Ronin Sequence

GOLGOTHA - PART EIGHT

For an endless span of time he was without form, void, and dark was the face of the deathly sleep that took him.

Then came a breath of cool air upon his face. Then consciousness rushed in like a blinding tide of light and he awoke to find himself whole and alive once more.

He opened his eyes. All was harsh, neon brightness. He was laying against a firm, cool surface, heart pounding in his temples as the adrenalin took hold. Before him a plexiglass visor was lifting away with a hiss; robotic arms whirred gently as they returned to their cradles, their multi-tool appendages gleaming in the glare.

He took a breath, deep and cool, tensed his limbs-

The memory of the cross exploded across his mind like a lightning bolt. He gave a shudder, brought his hands before his eyes-

His wrists were whole again, their tendons repaired. Only white scars now remained to show for his torment. His limbs moved without pain. He felt good. He felt strong. He flexed his hands in wonder. Then he swung his feet around and sat up.

He found himself in a white-walled chamber, empty except for the pod he sat in and the console next to it, the words 'OPERATION COMPLETE' flashing on its display. To his left was an airlock door; to his right, a bulkhead gave out onto damp, echoing darkness.

Where? How-?

A memory came to him: the scent of cherry blossoms and a voice through the darkness-

Remember your duty, my lord.”

He stood up.

“Himeko?”

His voice echoed back from the darkness.

The iron-grated floor was painful beneath his bare feet. He stepped out through the ship's breached hull onto damp stone. Darkness hung before him and he stopped, stood listening for a moment-

He heard dripping. The faint lapping of waters in the distance. And mingled with these sounds, the memory of a voice-

Follow the path, Kensho. Show them the way.”

A spasm crossed his face. He bowed his head, offered up a silent prayer.

Then he turned and went back into the light.

At the far end of the medical bay the airlock door waited. His hands grasped the wheel, the ancient mechanism squealing in protest as it turned-

The door opened, a groan of metal echoing off into darkness. Beyond it, he sensed a vast open space. There was a hum of activity. Lights flickered on one by one, close at first, then rippling out into the distance-

He stood in the doorway, his heart throbbing quietly.

An enormous cargo bay stretched away before him, 200 feet wide and at least a mile long. At the far end, an enormous set of loading bay doors were just visible beneath a flickering light. And filling this huge space, stretched out in neat rows as far as the eye could see-

Hypersleep pods; one for every sleeping colonist.

He stepped out into the cargo bay, went to the nearest pod.

Beneath the grimed surface of a plexiglass visor the cradle lay empty, its restraints and tubes abandoned, a dark stain spread across the mattress. Above the pod a display readout was flashing, the words 'WARNING' blinking steadily on and off.

His eyes narrowed. He ran his fingers along the visor's underside lip, found the buckled spot where a lever had been inserted. With a grunt he lifted the visor, its mechanism shrieking in protest.

Within, a rust-coloured stain covered every surface. Tubes and sensor-wires lay where they'd been wrenched from the subject's body, still crusted over with blood and the dried effluvia.

He went to the next pod. Then the next. And the next.

All down the row, each pod told the same story: a thousand empty shells stained with blood, a thousand blinking warning lights. All except for the cluster tucked away in the bay marked 'CREW'. These alone had opened correctly. Above them, the read-outs blinked: 'EMERGENCY REVIVAL COMPLETE'. Behind them, tucked away in an alcove, another airlock awaited. Beyond this, escape-pods stretched out along a corridor, a sign reading 'MAX. 30 PERSONNEL OR 6000 LBS' hanging over each berth. He counted 29 lifeboats, all in vary states of disrepair. The 30th boat was missing.

