A thousand years ago, in the days of the first Emperor, there lived in the mountains of Kii a great and fearsome wolf. Now the small, dark wolves of the Eastern Land are not like the wolves of the West, as they hide themselves in the shadows of the forest and are rarely seen by the eyes of men; but the great wolf of Kii was no natural beast, for it was large as a bear and white as snow, with eyes that glowed in the dark like candle flames, and it could be seen openly hunting the mountain trails by day and by night. The humble village folk of the mountains reverenced the wolf as a god, and many said it had the gift of discerning the secret hearts of men. For when innocent travelers lost themselves in the woods, the wolf would appear before them and lead them back to their rightful path, and stand guard against all other wild beasts and dangers until they were safely within sight of their homes. But if bandits or other evildoers dared set foot in the mountains, the wolf would not suffer them to live; they would be torn from limb to limb and devoured utterly, with only their rent and bloody clothing and broken weapons left behind as signs of their passing.
Now while the mountains of Kii in their entirety were the demesne of the great white wolf, the beast was most often to be found haunting a cold and lonely pass between the two highest peaks, where the echoes of its eerie cries never ceased to ring. These twin mountains were known to the people of the lowlands by other names, but the mountain folk called them the Wolf's Fangs, and said that if one should wish to seek a boon from the wolf-god, it should be done by making one's supplication alone in the pass between them; such a pilgrimage was spoken of as "prostrating oneself in the wolf's mouth". But few were ever so desperate as to willingly place their lives at the wolf's mercy, for fear that he would sense some secret evil in their hearts and devour them in punishment for their sins.
One day a richly-dressed youth rode boldly into the pass between the Fangs. The great wolf watched from his den high above and marveled at the sight, for few indeed were those who dared even to willingly approach his stronghold, and this boy was nothing like the common folk of the mountains who crept before him only in humility and fearful reverence. Mere stripling that he was, this rider carried himself with the boldness of an unsheathed sword. He was armed and mounted like a warrior, but his face was as smooth and fair as a woman, and the fluttering silk of his sleeves carried with them all the color and fragrance of lowland flowers in the spring, here in this barren place where the last of the winter snow still cloaked the stony ground.
The wolf howled out a challenge, a great and terrible sound magnified by the echoes ringing back from the dark cliffs above; the youth's horse reared and shivered in terror, but the boy himself showed no sign of fear as he mastered his mount. The wolf then leapt down from the rocks above to block the path; the horse stamped and snorted, but the rider met the wolf's burning gaze with unflinching eyes.
"I am the Wolf of Kii," said the beast in a voice like thunder. "None may stand before me here and live, unless it be my will. Why dost thou show me no fear?"
Then the youth answered him back with a voice that rang out high and clear as the music of a struck blade. "I am the Prince of Ibaraki. I bow before none save the Son of Heaven himself, and I fear naught in this life but dishonor."
"Why hast thou come to my mountain, little princeling?" asked the wolf.
"The Son of Heaven has entrusted the guarding of his realm to me and my house," answered the prince. "For a year and a day now have I ridden out alone, seeking the strongest warriors of the land to follow my banner. But no man have I met who is mightier than you, o Lord Wolf. Will you not give yourself to me?"
"Here I am master of my own realm, and none dare challenge me. Why should I leave this place to serve one smaller and weaker than my great self? What wilt thou give me for my service?" asked the wolf.
Then the prince answered back in a fierce voice, "Surely dumb beasts and common brigands give little sport to one as mighty as you, Lord Wolf. Follow me and I will lead you against foes who are worthy of your strength. And when the battles are done, I will give you the place of greatest honor at my side, and feed you with my own hand. You will never know hunger or loneliness again."
Then the wolf's heart was moved to admiration and longing, for never in all his long years had he seen such pride and fearlessness in one of human kind, nor such beauty as shone in the prince's pale face. "Then I will serve you gladly, my master," said the wolf, and he bowed down his great head to lick at the prince's hand like a dog. Together, they made the long descent from the mountains and passed into the verdant lowlands of Fujiwara.
