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Prayer of the Oni 6: The Storeroom

It was all behind her and she was back in the courtyard with the shrine gate and compared to the hell beneath the earth, which still clung to her through the stench of the dead on her skin and the blood on her face, it was almost beautiful. She entered it through the hole in the shutters still holding her weapon and she stepped down from the aisle and onto the stone and looked about. The remains of the gaki were all gone. She could smell again that sandalwood teasing her from afar and she thought of that man Lord Hashimoto who had twice saved her from the evil of his estate, who came and went about it as if he was a saint untouchable by the filth of the human world. She thought of his face and his smile, which she had never seen. It was a kind of comfort.

“Basket!” a voice called. From the southern rooms came Takamasa. She stared as he approached, his priestly garb dirtied but intact and his expression as easy-going as it had been back in Heian-kyo, with no sign to him of having encountered any great danger or difficulty. Nevertheless he was hurrying, his sheathed sword banging against his hip. He stopped before her and the both of them were amidst the trees near the great archway. “Basket!” he said, laughing. “You’re alive. Namu Amida Butsu, you’re alive!”

She took a long time to reply. They stood together beneath the moon. “Yes.”

“What happened to you? I heard a noise from the sleeping chamber, but when I got there it was silent. That old gentlewoman and you were both gone.”

She took an even longer time to reply to this. “I don’t know.”

“I don ‘t mean any offense, but you look terrible.”

“This house is dangerous.” she said.

He nodded. “Right! I knew it. I ran into some trouble myself. On the bridge – well, I’ll explain later. I found the prayer hall too, but it’s locked.” He gestured to the other side of the courtyard, where indeed a two-storied building waited vague and far-off. “Locked.” she repeated.

“Yes. I think I know where the key is, though. Here-” He put a hand into his bag, rummaging around, and produced a piece of paper and held it before her. She didn’t even bother to pretend. “I can’t.”

“You can’t read?” She nodded. “Oh, well. It’s a message from one of the gentlewomen here. I found it on a shelf in the room before. It says, uh, lemme see, ‘Dear handmaidens of the lady Crimson Blossom, this note is to inform you that in accordance with the master’s wishes while he works to complete the ritual the prayer hall will be closed for now. The key will be entrusted to your ladyship in her chamber, if she needs to use it herself. Please ensure it gets there’.” He shook the letter about. “All we need is this damn key.”

The girl thought. She looked at him, at this Takamasa who had called her Kaede and who had given her robes now spoiled and who had taken her to this house and who had promised her gold. She thought of how to explain it to him, all that she had seen, and yet no means of doing so came to mind. She had lived for all her life surviving and that was all and she had no way to explain things, to him or to anyone else. Words came and went without being spoken. The crippled swordsman and his cave of horrors or the hungry ghosts or the long-armed thing in the sleeping chamber or Lord Hashimoto himself were all too far beyond anything real. She swallowed. “We should go.”

“Go?” Takamasa laughed. “Come on. I understand. This place has something evil in it, or something evil happened here, or what-have-you. But if we just take the scroll and hurry on our way, we can still profit here. We can still go home successful. It’s just this one little thing.” She said nothing. He patted her on the shoulder which had been bruised by Higuchi and the pain made her wince at his touch. “Look. I found this ‘Crimson Blossom’ lady’s rooms as well. I didn’t go in. Hey, Basket, I think – I think you should.” She watched him. He cleared his throat. Against the bright colour of the tree, with the moon’s stark light upon him, he was almost handsome, almost a shining prince come to rescue her. “There’s a spirit on the bridge that seems to be this woman, this Crimson Blossom. It didn’t react too well to me. But, well, you’re a woman, aren’t you, Basket? You can go in there and get the key.” Takamasa grinned and again he patted her on the shoulder. He looked up at the shrine gate and at the moon beyond it and then down at her. She grunted. “Why?”

His grin fell apart. “Eh?”

“Why should I?”