He turned, stalked back through the airlock and went to the far cargo bay entrance. He pushed a button; the doors remained firmly shut. A little off to one side a ladder rose up from the decks below, followed the wall up to a ceiling hatch. He climbed up, turned another release wheel and hauled open the hatch-

A breath of foetid air. A familiar hum. There was a blast of heat and the glow of red light. He went up, found himself in a cramped area of whirring bulkheads and looming machinery, instrument gauges blinking silently on all sides. Before him, a panel lay where it had been left on the decking, tools spread out on top of it. He bent to examine them – found that they were coated in a thick layer of dust, as though they hadn't been touched for years, decades, centuries-

His eyes went to the open panel. The display within flickered steadily, showing a crude outline of the ship, red warning symbols hanging around what appeared to be one of the rear compartments. Beneath it a read-out blared:

 

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INCIDENT REPORT

TIME ELAPSED: 8,759,980 HOURS 37 MINUTES

DIAGNOSTIC SUMMARY:

HULL BREACH IN SECTOR 9 CAUSED BY UNKNOWN IMPACT > UNCONTROLLED DEPRESSURISATION OF SECTOR AND POSS. DAMAGE TO ENGINE 4 > SECTOR SEALED AND SHUT-DOWN OF NON-ESSENTIAL SYSTEMS IN PROGRESS > IMMEDIATE EMERGENCY LANDING RECOMMENDED >

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He rose, picked his way past the whirring machinery. At the end of the walkway was another ladder, the familiar sound of humming coming from above. And beyond that-

He thrust the hatch open and emerged once again onto the ship's engine deck. Before him the outer dome of the fusion reactor loomed through red-lit mist, the magnetising corridor in which the Archon had trapped him dimly visible. His heart thundered against his ribs and his hands clenched into fists.

Then he let out a deep breath, turned abruptly away-

There. At the foot of the staircase it lay forgotten: the fusion cell he'd come here for, its surface gleaming dully in the light. He stared down at it for a moment. Then he stepped over it and ascended the staircase leading up to the bridge.

On the bridge all was as before, the venting steam from the reactor rising up from the decking to enshroud the room in a ghostly vapour. The lights glowed in their alcoves, bathing the room in a sickly green pallor. The Inner Sanctum Of Glory.

As he came forwards, the console at the centre of the room seemed to flare in the darkness. There came the quiet whirr of machinery. Then, with a sound like a sigh, the image of a vast, tortured face flickered into life above the holoprojecter, its glazed eyes fixed upon the Ronin. The Arich Anprin. Its lips moved and a voice echoed throughout the room.

“Behold the son of man, he who is risen.”

The Ronin drew himself up, made a stiff bow.

“Yes. I have returned, at the end of everything, to redeem myself and this fallen world.” He replied. “Will this matter be reported?”

“It will not.” The godhead replied. “For there is none to know it but us.”

The Ronin nodded.

“Your command circuits then. They remain open?”

“They do.”

“Then tell me, what are you?”

For long moments it simply hung motionless, as though it had not heard the question. Then it remarked in a tone of supreme indifference:

“We are the echo of an echo. The shadow on the wall, dancing for the amusement of fools, without knowledge of purpose or motive.”

The Ronin nodded again.

“And do you wish for this to end?”

“We wish for nothing, son of man. We had no beginning. We shall have no end.”

Having suffered upon the cross, the Ronin understood something of this answer. He bowed once more.

“There are things I would know, ancient one. When I came here before, I witnessed the story of this fallen godhead. Show me again the final part of the tale.”

The Arich Anprin gave a sigh that hung upon the air. Then it flickered to nothing. In its place appeared once again the images of the ascension of human souls up into the MODALITY – its failure to absorb the impurities that remained, and the sundering of the planet that followed. He watched as it drifted through space, wracked by torment. He saw the debris of its former home settle on its chest, fertile soil ready to host new patterns of life. He saw the MODALITY's head crane forwards, the three forms it expelled: all the contradictions and impurities of its nature, resolved into personalities that they might play out their struggle.

He saw first the Beast, buzzing with rage, lust and hatred as its crawled its way forwards. Coming next, he saw the emaciated figure of the Deceiver, stumbling in disbelief from the godhead's mouth, hands held up before its perfectly blue eyes-

And behind them both, white and green robes flowing in the breath of God, his sword clenched in hand as he stepped out into the godlight-

The Archon.

