Island in the Mist, Part IV
by Rich Wulf
The world had become hazy and indistinct. Matsu Kenji found it difficult to concentrate on anything for long. Details refused to resolve themselves. Where was she? What had happened? The last thing she could remember was defeating that Nezumi who called himself Captain Fumoki-sama. Now her head was throbbing and she couldn't even figure out where she was. Kenji suddenly recognized a figure standing nearby. He was a short, weedy man with a tangled topknot. He was dressed in loose fitting pants and an open vest, and his eyes darted about furtively in a manner similar to the Nezumi. He bowed to her briefly. Had he just appeared or had he always been there?
"My apologies for the inconvenience, Matsu," he said. "I will only be needing to borrow you for a short time."
"What's going on?" Kenji demanded.
"My name is Yasuki Fumoki," he replied. "I am a restless spirit, who died with a duty left unfulfilled. I'm borrowing your body to attempt to fulfill my destiny."
Kenji snarled and snatched at the man's collar with one hand, but missed. She either misjudged the distance, or he was suddenly several feet further away than he had been. This place was so confusing.
"You're in Toshigoku, Matsu," Fumoki said, dusting off his vest with both hands, unconcerned at Kenji's fury. "The Realm of Slaughter, where spirits unfulfilled dwell forever. This place is full of the ghosts of bloodthirsty samurai, dead criminals, and, lately darker spirits. Please, be patient, and try not to wander around. As I said, this should not take long."
"You plan to fight the Orochi again using my body?" Kenji asked.
Fumoki nodded. "Possessing a mortal is the best way," he replied. "The Orochi is still in the mortal realm, and I am here. The Realm of Slaughter and the Realm of Mortals are too distant from one another; I have difficulty affecting the mortal world without a physical body."
Kenji rose an eyebrow. "You seem rather rational for a ghost," she said. "I thought tormented spirits were supposed to be lost and confused."
Fumoki shrugged. "Most are," he replied. "I trained with the
Kuni when I was young, so I know quite a good deal about spirits. I may have
been in denial for the first two or three centuries, but I eventually figured
out that I was dead."
"But you did not move on to Yomi?" Kenji asked.
"How could I?" Fumoki asked with a chuckle. "I am destined to kill the King Orochi. It was the one heroic act that would have wiped away a life of larceny and dishonor. I cannot enter the Realm of the Blessed Ancestors until I have slain that Tainted beast."
"And how do you plan to do this?" Kenji asked, folding her arms across her chest. "If you've failed for hundreds of years, why will this time be any different?"
"I have the body of a samurai!" Fumoki said, as if that explained it. "Granted, I'm not entirely accustomed to fighting in a female body, but I'm certain that I'm stronger now than I ever was."
"What about Ikoma Otemi?" Kenji asked.
"Your friend?" Fumoki asked. "He claims he has a plan." Fumoki chuckled bitterly. 'Plans never work," he observed with a pessimistic tone.
"What sort of plan?" Kenji asked.
"Drums?" Fumoki said, staring dubiously at the large kettle drums the Nezumi hauled over the side of the ship. "That's your plan? You're going to play drums for the Orochi." The pirate's stolen face was bland, unbelieving and uncaring.
"We've discussed this already, Captain," Ikoma Otemi said, turning to face the possessed samurai-ko. "As the villagers know, drums have a certain affect upon spirits. If we play the drums as we sail out to face the Orochi--"
"Nothing will happen," Fumoki interrupted. "It's been tried. The drums were played. The King Orochi killed me all the same. You're wasting your energy."
"Your Nezumi are skilled players but they have no technique," Otemi replied simply. "I was taught the art of taiko by the finest omoidasu of the Lion. Our drums serve not only to communicate messages across a battlefield, but to strengthen our spiritual bonds with our ancestors, driving away evil influences."
"And your drumming will harm the Orochi?" Fumoki said dubiously.
Otemi hesitated for a moment. "I think that there's a very good chance--"
"But you're not sure," Fumoki finished, giving the Ikoma an appraising glance.
