Shadows of the Deep

Kuriko walked aghast through the wreckage of her childhood. It was worse than she feared; every village in Iga province was wiped away clean. Charred timbers protruded like burnt ribs from the snow.

Circumventing Oda clan checkpoints had been child’s play, but after crossing over the mountains once haunted by a score of shinobi families, she saw naught but blackened rubble and emptiness. Even the cemeteries had been ravaged. Graves lay open, urns shattered, markers scattered like twigs, funereal ashes mixed with snow. 

Hiji Mountain loomed before her, swathed in deep forest and secrets. By nightfall, she could arrive in Hoshino, but the leaden sky threatened snow. And just then, a cold, wet kiss settled upon her cheek.

How appropriate that her return would mirror her departure seven years before.

The snowfall in the deep of that night muffled Momoko’s wails. The Master of the Hattori clan held her tight. 

She wriggled and strained toward Kuriko with a pale little arm. “Mama!” The sweet little girl with the plump rosy cheeks, the face of a baby goddess, a shriek that could shatter crockery, and a giggle that could melt the heart of a mountain.

Kuriko reached back, tears mixing with snowflakes on her cheers, sobbing past the lump in her throat, “Momoko!”

“Fear not, my daughter,” Master Hanzo said to Kuriko, “She will grow well in the arms of the clan, just as you did. If the gods are kind, she will become half the shinobi her mother is.”

Sadness slashed open Kuriko’s heart and it bled into her bowels. “But why me? Choose another!” Let her stay with her daughter!

“There is no one better, and the payment is high. Your mission awaits,” the Master said, “now go.”

How could she have expected different? Her own mother was but a distant memory, torn away from her on a night much like this one. Only the gold had returned, payment for a successful mission. 

Kuriko stood in the snow, tears burning in her eyes, icy kisses of snowflake pattering her cheeks, as the Master turned and disappeared into the darkness with her daughter.

Like Kuriko, Momoko could be the seed of one of several wealthy nobles or powerful daimyo. A shinobi female’s most important work was often accomplished in the afterglow of passion. She should know that the clan would care for Momoko, without fail, without hesitation, but had her mother felt such agony? Momoko would undergo the same long rigors, training, and spiritual discipline necessary to blur the boundaries between human being and shadow. 

Kuriko had infiltrated the pleasure houses, gained the affection of her target, listened, observed, served as quiet counsel in his most vulnerable moments, and then, when she had gleaned what she needed, he died choking on a fishbone. No one would ever know that the poisoned fishbone had been jammed into his throat.

Every year she had sent secret missives to Master Hanzo, requesting a return to Iga, yearning to watch Momoko grow and learn. In return, the Master sent new missions. 

And then news of the attack reached her, and no reply came to her last letter. Now, seven years after she departed, Kuriko looked up at Hiji Mountain. “Mama is coming home.”

The Hijiki River ran clean and clear, offering a chance to fill her water gourd.

She kicked off her wooden geta, peeled off her tabi, and waded into the shallows. The ice-cold water numbed her feet and calves, but washed away the road mud. This riverbed had devoured thousands of her small footprints.

A smear of white that was not ice in the water caught her eye.

A human thigh bone, half buried in the sand. A few sloshing steps and she knelt over it. She reached into the water and gently pulled it free. Strange gouges marred the knob, the opposite end splintered, the marrow gone. 

Iga had not been home to bears or wolves for centuries.

The river flowed down from Hiji Mountain where Kannonji Temple once stood. The slopes were too high, the forest too thick, for her to see what remained of the temple. She would have to pass it to reach Hoshino.

Hoshino had never been more than an innocuous collection of hovels hidden away in bamboo groves and pine woods at the summit of Hiji Mountain, difficult to reach at best. Innocuous, yes; unimportant, no. Hoshino village formed the hub of the Hattori clan’s power and influence. 

Momoko would be ten years old now, if she lived. Had Master Hanzo survived the siege? Kuriko could scarcely fathom the master of the greatest shinobi clan being killed on his own ground.

How small the valley looked now, silent except for the burble of the river and the call of a distant pheasant cock...
Pheasant cocks did not crow at this time of year.

