Island in the Mist, Part I
by Rich Wulf
The last of the brigands slid from the end of Ikoma Otemi's blade. The peasant brigand's face was a mask of terror and surprise as he collapsed on the dusty earth. Otemi glanced about quickly, noting that his comrades had dispatched their opponents with equal ease. Though Lord Hayato himself was still at large, his bandit minions had been defeated. Only a sea of gold armor surrounded Otemi, brothers in arms raising their swords in salute to his victorious leadership. The thieves that had plagued their lands were no more, and order would be restored to the house of Ikoma.
"My lord!" came a voice from nearby.
Otemi glanced over quickly, recognizing the voice as that of his chief shugenja, Ikoma Tashiro. Worried that one of his lieutenants might be injured, he hurried to the elderly priest's side. He discovered no injury, no crisis at all, only simple curiosity marred the old man's features.
"This is incredible," the shugenja said. He squatted on the ground, huddled over what appeared to be a scrap of warped lumber, fallen from the saddlebag of a dead bandit's horse.
Otemi wrinkled his nose in disgust, vaguely certain that Tashiro had gone mad. "What do you have there, old man?" he asked sharply.
"It appears to be a map," Tashiro replied, "and it is one I recognize from the summer I spent in the Yasuki provinces long ago."
"It appears to be an island," Otemi said, glancing over the man's shoulder. "I do not recognize it."
"It is not on any map," the old man said. "It is known only as the Island in the Mist. Legend holds that it was the headquarters of the notorious pirate, Yasuki Fumoki. It is a lost island holding untold riches."
"A samurai does not seek riches," Otemi replied.
"Glory, then?" the shugenja replied. "Discovery? Does not the idea of finding something that has been lost for so long, that none other could find, excite you?"
Otemi frowned. "The Ikoma have little skill at sailing," he replied. "What use is that map to us?"
"Little, at the moment," the shugenja admitted, "but for the wealth promised by the legend of the Island in the Mist, surely we could find those who could take us there. Our lord Ikoma Sume-sama would approve of such a campaign; the discovery could be a great boon to our clan in the difficult times ahead."
Otemi frowned, uncertain but still vaguely intrigued by the shugenja's words. There did seem to be an air of adventure here that could not be ignored.
"I'm listening," he said carefully...
"This is most intriguing."
Those had been Ikoma Sume's only words to Otemi after studying the ancient map. That was all his uncle had said before he hurried off to arrange for a ship and crew that would take Otemi in search of the lost Island in the Mist. That was all that needed to be said. Sume was a historian, a seeker of lost knowledge. "Intriguing" was a dangerous word coming from such a man. "Intriguing" meant that Sume was about to dig in with both heels and root out the mystery to its ultimate end. Of course, as Sume was far too old to go on such adventures himself any more such a duty would instead fall upon the shoulders of his nephew, the esteemed protector of Kyuden Ikoma.
Which brought Ikoma Otemi where he found himself now - a leaky kobune sailing
across a storm-tossed sea. The young bushi knelt by the railing, moaning in
discomfort. Grunting in pain, he buckled over the rail and heaved once more. The
rice and fish he had eaten earlier were long since departed, but his stomach
seemed unconvinced that it had nothing further to offer. Otemi rubbed his face
with both hands in absolute misery, glancing up in time to see Matsu Kenji, the
samurai-ko assigned to accompany him on this mission. Otemi quickly rose to his
feet and bowed as well as he could on the tossing deck.
"Seasick?" Matsu Kenji laughed as she approached him. "That will fade in time, Ikoma-sama. Or you'll just die and get it over with." Another wave tossed the small ship. The tall, athletic woman folded her arms in the sleeves of her kimono and breathed the sea air deeply, her balance not disturbed one bit.
Otemi glared at the woman suspiciously. Kenji was sure-footed and confident, seemingly unaffected by the bucking ship, unconcerned with the dark clouds above. "I feel fine," he said resolutely.
"You lie as poorly as an Akodo." She laughed. "You look terrible."
"Is there a problem, Ikoma-sama?" she asked.
"What isn't the problem?" he said. "My uncle has sent us to our doom!"
"Doom?" she said curiously. "It's a beautiful day."
Otemi looked at her as if she were insane. "Samurai are not meant to cross the sea," he said. "I have no armor. My weapons are not easily accessible." He gestured at the daisho at his belt. The swords wrapped in thick oiled cloth to protect them from rust. "How am I supposed to defend myself?"
