Shinkyo Bridge. Part Six. Horror Fiction
“Will you stay and have some tea?”
“No. I must be going,” the man said, already turning away. “Perhaps some other time.”
Gen sagged as the villager left. He looked around the empty common room and sighed. The day had come and gone with no customers. Word of the demon hand’s discovery had spread like wildfire throughout Tachibana and its neighboring villages. Dozens of people arrived at the inn, alone or in small groups, hoping for the chance to see the otherworldly claw for themselves.
They all left in disappointment. Musashi refused to let anyone touch or open the seemingly innocent cloth bundle set on the table before him.
“Why won’t you let anyone see it?” Gen asked. “It would be good for business.”
“I can’t,” Musashi said, not taking his eyes off the motionless bundle for a moment. “It’s still dangerous.”
He started as a man appeared in the doorway across from where he sat. He was tall, his thin frame hardened with lean muscle. The man was unshaven, several weeks of unkempt beard covering his jaw and neck. His dark eyes were surrounded by crow’s feet and prematurely wrinkled skin, the result of a life spent under the sun. Homespun leggings and a loosely woven vest over his bare chest were all he needed in the balmy summer dusk. A small bow and quiver were strapped across his back, while a bulging cloth bag hung opposite a gutting knife at his belt.
Musashi was halfway to his feet when Gen hurried forward eagerly.
“Tokoemon,” Gen said, opening his arms and beckoning the man forward in welcome. “Please, come in and sit. I’ll have food and drink brought right away.”
Tokoemon raised a hand to stop the innkeeper mid-flow. “I’ve just stopped by to sell my catch.” He pulled a pair of wild rabbits from his bag, displaying them for Gen to see.
“Oh,” Gen said, visibly deflating. “Normally I would, but business has been slow lately. I’m afraid I can’t afford to buy anything right now.” He looked around the empty room to emphasize his point.
Musashi stood up and looked the carcasses over. “These would be perfect for stew,” he said. “How much?”
“100 mon each,” Tokoemon said, “but for you, 150 for the pair.”
Musashi nodded his approval of the offer. “Yosh.” He handed over the small coins to the hunter, who turned over his catch.
Tokoemon nodded his thanks, pocketed the coins, and departed without another word.
Musashi turned and offered the rabbits to Gen. He demurred.
“That’s much too generous, Musashi-san,” the innkeeper said. He wrung his hands as he looked at enough meat to feed him and his wife for a week.
Musashi smiled reassuringly. “I’m afraid I can’t make up for all the business you’ve lost, but I can at least make sure you won’t go hungry,” he said. “Think of it as an apology for the disturbance I’ve caused.”
“Apology accepted,” Gen said, giving a short bow out of respect. He took the rabbits and headed off into the kitchen, his mood lightened at the prospect of a hearty meal. He passed his wife, who looked up from her needlework at the side table where the crockery was kept. She grinned at the sight of the rabbits, getting up to help with their preparation.
She built up the fire in the clay oven set against the back wall, throwing in kindling from the wood pile next to it. She took their largest pot out the back entrance to draw water from the well and wash it thoroughly, while her husband got on with butchering the meat.
He used a sharp knife and cutting board set next to the stove to skin the animals. As he turned to throw inedible scraps into the slops bucket, a piece of wood fell to the ground with a clatter.
Gen picked it up and looked it over. “Odd thing for a rabbit to have eaten,” he said to himself.
He casually threw the hunk of wood into the oven and got on with cooking, forgetting all about it. The simple chip of wood sat within the glowing confines of the oven. Amidst the scorching heat it stubbornly refused to catch light, not even charring.
A familiar voice came from the other side of the paper screen. “Gen,” Musashi called, “you’ve a customer.”
Gen emerged from the kitchen to see a stoop-shouldered old woman standing in the doorway. Her silver-grey hair was pulled up tightly in a bun. She was clad in a worn but clean grey yukata, her hands tucked within the robe’s voluminous sleeves. She smiled, revealing an empty, pink-gummed mouth.
“I’ve come to see the samurai who took the demon of Shinkyo Bridge’s hand,” she said.
