The Snow-Light Warrior
By Jason Kemp
Winner - Best Dialogue
Had I not known that I was dead already.
I would have mourned my loss of life.
-Ota Dokan, Samurai, 1432-1486.
The injured samurai lurched through a deep, binding snow. Several malicious wounds had rendered his senses sluggish, his tenacity dazed. Blood had seeped into his eyes, his right had been blinded, and his left twitched under the raw squall that bombarded his errant march.
Had he not been so fortunate, and the enemy arquebusiers less so, the shaken samurai would have strayed farther from the theatre of war than a sheltering, snow laden copse. Safe, though far from sound, the warrior continued to engage the foe, slashing aimlessly at cold, relentless shadows.
As he plodded on, his breath came in abrasive waves, hot and hoarse, but more than this, the wind sang in his ears, its chant rising to a distinct, divine hymn. Sharply, the ethereal song split the ashen tempest, clearing a corridor through the storm.
The samurai spoke a name he could not place, a name lost in the ever-increasing clarity of a morose mantra. Though it did not prose the doleful dirge responded, summoning him, without rhyme or meter it beckoned. Intuitively, the warrior withdrew, struggling against the enthralling lament.
Where the blizzard had ebbed the melodic elegy surged in to cosset the samurai. Despite its empathy, it remained cold and threatening, urging him afar of its origin.
The warrior's hands went numb upon the hilt of his koto. His fingers wrestled for any sense of the tsuka ito, yet the braided wrap felt beyond the insensateness of his grip. This at the moment the grim enchantress came to light. Her flesh was as white as bone, her eyes as pale as death, her song as chilling as a corpse's final breath.
The samurai raised his blade in preparation for a ten uchi strike, yet with the lack of sensation in his hands he had not noticed the turn of his blade, the cutting edge slashed into a tree at his back. The icy bark refused to cede the sword, and soon the samurai's hands themselves would not respond.
Before long, the warrior's body was scarcely his own, the winter witch's noxious requiem seemingly at an end. As the vivacity drained from the samurai's husk, and the last of his fortitude faded the icy sorceress unleashed a violent wail. It flooded him, a frigid ferocity that imbued the dying warrior with a bitter essence so intense, it forced his dim perception into oblivion.
When the samurai woke, his body was frosty, his strength slow to react.
"Ah, the warrior wakes." Close by, a peculiar stranger sat stoking a small fire. His nose, near as long as a wakizashi handle, was freakish.
"Where am I?"
"In a hole, in the ground." His finery, that of a yamabushi monk, was spotless.
"In a . . . a tomb?"
"No," the stranger replied, humoured. "In my den."
"Den? Who are you?"
Seemingly, the stranger swallowed his pride. "I am called Nokémono."
"You are . . . a man."
"No more or less than you, my friend."
The samurai looked into the fire, and beheld a memory. A trivial battle upon a frozen plane. A barrage of bullets, a hot rain in the midst of a winter storm.
"I am samurai."
"Oh, but you are not sure," said Nokémono.
"My name, I do not know my name."
"No?" He chuckled. "You will need a new one, than."
"No! I am samurai, I have a name!"
"I shall call you . . . Yuki-akari."
"Hmm. You should see yourself, samurai."
The samurai touched his face. His skin was cold.
"You understand now."
In the firelight, his hands appeared pale, niveous.
"Am . . . am I dead?"
"No," Nokémono chuckled. "You are not dead, samurai, then again, nor are you alive."
"You are deceiving me!" The samurai raised his hand, but there was no sword with which to close the stroke.
"Where is my sword!" The samurai searched his waist.
"No wakizashi either. Oh, my."
"Tell me!" he demanded.
"You were attacked, in the storm. Do you remember?"
The samurai's next recollection was cold. "A woman."
"Yes . . ." Nokémono urged him on.
"Gaunt, but beautiful, and . . . cold."
"Yes. That creature was a yuki-onna."
"A snow ghost?"
"Hmm." He nodded. "Your life was nearly hers."
"You rescued me."
"Your assumption is correct."
"And my blades?"
"Lost. Claimed by the storm."
"I must regain them." In moving, pain coursed through his body, grounding him.
"Your body has yet to adjust."
He groaned. "To what?"
