From the macabre mind of Robert “Spooky” Denton, a delightful bonus fiction for your Halloween enjoyment! Muahahahahaaa!
Between the Walls
By Robert Denton
I remember, when I was very young, my sister and I became trapped between the walls of Kyuden Kankei. I did not recall this incident until recently, as though the weight of this memory caused it to sink into the obscured depths of my mind. Throughout all of my adult life I have overlooked this moment in time. But I remember it now. When I close my eyes, I see glimpses of long grey hallways and the yawning of darkness beyond.
My sister always remembered. Though she didn’t speak of it in all the years we served the Nasu family, she never forgot. In some ways, she was always still there. Trapped and forgotten, confused and lost. Between the walls.
My family’s heritage is an auspicious one. We have always served the Shiba with distinction. All of my ancestors have held prestigious posts or were assigned to esteemed charges. The Nasu are known for their boldness, their skill, and their determination. My sister was a champion of these traits; just two minutes my elder, she has always led, and I have always followed.
Our childhood was pleasant enough, at least that which I can recall. Our parents served in the War of the Twins, and so they were stationed far from Kankei Seiden. In the peace before the war, they were direct servants of Asako Bashi, the lord of Kyuden Kankei, who held them in high esteem. When they were called in service, my sister and I were permitted to live in the Kyuden with our caretakers. Our days as children were spent there, left mostly to our own devices, until we were old enough to live in the barracks and train in the dojo of the Natsu estates. To learn the Shiba style of swordsmanship, as our ancestors before us.
By the time of our gempukku, my sister had fully blossomed into a young woman. Her eyes had become sharp and calculating, the brashness of her youth eroding in the steady waves of time. The courtiers took note of her skill and beauty, and before long she was arranged to wed the son of Asako Bashi. Our lord had watched over my sister for some time, believing that she would make an excellent match for his son even when she was just a student. As I think back on those days, it occurs to me now that he always had an interest in us and would watch us both closely. In some ways, I always regarded him as a second father. It only occurs to me now that my sister never spoke to him as openly or warmly as I did.
When he announced my sister’s betrothal, she did not smile. She merely bowed, obedient, accepting the honor without a single word spoken. I felt pride that my sister was chosen to join the esteemed House of our lords, even if it meant that we would be separated. It would be the first time in our entire lives that we would not be together, but any anxiety of the prospect was drowned in the pride and esteem I felt for my sister. Pride and esteem that she did not seem to share. My bold, outgoing sister did not brag or celebrate. She accepted this honor with a bowed head.
It was troubling to me. My sister and I were close, and I believed she could hide nothing from me. We completed one-another’s sentences, knew one-another’s thoughts and feelings, and could always tell when the other was far or near. It was trivial to see that something ate at her, but I did not mention it until the following day, during our lunch after the morning training. I had thought, perhaps, that she did not like the thought of marrying our lord’s son, and that she was shouldering this honor as she would a solder’s burden. I was surprised to learn that this was not the case. She simply did not want to live in Kyuden Kankei. The thought made her uneasy.
She admitted this in a quiet breath, speaking towards her bowl of soup. When her eyes lifted, there was a knowing look there, as though we shared an unspoken understanding. Yet I was confused by her words. I didn’t understand why she would feel that way about the Kyuden, where we’d spent our childhood years together, a place of beauty and comfort instead of the cold, hard cots of the warrior’s barracks. When I said this, her expression changed to open confusion.
“Don’t you remember what happened to us there,” she said, “when we were children? Don’t you remember what we saw?”
At first, I thought this was a joke. There was a mischievous streak in her due to the hour of her birth, and I believed she was trying for some kind of prank. I laughed at her words, anticipating that any minute the facade would drop and she’d return my smile with the quiet admittance that she could not fool her twin brother. Instead, she grew very quiet. Her eyes sank into the cloudy miso within her bowl, her expression cold.
I knew then that I’d insulted her. There was no game. She’d been serious. But even in the uncomfortable moments that followed I could not recall a single incident to which she was referring. In fact, it was impossible; as children we were inseparable, and there was no instant in which I was not by my sister’s side. We’d seen all the same things and lived the same lives. Yet I could not remember anything that would have caused my sister to feel uncomfortable within the halls of Kyuden Kankei. For the first time in my life, I did not understand how my sister was feeling, and I found the notion disturbing.
That night I dreamed. I was alone in a long and narrow hallway, ill-lit from a source I could not discern. To either side, the passage extended far into a thick darkness that my eyes could not break. It was cold; I remember the loud clatter of teeth in my mouth, the involuntary spasm of my jaw. I felt no breath of wind, not even the faintest thread of a breeze. The wall behind me felt solid against my back, and on the one before me I could see the faint strokes of a painted tapestry on the other side. A face, an artist’s depiction of a grimace. I knew that painting, knew that face… but from where?
