An Eastern sword and sorcery tale. In an ancient Japan that might have been, the old powers recede. Demon and spirit and god – all must choose whether to diminish and serve the White Christ or join the cosmic rebellion of the Enemy. This is a story of that Japan, and of one man who finds himself engaged in the ongoing struggle against errant forces.
A great dark shadow cut through the fading crimson light of the autumn sky and fell ominously onto the rocky mountain path as if barring the way. The weary traveler halted his climb and raised his eyes to examine the imposing stone torii gate up ahead. For a moment the shadow seemed to waver and dance with the cold mountain breeze, and he shivered slightly as he pulled the faded gray kimono tighter about his lean, muscled frame.
He was not a tall man, but his broad shoulders and sinewy limbs hinted at a prodigious strength and the coiled agility of a seasoned hunter. Upon his head a plain sugegasafarmer’s hat made of dried grass covered a dark shock of hair tied messily up in a high knot.
The low, dull roar of a nearby waterfall reached his ears, and he reflected that if he found no well or stream on this path, he may need detour in the morning to refill his skins.
Adjusting the blades at his belt and the large pouch on his shoulder, he resumed his laborious march and cautiously approached the tall pillars of naked rock. The gateway marked what was once, and perhaps still was, divine territory of the old gods. Many of his ancestors’ deities and their spirit servants had retreated to the depths of the earth and sea to wait and slumber dreamlessly. Some, however, still held court in the wilds and shadows and ancient places of the land. Here on Meyama, one of the twin peaks of Mt. Azami, the grimly garbed man sensed both tranquility and danger; abundant life and quick death.
Crossing himself as he passed through the umbra and under the gate, Simeon increased his pace. The wind had changed and no longer carried the scent of sweet olive blossoms, but the unmistakable tang of meat grilling over coal. As he gained the crest of the trail, the traveler was greeted by the sight of a small inn, little more than a shack, its wooden frame old and worn but also sturdy and clean to his eyes. A neat garden of leaks and root vegetables and a prattling spring surrounded by several large, smooth stones lay adjacent. Wisps of dark smoke drifted from a small chimney into the bloody heavens and dispersed into nothingness.
Simeon considered for a moment. The sudden appearance of a sanctuary in this ominous place put him ill-at-ease. Yet the rapidly dying sun impelled him to seek shelter, for there would be no moon this night. He was no coward, but the prospect of facing whatever lingering powers of the darkness dwelt on the mountaintop in the silent pitch of twilight turned his blood cold. Steeling himself, Simeon decided to risk the inn.
Despite the fire and cooking meat, the lodging was cold. As he slid the door closed behind him, the wayfarer’s keen eyes scanned the room. A plain wooden dining table and benches atop smooth earthen floor stood next to a smoking charcoal pit hung with clay pots and a platter of a sweet-smelling meat. Plain, sliding shoji doors indicated the availability of three modest rooms for sleeping. Humble quarters indeed, but suitable at least for keeping out the harsh autumn wind.
“Welcome, honored guest, to my humble establishment,” came a silky voice from the nearest corner of the cottage. Simeon started, and turned to find himself facing a beautiful young woman, her long raven hair flowing freely over her slight, gowned shoulders and down past her elbows. The girl was both slender-limbed and ivory-skinned, and her dark eyes glowed like the coals of the cooking pit as she laughed delightedly at his astonishment.
“I apologize if I surprised you,” she exclaimed, bowing deeply. Her full red lips curled upwards in an amused smile.
Realizing that his hand had drifted to his blade, Simeon released his grip and let his arm drop and slide back into its sleeve.
“Not at all,” he murmured, returning a shallow bow. He glanced about the hut once more, then back at the girl. “This is your inn, my lady? You live here in the mountains, alone?”
She continued to smile and bid him sit. “Not alone. My father dwells here, as well, but he is away for the night. And we are fortunate to entertain the occasional traveler. Pilgrims used to frequent this trail, but…”
The light in her eyes flickered and her voice trailed off, but those scarlet lips remained constant.
Simeon nodded curtly and lowered himself onto the bench, dropping his pack to the floor.
“You must be tired and hungry,” she observed, kneeling beside him. In fact he was, but the nearness and intoxicating, flowery scent of the girl was stirring another appetite, despite his unease.
“You should eat and regain your strength, “she encouraged, slowly sidling closer to him.