"It seems simple enough. When I slew the yuki-onna, her essence . . . bled into your wounds, and you were as you are now. Trapped between life and death. Very extraordinary, I confess."
"You lie! I know what you are."
"And that is?"
"Tengu! Conjurer! Deceiver!"
The fire dimmed. "Very clever." As it regained its light, a creature greeted the warrior's eyes, a glossy black raven, its bill decorated with blood red tip.
The samurai drew back. "This is a ploy!"
The raven's black eye studied him. "To what end?"
He had no reply. "What do you want of me?"
"Not a thing," it chortled, beak clacking. "You are free to leave."
He explored the earthen walls of the burrow, there was no obvious egress. "Release me!"
"Where will you go? Hmm, Yuki-akari, you who looks as one dead."
The samurai held his hands to the fire, but they would not warm. Nearer then, and the flames recoiled with an ethereal wail.
"Impressive," Nokémono remarked.
"I-I am cursed." The samurai fell back, and though cold, he could not shiver.
"I know of one who may be able to help."
"Who? Who but a demon such as you."
"One far more powerful than I, Yuki-akari."
"That is not my name!"
He shook his feathered head. "As you wish, warrior."
"What is the demon's price?"
"That is a matter he shall decide."
"Take me to him."
"I demand it!"
"No, you will not let me call you Yuki-akari," he whined.
"So be it."
Nokémono cawed happily. A shine came into his lustrous eyes, and his silken black head joggled to and fro. "Are you fit to travel now, Yuki-akari?"
"I think I can manage."
Nokémono fixed a cup-shaped cap, a tokin atop his head, and from his side, lifted a ring-tipped shakujo staff.
Yuki-akari struggled to his feet.
The far wall of the den collapsed to form a passage as the fire died. The bright, cold light of day inundated the breach.
"Where are we?" Yuki-akari staggered from Nokémono's nival burrow.
"Shinano Province. North of Mount Takao." The Tengu's words bore an unimaginable woe.
"Mount Takao - and the cause of your sorrow?"
Nokémono's feathers flared. "That is not your concern!"
"Then my name is not Yuki-akari!"
The Tengu cawed tetchily. "It was once my home."
"Your name. You were exiled."
"Yes. Banished from my Tengudo - Now, come!" With a vigorous stride, he set off across a clearing.
"Where dwells your demon?" Yuki-akari pursued him.
"His fortress stands at the base of Mount Fuji, midst the forest of Aokigahara."
Yuki-akari hastened to overtake the swift Tengu. "We are to walk?"
Nokémono froze in his tracks to cackle, bill slapping. "If you have wings, by all means, spread them!" With flair, his karasu charms unfurled to beat in mockery.
Yuki-akari scowled. "My body is aggrieved."
"Ooh! The great warrior complains of distress."
"I cannot match your pace!"
"Very well, samurai," scoffed the Tengu. He then held his staff aloft, and rattled the rings sharply.
"What are you doing?"
"In moments, a vagueness shall appear before you, bright, soon to be blinding, but do not look away."
Yuki-akari soon saw the haziness Nokémono spoke of.
"You must allow this lack of clarity to consume you."
In the midst of the air, the imperfection spread, became as intense as the sun and crossed the threshold of his vision.
"Allow the pain, samurai! Do not close your eyes."
Yuki-akari collapsed to his knees beneath the anguish. On and on it overawed the warrior, scorching his sight.
Nokémono paddled Yuki-akari's shoulder, chortling. "On your feet, samurai."
Yuki-akari opened his eyes. The radiance had dissipated.
"We have arrived."
Blindness relented to shadow. "We . . . are here?"
"Jukai, the Sea of Trees."
A colorless miasma veiled the dense foliage, and here, the utmost stillness reigned. Yuki-akari felt a supple wind upon his face, yet its song escaped his hearing.
"Tengu magic!" his voice rang. "You like?"
"I suspect your pomposity led to your exile, Nokémono!"
The Tengu's feathers shuddered, his eyes glimmered with rage. Nokémono loosed a guttural caw, turned and stomped off into the mist.
"Wait!" Yuki-akari followed, his strength mounting.
"Come along, samurai."
"You must tell me of this demon."
Nokémono slowed. "Why?" His tone was suspicious.
"I will not go before your fiend, unless I know something of him."
"He is Lord Wrack, Jigoku-Bugyô."
