The wind was brisk. Even with his arm folded into the warmth of his kimono, he could feel the cold biting away at his flesh. Aki-onna had already lost her tenuous grip, and the land now belonged to winter. It would snow soon.
He paused on path and glanced about. The winter sky above his head was bleak, the heavy clouds a slate gray. Bare trees lined the road, their skeletal branches clawing towards the heavens. The road that he was traveling was mostly deserted. A few woodcutters had passed him going the opposite direction recently, but with the exception of the palanquin that had passed earlier he had seen no other souls on the road.
Not for the first time he wished he had heeded the advice at the last shiki and purchased a warm straw cloak for his travels. The mountain people knew the weather far better than he did, and he was far too prideful to take their advice.
Ishinaga Edward sighed, and tugged on the edge of his sandogasa, pulling it down slightly over his eyes. He would just have to bear with the cold until he reached the next way-point on the well-traveled path, and hope that there would be some of the straw cloaks available for purchase there.
It had been long months since he had traveled back this way. His journey took him to the northern provinces, pursuing baseless rumors for weeks on end, only to discover their origins in drunkards and liars. One particular rumor circulated about a gluttonous monster who consumed all set before it and which no swords could cleave sent him on a wild-goose-chase.
But he could find no proof of this bakemono's existence. None who encountered him yet lived, and by the time he made his way to village there was little remaining but smouldering ruins. It was not long after that one of Taka's hawks carrying a short message bid him return to Kyoto.
The message was addressed to Hagane. He had stripped the small scroll from the hawk's talons and burned it to cinders in his campfire that night. That was his name, not the gaijin monstrosity his father had saddled him with. He would banish that name entirely if not for his mother. She had delighted in the foreign names, writing them in delicate script, practicing the strokes of the foreigner's alphabets diligently. His name, for all that he hated it, was the only thing he had left of his mother.
His father was a foreigner. Hagane's memories of the man were hazy, but he was a gakusha - a scholar, and it was his experimentations that sickened Hagane's mother and led to her eventual, lingering death. Hagane swore his vengence on the man for letting his mother suffer like that, but it seemed the man's sins were far worse than he thought.
Night fell quickly in the mountains. Hagane would have pressed on longer if his arm didn't weigh heavily from his shoulder, the joint aching as the temperature dropped. He still had flint and tinder, thankfully, and lit a small fire to warm himself.
He dozed lightly, katana resting against his shoulder and wakizashi still tucked through the tie of his hakama. He had practice at ignoring the low grumble of his empty belly and it didn't keep him from sleep.
The light tred of zori in the loam made him open his eyes. A stranger, another samurai, attracted by the light of his campfire, stood at the edge of the small clearing Hagane had made. Hagane didn't move, arms tucked into the wide sleeves of his kimono, but his gold eyes were dangerous in the flickering firelight.
"Forgive a tired traveler his indiscretion," the samurai said, his violet eyes meeting Hagane's with no fear; his voice belying his youth. "Can I warm at your fire?"
Hagane nodded his head silently, and the young samurai seated himself in the dirt opposite the fire.
He wore daisho as well, and unlike Hagane's foolishness, a straw cloak masked his body but for a moment when he sat Hagane could see he was slight of build. Now cautious, Hagane listened for others as the man warmed his hands at the edge of the flame - he had few ryo to his name, but in these tumultuous days bandits would kill just for a daisho to sell to dishonest merchants.
Hagane raised his eyes to the night sky beyond the thin bare branches of the trees above his head. The heavy clouds of earlier in the day had cleared, showing a bright and cold sky, brushed full of stars. He felt no animosity from the traveler, and as such relaxed against the tree, feeling the tendrils of exhaustion worrying away at his willpower.
The samurai stood, his sudden movement making Hagane jerk back to fully awake. The young samurai unsheathed his sword, but he was not looking to Hagane but deeper into the woods. Hagane got to his feet as well, slowly, grip on the saya of his own katana shifting so he could draw it quickly if need be. "What is it?" His voice was rough from lack of use.
"There's something out there," the other samurai said, grip on his katana shifting as his eyes stared out into the darkness. Hagane looked in the direction that the young samurai was looking, but could see nothing in the deep darkness of night. But now that his was on alert, he could almost sense the presence lingering just out of the glow of the firelight, something both mournful and malevolent.
"Were you alone?" Hagane asked the stranger sharply.
"I am no threat to you," the other samurai said. "Unless you mean to rob me, but I have nothing of value to you." His eyes flickered to Hagane and they held for a moment, judging the other's intent. "I travel alone."
A cold breeze sprung up, and the firelight flickered suddenly, shifting the shadows enough that light revealed a tattered white yukata and sallow skin before the shadows shifted elsewhere.
"Obakemono," the young samurai said, masking the fear in his voice enough that Hagane knew he was trying to hide it.
"No," Hagane said. This was a particular type of obake he had seen before. "Yurei."
"A ghost?" The other samurai had turned his back on Hagane, scanning the woods behind him. Hagane felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, and swore he could feel bone fingers dragging at the sleeve of his kimono, but there was nothing there when he looked.
"This forest must be haunted," Hagane said. "I am grateful for your company, now, for at least we can sleep in shifts."
"You speak with knowledge," the young samurai said. "You've dealt with ghosts before?"
"She won't disturb us so long as the fire glows," Hagane said. "They won't come into the firelight."
"Comforting," the other said, his sword still drawn.
"There is nothing we can do for her," Hagane said, seating himself again. "Sheathe your blade, I will take first watch."
"If you can sleep, go ahead," he said, and after a long moment sliding his katana back into its sheath. "I'll wake you when it's your watch."
Hagane settled back against his tree, feeling the security of the rough bark through his kimono and laying the hilt of his sword against his shoulder once more. He knew he would not sleep any more than his companion for the night. Even for one who had dealings with the supernatural, the prospect of spending the night with a vengeful spirit just out of sight did not lend itself to a peaceful evening.
The pair sat in silence as the night wore on. Slowly the deep blue of night began to lighten along the horizon. As night turned into morning, the wearied travelers doused the dwindling campfire, and Hagane stirred the ashes several times to ensure that the fire was well and truly out.
The other samurai stood at the edge of the clearing, staring at the cold, dry ground. There was no disturbance in the leaves or branches, not that a ghost would leave any remnants, except for a particular blackened hand print on a tree. He put two fingers to the hand print, then jerked them away as if scalded. "Who do you suppose she was?"
"I do not know," Hagane said. "All one can do is pray that she finds her peace and crosses over to the afterlife." He picked up his straw hat and used it to cover his false arm before his companion for the night could notice its unusual composition. "This is where we must part."
The violet-eyed samurai looked to Hagane and nodded. "Do you have a name?"
Hagane paused at the edge of the road, but didn't look back. "I do. If our paths cross again, perhaps I'll even tell it to you." He raised his left hand in a gesture of farewell, then struck out on the dirt road. He could feel the young samurai's eyes burning into the back of his head until the path curved out of sight. Hagane stifled a yawn, his breath visible in the cold morning air. It was probably only a few ri until the next shiki, and he could rest safely there.
The violet-eyed samurai stood on the path still, staring thoughtfully after the blond-haired man. A cold wind sprung up and tugged at his own crimson hair, and he pulled his straw cloak tighter around himself. He could not dally any further, he was expected in Kyoto.