It was half past midnight when it stopped snowing. The screams and the musket fire grew sporadic.
Dog had lain awake listening to them.
Minoru too remained wakeful, playing his flute. He paused once to squat in the corner and sculpt a new Jizō for the wall. The crazy bastard knelt there saying sutras over it, clasping his filthy hands together and rocking where he sat, touching his head to the grimy floor like a supplicant, heedless of whatever was going on outside.
After the first volley, Dog stood at the grate and peered out through the bars, though he could see nothing. The trouble was far across the compound. What in hell was going on? He heard orders barked, and the alarm tolled. No one came to their part of the prison. They had no news other than what could be gleaned from what they heard.
After the alarm, things were quiet for an hour, the strange, tense silence broken only by the occasional shout from the direction of the lesser jail. Then there came another loud commotion, followed by a second volley of rifle fire, and a tremendous crash as of a wall collapsing somewhere. The alarm sounded again, and there was a lot of yelling back and forth amongst the doshin. Orders and counter-orders, nothing much discernible beyond the calling out of various areas of the prison. The lesser jail, the upper rooms, the infirmary, now the greater jail and the armory. Dog thought maybe a fire had broken out and was spreading across the compound. Good. Let the whole damned place burn around them.
But they saw no lights, smelled no smoke. The intermittent cries and screams continued off and on for hours. Soon he heard women too. Whatever it was, it had engulfed the entire western quarter of the prison.
Dog went from pacing the cell to sitting against the back wall and staring out into the night. It was nerve wracking to hear the screams of men and women. The air was heavy with a dread more terrible than if it had been thick with wood smoke and fire. Minoru’s crazy words about the world ending poisoned his thoughts.
Minoru finished his prayers and returned to his flute, wordlessly, as if he knew exactly what was going on outside and it didn’t concern him.
That was when the shambling figure came to stand before their cell.
They heard it first, the shuffling steps across the snowy ground. It was like the step of a tired man, without cadence or rhythm, more a stagger than a stride.
The thin, shadowed form crossed in front of them. Dog saw unkempt hair and long, ropy arms. But the most standout thing about the stranger was the angle of his head. It was bent sharply to the right, so that the right ear seemed to touch the right shoulder. Yet the man’s posture was not hunched. There was a snuffling sound, and the man emitted a low, almost plaintive moan and shuffled closer to the bars.
He stepped into the beam of moonlight.
That was then Dog saw the face of Koda Moan, the latrine boss. His neck was broken still, by all appearances, and yet he lived. His eyes were glazed with a white film, and the jaw hung loose. His mouth was splashed with black, like the ink on a woman’s teeth.
He was expressionless, and as Dog flattened himself against the wall, Koda Moan pawed at the grate as though he were unfamiliar with the concept of a door. His thin arms snaked in between the bars and his long fingered hands reached imploringly out to him. His head lolled about his shoulders, flopping between his chest and back without reason.
Minoru stopped playing his flute and stared silently. He slowly got to his feet.
“It’s Koda Moan!” Dog exclaimed.
“Oh. He’s your visitor, then,” Minoru said, sitting back down and picking up his flute. “I thought he had come to see me.”
“He’s dead!” Dog stammered. “I killed him!”
“Well,” said Minoru. “Maybe you should appeal to the warden and see if he will agree to hear your case again in light of this new development.”
Koda Moan rattled the wooden grate and groaned again.
“He’s certainly anxious to see you,” Minoru went on. “Go and get the keys, if you want in,” he called to Moan.
Moan answered with an animal snarl and a disconcerting wobble of his broken neck.
Minoru cocked his head, and stood up again.
Dog trembled all over, his hairs straight on end. He hugged himself for fear that he might shake the soul loose from his body. He had killed this man with his hands. Heard his neck break, heard his last breath rattle out of him. He had heard prayers being said over his corpse.
Minoru approached Moan, stopping inches from his grasping hands. He watched his fingers clench and unclench, peered through the dimness at his face.
Dog forced himself to stand also, and stared over Minoru’s reeking shoulder.
Minoru’s hand snaked out suddenly and touched Moan’s face, eliciting an outburst of violent growling.
Minoru held his hand up to his own face and licked his palm.
Dog winced, imagining the flavor.
Minoru held out his hand to Dog. It glistened with the black substance all over Moan’s face.
“Blood,” said Minoru. “And he’s cold to the touch. I’m afraid there’ll be no appeal for you.” He chuckled.
“Blood! Is it his?”
“No no,” said Minoru, licking his hand again. “This is fresh. And look, there’s no mark about his face. Well, besides what you put there. No open wounds. He’s been drinking it. I think he wants more.”
Dog reeled and had to steady himself with one hand against the wall.
Minoru turned to him and spoke in mock sympathy, as if to a puppy or a child.
“Yes, yes, I know,” he cooed. “But we don’t have the key, my friend. I’ll play you a tune. You’ll feel better about it.”
He went to his corner and picked up his stained flute again.
Dog’s eyes bulged and he gripped his own arms till his knuckles were white. The shakuhachi played Shika No Tone again. He wished this was a nightmare. He wished that he would awake and find Minoru chewing on his ankle. Anything would be better than what stood before him. He never prayed, but he prayed now to awaken.
In almost immediate answer, Koda Moan suddenly straightened and pressed his narrow face against the grate, as if he were trying to force his head and somehow the rest of his body through one of the squares. There was a sickening crunch, and his body fell entirely away, while his head remained in the air, jaws working, milky eyes rolling.
Dog gasped aloud and bit his hand to stifle a shriek. As a boy in his village he had heard tales about nukekubi, monsters whose heads could float away from their bodies and hurtle through the air screaming, to suck the life from the living. The tale had terrified him as a child and now the old chest squeezing fear came back to him in a flood.
But then the head too fell to the ground, and there stood the samurai sword tester, Kumada Sadahiko, withdrawing a policeman’s U-bladed sasumata polearm. He had neatly separated Moan’s head from his body with one thrust.
Sadahiko came to the bars. His eyes were wild and his hair disheveled. He was not the collected gentleman who had come earlier to assure Dog of his own death.
“Are you both alive in there?”
* * * * *
This novella’s available in my collection With Sword And Pistol from Ragnarok Publications: