Cult of Onmyō

As the last of the huts receded behind him, Shindara realized they were approaching the shores of the Inland Sea. At first glance, it would have appeared as vast as the ocean itself. Shindara knew it was anything but a fanciful notion at its core. The Inland Sea was, in fact, a prominent lake that stretched from Heian-kyō to its northernmost point in Omi Province.

It could fit the entirety of the capital in its depths and still have room to spare. As Shindara crunched through the grass, he spotted flames dancing across the surface of the Inland Sea. The lulling murmur of chants emanated from the shore, swelling into a crescendo of nerves and excitement. As Shindara crept closer, he spotted hundreds of men and women gathered by the water’s edge. Each of them was bearing a torch and lifting their voice in song.

Shindara’s heart leaped. What he heard was anything but sinister. The chants on the peasants’ lips were songs of protection and good fortune. He could practically feel their hopes washing over him as he listened to their invocations.

However, one of the figures caught his attention more than most. A robed man was standing on a shore with his arms outstretched toward the lake. He was surrounded by several ornate braziers that reminded Shindara of a nearby temple. Perhaps more mysterious was the length of rope laid out in a circle around him. It was clearly being used to mark a ritual space.

At first glance, it appeared that a multitude of figures were standing still around Goro. Shindara blinked and realized they were human-shaped dolls--forty-nine of them to be precise. He recognized these as the tools of an exorcism ritual, specifically, a practice called karinpō. These purification rites were often used to cast demons out of the city.

The effigies were made of straw to absorb demonic energy, curses, and spiritual impurities. Shindara couldn’t remember how the effigies were disposed of, but he imagined he would find out very soon. Sae couldn’t have looked more pleased with himself when he saw the awe on Shindara’s face.

“Allow me to introduce you to the finest mage in all of Heian-kyō… Master Goro.”

“Goro is your master?!” Mikoto yelled, turning sharply toward Sae.

“I thought I mentioned that.”

“No, you didn’t. Fortunately for us, he’s the man we’ve been looking for.”

“You were looking for him?” Panic lanced across Sae’s face. “Did the Bureau of Onmyō send you?!”

“The Bureau of what…?” Mikoto said incredulously. “We were sent by Lord Go-Shirakawa. He thinks Goro can help us stop the Night Parade.”

“Oh… Oh, well, that’s an entirely different matter. I’m sorry I doubted you, even for that split moment.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be a regular day in Heian-kyō if I wasn’t being accused of murder, spying, or treachery.”

In the distance, Goro raised his voice to recite a text that he spent several days memorizing. It was clear, even to the least arcane, that he didn’t miss a single word. His incantation flowed with a harmony that made it instantly pleasing to the ears, even if its meaning remained indiscernible.

Mikoto squinted as she watched Goro weave his hands in complex patterns. “What is onmyōdō magic?” she asked after a slight pause.

“It began as a collection of rituals to protect the Emperor and the capital city from demons, fire, and disease. It is governed by an elite group called the Bureau of Onmyō. Their duties included reading omens, casting divinations, and maintaining the holy calendar. My master takes a slightly different approach from many of his peers, however. When he splintered away from the Bureau of Onmyō, he expanded his craft to include Taoist spells, hypnosis, exorcisms, and Chinese medicine. Supposedly, if he elevates his mind to a mystical state, blades cannot pierce his skin and he can walk unscathed through fire.”

“Not to mention, he has a cunning ability to hide in plain sight,” Mikoto said. “How has he managed to avoid Lord Go-Shirakawa?”

“No one knows where Goro lives--not even me. When we have an appointment, his personal guards lead me blindfolded to his estate.”

“What reason does Goro have to be in hiding?”

“The Bureau of Onmyō,” Shindara surmised.

“He hasn’t gone into hiding so much as he’s chosen to devote himself fully to his studies… but yes, the Bureau views Goro as a rival. The Bureau was intended as a safeguard to monitor the activities of mages within the capital. Once, it outlined conduct that was deemed in service to the Emperor.”

“Once?” Mikoto asked.

The alchemist sighed with a touch of melancholy. “All things change with time, and the Bureau is no exception. Greed and politics tainted the heart of the organization. Mages began to take sides in the feuds of nobles. Instead of preventing harm, they offered lords the means to kill their rivals. The Bureau became obsessed with influence and wealth instead of matters of the state. Goro was so disgusted that he left to form his own discipline.”

“An honorable choice,” Shindara remarked.

“Some say honorable but I say practical. You must understand, Shindara, the Bureau is and always will be a hierarchy. Only men from the Kamo and Abe families are recognized as mages or onmyōji. Goro’s family situation is tenuous, to say the least. He was born into a family of Okinawan witches. Thus, he was never viewed as a legitimate mage.”

“Does the Bureau feel threatened by him?”

“They gleefully try to depict him as a fraud, but in private, they despise him for his power.”

Shindara wondered how one man could garner so much fear and resentment, especially from a cabal of mages. And yet, he understood how quickly the tide of public opinion could turn one man into a monster. Didn’t he make hordes of enemies as the Abhorrent? At his lowest point, he wouldn’t leave his manor in Namida because he suspected assassins around every corner. It was an existence that was always bound for paranoia and spiteful delusions, and it had been a hell of his own making.

“What will the Bureau’s mages do if they track him down?” he finally asked.

Sae bit his lip as he hesitated to divulge the horrors he was imagining.

“I don’t think any of us can comprehend the tortures they would put Goro through. They don’t tolerate… agitators.”

“Can you tell me more about these exorcisms he performs? Does he vanquish demons?”

“Not only can he banish yōkai, but he can also drive out disease. He’s been helpful in stemming the spread of the plague, both through his charity and his magical talents.”

Before he could continue in his praise of Goro, they were drawn to sudden activity on the beach. The mage was gesturing at his servants, who raced to collect the straw effigies. As quickly as the dolls were retrieved, they were placed in seven boats drifting along the shore. The servants pushed one of the vessels into the Inland Sea. The peasants immediately fell silent and watched with rapt anticipation.

A torch was thrown by one of the servants, and it landed deftly in a boat packed with effigies. The custom was repeated until seven boats were cutting a flaming swathe across the shining, black surface of the lake.

Mesmerized, Shindara and Mikoto watched the vessels glide into the night like omens of fire. The sight was as soothing as it was surreal. Shindara couldn’t help but wonder how long their journey would last. When they scattered as ash, they would also extinguish the curses absorbed by the effigies.

“Floating away the darkness,” Shindara said softly. If only the soul was as salvageable. His inner demons couldn’t be so easily dispelled, but the fires on the lake still offered him a glimpse of hope.