Clark Reeper and the Kami Comeuppance
Now I've tangled with Japanese spirits, demons and monsters before, and found them little to my liking. There's big old three-eyed giants that are a strong as an ox and as fierce as a tiger, swimming turtle-fish-gator fellows that'll snap your bones soon as look at you, not to mention women that are really fox-women and all manner of horrible fiends and imps. With those kinds of things populating Japan, I wasn't too happy to be visiting the place as part of the Grand Tour, but I put aside my fears on account of my adopted son, Charles Green, really wanted to see a land that had only been opened up to Westerners a couple years back, and I didn't want to disappoint him.
Besides, I figured my two Colt Peacmakers could handle any trouble these spirits threw at us, and I considered myself skilled enough to make any monster that tried to rile me real sorry, real quick. My name is Clark Reeper, and I used to be a bounty hunter. Course, those days are over and now I ain't nothing more than a mild mannered businessman, but I still remembered how to point a gun and pull the trigger so the bullets go where I want them to. Me and Charles were touring the world, the Grand Tour everyone called it, and had just finished seeing the sights in China.
After that, we took a steamer across the sea and came to Japan. It was real different than Chinese cities, like Hong Kong, which seemed to have sections of England, America, France and Germany shoved right in the middle of their towns. Japan was still Japanese, from the houses with their sliding screens instead of doors, to the way everyone slept on mats, and not on beds.
Charles and I spent a week or so exploring Tokei, or Tokyo, as it was being called, which Charles told me used to be named Edo. Charles is a real smart fellow, and though he's only about twelve-years-old, he's read more books than I ever will, if a live to a hundred and three. He's small for his age, which curly brown, glasses, freckles, and he always wears a neat Norfolk suit and a peaked cap. He's never far from Winston, his loyal pet armadillo, who has saved our lives more times than I'd care to count.
I'm a tall fellow, dressed in a dark suit and vest, with a thick moustache hanging under my lip, and two six-guns at my waist. I'd be hard pressed to say which one rests more comfortably on my person. I keep a crumbling Stetson on my head, shielding my eyes from the Pacific sun.
Well, me and Charles spent some time in Tokyo, and liked it fine. We visited the shrines, and the palaces, and saw where the emperor of Japan was going to be living. The emperor didn't hold the reins until recently, and before then, he was just a figurehead for a fellow called the shogun. Nowadays, most of the shogun's supporters had been plumb beat, and the emperor called the shots. Still, some of the shogun's boys were none to happy about that, and still dressed up like traditional samurai, but wielding modern guns, they were running around in the country and causing havoc.
Reports were drifting in from all over the country, rumors of crazy attacks by the followers of the bakufu, as he was called. The thing was, they sounded real strange, and I didn't believe for a second that the shogun's boys were breaking every bones in people's bodies, sucking out their brains, or dropping them off mountains.
Something else was up in Japan, but I wasn't sure what. Still, I ignored it, and decided to take Charles around some of the shrines that dotted Mount. Fuji, go see the crystal lakes and the snow, and maybe see the sunrise coming over the mountain's snow-capped peak. But little did I know that the mess in Japan was bigger than I had thought, and we was heading right into the middle of it.
It all started not long after Charles and I was climbing up the mountain. I was breathing hard, each step making me a little more weary and a little more aware that I weren't as young as I used to be. Charles walked along next to me, Winston tucked under his arm. We wound our way up the gravelly path, shared by other European tourists in their traveling clothes, and the occasional Japanese pilgrim. There was green grass and clumps of small trees and cherry blossoms on both sides of the path, dotted with the occasional bank of white, melting snow, and it was real pretty to gaze upon.
As we came around a bend, I saw two red-skinned, three-eyed ogres flanking the path, each one carrying a big spiked club. "Charles?" I said, my hands dropping to my revolvers. "You head on down the path and—"
"It's okay, Mr. Reeper!" Charles cried. "They're just statues. Not real Oni. Just decorations."
He was right. They weren't nothing more than wood, red paint, and varnish. Did look mighty life-like though. Me and Charles walked over to the statues and looked them over. "Hell of a decoration," I muttered. "These Japanese folks like being scared silly?"
"I think it's supposed to scare demons away from the shrine," Charles explained. "That's what all of these spirits do. They're old nature spirits, and they're supposed to be helpful and care for the people and the natural world."
"Might want to tell that to the ones we ran into down New Orleans-way," I said. "You remember, the one turned you into a fox and tried to swipe an enchanted katana from its rightful owner?"
Charles nodded. "I do remember that. But those were crazy Kami. They were Yokai, evil, trickster spirits. They'd be expected to do those kinds of things."
"Let's hope we don't run into any more," I said. We walked down the lane a bit, and passed by the shrine. It seemed sort of empty, and I wondered where all the pilgrims and worshippers were. "Why's everyone left the shrine?" I asked. "They don't want to worship here no more?" It seemed like the only ones there were the statues of two winged impish looking things in front of the entrance, watching me with beady eyes as their long beaks pointed into the sky.
"Well, I heard the worship of the nature spirits is going away," Charles explained. "It's being replaced with emperor worship. He's like a god to them, you see, and I guess they think that's maybe a bit more, respectable, then worshipping nature spirits."
"Huh," I said, thinking it over. "Well, I guess if he aims to take his country in a brand new direction, that there is a good place to start." I pointed to the two bird creatures. "What are those ones called, son? Some sort of Japanese killer crow-monkeys?"
