Out of the darkness, shapes came crawling. Some large, some small, but all with the same purpose. They crawled over branch and stone, crept around pine trees, and picked up their feet to scurry across the bridge. The river rolled on beneath them, a thundering black gush that threw up a mist of spray. Some of the creatures were caught in webs of water and slipped into the swollen stream, but others took their place.
They swarmed across the bridge, a shining mass beneath a fitful moon, spilling over one another in their haste to survive.
“Well, Seimei. Nearly home.”
Hiromasa leaned back in the saddle and discreetly stretched his weary muscles. The last few miles had been boring rather than difficult, a seemingly endless plod along a track that skirted a pine forest. As dusk fast approached, he looked forward to a peaceful evening. Since they’d left Kuwana, relations between him and Seimei were back to their old ways, deepened now with an easy intimacy. For all the hardships and inconveniences of life on the road, their journey had brought unexpected pleasures.
Not that Hiromasa would ever encourage any of his friends and acquaintances to set out for far-distant provinces, or even close-by provinces, but he was different, and Seimei was different, and...
“Yes,” he said aloud, “it really will be nice to go home.”
“But first we must cross the mountains through the Suzuka Pass,” Seimei reminded him, guiding his horse to walk beside Hiromasa’s mount. “You remember how much you complained about it on the outwards journey. How you were convinced there’d be bandits and landslides and how eagles would swoop at us...”
“My cousin told me those things happened to him.” Hiromasa sniffed. “I had no reason to disbelieve him.”
“And none to believe him, either.” Seimei gave him an amused look. “One day, Hiromasa, perhaps you will trust me.”
“I do,” Hiromasa said, eyeing Seimei as he slid from the saddle and took his horse by the reins. “It’s just that sometimes, trusting you places my life in more danger than if I didn’t trust you, and while I enjoy a challenge, I... Seimei! What are you doing?”
Seimei left the horse and made his way towards a simple wooden bridge spanning the river. The forest was cut by the water, running thick and brown and slopping at the banks.
“The rains were late this year. Little wonder the river is so high.” Hiromasa nudged his horse forward and leaned over to take the reins of Seimei’s animal before proceeding halfway across the bridge. The horses’ hooves clopped, making the planks judder beneath them. Hiromasa gazed upstream, surveying the forest. The tree-line, thick and impenetrable, glowered back at him. He sighed and raised his voice over the rush of the water.
“Another day of boring forest paths. How I dislike forests! There’s nothing pleasing about a forest, nothing poetic. It’s just a mass of trees! An individual tree, like the cherry or the plum—now that is a delightful sight, and the pine, too, may look majestic, but only when placed correctly. Forests are such a jumble, things growing here and there as they please... Not unlike your garden, Seimei, although I admit you do contrive to have your plants in some semblance of order.”
Seimei seemed not to have heard this little speech. Hiromasa considered repeating it, then frowned as Seimei went a short distance downstream and crouched on the riverbank. He remained there for some time, apparently studying the eddying whorls of muddy water. He seemed unconcerned by the fact that his sleeve was trailing in the river, a tide of brown seeping into the pristine white hunting costume.
Just as Hiromasa was about to call out a question, Seimei darted a hand into the water and retrieved something large, black, and misshapen from the murk. Hiromasa gasped, his hands tightening on the reins enough to make his horse stamp its hooves in response. Had something drowned in the flood? But the thing that Seimei pulled from the water was not human. It wasn’t even a fox, or a cat, or any other kind of animal. It looked like—it was...
“A spider!” Hiromasa jerked on the reins and his mount took a few anxious steps across the bridge before he managed to bring it to a halt. Seimei’s horse followed, nudging into the back of Hiromasa’s animal and almost unseating him. “Seimei! What is that thing?”
Seimei stayed in a crouch and held the drowned insect between thumb and forefinger. He gave Hiromasa a mild look. “As you said, it’s a spider.”
Hiromasa wrinkled his nose, fighting off the urge to scratch at his skin and scrub at his clothes. A spider that size simply wasn’t normal. Why, it was almost as big as his outspread hand! What a monster! There were spiders in the capital, of course, but none as nasty-looking as that, with its horrid bloated body and dangling legs.
“Ugh, how disgusting!” Hiromasa cried, unable to repress a shudder. “It looks evil. Please put it down, Seimei.”
“Spiders aren’t evil, Hiromasa. They do a great service.”
