Edited by Fred Wan
The Plains of Thunder, three months ago
The sun had disappeared from the skies hours ago, and yet the silent warrior still trod across the vast, empty plains, his gait certain. Had there been anyone present to witness his single-minded determination, they would have given him a wide berth; his eyes showed signs of a rage so great that it verged upon madness. He walked without any apparent indication of noticing his surroundings, storming through the dewy grass with no more sign of awareness than the wind itself. Suddenly, he stopped. He removed a scroll from his obi and consulted it, then looked up to peer at his surroundings curiously. He nodded once, as if confirming something to himself, then replaced the scroll and withdrew a satchel.
The warrior walked in a large circle, placing small items from the satchel on the ground, then carefully measuring his steps before placing another. This continued for several minutes until he returned to the spot where he had consulted the map, having placed a dozen small seals in a larger circular pattern in the wet grass. The warrior drew a second scroll from his obi.
And then he waited.
Lady Moon crept to the mid-point of her nightly journey across the sky, bathing the plains in her eerie light. The warrior's grip tightened on the scroll, and for a moment he doubted his purpose. Would this be another failure? Another sin to add to his litany?
The air grew suddenly cool, and a mist sprang up from the ground, obscuring all below the knees from his vision. His breath caught in his throat. This was no failure.
Something shimmered in the center of the circle. At first it seemed like nothing more than a heat mirage, strangely out of place in the cool night air. But then it began to take a more distinct form, coming into focus more with each passing moment until it was the transparent form of a man, his face concealed with a spectral mask.
"Hungry," the form whispered, its voice carrying perfectly on the wind. "So hungry."
"There is no meal for you here," the warrior said, his voice gruff.
"On that you are mistaken," the ghost said. It darted forward, releasing a terrible, wailing hiss that pierced the night air. Its hands reached out, talons bared to cut away the man's flesh, and then it struck the boundary of the circle he had created, and fell back, cawing in pain as its very substance smoldered. "What is this?" it demanded.
"Something a Phoenix taught me," the warrior said. "They are quite adept at such things, you know, and more than happy to discuss strange, hypothetical situations with others who are interested in their field of expertise."
"Who are you?" the gaki spat.
"What matters," the warrior said, "is who you are. Or rather, who you were." The man held up the second scroll. It was tattered and damaged, and had clearly been subjected to moisture. Much of its writing was smeared or gone altogether, but the seal that it had born during its use was still there. It was the seal of an Imperial.
"Where did you get that!" the creature roared.
"Tell me," the warrior said, "how you died in this place."
* * *
The Mikado, eight months ago
The chamber, already strangely hushed, grew deadly silent as the main doors were thrown open suddenly. A quartet of heavily armored Seppun, all carrying naginata, formed an honor guard of sorts around another man. He was clad in light armor, but it was polished to a mirror finish and emblazoned with the Imperial mon. The man took the dais at the front of the room and surveyed the assembled samurai with a cool, even glare. This was Seppun Katsura, head of the Seppun magistrates and the master sensei of Sapphire Blade Dojo.
Judging from his expression, he was greatly displeased.
"In all my years enforcing the Emperor's laws," he began, "I have never seen the likes of the accusations that have been bandied about in this court. The testimony I have gathered incriminated more than half a dozen of you assembled here today, and yet it was plainly obvious that much of it was merely slander designed to cast doubts on your rivals." He shook his head in disgust. "Some of you have selected scapegoats that are not even in attendance, unless of course Moto Chagatai has concealed himself in the servants' quarters. I hope that, if nothing else, the execution of one of your number will serve as a reminder of what manner of life a samurai should lead."
There was a murmur throughout the crowd. Some were aghast at being taken to task in such a manner, even by a ranking member of the Imperial families. Others simply looked away, or hid their shame behind a fan. Truly, the incident had been a dreadful ordeal for everyone involved, and none wished to be a party to such a thing again.
"After considering the testimony of all involved, and with the considerable assistance of Unicorn magistrate Moto Hotei," Katsura continued, "I have no choice but to conclude that the murderer could be none other than Bayushi Takaharu."
Some gasped, but others nodded in agreement. Takaharu had certainly made no significant number of allies during his time at Shogo's court. For his part, the Scorpion showed no sign of surprise, nor even any reaction to the announcement.
"Bayushi Takaharu poisoned Shogo, resulting in the discoloration of his hands, tongue, and throat. The assassin seems to have underestimated the strength of the Seppun, however, and when the poison proved unequal to the task, he stabbed him with a blade taken from Yoritomo Ryouta's quarters." He scowled in the Scorpion's direction. "There may be no Emperor," Katsura said in a calm tone that clearly concealed an explosive anger, "but there can be no error in his law. You are guilty, and your punishment is execution. Have you anything to say? Any defense to offer?"