Charles flipped through his guide book, Winston peering at the pictures over his shoulder and then looking at the statues and narrowing his dark eyes. "It's a Tengu, Mr. Reeper," Charles explained. "They're these flying impish things, and their name means 'heavenly dogs.' They're supposed to be harbingers of war." Winston snapped at the Tengu, and Charles caught him before the armadillo launched himself into the air at the shrine's wooden guardians. "Winston!" Charles cried. "What is it? What's got you so excited?"
I looked back at the Tengu statue, and then the it cocked its head at me, like it was a giving me a closer look. The Tengu stepped forward, spreading out its white wings to reveal a red chest, and pointed its long nose in my direction. I put one hand on Charles's shoulder and reached for my revolver.
"Harbinger of war?" I asked. "Looks like its fulfilling its role." Swift as lightning, I drew out my Peacemaker and leveled it at the Tengu. "All right, birdman," I said. "Y'all best settle down, or I'll hurt you."
"Foolish gaijin!" The Tengu laughed, its big red nose lifting up and down as it made a noise like a hen's clucking. "You should not presume that you will rule this land." He waddled forward, and his counterpart across the path did the same. Charles and I stepped back. The Tengu sniffed the air. "Oh…" he said. "You are the one that Madam Fox talked of."
"Madam Fox?" I asked. "What's she got to do with this?" It made sense that the fox spirit, a Kitsune to use the proper term, would mixed up in this business, as if she was active enough to go to America, I reckoned she was active enough to put these Tengu here.
"You will never know," the Tengu replied, snapping his beak ominously. He held up his hands, each ending in long, curved talons. "Because on this mountain, you will die!"
The Tengu, both of them, sprang forward, gliding over the trail looking to tear out my heart. I raised my revolver and fired, blasting down one of the birdmen and then swinging my pistol about the shooting the other. Feathers floated down slowly as the Tengu sank to the ground. The tourists and pilgrims heard the noise and started to become frightened, many of them dashing down the dirt trail.
I turned around, holding up my revolver. "Hang on, folks!" I called. "No need to fret! I handled them fine, and they won't be getting up again!"
"Mr. Reeper?" Charles asked. "I don't think those are the only ones."
A shadow passed over us, and I looked up. Sure enough, there was a whole swarm of the Tengu, floating low over the mountain path. Their gray and white wings fluttered slowly, keeping them aloft, and they flexed their talons and waved their large red noses, snapping their beaked mouths. One by one, they started to speed down.
"Son of a gun!" I shouted, grabbed Charles and dashed down the trail. A Tengu came flying down, heading straight for me with its talons poised, and I raised my pistol to fire at it. The Tengu flew under the shots and pounced on me, raking my chest with its talons and drawing blood. Cursing, I bashed it over the head with my pistol and pushed it away. The Tengu squawked in pain and tried to attack me again, but I fanned off the final shots of the revolver and gunned it down.
I looked up again and saw more Tengu swooping down, intent on tearing us to shreds. I reloaded my revolver and started moving backwards, firing off a shot whenever a Tengu got close enough. "Charles?" I said. "You doing all right?"
"I'm okay, Mr. Reeper." The boy stayed right next to me, holding Winston close to me. But just then, a Tengu leapt at us from behind and lunged for Charles. I drew my Bowie knife and leapt at the beast, and for a second, all three of us were airborne. But I managed to slash its face good with my Bowie knife, and Charles and I fell to the ground.
Problem was, we didn't land back on the dirt path. Instead, we was on the slope of the mountain, and both of us started rolling down. I turned over and over, getting dizzier and dizzier, while in the background, I could still hear the hateful caws of the vengeful Tengu.
Pretty soon, I crashed into a slim cherry blossom tree, scattering flowers all over me, and then fell into a snowdrift. I tried to stand up, and spat some snow out of my mouth, and then looked at Charles. He was resting on a grassy ledge a little ways from where I lay, and he was also pulling himself back up.
"Son!" I shouted. "Hang on a spell! I'm coming!"
"Okay!" he called back. But then a Tengu spotted him and started winging his way. Charles stepped back to the edge of the ledge, looking up at the big, murderous bird.
"Goddamn chicken!" I cursed, running to stop him. I stood up and stepped out of the snow, but then I slipped and fell flat on my face, and it weren't the snow bank nor the slick grass that made me do it. It was my boots, moving backwards when I wanted to go forward.
I looked down at the boots and saw little arms and legs sticking out of the heels of both boots, and then they up and tossed me out of them, leaving me on the ground in my socks. I spun around as the two boots walked off, the legs growing right out of the heel to carry them away.
"Ah hell," I muttered. "Damn shoes came to life." I quickly fired my pistol, kicking up some grass between the two boots. They spun around and I saw smiling faces in the soles, with a long tongue hanging out. "You best get back on my feet!" I shouted. "Or I'm liable to add a few holes you so I can wiggle my toes!"
The boots looked a mite indecisive, and I didn't have time for this. I fired again and this time they came scurrying back. They slid onto my feet and then I stood up and started running for Charles. I felt my hat shifting a bit on my head, but I ignored it.
The Tengu was grabbed Charles's leg and trying to lift him into the air, but I jumped over and grabbed my boy, then jammed my Peacemaker into the Tengu's chest and pulled the trigger. "Eat some lead, birdbrain!" I shouted, pumping the Tengu full of lead until it loosened its grip and I caught Charles in my hand. "It hurt you some, Charles?" I asked.
"A little," he whispered, and I saw red around his leg. I knelt down to bandage up his wound, when the handkerchief in my pocket fell out and landed there by itself. I saw two little eyes poking out of the fabric, and it tied itself in a good knot without me even have to ask.
