The Face Behind the Mask
“We’re all going to die,” Hojo said quietly, “so there’s really no use in hiding.” The flames dancing in the fire pit streaked his face with flickering light as he stared at each of the other faces in turn. “I know Sakashima is in this fortress, and we’re the last survivors. I will find out which one of you it is. You could save me the trouble and reveal yourself right now.” A bestial roar echoed from somewhere outside the room, and the walls trembled, sending a fine stream of dust raining from the ceiling. Keimi gathered her torn, dirty kimono, once a proud Minamo student uniform, around herself, shivering. “Don’t you think it would feel better, facing your end in the light of truth?” Saite’s face did not change; it seldom did, not even when the truly terrible odds against the ragtag group became clear. It seemed locked in the stoic, scaly stare of all orochi.
“I can’t believe you,” Niseno snarled. By now, his face paint, which marked him as a yamabushi shaman, had long since been washed away by sweat, which even now streaked down his bare chest. “We are facing annihilation, and you’re worried about some phantom enemy who probably ran long ago, like an intelligent being?”
“I know he’s among us,” the samurai captain replied coldly. “And it’s my duty to find him.”
“Duty,” Black-Nose repeated incredulously. The nezumi’s wrists twisted under his bonds, even as he scooted inch by painful inch towards the fire. “Will your duty rescue us from this pit of hell before the kami slaughter us all? Will your duty satisfy your lord, who’s probably long dead? Or perhaps your duty will feed us and give us water so we can wait out the immortals who lay siege to us? Tell me, samurai, what good is your duty, exactly?”
Hojo opened his mouth, then closed it again. He rose, and stalked out of the room without another word. The orochi cast an empty stare at the nezumi, then rose to follow the retreating human.
Niseno snorted. “Fine speech, for a rat.”
I am strangely calm, despite the circumstances. Sakashima, I tell myself, you’ve been in worse situations than this. Of course, when I really think about it, I’m hard-pressed to think of even one. So I try not to think about it.
They say that before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. If that’s true, then it certainly doesn’t bode well for me. I remember Natsumi, who was about my age when she entered my orphanage. We played together, fished together, sometimes shared a rice ball, nothing too serious.
One hungry day, something struck me: Natsumi actually looked somewhat like a boy. I didn’t know then that many five-year-old children resemble some sort of genderless pre-human, but to my young mind, it was a great and grand revelation. I remember examining my reflection in the river and thinking, if I smeared a little mud on my face, combed my hair the right way… I could look just like Natsumi.
I understand the orphanage cooks were terribly confused when Natsumi threw her little fit, crying that she hadn’t gotten any rice balls. They swore to the matron that they’d given one to her just minutes before. Natsumi had to go to bed without supper for lying and for her tantrum. I felt a little guilty about it, but only a little. Hey, I had two rice balls.
Only the crackling fire disturbed the heavy silence that cloaked the room. Keimi looked up at Niseno and Black-Nose, her eyes watery and full of questions. Her lips parted, but nothing came out. The yamabushi grinned in amusement. “What’s your question, little one?”
“Er… Nothing important,” she answered in a whispery tone. “I was just wondering who this Sakashima is that the captain mentioned.”
Black-Nose snorted. “A scourge and a rogue.”
“If a nezumi calls someone that, you know he must be bad.” Niseno laughed. He turned back to Keimi, his face suddenly serious. “Sakashima is sort of a bogeyman, only he’s real. They say he’s a master of disguise – that he’s even disguised himself as kitsune, and walked among the soratami as one of them. No one knows why he does it, or what secrets he’s penetrated, but he’s good at what he does. So good, that most beings, even the kami, actually fear him.”
Keimi stared, wide-eyed. “He’s deceived the soratami? I didn’t know that was possible!”
“Neither did they, which is why they hate him so much.”
“How does he do it?”
“No one’s sure. Some complex magic is probably involved. But if he is here, I almost can’t blame Hojo for his paranoia.”
The silence fell again. It tickled at throats, demanding speech, yet smothering it at the same time. “Do you think we’ll get out of here safely?” Keimi asked, as if the words had been squeezed out of her. No one responded.
Could I pull it off? Could even I, the great Sakashima, just walk out of here, disguised as a kami? Probably. But with that vast horde just waiting at the gates to rip apart anything even remotely mortal, I can’t risk it.