Hiromasa fidgeted. “They look horrible. All those legs! So untidy.”
Seimei got to his feet, still holding the dead spider. “Octopuses have eight legs, too, and yet I recall you ate fried octopus without any qualms whatsoever.”
A smile twitched at the corners of Seimei’s mouth. “I fail to see why.”
“It just is. Stop being argumentative.”
Seimei tilted his head, eyes gleaming. “You like it when I’m argumentative.”
“No,” said Hiromasa, “I like it when you’re contrary. I find that particular trait endearing. When you’re argumentative, I simply find you annoying.”
“How close the divide between approval and disapproval.” Seimei held up the spider, studied it for a moment longer, then dropped it onto the ground.
“It is hardly a matter of great importance, anyway,” Hiromasa continued when Seimei joined him on the bridge. “Spiders, ants, flies... they’re all unpleasant creatures. All insects are unpleasant.”
Seimei raised his eyebrows. “And what of dragonflies? Moths? Butterflies?”
“Those are also different.” Hiromasa glared at him. “Those are pretty insects.”
“So you admit to discrimination? Ah, Hiromasa...”
Hiromasa waved a finger. “I only discriminate against ugly insects! Besides, spiders are too curious. You must know the saying about the spider’s behaviour—how a spider can foretell a lover’s visit. Especially when it’s an illicit union.”
Seimei snorted. “How ridiculous.”
“Indeed it is not!”
“I believe I shall be pleased when our journey is at an end, my dear Hiromasa. You will return to the palace and burble these inanities at your acquaintances and be considered quite the most fascinating man of the hour.”
Hiromasa huffed and pretended outrage. “Perhaps you should come to court with me and put forward your opinions on prejudice against unpleasant-looking insects.”
“Alas, I fear that learned discourse would take up too much of my time.” Seimei shot him a wicked look. “I have rather a lot of drinking to catch up on.”
Seimei smiled. “Quite.” He took the reins of his horse and led it the final few paces across the bridge. “Ahead lies the Tamura shrine. They should be able to give us shelter for the night.”
Hiromasa peered through the trees, but could see nothing through the gloom of the forest and the approaching night. “Perhaps we shouldn’t stay here. There might be more of those spiders.”
“It’s only a spider,” Seimei said. “You can’t be frightened of a spider.”
The guest hall at the shrine was scarcely bigger than a mountain ascetic’s hut. Tended by two priests, with a woodsman acting as a general manservant and his pregnant wife serving as the cook, the shrine itself had clearly fallen on hard times. What little Hiromasa could see of it in the gathering darkness failed to inspire him. Nevertheless, he would find something suitable to leave as an offering before they set out on the morrow.
Perhaps it was the diminishment of the shrine that led to the religious men sharing their meals with the woodsman and his wife. Hiromasa couldn’t recall another instance of such closeness between two different social classes before. The woodsman, Ogai, was a cheerful fellow for all his uncouth speech and rough appearance, and his wife Kiyo had a quiet prettiness. She kept her hands folded protectively over the swell of her belly whenever she wasn’t serving food or drink to the priests or their guests.
The two priests, Giei and Shinyo, could not have been more different in personality or appearance. Giei, who had begun his life in the capital, was round in body but meagre with his words. His colleague Shinyo, who hailed from Mikawa, boasted a thick beard that seemingly threatened to unbalance him every time he moved, so thin was he. Conversation came easier from Shinyo, but his speech seemed wary and disjointed.
All four carried an air of tension about them. They smiled and nodded and feigned polite interest in everything Hiromasa said, but it was as if his words drifted in the air and turned to smoke.
Worried that he might have lost his touch after prolonged exposure to Seimei’s unorthodox ideas of social interaction, Hiromasa withdrew into silence for a moment to reconsider his topics of discussion. He glanced at Seimei, who had sat in near-silence once introductions had been made and the evening rice had been served. Seimei seemed unperturbed by the odd behaviour of the four inhabitants of the shrine, but his stillness and the way he focused on eating his meal told Hiromasa that something, somewhere, was amiss.
Hiromasa looked down at his bowl and sighed. He ate a couple of sliced vegetables, then raised his gaze to study his surroundings with fresh eyes.