Charles and I both stared at the bandage. "Mr. Reeper?" Charles asked. "Your hat has a face…"
I took off my Stetson and saw two large eyes and a grinning mouth with a big red tongue looking back at me. "That it does," I said, and set it back on my head. "And it ain't the only thing. Something's up, Charles, but I don't know what it is."
"There's a Japanese story, that every couple of years, objects will come to life, and sometimes help their owners, and sometimes play tricks on them," Charles said. "Maybe that's what happening."
"Maybe," I said. "Well, long as they don't go running off and leave me in my union suit,. I think I can weather it. Can you walk?"
"I guess I can," he said, and limped forward and little bit. He winced, but he wasn't cut too bad, and we were soon heading down the mountainside at a good clip, getting as far away from the Tengu as we could. I looked back at the higher slopes of Mount. Fuji, and didn't see any sign of the flapping bird-men.
But even so, it was getting dark, and I didn't want to try the dangerous mountain roads, not with more of those Tengu and God only knows what else flapping around. We were walking out way through some copses of tall tress, and I was wondering if we was gonna have to camp out in the open, when I saw the lights of a small cabin through the forest.
Helping Charles along, I walked through the trees and approached the cabin. It was just a three or four room house, with a couple paper lanterns swinging around in front and casting a soft orange glow onto the wood paneling. It had a sloped roof and I approached the door carefully and knocked.
It opened real quick and two Japanese ladies in kimonos opened the door and stared at me. They had their hair styled, their faces powdered and they looked real pretty, with the folded hands and downcast eyes. One wore a blue kimono and the other wore pink.
"Uh…howdy," I said. "I'm real sorry to be intruding on you like this. Say, you don't happen to speak English, do you?"
I was figuring they wouldn't but both of them nodded. "My sister and I both speak English," the woman in the pink kimono announced. "We live here all alone."
"Well, that's fine!" I said. I nodded to Charles. "Me and the boy was wondering if we could spend the night at your place, just until morning comes. You must have heard about the Tengu attacking the main road, and we don't really want to be out there after dark."
"Yes," agreed the woman in the blue kimono. "It is very bad after dark."
"Exactly. So we was just wondering if we could spend the night. We wouldn't trouble you or nothing, and I can pay you, if you'd like."
The two sisters looked at each other. "You may spend the night," the woman in the blue kimono said, and I smiled and nodded.
The one in the pink nodded back. "There will be no fee."
"Well, I'm obliged to you, ladies," I said, following them inside and helping Charles in. "My name's Clark Reeper, and this is my boy, Charles."
"Thank you for letting us stay, ma'am," Charles said, bowing his head politely.
Both of them looked at us, and licked their lips. "It is no trouble," the said, in perfect unison. As they turned away to fetch us some food, and Charles and us sat down on some cushions in the corner, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.
It was soon pitch dark outside, with animals hooting and hollering through the woods, and the sound of snow rolling down the upper cliffs of Mount. Fuji to greet us as the moon rose. Charles and I sat opposite the two sisters as they brought us some food. I was getting more and more easy and they rolled out rice, dumplings, chicken and beef, all of it tasting fine. They were just being good hosts, but for some reason I felt like a prize pig being fattened up for the cook pot.
Our two hostesses didn't talk much, and didn't ask me or Charles any questions. I had him put his foot up, and looked over his wound. It was just a clean scratch, and didn't seem that deep. My hat and boots were still shifting around, and I tried to ignore them.
"Mr. Reeper?" Charles asked. "Do you think the Kami and Yokai are angry because of the emperor worship?"
"Can't think of another reason for it," I said. I nodded to the two women who owned the cabin. "You ladies heard of this business? What do you think, this being your country and all?"
They exchanged a glance. "We don't wish to concern ourselves with such things," said the woman in the blue kimono.
"My sister and I would rather focus on more basic needs," added the one in the pink. "Things like shelter, thirst." She moved forward, pushing aside the trays of food and looking me over. "Hunger…" she said, and I found myself staring into her eyes.
I gulped as I looked her over and scooted back a little. "Charles?" I asked. "You tired, son? Want to hit the hay, a little? Maybe these nice ladies gotta guest room where you can bunk until the morning?" I was still looking the eyes of the woman in the pink kimono. "Lady," I whispered. "I don't even know you."
She leaned a little bit more forward, until our faces were just inches apart. "Let's change that," she whispered. I looked into her eyes and started to get lost into them. I remembered Myrtle, of course, but something in her gaze just made me want to try to forget as hard I could.
"Mr. Reeper!" Charles shouted. "Clark! Her neck! Her--" He tried to warn me, but then his voice was cut off. I heard him from far away as I was too busy looking into the eyes of our hostess. I didn't notice that her head had moved, but her body hadn't, and I didn't see or mind anything else in the world.
Luckily, Winston slipped out of Charles's lap and ran over to me. He gave me a bite on the thumb and as I cursed and gripped my thumb, I looked up and saw the woman in the pink kimono's head had moved though her body had stood still, on account of her having a neck like a giraffe, and stretchy as a lasso.
"What in the holy hell is this?" I shouted, standing up. I turned to Charles, and saw long tresses of dark hair wrapped tightly around him. The woman in the blue kimono had turned around, revealing that the back of her head weren't nearly as pretty as the front. The middle of it weren't nothing more than a gaping mouth, full of pointed, curved teeth and darkness. Her long dark hair waved around like the tentacles of some squid, trapping Charles good.
