- I -
The farmgirl who opens the door is younger than he expects, but she pulls him in out of the howling storm without a moment’s hesitation.
“It’s so very strange,” the girl, Kayo, says as Ginko sheds his coat and snow-encrusted boots. “So few travelers pass this way in winter that we go whole months without seeing a new face. Yet tonight there are two of you! At our very door! Oh, please, you must promise tell us stories of your journeys!”
“Of course” he replies with a smile. “And your other visitor, who is he?”
“See for yourself,” says Kayo.
- II -
The other traveler is waiting by the fire pit at the farmhouse’s heart. When Ginko sees him, his blood chills for a moment.
A kimono of gold and green and blue far too thin for the howling winds beyond the walls. Clawlike nails, long pale hair. A pallid face painted in thick lines of crimson and purple.
And his eyes—
Ginko has walked many roads and seen many strange and terrible things. He has seen enough to know that this stranger’s eyes of stone and iron carry behind them the inhuman weight of centuries.
Ginko, too, knows not fear him.
- III -
The farmer’s sallow-cheeked face lights up when Ginko pulls a bag of rice from his pack and presses it upon him as thanks for the night’s shelter.
“It’s been a hard winter,” he tells Ginko as his wife sets a pot to boil. “Not near as bad as the famine twenty years back when we lost half the village. But bad.”
“It’s even been awful for the animals in the woods,” adds Kayo. “They’ve all left our mountain. I haven’t seen as much as a bird or rabbit for weeks.”
A sense of unease begins to settle over Ginko’s shoulders.
- IV -
“You’ve told this family you’re only a simple traveling peddler. A medicine seller, a kusuriuri. Who are you, really?”
“Merely what I have said. No more. No less.”
Ginko frowns. “Both you and I know that isn’t true. Who are you? What are you?”
The stranger’s lips draw back over unsettlingly sharp teeth. “And what of you, my fellow traveler. Who and what are you?”
“I am a Mushi-shi,” says Ginko. “And I would prefer it if you didn’t avoid my questions.”
Kusuriuri regards him with unreadable eyes. “Stay on this mountain, Mushi-shi, and you might soon learn the rest.”
- V -
Ginko awakens in the night to find the farmhouse gray and shadow-filled. The storm has faded, leaving behind only a disquieting silence.
Beside him, the medicine seller’s bedroll lies untouched. Paper seals are pressed to each of the room’s four walls, and Kusuriuri stands at the center by the fire’s dimming embers. Watching. Listening.
“It’s out there, isn’t it?” Ginko asks quietly, his words breaking the snow-muffled stillness. “Out in the dark. The reason you came to this place.”
Kusuriuri does not reply. There is no need for an answer.
In the morning, a child is missing from the village.
- VI -
They come just after dawn. Half the men in the town, it seems, and many of the women. The door is wrenched open, and Ginko and the medicine seller are dragged from within and into the snow.
Ginko is unsurprised. Peculiar happenings have always dogged his footsteps, and this will be neither the first nor last time he is blamed for the workings of Mushi and magic.
As the villagers bind their hands, he catches a glimpse of Kusuriuri’s undaunted face. This medicine seller, he thinks, is no stranger to such fear and suspicion.
For once, Ginko is not alone.
- VII -
The vanished child is called Ume. She is but six years old. She is said to have a sunshine smile for everyone she meets and is fond of the small blue flowers that grow beside the river.
Her parents had awakened in the night to find her missing from where she slept between them, her blankets slit apart as if by knives. They had searched, frantic, fearful, raising a desperate cry as they ran from door to door in the bone-cold hours before sunrise.
Not a soul had seen her. It was as though little Ume had been spirited away.
- VIII -
Surprisingly, it is Kayo who defends the travelers.
“We heard nothing,” she proclaims, standing ankle-deep in the snow as she stares down the furious mob. “We saw nothing. You know how light a sleeper my mother is. And my father lay beside the doorway.”
