Kirishitan

by Marshall J. Moore


Hizen Province, Japan. 1577.


Crows flapped and cawed around the dead man’s face, jostling one another for the privilege of pecking out his eyes.

“An ugly way to die,” Okabe Yukiko murmured, rubbing her thumb over the pommel of her wakizashi. She shaded her eyes against the noonday sun as she looked up at the row of dead men lining the dirt road.

Four dead men on four crosses. Each had been stripped naked, nails driven through their feet and hands and into the heavy wooden beams. The wounds were crusted with dried blood, and each corpse’s face twisted into an agonized grimace. A placard was nailed to the foot of the nearest cross, the kanji scrawled upon it crude and unlovely.

“What does it say?” asked Nori, his gaze shifting nervously from the dead men to Yukiko. Like most farmers, he was illiterate.

“Kirishitan,” Yukiko read. An unnecessary label—the means of execution declared the reason for these men’s deaths on its own. Anyone who walked this road would be in no doubt as to why they had been executed, or the local daimyo’s policy towards followers of the foreign faith.

“We should move on,” the elder of Yukiko’s two companions grunted.

She turned her head to peer down at Isukiri, surprised. Until now, the elderly Buddhist priest Nori had introduced as his uncle had hardly deigned to speak to her. She had not been surprised by his reticence. As a masterless ronin, she was used to being mistrusted by samurai and commoners alike.

Isukiri looked levelly back up at her. Alone of the three, he was seated, resting with his back against the edge of the wooden cart his nephew pulled. He was past seventy, with the bent back and bad knees common to those of the lower classes who reached such an advanced age.

“Nothing we can do for them,” he continued, looking up at the crucified men. “They’ve gone to be with their God. Best not to linger unless we want to join them.”

Yukiko raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think you were that kind of priest, Isukiri-san.”

The old man scowled and fussed at the ojuzu prayer beads wrapped about his wrist. Yukiko returned her gaze to the corpses beside the road.

Of the four crucified men, three were farmers, unremarkable and plain-looking. But the fourth was unlike any man Yukiko had ever seen. Even beneath the greenish tint of death his flesh had a pasty-pink cast to it, and his nose—what remained of it after the crows had eaten their fill—was almost comically long and broad.

“A gaijin?” Yukiko’s eyes widened with surprise.

“Hai.” Nori nodded, shifting uncomfortably. “One of their priests. The merchants are smart enough not to travel this far from the coast.”

Which meant that the three dead locals beside him must have been converts, perhaps even disciples. Had they known this was the fate that awaited them for turning away from the faith of their ancestors and adopting the religion of the western barbarians? Had whatever solace the foreign god offered them been worth this cruelest of deaths?

“Okabe-san,” Nori murmured, glancing over his shoulder at Isukiri, “my uncle is correct. We should not linger here if we hope to reach the shrine before nightfall.”

Yukiko shook her head and turned away from the grisly spectacle. Both commoners were right. They had hired her to perform a task, after all. And while having a ronin guard’s protection on the roads in these uncertain times was a boon, it was not for her swords alone that Nori and his priestly uncle had enlisted her service.

Shouldering the pack that held her meager worldly belongings, Yukiko set off down the road, towards the mountains. Nori grunted as he lifted the wooden cart and set off after her, his uncle fidgeting silently with the prayer beads. Behind them the mangled bodies faded into the distance, though their stark message remained in Yukiko’s mind.

Preach the word of the Crucified God in Hizen Province, the nails through their hands proclaimed, and meet the same fate he did.

***
“Tell me about your ghost, Nori-san.”

Nori wiped at his brow, eliciting a dissatisfied grunt from his uncle as the motion rocked the little cart. The afternoon sun beat down oppressively, and the dusty mountain road was unshaded by any trees.

“I am not sure what I can tell you that I have not already said, Okabe-san,” Nori said. “Our shrine is haunted by a yōkai of some sort. Our own attempts to dislodge it proved to be fruitless.”

Isukiri snorted. Yukiko glanced over her shoulder to see the old priest rocking uncomfortably from side to side in the back of the cart as they climbed the winding mountain trail, running the prayer beads through his weathered hands.

Small wonder he resents my presence, Yukiko thought. Even a humble priest has his pride, and it must sting his to admit that he requires help driving away an unfriendly spirit. Particularly from a lowly ronin.

Like all masterless samurai, Yukiko occupied a precarious position in Nippon’s social order. She was of nobler birth than the commoners, but without a lord to provide her with food and lodging her lot in life was little better than that of a penniless vagabond. Her swords and the name of her long-dead clan were all that set her apart from a common cutthroat.

“So we elected to seek out someone with experience in dealing with unfriendly spirits,” Nori continued, recalling Yukiko’s attention to the present. A nervous chuckle escaped his lips. “Lucky for us that the famous ghost hunter Okabe Yukiko happened to be nearby!”

Isukiri leaned over the side of the cart and spat. The thick wad of phlegm landed and mingled with the dust of the road.

“Lucky for us all,” Yukiko said drily, patting the coin pouch that jingled at her side. “When did your yōkai first appear?”