Ogai’s smile was too fixed. Sweat stood out at his hairline and trickled down his face. He cuffed the moisture away, revealing a fierce red insect bite on the underside of his arm. Kiyo had one hand on a jar of wine and the other pressed against her belly. She stared out of the door into the darkness, her features tight as if she was listening for something. She looked afraid, Hiromasa realised. He watched her edge closer to her husband and couldn’t help but notice the pink, raised marks of insect bites on her hands and wrists.
A high-pitched whine broke into the silence. Kiyo flinched, and Ogai waved his hands, sleeves flapping, to drive away the insect. Giei and Shinyo took out their fans and applied them vigorously. Hiromasa ducked, hoping the mosquito wouldn’t take a fancy to his blood. He disliked mosquitoes as much as he disliked spiders.
“This close to the river, we are an easy target for insects,” Shinyo said by way of apology. The whine increased in volume, and he huddled into his robes, peering around for the mosquito. “Yes. An easy target.”
Hiromasa frowned. “Is that why you’re all scared? You’re afraid of... insects?”
No one would meet his gaze. In the hush, the mosquito whined again.
Seimei set down his bowl. He glanced out of the door, his features sharpening. Perhaps his half-fox blood allowed him to see through the darkness. Hiromasa wondered what he saw.
Giei brushed at a few grains of rice that had dropped onto his straining stomach. “The forest,” he said, voice low and hushed. “There’s evil in it.”
Seimei made a soft noise. “Evil is rarely a disembodied entity. Be more specific.”
Hiromasa frowned. “Seimei! Perhaps these good people don’t know what manner of creature haunts the woods.”
Silence spread through the guest hall.
“Very well,” Seimei said. “This evil, what does it do?”
Another silence, longer than the last. The mosquito’s whine started again, insistent and annoying. Seimei exhaled and jabbed his chopsticks into the air. The whining stopped. The mosquito dangled from the tips of the chopsticks.
Ogai blinked. Kiyo put a hand to her mouth and gave a little laugh.
Seimei got to his feet and flung the mosquito outside. He lingered at the door, gazing out into the night. Hiromasa felt encouraged by this subtle gesture of protection and turned to the other four. “Don’t be afraid to tell us about the evil creature in the forest. We’ve done battle with many terrible demons. In Kuwana we solved a mysterious case of serial killings and undid a curse, and before that there was a family of horrible ghosts, and before that, we exorcised a shadow fox—”
He stopped there and threw an apologetic glance at Seimei. The scars had all but faded, the memory of Yatsuhashi almost buried, but sometimes Hiromasa woke in the small hours of the morning to find Seimei sitting with his sleeve pushed up, staring at the silver-tracery damage of the shadow fox’s poison.
Shinyo exchanged glances with the others. “The thing in the forest... it takes people. I don’t know what it does with them, but they’re never seen or heard of ever again.”
Seimei leaned against the doorframe and narrowed his eyes. “How many people?”
“I don’t know.” Shinyo shook his head, his beard rustling across his robes. He pushed his closed fan up his sleeve and scratched an itch. “We try to warn travellers when they pass through. Don’t stop in the forest, we tell them. Don’t stop for anything, no matter what you see or hear. That’s how it gets them. It lures them from the path, gets them lost amongst the trees, then it comes for them. Creeping and crawling, it comes for them.”
Hiromasa swallowed. “Creeping and crawling...?”
“Like an insect,” Ogai said. He reached back for his wife, and she made a frightened sound and clung to his arm. Gaze fixed on Hiromasa, he added, “My lord, you are safer here than anywhere else after dark, but this creature attacks during daylight hours, too. I’ve heard it on both sides of the river. No one knows the location of its lair. It seems to be everywhere.”
“How long has this been happening?” Seimei asked. He turned to look outside again, scanning their surroundings.
Shinyo and Giei exchanged anxious glances. “A year or two now,” Shinyo said. “We didn’t want the shrine to suffer from neglect, so we made the decision not to alert the governor. It isn’t like the creature takes every traveller through these woods! It just... it just takes a few.” He bowed his head. His hands trembled, and he scratched at his arm again, scratched hard enough to draw a tiny pinprick of blood that soaked into the fabric of his sleeve.
Seimei nodded. “I believe this shrine used to have five priests. What happened to the other three?”
“One left. He said he could hear the creature moving through the forest at night. He claimed it crept into his room and hung over him, taunting him. He said it sang to him—that it played music on a biwa and sang, and it promised it would come for him soon.” Shinyo let out a shaking sigh. “He went insane and tried to hang himself. Ogai and I found him in time, but after that... We thought it best that he returned to his village.”