She puts her hands on her hips. The crowd shrinks back from her righteous glare.
“Did you see tracks leading to our home? Any signs at all? And where do you think these fine gentlemen would keep a stolen child? Their packs? Their pockets?”
The villagers mutter of yokai and witchcraft but cut them both free.
- IX -
Since the townsfolk do not let him join the search parties, Ginko hunts instead for Mushi.
Little Ume’s house is full of them. Yumebai, Kareha no Nuno, Dojyousaji—all common, all harmless, the sort of Mushi that one could find living side-by-side with humans in half the houses in the land. Perhaps it had been too much to hope that the cause of her disappearance might still be lurking in some forgotten corner….
Three yellow motes slide soundlessly across the floor. Ginko stoops and scoops them into a glass vial. He stoppers it, holds it to the light—
- X -
Kayo turns the vial over in her hands, peering at it closely. She cannot see the glowing Mushi inside but believes Ginko when he speaks of them.
“Yes. Hidaruihokori, Hungering Dust. It’s fairly rare. I’ve heard of great swarms of them inhabiting the deepest woods, or the most remote mountains. It… feeds on carrion.”
“It eats dead things? Ugh, gross! But what was it doing in inside the potters' house? Unless—“ Her eyes widen, and when she speaks her words are thick with horror. “You don’t think….little Ume…Is she…?”
Ginko bows his head. “I do not know.”
- XI -
Form, Truth, and Regret.
The stranger circles the village, a single glittering scale balanced on one fingertip. It stays impossibly upright, its bells hanging motionless.
One thing is certain—the Mononoke did not take the child. His scales tell him that it is still waiting somewhere out in the forest. Waiting. Waiting for whom?
He cannot falter in his vigilance. The Mushi-shi may perceive more than most mortals, but—as it always has been, and always must be—it will fall upon this stranger to defeat such evil.
And so, he must seek them out.
The Form, Truth, and Regret.
- XII -
At twilight, the searchers return. They have found nothing.
A bitter chill descends.
Ume’s parents despair.
The villagers gather at the well in the morning. Little hope remains, but they will continue searching nonetheless.
They are people of the mountain.
They will keep searching, though all they now expect find is a tiny, frozen body curled amongst the rocks.
The child has returned! By all the gods and spirits, the child has returned!
Little Ume is cold and very tired, but she wears her sunshine smile as she takes her mother’s hand.
- XIII -
“Where were you? What happened?”
I don’t know, Mama. I woke up in the Vale of Bones. I didn’t wander off, Mama, I promise! Please don’t be angry!
“The-the Vale of Bones?”
Auntie takes me to play there sometimes. She showed me the way through the cliffs.
“But how did you ever survive the night? Why didn’t you return yesterday?”
Yesterday? I came straight home, Father, truly!
The medicine seller cuts in. “But what did you see in the Vale, child? What found you, out in the dark?”
Nothing. Nothing. Ume saw nothing.
She will not meet his eyes.
- XIV -
If his long years as a Mushi-shi have taught Ginko anything, it’s that Mushi are beings of rules, of habits, of cycles. The Mushi that stole the child from her bed in the heart of winter will strike again. Of this he is certain.
He begs leave from his hosts to stay a few more nights. The mountain passes may be snowed shut, he claims. The medicine seller asks for nothing, but he also makes no move to depart.
They do not need to wait long.
On the morning following little Ume’s return, two men are missing from the village.
- XV -
The Vale of Bones. The surrounding wood. The fringes of the rocky valleys beyond. The villagers’ search parties scour them all, but each returns at dusk as empty-handed as when they sought the child.
Ginko, too, has again found little. He shows Kayo the vial where he has trapped the yellow motes of Hidaruihokori he found dancing beneath the eaves of both the vanished men’s homes.
“It’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?” she says, tilting her head. “Why don’t you try asking him? He seems like a person who would know about that kind of stuff.”