Kenji stared at him for a moment. "Do you expect the fish to attack you? Armor is more a danger than an aid out here, and I for one would prefer my grandfather's soul not to be rusted by salt spray." She nodded at her own daisho, similarly protected and strapped across her back. "Surely that cannot be all that bothers you, Ikoma-sama."
"Otemi is fine," he replied, grimacing at the formality.
"Otemi-sama," she nodded.
"You're a Taisa in the Lion's Pride," he said. "I guard scrolls. I'm not your lord. 'Otemi' is fine."
"You are the nephew of a Lion daimyo," she replied. "You are an important man."
"I'm important?" he laughed.
"You must be," she said, "after all, I'm important and they wasted my time sending me with you on this mission, Otemi-sama." She smiled slightly, taking the edge from her words. "Now, I asked you once already. Is there a something else bothering you?"
Otemi sighed, running one hand across his topknot and glancing out at the water. "In a matter of speaking," he said. "It's just that I feel helpless out here, and I do not care for the feeling. I feel almost... redundant."
"You are," she said with a laugh. "The peasant sailors are the ones doing all the work."
He gave her a quick, irritated look.
"It is only truth," she said. "They have lived their entire lives at sea. We're doing nothing more than adding to the load and getting in the way."
Otemi shrugged, still looking at the sea.
"But that still isn't that," she said. "There's something else."
"You're very persistent," he said, glancing up at her.
"I am Matsu," she said, as if that explained everything. "Are you worried for the mission?"
"I suppose," Otemi said. "My uncle has placed a tremendous amount of faith in me, trusting me with the success of this mission. I wonder if we will be able to succeed alone."
"You are not alone," she said. "I am with you."
"I said 'we' are alone, not 'I,'" he said. "Neither of us are unskilled at warfare, and yet there are only two of us. I wonder what we will find out there." Otemi gestured at the open sea. "I just wonder if I am doing as much as I should be."
Kenji shrugged. "I would not let it bother you, Otemi-sama," she
said. "I have a feeling once we find the island, you'll have more than
enough trouble on your hands." She nimbly crouched by the low railing,
leaning low and gazing into the deep water.
Otemi watched her for a time. Her long hair blew in ripples on the ocean breeze. Her eyes seemed almost as dark and unfathomable as the water, and her face as serene. "How can you be so calm, Kenji-san?" Otemi asked after a while. "We cannot even see the land."
"That is a good thing," she said. "A storm is coming. If we were close to land, the storm would sink us."
"Ah," Otemi said. That statement didn't seem to calm his nerves. He folded his thumbs behind his obi and paced the deck nervously, trying as best he could to stay out of the way of the busy sailors. "I take it this is not your first ocean voyage?" he asked her after several moments.
"Your uncle said you were perceptive," she said with a small smile. "My father was a Mantis. He met my mother twenty years ago, when the Matsu sought to arrange an alliance with the Tsuruchi."
"He took your mother's name," Otemi said.
"Of course. She was Matsu," she said, as if that much was obvious. "Though my father was a proud man, he did not argue. The alliance was too important, and indeed he truly loved her. He took her name, with the condition that their first child would take his." She smiled. "Imagine his surprise when he found his firstborn was female."
"That explains it," Otemi said. "When I had heard a 'Matsu Kenji' would be my advisor, I had been expecting a man."
"Disappointed?" she asked, suddenly looking up at him.
"Not in the least," he said.
"Truly?" Kenji said, an amused glint in her eye. "I had assumed the shock had driven you to illness, for obviously a samurai of the noble Ikoma house would never allow something as minor as the ocean to unsettle his stomach."
"Obviously," Otemi said with a laugh, settling himself on the deck beside her with far less agility than she had. He suddenly felt a great deal better, cheered by Kenji's infectious good spirits. "My uncle said that you were familiar with the legends about Yasuki Fumoki, the man whose island we search for now."
Kenji nodded. "My father told me tales of Fumoki on dark nights when I was young, before I left to join the Pride. I never thought there was any truth in them, pirate stories are always full of exaggeration. Fumoki's stories are more wild than most. The tales say he sent a hundred Crane ships to the bottom of the sea."
"I like this man already," Otemi said.
