We’re lost, Ei knew. Even so, she followed her master without saying a word. At least he gave up the stupid idea of going in a straight line…
After they reached a part too steep go keep going, Tadayoshi grumbled and decided to look for the proper path. It took a while, but they finally found it, to Ei’s silent delight. But that didn’t make their journey much easier. Despite the trees, the snow covered almost everything, hiding rocks and roots on the ground.
Ei had stumbled three times on hidden roots. On the fourth time, she finally fell face forward. Her master stopped, looked, and kept going as he laughed, his voice echoing in her ears. The anger filled her, but soon disappeared as she felt the relief over flooding her. At least he’s laughing and not acting crazy like last time…
Midday had come and passed, and they had finally reached the stream. But there were no signs of a village nor people around.
“That’s strange… there should be a village near the river,” Tadayoshi mumbled, more to himself than to his disciple.
The girl wasn’t listening anyway. After she confirmed there were no people, she raced to the stream. Ignoring the cold, she put her mouth on the water and drank until she was satisfied. Then she filled both bottles, which she had drank during the morning.
There aren’t even tracks of animals around here, Ei noticed after she joined her master. The only clue they found were the traces of a path barely distinguishable between the trees. It seems no one has used it for years… I doubt it was made by the same people we’re looking for…
“Hey, Tadayoshi, we should—”
“Go. Good idea,” he said, and then he was gone.
Ei sighed and went after her master.
The path was so narrow it was hard for two people to walk side by side without bumping their shoulders. With her bag, Ei couldn’t walk by her master’s side and had to follow his back.
Even though it was old and barely visible, follow a path should be better than trying to find their way at random. But this part of the mountain proved to be even more complicated.
The path was strange, tortuous and sometimes ended suddenly, only to reappear far from they were. The trees were so close Ei couldn’t see what was outside the path. But the dark gaps between the trunks made her feel uneasy.
I can’t see anything… She breathed deep to calm her heart. Even though I don’t sense anything, it feels like something might come out at any time, she thought, stopping her urge to shiver. The disciple walked closer to her master’s back.
No matter how much they walked, the scenery didn’t change. Whoever made this shitty path wanted to keep out invaders, Ei thought, holding her urge to scream her frustration. No… not to keep out… it was made to lead people somewhere else… Somewhere dark.
The trees tops were so close it blocked the light, creating a night within the day, even with the sun still above their heads. The trunks also protected them from the wind. Even so, Ei couldn’t stop feeling something cold and heavy in the air, and it suffocated her with each step.
It’s like we’re surrounded by death, she thought, pulling her coat closer. If we get lost here… she shrugged at the thought and walked so close to her master she could barely see besides his back now.
It’s like a maze, Ei thought after a while. When she was little, she and her friends loved hearing Sumire’s stories about castles so big invaders would get lost and no one ever heard about them again, dying of starvation without ever finding the exit.
It was hard for the girl to imagine a place so huge people could get lost. Though her village was small, Ei knew every part of it and the forest around. But after she went Tadayoshi, she saw many places she wouldn’t believe it existed.
Some castles and fortress she saw from afar, and the temple where she studied, were big enough for her to think of a maze. Even with Ryuu-sensei by her side, she was afraid to get lost at the beginning, but soon got used to the temple.
But this forest looked the same all the time. Ei didn’t know if fear was clouding her senses, but she could swear she saw the same tree over and over. With each step, it became harder and harder to breath. And colder.
She wanted to scream again but managed to hold. We need to be quiet. The ninja, or someone else… or something could be following us. In this forest, Ei couldn’t tell.
After a long time, the scenery finally changed. The trees became closer and they had to walk in a straight line. Now she could only see Tadayoshi’s back. Focusing on her breathing to keep her anxiety under control, Ei didn’t notice her master had stopped and bumped into him.
“Sorry,” she said in a whisper. Even so, her voice echoed around them.
Tadayoshi didn’t answer. He didn’t even glance back at her. The swordsman showed no reaction.
With difficulty, she sneaked a peek. Before them, there was an enormous shadow blocking the path. Ei had to raise her head to see it all. A bear, she thought at first, her hand on the handle of her sword. But a moment later, she realized the shadow didn’t move.
