V. Of Black Stones and Forgotten Buddhas. The Beast Comes. Courage and Rectitude.
In the morning the sky was baleful; skittish clouds and orange thunderheads stacked up on the horizon. Kaidan and Bo stood at the smouldering remains of the inn. Charred beams, like tossed yarrow sticks, lay criss-crossed over one another, resembling the I-Ching’s symbol for loss. The cloying smell of burnt hair and flesh was everywhere.
“What happened here?” asked Bo.
A young man, part of a gathering crowd of onlookers, stepped forward and said,” The beast came again. It ripped the doors off the walls then slew all that it found inside... I think a lantern was knocked over. Had it not been for that rain storm, the entire town would have gone up in flames. I saw the whole thing from across the road.” The man pointed with his thumb over his shoulder.
“What do you see, Bo?” asked Kaidan.
“Death,” said Bo quietly, overturning a broken sword with his boot. There were several smoking corpses gathered around where the bar would have been. He wondered which one of them was the man with the top-knot.
The beast had done him one favour though, a much unanticipated one; it had taken care of his competition for him. Bo was now on his own, whether he liked it or not.
“And did you see the beast?” Bo asked the man.
He shook his head. “No, but I heard it... it, bellowed. Like a bull.”
Kaidan stood leaning on his staff as Bo walked the muddy perimeter of the inn looking for something, anything to tell him more about the beast that had caused this destruction. He bent to pick up a blackened lantern and was rewarded by the sight of an unusual footprint beneath it.
“I think I have something here,” shouted Bo.
“What is it?”
“A footprint, and a big one at that; it’s clawed like a bear’s, but more angular towards the heel, human almost,” said Bo kneeling, examining the mark more closely. He was excited; at last he had something to work with. Bo carried the lantern absentmindedly as he followed the trail down the street and up the small path that passed by the smithy. The footprints went all the way up the hill through the standing stones, under the ancient tree, stopping beneath a large jagged stone twice Bo’s size that reminded him of a shark’s tooth. Bo ran his hand over the flaking black rock slick with dew. He felt a strange sensation; as if he were standing in a long corridor that whipsawed under his feet throwing him from side to side. He felt buffeted by a strong wind that blew through the imaginary passageway in his mind. The feeling he got was that it led to a dead place, a place of ancient dreams that were as dry and dusty as the scrolls housed in the Temple of Light. Bo wasn’t sure what it was, but it stopped the moment he let go of the damp stone. A crow sounded its disgust at being disturbed; he watched it take flight into the overcast sky. Off to one side, almost as an afterthought, was a statue of Lord Buddha that Bo hadn’t spotted from the road. It felt out of place amongst such primal imagery.
“The footprints stop at the largest stone Kaidan, what kind of place is this anyway?” asked Bo wiping his wet hand on his legs.
“An old one,” said Kaidan. “My master said it was an ancient site of human sacrifice and best left alone. But when the new Daimyo came, he began executing prisoners here. It’s an awful place,” said Kaidan quietly, the discomfort audible in his voice. Kaidan pulled his robes around him and shivered, as if he were standing in a cold, harsh, wind.
“I need another favour from you, brother Kaidan,” said Bo.
“Anything, Bo. What can I do?”
“I need you to go door to door and tell the people to light no light tonight, nor make no sound. I need us to be the only ones making a racket. When you’re done, meet me back here; there is much work to be done.” He watched the monk walk down the hill with his robes catching in the wind. Bo and Kaidan spent the remainder of the day preparing for the clash that lay ahead. When done, they retired to the temple an hour before sunset.
“Will you have something to eat, Bo?” asked Kaidan, standing over a steaming pot.
“No thank you, I fight better on an empty stomach,” said Bo as he rubbed lamp-black on his hands and face and sword blade. He wore an old lamentation robe over his armour; now more grey than black, but it would help Bo remain undetected in the dark. Kaidan was dressed the same, but with a Biwa strung over his back instead of a massive two-handed sword. When they had finished their preparations, the two men walked slowly through the darkened town toward the hill. Their thoughts focused on way lay ahead.
“No matter what happens, I want you to stay in the tree, Kaidan, don’t come down, understand? Play only until the beast arrives, then no more.”
“Fear not, brother, I will be as silent as the grave...sorry, that’s a poor choice of words,” said Kaidan laughing, and slapping Bo on his armoured back in apology, “I’ll be as silent as I can.”
The sell-sword laughed too. He had come to enjoy Kaidan’s companionship, which was strange for Bo who had always been a loner. They walked up the path that led to the hill where Bo planned for this to play out, and hopefully, if the Kami were kind, in his and Kaidan’s favour.
They skirted the gallows tree, under which Bo had placed their trap. He had laid the fisherman’s net out on the bald spot beneath the noose. It was here that hanging victims kicked the earth as they were pulled up by the rope, then left to hang in the tree until dead. He had concealed the net with grass, fallen leaves, and piles of dirt. The net was attached to ballast, and the ropes wound around the thickest branches of the tree. All Bo had to do was to wait until the beast reached its centre, before releasing the weight. The net would close, and the monster would be pulled up into the tree. Once there, Bo and Kaidan could dispatch the beast safely from below. That was his plan anyway, but Bo was seasoned enough to know that every plan goes awry after first contact with the enemy.
They had stuck thirteen torches into the ground between the standing stones. As Kaidan climbed the tree, using his Ki to sense the world around him, Bo sat in front of the forgotten statue of Buddha and offered up a prayer.
“Know that I am Bo, and tonight I seek to rid this village of what ails it. Hear my words and guide my blade to restore the balance to this place.” He bowed courteously to the unseen host of Buddhas both past and present then stood, and lit the torches one by one. The flames were pulled horizontally by the breeze. He sat in the shadows beside the path to the village, with his naked blade across his legs. Behind him, the village was dark and silent. No sound carried on the wind, except for the creaking of the ancient tree before him. He shouted to Kaidan to begin his playing as the moon rose languidly over the horizon; not yet full, but Bo was glad for the extra light that it afforded.
Kaidan played and sang; his voice strong and sure, belying how he felt inside. Before long, Bo felt the hairs on his neck rise. They were not alone. Bo knew that to see things in the dark, you mustn’t stare straight at it, but to its side, so he focused on a spot just left of the black standing stone, and saw the darkness shift and swirl and give birth to a creature more fearsome than he imagined. Kaidan, sensing the arrival of the creature, stopped playing. His last note hung in the air like the screeching of a rutting tom-cat.
Bo watched as the beast took shape, transforming shadow into flesh. It stood tall and wide, and carried a huge hammer with a wooden head that was the size of a cask of rice-wine, and banded with iron spikes that caught the glare from the torches and threw them back at the night.
The beast tilted its horned head backward and sniffed the air. It held its fearsome weapon at the ready and walked forward cautiously into the ring of stones.
It was an Oni...