Ronin Sequence

GOLGOTHA - PART FOUR

Across the plains they thundered in bone-white column, an unending stream of men clothed in the aspect of monsters. The hooves of their horses struck dust from the road and it rose about them in a shroud, intermingling with the black smoke-clouds at their back.

At their head rode the Beast. Of its huge, human-seeming body, little could be seen. The suit of heavy black plate it wore enclosed it like a shell. A pair of antlers crowned its head, flaring in martial vigour. Below this it wore a mask in the likeness of a screaming human face, behind which only its eyes could be glimpsed, red and predatory, its slanted pupils expressive of hunger and rage. Behind it, riding in V-formation, came its guard of hand-picked warriors, each man painted with the signs of his master's favour. And behind them, riding far to the rear, came the standard-bearer, urging on the bone-white horde that rode in his wake, holding above him a banner of red on black: the outline of an antlered wolf's head streaming in the wind.

So rode the great horde of the Beast, gaining every moment on the figure that fled before them.

The Ronin rode like a man possessed, leaning low over the destrier's neck, his teeth pulled back in a snarl. But though he drove his mount with a reckless cruelty, he was heavy and the horse was unwilling. Slowly but surely, his pursuers were gaining on him.

The miles passed by unnoticed.

A two hundred yard lead slipped to one hundred and fifty. Then a hundred. Then eighty-

Before him the outline of Parnassus rose up from the plain, walls of greenish metal shining in the god-light, its towers rising in tiers beyond. He saw the city's main gate, hugely constructed and resolutely closed. On the battlements above, the arms of the defenders gleamed, their standards waving in the breeze.

A mere fifty yards behind him, the Beast rode at the head of its guard, the rest of the column long since left behind. As if in response to a signal, its guard broke formation, fanned out into the corn fields on either side of the road. They spurred their horses forward, began to break away-

Behind the human mask it wore, the Beast's mouth twisted into a grin.

The Ronin's horse was lathered, foaming at the mouth. It whinnied, tried to slow. But his heels were cruel against its bleeding flanks and the flat of his katana rose and fell on its hind-quarters-

“Yah! Yah!”

On either side of him he heard the thundering of hooves, saw blurred movement among the corn-stalks.

The walls of Parnassus gleamed a metallic green, barely a mile distant. He saw now the cannons that protruded from the battlements; below them, the gate seemed to move-

Then the goblin-warriors were bursting through the corn on either side of him and he was drawing his katana, the arquebus swinging wildly as he ducked his head-

KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM!

Flashes of blue light, the barrel sizzling hot against the flesh of his neck. A body fell from its saddle to tumble to the ground. Thwang! Another loosed an arrow. Then his mount was screaming in agony and he was tumbling from its back-

He covered his head automatically as he hit the ground, the katana flying free from his hand. Over and over he rolled-

Somewhere behind him, the horse fell with a shriek, half-dead, an arrow buried in its breast. Ahead, the riders were coming about with blades drawn, their goblin masks leering. The Ronin rose dizzily to his feet. His katana lay in the dust a few feet away and he stumbled towards it. The goblins made no move to stop him; they drew up in a line across the road, waiting. He snatched up the katana and staggered forwards, his arquebus on the point of discharge-

Behind him came the thundering of hooves.

He dived just in time, an axe-blade whistling past where his head had been. Then the Beast was thundering past, its mount almost stomping him beneath its hooves as it came about to rein up before the guard. For a moment it merely sat calmly in the saddle, exchanging growled words with its warriors. Then, slowly, almost casually, it turned to regard him.

It was the gaze of a leopard assessing its prey.

The Ronin rose panting, katana in hand.

So here we are at last. A voice murmured at the back of his mind. The reckoning of all your sins.

He planted his feet, katana held in a two-hand grip. At his shoulder, the arquebus whirred back into its holster.

The Beast swung down from its mount. Its body was huge – at least eight feet tall and massive across shoulder and chest. Armoured in full black plate, it had the appearance of a war-machine.

It stood regarding him for long moments, a war-axe gripped loosely in one hand. Its voice, when it spoke, was the rasping snarl of the timber wolf translated into human tongue.