"As do I," she said. "He was always one of my favorites. The tales say his crew could leap ten ken-an from one ship to another in a raging storm. The tales say his ship - the Deathless - could outrun the Mantis daimyo's swiftest sengokobune. The tales say no magistrate, no samurai could capture him, that he died leaping into the gullet of the King of the Orochi, sword flashing as he buried the blade in its maw. He died nearly four hundred years ago."
"Orochi?" Otemi said curiously.
"A sea serpent," Kenji gave him a surprised look. "Don't you ever read?"
"I prefer military history to legends," Otemi said, standing up to get a better look at the horizon. He had thought, for a moment, that he had seen something in the mist.
"I like both," she said, her mouth pulled up in a crooked smile. Kenji toyed with a small reed, folding into a makeshift whistle. Otemi watched her quietly, studying her face and build. Kenji would never be a beauty of the court - her skin was darkened by the sun, her hands callused from swordplay. Even yet, Otemi saw a certain grace that he could not help but admire. If she was anything like her mother, it was no surprise her father had given up his name. She looked up at him, dark eyes curious at his attention. Otemi quickly looked away, looking out at the sea once more.
"Otemi-sama?" Kenji said, rising to her feet and stepping closer to him.
"Yes?" he asked, looking back at her. It disconcerted him that she was so much taller than he was. He looked into her dark eyes, just as unfathomable as they were before. The ship swayed, and they stumbled. Kenji's hands quickly seized Otemi, one about the waist, one on his arm. He reached out to steady himself, and found his own hands resting about her waist. Normally, samurai avoided unnecessary physical contact. With the excitement of the journey, the sudden rush and freedom of the adventure ahead, neither seemed to mind.
"Tell me, Otemi-sama," Kenji said, smiling slightly as she looked down at him. "Are all Ikoma men so short?"
"Of course," he said. "Lady Sun built us for speed and power." Otemi was surprised that the comment had come out of his own lips. In the distance, he could hear a steady clattering, no doubt one of the peasants working some repairs on the eternally leaky ship.
"Is that so?" she asked. "Perhaps you could show me what you mean sometime?"
"It would be my honor, Kenji-san," he said. "Now tell me: are all Matsu women so courteous? I heard the Lion's Pride considered men irrational, foolish creatures."
"Men are irrational, foolish creatures," she said, leaning closer. Her golden kimono slipped from one shoulder, revealing the sleek, pale skin beneath, "but they have their uses, if properly trained." A dull rumble echoed in the distance, like rolling thunder. Neither Otemi nor Kenji found it important enough to distract them.
"Trained?" Otemi laughed. Her body was warm and soft beneath her kimono. He felt giddy, almost confused. Her scent was intoxicating. "How does one train a Lion?" he asked.
"Shall I show you?" she asked. Her lips, full and as red as bright
blood, brushed his own. The taste was warm, sweet.
Otemi opened his mouth to kiss her. A trickle of rain sent a chill down the side of his face. Lightning crackled in the sky, dazzling Otemi, shattering the haze that had possessed him.
Kenji pushed Otemi, knocking him hard on his backside. A moment later the ship's heavy mast collapsed across the deck where he had been standing an instant before, erupting in a spray of splinters.
"By the Fortunes!" Kenji swore, glancing about in astonishment. In that single instant between their kiss and the falling mast, the world had changed. The sky was black as pitch. The ship bucked riotously as rain poured down around them. The sound of thunder, screams, and an strange rattling like a thousand hammers filled the air. A flash of lightning illuminated a peasant with a broad hatchet standing beside the fallen mast, cackling maniacally. Two more peasants lay on the deck to either side, limbs mangled, clothing stained with blood, more of the madman's handiwork.
"What is happening?" Kenji demanded.
The man looked up at Kenji, as if noticing her for the first time. He replied by lifting his hatchet and charging, laughing with vicious glee as his blade swiped the air. Kenji reached desperately for her katana, still bundled tightly on her back. The screaming man held his weapon high, ready to split her skull. He paused, surprised, as Otemi's thrown knife planted in his forehead in a spurt of red. The sailor fell to the deck, dead.
"My thanks," Kenji said.
Otemi nodded. "What is going on?" he shouted through the pouring rain.