I dashed back from the long-necked woman and went for my Peacemakers, but she was faster on the draw. The head sped forward and looped around me, wrapping me up in the coils of the neck. "Son of a gun!" I hissed, firing wildly and putting some holes in the ceiling.
The coils of the long necked woman tightened and the grip on my gun loosened. I dropped the revolver, and then the head of the woman was facing mine again, letting me look into her dark eyes once more. But where once I saw something pretty, now I saw only terror.
"You going to kill me?" I managed to gasp out.
"Going to eat you," she replied, opening her mouth wide and showing long fangs that would have been at home in a rattlesnake's mouth. She lunged forward and if I didn't duck, she would have torn out my eyes.
The head circled about again, and this time I was being squeezed so tight that I saw stars and felt my ribs straining under the weight. I couldn't breathe, and I could feel darkness filling my head and reaching out to take me under. The head came swinging back again, and I figured I was finished.
But just then, a katana sword hacked through the screen door, and someone jumped inside. His sword struck out, and the severed head of the long-necked woman flew through the air, spewing blood. It landed at my feet, and the neck swiveled about crazily, spewing blood and letting me go.
I spun around and turned to Charles, who was being dragged towards the woman with the mouth in the back of her head. "Hang on, son!" I shouted, drawing out my Bowie knife. "I'll get you free!" I started hacking at the dark hair, cutting off big strands of it and freeing my boy.
The fellow who had saved my life ran up to me and I saw that he was a westerner, even though he wore Japanese robes, a dome-shaped Japanese hat, and carried a katana in his hand. He had a short dark moustache, and a steely glint in his eye. Behind him, more fellows dressed up like samurai came in, their armor light and muzzle loaders and swords in their hands.
"You are Englishman?" he asked, speaking with a French accent.
"American," I said, just as the long-haired woman struck again, her locks of dark hair wrapped around my arms and legs and pulling me towards her open mouth. Charles tried to stop her, but a whip-like strand of hair knocked him back.
The Frenchman and his pals quickly drew their swords and went to work. The other Samurai hacked at the hair, cutting it apart, while the French fellow walked up to the long-haired woman and held up his sword. "Return to the Hot Narakas, Futakuch-onna!" he cried, and hacked off her head.
Both sides of it gasped as the head rolled off, and the hairs stopped waving around. I crumpled to the ground, and Charles and our French rescuer helped me up. "Thanks, friend," I said. "Reckon me and Charles here would be dinner if you didn't show up. What's your name?"
"I am Eugene Collache," he replied. "And we are Boshin Rebels, fighting for the Shogun and our honor!"
I gulped as I came to my feet. These were the rebel samurai I had heard of, and getting munched on by the demon women might be preferable to falling into their clutches. Still, if they had let a European join them, maybe they weren't so hostile to gaijin such as myself.
"I'm Clark Reeper," I said. "Look, me and the boy are just touring the place, you understand? We ain't got no stake in this war, and I don't know a shogun from a showgirl, so you just leave us be, all right?"
"Easy, Mr. Reeper." Collache held up a hand and shook his head. "We have no need to hurt you. The samurai's battle is with the Emperor's toadies, and though we do not think bowing to foreigners will help our land, we do not go out of our way to destroy them."
I nodded. "That's a relief, friend." I looked down at the corpses of our hostesses, already turning to ash and dead leaves. "And I reckon these monsters are causing more havoc in the countryside than the emperor's men and your forces combined. You gotta any idea what's got them riled up?"
"The emperor worship," Collache said. "The Kami dislike it."
"That's what I figured," I agreed. I put my hand on Charles's shoulder. "You happened to hear anything about a Madam Fox?"
"Oh, yes." Collache stepped outside and we followed. His samurai buddies stayed behind and hacked up the corpses of the demon-women a bit before joining us. It was still very dark, but we walked out onto the porch and looked at the paper lanterns. Each one had sprouted a little face and arms, and was swinging back and forth and spitting at us as they illuminated the place.
Eugene Collache prodded one with the handle of his sword and watched it swing back and forth. "The Kitsune queen, Madam Fox," Collache told me. "They say she is leading the entire uprising of the Yokai and Kami from her fortress, which just appeared out of the snowy clouds on top of Mt. Fuji."
"Hmmm," I said, considering my options. "If you're thinking of taking her down, Monsewer Collache, I'd like to go with you. I ran into her back in New Orleans, and she's real tricky. Good with disguise, clever as they come, and with powerful magic too. She done turned my boy into a little fox last time we met!"
"Is that so, little one?" Collache asked, smiling at Charles. "Did you enjoy that?"
Charles shrugged. He had Winston in his hands and was petting the surprised armadillo, calming him down. "It itched a little, but it wasn't that bad. Um, Mr. Collache, can I ask you a question?"
"Very well," the French samurai agreed.
"Why exactly are you a…um, a Japanese warrior?" Charles asked. "I don't want to offend you or anything, but you're not really Japanese."
Collache laughed. "No, I am not. I am, however, an adventurer, and a man of honor." He held up his katana, letting moonlight glimmer off the blade. "I was a French sailor, and I heard that several of our officers were helping the Boshin rebels. I decided I would do the same, and that the life of a sailor was not the one for me. No, I am more fitted to the wild and exciting life of the samurai, riding upon the green, rolling hills of Japan and dealing death to the enemies of the Shogun!" He waved his sword around, making 'woosh' noises with each blow. "And I have been fighting with them every since."
"Do you think they have a much of a chance of winning?" I asked. We watched the other samurai going out to get a camp ready before the cabin. They cut down some branches with their unwieldy swords, and were trying to make a fire, and not doing to well.
