Forbidden Knowledge

A Story of the Daidoji

The tree was old and almost dead, but there was still strength left in its branches.  The girl had struggled against it for some time, trying again and again to snap the wood that secured her chains, but the tree had won in the end.  Now she merely dangled in its grip, waiting for her fate.     

She could simply die, if she wanted; one of the men on the execution detail had slipped a tanto into her obi, while the others pretended not to notice.  The girl had delayed for some reason, and then forgot the reason.  It was important, though. She was sure it had to be.     

All around her, a land shaped by the agony of a tortured god watched, and waited.  It could afford patience.  It would always be with her.

* * *

Yohko awoke with a snap, struggling with the oddness she suddenly felt.  Before she could draw a breath her hands locked around a katana hilt and brought the blade down.  The armor that held her to the tree parted like thin paper and Yohko fell to the ground.     

“What…?”     

“Help me.”     

“What!” Yohko jerked upright, startled.     

“Help me.”  The voice was low, cultured…and inside of her. Yohko gave a startled gasp and without even framing the thought she grabbed for the tanto.  She would not be the home of one of the Dark Brother’s servants.     

“No, don’t…I’m not….”  Yohko’s body twisted spasmodically as the other spirit fought her intention.  She ended up rolling on the ground, unable to do as she wanted but unwilling to give up the battle.  “Please listen to me.  I am not one of the Dark Horde.  I am a Crane!”     

A Crane?  The claim was outrageous enough to catch Yohko’s attention.  What was a Crane doing in the Shadowlands?  During the War Doji’s bushi had dedicated themselves to guarding the Emperor.  “Staying as far away from the real fighting as possible,” her clan-brothers had commented.     

“I am Doji Hayaku.  I need your help.  I must return the katana to my mother.”     

Katana?  There had been a katana…Yohko sat up and looked around.  It was lying not an arm’s length from her, gleaming in the early morning light.  The curve of the blade was perfect, as beautiful as a bird skimming over a lake.  Yohko put a trembling hand out to touch the hilt and the katana sang a trill that brought tears to her eyes as she snatched back her hand. “Where—where did you get this?”     

“Jigoku.”     

“Do you take me for a fool?  There is nothing made in Jigoku!”     

“It was not made in Jigoku.  This is Shukujo, the katana Doji Yasaguri made, the katana Doji Konishiko carried into the Shadowlands.”     

She had heard talk of the Crane Thunder.  One of her cousins had told her that the Doji girl had stood a head shorter than Matsu—and had looked the Lion in the eye fearlessly.  “You went to Jigoku to retrieve Konishiko’s katana?”     

“To rescue her soul, which the katana holds.  Please.  I do not know for what you were left here, and I do not care.  Aid me in returning Konishiko’s soul to the Crane lands, and you may ask for any reward.  Lady Doji will refuse you nothing.”     

Yohko’s heart leaped at the thought of aiding a Thunder. “I would help you for no reward at all.  But I won’t get far. No jade, no weapons, no water, no food.”      A considered silence, then again the voice.  “I can lead you to all these things.  They cannot be far.”     

Cannot be far? Yohko thought.  Well, she would have expected a Crane to be well supplied with material things, and he might have found a way to cache some supplies.  “I will see that Shukujo gets to the lands of the Crane.  Where is that water?”     

“Back along the path that runs along the plain of ashes. There will be a small ravine that leads down to the east. Follow it.”     

Yohko retrieved her tanto and slipped into her obi, then bent to get Shukujo.  The katana trilled again as she picked it up, and Yohko almost flung it away.  The purity of its song grated on the blighted regions of her soul, and she felt a strong temptation to throw it into the first hole she found. Yohko tightened her grip and grimly staggered down the path Hayaku had indicated.     

The ravine wasn’t even a mile from her execution site. Yohko half-slid, half-fell down it until the slope eased and she found herself in a small, neatly arranged camp.  Sky-blue cloth drew her eyes immediately to the figure of a man lying peacefully on the ground.  As she approached him Yohko noted that his armor, while worn and damaged in places, was easily the most opulent-looking set she had ever seen, and all of it was done in the insipid blue color the Doji favored.  The man in the armor was unquestionably a Crane, and just as unquestionably dead.  The cut across his throat was wide and deep, and the ground beneath him was brown with dried blood.      

“Hayaku…is this you?”     

“It was.”     

He was beautiful, Yohko thought, the most beautiful man she had ever seen.  Hair black and lustrous framed a delicately molded face that would have driven any geisha wild with envy. “What happened here?  How did you die?”  Save for the throat the body showed no injury, and she saw no evidence of a fight.     

“During the battle with the Fallen Brother, Shukujo fell into the earth, down into Jigoku.”     

Yohko didn’t see what this had to do with her question. “And so?”     

“The living may not enter into Jigoku.”     

“But,” Yohko started to say, and then stopped.  Clenched in Hayaku’s left hand was a small bloody tanto.  “You did this?” She couldn’t grasp it.  She had seen men die in battle, and she had seen a man die by his own hand in the elaborate ritual of seppuku.  She had never heard of any man dying in such an uncomplicated fashion for so far-fetched a goal.     