Standing stock still in the freezing river, clutching her staff in both hands, she reached out with every tendril of her senses, seeking the source of the sound. A tuft of snow pattered from the naked branches of an empty maple tree.

The hairs on her neck rose; she was being watched.

Let them watch. Whether they were survivors, or Oda spies, or even Master Hanzo himself, she would find Momoko.

Snow made the climb to Kannonji Temple treacherous, slicking the rocks and turning the earth to icy mud. The leaden sky darkened like a bed of drowned coals. The snow-laden forest muffled her movements as she climbed the switchback trail. Having spent the first fifteen years of her life here, she still knew every tree, in spite of the scars inflicted by war. The land below still bore the evidence of a siege, trampled earth, flattened forest, blackened dimples of firepits, great mounds of refuse.

Her face tightened at the devastation. 

For four hundred years, warlords had squabbled over pride and land and gold, trading in the talents of the shadow families of Iga, and for as long, Iga had enjoyed prosperity and quiet autonomy. The shinobi of Iga were content to study the secrets of where flesh met spirit and to await the next contract. But when Oda Nobunaga could not countenance an unclaimed space of map, he invaded with forty thousand troops from all six roads into Iga.

The road up the mountain had been all but destroyed by the passage of countless feet. When Kuriko reached the ruins of the Kannonji Temple gate, dusky shadows lengthened over the patches of snow. Standing between the massive charred timbers of the great torii arch, she allowed the loss to wash through her. All the clans of Iga had gathered here for one last desperate defense--and failed. Remnants of the temple’s stone walls and great blackened mounds of timbers lay scattered as if the palm of a god had ground the ancient temple into the mountainside. 

Kuriko stepped through the remains of the wooden pillars onto the once beautiful temple grounds, once a place of serene tranquility. Now the snow lay thick atop destruction.

The hairs on her neck and arms stood spear-straight and she froze. She was still being watched.

A black spot opened in a snowdrift, like an eyelid falling open, snow collapsing into a void beneath.

She slid one hand into her sleeve, where her steel teeth lay hidden. Rather than betray her awareness, her gaze meandered in every other direction while she strolled closer. A hint of movement? Nearing the palm-sized opening in the snowdrift, she feigned tripping and knelt to rub her toes. 

The snow muffled a strange slithering beneath, receding. She probed the hole with the tip of her staff, and more snow fell inward. Moments later, she revealed a space beneath a tangled heap of rubble, an opening suitable for a fox or a tanuki burrow--except that the burrow went vertically into the rocky earth. 

A tunnel.

She had not known of any tunnels beneath Kannonji, but she was unsurprised. The entire mountain was fortified with tunnels both natural and hand-carved. The empty veins of Hiji Mountain had hidden their ultimate depths from even the Hattori clan.

The whisper of dust told her that something moved in the tunnel. Human or venturesome tanuki

She shrugged off her traveling pack and slid feet-first into the opening, feeling for the floor below her. Snow crunched under her geta, and the already feeble light disappeared ten paces down the passage. She drew her staff and pack in after her and tied back her sleeves warrior-style to ensure freedom of movement. The tunnel was too low to allow standing and too narrow for moving abreast, fashioned of close-set stone blocks as part of the temple foundations. Perhaps this was a distraction from finding Momoko, but she could not abide being watched on her home ground. She had questions demanding answers.

She slid as easily into silence and darkness as into a well-loved memory, slipping off her noisy geta, ears sharpened for any sound beside the brush of her own clothing. As the darkness thickened around her, so did the unidentifiable sounds of something ahead. 
A sifting of dried silt and ash covered the floor, but darkness obscured details. She withdrew the wooden box of matches from her pack. Closing one eye to protect her night-vision from the flare, she struck one against the coarse tunnel wall. The flame blazed with brimstone and drove back the encroaching darkness. Holding the flame low, she examined the tunnel floor. There were indeed footprints in the silt, but the feet were grotesque, deformed, interspersed irregularly with long-fingered hand prints like those of a monkey.

A breath of wind from behind fluttered wisps of hair around her ears, extinguishing the flame, and for a moment she was strangely conscious of her own scent wafting into unseen abysses.

The movement in the darkness ahead silenced.