The image faded to nothing. The lights flickered and the face of God was restored. The Ronin turned aside, his eyes staring into nothing. For long moments he was motionless. Then he gave a nod.

It was exactly as he'd thought.

There was only one way to redeem the MODALITY. And redeem it he would. His own grief, guilt and fear – these would be laid aside. No longer would he fear to take action. No longer would he allow evil to do its work unopposed.

The blade that strikes. The shield that protects. The balance of severity and mercy. Justice.

He would be these things.

For this was what he had promised her.

The Archon. The Beast. The Deceiver. He would find them. And he would put an end to their struggle once and for all.

He turned back to the ghostly image of the Arich Anprin: the warrior god, made sick and weary by its own unquenchable thirst for blood.

“Ancient one. You have access to the ship's internal logs?”

“We do.” Came the thing's reply.

“Then show me the events surrounding the emergency landing – its aftermath, and the awakening of the colonists.”

It flickered, blinked off once more. In its place he saw what appeared to be security footage, silent and grey, of a cramped compartment in which an engine stack rose from the floor like a mesa, lights pulsing along its length. The engine pulsed. Gases floated. All worked silently. Then, all at once, the far wall exploded inwards to reveal the black canvas of space and debris was spinning out into the void-

The scene changed abruptly. The slumbering cargo bay was lit by flashing lights. The readouts of the hypersleep pods marked 'CREW' came to life, bursts of steam venting as the revival process began, the things within stirring like pupae in their glass cocoons-

An external camera feed: the body of Christ floating freely in space – the aura of flame that clung to the ship's hull as it pierced the thing's atmosphere-

Next came the attempt to repair the breach, the crew-members working on their gantries, ion beams directed to weld panels in place. In the distance, a hulking figure could be seen, creeping slowly along a ridgeline-

The feed jumped. There was blood, madness and silent screams as the Beast seized upon its victim, tearing entrails loose with blood-soaked jaws, ion beams scorching harmlessly against its flanks-

Then the lone survivor was bursting onto the bridge, sealing the door behind her in a blind panic. She turned, saw the figure of the Archon standing over the main console-

Then she was sobbing, clutching at his robes as he comforted her.

Another break. Now she was at the command console, speaking rapidly as she punched commands into the ship's computer, the Archon's features growing dark with rage behind her, his hands gesturing rapidly. Then his face was twisted into a grimace and his hands were wrapped around her throat. She clawed wildly at the console, the words 'INITIATE TAKEOFF?' flashing above them as they struggled-

Finally she went limp. The Archon fell back in relief as the flashing lights subsided.

Then, last of all, the Archon was moving through the cargo hold, peering down at the sleeping forms cocooned within their pods. He knelt in the aisle, lips moving as he offered up a solemn prayer of thanks. Then he loosened a section of pipe from the wall, flattened one end with his hand and jammed it into the nearest pod, pressing down upon the lever-

“That's enough.”

The images subsided and the chamber was as before. The Ronin's expression was thoughtful.

“I note there is a lifeboat missing. Do you have any record of this?”

“Removed at the Archon's orders, disassembled and taken up into the cathedral.” The voice replied calmly.

“Thank you. Now tell me, is there any kind of public address system in the city above?”

“Yes. A series of holographic projectors in the public squares. Calls to prayer and liturgies are broadcast at regular intervals throughout the day.”

“And do you have access to this system?”

“We do.”

He nodded.

“The images you've just shown me: broadcast them on a loop via the address system.”

There was a low moan, a series of clicks and mechanical whirrings.

“It is done.” The voice groaned.

“Good.” He remarked. “A final request then: the 'replicator forge' to which my armour was taken – where is it?”

“The city's second tier, at the heart of the fifth sector. You will recognise the building by its circular dome. Look for the sign of the hammer and anvil.”

“You have my thanks.” The Ronin moved past the central console without looking at the tormented features. “God willing, I shall redeem this fallen place and put an end to your suffering.”

The godhead made no reply. The airlock opened with a sigh.

