Shinkyo Bridge. Part Two. Horror Fiction
Thunder shook the earth. Lightning split the sky. The heavens opened up to drench the world in a deluge of unparalleled ferocity. Big, fat drops of rain pooled together as they fell to strike Musashi in one wave after another. It seemed to him that they hit him all as one, rather than in sheets; a tsunami from the sky. As if the ocean itself were trying to reclaim the isles of Nippon.
Though he stoically tucked his head in against his chest to avoid the worst of it, inwardly he raged at himself. The day had started out fair enough, with the sun high in the sky and a light breeze making the summer heat more tolerable. And so he’d set out from the little village of Nekko that morning, having stopped only to purchase a fresh set of waraji sandals at the market. The simple unadorned woven grass from which the sandals were made was all he could afford. A wooden set of geta would have served me better in the long run, he thought sourly.
Musashi swore to himself at the memory of the stall vendor, who’d offered him a fine price on a grass raincoat and hat as a full set. He’d turned the man down, not seeing why he should have need of such extra weight and expense during the dry season.
As time wore on the breeze had gained strength and urgency, bringing along with it clouds. Thick, dark, billowing clouds that were heavy with water. Dusk came early as they blotted out the sky from one horizon to the other, rendering the full moon imperceptible behind their menacing black embrace.
In moments Musashi was soaked through to the skin, his light outer jacket and kimono pressing the warm summer rain directly against his skin. The pleated hakama leggings covering the lower extremities of his kimono, which billowed out as they extended down to his ankles, became heavy with water and chafed against the insides of his legs as he walked. The ronin gritted his teeth, knowing his inner thighs would be rubbed raw before he reached Tachibana village.
It was then that the wind conspired against him as well. The silk of his clothes, soaked as they were, would not let air pass through them. They formed sails, catching the raging gale around him and pushing him back, forcing Musashi to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
He consoled himself with the thought that he’d managed to make good time throughout the afternoon, the arid fields and irrigation ditches lining the road giving way to rocky scrubland as he traveled to the foot of the Ningyo mountain range. Once through Tachibana village, and down the valley wending its way between the mountains, he would be out of the Gifu province altogether. From there Musashi could go anywhere his feet would carry him. His swords would pay the way. They always do.
Even as he thought of the long road ahead he was greeted by the sight of Shinkyo bridge, known across Gifu as the site where a traveling Buddhist monk confronted a demon. Through the man’s faith he was able to seal the ravening monster away from the world, freeing Tachibana village from the demon’s reign of terror.
Strange, thought Musashi. I expected it to be bigger.
The bridge was made entirely of wood, roughly 100 paces across and 10 paces wide. In the spring the little stream that ran below would be swelled by melt-water from the mountains, becoming a raging river that would drown anyone foolish enough to be caught in its turbulence. As such, Shinkyo bridge was not long but rose in a steep arch over the deep gully through which the river ran.
Despite the weather, he couldn’t help admiring the structure as he began to cross, taking note of its spotless ornamental stone lanterns set into the railings. The wooden slats making up the walkway were freshly sanded and smooth beneath his sandaled feet. As he walked, the boards thumped solidly in their moorings, the wood bowing slightly like freshly cut timber. The locals must care for it.
Funny, he thought to himself to take his mind off his miserable state. The rain striking the boards sounds like footsteps. He cocked his head to the side, listening intently… Just like footsteps.
It didn’t seem likely to him that ordinary folks would be out in weather like this without good reason. It seemed even less likely that someone sneaking up on a man openly wearing the paired swords of a samurai had good intentions. He decided it would be better to continue on as if he’d heard nothing, rather than turn and challenge whoever was stalking him. They might not be alone.
Musashi kept his pace steady as he neared the middle of Shinkyo bridge, the steps behind him gradually increasing in tempo. The rain pounded down all the harder as he prepared himself, keeping his right hand near the hilt of his katana.
He almost gasped in surprise as his breath began to fog the air before him, but stopped himself lest he alert his pursuer. A bone-deep chill descended upon the ronin. His clothes, which clung wetly to his goose-pimpled flesh, soon tinkled with newly formed ice crystals; matching those he felt swimming through his gut.
The moment came quickly, the footsteps behind him almost drowned out by the pounding of blood in his ears. When they paused a scant foot behind him, he acted.
Pushing off with his left foot, Musashi pivoted on his right heel. His right hand led the turn, dragging three feet of gleaming steel out of its sheath and launching it in a devastating horizontal sweep. The razor-sharp katana split raindrops in mid-flight, but struck nothing else.
There was nobody there.
Musashi wheeled about, his eyes darting to and fro, trying to locate his pursuer. No one was to be seen in the gloom and heaving rain.
The sound of footsteps was gone, taking the unnatural cold with it.
Musashi released a loud breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and slowly sheathed his katana as his racing heart began to slow back to normal. He chuckled to himself; a nervous byproduct of the receding tide of adrenaline singing through his veins. The storm must be playing with my imagination, he thought, trying to rationalize what he’d just experienced.
Musashi hurriedly made his way off the bridge. He lengthened his stride, heedless of how much his wet clothes chafed or how hard the wind blew in his sudden urgent need to get indoors.
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