Mouja — Matt London

Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com. This story is his first piece of published fiction. He has no less than three escape plans should the zombies take Manhattan.

The samurai were a warrior caste in feudal Japan who wore distinctive armor and often fought with a sword in either hand, one long (a katana or tachi) and one short (a wakizashi or tantō). Though they were feared because they had the authority to execute any commoner who displeased them, they were bound by a strict code of honor—Bushido—which demanded they commit seppuku—ritual suicide—should they dishonor themselves.

Samurai have had a massive impact on popular culture, everything from westerns (The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are remakes of Akira Kurosawa samurai movies) to Star Wars (the film is heavily influenced by the Kurosawa film Hidden Fortress, and Darth Vader’s helmet is modeled after a samurai helmet).

Our next story explores what happens when these highly trained soldiers face off against their first horde of zombies. The author says, “Lore would have us believe that samurai were almost superhuman in their devotion, but of course people are people. I wanted to create a character who is a slave to what he is, much as the zombies are slaves to what they are. I studied film at NYU, where I had a passionate interest in Kurosawa and horror cinema. Seven Samurai essentially has the same plot as most zombie movies: protagonists improve the defenses of a location, deal with social problems among the survivors, and then fight off the horde.”

London’s primary resource in writing the story was the Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a samurai how-to pamphlet written in the eighteenth century. Its opening line is: “I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, then always choose death.” Which somehow seems appropriate as a lead-in to a zombie story.

MOUJA
by Matt London

From the window of his guard hut, Takashi Shimada watched the trees. Three of the mouja lurked at the edge of the forest on the far side of the rice paddies. Takashi could just make out their shapes through the thick misty rain that made the flooded paddies seem to boil. Two of the figures at the edge of the forest were men in muddy tunics, caked with blood; the third was a woman, her kimono shamelessly open. Takashi watched, waiting, as the shadowy figures shambled toward the village. It did not matter if they traveled one mile per day or a hundred. The dead were coming, and they carried with them a hunger for human flesh.

A loud twang pierced the silence, like the string of a shamisen harshly plucked; an arrow whizzed through the air, cutting through raindrops as they fell to the earth. It struck one of the men in the forehead, splitting his rotting skull like a ripe kabocha. Undeterred, the other mouja lumbered forward as the man’s body fell to the ground in a heap.

In the next hut over, Seiji stood motionless, unwavering since letting the arrow fly, his falcon eyes peering into the distance. Takashi wondered if Seiji was admiring his precise shot, or if his mind was elsewhere, asking himself why he had come to this inconsequential farming village to fight these monsters. All of the samurai had doubted their mission since arriving at the village, though none of them shared their concern with the others—such behavior was unbefitting of a samurai. Seiji finally lowered his bow, then knelt on the ground. After a moment of silent meditation, he drew an arrow from his rabbit-hide quiver, nocked it, and rose to his feet once more.

When the mouja first arrived, it was discovered they only fell when struck directly in the head by an arrow, sword, or spear. Takashi recalled the samurai’s confusion as they watched the creatures approach the village looking like blowfish, their bodies riddled with arrows. Seiji’s technique was so precise he never wasted an arrow. When only a few wandering mouja appeared at a time, the other samurai left it to him to eliminate the threat.

Watching the fluid elegance of Seiji’s ritual put Takashi at peace. Seiji raised the bow so that the horizontal shaft of the arrow was level with his eyes. He extended his hands, his movement loose and calm. His knuckles were curved, as if he held two tiny teacups in his fingers.

Had Takashi been the one holding Seiji’s bow, he would have found it difficult to fire at a woman. He might have needed Seiji to place a nimble hand on his shoulder and remind him that it was not a woman anymore.

Seiji’s drawing hand opened like the wing of a bird, and with remarkable grace he let the arrow fly.

It was a perfect shot. The arrowhead pierced the woman’s eye, erupted out the back of her skull, and passed through the remaining man’s eye socket as well. The arrow continued on, finally coming to rest in the soggy bark of a lilac tree.

Takashi looked away, feeling the vomit crawl up his throat. He wondered whose grandmother, dead and buried years before, that had been. He wondered whose father, too slow to escape the mouja, had just been defiled.

In this new world, Bushido was just a specter lurking in the dark caves of samurai minds. Takashi knew a curse had fallen over the five islands, that none could die without rising as a perverse rotting thing, mindless and hungry for flesh. To obey the honor laws was to set a place for Death at one’s own table.

