he cursed warrior came out of the west, where a dying sun was drowning in a blood-red tide of dust, the first harbinger of a windstorm blowing in off the flats. I was the one who found the cursed warrior, and in doing so became responsible for all that followed.
Had our village been only a few miles further east, or I had not seen his stumbling form lurching through the low woody scrub at the foot of the hill, he would have perished and we all would have been spared our fates. But the village was not further east and I did see him there, and so I must face my responsibility.
That evening I would have rather been sleeping, bundled tight against the hot wind, or tending the sheep, or swapping lies by the fire. But strange and horrible things were afoot in the world, spirits and monsters that walked the earth and someone had to watch out for them. And one of those watchers had to be me.
I was a guard, facing westwards on the barrens side of the village, looking out over the flats. The distant hills were already lost in the deep, churning, red dust. The cursed warrior was little more than a shadow, and at first I thought him a wolf or small dog raiding the village midden. But even then there was something wrong – the shadow was erratic and halting. It would rise up on its hind legs and sway in the dying light. At last the shadow resolved itself fully into a roughly human form, a human that might be drunk or wounded or both. I came down off my village’s low hill and went to him, my grandfather’s dagger still its sheath, but both hands clutching my spear.
The cursed warrior saw me, and raised a hand, though if it was to wave me off or welcome me I could not say. Then he slumped dropping to his knees. I approached him slowly.
He was a warrior, and a veteran, and he looked like he had passed through a battle in the realm of the kami itself. His armor was made of black lacquered reeds, splintered and shattered in some places, while other parts, like the shoulder plates and leggings, were missing entirely. The clothing beneath the armor was ragged and stained. He still had a sheath on his back, but no weapon. His sandals were worn almost paper-thin. As I approached, he remained where he slumped, kneeling among the long-shadowed clumps of grass.
I stood in front of him for a long moment, and then scanned the horizon for others. He was alone. A survivor? A deserter? For his part the warrior waited, and only when it was clear I was not going to slay him outright did he look up at me.
He was much older than I was, and his face should have been sterner and wiser. Instead it was streaked and grimy, tears carving new paths down his dirt-streaked face. From the mottled appearance of his face, he had been crying for days.
“All dead,” he said in a rusty, creaking voice, little more than a whisper. “War’s Wage claimed them all.”
I looked at the warrior, then back up to the village. I could go for help, but older man seemed fully capable of expiring in my absence. He didn’t look wounded, and despite his appearance did not seem to be diseased.
I shouted back to the village for help, and laid down my spear so I could use both hands to raise the exhausted warrior to his feet. As I did so, he spoke a single, croaking phrase, almost torn away by the gathering evening breeze.
And as the words left his lips, I realized I had made a horrible mistake.
“Are you sure of what he said?” asked Furuijin. He was the eldest of the village elders and it was both his job and his nature to confirm everything at least three times before he believed it.
I nodded. “Kataki comes after me,” I repeated for the third time. The older veteran had spoken the name of a powerful kami, of one of the great spirits.
Outside, the rising wind was already rattling the shutters and screens. The windstorm that had blotted the sun had arrived hard on the heels of the exhausted warrior.
Suroshian, the heavy one among the elders, made a deep, grunting noise, “So he invoked a kami’s name. What does that matter to us?”
Kiokuri, who served as scholar, scribe, and teacher, shook his head with a birdlike tic. “In these dark days, invoking any kami is dangerous. Their darker natures wander the land, unshackled by their old codes and promises. They bring doom to those who cross them.”
I said nothing but pursed my lips in agreement. Kataki was a spirit to whom the smiths sang as they forged spearheads, and the spirit each guard and warrior venerated with a whispered prayer when they honed their blades. A small shrine was in the armory, usually decked with small rice cakes. That shrine, and any other to the spirits, had been abandoned as the kami went mad.
Suroshian grunted again, “So he invoked the warrior’s spirit, what of it? Any warrior might do the same, to guide his blow or keep his blade from being shattered.”