“Why should you help me? Aren’t we partners?” She said nothing. Takamasa moved away, pacing from left to right and back again. He screwed up his face and opened his mouth and closed it. “Hey, Kaede. Kaede!” His hands were again upon her shoulders. Again it hurt. “Look at me. If we pull this off, it’s all yours. I’ll give you most of the money!” She frowned. “Sixty percent! Look, sixty percent, Kaede!”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Oh. Well, it’s a whole lot! Over half of our money. I promise. It will make all this worthwhile. Trust me.” Slowly and with deliberate intensity she gave him a nod. He smiled again with his little grin. “Exactly! Come on, come on. Let’s go. I’ll show you where it is.” He set off walking and she in her tattered robes with blood all over her and bruises all across her flesh announcing themselves with each motion followed him. They went to the southern aisle and went around the room, Takamasa explaining to her he had found nothing of value inside. She wished to ask him if he had seen any of the gaki but did not. He had calmed down now and was back to his usual self and the speed of it had surprised her and she realised that he too might have been nervous, that even if he had not met Higuchi or the lord that he was touched by this house too. Even with them both together the effect remained, the invisible miasma that rose from beneath the mats and the floorboards and that clung to every surface, a feeling for the brain that was what the stench of Higuchi’s cave had been for the nose that manifested as a wordless but impossible to argue with sense of something terminal. This house with its frozen rooms and empty yards and slight but minor signs of disarray and with its trees and rooftops still cast in beauty but without root, images upon a screen that concealed a sickly body dying of plague behind them – this house had touched them both and held onto them and would not relinquish its deathly grip.

Their sandals both making the wood sing as they walked they rounded the room and found the next connecting bridge which went over a small pond. She paused there and went down to the yard and washed her face and hands in the water and wiped away blood. Takamasa waited for her, watching the next set of rooms. They passed through an abandoned room with he trampling over cushions and knocking over screens and pushing aside curtains. On the other side was another small courtyard, this one marked by a long pond that took up most of its length and a small islet in the centre of that pond. The wooden arched bridge that connected islet and shore, painted vivid red and with yet more strips of paper hanging from its archways, was decorated with bells that sang with crisp jingles in the breeze.

This bridge went straight to the building on the islet, another sleeping chamber, smaller and placed against the estate’s outer walls. The islet was marked by not wisteria but what appeared to be a lonely cherry blossom tree, stood off to the right-hand side beneath the aisle of the sleeping chamber. This tree was stark pink set against another grim scene of drabness which was lit only by the lanterns which were on their side of the yard and not on the other. “That’s the lady Crimson Blossom’s room, I’m sure of it.” Takamasa said. He was whispering now as if he had been suddenly cowed by something. The two of them remained only steps from the bridge and both looking ahead. “If you go fetch the key from there we can head to the western side of that big courtyard, where there’s a large chamber locked up. That’s the prayer hall. Once we’re finished there we can go. Alright?” She nodded. “Wait. See there?”

He pointed to the middle of the bridge. At the spot his finger led to there was a faint presence in the air, a shape without substance. The girl screwed her eyes up and saw it there and that it was a woman wearing the most elaborate and layered set of robes that she had seen before, brilliant red over white over blue over green, the outermost patterned with intricate flowers in stark white, with long sleeves and billowing skirt so heavy and overwhelming she barely seemed to have legs at all within its depths. The woman was turning with deliberate motions, arcing her arms this way and that with her sleeves like the wings of some graceful sacred bird, her back arching and her legs stiff but flowing, a control over her body that defied belief with all of her movement timed to a music that the girl could not hear. For all her colour the dancer seemed to hover between this world and the next, the bridge faintly visible through the dazzle of her robes as if she were made of glass, her presence inconsistent, seeming to fade away entirely every few seconds and then inevitably return. All of this was time with the steps of the dance she kept on working through. Heedless of them she went on dancing. The girl could not see the woman’s face. “What do you think?” Takamasa asked.

