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The Daughters of Mara
Part Two

[ One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten ]

Episodes One and Two remain lost...

An Exhibition of Busho Virtues!

The sisters, having completed the aquatic decoration of the Buddhist temple, left early the next morning to avoid the embarrassingly fulsome praise that would no doubt be forthcoming (modesty is becoming to a samurai). The party, moving quickly, encountered the blind mendicant at the crossroads where the canyon trail intersects with the main road - whimsically decorated with an ornate festival boat. Squeaker, after offering Eldest's horse, did successfully convince the mendicant to take another horse as a gift for aid given in the temple. (Generosity - another virtue.) The normally polite and even-tempered, Nature seems rather piqued at the monk- perhaps she feels embarrassed at the strong - almost animal - attraction for him? He would sire strong sons, and the older sisters need to keep the family's perpetuation in mind. (Duty - the primary virtue of the samurai.) Two days of hard riding sees saintly samurai sisters seek sanctuary, safely shepherding seven slave sisters. (Alliteration - not a virtue.)

At home, after an unfortunate accident involving a rabid marmoset and a foiled assassination attempt (Never to be mentioned again!!!!), Silent, Nature girl and Princess spend the night and the early morning sampling the sake cellar. Squeaker, no doubt affected by the plethora of miracles, spent the morning, as has become her custom, in prayer to the familial Goddess. (Piety - virtue number four.) Due to that evenings and early morning carouse, Cousin and Nature had to be bodily manhandled out of the family keep, causing a late departure.

A few miles outside the valley, the party encounters a large group of samurai on their way to visit the aunties. After a brief conversation, the party continued to the last village within their territory, a mere hour from the bordering fiefdom. The evening passed uneventfully. However, a few hours before dawn the twins watch was disturbed by the distinctive sound of a sword being drawn. (Vigilance - number five.) They awakened Eldest in a manner appropriate to her rank and position. (A Samurai is always courteous to their social superiors.)

As they rushed toward the sound, into the courtyard of the inn they witnessed, almost frozen there, the blind mendicant, sword in one hand staff in another, the maid Seven, disheveled on the ground, and two ragged ronin - falling dead as they dropped. Apparently the wandering monk had interrupted a rape attempt. His justice was swift and unappealing. (Punning - always a vice.) While Princeling took Seven upstairs to her sisters and explained the situation to the others, Youngest continued into the temple for her morning devotions where she finds the monk in despair, once again having been drawn into the life of violence he had forsaken.

The group made good time that day, having left approximately 2 hours before dawn through the land 'held' by their neighboring clan. The land was uninhabited and marked forlornly by villages long abandoned. Early the next afternoon, the party rode into a small clump of houses (too meager to even be considered a village) with the peasants sullenly gathered in the field. When questioned about their unusual behavior, they grunt toward the bridge where a huge poorly armored pike-man demanded a toll. Nature, reminding everyone of Gran Aunts parting words "Avoid trouble", was ignored as Cousin rushed forward with sword drawn. Cousin had been feeling out of sorts of late - having killed no one and only gently thrashed Nature during the Marmoset Escapade. (Courage-virtue number six.)

Nature, inhaling to reiterate Gran Aunts words of wisdom at a higher volume, scented a fuse and quickly identified a lone gunman on a nearby grassy knoll; well, actually inside a hut. Eldest and Cousin launched arrows at the hidden assassin, quickly killing him but not before he got a shot off that struck Squeaker as she threw herself in the path of the bullet, yet again saving the life of her less robust twin. Cousin, Nature and Princeling (feeling a bit less than studly) promptly sliced the not-to-bright ronin into meaty bits. (Martial prowess - virtue number seven.)

