GOLGOTHA - PART TWO
Spring blossoms of a hundred colours, red, peach and white. Things gentle and soft. They flow on the wind, dancing through the high valleys in a hundred formations, constantly shifting and reforming before one's eyes. Never the same, but always expressive of the unchanging patterns behind all things.
They twirl throughout the valley. Himeko stands in a mountain stream lined by cherry blossoms, her kimono hiked up to show her smooth pale calves. And in her arms is Akihiko, laughing, his arms extended towards the blossoms that dance above-
The Ronin awoke with a gasp.
All about him was swirling grey, the blurred suggestion of white on black. Slowly he realised his situation. He was facing out into empty space, encased by the plexi-glass dome of the gun port, the blizzard still raging about him.
He groaned, his mind fogged and confused. He tried to raise a hand to his face; realised he was still wearing the O-Yoroi armour, still strapped to the gunnery cradle that now hung vertically suspended-
He looked down. Below, there was only a dark chasm.
The sound echoed throughout the ship.
He undid the cradle restraints, eased himself free. Then he descended into the darkness.
He moved cautiously, the corridors below an unending well of blackness.
“Ibu-san? Can you hear me?”
No response; The walls were silent, the usual activity of circuits and motors now conspicuously absent. The ship was as quiet as the grave.
Still. There were no obvious signs of damage.
“Ibu,” He called again. “I am going out onto the surface to find this power-source. If you hear me, give a sign.”
For long moments there was nothing. Then came the sounds of a dull whirring. A blast of cold air rushed through the corridor and he heard the roar of the blizzard coming clearly from somewhere below.
He set off towards the noise, descending like a giant spider through the dark, unfamiliar corridors until he was almost blinded by the bright aperture of the emergency hatch. He squeezed himself through and emerged into the white fury of the blizzard. Below him the frozen hull fell away, tilted down into deep powder. All around him was blinding white glare, snow cascading down on the howling winds. He squinted through the glare, scanning his horizons-
High on the mountainside the ravager's outline lay, dimly visible through the storm; at its edge, he caught a glimpse of movement as some black thing wriggled down into the snow-
He moved from the hatch, slid down the golden hull to land with a woomph in the deep snow. Instantly he sank up to his neck, the whole slope shifting dangerously around him-
Above, two wriggling forms detached themselves from the black mass of the ravager and began squirming down the mountainside towards him.
Slowly, very slowly, the Ronin pulled himself free, crawling up onto the deeply packed powder.
From above came the sounds of slithering. Puffs of disturbed snow.
He pulled himself across the slope as quickly as he dared, crawling on his belly as the snow shifted and cracked beneath him. Behind him came the worms, their mewls carrying over the roar of the gale.
Before him there was only blinding whiteness; below, the slope fell away to a sheer precipice. The snow shifted beneath him with every movement, carrying him irresistibly towards the edge-
A blackness loomed through the haze – an outcrop of granite thrust above the snow.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. The sounds of roping black muscle on powder came behind him. He heard their panting breath; heard the sibilant hiss of their voices-
Then his arm was hooked around a rocky outcrop and he was hauling himself up, the arquebus at his shoulder sliding down into place. He turned awkwardly onto his side-
Blind verminous faces, horrors of tooth and jaw, their bodies slick and powerful as eels. They squirmed forwards grotesquely, mere feet away-
The arquebus crackled. A blue light lanced from the cannon-snout. There was an explosion of powder, a shrieking hiss-
The black forms tumbled down into nothing, leaving only a putrescent stain in the snow.
The mountain rumbled ominously. Then there was only the roar of the storm.
The arquebus eased back into its holster. He lay against the rock for long moments, his breath rising in plumes. Finally he roused himself.
Above him was the outline of the ship, dimly visible through the storm. Her front end was buried, the fuselage rising like a tower above the mountainside.
They must have struck the mountain just right, sunk nose-first into the snow, the impact cushioned, the angle steep enough to avoid triggering an avalanche. There she lay: the imperial eagle of Krokus. The emperor's personal starship, half a galaxy away from the burnt remains of Edo.
And here he was, he reflected as the blizzard spun about him. Not entombed in the ship, not dead amidst the ruins of the imperial palace, but here, life still pumping through his veins, set to the task of upholding Bushido. The last samurai in the universe.
Sighing, he cast his eyes down, uttered a prayer to his Buddhas. Then he turned and began the torturous journey down the mountain to the valley below.