“What of the others?” Hiromasa asked.
Shinyo covered his face with his sleeve.
Giei said harshly, “They died. The creature took them.”
“I heard it,” Ogai said, his face pale with remembered horror. “My wife and I were gathering wood. The two masters came out and said they were going to track down the creature and destroy it. A party of travellers had passed through the day before, and the creature had attacked them. They said it was huge and without form, and came at them from the mist. It took a child and two women, and though several men tried to defend against the monster, one man was injured and fell behind in the twilight. When the rest of the group turned back, the man had vanished.”
Hiromasa shivered. “How horrible!”
“The two masters believed that they could find and rescue the lost travellers,” Ogai continued. “They also thought that, because the creature had so recently attacked, it wouldn’t prey on them. I offered to give them my axe, but they said they didn’t need it. They had a holy incantation that would subdue the creature.”
Seimei made a sound low in his throat but offered no comment.
“What happened?” Hiromasa edged closer.
Ogai dropped his gaze and stared at his hands. “I told my wife to go indoors with the wood we’d gathered. I took my axe and decided to follow, just in case the masters needed me. But I couldn’t find them. It seemed like a mist crept through the forest. I held onto the axe tightly. Then I heard it.”
He stopped and reached for the wine jar. Ignoring the cup in front of him, he took a long gulp straight from the jug. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth and looked from Seimei to Hiromasa. “My lords, this is the truth. I didn’t see what happened to them. But I heard it. I heard the creature come for them. And I heard—I heard music.”
Hiromasa rocked back. “Music?”
Ogai nodded. “Yes, lord. A lovely tune, the kind that makes you want to sit and listen no matter what cares are on your mind. And I almost forgot what I was doing, because I was listening to the music, and then it stopped, and I heard... I heard the masters screaming.”
He paused, took another drink. Kiyo rubbed his back, her face wan. He pulled his wife closer and said, “I followed the sound. As I ran, the mist went away. I couldn’t find the masters, but I saw tracks in the earth. It looked like they’d been dragged away from where they’d fallen. They’d been dragged away by a creature with many legs.”
Sleep eluded Hiromasa for much of the night. He lay on his bedroll beside Seimei, both of them sharing their cloaks and top robes as a quilt, but while Seimei fell asleep with the swift ease of an animal safe in its den, Hiromasa remained awake. He flinched at every sound from outside the guest hall and thought he heard distant music from the direction of the forest. When he did drift off, he woke in a panic, imagining spiders and other ugly insects crawling towards him. At other times he was woken by the high-pitched whine of a mosquito, until eventually he buried his head beneath his cloak and fell asleep breathing in the warmth and scent of Seimei’s body.
Next morning he woke scratching at the numerous bites gifted by the mosquitoes. Not even Seimei was immune, his ankles ringed with red puncture marks from the feeding insects. Cheered by this display of humanity in his friend, Hiromasa went outside. The horses waited nearby. He patted his mount and inhaled the freshness of the morning air, looking around at his surroundings. Lit by sunlight, the forest looked benign. It was hard to imagine a terrifying creature lurking in its depths.
“Good morning, my lord.” Ogai emerged from his hut and bowed as he approached. “Forgive my poor company. The masters are engaged in a rite within the shrine and must not be disturbed. They hope you slept well.”
“Well enough,” Hiromasa said, turning back one sleeve to display the insect bites. “I’d have slept better if those cursed mosquitoes hadn’t dined on me all night long.”
Ogai grunted in sympathy, scratching at his own swollen bites. “Can’t be helped, my lord. This close to water, it’s bound to happen. After a while you’re bitten so many times you get used to it.”
Hiromasa wrinkled his nose. “How very unpleasant.”
“There’s not so many mosquitoes in the forest. After a few paces, they disappear.” Ogai glanced towards the silent trees. “Maybe they’re scared of the creature, too.”
“Perhaps.” Hiromasa heard the tremor in his voice and reminded himself that he had no reason to be afraid. He was with Seimei, and together they’d vanquished monsters and demons far more frightening than an over-sized insect. He coughed and turned to face Ogai. “And there’s no path that leads around the forest?”
The woodsman shook his head. “Not this side of the river. But I’m sure you’ll be fine.” He smiled in what was probably meant to be a reassuring manner, but it looked more like a grimace.
