IV. The Standing Stones of the Hangman’s Hill. The Temple under the Trees.
Outside, the heat of the day waned as purple shadows bloomed and pooled together at the base of the buildings. The town looked slovenly and run down, as if no one took pride of ownership anymore. Maybe, because of all the extra taxes, there was simply not enough coin to go around; hard times, made even harder by the beast that stalked them, Bo thought.
He passed several derelict dwellings on his way to the temple; whether the owners had been killed, or simply left Waterfall for somewhere safer, Bo had no way of knowing. Their doors and walls were daubed with wards of superstitious protection. On his right was a blacksmith’s stall, the smith was head down and hammering on a piece of steel; his arms bulging with every blow. Sparks flew like fireflies as he pumped the wheezing bellows with his foot. The sound of metal on metal echoed off the emptiness of the street spinning the noise upward to a fading sky. A small path, between the smithy and a closed feed store, led toward a low hill.
On top of the mound was a ring of broken stones that stood in stark silhouette against the rising dark, and in the centre of this, an old tree, hunched forward and naked with age. A noose, hanging from the stoutest branch, spun in the evening breeze. It looked eerily similar to the kanji for ill-omen thought Bo; with the thin black line of the hangman’s noose at its centre. Bo continued to the temple.
At the end of the road was a small copse of trees, and beyond that, the Daimyo’s residence. It shone and sparkled in the setting sun, radiating wealth and opulence; the opposite of everything Bo had seen so far. Freshly lit torches flared and spluttered while archers patrolled its crenellated walls. There were groups of heavily armed men camped outside its stout, wooden gates. Flags, bearing the sigil of the Shiho Clan, snapped in the light wind. Lord Black Heart’s taking no chances, thought Bo, sarcastically. He shook his head at the thought of a mujina pretending to be their Daimyo.
He felt the temperature drop as he walked under the trees and up the path to the temple. Night rose like the closing of a giant eye as the lights from the sanctuary sparkled through the foliage. He passed under the gaze of somnolent stone Buddhas that lined both sides of the paved pathway. They were stained with age and their cheeks stubbled by verdant moss. A large pond, filled with turtles of all sizes, stood in a courtyard at the bottom of steps that led up to the temple. Two fu-dogs of polished white marble sat on either side of the steps, standing guard against the terrors of the night. He patted their heads for good luck.
Bo heard chanting from within. He mounted steps worn smooth by countless visitors, stopping just outside the door in respect. Inside the temple, candles and incense burned from every available surface. The roof beams were blackened by years of smoke from the burning braziers. A pantheon of carved wooden gods pressed tightly together inside the confines of the humble temple. They swelled then diminished in the wavering candlelight; their judgemental gaze focused intently at the altar in the middle of the room. A robed monk sat in the lotus position before an intricately carved butsudan; its opened doors revealed a Gohonzon with the words, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo written down the centre in kanji form. It was these very words that the monk was reciting over, and over again, as he performed his evening prayers. To Bo, the recitation sounded like the buzzing of bees. The monk reached for a small wooden stick, then struck a bowl-shaped bell seven times. His prayers over, he stood and turned to face his visitor.
“Hai, who comes?” asked the monk. “I can hear your breathing.”
The monk was at least a head taller than Bo. His receding hair framed a large forehead and a sharp nose. Bo could see at once that he was blind.
“My name is Bo, and I have come to make an offering,” said Bo bowing to the sightless monk.
“That is very kind Bo,” said the monk. “I will gladly accept it. Lately, donations are all but forgotten.”
Bo pressed coins into the monk’s hand.
“That is very generous brother, thank you. Come sit and tell me about yourself. I so seldom receive visitors these days.”
“You’d think that in times like these, people would be coming here in droves,” said Bo, sitting on a woven mat in front of the butsudan.
“Not the case I’m afraid. They tend to pull within themselves, as the tortoise does when under attack,” said the monk sitting beside him. “My name is Kaidan,” he added. “But where are my manners, brother? Can I perhaps make you some tea? I have a delightful blend that I grow myself; just the thing to raise your spirits after a long day on the road. I take it you’ve come far?”
“Very far. I followed the coast road all the way up from the Hanging Lands turning inland at Lover’s Point.”
“That is far,” said Kaidan nodding his head in agreement,” Let me get a fire going for the tea,” he said, about to stand up.
