My heart thudded sharply in my chest. I hadn’t seen that coming.
Cold crept through my chest. I breathed through it, focusing blanking out everything but the cycling of air through my lungs. A shard of grief embedded in my heart. Centuries removed from the event, I still felt the echo of the trauma; I couldn’t begin to comprehend what Akira had felt under his mask.
But I wasn’t him. I am me.
No, not quite. I am he, and he is me. How else could I have seen these images, spotted the parallels between his life and mine?
My parents beckoned me to go. I followed them numbly, trying to immerse myself into the flow of information. It was like trying to grasp water; every time I thought I had something it slipped through my fingers. Meaningless babble filled my words. Vague impressions lightly touched my body.
I paused to look around, careful to avoid bumping into people. We were heading towards a temple. Through the doorway I saw figures arranged on an altar. People prayed before them in their own ways. Some clasped their hands and closed their eyes, others added a bow or lowered their heads.
But that wasn’t the temple I remembered. The one I had known was…empty.
It was a quiet day. The children had gone. The priests were busy with their chores. That left me free to practice the sword.
In the empty courtyard, I practiced draws and cuts, thrusts and slashes, body slams and grappling techniques. With every stroke I imagined cutting down a bandit.
The monks continued their chores, already used to my regimen. Hiro was wandering the grounds somewhere, hunting for mice and other treasures. No one came to disturb me. Good.
Hana’s absence had left a hole in my heart, as though an unseen demon had clawed out a chunk of me. In the morning, I had lit incense for Hana and her family, and dedicated an hour of prayers. The funeral had been carried out long ago, well before I had returned to the city. This was the best I could do.
My chest throbbed. I kept training. My services were not required today. My employer said I needed time to grieve. He was right – but grieving can wait. The sword came first. Soon, there would come a time for vengeance. I had to be ready for that moment of truth.
I switched to my wakizashi, reacquainting myself with the feel of the smaller sword, studying how the length and balance affected my techniques. If I had to fight indoors, this would be my primary weapon; the longer katana would be too unwieldy.
A visitor stepped into the courtyard. His bamboo hat shielded his face from sight, but I could feel his eyes on me. He wore a dark green kimono with a white collar, matched with a heavy grey hakama. At his left hip he carried a daisho, and tucked into his obi was a jitte.
He was no ordinary samurai; he was a police samurai.
I sheathed my sword and bowed. He bowed back.
“Are you the ronin who lives in the temple?” the samurai asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I heard what happened to your woman. On behalf of the police, you have my condolences.”
“Are you doing well?”
Every living being must die. It is simply the way of things. Instead of dwelling on her death, the head monk had advised me to remember what made Hana’s life worth celebrating, and how I could live my life to honour her memory. It almost worked.
“Yes.” I paused. “But you did not come here simply to ask after me.”
He smiled. “Of course. Please, step outside with me. We have much to talk about.”
“It is not proper to speak of bloodshed before the Buddha.”
I exited the temple with him. As we strolled down the street, he began speaking.
“Two months ago, we heard that a mysterious ronin cut down a pair of bandits in the marketplace. One was slain, the other’s hands were cut off. Leaving aside the legality of the incident, we took the maimed bandit into custody.
“We spread the word that he bled to death. In reality, we locked him up and questioned him rigorously. He revealed to us the location of the bandits’ hideout. We have since confirmed the information, and are putting together a task force to apprehend the criminals. You may come with us if you wish.”
“What they did to your woman demands vengeance.”
“What do I get out of it?”
“A job. Monetary compensation. And the police would not look too closely into your activities on the day the bandits were cut down.”
If the police had truly wanted to question me, they could have found me anytime they pleased. They must have felt that dealing with the bandits was a higher priority than a ronin lodging in a temple.
“You look sceptical,” he added.
The money would be nice. The promise of reduced police attention would be a bonus, assuming he spoke the truth. But the rewards were ancillary. As soon as he had made the offer I had made my decision.
After all, what warrior would not avenge his woman?
I shook my head.
“I’m in,” I said.
