The fortress, over in the horizon and under the white vigil of a great celestial rock, stood boastful. It stood with braced armor formed square outside the walls, straightening polearms out into the reveal of moonlit plains that gleamed sharp shines along the blade’s edge. It stood with catapults menacing atop battlements that dotted the corners of the vast eggshell walls. It stood with horseback assailants ready to sail the windless air to their glory of ragnarok on the field with lancers and barbed clubs. It stood ready for the calamity of a force it imagined with its own strategies in mind. It stood ready. But, not for everything.
Cavalier General Verde sauntered back and forth before the closed maw of the fortress’ entrance. He raced his eyes up and down the cracks of the wooden gate’s colossal panels, occasionally shooting back to his steely men, and then back again without so much a grunt. His armor shivered as he moved. His blade, a typical longsword, swung indecisively from his belt. His greaves at times seemed to sink into the ground, the filth encrusted and glass-riddled ground.
About the entrance square, parting streets in every so direction, was greying confetti and the ashes of mourning fireworks. Floats had been abandoned in their jubilee path, misshapen and decrepit in their stance. One in particular, the hickory man atop a constantly running stream, was particularly interesting. The wood was splintered and the man, atop his cane, was leaning heavily as his right leg had shattered and the fountain where the water in the stream recycled had been clogged and so all around the float was a growing ocean consuming the square.
Arrows scattered amongst the debris. A few soldiers were stricken and they watched their blood leave them. The medic was also wounded, clutching desperately at his wounds and trying to patch them, but just couldn’t use all his cloth to heal himself. He dragged himself, clinging to the slippery floor with each pulling hand, to the other fallen soldiers. He would stop beside them, the breath blowing out of his lungs and the crimson fate dripped steadily from these billows. He would tear the cloth. He asked the man where the wound was. The response would be a whimpering seizure of the bacteria pool. The medic ripped the metal off the place. His hands bled now. His head burst internally. He continued. It exploded again. He took the end of the cloth. Again his head burst, but his mind drifted. He extended it over the wound. He breathed with straining gasps. He pulled the cloth around the appendage. Blood scraped itself out of his throat and splattered on the man. His eyes blurred. He tied the cloth. It was secure. He was done. He released the soldier from his helmet and caressed the back of his sticky head and told him it was done with, that he’d be fine. He looked on over to the next injured man, sprawling violently and howling like a soul drowning in fire. The medic rose to this occasion. And, as suddenly as inspiration hit him, so did his mortality and with a blinking turnover he collapsed forward, smashing into a dissemination of glass.
General Verde double-timed between the two points of the gate. In between his anticipation of the other side, he took a look back at the square. The medic was dead. He returned to the gate with a silent grunt. His pace slowed. He turned his head, concealed in a barbut helmet with the eyes covered in tinted glass. His expression was anyone’s guess, lest they could translate the cloud formation of his breath as it slithered out of his mouth in marching succession.
The straightened wall of standing steel stood at attention and straightened their backs, struck their eyes at their commander and silenced the air of their anxious thoughts.
“I feel the rats on us. We strike out of this gate, blades shimmering like the lightning of the heavens, at the first draw of our blood.”
A unison of huzzah! The clamber of unsheathing blades struck their measure like the double time of hi-hats. They marched to the gate, left by right on repeat in 2/2 measures as they lined in a column and the drawbridge opened in legato. They left the silence of the causeway and into the fantastic symphony of macabre. Each donned his role in the orchestra and they waited for the door to drop with a tempestuous bass.
Outside the walls, down the shapeless corridor of the dark drawbridge, was a regiment at the ready, pikes ready, and nerves tightened to the point of snapping. Verde’s regiment emerged in crescendo with chanting and stomping until the men ceased and put rest onto the staff. Verde, their conductor, trailed off to meet with the captain of the exterior guard, Cpt. Strodnak, a short and rather unimpressive specimen of authority. His face melded with his jaw and all of that barely seemed detached from his shoulders to begin, if only by the intrusion of his large pauldrons. Verde, however, was formidable in both height and countenance, striking the guard with the aquiline gaze of his misty eyes.
“How goes the watch?” Verde sneered down onto Strodnak, arms folded and eyes darting anywhere but the dullness of his comrade. He could be said to be on alert for the enemy, but the enemy would certainly not emerge from the sky above. “We’ve lost tw’ men,” his voice was the squealing of a rumbling toad, “in a foory of arrow fire. We can’t s’em to pinpoint ‘ere they are. W’ know they’re out ‘n th’ f’elds, but wheneve’ they strike they are n’here to be s’en!” Verde turned from the insignificant officer and marched towards the crest of the guard. He unfurled his arms and stood crucified, glaring onto the field.
“We know you are there! So don’t you dare play the coward, or we’ll come out there and hunt you down ourselves. You can’t hide from me! I am General Davide “Hawk” Verde of Alessia Castle, the Eye of the East!” He was met with the shimmer of moonlight waltzing across the empty plains, not even touched by wind.
“Damn. Raphael! Fetch me my bow!” From the T formation emerged a soldier with orange ornate armor, holding a wooden composite bow that had feathers on either side. “Excellent, my boy. Have you ever wandered why I am given the titles I have?” He struck an arrow on the right side of the string and brought it all back as close to his chest as possible. The soldier simply shook his head, stating the negative.
His armor was something to be admired. The entire metal would roll at its edges off the outline and into the atmosphere about him with the texture and color of furious magma, but in the breast was a swirling convection of gentle waves in a steel tide pool.
Verde had both eyes alert; the arrow was made to trill across the gentle spotlight with a dulcet allegro viciousness, slicing the light into fraying fabrics. It descended quietly at the end of its note on the slightest dot of light. A grunt was heard from the distance, across the great expanse, and Verde chuckled to himself. He slapped another arrow atop the same spot, and repeated the pluck of the string and the emission of the mortifying note. The clatter of a fallen shield was heard. He pulled once more. Another pizzicato note careened to its unfortunate audience. The thud of a nearby man. “They’re getting closer, but I still can’t see a damn one. Raphael, take my bow back to whence it came and instruct that toad of a man to join me up here.”
Raphael took the bow and hurried back into the formation. Once he was gone, Stronadk stumbled out to the front of the formation, mace in hand. “Just the toad I’m looking for. Stronadk, instruct your men to proceed forward or, at least, give me the command of them.” Stronadk gave Verde the incredulous look of a man requested a foul sexual deed. “I c’nnat d’ that f’r you, gen’ral. See, th’ men f’llowe m’ co’man ‘nd I,” he held that ‘I’ like it required the emphasis of his entire lung to epitomize, “’m they’re co’mannder ‘nd they f’llow me!”