Ginko cannot disagree.
- XVI -
We wish to feed
We call to ourselves
We wish to feed
The pieces of Hungering Dust sing to the stranger from their glass prison. With clawed fingers he uncorks the top. Pours them out. Sets them free.
“You can see them?” the Mushi-shi asks. He does not sound surprised.
“I’ve seen you patrolling the village. What are you looking for, exactly?” The Mushi-shi draws a pipe of rolled paper from his pocket and lights one end.
“I hunt for Truth. Among other things.”
“The truth, huh? And have you found it yet?”
They lapse into silence.
- XVII -
“Do you believe in Mononoke?”
The question is sudden. Ginko exhales a thin plume of tobacco smoke and regards Kusuriuri carefully with his lone eye before answering. “Creatures formed from rage, fear and grief? I’ve seen beings of light, of shadow, of the very essence of nature itself. Entities made of human emotion don’t seem so very farfetched.”
He stubs out his cigarette. “Will I need to believe in them before this is over?”
“If you venture into the forest with me tomorrow, into this Vale of Bones, then you must.”
“Then I shall make an effort to do so.”
- XVIII -
Five of them go to search the Vale the next day. An old farmer who knows the way. Jiro, his son, a strapping lad of sixteen. Ginko. The Medicine Seller. Kayo brings up the rear in her clunky sandals.
They descend down a steep, narrow path into the valley below the village, passing beneath great cliffs of granite that hang overhead like thunderclouds.
“Is this the only way into the Vale?” Ginko asks Kayo.
“Yeah. There used to be a road, but it washed away in the floods before the big famine.”
The old farmer shudders. “Dark times,” he says.
- XIX -
To say the Vale lives up to its name would be a severe understatement.
The shadowed hollow is nearly the size of the village above and is carpeted with a layer of bones deeper than Ginko is tall. Within moments he spots the bleached skulls of a dozen different animals—from rabbits to deer to even wolves—all stripped of flesh and covered in a ghostly shroud of snow.
“Hulloooooo—“ the boy, Jiro, calls. “Is anyone out there? Can anyone hear me?”
A muffled echo is all that answers him.
“Well,” says Ginko. “I suppose we should start looking.”
- XX -
The sun drifts across the sky. The five of them must search slowly, for the slick bones prove for treacherous footing. Each step brings with it the unnerving cracking of limbs, the snapping of ribs, the crunch of crushed spines. They search slowly, for they are not even sure, perhaps, of what they expect to find here. The rest of the villagers had found no traces the day before, after all.
One thing is beyond doubt, however, Ginko thinks as he studies the jawbone of an enormous bear. This place can be nothing but the very den of the Hidaruihokori.
- XXI -
“It just seems silly.” Kayo says.
“You said these…Hidaruiwhatsits. The Mushi. One little speck finds something dead, right? And then it calls the rest over.”
“And then the rest of the swarm comes by—like ants—and they each take one itty-bitty mouthful—“
“—And take it home to their nest and put the dead thing straight back together.”
“And then the Hidaruwhatsits eat it again, for real this time, leaving behind the bones. These bones.”
“Why not just eat it where they find it?”
“Mushi are rarely logical,” says Ginko, shrugging.
- XXII -
Kayo much prefers the local legends about the Vale (something about a mountain god and a vanquished demon) and she relates them enthusiastically to Ginko during a rest.
Ginko listens with half an ear, his mind remaining fixed on the subject of the Hungering Dust.
From the evidence he’s seen, it seems probable that the Hidaruihokori took both the child and the vanished men. Perhaps mistaking their sleep for death—strange— the swam had stolen them away. The Mushi must have soon realized their mistake, he supposes, and released the child. But, then, what of the men?
Where are they?
- XXIII -
The stranger does not feel the bite of the frozen air. He pays no mind to the distrustful whispers of the old farmer and his boy. The groaning of the earthly remains beneath his feet holds no horror for him, nor do the thin cries of the spirits that still cling to some of them.
