Nothing Left for the Crows.jpg

Resurgent Souls, Act I

by A.M. Broadous
November 2021

The following contains graphic content that may not be suitable for sensitive readers.

May 30, 1413

 

1

 

Zanza Shichigoro had received orders to assassinate the man coming slowly up the road. But that was far too quick, too simple. Too painless.

 

The man, Goro Kojima, wore his remaining black hair in a spiky ponytail that shot up and sprouted like a small palm tree atop his bald head. His face was pasty and took on a quality of light beige clay molded into discernible shapes of a sloping forehead, fat nose, pursed, chapped lips, and the beginnings of a second chin. The faded blue armor he wore, which covered only his torso and left every other part of his body exposed, did not belong to any samurai clan of distinction. In fact, it looked as though it had been pieced together by Goro himself, some loose-fitting patchwork of rusty iron and woven reeds. He sat astride a sienna-colored farm horse that lumbered among 11 other horses, all light brown. The men who rode them looked equally as haphazard and unkempt as Goro. But in spite of their appearance, each had a katana strapped to his waist, including Goro himself.

 

Shichigoro watched the 12 horses draw nearer. He clutched his ninjatō in a large, egg-shaped haystack that hunched by the side of the road like a lost and dejected traveler. Just a little closer, he thought. Then, another thought occurred to him: Why was he still hiding, waiting for his moment to strike hard and strike fast? After everything he’d heard from his master about Goro, didn’t the man deserve to suffer as he’d made countless others suffer? Shichigoro tried not to let these harsh contemplations corrupt him. Still, they persisted.

 

The horses’ clacking hooves on the road softened as the terrain transitioned from stones and hard, cracked mud to easy patches of grass. Goro chuckled when one of the men told a vulgar joke. Suddenly, all men erupted into hysterical laughter as their steeds sauntered forward.

 

Shichigoro doubled his grip on his weapon and gritted his teeth in the hay. That laughter, he thought. What was so amusing? Was it an anecdote brought about by years and years of debauchery of the worst sort? Though Shichigoro could tap into his ninja magic, Ninpo, and hear even the most undetectable intonations of the men’s voices as clear as a shout, he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to listen to a story brimming with their warped ideas of manly conquests as spittle flew from their crooked, gaping mouths. But what would he do instead? Shichigoro closed his eyes and drew in a razor-sharp breath.

 

Goro and his men now had tears in their eyes. They held their stomachs with one hand and their reins with the other. The road seemed to grow fatter with their stinking mirth. It wasn’t until a man appeared as quickly as a lightning bolt that the laughter finally wound down like a racing pinwheel brought to a halt by a dead wind.

 

The man before them was dressed all in black, apart from the wide straw sandogasa on his head and the wooden bow and quiver of arrows on his back. In an instant, every last piece of hay shook itself from his uniform and his long brown beard and fell to the ground. He marched over the hay with his jika-tabi boots as he came forward.

 

“You’re blocking the road,” Goro said hoarsely, all humor gone from his voice. The men around him grumbled, which was their way of echoing the man’s flat statement.

 

Shichigoro stood motionless.

 

“I see,” Goro snorted, dismounting his horse. “You’re an assassin.” At the word assassin, the other men fumbled with their horse tack and slid awkwardly onto the road. They shuffled to Goro’s side and unsheathed their katana with bold hands. Goro then took out his own sword. Its folded-steel surface was caked with maroon, slowly turning to a dull brown. Clearly, the man didn’t believe in chiburi, the act of removing his enemies’ blood from his blade before replacing it in his saya.

 

Shichigoro’s eyes never left Goro’s. He had the stern, unwavering fortitude of a bear, but he didn’t lose his composure. He never did. That was the way of a true ninja master.

 

“Draw your weap—” Goro didn’t finish the imperative. He saw a flash of clean silver at the man’s side. The assassin unsheathed the weapon so rapidly that Goro’s eyes didn’t even have time to register it. Still, he held his own sword out in front of him. “Come on!” he bellowed.

 

Shichigoro took a ninjutsu stance. “This is for the women,” he said calmly. “All of them.” Then, he took one blindingly fast step forward.

 

2

 

Three hours earlier

 

Like many times before, Master Inoue sent every member of the Yoru Clan on his or her separate missions before addressing Shichigoro alone. He always had a special task in mind for the sandogasa-clad ninja and saved it for last like a sweet sticky rice ball powdered with cinnamon. Master Inoue sat cross-legged at the foot of a maple, the late-afternoon sun lighting the summer trees above him like great bushels of green fire. He wore black everywhere but the thin eye opening of his mask and his naked digits, which splayed from his gauntlets and rested comfortably on his armored kneecaps. His shins, feet, thighs, upper torso, shoulders, arms, and forearms also boasted iron armor. Beneath his cloth shinobi garb was a single undergarment of chainmail that did not rustle but adhered to his aging yet lean body like a glove. He considered his apprentice with thoughtful black eyes that masked every emotion the man possessed or once possessed.