Episode Four - The Wail

The brigands lay where they'd crumpled, blood slowly seeping into the parched earth. The brief flurry of action was strangely unsatisfying; the village remained a miserable collection of hovels, its inhabitants worn down and without hope, and the Great Temple of Amaratsu seemed as distant as ever. Eldest was reminded of the Mendicant's words (would that his visage not haunt her so!): how could more death dispel the scourge that had overtaken this land? Still, this was not the Sisters' concern. All were agreed that haste was of the essence, and any future distractions should go unheeded. This time only godly intervention of the most cruel and capricious sort could make them stray from their course!
The village swiftly dwindled behind the party, but the disquiet they felt only intensified as they rode deeper into the deserted land. The maids spoke seldom, and then only in hushed whispers; even Squeaker's customary braggadocio was muted. Toward evening they emerged from the still woods to look down upon the center of the valley, and a small walled town located at the confluence of two rivers. A castle loomed over the town from a nearby bluff. The older Ishikawas recognized the place as the benighted land's capital, which they had visited several years previous. Perhaps here they would gain some answers, or at least comfortable beds for the night. But as they rode closer it became apparent that the town, so welcoming and picturesque from a distance, had fallen on hard times. The outlying fields were untended, the crops drowned where the irrigation sluices had failed. They drew up to the gate in the town's wall (in truth nothing more than a large berm topped by a fence), which yawned hungrily half-open in a most uninviting fashion.
The party hesitated at this point, and milled about the gate, peering futilely into the gloom beyond. But then the sisters drew upon their training, their long hours of drilling and preparation, and reacted as they had in so many precarious situations before: they began to argue! Perhaps they should go around the city; perhaps they should press through; perhaps it was time for supper; all these options and more were bruited about as the shadows lengthened and the town, unperturbed, waited in silence. Then a piercing scream from one of the maids - no one was sure which - brought the debate to a sudden and inconclusive halt. "There! Movement by the gate!" Silent dropped from her horse and crept forward to investigate, only to find a stray piece of paper drifting listlessly with the wind. But now the gate had been broached, and there was nothing for it but to proceed inside.
If the city yet held life, it was not in evidence. Squeaker took the point, vanishing up the street as the others followed at a slower pace. She detected no one, but knew from painful experience that this did not mean she was truly alone. And so, trying to act nonchalant, she slipped her mirror out from its case to examine her surroundings, hoping that Amaratsu would once again grant her true sight. But the barren street was exactly as it seemed. Still, there was something about the mirror that fascinated her - so shiny! -so that she could not put it down (much like the village idiot back home with his piece of tinsel). "I'm pretty," she drooled as the rest of the company road up. Silent grabbed the mirror and peered within. "No you're not," she said in disgust. But the spell had been broken, and Squeaker started up the path once more.
Then from out of an alley sprang a nightmare vision of slashing, slathering, many-toothed death! Horses reared in white-eyed frenzy as the Ishikawa attempted to draw their weapons and make a desperate last stand! Only Nature retained her composure, for her uncanny affinity with animals revealed to her the sickening true identity of their foe, and she knew resistance to be futile. "A puppy!" she cried, as the yapping creature, evidently a chow of some sort, leapt into her arms and lapped eagerly at her face. Only Squeaker managed to resist the thing's charms, and warned, "It's a demon! Best kill it!" But she'd said the same about everyone they'd met up to this point, and had only been correct some 40 percent of the time, so she was ignored.
Thus reinforced, the company rode deeper into the town. The road dipped gradually towards the river, the structures in the area being raised up on solid foundations of stone to thwart floods. The rush of water grew louder, but when they rounded a bend in the road their view of the riverbank was blocked; someone had erected a makeshift barrier of wagons and barrels across the road. Squeaker crept up to the barricade and, finding no one about, clambered over. The rest of the group, showing no surprise that Squeaker had once again disappeared when physical labor was called for, set about clearing the street so the horses could pass through.
While her companions strained and cursed at the wagons, Squeaker sauntered down the road to a bridge that spanned the river. A wooden platform, perhaps provided for fishermen, extended over the water and under the bridge. Peering into the gloom she saw what she at first took to be a mound of detritus, but on second look she realized it was a human figure. Judging from the sake bottle the snoring stranger lovingly cradled, it was just some drunken vagabond, passed out after a long binge. Still, this was the only person they'd come across in the city…. Drawing her bow, she lobbed pebbles at the man until with a start he awoke. He was naturally somewhat wary, finding himself confronted by a samurai in full battle gear, bow at the ready, but Squeaker managed to coax him up onto the road with the promise of a dram or two of sake. Thus fortified, he introduced himself as Bentu, a priest from one of the town's shrines. He could offer no explanation for the town's state, or how he had come to be passed out under the bridge.
Meanwhile the wagons were finally pushed aside, and the rest of the party moved forward. Princess had already gone ahead, but returned to report spying a light in one of the windows of the castle. But if such a thing had existed, it was gone now, and, anyway, it was no concern of the Sisters'. Edo was their goal, and beyond that distant Cathay waited! It would take more than a mysterious light to draw them off track! Determinedly ignoring the castle, they road down to the bridge. There they forced the priest, though he complained a great deal, to mount up, and they quickly passed through the remainder of the town until they reached the fields on the other side. Here they set up camp and, watches placed, bedded down for the night.