A wooden sculpture. Huge, twisted and ugly. The left hand carried a human head, its long claws crushing the skull. The other held a club, raised in the air, ready to strike. Dead snakes held a fundoshi made of tiger skin. Two horns as thick as Ei’s arm sprouted from its head. The teeth were too big and too numerous to fit in its mouth.
The sculpture was so large even side-by-side Tadayoshi and Ei were only half its size. The trees around had to be destroyed to fit the monster in the narrow path.
Ei had seen demon statues like this, though made of stone. Despite being a representation of an oni, some were too beautiful and serene she could help but admire the raw strength those beings possessed. Guess it was art made for the temples…
This statue was different. It was ugly and poorly done. It couldn’t compare to the ones she had seen. Even so, the girl couldn’t help but feel a shiver down her spine. Whoever made this, dreaded the oni so much those feeling are carved in the wood.
No matter how terrified whoever made it this statue was, Onis aren’t real… they aren’t, Ei thought, trying to drive away her own fear. They’re just monsters the adults made to keep kids in line. She told herself that over and over, forcing herself to believe in those words. But even so, forgotten memories bubbled to the surface of her mind.
One time, she and her friends found a bear cub whose mother died. They took care of the animal all day. At night, after the adults went to sleep, the kids sneaked out to see him. They were playing deciding what to name the baby animal when their parents had found them.
They were angry, and everyone had extra chores for almost a month. But Ei didn’t understand why they were so angry. To her, even though the kids had sneaked out, there was no danger; they all knew the village and forest around it better than anyone. Her mother only said the forest was dangerous after dark.
Sumire, on the other hand, began telling stories about kamikakushi, the kidnap of the Gods. Slowly her stories changed to the onikakushi, the demon’s kidnap. No kid who had been taken were seen ever again, according to her.
The girl didn’t believe in those stories at all, despite Sumire talking about it like it was real. The swordswoman knew there were many scary things in the world, but the fear the adults had that night was also real.
Ryuu-sensei told me about villages that worship demons when the nobles and the gods failed to protect them… Is this statue like that? But he told me no village worshiped a demon so openly… This is almost as if they’re proud of this statue… Maybe the head the oni holds it’s from an invader…
Ei gulped, hurting her dry throat. She wanted to get out of there. To get as far as she could from that statue. There was something dark and evil around it.
Just like her, Tadayoshi didn’t take his eyes from the statue too. But unlike her, the swordsman observed and felt each and every ugly detail of the demon with his hand.
What’s with his fixation… Hey, Tadayoshi, let’s get out of here, she wanted to say, but knew it would make no difference.
Ei waited in the still forest, the only sound was of her rasped breathing. Then she heard a twig breaking, the sound echoing like a drum in the girl’s ears.
Her hand went to the handle of Asahi, the fingers closing around the bamboo. For a moment, there was only silence. Her breathing became louder as she lost control over it. Calm down… calm down, Ei told herself. But even so, she would have drawn her sword if not for her master’s hand on her shoulder. Through the corner of her eye, Ei noticed her master too had a hand ready to draw.
Tadayoshi stared at a gap between near the statue. “I can see you,” he said to the darkness in a low voice. Even so, Ei could feel the threat behind her master’s words.
There was a moment of silence as his voice echoed and died between the trees. Then a man appeared behind the ugly sculpture. He was thin and tall with a messy long hair. His face was hollow and his eye sunken. His clothes were heavy but too worn.
How can he stand this cold wearing that? Ei thought for a moment before focusing on the shovel he had. It was the only thing that could pose a threat to them, but the man made sure to keep it down.
Even so, the swordswoman tightened her grip around the handle. I didn’t feel his presence at all… I couldn’t so scared of that statue that I missed someone like him so close… could I…?
“W-who are you?” Despite the fear in his voice, the man looked Tadayoshi in the eyes.
Ei noticed his eyes were red. Was he crying? The girl couldn’t tell, but one thing she knew. There’s something wrong with him… But she couldn’t say what it was.
