Dark Moonlight 2.jpg

The Killing Moon

by A.M. Broadous

February 2021

 

February 12, 1464

 

1

 

Ohan Moru clasped his bloodied hands together in the dimly lit room. His reddened eyes swelled with tears and fell onto the tatami mats as he chanted the words: “I renounce the light and shall never return.” His body surged with a dark force that exited his bald head, toes, and fingertips in a streak of black shadow. As powerful as it felt, it was nothing compared to despair.        

 

Not even close.

 

The man fell to his hands and knees and sobbed silently. The ritual was complete. He had become a Dark Master, the antithesis of a high monk and the scourge of divine messengers of light. His path would now be as black as his kimono, which had seen its share of grazed flaming arrows from samurai and kunai from mercenaries.

 

Would this be the path? he thought. The path that would give him control over himself?

 

Two knocks at Ohan’s shōji brought the man out of his inner line of questioning and onto his feet. He wiped the wetness from his cheeks, slipped on his sandals, and approached the far window, which let moonlight and the slightly dampened wind of February into his room.

 

Two more knocks.

 

Ohan straddled the windowsill and looked below. It would be a long drop, but he was able to manage it and tumbled across the dirt. He darted into the main road. Not far from his position were lantern lights bobbing in the hands of charging samurai.

 

He could kill them all with a wave of his hand if he wanted to, for the strength of a Dark Master granted him even more power than he had before. But he didn’t want to kill them. There was only one person he did want to kill. Once again, he felt the hotness in his eyes and the buckling in his throat.

 

“There he is!” the samurai shouted meters away. “Ready your arrows!”

 

Ohan turned his head. The light of the full moon swam in his watery eyes.

 

The horses’ galloping became increasingly louder.

 

A samurai at the inn’s window saw Ohan on the road and came charging out.

 

Ohan could suddenly hear the whistling of projectiles past his ears and just above his shining head. He sped farther into the forest and chased the moonlight, hoping he could leave the samurai ensnared in Aokigahara’s mossy undergrowth.

 

Why was he running? Didn’t he want to be free?

 

Freedom, he thought, would shortly be his if the armor-clad warriors’ arrows found their mark. He contemplated this as he leapt over a fallen tree and hunkered down. The inner turmoil was too much for him to bear. Around him, lichen-coated tree trunks began to blacken and decay. The grass and fungi withered as well, creating a hotspot of disease around the shuddering man. Ohan peeked his head up just as a samurai glanced in his direction.

 

“Death clings to you like a child, Ohan Moru!” the samurai leader hollered. It took everything in him to force the sound to carry through the void of Aokigahara, which was sparsely illuminated by moonlight.

 

Ohan buried his face in the crook of his arm to stifle his sobs.

 

The samurai leader stepped forward carefully. The white light from above brightened the area in front of him, and he could see the line of death creeping toward him like a dark fire. “Villagers have grown pale with sickness and died while you were in the vicinity,” he said hoarsely. “Rose buds recoil when you walk down a road.” He looked down at his feet. The brush wilted near his toes, and he took several steps back. “This very forest degenerates with your presence. Show yourself!”

 

Ohan swallowed the salt of his sorrow and rose to his full height from behind the tree. “I do not want to harm anyone,” he choked out.

 

“It is far too late for that,” the samurai spat. He motioned for a dozen of his comrades several paces from him to draw their bows. Another man stood beside him: a samurai with a Z-shaped scar on his cheek.

 

Each archer had his arrowhead aimed straight at Ohan.

 

The samurai leader held up his arm. “Steady.”

 

The anguish in Ohan’s damp eyes, which began to take on a purplish hue, told him to obliterate the men before him. It was the Dark Master inside him, a voice he’d hoped would allow him to stabilize his abilities even if it meant walking in darkness. After all, he’d walked in darkness for years. Why not become the darkness? So far, it was working. He gained enough control to unsheathe a small knife at his side.