“Konishiko needed me.”  The voice was quiet and uncompromising.  The voice of a man who had journeyed into the heart of hell, and found it wasn’t far enough.  And hadn’t turned back.     

Yohko felt something inside her soften, and she fell to the ground trembling.  She hadn’t cried when her father died, or when his unquiet corpse had come back leading a band of goblin raiders.  She hadn’t cried when her lord had stripped her of her name and decreed her death.  She hadn’t cried all the long lonely hours when her lips cracked from sun and thirst and she waited for some wandering abomination to eat her, or worse.  She cried now with dry and hacking sobs, and didn’t know why, except that she understood exactly the impulse that had driven Hayaku to his act, and it had doomed him as surely as it had doomed her.     

After awhile her sobs quieted and she became aware of Hayaku’s voice again.  “Please, don’t cry.  Gracious lady, do not trouble yourself over it.  I succeeded in my quest, so why should you mourn?  Please don’t cry.  There was no pain in my death.  Please…”      No pain?  Yohko thought.  Something to look forward to. Then her mind snagged on a detail.  “What did you call me?”     

“Gracious lady?”     

“Why ever for?  Is there something wrong with my name?     

“I don’t know your name.”     

“How can you not know my name?  Aren’t you in my body?”     

“A guest does not,” Hayaku informed her primly, “go wandering around the private areas of his hostess’ home.”     

Yohko clenched her teeth hard, unsure of whether to laugh or cry.  Cranes.  They could come up with rules of etiquette for anything.  “My name is Hi—.”  She bit off the word and swallowed it.  “My name is Yohko.”     

“I am honored to meet you, Yohko-san.”     

Yohko thought that unlikely.  “I am honored as well, Hayaku.  Could you please tell me where that water is?”     

“There is a flask in the bag against the bank, to the left of the body.”     

The bag in question had multiple charms and jade tokens sewn on it, and inside was a crystal flask filled with water. Yohko unstoppered it and made herself take one short drink to wet down her mouth and throat before taking another long, deep pull.  She knew better than to gulp it all down at once, and to distract herself she went back to studying Hayaku’s body.  It was as well formed as his face, but more muscular than she would have imagined a Doji to be.  He didn’t look much older than her, but it was had to tell:  War aged a person far swifter than time.  The saya and hilts of his daisho were as rich as everything else in the camp, but were a great deal less flashy than the armor.  The daisho was his, she decided, and the armor a gift.  Lady Doji might have given such a set to the samurai who went out to seek her lost daughter.     

“Konishiko must have meant much to you,” Yohko said.  “Were you…betrothed?”     

“Konishiko is my sister.”     

“Your sister?”  Yohko forgot about the water.  “You are one of Lady Doji’s sons?”  No wonder he was beautiful.     

Hayaku’s voice had a dreamy quality.  “She was Mother’s favorite child, but she never acted like it.  Her every word was gracious, every movement a dance.  She smiled like Amaterasu herself.  She tried to teach me origami.”     

“Tried?”  If asked, Yohko would have guessed that Lady Doji’s children practiced origami in the womb.     

“I preferred studying the tea ceremony.  And war.”     

Yohko absorbed this information without comment.  Hayaku’s very presence in the Shadowlands demonstrated to her his mastery of the warrior’s way.  Voicing her opinion of the tea ceremony would be unkind to a dead man.     

She took a slow drink of water, a dark notion stirring in the back of her mind.  “Hayaku.  How long were you in Jigoku?”     

Her body shook with the intensity of his reaction.  “Too long.”     

It wasn’t the information she needed, but Yohko didn’t ask again.  Instead she leaned closer over his body, studying it for signs of decay.  There were none—in fact, he looked freshly dead.  Yohko tried to reconcile this with the dried pools of blood on the ground and then gave it up.  Dead bodies just didn’t behave properly in the Shadowlands.     

Yohko took one last drink from the flask, then carefully stoppered it and put it back where she found it.  She knew the words that would knit a corpse together and give it motion.  She knew how to seize a spirit and bind it to flesh.  She had at hand the very spirit that went with this particular body.  The doing was so very easy.  The cost was so very high.     

Yohko rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, angry with herself for even thinking of it.  Hayaku was giving her a chance to escape her past and the dishonor that went with it.  She should take the katana and the supplies and get out of the Shadowlands now, before the Fortunes stopped smiling on her. Lady Doji would reward her well for bringing back Konishiko’s soul, and she could disappear into some quiet backwater of the Empire.  And yet…Yohko’s eyes wandered over Hayaku’s still form.     

The Shadowlands weren’t so much a place as a hunger, she thought, one that ate up honor and virtue and gave back only pain.  Yohko could no longer remember her father, the man who had first given her a katana and painstakingly taught her its use.  There was only the howling zombie who had thrown itself on the point of her yari and clawed its way up the shaft in its effort to get to her.     

When ordinary weapons proved useless against the Dark Brother’s hordes she had fought back with other means, and had not cared about the penalty.  It was enough for her that no one else in her family would suffer her father’s fate.  Now here was Hayaku, another life lost to the Shadowlands, lost in a forlorn effort to rescue his sister.     

