Ronin Sequence

GOLGOTHA - PART SEVEN

While the dome of night held sway and the godhead groaned in the north, the battle for Parnassus raged.

Over the broken city walls they surged, an unending horde of goblin-men clad in scales of bone. At their back the war-cries of their master echoed in darkness and mad confusion; before them, the green-scale men of Parnassus roared their reply, firing wildly across the barricades. Bolts of blue lit up the night, revealing scenes of desperate struggle. Blades rose and fell. Bows twanged and arrows fell swift and deadly silent amidst their foes.

Everywhere men struggled desperately against one another. Everywhere the flames burned and raged. Everywhere the sounds of death rent the night.

The battle raged, held to the first tier of the city. The defenders had the superior strength of their weapons, their fortified positions. But the attackers had the numbers, surging forwards in an endless tide. And as the Beast strode hip-deep among corpses, moving like a dervish among its foes, it saw that the tide was rising. It saw that its victory was at hand.

Behind the mask it grinned. It thrust its blade aloft, gave a great shout-

“Blood, pain and death for all! Death, madness and glory!”

Before it the horde let out a thunderous roar, the noise rolling for miles across the plain. The Beast seized its next victim, tore out a throat with a clawed gauntlet. And all around it, the battle raged on.

Up on the second tier, a pair of bloodied feet were trailing across the cobblestones.

They moved in slow procession, the Archon at their head, his voice leading a dirge. The Ronin's head lolled grotesquely, his naked body supported by his captors. They dragged him through the torchlit streets, the crowd parting before them to kneel and cross themselves. Then they were in the main square and the braziers were being lit, one by one.

The square's edge was formed of the city's inner wall, dropping away to reveal the seething tumult of the level below. Down there, all was madness. The light of the flames reflected in the Archon's eyes and the screams of the dying were in his ears. Then his dirge was done and he turned away, the enemy's arrows clattering harmlessly on the stones around him as he motioned to his knights.

A crude timber cross was was dragged forwards and the Ronin's limp body was raised up, passed hand-to-hand towards the waiting cruciform.

The Ronin knew nothing. Blood dripped from his face and his breath whistled softly through broken teeth.

Then he was being laid on the crucifix and an iron nail was pressed gently against his wrist. The hammer rose-

It hung for an instant, gleaming in the torchlight-

Then it fell.

They held him, four men to a limb, like orderlies restraining a patient as he thrashed and roared and wept. The hammer rose and fell, sending lightning through his fibres at every stroke.

When it was done, they heaved the cross aloft for the Archon to admire. Four iron nails. One in each wrist and ankle, his bones shattered, ligaments torn. His hair hung down across his face and only gasping sobs could be heard as his chest rose and fell in agony.

The Archon smiled. Then he turned towards the battlefield, his face sheened with triumph.

“My Knights! Men of Parnassus! Hear me!” He roared, voice booming across the battlefield. “You fight bravely to defend Christ's kingdom from evil! You fight with faith, for righteous cause! Your faith will be rewarded!”

He cast his gaze across the battlefield, eyes searching for the familiar form. And down amidst the melted battlements, where the Archon appeared but a puppet on a torch-lit stage, the Beast gave a snarl of pleasure and its eyes danced behind its mask.

“Beast!” The Archon called. “Most hated enemy, hear my words! Soon you and your rabble will know defeat! Soon you will receive your judgement! For the Lord God is just and he lends strength to our arms! See the heathen wracked upon the cross! See what becomes of those who oppose God's will! He was weak, impulsive – your earthly servant. But though you sent him like a knife to our vitals, you have failed to wound us. We have taken your weapon and we have turned it against you. From your weakness comes our strength! Behold, the work of God!”