 

Brown-bearded Shichigoro, also sitting cross-legged at the foot of a maple, had his ninjatō resting dutifully on his long legs and his bow and quiver, filled with sawtooth-edged obsidian-tipped arrows, lying beside him in the grass. Like Inoue, he wore a black jacket and pleated shinobi hakama, which bunched at his thighs and tapered down, clinging tightly to his shins. His only pieces of armor were his dark gauntlets. He’d worn his sandogasa since he was a Chunin, the lowest rank of ninja. That was long, long ago. Strong, concentrated Ninpo had granted the man an unnaturally long life. With proper practice and sharpened skills, the man knew he could continue living for the next several hundred years and more, just like Inoue. But aging would come later. At this moment, he sat upright and waited for his master to speak.

 

“There is another target, Zanza,” Inoue finally said, his voice raw and harsh.

 

Shichigoro only nodded. “Who is it?”

 

“To know his miserable name is to know the evils a man is capable of committing.”

 

“What has this man done?”

 

Inoue never stirred. He sat rigidly and began to explain. “There is a farm not far from our current position. This farm was a sprawling place of honest work, a haven for industrious women, and women alone, to tend the cornfields that often glowed like gold. During a summer like this one, these good women would consume that sweet gold by the spoonfuls. They would even ride into neighboring villages to share their bounty. Many reaffirmed the sentiment that it was the sweetest gold they had ever tasted, a product of agricultural savvy and good soil.” Inoue gave a slight sigh. “But those golden days swiftly diminished when a group of outsiders arrived.”

 

Shichigoro shook his head solemnly.

 

Inoue nodded. The wrinkles visible in his eye opening clustered together fiercely. “This group was led by one called Goro Kojima. Men knew him. Against their will, women knew him better.”

 

Shichigoro closed his eyes and said, “So, he is that kind of man.”

 

“Man?” Inoue said incredulously. “No, Zanza. Not a man. Shortly after arriving, Goro and his associates offered to help these women in exchange for humble lodging. The women obliged, albeit reluctantly. Kojima has a way of slithering his way around most people and securing his hold on them. He and his group stayed on the farm over the course of one week and departed.” Inoue paused. “However, they never truly departed.”

 

Shichigoro pursed his lips and kept his eyes on his master.

 

“The evening of their supposed departure,” Inoue continued after clearing his throat of what sounded like gravel, “Goro and his men disguised themselves as scarecrows in the cornfield, the same scarecrows they had built while working on the farm. When the last golden sliver of daylight burned out, they seized the women. They used them as vile men do. They tortured them. Then, when the final golden light left these women’s eyes, Goro and his group tied their naked bodies to wooden posts and left them to scare the crows.”

 

The sandogasa-wearing ninja held the ninjatō in his lap so tightly his knuckles turned as white as snow.

 

“Yes,” said Inoue. “Your indignation is justified, Zanza.”

 

“Did you cut these women down and give them a proper ceremony?” Shichigoro said with surprising calmness. He released his hold on his sheathed sword and relaxed his body.

 

“I have cut them down,” Inoue said, looking at Shichigoro straight in the eyes. “But I have not yet given the ceremony. That is a job for two ninja of the Yoru Clan, not one.” He stood to his feet.

 

Shichigoro nodded and also stood up. “Show me the way, master.”

 

Inoue moved his feet together and then brought his hands together in a ninjutsu finger gesture. In an instant, he disappeared in a puff of white smoke. His apprentice did the same, and they both converged upon a large cornfield. The tall stalks swayed like shy dancers in the summer wind. Master Inoue moved through the swishing green curtains until he and Shichigoro made their way into a pumpkin patch in the midst of the cornfield. Many of the crisscrossing vines of the carefully tended farmland boasted yellow flowers the size of a child’s hand. Beside the bright petals, 12 bodies lay wrapped with straw mats. Looming above their immobile frames was a bare wooden post with makeshift footholds.

 

Even now, Shichigoro could see Kojima pouncing on an unsuspecting farm woman from the post. He donned a frayed and torn white haori, black hakama, and a burlap sack over his head. When he descended upon her, the woman’s shriek was followed by 11 other screams in the field. They kept screaming. And screaming. With the mercy of a devil, Kojima and his group finally cut the screams short and brought the women to their naked fate, which now found them lying covered and prostrate at the feet of Inoue and Shichigoro.