She thrust her staff one-handed before her, stretching with her awareness beyond the limitations of sight, half-expecting the distinctive whistle of shuriken slicing the air toward her. For an eternity of endless moments, she waited, and nothing came. 

Her fingertips told her only two matches remained. She lit another. 

In the flare of light, a pair of distant eyes glowed, then disappeared. 

Her heart leaped to a gallop. She dropped the match. It went out. Her mind whirled to make sense of what she had seen. They were not the eyes of an animal, nor were they human.

Threads of caution tightened every sinew in her body as she slid deeper into this game of cat and mouse. Even so, she thrilled at the hunt. She had risked death too many times to count, but in every one of those instances, she felt most lusciously alive, thrumming with the heartbeat of the world.

After a hundred paces, the winter chill diminished, and the stone fortifications against her back became natural cave. The pitch-black echoes told her the chamber expanded. 

She struck her last match. 

Her flame glittered in the rocks of a high chamber thirty paces across, a multitude of pinpoints. Another tunnel led deeper.
Those eyes had retreated from her flame, but there was no fuel here to burn. Eyeing her match burn down, she rummaged through her pack for her only candle, found it, and lit it with the final stub of her match. The candle would offer perhaps two hours of light, barring any sudden breezes. 

The air here was moist and cool, smelling of earth and something else, perhaps animal, but sour and thick, like a den where a fox went to die.

Her hair spiked again.

Something loomed behind her.

Her staff slid apart in her hands, exposing the glittering sheen of blade within, and she leaped away, slashing behind her. In the guttering candlelight, the tip of her blade passed through a faint apparition. Steel met something, unlike the feel of human flesh and bone, thicker, more resilient. Wisps of dark steam holding semblance of shape.

Something she could not see slithered across the rough stone. Shinobi were masters of moving unseen, of disappearing into crowds or shadows or wilderness, but none had ever achieved true invisibility. She dropped the sheath half of her “staff” and sent a spray of shuriken hissing across the cavern. Her aim was true. Two shuriken struck something and hung amid the faint smoky shape until some appendage struck them free. A guttural hiss issued from the shape. Her eyes failed to make sense of the partially solid apparition. 

She leaped forward again, but the air whished with the entity’s movement, quicker than even a master shinobi. Her blade sliced empty air. Something took purchase on the rough stone of the deeper tunnel. Her eyes caught the merest ripple of movement, like steam disturbed by passing fingers. Then it was gone. 

She retrieved her shuriken. The points of two were stained with something dark and wet. So, it was not a hungry ghost or evil spirit. Her blade’s kiss could hurt it. If it bled, it could be killed. 

The passage before her was redolent with that strange stench. The candlelight revealed dark wet droplets on the floor, droplets too dark for blood. 

The passages climbed, meandered, and branched through the mountain’s flesh, some of them natural caves, some cut to enlarge or connect the caves. 

One of the caves forced her to skirt a black abyss so deep she felt compelled to test it. The stone she dropped down the well struck nothing for a long time, and it continued to bounce and careen deeper and deeper, until the sound itself was lost.

She followed the droplets until she found herself in a small chamber furnished with a moldy straw mat, a firepit filled with old ashes, and bits of shattered, dusty crockery. This place felt familiar, but the years had smeared her memory. Had she slept here herself in her dawning years? But she did not recall stick figures drawn on the stone with ash. A mother, a child, smiling.

A scrap of scarlet caught her eye amidst the tangled straw. She knelt and dragged it into view with the tip of her sword. The doll’s scarlet robe was tattered and filthy, but missing the same wooden eye as when she had given it to baby Momoko. 

Her eyes misted, and a wave of trembling swept through her. 

“Damn you, Hanzo,” she whispered.

With the doll thrust into her sash, she moved on. Hot tallow coated her left hand, and the candle was now little more than a stub with less than an hour of life. 

This close to Hoshino, the upper reaches of tunnels were defensible, replete with traps, hidden guard points, branches that could be sealed at will. If any of those had been sealed during the siege, she could easily find herself forced to go back without even a feeble candle, trapped in the dark with that creature.

She quickened her pace.

Perhaps fifty paces farther, the tunnel opened into a much larger circular chamber, one of which she had only heard tell. Shelves reached to the timbers of the vaulted ceiling. Stacked thick upon the shelves were hundreds of scrolls. 