Idiot! I can’t believe I thought infiltrating this fortress would be easy! I knew full well about what happened just miles away at Eiganjo. But I reasoned, with Konda’s men decimated by O-Kagachi, and the kami off to pursue their prize, it’d be a snap, right? Idiot!
Getting in was simple, as I expected. Those odd soldiers and refugees still alive were too distracted by all the bodies the kami left behind. Besides, my disguise is pretty good, if I do say so myself. But I can’t believe I didn’t expect that kami legion to be lingering in the area! If it weren’t for those protective sigils (why weren’t they up when O-Kagachi first came?), we’d all be dead now. But who knows how long they’ll hold out against that army outside? To add insult to injury, I’d be dying without finding the knowledge I came here to seek in the first place.
Hojo’s fingers caressed the cold iron fortress gates, over the bolts and carvings, over the huge sigil painted in blood across the surface. He tried to remember for a moment whose blood it was. Ah, yes, that kitsune wizard… He still wasn’t sure whether the wizard was lying when he claimed that his wounds, from which the sigil sprang, weren’t self-inflicted.
He considered the options: the fortress was surrounded on two sides by mountains – good for defense, not so good for escape. But then, none of the daimyo’s forces ever expected such an overwhelming force to lay siege. One of the gates was buried by a kami-induced rockslide, which left just the gate before him, with a legion of kami watching it, and waiting.
It was just a tiny rustle, almost drowned out by the inhuman gibbering on the other side of the gate. But it was a rustle. Hojo turned, already drawing out his katana… Saite stood there, his reptilian face still flat and passive. Hojo relaxed, sheathing his weapon. “Oh, it’s you. I was… ah… checking the protective sigils. We may be here for a while, so it’s vital that the wards keep the kami out for as long as possible.”
“Of course,” Saite replied, in a tone the samurai almost thought had a tinge of doubt. “Do you really think that you should worry so about Sakashima?”
“As I said, I was charged by the Daimyo himself to find him. And I will carry out my orders.”
“Even if your lord is dead?”
“Especially if my lord is dead,” came the flat reply.
Saite’s eyes glinted. “Then you have given up hope?”
Before Hojo could continue, the gate trembled. A piercing symphony of screeches erupted from the other side. The blood-sigil glowed a dazzling white as the entire fortress wall rippled. But the ward flickered, becoming for just a moment the same dull red it had been just seconds before. That moment was enough.
A long, serpentine kami oozed between the gate doors in that instant, its dozens of eyes filled with hate and its maw dripping with venom. Its ebon scales glowed in the moonlight as misshapen spheres of glowing swamp muck orbited its body. Hojo drew his katana, Saite his bow. The kami hissed with anticipation.
In an incredible blur of motion, Saite nocked an arrow and fired. The kami screeched, rearing up in pain and rage. Hojo struck on in three lightning-quick swipes, criss-crossing the kami’s body with discolored stripes. Another arrow followed, then another and another, fired faster than Hojo’s eye could trace. The kami fell backwards, its head lolling about erratically. Hojo silently stepped forward and swung. The kami’s head bounced twice before it vanished in a shimmer of spiritual energy. The body quickly followed suit.
Hojo exhaled. “Do you think any more will get through?”
“I know so,” Saite replied calmly.
The samurai nodded. “So we must escape this place.”
“But how?” Nothing but the jeers of the besieging kami answered.
The five of us are gathered around the fire again. What a ragtag bunch we are. It’s odd, the sort of people who manage to survive a catastrophe like this. We’d never associate with each other if we had a choice, or if the situation weren’t as grim. Being the lone survivors, hanging on to life by our fingernails, has a strange unifying effect. I suppose there really isn’t any point to continuing my charade, but I can’t help it. Habit. Besides, I might need the abilities this disguise gives me. Certainly couldn’t hurt.
Under the cloak of illusion that comprises my disguise, no one can see my masks. Human, ogre, kitsune… I can put one on and become someone else. I learned long ago that it’s no more than most people everywhere do every day.
When I put one on, I blank out my mind, turning it into a fresh scroll just waiting to be written on. It’s not the mask that changes my form – I outgrew such amateur trappings long ago. It’s a focus for the real disguise: becoming my subject mentally, so I can project that image to others. They see me as I see myself, so I dive into my identity like jumping into a hot spring. It’s sorcery, acting, and a little instinct all wrapped up in one seemingly simple package. It’s actually anything but. I just make it look easy.