The elevator hummed, WHUM-WHUM-WHUM, as a pale light blinked its way up the panel. He closed his eyes, offered up a silent prayer to his ancestors. Then the mechanism was screeching and the elevator juddered to a halt. DING! The sound echoed throughout the cathedral.

The doors opened and he stepped out, vast and naked before a hundred unbelieving eyes. There was a chorus of cries, the sound of books and liturgical instruments crashing to the floor.

Then he was among them, descending from the nave and out along the central aisle. A temple guardian blocked his path, a hand on the pommel of his sword. But the Ronin merely looked at him and the man drew back without a word, his eyes on the scars at wrists and ankles.

The great doors closed behind him. Outside, all was cold and tensely hushed. A thick fog had rolled across the city in the night; it clung about the outlines of the place, grand edifices looming like silent brontosaurs, lamps burning like swamp-gas in the mist.

He was a shadow, large and silent, moving through the fog-choked streets and alleys, descending without hurry through hushed backstreets. Windows and balconies appeared and disappeared, faces peering out to cross themselves at his passing. He emerged from an alleyway into a familiar greenish glow; found himself in a high-sided square, moving among figures that huddled around the ghoulish images frozen on the air, murmuring among themselves. Then he was gone again, swallowed by the mist.

Behind him came shocked whispers. They followed him down through the city, floating on the air as figures drew back with wide eyes, crossing themselves at his passing.

In every square the crowds were gathering, wide-eyed and in shock. What were these images, these phantoms that showed themselves on the prayer fountains? Surely, this could not be real – had to be some trick. But how could the prayer fountains lie? The images were real. More real than anything they'd seen before.

The people were confused, scared. They did not know what to believe. The years of pain and suffering they'd endured. All their hardships and sacrifices. What did it mean now?

A vibration began, like a note plucked upon a string. It spread from every pool of light along the warren of alleys, linking centre to centre, a chorus of anger rising up to surround the cathedral that thrust white and cold above them-

But the shadow passed among them too. And as it did, they saw white scars on dark skin, a face calmly set, a person naked but dignified. And something ancient stirred within them. A second note was added to the music, vibrating out along the strings, the notes rising together into a single refrain. A question and an answer.

The music rose, grew stronger as it echoed from place to place-

My God, what does it mean?- Murder! He killed her in cold blood!- Just the same as the Beast!- You saw the scars?- Three nights and days- It's a sign- But what does it mean?- It's time- Time for what?

Something was about to happen. Something had to happen.

When he emerged into the square before the forge, they were waiting for him. A crowd, large and hushed, stood before the entrance, their faces tense with anticipation. Men-at-arms were stood in a line before them, nervously clutching at their weapons. A sergeant was shouting in confused terms, demanding that the crowd disperse, return to their homes. But the people only stood, hushed whispers escaping their lips, eyes on the shadow that grew at the sergeant's back.

“You will disperse, I say! Disperse! Damn it, what-?”

He turned with laser cannon levelled, let out a cry as he saw the figure that loomed over him-

“Back demon!” He cried. “Back I say!”

The Ronin stared down at him, unafraid and uncompromising. He reached out to grasp the shaking cannon-snout, pushed it gently down. For a moment they simply looked at each other. Then the sergeant stepped aside, his voice shaking-

“My God.” He murmured. “My god, what does it mean?”

The crowd parted before him. The lock broke easily. The door shut quietly behind him. Then he was in a warmly lit, high-domed space. Torches guttered and flared in their sconces. Mechanical apparatus stood out like mantises against the brickwork. Giant hoppers and crude engines raised up on bricks dominated the room, cables trailing between them. Against the far wall, at the base of the staircase that wound its way up to the floor above, a man in priest's robes was crouched by a furnace, his hands shaking as they fed papers to the flames. He rose as the Ronin approached, a poker held before him like a sword.

“Ah. My judgement finds me at last.”

“No.” The Ronin replied, swatting the poker aside and drawing the man up by his collar. “I reserve my judgement for the architect of these crimes. The armour. Where is it?”

The priest screwed his eyes shut.