Otemi cleared his throat. "With all due respect, I do not need to be sure. I have a very good feeling about this plan. My uncle has taught me to respect my intuition, and thus far that advice--"
"You're guessing?" Fumoki said incredulously. "You're risking your life on instinct?"
"Great battles have been won on the strength of Lion instinct," Otemi said. "Have you never trusted your instinct, Captain Fumoki?"
"Of course," Fumoki said with a wry smile. "My instinct told me to leap into a serpent's mouth."
"Curious," Otemi replied. "Why did you do such a thing? No offense intended, but you don't strike me as a particularly self-sacrificing man. Did you believe you had a chance against the Orochi?"
"I knew I had a chance," Fumoki said fiercely. "I had a Kaiu blade, blessed by the finest Kuni shugenja. I had a plan... and that was the problem. Plans never work."
"You know you can't win, but you're fighting regardless?" Otemi asked.
"Yes," Fumoki said. "Isn't that the way of the samurai?" Fumoki, rose and dusted Kenji's hands off on her kimono. "Do what he says," he commanded the Nezumi. "Listen to his commands as if they were my own." Without another word, he strode off across the deck.
Otemi turned to see three Nezumi paused in the act of hauling a kettle drum over the railing of the ship. They stared at him in open suspicion.
"What?" Otemi demanded. "The plan will work. Now get those drums secure so we can cast off."
The seas turned dark rather quickly after the Deathless left its small inlet. The crew shivered as they peered toward the stern of the ship. Their island had already vanished in the omnipresent mists. Fumoki and Otemi stood near the bow, watching the waves carefully, waiting for any sign that they had entered the Sea of Shadow. The ship tossed and Otemi quickly grabbed the railing. His footing was still uncertain on the deck; he'd be a lot happier once this adventure was over and he could return to dry land.
"Why don't you go back to the drums and get ready?" Fumoki said.
"I'll be fine," Otemi snapped.
"You're a clumsy sailor. I don't need you falling overboard," Fumoki replied.
"I won't," Otemi said.
"You've been following me around like a dog, Lion," Fumoki said. "Don't you have something better to do?"
"You have stolen the body of my friend, pirate," Otemi said in what he hoped was an intimidating voice. It didn't help him much that Kenji's body was still much taller than he. "I refuse to leave you alone with it."
Fumoki looked at Otemi for several moments, then laughed loudly. "That's what this is about?" he said. "Listen, Lion, I've been dead for centuries. Any urges I had along those lines perished with my mortal flesh long hence. Your Kenji has nothing to fear, unless of course I get her killed. Otherwise, I'm quite the well-behaved guest."
"See to it that you are," Otemi said. "I know a few Kitsu. If you try anything, they will find you."
Fumoki nodded. "Well, then. Now that we're done fighting for the sake of your beloved, perhaps you can go back to the drums and get the Nezumi started."
Otemi's face turned dark red. "Kenji is not-"
A sudden clattering sound echoed from the water, the sound of bony teeth upon metal. A Nezumi sailor peered over the side of the ship and squeaked noisily. "Skull Tide!" it cried out. "Sea of Shadows here!"
"Let them chew on the hull of the Deathless," Fumoki laughed. "Let them cast a spell of madness upon us with mouths full of jade! Go now, Lion. See to your drums. If all goes well, you'll have your Kenji back soon enough. If not then we can settle this in Toshigoku!"
Otemi locked eyes with Fumoki, nodded, and charged toward the stern of the ship. Six large drums had been securely nailed to the deck of the Deathless, each one manned by a Nezumi. Otemi recognized K'Chee among the drummers, the warrior that had first discovered him when he washed up on the beach. They had already begun randomly beating the drums, hoping to drive away the gaki. Otemi gave a sharp cry to silence them, then took up his own position at the central drum. "Now," he shouted to them. "Follow my lead!"
Otemi began playing slowly, establishing a slow but steady rhythm. The Nezumi watched him curiously for several moments, then copied his movements. The beat was not as pure or practiced as a true cadre of Lion drummers, but with luck it would do well enough. Otemi gradually increased his pace, adding more variety and inflection to the beat. The Nezumi continued their own rhythm, establishing a firm background rhythm for Otemi's powerful playing. Terrified shrieking echoed from around the ship as the skull tide drew back from the sound of the drums. Soon their chattering receded and only the ever-present roar of the Sea of Shadow stood as a counterpoint to the drumming.
