III. Sunlight and Shadows. The Ghost in the Ruins.
Bo woke before the sun. He ate the left-over stew then took a large net from a pile in the corner, the pile not drenched in the shape-shifter’s blood. He had a feeling the net might come in handy. Bo took one last look at the body of the crab covered mujina, then turned and began his walk inland toward Waterfall. Soon he was engulfed in a sea of corn that flowed around him with its green stalks waving in the breeze. His shadow flapped and rippled over the crop like a crow in flight.
Fertile land he thought, a man could make a good home for himself out here, away from the cities and the prying eyes of the Prefecture; but Bo knew it was naught but wishful thinking. It was not in him to settle; too much to see, too many places to visit. There were still blank spots on his maps he longed to fill. Since his father had been killed, his sword had become his sole means of earning coin, and Bo was constantly on the move. Besides, if he settled down, who would kill the monsters?
He followed the dusty wheel--__scarred road that ran between the corn fields. It dipped and rose, following the contours of the land. He watched his shadow grow, then shrink, then grow again as the sun began to set. He made camp in a forest that lay on the slope of a gentle hill. He had caught and dressed some rabbits that afternoon. Bo fashioned a crude spit and roasted them over the flames while he polished his sword. Bo sat with his back to a setting sun that painted the fields gold, then orange. In the east, the sky darkened slowly from purple to ebony, revealing the first of the evening’s stars. He rolled out a patched blanket and lay on his side gazing into the embers of the fire.
That night, as he slept, he was woken by the ghost of his father who sat cross-legged before him. The apparition shimmered faintly under the starlight, cheeks wet with grief. He wore armour that was all but destroyed. The chest plate hung askew and Bo could see his bony chest beneath it. There was a thick red line across his stomach from which his intestines peeked. He stared at Bo with such misery and defeat as he plunged his hands into that hole, drawing his guts out slowly, as if pulling on a rope. He stuffed them in his mouth and chewed them like a rabid dog, each mouthful more desperate than the last. Then he spoke.
“Son, it tastes so bitter, so bitter,” he wailed, “I cannot find the door to leave this cursed place. We are cold and so very hungry, but it is so bitter!” he shrieked.
Bo knew what his father wanted. He had seen this spectacle countless times before. He sought revenge, they all did. A line of phantasms snaked its way outward from his campfire; all of them suffering in their own private hell. “I will do my best, as my honour prescribes I should,” said Bo, bowing his head in reverence to his deceased father, and his spectral companions.
“You must avenge me, avenge us. Avenge our deaths at the hands of those creatures,” his father pleaded. “Take that mighty sword you have and slay them. Kill them all. Only then can we rest. Oh, but it is so bitter my son...so very bitter,” he said, his voice trailing away as the first rays of sunlight coloured the horizon. One by one, the ghosts vanished like wisps of fog in a stiff breeze. Bo took to the road again and was in Waterfall before night fall.
IV. Waterfall. The Inn of the Sell-Swords.
It was an ugly town made even uglier by the grim expressions on the people’s faces, thought Bo. He passed a Samurai leading a funeral procession, ringing bells` in counter-point to the beat of the funeral drums that sounded the way. A large plough-horse came last, pulling a wagon filled with the recently deceased. Bo took a moment to bow and show his respect. He saluted the dead with a fist over his heart. Several crows roosting on the rim of the wagon cawed at Bo as the funeral corsage passed him by; their calls almost accusatory in nature.
Houses, more like hovels, Bo decided, stuck up from the muddy ground like broken teeth. There were a few people out and about, who glanced furtively over their shoulders at the stranger among them. Their children scampered before him like mice in search of their hidey-holes. There was no sign of the waterfall that gave the town its name, and he failed to see any heads on spikes either; in fact, there weren’t even any gates. Waterfall started where the grass ran out, and the piles of refuse began.
