For the first time in his life, Toshi discovers that monsters do roam the earth. And this one has come for him. Dragged from his home and into the company of the undead, Toshi must use his skills to help the creatures holding him hostage. The alternative is to fail and become one of them. But those who do not wish his new master's quest to succeed may make Toshi one of the truly dead before they will allow him...
For the first time in his life, Toshi discovers that monsters do roam the earth. And this one has come for him.
Dragged from his home and into the company of the undead, Toshi must use his skills to help the creatures holding him hostage. The alternative is to fail and become one of them.
But those who do not wish his new master's quest to succeed may make Toshi one of the truly dead before they will allow him to do what only he can to help.
Gloria Oliver lives in Texas making sure to stay away from rolling tumbleweeds, freak storms, and bowing to the wishes of her feline masters. She is the author of In the Service of Samurai, Vassal of El, Cross-eyed Dragon Troubles, and Willing Sacrifice, all fantasy and YA fantasy novels. She is a member in good standing of EPIC and BroadUniverse, but hasn’t yet made it onto the list for Cat Slaves R Us.
For sample chapters and more information, please come visit her at www.gloriaoliver.com
The sun dipped beneath the horizon, taking with it the last light of day. Toshi crouched a little lower over his workbench as the light faded, knowing his master wouldn't want the lamps lit while a moment of daylight still remained.
Bought from his family while he was very young, he knew his master's ways well. Just as Master Shun didn't want any money wasted unnecessarily, he also precluded spending it on unneeded frivolities. Toshi ran his hand over his black hair, fingering the old, thin, stretched tie holding it in a ponytail. And though the last few months had seen a growth spurt for him, he knew he would not be receiving a new pair of knee-reaching breeches or a loose-fitting tunic for several moons yet.
Still, he was well-fed, and the skills he was learning would earn a better living than some. Aside from his not-so-common profession, he was the same as hundreds of others, a boy with the usual dark hair, brown eyes, slightly tinted skin, and almond shaped eyes-characteristics which made it virtually impossible for a foreigner to pass as a native.
With precision gained from long practice, his brush slid smoothly over the thick rice paper as he diligently copied the curving meridian lines from the yellowing foreign parchment pinned on the desk beside him.
As he squinted, he dipped his brush in the small reservoir of ink built into the desk. Gently twirling the brush on the bowl's long lip, he bled off any excess. His steady hand guided the brush in another slow curve, marking the outline of his map. His attention didn't waver from the delicate work, even as he heard the shop's front door slide open. "If you would please wait a moment, O-kyaku-sama, I'll be right with you," he said.
At an unhurried pace, Toshi came toward the end of his curving line. An unusually cool breeze made its way through the long shop, carrying with it the heavy scent of the sea. Like most shops in town, theirs was comprised of two stories, one in which to conduct business, the other for sleeping and eating. Master Shun believed in cleanliness, so a day did not pass during which Toshi didn't have to sweep the entrance or run a wet cloth across the floorboards. On days when it rained and prospective customers tracked in the mud with them, it was all he could do to keep up.
A large counter took up the left side of the front of the shop, while the rear held the working desk and wall-to-wall niches to hold their wares.
He rubbed his suddenly cold feet together, wondering why the customer hadn't bothered to close the door. His gaze snapped up as he realized that the customer had already shut the paper screen door. Yet the scent of salt and seaweed still crowded into his nostrils. It was strange that the smell had come so far and was so strong since the shop was so far from the port. Dismissing the oddity as he heard the late customer moving about, he set his brush carefully aside.
"O-kyaku-sama, I've finished." He bowed in the general direction of the visitor out of long ingrained habit though he couldn't see him. "I apologize for the wait. How may I help you?" He glanced at the shadow-enshrouded figure on the far side of the room, just as the last of the sun's light dwindled away. He quickly left the side of his workbench and its wooden platform. A small, unexplained chill coursed through him as the customer's ever deepening shadow came to loom over him. "Sir?"
