Prologue: Under a Full Moon
March 14, 1984
Somewhere in Fukushima Prefecture
A brilliant full moon hung in the black-blue sky and a massive entourage of stars accompanied it. The celestial audience stared down on the mortal earth below, as they have always done since forever. But this sky was not the interest of a group of four, young intrepid explorers. Their focus was instead on searching for a path to a place only heard of in legend and school hall rumor: Watanabe Shrine, better known amongst the eager minded young as the "Shrine of Death". And residing in that shrine, according to legend, was a spirit called the "Skinless Man".
Legends state that on May 21, 1855, a warlord, wanting the land that the shrine was located on, attacked it while a festival was in full swing and massacred all those that were gathered. The "Skinless Man" was supposedly one of the victims. However one cannot always find a grain of truth to these rumors but nonetheless, it was still interesting and it made a boring lunch hour more fun when it was told to a bunch of gullible high school students as they ate their bento lunches with wide eyes and soba noodles dangling out of their mouths like the tail of a !Onagadori rooster. In fact, the four that was assembled in the vast forest below the stars were a motely crew of teenagers; two girls, two boys, ages fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen.
These explorers however were as green as the budding leaves on the trees.
"Ow! Goddamnit!" shouted one of the youths. The young man shone his flashlight on his right leg to find that a thorned branch had pierced through his denim jeans. Working his fingers over the prickly thing, he managed to pinch a spot that had no thorns and he tore it off and threw it into the bushes. The thorns had left scratches and punctures that bled softly.
"Are you alright Tetsuo?" the voice of one of the girls asked in a concerned tone. The young man replied:
"I'm fine Ayumi. I just walked into a damn briar bush." As he was brushing his wound with a gloved hand, another light was shone upon him.
"You seriously walked into a thorn bush? Did you slip into it? Because if you did, don't blame me for your choice of footwear for this expedition."
The other young man was right, Tetsuo Mori was not dressed for a moonlit walk in the forest. He was dressed in the latest Japanese punk fashion, which consisted of leather, chains, metal studs and spikes and gelled spiked hair with a dyed crimson streak that hung in his face. His boots were a conglomeration of this, their most prominent feature were the leather patches decorated with metal studs on the heels, and they clumped on the hard earth like a giant's footsteps.
"Shut up Daiki!" he hissed at his friend who in turn shrugged and turned back onto the forested path with his flashlight and map. A girl walked by his side holding a compass and was gazing at the map with him.
"If we continue this way, we will surely reach the shrine," she said confidently. Tetsuo merely moaned with annoyance. His girlfriend, Ayumi Oshiro merely rolled her eyes towards her boyfriend's immaturity and she walked up to her sister Rina, resulting in a scowl from a displeased Tetsuo. After approximately five minutes of walking, the group stumbled upon a moss ridden stone path. Excited, the four began hurrying up the road eventually coming across a flight of equally grown steps that led up to their prime destination, the gates of Watanabe Shrine.
The group, both excited and hesitant at the same time, began their march up the moss and leaf covered steps. They moved their flashlights about to get a better look of the massive gate. The stunning woodwork still retained its hand carved beauty albeit it being weather worn and the tengu masks that hung on the bottom tier for protection were paint chipped and worn as well. Tetsuo and Daiki opened the elegant wood and iron doors onto the moon washed entrance courtyard of the shrine. The courtyard was massive.
Enclosed by walls that seemed to go on forever, the enclosure contained a simple stone path that led up to the main entrance hall of the shrine, the path itself had rows of stone lanterns on each side, raked gravel ground that was studded with dead cherry trees that made the place look an eerie forest of stone and dead wood. Swallowing their courage, the group pressed on down the stone path.
"Hey sis." Rina asked quietly to Ayumi.
"Why are some of these lanterns lit? Do you think someone was here before or…"
Now that she mentioned it, Ayumi noticed that some of the lanterns had tiny flickering flames that dimly lit the path. It was eerie. Who had lit them?
"You girls getting scared?" Daiki asked in a teasing voice.
"Course they are, they're girls. Girls are easy to scare." Tetsuo interjected with his logic.
"So says the guy who screamed when he saw a mouse in his attic the other day…" Ayumi said. The group chuckled as Tetsuo deservingly blushed. They reached the doors of the shrine, which had two paper lanterns on each side that were also lit, casting an ethereal glow upon the entrance. Daiki opened the doors and the group walked over the threshold. Upon walking into the foyer, the noses of the four were assaulted with the smells of decrepitude.
Must, moisture and vegetation perfumed their noses as they entered the ancient hall. Cobwebs and dust made their homes on the support beams, grimy paper windows that allowed a little moonlight to pass through, and a massive line of shoe cabinets that lined the raised floor. The ground floor was littered with mouse eaten or moldy geta (sandals). The light of the flashlights pierced the dimly lit darkness as the group moved forward. They soon reached a hall whose walls were composed of rice paper sliding doors that obviously led to dormitories for religious pilgrims to stay in.