In every generation of the Hattori clan, there was one Master. That Master had a handful of disciples, and those disciples taught the children the ways of shinobi. Of those disciples, one Heir was chosen. Only the Master and the Heir were allowed into the Library, the repository of the Hattori’s knowledge, a thousand years of secrets, of tradition, of the deepest knowledge of combat, espionage, the spiritual disciplines that allowed transcendence beyond mundane human abilities, the secrets of the mind and body that permitted survival in the harshest circumstances and infliction of death with little more than a touch. It was all here.

A crunchy litter covered the floor almost ankle-deep, like pale buckwheat hulls. 

On the desk, a scroll lay unrolled. A dust-coated earthenware lamp on the table still housed a bit of oil. The inkwell was still sticky, the brush still damp. She lit the lamp with the remnants of her candle and unrolled more of the scroll with one hand, sword still in the other. 

The calligraphy was strangely crabbed, not like Master Hanzo’s at all, with strange flourishes and unfamiliar angles. The most recent writing read:

In the world above, Oda, Akechi, Tokugawa all believe that the Hattori clan has been stamped out. But when our transformation is complete and our power reborn, they will fear the night as no human being since the days of the gods.

On the table nearby lay a thick book with a cover of red leather, embossed in Chinese characters. She had studied Chinese as part of her education, but the style of these characters was immensely complex, with stroke patterns she did not recognize. The ancient leather creaked when she opened the tome. Countless lines of miniscule, cramped Chinese characters, interspersed with strange drawings and incomprehensible diagrams, crammed the pages. Inside the front cover was a folded sheaf of rice paper that seemed to be a partial translation lexicon, written in somewhat less arcane Chinese, which she could understand. After some assiduous cross-referencing, she determined the tome’s title: The Book of the Dreaming Deep

Only then did she notice the patterns of unusual stitches binding several pieces of leather into the whole. Her gaze traced the lines for a moment before she recognized mummified human eyelids, nose, lips. With a gasp of revulsion she shoved the book away.

A noise in the room spun her around, her feet crunching on the litter. Her blade glinted in the lamplight, poised to kill. The shadowy reaches of the ceiling could hide any number of those creatures. Her awareness encompassed the room, but detected no other presence. 

She rolled the scroll further backward with one hand, scanning until she found the account of the siege itself. Here the strokes resembled Master Hanzo’s hand. 

After three months of siege, Kannonji has fallen with all souls butchered. The crows feast as if the gates of Hell itself have been opened. An envoy from Lord Oda arrived this afternoon demanding surrender or face annihilation. I sent him away impregnated with a slow-acting poison.

Long passages followed, accounts of growing despair and hunger. The villagers of Hoshino, shinobi all, took to eating such things as rats, pine bark, leather. The desperation tainted the calligraphy.

No one can get through. Oda has employed shinobi of Koga, who thwart our every attempt. There has been no food in a week. Taro offered himself up to feed us all. 

Then she gasped at the sight of her own name.

I have no Heir to whom I must transmit the secrets of the clan. Taro and Saburo, the most suitable candidates, are dead. Kuriko, away in Kyoto these seven years, would be my next choice, but we are trapped here. I would have chosen her long ago, but she first had to prove her worth. Without an Heir, the Hattori clan will die with me. I must live, and there is only one book of secrets I have yet to study--the ancient Chinese text that Master Mitsuhara forbade me to touch, at risk of my very soul. But how can I watch the children starve?

There was no mention of Momoko.

The writing in the next entry was so disjointed and incoherent she could not make sense of it--

The attack came faster than sight and opened a gash in her back.

She spun and slashed. Her blade bit deep this time. A sickening ululation and a blast of fetid breath sent chills down her limbs. Unseen feet fell into the noisy litter on the floor, and she pressed her advantage with a low, gutting lunge that sank deep into vague wispy steam. A ripping twist of her blade brought a deluge of tarry blackness spilling from nothing onto the floor, splattering coldness up her arm. The apparition began to take shape into that of a man with strangely distorted legs and face. She lunged and cut again, opening his belly with hardly a sound.