“Why is she dressed like that?” the girl asked back.

Takamasa chewed his lip. “You don’t know? She’s a ceremonial dancer. Offering rice to the gods for good fortune. It’s a big deal at the palace.”

“She’s pretty.” the girl said.

“Pretty now, sure.” he said. “I tried to cross the bridge and she wasn’t so pretty then. Maybe you can try it.” The girl didn’t move. He sighed. “Look. If she moves, just dash back here. She won’t leave the bridge. She didn’t when I tried to cross. You’re not scared, are you?”

“No.” the girl said. “I don’t want to die.”

“Then don’t. It’s that simple. C’mon.” He waited for her and his face was trying to smile. The girl drummed her fingers against the side of her scythe’s handle. She took a step onto the bridge. The dancer remained ahead and went on with her routine, and she raised her arms up and to the moon and then down, and turned neatly to the other way and repeated herself, walking with faint steps to the opposite side of the bridge and then disappearing, although she was still there – the air was full of her even as she kept on fading into it. The girl could smell not sandalwood but another incense, another yet sweeter imprint. She took another step and another. Nothing continued to happen as nothing had been happening before. By now the first few planks of the bridge were behind her.

“I’ll pray for you!” Takamasa half-whispered. She heard him the false priest then repeating the Name over and over in a frantic hushed voice. She ignored him and went forward. By now she was so close that the dancer when not faded was so vibrant that she seemed misplaced, an icon of the sun in a place ruled by the night. Her beauty was beyond measure as she went on dancing and yet she still did not have a face. She moved to the right before the girl, rattling the bells she held in her right hand and waving the patterned fan she had in her left, bringing it slowly over her own head. The girl swallowed and took one more step. The dancer faded then at that same moment and so passed through her.

The girl had never been passed through before – she realised that the dancer was still there and yet not, and that she was warm and bright and full of the light of the sun indeed, a light that touched the girl’s heart as the first bite of fresh fruit on a summer morning, that made her gasp with a sensation so alien she only recognised it a second later as joy. She turned, following the dancer on her course as the routine went on. “Get moving!” she heard Takamasa hiss. She gripped her scythe and moved past out of the dancer’s path. The dancer turned again, raising her sleeves, the moonlight shining through her. She really did have no face, the girl saw then, and no hands and no arms and no legs. She was nothing but an empty set of robes.

“Go!” Takamasa called. The girl with great difficulty turned from the dancer and to the building on the other side of the pond now close enough to see, its slightly shabby aisle with the shutters all down, the door patterned with images of cherry blossoms. She walked calmly the rest of the way, feeling no danger at all from the strange thing at her back, which she knew without seeing would still be performing, would forever be doing so with audience or without. Warmed by this and feeling alive again she approached the building and stepped up the aisle. “Good job!” Takamasa called too loud. She glanced back – the dancer was still between them, still in liquid motion. “Now get inside and-“

“Shut up.” she said quietly. Takamasa either heard her or was still wary of the dancer for he said nothing else, and in the silence of the courtyard, with only the movement of the old wood and the jingling of the bells upon the bridge for company, she went to the door. There was no light beyond the shutters and no sign of life man or woman or otherwise. She heard no breathing and could smell nothing foul. Still she had learned that if Hashimoto’s estate had one rule it was that all rules were useless.

She tried the door and it slid to one side without effort. Within was dark but she could see seats and screens all arranged around a central antechamber covered by blinds all lowered, just as in the southern courtyard. No old gentlewoman assailed her this time; nothing was there at all. She entered the chamber and peered about, her eyes trying to cut through the gloom. Paintings of some scene of endless plains and snowy peaks decorated the walls. A calligraphy brush and an inkstone sat unused before her. All of the room seemed to be intact, with no bodies or signs of disturbance. The antechamber too had its blinds down. The girl stood before it held back by her own nervousness, thinking of long ghostly arms tearing through the blinds and going for her throat. She turned her head and looked outside through the open door. On the bridge the dancer was dancing in that same pattern, repeating herself. The girl could see no sign of Takamasa but she could see the vivid colours of the robes and hear the sound of the bells. Another sound came from the chamber, a snapping sound of frantic motion, of wood against wood. She looked back and saw that the nearest set of blinds blocking off the antechamber had slid open.