"Whom does he serve?"
Nokémono stopped dead, and focused a black eye on the samurai. "Only himself." He walked on. "Lord Wrack is an oni, a gyuki. It is said he once roamed the southern sea, but his craving for the flesh of men drew him inland."
"And such a beast can help me?"
"The Jigoku-Bugyô has knowledge far beyond that of any Tengu, any I have ever known."
"Insight, my dear Yuki-akari. Insight."
Climbing a path toward the mountain, a stony gable came out of the mist, but no approach was visible.
"I seek an audience with Lord Wrack!" Nokémono called out.
Within the gable, a gravelly visage twisted and swelled its way from the rock. "You were told never to return."
"I must see the Jigoku-Bugyô." He cocked his head back, his outward eye twinkling in the samurai's direction.
The gritty sentry contemplated Yuki-akari. "Very well."
Nokémono chirped happily, and walked up into the gate's deepening shadow. Yuki-akari followed beneath the eyes of the stone sentinel, up a dark passage to a menacing carriage porch.
"Do not look long at the paintings, warrior," Nokémono suggested.
"You shall see."
In the reception chamber the walls respired with a terrible life. Had the Kano School edified some wretched soul, one whose eyes beheld the world as a horrid realm of depraved barbarity. Monstrous tiger-like demons prowled among dim grooves of skeletal bamboo. Elsewhere, withered, shrunken beings crouched behind huge, malformed pine trees.
As Yuki-akari strode across strident nightingale floors the fiendish figures stalked him, their soulless eyes trailing him along the walkway, beckoning, ravenous.
"Do not let them goad you," Nokémono warned.
"How do you mean?"
"Some who have walked these halls have become trapped in the paintings."
"Their eyes follow you even now."
Yuki-akari glanced back, the wounded spirits reaching for him.
"Here, Yuki-akari. The grand chamber."
A bulky door slid aside, and a stunted impish major-domo greeted them. "Welcome, one and all."
Yuki-akari stepped into the dark, threatening chamber. At the far end the Jigoku-Bugyô's dais was sealed in shadow.
"Make yourselves at home," the major-domo continued.
The chamber was cold, barren, devoid of life.
"Nokémono!" A sonorous timbre goaded the Tengu to his knees. "Pariah! You have come back to die!"
The major-domo screeched, enfolded himself in his cloak and sank into the floor.
"Milord, I beg of you, tolerate my living presence, if only to permit me an introduction." Nokémono trembled, bowed so that the tip of his beak rapped upon the floor.
"May I present, Yuki-akari. The Snow-Light Warrior."
"Milord," Nokémono spoke up. "Yuki-akari possesses the power to walk between worlds."
"Yuki-akari!" Lord Wrack commanded, "come forth."
The samurai took but a single step forward.
Yuki-akari delved into the dark alcove, his sight toiling to find the Jigoku-Bugyô upon his dais.
"He cannot be seen," Nokémono whispered.
"Unless I wish to be. Come closer."
Yuki-akari took three paces past Nokémono's position. "I was told," he glanced back at the biddable Tengu, "that you may well possess wisdom enough to serve me."
Quiet laughter flowed from the darkness. "You do amuse, Yuki-akari. What is it you seek?"
"A way back."
"Back. Back to what?"
"Life, a way back from this . . . condition." He held up his hands, still ghostly pale.
"You assume there exists such a way, you assume much."
"Explain!" Yuki-akari demanded.
"I could use a creature such as you, Yuki-akari."
"I am a man! I am samurai!"
"You are undead!" Lord Wrack bellowed, "and therefore useful."
Yuki-akari scoffed. "I will not serve a demon!"
"Then you are dismissed!" Lord Wrack said in disgust.
"Very well," Yuki-akari replied.
"And the Tengu shall die!"
"I beg of you!" Nokémono, his wings thrust back, tight to his trunk, scampered forward on his hands and knees. "May I present you with this gift." Seemingly, from his very core, Nokémono drew an object that made the darkness applaud. Only when the deceitful Tengu drew back could Yuki-akari see that which he had thought lost.
"My blades!" Yuki-akari dashed forward, yet his frenzied charge was checked by the descending strike of a massive claw. Pressed back, Yuki-akari cursed as the claw swept his daisho into the darkness.
