Ronin Sequence

GOLGOTHA - PART THREE

The shepherd's hut was a threadbare place, little more than a pile of rocks topped by a roof of thatched grasses.

Within, the shepherd lay stiffly on the hut's single straw cot: a wizened, papery mummy, brown skin drawn tight across its cheekbones.

The Ronin searched the corpse carefully. He discovered the puncture wound in its abdomen: deep, its edges as dried and cracked as old leather. Evidently the man had been dead for some time.

His eyes went to the ancient night-stand that stood by the cot. Here there was a brass dish containing tongs and an arrow-head caked in dried blood: a jagged, cruel-looking thing made from bone. A human thigh-bone, if the Ronin were any judge. He dropped it with a grimace and turned his attentions elsewhere.

Food.

He hadn't eaten since he'd woken from hypersleep three days ago. And in spite of the armour's efforts, he was beginning to grow weak from hunger.

The hut's earthern floor was covered over by a mat of woven reeds. Beneath this was a cubby-hole, dug into the ground. Within this store the Ronin found dried maize and wheat-flour, a satchel of dried goat's meat and, most significantly, a casque of furze-flower liquor. The dead man's last precious supplies, for which he no longer had any use.

Half-starved, the Ronin helped himself to a meal of corn-mush and goat meat washed down by the eye-watering liquor. Thus fortified, he turned his attentions to the shepherd. Whoever the man had been, he deserved a decent burial. And so, in spite of his exhaustion, the Ronin picked up the withered body and, wrapping it carefully in its cloak, took it outside and buried it in a shallow grave behind the hut. When the deed was done, he bowed his head and murmured a few words over the grave. Then, almost dizzy with fatigue, he returned inside and took the dead man's place on the cot.

He had just begun a prayer to his Buddhas when something on the night-stand caught his eye: a large, silver coin he had not noticed before. Forgetting his prayers, he reached out impulsively for the thing.

Squinting in the half-light, he saw stamped on the coin the outline of a head and shoulders topped by two sweeping antlers, its face featureless but for two glaring eyes. As he stared in fascination at this image, its eyes seemed to meet his own and he was struck suddenly by a vision: the impression of a monstrous black form outlined against an infernal light, its head turning slowly to regard him with eyes that glowed like coals-

Monster. Demon. Beast. It glared at him across the aeons, ancient hatreds moving like continents behind its seething eyes-

He dropped the coin with a spasm and the vision ceased all at once.

That night he dreamt that he stood on Golgotha hill, Simon, John and the others at his side. Before him, framed against the bronze disc of the setting sun, was the black outline of the cross and the wrack of suffering that hung upon it. There was a flash of light, a spurt of crimson-

He saw the dead shepherd standing before the cross, his expression solemn as he thrust the point of a spear deep into Christ's side. There was a roar of agony that echoed throughout the ages, then the blood was raining down upon them. It fell down and the Ronin saw it clearly, hanging against the blackness, rich crimson on midnight-

Then the blood became the eyes of the beast, glaring up from its eternal pit-

A pair of hands shook with guilt and grief as they cast their silver pieces onto the confessional plate. And as the coins clattered and leapt, the Ronin saw that they were twins to the silver piece beneath the cot, and that they too bore the mark of the Beast.

***

In the morning, after another meal of corn mush, the Ronin went outside.

It had been too dark and he too exhausted the previous evening to make out anything of his surroundings. Now, by the even light of the godscape, he saw as though for the first time the steppe that rolled out before him: a landscape of crags, tall and remote beneath a hard grey sky, the ground seemingly barren but for clumps of low shrub. It seemed to stretch on forever: a vast, endless desolation.

Somewhere ahead lay the city of which Ibu had spoken. And beneath it, the power source he needed to escape this bizarre place.

He turned away with a grimace to examine the surrounding area.

Around the hut, the ground was bald and churned, laying empty but for the dessicated corpse of a horse. He moved forwards automatically to investigate.

The horse lay where it had been left, tied to a hitching post at the rear of hut. Its face, reduced to little more than an eyeless skull, bore a look of pain and horror, and he saw from the shrunken husk of its body that it had been drained of all its vital fluids through a series of puckered bite-marks.

Curious.

He bent down to examine the ground for any signs of what had done this. But there was nothing except the bare earth, untouched but for the churning of the horse's hooves. Rising, he turned his attentions to the stone-walled paddock that was set a little ways off, just beyond the spot where he'd buried the dead man the previous evening.