 

“Steady,” the samurai leader repeated. “We don’t know what this man is capable of. This needs to be a fatal shot.”

 

“He could use his sorcery at any moment,” added the samurai with the Z-shaped scar.

 

Ohan could see a break in the branches above where the moonlight fell like a heavenly pillar upon the forest floor. He strode over, knife in hand, his head poised like a wolf.

 

“He’s moving!” bellowed the samurai. “Stay on him!”

 

The Dark Master still felt hot tears sliding down his face. It was time. He finally had control over his life. Ohan stood directly in the white beam and took in one last look at the luminous object before shoving the long metal blade into himself and twisting it around.

 

The samurai lowered their bows at their leader’s command.

 

Ohan gasped and gurgled. He dropped to his knees and lowered his head. With a shaking hand, one that seemed to act against his own command, he touched the back of his neck and drew a ball of glowing purple light.

 

No, Ohan thought. No. It was a surreal moment, one akin to a man drowning himself only until his body rejected his wish and acted purely on survival instinct.

 

Only it wasn’t his body denying his death. It was his soul.

 

The orb rose slowly above the column of moonlight and vanished from everyone’s curious gaze. Ohan’s eyes flashed that same purple hue a final time and went out black as death. His knife-pierced corpse remained kneeling, and his head bowed forward as if in eternal prayer.

 

The samurai leader, seeing no further movement from the fallen man, ordered his men to remove the body and place it upon a horse. They did so with haste. Once they ventured a kilometer outside the forest, they incinerated Ohan Moru in the middle of an empty road and galloped away. The night wind carried his ashes everywhere and nowhere.

2

 

March 9, 1474

 

Nozomi Itagai knelt in her garden and gently lifted the limp necks of her irises. She didn’t understand how, in a matter of hours, yellow blossoms brimming with afternoon sun had diminished so swiftly to shriveled black petals in the soil. The woman had her dark hair done in a bun, revealing a smooth face tanned by daylight. She rolled the sleeves of her burgundy-colored kimono midway up her forearms and cupped one of the many dead flowers that seemed to match the rest of Aokigahara’s landscape. Then she started weeping.

 

Three samurai, clad in grey-and-blue karuta and each astride dappled brown horses, approached Nozomi’s inn. One of the samurai’s horses pulled an empty wooden cart. The leader, Hideo Tatsuya, wore a helmet fixed with short antlers and a face mask. He and his men turned into the property as Nozomi dried the last tear on her face.

 

“Hello, Nozomi,” said Hideo as he and his companions dismounted their horses and walked across the dirt-lined grounds of the inn. “Is Benjiro here?” He gestured toward his two companions. “You know Toruga. My other comrade is—” he hesitated.

 

“Zensa,” said one of the samurai, who donned a red headband and kept his hand on his katana as a defensive measure. He had a young face peppered with shallow scruff and a flying squirrel on his shoulder.

 

“Apologies, Zensa,” Hideo said and turned to face the woman. “Zensa is a samurai who resides in another village and is not a member of the Tatsuya Domain. However, he has asked to accompany us on our patrol. We just need your husband by our side, and we’ll be on our way.”

 

The woman nodded. Her mouth trembled.

 

Hideo bowed his head slightly and slowly approached the woman.

 

Zensa and Toruga waited near the horses, steady and alert.

 

Nozomi still had a lifeless iris in her palm.

 

“Allow me,” Hideo said, crouching low and holding out a gloved hand to take the dead flower from Nozomi.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, putting the iris tenderly in the man’s hand. “I didn’t mean to get so emotional.” Her voice was soft and sweetly melodic.

 

Hideo put the flower in a canvas sack tied to his waist. “You’ve worked hard to keep this garden alive in the midst of so much desecration around us. I can tell it means a lot to you.”