The scale on his finger shifts an infinitesimal amount, the voices of the golden bells chiming softly before the device balances upright once more.
So the Mononoke has been here. It has been to this place of bones.
The question is—
Where is it now?
- XXIV -
“T’was pointless to come here,” grumbles the farmer.
“Oh, hush,” snaps Kayo.
Ginko is becoming inclined to agree with the old man. Perhaps the Hidaruihokori hadn’t taken the men after all. They should have found them alive by now.
He’s developing a headache, too, and his ears are ringing. Lower altitude, he thinks.
The boy, Jiro, suddenly screams. His father, Ginko, and Kayo scramble down a hill of hollow-eyed skulls to reach him.
Pale and trembling, Jiro points to the base of the neighboring pile.
There, they find what’s left of the missing men.
They do not find their heads.
- XXV -
With gloved fingers, Ginko delicately turns over a fleshless human limb.
“This,” he says softly, “was the work of the Mushi. Most of it, at least.”
“Are you sure?” Kayo squeaks.
“Positive. They’ve both been stripped of everything remotely edible, even the cartilage in their joints. Utterly devoured, but devoured without their clothing being removed—this one’s feet were eaten from inside his boots. These skeletons, too, would have been scattered had anything larger touched them.”
Kayo’s face turns greenish. “But what about their heads? And their necks? It’s like they were—“
“—Bitten off, “ finishes Ginko, grimly.
- XXVI -
The girl retches into the snow over and over but gathers herself at his approach.
“I said I’d be fi— oh, it’s you.”
“This is the first time you’ve seen death in this course, is it not?” asks the stranger.
“I’ve seen sickness, but nothing like… like….”
“You’re stronger than this,” he tells her. “I’ve seen it in you before. You are always strong enough to endure such darkness.”
“I—“ The girl-child looks at him, then glances away, blushing.
Ah. This again.
“Shall we see what else the Mushi-shi has found?” the stranger asks.
“Y-yes, let us,” says Kayo.
- XXVII -
It…disturbs him. Truly.
The first and little fingers of one of the men’s hands have been switched, each fragile phalange slotted against the corresponding metacarpal as though it had grown that way. The other skeleton’s leg has a backwards tibia.
Everything Ginko’s ever read has said that Hidaruihokori are always perfect at restoring their meals. Always. Little Ume, able to live again after being broken down into her very elements, is testament to that.
Faults in reassembly. Stealing away the living instead of the dead… these Mushi must be going mad.
Never before has he heard of such a thing.
- XXVIII -
“Oh, before I forget,” Kayo says to the stranger. “I found this earlier, buried beneath the bones.”
She holds out a comb, an ornamental hair comb, a masterwork of inlaid mother-of-pearl and carved ivory. Even chipped and darkened by time, it is still far too fine a thing for a humble village such as hers.
“Do you think it’s valuable?” Kayo asks him, overbrightly.
A residue of guilt and desperation—an echo of the voice that drew him to the mountain—bites at his hands as he closes her fingers over it.
“It bought your people only ruin,” he replies.
- XXIX -
They had brought along extra cloaks and blankets in hopes of giving the vanished men succor had they found them alive. Now, those cloaks were to become litters to bear the men’s bones home, and the blankets the shrouds to cover them.
Ginko watches Kayo and the others wrap the bodies. He is not of their village, not of their people, and so he waits apart.
The medicine seller, too, stands alone, intently watching the dark rim of the Vale.
“Is something wrong?” Ginko asks him.
Kusuriuri bares his fangs. “We have lingered here too long, Mushi-shi. It is coming.”
- XXX -
“But Father, the Mushi-shi said that the other monster had flat teeth. That it crushed their necks while they was still alive, before the Dust ate ‘em both—“
“Monsters? Magic bugs we can’t see? Pah! Boy, it were a bear that tore their heads off and ate them up, you mark my words.”