“A week ago,” Nori said. “Not long after we moved into the shrine. The building had been in disrepair for quite some time, its altar untended and no offerings made to the kami dwelling within.”

A dissatisfied grunt from the back of the cart showed what Isukiri thought of the state of the roadside shrine that was now his responsibility. Yukiko could hardly blame him. The local daimyo, Ryūzōji Takanobu, had been generous in gifting the unkept shrine to the elderly priest, but his generosity did not extend nearly so far as to encompass labor for repairs of the dilapidated house of worship.

“Many yōkai are attracted to places of spiritual significance,” Yukiko mused as they rounded a bend in the mountain path. “A roadside shrine left untended would be highly tempting for many of them. Tell me, what did this yōkai of yours look like?”

Nori opened his mouth to respond, but to Yukiko’s surprise it was his uncle who answered.

“Not a yōkai,” Isukiri said with unexpected heat, shaking his head. “Nor a yūrei. It is a wicked oni, Okabe-san.”

Yukiko wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. Oni were hulking, demonic brutes taller than a man—not the sort of being she expected to take up residence in a roadside shrine.

“You’re talking nonsense, uncle,” Nori said, once again letting out that nervous, chittering laugh. “It’s too small to be an oni.”

“You’ve seen it, then?” Yukiko asked, fixing Nori with a direct gaze.

“Hai,” Nori said, quailing away from Yukiko’s keen grey eyes. “Not clearly, you understand, and only fleetingly. It appears each night around the Hour of the Dog, but it keeps to the shadows.”

Now they were getting somewhere. Yukiko opened her mouth, about to ask Nori any of a hundred questions: How big was the yōkai? Was its shape human or animal, or neither? Did it speak?

But before she could ask even one, another voice cut through the mountain air.

“Hold!” it shouted, brusquely authoritative. “By order of Lord Ryūzōji Takanobu!”

Ahead on the road stood a pair of sentinels leaning against their long yari. One was short and broad, the other lanky. They were armored in the manner of ashigaru foot soldiers, their iron cuirasses emblazoned with the mon of the Ryūzōji clan: a six-rayed white sunburst on black.

The shorter ashigaru lowered his yari, its iron tip pointed at Yukiko’s heart. Beneath the brim of his conical bamboo hat his eyes flicked to the swords tucked into her obi.

“Declare yourself.” He adjusted his grip on the yari’s haft. “Who are you? And what business do you have on Lord Ryūzōji’s roads?”

Yukiko’s grey eyes roved over the pair of ashigaru, sizing them up. The one who had spoken had his feet planted too close together; if she could parry his first strike, she could close inside his reach and unbalance him with a single strike. The trick would be meeting his comrade’s counterattack…

She shook her head, clearing it of such violent thoughts. You are here on legitimate business, she reminded herself. There is no need for bloodshed today.

“Good evening.” Yukiko tucked her arms into the sleeves of her kimono and bowed at the waist. “I am Okabe Yukiko. This priest and his nephew have hired me to assist them in cleaning and repairing their shrine.”

Out of the corner of her eye Yukiko saw Nori shoot her a look, his face pale. She ignored him, keeping her attention fixed on the pair of ashigaru. In Yukiko’s experience, mentioning evil spirits did little to set wary soldiers at ease.

“Heh,” the second ashigaru grunted, scratching at his chin. He was taller than his companion, with pockmark scars cratering his face. “Thought even ronin were above doin’ handywork like that.” His attention shifted to Nori. “What’s the matter? Couldn’t find a carpenter down in the village?”

“Ebisu smiles on all honest work,” Yukiko said, her own polite smile unwavering. “And a ronin with a hungry belly makes a passable carpenter at need.”

“True enough!” the scarred ashigaru laughed. He took off his hat and fanned himself with it. “Let ’em through, Chirhiro.”

The other ashigaru—Chirhiro—narrowed his eyes, but slowly lifted his yari. Yukiko let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

“You may proceed,” Chirhiro said, the words begrudging. “But only if you pass the test.”

Yukiko’s smile froze. Test?

Chihiro reached into his travel pack and produced a rectangular bronze plate about the size of Yukiko’s hand. Out of the corner of her eye Yukiko saw Isukiri lean forward in his cart to get a better look.

Chihiro thrust the plate towards each of them in turn. Nori flinched away as though it were a brand, although by now Yukiko was beginning to wonder if there was anything the farmer didn’t cringe at. Isukiri looked at it impassively, his dark eyes betraying nothing of his thought.

Then the plate was under her nose, the late afternoon sun glinting off the dull bronze. Yukiko blinked, tilting her head for a better look.

A man, hanging from a cross by his hands. A likeness of one of the dead men from the road?

“Know what this is?” Chihiro asked, his eyes roving over Yukiko and the two commoners. Without waiting for an answer, he pressed on. “This is the dead god of the Kirishitan. Any of you Kirishitan?”

Nori shook his head fervently. Yukiko maintained her pleasantly smiling mask, but her shoulders tensed as she recalled the four men crucified on the roadside. She smelled a trap.