 

Nozomi quivered, and the tears welled up once more. “It’s not just the flowers. Benjiro went for a walk in the woods three weeks ago, and he never returned. He always returns. I’m afraid something terrible might’ve happened.”

 

“I see.”

 

The woman sniffled and turned away from the samurai.

 

“We will discover the truth,” Hideo said, standing upright. “We won’t rest until we find Benjiro and bring him to safety. He is a skilled warrior and no doubt a loving husband as well.” He bowed.

 

Nozomi mustered what little smile she could and nodded. “Thank you.”

 

Hideo stepped out of the garden and ordered his men to mount their horses. Together, they rode deeper into the forest as evening cast its blunt orange light over them.

 

“Dead vegetation is becoming more commonplace,” Zensa commented as he and his companions traveled on cracked, drought-ridden paths. Not a single shoot of weed or petal of blossom found its way at the hooves of his horse.

 

“Yes,” Hideo said with a sigh. “This is not a good sign.”

 

“You’ve dealt with this before?”

 

The samurai leader nodded. “A man named Ohan Moru was believed to be a sorcerer. He all but decimated everything around him ten years ago. He committed seppuku in these very woods. We burned his body, yet it seems his trace remains somewhere in the wilderness. Benjiro Itagai was with us that night and has been ever since, so it is imperative that we find him.”

 

“What do you propose we do?” asked Zensa. “Scour the forest?”

 

Hideo grunted in the affirmative. His glowering face mask’s bushy white moustache bounced with each cautious step his horse took across the unsteady terrain. “It is the twenty-ninth dead garden this week alone,” he continued. “Then there are the choked rice fields and stricken grasslands. More villagers are vanishing at night just like Benjiro. I know Ohan Moru cursed these lands before he perished. I saw it with my own eyes.”

 

Zensa ducked his head as he rode deeper into the winding thicket. It, too, was devoid of foliage and looked as though it had seen roaring wildfire years prior. “What did you see, precisely?” Zensa inquired.

 

“Moru pulled a purplish sphere from his neck and sent it floating into the sky. It must have blanketed this entire land in his wretchedness.”

 

“Hmm,” Zensa said.

 

Hideo urged both Zensa and Toruga to quicken their horses to a particular spot in the wooded area. “Up ahead is where it happened,” he explained, pointing his finger to a location about 30 meters from their position. “Though it was a decade ago, it feels as though it happened yesterday.” He paused. “In a forest far greener of course.”

 

Aokigahara, still a silent chasm, had become an eerie no-man’s land. As the samurai pressed on, they saw the tawny light of sunset raining over five dark silhouettes that seemed to hover above the ground.

 

“What?” Hideo said. He tightened his hold on the reins and trudged on with his men.

 

Five nooses cinched the necks of five female villagers. They hung still in the now-windy hollow.

 

“This is horrible,” Toruga said. It was the first thing he said since they’d first entered the forest, and it came out as a sudden breeze.

 

“Now we know where some villagers have been disappearing to,” said Hideo, shaking his head. He looked at their dangling corpses. “What could possess them to give in to such sorrow?”

 

“Do you see a trace of Ohan Moru anywhere?” Zensa asked.

 

Hideo shook his head. “It’s difficult to discern much of anything in this raw woodland.”

 

“We cannot simply leave these villagers to rot,” Toruga added.

 

“Cut them down immediately,” Hideo ordered. “Then we’ll give them a proper burial.”

 

Toruga and Zensa unsheathed the tantō blades at their sides and sliced the ropes. The bodies dropped to the ground, and the two samurai piled them onto the small wooden cart that Toruga’s horse had pulled into the forest.

 

All the while, Hideo had his eyes fixed on the flying squirrel that still latched onto Zensa’s armor. “Fond of small creatures, Zensa?” he asked.

 

The man smiled warmly. “This one.”

 

“What is his name?”

 

Zensa patted the furry creature on the head. “Homayo.”

 

“Does he linger even during battle?”