"Why don't we split up?" Tetsuo said. The others looked at him bewilderingly.
"Why?" Ayumi asked.
"Because that way we can cover more ground." Tetsuo said in a matter-of-fact tone. He gestured to Daiki to come with him and he did, leaving the girls alone together as they left. Ayumi had a hunch that there was more to this split. The boys were probably going to try and scare them when the opportunity was given.
Brushing it off, they opened a paper sliding door to find to their surprise that moldy futons were still on the tatami floor. The blankets were tossed about haphazardly as if they had been flung off in a hurry, personal articles like clothes and books lay about on the floor. One book in particular caught Ayumi's attention. It was lying by an overturned paper lantern. Ayumi got on one knee to pick it up to look at it.
The book was very old; its pages were caked in a course patina of dust and mold from dampness was forming in the spine, but the charcoal ink characters were still legible and bold despite their age. Ayumi read it aloud:
"It was a pretty day today. The festival is almost here. The priests just have to perform one more ceremony that they say will grant this region peace and prosperity for thirteen years. I wander what kind of ceremony this is? They never talk about it with the other pilgrims here."
"Ceremony?" Rina asked. Ayumi shrugged.
"I don't know. Must have been very important though. Sadly it didn't appear to give them any peace…"
The sisters both thought of the story of how the warlord massacred all of the people. Rina spoke after a thought came to her mind.
"But sis, this person doesn't mention a daimyo or even a samurai anywhere. Don't you think that a heated argument about land would certainly be well known to the pilgrims that were staying here?"
Ayumi considered her younger sister's question.
"I don't know, maybe the priests didn't want to worry the people."
Ayumi put the book back down.
"Maybe this is the "Skinless Man's" dairy." Rina said with a giggle and was rewarded with a playful fist to the stomach. As the two giggled, Tetsuo and Daiki wandered about the old halls. The once immaculate white walls were now stained and filthy and the floors were covered in so much dust, that the boys were sure that they were leaving footprints.
"So Daiki, listen, we've got to get these girls scared tonight. Did you bring your camera?"
Daiki reached into a pouch he had on his left hip and procured a camera. He wasn't exactly too thrilled about where this was going.
"Do we have to man? I don't want to scare Rina. She's the first girlfriend that I am actually serious about."
"She will be fine. It's Ayumi that I'm worried about. She's a little harder to scare."
A loud clank caused both boys to jump and they both relaxed when they found it was just a piece of wood. The ceiling must be coming apart. Laughing off their scare the boys continued onwards. As they continued, Daiki noticed that some of the walls had these strange black stains on them that resembled scorch marks. As they wandered, Daiki saw that parts of the floor and even the ceiling had those same markings, what were they? Daiki couldn't see any place of origin for a fire anywhere.
"Daiki…" a low voice resonated through the quiet halls. Daiki froze.
"Daiki Ishikawa!" Tetsuo's hands descended on the young man's face causing him to scream. He frantically shook off his friend who laughed hysterically at his fear. Daiki got angry.
"Tetsuo, you are such an asshole!"
Tetsuo could barely speak he was laughing so hard. Angry and embarrassed, Daiki marched off from his cackling friend. He must have been so absorbed with the markings on the walls that Tetsuo let Daiki go on ahead of him so he could sneak up on him. After regaining his composure, Tetsuo ran up to his friend, his boots clomping all way.
"Hey Daiki-san, I'm sorry. You were spacing off and all and I was just wanted to test my skills before I-" Tetsuo suddenly stopped talking. Daiki became annoyed.
"Nice try buddy. The first time may have worked but the second one sure as hell won't—"
His words stopped as he turned to see his friend, pale, mouth hung agape and his eyes wide. Daiki had never seen Tetsuo like this. He could tell by this demeanor that Tetsuo wasn't playing around this time. The young man pointed a trembling finger into a dimly lit hallway. Daiki followed it and squinted into the dark only to find himself freezing into place too.
Through the darkness and moonlight, the two could make out the faint figure of a person. It was far away but the boys could see the shapes of the snow-white hands and face of the figure and even though they couldn't see the eyes, they could tell it was looking right at them.
"Daiki… take a picture…" Tetsuo whispered fearfully.
"What?" Daiki asked tentatively.
"I said take a picture… Now, before it goes away!" Tetsuo hissed loudly. Daiki frantically did as ordered. The figure began to turn slowly away from the two and just as Daiki took a picture, the figure vanished. The photo came out and the boys immediately looked at it. Right there on the photo was the figure and on closer examination, they could make out that it was wearing a kimono and it appeared to have a feminine shaped body.
The boys stared wide-eyed at it; unable to comprehend on what they had just seen. They had just seen a ghost, a real ghost! Looking straight at each other with frightened eyes the two high tailed it. Just as they got to the door they went through earlier, the boys found it to be locked.