***

Edo, Kyoto—for all Takashi knew all of the major cities had already fallen. This little village would have been defenseless. But the farmers had known that the mouja were on their way, so they had sought out a champion.

They had found Takashi at a trading post and begged him to take up their cause. It was a hopeless task. They needed an army to stand a chance. But hell was coming, and honor dictated it is better to go down fighting, protecting those who could not protect themselves. Bushido or no, doing anything was better than sitting around and drinking sake, awaiting the inevitable. So Takashi had agreed, and recruited a few other ronin to join him in protecting the town.

“Look alive,” Seiji called from his window. The words were a suggestion as much as a greeting. “I am going to retrieve my arrows. You never know when we may need more than we have. Shout if you see anything that needs killing.”

Seiji bounded from the hut and splashed across the rice paddies, the rain beating down on his gray cloak. When he reached the three mouja corpses, Seiji checked to make sure they were truly dead by prodding them with his katana. Takashi marveled. He had not even seen Seiji draw his sword. Other samurai had been recruited to defend the village, but Takashi would have traded any two of them for another Seiji. He was more dangerous with a fish knife than the others were with swords.

Days earlier, Isao, the youngest among the samurai protecting the village, had been watching Seiji’s unmatched accuracy at work. “Your aim is perfect every time,” he had said. “What is the trick?”

“The trick,” Seiji had said, “is not caring if you hit the target.”

The rain stopped. As the sound of roaring water faded, Takashi came out of his reverie. On the edge of the forest, Seiji was examining his arrows. One shaft had broken two inches below the fletching, so Seiji snapped off the arrowhead and kept it. The other arrow—the one that had killed two mouja with one shot—was fine once the gore was stripped off.

After sliding the arrow into his quiver, Seiji started back across the paddy field, but then suddenly froze. His ears pricked up, and he looked like a thirsty buck at a stream. From his expression the cause of his concern was clear: he was being hunted.

With the slightest motion of his head, Seiji turned. Takashi followed his gaze. Through the trees he could see a chubby, bearded man wearing a leather armor breastplate and deerskin chaps, with a brown bandana around his head. His face was ashen, his eyes the color of bird droppings. The man’s left arm and his teeth were missing, and a ropy line of blood and saliva dribbled from his mouth.

If not for the beloved hatchet slung across the man’s back, Takashi never would have believed it was Minoru. Poor Minoru, the first of the samurai to fall, had now vacated the funeral mound where the others had buried him. He stood leaning against a tree, staring at Seiji with a hungry mouth and those swirling eyes. All of his good humor was gone. Only the hunger remained.

Seiji raised his sword into a medium stance and looked at Takashi as if to ask “Should I?” Takashi had to tell himself that this creature was no more Minoru than a palace raided by bandits was still a king’s home. Minoru’s mind had new tenants. Takashi nodded to Seiji, then looked away. He shut his eyes as he heard the heavy thud of Minoru’s severed head hitting the ground.

***

As Seiji returned to Takashi’s hut, the young samurai Isao came running up to the rear window. “Masters! Masters! Come quickly!” he shouted. “The villagers—there was something they didn’t tell us about the outlying homesteads. We just found out, there’s a hunting lodge about an hour’s walk from the center of town. Long walls, strong wooden building. Apparently, an old woodsman used to live there, but he died a few years ago. Master Takashi, Master Seiji, the farmers say there are rifles hidden in the lodge. Master Toshiro wants to go get the rifles. Do you think the rifles will fend off the mouja?”

Takashi and Seiji ordered two farmers to take their posts and followed Isao to the town square. On the way, they passed the fields where old men and women not fit for sentry duty were up to their elbows in murky water. They harvested the rice impassively. These farmers were a simple people, simple and simple-minded. They had no music, no art, no higher purpose. All they cared for was the harvest, and they would defend the harvest at any cost. Their only drive was to feed their families.

Daisuke, Toshiro, and the mayor were waiting for the other samurai by the old well in the center of town. The situation was as Isao had described. Toshiro was shouting at the mayor, furious that he had not told the samurai about the rifles.

But of course the farmers had kept it secret. In tough times, samurai could be just as greedy as the mouja, consume just as much. Ronin were known to burn villages, rape daughters, steal property, and even kill men for no reason.

Daisuke was in favor of retrieving the rifles, but not so close to dark. Toshiro and Isao wanted to fetch them right away—Toshiro for the adventure, Isao out of fear. The young one did not think they would last the night without stronger arms.