 

“Now,” Inoue said, not losing a trace of his commanding voice. “Now we must take them away from this place, Zanza. Return to our meeting place in the maples.”

 

Shichigoro nodded. He and Inoue transported the women’s bodies effortlessly through a misty-white ether, and they materialized once more in the small forest from which they had first departed. The sun had moved through the maples slightly. In a few short hours, it would be just above the horizon.

 

Inoue lit candles, rolled out several ceremonial mats, and wrapped shide streamers around the branches of one of the large trees. Both he and Shichigoro said a prayer to the gods for the women and buried them two meters below the green forest floor using Ninpo. When their work at hand was complete, Inoue still stood. He turned to Shichigoro and said, “And now Goro, never to be called a man, deserves death, Zanza.”

 

“Yes,” Shichigoro said softly. “He is near. I picked up his trace at the farm.”

 

“Good. See to it that he is silenced.”

 

Shichigoro made no comment, only gave the slightest of bows, picked up his bow and quiver and slung them over his right shoulder, and turned to walk out of the forest.

 

“One more thing, Zanza.”

 

The bearded ninja stopped but didn’t turn around to face his master.

 

“There are flocks of crows dropping suddenly to their deaths on the road,” Inoue explained gravely. “As if by a fright so terrible it stops their beating hearts.”

 

“Then it seems Goro Kojima has become a living scarecrow,” Shichigoro said blandly.

 

Inoue gave a single humorless laugh. “I have also heard it said by the Karasu Clan that there is always one crow that does not belong in the flock, a crow that seems to nod and understand more than such a simple creature should. When it shrieks, other crows falter on the wing and fall to their demise. But somehow, they return from death. Tengu have also perished and have once again breathed life mere moments later in the vicinity of this wayward crow as if by some necromancy.”

 

“And you believe Kojima and his group will return as well?”

 

This time, the humor found its way in Inoue’s chuckle. “Not if you bring swift justice to them, which only the Yoru Clan is capable of delivering. Go now, Zanza. End this monster’s days of villainy forevermore.”

 

Shichigoro nodded and took a final step on the forest floor before disappearing in a cloud of white smoke.

 

3
   

Swift justice came like a summer thunderstorm.

 

But Shichigoro wanted the crackling thunder to last, to linger, to roil in the road and flash its sharpness as vengefully as his blade, which bolted through the back of Goro Kojima’s makeshift armor and out the other side, to where Goro’s personal space suddenly filled with a dripping red line. The miscreant stared stupidly down at the sword’s thin edge growing from his stomach. His armor cracked in halves, thirds, and sixteenths and fell in a scramble of pieces on the road. His frayed scarecrow attire was now fully visible. Shichigoro gripped the cord-wrapped tsuka of his ninjatō and pivoted the stuck criminal like a cannon to where he faced his comrades. The ninja then began turning the blade over and over with a sickening squelch of Goro’s innards.

 

Goro screamed at first, but the sound quickly drowned in a gargle of blood and bile, which flowed from his mouth, staining his white haori.

 

Goro’s comrades, their big eyes shocked with white terror, dropped their swords and backed up toward their horses, which kicked up dirt in a frenzy of wild hooves.

 

Goro clutched the whetstone-sharpened edge of Shichigoro’s blade and tried to remove himself from its death grip. His palms began to run red with his fruitless efforts, and he dropped his hands at his side, defeated but still standing.

 

Shichigoro gritted his teeth and continued to churn the steel through Goro’s midriff, which was now completely saturated with the scarlet essence of his foul life. The ninja master no longer felt the give of Goro’s internal organs and ribs, for he had slowly worked them into a soft pulp, his sword slicing a U-shaped path across the hapless villain’s abdomen and up through his chest. After a final counter-clockwise rotation, Shichigoro pulled the blade out of Goro and, in the same blurred instant, took a clean swipe just above his shoulders.

 

Goro’s head pounded the earth twice, rolled, and swiveled in front of his shaking accomplices. Almost instantly, their horses bellowed in unison and reared their legs up, striking the men in the face, and raced away from the gruesome scene.

 

Goro Kojima’s body gushed blood from its torso sideways and toward the sky. It twitched on legs that seemed to gain a last stand of mobility then fell to its knees and toppled onto its side. Blood still poured from its belly, now a gaping hole, and sputtered from the clean-cut stump that had once served as a fat foundation for a laughing head.

 

The laughs were now as dead as Goro himself.