The prince was true to his word, and from that day forth he and the great wolf were never parted. On every battlefield they led the vanguard against the Emperor's foes, and even the most hardened warriors quailed in terror at their onslaught, for the prince fought with power and skill that belied his tender years, and the wolf's strength and cunning were beyond those of mortal beasts. When their battles were done, the wolf sat at his master's feet in the great hall, or shadowed his footsteps through the palace gardens. And every night when the prince retired to his bedchamber, the wolf stretched himself watchfully across the prince's doorway, so that no creeping spy or assassin might disturb his master's slumbers.
But all their deeds of valor, mighty as they were, were not sufficient to turn the tides of war in the Emperor's favor, for the Eastern Land was small and beset with powerful enemies upon all sides. The prince wept to see his loyal armies dwindling with each new campaign, and the graves clustering ever thicker in villages bereft of their menfolk. He emptied his coffers for the sake of the widows and orphans of his country, and spent many a weary hour in prayer and meditation, seeking some miracle that might let him preserve his liege's kingdom against its many foes. At the last, he grew desperate enough to unseal secret annals from the days of his fathers' fathers, in search of some forbidden magic he might use—for in the wild, evil days before the Emperor's ascension, the lords of Ibaraki had been a fearful clan of sorcerers, although they had renounced all their witchcraft when they swore their fealty to the Son of Heaven.
And so it was that in a dusty, ancient scroll of dark magics, the prince found the answer he sought, and walked out of the dim records-chamber into the cold sunlight of autumn. The wolf, waiting as always on guard at the chamber door, whined softly at the sight of the prince, for his young master carried himself like one being crushed under a burden too heavy to bear, and his eyes were red-rimmed as if he had been weeping long and bitterly.
"What ails thee, my master?" the wolf cried. The prince spoke not a word at first, only leaned his head wearily against the wolf's shoulder. They stood together thus in silence for a long moment, before the prince stepped back and spoke in the flat, quiet voice of one who is heartsick beyond all telling.
"I have found a spell to destroy the foes who threaten the Emperor's realm," he said, "if I have but strength enough to see it through to the bitter end."
"None could be stronger than thee amongst all of humankind," said the wolf.
"Do you trust me, Lord Wolf?" asked the prince in the same soft, weary voice. "Will you remain faithful in my service, no matter what I must ask of you?"
"I have already sworn it," said the wolf.
The prince said nothing in response, only reached within his sleeve to draw forth a coil of fine rope, shining and black as his own hair—for indeed it was wrought from his own locks, which he had shorn and twined together with many terrible spells of binding. He cast a loop of it over the wolf's great head, and as it fell the wolf found himself no more able to move than as if he were carved from stone.
"Is this part of thy spell, master?" asked the wolf, for the act of speech was the only form of motion still free to him; but the prince still said nothing, only knotted the enchanted rope around the wolf's throat and called for his servants. On his command, they lifted the wolf into a cart and brought him to the gardens outside the prince's chambers. There they dug a great pit, and placed the wolf within it and heaped the earth back over him as if it were a grave, up to his very neck, until only the beast's head remained free. The wolf spoke not a word as the working-men labored to the prince's commands, but when the last servant departed he once more asked "Master? I do not understand. Must I stay buried here as part of thy magical workings?"
"Remember your vow," said the prince, and turned away to his chambers.
All day and all night the wolf waited in patience and silence, as the blazing sun beat down upon his head and the cold wind stung his eyes. At the next day's dawning, the prince came into the garden and seated himself before the wolf. The wolf's heart leapt with joy at the sight of his fair and well-beloved face. "Master, I have waited faithfully for thee—is it time now for my release?" But the prince said not a word, merely gestured to his waiting servants who now came and spread a magnificent banquet across the ground between him and the wolf. The wolf's mouth watered at the sight and smell of the victuals, but the prince did not order his exhumation, nor did he offer the wolf his accustomed tidbits; he himself ate but a single rice-cake and drank a single cup of water. Then the prince beckoned the servants to clear the feast away again, and once more retired into his chamber, without a word to the puzzled wolf.