"You have made your decision," Takaharu said quietly. "Anything I say is irrelevant. Continue with your mockery of justice, if you like. It means nothing to me."
"Take him," Katsura said, and the armored Seppun guards moved to seize the Scorpion and escort him from the chamber. He said nothing, made no attempt to resist. The magistrate surveyed the room. "The Seppun offer their apologies for any inconvenience you may have experienced," he said, his tone not particularly apologetic. "Please feel free to remain as long as you like. Hotei-san, if you will accompany me, we will discuss your appointment to the Seppun dojo."
And with that, the magistrate left.
* * *
"And so you were executed," the warrior said.
"What does it matter?" the gaki said. "I barely remember such trivialities. The hunger is too great! Why do you torture me with memories of my mortal life, with memories of a time without hunger?"
"I want you to tell me about Gaki-do," the warrior said. "I wish to know about the Realm of the Hungry Dead."
"Ask your precious Phoenix!"
The warrior almost smiled. "Ah, but such questions arouse the curiosity, and lead to other questions, such as should not be answered. No, I wish to hear it from you."
The gaki laughed. "Then we will both go unsatisfied."
The warrior drew his blade and then withdrew a small ribbon from his satchel. "Do you know what this is?" he asked, holding the ribbon aloft. It too was tattered and worn. He attached it to the hilt of his blade. "Do you know what it can do?"
The gaki had grown silent. "A spirit ribbon of the Toritaka," it answered. "Yes, I know what it can do."
"Then you know that I can and will banish you from this realm," the warrior said. "You will be sent back to your wretched realm, and there you will reside forever. Unsatisfied, as you said."
"Not forever," the gaki said balefully. "I will return in time. Decades, perhaps even centuries, must pass, but I will return."
"No," the warrior said. "If I banish you, then I will leave instructions. No matter how long it will take, no matter how many lifetimes, every time you return to the mortal realm, there will be someone like me here, waiting. You will never feed again. You will know nothing but hunger for eternity."
The gaki hissed and roared in fury, but could do nothing. "What is it you wish to know!" it finally shouted at him.
"Tell me of the Imperial City," the warrior said. "Tell me about the doorway to Gaki-do that exists there."
The two spoke for several hours, until dawn threatened just below the horizon. After their conversation was at last finished, and the gaki had told all that it knew, the warrior at last nodded, and put the invitation he held back into his belt. "I thank you for your aid," he said. He turned as if to go, then paused. "One last question."
"Ask it and be gone!" the gaki said.
"Did you, in fact, kill Seppun Shogo?"
Impossibly, the ghost laughed. "Ask your precious Emerald Champion."
The warrior frowned at this. He reached down and removed the ribbon from his blade, then stared at it in his palm for several moments. Then, quickly, as if on impulse, he drew a knife from his belt and attached the ribbon to it. In one fluid motion, he turned and threw it into the circle.
The knife passed through the gaki's form, centered perfectly on his chest. The ghost screamed in agony, but the sound faded quickly as its form dissipated on the cool pre-morning breeze. Even as it disappeared, the warrior could make out its final question. "Why?"
"Because I hate you," Bayushi Kwanchai snarled.
* * *
The Imperial City of Toshi Ranbo, two months ago
The Shiba sentry at the Imperial Palace frowned and re-read the papers he was holding. He glanced sidelong at one of the others, who shrugged, then turned back to the massive Scorpion waiting. "These papers were signed by the Imperial Chancellor, Bayushi Kaukatsu," he said.
"Yes," Kwanchai said.
The sentry nodded. "And you are aware that the Chancellor has been dead for nearly a year?"
"Keenly," Kwanchai answered.
The Shiba frowned and rubbed his chin. "In the wake of his death, I do not know that these papers still have any bearing."
"Of course," the Scorpion said. "If you will but direct me to the new Chancellor, I will of course seek new papers from him or her."
The sentries glanced at one another now, some silent communication passing between them. "There is no Chancellor, currently."
"Then these papers must still be valid," he returned.
All trace of confusion had left the three Phoenix now. They were resolute, standing shoulder to shoulder, their path apparently clear. "I am sorry, Bayushi-san, but I cannot accept the validity of these papers without more information. What is the nature of your visit to the Imperial Palace? With whom do you seek an audience."
Kwanchai hesitated for a moment, then lowered his head. "Have you ever held a post as a yojimbo?" he asked quietly.
"Of course," the Shiba bushi replied at once.
"I was Kaukatsu-sama's yojimbo," Kwanchai explained. "I was with him when he died."
"Ah," the lead sentry said. He had averted his eyes from Kwanchai, as had the others. "I& see."
"I only wish to visit the site of his death," Kwanchai said. "I mean no harm to any living soul. I do not wish to speak to anyone. If you wish, you can escort me to the balcony where he died. I only wish to pray for his soul, and for forgiveness." He shook his head. "I just need to see where he died one last time."
The Shiba looked at one another, and again Kwanchai had the notion that they were somehow communicating without speaking. He supposed that was a benefit of having worked alongside the same men every day for years. He had never had that luxury. All those that had served alongside him died, sooner or later. He was always alone, eventually.
"I have the authority to accept these papers, if I choose," the lead sentry finally said. "And I do. My yoriki," he nodded to the man on the left, "will accompany you. Conclude your business and be done. This will be your only opportunity. Do you understand?"
"I do," Kwanchai said, bowing. "Thank you, Shiba-sama."
The Phoenix and the Scorpion did not speak on their way to the balcony. The Shiba would not even look at Kwanchai. In a way, the warrior found it refreshing; the weight of his dishonor was like a stone around his neck, but other members of the Scorpion never even acknowledged it. It was as if nothing had happened. But he knew what had happened. He remembered it every day, and dreamed of it every night. His failure was like a wound that would not heal. At least those of other clans recognized this openly.
At last the two reached the doorway to the balcony where the incident had occurred. The Shiba looked away. "I will wait here," he said. "I do not wish to disturb your prayers."
"Thank you," Kwanchai said, fully aware that the man did not wish to stand in the presence of such shame if he could avoid it. What man who called himself a yojimbo could? Kwanchai bowed shortly, stepped out onto the balcony, and barred the door behind him. The warrior took out the same satchel he had carried on the Plains of Thunder, and began removing a number of small candles. He placed them at intervals across the entire balcony.
He wondered if, when the end came, the Phoenix would try to interfere. He hoped not, but there was no way to be certain. He placed the last candle and then inspected the scroll on which he had written his instructions. He double checked the perfect placement of the candles, and then became aware of another presence on the balcony with him.
Kwanchai whirled and drew his blade, affixing the ribbon with his free hand and assuming an aggressive stance. There, floating a short distance away, was a wraith much like the ones he had seen before. Its appearance was the end of its resemblance, however. "Be at ease," the spirit said softly. "I mean no harm to any who bear the seal of the Scorpion. Surely you can sense this."
Kwanchai hesitated, weighing the blade in his hand. The ribbon's power was fading rapidly, and its potency would not endure for much longer. He needed it desperately to finish what he had come here to accomplish. And this one, this ghost, seemed& different somehow. It made no sudden moves. It did not regard him with the same naked hunger as the others. It seemed almost serene, somehow. "What are you?" he demanded.
"I could not truly answer that question myself," the gaki answered, its voice a calm whisper. "Once, I was like that which you seek, but that is no longer fully the case."
Kwanchai lowered his blade a fraction of an inch. "What do you want?"
"I know you," the gaki said. "I know who you are, student of Tangen. I have watched you, as I watch so many who bear your mon, in your months of preparation with great curiosity. I know what you wish to do. What I do not know, is why."
"They killed Kaukatsu," Kwanchai said. His voice was full of hate and rage. "They crossed the Scorpion, and they must be punished. If they were men, I would kill them, but I cannot. So I must deal with them in another manner."
"Will you really throw your life away so easily?"
"Easily?" Kwanchai was nearly shouting. Fortunately the balcony was constructed with privacy in mind. "Easily? You have no idea what that even means! I should have died a hundred times before now! A thousand! But death never comes for me. It comes for those around me! All those I touch wither and die!"
The gaki tilted its head. "That cannot be true."
"It can. It is." Kwanchai shook his head. "I was& I had a wife. Moshi Nao was her name before we married. She was a wonderful woman. We were to have a son. She did not survive it, and my son followed her soon after. The shugenja said that he was not strong enough, but I know that is a lie." He covered his face with one hand. "He simply wished to be with his mother. Perhaps he knew what would happen if he stayed with me. He would have died in my place somehow. I did not know it then, as I do now, or I would have gladly taken my own life to spare his."
"Your role in this world was not yet finished."
"Do not speak to me of that! Do not speak of destiny!" Kwanchai waved his blade around wildly. "A mad monk in court once told me that the universe was not finished with me. That I could not die until it was! I want nothing of that!"
The ghost said nothing for a moment. "Who are you protecting?"
Kwanchai slumped to the floor. "I cannot allow it to happen again," he whispered. "My wife, my second wife, she is expecting a child. I cannot stay. She will die, and the baby with her. I will not allow that."
"What you are doing, what you plan to do, will result in an eternity of torment for you," the gaki said. "You know this."
"I do not care," Kwanchai hissed. His eyes had taken on a red, manic look. "They will suffer as much or more than I. That is all I care about. They will know that even the dead are not beyond the Scorpion's reach!"