For a long time she stood listening to the bells on the bridge and not moving. Then she stepped through the gap and inside. Two long multi-panelled screens obscured parts of the room, segmenting it diagonally. What she could see, below with the panels of the nearest screen which showcased more snow-capped mountains, was a pair of cushions and a table with a tea set upon it, and on a tray next to that various wooden combs and brushes. A biwa sat on its stand next to that. She could see no cabinets or drawers or other places a key might be.

Heading further inside she approached the tea set and the cushions which before her were perfectly ordered and straight. She saw a small table next to the tea set, with a piece of paper and an inkstone and brush upon it. The paper was marked with elegant shapes that she guessed were characters. She glanced outside at the dancer still performing and then at the paper, which was nothing to her. Her father once had tried to teach her but had given up for he himself had struggled, and he had been drunk and had shouted at her for not reading what he could also not read. She frowned.

There was someone behind her. The girl felt a presence, a weight where there had been none, a shape in the air to her left standing and waiting. She gripped the scythe and turned and saw there a woman with moonlit skin that glowed, a tall woman with hair shimmering and black down to her ankles, The woman had a round, youthful face, with narrow eyes and painted-on eyebrows, her lips slender and vibrant red. Her eyes carried a soft warmth that endured even despite the strangeness of her presence, a presence which like that of the dancer outside was semi-real, only here for moments and then for other moments not.

“You.” the girl said. The woman smiled and her teeth were a deep black. Her clothes went on dancing on the bridge beyond the blinds and the shutters, oblivious. The girl had only ever seen other women naked before in her village where such things hadn’t mattered and in the dark places where bandits lurked and she took in the body of the woman full and mature and beheld it and then went to her eyes, the woman’s kindness. This thing, unlike Higuchi and the lady and the gaki, though it shared their matter was not of their dark nature. And yet the moonlight that sparkled through her skin was a kind of darkness itself; whatever place that was not here that could spawn spirits and demons had both dark and light to it and these were not separable but one and the same. The girl believed at once that Takamasa could have angered this spirit, and could see at once the woman’s face twisting and her fingers becoming claws and her body contorting. But she herself had not raised her scythe and so the woman had not done that but had come as this, as something that was delightful instead.

The woman’s lips moved but the sound came from elsewhere, faint and strained. “You.”

“I – I came here for a key.” the girl said. Her voice was clumsy, muted, not trusting itself. “To the prayer hall.”

The woman raised an arm. She pointed somewhere else to the south-west of here. The girl followed it. “The sleeping chamber? Lady Hashimoto has it?” The woman nodded. “Thank you.” She turned to go. The woman put a hand to her shoulder and when the girl looked the woman gestured to the sleeping-space on the other side of the antechamber. She let go and walked there, her ethereal form going straight through the door. The girl as ever followed. Inside was a bed larger than any she had seen before in her life, draped with white coverings mounted on a frame above it, and next to that a cabinet. The woman however kept on going, pausing by the bed only for a moment, peering down at it, and instead passing to the door next to it This door too slid open as the girl approached it. Beyond was a small storeroom mostly taken up by a row of shelves upon the wall, stacked with boxes and books and other things all layered in thick dust. There was no light but for the glow of the woman’s skin. She pointed to a long red box framed with gold which sat on the bottom shelf.

The girl waded through the dust to it and looked back. The woman nodded and so the girl slipped the lid of the box off. Within was a long warrior’s sword in a purple scabbard, with red cloth tied about the white-and-purple patterned hilt, which upon the gold of the crossguard had characters inscribed which she could not read. She lifted it from the box and felt its weight and felt the spirit of death within it, the sharpness of the blade within its sheath that seemed to call to her through the scabbard. “Oni-Killer.” the woman said in her non-voice.