Here, things were a little more straight-forward. Judging by the prints left in the mud, the paddock had been home to a sizeable flock of sheep until fairly recently, when the flock had been led away through the the gate that hung open at the bottom of the enclosure. From here, the hoof-prints moved ponderously away across the steppe, accompanied on either side by the deeper prints of mounted horses: four to be precise.

The Ronin's eyes narrowed behind the wolf mask. Between the bone arrow-head lodged in the shepherd's side, the theft of his flock and the drained corpse of his horse, an unsettling picture was emerging. Vampirism, bone-craft and sheep-rustling. A bizarre combination.

Evidently the steppe held its own secrets; secrets he would no doubt run afoul of if he were to cross the craggy expanse and win free of the godscape.

Returning inside the hut, he took a satchel from the night-stand and filled it with the remains of the dead man's stores. Then he turned his face to the north and set off across the steppe.

All that day he walked, moving north across a desolate waste broken only by the occasional stand of trees and the weirdly jagged rock formations that cast their shadows on all sides.

The short grasses that clung to the steppe whipped in the wind that blew constantly from the north. Scrubby bushes huddled alongside streams of melt-water. In the distance, strange, bird-like shadows seemed to flit from rock to rock and weird calls resounded from the jagged peaks as he passed in their shadows.

The Ronin plodded on, his eyes fixed on the horizon, hands never straying far from the hilts of his daisho.

On the evening of that first day, he was surprised by a tall black form emerging from the edge of the fen he skirted and he opened fire with his arquebus, driving the thing back between the reeds with an ear-piercing shriek. Unnerved, he pressed on into the gathering darkness, finally stopping to pass a restless night atop a crag.

The night passed without incident and the sky lightened once more. The Ronin pressed on, dread beginning to build within him.

He walked all that next day. And when he came to pause for food at a copse of trees that crowned a hill, he discovered a weird scene awaiting him there.

The trees stood like withered sentinels, their twisted limbs clutching at the sky. And from these trees there hung a witchy fruit: empty chrysalids the size of rabbits, their translucent forms still clinging to the branches.

Repulsed and intrigued in equal measure, the Ronin forgot his meal of goat jerky and climbed up for a closer look. In the diaphanous membranes that remained he saw a perfect replica of the creatures that had inhabited them: plump, squirming things half-insect and half-mammal, their bug-eyes staring out from an oddly vulpine face. He climbed back down with a frisson of dread to regard the whole. All around him the things hung by the thousand, thickly bunched on every branch.

His stomach turning, the Ronin moved on, eager to get out from underneath the boughs of this weird and gruesome orchard. He hurried down the slope and away into the gathering twilight.

Night came on, a weird golden light piercing the deep blue of the heavens. And with the onset of darkness came the things.

He awoke from dreams of Himeko to find them swarming over him, mewling forms struggling against each other, their mouth-parts seeking for some vent or opening in his armour to the sweet juices within.

He threw them off with a roar and leapt to his feet, the arquebus swinging into place. It crackled in response to his thoughts - KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM! - each blinding pulse freezing the grisly scene an instant at a time-

They moved in stop-motion between each flash of the cannon: things like felines and cicadas combined, leaping lithe and catlike from the spray of light and gore, their red eyes unseeing, moronic shrieks escaping their jaws as the goopy insides of their brethren burst forth from shattered carapaces-

Still they surged on in a rustling, shrieking tide and the Ronin raged uselessly against them, his arquebus crackling and singing as it lit up the night. He stomped them, things the size of cats crunching and oozing beneath his feet. They leapt upon his back, clawing and squealing and he flailed at them with a roar of disgust and rage, his Samurai poise forgotten.

It went on for hours. He struggled through the tide of bodies, his face grimly set behind the wolf mask, horror pulsing in every corner of his brain. But the things could not penetrate his armour, but only paw grotesquely at him, and so he stopped his arquebus, almost half the armour's reserves wasted, to simply wade and crunch his way through their ranks.

Day-break found him on a corpse-strewn field. All that morning he walked among them, a trail of pulped corpses lying in his wake. They screamed at him from the tree-tops, pausing in their rutting to throw themselves down upon him. Crunch! Another oozing feline shell amid the detritus. And on the gore-soaked field the Ronin saw with senseless eyes the drained corpses of the sheep and the horror-stricken mummies of the men who had stolen them. And he began to understand and hate this fallen godscape with a passion that had rarely stirred him.

The afternoon wore on and the things grew less and less. He marched on through the blasted landscape, leaving the nightmare behind.

Dusk came, finding him exhausted and alone. Finally free of the things, he lay down and slept beneath the remnants of the stars. But there could be no respite for him here. For in his dreams it was Himeko, Akihiko and his father, the Shogun, who came again to haunt him, accusation writ large across their cold, dead faces.

It's your fault, Kensho.” They whispered in voices like the rustling of dry leaves. “You betrayed us, Kensho. You betrayed Edo and all that you swore to protect...

After a time they seemed to fade, and he saw the hulking outline of the Beast, black against the infernal flame that raged at its back. He felt its eyes upon him, as red as those of the leaping vampire things, filled with the all the hunger and hatred of the aeons.

He understood then that the rage and misery of this creature had been unleashed upon the world that terrible night a billion years ago, when Christ had been pulled half-dead from the cross, his sacrifice incomplete. And he awoke with a gasp, knowing that the Beast lay somewhere on the road ahead; knowing that he would soon have to face it, and with it, the reckoning of all his sins.

***

On he travelled all that next day beneath cold grey skies, towards the power source and his encounter with the beast. Four nights and days he'd wandered the desolate steppe. And at the end of the fourth day, just as sanity began to return, he met the people of the godscape for the first time.

It was late and the light that streamed down through the clouds was starting to fail. The Ronin was picking his way up a low rise towards a line of bushes when he became aware of sounds coming from beyond them: the gentle whinnying of horses and the rise and fall of human voices.

Instantly wary, he dropped onto his belly and crawled the rest of the way, grateful, for once, that the wind was in his face. Reaching the bushes in silence, he eased forwards to peer out at the source of the noise.

Before him, barely thirty feet away, was a yurt of bound horse hide, roughly circular and about twenty feet across. Beyond it was a wooden-fenced corral in which a herd of horses was at graze: a herd about 100 strong, large and powerful creatures of all different colours. They stood together, whinnying and snorting their disapproval at the four black destriers tied up at the yurt's hitching post. It was here, before the darkened tent-flap, that the yurt's occupant was bargaining with the four huge warriors who had come to take his horses. The Ronin bristled at the sight of them: four men, almost as large as himself, curiously armoured in suits of pale mail. Scales of thick, porous material covered them from head to toe, obviously organic, as pale and white as-

Bone. He thought grimly. Human bone.

The pale colour of the armour stood in stark contrast to the colourful masks the men wore: leering faces of blue, green and red, tongues protruding from wide, fanged mouths, eyes starting forth from their skulls.

The herdsman, of the same type as the dead shepherd, stood helplessly before these bone-clad goblins, wheedling and pleading, his children clinging in terror to the hem his robes. But the goblin-masked warriors would not be denied. They stepped forwards, their hands going to the weapons that hung from their belts and the man caved all at once, bowing with a strained expression.

The warriors sheathed their blades with a contemptuous laugh. Mounting up their horses, they set about the corral. In a few moments they had selected the cream of the herd, each holding the bridles of a half-dozen stallions. These they tied to the saddles of their own mounts. Then, as the herdsman watched helplessly, they led his best horses away into the gathering darkness, laughing as they went.

From his hiding place, the Ronin let out a slow breath.

Best not to interfere, a voice whispered at the back of his mind.

Later, when the lamps of the yurt had been extinguished and the frightened voices of the occupants had died away, the Ronin rose from his hiding place and went silently down to the corral. Taking from the fence-post a leather saddle and a length of rope, he went among the horses, removing his mask so as not to frighten them. Selecting a firm-flanked mare, he took her head in his hands and blew gently into her nostrils to quieten her. Then he led her away from the herd, his heart hammering at each nicker of protest she uttered. He waited until he was a hundred feet or so clear, then saddled her, mounted up and turned her nose towards the north.

As he rode away, he turned back for a final look. A lantern hung before the yurt and he saw the outline of a small form staring after him through the gloom. With a pang of guilt he dug his heels into the mare's sides and urged her away.

He rode all through the night and the next day, his thoughts sloshing around in circular fashion as he reflected on the scene he'd witnessed.

People. Human people. He reflected. Horse nomads dwelling in tents on the corpse of a dead god. Steppe warriors who took the guise of goblins, armouring themselves in bone.

His head rang with the strangeness of it. And yet a thrill arose in him. There were people here, struggling on in spite of the weird harshness of the place. People. Not Homo Dominus, true, but humans nonetheless; his kinsmen, still clinging to life, even now at the end of everything.

But what were they doing here, eking out their lives like parasites on the corpse of this long-dead god? And what of the ghoulish warriors who clad themselves in armour of bone? Who made arrow-heads from the thigh-bones of their enemies and left them quivering in the bellies of defenceless shepherds?

