When sergeant Inyagi finally managed to stand up, he was immediately knocked down again. The smell hit him in the stomach like a kick, a rich cold smell of death. He fell to his knees, retching. No vomit came. His mouth just filled with bitter phlegm. He spat. It hit the head of another soldier on the ground. The head was not attached to a body.
Inyagi found himself thinking: why only now the smell? I must have been out for a long time, night is falling now. As he had lain half-conscious on the battelfield, he had only smelled black powder. He vaguely remembered firing his arquebus several times. The weapon was nowhere near him now. If the captain had been around to notice that Inyagi had lost his gun, he would have been whipped for his carelessness.
More memories came back, not rushing like a river, but rather dripping slowly as from the broken faucet on a rain-barrel. Drip. The alarm gong, too late to alert the camp to the attack. Drip. His comrades running past him. Drip. Getting the gun, firing, reloading, firing again. Drip. A solid head hit, the advancing man dropping, then getting up again, half his skull left on the ground. Drip. Another gunshot, further away, then a huge oil lamp striking the side of Inyagi’s head. Drip. Darkness.
Inyagi became aware that he was still standing on all fours like a dog, looking down at the dirt. He raised his head to discover in front of him a severed arm tangled up in the flap of a crooked, near-collapsed tent. Blood was still coming out of the severed end of the arm. A pancake-sized black puddle had formed on the ground below. Drip. He retched again.
He managed to get himself into a sitting position. He touched the side of his head and found a long streak of dried blood. With his fingers, he assessed the extent of the injury. He tried to pretend it was someone else’s wound he was examining, but it did not work very well. He did not want to poke any harder for fear of feeling bone – or worse, first bone and then something soft – under his fingertips. He clenched his fists and unclenched them again to make sure his hands had not been hurt. Then he proceeded to remove his tunic, tear it into strips and bind them around his head. Only when he was done with dressing his wound did he permit himself to look around and take in anything beyond his immediate vicinity.
Even in the quickly fleeting daylight, the carnage was apparent. Bodies trampled into the mud, tents knocked over, the residue of the camp strewn about everywhere. To his right, Inyagi saw a cup and two dice lying next to a spare sole for a boot. He felt a flash of pain and held his head, still sitting down. Who had the enemy even been? It was hard to remember. Some had been wearing masks, like in the theatre. Others... he was not sure. He had seen two comrades flee past him. There had been sounds... a memory came back, of a grotesque and obese giant of a man ripping the limbs from a still-living soldier, and throwing them casually into a cart. Inyagi shook his head, regretting it immediately as the pain flooded back.
When he opened his eyes again he saw movement on the hill where the commander’s tent had previously stood. It was a man and a woman, that was about all he could make out. The man was crouching, bent over like he was picking up things from the ground, moving in a circle around the woman. The woman stood statuesque, head angled towards the moon. He felt the hairs on his arms stand on end. The taste of gall in his mouth was overpowering. The whole scene screamed at his senses, ringing alarm bells in areas of his subconcious he hadn’t known existed.
The man stood up and took the hands of the woman, a beam of moonlight fell upon her face. Oh her face, eyes stitched open forcing a perminent stare, her mouth the opposite, crudely sewn shut. Inyagi screamed to himself inside his head: RUN!
As he scrambled to get up, he saw tendrils of silvery mist spread rapidly outwards from the entwined hands of the man and the woman. The tendrils reached across the battlefield like spidery fingers obsuring the faces of the fallen. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the mist dissapated into the night fog, leaving behind perfect porceline masks. Then the dead began to move.
Sergeant Inyagi ran, stumbled, got up again. Each step sending a roar of pain through his injured head. All around him the dead were rising, stretching their arms or whatever limbs they had left, out after him, grabbing for him. He kicked one abomination in the face as it grasped for his leg and kept running. In his ears a cacaphony of barely-heard, whispered sounds grew: the dead were moaning and creaking as stiff joints were forced to move again.
He made it to the edge of the woods next to the camp site before he had to stop and rest. The throbbing pain from his wound had increased to levels he wouldn't have previously creditied as being possible. He turned and saw none of the dead following him: instead they were shuffling up the hill to gather around the man and the woman, drawn by the fine threads of moonlight-coloured mist. This momentary respite, strangely, sapped the last of his strength from his weary bones. He leaned against a tree, overcome by sudden thirst, wishing he had something to drink.
Then he saw it, laying on the ground in the clearing. A soaring yellow dragon against a blue background. The standard of his regiment. The standard-bearer lay next to it, his head twisted unnaturally to one side. Inyagi moved closer. He gripped the pole with both hands and lifted the standard. It had not been damaged, barely even touched by the mud, the banner still tied from three short spears attached to the pole. He held the standard aloft and the banner billowed silently in the night, above his head. He felt better holding it, his headache gone. Finding the standard must surely be a good omen. He could use one, after everything he had just witnessed.
A noise behind him made him whirl around. "Captain!" he whispered when he saw the captain's insignia on the uniform of the man staggering into the clearing. Then Inyagi swallowed. The captain had a gaping wound in his chest, broken ribs peeking out from under the armour, and yet he was walking.
It held its arms straight forward, like a small child running to grab something. Inyagi could no more move than a statue; he tried to will his legs to run but failed. Instead, it was his arms that finally moved. He lowered the standard and the corpse of the captain ran itself right onto the tip of the standard pole, with a force that bent then nearly shattered the shaft of Japanese Cedar. Perfect thought Inyagi, lightweight, waterproof and thankfully strong, he would forever be thankful to the gods for blessing his isle with the gift of the giant tree. The abomination still did not stop but dug its finger nails deep into the pink wood and dragged itself forward, the banner slowly passing through those gaping ribs as if into the mouth of some ravenous demon. And then just as it was almost within range with its grasping hands, it was spent, all life if that’s what it was, left it. The porceline mask covering its face, fell and shattered on the frozen ground.
Inyagi’s control over his own body came back as the weight of the dead captain pulled both standard and sergeant down. He leaned the pole forward and bent his knees to avoid falling. The dead creature slid back down the pole and slumped on the forest floor. Inyagi rose again, dizzy and relieved to be alive. He couldn’t stay here. He put his foot against the chest of the dead body, held the standard pole firm, and pulled. The banner came out sullied by the blood of what the captain had become, sliding out suprisingly easy nonetheless. He waited, tense, for a few heartbeats. The captain did not come back to life. Inyagi did not know if it was because the ancestors had intervened or because the shaft of the banner had pierced the creature’s heart, or both.
Inyagi hoisted the standard and let its weight fall on his shoulder. Then he bent over and pulled the captain’s crested helmet off. The captain had been a big-headed man in more ways than one, and Inyagi reckoned the helmet would fit over his bandages, holding them in place. He put it on. He found the dead standard bearer’s backpack and got out a lantern, though he did not light it until he was well inside the forest. He marched on, tired and aching, driven by his new found purpose; sergeant Inyagi was determined to reach Eddo to warn the commander there, Hiro Takishi.