For long hours he hugged the mountain-side, moving with gritted teeth as he shifted his great bulk across the slope. The snow beneath him groaned and stirred, threatening at every moment to send him tumbling into oblivion. But always it held. He traversed his way down, moving first one way and then the other, pausing after each movement to calculate its effects. Finally the slope began to level out. Finally, he stumped down into the heavy snow drift of the valley, his breath rising in plumes above the endless white. He paused, stood in reflection for long moments. Behind him was Ibu, lifeless, buried deep in the mountain snows. Before him was the power source, buried somewhere in this corpse of a dying God. And somewhere else, laying cold and quiet beneath a distant sun, was the burned ruins of his home, inhabited now only by squalid ghosts. The Ronin let out a deep sigh. Reluctantly he turned and struggled off into the the blizzard.
The hours passed with a slow, dream-like quality.
Beneath his feet the snow was an endless field, catching and dragging at his heels. All around him was a blurring haze, the snow swirling down from some invisible source. It stuck to his armour, melting until his entire form streamed with water and the inner visor of his mask was fogged.
He trudged on as though in a dream, his mind mercifully calm.
Presently the blizzard ceased, falling away to reveal the endless expanse around him. On all sides the mountains loomed, their jagged forms pressed up against each other like rows of dragon's teeth. Before him, the valley stretched on without end, winding about the feet of the mountains as it descended to some unknown destination. Above, the sky was a vastness of grey cloud. There was something odd about the light that shone through those clouds, he noticed with reluctance. It had an evenness to it: a soft and artificial quality. After a while he realised that it had no source. It fell everywhere equally; a strange dream-like luminescence, flowing out of nowhere to permeate this weird godscape.
A godscape, he thought dully, looking at the tundra and mountains before him. The dream of a mad god. A harsh laugh rose to his lips at this thought. Was not all of creation the dream of a mad god? A dream within a dream. Strange architecture spinning in infinity. And all of it devoid of any overarching sense or meaning.
He stopped the thoughts as they came and set his face, marching on into the emptiness before him.
Time passed. He walked without thought, his feet carrying him automatically. The armour warmed him and took care of his needs, hydrating his blood with saline, extracting waste from his bladder and gifting a steady stream of ATP to his muscles. So he travelled across the endless tundra, without even cold, hunger, thirst or fatigue for companions.
Finally the light died away, casting the valley into darkness. The Ronin trudged on towards the black outline of the mountains, the firmament above marked only by the twinkling of a few cold stars.
And that was his first day in the godscape.
The night passed much like the day, with only the crunching of his feet to mark the passage of time. The storm blew up again in the darkness, and when the light of morning came, he found himself trudging once more through blazing white.
He marched on, mind empty, his feet carrying him ever downwards. And so the second day passed and night came again with no change in his surroundings.
The pressure stole upon him, so stealthily he was barely aware of it at first. But it came nonetheless, a shadow rising like floodwaters against the barricades of his mind. Soon there was only the storm. Soon there was only the tramp-tramp of his feet in the snow and the memories of Krokus that came to torment him in the night.
The shadow pushed in, teasing and probing. Finding the ramparts of his faith broken, it squeezed in through the gaps, settled itself over him until all he saw was meaningless despair.
It seemed to him now that death was an impossibility. That he could only be strong when there was an enemy to struggle against. Here, there was no fight. Here there was nothing but himself and eternity.
The dream was infinite. This was hell.
He began to long for an end.
The night passed and day dawned again, coming all at once to find him stumbling into madness. For now he felt the shadow slowly squeezing him and he could no longer still his thoughts. They flowed without end and his mind filled with a thousand impulses. The stench of the trenches and the scream of falling bombs. The way Edo had glowed, fiercely orange in the twilight as the cannons roared and boomed. The way the sage had grimly nodded as he accepted the poison the rebel council forced upon him.
The storm and the shadow pushed in, a thousand black needles penetrating his brain. And somewhere there was screaming torment. Somewhere a stinking, unwashed Jew was being hoisted fainting onto the cross-
Then the blizzard was gone.
The Ronin stumbled, the ground beneath his feet now hard and firm; dry, cracked earth, beaten flat by the passage of a thousand feet. He straightened up, looked dazedly about-
He found himself at the edge of a quiet square, an earthen well at its centre. All around him were squat adobe houses, their walls still pulsing with the heat of the day.
Above, the night sky was a canvas of light, stars spangled across the firmament, framed by the greens and purples of distant novae. A breeze ruffled the branches of the rose bushes that grew on either side of the square, adding their scent to the bouquet of animal sweat and burning incense. On the hill-side above, the leaves of an olive-grove rustled. Somewhere a nightingale was singing, its voice raised above the chirping of the cicadas.