He didn't receive an answer. Realizing Master Shun wasn't likely to make a sale if his customer remained in the dark, he shifted past the familiar surroundings and reached for the nearest paper lantern.
"I'll have some light for us in a moment, sir. I apologize for it being so dark." He removed the paper covering of the lamp and exposed the candle inside.
"Where's your master, boy?"
The unexpected voice made him jump. Though the customer was standing less than five arm lengths from him, the low, monotone voice had sounded as if it had been issued from far away. He glanced up to answer, but he hesitated as he saw a flash of greenish light issue from somewhere around the customer's face. He rubbed his eyes, feeling foolish, even as a tinge of unreasonable fear tried to crowd into his mind. Realizing his continued silence could be misunderstood as rudeness, he turned away from the figure and answered the question. At the same time, he reached to light the lamp. "Master Shun wasn't feeling well today, sir. He retired early. If you wish, you could leave a message for him. I'm sure he'll be feeling better tomorrow."
Warmth tickled his fingers as the wick caught fire. He placed the oval paper covering back over the candle. Its light gently spread over the room. He then carried the lantern to the main counter in the front of the shop, and turned to get his first good look at the waiting customer.
The man was facing away from him, so his gaze landed upon well cared for armor with its small steel plates hooked on lacquered leather. He wasn't surprised by what he saw, having already figured from the harsh and emotionless tone his customer was samurai-an elite, upper- class warrior. Dressed as if for battle, the samurai wore the commanding rounded helmet with protuding strips of plate to guard the back of the neck. Fitted back plates and metal shoulder pads were attached to the toughened leather that made up the sleeves and the lower skirt. Strapped on leather tubes protected the warrior's legs. No, what made his eyes grow wide and his heart beat faster were the long tufts of wet seaweed hanging from the armor. Droplets of water reflected the lamp's light even as they fell from the armor and the soaked clothes beneath to make a small puddle on the floor. His eyes followed the water trail leading from the samurai's feet back to the front door, his throat growing dry.
He took an unsteady step back, not sure what it all meant. His gaze traveled back to the armor and looked at the family crest painted there. The crest showed three white crescent moons facing each other within a thin circle. He didn't immediately recognize it. It wasn't one belonging to any of the prominent samurai families in town. Perhaps the man was a ronin, a masterless samurai, but the good condition of his armor and his kimono suggested otherwise.
Toshi watched with growing curiosity as the samurai slowly turned about to face him. His breath caught in his throat as a demonic scowl stared him in the face. He tried to still his racing heart as he realized the evil, horrifying expression before him was but a mask clipped to the front of the samurai's helmet, hiding the man's true face.
Taking another step back, he forced his eyes to leave the mask. Why would a samurai in full battle regalia come here to see Master Shun? He wondered what time it was and when the city watch would be coming by. Ever since the foreigners, the gaijin, had been allowed entry into the ports and even certain regions of the city itself, the curfews and patrols had become more stringent than before. If he ran out to look for them, would they cut him down before he could explain why he had broken curfew? Or worse, would he even make it out of the store if he decided to try?
His eyes fixed themselves on the sheathed swords, the long katana and shorter wakizashi, hanging from the samurai's side. He wasn't sure he could run past the strange customer to get help before the warrior could draw either blade and make its razor sharpness cut through his hide. Glancing up into the warrior's masked face, he froze. He had seen it again-a flash of greenish light in the eye slits of the mask! Excitement and fear clutched at his breast and a thin sheen of perspiration rose on his brow. He stared hard at the samurai's metal mask, noticing for the first time how dark the area beyond the eye slits were and how the brown eyes that should have been there staring back at him were nowhere in sight.
"Sir, it…it's time for the shop to close. Is there a message you wish me to convey to Master Shun?" He tried not to look at the snarling, demonic mask, though his eyes were drawn toward the unnatural emptiness of its eye slits.