The Archon's voice rang harsh and clear, a note of triumph cutting across the battlefield. For a moment, there was an uneasy silence, the sounds of battle dying away. Then a rumble filled the air, seeming to come from everywhere at once. The ground trembled beneath the attacker's feet. A war-horn sounded from somewhere within the deeps. At the barricade between the first and the second tier, the attackers drew back, goblin-masks turned nervously towards each other-

There came the tramp of metalled heels on stone, a bellowed war-cry-

HAROO! HAROO! HAROO!

Then the barricade was being thrown open, the defenders crying out in wonder as they scrabbled to make way, the attackers falling back with a strangled gasp-

Firelight glimmered from the scales of their armour as they marched in column through the barricade. Thirty armoured titans, each man over seven feet tall in his O-Yoroi armour, spear and shield in hand, a broadsword at his belt. They drew up in phalanx before the enemy ranks, stamped their heels in unison. For a moment, there was a hushed silence, attackers and defenders staring in disbelief at these monstrous apparitions. Then the knight-commander at their head slammed the butt of his spear against the stones and a muffled voice rose from behind the full-plate helm:

“BRACE UP!”

There was a crashing of heels on stone, a clatter of shields drawn up to form a wall, spears pointed out towards the enemy-

Then the spell was broken. With a roar the attackers surged forwards in a tide of bodies. The knights stood firm, their shields braced for impact-

With a deafening crash the horde smashed into the line. The attackers surged, pushing forwards-

Axe-blades bounced from metal shields. Arrows whistled down to clatter uselessly from armoured scales. There was moment of deadly struggle. Screams of pain as warriors were pushed onto the spear-tips by overzealous comrades-

The knights gave a roar, confidence growing behind their eyes. The commander's voice rang out again:

“READY EVERYWHERE! PUSH!”

The shields rammed home and the Beast's warriors were repulsed, thrown back across the corpses of their dying comrades.

“DRAW SWORDS!” The commander screamed. Spears clattered to the ground. Thirty blades rose aloft, gleaming by firelight-

“LINE WILL ADVANCE! FORWARDS!”

CLASH!

The sound of thirty war-machines stepping forwards as one. Servo-motors whirred. Boots crunched down on the bodies of the fallen. Blades swung, smashing weapons and shields aside with ease. The line of shields thrust forwards- CRASH! Bone-armour splintered and warriors fell screaming beneath the trampling feet of their comrades. The shrieks of dying men filled the air, mingling with roars of triumph.

The knights were gaining momentum, pushing the horde back before them. Another meter. Another.

From the parapets of the second tier a cry went up, hope gleaming on the faces of the exhausted defenders. And in the ruins of the first tier, the last pockets of Parnassan resistance began to rally, desperately fighting their way towards the advancing line-

The knights were advancing steadily now, their confidence growing with every step. Great flights of arrows blackened the sky. Flames roared. The horde howled its fury, threw themselves desperately against the advancing wall of steel. But it was to no avail. The commander's blade rose and his voice roared out in triumph-

“READY...... CHARGE!”

His sword fell.

As one, the knights broke into a sprint, smashing through the enemy ranks to wreak havoc amidst their foes. From the parapets came an answering roar. Then the barricades were being swept aside, men-at-arms charging with weapons drawn to join their brothers on the field. From its vantage atop the ruins, the Beast gave a scream of rage. Before it, the horde seethed and surged, each man venting screams of hatred. They threw themselves forwards with the savagery of fanatics. But their blades bounced uselessly from the scales of the O-Yoroi armour and in the next instance they were cut down, two more springing forwards to take each dead man's place. And these too died where they stood.

The tide had began to turn. Slowly, the horde was being pushed back.

From the foot of the crucifix the Archon surveyed the battlefield. There was a burst of light and his eyes found the Beast, lit for a moment by a tongue of flame. A flicker passed between them. Then the Archon turned aside with a smile to survey the wracked figure on the cross.

“Ah, my son.” He said quietly, his voice barely rising above the screams and roar of battle. “Is it not as I told you? The will of God conquers all. You could have bowed to it. You could have led the charge against the Beast. It could have been glorious. Instead you chose to disobey. Instead you chose to turn your face away. But you could not escape fate. In you, we found God's chosen instrument of destruction. And now we are unstoppable.”