As dawn neared, Seven woke up to begin preparations for the new day. In fact she woke up sooner than usual, for she felt a vague disquiet. Something about the camp was not right…and then she realized what was missing! When both Princess and Squeaker were on watch together (against the others' better judgement, but the twins were insistent), they kept up a continuous stream of muttered insults and curses, which the rest of the company had learned to filter out. But now the camp was too quiet; the twins were nowhere to be seen! And they were not the only ones missing, as the dissolute priest Bentu had slipped away as well! Seven was quick to wake her superiors (that is, Six through One), who huddled to discuss their options. In the end they decided to make breakfast.
The samurai eventually roused themselves and, learning what was up, searched for the missing trio's tracks. None were found. And so, with a last glance towards Edo and fabled Cathay, they broke camp and trudged back into the city. Something - or someone - would have it no other way! Approaching the castle, Nature detected the smell of freshly brewed tea emanating from a nearby shrine to Jeso, god of agriculture. She entered the building with Eldest, to find the priest puttering about his kitchen. He revealed that the twins had escorted him to the shrine, and then left. Prodded further, he recounted the events of the last day he could recall before Squeaker found him under the bridge. The master of the castle had summoned him to preside over the birth of his child. While in the middle of the ceremony he had taken a sip of sacramental wine, and could remember nothing further. But he couldn't worry about it now, as he had to begin preparations for the Harvest Festival….
"But…the Festival was several days ago!" Eldest said. The priest's face blanched as he realized that he'd neglected his duties. Because of his dereliction the harvest would surely fail! Grabbing a nearby glass, he cursed the sake therein, blaming it for leading him astray. He continued his ranting, putting the glass down, when suddenly Silent (who everyone had thought was still outside) impulsively grabbed the goblet and drank its contents! The priest stared in horror as Silent proclaimed it the best sake she'd ever tried. "And well it should be," the priest sputtered, "for it is the blessed sake of the gods, left over from the last Harvest Festival! With it I was to consecrate the fields, as we have done since time immemorial! But now the cycle is broken by your unthinking act, and the town is doomed!" Silent was somewhat taken aback by the priest's vehemence (but otherwise feeling pretty good about the episode), so when he ordered her out she did not resist. The others followed, happy to have the shrine's thick walls muffle Bentu's spittle-flecked ravings.
Thinking to placate the priest, the Sisters searched their bags for more wine, only to discover that their collective bottles, wineskins and well-hid flasks were empty! But surely the keg…no! Many suspicious glances were exchanged, and the maids were obliged to walk in straight lines and touch their noses, but no ready explanations were to hand. The priest's decibel level having descended, Eldest went back into the shrine to resume the interrogation. Just in case the priest tried to slip out, Silent made her way to the back of the building, where a pleasant garden filled a small courtyard. Cousin searched the area of the nearby bridge for signs of the missing twins, where she noticed the print of a delicately tooled sandal. Surely only Princess would be vain enough to wear such unsuitable footgear on campaign! Cousin ran to inform her companions, who mounted up and rode toward the castle in haste! Silent, loitering in the garden, was not missed, but soon enough caught up to the others as they assumed their customary stance outside the castle walls, discussing at length the merits and shortcomings of several possible courses of action which, theoretically, they might take at some point in the future.
Eventually the group moved within the castle's outer redoubts. The maids, trained to prepare lunch no matter how perilous the situation, froze in their tracks and then began a tremulous wailing as they realized the food, like the liquor, had vanished! And just when everyone was starting to feel a tad peckish. There was nothing for it but to press on, into the inner courtyard, and then the stables, both of which were as deserted as the town below. And yet a yellow ribbon on the ground, and then two sets of footprints, revealed that it had not always been thus. Surely Princess and Squeaker had passed this way recently, and may still be within the castle compound! Eldest, not one to crassly shout for the two, began instead to sing, hoping they were still within earshot. But when the last stanza of her bawdy roundelay had echoed from the castle spires, the group heard not the expected hoots and retching noises from the twins, but a baby's piercing cries from somewhere within the keep!
It was decided that Nature Girl was best suited to handle the situation, though she herself had some doubts. Leaving the maids to look after the horses, the Ishikawa strode into the main hall of the castle. It, too, was deserted, but the cries seemed to come from the second floor. Nature Girl hesitantly walked upstairs, the others following at a distance. At the top of the steps she came to a hall, and as she drew closer to the baby the air grew redolent with perfume. At the end of the hall she came to a door, and pushed it open to reveal a luxuriously appointed bedroom, with an expansive view of the valley, and a crib by the bed: the source of the baby's wails! She took another step, but a sudden pang of hunger drew her up short. Damn the maids and their poor inventory skills! She drew her sword and advanced again, but with each step she became increasingly ravenous, light-headed, and weak. Some fell sorcery was at work here…. With her last ounce of strength she fled the chamber, to crawl halfway down the steps and whisper a warning to her sisters.
But Cousin was having none of it! She'd be damned if she'd let some little brat get the better of her! She strode up the stairs, Nature Girl's grasp too feeble to hold her back. As she neared the top the hunger hit her, a gnawing, painful hunger, as if she'd fasted for days. But she shrugged it off, and advanced! Another few steps, and her stomach was a cavernous pit, her body running on the last drabs of energy left it. Her brain starved of fuel, she kept going! She reached the hallway, and as she took one last shuffling step she saw her arm, the muscle burned away, the flesh stretched tight about the bone….
The others heard a horrible clattering noise at the top of the stairs, as of a bundle of sticks dashed haphazardly to the floor. And then the only sound was that of the babe, its greedy, incessant cries seeming to strengthen as they echoed out over the empty town, a howl of pure selfish need that encompassed the barren valley and was not satisfied, could never be satisfied, even were it to devour the very life-force from the earth itself….