"What the hell!" Daiki cried
"What's going on?"
"The doors locked! I can't get it open!" Daiki was frantically pulling on the slot to try and move the wooden sliding door but it wouldn't budge an inch and it just rattled in its frame. Just then the two heard a low giggle coming from behind the door.
"Did you hear that?" Daiki said.
Tetsuo suddenly kicked the door hard with his boot.
"Goddamnit! Ayumi! Rina! You better not be behind this door when we open it and I mean it! This isn't funny!"
His words only seemed to goad even more giggles from the door and he kicked it even harder again. But Ayumi and Rina were not behind the door. They were in the other pilgrim dormitory, looking around a lovely garden courtyard with a willow tree in the center. They didn't hear the shouting. They were blissfully unaware of the events that were unfolding.
Tetsuo and Daiki struggled with the mysteriously locked door.
"Do you need help mister?" the voice of a young girl filled the ears of both boys. But before they could get over their confusion, a small and very pale hand reached through the door and grabbed the hands of the boys. Its touch was ice cold. The young men shrieked in horror just as the child's giggling got louder.
"Here you go!" the voice said cheerfully as its hand unlocked the door. The boys couldn't have gotten out fast enough and they nearly took the door off its hinges the way they ran. As they sprinted, a wall of black flames suddenly materialized out of thin air. This time Ayumi and Rina heard the screaming and they came running towards the direction it came from, only to find an empty, moonlit hallway bereft of the owners of those terrified screams.
The two women clung to each other closely. The air felt heavy and oppressive.
"Tetsuo! Daiki!" Ayumi called out nervously. No response. Where had they gone? The two women moved together simultaneously with caution.
What the hell was going on? How could two screaming young men just vanish like that without a trace?
"You two better not be playing us or you're both gonna be sorry!" Ayumi yelled. As they made their way down the hallway slowly, their ears sharp and ready for any noises that might come from the boys. To the left of the girls was a wooden door but upon trying to open it, it wouldn't budge, it appeared to be locked. After some more walking they came across the door that the men had been struggling with earlier but found that it wouldn't open either and on top of that, just reaching for the slot was impossible because of an icy cold aura that seemed to permeate the thing.
Just then the women heard a loud creaking noise. Frozen with fear, and with the hairs on the back of their neck standing straight, Ayumi and Rina at first did nothing but stare wide eyed at the sound. It sounded like it came from down the hall. Turning back to where they came, the sisters found the door that they couldn't enter earlier was now wide open. Perplexed and disturbed by this occurrence, the two nonetheless ventured in.
It was a dining hall, long rows of lacquered tables with cups and serving dishes that seemed to have been spared from ruin, and green zabuton (seat cushions) were all assembled on the tatami matting. However the rice paper doors at the front of the room were in tatters. Years of rain and heavy winds had damaged them beyond repair, the paper squares were moldy, pockmarked with holes and gashes and the wooden patchwork frame was somewhat lifted off its sliding track and was bent and broken in a few places. In fact the tatami and tables near the damaged shoji were in a bad state of disrepair with mold and wood rot. The place was eerily quiet.
As the two made their way, they were sure that they heard a teacup or two rattling softly and they weren't sure if it was either their tender footfalls that were causing the ruckus or, something sinister. They went through the narrow kitchen and through another dining hall that was probably for the priests and priestess's. Just as they entered it:
"AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH! OH MY GOD HELP ME!"
The girls jumped and they recognized that scream. It was Tetsuo's. It sounded like it came from some distant part of the shrine. What the hell was happening to him? Just then they heard what sounded like wind blowing coming down the adjacent hall. Panicking yet knowing better, the girls hid in a storage closet nearby.
Crouching down by neatly stacked zabuton and tables, the girls shivered and panted quietly. Through a tiny crack in the door, they could see another door opening all by itself and finally a great shadowy figure passed through. From what little they could glean from the crack, it looked like some kind of black fire. As they leaned closer to look, Rina's knees pressed hard on the wooden boards, causing them to creak rather loudly.
They both froze.
Then what happened next…
Rina soon found herself screaming and running down the halls as fast as she could. The whole area was engulfed in black flames, the air was monochrome, and the sounds of roaring and screaming filled the once still air. It was as if Hell itself had materialized in this shrine. She kept running, even as she heard the screams of her friends and sister echo in her ears, stinging the sensitive drums like knives and causing tears to stream down her face. But she didn't dare look back.
She knew what was behind her.
He was chasing her. The spirit of that place…
The "Skinless Man"…
The next morning, a farmer and his son were driving their truck when they found Rina by the side of the road. She was curled into a ball, her eyes wide-open and red, mouth open in shock and her hair white as snow. When he tried to touch her to see if she was alive, she screamed and fought him.
"Please! Please don't! Ayumi!" she sobbed.
The farmer, terrified, stood up and backed away from her. He looked towards the direction of shrine.