Something inside him cried out in silent alarm, and he rose once again to his feet, forcing himself not to leap up out of the seat. A half-smile played over his own lips as hers wavered.
“I’m afraid I am quite exhausted, my lady. For now all I require is a good night’s rest.”
She looked up at him, her lovely, oval face expressionless for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully and smiled once again, this time thinly.
“Of course, sir.” She motioned gracefully to one of the rooms. “Please rest well. And of course pray tell should you need anything at all.”
He thanked her, gathered up his pouch, and retired to one of the rooms. Darkness enveloped him as he pulled the door shut behind him. This would not be a restful night, he lamented to himself. Having removed his weapons from his belt and laid them closeby with his pack, Simeon brought his knees and ankles onto the tatami sleeping mat and lowered his buttocks into a resting position. The windowless room seemed to close in on him and he murmured a prayer before a deep sleep, driven by something more than weariness, overcame him.
He awoke what felt like only a moment later to the desperate warnings of another internal alarm. With a great effort he forced open his heavy lids to find himself lying flat on his back and registering a numbness that spread through his legs and lower extremities. A sickly, pale, green luminescence now flooded the small compartment, and a not unpleasant warmth enveloped his body. Lazily his gaze drifted downward to meet his hostess’ burning eyes. Her soft, lithe form clung to his, and he detachedly realized that she had shed her gown. As before, her blood-red lips smiled.
With a dull, delayed horror, he caught the movement of several hard, black, angular projections, caressing his lower body and occasionally his face.
“This is what you wanted, is it not?” her sultry voice taunted him from far away.
He felt her shifting her weight as she came to rest atop his hardened torso. She began to pull the kimono away from his chest, purring poison, saccharine murmurings into his ear, encouraging him to rest and not to resist. Her words promised pleasure; her voice pain and oblivion.
Suddenly she recoiled and a terrible, piercing scream pealed from her venomous lips. A soft, warm glow radiated from the cold iron crucifix affixed to the chain on his neck, resting now on his quickening heart. A hot pulse of energy surged throughout his body, restoring his senses and his strength.
Immediately he lunged for his brand, throwing the demon woman to the floor. She had recovered enough to break the fall with two of her stygian arachnoid arms and turned to flee, but the warrior was too swift and caught her wicked body with a thrust of sharp steel. This time she collapsed to the ground, writhing briefly as spurts of blue ichor issued forth from her monstrous body.
Meanwhile Simeon’s attack had brought him to his feet, but his lower limbs refused further command. He, too, fell heavily downward. Strength and consciousness left him once more.
Some time late the next morning the warrior awoke again amid the ruins of an old, dilapidated shack surrounded by weeds and large, deserted rocks. The gorge rose in his throat as he propped himself up off the ground and looked upon the pierced remains of a gigantic black spider, its mangled yellow-and-red-patterned abdomen at least two feet in length and its knifelike limbs contorted and beginning to curl inwards.
He scowled in disgust and turned away to inspect his own legs. Feeling had returned, but he now saw that they had been bound up to his shins in threads of tightly woven silk. Simeon dragged himself to the pile of twigs which had appeared before as a sleeping mat and drew forth his tanto, using the short blade to saw through the binding.
Having freed himself, he cleaned off his sword and dagger, muttered a prayer of thanks, and turned his attention to the nearby spring, which had apparently been no illusion. The previous day’s hike and exorcism of the jorogumo were thirsty work, and Simeon decided to obey the exhortations of his parched throat and dry lips. It was clean and pure as any mountain source he had ever tasted, so he and his skins both had their fill. He had gathered his possessions and was about to move on when something caught his eye – the pale reflection of the morning sun on dull metal flickering faintly from behind a crumbled wooden beam.
Simeon approached and found himself looking gravely down at an arm-length woodcutter’s axe lying alongside a man-sized cocoon. He sucked in his breath, drew his knife once more, and crouched down to cut free the man’s face. After a few brief moments of suspense, he resheathed the blade and let loose a sigh. This was not the man he was hunting. Anxious as he was to be on his way, Simeon collected some stones and raised a small cairn for the poor soul.
“Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace,” he uttered, recalling the words he had heard so many times from the lips of priests and the warrior brothers of Heian-kyo, the capital city.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Having scoured the heights of Meyama, Simeon began the descent into the valley between the two great, green ridges. On the morrow he would seek his quarry atop Oyama, the second of the twin mounts. He had spotted signs of Sogo the Bonze and knew that he was growing near, but something told him that their encounter would not take place in the vale.