The man had nothing beside the tool. His hands and clothes were covered with dirt and snow. He looked nothing more than a simple villager. But even so, Ei couldn’t breathe out in relief. Not even when Tadayoshi took his hand from the sword.
“Our group was attacked by bandits on the foot of this mountain a couple days ago. My sister and I managed to flee, but I got hurt and then we got lost in this forest.” Tadayoshi winced as he raised his arm to show the bandages. “I heard there’s a village around here… We need to rest…”
Despite the situation, Ei had trouble holding her snarky laugh. Not because how easily the lies came to him, but because Tadayoshi used the story she had set up beforehand. Her master’s improvised stories always gave them trouble. Only after she got hurt he started listening to her and stopped making up bad lies.
The man showed no reaction. He looked between Tadayoshi and his wound, and then his eyes ended up on the sword.
Ei took her hand from the handle and showed a strained smile. She tried to act as friendly as she could despite her suspicion. After the experience in that lodge, she started doubting the kindness of strangers.
But when the man stared at her, Ei had to use all her self-control to avoid putting the hand back on the sword. There’s something wrong with this guy, Ei just knew. The man’s eyes watered and then he closed them
“I’ll take you to my village,” the man said in a hoarse voice, turning around. “Follow me closely. The forest’s dangerous. Especially after dark.”
“Thank you,” Tadayoshi bowed his head, but without taking his eyes from the man.
Dark…? Ei looked up, trying to see through the top of the trees. The little she could see of the sky was covered by heavy clouds. It must always be dark in this damn place…
The man was already walking in the middle of the trees, ignoring the path they were following all this time.
Ei wanted to tell her master all her suspicions, even if made no difference. But she knew better. That man was the best chance of them leaving that forest.
Tadayoshi looked her in the eyes and nodded. The girl understood; her master knew what she felt, and perhaps felt the same.
“Did you see anyone else in the forest? Our group was big…” Tadayoshi asked in a hushed and full of worry voice.
“No… you two are the first strangers I see in a while,” the man answered barely above a whisper.
Tadayoshi closed his first and breathed through his nose. Ei knew he wanted to get some information from the man, but speaking so low like that, it would be hard to get anything.
After that, there was no more talking as the man lead them to his village. Or so they hoped.
They went so far from the path they were that, to Ei, the man was just walking at random between the trees. Is he really gonna take us to his village?
The girl tried to recognize any signs that might indicate some kind of path, but there was no mark or anything. They were just walking in the forest. After a while, she gave up and concentrated on the man
We didn’t need marking or anything in my village, but in this darkness, there’s no way the villagers know where they are, she thought. She tried to keep her mind empty, but it wasn’t enough to drive away the image of the statue. It was so vivid in her mind Ei could swear she would see it if she turned around. Demons aren’t real… they aren’t real…
It was getting even darker. Ei could barely see her master walking a few steps ahead of her. Even as she walked, she kept expanding her awareness just to sense her master presence.
Tadayoshi picked up a thick stick on the ground without stopping, took part of his bandages and wrapped around the wood. Ei almost dropped the bag taking out the stones they used to make fire.
She should have stopped to light the fire, but she didn’t want to stop at all in this forest. The girl knew it was stupid; her master would never leave her. Even though she knew that, the fear to be left alone in that darkness was too much.
When they lit the improvised torch, the light blinded Ei. Without seeing anything, she grabbed her master’s clothes. Normally, he would laugh or mock her, but he kept quiet and she didn’t let go until her eyes got used to the brightness.
The man glanced at the light too but didn’t stop. It almost felt as if he didn’t care much for the two people following him. He just walked in and out of the light’s rim, like a wandering ghost. Maybe he is one. Everything in this damn forest is so strange, Ei thought, getting closer to the fire.
The air was still and cold and the only sound was their steps and the fire crackling. Even the man emitted no sound.
“My village is this way,” the man whispered after a long time. Then he disappeared, his voice echoing through the trees.
Tadayoshi picked up his pace. Ei did the same, but the man seemed to disappear in thin air. The girl’s breathing became shallow. She tried to control herself and feel his presence, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t breathe. Tadayoshi put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
They kept walking, trying to find the man. Ei had no idea how long they were separated from him, but their surrounding finally changed.
