The Smoke Dragon is the opening few chapters of Circle of Tears (Yokai Wars Book 1). Read on to meet Yamabushi Kaidan, Tsubasa, Akio, Yumi, and their friends and enemies in a Japan that never was …
The Autumn Mountain
Yamabushi Kaidan balanced on one leg atop the blossom tree.
His robes fluttered in the wind as he studied the columns of smoke rising from the village below. The ghost-white blossom tree that crested the summit of Mount Akiyama afforded him a view of the entire valley–leagues of patchwork fields ringed by mountains shrouded in mist.
“That troubles me.” He pointed to the line of smoke retreating from Kyuusai village.
The sparrowhawk screeched his assent, flapping his wings for emphasis–a mottled brown blur contrasting against the snowy blossoms.
“Yes, Tsubasa. An excellent idea,” said Kaidan.
Akio dropped to his knees after regaining some composure. His face was sweaty and red like a beet, even before he tried speaking. “Yamabushi … Kaidan. My … apologies.” He gulped at the air, struggling for his next words. “Kyuusai … has been attacked.”
“I know. I was on my way to help.” Kaidan extended a hand, pulling Akio to his feet. “Have some of this broth so we can be on our way. Hurry.”
Kaidan withdrew a small phial from the depths of his vest and handed it to the Shugenja. “Quaff it all.”
Akio studied the green ooze before unstoppering the phial. He closed his eyes, screwing up his face against the mossy brimstone smell, and downed it in one sharp motion.
“Good?” asked Kaidan, as Akio handed him the emptied phial.
Akio nodded, but a coughing spasm belied his answer.
“Let us go. Hold my pace and tell me what happened.” Kaidan tugged at Akio’s sleeve and then jogged down the slope.
Kaidan watched the novice priest while he weaved between trees, muttering a chant in tune with his clanking beads and shell horn. Their momentum forced them to a run, but Akio gained strength rather than flagged.
“It was a dragon, yamabushi,” Akio told him between puffs. “A huge creature coiled in smoke. Fire sprouted from its jaws. We tried defending ourselves, but …”
“Worry not, Akio. You acted wisely in seeking me out.”
If Akio nodded, he missed it. Trees whirred by.
“Elder Keiji despatched a runner to the Shinichi clan,” Akio said.
“Wanted to make life harder for us by looking to Kyuusai’s enemies for protection, did he? I would not be surprised if Keiji didn’t want to run to daimyo Shinichi himself when that dragon appeared.”
Akio laughed but quickly stifled it.
“So we have about a day before the village is crawling with Shinichi samurai?” The question was left hanging in the air, lost to the greedy South Wind as they continued the downward rush.
“Tell me more of this dragon of smoke and flame,” instructed Kaidan. The valley floor loomed ahead.
“It was huge, yamabushi. Larger than the temple at Ise.”
“Who did it strike against?”
“The attack was ill-coordinated. The beast burned down some of the outlying houses, scorched the well, and levelled the shrine. The bandits inflicted the worst on us. They ransacked many of the houses and the shrine, before the dragon burnt it down.”
“Keiji’s house was attacked?”
Kaidan’s eyes were alive with thought as he scrutinised the young Shugenja. “How many? Where did they come from?”
“Maybe three score. It was hard to tell, we could see nothing for the smoke. It choked our eyes, mouths, and hearts. They came from nowhere.”
“Did they bear any markings? Clan insignia?”
“No, yamabushi. They wore only black.”
“Which direction did the dragon strike for when it abandoned Kyuusai?”
“I can’t be certain, yamabushi, as I had fled to seek you by then. I looked back as I reached this tree line and saw one smoke-drift off to the west.”
“Very well, then. You have confirmed much of what I’ve guessed from the top of the mountain. Before I set out to find this dragon, we must tend to the wounded.”
“It’s best if the Shinichi clan have little to do with this affair. They’ve long sought a foothold in the Autumn Valley. I have a way of keeping an eye on the daimyo’s men.” Kaidan glanced to the sky and chanted an inaudible sutra, weaving complex knots in the air with his free hand.