Takashi agreed with Daisuke. At least three samurai would have to go to the hunter’s lodge, and leaving the village’s defenses so thin at night would be suicide.

Toshiro slapped the ground with both hands. “Don’t you see? You fool! With those rifles, we could fight them from a safe distance. We lost Minoru because he was forced to get close to the mouja and draw his sword. Rifles can be fired from a safer distance than bows. We must retrieve these weapons now. The boy is right. The sun sinks quickly; the darkness calls those foul things like a hungry dog to supper. We need the guns.”

In the hope that Seiji could sort out this mess, Takashi turned to receive the skilled warrior’s advice, but when he looked, the samurai was gone. This argument was not his concern. Slaying the foul creatures and protecting the villagers were all that mattered to him. So Takashi was the deciding vote. He was the leader, after all. They would wait until morning, and at dawn’s first light, he, Daisuke, and Isao would set out for the hunter’s lodge to retrieve the guns.

***

Day turned to dusk, and the sun splattered the western ridge with fire. Takashi squinted at the horizon. The silhouettes of the monsters looked like scarecrows, jutting up from the crest of the hill overlooking the village.

“Master Takashi! Master Takashi!” Isao again. He ran up to Takashi, breathless. “It is Toshiro, master. He told me he was going off to the hunter’s lodge alone. He is going for the guns.”

Takashi felt his stomach tighten into a thick knot. They could not spare a man. Without assistance, Toshiro would be lost, and with him the village. Takashi ordered Isao to take his bow and join Daisuke at the barricade. He posted most of the townspeople at the river, where the water would slow the creatures enough for the farmers to pierce them with their spears.

Takashi then ran to Seiji’s post to tell him what had happened, and together, their swords glinting in the light of the setting sun, they made for the hunter’s lodge.

***

Regret crept into Takashi’s mind. To leave the village when so many mouja were on the move, when so few villagers were primed to defend…the desertion shamed him. His fear, unbecoming of a samurai, fogged his mind all the way through the woods.

On occasion, Seiji halted their progress and drew his sword just long enough to finish off the mouja that lay tangled in ferns along the path. “It is fortunate we have encountered so few on this journey,” Seiji said as he wiped his blade clean. “If our luck holds up, Toshiro may still be alive when we find him.”

As they walked, Takashi noticed groves of flowers lined the hillsides. The trees had white, pink, and yellow blossoms, each dripping gemstones of rain. The samurai’s thoughts wandered back to the village. Hopefully the farmers had picked up the patrols Seiji and he were missing. The farmers’ vigilance would be integral to their survival. If they kept the watch, they might just make it through the night. Apprehension coiled around Takashi’s throat like a serpent. He should have left Seiji in charge of the village’s defense, and taken Daisuke with him to the lodge.

But the truth was Takashi feared what hid in the ever-darkening woodland. His concern for his own life and the knowledge that Seiji was at his side kept him feeling safe, so he chanced to leave the village with weakened defenses and tried to stay optimistic. Perhaps they would retrieve Toshiro and the rifles, return safely, and defend the village with great success. His gamble still might pay off.

***

They stepped through a small grove of trees and saw the hunter’s lodge in the distance. The building was the same width as the farmers’ cottages, but three times as long, about the size of a small barn. Seiji stepped cautiously toward the building.

“I smell blood,” Takashi said, but Seiji ignored the warning and entered the lodge. Takashi sniffed the air, scanning the trees.

Inside, the floor was sprinkled with dry hay. Tanned animal skins hung from the walls. A dusty bedroll took up one corner of the room. A hunched figure, bathed in shadow, crept around the far side of the lodge. A large clay pot smashed to the floor as the figure tore open a storage crate. He pulled out a long stiff bundle wrapped in blankets and began to unravel it.

“Toshiro?” Takashi called out.

The rugged samurai turned to face them. The barrels of three muskets were visible in his arms. He grinned, his teeth flashing in the darkness, and laughed a monkey’s laugh. “You see this?” He spat on the floor. “With these we can take out those filthy mouja for sure. And you were going to let them just sit here and collect dust. Ha!”

Takashi was about to reprimand the stubborn fool when Seiji said, “We must go at once.” He made for the door.

The instant Seiji opened the door he slammed it shut again. He took a pitchfork from a rack of tools on the wall and slid it through the door handles, barring the entrance. “They are upon us,” Seiji said. “At least twenty. Load those muskets. We must fight!”