He fell silent, a smile playing across his lips. But as he stared into the mute giant's face, as he saw the boundless agony there and the iron will that bore it, the smile faded slowly from his lips and his gaze became abstracted.

“Holy Father.”

The Archon turned to the armoured giant that towered over him, a helmet tucked under its arm.

“The replicator has done its work. We are armoured, and the armour is strong. What are your orders?”

Behind the knight-commander stood another fifty just like him, their weapons seeming small next to the hulking figures that grasped them.

The Archon's gaze grew firm.

“Go join your brothers and do God's work. Let no enemy quit the field. I want the Beast captured, brought to me alive. You understand?”

“My Lord.”

“One moment.” The Archon turned with a cryptic smile. Taking up a golden chalice, he held it out to catch the blood that spattered down from the Ronin's wrists.

The knight-commander knelt, servo-motors whirring powerfully in his limbs.

“Blood shall wash out blood.” He whispered as the Holy Father anointed him with the symbol of the cross.

Above, the Ronin groaned through broken teeth, his eyes rolled back to show the whites.

 

***

 

The battle raged all through that night and into the morning.

The Ronin saw and heard little of it.

His great weight pressed down upon the shattered bones of his ankles. Every second was an eternity of agony, every instant was an explosion slicing through nerves pierced by iron and bone. He could not turn away from the pain. Nor could he not prevent his muscles from going into spasm. And this made it infinitely worse.

His great weight pulled down on the shattered remains of his wrists. He felt his hands dying, the nerves twanging one by one like piano strings. He screamed. He sobbed uncontrollably. Then his hands were gone, separated from him as though severed by the blade of a guillotine. He saw them curl like lifeless spiders. He saw the flesh around the iron nails begin to tear and pull. He felt his ligaments and sinews stretch, felt his shoulders being pulled slowly from their sockets-

His chest was constricted. He couldn't breath. His heart raced as though it would explode. And he choked and sobbed, his chest twitching to draw air. His eyes were wide and his brain fizzed and frothed. His body was a ruin. And madness began to take him.

With every second that passed he thought he'd reached the absolute peak of suffering. But then the next one came, and he discovered how wrong he was.

He wished he would go into shock. But he did not.

He wished he would lose consciousness. But he did not.

He wanted to die, would have begged for it, in fact; would have done anything for the torment to end.

But it did not end. The cross would not allow it. The pain had to be borne.

Hours passed like this; finally, he became the pain. There was nothing else left for him to be.

Before him the fires raged and the roars of the victors resounded from the city walls. The Archon's knights were unstoppable. They pushed the horde back, inch by bloody inch, corpses piled high in their wake. At their sides the men-at-arms roared, eager to show their worth. The fighting was hard and costly. From the rooftops and windows arrows rained down upon them. The fires raged unchecked, filling the streets with choking smog. The city was a maze of death. The fighting raged house-to-house, street-to-street, hour upon hour-

By first light the result was clear. Almost half the Beast's forces had broken and fled. The rest were pinned down, surrounded, and the city was firmly in the hands of the Parnassans. The Beast itself was nowhere to be seen, presumed dead, dying or fled.

By mid-morning the butchery was done. The prisoners were rounded up, led out onto the low plain before the remains of the city walls. There each one was crucified – over a thousand men in all, nailed screaming to the sign of the cross. An orchard of death and suffering, arranged neatly in rows. A field of agony, arrayed out in sacrifice to God.

Before the rows of crosses the forces of Parnassus were forming up, grey-faced but exultant, to hear the Archon's words.

“Now is your time, my children.” He rumbled, taking in the sight before him. “In you, I see the glory of all the days of old. I see strength and piety. I see that the race of men is not yet finished – that final victory remains to be won. You shall find your rest in paradise, my children. For only one now stands between you and the Kingdom Of Heaven. The Lord Of Lies. The one known as the Deceiver.”