“We’re all Buddhists here,” Isukiri said, speaking up for the first time since the ashigaru had appeared. His prayer beads rattled against each other as he waved them demonstratively.

“Good.” Chihiro grinned, and threw the bronze plate to the ground. A small explosion of dust billowed up around it.

“Stomp on it,” he commanded. “Should be easy if you’re really good Buddhists like you say.”

A sharp intake of breath from beside Yukiko. Nori glanced down at the bronze icon, then back up at the soldiers, naked terror in his eyes.

Act, a voice in Yukiko’s head pleaded, high and urgent. Act, before his cowardice kills you all.

Yukiko moved with the fighter’s instinct that had saved her life dozens of times. Chihiro’s voice barely had time to echo off the hillside before she brought her sandalled foot down on the bronze plate, driving it further into the dust.

She backed away, and the eyes of the ashigaru turned to Nori. Yukiko’s hand dropped to her katana’s hilt, ready to draw and strike in a single breath.

Nori nodded and stepped forward, driving his own foot down onto the figure of the crucified god. When he retreated his chest rose and fell as though he had just finished a long race.

“Looks like you were wrong, Chihiro,” the pockmarked ashigaru cackled. “No Kirishitan here.”

He stepped out of the road and waved for them to move along, but Chihiro remained where he was, frowning. His gaze fell on Isukiri, sitting in the back of the cart and worrying at his prayer beads.

“The old man, too.”

Nori turned his head, looking fearfully at his uncle. Yukiko moved between the commoners and the two ashigaru, her hand still resting on her katana.

“Come now,” she said, still polite but with frost creeping in at the edge of her voice. “This is absurd. Isukiri-sama is the priest of the roadside shrine further up the mountain. Your daimyo Ryūzōji-dono himself granted it to him, and now you accuse him of being a secret Kirishitan?”

Chirhiro’s companion cackled. “She’s got you there, mate!”

“What you say makes sense,” Chihiro admitted, looking uncertain. “But we have orders. Anyone passing this way is to be tested—”

“Sir,” Nori said, his voice wavering as he bowed low. “My uncle is quite old. His knees trouble him…”

As his nephew spoke, Isukiri began chanting a low prayer, his prayer beads rattling as he turned them over in his hands.

“Alright!” Chihiro interrupted, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Alright. I see that it’s as you say. Go ahead.”

He stepped out of the road, allowing them to pass. Nori hoisted the handles of the wooden cart.

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” Chihiro said, nodding his head deferentially to Isukiri. “Say a prayer to the kami for us, would you?”

“Yeah,” his comrade jeered as they passed him by. “And if you see any Kirishitan, send them this way, you hear?”

Yukiko did not smile. She set off beside the cart, easily keeping pace with Isukiri as he was trundled along.

“That was quick thinking,” the old priest murmured to her, a little further down the road. “Stepping in before Nori’s hesitation was apparent.”

So the old man had noticed that, too.

“Why did he hesitate?” she asked, keeping her voice low so the ashigaru behind them would not hear. Ahead of her Nori’s exposed neck flushed red, but he did not look back.

Isukiri swayed with the rocking of his cart. “My nephew is a… superstitious sort, Okabe-san. He is hesitant to disrespect any spirit, whether a native kami or foreign god.” His prayer beads rattled. “You are not similarly burdened, it seems.”

Yukiko looked over her shoulder, past the two ashigaru once again lounging against their spears, to the small metal plate lying in the dust. A shudder passed through her as she recalled how the crucified man engraved on it had stared up at the sky, his mouth open in a silent wail.

“He’s not my god,” Yukiko said.

***
The shrine sat on a high bluff overlooking the valley below, beyond which Yukiko could just barely glimpse the distant glimmer of the sea. The sun was grazing the peaks of the western mountains when they arrived, bathing the shrine red. She tried not to take that as an omen.

Isukiri had not been lying. His shrine was in dire need of repair. The paint had peeled from the torii arch that marked the shrine’s entrance, exposing the bare wood beneath. One corner of the sloping tiled roof had caved in, and the walls rattled with every gust of wind. The ground was thick with dust, the eaves heavy with cobwebs.

“I apologize for the state of the place,” the old priest said as Yukiko stepped gingerly over a pile of leaves that had accumulated on the shrine’s doorstep. “We had planned to clean it out earlier. But as you might expect, the oni’s appearance put a pause on those plans.”

Behind him Nori fetched a broom and began to sweep at the accumulated leaves. Strange, Yukiko reflected, how he and his uncle had switched roles ever since their encounter with the ashigaru. Isukiri now spoke easily to her, while Nori had fallen totally silent—ashamed, no doubt.

“It’s no trouble.” Yukiko looked around the shrine’s interior. It was a modest building, not much larger than a small farmhouse, dominated by the shintai altar at its center. On it sat a white marble statue of a serene woman surrounded by tall wax candles. She sat cross-legged, cradling an infant child in her lap. Her eyes were closed in contemplation or prayer, but the child’s were wide open.