“Here we are then, boys.” It rumbled from behind its mask. “Something new for us to play with. A shiny metal man. Tender, no doubt, is the meat within its shell. I would taste of its flavour.”

The goblin-warriors howled their approval, swords raised towards the heavens.

The Ronin's heart pounded in his chest. All rational thought had fled. But there was a clarity in his head, for a warrior's spirit is a thing separate to his mind. He pointed his katana squarely at its chest.

“If you wish to taste my flesh, evil one, then first you must taste my steel.”

The Beast laughed at this – a sound like the rasping of a saw-blade, its warriors guffawing behind it. Then it stepped forwards, hefting its axe in both hands.

“As you wish, metal man. It is all the same to me.”

Something like a spark flickered behind its eyes. Then, with a deafening animal roar, it was charging towards him, axe-blade flashing in the god-light-

He stepped forwards to meet it, his blade rising at the last possible instant.

The Beast lunged – a huge over-head swing. He spun to the right and swatted at its neck. But with a catlike quickness it moved and his blade screeched against a pauldron. He made a quick step backwards-

Thrust. Parry. The sound of wailing metal. They broke apart for an instant, only to come together again in a ringing clash of steel-

The battle began in earnest. The Beast fought with a ferocity bordering on insanity, always on the attack, surging forwards with massive swings of its axe. The Ronin dealt in quick motions and dodges, dancing back before the thing's attacks. He twisted aside, blade flicking up to slash at wrist, elbow, neck-

But it was like fighting against a tank. All he could do was dodge, parry and give ground while the human mask hung before him, the thing behind it roaring for his blood.

Dodge. Parry. Retreat-

He gave and gave, pushed back towards the edge of the road, moving aside before each attack. But a mouse cannot dance forever before the paws of a cat. Just in time he sensed the ditch behind him – saw the flash of triumph in its eyes-

It came forwards with axe raised, intent on toppling him. But he threw himself against it, checking its swing and slashing at its wrists. Then he ducked aside, trying to get around it as it blocked his path with a sweeping blow-

He caught its blade on his own, the servo-motors at his elbows and shoulders screaming against its monstrous strength. Their faces were inches apart. He could feel its foetid breath on his face-

It surged forwards with a roar. But he was already spinning aside, his blade coming around behind it-

ZING!

A section of antler fell to the ground. Then the Ronin was away, spinning madly. He backed quickly into the road, his blade held up before him, breath coming in gasps.

Slowly, the Beast turned to face him. It saw the tip of its antler lying in the dust. For long moments it was still, its axe-blade trembling slightly. The Ronin braced, his teeth bared in a defiant snarl-

The Beast's great shoulders shook. From behind its human mask came strangled barks of mirth.

“HA! HA! HA!”

As it laughed, he felt its eyes upon him, surveying him from behind the mask. There was interest and cunning there, beneath all the burning rage.

“Metal man!” It rumbled. “You fight with the spirit of the fox. You take my strength and rage and use them as weapons against me. There is great skill in this!”

The Ronin said nothing, grateful for this momentary respite. The Beast lowered its axe, took a step towards him, its eyes narrowed behind its mask.

“Let us see what lies within you.”

It made a motion with its hand. There was an agonising pulse and the Ronin was screaming, his blade suddenly loose in his hands-

Across a blood-red canvas a thousand instants fleeted all at once. The Ronin rode on horse-back through the valleys of Krokus, his jaw set as an autumn wind blew through his hair. Now he was overseeing the taking of captives at the rebellion's beginning, his mind held carefully blank as he gave orders to separate the men from their women and children. Now he was on stage at the royal theatre, his sword suspended over the neck of a condemned man. Across the boards stretched the line of prisoners in shackles; his blade rose, gleaming in the stage-lights. And in the royal box the Shogun's face gleamed too.

He staggered backwards, almost tripping over the dead horse.

“You once served a great master.” The Beast said calmly, stepping towards him. “And shackled all of your fire to your master's yoke.”

Its hand moved again and the Ronin roared in misery and pain. He saw the burning villages of the rebels, saw again the massacre he had wrought, the bodies of the children lined up beside the river. He saw his own face reflected in the water's depths, twisting in despair beneath a pale blue moon.

