Monday, August 10, 2015

"Yokai" - Chapter One

The water was still and black as oil under the moonless sky.  Yumiko Sato stared straight ahead, into the open sea, as if daring it to offer up its secrets.  She breathed in the cool night air, welcoming its cleansing touch.

Leaning against the railing, she watched as a man rushed along the deck toward her.  Looking up at the dark sky, her eyes lingered on the white luxury yacht.  It was a beautiful ship, bone white, standing out starkly against the surrounding darkness, and she noted that many of the men onboard were scrambling about frantically.  She hid a secret smile and turned toward the man on deck as he slowed upon reaching her.  He bowed, then stood straight, a cigar hanging from his lips as smoke escaped the right side of his mouth.  He adjusted his white captain’s hat, his gray eyes sweeping over her.  “Pardon me, Miss Sato.”

“Is everything alright, Mr. Watanabe?” she asked before he could slip past her, her eyes flickering back to the frantic men behind him with meaning.

“No need to worry.  You are quite safe.”

Yumiko bowed her head slightly, noting the non-answer with pleasure.  She then looked up at the crewman at the wheel of the yacht overhead.  “If it wouldn’t be much trouble, Captain, could I possibly see the view from up there?”

Mr. Watanabe’s eyes flashed briefly with annoyance, but he offered her his arm nonetheless.  “Of course.  Allow me.”

Yumiko blushed prettily and took his arm, allowing him to escort her up a narrow staircase to the wheel.  She gazed down at the deck below, before her eyes swept out over the open water again.  A few tendrils of fog were tentatively testing the waters from out of the darkness ahead, like feelers, searching.  She watched them roil and billow, her eyes narrowing.

“Ah, a little fog never hurt anyone,” the captain said reassuringly as he followed her gaze.

She sent him a grateful smile.  “I hear that I have a very competent guide, so I’m sure that I’m in good hands.”

“That you are,” Mr. Watanabe agreed, puffing out his chest a little.

“Unless the Funa Yurei have anything to say about it,” the man at the helm muttered.

“What was that, Mr. Arai?”

Mr. Arai cringed under the captain’s scrutiny.  “Nothing, sir.  Sorry, sir.”

“The Funa Yurei are nothing but folk tales,” Mr. Watanabe barked, crossing his arms and sticking his cigar back into his mouth.

“And what of the ships that have sunk in this area over the past few weeks?” Mr. Arai challenged.  “The sole survivor claimed that it was the work of Funa Yurei, the vengeful spirits of men who have died at sea.”

“To drag others to their deaths, to join their ranks and become Funa Yurei themselves,” the captain scoffed.  “Yes, I’ve heard the tales.  You don’t sail these seas without hearing murmurs of superstition.”  He turned to Yumiko.  “But rest assured, Miss Sato, no harm will come to you out here.”

“Of that, I am certain,” Yumiko replied.  She arched an eyebrow at Mr. Arai.  “But please, what have you heard of these ghosts?”

“Yokai,” Mr. Arai corrected her, glancing her way, and withering under the sharp look that Mr. Watanabe sent his way.  “It is of little consequence, Miss Sato.  I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

“No, please,” Yumiko protested.  “You’ve piqued my interest.”

“See what you’ve started, now?” Watanabe scowled at Mr. Arai.

Mr. Arai smirked, but didn’t reply.

“The fog is thickening,” Yumiko observed, her eyes once more drawn out to sea, where a large wall of white cloud had appeared out of the darkness.

Even Mr. Watanabe gave pause at the sight, and withdrew his cigar from his mouth to peer at it.  “Yes, it is,” he said, softly.  He glanced at the helmsman.  “Mr. Arai, please keep Miss Sato entertained for a moment.”

Mr. Arai nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

The captain hesitated on his way down the stairs and looked back over his shoulder at them.  “And don’t scare her with any more of your superstitious nonsense.”

“Yes, sir,” Arai repeated, hiding a smile.

When Mr. Watanabe had descended the stairs, Yumiko turned to Mr. Arai.  “I didn’t see anybody at the helm earlier.”

“Yeah.  That’s because it was on autopilot.”

“And why isn’t that the case now?”

Mr. Arai looked sheepish.  “Part of the machine seems to have disappeared.”

“It’s gone missing?” Yumiko tinged her voice with alarm.

“Oh, there’s no need to worry.  We still have control of the ship.  That’s why I’m up here now.  To navigate and make sure that you reach Hachijo Island in plenty of time.”

“That’s a relief.  Thank you for your dedication.”

Mr. Arai beamed.

Yumiko looked ahead to see something dark rise within the wall of fog.  A loud creaking split the air, as if something in the fog was settling.