"Well, such ventures as these are not measured in success, my friend," Collache said. "But by the honor, the glory, the great tales that come from the epic battles we fight in, and the beautiful women we romance." He laughed and sheathed his katana. "And for a bon vivant such as myself, the life of a samurai holds many charms!"
I walked over to help the samurai get their camp ready. They were noblemen, daimyos to use the local term, and weren't used to getting all this stuff ready by themselves. I had a few matches in my coat, and soon we had a good blaze going. Charles came over and sat by the fire, and I took off my coat wrapped him up in it, so he wouldn't catch cold.
He tucked Winston into the coat and leaned out on the grassy ground. I didn't like seeing his head there on the ground, so I took off my boots, smoothed them out and set them under his head as a kind of pillow. The boots looked at me and wiggled their arms. "You boys stay still and let him get some rest," I said. "And I promise I'll get y'all a fresh sign when we get to the city." They straightened right out, and Charles set his head down on them and was soon asleep.
Collache leaned against a tree and looked at me and Charles. "So, you will be going after Madam Fox tomorrow?" he asked.
"That's a fair assumption," I agreed. "Wish I didn't have to drag Charles along, but I don't see a way around it." I sighed. "Well, I guess there's nothing for it. Tomorrow I'll go up there and settle things with Madam Fox."
"My sword, and the blades of my men shall be at your side!" Collache said, grinning as he drew out his katana and held it up to the firelight. "There is no greater glory than the vanquishing of a monster!"
"Well, hopefully you'll get your glory, Monsewer," I added. "Me? I just want to put and end to this crazieness and give the Kami their comeuppance." I leaned back on the dirt and stared up at the stars, and by and by, I fell asleep.
When I awoke it was cold and I felt stiff as a board that had been frozen. I stretched and moved my arms and legs until I felt the blood returning, and then I woke up Charles. He weren't as cold as I was, which made me grateful, and he gave me back his coat, which was good to have back. The Samurai had brought a few bundles of food, and we munched on a light breakfast of rice and the like before heading back up the mountain slope.
It was a long journey to the peaks of Mount. Fuji, and the sun was high in the sky by the time we reached the mountain path again. There were a few corpses, left over from the Tengu attack on the day previous, and the damn birdmen had been tearing out the eyes. It was not a pretty sight, and I made sure Charles didn't see anything.
Collache, his samurai, and me and Charles walked slowly past the shrine and continued our way up the mountain. "You reckon Madam Fox is right at the top?" I asked Collache. "I didn't bring no climbing equipment, and I'd be liable to fall right off."
"It is impossible to know where the kitsune dwells, Mr. Reeper," Collache replied. "Wherever she is, we will find her, and put an end to her reign of terror."
I shielded my eyes from the sun as the mountain path wound around a bend, leading to another slope with large shrines on both sides. Everything was real quiet, with only the squawk of birds and the rush of the wind down the mountain slope to accompany us as we walked up. My boots were still a bit shaky on my feet, and I felt a bit stranger with each step I took.
Charles pointed at the shrines, and we saw fires and shadows inside. Then came low roars and snorts, shattering the quiet of the day. My hands dropped to my pistols. "What kind of Yokai is this, son?" I asked Charles, watching as something big and red crept out from one of the shrines.
It stepped into the middle of the path and stared at us, snorting like a bull in a rodeo. It stood on two large legs, head, waist and shoulders taller than a normal man, with a big iron club in its hands. Three angry eyes stared out from a head covered with a mane of dark hair, and topped with two pointed horns. Every inch of it was covered in muscles and was beet red.
"That's an Oni," Charles whispered. "A demon, ogre, sort of monster."
"Hell," I muttered, as the Oni snarled out a challenge and came charging forward. Its two large feet made its strides long, and it didn't even have to run to cross the ground. It came charging on, swinging its war club in the air and hollering like a stuck boar.
Me and the Samurai raised our guns and opened fire. Bullets tore into the Oni's chest, and it tottered over backwards but kept right on charging. Taking a dozen slugs didn't seem to faze it, and I kept pouring in lead. I finished fanning off one of the revolvers, and the Oni finally sank down to its knees, let out another roar and died for good.
The samurai and I exchanged a glance. "Heh," I said, returning my six-gun to its holster with a practiced spin. "That weren't so bad."
But then, another dozen roars sounded from all of the shrines that bordered the road, and from the hills, and the groves of trees and cherry blossoms. I hastily reloaded my pistols and stepped in front of Charles and dozens more Oni came charging down onto the path, snarling and roaring as they ran to attack us. Some were swinging around their big iron clubs, while others carried large knives, or big sticks with wide blades at the ends of them, and stranger weapons still.
Collache drew his katana and a revolver from his sash and flourished both weapons. "Hold the line!" he shouted, repeating it in Japanese and then in French. "We do not surrender! We will not retreat!"
The Samurai opened fire, rifles and pistols blazing, gunning down as many of the Oni as we can. A few of them dropped, but the Yokai could takes load of rounds without seeming to stop, and only roared louder then more they were hit. I aimed both pistols down the road and fired one after the other, focusing on bringing down the nearest Oni before swinging over to face the next.
"Charles, you get back and stay low, you hear!" I shouted. "Don't let them grab you!"
"Okay, Mr. Reeper!" Charles called, ducking behind me just as an Oni reached our lines. It raised its club to smash out my brains, but Eugene skewered the Oni with his katana, then pulled out the blade, dragging out the monster's guts as well.