Seimei came out to join them, smoothing down the dazzling white of his hunting costume. As he passed Ogai’s hut, he paused and nodded as Kiyo came forward, a cloth bag held in her hands. She bowed in response. “Here, my lords,” she said, offering the bundle. “Some food for your journey. Your water-skins have been replenished, and please accept a small jar of wine to soothe the tediousness of the road.”
“Thank you for your kindness.” Seimei accepted the bag. He touched Kiyo’s arm, his fingertips lingering over the bites encircling her wrists. He smiled at her. “How long until the birth of your child?”
Hiromasa gaped at such an impertinent question, blushing almost as red as Kiyo herself. She hid her face and murmured that they expected the babe to make its appearance sometime late in the eleventh month.
Ogai puffed himself up with pride. “Our firstborn! Though,” he added, his expression clouding with worry, “it might be best if I can find work elsewhere. I like serving the shrine, the masters here have always been generous, but since the creature came... I want my child to grow up healthy and happy. I don’t want my family to live in fear.”
Seimei nodded. “May it be so.” He shifted the bundle in his arms, glanced at Kiyo’s belly, and looked as if he wanted to say something else. Instead he turned to Ogai. “Which is the most direct path through the forest?”
“That way, my lord.” Ogai pointed. “Follow yonder track, and once inside the forest take the path that forks left. Don’t deviate from it, and you’ll find your way through easy enough.”
They mounted up, said their farewells, and set off. Hiromasa turned to look back at the shrine. Ogai and Kiyo waved, calling out their good wishes for a safe journey.
“What nice people,” Hiromasa said.
“Indeed.” Seimei leaned forward in the saddle, his gaze quick and sharp as he scanned the edge of the forest. He said nothing more, and as they passed beneath the pine trees, he seemed to relax.
Hiromasa glanced about. It was an unremarkable forest littered with fallen pine needles and sloughed bark, overgrown here and there with brambles and thickets of shrubs he couldn’t identify.
After a short distance, Seimei halted and slid from the saddle. “Dismount and tie up your horse. Quickly now.”
Puzzled, his heart beating a little faster, Hiromasa did as he was told. Once the horses were secured, Seimei picked his way along the path, stepping lightly over knotted roots and tumbled branches.
“Be ready, Hiromasa,” he instructed.
“Ah?” Hiromasa pushed his cloak aside and dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword. “You think we’ll encounter the creature? Is it a demon?”
“A spider.” Seimei pointed upwards.
Hiromasa tilted his head back and stifled a cry of disgust at the sight of layered webs and trailing filaments stretched high above them, draped from the treetops to filter the sunlight.
Seimei continued walking. “If I am not mistaken—and naturally, I am not—this forest is home to a Jorougumo.”
“The Binding Lady?” Hiromasa hurried to catch up with him, shuddering at the thought of the webs above their heads. “A spider-woman. Ugh, how horrible!”
“We should perhaps walk some distance apart,” Seimei suggested, swinging his sleeves. “The Jorougumo may not be inclined to attack both of us. If, however, you go ahead of me, she will surely find you more to her taste. Jorougumo are known to prefer handsome young men.”
Hiromasa shot him an annoyed look. “I suppose we must do this.”
“Of course we must.” Seimei raised his eyebrows. “Come now, Hiromasa, admit it. You enjoy these adventures.”
A ready comeback deserted him, and Hiromasa gritted his teeth. “And I suppose the Jorougumo will take the form of a beautiful woman?”
“That is their usual shape.”
Hiromasa sighed. “Then stay back and let me be the bait. Again.”
Seimei laughed. “You make such enticing bait, Hiromasa.”
A dozen impolite responses sprang to Hiromasa’s lips, but he swallowed them. He would maintain his dignity, even if it meant being devoured by a monstrous spider-woman. He stamped ahead, irritation speeding his steps. Maybe he’d be able to kill the Jorougumo without Seimei’s help. That would be a pleasing victory. He wouldn’t be able to boast about it at court, but Seimei would know, and that would be worth more than any praise he could receive from the Emperor and the Great Ministers.
A ground mist came creeping, drifting through the trees to spill across the path. Hiromasa stopped, remembering how Ogai had described a mist in the forest just before the creature had attacked. He listened for the sound of music, but heard only silence. Turning, he looked back through the trees for Seimei, but saw nothing and no one. It was impossible that he’d walked so far, so fast. Uneasy now, Hiromasa ventured forward a few more steps.