One other thing hangs at my belt: a small token, with the Sakashima family crest engraved on it. It tied together the bundle I was wrapped in when I was delivered to the orphanage as an infant. I keep it with me always, as a reminder of who I really am, and who I could yet be.
“Could we outrun the kami?”
“Not very likely.”
“Does anyone know a spell that could allow us to escape?”
Keimi shook her head. “I have a Minamo amulet that casts a teleportation spell, but it only has two uses left. And the effect has only a short range.”
“Couldn’t we just fight them all?” Hojo burst out in frustration. “Most of the kami out there are minor. Between the five of us, we could…”
“Destroy perhaps a fourth of their number,” Saite cut in quietly. “And then be overwhelmed by the rest.” Silence followed, each face frozen flesh, hung in wandering, desperate thought.
Black-Nose snarled, a hateful glare boring into the orochi. “How can you be so calm at a time like this? Don’t you know you’re going to die?”
“And you’re not?” Saite replied flatly.
“Of course not! I’ll survive somehow, even if it’s over the corpses of every single one of you! But look at you! You sit there as if you’re waiting for afternoon tea! Aren’t you afraid of death?”
“Shut up,” Niseno snapped.
Black-Nose rocked back and forth, straining at the ropes binding him. “React, serpent! Show some emotion! Anything! Fear, courage, I don’t care!” A deep pause. “Damn you, react!” Abruptly, Keimi scrambled to her feet and rushed from the room. After a moment of confusion, Hojo got up and followed. “What’s wrong with her?”
Niseno shook his head. “You remind me of someone, rat. Someone I grew up with in this village in Sokenzan. He was always blustering about how good he was, how brave he was, how he could beat anyone else living there, even the Yamazaki brothers.”
“You’re boring me, human.”
“Of course, when the kami actually came to the village, he vanished. Poof. The kami destroyed everything that day. And it only took the survivors, myself included, a month to find him and hang him by his intestines for his cowardice.”
Black-Nose snarled. “Are you threatening me, yamabushi?”
“Just storytelling. Fish?” He stuck a skewer with some dried meat stuck on the end into Black-Nose’s face. The nezumi shrunk back. Niseno shrugged. “Your loss.” He glanced at Saite as he ate. The orochi might as well have been a statue.
It’s always been so easy. The first time I penetrated a temple, pretending to be some minor kami, my heart was pounding. I was actually afraid that someone would question me, confront me. When I left, the priests still bowing in my direction as I fled, I was still scared. I haven’t been nervous in years. Sure, few people pay attention to the young woman passing on the road, or the herdsman tending to his oxen. But you’d think that the daimyo’s samurai would wonder at the behavior changes in their general, or that the Jukai monks would question why their deeply spiritual master suddenly demands a fifth of their recent harvest. But they never do.
That was the first thing I had to learn in mastering the art. People want to be fooled. They want to believe their eyes, believe that their fellows are what they appear to be. They don’t want to think about the monsters that could be lurking below the surface, more terrible than the most vengeance-driven kami. Besides, those who don’t know themselves can’t possibly know others. And there are many out there who don’t – or don’t care to.
I tried entering more difficult and secret places, just for the challenge. The Honden of Night’s Reach? Simple. The deepest akki warren? I yawned the whole way through. Daimyo Konda’s throne room? It was almost embarrassing how easy it was. Eventually, I began introducing deliberate slips into my act, giving those around me the chance to catch me in a mistake. That didn’t help either.
So what is there left? The kakuriyo itself? Deceive the kami? Maybe I will, someday. Maybe they won’t disappoint me.
But they probably will.
Hojo found her in what used to be the fort commander’s office, slumped over a table. Keimi’s back heaved with sobs, her face buried in her hands. Hojo stood at the doorway, mute, for a long minute. He coughed, and the Minamo student’s back immediately straightened. “Er… I’m sorry… I was wondering if you were all right.”