“But your spirit could not bend to the demands put upon it. And so you rebelled.” The Beast's voice drifted lazily through the veil. And the Ronin shook, seeing the rebel army lined for miles across the plain of Kahn. He heard the roar and shake of the artillery through clouds of wreathing smog. He saw distant flashes of fire against the outline of the city. He felt the beat of the war-drums as the army advanced-

“You gave in to me long ago.” It whispered, closer now. “You rebelled against the call of duty, turned your rage upon your own people-”

“No!” He heard himself sob. “No-!”

But the Beast's eyes burned before him, crimson with outrage and pain. And in them he saw the flames of Edo and his own snarling face. He saw his blade rise and fall as he battered his way through the cream of the Royal Guard. He heard the wails of the dying nobility, the death-knell of Homo Dominus as the flames of vengeance tore through them-

And then the Beast loomed before him in all its majesty.

“It made no sense, any of it.” It whispered. “For all the lies about truth, honour and duty, what was real? What did you feel? Only hunger, pain and rage. Renounce your code, Lord Okami. Cast aside the last tatters of your false honour. Stand at my side. Add your blade to mine. In return I offer you release from duty, the fulfilment of all the urges of your soul!”

But there was another memory, gently stirring beneath the terror and rage. The memory of Himeko watching as he'd taken his vows beneath the ancient oak tree at the heart of Edo, tears of pride shining on her cheeks-

He raised his eyes to the Beast's. And for the first time he saw the fear it hid in plain sight: the very fear it mocked on the human face it wore.

A snarl escaped from behind its mask.

“Do not mock me, boy. You are my plaything, willing or not!”

The Ronin shook his head, raising his blade between them.

“I will be your puppet no more.”

He felt its breath upon his face. Behind the mask, he glimpsed the fanged nightmare of its mouth as it twisted in contempt.

“She's dead, fool. A victim of your rage. You think to use her memory as a shield against me? Murderer. Hypocrite. You are insincere.”

The Ronin gave a quiet smile, though his eyes streamed with tears.

“Death is the only sincerity.”

“Then I shall make an honest man of you.”

He nodded sombrely, his features grey with pain and exhaustion. Then he lunged.

The blade flashed in the god-light. But the Beast's black gauntlet closed about it. There was a moment of struggle, the Ronin's armour screaming against the monstrous strength of it-

Then the blade shattered beneath the Beast's convulsive grip, silver pieces raining down towards the ground.

He tried to draw back. But it held him firmly. And then he was struggling, white-hot panic rising as he was drawn inexorably towards the mask of screaming humanity-

From somewhere came the sounds of an outcry and the movements of horses. But neither the Beast nor the Ronin knew anything of it. It gazed into his soul, hunger and longing brimming behind its eyes.

“Now we shall know the flavour of righteousness.” It rumbled, a mailed claw wrenching aside the scales of the imperial O-Yoroi to expose his breast.

“Now we shall know the flavour of steel.” The Ronin grunted. And with a sudden effort he broke the Beast's hold to drive the hilt of his shattered blade into its face-

The jagged remains of the blade struck against the human mask and it flew free. For one instant of pure madness the Ronin saw what lay beneath the disguise. He saw the twisted nightmare that was the Beast's true face, its eyes widening in shock. And his soul trembled at what he saw, and madness pressed its vice-like grip against his mind.

Then he was flying through the air, thrown with terrific force to smash against the ground on the far side of the road, all his wind driven out in spite of the armour's cushioning.

“Master! Master!” Came the shouts of the goblin-warriors.

“My face!” The Beast screamed, clawing wildly in the dirt, a gauntleted claw hiding its monstrous visage. “I must have my face!”

Then it was rising, the screaming human mask clutched to its face with one hand, the haft of its axe in the other. It swayed drunkenly for a moment, casting about for its tormentor. Its eyes met those of the Ronin's and it threw itself forwards with a wordless scream of hatred-

THOOM!