But as that Oni fell, another one came running towards me. It swung down its studded club, and I stepped back to avoid the blow, then fired my last shots at its hands, disarming it. The club fell to the ground, and the Oni roared in rage, then flexed its muscled arms and laughed low as it faced me. I pulled the trigger again, but both pistols clicked empty.
"Son of a gun!" I shrieked as the Oni grabbed my waist and hauled me into the air. The beast looked into my face with its three red eyes and opened it fanged mouths to take a bite out of my face. "Damn three-eyed freak!" I shouted, reaching down to my boot for my Bowie knife. "I think a few less eyes would do you good!"
My fingers were right above the handle of my blade, but they just couldn't reach down and scoop it up. "Come on, boots," I whispered. "You don't help me now and I'll boil you down and eat you!"
My boot squeezed tightly against my foot, forcing the Bowie knife into the air. I caught it, held it tightly in my fist and slashed it across the Oni's three-eyed face. Two of them eyes were slashed and then I pulled the knife back and drove it into his third. The big Yokai dropped me and I fell to the ground, then slammed another couple of rounds into my pistol and finished off the Oni with a few bullets to the head.
It keeled over and lay dead at my feet and when I stood up, I saw more of the dead Oni littering the mountain path. The samurai moved around the wounded beasts, finishing them off, and each one emitted a bellow that sounded like a rock slide before expiring. When it was finally done, some of them had already turned to ash, which lay in piles along the road.
We walked through it, pausing to kick aside the severed heads and limbs of the Oni that weren't quite dust. "We take any casualties, Monsewer Collache?" I asked the French samurai as we left the horde of Oni behind.
"More than I would have liked, Mr. Reeper," he replied. He stroked his moustache and faced the snow-streaked side of the mountain. "Alas, for each noble samurai warrior who dies on this mountain can never be replaced, while the hordes of the emperor, made of peasants of low birth, can easily replace the foot soldiers they lose." He sighed. "It makes my heart quake to think that Japan, the world's last bastion of chivalry and honor, will soon become just another country, with soldiers who fight not for honor or glory, but for pay."
"That's why you left the French Navy and are fighting alongside these boys?" I asked.
"Oui, Mr. Reeper, and even though I know victory will not come, I shall still fight on until the bitter end, for is that not the way of the brave and noble warrior?"
Charles stepped up and walked alongside us. "Um, Mr. Collache, do you think that's a little bit like how the Kami are? I mean, they're fading away too, and not being worshipped, and because of that, they're freaking out and going on rampages and stuff. Maybe there's not that much difference between you and the Yokai?"
"Perhaps," Collache agreed. "But they are monsters and they must be destroyed. We honor them, in our own way, even as we battle them." He shielded his eyes and looked down the path. "Is that a cave over there?"
We walked down the path to get a better look at it, and we saw that there was a cave, a tunnel going deep into the side of Mount. Fuji. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, and statues of Kami and Yokai glowered from alcoves carved in the wall. I looked inside and saw something fluttering down in the darkness, heading out to meet us.
I readied my pistol to get ready to blast it out of the sky, but the Tengu that emerged from the mouth of the tunnel didn't come to fight. Instead, it landed on the ground in front of us, and pulled a scroll from its red vest. The Tengu unrolled the scroll, and squawked out the message, and though the Samurai understood it fine, Charles and I could hear what he was saying as well.
"Madam Fox wishes to welcome you to her abode," the Tengu explained. "She has not battled samurai in a long time, and looks forward to sucking the marrow from your bones and drinking your blood. Please enter this cave, do battle with her many minions, and then die." The Tengu rolled up the scroll and stared at us. "It will be the last glory of a vanishing race, for the Samurai and the Kami both."
Collache nodded. "Tell your mistress we accept her invitation. We will enter her domain and do battle with whatever thug or monster she sends against us. We will be victorious and gain honor in this victory."
The Tengu let out another squawk and fluttered back into the cave, vanishing before we could get any more information out of it. We all looked at each other and peered into the darkness of the tunnel and then looked at Collache.
"You gonna take Madam Fox up on her offer?" I asked. "And just go strolling right in there, knowing that she got all manner of monsters waiting to come and get us?"
"Such is the way of honorable men," Collache said, and with that, he walked right into the tunnel. The other Samurai followed him, without a pause nor a backwards glance. I watched them fools walk in, and thought about if it weren't for them, Charles and I would be gobbled up by a woman with a long neck and her pal with a mouth on the back of her head.
I took a step into the cave. "We owe it to them, Charles," I said. "Let's get this over with."
Charles followed, but a little haltingly. "I don't like this, Mr. Reeper," he said. "Honor is good and adventure is fine, but when it leads to walking to your death, and fighting on just because you feel like you have to, well, I don't think its that good."
"But loads of uniformed boys marching into cannon fire for a pittance of pay ain't much better," I replied. "Don't matter why the fight starts – it always causing suffering and most of the time, it ain't worth it. But this is stopping monsters, so maybe it is."
"Well, I don't even know about that," Charles said. "I been thinking, and maybe, just maybe, I can convince Madam Fox to stop the Kami from rebelling. Maybe I can make her see how it's not going to stop emperor worship from ruling the land, and all she's doing is hurting people."
"Good luck with that," I said, as the two of us caught up with the Samurai. The cavern was surprisingly well lit, and we could see the gray rocks on all sides of us. The paper lanterns swung slightly in the breeze that filtered in from outside of the cave. "Madam Fox may be clever, but we learned in New Orleans that she sure is stubborn, and she's already got an axe to grind with me and you."
Charles smiled. "I'll just have to be very persuasive, then."