At the bow of the ship, Fumoki turned back to Otemi. For a moment, something
changed about the pirate's gaze; it softened somehow. Otemi realized he was no
longer looking into the eyes of Fumoki, but Kenji herself. She smiled slightly
and nodded to him, as if saying good-bye, and then her eyes hardened once more
and she was obviously the pirate captain again.
Before Otemi could reply, the water near the bow of the ship exploded. An enormous reptilian head rose from the surface on a neck as long and thick as three oak trees. The flesh hung from the head and neck in rotting clumps, exposing large portions of the bone beneath. The creature's eyes burned sickly yellow-green, focused on the possessed samurai-ko at the bow of the Deathless. It released a savage roar, the wretched stench of its breath causing many of the crew to cough and wheeze. Fumoki stood unaffected, drawing Matsu Kenji's blade from its saya. The beast hunched, like a huge snake preparing to strike. It didn't look much like a ghost, more like an incredibly huge undead creature.
Otemi redoubled his efforts, playing louder and harder than before. The Nezumi did their best to keep up, their lack of skill supplemented by the sheer will to live. The Orochi roared, the light in its eyes flickering as the rhythm increased.
"It's working," Otemi whispered.
That was all he was able to whisper before the King Orochi hurled itself
across the deck toward the drummers.
The crew of the Deathless squealed and shouted as they leapt from the beast's path. Its thick body smashed across the Deathless, splitting the railing and cracking the deck. Otemi dodged to one side just as the creature's great head crashed through the place where he had been standing. Three of the Nezumi drummers disappeared into the beast's maw. The drums shattered explosively. He couldn't see K'Chee anywhere. Otemi reached desperately for his sword. A fierce cry split the air as Matsu Kenji suddenly leaped onto the beast's head, straddling its neck and slashing wildly with her sword. The creature reared back, somewhat stiff and clumsy with half of its body now stretched across the koutetsukan. The Orochi wasn't harmed or frightened by the drums - only enraged.
"Plans never work," Fumoki's words echoed through his head. "
Otemi glanced about the ship, trying to think of a new tactic. He saw the serpent's body stretched across the long ship. He saw dozens of surviving Nezumi crewmen standing about staring at the beast, surprised that they were still alive. The Deathless had suffered a great deal of superficial damage, but was not sinking. The Orochi struggled to drag itself back into the sea, its dead flesh and exposed bones tangling in the rigging and debris. Otemi's mind worked quickly. Sometimes the best plans were the simplest ones.
"Attack!" Otemi shouted, drawing his sword and pointing it at the serpent.
The Nezumi cried in unison, lifting clubs, knives, and weapons and scampering toward the broad, exposed sides of the Orochi's long neck. They hacked into the creature with a fury born of self-preservation. Otemi joined them, giving the creature's head a wide berth and slicing into its defenseless neck with his katana. Rotted flesh and shattered bone flew freely. Otemi cleaved again and again. Thick strips of flesh and bone fell away, but the creature seemed unaffected. Otemi felt as if he were chopping into the trunk of a thick tree.
The Orochi bellowed in anger. It's thick body suddenly pitched away from Otemi, rolling across the deck. Several Nezumi jumped clear of the thick body, but many more disappeared beneath it with a sickening crunch. Fumoki retained a death grip on the creature's head, though Matsu Kenji's sword seemed to be doing no real harm.
The Orochi's body began to roll back across the deck toward Otemi. The Nezumi around him leapt into the air, scrambling into what remained of the rigging or clawing their way up the mast. Otemi merely looked around; there was nowhere for him to go but into the sea. He looked back at the massive body of the serpent looming down at him and saw the great gashes he had cut into its flesh rolling toward him. With a sudden burst of inspiration, Otemi drew his wakizashi and charged flailing both swords.
An instant later the the Orochi's body collided with him. All was dark and
dank, suffused with the briny odor of sea water and the stench of rotten flesh.