He sprawled backward, clearing a swath of floor before skidding to a halt.

Now that her antagonist lay revealed, her blood turned to ice. The face elongated into a beast-like snout filled with stained fangs, legs bent back like the knees of an animal, tipped not in toes, but in two padded hooves. What she had thought were clothes proved to be folds of blackish-purple skin. 

The clear patch of floor revealed an image carved into the stone, an image that recollected the drawings in the Chinese tome. She cleared the strange debris with her foot and revealed more of the circle. Looking at the symbols inscribed there made her head hurt. 

And now, for the first time, the debris seized her attention with revelation of its nature.

Shards of bone. Somehow she knew the bone was human. Splintered, broken, reduced to little more than coarse gravel. In a chamber this size, the sheer quantity of bone represented the remains of hundreds of people.

“Welcome home, Little Chestnut,” a voice said.

She whirled behind flashing steel, but saw no one. 

“Have you learned all that you need to?” The voice resembled Hanzo’s but strangely thick and guttural. “I am pleased that your skills have not diminished. How far have you progressed?”

Unseen movement filled the air like wind from every direction. She slashed and spun in a lethal net. Severed limbs appeared in midair and fell. Spurts of black ichor stung her eyes, the stench heaved retches out of her gut. Honking roars of anger and pain fell back, but soon unnatural fists and feet found their way inside her defense. Three successive, invisible blows to three sides of her skull, and she collapsed into blackness amid the sea of bones.

When the blackness receded, she hung from her bound wrists, stripped naked, in an aboveground shack that she recognized instantly. In her childhood, it was used for butchering the village’s meat, whenever boar or deer could be found. It had fallen into disrepair, but the iron hooks hanging from the ceiling were unmistakable. Outside, the chill depth of night lay dark upon the mountaintop.

Silhouetted against the moonlight from the latticed window, another body hung from its hands, a man. And another. No sound of breath came from them.

The air smelled of dust, wood, and cold rotting meat. 

A vicious pounding in her head, redoubled by heart thundering heartbeat, hand and feet numb from binding, the rest of her naked flesh shivering from the cold.

This felt like one of Master Hanzo’s old tests at escape.

After a moment to steady her breathing and heartbeat, she swung her legs upward and felt for purchase around the rafter with her toes. The bonds of her wrists were so thin they cut her flesh, but freeing them from the hook was child’s play.

She fell hard onto the ground. Something dark and wet burst under her weight, spraying thick, acrid liquid. Her hands shot out and found themselves entangled in cold, leathery entrails. In spite of a lifetime trained at killing, she reeled back and her gorge shot into her throat. With hands and feet still bound, she stumbled and fell over and over into piles of offal, slabs of cold dead flesh, until finally she could do nothing in the shack’s narrow confines except slump against the wall and tremble.

The door of the shack opened with a creak. A tall, distorted figure stood silhouetted in moonlight. Outside, the mountaintop lay blanketed in fresh snow. Unblinking yellow eyes studied her. 

Even with the distortions, she saw something familiar in the shape. “Master Hanzo?” 

“Yes, daughter.” 

“Why have you done this? I am Hattori clan! I am not your enemy!”

“Why have you returned?”

To reclaim Momoko, she thought, but she said, “I came for a new mission.”

The sound could have been laughter if the world was made of nightmare.

She leaned forward. "You are not Hattori Hanzo! You are a demon who has taken his place!"

He laughed again. "A demon took the place of Hattori Hanzo the moment Master Mitsuhara died all those years ago."

"Is no one here a human being anymore?"

"We have always been better than mere humans, Kuriko. You should know that."

"The book!"

"Ah, yes, the book. Our greatest weapon. A secret for centuries."

"What did you do?"

"I allowed the Hattori clan to survive. The entirety of the knowledge of the greatest shinobi clan would have been lost to the sands of time. Oda's forces would have slaughtered every one of us, even your little Momoko.” He gestured outside. "Isn't that right, Momo-chan." 

Another silhouette joined him, a little girl of about ten. 

"Momoko!" Kuriko cried.

Hanzo laid a long-fingered hand on the child's shoulder. "Do you remember your mother?"

The silhouette nodded. 

Kuriko reached out, her eyes misting with tears. "Momoko, it’s mama!"