“All men under the banner of Stronadk, you are best to take your weapons and take to my tail, for we will soar into the enemies and demolish them entirely with one fell swoop! We shan’t show them the slightest mercy.”
A unison of huzzah! The clamber of unsheathing blades struck their measure like the double time of hi-hats, all down the line a continuous swell of the soft metal swish. Stronadk’s guard returned their blade, a formal gesture, and proceeded forward with their pikes straightened and their pilar shields marching in step with the beat of the greaves. They braved the luminescent twilight, courage in numbers, and inched into the borderless expanse, for the rollicking edges lapped over the sight of the end, whether or not there was any. They entered the kinetic paralysis of war, a sensation all at once frozen absolutely and skittering like nuclear fission electrons. The smashing metal of greaves broke the serenity, but brought a back-minded monotony that was assimilated into the air.
With a signal, Verde deadened their advance. The rustle of armed rats caught his attention and dragged it to scattered corners of the field. “Where in the damn are they?” The rustling escalated and aggravated, fluxing in between every speck of pollen that has any smidgen of trapped moonlight in its descending ballet. Back and forth, his attention was quartered. That farthest tree could hide them. Or perhaps they’re behind the nearby hill. Could it possibly be that they sail above them? There is nowhere about them, in any spot directly in their view, being the entire field, that an adult army could catch Verde by surprise. He struck three of them! The helmets, the fallen bodies, the blade, the blood, the anything that affirms that he did indeed, with his hawk eyes, strike them down. They couldn’t have left. The rustling is getting louder. Are they actually rats they fight?
“Sir. To our right.” Verde heeded the voice and darted his eyes to the farthest of his periphery, barely spotting the shadowy force, twenty men to a row some columns down, encroaching on their right. “Right.” Verde grinned. “Widen our formation! My men, spill into the line, and we’ll widen ourselves into two lines.”
The men did as requested. A unison of huzzah!
“Let us move forward and demolish them in one fell swoop. Do not hesitate. Charge them. We have the advantage in numbers.” The two lines were vast indeed, the violent belt that strangled the plains. They proceeded onto the diminutive rectangle of soldiers, approaching as though in a rolling rollick. “When this battle ends, the capitol will again recognize the name of Davide “Hawk” Verde as a triumphant one.” This he whispered to himself and only for himself.
The men crashed past him and raged, their pikes splashing up and down in the momentum and their line breaking into crests and troughs. Then, at the penultimate moment, they tightened, crystallizing to a glacial wall, and their pikes crashed into the first three lines. Sailing away from the edge of the pikes weren’t sanguine regrets or hanging entrails, but the soft amorphous cotton of a cushion. The assailants reeled in their blades and examined their prey closer. They were decoys with heavy aluminum armor.
The sound of hatches alarmed their hearts and from their left and their front and their rear sang the pizzicato symphony of their destruction. “Men! Close formation! Close formation!” The vast line scrambled to wrap about itself, but at all points in the line, men staggered at the mercy of their frantic fiddler, pulling strings and launching sixteenth note arrows into hearts and minds and throats, leaving the fallen speechless and gurgling. Those unfazed still stumbled over the fallen and met the stray blades on their descent. Shields too heavy to maneuver were abandoned as the fearful darted to escape, heading back for the castle, but a gate of spears spurt from the ground and made mincemeat of them. “They’re below us! The fucking rats are below us!” Those that found themselves in any semblance of a tortoise formation charged their shields into the saltarello, deflecting spears and arrows alike. Occasionally, the well-timed surprise spear would penetrate the foot of the formation and take out one of the outer shields long enough for an arrow or two to strike within before the formation could be reformed, still moving at the pace of a rapid.
Verde found himself ensconced neatly in one of the quicker formations, almost at the foot of the castle. “Sir. We should retreat to the Eastern Gate.” “Who said that?” “Me sir, 2nd Lt. Giardel. You should see for yourself.”
At the first hint of any security, the formation opened itself on Verde’s side and revealed the grim scene at the Northern gate. Several of the guards under Stronadk’s service had mutinied against the remainder and skewered the majority of them, save Stronadk who was holding his own against the traitorous vermin. His mace, an iron tulip of sorts, swung decidedly between breastplates, crushing the metal of his enemy into their chests and suffocating them as they flew back. He wasn’t kinetic in his attacks, but he had sense enough to dodge enemy swings and effectively attack their exposed flanks. It was a stocky inspiration of battle. Verde burst through the maw of his formation, gleaming longsword in the moonlight’s blessing, and charged the blob of soldiers.
“Strynodk!” He ducked a blurring blade and pierced the elbow. “We’re better to retreat to the East Gate!” His blade slid from the elbow and glided across the chest. The assailant staggered back.
Another head swipe came. He bent forward and caught the hand between his head and shoulder. His blade hacked off the offending arm.
Verde twirled into a crouch, bringing his blade across the hip of his attacker. He pounced forward, forcing the soldier to fall over him.
“Rit!” To and fro, left man and right man fell at the chuckle of the mace.
The squadron of two tortoises reached the rendezvous point and wreaked their havoc on the vermin. Behind, fleeing soldiers of Verde’s command flayed pitiably in the storm of a silent moonlit twilight as red blossoms burst to meet the sky’s grace.
In the drawbridge corridor, more traitors scurried out.
“They’re everywhere.” Twirl and crash, two men decapitated in a fell swoop of the Hawk. “Fall back! Fall back to the East Gate! Alessia Castle will not fall!”
Another gleam of silver. Verde stumbled left foot, right foot, left again onto his butt. The gleam of silver came down. The Iron Tulip smashed against it, dull in color, and pushed it back. Stronadk crushed the assailant’s head.
Exasperated as his hesitant comrade pulled him up, he roared, “Who is responsible for this! Who would dare humiliate me! I am the strategic master of two campaigns, The Eye of the East!”
One of the men returned from the abyss, an auxiliary soldier named Renie. “Sir! The enemy is emerging from the ground! I saw them. At the helm is Gonzol, the Mad Feral.”
Verde understood. He gazed, with his famed eyes distant in his own mind, out onto the field of his foolish hubris. He saw men splattered amidst the tools of his conceit that quilled them and ended them. He saw blood marshes sparkle in the glades of grass of his ego. He saw the last of the breathing try and outpace the timpani of an impending doom, pitying every last one as they pulled beggarly at the grass that softened and tore from the blood. He felt the heat envenom his soul and the bubbling of his juices and he tossed his barbut to the ground, cursing. He was free to do so, as the men around him had already jeopardized themselves to hold the South Gate. He cursed still.
“V’rdy! Come ‘n! W’ most ‘et to th’ Eaast Gyate! Wh’ts wrong!”