“Jibo Kannon,” Isukiri said, following Yukiko’s gaze. “A renowned bodhisattva.”

“The compassionate mother.” Yukiko nodded, eyes fixed on the statue. There was a strangely lifelike quality to the cold marble. Something in the way the woman cradled the infant to her, in how the babe’s pudgy hand rested atop hers. Yukiko remembered how it felt to hold a child that way.

“Are you a mother, Okabe-san?” Isukiri asked quietly.

“No,” she said. Not anymore, she thought.

Yukiko shook her head, fighting down the sudden lump that had risen in her throat. She stepped closer to the statue, to both examine it more closely and hide her shining eyes from the old priest.

“Kannon was not the first shintai housed in this shrine,” she said, turning back to Isukiri. “Was she?”

Isukiri’s eyebrows lifted. “How could you tell?”

Yukiko knelt and pressed her hand against the wooden floor. When she raised it, her palm came away coated in dust.

“Kannon is clean,” she said. “Nothing else in this shrine is.”

Isukiri chuckled. “Your eyes are sharp indeed, Okabe-san. You are correct. This shrine was formerly a home to a kami that dwelt in this mountain.”

“One you replaced with her,” Yukiko said, waving at Kannon. “I think I understand the cause of your haunting, Isukiri-san.”

The priest’s eyes went flat. Behind him, Nori stopped sweeping, glancing from his uncle to the swords at Yukiko’s side.

Outside, the sun had sunk below the mountains, casting the shrine into their long shadow. Yukiko produced a tinderbox and matches from her kimono and began to light the candles surrounding the statue of Kannon.

“Your yōkai,” she said, watching the flames dance and flicker. “It is the shrine’s kami, angered that you have rejected it for another.”

Isukiri made a disgruntled sound in his throat, but his nephew spoke before he could.

“How do we appease it?” Nori asked, clutching the broom to his chest in shaking hands.

Yuikio rubbed at her chin. “It has been provoked to rage by its shrine being given to another. If Kannon’s shintai were removed—”

“No.” Isukiri’s voice cut through the gloom like a knife. “We will not do that, Yukiko-san. Not under any circumstance.”

Yukiko’s back stiffened as she lit the last candle. She had expected resistance on this point, but the old priest’s vehemence was surprising even so. “You won’t be persuaded?”

“No,” Isukiri said curtly. “This shrine is to be dedicated to Jibo Kannon and no other. I would give my life to ensure it remains so.”

“Uncle,” Nori said, tugging at the old priest’s sleeve. “Don’t—”

“Very well.” Yukiko nodded. Nori’s mouth dropped open, and Isukiri’s brows lifted in surprise. Neither had expected her to acquiesce so quickly.

“You hired me to deal with your haunting,” she continued, feeling that she owed them an explanation. “I took your coin and gave my word, so I will do as I was hired. But if you will not remove the shintai to Kannon, our options are limited. Understand?”

Both men nodded.

“The spirit will remain angry,” she said, “and so there is no chance of pacifying it. We must allow it to reveal itself and drive it away once it does.” Her hand rested on her wakizashi, thumb tracing a circle around its pommel. “By force, if need be.”

Nori paled, but Isukiri nodded. His rheumy eyes glimmered in the candlelight.

“We must cleanse the shrine.” Yukiko knelt to rummage through her traveling pack. “Physically and spiritually, as best we can in the little time remaining to us.”

Nori had said that the yōkai appeared each night at the Hour of the Dog, not long after sundown. Judging from the dwindling sun, they had less than an hour to prepare for its arrival. She produced several sticks of incense and handed them to Isukiri. “Incense and prayer will help cleanse the air of spiritual contamination, weakening the yōkai—”

“The oni,” Isukiri corrected, frowning as he took the incense. “I suppose you want me to chant a prayer when it appears?”

“Sooner.” Yukiko wondered again at his insistence that the shrine was haunted by an oni rather than some other disgruntled spirit. “I would begin immediately. Any prayer will do.”

“What should I do?” Nori asked, his eyes darting nervously around the ceiling, as though he expected the yōkai to appear among the shadowed rafters at any moment.

“Keep cleaning,” she said, pointing at the broom in his hand. “It will help purify the shrine.”

And, she thought, it will keep me from tripping over these damned leaves when it comes time to draw steel.

***
The wooden walls rattled like bones as the night wind howled outside. Tall shadows danced around the room, cast by the candleflames as they flickered and swayed. The lit incense sticks lent a fragrant heaviness to the air, and Yukiko found herself fighting to keep awake and alert after their long climb up the mountain.

She knelt before the altar, gazing steadily up at Kannon and her babe. The candlelight danced and flickered on the bodhisattva’s face.

Nori and Isukiri knelt behind her, nearer to the shrine entrance. The old man’s voice rose and fell in a steady rhythm, and though the prayer was not one Yukiko was familiar with, its words were a comfort nonetheless.

“Okabe-san?” Nori asked, his voice near a whisper. Yukiko could barely hear him over the chanted prayer, the rattling walls, the howling wind.

“Yes?”

