Shinkyo Bridge. Part Seven. Horror Fiction
The road outside the inn was crowded with people drawn by the sounds of the fight. They scattered when they saw Musashi’s bruised face, his mouth compressed into a straight line, his eyes flashing with smoldering rage.
He’d twisted his ankle in the fall, slowing his determined march toward the bridge. Gen quickly caught up, carrying a paper lantern to light their way, a kitchen knife stuck through his belt. Judging by the noise of all the footsteps behind them, Musashi guessed the entire village followed in their wake.
“What are you doing?” Gen asked, his face still white from the encounter at the inn.
“I’m finishing this,” Musashi said through clenched teeth, not taking his eyes off the bridge in the distance.
When they got to the bridge Musashi turned to address the crowd that followed. “The demon is bound to the bridge,” he said in clear, measured tones. “Stay well clear of it and you should be safe.”
He paced forward, stopping just short of the first of the wooden planks set into the side of the riverbank. He took the lantern from Gen and held it near the cloth bundle he carried.
“Hannya! Show yourself or I will destroy your hand.”
The night sky was clear, a waxing moon brightly lighting the landscape. The breeze helped to dissipate the heat which rose from the earth, infused there by the day’s baking sun. It was quiet. No insects chirped. No birds sang. All that could be heard was the gurgle of the river and hushed whispers from the crowd behind him.
Musashi saw that there was something wrong with it all. A shadow played across the boards of the walkway though there was nothing there to cast it. As he watched, the shadow coalesced. Darkness and gloom gathered together until the demon took shape, standing brazenly at the top of the arched structure.
“What do you want?” the demon demanded.
“A trade,” Musashi said. “I will give you your hand. In return you shall go back to the burning planes of Jigoku, never to bother the realm of the living again.”
The demon smirked at him, its eyes suddenly growing as bright as the sun. Musashi tensed, wondering what trick the infernal creature had in mind.
A shout of warning came from behind. Musashi tried to turn, but a twinge from his ankle slowed him. The full weight of a body crashed into his back, driving him face-first onto the planks of the bridge as his attacker fell atop him. Strong hands wrapped around his throat and began to squeeze.
His vision dimming rapidly, Musashi managed to wriggle his arms out from underneath his body. He grabbed the little finger on one of the hands throttling him and savagely yanked it backward. The crack of bone was audible over the blood rushing in his head.
His attacker’s grip loosened enough for Musashi to turn over. He was greeted with the sight of the hunter, Tokoemon, drawing his gutting knife. Gen hung onto the back of Tokoemon’s vest doggedly, shouting in his ear to stop. But the hunter’s face was blank, his eyes unseeing as he prepared to plunge the blade into Musashi’s chest.
His swords were still pinned beneath the man’s body. Musashi had no choice but to drive a hard-knuckled fist into the base of his throat. He grabbed his attacker by the side of the neck and pulled him sideways as the man crumpled to lay beside Musashi, gasping for air.
Gen helped Musashi to his feet. He gave a frightened yelp as he looked over the samurai’s shoulder. The demon was charging toward the pair with astonishing speed and implacable momentum. Its hair flew behind it like a cloak as white as pure snow, its fanged maw opened wide in a silent howl.
Gen looked down, sickening realization turning his stomach. Beneath their feet were the smooth boards of Shinkyo Bridge shining in the moonlight.
Musashi shoved Gen hard, pitching him back onto his rump. With the innkeeper no longer crowding him, the samurai turned, drawing his katana.
He swung his blade backhanded, a downward diagonal stroke timed to rip open the demon’s torso as it came into range. Just as before, his sword struck nothing but air, the demon gone an instant before his blade bit into its flesh. Musashi looked around; staying on guard, but the hannya was nowhere to be seen.
A loud cry from Gen drew his attention. He was pointing at something. Musashi followed the line of his finger… straight up. The demon hung in the air, its blindingly fast jump carrying it well over the samurai’s head.
Musashi leapt backward as the demon landed where he’d been standing with an almighty thump. It grinned at him in triumph. Musashi realized belatedly that the demon now stood between him and the nearest way off the bridge, cutting off any hope of escape. With his ankle twisted there was no chance he could outrun the hannya to the other end of the bridge. The gully running below them was so far down that he’d break his neck if he tried jumping over the side railing. Seeing no other option, Musashi readied himself for death.
The tip of his outthrust blade slid between the rock-hard talons of the demon’s remaining hand. With a twist of its wrist, Musashi’s sword was plucked from his grasp. It clattered to the ground off to his right, but the demon was on him before he had a chance to recover it.
It bore him to the wood planks beneath, grabbing his wrists and pinning them up above his head. The hannya’s face was just a few inches away from Musashi’s, its rancid breath making his stomach churn. Try as he might, he could not break the demon’s crushing grip.
“You broke my toy,” the demon said in mocking tones, tilting its angular head toward the prone, unmoving form of Tokoemon. “You’ll have to take his place.”
The demon’s eyes blazed a lambent green. Though painfully bright, Musashi found he couldn’t look away. He was paralyzed by the hannya’s penetrating stare, his mind fighting against the malign force seeking to make him its puppet.
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