"Can you read gaijin maps, boy?"
Toshi felt surprise rush through him at the totally unexpected question. "Yes, sir. A little. My…my master has had dealings with a number of gaijin to try to learn their ways of making and reading maps. I have studied this with him."
He hadn't meant to say so much. He didn't want to deal with the strange samurai. That was Master Shun's responsibility, but his frightened tongue hadn't known when to stop. With a long, silent shiver, he wished his master would come downstairs right then, even if it meant he would get a flogging.
"Do you have maps for the area with the chain of islands just to the north of here?" The samurai's distant monotone slammed into him even as he tried to figure out what he should do.
When he didn't immediately answer, the seaweed-covered samurai took a long step forward. Toshi took one back.
"Well, boy?" the samurai asked. His impatience was unmistakable even as his voice sounded like it came from a deep well.
Not wanting the samurai to come any closer, he tried to answer his question as quickly as possible. "Yes, sir, we have many maps."
He scurried away to the shop's rear. Against the wall, on the right, racks of small square-shaped shelves were stacked upon each other almost to the ceiling. Ruffling through the carefully rolled parchments in a number of the squares, he grabbed what he was looking for and walked cautiously around the samurai to stand behind the safety of the shop's front counter. He laid the rolled parchment on the end of the counter closest to the unusual customer and then backed away from it.
Without a word, the samurai stepped forward. Toshi watched as the man raised his arm to reach for the map. Filled with a bolt of sudden fear, he jumped back, smashing his head against one of the shop's wooden support beams, as the hand he had expected to see reaching for the map never appeared. With spots of color flying before his eyes, he stared in paralyzing horror as fleshless fingers reached instead to claim the waiting map.
"You're obake. A monster!" The boy clamped his hands over his mouth as he realized the accusing words were his. He stared at the samurai in cold horror sure his words would be the end of him. The samurai ignored him.
As his death didn't immediately manifest itself, his eyes shrunk back to normal. He made no attempt though to remove his hands from his mouth.
With dread-filled fascination, he watched the samurai's fleshless hand as it took the rolled map and with another undid the string holding it together. He observed the skeletal fingers as they spread the map out over the top of the counter.
All the old stories were true. Demons did walk the earth. But why was this demon here? He and Master Shun had done all Shinto prescribed in order to keep themselves out of the reach of evil or mischievous spirits. Shinto-The Way of the Gods-had made them aware of the spirits that inhabited every rock, tree, and mountain, and which spirits were best avoided and how. The two of them had exorcised the shop and its living quarters above on New Year's like they did every year, driving the evil spirits out and good luck in. They'd gone to the temple and made the prescribed offerings. The prayer strips were all in place. Had the gods decided not to protect them? What had Master Shun done to bring such evil to this place?
"Are all known reefs and other hazards of the area contained within this map?" The samurai's voice reached out to him.
He nodded rapidly, his hands still clamped over his mouth. He suddenly tried crawling back into the beam behind him as the samurai's empty stare turned toward him, a flash of eerie green light momentarily filling the mask's slits. Sweat poured down the side of his face as he realized with a start the samurai hadn't seen his nod and was therefore still waiting for his answer. He forced his hands to move away from his mouth. "Y- yes, sir." He could barely keep his words from stumbling over each other. "It's…it's all there, as far as I know. Master Shun has spent a lot of money getting the gaijin to help him make accurate maps."
He clamped his hands over his mouth again, knowing he'd just told more than he liked. The samurai's stare shifted away from him back to the map.
"You can read this map? The numbers, the words?"
He hesitated a long moment before nodding as the samurai's eyes turned toward him again.
"Could you guide someone with it if you had the gaijin instruments?" he asked.
Toshi stared at the samurai, caught off guard by the question. Should he lie? Very few people had the opportunity to meet gaijin, let alone learn their ways. The demon couldn't possibly know the gaijin merchant they'd contracted had taught him a lot more than had been required. Even Master Shun didn't know how much he'd learned. As a demon, he wouldn't sense the lie, would he?