As the velvet curtain of night began to fall and pearls of the sky came winking into being, Simeon sat and stoked a small fire fueled by branch and shrub. The crescent moon had returned in bright, silvery splendor to bathe the lowlands in its cold light. The warrior gazed up at the curved blade of heaven as he supped upon dried fish and scavenged berries. Was it a sign of what was yet to come?
A rustling sound jarred him from his thoughts. He had made his camp only slightly off of the old pilgrims’ trail that led his way, making no great effort to conceal his presence. And now someone or something approached. Calmly Simeon reached for his longsword, leaving it sheathed but ready to draw at an instant’s need.
Then a large, barrel-bellied hillock of a man burst through the greenery, heaving a large pack on his back, from which hung several straw-woven baskets and a hat of similar fashion to Simeon’s own. His great, tan, bald head shimmered in the moonlight like a polished tiger’s eye gemstone, and a braided black beard of impressive length sprouted from his chin and flowed over a modest, ruddy brown kimono.
“Ho there!” he bellowed, stepping into the flickering amber luminescence. He gave a short bow and began to heave the bulging load from his large shoulders.
“Is there room at your fire for one more?” he asked cursorily, setting down the pack and eyeing Simeon’s fish.
The warrior silently motioned for the large man to join him, lowering his sword arm but not his guard.
“This route is getting to be more trouble than it’s worth,” the man grumbled with a chuckle and a head jerk to the many baskets dangling loosely from his bag. He lowered himself heavily to the ground beside the large bundle.
“Used to be an honest man could sell as many baskets as he could weave,” he continued, his eyes returning hungrily to the fish. “And these mountains weren’t near as perilous.”
Simeon nodded. “It is a time of change. Many high and low parts of the land have become wild again.”
“Wild,” the merchant replied, “and haunted.”
They both fell silent for several moments. Noting the intensity of his gaze upon the victuals, Simeon offered the other man a portion of fish. The large one grinned gratefully and wasted little time in devouring the gift.
“So tell me,” the merchant spoke, sucking the tips of his fingers at intervals between words, “You’re obviously not a trader, nor a pilgrim.” His deep, shrewd eyes seemed to penetrate Simeon’s. “What brings a fighting man to Azami-san?”
Simeon shifted uncomfortably, considering both his answer and this curious man who had appeared from the woods of the lowland as if out of nowhere. “I seek a man,” he finally replied.
The basketmaker smiled faintly and began to stroke his long beard. “That could prove difficult. This trail is mostly abandoned, but there are many caves and refuges among the peaks.”
“His tracks will guide me. Though his path has wandered strange at times, the signs of his going are clear enough.”
The two fell quiet once again, each appraising the other.
Finally the merchant spoke up. “Tell me, who is this man you seek, and for what purpose?”
Simeon decided that if this were a trap of some sort, deceit would profit him nothing. Were his pursuit already known, surely this stranger would effect little difference. And were he to attempt at warning Simeon’s quarry, this mammoth of a man would provide a clearer trail than that which he now followed.
“I am pursuing a monk by the name of Sogo, from the village of Tenkawa. He recently lead a resurgence of the Ikko-ikki at the old temple there. The rebellion has been put down, but he was personally responsible for the deaths of three men of the cloth, one of whom was visiting from Rome.”
His eyes ablaze with the fire of the zealot, Simeon’s gaze dared the larger man to offer challenge.
“I have been personally charged with dispensing the king’s justice. Sogo will either accompany me back to the capital to meet it, or else find it at the edge of my sword.”
The merchant nodded gravely. “There are those of both worlds who refuse to see the truth. Things have indeed changed,” he muttered mysteriously. His own eyes sparkling with a fairy fire to match the brightness of the fighter’s, his large round face suddenly took on a sharp, animal aspect.
Simeon jumped to his feet and reached once again to his blade’s handle. “By God, who are you?” he demanded of the stranger.
The large man’s face was entirely human once more and grinning with a somehow tragic mirth. “In nomine Jesu, I am not your enemy, Simeon Ukon Omura! See that I speak His name with gladness,” he boomed. “The time of the old gods is passed. There are some few of us who cleave not to shadow and flame, but choose to serve Him in our diminishment.”
