Lord of the Waning Moon
At the center of a once glorious city, a strange collection of people worked beneath dark clouds to rebuild a wooden pavilion. Skeletons and dull-eyed Cursed carried away piles of rubble, following simple directions tirelessly and without comment.
Lord Oshiro Akio watched them work from horseback, his own face a skull-like mask. Most of the people of the Waning Moon were Cursed, moving through the world with muted expressions and complete indifference. Not Akio. Akio’s eyes were alive with intention and purpose as he watched the work -- and he wasn’t the only one.
Nearby, a giant of a man held up a great beam of wood while the Cursed cleared the area beneath it. The giant wore a perpetual smile on his round face. Seeing Akio’s eyes on him, the giant shifted the beam to one hand and waved to the Lord cheerfully with the other.
Akio rode up to a village of tiny huts on his skeletal steed. The people of the swamps were hiding in their homes, keeping their heads down and hoping that Akio passed by. The warrior could feel their eyes on him. He knew he was made monstrous by the Curse -- a living skeleton, with eyes of fire and hands of bone -- but he spent so much time among the Cursed themselves that he was unused to the reaction he received from the living. He was a horror. A ghost that frightened children. If he could weep, perhaps he would. Or perhaps not. Akio’s purpose here had nothing to do with fearful locals.
He came to a hut with a doorway both higher and wider than was usual, the lintel raised up to accommodate a taller inhabitant. Here he stopped.
“Taro!” he called. “Spearman Taro! Come out and speak with me.”
Almost immediately the curtain that made the doorway was pushed aside, and the giant Taro appeared. He dressed in simple robes of worn white cotton and had a welcoming smile on his face. His complexion had the purple cast of the undead and numerous unhealed wounds marked his thick arms.
“Who calls for Taro?” he asked, taking a bite from a steamed bun.
“Lord Oshiro Akio.”
Taro looked at him seriously, trying to see the resemblance between a man he’d once followed and the skull before him. The giant said nothing, waiting.
“Not all those in the Kingdom of the Waning Moon have lost our minds and wills, Spearman Taro. We are not alone. If we are to rebuild and dispel the Curse.” Akio waved behind him, to where a cloud of perpetual darkness hung over their distant home, a black mark on the horizon. “Then we must find those with the fortitude to continue. We must join together.”
Taro’s eyes drifted to the cloud and then returned to Akio.
“Help me lift the curse, Spearman Taro.”
“The Curse saved me,” said Taro, pointing to his many wounds.
Akio nodded. “It saved you so that we could save them.” Them. All the Cursed who still walked the Kingdom of the Waning Moon, unable to feel and unable to die.
Akio could see his words reach Taro. The big man looked regretfully at the little village of huts and at the pork bun in his hand.
“Yes,” said Taro, softly. “It’s time to return and serve the Waning Moon.” Then he grinned, covering the serious moment with jollity. “I’ll meet you up the road, Lord Akio. No offense, but your face seems to scare the children. And I must say goodbye.”
Akio nodded solemnly, and as he turned, Taro bowed to him, switching easily from levity to gravitas without pause.
Taro set the great beam of wood upright in the now cleared square, supporting the half built pavilion.
At a call, the giant turned to help a nimble warrior carrying a ladder. Taro held the ladder while the thin man, with long black hair tied back, went up to the pavilion’s roof and begin repairs there. He held ceramic tiles in hands that were used to wielding a sword.
Akio pushed aside the curtain of a noodle shop, and was struck again by the strange nature of the Curse that fell on his Kingdom. Here was a restaurant full of people, sitting at the counter, eating methodically, while the proprietor stood still -- staring into the distance until one of the diners finished. Then, without changing expression, the cook replaced an empty bowl with a full one. A new patron sat down to eat the food without tasting it.
Well, almost all the patrons weren’t tasting it.
In one corner, a wandering warrior sprawled against the wall. He was surrounded by clay bottles, that had recently been full of spirits. As Akio watched, the man tried to lift one of the bottles, his hand shaking as he raised it. He couldn’t quite manage, and let the bottle crack down on the floor while he swore. It was a wonder the bottle did not break.
Akio moved in front of the drunk wanderer and crouched down, bringing their eyes to a level. He waited while the man struggled to focus on his purple eyes.
