Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sword of Flame –Chapter 1

The cave sloped down gently, seemingly continuing on forever. his limbs stiff, Nakajima kept his balance as he slowly descended. As the sounds of his labored breathing echoed off the smooth walls of the shaft, the entrance far above him started to vanish in the distance. The reverberations almost made it sound as if Yumiko, strapped to Nakajima's back, was breathing, and several times Nakajima stopped and strained his ears.

But the shoulders of the corpse were as slumped over. At each stop, Nakajima only detected the stench of death.

His sense of time was long gone. The tunnel was so long that he was almost convinced that it continued all the way to the center of the earth. Nakajima's arms and legs felt strained from the effort of supporting the weight of two bodies. He felt that if he let his concentration slip for even a moment he would lose his grip and slide all the way down. Twisting his body, Nakajima pulled off his shoes and socks and continued downwards bare-footed. He could be more certain of his footholds this way. Had he been here by himself, he might have been able to slide all the way down the shaft, but if Yumiko's body was damaged, all his effort would have been for nothing.

All of a sudden, Nakajima’s feet found thin air.

"Agh!"

Nakajima desperately extended his arms forward and clawed at the air as loss, terror, and despair shot through his body. An instant later, he was painfully slammed against a hard stone surface. He had fallen straight down at least two or three meters. He had unconsciously moved to protect Yumiko's body; his shoulders and back took more of the shock than they should have, and unable to stand, he lost consciousness.

A faint light and a calm breeze. His cheek caressed by the cold, Nakajima opened his heavy eyelids. A little ways away, Yumiko's body lay silently. He felt light, and it didn't seem like he had any broken bones. He was in pain, but it wasn't enough to worry about. Gathering his energy, he stood and took a deep breath. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, his surroundings became clearer.

And what mysterious surroundings they were! Nakajima found himself standing in a plaza carved in a niche between towering cliffs. The walls around him were deep crimson. About three meters up one wall was a dark opening; most likely, it was the shaft that Nakajima had just crawled down. There should have been a visible ceiling to this subterranean chamber, but the walls simply climbed up until the red stones were shrouded in the darkness above. At the end of the plaza, a narrow path stretched out into the bottomless darkness.

Was this the pathway to Izanami's burial chamber? Unlike the earlier shaft, this appeared to be a natural underground ravine. The phosphorescent light illuminating the path and the underground chamber appeared to be produced by mossy plants growing on the rock face. Nakajima recalled the scene from the visions he had of being chased by the rotting woman.

A viscous drop of water fell onto Nakajima's cheek. Listening closely, he could hear the steady sound of water coming from high above. Over the aeons, the lime deposits in this trickle had accumulated here and there along the path to form giant stalagmites. Nakajima touched the rising cliff to feel it. The surface of the cold stone was wet with condensation. When he scratched it, the rock crumbled away easily, revealing a new layer of red stone below. Idly recalling that the ancient red paint used in ancient Japanese tombs was mercuric-sulfide based, Nakajima suddenly remembered Craft's words.

When explorers had discovered material that was apparently part of a demon's body in a Mayan temple, it evaporated when it came into contact with their mercuric-sulfide based paint. In other words, this tomb was designed specifically to keep demons out. His courage buoyed by this realization, Nakajima picked up Yumiko's body and walked toward the depths of the red valley. However, he’d never had that much in the way of stamina in the first place. In less than ten minutes, his legs were exhausted. He would have liked Kerberos' help, but he didn't want to put any more stress on the already terribly-injured demon. Besides, this path with walls literally painted with demon repellent would hardly be the most appropriate place for Kerberos.

Breathing heavily, the exhausted Nakajima proceeded along the path to the burial chamber, its stone walls towering up into the air above him. The sweat dripping off his forehead into his eyes blurred his vision, and each step required every ounce of effort he had. Nakajima shook his head back and forth to get rid of the built-up perspiration; when his vision cleared, he noticed a white silhouette in his peripheral vision.

"Who's there!?"

Looking closer, he saw that there was more than just one silhouette. There were quite a few of them, but none of them displayed any indication of movement, and simply stood or squatted there. Nakajima gingerly approached one; it was a bleached mummy, its head tilted to the side and its black eye sockets staring up into space. Whether it was the power of the mercuric sulfide or the cold of the underground chamber, the corpse had been preserved from natural decay. Its chest area had what looked like a large hole deliberately drilled in. Looking around, it seemed that the dozen or so mummies here were scattered about without any order to them. Judging by their clothing, they appeared to be the bones of people from many different time periods. One wore primitive robes, another appeared to be wearing the eboshi hat of a Kamakura-era samurai, and yet another looked like an Edo-period peasant. Many of them bore signs their bones had been crushed by large jaws while others had had their throats torn out. Few people would come into a place like this by accident; these were most likely grave robbers here to plunder the Kofun tomb. But who had done this to them?

A bizarre cry suddenly assaulted Nakajima's ears.

"YAAH! GLULULU!"

It seemed like the voice was coming from far away, but the unusual reverberations produced by the burial pathway walls made it difficult to judge the distance of sounds. Nakajima cast a sidelong glance at the butchered corpses of the mummies. If the grave guardian that mercilessly slaughtered these would-be grave robbers was still patrolling the path to the burial chamber now...

As Nakajima shuddered, that self-same guardian leapt from the shadow of a great rock into his line of sight.

"Yomotsu-Shikome!" Nakajima cried.

The fierce image of the monster woman from his vision was burned into Nakajima's memory, but the Yomotsu-Shikome standing before him was far more grotesque in real life than he had imagined. She was almost exactly twice his height. Her squat, purple-flecked legs glistened with white slime as her bloated lower stomach stuck out like that of a pregnant woman. The robe she wore seemed almost comically small; it did not even extend down far enough to cover her breasts, which drooped all the way down to her navel. Her webbed hands shuddered, thick with blubber. Her face was almost exactly that of a green frog. When she exhaled, two gill-like slits on the side of her throat expanded, exposing the pink fleshy walls within. Her long, shimmering black hair only made her look all the more disgusting.

Yomotsu-Shikome took a step forward. As Nakajima met her gaze, he carefully laid Yumiko down, wiped the cold sweat on his hands onto his slacks, and picked up his handheld computer.

"Kerberos, please come here."

Before the white haze that emerged from the liquid crystal display could even take on a rough outline of its shape, it vanished with a weak bark. Apparently, the pathway’s crimson paint really did seal off the power of the demon beast.

Yomotsu-Shikome thrust her webbed hands at the petrified Nakajima's shoulders. Leaping to the side at the last minute, Nakajima slipped and fell on the ground. He desperately tried to get up, but the large hands had already grabbed him. Yomotsu-Shikome's long tongue licked the area around her huge mouth, and her rancid breath assaulted Nakajima's senses.

"Izanami, are you going to abandon me after I've come all this way?" Nakajima instinctively cried out.

For some reason, the instant that the monster woman heard Nakajima's cry, she began acting strangely. Her mouth agape, she looked at Nakajima with a blank expression, all hostility gone completely. Her eyes looked around the area, then fixated on the body of Yumiko, laying on the side of the path. An expression of awe came over her face.

"Izanami..."

Her throat jiggled as Yomotsu-Shikome spoke the name reverently. Putting Nakajima back on the ground, the monster woman clumsily waddled over to Yumiko, and picked her up as carefully as if she were handling a fragile broken object.

"Hey, wait! What are you going to do with Yumiko?"

Yomotsu-Shikome shot Nakajima a disapproving glance before she cocked her head, as if to signal he follow her. She proceeded down the burial pathway holding Yumiko.

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