Some time late the next morning the warrior awoke again amid the ruins of an old, dilapidated shack surrounded by weeds and large, deserted rocks. The gorge rose in his throat as he propped himself up off the ground and looked upon the pierced remains of a gigantic black spider, its mangled yellow-and-red-patterned abdomen at least two feet in length and its knifelike limbs contorted and beginning to curl inwards.
He scowled in disgust and turned away to inspect his own legs. Feeling had returned, but he now saw that they had been bound up to his shins in threads of tightly woven silk. Simeon dragged himself to the pile of twigs which had appeared before as a sleeping mat and drew forth his tanto, using the short blade to saw through the binding.
Having freed himself, he cleaned off his sword and dagger, muttered a prayer of thanks, and turned his attention to the nearby spring, which had apparently been no illusion. The previous day’s hike and exorcism of the jorogumo were thirsty work, and Simeon decided to obey the exhortations of his parched throat and dry lips. It was clean and pure as any mountain source he had ever tasted, so he and his skins both had their fill. He had gathered his possessions and was about to move on when something caught his eye – the pale reflection of the morning sun on dull metal flickering faintly from behind a crumbled wooden beam.
Simeon approached and found himself looking gravely down at an arm-length woodcutter’s axe lying alongside a man-sized cocoon. He sucked in his breath, drew his knife once more, and crouched down to cut free the man’s face. After a few brief moments of suspense, he resheathed the blade and let loose a sigh. This was not the man he was hunting. Anxious as he was to be on his way, Simeon collected some stones and raised a small cairn for the poor soul.
“Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace,” he uttered, recalling the words he had heard so many times from the lips of priests and the warrior brothers of Heian-kyo, the capital city.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Having scoured the heights of Meyama, Simeon began the descent into the valley between the two great, green ridges. On the morrow he would seek his quarry atop Oyama, the second of the twin mounts. He had spotted signs of Sogo the Bonze and knew that he was growing near, but something told him that their encounter would not take place in the vale.
As the velvet curtain of night began to fall and pearls of the sky came winking into being, Simeon sat and stoked a small fire fueled by branch and shrub. The crescent moon had returned in bright, silvery splendor to bathe the lowlands in its cold light. The warrior gazed up at the curved blade of heaven as he supped upon dried fish and scavenged berries. Was it a sign of what was yet to come?
A rustling sound jarred him from his thoughts. He had made his camp only slightly off of the old pilgrims’ trail that led his way, making no great effort to conceal his presence. And now someone or something approached. Calmly Simeon reached for his longsword, leaving it sheathed but ready to draw at an instant’s need.
Then a large, barrel-bellied hillock of a man burst through the greenery, heaving a large pack on his back, from which hung several straw-woven baskets and a hat of similar fashion to Simeon’s own. His great, tan, bald head shimmered in the moonlight like a polished tiger’s eye gemstone, and a braided black beard of impressive length sprouted from his chin and flowed over a modest, ruddy brown kimono.
“Ho there!” he bellowed, stepping into the flickering amber luminescence. He gave a short bow and began to heave the bulging load from his large shoulders.
“Is there room at your fire for one more?” he asked cursorily, setting down the pack and eyeing Simeon’s fish.
The warrior silently motioned for the large man to join him, lowering his sword arm but not his guard.
“This route is getting to be more trouble than it’s worth,” the man grumbled with a chuckle and a head jerk to the many baskets dangling loosely from his bag. He lowered himself heavily to the ground beside the large bundle.
“Used to be an honest man could sell as many baskets as he could weave,” he continued, his eyes returning hungrily to the fish. “And these mountains weren’t near as perilous.”
Simeon nodded. “It is a time of change. Many high and low parts of the land have become wild again.”
“Wild,” the merchant replied, “and haunted.”
They both fell silent for several moments. Noting the intensity of his gaze upon the victuals, Simeon offered the other man a portion of fish. The large one grinned gratefully and wasted little time in devouring the gift.
“So tell me,” the merchant spoke, sucking the tips of his fingers at intervals between words, “You’re obviously not a trader, nor a pilgrim.” His deep, shrewd eyes seemed to penetrate Simeon’s. “What brings a fighting man to Azami-san?”