“Will we survive this night, do you think?”

Yukiko glanced down at her swords lying on the floor beside her, carefully placed so that she could draw them and strike in a single blow.

“No one knows what the dawn may bring,” she murmured. “I do not know what sort of creature we face, Nori-san. I cannot measure myself against that which I do not know.”

“But you have driven out yūrei before, haven’t you?” Nori pressed. “And battled oni, if the stories are true.”

Yukiko shut her eyes, but the candleflames still danced before her. They grew to great pillars of fire, a vast conflagration roaring and consuming all it touched.

A face appeared in the flames, a hideous grinning visage with rust-red skin and horns protruding from its brow. No; not a face, but a war mask, one of the terrifying menpō worn by high-ranking samurai.

The general with the oni mask, Yukiko thought, and the mangled grief and rage that rose in her howled like the wind through the mountains. The flames roared in answer, and in her mind the man behind the oni mask laughed, deep and cruel.

And beneath it all, the sound of a little girl crying.

Izumi…

“Hai,” Yukiko murmured, opening her eyes. Kannon’s babe stared serenely down at her. “I have crossed blades with an oni before.”

She glanced over her shoulder at Nori, noting the way his hands shook around his broom, now clasped against his shoulder like a soldier’s spear. “What is your fear, Nori-san? Dying is not the worst thing, you know.”

Again, the sound of a little girl’s terrified wails rose in Yukiko’s memory. There were far worse things than dying, indeed.

Nori did not answer for a moment. Isukiri’s prayer fell to a lower register, and for a moment the only sound was the restless howling wind.

“I suppose you think me a great coward,” Nori said at last. “But… please understand. I do not fear for myself, but for my family. My wife, back in the village…”

He swallowed, loudly enough to be heard over the insistent howling of the wind. “She is pregnant with our first child. If anything should happen to me, or to my uncle…”

“Nori-san,” Yukiko said, peering over her shoulder to face him. “I cannot say what will happen here tonight. It might be that the yōkai, or oni, or whatever it might be, is more than a match for the three of us, and we shall all perish this night.”

Nori whimpered and clutched the broom tighter.

“But know this.” Yukiko raised her voice a little as the wind’s moaning rose to a mournful yooo. “I have promised you and your uncle that I would free this shrine from that which haunts it. I took your coin, and so the oath was sealed. My honor is bound to you, and to this shrine, until the task is fulfilled. If anyone is to die this night, I shall be the first."

“Hai.” Nori nodded. His face was still pale, but his hands had ceased their shaking.

“If it’s any comfort,” Yukiko said, “I have been a ronin for seven or eight years now, and I have not died yet.”

She reached down, resting her hand lightly on the handle of her wakizashi. A rare genuine smile crossed Okabe Yukiko’s lips. “Have faith, Nori-san.”

He returned the smile. “I will try. Thank you, Okabe-san.”

They fell silent, save only for Isukiri’s chanting and the murmuring wind. Yoooo…

“My uncle’s right, you know,” Nori murmured as the old man’s praying fell into a slower cadence. “It is a powerful oni. It speaks things that should not be spoken. Knows things that no man can know—”

Yukiko held up her hand, curling her fingers into a fist. Nori fell abruptly silent as the gaunt ronin looked about, looking like a lean wolf that has just caught a scent.

Yoooo, the wind murmured. Yukiko strained her ears, listening with every fiber of her being.

Yooooo…

Yooookiko…


She rose to her feet in a single breath, candlelight flickering on cold steel as she drew her katana in the same motion. Behind her the steady rhythm of Isukiri’s prayer faltered.

“Don’t stop,” Yukiko hissed at him. “No matter what, keep praying.”

Isukiri resumed his prayer. Beside him, Nori clutched his broomstick. Yukiko’s eyes scanned the shadowy rafters, searching for the malignant entity.

“We know you’re here,” she said, raising her voice. “Show yourself, spirit.”

A high, chittering laugh echoed from somewhere overhead. A voice like the rasping wind followed it. “Why would I do that, Yukiko? Why, when you all look so funny from up here?”

“It’s a rude host who hides from his guests,” Yukiko said, her voice calm and even. “Reveal yourself.”

“You are no guests of mine,” the unseen yōkai snapped, its laughter suddenly gone. “These men are thieves in the night, come to rob my very house from me. And you, Okabe Yukiko?”

It laughed again, and this time Yukiko caught a glimpse of a shadow scurrying along the rafters like an oversized squirrel. She raised her katana, but it had already vanished into the gloom.

“You are a poor excuse for a yojimbo,” the creature cackled. “What good is a bodyguard who leaves her own child to die?”

Behind her, Nori gasped. A sickening wave of grief roiled through Yukiko’s belly as the memory of smoke and flame and her daughter’s screams rose again through the incense and candlelight.

That was long ago, she reminded herself, her grip tightening on her katana. This is now.

“This is not your home any longer,” she said as the candles danced and guttered around Kannon and her child. “Now it belongs to another. Leave it in peace, creature.”

