Konran o maneku
Konran o maneku: Wreak havoc!
Back at home, Hiro was met in the gardens by a flock of anxious servants looking for him. Apparently, Hideyoshi Sensei had run away before he could face the angry Young Master, and in his departure, he’d taken a considerable amount of silver from Fujiwara no Umakai’s room.
“Good riddance,” Hiro said.
Two days later, another letter arrived from Umakai. Hiro’s parents were to return the following afternoon. He hadn’t bothered to write to his father about the sensei’s untimely departure, intending to tell him in person when he got home. That was his first mistake.
Mistake number two came the next day, when he decided to take another secret rebellious walk in the woods. The plum tree had disappeared again, but the moss bed and the field of white flowers remained. He’d been thinking about the purple chrysanthemum, like a womb that held the uguisu’s soul and nurtured Biko’s body for his new life. Hiro wanted to see it again. Somehow, he felt it was part of him now.
A murder of crows flew above Hiro as he walked amid white and pink chrysanthemums in search of violet petals. In his concentration, he missed the sound of rustling leaves and the distress calls from the creatures of the mountain. Several men quietly made their way toward him.
The forest held her breath. It was the snap of a branch that caught Hiro’s attention, but by that time he was already surrounded.
They wore masks and black clothes that blended with the forest. They had knives in their hands and dark looks on their faces. Before Hiro could shout, one of them wrapped a filthy hand over his mouth and immobilized him. His feet were kicked out from under him, forcing him to his knees.
A pair of hairy legs appeared before him. When a hand pulled his hair back, Hiro found himself eye to eye with his former sensei.
Hideyoshi Sensei dropped into a crouch, a cruel smile on his lips. His stale breath smelled of sake. “Well done, brat. We didn’t even have to sneak into the palace to kidnap you.”
More bodies emerged from the thickets. Hiro struggled to stand, but the grip tightened in his hair and a knee pushed on his back, keeping him down. But at least the hand was removed from his mouth.
“You will be punished for this,” he stammered, fighting against the weight that had him pinned.
The sensei laughed and pulled out a knife that he’d hidden behind him. Hiro screamed and was promptly hit across the face. The force of the fist bloodied his mouth.
“How dare you treat a Fujiwara like this?” he demanded. “When my father hears, he will skin you alive. You’ll never work as a sensei again!”
Their cackling was vile and mocking, making him feel as small as an ant.
“The wretch who was supposed to be your sensei is lying dead by the road, rotting away in a puddle not two days’ distance from here. He was stupid enough to brag in a noodle shop that he’d been employed by the Fujiwara family for their bratty heir. The idiot even recited the recommendation letter from your father so that I could memorize it. We couldn’t let that opportunity pass, could we?” Hiro was hoisted roughly to his feet. “Your ransom is going to bring me and my boys a huge sack of money.”
The men cheered.
“Help!” Hiro yelled. He managed to free one leg and kick at the fake Hideyoshi Sensei. He missed and was shoved back down, his teeth rattling as his spine hit the hard ground. The tip of a knife was brought dangerously close to his right eye. “It would be a pity to lose your sight in this process, Young Master. And you will, if you refuse to come quietly with us.”
Hiro was about to shame his aristocratic ancestors and spit in the man’s face. “Help!” he cried again. One of the men kicked him in the ribs, effectively silencing him. He turned to his side and spat blood on the moss.
By then, I’d had enough.
“Awake,” I ordered the spirit living within the plum tree. I would only allow him a brief respite. I was ready to step in, if needed, and quickly return him to sleep. Considering his power, it would only take a moment for all the thieves to fall dead.
It started with a slow breeze that ruffled the tender petals of the chrysanthemums. A white shimmering haze expanded, appearing out of nowhere and hovering above the ground. It smelled like rotten leaves. The clouds darkened and twisted, torquing into a tight knot, and a strong wind blew from the forest. The saplings bent with its force.
“We better go, boss. A storm is coming.”
“Bind and gag him,” Hideyoshi Sensei commanded. He sheathed his knife and inspected their surroundings. “We’ll make better time if we go down the slope closer to the—”
He never got the chance to finish. From the kagerō, the shadow of a young man appeared. He was tall, long-limbed, and the color of charcoal, but a murky fog was hiding his face. His scaly skin glimmered, and long raven hair reached below his thighs. His naked torso displayed an intricate design painted in gold, contrasting heavily with his complexion.
He prowled toward the kidnappers. Before the sensei could gather his wits about him, claws extended from the figure’s big hand and instantly speared him through the eyes, neck, heart, and lungs.
“Konran o maneku,” I commanded the apparition.
Hiro’s hands were freed as the rest of the men scrambled away in panic. With difficulty, he raised himself to his knees, coughing blood. The screams of dying men registered in his ears, but the black fog cut the massacre from his view. He tried to stand, but his legs were weak so he fell forward. A pair of dark gray-skinned feet emerged from the cloud before him.
Sound vanished. Smell and touch ceased to exist. Only sight and taste remained. Hiro tasted blood on his tongue. When he looked up, he stared into the golden eyes of another.
“You?” Hiro heaved, his soul shuddering within.
“I,” the spirit said. He placed a finger to Hiro’s heart, and the world broke in half.
“You think he’s dead?”
“I don’t know. All the other humans are.”
“He’s breathing, you fools, he can’t be dead.”
“Give him some water.”
“There, he’s stirring. Run, run so he can’t see us.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Have you seen the chrysanthemum clearing? It’s a mess. He has some explaining to do.”
“You don’t think… he did it?”