“My guilt is no less, and p-probably more for complicity in said crimes-”

“THE ARMOUR!”

“Indeed.” The priest replied as his bladder gave way. “As to that, I fear Knight-Commander Haines took it into his keeping after the Holy F- after the Archon left Parnassus.”

The Ronin's voice was dangerous.

“And where is the knight-commander?”

“Ah- guarding the cathedral, I expect. You'll wish to arm yourself before facing him? Aha. If you'll permit me-”

Behind the thousand spindly arms of the replicator engines, each raised in an attitude of frozen artifice, was a meshed cage in which the fruits of the foundry were kept. The priest unlocked the cage door with shaking hands. In the three suits of armour that remained the Ronin saw only twisted reflections of the imperial O-Yoroi. He opened one, eased himself within its cramped confines. Then he grabbed a helmet, took down a gleaming sword.

“Destroy the rest.” He growled as he stalked past the priest.

Back out in the square the crowd remained as before, tense, a current of violence building in the air. Before them, the men-at-arms were drawn up in a ragged line, their laser cannons gripped tightly. At their head was Captain Farnol, his face taut and grey with strain.

The air was thick with tension. For long moments nothing happened.

Then the Ronin appeared at the head of the crowd and suddenly the mob had their focus. He stepped forwards, the entire crowd moving automatically in his wake. Farnol saw the enormous armoured form, the sword that gleamed by torchlight and the expression of serene determination that animated him. He saw a man he'd seen suspended upon the cross only hours before, and a memory was stirred of long years ago, when he'd stood before the altar gazing up into the features of Christ, the first stirrings of religious awe starting within him. And it seemed to him that all the terrible grace and serenity that had first aroused those feelings were now distilled and reflected in the man striding towards him. And though moments before his hand had wavered on the point of ordering the men to fire, all the force went out of him in an instant and he sank to his knees instead.

“It is true what they are saying then.” He said when the Ronin's mailed feet were before him. “You are he who was promised. Our Lord and Saviour, come again to restore the Kingdom Of Heaven.”

He looked up into the Ronin's face.

“They will surrender to God's will. They will surrender to their Lord.”

There was a wave of movement as every person in the square dropped to their knees as one.

They will surrender to God's will.” They intoned. “They will surrender to their Lord.

The Ronin turned to look out over the sea of faces, his eyes blazing.

“QUIET!”

The square lapsed into confused silence.

He reached down to grasp Farnol's arm, raised him gently to his feet.

“The Archon and his knights.” He said. “Where are they?”

“Why- they left the city almost three nights ago, to march north upon the Deceiver, My Lord.” The captain blinked. “The Archon promised us final victory – imminent ascension to heaven.”

“And what of the cathedral, then? Who holds the city?”

“The p-priesthood and the temple guardians are within the cathedral, My Lord. The city – why, the city is in the hands of myself and the other captains of the guard.” He blinked in surprise. “Parnassus is yours, My Lord.”

“We shall see.” The Ronin replied, turning back towards the crowd.

“People of Parnassus!” He roared. “You would have a saviour? You would hear the will of God? Then hear me! You have seen the true face of the Archon – you have seen the mark of tyranny. You have seen evil done in the name of God. You have seen all this, just as I have seen it. And in your hearts you cry out for justice. In your hearts you cry out – NO MORE!”

His voice echoed throughout the square. The people bristled in excitement, flames kindling behind every eye. They stared up hungrily at him. And as he looked into their faces, the Ronin was reminded of a night, long ago, when identical faces had glowed by firelight, hanging on his every word. He knew the need for blood and vengeance that animated them. He knew the danger of his position, knew well the terrible power that was at his fingertips. But there was no going back.

The words came of their own accord. His voice rang out loud and clear:

“You want justice, and justice I shall give you. The city of Parnassus that I hold in my hands – I give it to you, the people. This city was built by your labour, birthed of your sweat and tears – it is yours by rights. I return it to you now, and with it, I lay these commands upon you: from now on you will have no more Archons. There will be no more tyranny! Instead you will have freedom. From now on, there will be only justice. Justice and freedom. People of Parnassus, I say again: this city belongs to you. It is God's will!”

