In an ancient Japan that might have been, the old powers recede. Demon and spirit and god – all must choose whether to diminish and serve the White Christ or join the cosmic rebellion of the Enemy. This is a story of that Japan, and of one man who finds himself engaged in the ongoing struggle against errant forces.
A great dark shadow cut through the fading crimson light of the autumn sky and fell ominously onto the rocky mountain path as if barring the way. The weary traveler halted his climb and raised his eyes to examine the imposing stone torii gate up ahead. For a moment the shadow seemed to waver and dance with the cold mountain breeze, and he shivered slightly as he pulled the faded gray kimono tighter about his lean, muscled frame.
He was not a tall man, but his broad shoulders and sinewy limbs hinted at a prodigious strength and the coiled agility of a seasoned hunter. Upon his head a plain sugegasa farmer’s hat made of dried grass covered a dark shock of hair tied messily up in a high knot.
The low, dull roar of a nearby waterfall reached his ears, and he reflected that if he found no well or stream on this path, he may need detour in the morning to refill his skins.
Adjusting the blades at his belt and the large pouch on his shoulder, he resumed his laborious march and cautiously approached the tall pillars of naked rock. The gateway marked what was once, and perhaps still was, divine territory of the old gods. Many of his ancestors’ deities and their spirit servants had retreated to the depths of the earth and sea to wait and slumber dreamlessly. Some, however, still held court in the wilds and shadows and ancient places of the land. Here on Meyama, one of the twin peaks of Mt. Azami, the grimly garbed man sensed both tranquility and danger; abundant life and quick death.
Crossing himself as he passed through the umbra and under the gate, Simeon increased his pace. The wind had changed and no longer carried the scent of sweet olive blossoms, but the unmistakable tang of meat grilling over coal. As he gained the crest of the trail, the traveler was greeted by the sight of a small inn, little more than a shack, its wooden frame old and worn but also sturdy and clean to his eyes. A neat garden of leaks and root vegetables and a prattling spring surrounded by several large, smooth stones lay adjacent. Wisps of dark smoke drifted from a small chimney into the bloody heavens and dispersed into nothingness.
Simeon considered for a moment. The sudden appearance of a sanctuary in this ominous place put him ill-at-ease. Yet the rapidly dying sun impelled him to seek shelter, for there would be no moon this night. He was no coward, but the prospect of facing whatever lingering powers of the darkness dwelt on the mountaintop in the silent pitch of twilight turned his blood cold. Steeling himself, Simeon decided to risk the inn.
Despite the fire and cooking meat, the lodging was cold. As he slid the door closed behind him, the wayfarer’s keen eyes scanned the room. A plain wooden dining table and benches atop smooth earthen floor stood next to a smoking charcoal pit hung with clay pots and a platter of a sweet-smelling meat. Plain, sliding shoji doors indicated the availability of three modest rooms for sleeping. Humble quarters indeed, but suitable at least for keeping out the harsh autumn wind.
“Welcome, honored guest, to my humble establishment,” came a silky voice from the nearest corner of the cottage. Simeon started, and turned to find himself facing a beautiful young woman, her long raven hair flowing freely over her slight, gowned shoulders and down past her elbows. The girl was both slender-limbed and ivory-skinned, and her dark eyes glowed like the coals of the cooking pit as she laughed delightedly at his astonishment.
“I apologize if I surprised you,” she exclaimed, bowing deeply. Her full red lips curled upwards in an amused smile.
Realizing that his hand had drifted to his blade, Simeon released his grip and let his arm drop and slide back into its sleeve.
“Not at all,” he murmured, returning a shallow bow. He glanced about the hut once more, then back at the girl. “This is your inn, my lady? You live here in the mountains, alone?”
She continued to smile and bid him sit. “Not alone. My father dwells here, as well, but he is away for the night. And we are fortunate to entertain the occasional traveler. Pilgrims used to frequent this trail, but…”
The light in her eyes flickered and her voice trailed off, but those scarlet lips remained constant.
Simeon nodded curtly and lowered himself onto the bench, dropping his pack to the floor.
“You must be tired and hungry,” she observed, kneeling beside him. In fact he was, but the nearness and intoxicating, flowery scent of the girl was stirring another appetite, despite his unease.
“You should eat and regain your strength, “she encouraged, slowly sidling closer to him.
Something inside him cried out in silent alarm, and he rose once again to his feet, forcing himself not to leap up out of the seat. A half-smile played over his own lips as hers wavered.
“I’m afraid I am quite exhausted, my lady. For now all I require is a good night’s rest.”
She looked up at him, her lovely, oval face expressionless for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully and smiled once again, this time thinly.
“Of course, sir.” She motioned gracefully to one of the rooms. “Please rest well. And of course pray tell should you need anything at all.”
He thanked her, gathered up his pouch, and retired to one of the rooms. Darkness enveloped him as he pulled the door shut behind him. This would not be a restful night, he lamented to himself. Having removed his weapons from his belt and laid them closeby with his pack, Simeon brought his knees and ankles onto the tatami sleeping mat and lowered his buttocks into a resting position. The windowless room seemed to close in on him and he murmured a prayer before a deep sleep, driven by something more than weariness, overcame him.
He awoke what felt like only a moment later to the desperate warnings of another internal alarm. With a great effort he forced open his heavy lids to find himself lying flat on his back and registering a numbness that spread through his legs and lower extremities. A sickly, pale, green luminescence now flooded the small compartment, and a not unpleasant warmth enveloped his body. Lazily his gaze drifted downward to meet his hostess’ burning eyes. Her soft, lithe form clung to his, and he detachedly realized that she had shed her gown. As before, her blood-red lips smiled.
With a dull, delayed horror, he caught the movement of several hard, black, angular projections, caressing his lower body and occasionally his face.
“This is what you wanted, is it not?” her sultry voice taunted him from far away.
He felt her shifting her weight as she came to rest atop his hardened torso. She began to pull the kimono away from his chest, purring poison, saccharine murmurings into his ear, encouraging him to rest and not to resist. Her words promised pleasure; her voice pain and oblivion.
Suddenly she recoiled and a terrible, piercing scream pealed from her venomous lips. A soft, warm glow radiated from the cold iron crucifix affixed to the chain on his neck, resting now on his quickening heart. A hot pulse of energy surged throughout his body, restoring his senses and his strength.
Immediately he lunged for his brand, throwing the demon woman to the floor. She had recovered enough to break the fall with two of her stygian arachnoid arms and turned to flee, but the warrior was too swift and caught her wicked body with a thrust of sharp steel. This time she collapsed to the ground, writhing briefly as spurts of blue ichor issued forth from her monstrous body.
Meanwhile Simeon’s attack had brought him to his feet, but his lower limbs refused further command. He, too, fell heavily downward. Strength and consciousness left him once more.