“No, no, I should be the one who’s sorry,” Keimi sniffed, scrubbing her face with a sleeve. “It’s just that… I’m scared.” She rose from her chair and wandered to a window, the moonlight glistening off the wet streaks that still ran down her cheek. “I… I barely escaped Minamo. My friend Nozomi saved my life. She’d already helped so many people escape. Like her other friends, even that one who couldn’t move by himself, he was babbling so much. I was the last one. Just before I faded away, I saw this ogre walking up behind her… I tried to scream, to warn her, but…” Another tear drifted down her flower-petal cheek, which she quickly wiped away. “I’m trying to go home. I don’t even know if my parents are alive, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. When I heard that Eiganjo was being attacked, I thought I’d be safe here.” She laughed bitterly, an incongruous sound coming from such a throat. “Now Nozomi will have died for nothing.”
Hojo reached out towards the girl, but quickly pulled his arm back. “You can’t think that way,” he finally said. “Once you have decided that you are doomed, you will be.” An expression of surprise passed through his face, as if he was startled by his own words. “We need every clear head we can get to escape this. Even yours. If we die, we must die knowing that we tried our best to survive.”
“But what can I do? I wasn’t ever a very good student. I couldn’t do so many of the things my friends could do. What good would I be?”
“You’re a Minamo student. They don’t let useless idiots into Minamo. Now think back. You have to have learned something useful in your studies.”
Tears gone, Keimi’s face scrunched in thought. “I don’t… Wait… I think I remember a spell…”
“Yes…?” The samurai’s face visibly brightened as she described it. “Excellent! That’s the key to our escape!”
Keimi shook her head miserably. “No. The range is limited… I’d have to be practically in the center of the horde for it to do any good. They’d kill me in an instant.”
“Perhaps not. I think I have a plan…”
I was never a very talented student. Nor was I particularly good at art, swordplay, or sorcery. The best word to describe me at anything I did was “average.” Not that bad, but not particularly good either. In short, I never really stood out.
Not that I particularly dwelled on it. But I could already see my entire future before me: I’d probably apprentice with some merchant or journeyman, learn enough for my own trade, make a somewhat comfortable living. I’d probably settle in a small village, marry, have many children. I’d die, leaving behind a modest business for my heirs. And nothing else. My entire world would be that village, that business. I’d be lost, in a sea of faces in life, and in a larger sea of gravestones in death. My face, my memory, my every accomplishment would be dust in the ash-heap of history.
If there is such a thing as hell, that is it.
But if that was my inevitable fate, how could I avoid it? I spent long afternoons under a cherry tree near the orphanage pondering that very question. For years, no answer came to me. But one afternoon, I remembered Natsumi, and it hit me… Perhaps Sakashima couldn’t change his destiny.
But who said I had to remain Sakashima?
The others were staring at Hojo – Keimi in fear, Black-Nose in disgust, Niseno with an odd mixture of doubt and awe, and Saite with his usual blankness. “Audacious,” Niseno finally said. “I like it.”
“I think it’s suicide,” Black-Nose muttered.
“So is waiting for the kami to breach the wards,” Saite said. “I don’t know what the chances are of success, but I don’t think we have a choice.”
“It’s ridiculous!” the nezumi pressed. “Impossible! For one thing, how will the girl get far enough to the center of the horde to complete her spell? What is she going to do, just stroll among the kami?”
A hint of a grin passed over Hojo’s face. “That’s where you come in.”
Black-Nose blinked. “Me?”
“I’ve traveled much in my search for Sakashima, learned many things. One of them is recognizing certain… qualities.” Hojo paused as the nezumi squirmed. “You’re ninja, aren’t you? Okiba-Gang? That’s why you’ve traveled so far away from Takenuma – I hear Marrow-Gnawer started a purge of your kind recently.”
The squirming grew more pronounced. “So what if I am? What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s the key to our survival.” With that, Hojo drew his wakazashi and approached the wide-eyed nezumi. With one practiced swing, Black-Nose’s bonds quietly fell away.
The ninja rubbed his wrists, and grinned sharply. “Are you sure you wanted to do that?”
Hojo shrugged. “You could, I suppose, sneak out of here, leave the rest of us to die. But I don’t think you’ll do that. Not because you actually care about us, but because you realize that you might not be able to evade the kami long enough to escape intact. My plan offers you a much better chance of survival than anything you could do on your own, and you know it.”
“You assume much, samurai,” Black-Nose spat. “I should take my leave right now.”