Verde, proud strategist and accomplished archer, fled with his ally to the East Gate. He knew, though, that the Castle would not the stand the night. He called for Raphael and whispered for him to secure a passage out of the castle by dawn. Raphael affirmed and departed posthaste along the castle line.
It was not Gonzol that was feared, albeit the man’s reputation was greatly deserved. Rather, it was his master, the indication of Gonzol and the connotation of his presence, that struck epiphany and fear together like cymbals in Verde’s heart. Vulpes. The Silver Fox. He, the person, would not be seen until the final strike on Allesia’s throat, the extended plan and the extended beg for mercy, shot from the shadow right before its eyes. All of this was a strike from the shadow from right before Verde’s eyes.
He never saw it coming.
© 2015; Nikolas Reda-Castelao
Full Disclosure: This chapter was written nearly a year or so ago. It is fairly rusty as far as actual writing goes, but I am publishing this as a means to motivate myself to actually start writing this novel that I’ve been planning for many years now. I will rewrite this chapter as the novel progresses, but in the meantime, know that the style will change with the next chapter. Until then, enjoy! ~
The decrepit township, flailing saloon doors flapping quietly in empty doors and boarded windows staring blankly into the windswept street of grainy tears, held within its numbing melancholy a virtue. There, when the sun of a strange foreign world oppressed anything that breathed, whether it was the breaths of life or the shiver of ghosts, and the wind only served to shove the sand, the golden remains of essence, into your eyes, was still a clinging gasp of hope held ever so tightly to the fearful tongue of man. It drudged forth through the colorless palate of broken buildings and white skeletons, the darkness of their eyeholes reaching towards where once they held cherished memories, like a last gaze of yearning. Yet, the looming eyes of the forgotten homes and the skulls, gourds of the hallowed hollowness of the town, all seemed, for but a moment and in a certain light, to dart their glance to the virtue: to the vagrant man carrying his defeated body further into the realm of a cruel sun and dead occupants. The rooftops, however, were adorned in crimson and perched atop each building were the impaled, crucified bodies of the unfortunate souls who couldn’t survive the nightmare of famine. Their emptied eyes screamed with the terror of their deaths, a show playing out within each abyss and each one told of a different folly.
One in particular, the small corpse perched atop the saloon, slowly withering in the blistering heat, wore a particularly cheery sundress, splashed with a lively shade of yellow that screamed youth. Save, of course, where the blood stained the stomach and oozed down from the pelvis in its twisted sickness, violating not only the sanctity of the child, but also those who were devastated in witnessing such an atrocity. It swayed, disturbed and eerie, back and forth in the blinding wind that filled the eyes with sand and darkened the whole world to it. The face was veiled in shame of itself by its own hair, the roots pierced into its mind rejecting the lovely face it once possessed. The man glanced at it, in memorial of innocence, and held it than in his sight with a hidden outrage, his face being too tired to express his emotion. The body was posted higher the rest of the corpses, as though its tribute to the heavens was of a higher degree than all the others.
The traveler, having paid his respects, turned again into the vicious river of sand, winding into the furnace of his doom, and pressed forth into its endless path. He was adamant in his journey and stoic in his agony, the brutal cuts and scars never hindering his march into the whispers of the desert beyond the township. His brazen chest gleamed in the ruthless sunlight, scars of violence and stains of blood scattered along his bare body. His pants, tattered and splattered with red, were white as the clouds that blissfully roamed above him, always looking forward in optimism. His eyes were a vivacious green, growing with the untamed forests of his spirit and youth. In contrast to his appearance, he carried a great burden upon his body, but the powerful shoulders never slumped and what seemed to be a smirk recovered from melancholy, so the desert whimpered with a gust of wind.
The gale rattled the doors and windows of the decrepit buildings, throttled the impaled sacrifices, and humored the traveler with its clamor, summoned out of fear. The river wasn’t yet ready to carry down this man into oblivion, to the nightmares of which awaited him inland. This river of blistering heat and laid down by the remains of forgotten souls that winded through its entrance at the township, a reminder of earthly dearth, and into the expansive wasteland before it, a path into the continent. It was bordered by the bones of those who had failed in surviving the perilous passage. That however, was all there were, merely the unwanted bones of travelers, for anything of value had been taken by the captain of the river’s ferry, a dreaded vessel of grain and malice.
Now, the winds had summoned their master, the guide of the damned on their journey into the netherworld of their existence; into a world marred by violence and darkness of men’s hearts, where those who led did so with a daunting rage or cool deceit. One of which was the ferry master, the keeper of the river, a man of incredible size and muscles bulging throughout his body from a lifetime of hardship and discipline. He emerged from the sand before the last building leaving into the desert, an old prison where the bars had stayed to their duty still. About a foot taller than the traveler, the ferry captain glanced downwards when he approached, his red eyes glaring from out the darkness of the visor in his head-enshrouding turban, and met the traveler’s green eyes. His vest, sleeveless and unbuttoned, was a maddening burgundy color that seeped with bloodlust and fury, save the golden flower attached to the right breast pocket, glittering in the sun. Sheathed on his backside into a cloth scabbard was a mighty scythe; a crooked and gnarled wooden pole emerging from his right shoulder until the sickle, toothed and reddened, hung in the sky, piercing it mercilessly.
The traveler, unimpeded in his determination to continue, met the eyes of the bulbous-headed assailant, smirked despite the harbinger of death before him, and asked his guide, “What do you want, my friend?” The ferry captain didn’t answer, so the traveler prodded him again for some information as to the purpose of his interference. “How about your name, then? I’ll tell you mine. It’s Gegolai, it’s spelled with an ‘A’ and an ‘I’, but you still pronounce it with the ‘I’ sound, so that it sounds like ‘gehg-ohl-ie’. Just so you know in case you ever needed to spell it or something.” Gegolai chuckled, but the ferry captain only continued in his piercing stare, uninterested in Gegolai’s amusement. He looked up onto the roofs, a small murmur could be heard from under the turban, but Gegolai didn’t pay any attention to the ferry captain’s distraction. “If either we fight or not, I must know your name, as to properly respect your wishes.”
The ferry captain glanced downward again, a spark of malice mingling with the humor his eyes now had. He spoke in a gravelly, rough voice that suggested a great physical toll on his body, “Respect my wishes? Oh when the time comes you will not want to respect them. Abide by them, yes. Respect them, only a masochist would. My name is Alfairse, I am the guide to this trail. The one you will be journeying down with me, to your fate. As mandated.”
“To my fate?” inquired Gegolai, truly humored by Alfairse and his ominous promises. “Do you mean to say that you have some wonderful divine being who wishes me dead in some fashion, to appease him? Perhaps my fate is to end up here with your beautiful menagerie of sacrifices? Perhaps my fate is to end up mutilated and violated like that little girl over on that building,” he said looking back to the tainted yellow dress of the highest sacrifice. His face broke its humor as it devolved into a violent paroxysm of cold severity, “Or, perhaps, just perhaps, there is no fate for me, but what I allow myself to do and what I am capable of doing. If I kill you here, is it still my fate to travel with you down that path and end up like her? You better hope my fate is real, if that’s the case.”
Alfairse, glaring once more, signaled Gegolai to look behind him, and as he did so, his face paled into a and mortified grayness the controlled breathing he before had collapsed into strained breaths as it dawned on him how much he truly was capable of. As he turned, he witnessed a congregation of more warriors, dressed like Alfairse save that their vest was black and had no flower, perched all along the rooftops with longbows ready to shred Gegolai to pieces; a murder of crows ready to enshroud the hapless traveler in darkness. They were all elegantly positioned, not a single move would save Gegolai from the retribution exacted by the people of a vengeful deity, and being struck into the roof above the tavern was another stake, this one suited with the mocking title, ‘Savior of Humanity’ along its side.
Gegolai demanded, confounded and powerless, “W-w-what is that you have written on my coffin?”
Alfairse, walking beside him in delight as Gegolai studied his funeral in shock, replied, “Why, that is the creed of the Crusaders, isn’t it? Or at least your arrogant decree to the world. That your little organization of runaway rebels can save humanity. Fool, you cannot save humanity from itself, but only a decisive, all-knowing, all-powerful ruler. A deity, that is our only savior, and when you assume his role, you deserve the full penalty of death. You cannot usurp our ruler. He frowns from the sky upon your pathetic Crusaders and their futile attempt to rewrite the carving on the wall.” Alfairse lifted his clenched hand, the other strangling Gegolai softly, and began the countdown, each finger slowly arising to impart its loathing on the world.
Gegolai watched the archers, not the hourglass fingers sinking him deeper and deeper into darkness, and with caught breaths that chocked him, watched them unload a strand of vengeance from their quivers, place it onto their string and slowly tug back. Then, with a sudden delirium, Gegolai swallowed his fear, passing like coarse stones, and found meaning again to resurrect his smirk, scorning the archers in their very own faces as they threatened to rain Hell upon him rather than have him venture into it. They would be saving him a wretched journey, merely killing him here, saving him from the true agony that was his mission and the horrors that waited within the labyrinth of human’s slow decaying corpse, hidden beyond the desert, at the end of the river Acheron. They knew it, Alfairse knew it, and surprisingly enough, Gegolai knew better than any of them what truly was to befall him once the river of heat and bones gave out and turned its gruesome serpentine tail to the world that spawned it.
It was for that reason that Gegolai smirked, for he hadn’t yet achieved what had yet needed to be done, and he was confident, despite overwhelming doubt by his executioners, that a few bandits from the desert wouldn’t deter him. He declared his arrogance for the whole township to hear, louder so that maybe even the frowning deity may hear him and the lost souls of those corpses could follow the light of his voice back to their wretched bodies. “Hear me once! For I will not repeat it! I won’t die here today. Nor will I be scratched up today and die tomorrow from the wounds. Nay. I will kill you all here today and you can be saved this awful ‘fate’, if you only drop down your weapons and leave this place, and leave me to my journey. I am Gegolai Zeno; you cannot stop me from doing what must be done! I will go through hell and back, and do not think I will die at the entrance! Shoot and see what happens! You, your entire army, and your leader will feel my wrath!”
The archers, perturbed by the madness of a doomed man, faltered in the face of such courageous foolishness and lowered their bows for a moment, until Alfairse, crushing Gegolai’s throat, exploded with rage, “Imbeciles! Look at him! There’s no possible way he can kill one of you, let alone all of you. Ignore him, he’s simply mad. On my command, we will fire into his mouth; let him eat his own words.” So, they assumed their positions, the customary rite of murder, and stared, uneasy but still immaculate in their form, down the blasphemous gullet of their target. The few barked commands couldn’t do away with the unnerving atmosphere as the wind died down and the silence disturbed even familiar ears. And ultimately, they couldn’t shake their target’s irritating foolishness, his inanity in dire straits of peril, and they were compelled to keep a vigil on his mouth, for it watched them with a slanted persuasion, titillated.
Alfairse again resumed his countdown, slowly bowing all his fingers until he came to the final barrier between Gegolai and absolute death, and he savored the final finger as he wagged it before Gegolai’s nose, a dog shoved into his wretched transgression. Gegolai immediately seized his opportunity and ensnared the finger into his vicious teeth and crashed his foot into Alfairse’s, sending him plummeting before Gegolai. Shielded by Alfairse, Gegolai glared upon every archer with his smirk, a harbinger of wrath, and snapped his fingers, echoing throughout the hollow shells of the township, creating a paranoid rumbling for the frightened archers.
The rumbling subsided, the archers returned to their positions, trembling in an impatient fear to massacre this man who stood above Alfairse’s grumbling body, and Gegolai remained. Alfairse struck Gegolai in the stomach and watched him collapse onto his knees as he rose above him once more, smearing his coarse leather boot into Gegolai’s face before kicking him. He moved out of the way, and dropped the finger, slicing through the air like a guillotine blade and smashing into his palm like a hammer, and watched Gegolai’s writhing shoulder lift his head to face the torrent. But, as always, he had the most outrageous smirk on his face and this time darted his eyes towards the saloon.
The archers failed to follow commands, and they as well glanced towards the saloon. And behold, from its flapping doors emerged a behemoth of jade metal plating, and two gyrating conflagrations of roaring metals sprayed across the landscape. The metal shrapnel emerging from the hypnotizing twisters smashed through the weak architecture of the buildings, wood and other debris raining onto the sand below them in dissemination. The archers returned fire, launching hordes of screaming arrows to meet their fully plated opponent, the machines on his arms only intensifying their roar with each passing second as he twirled as to encompass everyone in his stinging reckoning. The arrows snapped pathetically when they met the behemoth’s invulnerable body, but the archers weren’t as fortunate as the screeching bullets ripped through their fabric, skin, tissue, and organs and back into the air with the ease of tearing through cheap textiles. Blood painted the rooftops as the violently vibrating corpses were flung about by the whim of their tiny killers. Rooftops collapsed under their own weight, plunging dozens at a time into their own dooms. The impaled bodies, however, were only riddled with more wounds onto themselves, a casualty of insult to the damned, but no blood gushed from them, for it was all harnessed from them already by the cruel desert to keep flourishing its malevolence.