"Like I said, good luck to you." I narrowed my eyes as they adjusted to the dimness. "Hey, Collache!" I called. "Anything up ahead!"
He looked back at me, and pointed with his katana. "The chamber widens, Monsieur Reeper! I think we are drawing nearer to the lair of Madam Fox!"
"That's a relief," I said, drawing out one of my six-guns. "Right," I said. "Let's move on slow and finish her off."
So we walked cautiously and slowly down the tunnel, looking around everywhere we could to try and find the Kami and Yokai lying in wait. We didn't see nothing, and I was beginning to suspect that Madam Fox had tricked us, which seemed like her style. But then, I heard a skittering noise, like a bunch of insects running across the ground.
I kept on walking, looking around for the source of the noise, and then I tripped on something and fell hard to the ground. I looked up to see what I had fallen over and spotted an almost visible line of silk. I reached out and touched it, breaking it with my fingers. "Spider silk…" I whispered.
Soon as I said that, the Samurai drew out their blades and started looking around. The paper lanterns suddenly faded, and the light got real low. I stayed on the ground, drawing out my pistols. "What's going on, Monsewer?" I asked Eugene Collache. "Why's everyone so scared of spiders?"
"No spider, Reeper," Collache whispered. "The Tsuchigumo. The Spider Yokai, which dwells in the mountains and feasts on the flesh of men."
Suddenly, a lariat of spider silk flew out from the darkness and wrapped around Collache's waist. It dragged him backwards, screaming into the dark, and I ran after him. I fired my revolvers as I went, and blasted the silk string apart. "Let him be, you damned spider!" I shouted. "I fought giant bugs before, and I'll be rubbing you off my boots soon enough!"
The Tsuchigumo stepped into view, staring at me with eight beady eyes as it flexed its eight long legs and snapped its pincers. It was as big as a horse, and had speckled skin. The spider leapt out to tackle me, but I leapt back, firing all the while. Bits of ichor oozed out from my shots, but didn't slow the monster down.
Collache stood up and drew out his katana. The Tsuchigumo lunged for him with several of its legs, and Collache took a bad blow to the chest, but still managed to wield his sword and hack off one of the legs. It landed near my feet and I kicked it away. I fired again at the spider, splattering more of its gooey blood. "Hang on, Eugene!" I shouted. "I'll send this overgrown bug straight to Hell!"
The other Samurai arrived now, racing to help their French friend. The Tsuchigumo turned around and sprayed a long stream of spider silk at them, clogging up the tunnel. The poor samurai tripped and fell over each other, and I figured we wouldn't get the help we needed quickly.
I looked back to the Tsuchigumo and saw it moving to give Collache a deadly bite with its venom dripping pincers. I dashed over to the arachnid, and gave it a quick kick to the face. It shrieked in pain and turned to face me, and I pointed both pistols at it and squeezed the trigger. They clicked empty, and I figured I was a goner, but then Eugene grabbed his katana and plunged it into the Tsuchigumo's chitinous underbelly.
"Take that!" he cried, slashing downwards and cutting open a large gash inside the spider. The beast sank downwards, goo dripping out of it died. I breathed a sigh of relief, but then a smaller spider leapt out of the wound and pounced on me. These spiders were about the size of dogs, and seemed every bit as angry as their dead mama.
"Damn spider!" I cursed, grappling with the baby Tsuchigumo to try and stop it from giving me a kiss with its mandibles. It was crawling along my chest, and I felt each one of its feet poking me in the chest like a miniature spear point. A katana stabbed down and skewered the little spider, then tossed it backwards.
A samurai held the katana and he held out his hand and helped me up. I took it and gratefully came to my feet. "Much obliged," I said, seeing that the other Samurai had freed themselves from the spider webbing.
They battled the smaller spiders, hacking down the Tsuchiguno one after the other with their swords, and leaving twitching body parts on the ground and ichor painting the walls of the cave. I reloaded my revolvers and joined in, blasting whatever spider skittered by my. Soon enough, the dirty job was done, and every bug was oozing out goo on the cavern floor.
"That was sure something," I muttered, wiping spider guts off of my coat. "You okay, Charles?"
There was no answer, and my heart beat in my chest as I spun around and ran down the cave. I saw no sign of Charles, and I feared the worst. Who knew what kind of Yokai demon was lurking about, and what it had done with my boy.
"Mr. Reeper!" Charles shouted, his voice echoing down a tunnel. "Over here!"
"Hold on!" I shouted, running in that direction. The samurai and Eugene Collache followed, and we pounded down the tunnel until we reached the end of it, and there Charles was, along with an army of Oni and Madam Fox.
She sat on a throne made of living rock, Charles standing nervously at her right. Her paw was on his shoulder, and though he held Winston tightly in his hands and looked like he wanted nothing more than to run to safety, I knew she would destroy him if he so much as took a step in my direction. Oni guards stood around the throne, pointing their spears and clubs down at the samurai.
"Mr. Reeper?" Charles whispered. "I'm sorry. She wanted me to tell, and she said she would hurt Winston if I didn't. I'm sorry."
"It ain't your fault son," I said. Then, I pointed my revolvers at Madam Fox. "You stinking varmint!" I shouted. "Let him go!"
Madam Fox wiggled her whiskers. "You presume to order me about, gaijin?" she asked. "You owe me more respect than that." Madam Fox had the body of a woman, but it was all covered in short red fur, and her face was that of a fox. Nine tails waved behind the Kitsune, and her every movement was measured and precise.
