The Lorelei Signal
Written by Diana Fedorak / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
Moriko winced as the salve burned her neck wound. Nearby, the dwarf woman scooped out more balm from the jar.
“It stinks worse than my horse’s droppings,” Moriko said. She clutched the curve of a sheathed katana across her lap. Protective trappings weighed down her torso. Underneath, she wore a cotton kimono, soaked in perspiration.
“Aye, but it’ll prevent scarring.” Genalyn’s lips puffed into a bulb while she dabbed.
The old woman smelled of fermented cabbage and decay, the stink of excretions when the elderly avoided bathing for a few days. Moriko pinched her nose and focused on the saddlebag at her feet. Rivulets of blood leaked from the bag onto the floor planks.
Twin tusks from the demon poked at the fabric’s folds. She found the creature inside the temple, around the bodies of slain monks. Its yellow eyes radiated in the darkness before it charged, knocking her off-balance.
Genalyn stepped back and pushed away her mustard coils. The dwarf plucked out a spired hairpin and fussed with runaway frizz. A mother-of-pearl blossom adorned the top of the needle. She gestured at Moriko’s chest. “The wound extends below your collarbone.”
Hesitation tarried her limbs. Moriko never allowed anyone else to handle her katana. But the old woman had hidden her before. After handing over the weapon, she stood. She tugged at the leather straps cinched along her ribs.
Electricity spiked through her right shoulder as she hefted the do overhead. Its back edge caught underneath her braid. Droplets of grime trickled down her spine, and she heaved the covering off. Cool air rushed over her chest. She inhaled, lightweight again.
A scrape marred the do’s leather near its neck seam. She inspected her right arm where the creature’s claw had razed her. While not finished in design, the gear served its purpose. The fire-skinned fiend had grappled her between its powerful arms, it’s hideous human-like face filled with rage. She had only escaped by jabbing a finger into its third eye.
She paused to examine the do. Her fingertips trailed over the etched wings of the choho on the do’s iron centerpiece, covering the heart. She had carved the symbol herself, a fragment of her mother.
Slowing her heartbeat, Moriko traveled back. Outside in the mottled sunlight, she watched herself as a little girl. No more than six-years-old, she hovered by Mama’s outstretched hand. A choho twirled down, landing on Mama’s index finger. The insect’s profile changed as it breathed; a paper-thin sail opened, revealing tiger-colored wings. Cream speckles covered its charcoal body and kissed its wings’ perimeter.
Mama whispered, bringing the choho closer. “You too, can travel place to place, and drift like the choho.”
Gasping, she returned to the cottage. No need to linger in childhood, only to smell the burning rice paper panels. Or to feel the scorching heat of flames licking their maple eaves. She would never forget how she had pressed flat against the twisted cypress shrubs and glimpsed the men who led Mama away. She decided shortly thereafter, she would learn to fight.
She untied the haidate from her waist. The iron patches of the apron clinked. She placed it next to a kabuto headpiece. Fashioned out of hardened rawhide, the pinecone-shaped top completed her ensemble. A silk ribbon secured the kabuto around the neck in battle. Most ignored her as she rode by because of it, mistaking her for a foot soldier. While she could not afford all six components of roku gu, the pieces she wore protected her torso. An acceptable risk of exposed limbs, trading off for mobility and speed.
Back on the stool, she motioned for the old woman to continue. Genalyn folded back Moriko’s kimono and rubbed in more ointment. The fumes tickled Moriko’s nostrils, a scent of stale soybeans, grease, and mint. The dwarf finished and gathered up potions from the table, glass bottles tinkling.
Tied up outside, Moriko’s horse whinnied. A glow emanated from her do’s choho, an alert. The faraway thud of hooves gathered, drumming louder as they approached.
“Men are coming.” She stood and unsheathed her katana.
Genalyn flitted about, stowing porcelain trinkets away. Moriko knew men on horses wouldn’t pursue such baubles. They’d seek more cruel pleasures.
Her longbow rested on the floor next to the saddlebag, but such an instrument remained ill-suited for close quarters. “Have you no weapons?” she asked the dwarf.
But Genalyn only held out her arms wide, displaying empty palms.
Pointing her katana at Genalyn’s head, Moriko charged thunder into her voice. “Give me your hairpin. Now!”
The old woman complied. Moriko balanced the weight of the pin between her thumb and forefinger before slipping it into her kimono’s folds. The door erupted, spewing forth a small war party.
Four samurai strode inside, all covered by elaborate roku gu. She maintained her fighting stance, angling toward them in only her robe and undergarments. Genalyn huddled behind a heavy cabinet.
At the front of the group, a tower of a man sneered. “Drop your weapon!”
Tightening her grip around its hilt, Moriko kept the katana’s steel blade by her shoulder. She glared ice as she spoke. “This dwarf has bothered no one, and you have no business here. Take my warning and leave now, or join your ancestors in the afterlife. And when they ask you how you arrived, you shall tell them it was by a woman named Moriko Minyashisan.”