Another day and night passed for the buried wolf. Hunger and thirst began to torment him as he lay trapped under the heavy earth, and loneliness and doubt gnawed at his heart. At noon the prince came forth at last and seated himself before the wolf, once more commanding a banquet to be spread before the suffering beast. "Master, I hunger! Give me to eat as thou promised when I swore myself to thee!" cried the wolf, but the prince spoke no word and ate but his single bite. "Master, I thirst! Give me to drink, or set me free!" cried the wolf, but again the prince spoke not a word and drank but a single sip of water, and then poured out the remnant onto the bare earth before the wolf's head before he rose and withdrew to his chambers once more.
Yet another day and night passed, and the scent of the food spread tauntingly before him began to drive the wolf to madness. At sunrise on the third day, the palace servants cleared away the untouched banquet, trembling as the wolf snarled curses at them, but the prince did not appear. All the weary day long the wolf sank further into rage and despair, and still the prince did not come. Finally, at sundown he stepped into the garden once more. No servants followed him, and he bore a vessel of water in his left hand and a haunch of venison in his right. A last, wild spark of hope flared within the wolf's heart at the sight; surely now the prince's spell-crafting must be complete, and the wolf would be freed with praise and rewards for his great endurance. "Master? Is it done?" asked the wolf, in a voice gone rough with long hours of thirst. But the prince said nothing, only gazed implacably at the wolf with his cold, dark eyes. He set down the meat and the water just a hair's-breadth out of reach of the wolf's straining jaws, and as before turned back without a word to his chambers.
The wolf's noble heart broke within him at this final insult, and he howled out all of his grief and pain at the prince's back. "O faithless one! Oathbreaker! Cursed be the day I met thee, prince of cruelty! Vengeance I will have, if it take me a thousand lifetimes to repay thy crimes in full!" All the long night he shouted and raved, while the light of a single candle gleamed within the prince's bedchamber, until by morning of the fourth day he could no longer even form the shapes of human speech, and was reduced to a beast's wordless howl.
All day and all night the wolf howled savagely in his living grave. The noise shook the castle walls and struck fear into the hearts of all who heard it, and if not for the great love they bore their prince, the denizens of the palace would have fled far beyond the hearing of the terrible sound. At midnight, the prince stepped into the garden once more, his face as mercilessly pale and cold as the moon that shone down upon him. He was arrayed from head to toe in pristine white silk, and bore a naked sword in his hand. The wolf snapped and snarled at his feet, but did not speak. The prince spoke not a word as he raised his blade, then swung it down in a mighty stroke that sundered the wolf's head from its neck in a single blow. The beast's slavering jaws clashed together one last time, and then fell still and silent.
Then the prince took up the bloody, severed head of the wolf and bore it into a secret shrine deep within the castle dungeons, and there with further dark and fearsome rites he invested it as a god. For this was the most powerful of the forbidden magics of the lords of Ibaraki, the creation of hungry, vengeful ghosts to serve as familiar spirits to the masters of the clan; but no witch-lord of ancient days had ever worked the spell in such a great and terrible fashion, chaining a mountain spirit into unwilling servitude rather than an ordinary mortal beast. At long last the ritual was complete, and the prince summoned the wolf's shade to appear before him. It shimmered like smoke in the candlelight as it floated through the close chamber, howling its rage and biting at him with ghostly fangs that could not touch his skin.