Furuijin said, “His blade was missing when you found him. That is correct?” I nodded, and he continued, “And Kataki may have killed his companions.”
“All dead,” I repeated for the third time, “War’s Wage claimed them all.”
Suroshian grunted again, but Kiokuri interrupted before any words could rise out the other elder’s ponderous mass, “Kataki is known as War’s Wage, for it was the great protector-spirit that kept a warrior’s arms and armor whole. Kataki guided any blow struck in vengeance to its true target. Shining and noble it was, in better days.”
“So who exactly died?” said Suroshian. “His traveling companions? His unit? It is simple, then. They crossed a kami and were punished for it. Serves them right.” He swiveled a wattled neck towards me, “Do you know what unit he was from?”
I would have shrugged my shoulders, but one did not show disrespect to elders. “I saw nothing that would have been a unit marking. He had no shield or sword or pack. He had a waterskin, and that was flat and had not been filled for days.”
“A deserter, then,” concluded Kiokuri, “He might have fled the field of battle. Kataki would not like that.”
“No one knows what the kami like and do not like anymore,” said Furuijin, “They no longer even pretend to think like living creatures.”
“What battle?” asked Suroshian of his nervous comrade, “I have heard of no news of any battle.”
“He came from the west.” Said Kiokuri, and here Suroshian shot me a look but not one that asked for my reply, “There is nothing that way for miles but scrub and salt desert, until you reach the hills. He had to come from a military unit, which in turn had to be there for a reason for the unit to be there. Therefore, a battle.”
“Why would a military unit be in the hills, anyway?” growled Suroshian.
“Perhaps to protect the villagers from Kataki,” said Furuijin. ”Because of the distance, we would hear little from the hill communities. Indeed, entire wars could occur over the rim of distant hills and we would be unaware of them.
“His unit might have tried to protect a village from Kataki,” blurted Kiokuri, “Or from something else. This is no longer a peaceful world.”
“He could be a deserter,” grumbled Suroshian, “Or he could just be the survivor of an ambushed patrol. Or perhaps he just got lost from his column. Let him sleep on the storeroom floor this evening and we will send him on his way tomorrow.”
“That would be most wise,” said Furuijin, “Unless his compatriots were truly slain by the spirit Kataki.”
Suroshian’s heavy brow furrowed and Kiokuri interrupted again, “Indeed. For if he has called Kataki’s wrath upon himself, he is as good as dead already. Kami are notorious both for their capriciousness and there tenacity. They may take offense to the mildest thing, but once offended, are determined hunters.”
“And they will be offended by anyone defending the original offender,” said Furuijin.
“So we give the old veteran a bit of rice and fill his waterskin from the well and send him on his way,” said Suroshian. “If this spirit is following him, then it will find him without any of us around.”
“Aiding the offender in any way may inspire the kami’s wrath,” said Furuijin.
Kiokuri gave a birdlike tic and frowned. “By the same token, should the kami learn that we failed to stop the offender, it might seek to punish us as well.”
Suroshian let out a grunt that seemed to originate at his very core. “And of course we cannot ask the kami because they are all mad. Pity that the old man didn’t perish fifty feet short of getting here, eh?” The heavy-set Suroshian gave me a deep, glowering look.
“He could simply be mad, his wits strained by the long trip across the flats,” said Furuijin, “To turn out such a man would be a terrible thing.”
“So to would be to be caught holding him when Kataki arrives,” said Kiokuri. “That spirit cannot be fought by weapons we own.”
“Given that our weapons are blessed in its name, I suppose not,” said Suroshian.
Kiokuri shook his head and held up a hand for silence, “Kataki’s appearance is mild and weak at first, but if you fail to drive him away fully, he grows greater, much as a warrior’s dedication grows greater over the course of the battle. He is war’s vengeance, the spirit of retribution incarnate. It would be folly for us to oppose him.”
“It would be folly for us to try to guess its mind,” said Furuijin
Suroshian grumbled, “We should not keep the stranger. We should not abandon the stranger. We cannot even be sure if Kataki is truly chasing the stranger.”