“Yes, Father,” Jiro says obediently. “But the medicine seller said—“
“Quiet!” the old farmer barks. “I didn’t raise you to believe old wives’ tales!”
Kayo rolls her eyes.
A paper seal, pressed to a tree on the far side of the Vale, burns to crimson.
- XXXI -
The humans’ mortal remains are at last packed away. The sun is setting, and the shadows of the surrounding pines reach into twilit valley like blackened, rotting fingers.
The stranger paces.
It is too soon.
Form and Truth and Regret. He holds none of these, and yet the Mononoke draws near. He can taste its approach on his very tongue now—old agony, old fear, and above all else –
His sword thrums in his hand. Useless, useless. If he knew but one…
Form and Truth and Regret. He holds none of these, and still the Mononoke draws ever nearer.
- XXXII -
“Are you alright?” Ginko asks. “Earlier, you were.…”
“I’m better now, I think,” Kayo replies. She does not look at the sad little bundles strapped to the old farmer’s and Ginko’s backs. “If it weren’t for my headache, though, this would feel like an awful dream.”
Ginko pats her shoulder awkwardly. “I can offer you medicine powder for the headache, at least.”
“No need. It’ll probably go away once my ears stop ringing.”
Jiro abruptly chimes in. “Huh, weird. My ears are ringing too.”
“Mine as well,” says the farmer.
“And mine,” says Ginko, warily.
The medicine seller goes stone-still.
- XXXIII -
“It’s been a hard winter. Not near as bad as the famine twenty years back when we lost half the village. But bad.”
“…Leaving behind the bones. These bones.”
“But what about their heads? And their necks? It’s like they were—“
“The Mushi-shi said that the other monster had flat teeth. That it crushed their necks while they was still alive, before the Dust ate ‘em both—“
“—Bitten off, “
Old agony, old fear, and above all else –
“Huh, weird, my ears are ringing, too.”
“Mine as well.”
So, this is your form.
- XXXIV -
“All of you, get behind me.”
Ginko starts at the medicine seller’s sudden, harsh command.
“What? Why?” asks Kayo. The old farmer and his son look over in surprise.
“You cannot flee it. You cannot fight it. The Mononoke is upon us.” With a flourish, Kusuriuri draws a sheathed sword—bejeweled, ornate, and tipped with the red visage of a snarling beast—from his sleeve.
“I-I don’t understand. What do you mean? What’s coming?” Fear colors Kayo’s voice.
The medicine seller’s painted lips twist into a thin smile. “A Gashadokuro.”
The sword’s teeth snap together with a short, sharp click.
- XXXV – XLIV -
Hold fast, it is come!—
The horror that bursts from the wood is like nothing Ginko has ever seen. A colossal human skeleton, as tall as a pine tree, a behemoth of rotted yellow bones and burning eyes, it barrels down the mountain slope towards them with the merciless inexorability of a landslide. The monster’s maw gapes black and wide, as though it were roaring, but Ginko cannot hear anything beyond the shrieking, shrieking of the ringing in his ears.
He cannot speak. He cannot move. This thing before him is naught but death.
One great, fleshless hand reaches for him, its grasping fingers hooked into claws. Should he close his eyes, Ginko wonders. This is surely his end.
A whirl of bright fabric flashes before his eyes. Kusuriuri’s sleeves, he thinks. He can hear words over the ringing now, low words, harsh and ancient. A hundred paper seals burst into being between himself and the oncoming nightmare, but they are merely a thin barrier, as flimsy as a screen of flower petals trying to hold back an oncoming storm.
The reaching skeletal hand slams into the wall of seals with a crash and a shower of red sparks. A smell like heated metal fills Ginko’s nose, masking the stench of decay that emanates from the creature.
The shield holds.
The monster—no, the Mononoke, the Gashadokuro—throws back it’s skull and howls, and Ginko realizes that he can hear it now, that the ringing in his ears has receded, that he can breathe again.