The samurai called himself Hattori. At sunset I met his team of twelve lesser samurai at the city gates. They were clad in helmets and suits of mail armour, reinforced with plates on their sleeves, thighs and shins. Their primary armaments were polearms—arresting tools, not weapons of war—but they all carried swords by their sides. All of them had horses.
I was the only one without armour, a non-lethal implement or a horse. What I did have was Hana’s omamori, secured to my obi. None of them commented on my equipment. The moment I mounted Hattori’s horse, we set off.
The bandits lived in a house outside the city. Formerly an inn, the owners had long ago abandoned it, giving the criminals a perfect hideout. It was situated inside a forest by the main road, with a lone dirt path providing access.
The samurai left the horses a distance away and gathered for a strategy meeting.
“We will split into two groups,” Hattori said. “Sumimori, you will take six men and secure the perimeter. Mine will attack the house and apprehend the criminals. We should expect at least six bandits inside the house. In case we need reinforcements, Sumimori’s team will double as our reserve force.
“We will make our approach through the trees, parallel to the road. Sumimori, your group will go first and deal with any guards and traps within the forest. When you’re done, assemble on the left side of the road and mimic the call of an owl. I will reply with a similar call. My team will pass through the forest to the right of the path. When we’re in position, I will sound the attack with my jinkai. Sumimori, if you are discovered, blow your own jinkai and my team will rush in.”
Sumimori gathered his men and crept off into the night. I stayed with Hattori.
There was nothing left to say, nothing more to do but wait. Crickets sang all around us. The remaining samurai checked their equipment and gathered around their leader. I tugged at my daisho, ensuring they were firmly held in place, and joined them. Hattori retrieved his jinkai from his horse. Held in a basket, it was a large conch shell with a brass mouthpiece that served as a trumpet.
Time crawled. I focused on my breath, clearing my mind. There was no room for thoughts of revenge, of duty, of Hana. Only victory.
A long, low whoop filled the air.
Hattori placed his hands to his mouth and issued a similar call.
“Let’s go, he whispered.
He led the way into the forest. I followed. Most of the samurai was city dwellers, unused to the forest. Now and then I heard the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves, the soft thuds of weapons bumping into trees. I moved deliberately, keeping my swords pinned to my side with one hand and the other outstretched to detect unseen obstacles.
Reaching the tree line, I saw the house under the light of the moon. It was a sturdy two-story structure with a nearby stable. Long shadows crept under the roof. The windows were dark. Nobody seemed to be awake.
Something moved within the shadows. A man. He walked in a small circle, swinging his arms and stretching his neck. In the dark I couldn’t tell if he were armed, but there was no reason to assume he wasn’t.
Hattori placed his jinkai to his lips and blew a deep two-tone call.
Samurai boiled out of the woods, screaming at the top of their lungs. I drew my wakizashi and followed.
The guard stood his ground. Bellowing something unintelligible, he drew his sword and slashed uselessly at the air. He must be trying to scare the police – but they kept coming.
A samurai charged him, sasumata in hand. The bandit hacked away at the spear fork to no effect. The samurai ensnared the bandit in the crook of the sasumata’s horns and drove him against the wall. Undeterred, the guard flailed about, his sword passing dangerously close to the samurai’s limbs.
Another police samurai arrived, this one armed with a sodegarami. Approaching the bandit from the side, he thrust the sleeve entangler just as the bandit slashed again. The sword clashed against the sodegarami’s head, lodging between its forward prongs. Sliding his weapon down, the samurai drew a tight circle, capturing the bandit’s hand with the pole arm’s rear-facing hooks, and yanked. The sword flew away.
Two more samurai pounced on the halpless bandit, wrestling him to the ground. Inside the house, men yelled. Light spilled out the windows. The front door opened. The faint glow of a lantern revealed a huge man with a katana. His eyes locked on the nearest target.
Screaming, he raised his katana. The blade caught on the doorframe. As he struggled to pull it free, I thrust into his exposed throat. Retracting the wakizashi, I rammed my shoulder into him.
We tumbled into the house. The dying bandit flopped over, clutching at his throat. To my left, a pair of bandits stormed through an open door.
A police samurai barged past me, going for the left-hand bandit. I raised my weapon and approached the other one. He snarled a curse and rushed me with a frenzy of wild sword strokes. I leapt back, but I felt steel slicing across my arm.