 

Regaining consciousness, Goro’s henchmen rolled to their sides and were greeted by their leader’s twitching mouth, which formed no words of merriment. They screamed and staggered to their feet. Before they had time to clear away the motes from their vision, they found themselves running like their horses before them.

 

You won’t get far, Shichigoro thought. He flicked Goro’s blood off his instrument of death and replaced it in its sheath at his side. Then, like clockwork, he removed his maple bow, fit 11 arrows on the sturdy string, and let them fly.

 

They found their marks with incredible speed and accuracy. Shichigoro had aimed the arrows at the henchmen’s backs in direct paths to their beating hearts. Carefully carved maple rods tied with razor-sharp obsidian torpedoed through each pumping organ and continued to speed down the road without pausing to consider the running cowards, who hit the dust before a final breath of summer air could leave them.

 

They were now all dead. Shichigoro replaced the bow over his shoulder and observed the carnage in his wake. He walked forward, side-stepped Goro’s severed head, and stooped to look it in the eyes. One filmy orb peered dazedly down the road while the other stared directly at the Yoru Clansman. Gradually, the dead organs took on a faint, ghostly blue color, and the one glaring at him even seemed to wink.

 

No, Shichigoro thought. Not possible. He rubbed his own eyes for several seconds. When he set his sights back on Goro’s eyes, he found they were once again a kind of translucent white. They had returned to their dead surveillance.

 

The ninja stood upright, exhaled deeply, and retreated from the head until he was two meters from it. Once more, he took in the complete scene that lay before him. He wouldn’t bother burying or burning the bodies strewn about the road. That was far more than the scoundrels deserved. He thought that, if his master’s words were indeed true, then the crows would descend upon the corpses, die, then continue their feast. But that thought brought no comfort to the ninja. It brought a chill, and Shichigoro’s skin broke out into gooseflesh the instant he heard the bird’s distinct shrill cry.

 

A lone crow flitted through the air, circled Goro’s head from high above, and parachuted onto it. The crow then turned to look at the man standing in the road.

 

Shichigoro glared at the bird. For a moment, he saw a twinkle of the same blue light enter its beady eyes, and it disappeared as quickly as it had come. With a chill creeping over him more coldly than the first, Shichigoro could see what seemed to be a smile stretched upon the crow’s charcoal beak.

 

Then, it flew away.

 

4

 

October 2, 1475

 

Sunflowers seemed to bow slightly before Zanza Shichigoro as the man walked steadily down the empty road. He tapped his bamboo walking stick casually with each stride and let his flying-squirrel companion perch on his shoulder. The passing villager in the distance, he thought, would’ve noted his long brown beard, dark brown kimono, and sun-washed sandogasa and assumed he was a mere traveler going wherever the wind took him. He would have no idea that he was a former assassin of the Yoru Clan, a man who once bathed in blood and shadow. He would have no concept of the man’s stoic heart tempered by compassion and an undying will to never wield a blade again.

 

When the man came, he simply nodded toward Shichigoro and pressed onward.

 

Shichigoro smiled to himself. He was truly a new man. It felt good to be out of the shadows and in the sunlight, which had dimmed now that evening was approaching. By the time Shichigoro arrived on the farm, there was a swirling orange sunset just above the gossiping corn stalks. His shinobi senses refined exponentially, Shichigoro took in a breath of sweetness that lay just beyond the browning husks.

 

Still ripe for the picking, he thought. He kept walking to the farmhouse.

 

Three women all wearing a dark grey kimono looked up from their work and eyed the man ambling his way toward them. One of them, an elderly woman with wavy white hair, stood rigidly while the other two pulled their hoes from the dirt and held them like naginata. Another two women in the farmhouse took notice of their companions’ defensive postures through the crosshatched wooden bars of a window. They retrieved a set of throwing knives and opened the sliding paper doors only a sliver. If they so much as saw the man twitch, they’d stick him like a wild hog.

 

“Who are you?” said a woman with a raised hoe, who Shichigoro presumed to be the leader. The tone of her voice was low and commanding. It reminded Shichigoro of the kunoichi masters and grandmasters of the various clans he had once known. “Speak now or we will kill you,” the woman added. She had black hair done up in a bun and light brown skin. Her scowl creased her pretty face, and she gritted her teeth.

 

Shichigoro detected every woman on the farm. Three before him. Two just beyond the shōji of the farmhouse. Five on the second level. Four on the top level. And three on the farmhouse’s thickly thatched roof. They hunkered down with bows and quivers and trained their stony arrows on him.