The rest of the deck had erupted in chaos. A dozen sailors struggled, beating each other with makeshift weapons. Three more lay curled in fetal positions, crying and moaning like children. Another danced about at the bow of the ship, stripping off her clothing and flinging it ceremoniously into the sea. A loud splash echoed as a sailor fell overboard. The others seemed hardly to care, if they could even hear the splash over the terrible chattering.
"Where is that noise coming from?" Otemi shouted.
"By Lord Yakamo, no," Kenji swore, lunging for the railing. Otemi reached for her, certain she was attempting to leap overboard, but she merely fell to her knees by the low railing, staring toward the rear of the boat. Otemi looked that way as well.
At first, it seemed as if a cloud of white foam erupted from the rear of the
kobune. As Otemi stared through the hard rain, he saw it more clearly. A swarm
of floating, bobbing skulls, following in the ship's wake, chewing at the hull
with their teeth.
"Skull tide," Kenji shouted to Otemi. "The sound of their chattering brings madness."
"What do we do?" Otemi answered.
"With no shugenja?" she asked. "We die. They'll devour the ship, then they'll devour us, then we join them in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts!" A peasant charged past, screaming madly, or perhaps laughing. He hit the water with a splash, disappearing into the skeletal swarm. The water foamed red.
"Do they always float?" Otemi asked, watching the skulls carefully, fighting off the urges the insane chattering stirred in the back of his mind.
"As far as I know," she answered.
Otemi nodded, then disappeared below deck.
"Otemi-sama!" Kenji screamed, certain that he had lost his mind. She bit her lip in anger and cursed, then looked back at the foaming white mass. She drew her wakizashi from its oiled bundle. She would not let these demons slay her...
"Put this on!" Otemi shouted, suddenly tapping her on the shoulder. He held the steel breastplate of her armor, taken from storage below deck. He was wearing his own breastplate and helmet, clumsily tied on over his kimono. She looked up at him, certain he was mad, but his eyes were clear. "The steel will make you sink," he explained. "Count to twenty, then cut the straps. Swim for the surface; the ship will have moved on."
"This isn't going to work," she said sharply. "We'll drown."
"So be it," he said, stepping to the rail. "Better than having your soul devoured!"
Kenji considered that, then quickly tied on her breastplate. Together, the two Lion stood at the railing of the doomed kobune. They looked into one another's eyes as they prepared to leap. At the same time, they seized each other's hands and leapt into the churning water. Otemi breathed a short prayer to Suitengu, the Fortune of the Sea, and wondered if it would help.
Darkness consumed them.
Otemi awoke with a mouth full of sand. His eyes burned. He felt like he'd spent the night being beaten with sticks, dragged through a field of brambles, and left to lie in saltwater. The salt water part, at least, was correct. He opened his eyes to find himself lying at the edge of a beach, covered with cuts and scratches, but somehow still alive.
The young Lion sat up painfully, pushing his long hair from his eyes as he peered about. The sun was high in the sky, and the sand was littered with wooden debris. On the beach nearby, he was surprised to his daisho, gleaming in the sun. He sighed in relief. He was even more pleased to see Matsu Kenji, bruised and disheveled but also very much alive. The young Matsu sat on a large rock, hands folded around one knee, expression concerned.
"Otemi-sama," she said.
"Kenji-san, are you all--" was as far as he could get before his vision cleared. He saw twenty enormous rat-creatures standing at the edge of the forest. All wielded rough-hewn spears or throwing axes. All looked directly at Ikoma Otemi.
"Walk-walk," demanded the nearest, a sleek black creature taller than Kenji. It shook its spear menacingly.
"Gold-golden-bushi alive now. You walk-walk like we agree, yes?"
"Nezumi?" Otemi whispered in amazement. "Kenji-san, where are we?"
"The Island in the Mist," she replied. "Fumoki's island."
"Walk-walk!" the Nezumi demanded again. "Time-time see Captain Fumoki-sama now."
"Fumoki-sama?" Otemi said in amazement. "Yasuki Fumoki is alive?"
"Alive?" the Nezumi asked. "Of course Captain Fumoki-sama alive! Alive long-long time! Alive forever! Now walk-walk, gold-golden-bushi, or you not be alive much longer."
Ikoma Otemi staggered to his feet, pausing only to tuck his swords beneath his belt. The Nezumi did not seem to care. He fell into line beside Matsu Kenji as the Nezumi led them into the jungle.
"Most intriguing." Old Sume's words echoed in Otemi's mind.