Kyuusai emerged into view as they trudged through knee-high grass, ferns, and sabre-pronged shrubs. The tall cedar forest gave way to the foothills. From the lower slope, it was clear the village struggled for life against charred ruins and smoking scars.
“Did they find the scroll I entrusted to the shrine?”
“No.” Akio withdrew an ivory cylinder from the folds of his vest. Lines of writing–sutras and incantations–were etched onto its surface. “I carried it to freedom. But I neglected to remove the decoy scroll.”
A smile rose from beneath Kaidan’s broad hat, matched by the acolyte’s.
“They will be back.” Kaidan adopted an old man’s gait, leaning on his staff as they descended into battle-scarred Kyuusai.
Tsubasa swooped across the village, through wafting smoke, before winging his way from the valley.
Shinichi on the move
The sparrowhawk perched atop the samurai’s helmet, tucked behind the oval Shinichi clan insignia. His landing was weightless, a practised manoeuvre. His shimmering invisibility a mask no human could penetrate without acute perception. No doubt Kaidan would laugh at his audacity.
Tsubasa observed the small column of riders as they galloped for the Kita Pass, and the village of Kyuusai in the Autumn Valley beyond. Nine riders were all the daimyo had chosen to send. Eight samurai in burnished cobalt plate and lacquered bamboo armour, all with matching clan insignia on their helms. One warrior rode ahead. He was more brutish than the rest, even in the saddle. The bright crimson armour, stylised as a bear, marked him as leader.
Tsubasa chose the samurai at the end of the column–the ideal place to surveil the band–but the sloppy ride jostled him around. The sparrowhawk quickly regretted his choice–this samurai was at the rear for a reason.
Tsubasa’s torment soon ended as the column slowed and reformed into two, in preparation for the Kita Pass. Again, his adopted samurai dropped to the rear. Their pace was deliberate as they traversed a path that wound between cliffs and trees that crowded toward one another. Gnarled root systems riddled the cliffs, forming the legendary living walls of the Kita Pass. The pass was rich in earthy fragrances of moss and moist dirt.
“Hey, Teraku,” Tsubasa’s samurai said to the man riding beside him.
The other samurai squinted at the helmet Tsubasa perched on for a moment, and then stroked his angular beard. “What, Haru?”
“Hideki told me this village was attacked by the Oni.”
“Nonsense,” chided Teraku. “Haven’t seen ogres or demons before. I’m not afraid of folk tales. You shouldn’t be either, Haru.” Teraku jabbed his finger toward him to emphasise his point.
“Hideki is wise. He’s been in Shinichi’s service for many years. He’s seen things. Told me things.” Haru’s voice was tight and child-like.
“I’d not pay attention to the stories of grey-hairs and scribes.”
“He said a dragon was loose in the countryside. That it was looking for babies to eat, and treasures to steal away to the Spirit World.”
“Don’t speak of such things, Haru. It’s nonsense.” Teraku’s hand drifted to the sword at his hip, his eyes darted from tree to rock to tree. His dappled brown mare snorted and shook its head.
“But Teraku, what if it’s true? What if Uncle Takahiro is sending us to our doom? There are only–”
Flapping wings filled the nearby forest. A quartet of olive coloured birds took to the sky.
A few of the warriors glanced behind them, their gaze moving from Teraku to a red-faced Haru. At the head of the column, their leader rode in silence.
Tsubasa kept his ears sharp, but struggled to tear his gaze from the receding group of birds–White-eyes by their markings. His hunting instincts simmered.
“I’m sorry, Teraku,” Haru whispered, once the other samurai had turned away.
“Don’t speak of such things. Daimyo Takahiro is an enlightened man. He knows how to maintain peace. Besides, these disturbances are usually bandits. Have faith in your sword.”
Haru nodded, almost shaking Tsubasa from his perch. “You’re probably right. My uncle would not send me–us–here to die.”
The samurai negotiated the final section of the pass at a cautious gallop and entered the Autumn Valley. The blossom-crested expanse of Mount Akiyama dominated the view, the centre of a line of mountain enclosing the valley. Greenery spanned the valley floor, wild grasses and shrubbery. Dwarf ferns and spiky-leafed shrubs dominated the lower slopes before giving way to the stands of cedars and oaks. Cultivated land wasn’t feasible this close to the highlands. The creatures of the wild mountains were extremely territorial.