Suroshian then said the following words slowly, but he was looking at me, not his companions as he spoke.
“Pity that this stranger lived long enough to give us this problem, eh?”
The elders continued to argue for a good while. They eventually remembered that I was in the room and dismissed me, though not before demanding a report one more time. I stepped outside and saw that the windstorm had crossed the flats and was now bearing down fully on us. The sky was not fully dark, but nearly so, and the leading gusts swirled among the houses. The salty dust pried up from the flats stung my face, and I shielded myself with a forearm as I made for the storeroom.
Despite the hour and the rising wind, there was still activity in the village. Families were checking shutters and blinds and making sure that everything was tied down. Old Taimanto, who had put off repairing his shutters, was now bellowing at his brother-in-law to hold the wooden frame straight as he pounded in the last few pegs. A bonfire was fighting the wind, and around it, the last remains of the first watch were passing around wineskins and rumors.
In the distance I could hear sheep bleating on the wind and the curses of the herdsmen trying to get them all under cover. The winds dropped for a moment, enough to let me hear the laughter of the other guards. For a moment, I was tempted to join them, take the wineskin, and complain about the elders. Let someone else take the responsibility for the old warrior.
Instead I made for the storeroom, a squat, windowless building across from the town well. Our guest had been situated in the front room, away from the barrels and urns and bins in the back. Rushatsu, another guard, had been posted at the front door, but he was sitting and looking longingly at the distant campfire.
“Anything?” I said.
Rushatsu shrugged, “Nothing that makes sense. He’ll start crying for a while, then stop, then start crying again. No requests. No conversation. No prayers. Nothing.”
I picked up the veteran’s waterskin, “Here. Go to the well and fill it.”
Rushatsu shook his head, “Kiokuri said not to feed him until they decided what to do about him.”
“I just came from there,” I said, truthfully “They’re talking about sending him on his way.”
“On a night like this?” said Rushatsu. “They should just put an arrow in him.”
I shrugged, my shoulders, more to avoid looking in Rushatsu’s eyes than in agreement with his words. He was still staring at me when I looked up. I held up the water skin. “Go fill it. And if you want to take your time, go ahead,” I looked over towards the campfire, and the wind died down again to allow a gust of laughter to waft over. “I’ll look after things here.”
Rushatsu hesitated, then took the skin and loped over toward the well. I entered the storehouse.
The forward room was used for packing and unpacking, and was bare, the few tools in the room locked back up in the main warehouse directly behind. The veteran was kneeling in the center of the room, an unused rice bowl to his right, a candle shrouded in waxed paper flickering to his left. He was no longer crying. Indeed, his face was as calm as that of a soldier’s on the morning of a battle.
“Hello.” I said. He made no response.
I kneeled before the warrior “Can you speak?”
“A little,” His voice was as dry as sand. “Water?”
“Getting it,” I said, “The elders did not want to offer hospitality until they were sure.”
“Careful,” said the veteran, looking down at his lap, “Good. We should have been careful.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Offended Kataki,” he said, his voice quivering on the name.
The warrior gave a weak cough. “So easy.”
“Yes, but how?” I asked, pressing.
The warrior looked up from his hands and in his eyes I saw madness. Madness, and perhaps a hint of something else.
“All the kami are insane these days,” he said. Then that something else in his eyes faded, and his face became slack. He looked down at his hands again.
“How?” I said, standing up, towering over the older man.
“Killed us all,” said the warrior.
“Killed who?” Your unit? Your allies? Who?” I tried to keep my voice flat, my irritation with the older man exiled from my speech.
“All my fault.” He said softly.
“Yes,” I implored, “But what did you do? Did you kill someone?”
“Warriors are supposed to kill.”
“Then did you fail to kill someone? Blaspheme the spirit? Did you betray your own? Did you desert? Did you run? Is that why Kataki pursues you?”
There was a long pause, and the closed shutters in the storeroom rattled in the wind. If the old man thinking or just struggling to speak the words, I could not know. At length he said, “I ran.”
