The Oni’s Claw by Mat Dalen

The Oni’s Claw

By Mat Dalen

Dedications: To the Ricepaper list, especially Moto Maratai, Daidoji Gisei, and Kuni Mirutai, for their assistance in making this a much better story.

Thanks also to Maratai, Kakita Himoto, and Hiruma Teri for allowing me to borrow their characters for this story.

The morning air was almost quiet, punctuated only by the distant clash of sword meeting sword as those in the valley below sparred and trained.  The sun was low in the sky, barely piercing through the dense layer of clouds in the east.  I leaned my back against the tree and had just closed my eyes in meditation when a vaguely familiar voice came from behind me.

          “Tamori Shosei?” 

I turned my head to see a slight woman, garbed in the traditional Kuni clothing and face-paint.  “Harukichi-sama?” I guessed.  It had been almost five years since I had last seen her, and my memory was fuzzy.

          She smiled.  “Please, no formality.  Just ‘san’ will be fine.  Michinori-san told me I could find you here.”

          My heart almost stopped.  Harukichi had been seeking Sadao… “If you’ve returned, then that means… is he dead?”

          Harukichi shook her head.  “No, unfortunately.  I have spent five years hunting him down, but always he has escaped me.  I find underlings, month-old leads, but nothing substantial.  However I have finally tracked him to this area.  He has returned to the site of his treachery, and by now has probably joined Daigotsu behind the wall.”

          I cursed. “One day soon, he will pay.  I will track him to the City of the Lost itself.”

          She looked at me seriously.  “You say this now.  Are you willing to abandon your post in the Legion, and join me in hunting him, even into the Shadowlands?”

          I was silent a moment.  “I don’t know.  I have sworn an oath to the Jade Hand, an oath that I would not lightly abandon.  But Sadao must pay, for my father’s honor and my own.  I will reflect upon this.”

          “Very well.  If you truly wish to track Sadao down and avenge your father, seek me at the Inn of the Coiled Snake, in town.”  She turned and began walking in the direction of the small town.  I did not watch her leave.

My meditation interrupted, I started walking back towards camp.  The morning sun cast long shadows of the small trees on the path, and the distant sound of weapons brought to mind long days in the dojo as a child, learning the skills of the samurai and the shugenja.

          It struck me suddenly that I was alone, among people who had been complete strangers to me just a year ago.  Now they were some of my closest friends.  Many of them knew me better than anyone I had grown up with, save my parents.  How had that happened?  There had been no one that close to me in my childhood; my companions had been servants and soldiers.  The only child of a small branch of the Tamori family, I was far down the line of succession, but that thread was there, and it put distance between me and potential playmates.  Living at an outpost on the edge of Dragon territory, there had been no one my age to form a bond with.

          Yet now… shared experiences had brought me close to other people for the first time.  It was hard not to feel camaraderie with someone into whose hands you were putting your life.  In Dragon lands, I had always been sheltered.  There was no constant threat of attack, no danger greater than falling out of a tree.  Since my arrival in Crab lands, I had seen what it was to fight for your life every day. And now that Daigotsu was active again, the danger was even more real.  Life could be short in the borderlands, and that made it all the sweeter.  I had come to realize that life was too precious to be alone, and had begun to make true friends.

          And yet, there was still distance between me and them.  I could not truly commit to a friendship, not yet.  I had sworn on my father’s deathbed to avenge him, and that oath lay unfulfilled.  Until Sadao was dead, I could not rest.  Even if it took my own life. They were my friends, and I had sworn an oath to the Legion, but bushido demanded the death of my father’s killer, and that required making a suicidal journey into the Shadowlands.  In doing so, I would be abandoning my post with the Jade Hand.

          “Ah, so this is where you disappeared to.”  A voice broke my train of thought.  I turned around to see the figure of Kakita Himoto, a Crane shugenja in my unit.  I liked him because his affinity for fire mirrored my own fascination with it.  Currently, he looked concerned, however.

          “Are you all right, Shosei-san?  You weren’t at morning training.”

          I paused briefly before replying.  “I’m alright.  This is just… an important day for me.  I just received some bad news.”

          He nodded.  “Very well, I’ll leave you alone.  If you’re feeling better tonight, come by the main tent – Maratai is planning on gracing us with some music.”

          I nodded wordlessly and watched him return to the dojo.

***

          Kakita Himoto, Moto Maratai, and Hiruma Teri just stared at me in stunned amazement.  I repeated my statement.