 

“When Hinata asks you a question, you answer,” said the woman to Hinata’s immediate right. She had black hair like Hinata but was substantially younger. Her ponytail whipped about her when she shifted her feet into a more resolute stance, her hoe pointed directly at the man before her.

 

“My apologies,” Shichigoro said with a smile followed by a bow. “I am merely a wanderer. My name is Zanza Shichigoro.”

 

“What is your business here, Zanza Shichigoro?” Hinata said sharply.

 

Again, Shichigoro smiled, this time with his lips and his eyes. “I have been told this farm is known for harvesting the sweetest kernels in Japan.”

 

“Season’s over,” Hinata snapped.

 

“Ah,” Shichigoro said. “It would appear so, but I would venture a guess that some corn remains.”

 

Hinata sneered. “And you’ve come to take it, is that it?”

 

Shichigoro shook his head, the warm smile still on his face. “I have come to earn it.” He sensed that the elderly woman held something behind her. A tantō, Shichigoro suspected. Still, his eyes never left Hinata’s.

 

“Earn it?” Hinata said. “How do you intend to earn it?”

 

Shichigoro’s expression darkened somewhat. He brought his eyebrows together. “It is my understanding that you are facing an unknown threat on this farm.”

 

Hinata looked at him curiously. “How did you come to this understanding?”

 

“Call it a feeling.” Shichigoro gave a lighthearted chuckle. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you tend to develop a kind of intuition.”

 

Hinata’s eyes narrowed on the man before her. “You don’t look that old. Are you a spy? Whom do you work for? Where are your comrades?” Thick veins stood out on her forehead and neck.

 

The flying squirrel, balancing atop one of the corn stalks, glided to Shichigoro’s sandogasa and dropped to the man’s shoulder.

 

“Allow me to introduce you to Homura, my faithful companion,” Shichigoro said with a warm smile. “He is my greatest friend, my comrade, you might say. I do not know where I would be without him.”

 

The young woman at Hinata’s side smiled at the creature and turned to look at her leader, who showed no sign of amusement. The woman quickly dropped her smile and tightened her grip on the hoe.

 

“I’m not interested in your pet,” Hinata spat. “I asked about you.”

 

Shichigoro gave a slight nod and spoke his next words in almost a whisper. “I understand your trepidation. Years ago, you lost family on this farm. It is only natural that you maintain caution when meeting any stranger.”

 

Hinata was momentarily stunned. She licked her lips, which she had pressed together so firmly that they had nearly turned white. “Do you know how we lost them?” In spite of this man’s bewildering awareness, she didn’t allow her voice to waver in the slightest.

 

“A monster by the name of Goro Kojima defiled them,” Shichigoro said softly.

 

At this, Hinata lowered her hoe and ordered the young woman to do the same.

 

“I am only regretful,” Shichigoro continued, “that I did not put a stop to his cruelty sooner.” He explained how he had stumbled upon the farm, seen the women’s bodies tied to the scarecrow posts, and cut them down in order to give them a proper burial. He deliberately left out the details of Goro’s bloody massacre in the road. Instead, he told Hinata and the other women about villagers he’d met on the road who knew of Goro’s misdeeds and who had concluded, without a doubt, that he and his followers were to blame for the horrific transgressions at the farm.

 

“Where were they buried?” the elderly woman spoke up. Her soft voice was shaky with age.

 

“In a beautiful maple grove,” Shichigoro said. “They deserved as much.”

 

Hinata spoke up next in a voice that was less commanding and much more sympathetic. “Asa was here when it happened.” She nodded to the elderly woman. “She was only 16 and managed to escape. If she hadn’t—” Hinata stood by Asa and put her free hand on the woman’s shoulder.

 

“I see,” Shichigoro said.

 

Hinata turned her attention to the bearded man before her. Once again, her strong, confident voice returned. “We appreciate you sharing your story, Zanza Shichigoro, but we cannot take any chances. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave this farm.”

 

The last word of her statement didn’t find its way to Shichigoro’s ears. Instead, another sound took its place: a deafening squawk in the bobbing cornfield. It was the thunderous screech of some otherworldly crow carried by the autumn wind. The sun itself seemed frightened by the noise and took shelter under the horizon. Moments later, it was replaced by a bright moon.

 

Hinata, her eyes fixed on the cornfield, said, “Goro Kojima is not the only monster to walk on this farm.”

 

5

 

While Asa and the young woman stood watch in the same place near the farmhouse entrance, Hinata showed Shichigoro the monster traps.

 

The corn stalks, once alive with chlorophyll, were now mostly yellowed jackets shouting to one another when Shichigoro and Hinata pushed through the field. Hinata led the ninja to an empty patch blanched with moonlight.