In the middle of the endless darkness, a light appeared between the leaves. It was only a dot and pale against their fire, but soon it grew. Controlling her urge to run, she put her hand on the handle of her sword and walked towards to the light.
Ei had troubled to contain the scream. The source of light were torches. Torches surrounding another demon statue. It wasn’t as big as the other, but it was just as ugly.
“Our protector, Yashamaru-sama,” a voice spoke on her side suddenly.
Ei almost drew the sword. The man only whispered, but in the silent forest, his voice echoed like a scream. She lost her breath but managed held the impulse to draw. The girl had to close her hand hard to stop the trembling. With some effort, she looked past the statue.
The village was similar to the one down the mountain; small in number, but occupying a large area. Though the houses were the same, they were on different levels due to the mountain’s ground.
Ei noticed the buildings created a sort of corridor, and the statue was right at the end of it. She believed she would feel happy to leave the forest and see the sky again, however depressing it looked. But the air over the village was as dark and cold as the forest.
While their guide led them, men, women, and elders stared her and Tadayoshi from their houses. They walked by the houses, but the villagers made no sound. They didn’t even whisper, only staring the strangers.
It was more than unsettling to the girl. Ei had never seen a group of people so big in complete silence. Even the nature seemed to quiet down here.
The man halted before the smallest house in the village, right on the opposite side of the statue.
“Wait here,” he said, opening the door. After Tadayoshi and she entered, he left without saying anything else.
Ei took her bag and sat against the wall opposite to the door. Even if she was used to the weight, her shoulders always hurt afterwards. But even as she tried to diminish the pain, she observed every inch of the house while Tadayoshi threw what was left of their torch into the fire in the middle of the house.
It’s more like a room than a house, Ei thought. She couldn’t help but notice the lack of windows. It can be ‘cause of the weather. It’s must be always cold so high on the mountain, she considered. But a second later, discarded the idea. The other houses had at least one window.
“Tadayoshi…” There’s something very wrong with this village, she wanted to say.
Ever since she started her training, whenever they visited a village or a temple, or just met someone, foe or not, Tadayoshi made her speak. What Ei had observed, realized or considered. He said it was a way to find out how much detail she could notice. A sword isn’t the only thing someone who lives in the way of the sword needs, was one of the phrases he often spoke. Ei had a strong suspicion it was Yasuhiro-sama’ words, but never voiced it.
“There’s something wrong here,” she voiced her worries. “It’s not just the forest… this village and those statues… and this house. There’s no window and the wood seems stronger and thicker than the other houses. Almost as if this is a prison…”
“I think so too. There’s a support for a bar on the outside,” he said, testing the wall with a finger. “What else?”
Ei considered her words. There was a lot she wanted to say. The villagers came to her mind first. Their stares send a shiver down her spine. But she could understand that. In times of war, any outsider should be met with suspicion. Lives depended on it.
“There were no kids around,” she said slowly. Ei went through her memories again just to be sure. Men, women, elders, and young people around Tadayoshi’s age. But no kid. Her master looked at her, waiting for her to finish her thought. “Maybe, when the man disappeared, he went ahead and warned the villagers about us.”
“It could be,” Tadayoshi agreed, nodding. “And what about the man? What did you notice about him?
“I think… he had just buried someone. His eyes were red and his clothes dirty with mud and snow… But… why would he bury someone so far from the village? Or maybe that was close to the village and he made us go around just to mislead us…”
“Maybe. He definitely wanted to keep us away from there. This village has more than one entrance. He may have taken us to the other route just to show us the other statue. Perhaps to intimidate us… or maybe he does believe in that Yashamaru.”
Her master grew quiet as he stared at the fire, his eyes shining with a strange glow.
Ei opened and closed her mouth many times. She wanted to say something but had no idea what. The chances of this rumor just been another dead end were strong, but the disciple knew it would matter not to her master.
If it turned out to be false again, he would simply wait for the next rumor. And again and again, until he found the one he was looking for.
In the end, Ei kept her silence and got closer to the fire.