A bolt of purest blue struck it side-on. The Beast shimmered and warped in the miasma, the mask burning behind its claw. Then it was staggering aside with a hiss, smoke rising from its black outline-

The Ronin looked about, his head ringing. He saw riders among the goblin-warriors, their blades rising and falling: men caparisoned in the same greenish metal of the city walls, their faces wholesome beneath the helmets they wore. Then a huge bay stallion was between him and the Beast, its rider's green-scale armour covered in chivalric devices, a heavy beam weapon in the crook of one arm-

The Beast took off with a snarl of rage, a halo of lightning crackling about it. Its mount ran up to meet it and the Beast sprang into the saddle in one quick movement. Then it was away, fleeing towards the line of bone-armoured warriors that thundered towards them, barely two hundred metres away-

The rider wheeled, drew up before the Ronin-

“Get on!” He roared.

The Ronin swung awkwardly into the saddle behind him and they were away, the horse whinnying in protest at the extra weight. They came upon the melee in an instant. The green riders were circling the last goblin-warrior. Wheeling like a cornered wolf, the goblin saw the Ronin's rescuer and sprang forwards with a snarl.

“Archon's bastard! By my hand you die!”

But the rider reached down and plucked up a spear that had buried itself in the ground; in one deft movement, he flipped the projectile about and launched it. It plunged deep into the breast of the goblin-warrior, who fell from his horse with a gurgle.

“Riders, depart! Back to the city walls!” The man yelled, evidently the cohort's captain.

Then the horse surged and they were away, the Ronin holding grimly to the captain as they passed through the mass of broken bodies. The walls of Parnassus gleamed ahead, their greenish surfaces seeming more like mineral than metal. And though his brain pulsed with confusion, the Ronin saw the clean-lined quality of those walls and the buildings that rose gracefully behind them, and he was struck by the masterful force that seemed to emanate from the whole.

“Yah! Yah!” Came the captain's voice.

They were riding hell for leather, the other riders drawing up about them, intent on the city gates, barely five hundred metres distant-

But the horse was lathered already, struggling beneath the weight of two riders. It slowed, dropping back towards the line of screaming goblins that drew closer with every instant-

“I'm too heavy!” The Ronin roared over the pounding of hooves. “You've got to let me off!”

The captain shook his head grimly.

“We're almost there. We'll make it!”

The gates drew closer with every second, tall and ornate, inset reliefs gleaming in the god-light. But the horse was trailing and the first of the screaming uhlans was almost upon them-

Arrows whistled past his ears, falling among the riders.

He braced, ready to vault from the horse in the next instant. Then-

“Stay low!” The captain roared.

There was a moment of frozen desperation; a dozen bay horses plunging wildly through the air, the jaws of death snapping at their heels, a thousand jagged blades raised to strike-

Then something was glowing white-hot above the gates; the Ronin just had time to duck-

There was a deafening roar; a wave of unbearable heat. Beams of concentrated energy were lancing over his head to burn and cleave the massed ranks of the goblin-warriors. Wordless screams of agony mingled with the stench of roasting horse-hair-

Then the battle-line was broken, turned back before the fury of the ion cannons, and the riders of Parnassus were clear, streaming in broken column towards the city's high-vaulted walls.

They passed through the gates, a dozen lathered horses with arrows protruding from their withers, their riders sighing and laughing in relief. Then the great emerald gates were groaning shut, pushed by a dozen green-scale men-at-arms. THOOM! They came together, resolute and impenetrable once more. The captain turned about, roared for the gates to be barred and bolstered, for all hands to return to the defence of the walls.

The Ronin slid down to the cobblestones, weak and shaky in spite of the assistance of the armour. His mind rang with the strain of wild activity, thoughts choked with adrenalin haze. He saw faintly the grandness of his surroundings: the white cobbled square he found himself in, marbled buildings rising proudly on all sides. From every surface streamed the city's banners – a mailed fist brandishing the cross, purest white on a field of green.

“Well, my friend.” The captain grinned, swinging down from his horse to stand before him. “Whatever manner of man you are, you are a fortunate one. For you have survived the Beast and find yourself alive and whole in this holy place. Welcome to the eternal city. Welcome to Parnassus.”