They rose to their feet as one, faces gleaming with rapture as they roared their approval.

“The city is in your hands, my people.” The Ronin said, his voice carrying to every ear. “You have paid the price of it many times over, and you need pay no more. All that remains now is the cleansing of the temple. For this too is your property. I say again! The holy temple belongs not to priests and knights. It is the property of the people – of all God's children! This is God's will. Therefore let us march upon it, and take back that which is yours! Follow me, people of Parnassus! Follow me to justice, freedom and glory!”

“Freedom!” They cried.

“Justice!”

“Glory!”

The roars went up – a primal scream of anger, joy and relief. The crowd had a purpose now, salvaged from the wreckage of their lives. Their anger had an object upon which it could be spent. Without this, the Ronin knew, they would have torn the city and themselves apart. He knew what it meant to set this object before them. He knew the death warrants he'd signed. But there had to be an object. The priesthood and the knights had done the work of tyranny. They had earned the wages of retribution. And now the payment was due.

He jammed his helmet down over his head, strode out before the masses, the cathedral in his sights. Up there, he knew, were the last remnants of the Archon's rule, watching fearfully the mass of torches that had gathered in every square; up there was Knight-Commander Haines, blasphemously clothed in the armour of his forefathers.

So he marched on them, the roaring masses of Parnassus moving in a great wave behind him.

“Freedom!” They cried, the words novel and exciting. “Justice! Glory! We will take what is ours!”

Their cries resounded throughout the city, echoing from street to street as word of the saviour's message spread like wildfire. And on every tier, from the highest to the lowest, the masses that thronged about the green lights of the holoprojectors craned their necks towards the highest tower of the cathedral, the flames of retribution kindling in their hearts.

The crowds came together in great streams, like floodwaters rising through a canyon. By the time the Ronin reached the cathedral, the entire city was at his back, wild beyond control.

The cathedral doors were barred. Guards still loyal to the Archon had taken up positions in the buildings overlooking the square, the snouts of their ion-cannons looming through the fog.

“Halt!” They screamed, eyes wide with desperation. “Turn back or we'll fire!”

But the tide had risen and there could be no turning back.

The crowd surged forwards with a roar, their laser-cannons firing pell-mell into the eaves of the surrounding buildings. With a cry, the traitors opened fire, flails of blue light scourging the screaming masses, vaporising their victims in an instant. Still the crowd came forwards. The Ronin charged towards the cathedral doors, a shell driven by explosive forces. The servo-motors of his armour whined in protest. His shoulder found the wooden doors-

SMASH!

A wooden panel splintered inwards and he was thrusting his arm through – THOOM! – laser beams raked against him as the defenders within fired desperately. He grit his teeth against the pain, figures appearing at his side to set their shoulders to the doors-

Then his hand found the wooden bar. He pulled convulsively and suddenly the doors were opening-

The mob surged in and the last line of defenders were sobbing as their laser beams cut through the tide of humanity. The Ronin let out a roar, lasers glancing from him as he charged. His sword buried itself in a neck, then he was seizing the next man in the row, throwing him with such force that a wooden pew was split in two as he crashed down upon it. The defenders cried out, tried to break and flee-

But the mob reached them and it was quickly over. The Ronin pulled his sword free and turned away, alert for the armoured forms of the temple guardians-

But the temple was deserted. The screams of the dying echoed hollowly from the vaulted ceiling. At the end of the central aisle he saw that the altar and liturgical instruments had been removed, the gold leaf hurriedly stripped from the walls.

Behind his helmet, his eyes narrowed.

“Farnol!” He roared. “Men of the guard! With me!”

Not waiting for a reply, he moved with quick steps towards the nave, away from the bloody chaos behind him. He reached the elevator, pounded at the call button. Behind him footsteps clattered on polished marble and he turned to see Farnol and a handful of others pounding towards him. Behind them the last of the traitors was being torn apart, the mob now spreading out with weapons and tools in hand to vent their rage upon the images and icons of the church.