Mr. Arai licked his lips nervously, and blinked ahead at the fog.  Yumiko could see that he was tense, and turned curiously back to the fog as the darkness within took shape.  It looked like…a ship.  And then the shape broke through the veil of fog, and indeed, it was a clipper ship.  It looked old, nothing like the modern ships one saw on the waters today.  Its sails were in tatters, and hung limp, the dark wood rotting, and covered in lichen as if it had just arisen from the depths of the ocean.  A headless mermaid led the ship, hanging from the prow as the ship sliced through the water beneath her, sending up a fine mist.  And aboard the ship, Yumiko could make out dark shapes.  Black shadows that roiled over the deck, vaguely shaped like men.

“It’s them!” Mr. Arai swallowed hard, and Yumiko turned to see sweat standing out on his forehead.  His knuckles stood out white where he gripped the wheel.  “The Funa Yurei.”

“Yes, it is,” Yumiko agreed, her heart skipping in her chest at the sight.  “Finally.”

“Finally?” Mr. Arai turned to her with a questioning look, but Mr. Watanabe had returned.

“Turn to avoid the ship!” Watanabe shouted.  “Quickly, you ingrate!”

“No!” Mr. Arai held his chin high.  “If we don’t change course, if we sail through them, the Funa Yurei will allow us to pass safely.  Otherwise, they will give chase.”

“Those aren’t ghosts, man,” Mr. Watanabe frowned, looking back up at the ship fearfully.

The dark shapes aboard the ship began to glow a sickly green, and a few shapes could be seen on either side of the ship, in the water, hovering over the dark sea, as if escorting the ship.  And as it drew closer, Yumiko could make out the features of men.  Or, their skulls, at least.  They gleamed in the sickly light they gave off.

“Oh, god!”  Mr. Watanabe took a subconscious step backward.

Yumiko jumped into action, however, and grabbed the wheel from Mr. Arai, pulling it sharply to the right to avoid the oncoming ship.

“Are you mad?!” Mr. Arai yelled at her.  He shoved her to the floor, where she slid gracefully.  “You fool!  You may have just damned us all!”

Yumiko watched as the ghost ship changed course to follow them, and satisfied, scrambled down the staircase to the deck below.  She’d left a guitar case beneath the stairs, and quickly opened the clasps to reveal a sword.  She pulled the sword from its sheath and turned the blade in her hand, examining the razor sharp double edge, its surface so clear that she could see her reflection in the steel.  A mirror.  Her dark brown eyes looked back into her own intently, as if trying to search for something beneath the surface.  They were calm and steady, and perhaps a little excited for the coming confrontation.

A crewman ran her way, and she stepped into his path.  “I need you to bring me all of the ladles and buckets from the kitchen and closets.”

The man blinked at her, and moved to try to pass by.

“If you want to survive this, do as I say!” she ordered, her voice confident and commanding.

The man hesitated, then nodded and turned back the way he’d come.

Satisfied, Yumiko sauntered along the deck to the front of the ship.  The Funa Yurei were nearly upon them.  From her vantage point, she could see one ghost with a tall black hat standing at the prow, watching the yacht with hunger.  Most likely the captain.  A strand of seaweed stuck out from between his skeletal teeth, an eye patch lowered over one of the holes in his skull.

Leaning over the railing, Yumiko noted the ghosts floating over the water, robes covering their torsos, appearing radioactive green.  Black slime covered much of the side of the boat, leaving little doubt that the ship had emerged from the ocean floor to carry out the nefarious work of this crew.

“Miss Sato!”

Yumiko looked back to see three men, carrying buckets and ladles.  They looked to her for direction, eager to do what they could in the crisis, as they felt helpless.  “Set them down.”

The men obeyed, and with a flash of her blade, she cut out the bottoms of the dozen buckets, and poked holes in the eight ladles.  She moved quickly, like one accustomed to handling a blade, slicing through metal and wood with graceful strokes.  Her movements were more like an artist at a canvas, running a brush over a painting, than a swordsman accustomed to horror and violence.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Watanabe demanded, stalking up to her.

Yumiko didn’t look up as she worked.  “One way to outsmart The Funa Yurei is to leave out ladles and buckets for the ghosts that have been sabotaged.  They will try to fill the ship with water using them, in order to sink it, but will be unable to.  They’re too possessed by rage at their deaths to consider that their work is for naught.”

He frowned at her.  “How do you know this?”

“I have heard stories myself.”

He contemplated her for a moment, and when she’d finished with her work, she looked up into the face of the captain expectantly.  “Seems to me, you were expecting The Funa Yurei,” he said.