They stamped and roared as one:

“They will surrender to God's will! They will surrender to their lord!”

The Ronin knew nothing of this, or of the rows of crucified men reflecting his agony out on the plain. He did not see the wagons being hastily loaded or the horse lines being drawn up and saddled. He did not see the forces of Parnassus as they marched in column towards the north, the breath of God upon their tired faces.

Exhaustion had set in. Finally it had become too much. Finally his organs were failing. A grey fog grew inside his mind, covering the pain. Finally, he was dying.

 

***

 

In the Ronin's death-fogged brain, Parnassus and Edo were blending together, two smog-choked graveyards becoming one. And as his mind became confused, as his dying brain echoed with ghosts, a memory rose suddenly, like an iceberg surfacing from cold black waters.

He saw it clearly in his mind's eye, reliving again that terrible morning when the cannons had finally fallen quiet and silence had descended. When the air had been thick with smoke and the chemical vapour of the magazines hung like a funeral shroud across the city.

He'd buried his wife and child beneath a cherry tree in the orchard behind the imperial palace. And he'd heard again the voice of the nightingale singing somewhere far away, a ghost reminding him of all the things that now were gone, passed forever beyond the veil.

Afterwards he'd descended through the ruins of the city, passing the skeletons of buildings and shrines that loomed like black cages through the smog and ash. And once again he was watching as lines of bowed captives were led through the streets: women and court ministers, tall and elegant, crying and moaning as they were dragged with ropes around their necks by the victorious rebel troops.

In the main square the executions had taken place. And here was a memory within a memory. He saw the lines of captives, the rise and fall of the blade. And in them were the ghosts of glamorous stage-lights and the watchful eyes of the Shogun as his own sword rose and fell. But now the Shogun's eyes were glazed, covered over forever by blackened soils. The tyrannical father was dead. But he remained here still. And still the slaughter was going on before his eyes, the very slaughter he'd fought to stop. And he was just as powerless now to stop it or change the hearts of men-

And as he'd stood silently watching this scene, a colonel of the Revolutionary Army had looked up into his face and grinned through broken teeth:

“Well, Comrade Samurai, it appears you've come out on top again!”

He stirred and groaned on the crucifix, fresh fire jolting through his limbs. Suddenly, he knew. He knew that he'd always been there, his whole being transfixed on the cross. And there he would remain, forever.

Two more nights and days passed. Two more eras of agony. Finally, on the morning of the third day, a man-at-arms of Parnassus looked up at the thing on the cross and he said to his companion:

“How much longer do you think? Care to wager on it?”

His companion looked up with a thoughtful expression.

“I've never seen one last this long before. In fact, I've never seen anything cling so wretchedly to life. I'll stake you four shekels he'll last another- Sir!”

The soldiers leapt hastily to attention.

“A damned ghoulish thing to bet on.” The captain growled, returning their salute as he came upon the watch post. “Remember that he was a man like you, whatever else he was.”

“Sir!”

The captain nodded, stood silently for a moment, looking up at the terrible thing that hung upon the cross. He saw the death-like grace of it. The terrible miracle of something unable to loosen its grip on suffering.

He turned his eyes away, spoke in an undertone:

“I'll have no more talk of wagers. He's hung there long enough. Take him down and see that he's buried with the rest of them.”

“Sir.”

The crucifix was lowered, iron nails drawn from flesh the colour of marble. The Ronin knew nothing of it, though he shivered and groaned with fever. Out on the plain, before the melted ruin of the city walls, the Beast's men were being taken down from their crosses, their bodies laid to rest in the great pit the slave crews had dug.

“I just came off stretcher-bearer duty.” The four-shekel man said dubiously, rolling the heavy body onto a stretcher. “If we go back down there the duty sergeant'll have us carting bodies back and forth all morning.”