"Well?" The deep voice didn't sound happy to be kept waiting.
Green fire flared in the snarling mask's eyes, and Toshi knew he couldn't take the risk. Though he had a horrible feeling he would regret his truthfulness, he nodded.
"Fetch me paper, ink, and brush."
He cringed against the wall, not understanding the reason for the request.
"Move." The samurai's fleshless hand dropped to the hilt of his katana.
Driven by the commanding tone as well as the unspoken threat, he bolted from where he stood to the back of the store.
Searching for the items requested, he hurried back, the skin on the back of his neck prickling as he noticed the samurai standing between him and the door.
He almost dropped the wooden ink well on the counter as he tried to put the requested items down. Laying all the supplies within the samurai's reach, he scurried back to stand against his wooden beam.
The samurai's skeletal hand reached out and expertly took hold of the thin, long-handled brush. Through frightened eyes, Toshi noted as each of the delicate bones in the hand moved with careless grace. Goose bumps covered his arms and back as he saw there was nothing holding the bones together.
With elegant fluidity, the samurai inked the brush and then began to write. Despite himself, Toshi appreciated the evenness of the samurai's strokes. The writing was very clear, and he had no trouble reading it despite the fact it was upside down to him. With morbid curiosity, he found himself reading the message the samurai was writing for Master Shun. Literacy had been one of the few unexpected gifts he had gained since he'd been sold as an apprentice.
His face drained of color as he realized the meaning of what he was reading.
"No! Sir, please don't do this," he pleaded. "Master Shun doesn't want to sell me. I've been his apprentice for too many years. You mustn't do this, sir. You mustn't do this!" Fear overwhelming his sense, he leapt forward to grab the offensive piece of paper. Before his fingers could even brush its surface, the samurai's bony hand lashed out and caught his wrist.
Toshi stared in desperation at the glowing eye slits as an unearthly cold spread into his arm from the samurai's fleshless hand. The cold moved through him like a living thing, paralyzing him where he stood.
Never loosening his hold on the boy's arm, the samurai returned to completing his message.
As the grisly metal face looked elsewhere, Toshi found his eyes and numbed mind free again. He tried to scream so he could wake up Master Shun or attract the watch-anything that might get him away from this demon, but his vocal cords were as frozen as the rest of him.
He read the note again and again, noticing as the samurai finished it that it lacked his signature. Who was this demon? Studying the family crest again, he thought he might have seen it somewhere before. Was it important?
The samurai reached down and brought out a hand-sized silk sack from within the lacquered armor. The jingle of coins echoed through the room as the samurai let the sack drop on the counter. He then reached within a small bag at his side and brought out a long bamboo tube. He carefully rolled up the map and placed it inside. Returning the tube back to the bag, the samurai turned his burning green eyes in Toshi's direction. "Come," he commanded.
The intense cold that had kept him rooted to the spot lessened. He walked hesitantly around the counter, the samurai pulling on his wrist.
His worried eyes swept through the shop, a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach telling him this would be the last time he'd ever see the place he'd called home since he was six. With a sweeping sense of loss, of leaving all he had ever known, he stopped and planted his feet on the floor, not willing to let it all go so easily.
Without looking back, the samurai yanked his arm, forcing him to pitch forward.
Landing hard on his knees, Toshi felt his eyes fill with pain-induced tears as the samurai then pulled him toward the door. The snarling mask, with its glowing eyes, glared at him without the slightest sign of pity or mercy.
With a soft whoosh, the samurai slid open the shop's paneled front door and wrenched him to his feet. "Now walk." The samurai's free hand landed on his sword's hilt once more, reminding the boy of its silent but deadly threat.
Toshi looked away, hating the way he felt as he realized he had no choice. He slipped on his old sandals, sitting just on the outside of the store entrance, and stepped out of his old life forever.