 

“I should not get too close, should I?” Shichigoro said, surveying the space. “There must be sharpened bamboo spikes underneath this loose cover of dry grass and corn leaves.”

 

Hinata looked at the man sideways. “Very perceptive. Have you done this kind of thing before?”

 

Shichigoro smiled without humor. “You could say that.”

 

“There are a dozen more like this trap,” Hinata said, not wishing to press further into Shichigoro’s past. She took out a scroll in one of the pockets of her kimono. “To keep our women safe, we mapped out the field, noting these hazards.” She handed it to Shichigoro.

 

The shinobi unrolled the scroll and studied it carefully for several minutes. Satisfied, he gave it back to Hinata, and the woman replaced it in her pocket.

 

Another loud shriek nearly buckled the nearby corn stalks. It was getting closer.

 

Shichigoro looked at Hinata. “I have heard that call before. As I’m certain you have already deduced, it is no ordinary crow.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“It is a Karasu-Tengu, a one hundred-legged crow beast. And it is precisely that: a beast. It is nothing you have ever before seen.”

 

Hinata’s mouth twisted but not entirely with skepticism. “But they’re a myth, a fairytale.”

 

Shichigoro gave a single nod. “You will find that myth and truth intermingle more often than you know.”

 

The woman studied Shichigoro. The moonlight only intensified her beauty. In reality, she could have been the man’s great-great-great granddaughter. “I—” she started. “I apologize for dismissing you earlier.”

 

Shichigoro waved a hand. “No apologies necessary. As I mentioned, I understand your state of mind.”

 

“You don’t strike me as an ordinary wanderer.”

 

At this, Shichigoro chuckled. “So I have been told.”

 

“We could use your help.”

 

The bearded ninja smiled. “You already have it.”

 

Hinata smiled back for the first time. It was a warm, bright gesture that completed her beauty. “You’re correct that there’s plenty more sweet corn to be harvested even this late in the season. We’d be happy to share it with you once this business is over. Many have said, if pure gold had a taste, this corn would be it.”

 

Shichigoro nodded. “I am certain I won’t disagree with that sentiment.”

 

Hinata bowed, and Shichigoro returned the gesture. They both made their way out of the small clearing. Closer still, the hair-stiffening cry of the Karasu-Tengu rang out.

 

“Assemble the women,” Shichigoro said. “Gather the largest weapons you can manage. Arrows will do, but I’m afraid tantō blades will not be of use to us in this fight.” He was thinking of Asa’s small dagger she held behind her back when he’d first arrived.

 

Hinata nodded and dashed toward the farmhouse.

 

Shichigoro remained. The dry corn stalks crashed about like waves as the wind picked up and the moon was lost to the clouds above.

 

Another ear-blasting squawk.

 

Closer, Shichigoro thought. He closed his eyes. Suddenly, he could sense the Tengu pacing back and forth 11 meters from his position. He nodded at Homura, still perched atop his shoulder.

 

At once, the flying squirrel took to the air and found a corn stalk to shimmy his way up. He watched with his big button-like eyes as his companion slipped his way through the field.

 

Shichigoro stepped over dozens of dead crows on his way to the Tengu. He stooped down to examine them more closely. They weren’t partially eaten, nor did they have so much as a missing feather from their bodies. Clearly, it wasn’t an attack. It were as if they had dropped dead suddenly by some invisible force. While contemplating the mystery, he saw a flicker of blue light enter their cold black eyes like blood permeating a small body of water. The ninja master stood upright and backed away. The birds were beginning to twitch and writhe on the floor of the cornfield as if stirring in a nightmarish sleep. One by one, their eyes glowed blue, and they took to the skies on wings that careened them this way and that. They looked like puppets wobbling their way to Shichigoro, but the ninja master couldn’t see the strings no matter how much he focused his ninja sight. He held his bamboo walking stick in front of him as the crows dove at him like winged kunai, their beaks sharp and ready to tear into the man’s flesh. Shichigoro sidestepped the birds with incredible speed. When they came around again for another airborne attack, arrows rained down upon them.

 

Hinata and the other women entered the fray, bowstrings pulled back as far as they could go and long-handled farm tools raised in the air. The leader gave a single nod to Shichigoro, which told the ninja master to press onward, that they had the area covered.

 

Shichigoro nodded back and continued his course. Another of the Karasu-Tengu’s bellows threw the man off his path. The sound was now 25 paces east of his current position. Instead of dashing through the corn, Shichigoro closed his eyes and envisioned his destination. With a sudden jerk of his body into a fixed ninjutsu stance, the man disappeared in a cloud of white smoke and, in a fraction of a second, reappeared in a pumpkin patch within the cornfield.

 

With a clarity so poignant it hit Shichigoro like a kunai knife, he realized it was the same pumpkin patch in which Master Inoue had placed the women’s straw-wrapped bodies those many years ago. And the scarecrow post loomed several meters from him like a weathered reminder of enduring evil.

 

Shichigoro stared at the crude wooden structure for several minutes. He then turned his attention to his other surroundings. The pumpkins were mostly carved into faces like Oni demons and Daitengu, a breed of Tengu even more menacing than the Karasu-Tengu. Another method of warding off danger, Shichigoro surmised. The ninja looked upon these fearsome carvings and suddenly heard a hard rustling sound above the constant chatter of the wind-blown corn stalks bordering the space. When nothing came, he looked back to find a single crow on the scarecrow post. It made no noise, only stared at Shichigoro with glowing blue eyes. Then, its dark grey beak curled unnaturally into a smile, the kind of smile a wrinkled old crone might give while concealing a dirty secret about her misdeeds.

 

Shichigoro knew that smile. It was the same one stretched upon the crow’s beak when it had first flown into his life years before. The same smile the crow had given after lighting the eyes of Goro Kojima’s severed head. Like then and now, the ninja master thought it was the devious smile of a witch.

 

Seconds later, thunderous footsteps sounded from behind the post, followed by toppling corn stalks. Then, at last, the Karasu-Tengu came forth, its one hundred legs carrying the massive crow ever forward. It shrieked as it bolted, an ungodly sound coming from a giant yellowish-grey beak. Its black eyes, like polished obsidian, were fixed on Shichigoro.

 

The smaller crow took to the air just before the Tengu smashed the scarecrow post into shambling splinters and kept running toward the bearded man.

 

But that was its mistake.

 

The ground beneath the Tengu caved in, and the creature’s taloned feet scrambled all about to gain purchase on solid earth. The beast had time for one last roaring squawk before numerous bamboo poles, sharpened to fine points, skewered it like unagi.

 

A cloud of black feathers the size of Shichigoro’s forearm filled the ninja’s line of sight. When they died down, Shichigoro saw, with wide eyes, that in place of the scarecrow post was a scarecrow, a scarecrow with the unmistakable torn haori and hanging armor fragments of Goro Kojima.

 

Shichigoro shut his eyes and opened them immediately.

 

Goro was now a hazy blue specter with the floating garments of a dead man. In place of his once-grinning head was now one of the pumpkins carved with the face of a Daitengu: giant eyes, a large space where its long nose would’ve been, and jagged teeth. From within the pumpkin glowed a brilliant blue light like a ghostly fire.

 

When the crow overhead ceased its circling, it landed on Goro’s pumpkin head. Its smile persisted. Its eyes glowed.

 

“You’re blocking the road,” a cold, ethereal voice came from Goro. The undead scarecrow surveyed the spike pit and the ninja that stood on the opposite side.

 

“Goro,” Shichigoro whispered. It was Goro’s soul brought back to this plane of existence, the handiwork of this wayward crow.

 

From within the pit, the Karasu-Tengu’s black eyes shot forth the same blue light that now emanated from Goro Kojima. The monster began to thrash about, trying to free its own corpse from the bamboo spears. When it succeeded, it stumbled to its many legs and eyed Shichigoro with its unnatural lighted gaze. With one gust of wind underneath its gargantuan wings, it propelled itself in the air and landed with surprising grace beside Goro and the crow.

 

Shichigoro could do nothing but watch the scene unfold.

 

Goro floated onto the Tengu’s back and settled on the creature like a horse. Fully astride, he tugged at the giant crow’s feathers with ghostly fingers, and the beast stretched its wings outward. Each wing touched the corn stalks lining the expanse.

 

The ninja on the other side gripped his bamboo stick tightly, ready to make the most sudden move if the Karasu-Tengu and its riders attempted to fly over the pit.

 

“Those women deserved their fate,” Goro’s eerie voice taunted. “And now I will do the same to these women. Unless, of course, you think you can stop me with that stick of yours.”

 

“I do not need a sword to stop you,” Shichigoro said calmly.

 

“We will see,” Goro said. The crow on his pumpkin head was still grinning madly.

 

Shichigoro didn’t waste time. He disappeared in white smoke and found himself back where he’d left Hinata and the others. They were still fighting the legion of crows.