A flash of movement caught his attention. Breathing hard, Hiromasa spun around, dropping into a crouch and reaching for his sword. He stared, blinked, and stood up slowly, relaxing his grip.
Some way from the path, an old woman stumbled through the trees. She wore simple brown robes and her long silver hair fell about her face. She seemed confused, lost, turning around and around as if searching for something.
Hiromasa called out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear him. He hesitated—could this be the Jorougumo?—but when she tottered and collapsed into a heap, he hurried from the path to help her.
He scuffed through the leaves and pine needles, his sword clanking and his cloak swirling. Hiromasa dropped to his knees beside the old woman and leaned over her. She looked pitiful, her face wrinkled with dozens of fine lines like crumpled paper. Her silver hair was matted and dirt clung to her clothes. She seemed to have fainted.
Hiromasa eased his arms beneath the old woman and lifted her. She weighed almost nothing, as light as a dewdrop, and he folded her carefully into his embrace. Murmuring words of comfort, he turned to go back to the path.
Mist smothered the forest. He had no idea which way to go. It all looked the same.
“Seimei!” he shouted. “Seimei!”
Silence answered him, heavy and thick.
“How ridiculous,” Hiromasa muttered. “Why do I let him talk me into such stupid ideas? Impossible, that’s what he is. Impossible and aggravating. Well, I can’t stand here all day. But which way should I go?”
After a moment of turning in circles, the old woman still clasped to his chest, Hiromasa set off in what he hoped was the right direction. The ground beneath his feet seemed familiar, and he was sure he recognised that knobbly tree root and that piece of bark that looked like a smiling face.
A few paces further on, he saw something though the mist and the trees. As he drew closer, it took on a more distinct shape—a tumbledown hut.
The old woman stirred and opened her eyes to gaze up at him. She gave a start, struggled a little in his arms, then caught sight of the hut. “My home.”
Relief spread through him. “This is your house?”
She nodded. “You’re so kind.” Her voice was faint and wavering.
“Please think nothing of it.” Hiromasa beamed a reassuring smile at her. “Is there anyone within who can care for you? Any family nearby?”
She sighed as they approached the hut. “My husband died long ago. My children have all left me.”
“All of them? How sad. Your children shouldn’t be so unfilial as to leave you alone in a place like this.” Hiromasa ducked his head as he carried her indoors.
“Thank you,” she said. “If you wouldn’t mind—my bed is at the back of the room—just set me down and I will rest a while...”
The single room was dark and cluttered, with a musty dry smell in the air. Careful of his burden, Hiromasa nudged aside the cloths hanging from the rafters. Things moved and bumped together, but he paid no attention, more concerned with settling the old woman on her bedroll.
“There,” he said, making sure she was comfortable, tucking the thin blanket around her frail body. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“So kind,” she murmured. “So very kind.”
His eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness now, and he glanced up. At first he thought he was mistaken, but the more he looked, the more detail emerged. Hiromasa sucked in a breath, tried to expel it in a yell of horror, but it snagged in his throat and began to choke him. He tipped over backwards, began to squirm away, but all he could see were the desiccated bodies swaying gently from the rafters. Drained of life, the six corpses—a child, two women, three men—were little more than wizened husks wrapped in spider’s silk.
The old woman gave a chuckling laugh and sat up. Hiromasa thrashed backwards, tangling himself in his cloak as he tried to pull his sword free of its scabbard. His skin crawled as she crept towards him. He flinched as her human arms became a spider’s legs, twitching, grabbing, reaching out—
A blast of magic knocked her back against the wall. Her mouth opened on a scream, as high-pitched as the whine of a mosquito, and then she crumpled and fell to the floor with a thud. Her human form shrivelled, turned black, and became a spider curled in on itself.
Seimei strolled into the hut, brushing past the desiccated victims. He looked down at the dead spider and gave a sniff of disdain. Then he turned and offered a hand to Hiromasa, pulling him to his feet. “Well done. You found the Jorougumo.”
Hiromasa stared at him, stared at the drained corpses hanging from the roof. “Seimei! You killed her! She killed them! She almost killed me! Seimei!”
Seimei stared at the dead spider again. “She was dying already. Her power had almost gone.”
“But that’s good, yes?” Hiromasa said. “No more Jorougumo!”
“No,” said Seimei, standing very still. “There’s always another. Remember the dead spider on the riverbank. It wouldn’t have been alone. Insects always survive.” He lifted his head, his expression sombre. “We have to go back to the shrine.”
