Shinkyo Bridge. Part Four. Horror Fiction
The door to Musashi’s room slid open, squealing as the wood frame skidded within its tracks. The innkeeper tripped over his own feet and stumbled in, falling to his knees before the recumbent form abed since the previous night. The pudgy man dripped sweat and panted from his unaccustomed flight up the stairs.
He heard a click and a metallic rasp an instant before the chill of cold steel prickled at his throat. The labored breath caught in his chest as he froze. Just as suddenly as it appeared, the blade was gone.
The innkeeper turned to see Musashi sitting cross-legged against the wall behind him. The samurai yawned loudly and sheathed the shorter of his two swords, his wakazashi. He sat in his loincloth, apparently unheeding of the lingering draft from the past night’s rain-cooled air.
The innkeeper was taken aback at the sight of Musashi’s bare chest and arms. They were covered with deeply puckered scars, each the keepsake of an arrow that found its mark. No sword cuts though, the innkeeper noted.
“You shouldn’t wake people so suddenly,” Musashi said, his voice still heavy with sleep, “It’s bad luck.” He closed his eyes and let his head sink back down to rest against his chest. His sheathed katana stood propped up against his left shoulder, where he could reach it quickly.
“Samurai-sama,” the innkeeper said, mentally shaking off his near accident, “please come quickly.”
“Have my clothes been repaired?” the samurai asked, not looking up.
“My wife will have them ready for you by tonight,” the innkeeper said, trying to keep his impatience in check, “but there is something you must see at the bridge.”
Musashi’s head snapped up like a wolf that’d scented prey, instantly alert. He unfolded in a single smooth movement and headed for the door. As he made to step out into the hallway the innkeeper stopped him, stepping in his path before he could walk out half-naked.
He left and quickly returned with a silk bundle, handing it to Musashi and leaving the room to give him some privacy. In a moment Musashi emerged, fully clothed in a borrowed kimono. He shook out his sleeves, testing the fit before slipping his swords into the cloth belt at his waist.
“This isn’t one of yours, is it?” Musashi asked the much-shorter man as they made their way up the hall and down the stairs.
“No,” the innkeeper said. “It was my son’s.”
Musashi halted halfway across the empty downstairs common room and looked at the innkeeper, seeing the sorrow in the older man’s eyes. The innkeeper forced a smile, hearing Musashi’s unspoken protests.
“Please,” he said. “My son was a practical boy. He would’ve wanted his things to be of use to someone rather than collecting dust.”
“Besides,” he continued, letting out an empty laugh to cover his emotion, “I wouldn’t stay in business long if all my customers walked out without so much as the clothing on their backs.”
Musashi nodded, aware of the kindness being done to him. “What was his name?” he asked, strapping on his waraji sandals at the door.
The innkeeper bowed his head. “Kenta, samurai-sama.”
“Please,” Musashi said as they walked out the door, “honorifics are not necessary at this point.”
The innkeeper hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Hai... Musashi. Call me Gen.”
They walked, side by side, down the road. The rain stopped during the night, but the sheer volume of water had nowhere to go. The dry earth of Tachibana village’s road became a muddy bog, over which the pair carefully trod lest they slip and fall into the slurry. Despite this there were many people taking the risk that morning. Townspeople, travelers, farmers, day laborers, and children were all out in abundance, all heading in the same direction as Musashi and Gen; toward ShinkyoBridge.
“Musashi?” Gen asked.
Musashi gave a distracted grunt as he avoided a particularly deep puddle.
“Why weren’t you sleeping in your bedding? It’s perfectly clean.”
Musashi chuckled at the misplaced anxiety in the innkeeper’s voice. “It’s nothing to do with that. I’ve spent so much time sleeping outdoors that bedding is too soft; I can’t fall asleep in it. Besides, it serves as a useful decoy, as you found out.”
The innkeeper tried to imagine sleeping outside on the hard ground, always on guard should someone wish him harm. It made for a bleak outlook, not being able to trust anyone, not being able to truly rest or relax for even a single moment. His burgeoning respect for the samurai grew even greater.
As they approached the bridge the pair spotted a crowd of onlookers milling about. Musashi shoved his way through, the sight of the swords at his hip silencing any protests of indignation before they could be voiced.
At the center of the bridge, surrounded by fearful people come to gawk, lay a hideous hand. Severed at the wrist, the hand was the dark green of a festering wound. Its fingers were bony and impossibly long, tipped with wickedly sharp claws that had more in common with those of a beast than the fingernails of a man.
Gen’s wife stood closest, alongside two men bearing the coarsely spun garb and sharp axes of woodcutters. Together they held the fascinated crowd back from the macabre hand. When Musashi crouched over the thing to examine it, the onlookers edged back, as wary of what the hand might do as what the samurai was capable of.
“These two found it as they crossed earlier this morning,” Gen said from beside him, indicating the woodcutters, who bobbed their heads in acknowledgment. Gen reached forward to prod it.
Musashi instantly caught his wrist in an iron grip. “Don’t touch it,” the samurai hissed, releasing him.
“What should we do?” the innkeeper asked.
“Fetch me a large cloth and summon a priest,” Musashi ordered. “It must be consecrated before we can be sure it’s safe.”
Gen’s wife went running off, darting through the crowd, back to the inn.
“The nearest temple is a full day’s walk, one way,” one of the woodcutters said, pointing east. “We’ll go.”
“We were headed back that direction already,” the other piped up, looking enough like his partner for them to be brothers.
They started off immediately. Gen’s wife returned with a bed sheet thrown over her shoulder. Musashi took it and rolled the hand up into it, careful not to touch the clawed monstrosity directly.
“We’ll keep it safe until the priest arrives,” Musashi said as he walked back to the inn.
Gen dithered and wrung his hands, nerves wound tight as a bowstring. “Is there anything we can do until then?” he asked.
“Your wife will get on with mending my clothes,” Musashi said firmly as the crowd made way before him and his strange bundle. “You will make breakfast. I won’t be able to leave until she’s finished anyway.”
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