The girl turned. “Oni-Killer?”

“It is the name of the sword. A priceless weapon. Steeped in the blood of demons.” Now as the girl stood still holding the sword by the strap in her free hand the woman was watching her calmly. Her glittering eyes which carried the frozen beauty of deep winter ice to them spoke of things wonderful and terrible. “I am called Crimson Blossom.” she said. “The only daughter of Takehiko of Hashimoto.”


“That woman…my mother. She has become one of his experiments in dark magic. Confined to her room by he, who lets that beastly samurai patrol the manor as if it is his feeding trough.”


Crimson Blossom did not answer. “My father was seduced by an ancient presence, which lives in the mirror. He has summoned something to this house. He has been claimed by evil. You are trapped here by him, as are we. The Oni-Killer can resolve things, if you handle it correctly. Take it with you.” Her manner of speaking, even without the unnatural cadence of the otherworldly, was to the girl something bizarre, her softness and the strange and indirect way she spoke akin to a foreign language the girl could only understand with effort.

 “She has the key to the prayer hall.” the woman said. “Within there the answer lies. It is imperative that you go.” She said no more but only stood there, beautiful and with her nakedness her own and not belonging to any man, father or husband or other, and the bells went on jingling outside and suddenly for a moment seemed louder than before. “What happened here?” the girl asked. Crimson Blossom frowned, a terrible sorrow on her face at once making the girl regret her question; and yet it had been asked and Crimson Blossom’s lips then moved. “He was disgraced at court in a minor incident. He came back here and shut himself in his rooms, and told his servants to keep us out. He brought a mirror from the far-off north and placed it in his study and through the mirror came the monsters. If you go to the prayer hall you may find it there. Please, act as you feel best.”

“Do you want me to kill him?” the girl asked. Crimson Blossom only smiled, that faint miserable smile of those who already knew how things would proceed and had no means of altering them. “It would be best for you to hurry.” she said. “He has brought you here. You are part of it now. The Hour of the Tiger is almost over. Once it passes so too will you.”

“What do you mean?” Crimson Blossom only smiled. Uncertain of herself and of everything the girl bowed to her. “Thank you.”

“Do not thank me.” Crimson Blossom turned. “My father loves me so. He wants me to dance forever. I have shed my robes to escape this, but still I cannot leave. You must decide for yourself which direction you will take. Your karma will guide you. Please, leave me.” The girl at first did nothing. But the ghost of Crimson Blossom was there and then it was not and it had never been, and she was alone in the storeroom with the sword Oni-Killer that had been given to her by no one.

She left the storeroom and the sleeping-space in turn and closed the doors as she went. She looked at the paper in the antechamber with the writing that for the first time made her wish she could read, the writing that had to belong to the daughter of Lord Hashimoto, that might have been able to communicate some of her as she had been in life. A smile; an elegant series of robes with long train and brilliant colour. A poem delivered not in the crude tone of the old lady in the girl’s village who had been just about able to read, or the drunken men who shared rude stories by the river, but with that same cadence and that same delightful voice her ghost had held a suggestion of, speaking of rivers and mountains and flowers and joy and sadness. But all she saw were lines of ink splashed out at random because the misbegotten thing that she the girl was did not understand poetry and never would. She returned to the bridge to see that the dancer in her splendid robes was gone, and that the wind had blown out the light in the torches and that the bells had somehow been silenced, and as well that Takamasa was no longer waiting for her at the other side of the pond.

The girl took one step onto the bridge and at once they appeared from the shadows, the twisted dark forms of the gaki, four of them rising from the water and clambering pathetically up onto the wood, groaning and wheezing and dripping blackness onto the wood. She let the sword in its sheath and held her scythe ready. And they came and she killed them and they died and she survived. It was not poetry, perhaps, but it was something else with a beauty all of its own.

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