"I don't owe you nothing!" I shouted. "You let her go or I'll blow you in two!"
The Kitsune merely laughed. "What an irony that would be! The greatest and last of the Kitsune, queen of the Yokai and the Kami, defeated by a westerner! Oh, the thought of it amuses me greatly."
"Then just keep on laughing," I muttered.
Collache stood next to me, holding up his katana. "My blade stands with the American!" he shouted. "You shall find it lodged in your chest unless you release the boy, Yokai witch!"
Madam Fox stood up from her throne and walked down to the cave floor. Her Oni guards snorted and hefted their spears but didn't follow. "You think you know this land?" The fox asked. "You humans think you have a right to dwell here? You are nothing, and when you turn away from the Kami, you doom yourselves!"
"Don't give you the right to attack people all over this land!" I shouted. "And it don't give you the right to hurt my boy!"
"No," Madam Fox said. "I suppose I shall have to earn that." And then she struck. Quick as lighting, she flew down from her throne and struck us down, one by one. Her fingers dodged out, prodding and poking me before I could pull a trigger, and then she floated backwards like she was sitting on a cloud.
The blood seemed to freeze in my veins, and my legs suddenly became as stable as strips of bacon set vertical. I fell over backwards, hitting the hard floor of the cave, and there I rested. I saw Madam Fox flying around, her nine tails spinning slightly as she flew to each of the Samurai and gave them just a poke or a prod in the side, and made them as weak as kittens and as still as rocks.
Pretty soon we all lay on the ground, groaning and gritting our teeth as we tried to move. I saw Collache laid out next to me, struggling to lift a finger, but not able to. We was all done for, and we knew it. I saw Collache's mouth opening, trying to mouth something to me. I couldn't make out what it was, but I got the gist of it. He was sorry, and we was doomed.
But then Charles stepped forward. "Madam Fox?" he asked. The Oni surrounded Charles, raising their clubs to smash him to pieces, but Madam Fox raised a clawed hand, and they stood still.
She turned around and looked at Charles. "What is it you wish, child?" she asked him.
"Well, I'd like to say something," Charles said softly. "I'd like you, and all the other Kami, and all the Yokai as well, to stop attacking people."
Madam Fox smiled. "And why, child, would we do that? They have abandoned us, worshipping only their emperor instead!"
"Well, they might not worship you, but they'll never forget you," Charles stated simply. "You've been around for far too long for them to do that. They might not be leaving you offerings and building you temples all over the place, but you've been along far too long to just disappear. They'll remember you, and tell stories about you, and they'll keep the shrines clean and write books and make moving pictures shows and everything about you!"
The Kitsune stared at Charles, like she hadn't thought of this before. "They will?" she asked.
"Sure! I saw those statues outside of the shrines, and the signs in front of swimming holes warning people about Kappas, and all kinds of other things! And the emperor, well, they might worship him, but its you who they'll tell stories about, and it's you that you never forget."
"Never forget…" Madam Fox echoed.
Charles nodded. "But if you attack people, and become monsters, then they won't want to tell any stories. They'll be afraid, and only speak of you in fearful whispers, if at all. And then you'll be forgotten for good."
Madam Fox looked at Charles for a long time. The Oni growled and flexed their muscles, looking uncomfortable in the cave. Madam Fox sighed. "He is right," she whispered. "The young gaijin tells the truth." She looked back to Charles. "Do you remember when I turned you into a fox?"
"Yes," Charles agreed.
"Did you like it? Would you like to be one, with me, for the rest of the days on the earth, and run free and wild through the green hills of Japan?"
Charles looked back to me. "No," he said.
"Ah." Madam Fox folded her paws. "I thought so." She walked back to the throne and sat down. "Come my friends," she said. "Let us fade away. There is nothing left in this land for us, and our tales will be all that will remain."
By the time she had finished speaking, she had sunk away into the throne, like it was quicksand she was slipping in, and then she was gone. The Oni did the same, just falling into the shadow and disappearing, and then the feeling returned to my limbs.
I stood up and ran to Charles, and embraced him. "You did it!" I cried. "You talked that fox down!"
The other samurai stood up and they smiled at Charles. Collache ran over and pumped my boy's hand. Then he suddenly stopped. "The things you said about the Kami," he whispered. "You think they could also be said about the samurai? That our time is gone, and only our stories will remain?"
"I-I don't know," Charles said. "I never said—"
"You don't have to," Collache said. "We will part ways here, my American friends. I think the Boshin War will end soon, and I do not know if I will survive it, but if I do, I hope to meet you again. Now let us leave this place, and return to the world of men."
We did, heading out of the cave and back onto Mount. Fuji. Charles and I headed back down the mountain trail and took a stagecoach back to Tokyo, while Eugene Collache the French samurai and his men slipped away into the forest for their next battle. I wished them the best, but all of them seemed to know that victory weren't an option.
Me and Charles saw a few more sights in the Japanese countryside, staying in little villages, and we heard no more rumors about Kami going crazy and attacking people. My boots weren't coming to life no more, and though I kind of missed the little fellows, I was pretty glad to have them fitting snugly on my feet. I was sure to get them polished though, first thing.
We finished our tour of Japan in Yokohama, and there I met an old friend, who asked for me to help him and the American troops in the Philippines, where they was fighting the Moros. But that's another story.
All in all, I'd have to stay that Charles and I enjoyed our stay in Japan. It's a beautiful country, and I'm sure if it can balance them old traditions of the samurai and still keep things up to date, then they'll have a bright future. One thing's for sure, the Kami may have gotten their comeuppance, but they'll never be forgotten.