An excerpt from Mojo Mori’s debut novel:
A faint sound made the man freeze, his heart racing. Holding his breath, he listened intently. Utter silence prevailed for several moments. Then his ears detected furtive sounds—the soft, irregular noises of a living creature creeping through the grove nearby. The man rose to a crouch, laying his hand on his sword-hilt as he peered into the gloom.
Suddenly, the silhouette of a man glided stealthily between two trees not seven feet from where the traveler crouched! The fog provided a background against which a peasant’s wide straw hat appeared clearly. The fellow also bore a suspiciously long pole in his hands. A second and third, each carrying a similar pole, followed the first. A moment later, the traveler glimpsed the trio moving to his left, creeping methodically through the grove and thrusting the long poles into any place that might conceal a man. Hunters! But of men, not beasts.
The traveler immediately recognized his danger. The long poles were spears, and it was for him the men were almost certainly searching. He did not know if they were agents of his lord’s enemies, attempting to thwart his mission, or merely robbers alerted to potential prey by the innkeeper at the village.
Who they were mattered little at the moment. They would surely kill him if they found him. If he remained in the grove, they were certain to discover him soon. Though he was not unskilled with a sword, the traveler knew he stood little chance against three men at once, particularly men armed with spears.
The man climbed to his feet as quietly as he could, picking up his own straw hat from the forest floor. Easing himself through the trees slowly, and cautiously, the traveler moved away from the three men and in the direction of the road. He could no longer see or hear the hunters. His heart beat violently as he stole among the trunks, keeping one hand outstretched to feel any obstacles hidden in the murk before he stumbled noisily into them. His whole body was tense with the expectation of steel plunging into his flesh from the thrust of an unseen ambusher’s spear.
Soon he reached the far end of the grove. He would have liked to proceed more cautiously, but he knew that lingering even a moment too long might well prove fatal. Once clear of the pines and away from the hunters, speed would prove essential. A clump of small bushes stood between the road and the end of the grove, clinging precariously to a low bank. He clambered down through them carefully, trying not to tangle his legs with the thin branches and snap one loudly. Fortune remained with him, though, as he made his way through them without breaking any, and he was relieved to feel the road’s firm earth under his feet.
The man moved off along the road as swiftly as he dared, his straw sandals making little noise on the damp, hard-packed dirt. Crouching low to make his silhouette less visible, he glanced warily from side to side as he fled. In the pre-dawn light, the road seemed lined with dark, mysterious shapes watching him in brooding silence. He found himself keenly aware of how far away he was from safety, and how close he still was to the men trying to kill him.
A sense of looming menace dogged the man, almost as if he could feel the breath of a pursuer on the back of his neck. The recollection of the innkeeper touching his shoulder as he slept returned to him with blazing clarity.
Is that how they tracked me so easily to the grove? he wondered, as a new fear tingled along his limbs. Did that man put a devil on my back, which rides there even now? If he did, then their witch will know which way I fled!
He had no choice. Better to deal with it now than after daybreak, when he could be seen for miles along the road. The traveler halted and reached deep into his garments. After a moment, his questing fingers found the small bag where he kept sacred salt from the shrine at Shiogama, which he had kept for just such a moment. After whispering a desperate prayer to Shiotsutsuno-oji-no-kami, he withdrew a large pinch of the blessed salt and threw it over his back. Immediately, he felt lighter, and freer, as the sensation of clinging menace left him.
Looking east, he saw that the line of pale light along the horizon’s edge was growing. Despite the fog’s uncertain protection, he knew he needed to put more distance between himself and the pine grove where danger had come stealing upon him on padded feet.
Once he had gone two hundred paces from the grove, the traveler stood more upright and picked up speed with longer, faster strides. He was still stiff from his night’s sleep, but he was refreshed too, and he could feel that he had the strength to run until noon, if need be.
As he ran at a relaxed, ground-eating pace, he listened for the sound of heavy feet running up behind him, holding himself ready to turn and fight for his life. But he heard no sounds, and when he occasionally looked back, he saw no human forms moving amid the gradually fading fog. He went on for half an hour before halting for a moment at the top of a slope leading down to a footbridge across a stony mountain stream. It was morning now, and the sun had fully risen, but silence lay over the lank, motionless grasses almost as thickly as the mist hovering over the water.
The man drew in a deep breath, released it slowly, then walked quickly down the slope towards the stream. Despite the meal the night before, the exertion had stirred his appetite and he wished he had bought food for breakfast at the village.
The traveler walked quickly through the fog, his hand poised close to the hilt of his sword. His ears detected no sounds beyond his heart’s swift drumming and a faint whisper of air breathing through the roadside grass, despite his urgent listening. The traveler’s eyes stabbed right and left as he walked, trying to pierce the solemn white vapor hanging sluggishly half a pace above the ground.
The man now felt grateful for the straw sandals he wore. He welcomed their presence even though they had become sodden from the wet road, with water soaking through to chill the soles of his feet. Normally he would have preferred the cleanliness of a pair of geta, that would lift his feet comfortably above the mud. But with peril skulking at his heels this morning, the filthy, water-logged sandals offered him what he now craved more than anything—silence.
The traveler descended a slope towards a stony creek, noting the wooden footbridge crossing the swift mountain stream, whose dark waters gurgled and splashed steadily in the deep pre-dawn hush. He glanced up at the facing hillside, his eyes questing for signs of danger among the pines that dotted it.
Well, perhaps they were only brigands after all, the man thought as he crossed the wooden footbridge and began to climb the facing slope. He looked back and saw there was still no sign of his pursuers.
The fog swirled for a moment as a soft breath of morning breeze rolled down from the green heights above. The white curtain parted, almost as if by human hands. The traveler looked out over the grassy slope falling away to the left, down to the curve of the stream he crossed moments before. Beyond it, a second, thickly-forested slope mounted towards the unseen sky. It seemed to him that the hillside next to him lay empty except for a few paltry shreds of mist that refused to dissipate.
The traveler took a few steps, then, feeling a sudden prickling along his neck, looked to his left again with a sinking feeling in his heart. The slope was no longer empty! Three men now stood on the slope ahead of him, perhaps fifty paces distant. All three were staring in his direction, their eyes dark pits under the wide brims of their straw hats.
Spider legs of horror stalked up and down the traveler’s spine. He knew of shinobi, the assassins who knew the occult secrets of the ghost world. Some said they could track their prey swiftly and surely with the aid of spirits, and bargained with terrible creatures from beyond the grave for even stranger powers. Were these hunters who had made him their quarry such men?