“Ah yes,” the yōkai jeered, and this time Yukiko caught a flash of yellow eyes glimmering in the shadows before it faded out of sight. “The priest of Kannon. Not only a thief, but a liar too. Isn’t that right, Isukiri?”

Isukiri’s chanting did not cease, but his brows furrowed together in a scowl. Nori whimpered.

“How do you mean?” Yukiko asked before she could stop herself. You’re playing into the thing’s hands.

A scuttling sound from overhead, and suddenly those yellow eyes were directly over Yukiko. Shadows still clung to it, but its shape was something like a monkey or a small child.

“Don’t,” Nori moaned. Out of the corner of her eye Yukiko saw him standing with his back pressed to the wall, holding the broomstick out before him like a sword in shaking hands. “Don’t tell her, please—”

“That,” the yellow-eyed shadow said, jabbing a spindly red finger at the statue below it, “is not Kannon.”

Yukiko’s heart skipped a beat as the pieces fell together. The crucified men beside the road, one of them a gaijin priest. The sentries demanding travelers stomp upon the icon of the crucified god, and Nori’s reluctance to do so.

She looked slowly at the white marble statue of the mother and child, then back at the two men. She felt foolish for not realizing it sooner.

“You’re Kirishitan,” she said.

Isukiri tilted his chin to her, his eyes full of challenge. He continued to pray, but now Yukiko realized what was different about his prayer. It spoke not of enlightenment of the self or veneration of the ancestors, but of one spirit over all the others, of sin and death. A Kirishitan prayer translated into their own tongue.

“The old man is,” the yōkai cackled. “Converted and baptized in the name of their dead god. A true believer, unlike his nephew.”

“That’s not true,” Nori whimpered. His eyes were wide and wild, giving him the look of a hunted animal. “I… they baptized me—”

“Yes,” the yōkai hissed, vicious pleasure dripping from every word it spoke. “You let them bathe you in their holy water, but only because you feared the flames of their Hell more than you loved their god.”

The shadow clambered across the rafters, and for the first time Yukiko glimpsed its face: round and ugly, with beet-red skin and a too-wide mouth. A stubby yellow horn rose from its forehead.

An amanojaku. Isukiri had been nearly right. The shrine truly was plagued by a demonic power—though compared with their hulking oni cousins, the amanojaku were smaller and craftier, and all the more dangerous for it.

Yukiko approached slowly, katana held aloft. She knew now what sort of creature she was dealing with. Perched atop the rafters, the amanojaku was too high to attack them, but if Isukiri faltered in his prayer…

The amanojaku crouched on the broad wooden beam, leering down at Nori.

“Not that it matters,” it said. Its grin revealed a mouthful of jagged teeth that would have put a shark to shame. “You stomped on his face, so you’re damned anyway. You’ll burn in the fiery lake, your dear wife crucified—”

“My wife?” Nori said numbly, staring up into its terrible yellow eyes.

“Of course,” the amanojaku laughed. It leaned down, clinging to the wooden rafter with clawlike feet. “They saw you hesitate. The guards on the road. They know you live in the village. They’ll find out who your wife is, torture her until she confesses…”

Nori put his head into his hands, his shoulders shaking. An ugly sob choked its way free of his throat.

Yukiko crept closer, moving slowly to avoid drawing the amanojaku’s attention. Hanging from the beam, it was within reach of her katana. One quick strike was all it would take.

“She gets her heaven, at least,” the amanojaku continued, grinning as Nori put his face in his hands and wept. “Though maybe if you run fast enough, you can reach her before they’re finished with her. Who knows? If you tell them everything, they might even spare her.”

Nori looked up, staring openmouthed at the hideous creature. He looked at Isukiri, then at Yukiko. Naked fear shone in his eyes.

Yukiko shook her head mutely, mouthing don’t

Nori turned and fled, out the door and into the night. Isukiri stumbled to his feet, shouting his nephew’s name.

The amanojaku struck.

It leapt from the rafter like a pouncing wildcat, claws outstretched. A hungry light blazed in its yellow eyes as it hurtled toward the old priest.

Yukiko acted on instinct, her training and sword forgotten. She rushed forward, shoving Isukiri rudely to the ground. The old man let out a surprised cry of pain as he hit the wooden floor, but Yukiko had no time to check that he wasn’t seriously injured. The amanojaku collided with her, clawing and screeching.

She thrashed wildly with her katana, but her strike went wide, and the creature was atop her in an instant. It squatted on her chest, surprisingly heavy for its size. Yukiko raised her forearms to protect her face as it raised its claws. Long yellow nails raked at her, tearing through both kimono and the flesh below. Yukiko bit back a scream as they gouged bloody gashes across her arms.

Candlelight gleamed off the katana as she tried to strike again, but those terrible claws caught her by the wrist and bent it back until the sword clattered to the floor. The amanojaku seized her other arm and forced both her hands away from her face, leering down at her with its terrible toothy grin. It leaned in very close, blasting Yukiko with a hot breath that stank of rotten meat.

“Why struggle?” the amanojaku giggled, high and hysterical. “You’ll see your Izumi soon enough.”

