, turning the samurai around. Oba was shocked to see almost the entire audience displaying blue fans, Sentoryu’s colour. They had their heads bowed towards the ring where the gyoji was presenting the yokozuna’s tsuna to Sentoryu’s sprawled body.
“Sentoryu has won his victory,” Junchiro said. “Without the demon’s arrow, perhaps he would not have found the will to overcome. Who can say.”
Oba shook his head, unwilling to concede any good from such a treacherous act. “Your yokozuna is dead. How will that help hold close the gates of Kimon?”
“Only the body of Sentoryu is dead, his spirit endures. For five years, that spirit will be the yokozuna.” Junchiro smiled sadly. “Maybe the spirit of a dead man will protect the gate better than that of a living one. At least one may pray that it will be so.”
Shintaro Oba stared past the old priest, taking one last look at Sentoryu, cut down in the very instant of his victory. It was a sobering image, one that made him wonder if he too would fall when he finally freed his master’s spirit. He could only hope to die so well.
The samurai’s gaze drifted towards the Shogun’s stand. A grim expression came upon his features.
“Pay my respects when you bury Sentoryu,” Oba told Junchiro. “I’m afraid it would be imprudent for me to linger here now that the sumo is over. My being here has made many people angry,” he explained, thinking of the furious daimyo and hatamoto he had pushed his way past in pursuit of the ninja. He nodded his chin at the bowing Shogun. “Not the least of whom is Yoshinaga.”
The samurai turned and walked towards the gates of the arena. “There are things I must do before I can pay my respects to the Shogun.
“Maybe next time you choose a yokozuna, there won’t be any red fans.”
A digest complied of heroic fantasy stories from the online webzine Lyonesse. My contribution to this first volume is 'Shini-tai' which sees Shintaro Oba helping a sumotori to survive long enough to challenge the yokozuna at a wrestling bout that could change the spiritual landscape of Mu-Thulan and make things harder for the demons that infest the empire.
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