Otemi had forced his way through the gaping wounds he had carved earlier and was
now inside the Orochi's throat. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and disgusting
but he was alive. Otemi found it ironic - all his life he had been subtly mocked
for his height but had Otemi been a taller man, he might have broken his neck or
shattered his legs when the Orochi rolled onto him. Otemi stumbled as the
creature pitched and heaved. He could barely see, couldn't tell what was going
on outside, and had lost track of the hole he had used to gain entry. His skin
burned slightly with the creature's acidic fluids. He quickly found both his
swords, sheathed them, and glanced about. To his right, far in the distane, he
saw a glimmer of light.
After a moment of hesitation, Otemi decided things couldn't get much worse and headed toward it. He crawled on his hands and knees, digging his fingers into the creature's flesh to keep his balance. He felt almost as if he were climbing directly upward. Had the creature risen off the deck again? Otemi pushed the thought out of his mind and kept climbing, ignoring the burning in his eyes, the stench, the general horror of his situation. If nothing else, perhaps he would survive this and have a story to tell that might actually surprise his uncle. Otemi laughed at the thought and forged onward, pushing through the creature's dead flesh, heading toward the glimmer of light. He hoped against hope that it was what he thought it was. If it wasn't, then there really was no hope remaining.
Otemi felt a rush of air move past him as the monster bellowed again. He held on to a clump of dead flesh and waited for the moment to pass. Something large and limp fell past him, squeaking faintly. A dying Nezumi, swallowed by the Orochi. Otemi ignored it and moved on, toward the light. At least now he was confident he was headed toward the thing's maw. The Orochi's throat muscles suddenly seized shut, clenching around Otemi. The young samurai deftly drew his tanto and with several quick movements shredded the flesh that held him. Another rush of air moved past as the beast roared and thrashed about. Otemi kept climbing toward the glimmer, now almost in reach. A massive shockwave shook the creature's insides. Otemi heard the sound of splitting wood and bending metal. In the distance, Fumoki was shouting in defiance.
Otemi reached out again, and felt cold steel in his hands. He had reached the light - the softly glowing metal of Yasuki Fumoki's sword, swallowed by the Orochi many years ago, now lodged in the undead beast's throat. The silk upon the handle had long since rotted away, leaving only the bare tang of the sword, inscribed proudly with the kanji of a long-dead Kaiu weaponsmith. Otemi seized it in both hands and pulled. The metal bit into his palms but would not pull free. The sword was lodged too deeply in the bone.
Otemi scowled, braced his feet against the opposite wall of the creature's throat, and pushed instead. Again the metal cut deeply into his hands; he ignored the pain. After several seconds, he felt something give. Another roar shook the Orochi's body and Otemi stumbled, losing his grip and slipping downward again. He quickly drew his wakizashi and buried it in the creature's throat, skidding to a halt. His body now dangled freely; the creature was obviously fully upright and trying to swallow him. Otemi looked up and saw the light of Fumoki's sword twenty feet above, impossibly out of reach.
With a determined frown, Otemi drew his tanto with his other hand, reached up, and buried it in the creature's flesh as well. Bracing the weapon, he pulled the wakizashi free and rammed it home above the tanto. The Orochi roared again, shaking back and forth in anger. Otemi simply kept his gaze on Fumoki's sword and continued slowly scaling his way upward, using sword and knife as climbing tools. For a painful minute Otemi continued to slash his way up. Soon, Fumoki's sword was in reach once more. Otemi quickly pulled his wakizashi free and sheathed it, holding only to the tanto, and reached for Fumoki's blade. His hand closed about the tang just as the Orochi roared and slammed itself into the deck again. Otemi's hand slipped from the tanto's handle and he slid deeper down the beast's throat uttering a loud curse.
To his surprise he landed hard on one shoulder on a wooden deck. The glowing blade of Fumoki was still in his hand, dripping with black ichor. Glancing up, Otemi saw the Orochi's long body curling high above the deck, eyes burning red in rage. Otemi realized that as he had fallen, Fumoki's sword had sliced the monster's flesh and bone as if they were silk. A thirty foot long gash flapped open along its throat, through which Otemi had fallen to the deck. Matsu Kenji stood nearby, a large bruise on one side of her face. Her swords were gone, but she still looked defiant.
