This story is by Todd Rainer and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Genji dropped the heavy pack, sighed resignedly, and fell against a tree. He slid with a thud to the ground dislodging snow which fell in a clump on his head and legs. He made no move to brush it away. He was chilled to the bone, but at least his teeth had ceased their incessant chattering. He stood on the brink of starvation, knocking at death’s door, and he knew it. He struggled to keep his eyes from closing, the final sleep. His breathing was shallow and painful, his lungs burnt by the freezing air.
“At least it is pretty.” He thought, his death poem should speak of the freezing morning mist. “It’s a shame no one will hear it.”
He assumed the position of final meditation and allowed his eyes to close. He recalled this past two months. The master calling Genji before him, imploring Genji to flee before the demonic onslaught. He argued, wishing to die with his compatriots and not be thought a coward. But Master Mitsuhana beseeched him to flee with the Kamiken.
Unworthy as he was, he would carry the three blades, Kamishi – God’s Death, Sekainoowari – World’s End, and Souruītā – Soul Eater to safety. They were too dangerous, too powerful to fall into the claws of Qī-Rén Sǐwáng, the Seven Deaths, the demon-possessed monster tearing across the empire. With the Kamiken, Qī-Rén Sǐwáng could, quite literally bring an end to all mortal life.
Genji’s master gave him enough rice for a month and a few silver coins. His mother gave him a package of dried fish and with tears in her eyes set him off down the road with prayers that fortune favor him.
Fortune did not favor him.
Crossing the Akaishi range became an unfortunate necessity. Man-beast-demons, a screaming horde he had no name for, drove him into the mountains, past the frost line and into the perpetual winter. They did not follow, he knew not why. Perhaps, he mused, they knew there was no need. The weather in the mountains was always bitterly cold, making travel all but impossible. Worse yet, Genji was unprepared for it, his planned route which ran through valley passes was still in a gentle fall.
Twelve days ago, his meager rations finally ran out. Fortunately, there was still plenty of running water in the mountains, but it chilled him deeply. The few living things here had gone to ground, he’d not seen signs for a week now. Eating bark and pine needles gave him little strength.
Genji knew that his goal to get to the coast, find a ship and go somewhere, anywhere away from here, taking the Kamiken out of Qī-Rén Sǐwáng’s reach was doomed to failure. The young warrior knew he was much too weak. Finally, spent, in the snow-covered grove, in the silent freezing mist, the young warrior sat down to die.
Only Genji’s ragged breathing broke the silence of the frozen forest. He cleared his mind, accepted his fate, and he spoke his jisei, his death poem to the Mountain Gods, the Yama-no-Kami.
“Bitter winds of winter
steps away from Fall
the frozen mist in time
makes way for spring’s buds…”
“…eternal in the heart
I wish to die in Spring
and one last time hear”
“my mother’s birds chirp…”
“Chirp?” Genji opened one eye.
Sitting nearly at his feet was a smallish grey and white fox, head tilted curiously.
Genji, opened both eyes, raised an eyebrow at the normally shy animal’s seeming lack of fear. Then the animal scooted closer, craning it’s neck, sniffing.
Amused, the warrior addressed the fox, bowing slightly at the waist “Ohayo gozaimasu kitsune san, am I such a pitiful sight, as to cause you no fear? Or am I simply to be your next meal?” The fox set back on its haunches and cocked its head to the other side.
Genji laughed feebly, “You too shall be part of my poem.” The Fox’s tails swept over its head from left to right.
“Tails?” he thought. “I am seeing things, Kitsune san…”
“Bwoah-wow?” The Fox turned, its five tails streaming out behind, bounded to the clearing’s edge and looked back at Genji. “yow-wow-wow!” it exclaimed.
His heart raced and though he would have thought it impossible, he grew colder.
“Demon!” his mind shrieked.
Genji reached for the sword wrapped in the snow covered bundle laying at his feet. Before he could grasp the hilt a wave of gloom washed over him. He hardly realized that he was falling, too weak even to reach, much less draw the God Sword from its sheath. His face lay half-buried in the snow, with only his left eye above the drift. Genji saw the demon fox, orange and red cat-like eyes burning, stalking towards him from the tree line, chirping its nonsense questions. The young samurai, hope utterly lost, fell into blackness.
He spun, falling through the gloom. He saw, from a distance, the older village boys, picking on the smallest, hitting Genji with their toy swords. He saw his master, teaching him, punishing him when he deserved it. His mother tending his wounds, a child’s tears of pain and frustration held in check. That small boy grown, finally proving himself and earning his swords before the other boys. He saw his father’s faint approving smile, the moment of his greatest pride. The visions sped up, he saw without interruption or transition, the invasion of the demonic horde, his father, armored and riding off to battle, the fall of the Shogun’s army, his father’s body returning, possessed by a drooling demon. Genji destroying the monster with the Kamiken, the Kamiken tattoos appearing on his body, his mother crying, traveling through the forest, the gold and russet trees. He saw the monsters chasing him up into the snow, he felt the hunger again. He saw the katana, God’s Death float before him and a great red skinned, black taloned claw grasping it as he reached for it in vain.
“Too late, Samurai.” The growling, hate-filled voice of Qī-Rén Sǐwáng echoed through the darkness, a silent whisper that deafened him. But perhaps, that was his screams.
He fell for a thousand, thousand years in the never-ending black. He went mad, then sane, then mad again a hundred times or more and finally, he thought, “is this death?”
“Is it time to die, Sam-u-rai?” A voice sang; it was angelic, a Kami sent to retrieve his tortured soul from hell.
He saw a graceful, pale hand reaching from out of the black.
“Take my hand, Samurai, or do not, and Qī-Rén Sǐwáng wins the world.” He reached out like a drowning man, and like a drowning man, he felt himself dragged from the dark waters of death, into the light.
A golden light shone across his face. The room he lay in opened onto a courtyard, in the courtyard, a golden waterfall cascaded off a lush mountain forming one wall of the Siheyuan’s yard. Large flat paving stones crossed the stream and pond that grew from that fall. Statues sat in repose. The tree’s leaves were orange, red, and yellow. Large colorful carp coursed through the pond. He was no longer cold.
“You have rejoined the living.” It was the voice from the void, the angelic one.
Genji turned his head to see a woman sitting within arm’s reach. She was young, long of face, pale, her hair gray and black, belying her youth. She kneeled, hands crossed in her lap, wearing a pure white kimono emblazoned with colorful koi swimming towards her left shoulder turning to dragons under the red obi. She was beautiful, gloriously so, perhaps the most beautiful woman he, in his 16 years had ever seen. She had saved his life, and in doing so, possibly the lives of all mortal folk. Genji knew at that moment that he loved her, and somehow, he knew that she knew too.
Even so, Genji’s duty lay elsewhere.
“How long?” he asked, shocked at the weakness in his voice.
“Three days.” The woman said, scooting closer and taking up a damp rag from a bowl beside him.
“I am Kit.” She said, bowing at the waist. She then wiped his brow with a damp rag “you are Genji Karimoto, the demon slayer.”
“I must go.” He said.
“Foolishness, you must rest. The battle is lost, Genji san, but your pursuers cannot find you here, and those,” Kit looked to the corner of the room where the swords were displayed in the traditional manner, “…are safe. You will stay here with me, and I will be your wife, and you will be my husband. I will protect you, and you will love me.” She smiled, gazing into his eyes.
Genji returned her gaze, and, for the first time, he realized that the eyes staring back were the cat-like golden eyes of the demon-fox. Inexplicably instead of terror, his heart filled with pure joy.