The square was dark but for a single house lit by candlelight: an oil-lamp burning in a low shuttered window, its tallow wick guttering in the breeze. It was towards this house that the square's lone figure was stumbling: a man, short and slight, bundled, in spite of the night's warmth, in a heavy cloak.
The Ronin stepped forwards as though in a dream, followed the lone figure to the wooden door upon which he rapped his summons.
Moments passed. The man panted, gave a soft curse. Then the door eased open a crack to show a thin, anxious face lit by candlelight. The eyes squinted into the dark for a moment, then widened in recognition.
“James! Thank God! The messenger found you then-?” The eyes widened again as he saw the reddened face. “My God, you're drunk!”
The cloaked figure looked down in shame, gave a tug of his fore-lock. Neither of them seemed to notice the huge shadow looming silently behind.
“God forgive me, John.” The man slurred. “But there was nothing else I could do... Aye, I left your man at the tavern not twenty minutes ago, came here as quick as I could...” He looked up with shining eyes, suddenly remembering what had brought him here. “Is it true then, brother? Dare I hope you have saved him-?”
The door opened and John motioned angrily.
“Come inside. And for god's sake, keep your voice down!”
The drunken Israelite staggered through the door which swung shut an instant later; by some weird freak, the Ronin found himself already in the house's low-ceilinged vestibule as the two men entered through the curtained-off archway.
At the centre of a simple wattled dormitory a low table squatted before an unlit fireplace. And by the lone tallow wick of the room, the Ronin saw the men who sat there in tense silence: nine in all, banded roughly into two groups around either end of the table. All were Jews: thin, sharp-featured men, heavily bearded and clothed in roughspun. At one end of the table was a downcast figure, seated a little apart from the others; a man thin even by the standards of his fellows, his large eyes glazed over with shame and misery. This was Peter, first amongst the disciples. Three others sat awkwardly by him, their eyes averted, as though waiting for him to speak, mystified by the sin that lay heavily upon him. At the other end of the table was the larger, more close-knit group, arranged around a dark and heavy-set man. This was Simon and his moody black eyes fastened upon James and John as they entered, a spasm of disgust passing across his face.
“You join us at last, Brother James.” He growled. “Having not quite drowned yourself, I see. For god's sake, sit by the window and sober yourself up!”
John turned tactfully aside, leaving his younger brother's side to take his place at the table, careful not to look at the stricken Peter. James made no move, but remained swaying drunkenly before them, his face flushed with shame. His eyes roved the company with sad desperation.
“Is there hope then, my brothers? Does our master still live?”
None but Simon would meet his eye. The zealot glared coldly at him before replying.
“Aye, he lives, for now. And no thanks to you. He lies in the other room, being nursed by that... that woman.” He spat on the rush-lined floor at this, a spasm of disgust passing across his features.
James' eyes swung drunkenly to the low, curtained doorway on the far side of the room, beyond which a candle-lit chamber was dimly visible. He made as if to step towards it, but the expressions of his companions halted him.
“I couldn't stay. I couldn't watch it...” He gasped, casting his eyes down once more. “But only tell me how it happened...? How did you get him away?”
Simon's expression was thunderous.
“You were not the only one to shirk your duties, brother.” He said, casting a glare towards the table's far end. “In the end, when they had him up on the crucifix, only Jude, Thomas, Levi and your brother stayed with me to bear witness to our lord's suffering. The others, like you, lacked the mettle to see the matter through. It was a fearsome thing to behold. Our master suffered valiantly at the hands of the Romans. He shouted out but once, and only when that bastard centurion stabbed him. He bore his suffering with a kind of iron fortitude I have never seen before. It was a sight only for the faithful.” He added, glaring with cold fury at the shamefaced Peter. “We waited until just a single guard remained. Then we charged the man and overwhelmed him. We took down the master from the cross and brought him back here. He is very badly hurt. But he is the strongest man I have ever known. God willing, he will live.”
“Why- why did you not come to find me?” James asked desperately, the tears beginning to flow. “I could have helped- I would have helped-”
“Only the master's true followers were worthy of such an act.” Simon snapped. “Only those who could look upon him in his final moments and bear witness to his suffering. Only those of us who saw his strength, who knew he could be saved. No!” He spat with sudden vehemence. “This was no job for you, Brother James!”
James staggered backwards as though struck a blow. He gave a gasping sob, began to totter towards the far doorway, whispering softly, “I must see him- I must beg his forgiveness-”
But the man at Simon's elbow rose and James was stopped once again, turned back by eyes that blazed with outrage. He looked desperately up and down the table. But none would meet his gaze, not even his brother, John.
