Bo sat on the wet sand watching huge slabs of water break on the beach. The waves were grey and white, like the gulls that called and spiraled above. He stood, wiped the sand from his legs, and walked barefoot toward a tiny hut in the distance. He carried his boots in one hand, sword in the other. Lightning licked the clouds as thunder rumbled above. The sea, as if sensing the imminence of the storm, writhed madly below. Half-remembered lines of childhood doggerel swam into Bo’s memory, ‘Every man was a child once, fearful, and scared of the dark; taking refuge behind his mother’s knee, as the thunder starts to bark...’
The hut was built from drift wood and scavenged flotsam. Smoke trickled from a chimney before being spun away by the wind. Bo knocked at the makeshift door and waited. It opened, revealing an old man, both thin and gaunt, with deep lines on his face from a lifetime of squinting at the horizon. His eyes were the colour of the sea that threatened the beach outside. A thick scar ran diagonally across his face, passing over his left eye, coming to rest on his withered and wrinkled neck.
“I need a place to stay for the evening,” said Bo after bowing to the fisherman. The old man nodded and went back to his place by the fire. He left the door open; Bo took this as a sign of invitation. He had to crouch to enter.
“I have coin,” said Bo, “I can pay for food if you have any.” Again the old man nodded. He pointed an arthritic finger at a steaming pot hanging over the fire. Bo put his boots and sword out of the way. He unslung his knapsack, took out a pouch, and offered some tobacco. They sat listening to the storm while smoking their pipes. Later the fisherman spoke.
“I know who you are. You’re the one they call Bo.”
Bo raised an eyebrow.
“Your sword,” said the old man, “no one in the isles has one like it. Or if they did, they haven’t done enough with it to warrant me knowing about them.”
Bo pulled the gigantic sword closer. He couldn’t unsheathe it, there was no space. He patted the ivory handle instead.
“This is Nigashi,” he said by way of introduction.
“A pleasure I’m sure,” said the fisherman.
It was a remarkable weapon, an Odachi that was two shaku bigger than normal, thus making it five in total. It had been handmade for his great grandfather. Bo had pulled it from his family’s shrine, as his father’s house had burned down around him. He had carried it ever since. Odachi were normally used on horseback, but Bo had taught himself to wield it like a normal blade while standing on his feet. It was deadly, the extra weight, length, and keen edge, could cleave a body in two, just like the wheat that falls before the scythe.
Bo and Nigashi were well known in Jwar. He was a sell-sword, not a Samurai, nor a Ronin; but a free agent. He dealt with problems, problems that others could not solve. That was why he was journeying to Waterfall. They needed help; the newly appointed Daimyo and his men were powerless to kill a beast that plagued the small town. The reward was two thousand gold moons, or so the rumours went. They also claimed it had slain fifty of the Daimyo’s men, always coming after sunset, always taking its victims by surprise. They never knew where it was going to strike next.
Bo was most assuredly not the only sword for hire in Jwar, but he was the best. He had no illusions that others would not try and snatch the purse from under his nose, but it mattered not. Something that has killed that many men would not die easily. It was a dirty business, the mercenary game, but Bo played it better than most.
“So what are you doing in these parts?” asked the old man.
“I’m going to Waterfall to kill the beast.”
The fisherman was noncommittal, as if he heard this sort of thing every day. He took some bowls from a low hanging net and filled them with stew. Bo crossed his legs while he ate. The food was delicious. Hot, salty, and brimming with fresh fish; Bo helped himself to another bowl.
“They say he’s a bad man, the Daimyo of Waterfall, a cruel man,” said the old man. “They call him Lord Blackheart, and every town he governs withers and dies as though touched by the plague.“
“So why do the Shiho keep him in their ranks?” asked Bo.
“Because he funds their war, I suppose, with men and with moons. Who knows how they think,” said the fisherman.
Bo had heard of this Daimyo before, and it was as the fisherman had said; he was a brutal and callous man who taxed the towns under his control too heavily. He was quick to anger, and those who displeased him were hung, or worse. The gates to Waterfall were said to be lined with the heads of his foes. He sent boys as young as twelve to fight alongside the Shiho Clan against Clan Takashi. Bo knew to be wary when dealing with this man, but the offer of thousands of gold moons was far too tempting to be ignored. It could see him live out his days in modest comfort, if he so chose. Bo spooned stew into his mouth, staring intently at the fisherman, thinking of his reason for being here, on the beach, in the hut.
“My father was killed by a monster,” said Bo, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, remembering his father’s bloody death as if it were yesterday. He stared hard at the old man whose eyes were now the colour of the drying herbs that dangled from the smoke filled ceiling.
“Maybe it’s the same one,” said the old man, slurping his meal, looking down.
“Maybe,” said Bo, “but there are many fiends in this world.”
“Aye, that is often the case,” replied the old man.
They ate in silence except for the wind that prowled outside the hut. It darted in and out gaps in the driftwood making the flames dance.
“Do you believe in monsters?” asked Bo while filling his pipe and getting comfortable on the sand floor of the hut.
“I see things,” said the old man pointing in the direction of the sea.
“I’ve fished these waters since I was a boy. There are things out there that scare me.”
“Sharks for one, especially big ones, they terrify me. That’s what killed my father,” said the old man. “One attacked our boat. My father fell into the water where it bit him in half. I was six years old when it happened and I had to swim all the way to shore. I was terrified it was going to get me too. I can’t forget how its eyes’ rolled back in its head before it took him. They were black, lifeless, dead almost.” The old man shuddered at the stolen memory.
“But still you fish?” asked Bo, carefully unsheathing his short blade.
“What else am I to do?”
Bo nodded in agreement. The two men smoked in silence.
“And how did you come by that scar old man? Fishing?”
The man remained silent, he appeared nervous. He looked down at the sand then up again at the sell-sword. Bo noticed his eyes were now the tawny hue of dried leather.
“Got hit by a bailing hook when I was a youngster,” he said eventually, as if trying hard to remember. “Can I get you some more stew?” he asked. Bo shook his head and said,” It’s strange... in fact, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that was done by a sword and not a hook.”
“This?” said the old man pointing to the scar in question; his face colouring ever so slightly as he did so. “No, like I said, I got this working on the docks down Eddo way. Hurt like a devil it did.” He laughed and began to stand, his eyes now blue and as clear as a vaulted summer sky.
“Not so fast,’ said Bo putting his hand on his knee forcing him to sit, “What’s the hurry? I was going to tell you how I came to be here.” The old man smiled grimly and remained seated.
“I was ten when you came to my village with your banners flapping and your swords drawn mimicking the local Daimyo and his Samurai. But before I continue...what did you do with the real fisherman? You killed him and buried him outback, didn’t you?” asked Bo, quietly. The two men sat in silence for several heartbeats. Outside, the storm roared.
“How did you know?” asked the shape-shifter eventually, realising the game was up.
“Your eyes. They’ve gone from grey to brown to blue. And the scar,” said Bo, pointing at it with his short blade,” when I first came in it was left to right, now it’s right to left. Your kind is apt to make mistakes when nervous.”
“How did you find me?”
“Garial. I caught up with him in Kobe where he was pretending to be a merchant. He told me you’d be around here, somewhere. He didn’t give you up easily, I had to torture him first, but he told me your whereabouts in the end. Your lot always do. You mujina might be cruel, but you’re remarkably cowardly. All I had to do was ask around in the village if anyone hadn’t been seen in a while. They told me that old Myoho, the fisherman, hadn’t visited the market in over a week; and here I am.”
“So what happens now?” asked the mujina in a deadpan voice.
“We fight. You die. Simple,” said Bo, shrugging his armoured shoulders. He watched the shape-shifter’s face run like snowmelt until it was smooth and as featureless as a thousand-year-old egg revealing his true self. The mujina pleaded for its life as Bo held his short-blade to its pale neck.
“Ten of you came to my village that day. Ten. You’re number eight... where are the remaining two?” asked Bo quietly.
“What’s in it for me? You’re going to kill me anyway,” hissed the creature.
“True, I am, I’m sworn to punish those that attacked us and killed my father, but I could make it quick, and painless. Or I could draw it out for days like I did with Kia’ll. Choice is yours. Admittedly, it’s not something I would normally do, giving you a choice.”
“Normal? What’s normal about any of this?” asked the quivering mujina.
“I tend to agree with you, normality is an illusion, an idea. What’s normal to the butcher... is terrifying to the pig,” said Bo, pushing his blade deeper into the pallid flesh of the shape-shifter. Bo watched the skin break and tiny drops of blood bead and run down the length of his sharpened blade. Bo waited patiently for the mujina to come to the right decision.
“Tsien is in Waterfall disguised as the new Daimyo,” gushed the mujina eventually. ”I don’t know what happened to Seri. I haven’t seen him in many years.”
“Waterfall?” exclaimed Bo loudly. He tilted his head back and laughed. ” It seems that karma has a sense of humour after all. Now I can kill two monsters with one sword...tell me, what do you know of the beast that stalks that town? Does it have anything to do with you and your, craven Clan?
“No. It is not part of us, all I know is that it has killed many men and that it continues to do so... just as you do. Maybe you’re more alike than you would care to admit.”
Bo stared at the smooth face of the mujina before he slit its throat. The creature’s hands sprung to its neck to stem the gush of blood, but there was naught it could do against such a deep cut. The blood flowed quickly through its pale, entwined fingers, like a river cascading down its chest, falling to the floor of the hut and beading in the sand. The mujina gave a last gurgle then collapsed in the corner on top of a pile of nets. Bo wiped his blade on his dead foe’s robes then pulled the body by its feet out into the rain. Let the crabs deal with it he thought. He came back inside the warmth of the hut and strung a hammock. Eight down, two to go, he said to the fire before Grandfather Sleep took him.