He slashed again. I stepped in, raising my sword. My blade met his with a loud clang. I flowed around his slash, brought my wakizashi high and took off his head.
I looked down. The sword had scored my right forearm. Only bone, minimal damage.
The other police samurai seemed to be in trouble. He held a short jitte against his forearm, while the bandit had a much longer sword. The samurai backpedalled, evading a slash. The bandit stepped in and cut again.
The samurai shot in, blocking the blade with his jitte. Quick as a flash, he hooked the sword with the prong of his jitte and grabbed his opponent’s left hand. The samurai wheeled his arms around, and suddenly he was on his feet, holding the bandit’s weapon. More samurai swarmed the disarmed bandit, tackling him down.
Another police samurai ran past me. Hattori.
“Upstairs!” he shouted. “Follow me!”
I obeyed, running right behind him. Hattori had a te yari, a spear specially shortened for room fighting. This one had a crossbar mounted behind the tip. It seemed he wasn’t interested in taking prisoners.
The room next to us had a staircase. As we pounded up the stairs, I heard men shouting from above. Hattori yelled back, jabbing his te yari. I stepped back and down, giving him room to work. Over his shoulder, I saw a bandit waving a sword. Two more bandits waited nearby, watching the fight.
Hattori aimed high, going for the bandit’s face. The man moved to guard—but it was a feint. Hattori swooped low, hooked the crossbar behind his ankle and pulled. The man went down with a resounding crash. Hattori adjusted his aim and thrust. A high-pitched shriek filled the air and curdled my blood. He’d just been unmanned.
The surviving bandits turned and fled to a nearby room.
“Ike!” Hattori urged. Go!
We chased the bandits into the room. Hattori stepped through the door, spear in hand. A bandit blindsided him, tackling him against a wall. Entering the room, I kicked the attacker in the temple. The bandit turned over on his side. Hattori released his weapon and grappled with the bandit.
That left one more bandit in the room. He wore an expensive indigo-dyed kimono and a fine grey hakama. A long scar crossed his right eye. A short sword dangled from his right hand.
“Are you the bandit chief?” I asked.
He snorted. “And what if I am?”
I circled to his right. “You killed my woman.”
He leered. “Really? I can’t remember. I’ve slain so many over the years, after having my way with them. The sight of women on all fours, begging for mercy, really gets the blood going. You know what I mean?”
He continued spewing filth, circling as he spoke. The banter was a distraction. He was slowly approaching me, sliding his feet forward to shorten the distance between us. I let him continue, trying to get an angle into his diminished right side.
He was in range. I stepped in, rearing my body up.
He cut at my neck.
I swooped in low, ducking under his stroke. With a loud kiai I cut through his belly. I stepped through and whirled around.
The bandit was down, blood seeping into the tatami under my feet.
I glanced at Hattori. Two more samurai had come to assist, one to hold down the prisoner and the other to tie him up.
I pricked my ears and listened. Men spoke to each other in conversational tones. There were no more orders, no desperate cries, no ringing of steel of steel. The metallic tang of blood intermingled with the odour of faeces and urine. I counted the number of men we had met along the way. Six of them. The bandits had been dealt with.
The bandit chief moaned, slowly bleeding to death. I wondered why he didn’t resist. Then I saw what had happened to his spine.
I flicked the blood from my sword. It splashed at Hattori’s feet.
“Looks like you’ve gotten your revenge,” he said.
I nodded numbly. I didn’t feel anything. Not satisfaction, not joy, just… calm. An understanding that the wheel of karma had turned once again, like it always had and always will. This wouldn’t bring Hana back—but it would stop the bandits from harming any more innocents.
“He needs a physician,” I said.
Hattori shook his head. “You cut through his spine. With a wound that deep, we should just put him out of his misery.”
“I shall leave that decision to you.”
“You’re not going to do it?”
“He’s…no longer a threat. If I did anything else in front of a police samurai, I could be charged with murder.”
Hattori chuckled grimly. “Come. We still have work to do.”
Earlier chapters: Part 1, 2 and 3.
For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.