"Your soul is mine, samurai!"
Yuki-akari rushed forth in bold protest, yet the murkiness of Lord Wrack's throne would not yield. Forcefully, a great pincer, though slender, flung the samurai athwart the grand chamber.
Whilst Yuki-akari regained his bearing, the Jigoku-Bugyô revealed itself. Lord Wrack's six legs, long and lean, shone with an eerie, cerulean glow. Cruel bristles adorned its hard carapace, above and below. As the beast reared its pincers, Yuki-akari's eyes were drawn to its humanoid torso, clad in a ferocious armour.
"There is no force on this earth that can stand against me, samurai. You shall submit, or perish."
Its head was that of an ox. Thorns lined the monster's jaw and slighter barbs the crests of its bovine features. Its great horns were shielded in hulking, bejeweled armour sleeves.
"Come, Yuki-akari, you have no further use in a life you yourself cannot recall. By now, the Uesugi have tallied you among their dead."
"The Uesugi." There was a flash of memory.
"You will never fully recall your time," Lord Wrack said, "no matter how many traces stray words may summon up."
"I cannot accept that!"
"Already, Takeda Shingen's forces have retreated. Uesugi Kenshin, your former lord, has won the day. Even with this, your mind is unable to invoke any firm recollection."
"Your wisdom is poison!"
Lord Wrack's low laughter echoed through the chamber. "You fear the truth."
"What is the truth?"
"Simply that this is no fevered dream, bred by some harsh battlefield injury. You, Yuki-akari, have strayed into a dark floating world beyond time and reason."
"There must be a way back!"
"No! There is no way back!" Lord Wrack raised his huge, brawny arms and closed his fists on the warrior's future. "It is here alone, in my service that the remnants of the life you had, a life you shall never recover will have any worth!
"To you I shall bequeath an armour forged of my molted carapace, and a weapon strong enough to tear the soul from even the most righteous warrior."
"And what shall I do in your service?"
"Annihilate all who have dared oppose my will. All those who have not conceded that which is rightfully mine."
"You require servants for such tasks? Surely not."
"These tasks are beneath me. As my chosen emissary you shall carry my will to the far corners of the earth. Within, or beyond my domain."
"Your sphere of influence has its limits, then?"
"As does that of any god. What say you, samurai?"
"Winter's Edge, and Winter's Sting, respectively. Forged jointly, your new daisho is rare indeed."
"And the armour?"
Lord Wrack laughed. "Impenetrable."
"And as an added incentive, I appoint Nokémono as your constant companion."
The Tengu rushed forth, fell to his knees. "Milord, he will surely slay me the first chance he gets."
"Hopefully," the Jigoku-Bugyô cackled.
At that, the samurai knelt, as well. "Lord Wrack, I accept your terms."
"Excellent!" the Jigoku-Bugyô waved his arm, and up out of the floor rose the daisho and the wraithlike panoply. "To the east there dwells a powerful Oni, he alone obscures the true location of the demon gate from my knowledge. Track, and destroy this ogre."
"Is that all?"
Again, Lord Wrack laughed. "He shall prove formidable, do not underestimate this foe."
"As you wish, milord."
"Then go, Yuki-akari, Snow-Light Warrior, and carry my will to the ends of the earth!"
At that, the samurai found himself clad in the armour, and bearing the demon's daisho at his side. The sheer power the armaments granted him was forebodingly restorative.
In time, Yuki-akari found himself again roaming the hazy wilderness beneath Mount Fuji, the Tengu still at his side.
"You surprise me, samurai."
"I would not have guessed that such an indomitable spirit would be so easily conquered."
"My dear, Nokémono, with these swords, and this armour I shall fight my way back to life, even if that means carving it from Lord Wrack himself."
"Oh! And you expect me to be party to this, do you?"
"I could use your skills, Tengu."
"But such a quest could take years, even centuries!"
"Have you anything better to do? Even so, I should think the ruin of the Jigoku-Bugyô would unfetter your wings, as well."
"Yet, can you imagine the expedition ahead of us?"
"I shall leave that to you."
"And all those you will have to kill!"
"But no worries, my friend. I promise to kill you last."
The Tengu's eyes blanched momentarily, then he cackled and clucked, ensuing
the Snow-Light Warrior on a path to a mutual salvation.