Its head split in two as it opened its mouth impossibly wide, rows upon rows of snaggleteeth gleaming in the candlelight.

Not like this, Yukiko thought desperately, praying to whatever god might answer. But the creature’s grip on her wrists was a vice. Please, not like this.

The amanojaku gargled, its hot breath suddenly gone. There was a rattling sound as it released its grip on Yukiko’s wrists, clawing at its neck.

Isukiri stood behind it, his prayer beads wrapped around the creature’s throat. A vein bulged in the old priest’s temple as he strained, choking the amanojaku with what little strength he possessed.

The creature’s red face turned purple as it tore at the beads throttling it. Yukiko scrabbled blindly with her free hand, her fingers crawling across the floor towards her sword.

A clattering sound split the night as the amanojaku tore the prayer necklace apart, sending dozens of beads rolling across the wooden floor. Isukiri stumbled back, thrown off balance as it rounded on him, hatred blazing in its yellow eyes. Yukiko’s groping hand closed about the hilt of her katana.

The amanojaku sprang towards Isukiri, its talons raised to cut the old priest down.

Yukiko struck. Candlelight glimmered off her blade.

The amanojaku’s head went rolling across the floor, its mouth still open wide. Its body swayed, then toppled to the dust.

Yukiko’s heart hammered against her chest as she pulled herself to her feet, then bent to help Isukiri up. The old man leaned heavily against her.

“You saved me,” he gasped, clutching at her with his gnarled hands.

“I think we saved each other,” Yukiko said, glancing at the prayer beads strewn across the floor. “You were right, you know.”

Isukiri’s brow furrowed. “About what?”

“That it was an oni,” Yukiko said. “An amanojaku. A creature that sees the darkest places in a man’s heart, that speaks his secret sins aloud. His failures.”

“We all have our sins, Yukiko-san,” Isukiri murmured, looking down at the creature’s corpse. “I am sorry for lying to you.”

“Your nephew said you were a priest.” Yukiko smiled thinly. “I suppose I am to blame for not inquiring which god you worship.”

“Nori,” Isukiri breathed. He pulled hard at the sleeve of Yukiko’s kimono. “The creature frightened him into going to those guardsmen. If he tells them…”

“You will join the others on crosses of your own,” Yukiko finished. She wiped the monster’s blood from her katana, sheathing it. “But not if I catch him first.”

Isukiri caught her by the kimono sleeve as she made for the door.

“Yukiko,” he said, forgoing the honorific -san. “Please. Spare his life. If you can.”

Yukiko looked down at the old priest. She nodded, then ran off into the night.

***
Her wooden sandals clattered along the rocky path as Yukiko raced down the winding mountain road, the night wind whipping her hair back from her face. The moon hung round and nearly full above, lighting the way before her.

She ran with her katana in her hand, safely sheathed in its saya. Yukiko hoped she wouldn’t have to kill Nori, but if he told the ashigaru guards the truth of what had transpired this night, she would be crucified alongside the Kirishitan.

You should have known, she chided herself as she rounded a sharp curve in the winding path. Kannon with her infant. Don’t the Kirishitan believe their god was born of a woman?

And Isukiri’s prayer beads. Yukiko had heard that the gaijin priests had brought their own version of the sacred implements with them to aid them in their prayers. And Isukiri had fingered his incessantly, ever since they came across the crucifixions by the roadside.

She rounded another bend in the roadside. The moonlight revealed a shadow ahead of her, scrabbling down the treacherous path on unsteady feet.

“Nori!” Yukiko shouted.

The shadow turned to look over its shoulder. She caught a glimpse of Nori’s face, pale with terror, before he turned back around and kept running.

Yukiko cursed and put her head down, picking up pace. Nori had a lead of several minutes, but Yukiko’s legs were long and muscular, her body toughened by years of hardship. She ran until her legs burned like fire.

She closed the distance rapidly—but not quickly enough. Ahead in the distance the light of a campfire gleamed. The ashigaru Chirhiro and his companion were vague silhouettes against the flames.

Still running, Nori raised his hands towards the campfire, about to cry out and alert the guards to his presence.

Feet pounding against the trail, Yukiko raised her katana above her head and threw.

The sheathed sword arced through the night, spinning end over end beneath the stars. It hit Nori squarely between the shoulders. He stumbled, tripped, and fell to the dirt without a sound.

There was no movement from the campfire ahead. The guards had not noticed.

Nori was still lying there by the time Yukiko reached him, pausing only to retrieve her fallen sword mid-stride. She stood over him, holding the katana’s sheath in one hand and gripping its handle with the other.

“Let’s talk, Nori-san,” she said softly.

Nori stared up at her, eyes wide. He opened his mouth, taking a deep breath. Steel rasped against sheath, and the tip of Yukiko’s katana was at his throat in an instant.

“Don’t shout,” she said softly. “I promised your uncle I would not kill you unless you forced me to.”

Nori gulped, causing a tiny pinprick of blood to well up where the blade touched his throat.

“The crucified men,” Yukiko said, glancing towards the valley below. “You knew them?”