"Your child will never know its father, then."
"Better to hear that I died avenging my honor than to watch me live in disgrace," Kwanchai insisted.
"You are a courageous man."
"If that is what you wish to call it," Kwanchai said. He removed his kimono and sat it aside, leaving his chest bare. A new tattoo covered much of his chest. There were two kanji, one representing "bitter," and the other "lies." Kwanchai drew both of his blades, and the kanji had been engraved upon them as well.
Kwanchai lit the special candles he had brought and waited. He did not wait long. The thick, cloying smoke soon filled the balcony, and in the haze, an opening of sorts was visible on the balcony. The wall behind it was visible, but at the same time there were shapes that could be made out through it as well. The shapes of things that were once men, and now were little more than hungry, slavering beasts.
"The only way that a portal can well and truly be closed," Kwanchai whispered, repeating the words of the Phoenix scholar he had befriended, "is for a living being to willingly pass through it. The only way to prevent the inevitable return of the gaki to the mortal realm, is to bind them to Gaki-do via a constant source of food." He drew the edge of his blade across the muscle of his arm, leaving a thin red line that trickled down his arm.
The faces within the portal turned as one, as if they could smell the blood on the air. Kwanchai favored the gaki on the balcony with one last glance. "You are not like them. You are not twisted and evil."
"Perhaps," it said. "Perhaps not."
"Leave my family in peace," Kwanchai cautioned. "Touch them not, or even Gaki-do will not hold my wrath from finding you."
With that, Kwanchai shouted a fierce kiai and dove headfirst into the opening in the air. There was a distant shouting and snarling from the other side as an endless wave of hungry dead threw themselves at the warrior. They would be trapped forever, in an eternity of suffering, unable to leave their prey. His suffering, his torment, would only feed theirs.
Then it was over, and the portal faded away like an icicle in the morning sunlight.
The gaki that stood on the balcony did not move for some time, ignoring the shouts and banging of the Shiba from the other side of the balcony door. The ghost's spectral mask faded away, revealing a mouth that was more insect than man. If someone had been present to see, however, they would have witnessed the mandibles and slavering mouth disappear, replaced with a normal human face. Likewise the tapering trail of vapor disappeared and was replaced with legs and feet.
"Your daughter will grow strong and proud," the specter that was once Bayushi Shoju said. "I will watch over her all my days, as I am able."
He faded away like a breeze, but never returned to the Realm of the Hungry Dead.
* * *
Bayushi Paneki sat for several minutes, thinking over the account he had just heard. "You are certain this information is correct?"
"Yes, master," the Shosuro said with a bow. "I witnessed the events on the Plain of Thunder firsthand, and while I was not present on the balcony with Kwanchai, I was in a position to overhear all that was said there."
"Very well," Paneki said. He had known from the moment Kwanchai had begged him for the right to commit seppuku, all those months ago, that something of this nature would happen. The big warrior was simply too idealistic to endure his shame. In truth, Paneki was surprised that he had taken so long to enact his vengeance. It was a testament to the dead man's sense of duty, he supposed. "You have done well, Kyuichi. You are dismissed."
The ninja made no sycophantic gestures of appreciation, just a quick bow and then was gone. Paneki made a note to congratulate Shosuro Toson on the caliber of his agents, but that was purely a secondary concern for now. The Master of Secrets was ultimately pleased with the outcome, for he had been contemplating how best to deal with the possibility that the Imperial Palace was in danger of further deaths like that of Kaukatsu. If the Scorpion could in fact take and hold the throne, such a risk to their rule was unacceptable. Likewise he had suspected that Kwanchai had some manner of secret he had been keeping, but the scope of this was a complete surprise to him. That the brutish oaf had been capable of such long-term planning, of such sheer ruthlessness and self-sacrifice, had caught him quite off-guard.
Bayushi Paneki despised being caught off-guard.
And then there was the matter of the mysterious gaki that had spoken to Kwanchai. That one of those wretched specters could achieve such self-control in the face of the unendurable agony they experienced every moment was surprising, and somewhat disconcerting. What manner of soul would be capable of such a thing? And why had it been so interested in what Kwanchai had to say? Paneki feared that he knew the answer to that question, and it made him uncomfortable, as uncertainty always did.
There was a whisper as the screen opened and Bayushi Miyako entered the room. Paneki's wife was slightly paler than usual, and favored her husband with a slight smile. "Good morning, Paneki-kun."
"Miyako-chan," he said. "How are you this morning?"
"Unwell," she admitted. She placed a hand over her stomach. "Only two months old and already so strong as to render the mother almost unable to leave her bedchambers." She placed her head lightly on his shoulder. "Our child will be strong. A son, I think."
"A son," Paneki said softly. "Yes, I think you are right."