Within sight of home, Tsubasa sprang from Haru’s helm, rocking the man’s head. The sparrowhawk wheeled in the air, watching the chubby samurai rearrange his helmet while wearing a slaw-jacked expression.
“What was that?” the bird heard him say.
“Just your imagination, Haru,” Teraku answered. “Now calm yourself, before the Bear notices your prattle.”
Soaring away, Tsubasa detected the tang of smoke on the breeze.
The destruction in Kyuusai was superficial–burnt walls and collapsed supports. It was the frightened spirit of the people that cried out to Kaidan.
“Akio,” he called to the Shugenja. “Are there further people waiting?”
Bent over an old man in meditative prayer, Akio took a few moments to register Kaidan’s words.
“No, yamabushi. Wait, Elder Keiji may need some attention. I’ve not checked on him yet.”
Kaidan nodded, and then watched the last of his patients shuffle away through the sliding paper door. The woman had been scared more than hurt, but herbs and Mikkyo chanting had soothed her nerves. She left the door open a fraction, allowing a cooling breeze to wash through the room and toy with the arrangement of burning candles.
Waiting for Akio to finish his ministrations, Kaidan wandered over to the door and studied the scene in the daylight beyond.
The Shugendo shrine at the west end of town–once a striking array of bright red pillars and curved tiles–was burned to blackened rubble. The closest thatched huts were also smouldering wrecks, totally uninhabitable. Charcoal still hung thick in the air.
It was only through the kindness of others, such as the Fujita family, that allowed them to set up a new, temporary shrine and place of healing. The Fujitas gave over their home unconditionally, allowing the yamabushi and refugees residence for as long as necessary. Widow Mizoki and her two boys had taken up the offer, along with old Tenryu, who had been badly burnt in the attack. She was tending his wounds in the Fujita’s sleeping quarters. Everyone else had been billeted amongst family and friends.
Footsteps on the boards alerted Kaidan to Akio’s approach.
“May you find the blessings of happiness,” he said as Akio guided the old man to the door. Kaidan wove the sign of good luck with his fingers. The old man bowed deeply, before shambling into the sunshine and towards the centre of the village.
Kaidan closed the door and ushered the priest back to the makeshift shrine. The candles filled the room with a sultry heat, tinged with the scent of wax.
“Akio, you have done well. Your mantras are strong, and you channel Ki like a Shugenja with many more years of experience. Kyuusai is lucky to have you.”
“Thank you, yamabushi.” Akio bowed low, perhaps to cover his flaring cheeks.
The door slid open, revealing a slender girl covered in a green silk yukata–a dress, less formal than a kimono–patterned with herons. Finery rarely seen in such an agricultural outpost.
“Yumi, you’ve blossomed, child,” greeted Kaidan.
She bowed, careful not to spill the water sloshing in the bucket she carried.
“Thank you, yamabushi. We are honoured to host you.” Her formal tone contradicted her lively gaze, which was anchored on Akio, who was trying to reposition himself behind Kaidan.
Kaidan bowed very low, leaning considerably onto his staff. A smile crossed his face as he left Akio to suffer under Yumi’s appreciative eyes. When he straightened, his face was solemn once more. A quick glance at the acolyte confirmed his suspicion–Akio’s face blazed scarlet.
“Thank you for your hospitality, and the water, Yumi,” Kaidan gestured for her to place the bucket on the floor. “I wonder if your father shares your feelings?”
Yumi blushed this time, turning her head slightly to recover herself. “My father welcomes you, of course.”
“Is he in need of healing following the attack?” Kaidan paused. “Or your mother?”
“Mother has been unwell since the dragon came, and Father has cuts along his arm. He’s proud. He has not sought Akio’s aid.”
“Allow us a few moments to prepare remedies, and we will meet you at your home.”
Yumi bowed again, sparing a glance for Akio, before slipping out the door.
Kaidan turned to the young Shugenja and gave him an appraising look. “This village is always full of surprises.”
Akio nodded sheepishly.
“You still have much to learn, Akio. Come, gather the herbs and cloth.”