“Then go ahead. I won’t stop you.” The room froze.
Most people hate me. Their problem is, they can’t take a damn joke. That’s the trouble with war – it makes everyone so serious. They never learn from what I do. They just huff and puff and take out all their anxiety and rage on me, never thinking about whether they could use some change.
Chinsen was different. I knew that from the moment he figured out that I wasn’t his apprentice, come to deliver some scrolls to one of his fellow jushi. He actually laughed, and complimented me on my bravado. He then launched into a detailed, lengthy critique of how I could have improved my imposture. I don’t remember if I fell to my knees right then, begging him to teach me. I think I might have. Not my most dignified moment, but it’s one I’ve never regretted.
It was clear from the start that I had gone as far as masks and make-up would allow. It was Chinsen who taught me the art of the blank scroll, of becoming nothing so that you can shape your thought and form to something else. As I slowly mastered the art, I noticed one day that my features were beginning to flatten. I was mildly curious, but unconcerned. I remained so, even when they totally melted away, turning my face into a fresh slate. Chinsen actually smiled when he saw what was happening. It was a sign, he said, that my skills were almost at their peak.
Funny thing is, I don’t really miss my face. Just as most don’t wear the same clothes all the time, I wonder sometimes how others can stand to be the same person, with the same face, day in and day out, when there’s so much more out there to explore…
“You know, I think this just might work.” Niseno cocked his head as he watched Hojo hone his sword. The others were elsewhere, girding themselves physically and mentally for the challenge ahead. “I’m impressed, samurai. Most of Konda’s men would just charge out there with katana drawn, especially if it’d lead to some kind of glorious death.”
“Well, I’m not ready to die today,” Hojo rumbled, not looking up.
“And that’s a change, isn’t it?” The sound of whetstone scraping against metal abruptly stopped. “Don’t be so surprised. I could see it from the start. While you were gallivanting about, chasing Sakashima, your friends and comrades were dying at the hands of O-Kagachi. Must make a man feel guilty, eh? Like he should be dead with his fellows?”
“Yes…” Hojo whispered, in a voice not quite his own.
“I’m glad the survival instinct kicked in, and you wised up. This plan of yours is inspired, in an insane sort of way.” Niseno fell silent for a moment. “What do you think of Saite?”
“Oh, he’ll hold up his part of the plan well enough.”
“That’s not what I’m wondering. I’d never seen his kind before today. What do you think he’s doing so far away from Jukai?”
“He told me it was mere wanderlust, a desire to see what was beyond the forest edges.”
Niseno smirked. “I didn’t know that sort of impulse existed in orochi.”
“Neither did I…”
The door opened. The subject of their speculation stood in the open portal, flanked by Black-Nose and Keimi. “We are ready.”
I suppose being caught in this situation is entirely my fault. I always wanted adventure. Why else would I do such a fool thing as walk around Oboro Palace as if I belonged there? To find out what the soratami have for lunch?
Actually, the answer to that question is quite interesting, probably more interesting than any actual secret the moonfolk think valuable. Military secrets, dark passions, well-laid conspiracies… It all pales in comparison to the simplest acts… like living. I remember something Chinsen once told me. “You can see through a hundred thousand pairs of eyes,” he said, “walk in a hundred thousand pairs of sandals. I hope you realize what a great gift that is.”
He was right. It took me years to see it, but damn him, he was right. It was surprising, the first time I really immersed myself in someone else’s persona, how much the world changed. It was as though each of us lives on a different planet, each only bearing a superficial resemblance to each other, each built from years of completely unique memories and experiences. Every being is a rich tapestry of dreams, desires, and sorrows, a never-ending tale of triumph and tragedy.
And I’m a voracious reader.
Living in Oboro was quite the experience. For the first time, I could see why the soratami are the way they are. Looking down at the ground below, where even Eiganjo resembles nothing more than a mess of toys left behind by a careless child… Seeing and experiencing the power they wield, the way I could make both form and thought dance at the slightest whim… I would spend entire afternoons changing a lotus flower, watching it shift color and shape as I twisted it like a puppet.
It took an actual trip back to the ground, with the earth crumbling beneath my toes, and the sun warming my face, to remember who I really was. I spent two weeks as a humble farmer working the Araba. I think it was a kind of penance, to bring me back to reality.