“Hai,” Nori gasped, his voice ragged. “Two were our neighbors, fellow farmers. Another was the village miller. All Kirishitan, like us.”

“And the gaijin?”

“The priest who baptized us,” Nori said. Moonlight glistened in his eyes, suddenly wet with tears. “We had sent for him a week ago, to come and exorcise the yōkai from the shrine. I… it’s my fault he died, Okabe-san. Another sin on my hands.”

“You can travel the length and breadth of the land,” Yukiko murmured, recalling something she had told her daughter once, long ago in another lifetime. “From sea to sea, mountain to valley. But nowhere will you find a man with clean hands.”

She looked down at Nori, lying very still beneath her sword. “I’m going to let you stand, Nori-san. Shout or run, and I cut you down. Understand?”

“Hai.”

Yukiko removed her katana from his throat but did not sheathe it. Nori clambered unsteadily to his feet, wiping the dirt from his knees.

“Let’s return to your uncle,” Yukiko said, taking him by the arm. Nori did not resist as she began to march him up the road, back towards the shrine.

“My wife,” Nori murmured, wiping at his face with his sleeve. “The yōkai…”

“Lied to you,” Yukiko said. “Your wife is at home, sleeping soundly. Tomorrow you will go back down this mountain and see her.”

“But the soldiers—”

“Have no interest in you or your family,” Yukiko said firmly. She turned and pointed at the firelight, and the two men silhouetted against it. “They saw us stomp on your god. You fooled them, Nori. The amanojaku lied to you. That is what it does. It feeds on the weakness of our hearts.”

Nori was quiet for a moment.

“It’s dead, by the way,” Yukiko said. “I killed it. Your uncle helped.”

“Isukiri?” Nori looked at her, surprise written across his face. “Truly?”

“He is a brave man.”

They trudged up the mountainside in silence beneath the stars. The shrine loomed ahead and above them, the candlelight spilling out its entrance and into the night.

“I am not,” Nori said at last. Yukiko looked at him.

“Brave, I mean,” he continued. “You saw tonight. I feared damnation, so I became Kirishitan. Out of fear for my wife I betrayed my uncle and faith both.”

He bowed his head, shoulders slumping as if beneath a great weight. “We are not the only Kirishitan in Hizen, Okabe-san. Had I confessed to the soldiers, I would have given up others. There would be a score of crosses lining the road.”

“Nori-san,” Yukiko said, her voice gentle. “Listen to me. You are guilty of nothing save cowardice. You have done no lasting harm.”

Nori frowned at her. “But the priest—”

“Came to Hizen of his own volition,” Yukiko said, “knowing Lord Ryūzōji’s policy towards his faith. He walked to his death knowingly, and bravely. To try and help you.”

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Take his example to heart, Nori-san. If he drew such courage from his faith, you can as well.”

“I…” Nori swallowed, looking up at the shrine. They were close enough to see Isukiri standing framed in the door, his old voice rising and falling in a prayer of thanksgiving. “I don’t know, Okabe-san.”

“Listen,” Yukiko said. “Your uncle’s prayer was strange to me. But he sang of death, and rebirth, and redemption. New life, free of sin. That is a cornerstone of your faith, isn’t it?”

“Hai.”

“Then come,” Yukiko said as they approached the shrine. “Come and pray with your uncle, and begin your new life. Not everyone gets that chance.”

Nori looked at her. He nodded slowly, then walked past her and into the shrine.

Yukiko watched from outside as Nori embraced his uncle. They spoke no words, but stood there for a long time. Then they turned and knelt, bowing before the shintai. Their infant god and his mother smiled down at the Kirishitan as they began to pray.

Yukiko remained outside, in the shadows beyond the candlelight. The wind tugged at her hair, and she pulled her kimono tight about her shoulders.

I have died once already, she thought, remembering the smoke and flame of her burning home. Remembering her daughter’s helpless cries. But my new life is still heavy with sin and grief.

The oni mask rose in her memory, lit by flame. He was still out there, somewhere: the general in the oni mask who had burned her home and taken her daughter from her. Yukiko did not know his name, or who he served. But one day they would cross swords. She had sworn it on Izumi’s grave.

Her hand fell to the hilt of her katana.

Okabe Yukiko turned her back on the house of worship and stalked into the night, in search of her own redemption.


Marshall J. Moore is a writer, filmmaker, and martial artist who was born and raised on Kwajalein, a tiny Pacific island. He has traveled to nearly thirty countries, once sold a thousand dollars’ worth of teapots to Jackie Chan, and on one occasion was tracked down by a bounty hunter for owing $300 in overdue fees to the Los Angeles Public Library. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Megan and their two cats.

A member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, his stories have appeared in Flame Tree Publishing’s Gothic Fantasy anthologies, Wizards in Space Literary Magazine, and many other publications.

You can find Marshall on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also find the first two Okabe Yukiko stories, “Fudakaeshi” and “Nure-Onna,” in the anthologies Terrifying Ghosts and Water: Sirens, Selkies, and Sea Monsters.

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