Episode Five - A Manifestation of Vices

After viewing a long, dull but beautiful kabuki presentation, the family got back down to business. Cousin was determined to be a lost cause (PRIDE perhaps the most common failing of the Samurai class, and in Cousins' case quite lethal.) so Eldest brother, grabbing the starving Nature, dragged her from the hallway and ordered a retreat from the fortified castle back down to the surrounding town and tried to enter the small temple of Jizu, the grain and harvest God. However, the priest, Bento, was having none of that, standing firmly behind the closed and locked door, haranguing Eldest as a "sake thief", samurai ruffian and general bad guy. Pleas of aid for the emaciated Nature were going unheard over his tirade, (focusing mostly upon the stolen sake) until Princeling arrived.

He, implementing the plan hatched with his twin, proceeded to kick down the door and strong arm the raving priest up to the temple of Ameratsu. Eldest, in a burst of leadership, ordered the maids out to the countryside to dig up something to eat. The party moved up to the main temple. Squeaker (demonstrating the vice of WRATH, again a rather common weakness among the most noble) berated the not-so-holy one into asking the Goddess for another gift of sacred sake so the priest could bless the fields and bring fertility back into the region. Bentu's prayers were for naught, and Squeaker's mirror only reflected the image of Silent, who had been left at the "not the largest temple nor the smallest temple" in the town. The priest, bemoaning the loss of his sake cup, refused to pray, so Nature returned to the Grain-Gods' temple to recover the cup.

Meanwhile . . . Cousin was still dead and . . .

Silent was investigating the garden of the fertility god - surprisingly the only area in the town, fortress and countryside with any life. In fact, one large bush was filled with delicious red berries. Hungry, like every other living being in the cursed town, he began to sample them . . . and sample them again, unmindful of the needs of the others. (Two vices in one act - both GLUTTONY and AVARICE.) Feeling revived after the sweet sacrilegious snack, Silent began to ransack the temple, collecting anything of value. Nature arrived and repossessed the sacred sake cup, then transported it with Silent back to the temple where Youngest was mid-harangue against the priest Bentu, basically blaming him for the state of the town, the death of Cousin and the impending arrival of Disco and Barney.

Nature noting the berry stains around Silent's mouth, tasted the remains only to have her tongue go numb. With the arrival of Silent, Squeaker turned her attention to him - had he not drunk the sacred sake, they would have not been in this mess! The only hint Ameratsu's mirror presented was the unwavering reflection of the Sake swiller. Silent was unconvinced of the necessity and efficacy of prayer in general, and was uninterested in joining the prayer-a-thon.

Eldest, growing bored of the useless piety, ordered Princeling (The SLOTH Poster Child) to accompany her to check on the maids. As they rode from the fortified city they encountered one of the packhorses dead on the roadside, apparently partly consumed. Looking up, they spotted the maids perched up on top of a stone dike, waving wildly. While Eldest contemplated the frantic gesturing, Princeling (Slothful does not mean stupid.) turned her horse towards the city and fled. Eldest soon followed and quickly passed him, perhaps the horses were responding to Princeling's recent insistence on horse barbecue. Eldest pulled up and looked behind at the slower Princeling only to see a boiling brown field following them! The quickly-moving mass overtook Princeling, his horse falling. Luckily, the most lovely of the seven brothers deftly slipped from the saddle and ran forward to the safety of the city. His horse was immediately buried and consumed.

When the two of them had returned to the high temple; Eldest began to barricade the main gate. (Paranoia - rather virtuous considering the time and place.) Soon the temple was filled with the dry rustling sound that heralded the arrival of an ant swarm, attracted no doubt to the plethora of horses on the hoof. Eldest once again ignored Princeling's suggestion to sacrifice the horses to slow the horde. At Nature's insistence that Silent had flammables in his satchel - since he was otherwise occupied with bandaging his arm that had been slashed open by Youngest, who had become convinced that his blood was a necessary ingredient to make the divine magic manifest - Eldest ransacked the bag and retrieved a white, greasy material kept in an ewer of water. Eldest sprinkled the material randomly on the stairs just as the mendicant monk scrambled over the first barrier seconds ahead of the ravenous insects. As Eldest set fire to the front steps, Nature too was a burnin' for the hunky blind man. (LUST) Distracted by the attraction between the two (ENVY), Eldest lost track of the flames as they spread up and into the temple.

Meanwhile . . . Cousin was still . . . D E A D! DEAD, do you hear?

The group picked themselves up and retreated to the temple of Jizu, where Squeaker continued to attempt to extract the correct, heartfelt prayer out of the now two-days sober priest. It was for naught. Blood and water do not sake make. Nature, who was watching the streets, reported seeing a legion of emaciated undead, likely the remains of the villagers, that was shuffling up towards the bridge that led to the temple of the grain god. More of the flammable material was spread on the bridge and torched. Eldest got to experience a thrill few Samurai are gifted to share within their lifetime - the joy of burning a rival family capital to the ground. Regretfully, he missed out on the lamentation of the women.

Bentu, the priest, dumped the blood and water mixture out from the chalice and proclaimed once again "That it is no use!". At that instant, Princeling, scenting sake, (Is drunkenness a subset of gluttony or a manifestation of sloth?) asked the blind monk if he had any. As fate would have it, the former samurai had not been within the confines of the cursed citadel long enough for his provisions to have disappeared. As Zaitochi turned his sake over to the shrill Squeaker, the arid sound of an insect army approached from the other side. The party split, some facing the undead army, others the legions of ants, fire being their only weapon. As a side note . . .. Cousins' desiccated body was amongst the horde at the river crossing. She was pushed back, aflame by spear point, into combustible crowd and then fell into the river.