I looked slowly away to the void of bitter emptiness within the stretch of hallway. The world may as well have ended there, because I could see nothing beyond it. A suspended curtain of nothing just an arm’s length to my side. I turned my head to the other side. It was the same. Numbly staring into that abyss I felt completely alone, insignificantly isolated in a tiny stretch of hallway floating nowhere. I drew the cold into my mouth and felt something that I had not known since I was just a child. Forgive my sin… I was afraid.
I awoke in the barracks with the lingering memory of that place. My eyes were open, yet the thin streaks of Yume-do had not fully evaporated into the night of that room. As I recalled the dream, I clung to whatever images my mind could still grasp, but they dripped slowly through my fingers like spilled water, a thin film in shaking hands. I watched as the painted face in my dream faded from my memory, leaving only a shadow cast against the wall of my mind.
As the days passed, my thoughts returned often to the fixed images of my dream. I knew that I could not remember the entire thing, that there were parts I was forgetting, yet I recognized them from the holes they left in my memories. I knew there’d been a face, and that I’d seen it before, but I could not recall or describe its features, nor did I know from whence it came. Whenever I returned to these images I grew cold, as if my flesh remembered more than my mind would allow. In those moments, I felt shame. Having felt fear, I’d committed the first sin. The following nights were marked by frequent purifying trips to the shrine, lighting spindles of incense and with my head bowed in silent prayer. But the dream did not come back. My nights were still again. It was my daytime that was now disturbed.
My sister suspected something was on my mind. Since our exchange we did not speak much. We still spent our days training side-by-side in the dojo, ate our lunches together and performed our nightly duties patrolling the village outside Kankei Seiden. Whereas in the past she would have asked for my confidence, now she said nothing. Perhaps that is why I finally spoke of it weeks later, in the dimming of the day just beyond the walls of the Nasu estates.
“Sister,” I said, “what happened when we were children in Kyuden Kankei?”
She looked at me for a long time. My own face, but for the feminine jaw and lack of facial hair. When she finally spoke, her voice was quiet. “I didn’t think about it much in all this time. I was told it was only a dream. A nightmare. They told me to forget about it, and so I cast it away. But lately, I cannot help but recall it. I think it wasn’t a dream.” I watched as her face, my face, became white as the sky in winter, an expression she’d never shown before. “I think it was real.”
Our gunso approached then with the evening’s assignments. My sister and I bowed together. Tonight, like most nights, our patrols were separate. She would join the watch within Kankei Seiden. I, like most other nights, would walk the village. As we received our instructions, I glanced at her and saw that she was looking at me with the familiar determination I’d seen before. I knew the look well; she’d made up her mind, whatever it was. Not knowing what she intended to do, I nodded regardless. We did not speak of the matter again after that. Indeed, we never spoke again.
That night came another dream. It was similar to the previous dream; I was standing in a cold, narrow hallway, engulfed by darkness on both ends. But this time was somehow different. More familiar. When I looked at the wall before me I saw the mural face again, veiled somewhat by a layer of wall-plaster. The wall itself was brighter than the other walls, and I realized that the dim light was coming from the other side of the wall. There were sounds there too. Feet shuffling, muted voices. Somehow I knew that I’d brought myself here, but I still did not know where I was.
I felt something grasp my hand. Jerking my vision suddenly, I stared into my sister’s face. She was very young, just a child no more than seven or eight. Upon seeing her I remembered that I was only a child as well. She tugged my arm, as if to pull me into the yawning darkness of the hallway. I resisted; I had forgotten what it was to be a samurai, to hold myself above the impulses of my own mind. I was afraid. At last, she dropped my arm and shook her head. She said something, but her voice was clouded with echoes, and I didn’t understand her. Then, she was swallowed by the darkness. I was alone. The light behind the wall went out. I awoke, again in my barracks, again cloaked in fading tendrils of Yume-do. I left the barracks and went to the temple, ladling blessed water over my arms and hands, and set my head to the floor before the shrine to Fukurokujin. I did not want to be rid of the visions that assaulted me in my paralyzed state of dreaming. I wanted only to understand. To know what the night was showing me.
That morning, my sister did not come from her barracks to practice her kata before the rising sun. I knew something was wrong. I sought answers among my peers and the Sensei of the dojo, but it was from the lips of the castle’s lord that I discovered what had happened. My sister had chosen to patrol the halls of Kyuden Kankei the previous night. She was found crouched in one of the castle’s waiting rooms, her sword sunk deep into her belly. Seppuku. I did not want to believe the words, but Asako Bashi was a man of great honor who spoke only the truth. My sister took her life in the darkened halls of Kyuden Kankei.
The funeral pyre lit the courtyard of the Nasu estates that very evening. Asako Bashi bestowed my sister with the honor of his personal court diviner, who oversaw the ceremonies. Wrapped like a lotus in icy-white silks, my sister’s body disintegrated in long stalks of flame. When she was gone, the shugenja stirred the ashes with a long staff, picking her bones and lifting them from the pile. With the funeral sticks I passed my sister’s bones to her friends, our sensei, and our aunt, who carried the charred bones as stone-faced as the funeral of our parents. As the shugenja announced that my sister’s soul had passed into the next life, I saw that his gaze, and the gaze of the others, laid heavily upon me. Perhaps she had passed on, but in me, a part of her would remain in this world still.