But I wouldn’t trade that time in the clouds for anything. Not even for the greatest jewel of the kakuriyo.
The kami horde first became aware of the mortals when the northern fortress gates opened, and the samurai appeared, sword in hand. Laughing inwardly at his foolishness, the army rushed forward, grateful for the chance to destroy the upstarts. The katana flashed, and kami fell, but more pressed forward, stomping over their fallen kin.
But then the orochi appeared, at the flank to the northwest of the gate, stinking of a mortal teleportation spell. The kami army thought as one, and a portion of them immediately broke off the forward push, surging instead towards the orochi, who was already downing them with a hail of arrows.
Then the yamabushi blinked into existence northeast of the gate, stinking of the same teleportation spell. Some of the kami shrieked in fear, but another third of the horde broke off and started washing towards him. After all, he was one, and they were many. Perhaps a few would be wiped out, but the rest would avenge those casualties a hundredfold.
Thus did the army break into three, like mochi dough being pulled into three portions. An empty space developed in the center of the horde, one that grew larger as the pieces began to surround the besieged mortals. It was amidst this chaos of blood, steel, sorcery, and arrows that Black-Nose tore through the roiling kami, sweat matting his fur. Every nerve was taut, every muscle burning, and his ninjutsu skills pushed to the limit as he zig-zagged through the army, appearing only for a moment before vanishing in another flash of motion.
Finally, he reached the central space, and gently dropped his cargo to the ground. Keimi needed only a moment to close her eyes and gather her thoughts. If any of the more powerful kami had been paying attention, they would’ve seen the mystical ripples of energy flow from the girl, out into the pitched battle. As it was, they only noticed when the spiritual tethers that tied them to the utushiyo withered, drawing their forms back into the ethereal realm. The kami wailed in despair and rage, but it was an instinctive gesture against futility as they vanished from the material plane. Within moments, only five sweating mortals remained on the plateau, staring at each other in stunned disbelief.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Black-Nose whispered. “It actually worked.”
* * *
“So where’d the nezumi go?” The sun was rising, a sight that filled Hojo with a lightness that made him heady.
“Slunk off somewhere as soon as he was sure the kami were gone,” came the reply. “We should probably be glad he didn’t decide to kill us right then.”
“Why should he bother? He got to keep his miserable life. He knew to quit while he was ahead.” A pause. “And the others?”
“Saite is accompanying Keimi to her village. Myself, I have my own home to return to. Nice to meet you.”
Hojo nodded. He waited a moment as the figure in front of him turned its back and began to walk away. He wasn’t sure why – perhaps it was a sense of dramatic poetry. He took a scroll from his tunic and held it up to the warm dawn. “Leaving without the document you came here for, Sakashima-sama?”
The man Hojo knew as Niseno stopped, then turned slowly around. “I don’t think I heard you right.”
“I think you did. I heard about what you told the nezumi. As I said, I’ve traveled much and learned many things. I even knew the Yamazaki brothers, back when they served the daimyo. I know that their village hasn’t fallen to the kami.”
“You knew since then? You impress me again. So why didn’t you…?”
“It didn’t matter, not then. I suppose it still doesn’t.”
Sakashima paused, staring at the proffered scroll. He took it and unrolled it. “How did you know I was looking for this?”
“Just a guess. I knew the fort held nothing of real worth, only supplies and census information. I saw the name, and thought it was a good bet.”
“Well… Thank you.” No answer came. “So what are you going to do now?”
“Return to Eiganjo, see what I can do to help. If the daimyo is alive, and will have me, I’ll return to his service. As for my orders… You’re a hard man to find, Sakashima.”
“I guess I am.”
Hojo nodded towards him. “Farewell.”
Sakashima waited until Hojo disappeared over the horizon, then turned his attention back to the scroll. There, among the lines and lines of birth records, sat the one name that he sought: Kenshi Sakashima.
“So that’s my first name,” he muttered. “Not bad. My parents had taste.”
Smiling wider than he had in a long time, Sakashima tucked the scroll under his belt. Perhaps he’d go to Shinka Keep, be an ogre for a while. Or perhaps visit the nezumi? The road lay wide open, and anything was possible.
Whistling a jaunty tune, Sakashima took the first step in beginning his journey anew.