 

“He does,” Zensa said matter-of-factly. “He’s my best friend.”

 

Hideo gave a single nod. “Interesting.” He looked above. The evening sun was almost completely dead. “Let us depart while we still have enough light to guide us.”

 

The three samurai were able to negotiate the treacherous woods and exit to the main road as the moon arrived, enshrouded by a horde of clouds.

 

“I am afraid this is where we part,” Zensa said. “I trust you will see to it that these villagers find an adequate place to rest.”

 

“We will do just that,” Hideo said. “Thank you for joining us, Zensa. Do return to your village safely. These lands still run rampant with some demonic force.” With a final nod from the samurai leader, he and Toruga continued their course ahead.

 

Zensa pulled his horse off the road and dismounted. When only a dry March wind came to greet him, he snapped his finger, and a flood of white smoke came over him. As the last billow dissipated, he had a long brown beard, sandogasa atop his head, brown kimono, and a bamboo walking stick in his hand. He was Zanza Shichigoro, the unsuspecting master ninja with a pure purpose.

 

The flying squirrel on his shoulder jabbered and twitched his nose.

 

Shichigoro smiled. “I never thought I would disguise myself as a samurai either, Homura. But it’s over now. We’re back to our normal selves.” He gently slipped the tack off his horse and let the creature traipse freely where it pleased. Then he returned to the main road and tapped his walking stick all the way back to Nozomi’s inn.

 

On another path, Hideo Tatsuya and Toruga dismounted their horses and made the long journey back to Aokigahara on foot. Their eyes began to gleam with a purple light just as the moon escaped the grasp of a lonely cloud.

 

3

           

Nozomi introduced herself to Shichigoro upon his arrival and welcomed him inside her inn. “You look tired,” she added.

 

“It is merely the way of a traveler,” said Shichigoro. He had seen the sign outside the inn offering boarding at five ryō a night, so he opened a small sack at his waist and retrieved five flat pieces of gold currency. The man placed the money into the woman’s hand.

 

Nozomi graciously accepted the payment. “Is there something troubling you tonight, Shichigoro-san?” Her eyes were still moist and tinged with pink from a day of weeping. “It seems the very ground on which we stand is decomposing.”

 

“Like your garden,” Shichigoro said.

 

Nozomi’s eyes glistened once more. She approached one of the windows on the main floor of the inn and looked at her wilted irises struck by moonlight. “My husband and I tended it every day. He still hasn’t returned. Three samurai were supposed to find him and bring him back to me.”

 

“They found five bodies,” explained Shichigoro. “All women who committed suicide.”

 

Nozomi turned around to face him. “You were with these men?”

 

“I was merely passing through. My only hope is that other villagers will not meet the same fate.”

 

The woman let several tears slide down her cheeks. She turned briskly away from the sandogasa-clad ninja. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Allow me to show you to your room.” She wiped her face and led Shichigoro upstairs to a set of shōji. Pulling the doors apart, Nozomi revealed a moderate-sized room with a small table and futon. The corner of the space hummed with the glow of a lantern. On the far side, a window welcomed a breeze and a drape of pale blue moonlight into the room.

 

Shichigoro bowed to Nozomi. “I thank you for your hospitality. This lodging is lovely.”

 

Nozomi returned the bow and managed a smile. “Please let me know if you need anything more.” She slid his doors shut and returned downstairs.

 

Homura popped his head out of Shichigoro’s kimono and dashed across the man’s left shoulder. He then glided to the floor and sniffed two off-color marks on the tatami mats.

 

Shichigoro curiously watched the flying squirrel’s erratic behavior. With more scrutiny, the man noticed that the creature had indeed picked up on something: two vague handprints faded with time.

 

Homura looked up at the ninja and squeaked.