“That’s why I need answers. I don’t know what to think.”
A loud buzz vibrated inside Hiro’s head, like a thousand hornets building a nest. He slowly opened his eyes, but his vision was hampered. He wiped at his sticky face and then gawked when he saw his palm.
Blood. He was covered in it.
“He’s going to puke,” one of the voices said.
On cue, Hiro gagged and rolled over, his stomach twisting.
“Help him sit up!” He felt hands pulling at him. A cup was nudged under his nose, and he drank water that tasted like heaven. A wet cloth sponged the blood from his face.
“Easy, boy, it’s all gone now.”
When Hiro opened his eyes again, four strange creatures appeared before him. They were the size of children, green-skinned with crowns made of twigs and leaves.
“Feeling better?” one of them asked.
“What?” Hiro became agitated. He tried to stand but the little green people pushed him back down.
“Whoa, there. Calm down. You’re in shock. You shouldn’t make any sudden moves or you’ll faint again.”
The tendrils of a nightmare were coming back to Hiro and squeezing his chest. He opened his mouth to scream, but one of the creatures clamped a hand over it.
“Don’t do that. You’ll alert the humans. They can’t see us.”
Hiro’s muffled screams continued until his throat hurt.
“He’s going mad, can’t we give him something?”
“I’ve seen humans give each other hugs when in distress. Maybe that will work.”
They conferred about the possible benefits of a hug while Hiro continued to writhe. They agreed in unanimity that a hug could do no harm.
Hiro felt four pairs of arms fold around him. Gentle murmurs told him he was among friends, he was safe, nothing would happen to him. Slowly, Hiro’s screams reduced to sobs.
They held him through the tears and sniffles, until the panic subsided and Hiro returned to himself.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We are the kodama living in the trees here on Mount Kasuga. Pleased to meet you.”
“Kodama? Are you yōkai?”
“Definitely. The best of the yōkai.”
“Stop bragging. It’s undignified,” one scolded.
“How did I get here? My head is killing me.” In truth, Hiro’s entire body hurt. What had happened?
“We found you and dragged you here. We didn’t want you to wake up out there. That’s no place for a child.”
“No place at all. I’m going to have nightmares for weeks, and I’m a hundred years old.”
“But what happened?” Hiro urged. “I don’t understand.”
They hesitated. “We thought maybe you could tell us.”
Hiro grasped for images that were already fading away. “I don’t know. There was a cloud of black smoke coming from the trees. Then something appeared and started killing everyone.”
“An ayakashi? On Mount Kasuga?” one kodama asked the other.
“But that’s impossible. There are no ayakashi on this mountain.”
“If an ayakashi spoiled our peace, I’m going to—”
“What are you going to do? What can any kodama do against an ayakashi? Throw twigs at it? If there is one, we should stay far away and let Inari-sama handle it.”
“We haven’t had an ayakashi on Mount Kasuga in two hundred years, but we may get one now if the souls of the butchered men are not reaped by a shinigami. What else, child?”
“I… can’t remember. Claws, dark skin. Golden eyes.”
They recoiled in fear. “Golden eyes? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Eyes like the sun and a gold-painted tattoo on charcoal gray skin. That’s what I saw.”
The kodama turned away, staring beyond the trees. “This is bad.”
“We should tell Inari-sama.”
“What is it?” Hiro asked. “What was that thing? Was it an ayakashi?”
A kodama turned to Hiro and shook their head. “Only gods have golden eyes, boy. You should leave. It’s not safe here.”
“Go, it will be twilight soon. What’s bad in daylight is ten times worse at night.”
“Run, boy. Go home,” the others chorused.
Hiro picked himself up and sprinted, a newfound adrenaline fueling him through the pain. He didn’t stop until he reached the gardens.
“Guards! Guards!” he called. He feared he was going to raise a commotion and scare the servants, but it turned out that the palace was already in unspeakable turmoil. He found the household gathered in the courtyard, along with several exhausted horses who had sweat dripping down their twitchy romps and steam rising from their nostrils. When Hiro’s mother saw him running toward her with blood on his face and clothes, she cried out and fainted.
Bewildered and shaken, Hiro stared dumbly at his father as he emerged from the crowd.
“Hirotsugu! You’re alive!”
Hiro broke down in tears as he ran into his father’s arms.
“They found Hideyoshi’s body in a ditch,” Umakai said. “I came home as soon as I found out.” He searched his son’s face. “Tell me what happened.”
“Father, I was so scared,” he said.
Umakai’s large arms embraced him. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”
Guards were dispatched to the forest to find the thieves. They found them, but it was hard to describe their state. They were piled on top of each other at the base of a cliff, bodies crushed on the stones below as if they had been pushed over the precipice.
When Umakai went to see the remains, he returned whiter than parchment and unable to speak. He refused to eat, shutting himself in his rooms for two weeks for prayer, meditation, and cleansing rituals.
Hiro had to resort to eavesdropping on the servants to catch glimpses of the story. His memory of it was fading, his brain choosing to do the smart thing and compartmentalize the horror away. The women made a sign against evil whenever anyone mentioned the event.
Some of the vagrants had been shredded to pieces, and the trees had been adorned with their flesh and guts. Food for the crows. One head, without its eyes and ears, had been found floating in a lake with fish feeding on it. It was the head of the fake sensei.
Hiro did not wish such a death on any man.
The household became even more protective toward him and his brothers. An armed guard was appointed to follow the children at all times, and two sentinels were assigned to the gate near the tsukubai. Hiro’s days in the maple forest were over, and his chance to witness Biko-chan’s rebirth grew dim.