"YOU HURT ME LITTLE LION," the Orochi bellowed, its voice now rough and garbled from the terrible damage done to its throat. It reared back and lunged for the ship once more.
Kenji rolled past Otemi, snatching Yasuki Fumoki's sword from his hand and slashing the air just as the Orochi lunged. A thunderous crash echoed as the beast collided with the deck, its head splitting in twain like a wishbone and skidding to either side of Kenji and Otemi. The beast lay dead and limp on the edge of the deck for a long moment. The light in its eyes sputtered and went dim. With a loud groan of steel and wood the dead Orochi slid over the side and into the sea, dragged to the depths by the weight of its own tail.
Matsu Kenji threw back her head with a pained cry. A brilliant glow suffused her body, then parted from it. The figure of a lean man in loose-fitting clothing was visible hovering above her, a sour, disappointed expression twisting his face as he glared after the departed corpse of the Orochi. After a moment, he vanished. As he faded the seas calmed. The roiling mists receded, then melted away altogether.
In the distance, the island was visible.
Otemi shouted a fierce cry of triumph, instantly echoed by the surviving Nezumi crew. K'Chee hung from the rigging by his tail, wielding a large broken Orochi tooth in both hands, his souvenir of the battle. Kenji turned and seized Otemi by the wrist, lifting him to his feet once more.
"Congratulations, Kenji--" Otemi said, but was promptly interrupted as Kenji pressed her mouth over his.
Several moments later she pulled away, frowning in distaste. "What is that you're covered in?" she asked.
"I'm not certain I want to know," Otemi replied, looking down at his soiled, tattered kimono. He looked back at Kenji with a sudden grin. "The Captain is gone?" he asked.
"So it seems," she said, returning the grin. "My apologies for my forwardness, Otemi-sama. It is simply good to be... here again."
"No apologies necessary," Otemi said.
"The Captain is gone!" Kenji shouted triumphantly, holding the gleaming Kaiu blade high. "Shall we celebrate?" She raised one eyebrow.
"I didn't think the Lion's Pride were much for celebration," he said.
"Only when we taste victory," she said enigmatically.
"Then I think that this qualifies," Otemi agreed. He quickly stepped up to the rear deck of the Deathless, where the tiller stood unmanned. "First, however, I think we should return to the island and claim the treasure that is yours by right of your defeat of the Captain."
"Treasure?" Kenji asked, standing nodding at the tiller. He quickly stepped away, surrendering it to her more experienced hand. "You begin to sound like a pirate yourself, Otemi."
Otemi shrugged. "If we don't return with Fumoki's treasure, I fear my uncle may never believe this story. In sixteen years, I've never once seen him encounter anything he had not seen before. To surprise him just once I think all of this would be worth sullying our hands with riches."
Kenji continued steering the ship for several minutes. Otemi went about washing the filth from his face and body as best he could with a bucket of seawater hauled over the side. When he finished, he noticed Kenji leaning on the tiller, staring off into the sea where the Orochi had fallen. Her expression was troubled.
"Kenji?" Otemi asked. "Is there something wrong?"
"Fumoki's face," she replied. "As he faded, I saw it. After hundreds of years he had defeated his enemy, but there was no triumph in his eyes. No joy." She looked at Otemi. "There was only bitterness."
"Do you feel sorry for him?" Otemi asked, sliding his dripping kimono over his shoulders again. "Even after he stole your body?"
"I suppose not," Kenji said. "It only makes me wonder. When we are finished, and our battles are done, will we feel any sense of triumph? Or like the captain, will we only fade away?"
Otemi was silent. He looked at Kenji, the beautiful samurai-ko with whom he had been partnered by pure chance. When he returned to Lion lands, she would be reassigned. It was quite likely they might never see one another again.
"I think," Otemi said slowly. "That this is no time for philosophy. There will be time enough for that when we join Captain Fumoki-sama in Yomi. As you said, this is a time for celebration." He rested one hand on hers.
Kenji nodded quietly as they steered the mighty Deathless back toward the Island in the Mist.