They burned the hut, turned it into a funeral pyre to enable the Jorougumo’s victims to pass into the Western Paradise. Seimei drew a holy barrier around the hut to keep the fire from spreading through the forest, and as the building went up in flames, the webs slithered back from the trees and were sucked into the conflagration.
The heat billowed out, stroking at their backs as they walked away. The mist retreated ahead of them until the path out of the forest lay clear.
“It’s Kiyo, isn’t it?” Hiromasa said as they made their way towards their horses. “She’s the new Jorougumo.”
Seimei raised an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, she’s a woman. And she’s pregnant, so instead of a human baby she could have thousands of baby spiders inside her.” Hiromasa screwed up his face at the very idea. “Ugh! That sounds so horrible.”
Seimei chuckled. “You’re wrong. I admit the thought crossed my mind, too, when we first arrived at the shrine. But she, her husband, and her unborn child are all innocent. What we’re looking for now, Hiromasa, is not a Jorougumo but her offspring. Only one of them will grow up to take her mother’s place.”
“Then,” said Hiromasa, feeling his skin itch, “we’re looking for spiders?”
“Spiders within a human host,” Seimei said. “The one we saw in the river... it would have been one of hundreds, newly hatched. The spiders need to feed. They will inhabit an unfortunate human until they’ve drained him or her of vitality, and then they’ll move on to their next victim. Each time, some spiders will grow stronger and thrive, and the rest will become weaker and die. At length only one spider will remain.”
“And she will become the Jorougumo,” Hiromasa guessed. “Can we stop it?”
Seimei’s features were blank. “We can try.”
They rode back to the shrine in silence. Hiromasa’s thoughts flickered from one thing to another, but most of all he wondered which of the priests was playing host to the Jorougumo’s offspring. He wanted to ask Seimei, but didn’t want to reveal his ignorance. Instead he settled for hoping that neither man had been infected.
As they left the forest, Seimei dismounted once more. “Follow my lead,” he said. “Agree with anything I say.”
Hiromasa nodded. He jumped from the saddle and took the reins of both horses, following Seimei towards the woodsman’s hut. Seimei called out a greeting, and Ogai emerged, looking startled and confused.
“My lords! Is something wrong?” Ogai came closer, concern etched into his features. “Did you encounter anything in the forest? Do you need assistance? Let me fetch my axe—”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that.” Seimei gave him a charming smile, warm and easy. “It’s simply that as we were going along, my friend Lord Hiromasa was full of praise for your hard work and diligence, and he said how much he enjoyed your wife’s cooking, and I suggested—and he agreed—that we should come back here and invite you to the capital, yourself and Kiyo. Come to Heian-Kyo as Lord Hiromasa’s retainers, and he will find you a comfortable home on his estates.”
Hiromasa’s mouth dropped open.
Ogai stared, then started bowing. “My lords! Your generosity overwhelms me! You are too kind to this humble person and his unworthy wife! I can’t accept!”
“Nonsense.” Exuding benevolence, Seimei lifted Ogai to his feet and looked directly at him. For a moment, Seimei’s eyes flashed gold. “You can accept. Lord Hiromasa will be delighted to take you on. He can talk of nothing else. If you refuse, he’ll be quite distraught.”
“Uh, yes. Delighted,” Hiromasa said. “I mean, distraught. Or something.”
Ogai blinked, swayed a little on his feet, then nodded. “I’ll—I’ll tell my wife. We’ll come with you right now.”
“Good man.” Seimei spoke with such rich approval in his voice that even Hiromasa felt pleased by the hasty decision. As Ogai went into the house, Seimei touched Hiromasa’s sleeve. “Take them into the forest. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
Hiromasa grabbed him before he could pull away. “Where are you going?”
Seimei met his gaze. “To try and save another innocent.”
Ogai came out of his hut, clothes and possessions shoved haphazardly into a backpack. Kiyo came after him, confusion on her face and protests on her lips. Seimei smiled at her, sent a few whispered words through the air, and she fell quiet, her features relaxing.
“Must you enchant them?” Hiromasa asked, fretting.
“In order to save their lives? Yes.” Seimei flashed him a look. “Go now.”
Hiromasa obeyed. He helped Kiyo onto his horse and instructed Ogai to take the reins and lead the animal into the forest. About to mount up onto Seimei’s horse, he hesitated and glanced towards the gates of the shrine. “Take both horses,” he added. “I’ll be with you soon. Go into the forest and wait for us there.”