A samurai should not fear death. Nor should he fear the consequences of death, much less that of another. I always knew we would be separated one day. But not like this. It was a hollow and pointless death, like the drowning of a kitten in a nightshade pond, or the swatting of a fly. It had meant nothing. As I stared at the dimming ashes, I felt a cold that defied the sated pyre, and looked up to a starless sky, yawning dark like the end of a distant hallway.
That was two years ago. Every day since then has felt as empty as a shrouded hallway. I have lived only to stay alive, no purpose beyond the course of my duties and the gentle draw and exhale of breath. The lord of the castle passed several months ago, but the son of Asako Bashi has treated me kindly. My utter devotion to every task laid before me has drawn his favor. Last week, I was promoted to the castle guard, and now my patrol takes me through the halls of Kyuden Kankei, a place where I have not walked since I was a child.
I come to the reason for my writing. Last night, alone on the final circle of my patrol, a thin beam of moonlight caught my eye from a door that I did not recall. Sliding open the shoji door, in the gloom, I saw a furnished room meant for entertaining. On the wall was a depiction of a duel between two samurai, one flashing a look of victory as his blade plunged into the chest of his opponent, the other in a grimace of defeat. When I saw the grimacing face my heart stopped, and a coldness washed over my body. It was the face from my dream. Exact to every detail, except that it faced the opposite direction.
And when I looked upon that face, the flame that had cast my mind in shadows for all these years flared brightly, illuminating all of my lost memories. In that instant I knew where the hallway was in that dark dream, where I was once so long ago, an incident that I’d forgotten for the barrier of time and memory that cloaked it there. It was behind this mural-wall. The barrier of my mind was thusly broken, and every memory flooded back in that instant. At last, I remembered.
My sister and I played games as children. We would wear one-another’s clothes to confuse the servants, tell jokes that caused guests to blush, and more than anything, we went exploring. One day we found a crack in a plastered wall. My sister wedged herself through and vanished into the darkness there. I followed, as I always did. We discovered a network of passages there that took us behind all of the rooms of the castle. It was dark, and we relied upon the lights on the other side of the wall to see. We were in the walls for hours, until we came to that familiar hallway that would later haunt my dreams. I would go no further; I knew the servants would be looking for us. My sister went on, confident that I would follow. And then the lights in the room beyond went out, and I was alone in the dark for some time.
Until a light flickered around the corner of the distant hallway, the same one my sister had taken. On slow steps and a quickening heart I walked down that hall, pausing just beyond the corner of the cast light. I heard a mumble of a voice there, something familiar to me, and for a moment, a musky smell met my nostrils. Slowly I turned the corner. Beyond, I saw a cramped room with dark walls, a single torch shining from the hands of a tall, shadowy figure. The walls were marked with long strings of words in a cypher that I did not understand. There were bones on the floor, outlined in the yellow-orange light and scattered in each corner. At the centre of the room, I saw the shadowed back of my sister. She stood in front of the figure, who held the torch high above her head. I saw him lift his gaze up from her. His eyes met mine, and I saw his shadow-strewn face in the flicker of torchlight. It was the lord of the castle, Asako Bashi. He smiled before my widening eyes, gesturing for me to come closer. I watched as my sister turned. I saw her face, my face, in the flicker of the torchlight. Smooth and featureless, like the shell of an egg. I felt my lungs fill with air and tried to force a scream, but nothing came out. I had no mouth to scream. No mouth. No face.
I do not know who I am anymore. I do not even know who I once was. But I know what must be done. I remember now, and finally I am ready. Know that you can never judge me more harshly than I have judged myself, or know me more than the Fortunes that heard my prayers. Only remember me as Shiba Fukada, whoever that man was. With blade in hand and mind clear, I return to the darkness and whatever awaits me.
I will see my sister again. I know she is waiting there.
Between the walls.
* * * * *
These documents was all we could find of significance in the ashes of Kyuden Kankei. It was buried beneath a slab of stone just beyond the smoldering remains of the left wing. Our inquisitors found no trace of what Shiba Fukada describes in his letters, nor did we find any remains. Fukada has been missing since the night he wrote the inclosed documents. Our search continues, but it is your humble servant’s opinion that we will not find him. I believe he perished in the flames, consumed mind and body by his madness.
I have also included another document of interest. I contacted a student of the castle’s original architect, who is now living in a nearby monastery. He was able to produce blueprints of the castle and swore on his honor to their authenticity. As you will see, they bare the official chop of the castle’s architect. I believe you will find them of significant relevance to these affairs. You will notice, as I did, that the walls of Kyuden Kankei consisted of simple paper and wooden framework, being entirely modular and collapsable within the tracks separating each room. The pathways described in the above account therefore could not have existed; there was no simply space for them between the walls.
Your humble servant,
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