The Cost of Mortal Pleasures

The following is the tale of Sagura and Hitomi’s souls, and how they came to be cursed by Gaki-Do.

The Cost of Mortal Pleasures

Bayushi Mei smiled to herself as she adjusted her kimono back into place, retying the obi.

“Thanks for the memories,” she said sweetly to the man on the bed behind her as she slid her hands under her long hair and flipped it out from under the kimono. “I’ll treasure our time together—always.” The man said nothing. They never did. She smirked as she slid the bedroom door open and stepped silently out.

Outside the inn the sun was bright and warm and Mei paused to breath deeply the scent of the village’s nearby flower garden. Her back arched as she stretched, and a small sound of pleasure escaped her lips. It was a good day.

Across the street a young priest in green robes rose. The look of disapproval in his eye tightened her chest with a flash of shame, but she kept the emotion from her face, as she had countless times before. He stopped in front of her, picking in agitation at his sleeve.

“Is it done?”

Mei put her hands on her hips, which she cocked to one side. She gave him a sweet smile that held a sinister curve.

“Of course,” she said. “In that inn is a governor’s nephew who won’t be hurting anyone, ever again. Though I’d be lying if I didn’t say he died with a smile on his face.”

Her friend narrowed his eyes. “Mei,” he said, concern and disapproval in his voice. “It’s bad enough we have to deal with these people by stepping outside the law, but for you to…” his voice trailed off.

Mei rolled her eyes. “What, Toma. Fuck them? Why not? Can’t hurt to have a little fun on the job.”

“Mei, you risk more than your Honor when you do something like this.”

“Oh please, don’t lecture me on spirits again.”

“It seems I have to, if you keep forgetting about your own kharma!”

Their bickering took on a comfortable, routine feel as they made their way to the edge of town. However the conversation faded into silence as a dozen men met them at the gates, weapons in hand.

Toma cursed under his breath. “Governor’s men,” he whispered. “Looks like you’re getting a little sloppy.”

“Oh please,” she said with a smile. Toma slid into position behind her, eyes already glowing white with the power of the kami. Like a dance, she thought as she drew her blade. A dance we’ve done so many times we could do it in our sleep.

*

Screams and pain and blood flashed through Mei’s mind as she fell through darkness. She had seen a spear dip low, towards Toma’s unprotected flank. Without thinking she had thrown herself towards it. Then…

She stood alone in the darkness. Before her was a desk, like a simple clerk or scribe would use. Behind it sat a man in ebony armor. He gave a sigh of impatience as he scratched at the stubble beneath his chin, his other hand guiding a brush along a scroll is short, business-like strokes.

After an eternity he carefully set the brush aside. As he gently blew on the drying ink, Mei looked around, but found herself alone in darkness, except for this strange man and his desk, both eerily familiar.

“You’re definitely in the right place.” Mei’s eyes snapped back to the man as he rolled up the scroll and tucked it away.

“Am I…” Mei remembered the screams and pain. “I’m dead.”

“That is correct, Aijin.”

“Who?”

“You,” the man said. “You’ll remember eventually. It always takes a moment for a soul to remember everything.”

“But that means you’re—“

The man nodded. “You aren’t wrong.” Then his voice grew stern. “But there’s another matter that we have to deal with now.”

“Aijin.” The man said, and his voice suddenly grew, filling the black void, forcing Mei to wince and take a step back. “Every soul has a path, and you allowed yourself to be pulled from it. Your own desire for mortal pleasures has led you astray.”

“What?” Mei couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “But I performed my duty? I did was I was told! I never shied away! You—”

The man’s booming voice cut her off. “You never shied away,” he said, “Because it allowed you to chase your,” he paused to sneer down at some paperwork, “desires.” Mei opened her mouth, but the man continued. “The only true and honorable thing in your life was your loyalty and bond to Kitsune Toma.”

Suddenly Mei remembered her friend. “Emma-O,” she pleaded, not caring anymore for a loss of face. “What of Toma? Did he survive? Is he—“

“He is fine,” the Fortune replied. “And thanks to your death he will be able to complete his own destiny and take his place with his ancestors in Yomi.”

Mei sighed with a relief that was short lived.

“I’m giving you one more chance, Aijin.” Emma-O pointed at Mei, his voice darkening further. “You will return to the mortal realm. You will have another life to atone for your actions, but if this,” he looked once more at the paperwork on his desk, “lifestyle continues, your soul will be disciplined appropriately.”

Mei fell to her knees.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

*

Doji Honzo slapped a jeweled hand at one of the trio of servants helping him out of his seat.

“Careful!” he cried, chins and jowls wobbling. “You’re pinching me!” After several moments of struggling he was finally free of that accursedly tight chair. As uncomfortable as it was, he paid a small fortune for it and it made a nice addition to his dining room. He snapped his fingers impatiently until his ornate walking stick, which glittered more than his fingers, was pressed into his meaty hand.

“Good,” he snapped. Leaning fully on the cane, rocking back and forth with each step, he slowly made his way towards his estate’s forum. “Now. Who am I seeing next?”

His thin, bespectacled steward rushed to his side, peering over scrolls. “Um. I believe your next appointment is Doji Kaneda. Um, Governor, sir.”

“Good,” Honzo said. “Good.” The man had been sent to find out why Kishi Mura had sent only a fraction of their taxes.