 

“Very sharp eyes, Homura,” Shichigoro said. “It is a wonder why you didn’t become a shinobi as well.” He laid his bamboo walking stick on the small table and returned to the mysterious scene. Hovering his fingertips over each handprint, the bearded ninja slowly brought them to the floor. The moment he did, a flash of light overcame him and brought a vision to his very eyes. He saw a cottage in Edo and two bandits with black headbands. They prowled the perimeter with two spears in hand. On a final countdown, they tore through the shōji and through a woman and a young boy. They then swiped two barrels of rice and sped off into the black night.

 

Soon after, a bald man in his middle years came bounding through the open holes in the doors. He dropped a barrel of fish at his feet. Crimson poured from his family, and tears poured from him. He could do nothing to stop either, so he merely held his wife’s and his son’s soaked bodies, staining his hands and face with the liquid of their lost lives. When the man’s torment temporarily subsided, he knelt in the middle of the hut and closed his wet eyes tightly. The moment he opened them, they were a glowing purple. He twitched his head slightly and brought it up toward the ceiling as if looking for perpetrators via some ethereal searchlight.

 

He found them. Both of them.

 

The two bandits that had attempted to flee from the murder dropped the barrels of rice just outside the cottage and stood motionless. Their eyes, too, were glowing purple.

 

The man rose to his feet and came outside. When he saw the bandits, his bright, blazing gaze became a dark beacon. He shot up his arms and curled his fingers as if he were molding invisible clay.

 

The bandits’ bodies jerked and contorted in the air. They collided against one another once, twice, then 24 times.

 

With a final motion of the man’s hands, the purple hue burned out of the bandits’ eyes, and they dropped to the ground, disfigured and without a wind left in them. The man wobbled to his knees and gave in to the water welling in his eyes, which settled back to chestnut brown. Moonlight peered over a throng of clouds and washed over him in an attempt to bring the light back into his life.

 

But the light was gone completely.

 

Shichigoro, hand still pressed upon the floor’s bloodstains, saw the vision vault suddenly to another blur of scenes. He witnessed the bald man wandering from village to village. Flowerbeds, woodlands, and the blades of grass at his feet lost their chlorophyll and succumbed to death in his wake. Travelers who bumped into him by accident on narrow roads felt a bright purple light enter their eyes and leave it just as quickly. All the while, the man shook with grief, a twinkle of purple glinting off each tear as it made its way down his face and off his chin.

 

A montage of similar spectacles plagued Shichigoro’s senses until a final scene saw the man running down a road, the same road Shichigoro had walked mere hours ago. Frantically, the man turned into an inn and paid Nozomi and a man called Benjiro for a room.

 

Benjiro was dressed in a dark blue nagagi, grey haori, and white hakama. His face was recently shaven, which made the Z-shaped scar on his right cheek more prominent. He had a single katana tucked in his black sash and looked curiously at the man. Then he smiled and warmly asked, “What is your name so we can log it?”

 

The bald man steadied his breathing. “You can log me as ‘traveler.’ I hope that will suffice.”

 

Benjiro nodded. “Very well.” He and Nozomi showed the man to his upstairs room and returned to the main area below to welcome another guest to the inn.

 

What happened next was all too familiar to Shichigoro: the blood ritual of a Dark Master. When it was finished, the room went black, and the vision fell from Shichigoro’s sight completely. The ninja offered a hand out to Homura so the squirrel could crawl up his sleeve. He stood upright, walked out of his room, and descended the ladders to the bottom floor where Nozomi stood looking out the window.

 

“Something about the moon tonight doesn’t seem quite right,” the woman said in almost a whisper.

 

“And yet, to me, it seems like the perfect night for a moonlit walk,” Shichigoro said.

 

Nozomi turned around slowly. “You need rest, Shichigoro-san. You look—”

 

“Tired, yes,” Shichigoro remarked with a smile. “As I said, it is merely the look of a traveler.”