Gen’s practiced innkeeper’s smile froze, his rising spirits dashed once again. He indicated Musashi, unable to speak for a moment as he fought for composure.
Musashi nodded respectfully to the old woman, his expression severe but non-threatening.
“Samurai-sama,” she said. “I would be forever grateful if you would allow me to see the hand.”
Musashi shook his head mournfully. “I’m sorry, grandmother, but I cannot. The hand is still dangerous until a priest can seal away the evil that dwells within it.”
The old woman lowered her head and began to cry, covering her face with the sleeves of her yukata so her tears wouldn’t shame her. “Please, samurai-sama,” she said between sobs. “The demon killed my husband many years ago. It will not be long before I am called to his side, but until then, seeing the hand that took his life laid low would grant me some measure of peace.”
Hearing her story, so similar to his, Gen sniffed to hold back tears of his own. The only one who betrayed no emotion was Musashi. His eyes were dry and unclouded; his stern visage might’ve been carved from marble for the lack of passion it showed.
Finally, he came to a decision. “Very well,” he said. “You may see the claw, but what ill befalls you for it will be entirely your own fault.”
His warning given, he passed the bundle across the table to the old woman. She eagerly snatched it up, and in that moment she changed.
Her hair grew out, a wild and untamed mane of stark white. Her yukata bleached itself to match, taking on the ritual color of death and mourning. Its fabric creaked as the body within it grew, her limbs stretching and elongating until she towered head and shoulders above the two men. Sharp teeth, yellow and jagged, sprung from her gums as her eyes took on an eerie glow.
Gen stood stock still, unable to do anything save behold the terrible majesty of the thing that stood before him. “Demon,” he whispered to himself in horror.
“Demon woman!” Musashi shouted, on his feet, his katana drawn in an instant. “Hannya, how are you able to leave the bridge?”
The demon that took the guise of a woman, a fabled hannya, let out a cackle like gravel crunching underfoot. “I am bound to Shinkyo bridge,” it said. “This is true. But I can go wherever the bridge goes as well.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” Musashi demanded, uncowed by the demon’s presence.
“I’ve come to claim my hand,” the demon said, a feral grin splitting its face from ear to ear, “and to kill the one responsible for stealing it.”
The hannya unwrapped the bundle, burning need in its eyes. It let loose an ear-piercing shriek of demonic fury, flinging the piece of firewood it found within across the room.
In the moment that the demon’s attention shifted, Musashi acted. He charged. Running up onto a bench and then onto a table to hurl himself straight at it, he let loose a full-throated war cry that shook the rafters.
Though weakened by the absence of its hand, the hannya was still powerful. It swung its one remaining claw, swatting Musashi like a mosquito. He went flying through the air to crash through the paper screen into the kitchen, tumbling to a halt against the log pile beside the oven.
The demon barged through the common room after the samurai, paying no heed to the terrified innkeeper. In his fear and desperation, Gen lashed out with his kitchen knife. The sharp steel blade twisted upon impact with the demon’s side, as if he’d struck solid stone. Such was the hannya’s single-minded fury that it failed to notice the attack, cramming itself into the low-ceilinged kitchen to face the prone samurai.
“Where is it?” the demon shrieked, spittle flying from its gnashing teeth.
Musashi hauled himself to a sitting position beside the oven. He reached back behind the pile of kindling, drawing forth a bundle identical to the first.
“Another trick,” the demon said, spitting in disgust as it advanced on Musashi.
“Think so?” the samurai said, a knowing smile on his lips. “Let’s find out.” With that, he plunged the bundle into the flames of the open oven.
Holding the stump of one wrist, the demon threw back its head and howled in indescribable agony.
Musashi snarled, his lips pulled back to reveal his teeth in a savage grin. “Leave now!” he shouted, “or your hand will be lost to you for all time!”
The demon looked down at Musashi, its eyes blazing in equal parts pain and rage. “This isn’t over, samurai,” it promised.
The hannya departed, its form unfocusing into a billowing mist that dissipated as if it had never been.
“You’re damn right it isn’t,” Musashi said to the empty air as he doggedly got to his feet. He retrieved the charred bundle containing the demon’s hand from the mouth of the oven and limped out of the kitchen past the stricken Gen.
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