This man had fared better than Akio under the Curse. While Akio’s face was shrunken down to the bones, the wanderer still had something of the living in his flesh and eyes. But the purple cast to his face meant no one would ever mistake him for being properly alive.
“What are you doing here?” asked Akio, coldly.
The man blinked. “S’look like I’m doing?” answered the wanderer.
“Accomplishing nothing,” said Akio.
“I’m very ‘ccomplished,” he protested. “Most ‘ccomplished warrior in the Kingdom. Slain everything! Slain all of it… I… I did it. I slew us…”
Rage filled the wanderer and Akio jumped back and out of the way as the drunk hurled his empty clay pot against the noodle counter. It cracked in half, filling the room with the intense scent of grain alcohol. None of the other diners seemed to notice. His fury burned out as fast as it came, and the wanderer slumped back to his place and raised a hand. The proprietor saw the hand and approached bearing a new, full jug.
Akio put up a hand, forestalling the arrival of new drink and said, “I heard once, of a warrior who feared nothing. Who faced any challenge, with a thirst to prove himself that put even the most honorable lords of the Dawning Sun to shame.” He let his hand fall, and the proprietor continued forward, setting the clay jug down within reach of the wanderer. Akio continued: “You wouldn’t know where I could find such a man, would you?”
“He’s dead,” said the wanderer, his rage simmering just below the surface.
“Only if he chooses to be,” said Akio with contempt.
The lord turned on his heel and left the shop. He walked to the corner and then turned to watch the noodle shop’s doorway. He waited in the street, standing an uncanny vigil. Dull grey day turned to starless night, and the wanderer finally stepped out of the door. He was moving with purpose, the sluggishness of the drink gone, but he froze when he saw Akio.
“You waited,” he said, surprised.
Akio nodded. “Did you find such a man as I spoke of?”
The wanderer hung his head. “No,” he said. “Not yet. I hope to.”
“Then come with me,” said Akio. “We will find him together.”
Below where the wanderer worked on the roof tiles, stood a woman methodically repainting the pattern in one of the pavilion’s pillars. She did not speak to the others or turn her head at loud noises. She might have been one of the mindless Cursed, except that her clothing and weapons were better maintained.
Akio was afraid of what he would find at Katsume’s archery school. He hesitated on the threshold, listening to the steady rhythm of arrows nocked, loosed, and striking targets. Click, whoosh, thud. Over and over again.
Akio held his head high and crossed the threshold. He walked around the house, towards the archery range at the back of the compound, passing the gardens, the well, and the teahouse.
Here he saw the archery students: women in a single row, taking aim and plucking their next arrows from the ground in unison. Standing to one side, watching dispassionately, was Katsume.
Akio’s heart fell. Katsume’s face was empty and she did not turn to him. She was Cursed. She stared dully at the targets and let her hand drop. The mindless archers shot. Arrows flew. Katsume raised her hand. The archers chose another arrow.
Grief in his heart, Akio turned towards the potter’s shed. He could hear the spinning of the wheel before he could see inside.
Sitting diligently at his work was Tokuma, Katsume’s beloved husband. His hands moved methodically, making a bowl -- identical to a few dozen perfect bowls lining the walls. Unused. Like Katsume, Tokuma did not turn at the sound of Akio’s footsteps, or when his shadow fell over the potter.
Akio lingered in the open doorway, mourning all over again for everything his people lost with the Curse. So much destruction, so cruelly done -- and for no reason he knew.
At least, he thought, Katsume and Tokuma were together. It was cold, cold comfort.
“What are you doing here?”
Akio spun defensively, reaching for his short blade. Standing behind him was Katsume, her eyes still cold and distant, voice empty and expressionless - so like the Cursed - and yet...
“Katsume?” asked Akio.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you,” said Akio. “I thought that you would have survived the Curse.”
“No one survived the Curse,” said Katsume.
Akio did not answer. It was disconcerting to see how still she was, how removed. She spoke, and so she was not like most of the Cursed. Not like Tokuma or the archery students still practicing without Katsume.
“What are you doing here?” asked Katsume for a third time.
“I seek to lift the Curse,” said Akio. “I need those of us who can to help me in defending the Kingdom of the Waning Moon to do so and join me in my quest.”
Katsume’s face didn’t change at all as she took that in.