As the metallic behemoth shredded through the primitive archers, Alfairse drew his scythe, fully prepared to eradicate all interferences of his goal. Slowly marching upon war, Alfairse was consumed with a bitter contempt for his own failures, disappointed in his inability to prevent such chaos from occurring, and each moment of thought further envenomed his anger. Cooling his weapons, the behemoth turned to face Alfairse, and as the debris finished collapsing and the sand settled back into its place, Alfairse could make out the heathen. Before Alfairse stood a mountainous man, slightly taller than Alfairse, rigged with destructive muscles and had a powerful shape that filled the metallic suit, enveloping his whole body in heavy green plates coiled tightly around his body, and a barbut helmet, the area surrounding the small inlet of metal dropping to his nose was a red glassy material. The armor was riddled with inscriptions and vents where the excess gases were released.
“Well,” asked Alfairse, irritated, “you’re quite the surprise, aren’t you? I didn’t figure our friend Gegolai here had companions traveling with him. I’ll be sure to make myself wary of that next time, after I’m done killing you, of course.” Alfairse jolted into the attack, launching his scythe into a spiraling frenzy towards the behemoth. Each time the metal touched the ground, a fiery scar would be left and a bloodthirsty scrape of metal would sting the behemoth’s ears. But, before the behemoth, wary and focused, could counteract, Alfairse erected is arms behind him, palms facing the earth behind his feet and rocketing from his hands was the sand itself. He used the sand to propel himself forward, with a speed that almost blinded both Gegolai and the behemoth, and before the scythe reached within a couple feet of the stunned metal man, Alfairse grasped the handle as the blade sliced the earth again. He used the momentum of the blade to flip himself over the pole and thrust himself into the metal man, no longer an overwhelming behemoth. His feet smashed and shattered the glass guarding the face, and to finish his attack, his divine retribution, he struck the cold jagged flash of metal into the man’s shoulder, piercing both metal and flesh in one.
As quickly as he plunged the searing metal into the man’s shoulder, Alfairse heaved the scythe from the metal man’s shoulder, back-flipped off his chest and reaped a great gash along his torso, ripping ravaged metal onto the ground. Bleeding profusely, the metal man, the once unstoppable bastion of technological power, faltered and collapsed onto his back, gasping for breath, receiving only the sun’s clout on his wound. Alfairse felt empowered once more, confident in his ability to carry out his duties. He felt capable again to impose the law of his people on all those who blaspheme in their treasonous minds, cursing the order of convention that Akbar and his efforts have worked so hard to establish. Walking forth to claim the metal man’s life for the skies and the body for the ground, so that he may forever decay in spirit and body, Alfairse’s footsteps shook the earth below him, the hardened road of a withered town, of a dying land, and the metal man felt it in his chest. His heart violently pounded against his ribcage, seeking escape from the bloodthirsty atonement perched above his body in ecstasy.
In one desperate maneuver, the metal man released a hissing steam from his shooting appendage before a quick cocking sound was heard. Raising his arm, a daunting gun with 12 barrels rotating amongst the rim of the silver plating where the hand would be glared Alfairse in the eyes, daring him to make his move first. Alfairse chuckled and with a swift flick of his arm a vine of sand wrapped itself around both his arms, tugging back strongly on both of them. “On the river Acheron, there’s a ferry that transports the souls of the deceased across into the Underworld. It’s always interesting to think of this road as such a river. Into Hell. And the families would place into the mouth of the deceased a coin, to pay for the ferry, and if they can’t afford it, then the spirit and body remains, never to enter the afterlife. What is your payment of which you leave on your dying corpse? Material wealth? A virtuous life? Servitude? Or is it nothing? Metal man, you come here and ravage my entire army, to save an infidel no less, to revel in blasphemy. You find solace in the false idols of your mechanical vanities, but you have nothing of real substance to offer. You have no coin, so you stay here to wither away. You are but a deluded heathen, and for that I cast you into the torment of your sin, to await judgment.”
The metal man began to turn red on the clear remnants of his bloodied face, huffing and puffing to escape his confines, in no way wanting to die. No man ever wants to die, but, as the metal man soon came to realize, there are consequences for the actions of men, even in the most compassionate of intentions, for someone’s path is always obstructed in doing so. Alfairse had called the trail adjourned the minute the metal man razed his fellow soldiers in a fury of bullets and devastation, and found him guilty of killing fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands without provocation. He condemned his act of aggression, not in words, but in his glare, which screamed a saddened rage. Alfairse dared not return his glance to the littered corpses of men, for those fine men he had made great acquaintance with were, in a way, his family, and he couldn’t look back at them until vengeance had been exacted.
The metal man tilted his head to see Gegolai, watching the gruesome scene from where he had laid. Panicked, the metal man cried out to him, “You have to save me! I saved you. I saved you.” There was a vehemence of sadness as he spoke, of fear, trying to reclaim what he had so easily taken from others.
“No, I don’t.” The metal man became belligerent, shouting to the point of exhaustion, demanding justification. “You see, we could’ve gotten away from all of this unscathed, you and I and those men on the rooftops. Alfairse would’ve gotten badly beaten and we would move on down the trail, along with our lives. But. But no. You came in and massacred everyone, you didn’t even know the situation and you get yourself stuck into this situation, because of your brashness, because of your stupidity, and because of your selfishness. Now, I have to let Alfairse administer justice for people who didn’t need to die. For fathers…”
“I’m a father! I have a son!”
“Yeah, so did they. And you should’ve thought more about him before charging in here, then. Hard to believe you actually care for him doing what you do. They aren’t bad people, either, just deluded, scared. Alfairse is going to kill you, and I’m going to let him, then we will settle out what was originally our dispute, not yours. Above all else, I think you know very well why I can’t save you. You’re no longer a man in my eyes. Alfairse!”
Alfairse glanced back, the hateful glare in his eyes still lingering, and nodded, the metal man still cringing in fear and misery on the floor, bawling for his wife and son, damning the name of a man called Lewellen. Gegolai nodded back at Alfairse, signifying the termination of the metal man and that he would not intervene, so Alfairse lifted his scythe into the sky, the scorching heat of the sun envenoming the blade’s wrath. He looked down upon the metal man, whimpering for his life, praying in the darkest corner of his mind that perhaps something, or someone, would save him from his circumstance. No one did. There was an agonizing yell that echoed throughout the desert, rattled the windows and flapped the swinging doors of the saloon. Then there was silence.
Blood dropped from the blade in droplets, dripping silently, but their presence oppressed Gegolai’s mind much heavier than his fatigue or the sun’s unforgiving heat. Then, Alfairse looked back at Gegolai, standing confidently, but disturbed. “Well, ferryman, what now?”