Further down a muddy road he heard snatches of drunken song coming from what he took to be an inn. The singing was offset by the cooing of painted ladies standing outside, each vying for his attention. Their fans fluttered at their faces like moths before a flame. He approached the inn with caution. Strong liquor and swords could be a deadly combination. He pushed the door open, surveying the room. The floor was stained with blood. The noise was raucous, with many of the patrons staggeringly drunk; their conversations came to a slurring halt the moment they saw him enter. Heads turned to stare as they recognised who he was. Then the whispers started. The room was lit by badly trimmed lanterns that gave off tendrils of thick black smoke. Huge swathes of darkness clung to the corners of the common room. Like the town, the tavern had seen better days.
He knew sell-swords when he saw them, and this room was full of them all hoping to win the reward. He eyed up the competition. There were bows and blades, sickles and spears; every weapon under the sun was on display. The conversation went back to normal and soon they forgot all about him. At a table by the door, a group of men raised a drunken cheer. Bo walked between the crowded tables toward a wooden horseshoe-shaped counter.
“What can I get you?” shouted the barkeep over the din, wiping his hands on a filthy rag. Thick pox scars clung to his face like exposed mussels on the rocks at low tide. His hair was pulled up into a severe topknot and he was missing his front teeth, it made him whistle slightly as he spoke.
“I’ll have a mug of the local brew,” said Bo sliding a silver moon over the scarred counter.
“I don’t have change for that,” whistled Top-knot. Bo knew he was lying but kept it to himself.
“Well in that case, give me the bottle.”
Bo unslung his sword and made a point of putting it on the counter, slowly. He wanted as many people in the room to see it in the hope they would leave him alone. The innkeeper poured juniper-scented liquor into a cup then left the sweating bottle on the counter. Bo drained the cup in one; it burned all the way down his gullet, but Bo just smiled, disappointing the innkeeper who was waiting for a reaction to his strong homemade brew.
“I make this stuff myself you know. I call it the ‘monks tears’,” said Top-Knot proudly.
“That reminds me, is there a temple nearby?” asked Bo, “I want to make an offering.”
“Follow the road. You’ll find one in the trees at the end of it.”
Bo nodded his thanks.
“Keep the bottle for me, I’ll be back later.”
The barman took the bottle and put it beneath the counter.
“Oh, and I’m going to need a room for the evening,” said Bo.
“Sorry,” said Top-knot, “we’re full at the moment. All this death is good for business,” said the proprietor.
“I bet it is,” said Bo, “have you seen the beast?” asked Bo, pointing at the man’s chest as he wiped the counter down.
“Me? No, and thank the gods I haven’t. I wouldn’t know what to do if I did. I’m an innkeeper, not a warrior. I’d smash it on the head with a bottle and run away probably.”
Bo laughed at that. Top-knot whistled along with him.
“But seriously,” said Bo, “someone must have seen something.”
“Not that I know of, just the usual foolishness. It’s a dragon, it’s a demon, it’s someone’s mother-in-law from all accounts. Truth is, no one knows anything. It started around six months ago; every other night men were found torn to pieces, and left in bloody piles. Soldiers, commoners, you name it. It seems that it’s not choosy whatever it is. It stopped for a while, but then it attacked the Daimyo’s festival hall killing everyone inside. That’s when he put up the reward and I’ve been full ever since. You won’t believe how far some of these men have come,” said the innkeeper pointing at the drunken mob that filled his establishment. He seemed almost proud of the throng.
If only the innkeeper knew what these men were capable of thought Bo; he wouldn’t let them within ten miles of the place, let alone sleep under his roof. Most of them would kill their own mother for coin, and some probably already had.
“And no matter how many die, more keep coming,” continued the innkeeper, barely able to conceal his amazement.
“Oh, I can believe it,” said Bo. “It’s not every day you have such a handsome reward on offer.”
“I wouldn’t mind that whore’s son having to pay it though, that’s for sure.” He leaned closer to Bo.
“What do you mean?” asked Bo.
“He’s a tight-fisted bastard and a coward. He’s been holed up behind his walls since this started,” spat the innkeeper, “Good luck getting anything out of him.”
”On second thoughts, you’d better give me my bottle. In fact, make it two,” said Bo. He put another coin on the counter. Bo placed the two bottles carefully in his knapsack, grabbed his sword from the bar, and went to look for the temple.