Keeping his eyes on the dirt road, he walked on as the samurai set an easy pace away from the shop. As they walked, a thin fog sprung up around them. He shivered, cold inside and out. In an instant, all that he was being forced to leave behind flashed through his mind: Master Shun, quirky and strange though he was; the Kawa family next door and their gaggle of children; the sweet dumplings he always bought during festival nights from the old woman near the temple; his room and his few possessions; and the friends he'd made from the gaijin ship. His heart ached.
Very few lights were on in the bottom floors of the many two-storied buildings surrounding them on either side. A number of the lights in the living quarters on the second floor had already gone dark as well. Only the howling wind and the lonely call of a stray dog disturbed the silence as he was led down the street in the direction of the docks. He shuddered under the warm night breeze as the samurai strolled on as if he were lord of everything around him. Toshi refused to allow himself to look at him, to look at the monster that was ripping him away from all he knew. The scent of the demon's clinging seaweed wrapped itself about him as they walked.
The buildings changed as they approached the docks. The wood and paper homes grew smaller as they crowded in side by side. The wail of a hungry child or a quiet, lonely moan occasionally escaped into the street, the smell of human waste and rotting garbage growing ever thicker. The samurai appeared to be oblivious to it all, yet for Toshi, these sounds only too clearly expressed the despair and unfairness welling up inside him.
He slipped a hateful glance at the samurai. Of course it wouldn't bother a demon if there was suffering and misery in the world or that he was about to add to it. After all, wasn't that what demons were for? He quickly wiped at the tears threatening his eyes, determined not to show any weakness to this demon. Though he hoped for it with every step, the samurai's cold grip never lessened on his wrist. If only he got a chance to try to escape!
With unbelieving eyes, as they crossed the last street intersection before the docks, he spotted two samurai of the watch. Hope sprung into his heart, and he tried to scream for their attention as the demon pulled him on across the street.
Though he tried and tried, no sound made it past his lips. The two men continued walking away even as he felt his last chance for freedom being swept away by fate.
While his soul wailed with despair, his eyes lighted on a rock on the dirt road less than two feet in front of him. He felt an urge to look at the demon beside him, to make sure he hadn't seen the rock. He forced himself to curb the impulse and kept his eyes glued to his one possible means of salvation. Leaving himself no time for thought, he dropped to the ground and swung one of his legs hard, tripping the samurai. The armored figure fell. Toshi lunged for the rock. Gasping, he felt the bitter cold from the fleshless hand that still held him pour greedily into his bones. He couldn't feel the rock as he wrapped his fingers around it. His body slowed as he fought with every ounce of his being to lift his arm so he could throw the stone that might gain the attention of the watch.
Perspiration broke out all over his body from the effort as the flowing cold pierced him to the core. With a silent scream, he watched the two samurai disappear from sight as his arm froze in a throwing stance. Hot pain blossomed on the side of his face.
Unable to move, he couldn't stop himself from toppling onto the dirt, the samurai's blow knocking him off his feet. A whispered hiss fell to his ear, his vision swimming before him.
He would have cringed from the scorn in the samurai's voice, but he couldn't even do that. A hard yank brought him to his knees. He tried his best to ignore the grotesque mask and the glowing eyes before him.
"If you find someone to try to stop me from taking you, I'll kill them. Their deaths will be on your head." The samurai's voice was cold. Toshi looked away. He knew the demon would do as he said.
Another rough yank brought him to his feet. He gasped in pain at the hard pull, the rock he had risked so much to grab falling forgotten from his numb fingers. The samurai's words continued to reverberate in his mind as he was dragged forward once again.
Why would a demon be willing to kill to keep him? Why pay Master Shun instead of just stealing him away? This wasn't the way demons did things.
He offered no more resistance as the samurai pulled him onto the platform for the docks. He kept looking back, however, trying hard to engrave the memory of the home he was being torn from in his mind. He wiped at his face with his sleeve, his eyes burning.