 

The woman’s marginally upbeat expression diminished to one of worry. “Another man from some other village called himself a mere traveler years ago. I knocked on his door, and when I entered the room, he was gone. Members of the Tatsuya Domain had told my husband and me that the man’s name was—”

 

“Ohan Moru,” said Shichigoro.

 

Nozomi’s eyes widened.

 

Shichigoro smiled. “I shall return shortly.” He exited the shōji and began the long walk to Aokigahara. On his dirt path, which the dry winds had fractured ceaselessly, the area in front of him seemed to weaken by the second. Small black beetles at his feet lay defeated on their backs, and squirrels were prostrate.

 

Then he felt it: the aching fatigue that Nozomi had noticed on his face. The pure sense of exhaustion brought his steps much closer until he stopped moving altogether. His body, even the hair on his arms, was seized by a powerful force. For a moment, he lost consciousness, yet his legs started to work again. He passed by a broken wagon in the road, and purple light glinted off the metal surfaces. He knew what his eyes were doing, but he couldn’t regain control. The unyielding power forced him into the bare forest of Aokigahara where the pale moonlight, turning steadily bluer, seemed to call him ever forward. Homura emerged from the man’s sleeve and tugged at Shichigoro’s beard, trying to force him from the path.

 

Shichigoro’s eyes were a lantern guiding his possessed body to a tall tree deep in the woodland. From one of its many skeletal limbs, a rope swayed in the breeze. The ninja used a stump lodged into the earth as a stepstool, took hold of the frayed jute, and tied it into a noose. Then he slipped his head through the loop and tightly cinched the knot.

 

Homura tried his best to gnaw at the rope.

 

One foot off the stump, Shichigoro heard a voice within him, which seemed to scream, Halt! He looked up with his bright stare. The giant blue moon was staring back and bore the sorrowful visage of Ohan Moru, his cheeks cratered and running with tears.

 

“No,” Shichigoro said in spite of the force commanding him to lose his footing entirely and let the rope squeeze the life force out of him. It took all his shinobi strength, but he was able to finally break free of the grim influence. The purple hue evaporated from his eyes entirely, and he loosened the rope. All the while, Ohan’s face on the moon’s surface continued to weep.

 

The bearded shinobi, free of the dark hold, was fully aware of his environment. On either side of him were Toruga and Hideo Tatsuya dangling limply from their respective tree branches. Though he knew the samurai were long dead, Shichigoro untied the ropes and laid the bodies flat on their backs. He then adjusted his keen ninja eyesight on another hanging corpse where the blue moon cast its light like a pillar through the treetops.

 

Homura also noticed the new scene and glided down from the rope and onto Shichigoro’s sandogasa. He dropped to his shoulder and slipped into the man’s kimono.

 

Moving closer to the scene, the shinobi knew at once whose body the samurai warrior belonged to. He was wearing the same blue-and-white attire as in Shichigoro’s vision, and the Z-shaped scar on his right cheek was unmistakable. But his left cheek and limbs were mostly exposed sinews of tissue and snow-white bone picked away by the dry winds of necrotic Aokigahara.

 

“I found you too late, Benjiro Itagai,” Shichigoro said. He was about to climb the tree to unhinge Nozomi’s fallen husband when the pale blue moonlight around him brightened almost blindingly. Shichigoro shut his eyes and moved away from the area. The moonlight surged for approximately seven minutes before it ceased abruptly. From the moon itself came a single blue orb that descended from the sky and into the forest like a long forgotten pearl in the vastness of the ocean. The orb then floated above Benjiro’s drooping corpse and entered him through the back of his neck, sending a bright burst of blue light over his frame.

 

Shichigoro watched the uncanny spectacle unfold right before him: the way Benjiro’s eyes emanated a blue glow and the way the seemingly dead samurai used his bony hands to remove the blade of his katana from the saya. With a single swipe, the samurai cut the rope above him and dropped to the ground. Momentarily, the man faltered to his knees, which barely held the weight of his torso. Then he rose to his full height, the noose still draped over him like a scarf, and fixed his glowing eyes on the ninja in front of him.