 

When Hinata saw him emerge from the strange white cloud, she ran to him. “Zanza, the crows, they just—”

 

“Will not die,” Shichigoro said. “They return like ghosts.”

 

“How did you know? Did you fight the Karasu-Tengu?”

 

“Come with me,” he said, ignoring the question. “All of you.”

 

Hinata looked at him, puzzled. “Where?”

 

In the distance, the Karasu-Tengu bellowed.

 

Shichigoro began to move his feet in a ninjutsu form, his hands working in concert. It was up to him and his Ninpo to save these women. He wouldn’t allow the undead to take them into their cold, taloned grip. Never.

 

“Zanza, what is this?” Hinata said. Around her, the women stopped firing arrows and swatting the air to watch Shichigoro create a black orb of pulsating energy from his palms. They moved in closer while the crows stirred on the ground. They’d have just a minute or two before the birds came to and resumed their unending assault.

 

The rumble of the Karasu-Tengu’s feet was closer now.

 

The black orb buzzed mid-air and sent a bright flash of green light in the clearing. When it receded, a looming red torii gate stood in its wake.

 

“Through the gate, all of you,” Shichigoro said.

 

“Zanza—” Hinata began, not certain of how to finish.

 

“Please do as I say,” Shichigoro said, still in that calm, reassuring tone.

 

Hinata and the women obliged. Asa was the last one to pass through. When she made it under the giant arch and was lost from sight completely, Goro and the crow appeared atop the crazed Karasu-Tengu.

 

From one of the corn stalks, Homura found his friend and glided to his shoulder.

 

Shichigoro took a final look at the three entities before passing through the gate himself. A second before the torii disappeared, he saw the crow stretch its beak into a cold sneer.

 

6

 

The peril ended the moment Shichigoro and the women made their way through the gate and to a sign reading Cornfield Prefecture. In this new world, the moon burst through the clouds, creating a kind of halo around the new expanse created by Shichigoro’s powerful Ninpo.

 

The women looked all around the area, confused. This place on the other side of the torii gate was a carbon copy of the farm they’d known for years but one that seemed to stretch farther than the land they tended. Rows and rows of yellowed corn stalks came to a vanishing point and continued their long, footless march beyond the horizon. Meters from where the women stood was a farmhouse and a stable full of white, brown, and black horses. Cattle also milled about the farmstead. Not a single crow circled the moonlit landscape. In place of the sinister birds’ cries was only the whispering corn.

 

Hinata couldn’t find the words to express what she was seeing and what she was feeling.

 

Shichigoro smiled at her. “As I said, myth and truth intermingle more often than you know.”

 

Hinata laughed nervously, a sound that didn’t befit her. “I suppose I don’t need to question anything anymore.”

 

“Question if you must,” Shichigoro said. “But also know when to believe.”

 

“Who are you?” Hinata asked in a voice just above a whisper.

 

“I am as you described so aptly,” he replied. “I am no ordinary wanderer.”

 

“That you most certainly aren’t,” Hinata said with another uneasy laugh.

 

Shichigoro chuckled. “You can relax, Hinata. You and the others are perfectly safe here. You will have everything you need to live peacefully in this land.”

 

The woman paused before saying, “You didn’t just come to our farm for corn, did you?”

 

“No. Like Goro Kojima, I, too, had ulterior motives. But unlike him, I wander to help those in need. These spaces I create keep everyone safe from danger of the worst sort.”

 

Hinata undid her bun and let her long, lovely dark hair spill around her face. “You’ve created more than one of these spaces?”

 

Shichigoro nodded.

 

“And we’re truly safe from the Tengu and the crows here?”

 

And from Goro Kojima, Shichigoro thought but didn’t say. Instead, he gave her a reassuring smile. “Yes. Tell the others they have nothing to worry about except how much corn they’ll need to harvest next season.” He summoned the torii gate, which would lead him out of the Cornfield Prefecture and back into the ordinary world. A world where the unprotected crops and skies and winding roads would lead to his next adventure.

 

“We won’t need to wait until next season,” Hinata said, rolling up the sleeves of her kimono. She gestured for the women to join her in the field.

 

The ninja master nodded and made the torii disappear with a flick of his wrist. He started to regroup with the others, but Hinata told him to relax near the farmhouse entrance. He did so without protest, sitting cross-legged beside his bamboo walking stick. He watched the hardworking women shuck and prepare the corn. At dusk, a thin fog rolled its way onto the farmstead, and the women’s work was complete. Everyone sat in a large circle, enjoying the sweet kernels of their labors in small wooden bowls. When Hinata asked Shichigoro how it turned out, he just smiled and said it was like the purest gold he’d ever tasted.