Kayo is pressed to his side, her arms slung around his waist and his hand curled protectively over the back of her head. The old farmer and his boy are huddled together a bare step behind, clutching at each other with a strength bestowed by terror.
And there, betwixt them all and the ravening horror, stands the medicine seller.
“How-how long can you hold it off?” Ginko asks of him. Ginko’s mouth is dust dry—nothing he has studied, nothing he has ever faced before, could have prepared him to stand against this Mononoke. No Mushi he has ever encountered has felt this rage-filled, this vengeful, this intent on bloodshed. His arts and tools will not save him here.
“Not long,” Kusuriuri says. His sword arm is extended towards the floating seal barrier. It is already shaking with strain.
“Can you defeat it?”
“With the Sword of Exorcism sheathed, I cannot. And even if the sword were drawn, the Mononoke’s destruction is no certainty.”
Howling in fury, the Gashadokuro lunges forward, its strike rebounding off the barrier as it did before. The medicine seller shudders, and a trickle of blood flows down his hand.
“What are you waiting for, then?” Kayo shrieks. “If you can fight it, draw your sword!”
“I cannot.” The Gashadokuro attacks again, this time pounding at the wall of seals with its massive bony fists. Another— thicker—pulse of blood pours from the medicine seller’s hand, and when Kusuriuri speaks, his voice is tight with strain. “For the Sword to be unsheathed, conditions must be met. The Mononoke’s Form, Truth, and Regret must be present. We hold its Form already—the Gashadokuro stands before us in its true shape. But Truth and Regret are still obscured –“
The Mononoke surges forward against the barrier once more, and Kusuriuri staggers as though he had taken the blow to his own body. A rivulet of blood begins to flow from the corner of his mouth, the sharp red drops falling from the edge of his jaw into the snow.
“If you do not wish to die here,” the medicine seller chokes out, “You must tell me of this Truth and Regret!”
The old farmer’s son weeps into his father’s chest as the Gashadokuro redoubles its assault. Kusuriuri shudders with its every strike, the floating paper seals—one by one—burning to ash and disappearing into nothingness. The shield will not hold for long, Ginko thinks in despair.
“I don’t understand!” wails Kayo. “What do you want from us?”
“Truth is the natural state of all things,” the medicine seller answers, “and Regret is ever-present in men’s hearts. A Gashadokuro is born from humans who have been improperly buried, oft from those fallen in battle or died of starvation. Who was it that bore a grudge against your village, a grudge so deep that he seeks retribution even after his death? Whose bones did your people abandon in this Vale to rot? SPEAK!”
The old farmer raises his head. “It cannot be,” he whispers. “It cannot—“
There is a sound like a thousand panes of glass breaking. The remaining paper seals burst into dust. The medicine seller crumples to the ground—whether dead or unconscious, Ginko cannot tell—blood streaming from his eyes and ears.
The barrier has fallen.
The ringing returns, impossibly loud. Kayo is screaming, but he cannot hear her, but he can feel the wind of the Gashadokuro’s skeletal hand as it reaches—
—past them, to close around the farmer’s body. Ginko watches as the Mononoke tears the old man from his son, watches as it raises him to its, gaping, lipless maw. The man’s mouth is open, as though he were crying out in the purest terror, but Ginko cannot hear him, cannot hear the sickening crunch as the Gashadokuro closes its teeth over the man’s neck.
The old farmer’s headless form drops into the snow. The Mononoke lowers its great skull, and Ginko meets its gaze for a moment. There is fire in its empty eye sockets. Fire and pain.
And then the Gashadokuro is turning, turning, crawling up the side of slope of the valley on fleshless hands and knees. Within the space of a dozen heartbeats it has vanished completely into the surrounding forest.
The ringing fades with it, and soon the Vale of Bones is silent but for the sound of Jiro’s sobs as he weeps over his father’s broken body.