Akio waited. It was easier to be patient, now that he had all the time in the world. He knew that no persuasion, no further words from him would convince her. Katsume would come or not.
Like they were sliding across ice, Katsume’s eyes moved inexorably to Tokuma’s straight back. The potter continued to work, indifferent. Akio turned his own gaze away. Once, Katsume could not look at Tokuma without smiling. Now, her face did not change at all.
“Very well,” was all she said.
She had her bow already in hand and when Akio left, Katsume followed him.
The pavilion was coming together -- wet paint glittered in the twilight, despite the eternal clouds overhead, the pillars stood sturdy, and the roof was almost entirely repaired.
Off to the side, a small old woman sat on a pile of rocks. Skeletons stood waiting to serve her tea and small sweets. Occasionally, the old woman raised her stick and whenever she did a dozen skeletons moved to do her bidding. Although the Cursed worked steadily and complacently, the skeletons were tireless and single-minded in their desire to serve their ancient mistress.
The little old woman sat on the floor with both her hands wrapped happily around a cup of tea. Akio did not know how to feel about her. She was not of a powerful bloodline, not of noble heritage -- just an elder from the village. She was not a warrior or a scholar or anything extraordinary, really. And yet. She had not lost her wits from the Curse.
Now she sat in the lord’s castle, directing his uncaring servants with skeletons to guard the gate.
Once Akio had taken his first sip of tea, she said: “Now, how can I help you, Lord Oshiro?”
“I’ve come to ask for your assistance, madam.”
“In what matter?” replied old woman.
“The raising of the Curse upon our people,” said Akio.
“Ah,” she replied, smiling. “Hmm… yes… I can see why you would want to do that.”
“Excuse me?” said Akio.
“Hard of hearing, dear?” she asked. “I can see why you want want to do that.” She gestured to Akio’s emaciated skull-like face.
“You don’t though, do you?” said Akio, stunned. “Want to lift the Curse.”
“Hmmm…no,” she said, smiling over her bowl of tea.
“Why not?” asked Akio.
Her smile grew wider. “Look around, milord,” she said. “I did not live so well before. I did not have such power. Now, I am comfortable. I am powerful. And best of all, my bones don’t ache anymore. You are asking the wrong question, young man. It should be ‘why should I wish to lift the Curse?’”
Since the Curse fell, Akio had lived in a fog, guided by what he saw as his duty. He had begun by assessing his own strength, and then by learning what he could of the state of the Kingdom. Then he’d gone looking for those of the Waning Moon who were like him -- those who did more than repeat a routine. Before him sat the most powerful -- what was she? A witch? -- person he’d encountered. And she did not wish to lift the Curse.
Akio had believed that he’d recovered from the shock of being Cursed, of losing his Kingdom and his people. He’d had a purpose, but perhaps he’d not been as different from the Cursed around him. He’d just continued putting one foot in front of the other -- exactly like them. Now, fury cut through all of that.
“The Kingdom sits in darkness, Cursed!” he yelled over the tea, leaning forward. “You think of yourself? Of only your power at such a time? Will you sit alone, in darkness, on a kingdom of bones for eternity?”
The old woman still smiled. If Akio had been sitting across from someone else, he might have attacked her -- but faced with this little old lady, he didn’t know what to do.
She saw his confusion and let her head rock back, cackling.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Not alone, that would be boring.” She looked Akio up and down. “I will defend the Kingdom of the Waning Moon from any and all invaders.” She tilted her ancient head and looked at Akio closely. “And perhaps, someday, you’ll change my mind. You seem like a persistent and persuasive fellow.”
Akio took a breath, swallowing down his anger. He’d been a commander for a long time and he knew when to accept a small victory and continue the fight on another day.
The rubble was cleared, and at the center of stone courtyard now stood a wooden pavilion, tile roof shining. Within hung a great bell. For a moment, the clouds above swirled, parting to allow a gleam of moonlight down to the Kingdom, bathing it in silver.
Together, the mismatched group retreated to better view their work: the thin warrior, the old lady, the young archer, and the cheerful giant.
Akio stood a little apart, surveying the completed pavilion and his small band of heroes.
There was little left of the Kingdom of the Waning Moon, but he’d gathered what he could -- the strongest of his people.
Lord Oshiro Akio had done his duty until his own death -- and even that had hardly slowed him down.