The girl edged closer to Hanzo.

Kuriko ragged scream filled the close confines of the shack. "What have you done?"

"What I was forced to do. Among the clan's most ancient relics is The Book of the Dreaming Deep, which tells of lands so deep in the earth they touch the realms of Dreams. In the caverns below Hiji Mountain lie the limitless abysses that lead to these realms. There resides the Emperor of the Deep. I summoned him, and he came with his court. He taught us secrets of the underworld, so that we could become shadows of the deepest earth, and travel to realms that touch the dreams of the world. We begged him for food, and his minions brought food from battlefields across Iga, shared it with us."

"You ate the flesh of the dead!" She rolled over onto her side and pretended to retch, concealing her hands as she reached between her legs, and withdrew the slim palm-length blade from the soft folds of her deepest secrets, pinched it in her palms, and silently sliced her wrists free. 

"It was the first step to joining the Dark Emperor's realm. Unlike samurai so willing to die for their lord's cause, our credo has ever been to survive at all costs, to pass on the knowledge. Oda’s armies came, and we disappeared into the realm of Dreams. From there we convinced them of their ultimate success, and they went away."

"Are you going to kill me now? Eat me like these others?"

"We prefer them somewhat less fresh. And as I said, the Hattori clan must have an Heir. But now, the clan's deepest secrets cannot be learned by a mere human." 

Several hunched, wiry silhouettes slunk behind him, dark slick flesh gleaming in the moonlight, yellow eyes gleaming. Unlike his minions, he wore clothes—and a katana on his hip.

He said, "These creatures bridge the chasm between our world and another parallel realm. They walk in both worlds. They could not teach this to us unless we became them. Now, you must join us. We have prepared a feast for you." He gestured around the interior of the shack.

"If I refuse?"

"Momo-chan is a growing child, and there haven't been any battles for a long time."

Momoko's wild shock of hair, crowning her head like a pheasant's tail, remained still. She clutched something to her chest.
In an instant, Kuriko sliced the sinew binding her ankles, and launched herself at Hanzo. 

He side-stepped, and Kuriko sailed past to land in the snow among the creatures flanking him. 

Her tiny knife tore an otherworldly howl from one of them. She must have looked like a snow maiden in the moonlight, all pale flesh and eyes of death. The creatures about her slipped into invisibility, but their feet were still evident in the snow. She dove under the sweep of great monkey-like arms, deep into the snow, then exploded upward in a blinding geyser of shimmering powder. 

The powder dusted over the invisible shapes, betraying their shapes.

Kuriko's hands and feet became the killing tools only two decades of shinobi discipline could produce. In ten heartbeats, three of them lay twitching in death, and her tiny knife had snapped, but two more remained. Whirling through the blizzard of snow, her hands found one, then two short clubs. Human thigh bones. She shattered them against the creatures’ skulls, and used the shards to pierce their hearts.

Then, amid settling clouds of snow, only Kuriko, Momoko, and Hanzo remained standing. 

He smiled at her. "You are truly the Heir of the Hattori clan."

She faced him with two splintered, ichor-smeared thigh-bones. 

He pushed Momoko gently behind him and drew his weapon. Momoko clutched the ragged doll to her chest.

Moonlight glimmered across the razor-sharp sheen. 

Then a snarl sounded from behind him. He grunted and staggered. 

In the space between heartbeats, Kuriko launched herself into the moment of opening. 

She thrust his wrists upward with the pommel of one bone, and drove the splintered end of the other into his throat. A gurgling, nightmarish howl tore from him. His grip on the sword loosened. She seized the hilt between his hands, and wrenched it from his grip.

His eyes flickered in the moment before she struck, not with fear, but with satisfaction. The katana hissed, and his head tumbled into the snow, rolling past her feet.

His body lurched and fell forward, spurting tarry ichor. 

Momoko chewed heartily on something, her lips wet and black. She swallowed, licked her lips, and smiled at her mother.

For a long time, Kuriko stood before her, sword quivering in hand. They looked into each other's eyes.

"Mama is home," Kuriko said.

She stroked Momoko’s leathery cheek, took her little long-fingered hand, and led her down into the depths where the secrets waited.