As he entered his audience chamber, Honzo saw his servant, the honorable Kaneda, who immediately bowed as was appropriate. Honzo bent his neck to acknowledge the man.

“Out with it,” Honzo barked without ceremony. With a grunt he struggled into his ceremonial seat.

Kaneda straightened. “Doji-sama,” he said. “I’ve been to Kishi Mura as you’ve asked.” A bead of sweat formed and tracked its way down the side of his face. “My lord, with the recent storms plaguing the coast…. Their fishing vessels were completely destroyed, and the village was barely able to feed itself. They’ve literally given us everything they had.”

Honzo was only half-listening to the man. Using the sleeve of his robe he polished one of his larger rings. “I set the taxes last year, did I not?”

Kaneda swallowed, but nodded. “Hai.”

“And would you agree I set them at a fair rate.”

Kaneda paused.

“Well?”

Kaneda nodded again. “Hai. You wisdom is vast, lord.”

“Good.” Honzo let his hand drop.

“But,” Kaneda said, before clamping his mouth shut, eyes wide when he realized he had spoken out of turn.

“But?” Honzo snapped at the man, his neck flushing with the heat of anger. “Out with it!”

Kaneda sighed the sigh of a trapped man and continued his thoughts, reluctantly. “When you set the taxes last season, they were enjoying Inari’s blessing, and had an excess of rice and fish. This year, they—“

“Silence!” Honzo roared, struggling to his feet. The heat spread down to his chest, along one of his arms.

“You dare to contradict my orders! Do you think I am…” he wobbled on his feet. He must have stood too quickly, and his head felt light. He gripped his left arm. “Do you think I am a fool to… to…” The room began to spin. He thought he saw Kaneda and servants rush towards him, but couldn’t hear their voices.

*

He opened his eyes to a sea of darkness, standing in front of a desk. Behind the desk sat a man that tugged at Honzo’s memories. The man scratched at the stubble of his neck and looked up.

“Ah,” he said, no surprise in his voice. “Aijin, you’re back.”

At the mention of the name, all of Aijin’s memories and past lives flooded into his mind. Panic filled him. His once corpulent form began to melt away to something much thinner.

“Yes,” Emma-O said. “You’re right to worry. Do you remember what I told you last time you stood here?”

“But,” Aijin said as his form continued to thin—he could see his own ribs, and still he was losing weight. “I was loyal! To my wife! I slept with no one but her!”

“Mortal pleasures take many forms, Aijin,” The Fortune said. “And whether it’s sex or riches or food, becoming addicted to any can pull you from your path. You took from your own people to increase your own gain! You let them starve to feed yourself! You allowed your soul to hunger more than it should, and now it shall hunger for eternity.”

Aijin had a single moment to look down at his emaciated frame, blackened as though dead, each joint and rib showing clearly beneath dried, too-tight skin. His fingers had grown into twisted claws. And his hunger…

His hunger grew as well.

*

This time the screams and pain and blood didn’t fade. They drove him onward, finding prey when and where he could. Occasionally he’d find a hole in the world, and would step into a realm of hot blood and stark emotions. Invariably someone would cast him back into shadow and pain, and his hunt would continue again.

*

“Aijin?”

The word echoed through the twisted, dead landscape. The gaki, who had been hunting a lost spirit, snapped its head up, fangs parting, tongue tasting the air.

“By the Fortunes, what happened to you?”

The gaki’s head swiveled, and its eyes locked onto prey. A man in green robes, surrounded by a sickeningly pure golden aura stood before him. The gaki took a step forward, but something stirred in its memory—countless times, countless lives, standing with the man before it. The man before it had been many things: friend, brother, ally, sometimes lover—but never prey.

Suddenly Aijin blinked “Toma?”

His friend smiled and nodded. “You look a bit different than I remember you, but—“ the man cut off as his eyes filled with tears. The two embraced, and centuries of emotions and relief flooded out of Aijin.

A sudden thunderclap cut their reunion short. The two men looked up to see Emma-O, encased in his ebony armor. The realm of Gaki-do shook around them from the anger in his eyes. He strode forward, drawing a large blade, as black as midnight.

Toma threw himself to the ground in front of the Fortune. “Please! Great Fortune!” he pleaded. “Please! I have known this soul through countless life times! His recent actions are a mere stumble! Give him one final chance! I’ll risk my own soul to—“

“Silence!” The Fortune’s declaration swept through Gaki-Do like a dark wind. Toma opened his mouth to continue his pleas but no sound came forth.

Emma-O looked between the two men, before he finally sighed. “It is not often that a soul forces its way into the afterlife to save another.” His gaze fell upon Toma. “Especially when that soul is already blissfully tucked away with his ancestors.”

His eyes returned to Aijin. “But I suppose when a soul leaves Yomi it has a good reason.” Suddenly the three were surrounding the Fortune’s desk, and he was scribbling notes on a small scroll.

“Aijin,” he said. “You are freed from your bondage to be reincarnated once more. “Toma, the cost of your insolence is life. You must be reborn as well.” He leaned over his desk to peer at both men, like a stern instructor. “But give me one reason, just one, when you stand before me again, and you’ll wish for the pleasures of gaki-do.”

He grabbed a stamp from his desk and slammed it down. With a resounding clap of thunder, everything went white.

The Cost of Mortal Pleasures

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