Taken aback, the warrior stooped back to the fire and listened to the strange words of the bearded one.
“My name would mean little to you, Simeon. But know that I am one who was saved long ago by Shigemori of Taira, ancestor to your lord Oda now called Dom Peter. In service to the White Christ and in gratitude to that debt, it was I who bore the message that saved his father Nobunaga’s life from betrayal and death at the hands of his general.”
“You are a just man and compassionate in your way, though there is a hardness about you, Simeon,” he continued. “It was a kind of you to bury the woodcutter upon the mountain. And to share your meal with a stranger. Therefore I will offer aid to to you, who serve the descendants of Taira. But I caution you, samurai, not to presume to know the will of the Lord. You are perhaps too lusty for blood.”
Simeon looked on and listened in astonishment, noticing now the otherworldliness and ancient yet ageless features of his companion, but at this rebuke he bristled.
“The Lord laughs at the wicked man, for he sees that his day is coming,” he answered sharply.
The creature wearing the shape of a man chuckled once again. “‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ sayeth the Lord. ‘But rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” It is indeed unlikely that Sogo will repent, and justice must be done, but do not forget the mercy of the Christ. But I will say no more on this.”
As the old one turned and began to rifle through his pack, Simeon lowered his eyes to the fire, thinking deeply on these words. Presently the creature stood and lifted the basket-laden bag to his shoulder. “You will find the monk in a small cave on the eastern face of Oyama, just above its base. The place is not far from an old hunting trail.”
“I will find it,” replied Simeon, standing as well to offer a bow.
The strange one extended a large hand, holding out a small wooden whistle fashioned from dried bamboo. “You may need this. I fear the bonze may have entreated an old spirit of the mountain for aid. They are unpredictable, but may be sympathetic to him. If you encounter this spectre, know that she will be more difficult to drive off than the spider demon.”
He returned Simeon’s bow and smiled benignly. “And so farewell. Thank you for the fish,” he laughed. With that, he waded back through the dense shrubbery and melted into the night from whence he had come. Simeon was alone once more, companioned only by the voice of the wind in the trees and the cricketsong of the valley.
Thinking on the strange events of the past two days and the danger to come, the hunter laid his head against a stone and eventually fell into a light, uneasy slumber.
The next morning Simeon rose before the sun and was at the base of Oyama as ruby light began to flood the tree-spotted, carpeted green edge of the vale. Finding easily the hunting trail his visitor had spoken of, he dropped his pack and, stashing the reed in the sash of his kimono, proceeded up the mountainside. It wasn’t long before he spotted a yawning gash in the rock face.
Well that Heaven had sent him help, he thought to himself, for Sogo’s tracks had abruptly tapered off and vanished some time ago. He might never have found the monk here.
He saw no sign that the cavern was inhabited, but this meant little. Drawing forth his longblade, Simeon called out fiercely. “Sogo the Bonze! I am Simeon Ukon Omura, come in the name of the King Peter! Come out and face justice!”
The only reply from within the stone mouth was the menacing echo of his exhortation. Still he remained where he stood, sword ready.
“I will enter presently and collect you if necessary, monk! But it will be said that Sogo died a coward, willing only to face old, unarmed priests!”
Simeon began to pace slowly toward the cave entrance when he heard the scuffling of sandals on gravel within. Then the monk emerged, drawing out of the shadow and into the faint coppery glow of the nascent daylight. He was a tall man, his head cleanly shaven and his face sharp and cruel. He wore the customary black over white robes of a shinto monk. In his right hand he hefted a long polearm. The fearful, crescent dagger-length blade of the naginata shimmered even in the dimness of the morning, and Simeon could tell that it was sharp and deadly.
His other hand clutched a curious white orb, lustrous and brilliant as a pearl, but large as a melon. This puzzled the warrior, but there was no time to ponder its nature.
“Nothing will be said of Sogo’s death,” the monk answered hotly. “For it will be Simeon Ukon Omura who dies here!” Crying out wildly, he charged down the short rocky slope to meet the warrior.
Simeon’s first thought was that this monk was a fool indeed, to wield a naginata with one hand in a reckless charge on an opponent. But rather than stand against the assault and deliver what should be a simple and fatal parry, instep, and counterblow, he heeded an instinctual call for caution, and instead gave ground and attempted to block and sidestep the attack. The strength of the blow from above nearly dropped him to his knees, however.