Is this what humanity had come to then? A civilisation of monsters, endlessly cannibalising itself to survive?

Crime and depredation everywhere, he thought in exhaustion. A universe of sin and despair. And now he was a horse-thief, on top of everything else.

Well, so what? The voice came forth again. What difference does it make? To you, who tore down an entire civilisation? To you, who watched your own people burn? What's one more indiscretion on top of all that?

But no. He shook his head with sudden vehemence, defiance rising in him for all his tiredness and the sickness of his soul. No! It had been necessary to take the horse. With it he would gain the power source, get it back to Ibu. Then, with the ship fuelled, he would be able to do something to help the refugees of this fallen place.

Yes. The power source, he thought dully. The power source of which Ibu had spoken. Therein lay all the answers, at least to his immediate concerns.

***

The Ronin rode on towards his object. And as he rode, the landscape began to change.

Gradually the wind lost its chill. Gradually the fens became less numerous, the land grew drier and firmer and the air became warmer. The steppe gave way, turning first to a range of rolling hills and then to a country of prairie, dry and warm. A rutted track appeared by the side of the stream he followed and he made quick progress, driving the mare onwards, alert for signs of humanity. He did not have long to wait. The marks of cultivation appeared on the landscape and soon he found himself riding along a country road flanked by fields of wheat, corn and barley. Barns began to appear, set back from the road, and the outlines of farms showed themselves in the distance.

These changes heartened the Ronin, for he was far from sorry to see the back of the steppe and the prarie showed a much friendlier aspect. And yet there was something wrong here too. For all the homely aspect of the prairie, it stood still and silent: a great sea of yellow, disturbed only by the northern wind.

Presently a farmhouse appeared by the side of the road and he spurred the mare forwards, disquiet growing within him.

Within, he discovered a rough-spun but pleasant homestead of the kind he'd seen many times before on Krokus. A homestead now utterly abandoned. Downstairs, the main room remained as its occupants had left it, hand-made furniture arranged neatly around the range, the remnants of a half-eaten meal still on the table. Upstairs, a solitary teddy-bear lay discarded on the landing; beyond, the bedroom doors hung open, the cupboards and chests within having been hurriedly rifled.

The Ronin returned downstairs and sank into a chair. Outside, he could hear the mare gulping nosily from the trough that dominated the yard.

Abandoned in a hurry, he thought, yesterday or perhaps the day before, judging by the state of decay.

Why?

But dread and exhaustion hung thickly about him and he could not bring himself to puzzle over it. The food of the shepherd's hut was long gone and he was numb with hunger and fatigue. He sat for long moments, his mind fixed on nothing but the flies that buzzed around the half-eaten food. Then he roused himself with an effort and went down to the cellar beneath the house. Here he had more luck. Among the supplies the family had left, he discovered a barrel of salted pork, a loaf of bread that was still good and a half-keg of ale. Taking them up to the house, he cleared the table and settled down to the first civilised meal he'd enjoyed since waking from hypersleep.

He was just beginning to feel human once more when a noise from the front yard disturbed him. The sounds of hooves and the rise and fall of human voices.

He rose from his seat and went stealthily to the window.

Coming up the rutted track that led to the house the Ronin saw four warriors mounted on black destriers, their bone armour gleaming in the god-light. Seeing the mare tied up by the trough, they stiffened suddenly. One of them, evidently the leader, uttered a harsh, guttural challenge, casting about for hidden danger. Another, the smallest of the four, casually drew his bow, and in one swift movement shot the mare through the throat. She reared with a scream, her eyes rolling in agony. Then she fell against the wooden trough, smashing it to pieces. As she rolled and shrieked her death-throes in the waters that gushed forth, the warriors sat back on their horses, laughing softly behind their goblin masks.

Stepping back from the window, the Ronin closed the snarling wolf mask over his face once more. Then, offering up a prayer to his Buddhas, he drew his daisho and stepped out onto the porch.

He strode forwards, a seven foot titan armoured in red and black, his swords gleaming in the god-light. The destriers baulked at the sight of him, almost throwing the warriors, who yelled in fear and rage, fumbling for their weapons.

“I failed to destroy you when your crimes fell upon another and now I have paid the price.” He growled from behind the wolf mask. “Draw your weapons, curs, or die like dogs in the dirt!”

He came towards them, blades extended. But the warriors had heard his voice, and guessing at what it meant, their bows snapped up from behind the necks of their mounts and loosed a volley.

Their arrows hailed down upon him. But the bone-tip points were turned aside by his armour and the Ronin broke into a charge, his voice raised in blood-curdling roar.

Drawing their blades, the goblins rode forwards to meet him.

On the ground, the mare uttered her last breath, eyes clouding over in agony-

Then the combatants met, half a ton of armoured fury smashing into the ranked warriors, and they broke apart before him, their horses wheeling-

He tackled the closest horse, bowling it over with his shoulder so that it fell screaming onto its rider; the goblin warrior gurgled horribly, his lungs collapsed by the force of the impact-

Then the Ronin was spinning to catch the bastard sword that whistled towards his neck, was swinging his fist in a hammer blow-

CRACK!

The blade shattered. The goblin warrior behind it half-fell from his horse; then he was gone, dragged roaring across the yard, one foot caught in the stirrup.

The Ronin turned away, blades spinning back into a defensive posture. Two enemies remained.

One wheeled, his bow drawn, angling for a shot; the other barrelled down towards him, the goblin mask low to the stallion's neck, blade angled for a thrust-

The Ronin made a quick step to the rider's off-side, blades held ready to riposte-

But the goblin leapt unexpectedly, flying high and fast from the horse's back. He hit the ground just beyond the Ronin's blade-tips and rolled, coming up inside his guard. With a scream of triumph his blade flashed forwards-

It struck the scales of the O-Yoroi armour and bounced aside.

There was a moment of shock and rage. Then the Ronin's hands found the man's head and he began to squeeze, the servo-motors whining in protest-

There was a brutal crunch. The man fell to the ground, brains leaking from his ears. The Ronin turned away, disappointment rising in him-

The arrow struck home, straight into the wolf mask's left eye, shattering the protective lens. He pulled it free with a curse as the arquebus slid into place.

KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM!

The targetting display was shattered, its read-outs indecipherable. The second blast found the goblin's chest, sent him tumbling to the ground, a smoking hole where his heart had been.

Cursing, unable to see through the ruined display, the Ronin wrenched off the wolf mask and tossed it aside. Then he sheathed his daisho and strode forwards to seize the last remaining goblin where he struggled in the dirt, a broken leg still trapped in the stirrup. He hoisted the man into the air and tore the goblin mask away to reveal a set of hard, scarred features.

They glared at each other for a moment, the same wild expression reflected on either face.

“So you are a man after all,” the warrior gasped, his legs swinging freely above the ground. “And so you shall die.” The knife flashed forwards, demonically fast. But the Ronin swayed backwards and it whipped past his face. He dropped the man onto his outstretched knee, then reached down calmly and broke both his wrists.

“Now.” He said once the man had finished screaming. “Tell me what is in your heart, you who are about to die.”

“I am scared.” The man gasped, his face growing grey with shock. “But glad too, that you will soon join me in hell. For my brothers draw near and they hunger for human flesh.”

“And what brothers are these? I see no more candidates for death.”

The man licked his lips, nodded with an effort towards the south.

“You are trapped, Wolf. For the Brotherhood Of The Beast approaches.”

The Ronin rose, looked towards the south. There, above the fields he'd ridden past not an hour ago, smoke was rising in great black plumes. The sickly smell of burning corn reached his nostrils in the next instant and he heard the rumble and snatch of voices in the distance.

He turned back to the warrior and seized him with a snarl.

“What do they want? Where are they going?”

The warrior uttered a harsh laugh.

“They ride for the Holy City of Parnassus, twenty miles to the north. There, the Archon shall finally be brought low and his people will be devoured. For my master has discovered the means by which the city walls shall be breached.” The man's features contorted into a grin. “You are caught, Wolf, and there can be no escape. Make peace with your gods, for my master approaches and his appetite knows no bounds.”

Before the Ronin could utter another word, the man made his move, bone-dagger in hand.

In one quick motion he slit his own throat. Then he fell back, his life-blood spilling into the dust. The Ronin turned aside in disgust. As the warrior watched with eyes dim and gloating, the Ronin sprang into the saddle of his mount and turned the destrier charging towards the road.

He came out into the road, dust rising beneath the stallion's hooves as it tossed its head in outrage. Then he dug his heels into its sides and set it racing to the north, towards the holy city of Parnassus.

A half-mile behind him, stretching as far as the eye could see, the Brotherhood Of The Beast rode in bone-white column. At their head a huge, hulking figure rode, a magnificent pair of antlers sweeping from its temples. Behind its mask the Beast's eyes narrowed, seeing every fibre of the Ronin's being revealed in the dark shape that fled before it. Then, an inhuman grin splitting its face in half, it raised its sword with a roar and set off in pursuit, a hundred thousand warriors following in its wake.