A cacophony sounded outside the lodge. Rotting fists banged on the walls, the windows, the door, even the ceiling. Takashi could hear unbearable suffering in their groans. The creatures were starving.

The samurai each grabbed a rifle. Seiji swiped Toshiro’s weapon away from him. “We do not have the time or ammunition to teach you how to aim.” Carrying a gun in each hand, Seiji ran to the window and fired the first rifle, then took the other and slew a second mouja.

Takashi aimed out the window on the opposite side of the lodge and fired into the crowd assembled there. The lead ball struck one of the mouja in the throat. The creature gurgled and kept moving forward. Takashi gritted his teeth and stabbed the wounded mouja in the head, using the barrel of the musket as a spear. It collapsed outside the window, dropping from view.

Seiji tossed the two muskets to Toshiro. “Reload,” he demanded, drawing his sword. A flash of glinting steel left three of the dead in pieces outside Seiji’s window.

Takashi released his second round, incapacitating another mouja so only an infinite number remained. Behind him, he heard Toshiro fumble with the ramrod, trying to pack the gunpowder into place. As soon as he finished, Seiji snatched the muskets, then aimed them out the window and fired off two quick shots.

“I would also like to fight. I am not your student!” Toshiro barked as Takashi hurried to the center of the room to load another round.

Seiji grabbed Takashi’s rifle and threw it to the ground. He kicked the muskets from Toshiro’s hands, sending them skittering across the floor. “Forget it,” Seiji said. “It is no use. Takashi, Toshiro, draw your swords for the last time. Better we go down fighting with steel in our hands.”

But the despair of Seiji’s words only seemed to energize their blades. Takashi rushed to the window and began to jab and thrust, piercing the brains of any mouja close enough to strike. Toshiro and Seiji matched Takashi’s tactic. They struck down dozens in this way, and the bodies piled up in front of the windows, obstructing the approach of the others.

“Ha ha!” Toshiro whooped. “We’re making our own barricade of flesh. Perverse, but effective!”

Time moved fast in the thick of battle. Bodies accumulated in three mounds outside the windows of the lodge. Before long, the windows were covered completely.

With the windows blocked, the chamber darkened and the foul noises dampened, but the smell…the smell penetrated them. It saturated their clothes and skin, even their topknots. The samurai retched at the overwhelming reek of death. Even Seiji was not immune.

Takashi covered his nose. “Perhaps the smell will fool them into moving on. If we wait, they might pass by, leaving us behind, so we may escape.”

Toshiro appeared hopeful, but Seiji gave them a skeptical look. “I am sorry, my friends. But the only way we are leaving here is mindless and hungry.”

A noise broke the silence, louder than before, but it was something different, not the groaning of the creatures. Takashi looked up and wiped his blade. It was coming from the ceiling. The wooden-slatted roof creaked and shifted under the weight of something.

“Is that the wind?” Toshiro asked.

“No,” Seiji said. “Them.”

The roof collapsed in a hail of splinters and bodies. The samurai screamed, squinting against the flurry, and flailed their weapons. They hacked at the waterfall of ghouls that rained down on them from above. Black blood spattered the walls—the hunting lodge became a butcher shop.

As the bodies continued to fall to the floor, quick strikes from the samurai’s blades destroyed them. Takashi leaped into the air, attacking the mouja before they could drop down into the lodge. He stabbed the head of one of them, and the body brought his weapon to the floor as it dropped. As he struggled to remove his sword from the skull of one of the fallen, he chanced a look up, and saw a mouja dangling above him, about to fall. Seiji cried out Takashi’s name and pushed his comrade out of the way. He grappled with the mouja as it fell upon him.

Toshiro hurried to the rescue. He stood over them, following the mouja’s head with the tip of his blade. The thing was a young man, no older than nineteen. Toshiro pushed his blade straight through the young man’s ear…but it wasn’t really a young man anymore. It was a dead thing.

Seiji sat up, clutching his bloody hands. The creature had bitten off the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. He glanced at Takashi expectantly. Toshiro backed away, waiting for Takashi to make a move.

Takashi had always viewed Seiji with a certain invincibility, and seeing him in that state, unable to shoot, barely able to wield a katana, it set Takashi’s heart on the edge of a blade.

Seiji howled. His body snapped rigid and flailed about on the floor. His muscles hardened, his skin turned to the color of the ocean depths, and his eyes clouded like dirty cubes of ice. He emitted one last sound, a sound like steel against a rough stone. Beneath the grating noise, Takashi discerned a single word—kaishakunin.