With astonishing speed, Sogo whipped the polearm back up and brought its blade back and twirling sideways to Simeon’s left. The warrior’s arms cried out in pain as he blocked the assault, and his teeth chattered from the impact of the attack . He scrambled further back down the rocks, barely keeping his footing.
There was something inhuman and vulpine about the monk’s face, and Simeon remembered the words of his helper.
Fending off another attack both strong and quick as lightning, he cried out in fury. “I bid you be gone, spirit, in the name of the White Christ Jesu! Do not interfere!” He quickly pulled at this kimono to reveal the small crucifix at his breast.
Sogo, or whatever had taken on his shape, staggered backwards as if physically struck, his onslaught halted. He scowled, hesitating, but then sneered menacingly. “Curios and words! You lack the power to stop me.” He started forward again to renew his attack.
Before he could bring the powerful bladed hook to bear, however, Simeon had hastily withdrawn the bamboo whistle and put it to his lips. Rather than the shrill piping he had expected, a terrible baying thunder exploded forth from the small reed. The burst of sound was as the rallying cry of some devil hound, calling pack and master to the hunt.
Sogo’s eyes grew impossibly wide in horror and surprise, his face pale and drawn. For a heartbeat his head was that of a great fox. Seven spectral tails flickered behind him as wisps of dim blue smoke and disappeared, and suddenly the shining, milky orb was gone from his left hand. The monk fell to his knees with a whimper, and Simeon knew the spirit had fled.
Simeon circled his stunned opponent slowly, positioning himself now on equally elevated ground. “It’s over. Surrender now and you may die with honor,” he urged.
The monk raised his face, now somehow flatter and less aggressively shaped, and met Simeon’s eyes. The bonze’s gaze burned with a cold intensity and a hate that chilled the samurai’s blood. Leaning on his naginata, he slowly lifted one leg, shifting into a position of genuflexion. “Honor!” he spat. “What know you of honor?”
He continued to pull himself up off the ground, and Simeon allowed him to do so.
“You and your king – you welcome foreigners to rape your lands and write your destiny. You displace the old gods of Nippon for that of the Christians. And you disgrace the memory of your ancestors.”
He stood, brandishing his polearm with both hands. The warrior-monk was tall and perhaps once strong, but now looked only wan and wrung of his vitality. Still, his eyes were bright and dangerous.
“We each write our own destiny,” Simeon replied, raising his blade. “Sometimes in blood, as you did in Tenkawa.”
Sogo answered with a downward, hooking thrust of his blade, aimed at the samurai’s right leg. The attack was easily deflected, the monk’s strength and speed now no match for Simeon’s. Patiently the samurai batted away several more blows, exercising the caution of a seasoned duelist. Although Simeon was obviously the more skilled fighter, he recognized a certain cunning in the way the monk aimed his attacks and controlled the speed and force of his blows, and realized that a premature counterstrike would mean his death.
Several more times the monk buffeted at the unbreakable fortress of steel, leaving false openings that the swordsman recognized as cleverly baited traps.
Then the long, curved pole of the naginata slipped from the grip of Sogo’s right hand, and he loudly sucked air as if in surprise and dismay. Instantly Simeon saw his antagonist’s mind. With savage speed he smacked aside the polearm and stepped into the monk’s inner circle. Sogo had pulled forth a knife from his sash to greet the samurai, but Simeon was quicker and his tanto of greater reach. Before the bonze could sufficiently raise his hidden attack, Simeon’s short blade was sheathed in his chest.
For the second and final time, the monk slumped to the ground, the knife and naginataboth falling from his hands and clattering onto the gravel of the mountainside. The samurai swiftly withdrew the blade and grabbed at the dying man’s shoulder to slow his collapse. Lying on the rocky mount, the emptying of his lifeblood draining his face of what little color it still possessed, Sogo stared up at the red brilliance of the fiery dawning sky. His eyes were no longer filled with hate, but with fear.
“We will always remember the old ways,” Simeon whispered, looking down gravely at his vanquished foe. “But their time has passed.”
Neither Simeon nor Sogo the Bonze spoke further. The samurai remained with him until he expired, and then erected a humble mound of stones and said a short prayer. Simeon was content that justice had been served, and yet he felt no gladness. Only pity.
And so he departed Mt. Azami and began his journey back to the capital. There was much to report to the king.