“I’m making the most of a bad situation,” she replied, noncommittally.

He looked up at the ghost ship, which was almost upon them, and then back at Yumiko.  “You’re that yokai hunter.”

“I’m here to keep the seas safe for crews such as yours,” Yumiko told him.  “Please, keep your men back, and let me handle this.”  She turned toward the ship as it slid silently alongside them.  It would have been better if the ghosts moaned or shook chains at them.  Instead, they worked in utter silence, as if they had no tongues to work with, and their bodies were but fog.

She heard the captain leave her, along with his men, and Yumiko took a deep breath as she lifted her sword in a defensive stance, gripping it with both hands.  “Come to me, tortured souls.  It is time to end your rule of fear.”

A ghostly hand appeared on the railing in front of her, and one of The Funa Yurei pulled himself onto the ship.  He floated over the deck by about an inch, no feet apparent beneath his robe.  His skeletal hand reached out for the buckets and ladles that Yumiko had laid out, and he tilted his head in Yumiko’s direction, as if mocking her, his jaw falling open in a silent laugh.

Then she allowed him to leave her side with a bucket.  A moment later, he returned, splashing a few drops of water onto the deck, before disappearing again. 

And then ghosts arrived by the dozens.  Yumiko stood stark still as they swirled around her, grabbing for buckets and ladles, and dropping over the side of the ship to retrieve water.  She didn’t move until all of the ghosts had vacated the ghost ship.  Then, when the captain stood before her, she looked up into his lone empty eye socket.  “I am sorry for your suffering.”

The ghost lifted his head, as if considering her words, before Yumiko sliced into his body with her sword.  The moment her sword connected with him, he vanished.

And then she went into a feverish dance, her sword flashing over the bodies of ghosts as they reboarded the ship with their buckets, barely wetting the deck.  With every stroke of her sword against the ethereal body of a ghost, another ghost vanished.  They didn’t seem to notice what was happening to their brethren.  They were so caught up in their task, in the anger that seethed within them, burning green through their spirit bodies, that they didn’t realize what was happening until they felt Yumiko’s cold steel.  And by then, it was too late. 

It was a graceful choreography of death that had her arms arc wide, as if to embrace the dead, her body leaning into them without a shadow of fear flickering across her features.  She kept swinging her sword, like she sensed their approaching presence rather than saw them.  It was almost like she could intuit where the specters would appear, and their actions.  Anyone watching would assume that she was calling them to her, as if she was the very siren who had caused their untimely deaths initially, come to finish the job.

When Yumiko cut down the last of The Funa Yurei, the ghost ship suddenly pitched forward and began to sink into the ocean once more.  She stopped to watch the mermaid as it penetrated the water, and was swallowed by it, the rest of the ship following its lead.  After the entire ship had once again disappeared beneath the surface of the water, all was still and quiet once more, as if it had all been a dream.  Even the fog lifted, bringing them back to reality.

Yumiko lifted her sword and stared hard at the surface for a moment, watching the swirling green figures trapped within as they roiled and protested.  And then they disappeared, and she was left staring back into her eyes again.

Sheathing the sword, she turned to find Mr. Watanabe standing behind her.  “You used us,” he accused.

“I am sorry for any trouble I’ve put you through,” Yumiko said, bowing deep.

Mr. Watanabe watched her for a moment, then sighed.  “I can’t believe what I just saw.  You’ve made the seas safe for us again.”  He shook his head.

“That was my intent,” Yumiko said, standing straight and looking around at the buckets and ladles left strewn over the deck.  “I will pay for the damage I’ve caused to your equipment.”

“You do that,” Mr. Watanabe said, crossing his arms.  “Now, may I have the part you stole from our autopilot?”

Yumiko reached into her pocket and held out a small cylinder with wires coiling out from each end.  Mr. Watanabe accepted it, looking it over with a shake of his head.  He glanced up at her with a mixture of annoyance and appreciation.  “I am grateful for what you’ve done, Miss Sato, and don’t take it personally when I tell you that I never want to see you again.  You put my crew in danger.”

“I know,” Yumiko agreed.  “And you will never see me again.”

“See that you’re true to your word.”

Yumiko watched him as he rounded the corner and disappeared, then turned to stare out over the calm, dark water again.  She reveled in the cool balm of the night air following her fight, and felt satisfaction fill her chest.  She’d never desired gratitude for her work, hadn’t expected it, so the captain’s cold treatment hadn’t come as a blow to her.  But she’d done well.  No more sailors would suffer.  No more families would be steeped in grief after hearing of their loved ones’ deaths at sea.  She had made the world a little safer tonight.  And she could be happy with that.

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