Seiji retained none of his masterful dexterity in the afterlife. His stiff legs fought to propel him forward, limping and forcing every jerky step. His arms dangled. His fingers could not flex. His sword forgotten, Seiji’s mouth and shredded fingers dripped dark blood as they reached for Takashi.

Was Seiji’s final word a request? Kaishakunin. When a samurai committed seppuku, the kaishakunin served as the principal’s second; once the samurai had disemboweled himself, the kaishakunin decapitated the principal to alleviate the immense pain. It was a difficult job, physically and emotionally. Was this what Seiji asked of Takashi? It sickened him to think of destroying a great warrior such as this. To kill a friend.

Seiji lunged at Takashi with a growl. Takashi’s blade flashed.

For all of Seiji’s proficiencies, his neck was no thicker than any other man’s. His head rolled into a dark corner of the room.

The silence that followed unnerved the remaining samurai. Takashi opened the door and inspected the area surrounding the lodge. There were bodies all around, but the rest of the mouja appeared to have vanished.

Toshiro wrapped the muskets in the belt and blanket the way he had found them and strapped the parcel over his shoulder. “They may still be useful,” Toshiro said as he joined Takashi outside the lodge, “from a distance.”

Takashi was too stunned to lead the way, so Toshiro guided him back to the village. The forest was dark. Without a torch, Takashi had no idea where they were going. He was amazed that Toshiro was able to find the right direction, weaving between trees, dodging exposed roots, and not once did they come across what they both feared—more of the mouja. Takashi’s thoughts were of Seiji, the elegant work of art that he had been forced to destroy. No. That he had chosen to destroy. There must have been a way Takashi could have saved Seiji, or at least preserved him in his undead state long enough to find a cure for this illness. The wound was superficial. With skill such as his, a few short digits would not have slowed Seiji for long.

A pain twisted in Takashi’s stomach again, a dull rotting pain, tying his guts into knots. It was tragic, really, what happened to Seiji. “Is there no honor left in this world?” Takashi shouted over the noise. There was a grumbling roar in the distance, growing louder. “A man such as Seiji deserved better. I should not have cut him down, Toshiro. I have dishonored myself. I must face consequences for that.”

But no, Takashi thought. Seppuku was not the way. He had a mission. He had sworn an oath. It was his duty to protect these helpless farmers.

Toshiro was not listening. They had reached the ridge overlooking the town. Down in the pit, the town served one final purpose. It would act as a signal fire to warn neighboring villages that the swarm was on its way. The houses were all aflame, the air was polluted with acrid black smoke, and countless mouja prowled the streets. Takashi couldn’t see any people. They must have been in the streets, among the mouja, driven only to feed on their families. Isao and Daisuke were nowhere to be found.

Looking down at the village, Takashi’s heart sank. He fell to his knees and drew his tantō. Slowly and carefully, Takashi untied the sash of his kimono and pulled it open. He tucked the sleeves beneath his knees. He wanted to be sure to fall forward. “I swore to protect these people, Toshiro, and I have failed. This is my fault.”

“This is no one’s fault,” Toshiro said.

“It was my decision to leave the village, and this is the result. Toshiro, you will have to be my kaishakunin. Once I make the cut, be very quick and careful. I do not want to return as one of those things. When I am gone, hurry to the next village. You are fast in the dark. Perhaps you can warn them before those creatures arrive.”

Toshiro sneered. He grabbed Takashi by the collar. “No. I will not allow you to do this. Better we go down fighting with steel in our hands. Besides, two samurai with katanas are more powerful than the tallest tsunami. We will take many of them with us. We may even find survivors.

Takashi’s eyes met Toshiro’s intense gaze. Where Seiji had skill, Toshiro had spirit. Takashi held out his hand; Toshiro grasped his arm and pulled him to his feet. They drew their swords, walking with deliberate steps down the ridge. Their  eyes glowed with fire. They navigated around the fallen bodies, cutting down mouja whenever one came near. Takashi whispered, “These poor farmers. They never stood a chance.”

Toshiro spat. “It is their lot to suffer.”

At the center of town, a crowd of mouja had congregated. Their shadows danced on the sandy ground like demons in the firelight. One thousand cloudy eyes found the samurai at once. The mouja charged. Takashi and Toshiro swung hard.

Blood and fire glinted on their blades.

© 2010 Matt London