          “I’m leaving the Jade Hand, to journey into the Shadowlands.”

          Maratai was the first to regain her composure.  “Leaving?” she asked quietly, setting aside her khuur.  “May I ask why?”

          I sighed.  “Five years ago, my father was murdered by a man named Sadao.  This morning, I received word that Sadao had traveled to one of the towers of the Kaiu Wall held by Daigotsu.  I intend to hunt him there and kill him.  It is my duty to avenge my father’s death.”

          “Where did you get this information?” Teri asked.  “Journeying into Daigotsu’s stronghold alone is tantamount to suicide.” 

          “A tsukai-sagasu of my acquaintance has been following him for the last five years, and she has come to me for assistance.  The two of us should be able to make our way into the stronghold long enough to kill Sadao.”  I looked at the ground.  “It doesn’t matter if we make it out again.”

          “Are you sure you can trust this Kuni?” Teri asked bluntly.  “He is asking you to enter the most strongly fortified Shadowlands base there is.  It could be a trap.”

          “And why would a witch hunter come to you for help?” Himoto added, pacing across the large tent.  “Yes, you have a personal stake in this, but if he really wanted to do this, he would need a lot more help than just one young Dragon shugenja, no matter how talented you are at Kagaku.”

          I shook my head.  “I trust Harukichi.  She was present at my father’s death – she’s devoted five years of her life to hunting down his killer.  I think she feels somewhat responsible, since she was the one who asked for his help in the first place.  The two of us should be able to make it inside with very little fuss.  A smaller party will be easier to sneak in.  And besides, Kagaku is more efficient than spells in the Shadowlands anyway – you know that there are very few kami that journey past the wall.”

          Teri looked at me, surprised.  “Wait, did you say Kuni Harukichi?  Thin, mid-forties by now, has a design of five red teardrops on her left cheek?”

          I nodded.  “That’s her.  Do you know her?”

          The Crab nodded grimly.  “I don’t quite know how to say this, but you have a problem.  Kuni Harukichi has been dead for thirteen years.”

          I just stared at him.  “You’re joking, right?”  I forced a laugh.  “Harukichi can’t be dead – I just talked to her this morning.  And Kuni Michinori knew her.  Surely if she were dead, he would have mentioned it.”

          “I doubt Michinori knew.  Thirteen years ago, Kuni Harukichi went missing from her outpost, trying to track down rumors of a major bloodspeaker cult in Scorpion lands.  Several months later, her remains were found.  She appeared to have been poisoned.  Not many people were told – the Scorpion didn’t want it revealed that there might be a major cult in their area.”

          “You must be mistaken.”  I shook my head dazedly.  “Harukichi was the one who wrote me a recommendation letter to Michinori, getting me my post on the Wall.  She’s been hunting my father’s killer for five years.”

          “She’s dead.  I saw her body myself,” Teri whispered.  “I’m sorry.”

          “There’s no way she could be a fraud.”  The three of them just looked at me wordlessly.  “I… I need some time to think.”  I turned around and stumbled for the door.

          “Shosei…” Maratai said softly.  I paused.  “Don’t do anything stupid.”  I didn’t look back as the tent flap fell closed behind me.

***

          As I walked through the cool night, Teri’s last words echoed in my mind.  He had seen her body himself.  This wasn’t just hearsay.  My despair began to turn to anger.  He had to be lying.  There was no other explanation.  For some reason, Teri wanted me to abandon my quest, to betray my oath.  Could he be in league with Sadao?  No.  Teri was a sworn Legionnaire, and would sooner die than ally himself with a tsukai.  Ideas raced through my mind, each one being discarded in turn, only to give rise to another, more ridiculous theory.  Teri could be a Kolat… he could be a Scorpion spy… he could be an oni in disguise…

          “Shosei!”  I quickened my step at the sound of Himoto’s voice behind me.  I didn’t want to talk to anybody at the moment.  “Hey!  Shosei!”

          I turned and lashed out.  “Go away!  Leave me alone!”

          He came to a halt.  “I came after you to make sure you’re all right.  You looked like you were almost ready to burn the tent down back there.”

          “I’m fine.  You’ve said your piece, now leave.”  I turned and continued in the direction I had been walking.

          “Shosei.  How long have you known Harukichi?”  He began keeping pace with me.

          “Five years.  I told you this.”

          “But have you really known her for five years?  How often have you talked since you came to Crab lands?  Before that?  How long did you actually know her?”