“W- where's Judas?” He stammered suddenly.
“Dead.” The man who had risen spat. “Left his traitor's silver on the confessional plate and hung himself from an olive tree. Now be seated, Brother! Our master is in no condition to hand out forgiveness to those who do not deserve it.”
Across the table Peter finally roused himself. He raised his head, his eyes filled with deep, aching sadness.
“The Lord will forgive James, as he always forgiven anyone who repents honestly.” He said quietly. “And while he lies stricken, it is for us to follow his good example. Do not forget, Brother Jude, that his is the way of mercy. I daresay,” He added, meeting Jude' glaring eyes with difficulty. “That he will even forgive you for what you did to the Roman soldier.”
Simon rose at this, a blazing retort on his tongue. But then the far curtain twitched aside and the woman entered the room.
All fell into uneasy silence. Simon and Jude sank back into their seats, their lips pressed tightly together. The woman, Mary Magdalene, stood in the doorway, her pure white shift streaked a little with the blood of her hands where they rested against the gently swelling buttress of her abdomen. Her face, usually beautiful and serene, bore a careworn, bewildered aspect that ill-suited her.
Of all of them, it was only Peter who turned to look at her.
“Well, Sister Mary?” He asked gently. “Will our master live?”
She averted her eyes modestly, spoke in a voice husky and resonant:
“I have treated and bound the master's wounds and now he lies in fever. His wounds show no signs of putrescence. I believe that they will heal.”
A chorus of relief passed around the table and the disciples looked eagerly from face to face, their acrimonies forgotten for a moment. In the doorway, Mary's face was drawn. When she raised her eyes to speak again, there was a bewildered grief behind them that brought the disciples to silence.
“He is very weak. Drained. Almost at death's door. And yet there is a power working within him... Something like steel. Something like a sword. He is delirious. He repeats the same phrases over and over, his eyes glowing with a fury the likes of which I have never seen there before...” She caught herself, wondering at the fear her beloved master now inspired in her, hesitating for a moment before looking up to meet the questioning faces of the disciples.
“He keeps repeating it over and over again...” She murmured. “-Surrender to God's will-”
“Ah!” Exclaimed Peter, rising from his seat. “His faith has carried him through!”
“They will surrender to God's will,” She continued, her face twisting in pain. “They will surrender to their Lord.”
For a moment all was silent.
Then it was Simon's turn to rise. He turned upon them, his eyes flashing in triumph as he growled-
“The master showed himself to us. He showed us the meaning of God's will, and what it meant to live in obedience to it. And now he shall show himself to the world. And the world shall learn what it means to obey. They will surrender to God's will. They will surrender to their Lord.”
He repeated the mantra slowly, looking from face to face. At his side Jude nodded in wonder, his lips moving slowly.
The fire passed from face to face, from tongue to tongue. Some spoke the the words eagerly, others with fear and wonder. All found different meanings in the words. But all took up the chant. James swayed before the table, slurring the words, a strange light starting behind his eyes.
Only Peter was quiet, his face working in misery and disbelief.
“No.” He moaned, tears sliding down his cheeks. “No, No, No...”
And from behind the curtain another voice rose to join them. Harsh and rasping, wracked with pain and fever, and yet quivering with a steely purpose-
“They will surrender to God's will. They will surrender to their Lord.”
The Ronin looked between them, seeing faith, rage and fear as the dream began to fade-
All was terror and madness. The flames raged without end. And the swords flashed and plunged into the flesh of the unbelievers all down the long millenia-
And then he no longer stood in a house of Judea, but found himself stumbling deliriously forwards, his feet catching at rocks as he emerged from the valley into a high boulder-field.
He gasped, waking from the dream all at once. Staggering to a halt, he sank heavily onto a boulder: one of the thousands dropped here by the passage of a glacier, a tumbling rock-fall leading down to the steppe that stretched away below.
Overhead the sky pulsed a cold, clear blue. Behind him the mountains loomed: the jaws of death through which he'd marched, bent but unbroken. Before him, the plains stretched: a high steppe-land of brown and green, an ocean of space without end. He rose, his mind uncurling, and a cold, crisp wind blew up, whipping at his face; the breath of the far godhead, bracing him to his task.
In the distance was the outline of a lone shepherd's hut. And somewhere beyond that, a hundred leagues hence, lay the buried power-source.
Setting his face with a grimace, the Ronin began his descent.