Meanwhile the priest began praying again, to no avail. The mirror remained fixated on the image of Silent. Then Youngest, struck with inspiration that only true desperation creates, added a drop of Silents' blood to the sake and ordered the priest to start yet again. And lo, the sake was transformed. Now, with sacred sake, the garden in the back of the not-too-small temple was blessed. Youngest called the retreat to a sacred space where she hoped neither the dead or cursed could follow.

The Feast of the Gods

The young woman reclined on the polished marble steps, and twisted the thong of a sandal as she made a face at her companion. "How can they be so…reckless?"
"Brave?" suggested the young man beside her, idly. The tone in which he said it indicated that he was anything but impressed by this attribute.
"Well, didn't they know in the first place that stopping in that village was likely to be a disaster?"
"I imagine so."
He gestured towards the hill behind him. "Probably they felt that he wanted it."
"Do they generally do what he wants?"
"Only when they feel it will help them out, I imagine."
She raised a perfect eyebrow in scornful contempt. "This quest! Such a foolish thing. It puts me all out of patience with them."
Her companion grinned. "I think it has its benefits for you."
Lying on his stomach, he pushed up onto one elbow and looked at her mockingly. "Your penchant for toying with them."
She burst out laughing, and gave the beautiful youth beside her a shove. "Me? You're positively beastly."
"Well, only on a bad day. Mostly, it's for their own good." This was said with false piety.
"You're fooling no one, Galan. Least of all, me. Who invented a giant white crocodile?"
"Don't forget the crab."
She smiled. "That was lovely. Don't you ever feel the tiniest bit guilty, though? I think we're supposed to help them out."
Galan laughed outright. "Oh right. Actually, I think he wants us to…. keep them on their toes as much as possible. Which suits both of us…admit it…to perfection."
"Why is that, do you suppose? I mean, why keep them on their toes?"
He shrugged. "Because we can. Because they deserve it."
He reached down, and parted some of the grass growing at the side of the temple steps. "Look now."
His companion, Liesa, tried to peer over him to see. She was forced, though, to get to her feet and move around him, to kneel down in the grass and study the grass beneath his fingers. "I can't see a thing."
"Lazy." He parted the grass a bit farther apart, until there was a hole the size of a fist between his hands. "Look now."
Liesa looked into the hole, through which sunlight was shining. Through it, she could see sky, clouds, and much, much farther down, a patch of earth. If she squinted a bit, she could make out a village, a castle, a cliff, and a small group clustered at the base of the cliff. "Are they in trouble again?" she inquired. "I thought they had settled down for the night in a camp of some sort."
"Don't you pay attention? And besides, I thought the ants were your idea."
"Actually, they were my idea," said a new voice, as an older man crossed the courtyard of the temple, and approached them. He propped one leg on a step, and watched them peer into the hole again. He grinned, the white teeth of a predator showing through his trimmed black beard. "Humans have quite a distaste for the insect world, I find."
"You're the worst," said Liesa. "We try sometimes, at least, to show compassion. I'm often quite sympathetic to them, and have helped them out lots of times. You should try to cultivate mercy."
"I'll leave that to you, my dear. I feel my skills lie in mischief."
"And suffering?"
"And suffering." The smile widened. "But don't let me stop you. What are the little dears doing now?"
"What with your ants, and Galan's ravenous creatures, they appear to be in quite a fix. They seem to want to go back to that castle, but most roads to it are blocked by hordes of nasty things. What was in that castle, again?"
The man with the beard leaned closer to Liesa. "All the evil in the world."
"If it is, you must have put it there."
"Strangely enough, I did not. I believe that he did." This was indicated with a jerk of his head toward the distant hill again. "He seems to have a serious quest for them, actually. Something dealing with real evil and real virtue….not just a lot of sport."
Liesa considered this, with her head cocked to one side. "Yes, I believe you are right. There is something more serious afoot. Something real enough to make him concerned."
"If he's so concerned, why doesn't he just make them succeed, then?" asked Galan, wearily.
Liesa shrugged prettily. "That's just his way."
The bearded man chuckled. "I believe he loves mischief as much as I do. Pray, continue, with our group, though."
"Well, the one they've nicknamed 'Silent' seems to have a rope and is attempting to scale the cliff to the castle. I must say, that's rather brave, isn't it?"
"Well, I believe she might make it. I suppose she means to pull the others up the same way. It does save them a lot of time. She seems to be one of the more resourceful ones, coming up with inventions and different things to help them. Yes, I'm sure she's going to make it."
"Let me see." The bearded one looked languidly into the hole, and made a slight gesture with his hand. Far below them, they could make out a small figure, as it hung in the air for a minute, poised, and then plummeted down the cliff. It landed on the ground, looking broken and pitiful, before the entire wall of cliff collapsed on top of it.
Galan and Liesa were united in indignation. "You pushed her down the cliff! You deliberately pushed her for no reason! You are a monster, Dreuss."
He tried to look solemn, but ended up breaking into laughter. "Don't pull the long faces! I couldn't help it, I swear. I will be good from now on."
"See that you are, " snapped Galan. "I've half a mind to give them extra aid, now."
"Oh, I promise, I promise. But it was worth it, to see the look on your face, little one."