          I stopped.  “This is the first time I’ve seen her in five years.  Before that… She was in Dragon lands for several weeks while she and my father were hunting Sadao.”

          He nodded.  “So you only really knew her for a few weeks.  Did you know anyone who knew her?”

          “No.”  I shook my head.  “She just came to the fortress one day.  She had the proper traveling papers, and she knew enough about the Kuni… there was no reason to question her identity.”  A slow realization dawned in my mind.  “But she never actually revealed any personal information.  She was quiet about herself.  I thought that normal for Kuni.  But if she were a fake…”

          “Then she could have gotten the travel papers from the real Harukichi, and found out enough about her from other people,” finished Himoto.

          “And if she’s not who she says she is, then that casts doubt on her entire story.  Was there truly ever a man named Sadao?  Did she lie about the whole thing?  Who actually killed my father?”  Questions were now pouring out as from a dammed river set free.  I suddenly remembered my father’s last words.  “Before he died, Father said ‘She knows not what she does.’  I thought at first that he was referring to Harukichi chasing after Sadao, but he was delirious at the time.  He may have been talking about something else.  Harukichi could have set the whole thing up.  The search for Sadao, the oni.  But why?”

          Himoto shook his head.  “That’s something that only Harukichi can tell us for sure.  Where did you say she was staying?”

          “The Inn of the Coiled Snake.”

          “Then let’s go.  We can take her.”  He started heading towards town.

          “No.”  I held him back.  “This is something I must do on my own.  If Harukichi truly did kill my father, then it is I who must avenge him.  I would not risk the safety of another for my sake.  The oath is mine, and the obligation is mine.  If she was not the one, then we will be travelling to the Shadowlands, and I could not ask someone without a stake in this to make that journey.”  I looked him in the eye.  I can handle this on my own.  She wont catch me off guard.

          He contemplated me for a moment, then nodded once sharply.  “I understand.  I will wait for you here in camp.  If you are not back by tomorrow night, however, I will assume the worst, and summon the magistrate.”

          “Thank you.”  I yawned.  “I am going to see her tomorrow morning.  I must know the answers, but if she is capable of summoning an oni, as she claims Sadao did, then I want to confront her during the light of day.”  I turned and walked swiftly to my tent.  Himoto nodded once, then walked to his own quarters.

***

          The night passed fitfully, full of half remembered nightmares.  I was a child, and my father was comforting me, but his face transformed first into that of Harukichi, then into what I had always imagined Sadao to look like.  An oni devoured my home before my eyes, and I could do nothing.  Finally, dawn broke, and the scattered remnants of dreams fled with the night.

          The Inn of the Coiled Snake was uninspiring.  A battered wooden sign hung from a post.  The inside smelled of sour sake, and evidence of rats was obvious.  Other than the inkeep and a pair of drunken Crab samurai sitting at a table in the corner, the room was deserted.  I walked swiftly up to the innkeeper.

          He was a small, thin man who reminded me of a malnourished spider.  He looked at me.  “Can I help you, samurai-sama?”

          I nodded.  “I am looking for a woman who is supposed to be staying here – a Kuni.”

          “I know who you are talking about.  She is still in her room.  Should I inform her of your presence?”

          “Yes.  Tell her that Tamori Shosei is here to see her.”

          The little man bowed and scurried up the stairs.  He reappeared a moment later.  “The lady says that she will see you now, sama.”  He motioned for me to follow him.

          We walked up the stairs to a small door in the back.  Sliding it aside, I stepped into Harukichi’s room.  The innkeeper returned to the main room, leaving us alone.

          The small witch hunter was kneeling at a low table, sipping tea.  She looked up at my arrival.  “Ah, Shosei.  I was wondering when you would arrive.  Are you ready to leave for the Shadowlands?”

          Anger flared in me at the sight of her, despite my best efforts to suppress it.  This… this fraud had likely ruined my life, and yet she was just sitting there.  She had no right… Through pure effort of will, I forced my words to come out calmly, levelly.  “First, I have a question to ask.”  I quietly began reaching into my pouch for a flask, just in case.  “What is your true name?”

          Her eyes narrowed, almost imperceptibly.  “You know what my name is.  I am Kuni Harukichi.”

          The anger rose again.  I slammed my fist into the wall, abandoning any semblance of calmness.  “No you are NOT!” I shouted.  “Kuni Harukichi is dead.  Now, I ask you again, what is your name?”