Alfairse absorbed the devastation of the township, a decrepit memorial to a world without justice, where only the strongest persevered. And, he saw that as the fearful eyes of his brethren looked up from their debris tombs, beckoning to their guardian to save them, but didn’t. Their blood drenched the ground, it stalked along the edges of the wood, it splattered color on the lifeless walls, but the canvas of a lawless world uttered in horror its madness. This was only the beginning, however. As Gegolai and Alfairse both met each other’s gaze, a realization dawned on Gegolai, which despite his sorrow, there was coldness to Alfairse. There was a certain desensitization to the red and gray town, as though it were common found, or at least expected. “I suppose,” Alfairse finally replied, “that we settle our original business. You still have no right in venturing forth, into the land of my King. You cannot enter, I’m afraid. My brothers will ride the ferry back to their homes, where we will ascend them into paradise. I have to kill you.”
Gegolai sighed, disappointed and regretfully, and replied, “Well, if that’s the case, I’ll have to kill you just to pass, won’t I?” Alfairse nodded, twisting his fingers into ritualistic shapes, a low murmur of chants heard underneath his coverings. “But, before I do, may I know what exactly the ferry is?” Alfairse stopped, his hand clutched above his head, trembling with effort, and from behind Gegolai, in the desert, emerged a mighty golden vessel, dripping from its deck the grainy material that built it. A frigate of sand, towering above the men. It was a spectacle to behold. “There are no sails; do you use your powers to move it?” Alfairse nodded. “Are you the only one who has such abilities?” Alfairse shook his head, approaching Gegolai, scythe posed to gut him.
Then, as suddenly as he had done with the metal man, Alfairse launched the scythe into a spiraling frenzy, charging to end Gegolai and display him upon the remaining rooftops, a grim reminder of what becomes of blasphemers to Akbar’s glorious kingdom. It drew closer and closer, its screeching slice growing more and more painful, but Gegolai, despite the sharp throbbing of his ears, stood his ground, waiting the final twirl of death’s scythe.
And, as it came upon the final spin, a knife threatening to sever the string that held Gegolai to the world, Gegolai’s hands flashed into his sheaths, hanging from his pants pockets, and drew a pair of blinding blades. They were masterfully crafted, hammered to perfection, razor blades with a slight curvature and a dazzling reflection of the sun’s light, straight into Alfairse’s eyes. Unable to see, Alfairse worked himself into a raging fury, great walls of sand crashing into the buildings beside him, splattering their contents amongst the desert wasteland. All the while, Gegolai tossed his blades into the air, above the scythe, as he, at the exact moment as the vicious metal dared to kiss his lips with the bitter taste of death, caught it in-between his palms. Having stopped the gnarled demon, Gegolai grasped the wooden pole and returned it to Alfairse in similar fashion.
The blades descended and Gegolai caught them squarely in his hands, the humble hilts comfortably resting upon his fist. Alfairse, able to see again, barely stopped his own weapon with a sudden hand of sand from the floor before him. He glared, the charging Gegolai, terrifying in his panic-inducing rush, meeting his glare with a similar stare. Alfairse’s hands danced once again, an awe-inspiring duet as his fingers waltzed amongst each other, but it was no union to be celebrated by his opponent, for it was a catastrophic engagement of power. An explosion occurred. From beneath Gegolai, an explosion of golden fire, coarse and unforgiving, consumed his legs, searing them, and lifted him into the realm of deities, to be judged. Gegolai launched his first blade, the curvature allowing it to perfectly gyrate towards Alfairse, distracted by his hand gestures, and deal him a punishing blow. Alfairse staggered backwards, and Gegolai plummeted back into the township, the cursed sacrifices watching with tilted glances.
The blood gushed violently from Alfairse’s wound, spilling all overt the ground, all over his clothing, and all over his pride. Gegolai, unfazed by his predicament, launched the second one just as he collapsed through a decrepit roof, cushioning his fall, and it glided right past Alfairse. Glancing back to see what had so dangerously darted past his head, Alfairse lowered his guard to a wild bull rush from behind. They fell on the floor, swapping blows to each other’s weakened bodies, using what was left of their strength to survive. Alfairse pounded the sand beside him and a rocket of sand pummeled Gegolai into the air, where immediately, Alfairse summoned another strand to whip Gegolai back into the ground with a brutal crack. Alfairse struggled to walk to Gegolai, wheezing with his remaining energy, and he looked down upon his scarred back, brutalized with tributaries of horrendous cuts and violence, and he laughed at his own attack, blood draining forth from it to flood Gegolai’s back.
Suddenly, Gegolai snapped forth, executing a perfect windmill kick that tripped Alfairse, and as he landed on his feet he flipped above him, landing with both legs firing into Alfairse’s chest. The dust eventually settled from the impact, and Alfairse’s red eyes shot open, crazed and abandoned to anger. A serpentine strand of sand snatched Gegolai’s left hand, then as he rushed to save it, his other arm was ensnared, and he was lifted into the air once again, dangling from his arms. A wave of sand returned the scythe to Alfairse’s hand, the beheading blade to the executioner, and Gegolai awaited his fate, helplessly hanging from the confines of predestination, smiling. Alfairse, shocked to say the least, responded as to the origin of Gegolai’s arrogant smile, “You are much more courageous than that other man in the face of death. Does that mean you have lived your life more fully than he has?”
Gegolai laughed, loudly enough so that Alfairse could absorb his influence, his spirit, “No. We have all lived miserable lives. We’ve all done things we weren’t proud of. Still aren’t. But I’m not laughing because I’m going to die. I’m laughing because of what you said earlier, about fate killing me here. Tell me, was it fated that all those men there, behind you, your brothers, that they too would die here, with me? But before your answer, ask yourself, do you really know what it is that’s fated for us? And then ask yourself again, who are you to demand to know what your fate is? By what measures do you even know if there is fate, if you can’t even validate if it’s in your favor? The only thing that’s telling that I might die is what’s happening right now, and the knowledge that if you tear my organs open, that they will fail, and so will my body, then I’ll lose consciousness, and then die. I’m laughing because, somehow, with a little wishful thinking, and maybe some arrogance, you were kinda right, but at what a cost, huh? So go ahead and kill me. Fulfill, as you call, my fate.”
Alfairse, stricken in offense and amazement, lurched backwards, taken into a gripping emotional state as he took in Gegolai’s last words, his laugh. Alfairse returned his glance to his fallen comrades, their ambitions, their lives, a life dedicated to the preservation of their King, and he brought himself almost to curse fate. But, with a sudden conviction of fear, he stopped himself from shedding any tears and returned to Gegolai, still smiling upon his opponent. It was clear that he didn’t hate Alfairse, or anyone, despite their intentions and hatred for him. But, he had a duty, a conviction in fear, a conviction that drove the stake through each of those bodies on the roof, a conviction that ripped bullets through close to a hundred men, and a conviction that made the town grey and red, morose and bloody. He returned to Gegolai, and he prepared his scythe to leave Gegolai’s smile in the sand, where it would be buried in the horrors of the world. He looked into Gegolai’s eyes, and he declared, “It’s a shame you have to die. You are a fascinating man.”