The majority of the boats tied close to them were long and flat-bottomed, most of them fishing boats. On the dock's far side were the gaijin ships. Their tall masts and swollen bodies dwarfed all the other boats around them.
The samurai paid him no attention as he pulled him along and strolled down each of the platforms, gazing at all the ships gathered there. After several minutes, they came across a fishing boat with a small skiff tied to its side. He was dragged toward it, even as he wondered what the samurai was planning.
Moving through the fishing ship toward the single-oared boat, the samurai left three coins wrapped artistically in paper next to the ship's tiller. Toshi's eyes strayed to the small bundle, puzzled by the fact that the coins had been prepared as a gift. It then dawned on him what they were being left for. His brow furrowed. Why would a demon have need of a skiff?
With his one free hand, the samurai pulled on the rope tied to the small craft and drew it closer to them.
"Get in." Flashing green eyes turned in Toshi's direction with the barked command.
He tried to do as he'd been told. His legs though, still filled with the samurai's unearthly cold, were numb and unresponding. As he tried to get himself over the edge of the ship's rail, he shifted his weight too quickly and fell. Watching in startled fear as the boat beneath rose up to meet his face, his arm was wrenched from behind. Pulled upward, he was kept from landing face-first into the boat. His legs continued to go down and smacked onto the side of the craft as he dangled there by his arm, but he barely felt the impact. This bothered him more than the fact he could have been hurt.
The samurai pulled him up further, until he'd gotten his legs into the boat, before suddenly letting go of his wrist. Toshi collapsed to his knees, the thread of cold pouring through his bones replaced by a jolt of warmth from his pumping heart.
The fog that followed them on the streets slithered from the fishing ship down into the skiff as if it hungered for them. He sat still on the bottom of the craft, trying to dispel the memory of the wooden deck rushing toward his face.
The samurai lowered himself into the skiff in a fluid drop, barely rocking the boat. Gazing down at Toshi for a moment, he slid his hand onto the shorter of his two swords before whipping it out of its sheath and slicing through the skiff's mooring line in one smooth motion. "If you try to leave this craft, I will cut you in half before you can hit the water."
He would have laughed at the irony, if he hadn't thought the samurai would cut him down for it. His body felt so numb and slow, he doubted he could even save himself if the boat suddenly tipped over, let alone try to escape. He felt the samurai's green gaze staring at him again. He tried his best not to let his own gaze cross its path.
"Take the oar and row us out toward the middle of the bay." The samurai waved his hand to the back of the boat.
He crawled where he'd been told to and stared at the long angled oar waiting there. Watching to make sure his hands got around the oar, since he couldn't feel them, he wove it back and forth to get the craft moving.
As the small boat inched away from the docks to deeper water, he glanced back at the city that had for so long been his home. His gaze grew moist as he stared at the dark mass, no hint showing in the darkness of the bustle and life that had made it so dear to him over the years. And now he was being torn from it.
The fog grew in intensity. It cut off his view of the city. In a way, it made it seem as if the city had never existed.
After a time, the skiff picked up speed. Toshi became ever more grateful for the work the demon had given him, as it loosened the numbness from his body. The heat of the work was exhilarating compared to the unearthly coldness that had gripped him before. He stared at the samurai's armored back, seeing nothing but fog and sea beyond him. When he was feeling more like himself, he worked up the courage to speak. "Sir, might I ask where we are going?"
The samurai didn't react to his question, but remained fixed, facing the prow of the boat.
He continued rowing and didn't speak again. He still had no idea as to their destination when his arms began to tire.
"Stop here." The samurai made a chopping motion with his hand.
He stopped rowing, staring at the samurai in surprise, able to see nothing but the swirling fog around them. Keeping his gaze locked on the samurai, he waited to see what he would ask him to do next. An unwanted chill cut through him as he tried his best not to guess at what it might be.