Galan's face flushed with anger, and he jumped quickly to his feet. "You need to learn a little more respect, I think."
"Certainly, and you are just the one to teach it to me." For a moment, the air between them crackled with tension, and they eyed each other, Dreuss with sardonic amusement and Galan with simmering rage. Then, Liesa gave a shriek. "One of you just trod on my hand! Stop it this minute, I can't see a thing!" The moment broke, and the two relaxed slightly. Galan was still resentful, though, and he gave the other man a dark look before lowering himself back to the ground. "Perhaps you better stay out of my way for a while."
Dreuss grinned. "Good as gold. Just pretend I'm not here."
"Will the two of you stop it? The little humans need some help at the moment. Stop being so selfish. Oh! That's so sweet."
"They're taking the body of their fallen sister with them, binding it to the back of a horse."
"Why on earth?"
"To give it a proper burial, I imagine. I think that kind of thing is important to them. Now, pay attention for a bit! They've gotten back on their horses, and are determined to get to that castle. I think they can be rather scrappy, sometimes. It can't be pleasant for them."
"In heaven's name, what is that sound?" They all listened for a moment.
"I believe the priest is praying," said Galan dryly. "Yes, listen. He is pleading with us not to kill him in the castle. Every so often, one of them hits him, and he blurts out another prayer for mercy. He's also praying that he'll escape from the group. I don't think he's with them, entirely by choice."
"Well, I do think he should stay, don't you? They might need him, and he's getting on my nerves. He stays, definitely."
"Interestingly, the monk doesn't want to escape, does he? Or maybe it's just that the particularly attractive one doesn't want him to escape. She is suggesting that they be bound together, or some such thing, for safekeeping."
"Safekeeping?" said Dreuss with a broad smile. "Certainly. Liesa, my dear, perhaps I should keep you as safe, as well."
"Ugh! Just put that thought right out of your head, " said Liesa with an expressive grimace for Galan's benefit, and a seductive smile for Dreuss's as Galan turned his head.
"Just so," said Dreuss. "Ah, your priest seems to be making his move." As they watched, the priest suddenly broke from the group and made a wild dash for the woods. "I believe you wanted him to stay?" He flicked the priest with his finger, and watched him go flying, with the eldest sister landing squarely on top of him. "There, my good deed for the day."
"They are showing more sense this time," murmured Galan. "They're stuffing their ears with something, so they can't hear the baby's cries. And they're advancing rather cautiously. Not like the last one who just charged into the castle, despite my warnings, and died in the hallway."
"Poor thing. That's two of them dead already. Doesn't he feel for them?"
"I wouldn't worry, if I were you," said Dreuss. "While he doesn't feel especially sorry when they die, he does allow a sort of resurrection, and they often pop up again in all sorts of forms. I imagine you'll see those two creating havoc down there, after a while."
"One of them has a mirror in which they seem able to things they ordinarily wouldn't see. Is that your doing, Galan?"
He bowed.
"Well, you are being especially kind lately, aren't you?"
"Yes, that's something I expect I'll soon tire of doing. Look how useful it's proving, though."
They watched the group proceed carefully into the castle and up the stone steps to the upper floor. The youngest of the sisters carried a mirror, into which she kept peering with every footstep. Her diligence paid off, since only she could see the invisible figure of a samurai warrior at the top of the stairs. The others looked around in puzzlement, at hearing the sound of a voice, yet hearing nothing.
"Who's the warrior?" asked Liesa with interest.
They could hear the sound of a male voice, crying, "Murderer! I will have my revenge!" At each word, the priest broke into fresh wailing and sobbing, obviously terrified at the noise. The voice seemed to move towards the priest, and its rage seemed directed at him, in particular. The others apparently sensed this, for they kept a protective circle between the voice and the priest. The deep voice continued to accuse the priest of unspeakable crimes.
"What did this priest do that was so bad?"
"He was a coward."
She shrugged. "He's only a human."
"Well, his cowardice resulted in several thousand deaths. That's why this warrior wants to kill him."
"Maybe we should just let him. Do you want to keep watching? I'm tiring of this story, anyhow."
"Liesa, show some patience. I imagine we'll soon be reaching the crisis point."
She pouted slightly, and continued to watch.
One of the sisters was dragging the priest up the stairs, past the invisible voice, and into the upper hallway, as he sobbed and babbled incoherently the entire time. The rest of the party continued to attempt to battle the unseen foe, a difficult feat. Each of them fought with the particular skills at their command, whether staff or sword. One or two of them received wounds of varying degrees of severity from the invisible warrior, while he was virtually impossible to touch.
Liesa began to laugh, behind her hand.
"Just….an idea I gave them." The thought afforded her tremendous amusement.
The two men glanced at each other, and Galan rolled his eyes. As they watched the group battle, they noticed that two of the girls began to toss an object back and forth, then lose it down the stairs.
"What on earth…?"
"Can't they keep their hands on it?" said Liesa with disgust. However, they appeared to recover the object, and the owner of the mysterious item suddenly hurled it against the unseen enemy. Suddenly, his form appeared in the air before them, picked out in solid white.
"What is that?"
"Face powder," said Liesa with simple pride. She sat and preened with such obvious pleasure in the idea, that her two companions laughed in spite of themselves. "That was a tremendous idea, I think."