He threw the scythe and it hummed like an angel as it flew: a merciful destroyer.
Two men clutched their wool blanket to their bodies and caressed them with their frigid hands to bring warmth back into unfeeling motions. They hid beneath the bridge just where the putrefying arc departed the ground and soared above the water. They only had themselves and their cloths to fuel their endeavor of survival, as there was no fire allowed under the great punctures of the bridge and the heavens poured water in rejection. Beside their person were their blades, a blank white sheet covering them both in security from the rain. The taller of the two, Mitsuhide, ensconced himself in his blanket, attempting to obscure himself from the indifference of the world around him and escape into his mind. His shivering could clearly speak on behalf of his condition and his svelte face stretched thin with frost andhunger. Darkness clouded his soft eyes like the billowing masses above blotted the sunlight and his mind roared with a tempest of his own, apparent in the stare he gave the field piercing well into the dirt.
The other man, a stockier and older individual, turned tohis young retainer. His eyes burrowed into his mind: a tunnel of dark transparency that echoed with every thought of a veteran made public to the observant.His silver hair was shaved about the front in a sphere and then followed by a topknot, and the water glided down his coarse bristle and onto his straw raincoat, hugging tightly to his shoulders and flowing down his backside like a cape. “Yes, Mitsuhide?” The voice ambled from his mouth as much an elder is expected to move, but the presence was a soft dominance of the air that subdued even the roar of thunder.
“How much longer must we wait here? I know not how much longer I may keep Makoso impatient for me.” Mitsuhide had a discernible worry in his voice, but it wasn’t from the chill or the reverberation of hunger’s quakes, instead a more outplaced concern that rattled his mind. He glanced into Nobuhide’s eyes, knowing quite well what his answer would be and so retreatedhis glance and glazed his sight with a distant focus on Nobuhide’s stringent beard.
“Do you believe merely that I haven’t someone to return to that I do not understand your anguish?” Mitsuhide, repentant for his misinterpreted intention, fired off a quick denial. It was too apologetic, but he admired Nobuhide. The man sat before him here as he had in countless assignments and battles; more so than a guardian angel, but almost a father tothe once wayward youth. Nobuhide chuckled, “You needn’t worry, Mitsuhide, about how your concern reflects my person. You are a noble youth. I understand your responsibilities to your family. I once embraced them close to my heart as well. Too close.”
Mitsuhide looked back out into the haze of a thousand barbs forming layers of distorting walls and mirrors. His eyes twitched when he glanced back at Nobuhide, not even the least bit pensive on resurrecting the unholy memories that ravaged his mind. This was the only moment where his eyes broke their transparency and became maelstroms of absent emotion, convoluted and tortured. It was difficult to tell whether he had just become good at withholding torment or if it had departed from his mind. They held themselvesin the anesthetic silence of the downpour, letting the unease be washed from their conscious. Seldom is true silence the harbinger of peace, for that creature of stillness instills itself into twisted minds and bends them further and lets wild thoughts consume themselves. “Blasted rain. How are we to know when he arrives?”
“Oh? I rather enjoy the fleeting showers of the gods. It is their gift to us. You do not want him to find us in broad daylight, nor do you want him to approach in darkness. Either way he is a dangerous foe. In the rain, we uphold an advantage in stealth. He will make himself known. Delay your temper, Mitsuhide.”
“I think I may be inflicted with a fever.” Mitsuhide pushed aside the charcoal strands of silk cascading down his head and cupped his forehead in his palm. “Yes. A fever.” He discarded his blanket and untied his straw raincoat, his kappa, disrobing himself of it. He laid his head intimate to Nobuhide’s legs, withering tributes to strength, and placed the kappa above his body and then did the same with the blanket. Nobuhide’s stare strayed onto Mitsuhide and an intuition jolted his arm into the nearby knapsack and pulled out a circular bowl and a wooden jug of sake. He poured some of the bitter fluid into the bowl and gently dripped it into Mitsuhide’s mouth, the dark drink forming tributaries around his emaciated lips and trickled calmly into his hair beneath him.
“It will keep you warm.” Nobuhide placed the jug backinto the knapsack and proceeded to ramble, but in the consideration of easing Mitsuhide’s imagination that festered itself with apparitions appearing in thestorm. In the distance, a Sawara tree surrendered itself to the torrent andcollapsed, jarring Mitsuhide into a sudden leap from his supine sojourn.
“These trees have been bared witness to so much, ‘tis no wonder that their death be as tumultuous as their troubled psyche. I remember the day I fought above this bridge. Daimyo Ujimasa Hojo had sent me to lead a small battalion against an Ikko-Ikki band. They were plundering our retainers and trade supplies on the roads, and we had just recently discovered their whereabouts. North of this bridge was a small encampment. But they held us here for days, surrounding us and every time we unshackled ourselves from their entrapment they would ensnare us nonetheless in warring straits, one direction and it was exploding with crimson. Our swords were pens, and every word we wrote was merciless vengeance and we signed it ‘the damned’. I was one of the few unluckyto reach the encampment of three days of tireless battle, and we had no choicebut to butcher the children and women of Buddhist sects. The river runs murkywith ambiguous morals.”
Therewas a moment where the downpour ceased into light sprinkle, quelled in shock,and nary a single person moved to shape their lips to this horror. This was thehorror spelled in the flux of Nobuhide’s eyes. “Is this what occupies yourmind? What of your family? You can’t rock me into peace with words ofserenity?”
“No. I skewered one boy in particular who looked so similar to my Hideki. I wept for days; something if I were to try all I could produce was dust. The rain has stopped, Mitsuhide.” He beckoned his companion up, wary of the deluge of sunlight suddenly crashing waves across the field. He unfurled the cloth around his katana blade, a delicately crafted fatality, like a poisonous flower. Mitsuhide was insolent, pressing forth about Nobuhide’s family with irrelevant questions; about his son, his wife, their knowledge of this, of his loyalty to Lord Hojo, and as to why for a single moment he would decry the immaculate virtue of a bushi’s loyalty to his daimyo. “Why do you hasten our death with indolence? Daitengu knows we are here!”
There was an interminable essence to those words, for even though his mind began racing, Mitsuhide stumbled into interpreting into a definite thought as to what they meant. Panic afflicted his backside, clasped clammily his shoulders and pulled them back in the revulsion of catatonic rheumatism, and he lingered. His mind scrambled the thousand possibilities available in such a phrase, but knew there was only one, and his heart emptied itself, through the hairs on his skin, and into the air around him. Daitengu was approaching them. Their wait had ended at right this moment, and Nobuhide drew his blade to embrace it.