 

“Benjiro,” Shichigoro said.

 

The decomposing samurai shook his head. “Ohan Moru.” The sadness in his quiet voice was nearly palpable.

 

The ninja glared at the man. “They said you were a sorcerer. Now I know precisely what kind. You are an Ikiryōjin, a controller of the souls of the living.”

 

Ohan Moru bowed his head slightly. “In a past life, I was indeed an Ikiryōjin.” His skeletal appendages gained newfound strength, which gripped his katana fiercely. “I have transcended my old ways and have now become a Shiryōjin, a controller of the souls of the living.” He paused and touched his decaying face. “And the souls of the dead.”

 

Shichigoro merely looked at him, stunned. This man was a necromancer of sorts, he thought, something he’d never seen or heard of in his many years of being a ninja master.

 

“A living man’s soul takes on a purplish hue,” Ohan explained, “whereas a deceased man’s soul is blue in color. And I know blue.” His tear ducts, no longer intact, couldn’t fully display the anguish in his voice, so he gritted the few rotten teeth Benjiro still possessed.

 

“I know what happened to you, Moru,” Shichigoro said calmly, approaching the Shiryōjin. “You lost your family, that which was most precious to you, to bandits.”

 

Ohan closed his eyes, momentarily shutting out the blue light.

 

“It brought great sorrow into your life,” continued Shichigoro. “Unimaginable pain.”

 

His eyes still shut, Ohan said, “I did not know they were bandits.”

 

Shichigoro raised his chin slightly in intrigue.

 

Ohan tightened his grip on the sword. “I saved those two men on the road from four rogue Ikiryōjin, whom I shortly dispatched. Afterward, when I looked into these two men’s souls, I saw not a trace of malice.” The man’s grief-stricken voice grew more unsteady. “Even as an Ikiryōjin, I failed to see the truth behind the soul of humanity. And as a father and a husband, I failed as well.”

 

“You merely lost your way,” Shichigoro said. “It happens to us all. I once walked the path of an assassin but no longer. Every soul can be redeemed with time.”

 

“Mine cannot,” Ohan uttered bleakly. He then looked at the ninja with a trembling, disintegrating jaw. “Neither can the soul of humanity. Humankind will feel my sorrow until there is no humankind. The earth will feel my sorrow until there is no earth. I cannot control myself.”

 

The air around Shichigoro thinned, and the roots underneath the brittle soil weakened, sending several trees crashing down around him. He flipped into the air, dodging each fallen trunk, and dashed away from the Shiryōjin.

 

“I am a slave to sorrow, ninja,” Ohan said, charging at Shichigoro with a single-handed grip on his katana. He held up his free skeletal hand in front of him as he ran.

 

Like before, Shichigoro felt the chill of a dark force overcome his body, and an electric-blue paralysis confined his senses. He fell to his knees. Unable to lift his head, he saw the ground before him worsen with a dying thirst. Then he saw the skeletal feet protruding from the broken straps of sandals and felt cold steel lightly touch his neck.

 

“Just one strike will release you,” Ohan said softly. “You may weep now if the tears must fall. I will give you a moment to feel the sorrow.”

 

Shichigoro closed his eyes and, like before, freed himself of Ohan’s nearly impenetrable grip. He didn’t allow himself to move, and he kept his eyes shut. Tapping into Ninpo, his powerful ninja magic, he let a small black orb dance in front of him. Slowly, the ball became the size of a fist.

 

“What?” Ohan said, his blade still touching Shichigoro’s neck. “It appears you’re ready for death, so I shall oblige.”