          Even through my rage, I could feel the gathering of the kami as she prepared to cast a spell.  With a flick of my wrist, a flask came out of my pouch and shattered on her quickly raised arm.  I spat the words of a spell, and the liquid that now soaked her arm burst into flame, breaking her concentration.

          “Was it you?” I almost screamed.  “Were you the one who killed my father?”  Pulling another potion and a scroll from my pouch, I threw the one at her face, and began reading the other.  Having regained her composure and put out the flames, Harukichi dodged the projectile, and took advantage of my distraction to cast a spell.  Her image shimmered, to be replaced with a monstrous figure out of my nightmares.  The oni.  Slayer of my father.

          As I finished the spell, a fiery sword appeared in my hands.  I maneuvered my way around the small room, keeping the sword between me and the oni.  A small fireball issued from its claws.  I turned and pulled my arm up, allowing it to break upon my shimmering kimono.  With a scream of fury, I launched a jade strike.

          The oni tried to dodge, and the jade missile struck it in the side, to no effect.  I paused, stunned at its seeming immunity to jade, and the oni’s claw came at me from the side, sending me reeling backwards through a paper door.  My sword almost ignited the thin walls, sputtering out at a quick spell from me.  Regaining my balance, I charged, letting the childhood memories of long hours in the dojo training with a katana come flooding back.  Feinting at the oni’s side, I allowed instinct to override emotion as the flaming sword raised upwards towards its head.  Its claw came up to defend, and I heard the ring of steel as fiery sword met flesh.  Pivoting to my side, I pushed away, coming to rest on the opposite side of the room, facing the beast.

          Something that had registered in the back of my mind surfaced.  The claw had not sounded like flesh… it had sounded like metal.  I did not have time to ponder this mystery, as the oni sent another magical projectile at me, this one a composed of shards of ice.  Sweeping them aside in the fire of my katana, I released its hilt long enough to hurl another flask at its chitinous abdomen.

          The beast ducked, and the flask flew through its head, shattering on the floor.  I leaped forward to take advantage of its distraction.  I drove my katana straight down at the head of the false oni.  When the claw came up to block, I kicked out at its midsection.  My foot connected, and the illusion of the oni disappeared, to be replaced once again by Harukichi, her arm burned, holding a wakizashi in one hand, its blade shining with black ichor.  She staggered back from the blow.

          “So, it was just an illusion.”  I advanced on her slowly, anger boiling up inside of me.  “I suppose this was how you killed my father, as well… making him think there was an oni, then striking him with a tainted blade.”  I kicked aside the remains of the table and lunged at her.  Already off balance from my kick, she flailed her wakizashi in defense as she staggered backwards.  Too enraged to concentrate on spells, I continued my advance.  “Why?” I asked as she stumbled into a wall, desperately trying to regain her footing.  “Why my father?”  I swung again, only to be blocked again.  The ichor hissed and bubbled in the heat of my blade.

          “For my honor,” Harukichi hissed.  With that she released an unknown spell, and lunged forward with her tainted blade.  Vines sprouted from the wooden floor, binding my feet to the ground.  Caught off guard, I fell backwards, attempting to pivot my body in mid air.  My arms came down as she passed me, slicing through her robes as if they were air.  The scent of burnt flesh filled the room, as she fell at my feet, her sword falling a short distance away. 

With Harukichis death, the vines holding my feet withered back.  My rage-fuelled strength faded, and with a sigh of relief, I collapsed to my knees, allowing my katana to disappear.

***

          I was greeted upon my return by Maratai, Teri, and Himoto.

          “I take it from your wounds that Harukichi was indeed a fraud?” Teri asked. 

I nodded. 

“And is she then dead?”

I nodded again.

          “Did you find out why she killed your father?” asked Himoto.

          I reached into my pouch and pulled out a small scroll, and handed it to Himoto.  “I found this among her belongings.”  He unrolled it and began reading.

          “What does it say?” asked Maratai.

          Himoto began reading it aloud.  “My dear Hanae.  Greetings, from an old friend.  I will require your services once more.  Five years ago, you slew a certain Dragon magistrate at my behest.  Now, I would ask you to do the same to his son, whom I believe you already know.  In exchange for this deed, I will gladly return to you that evidence linking you to the Shosuro.  If you do not, I will reveal this evidence to a certain Mantis with whom you are acquainted.  The deed must be done as soon as possible.  I await word of your success.”  He looked up.  “It’s unsigned.”

          The three of them looked at me.  I looked back in despair.

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