Simeon shifted uncomfortably, considering both his answer and this curious man who had appeared from the woods of the lowland as if out of nowhere. “I seek a man,” he finally replied.
The basketmaker smiled faintly and began to stroke his long beard. “That could prove difficult. This trail is mostly abandoned, but there are many caves and refuges among the peaks.”
“His tracks will guide me. Though his path has wandered strange at times, the signs of his going are clear enough.”
The two fell quiet once again, each appraising the other.
Finally the merchant spoke up. “Tell me, who is this man you seek, and for what purpose?”
Simeon decided that if this were a trap of some sort, deceit would profit him nothing. Were his pursuit already known, surely this stranger would effect little difference. And were he to attempt at warning Simeon’s quarry, this mammoth of a man would provide a clearer trail than that which he now followed.
“I am pursuing a monk by the name of Sogo, from the village of Tenkawa. He recently lead a resurgence of the Ikko-ikki at the old temple there. The rebellion has been put down, but he was personally responsible for the deaths of three men of the cloth, one of whom was visiting from Rome.”
His eyes ablaze with the fire of the zealot, Simeon’s gaze dared the larger man to offer challenge.
“I have been personally charged with dispensing the king’s justice. Sogo will either accompany me back to the capital to meet it, or else find it at the edge of my sword.”
The merchant nodded gravely. “There are those of both worlds who refuse to see the truth. Things have indeed changed,” he muttered mysteriously. His own eyes sparkling with a fairy fire to match the brightness of the fighter’s, his large round face suddenly took on a sharp, animal aspect.
Simeon jumped to his feet and reached once again to his blade’s handle. “By God, who are you?” he demanded of the stranger.
The large man’s face was entirely human once more and grinning with a somehow tragic mirth. “In nomine Jesu, I am not your enemy, Simeon Ukon Omura! See that I speak His name with gladness,” he boomed. “The time of the old gods is passed. There are some few of us who cleave not to shadow and flame, but choose to serve Him in our diminishment.”
Taken aback, the warrior stooped back to the fire and listened to the strange words of the bearded one.
“My name would mean little to you, Simeon. But know that I am one who was saved long ago by Shigemori of Taira, ancestor to your lord Oda now called Dom Peter. In service to the White Christ and in gratitude to that debt, it was I who bore the message that saved his father Nobunaga’s life from betrayal and death at the hands of his general.”
“You are a just man and compassionate in your way, though there is a hardness about you, Simeon,” he continued. “It was a kind of you to bury the woodcutter upon the mountain. And to share your meal with a stranger. Therefore I will offer aid to to you, who serve the descendants of Taira. But I caution you, samurai, not to presume to know the will of the Lord. You are perhaps too lusty for blood.”
Simeon looked on and listened in astonishment, noticing now the otherworldliness and ancient yet ageless features of his companion, but at this rebuke he bristled.
“The Lord laughs at the wicked man, for he sees that his day is coming,” he answered sharply.
The creature wearing the shape of a man chuckled once again. “‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ sayeth the Lord. ‘But rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” It is indeed unlikely that Sogo will repent, and justice must be done, but do not forget the mercy of the Christ. But I will say no more on this.”
As the old one turned and began to rifle through his pack, Simeon lowered his eyes to the fire, thinking deeply on these words. Presently the creature stood and lifted the basket-laden bag to his shoulder. “You will find the monk in a small cave on the eastern face of Oyama, just above its base. The place is not far from an old hunting trail.”
“I will find it,” replied Simeon, standing as well to offer a bow.
The strange one extended a large hand, holding out a small wooden whistle fashioned from dried bamboo. “You may need this. I fear the bonze may have entreated an old spirit of the mountain for aid. They are unpredictable, but may be sympathetic to him. If you encounter this spectre, know that she will be more difficult to drive off than the spider demon.”
He returned Simeon’s bow and smiled benignly. “And so farewell. Thank you for the fish,” he laughed. With that, he waded back through the dense shrubbery and melted into the night from whence he had come. Simeon was alone once more, companioned only by the voice of the wind in the trees and the cricketsong of the valley.
Thinking on the strange events of the past two days and the danger to come, the hunter laid his head against a stone and eventually fell into a light, uneasy slumber.