 

The steel left Shichigoro’s neck to where it formed an arc above him. Before it came back down in a single stroke, the black orb vanished in a burst of green light, and the ninja vanished with it. He reappeared on the other side of a red torii gate in a vast expanse of villages that sat on a dry riverbed of a landscape. Craggily trees peppered the environment, and winds that held not a drop of moisture swept around Shichigoro, who finished creating a sign that read Sorrow Prefecture. When his labors were complete, he approached the gate and saw Ohan Moru peering through the ethereal veil like a child looking through glass.

 

Eye to eye with the Shiryōjin, the ninja said, “You and I and countless others in this world hold Greater Ki in our souls. That is what allows us to harness unique abilities. Left unchecked, Greater Ki can destroy lives. This Prefecture’s torii will appear to those who lose their way. Until they come to terms with their grief, they must remain in this safe haven. That is the only way to their salvation.”

 

Ohan tried to enter the gate without success. He sheathed his blade and pressed his skeletal hands against the barrier.

 

Shichigoro sighed and shook his head. “There are thousands of rogue Ikiryōjin like the ones you encountered on the road. At present, they are endangering villagers as well as themselves.” He paused. “You know that better than anyone. There are more hidden spaces like this that I have already constructed. All repel the forces of Ikiryōjin. This is how it must be until the Ikiryōjin can learn to control their skills and live in harmony with the rest of the world.”

 

Ohan rested his forehead against the clear barricade and could only look within the ninja-created world he’d never enter.

 

“This is how I save you from yourself,” Shichigoro said. He stepped out of the gate and returned to Aokigahara. With a snap of his fingers, the torii disappeared.

 

Ohan bowed his head in dismay and dropped his hands at his sides. Then he brought his skeletal digits out in front of him. “A lack of control has kept me alive. My senses drive me.”

 

“Drive them out,” Shichigoro demanded.

 

The Dark Master’s blue eyes pierced the dusty air. Against his will, his arms shot forth and, again, seized Shichigoro. “I cannot.”

 

The ninja’s posture stiffened like rigor mortis, and Homura bulged from the inside of his kimono.

 

“Die,” Ohan said shakily. He slowly approached the shinobi.

 

This time, Shichigoro couldn’t free himself. He could hardly move his carpal joints.

 

“Die.”

 

Shichigoro pulled at his senses, but they rebounded and brought him back to stasis.

 

“Die.”

 

The bearded ninja felt his very soul writhe within him, a sensation that covered his body in an arctic freeze. Then it stopped.

 

Ohan staggered a moment, and, with a thud, the corpse of Benjiro Itagai hit the dead forest floor. “That’s it,” the Dark Master whispered. “Die.” The blue radiance in his eyes dimmed. At last, Ohan Moru overcame his own misery, his own soul, and allowed himself to leave the temporary vessel. The blue orb extricated itself from the back of Benjiro’s neck and floated high above the trees to someplace beyond the earth, beyond the moon, beyond the falling stars, and beyond the falling tears.

 

Homura emerged from Shichigoro’s kimono and sat on his shoulder. He looked at the ninja with his bulging eyes.

 

Steadying himself once more, Shichigoro smiled. “Once again, old friend, you’ve stuck with me to the end. But we’re not quite at the end, are we?”

 

Homura looked down at Benjiro’s corpse.

 

The ninja nodded. He discarded the noose and took the fallen samurai’s body into his arms. Then he exited Aokigahara with the faithful flying squirrel on his shoulder. When he finally returned to Nozomi’s inn, the grieving widow nearly ran to Shichigoro and to her dead husband. The man set the body down and let Nozomi feel a whirlwind of emotions that left her speechless and gasping for what seemed like an hour. All the while, Shichigoro put a hand on her shoulder.

 

“My husband is gone,” said Nozomi, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “He is gone, but the garden we built together is returning.”

 

Shichigoro saw the irises jolt back to life in the moonlight. “That it is.”

 

“I hope he’s found peace,” Nozomi choked out.

 

Looking to the moon, which returned to a milky white glow in the night sky, Shichigoro nodded. “As do I.”