He lingered long enough to see Ogai and Kiyo start along the path towards safety, then turned back, flicking his cloak aside with a determined gesture. He unsheathed his sword, anxiety lodged in his throat and butterflies churning in his stomach. Hiromasa crept through the grounds of the shrine, his sword held ready, and then he froze in the shadow of an overgrown azalea.
Ahead of him, on the steps in front of the Hall of Offerings, Seimei was arguing with Shinyo. Hiromasa wasn’t close enough to hear what was said, but it was clear from the way they held themselves, from the gestures they made, that Shinyo refused to listen to whatever Seimei was telling him. Seimei reached out, made an impassioned plea, but Shinyo shook his head.
Giei came out of the hall and stood looking at them, perplexed. He glanced between the two men and asked a question. Seimei stood silent. Shinyo shook his head again and climbed the steps to join his colleague. Giei hesitated a moment longer, then both priests withdrew into the Hall of Offerings.
Hiromasa remained where he stood. Moments later, Seimei joined him, his expression dark with disquiet. “He won’t come. He says his first duty is to the shrine. Damned priests!”
Seimei didn’t speak again until they were beyond the boundaries of the shrine and heading towards the forest. Hiromasa glanced back and saw Giei standing outside Ogai’s hut, a puzzled look on his round face.
Hiromasa cleared his throat. “You think Giei is the one?”
Seimei sighed. “Mosquitoes have bitten you and me, they’ve bitten Ogai and his wife, they’ve bitten Shinyo—and yet Giei has no bites. None at all. Why would he be immune? Because the mosquitoes are afraid of him. Because he’s carrying the Jorougumo’s offspring. A mosquito would not dare bite a spider.”
Hiromasa considered this. “But Seimei, some people are never bitten by mosquitoes. My great-uncle Koretada, for example. No insect ever bit him. He said they could smell his vitality and avoided him, but my great-aunt said it was because he stank and had bad-tasting blood. Maybe Giei is the same.”
Seimei nodded. “Perhaps.”
“And another thing,” Hiromasa continued, pleased with his counter-arguments, “Giei has no bites that you can see, but a priest’s robe conceals much.”
“Indeed,” Seimei agreed, his voice soft and thoughtful. “No bites that I can see.”
“So you might be wrong,” Hiromasa said.
Seimei said nothing.
“Occasionally,” Hiromasa nudged him with his elbow, “just occasionally, Seimei, you are wrong.”
A pause, and then Seimei smiled slightly. “I pray that this time I am mistaken.”
They reached the edge of the forest. A short distance ahead, Ogai and Kiyo waited for them amongst the trees.
Hiromasa gave an exasperated snort. “Seimei, just what am I going to do with Ogai and his wife?”
“I’m sure you’ll find something suitable,” Seimei said. “Ogai is a resourceful man and Kiyo is a good cook. Your estates are so large, you need the help.”
“You’re the one with the unkempt garden. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take them?”
Seimei chuckled. “My dear Hiromasa, you are the philanthropic one, not me.”
Darkness had fallen. Shinyo moved around the Hall of Offerings, lighting candles. The flames leapt up, hissing in the silence, casting weird shadows on the walls. It had seemed abnormally quiet in the days since Ogai and Kiyo had left, but Giei said it didn’t matter. They could cook their own food and make their own repairs and gather their own wood. The gods were testing them, that was all. Their devotion was being tested, and soon they would be rewarded.
Shinyo hoped the gods would see fit to reward them with a couple of young acolytes. He’d written to the governor requesting assistance and he’d even written to an abbot of his acquaintance at Nara, asking for his learned advice. The letters lay in his room, awaiting a messenger. No one had called in at the shrine since those two lords on their way back to the capital.
The hush was broken by a noise outside. A muffled cry, a tearing wet sound, and then a silence deeper than anything he’d heard before. Even the familiar whine of the mosquitoes stopped.
Shinyo took a candle and went out into the night. At first all he saw was darkness, but then in the gentle glow of the flame he saw Giei on the ground, his body torn apart, a stream of spiderlings pulsing from his flesh.
A scream broke from Shinyo’s mouth. He dropped the candle. Light glittered in hundreds of thousands of spider-eyes. The creatures hesitated, and then as one they advanced upon him.