"Well, it appears to have helped them greatly. They've actually hit something by now. I do believe you've evened out the battle, sweetheart," smiled Dreuss. "They may yet live through this little episode."
"Listen to that priest," said Galan. "Suddenly, you can't stop him from speaking." From below, they could hear the sounds of incoherent rambling, as the priest sobbed and moaned. Eventually, his voice broke into recognizable sentences, and they could hear him giving the history of the bitterness between the warrior and himself.
"He was the lord of the castle, and the father of that hideously screeching baby. He claims the priest murdered the child. Can he not stop going on and on like that? Ah, the girl with him keeps hitting him every so often. Very useful, to keep him in line. In any case, the priest caused the death of this baby by not responding to a plea of the father's, it seems. Instead, he ran and hid. That is the gist of what I am hearing."
"Are we supposed to assume that this baby is somehow supernatural?" asked Liesa. "What could have caused that, unless its father or mother was a god?"
"Preferably its father," replied Dreuss. "You get a much more divinely-endowed infant, in that case. It's in the genes. I'm pretty sure I'm not the father. At least, I don't have any recollection of any tryst with a woman in that castle. I suppose Galan here could have fathered a baby or two."
"Could and has," snapped Galan. "But as you say, that place doesn't inspire any memories."
"Well, it could be anyone," said Liesa, reasonably. "We can hardly ask everyone here if they've spawned a baby in that shabby little village. That's hardly significant to what's going on there, anyhow."
"You know, whenever something unexplainable happens, he's often the one behind it." They all gazed at the farthest temple on the highest hill, in silence.
"You mean, did he father this baby?"
"Hardly," said Dreuss. "It's possible, but not usual, at any rate. He doesn't go in much for that sort of thing."
"No," said Galan, "he leaves that to you!"
"Who better equipped? But, my point is that he may still be behind this. After all, he controls most of the major battles in the world, good and evil, life, death. He controls the kinds of things that govern whether or not these supernatural occurrences happen on earth."
"We could just ask him then, where this baby came from, and how to help the band of sisters destroy it?" suggested Liesa.
"That's the last thing we could do. You know that all this must be figured out alone…both on our part and on theirs."
"Hmmm," said Liesa in frustration. Then, "Just how many children have the two of you fathered anyhow? I haven't had any dealings with humans. Don't the two of you have any more taste than that?"
"Apparently not," said Galan dryly. "In my case, some, and his, probably lots."
"You know, we're missing the entire battle down there. What is happening by now?"
Dreuss peered down at the earth spread out beneath them, again. "Well, at this point, there seems to be a lot of chaos ensuing. I can see many of Galan's delightful zombie creatures, some adult and some child. Some have been hacked, many have been set on fire, most are covered with face powder. Very untidy. I believe I can make out the body of the samurai on the floor. Most assuredly, he has been hacked in half. That was well done. But there do seem to be an awful lot of zombies left, yelling and going up in flames."
"How disgusting!" said Liesa. "That one there has its head on fire, and is attempting to put out the flames in the carcass of a half-eaten horse. What disgusting little beasts!"
"Not just any disgusting beast…I think that was one of their very own band. The one that Dreuss pushed off the cliff. By now, she is reveling in her state of zombie-hood."
"They seemed to have dispatched most of the other creatures, and are actually making it down the hallway. Look, one is them is dancing down the hallway and singing some hideous dirge about favorite things. How very strange."
"They're strange at the best of times, you'll find, my dear. The important thing is that the priest and his nemesis have actually made it into the bedroom of the infant. They've discovered the bodies there."
"I imagine those would be the bodies of the mother and infant, the wife of the warrior and their child."
"But I thought the baby was alive and screaming?"
"Some incarnation of it. This is no doubt its human self, that has been frozen in time in some way."
"It's very twisted and hard to follow," complained Liesa.
"Consider its author."
"For once, the priest is doing something useful," said Galan. "Look, he's blessing the bodies, and I believe it's having an effect." They could see the priest praying and sprinkling the ceremonial sake on the bodies. At each drop of the wine, fizzles of steam rose from them, where the drops struck. As the fizzing spread, the bodies began to twitch with life.
"It's having an effect on someone. Look!" exclaimed Liesa. The zombie creature, which had been one of their own, suddenly ceased its exertions to put out the flames on its head, stared around in horror, gave a tremendous cry, then made a wild dash for the cliff and flung its body over the side. It was quickly consumed by the ravenous ants. The three watched speechlessly, and had no comment to make.
"Look at the bodies! They're actually coming back to life." As they watched the forms of the two in the gauze-draped bed, their movements increased more and more, until they became the human forms of a dying woman in labor and a female infant, crying lustily. "She's hacked in half," pointed out Liesa. "I don't think she'll make it, at any rate."
"In spite of his screaming and sobbing and fainting, the priest is being forced to do something of use again," said Dreuss sardonically. "See, he's blessing the infant. I imagine that may have been what caused the problem in the first place. The baby was stillborn, yet never properly blessed. An invitation to the very kind of spectacular evil he controls."