"Inugami," the prince named it, which is to say dog-god in the language of the East; "be still, you have no power to harm me. Death has not released you from my service, and serve me yet you shall until you fulfill my final command. Your anger shall be my sword to smite down the foes of the Son of Heaven, wherever they may stand. Do this for me, and I will grant your spirit the freedom and vengeance you seek. Are we in understanding?" The ghostly form snarled and snapped, swirling through the air from floor to ceiling and back, rattling the walls of the shrine in the wake of its passing, but it could not leave the room unbidden and could not touch the prince for all its struggles. At last, it settled into stillness and near-solidity of shape, hovering just off the ground on limbs that trailed into nothingness; its snarling mouth was still twisted in rage, but slowly it bowed its head in grudging show of submission.
The prince then rode out in secret to the borders, still in his blood-mired white robes. He donned no armor or weapons and took no soldiers or servants, but rode as fast as his terror-stricken horse could run, shying away in its fear of the tireless specter that followed close on its pounding hooves. On and on he rode, until finally they came to the high banks of the river-gorge that marked the northern border of the Emperor's lands; a vast encampment of foreign troops lay spread across the distant shore, the lights of their campfires as innumerable as stars in the sky.
"Here is your prey," the prince said to the snarling ghost at his side. "Vent all your hunger and madness upon them. Tear them to pieces, and return not until all have perished." He gestured in command like a hunter loosing his hounds, and the wolf-spirit growled and vanished into the air, passing over the water like a rushing gale. Screams and confusion broke out within the enemy camp as it alighted amongst them, invisible, bodiless, taking possession of man and beast alike, turning its maddened puppets to attack friend and neighbor before slipping into the next warrior's body, and the next, and the next. Comrade slew comrade, fired their own tents, set picketed horses into panicked trampling; men possessed by the wolf's raging ghost threw themselves into the spreading flames, flung themselves into the churning river, dashed themselves under the hooves of the frightened horses. They turned upon each other with rocks, with torches, even with their teeth if the spirit fell upon one with no weapons at hand; and they tore at their own flesh if they saw no other victim to turn upon.
In less than an hour, it was over; the enemy camp was an immense welter of blood and ash and corpses. The wolf-ghost reappeared before the prince where he stood, waiting and watchful, on the river's edge.
"Is it finished?" asked the prince.
"It is finished," said the wolf in a voice cold and empty as the autumn wind, "and not a one of thy enemies is left to draw breath. But still I hunger."
The prince nodded gravely, and sank to his knees on the bare and stony ground. "Then I free you, Lord Wolf, with the final charge to revenge yourself on no others save for my most deserving self." He bowed his head deeply and spoke the words of a spell of unbinding, and as the last sound dropped from his lips the possessing spirit of the wolf fell upon him like a thunderbolt. It took control of the prince's limbs, rending off his garments, clawing out his eyes, biting at his flesh, battering him blindly against rocks and trees, until the slender, blood-soaked form could move itself no more. Then the wolf-ghost removed itself from the prince's body to wait and watch, wishing to complete its vengeance by gazing upon the dying prince's face as he met his end in agony and terror. But beneath the mask of blood and filth and bruises, the prince's tear-streaked face showed no fear, only a profound, immeasurable pity.
"Forgive me, my faithful one," he whispered with his final breath, and died. Then the wolf's madness departed from him, and he was stricken with remorse, and howled out all his guilt and sorrow to the pitiless cold moon. He howled and howled until the rising of the sun, when the knights of the prince's household rode out in search of their missing lord, and found his broken body on the riverbank across from the ruins of the sorcerous carnage. They bore him back with much weeping to the great keep of Ibaraki, and buried him alongside the body of the wolf, and planted a rose-tree over their shared grave. But where all the other roses of the land blossomed thornless and spotlessly white, the roses on this tree were set all about with vicious briars and its blooms were splashed with crimson at their hearts, like the mark of a mortal wound. The thorny, bleeding roses still flower there today, though the castle is long fallen to dust, and it is said the ghostly howls of the great wolf still can be heard on moonlit nights, mourning inconsolably for his lost master.