His attention was drawn to the water as bubbles formed on its surface. The bubbles grew to a writhing mass, a soft glow coming from beneath them. The fog slithered away as if afraid of what was happening in the water. He watched the spot of light beneath the bubbles get larger and brighter.
His knuckles turned white as he gripped his oar in apprehension. The knocking of his heart in his chest was the only sound he could hear as an eerily glowing rod broke through the surface of the frothing sea.
The rod rose higher. A crossbeam broke the surface beneath it, long strands of seaweed strung across its length. A tattered square sail followed, a gold colored replica of the crest he had seen on the samurai's armor etched upon it.
While terror welled within him at the sight rising before him, he found his gaze inexorably drawn to the samurai. The warrior slowly turned to face him and stared at him with his burning green eyes.
Toshi shook his head in helpless denial as the samurai stood up and pointed toward the still rising ship. "No! This is not my karma," he declared. "I won't go to a cursed ship!"
The samurai stared at him impassively, the green light issuing from the demon mask's eyes brighter than it had been before. "Row."
He shook his head again, forgetting whom he was denying while in the grip of his welling fear. He let go of the boat's oar as if it had burned him. His gaze darted around, looking for a way to escape, and saw his only option was to dive into the sea.
He turned, determined to leave the boat. Something solid struck the back of his leg at the knee, folding his leg under him. As he struggled not to fall over, he saw the samurai's lacquered scabbard flash ahead of him just before it slammed into his stomach. He fell hard onto the deck.
Panic drove him to ignore the flaring pain in his leg and stomach, even as he fought to throw himself overboard. He'd reached the side of the boat when his cotton tunic was wrenched from behind and he was yanked back with it. He tried desperately to pull away, his fists flying, but a shot of unearthly cold wove down his spine draining his resistance as fleshless fingers wrapped themselves around the back of his neck. He screamed.
His terror and desperation multiplied as the cold spread through him. Still screaming, he tried to pry the bony fingers from his neck, but his hands were slapped away. Soon he could no longer move. With a soundless cry of fear, he shut his eyes, not wanting to see what awaited him.
The flat-bottomed ship had come fully to the surface. Indistinct shapes moving within it silently brought out long poles with hooks and snared the small boat. As the skiff was secured to the side of the larger vessel, a number of fleshless hands leaned over to reach down into it.
Toshi fought as he felt half a dozen hands attach themselves to his body and pull him upward. The samurai's hand left the back of his neck. In panic, he snapped his eyes open to see why the demon had deserted him. He gazed straight into the face of a grinning skull. Empty eye sockets stared into his own, a reddish glow flaring for a moment in their depths. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound ever reached past his lips. The fleshless face came closer. The creature's eyes flared with bright red light. He tried to squirm away, but it was all in vain. His heart threatened to burst from horror before that fleshless grin.
An arm was thrust between them. Sudden hope flared within him even as his frightened gaze shifted to seek the samurai's masked face.
He didn't feel the samurai's hand as it latched onto his. His numbed body was turned around, and he glimpsed the rest of those who were on board. His mind wouldn't count them, it didn't want to see them. It shrieked in disbelief as he stared at the white gleaming skeletons before him. They stood upright and wore clothes he would have seen on men on any common street. Some wore short pants and sleeveless shirts. Others only wore fudoshi-a long cloth coiled around the body that served to cover the genitals like a loincloth-and short vests.
Half supporting, half dragging him, the samurai took him toward a door set in the wall of the raised deck housing the tiller. His mind was as numbed by terror as his body was by cold; he didn't resist as he was taken into the small hallway beyond.
Ignoring the ladder going below, the samurai pulled him forward, stopping before the second doorway on the right. Throwing the door open, the samurai thrust him inside. Unable in his paralysis to break his fall, he slammed into the glowing floor. The door was closed and bolted behind him.
The pain of the fall a very faint perception, Toshi gave in to his fear and despair. He scooted himself to a corner and hugged his knees to his chest. His wide eyes stared at the glow in the room that permeated everything.