"I think the woman is dead in fact," said Liesa. "They are putting a torch to the bed, and setting the room on fire. The baby seems to be okay. In fact, they're taking in with them. I hope they mean to set the castle on fire, because I think that is what's going to happen."
"Yes, probably they hope to destroy all Galan's creations, and kill any remnant of evil left inside. The place seems to be going quickly, what with all the wood inside, and all the wine splashed around. Never fear, Liesa, the human creatures have made it outside."
"Well, I'm glad of that," said Liesa, although by now she seemed to be losing her enthusiasm and her interest.
"Yes, they are losing no time in mounting their horses, and tearing down the castle road with their now-human child. Fortunately for them, I don't see a sign of an ant or zombie for miles. The scene is positively pastoral."
"Except for that thing," said Liesa with disgust. "Now what?"
Dreuss grinned. "Just the half-burned, half-torn, half-crushed, dirty and bruised body of their fallen comrade. Once again, they are taking it with them for burial."
"How nice," said Liesa faintly.
"Happy events are breaking out all over the place. Down by the river, a lot of women are shrieking with joy as they see the band ride up. It seems to be their servants, an incredibly silly group, even for humans. Yes, there is much clapping of hands, and squealing with pleasure, and admiring of the newborn infant. A touching finale."
"What happens now?" asked Galan.
"I suppose they'll make camp, tidy up a few messy details here, and decide whether to ride on or go back. The usual affairs that have to be decided."
As they watched, the party did indeed return to its former campsite with the maids and the infant. Everyone settled down to the task they liked the best: the maids to fish, and tend to wounds, and exclaim over the state of the hair of one of the sisters; the baby to sleep; the sisters to rest in exhaustion; and the priest to babble continually.
"He's telling them the entire story. I want to hear this part," whispered Liesa.
They could hear the faint sound of the priest's voice drifting skyward, as he recounted the tale of what had happened. Apparently, the lady of the house had been deathly ill upon her labor bed. The lord of the house, who had grown increasingly strange in later years, demanded help for his wife and the unborn child. Yet, because of his anger and irrationality, no one would come to aid either one of them. Finally, the priest was dragged, protesting, from the temple, and taken by force to the castle. In his haste and state of drunkenness, he took ordinary sake with him, rather than the sacred wine. As a doctor or midwife, he was completely useless. The father, in anger and desperation, cut his wife open and removed the child physically. Though, the priest tried to bless the dying baby, all he succeeded in doing was to leave the portal open for evil to come to this place, through the body of the dead and unblessed infant. When he awoke, months later, evil had come to the town and everyone was destroyed. As he finished his tale, he indicated his plan to live the rest of his life in a remote cave somewhere, to atone for his sins.
"I don't think they'll let him off that easily," snickered Liesa. "No, I thought not. He'll be made to take the baby back to their ancestral home first, at any rate."
"And then he'll live out his life in a cave."
"Hmmm, maybe. These things have a way of not working out, I've noticed."
"Well, that's all settled. I don't think there's much more to watch tonight. They all seem to be in various states of injury or coma, and I don't think they're going to do much besides sleep and take watch tonight. I imagine we can all go entertain ourselves in a more amusing way, at this point."
"Wait!" said Galan. "Look at that! One last thing to torment them!"
While the others dozed around the campfire, the two sisters on first watch, sat up in horror as the figure of a pale child appeared at the edge of the camp.
"It's nothing," said Liesa impatiently, "just some village urchin who has wandered over there."
"No urchin," said Dreuss, with interest. "I can smell the magic from here. Something's afoot, and it's probably not something pleasant for them."
"Dreuss, what are you doing to them, now?" asked Liesa. "For heaven's sake, let them rest this night at least. I'm tired."
"Sweetheart, this is none of my doing, I promise you."
He shook his head. "Not mine. I'm equally weary of this group, myself."
"It's not mine…then who?"
As one, they all turned and gazed at the far temple of He Who Sits Apart. Understanding dawned upon them, as to the origin of this new threat.
Liesa shook her head. "You know, we're not the only ones who have earned the name 'capricious.' I think he delights in it more than anyone."
"If so, and he's involved, there's nothing more we can do in any case. Their fate is in his hands. Come on, the pair of you."
Galan replaced the grass at the base of the temple steps, and the three of them sauntered away carelessly, without a backward glance.

The Perfect Garden

In which our heroes meet Raven, spent the night in a manicured forest and manage to avoid having tea with an unusual daimyo.

The Crossroads

In which our heroes find a body in a woodlot, Sanjo and Gorobei join our little party and it rains.

The Barren Land

In which our heroes reach the plain of Sekigahara and find an inn and it rains.

The Golden Girl

In which our heroes find that the hospitality of the Ishikawa is expensive, Zatoichi meets an odd-colored sixteen year old girl and Squeaker finds an impossible geneaology. The storm grows worse.

The Restless Dead

In which the storm breaks violently, there is unmitigated slaughter and Nature experiences an apalling string of bad karma. Cousin and Zatoichi come with a hair of death, as does Sanjo the spearman and the mysterious Lady Ishikawa comes in our of the rain. But where is the golden girl?