She had the means of bringing him back, of cheating the Dark Brother of this last prize.  All it required was a little bit of her blood.  Another region of her soul burned over and salted.  Allowing Hayaku to know what she was, and for what she had been condemned.  Yohko rubbed her eyes again.  It didn’t matter if he knew, she told herself.  She was nothing to him but a convenient messenger, someone to carry a katana for him.  She was nothing to him that she should care what he thought.     

Yohko opened the bag up again and looked through it.  As expected, Hayaku had the best of everything, and plenty of it. Quickly she located a small jade box filled with jade ointment.     

“Yohko?  What are you doing?”     

“I’m going to bring you back to life.”     

“It can’t be done.  My father spent months searching for such a thing, and every shugenja he spoke to said it was impossible.”     

“Your father didn’t ask the wrong people the right questions,” Yohko told him.  She knelt by Hayaku’s body and slipped the tanto out of her obi.     

“Yohko?”  A thread of fear wove through Hayaku’s voice, as if he had divined something of her purpose.  He tried to seize control of her body, but she was ready for him this time.  His spirit beat on her will like a hummingbird hitting a granite cliff. “Yohko!  No!”     

Yohko shut him out.  Drawing the tanto delicately across her palm she started the chant.

* * *

Yohko dropped the tanto and unsteadily took a scoop of ointment from its box.  Wounds left untreated became corrupt, and she had enough problems already.  She felt unclean inside and out, as if she had laid down with a corpse.  During the actual working of the spell she had felt even worse.  The blighted parts of her soul, the parts she had thought dead, had wakened into malevolent life and whispered to her of power and respect, of lordship and dominion.  It could all be hers, here in the Shadowlands.  There was a home for people with her knowledge here.     

“Never,” Yohko thought.  “Nevernevernevernever.”  She ignored the pain in her fingers and rubbed the ointment into the cut in her palm.  It felt like she’d picked up a live coal.     

The creak of armor in motion drew her attention to Hayaku, and she looked up in time to see him lever himself into a sitting position.  His eyes met hers and they regarded each other for a moment.  He looked at her somewhat warily, as if she might suddenly turn into something monstrous.  Yohko wondered if she already had.     

Finally Hayaku took a deep breath and opened his mouth as if to speak, but he uttered no sound.  A look of puzzlement crossed his fine features.  He opened his mouth again, and again he said nothing.     

Comprehension hit Yohko.  The cut had taken his voice, and she had failed to restore it when she healed him.  “Oh, Hayaku, I am so sorry,” she whispered.  “I did as much as I dared.”     

Hayaku rubbed the scar on his throat thoughtfully.  The quirk of his lips, the angles of his brows spoke to her as clearly as words.  ‘I was always the quiet one in the family.’     

Yohko hid her face.  His wry acceptance was harder to take than a slap.  And she had another unpleasant revelation for him. “Hayaku, I don’t know what happened to your hair.  I saw it happen, but I didn’t know what caused it, or how to undo it.”     

Panic flashed across Hayaku’s face.  ‘My hair?’  He pulled a handful of strands out to where he could see them.  What had formerly been raven-black was now a pure, snowy white.  He stared at it, then looked at Yohko.   She shook her head.  “It’s white right down to the roots.”  She hesitated, unsure of what to say.  She thought it looked nice on him.  “Maybe it will grow out.”     

‘It is the things I have seen.  It will not grow out.’ Dark and haunted thoughts played across his face, and Yohko looked away.  She had lived through her own nightmares, and did not need his.     

A soft cluck of his tongue brought her attention back to Hayaku, and he held out one palm while making a slashing motion with the other hand.  Yohko straightened up, her defenses rising up around her.  “Yes, I know the old ways of the Isawa.”  Yes! she wanted to scream at him.  I fought the Dark Brother and I won!  Yohko grit her teeth and forced the words down.  She hadn’t tried to defend herself to her lord; she wasn’t going to do it now for a Crane.  “And yes, their use is punishable by death in the Crab lands.”     

A tilt of the head, the raising of an eyebrow.  ‘You weren’t dead when I found you, and you could not have raised yourself as you did me.”     

“I was sentenced to be left to die in the Shadowlands.”     

Narrowed eyes.  ‘What?’     

“In consideration of …circumstances, my lord decided that I should be shown mercy.  I would be allowed to die on my feet, in armor.”     

‘Mercy.’  Hayaku’s lips shaped the word as if he’d never heard of it before.  Yohko concentrated on rubbing another pinch of agony-inducing ointment into her wound.  It wasn’t her clan anymore.  She wouldn’t care what he thought of it.     

When the pain faded Yohko looked up into Hayaku’s clear and level gaze.  She stared back at him, almost trembling with the effort it took.  Looking into his eyes was like looking into the rising sun.  They sat regarding each other for a moment, and then Hayaku offered her his hand.  Yohko lifted a trembling hand and laid it in his.   Slowly they helped each other to their feet and picked up his camp.   When they finished they set their faces towards the Crane lands, and they didn’t look back.