Bo placed his hand on the monk’s knee and said, “Never mind, I’ve brought some refreshment of my own. Would you care to try some?” Bo pulled out the bottle from the inn, uncorked it, and guided it carefully between the monk’s outstretched hands. The monk took the bottle and passed it under his nose, his nostrils flared as he took a deep sniff. Kaidan took a deep pull from the bottle.
“Ho, but it’s strong,” said Kaidan spluttering,” and it’s been a while since I had someone to share a drink with.”
“I’m glad I could be of service, but I have a favour to ask.”
“After your generosity, how could I refuse?”
“I need a place to stay for the night. The inn is full and I have nowhere to sleep.”
“By all means, you are most welcome here. Come, let me lock the doors and we can retire to my quarters. I have a spare mat for you.”
“Thank you,” said Bo as they stood. The monk closed the wooden doors and bolted them.
“Come this way, brother,” said the monk who navigated the confines of the temple as if he were sighted. He led Bo behind the wall of the altar and down a passageway that ended in a simple stone room which served as both kitchen and bedroom. The monk busied himself with their supper as Bo unpacked his belongings and replaced his armour with a faded robe. He had taken the armour from his father’s corpse. That, and the sword, was the only keepsakes Bo had of him. The rest was nought but ash and memories. He took a whetstone to Nigashi even though it hadn’t been used in weeks. The edge of his blade shone in the candlelight as Bo worked the stone rhythmically over the cold steel. Monks pray thought Bo; I care for my sword. It helped to clear the clutter in his mind. Once the meal was cooked, and Bo had finished sharpening his weapon, both men sat on the floor slurping their noodles, passing the bottle back and forth.
“This is delicious,” said Bo,” thank you.”
“I pick the mushrooms near the waterfall.”
“Ah yes, I was beginning to think there wasn’t one,” said Bo, “Is it close by?”
“About a league south of here; it’s truly impressive, or so I’m told. I can take you there in the morning if you like.”
“Thank you, but tomorrow I plan to kill the beast. Maybe after, when I’m done. It might do a lot to better my impressions of this place.”
“You don’t like it here?”
“It feels like there is something amiss with the town, apart from the obvious, that is. It’s as if it’s under a pall of some sort.”
“It wasn’t always like this,” said Kaidan shaking his head sadly.
“And what do you know of the beast?” asked Bo, getting to the heart of the matter.
“As much as the next person; it strikes at whim and leaves no one alive. The Daimyo is terrified that this is retribution for his acts in this world. Karma come to life if you will,” said Kaidan, “That’s why no one has seen him in ages. He’s tucked up safely behind his walls, surrounded by his samurai, scared the beast will take him next.”
“Stranger things have happened I suppose,” said Bo, knowing that the Daimyo had other reasons for wanting to be out of plain view. Bo wondered how the long the mujina had been mimicking its victim? The sell-sword knew he was going to have to kill the beast, whatever it was, in order to get close to his real target. There was no way he could just march through those gates and kill their leader, even if their leader was an imposter.
“Can you tell me, what were the men doing before they died?” Kaidan did his best to describe the circumstances surrounding their deaths, and when he was done, he had confirmed Bo’s suspicions as to the why it came, but not what it was.
“It’s attracted to noise,” said Bo. “Every time it’s struck, the victims have been celebrating, raucously. It seems as if that is what attracts it.”
“Then what do you plan on doing?” asked Kaidan.
“Making as much of a clamour as possible, then killing it; you are more than welcome to help if you want, Kaidan.”
“I dabble in the Biwa, Bo. I don’t know how much help a blind monk can be, but I’m willing to assist where I can.”
“Good,” said Bo. ” We can talk more in the morning.”
“These are strange days, Bo, strange days indeed.”
“There are many curious things in the Isles of Jwar my friend; I find it sometimes hard to understand their nature. What do you believe, Kaidan?”
“I believe in the mystic law of cause and effect,” said the monk, readying himself for bed. Bo rolled out his blanket and made himself comfortable for the night. Sometime later, as the men listened to the sawing rhythms of the frogs in the forest, Kaidan spoke.
“So what do you believe, Bo?” asked the monk.
“I believe in... sleep,” answered Bo, laughing, before turning his back on the monk.