The giant warrior cursed and raised his katana. From behind, another warrior clasped his shoulder and stepped forward. While only Moriko’s height, his iron do bore the serpentine body of a tatsu, flames dancing around its mouth. His domed iron kabuto carried curved golden horns. A general of the Taira clan. Albeit an obscured face behind a bronzed menpo decorated with a horsetail mustache.
“I know who you are, girl.” The general’s gaze flitted to her saddlebag. “Tell us how you defeated the beast, and give us its head. Then you and the dwarf may live.” His voice deepened. “Don’t be absurd! If you insist on fighting, my men will show you no mercy!”
Not only did the general possess the main six pieces of roku gu, but stood in twenty-three pieces of regal lamellar armor befitting his status. Sapphire silk threads woven tight around the metal plates gleamed while he strutted. Crimson accents hemmed the hadiate that fell below his thighs. Over his shins and forearms, hand-painted golden leaves glimmered on coal lacquered cuffs.
She would never gain recognition as a warrior by relenting to such demands. “I will bring the creature’s head to the emperor myself, and collect the reward.”
“Fool! You’ll die a cursed spirit, just like your mother before you!” The general motioned to his men, and they fanned out in an arc.
His words pierced Moriko like a spear, and she swallowed back an ache in her throat. She adjusted her stance in his direction, easing her heartbeat.
Fluttering like the choho, she traveled back to the previous day. She watched the general, half-dressed, fling hot tea at a servant who dropped a piece of his roku gu on the floor. In battle, he screamed war cries from his stallion while the giant slayed the toughest. Slight of build, the general only dismounted for hand-to-hand combat with the wounded.
Moriko sucked in her breath, and the cottage reappeared. “Tell me, General Ozawa of the Taira clean, will your men slay me, a girl in cotton garments, while you hide behind your mask and silk-covered armor?”
He harrumphed and waved at the other three. Big warrior balked, but the general cut him off. His men fell back.
General Ozawa pulled off his menpo, revealing a lined face. He removed his kabuto to expose a hooked crane neck. Though his frame matched her size, Morkio knew his ego told him otherwise.
“Now you’ll see my face as the one who struck you down.” Ozawa’s flint-filled eyes drilled into her.
He pranced forward holding up his katana. When he lunged, Moriko hopped back, stilling her heartbeat, slowing all motion in the room. She leapt high, whirling about. “Hii-yaa!”
Ozawa’s head flew through the air.
Her toes touched the floorboards. Giant warrior rushed forward. Holding her breath, she delayed his motion and reached for Genalyn’s hairpiece. A sharp throw, and he fell. The mother-of-pearl edge stuck out of his eye.
One of the other men raced forward before she could slow again. He thrust his katana, and she dropped to the floor, shrinking back from the near miss.
Screaming, he slashed down.
His cold blade tore through her kimono, its whoosh chilling her skin. Footsteps of the remaining soldier thudded over. Her body hit the legs of the table, and she rolled underneath. The men circled around, bracketing her. The front of her kimono fell open while she crouched, and she shivered. No, she would not die cowering. A warrior must fight. She eased her heartbeat, stalling her surroundings. She spun out from under the table.
Her steel found its mark, slicing their Achilles’ tendon. Both men crumpled, howling.
Panting, she rose. The men lay withering. One of them tried to crawl away.
She executed them the traditional way, chopping off their heads. After the blood-splattered phase, she surveyed her handiwork. At the resumption of quiet, the dwarf peeked out from behind the cabinet. Moriko grabbed a rag and wiped their lives from her blade. “Help me, Genalyn.” She stood over the general.
Later that evening, Genalyn tied the luxurious tassels of Moriko’s new do around her back. She twirled in front of the old woman who admired her outfit. Twenty-three pieces of feather-light armor provided such exquisite protection. She rubbed the choho from her old do. It scintillated, allowing her to transfer it to the new do’s iron. The tastu engraving transformed into a choho.
Moriko handed the general’s menpo to Genalyn, for she did not want it. She slipped the resplendent kabuto on her head and grinned. Now that she finally possessed proper roku gu for battle, the world would know her as a real onna bugeshia.
Diana Fedorak is a speculative fiction writer from Las Vegas, Nevada. Born in Saigon, South Vietnam, she grew up in an aviation family who frequently traveled overseas. She is often captivated with modernity, technology, and the fantastic, turning her musings into science fiction and fantasy stories. She has earned a fiction writing graduate certificate through UCLA Extension, and is a regular host of the Sin City Writer's Group. Her short story, Jinxed, was published over at StoryPony.com, and she is working on her first novel.
When she’s not writing, she spends time in her own universe with her husband, two children, and their German Shepard.