“Not to worry.” His comrade grunted, taking hold of his load. “There's more than one way to bury a corpse.”

They carried the body to the far edge of the square. Here, a line of sunken buildings marked the spot where a fissure had opened in the foundations, caused by the writhing of the stricken godhead. Carrying their burden down into a cellar, the two soldiers found a yawning abyss into which they cast the body. They stood listening for a moment, heard the sounds of tumbling rocks followed by a distant splash-

Then they turned aside and returned to their post.

Now, it was almost over.

The pain faded and his mind grew as dark as the depths into which he sank. Finally there was only silence. An eternity of nothing. Then he became aware of himself once more and he heard the distant swish of robes, the clash of gongs and the rolling chime of funerary bells. Somewhere in the distance, a storm was slowly raging: the echoes of a brain on the verge of death. Robed figures appeared through the darkness, dressed in kimono and hakama, parading in slow procession, before pausing to stand solemnly before him. These were his Buddhas. When they spoke, their voices were as the rustling of autumn leaves.

“You are here, Okami-san, one sandal already wet. Only one step further, and it is done.”

What was left of him bowed.

“Is it enough?” He asked quietly. “Have I earned the right?”

The Buddhas parted. Behind them was a river. And on the far bank he saw a crowd of ghosts, faces and forms from across all the ages of his bloodline. Stoical figures – tall warriors and emperors. Smiling faces he had not seen since he was a child. And there, stood foremost, his chubby arms held out towards his father-

“Hiko-chan.” He breathed.

He took a step forwards. But the river and the ghosts were gone and instead there came a flash of lightning that threatened to split his head in half. And in the flash he saw the outline of a scene-

He saw the orchard where they'd met in a snatched moment that warm afternoon, when the air had been moist and still, the lingering scent of rain mingled with the cherry blossoms. He, a student at the academy. She, the quiet maiden of his boyhood, now the court's most beautiful flower-

“Kensho.”

Her voice seemed to echo from everywhere at once, through the dark and throughout all time, intertwined with every fibre of his being.

“Himeko.” He whispered.

The lightning flashed and flashed again, the storm of a dying brain. And at each flash he saw her outline draw closer. He heard the birds singing in the orchard and the smell of cherry blossoms in the spring-time, floating on the wind throughout the valley as his lips pressed against hers-

Then she was behind him, so close he could feel her presence. And she breathed the secret name she'd given him that day. And it was more than he could bear.

“I broke my vows. And I broke your heart.” He whispered. “And I buried mine the day I buried you.”

“No, Kensho.” She whispered. “You have broken nothing.” And her voice was as cool and gentle as it been then, in those stolen moments while her companions had called her name through the orchard leaves and his nerves had jangled in his ears, mingling with every syllable of her name.

Still he felt her presence. But now she was distant, somewhere high above him. And as his tears began to flow, his limbs moved in the water, and with the last impulse of a dying brain he began to move up.

“Himeko, No-”

“To die is easy, to live is hard.” Her voice came softly. “Remember your duty, my lord. The universe suffers. You swore to uphold the highest good – to do what was right. Always. Death can wait a little longer, my love. Come.

The dream began to fade. His head broke the surface of the waters, rising from the depths of the underworld. Her voice was fading, the suggestion of a whisper-

Come.

He crawled through the dark towards her on broken limbs, his mind dulled, beyond time, memory and thought. Finally there was the suggestion of a metal grille beneath him, the pain of clambering slowly upwards-

Then he lay against something soft yet firm. There came the soothing hiss of gases and a whirr of machinery.

He felt her hands gently touching at his wounds. Her breath was on his face. He tried to stir, but something cool was flowing through him and everything was fading-

“Follow the path. Show them the way.” She said finally, her fingers moving gently at his ankles and wrists. “Remember who you are.”

“Yes.” He breathed. “I promise.”

Then blackness came. And he was no more.