Mitsuhide,consumed in the nebulous darkness of fear, whipped his head and shot his arm for the hilt of his more modest blade, unsheathing the radiance of a newborn blade. Nobuhide’s blade had a great curvature, unlike Mitsuhide’s upright metal, and the dents and scratches tainted the great steel as it glared ominously in the direction of a looming figure. He wafted carelessly in the settling mist of the broken meadow, his feet hidden in the soft misdirection of light and he floated eerily across the verdigris, across the hallowed lands perturbed by phantasms. His gaunt arms hung lifeless to his sides as they swung with his languorous pace and his sword, a towering monstrosity in its own right, was ensconced in his black cloth belt. His countenance, rumored to contain a fatal glare within itself, was shielded by a sapphire encrusted jingasa that dangled a silk curtain from before his visage. His chest, visible in the open haori, was sunken and riddled with countless scars: the tales of a thousand battles and the drawn blood of a thousand victims.
Mitsuhide had never beheld the magnificence of renowned killers before, and so his body panicked with sudden paroxysms of anxiety where sweat led exodus from his freezing flesh and the atmosphere assaulted his muscle with aching tremors.Nobuhide said calmly, “Now, we are in the presence of the man who took the head of Tadakatsu of Mikawa. He laid waste to the army of the Minamoto clan. He beckons the mountains themselves to lurch forward in despair.”
“Why are we not armed with an army to fight him?” Mitsuhide could hardly slip the words from lips that clasped shut in rigor mortis, jaw clenched like chained bars.
“Because I have dishonored Lord Hojo, and so because I refused to take my own life he has sent me to dispel of this phantasm. This shinigami.” Nobuhide held the primeval blade before his face, clenched tightly with both hands and the conviction of death itself. “I felt it more appropriate that my body die where my soul had been left to rot. Besides, I have been hunting Daitengu for some time.”
Mitsuhide,slowly absorbing the courage of his guardian, clutched his blade in directopposition to Daitengu himself. “So are we both to die with honor, then?”
“Honor is what already killed me. I am but the hollow phantom of Honor, a soul without bearing and doomed forever with burden. Swallow your pride, hard and coarse as stones, but I brought you here that they may be stones of that river. Go to Makaso.”
A spirit of engulfed Mitsuhide as he roared with thunder at Nobuhide, “I demand that you let me fight beside you, Nobuhide. You are the closest thing I have ever had to a father since that day you saved my life at Edo. It is the bushido code to fight with conviction and a sense of virtue.” He rushed Daitengu, quietly still in the pasture as he slowly tilted his head up towards the boorish man charging him. He unlatched the clasp on his hilt and slowly drew the endless blade, drawing his eulogy forged in fire for the passionate, for they are always the first to run head first to damnation. He held the blade alongside his legs, an extension of his bony arms, and simply waited, in piercing silence juxtaposing the dynamic yelling of Mitsuhide inching closer to the cold metal waiting to be pressed into his epidermal coffin.
However,from behind, Nobuhide pounced and snatched Mitsuhide from his muted haori, pulling with him with all his force onto the ground. He rolled forward, ducking the lightning slash of Daitengu, and parried his following strike downward. The clash of the two blades was near ear-shattering and so the battle of titans began, with flashes of silver flying their music throughout the air and into the gentle winds, slicing through unease with excited dynamism. Nobuhide was keen and his mind so whetted as to strike with utmost precision both with his blade and his swift kicks. Daitengu’s attacks were more focused on impact and range, wrathfully throwing the weight of his towering blade around and each blow still taking its toll on Nobuhide. Mitsuhide watched in astonishment as the earth and sky around them was torn and reconstructed by the nimble fingers of steel finesse into a kabuki theater set,each movement orchestrating a visceral art of puppetry of the grass or the wisp of wind whistling around the rush of swords.
However,all performance must end. They often do so with tragedy, and the dance of the great samurai was no exception to that. Nobuhide missed the cue to leap after a quick side roll, and so Daitengu’s blade gorily cleaved through Nobuhide’s right leg. He collapsed, clutching the outpour of blood rushing around his fingers,and screamed human agony into reverberations that shot into the heavensthemselves. Mitsuhide was overtaken with the petrification of disbelief, the singular moment where comprehension becomes a fallacy and his mind simply refused to ascribe words to what he was seeing, absorbing and implanting deep into the crevices of a traumatized mind. His muscles reacted with timelessness, stuck in the interminable moment of indecision, and yet it was simultaneously ephemeral.
Finally, “Nobuhide! Nobuhide! No!” He rushed to his side, grasping his upper body in his arms. Daitengu looked upon the two, upon Mitsuhide, and turned back. “Come back here, Daitengu. I still need to fight you. I need to kill you!”
“You will not survive.”
Mitsuhide,upon hearing his guardian’s broken voice, turned to him, further injuring him in the process. “Then what must I do? Tell me what I must do, Nobuhide. Tell me you are not going to die.” His soul was unable to project tears for it was still in that state of shock, where the novelty of desperation had completely overridden top priority of his whole emotional state and everything he did was brash and unfiltered. “You are Saito Nobuhide, the ‘Iron Clubbed Oni’. You have crawled away from death so many times. When you saved me in Edo from those samurai, they gutted you, but you still fought back. Why here?”
“I have fought for so long, been beaten and stabbed and sliced across the wholecountry, and yet not one person has been able to carry me from my certain tomb,pulling me forth from despair. It has always been my lifeless endeavor to continue. I realized that you would end up like me if you continued down this predilection of nonsense about honor, for it shall chain you to burden and melancholy. I am freeing you.”
Mitsuhide looked about, the specter disappeared, and the historic ground where Nobuhide once massacred innocents, the price of honor in loyalty. He looked again into the abyss of his gaze and saw the souls trapped within, the bloody walls of his pupils sinking deep into the darkness of a man no longer possessed with love,but bloody memories. The less the sun shined on them, their fading paindissipating like the mist, the more shallow they became until the eyelids had slammed down and sealed him from the suffering of the material world. “Damn you, old man.”
He looked down the path where Death had tread, then again at the carcass of Honor’s tortured vassal, and he walked towards the river, staring deep into its murky depths. Unable to bury him properly, he dismantled a piece of the bridge with his blade into driftwood, placed his master on the solid vessel, and pushed him forth into the distance, down the river that drowned his soul as children dragged it down to their demise many years ago. He decided it wise to leave the hunt for Daitengu to possessed men, lured by the killer’s enigmatic temptation, and headed home. Never would he have to find solace in the chaos of great storms.