I began to pace in the room, orbiting the man, knowing that Rushatsu would only waste so much time around the campfire. Time was short.
“Does Kataki want you dead?” I asked as I paced.
Another pause. “Who knows what the kami want? They are all mad these days.”
“The Kataki pursues you out of vengeance.” I did not ask this, but merely stated it. I knew what must be done, what Suroshian told me to do without telling me. Someone needed to make a decision.
“Yes.” The old warrior said softly.
The wind howled outside.
“Its too late, anyway,” he added.
I stood behind him now. I pulled my grandfather’s dagger from its sheath, hoping not to alert him. He probably heard the whisper of the metal against the sheath but did not flinch. For an insane moment I thought of invoking Kataki to keep my blade true, but decided against it.
“You should . . .” were his last words, and in a single, swift motion, I pulled the blade across his throat.
It was no different than slaughtering a lamb. He did not resist, his hands remaining still in his lap, his body growing suddenly heavy and wet. He slumped to the floor without so much as a sigh.
And the growling wind outside suddenly ceased, like a lid had been dropped down upon it.
Carefully, I laid his body on the floor, wiping the dagger against his tattered clothes. I walked slowly to the door. More than the wind had died, for there was no other sound in the village.
I stepped out of the storehouse and the sky itself was glowing a ruddy brown shade, as if the village was surrounded by a brushfire. There were no stars or clouds, gust a soft, dirty glow.
Rushatsu lay on the ground about four steps away, head pointed towards me, a full skin of water oozing out on the dirt. Something was oozing out of Rushatsu as well, staining the ground dark beneath his head and chest.
The panic grasped me in the pit of my stomach, but I went to him and turned him over. His throat was slashed open, in a single smooth motion. He had not the time to resist.
No different than slaughtering a lamb.
Across the village there were bodies around the bonfire, also staining the ground in the flickering light. Taimanto and his brother-in-law were both slumped by their house, the last shutter abandoned between their fallen forms.
I took two steps towards where the elders were, but knew what I would find.
And then the wind returned, softly at first, then growing in strength, scattering the dust in the village square and churning it into a great cloud. And in the cloud darker shadows moved and grew and became solid.
Kataki had arrived.
The kami was over twice my height, made of weapons and bound in armor. Where its arms would be instead sinister blades rattled. Its legs were made of clusters of crossbow quarrels. Beneath its ebon helmet twitched needle-thin, daggers, and from behind its helmet rose the tips of pole arms. A harsh radiance moved behind the eyes of its mask. Around the spirit danced throwing crescents, each crescent burning with the same unearthly radiance, and each dripping with the blood of my fellow villagers.
Its voice sounded like swords meeting in battle. It spoke my name.
My throat was dryer than the flats themselves, but I managed to croak out a response. “Your task is complete. The old warrior is dead.”
The great figure clashed and churned before me, “I know,” it said.
Sweat broke out on my forehead. “Your task is complete. You are released from any vow or charge. Your vengeance has been taken.”
“My vengeance has been denied,” said the kami, and the ground seemed to shake beneath me. The wind rose in a howl.
“I don’t . . “ I started to protest, but my words were lost in the rising wind.
“Long ago, one had offended me,” said the kami, “It was slain by another, who was slain by another still, each in turn seeking to appease me, but each in turn denying my vengeance. Each offender has perished before I could rend their soul and reduce them to an eternity of suffering. And now you have done the same, you and your miserable village. And so you gain my enmity and retribution as well.”
I realized that the kami were indeed mad, and nothing we had done – act, debate, argue, slay or not slay, would have made a difference. I had damned my village the moment I had rescued the dead warrior.
It had only taken this long for us to die.
And suddenly I realized that the old warrior knew. The cursed warrior had shaped his responses so that I would give him the release he needed, and take on the mantle of his curse, become the one chased by War’s Wage.
And I knew what must happen next.
I turned my face from Kataki, and began to run.