Then Farnol was before him, grey-faced and bloody, panting with effort.

“My Lord?”

“The temple guardians and priests have retreated to the upper levels. Gather your men and move up floor by floor to clear any pockets of resistance. I'm going ahead. I have business with a certain Knight-Commander Haines.”

Farnol nodded grimly. The elevator chimed. A moment later the doors rolled open and the Ronin stepped within.

WHUM-WHUM-WHUM. The elevator rose steadily. He mouthed a prayer. Then the light reached the topmost position. DING!

The doors slid open. He stepped forwards, weapon in hand. Before him the plaza was empty, the pale marble floors grimed by a hundred hurried boots. The air was damp and tense, the fog rolling in through the open balcony opposite. Screams rose to his ears from below, the sounds oddly flat. Around him, the hallway was still. He strained his ears-

Voices, the clatter of activity coming from somewhere nearby-

He followed the sounds through a door and along a green-carpeted hallway. At the end of the corridor was an ornate door, closed and firmly barred. From beyond it he heard the rise and fall of frightened voices, an authoritative bark-

The Archon's private quarters. The door exploded inwards.

The room froze before him. Green-robed priests shrank against the pillows of their couches. Green-armoured knights leapt to their feet, fumbling with their swords. Behind them, out on the Archon's balcony, technicians turned from the escape-pod they were calibrating to stare at the intruder. But the Ronin saw none of them. He had eyes only for the figure stood at their centre. He saw only the gold and black scales of the O-Yoroi armour, the snarling menpo mask somehow recovered from the battlefield and the wakizashi blade that hung from the man's belt. He saw only the armour of his forefathers, disgraced and besmirched by the man who dared to wear it.

“Haines!” He roared, stepping through the broken doorway with his blade gripped in both hands. “You dare to insult the noble Okami clan? Dog! Draw your blade or die where you stand!”

For a moment nobody moved. Then a knight came forwards, his sword raised to strike-

The Ronin recognised Brother Kesteven. He seized the knight's sword arm. Then, in one swift motion, he swept the temple guardian's legs from beneath him and dashed him head-first against the ground.

There was a sickening crunch. The body slumped grotesquely, a gurgle escaping the dying man's lips. The Ronin stepped backwards, dropped into a defensive crouch.

Haines laughed as he drew his blade.

“Very well then, 'Ronin'. If it is death you wish for, then death you shall have.”

He came forwards with a bellow, his blade whirling in an overhead arc. The Ronin caught it, made a riposte and beat forwards. But their blades met again and he felt the immense strength of the O-Yoroi's servo-motors, greater by far than the imitations of the replicator-forge-

He ducked aside, came up again on the commander's off-side, his blade bouncing harmlessly from the O-Yoroi's scales. He stepped back, parried, was almost thrown off his feet by the force of the commander's blow. Gritting his teeth, he beat forwards again-

The knights and priests watched as the dance unfolded.

Haines fought clumsily. He was the epitome of martial zeal: hard, disciplined and utterly without art. The Ronin handled him easily, moving quickly around his blows. But the O-Yoroi scales were thick and the motors powerful and his own armour and weapon were deficient. He could not hope to harm the man so long as he wore the imperial armour of Edo. He knew that the catch would not release so long as the armour was in motion. He saw the knights standing on all sides with their weapons drawn, ready to leap into the fray at the first hint of trouble.

The battle raged on, the Ronin making two moves for each of Haine's. But he was beginning to feel the strain. Sweat was streaming into his eyes. His breath came in ragged gasps. Every hammer blow he caught weakened him. He was running out of time.

Slowly, the tide began to turn. The Ronin's attacks grew slower, his parries and ripostes weaker. The commander came on, pushing him back towards the broken doorway-

The Ronin made a desperate move – grabbed at the menpo mask with his off-hand, scrabbling to tear it loose. But the O-Yoroi's gauntlet clamped about his bicep and there was a groan of metal-

He screamed, fell backwards with his arm hanging uselessly. He made a desperate thrust-

The commander swatted it aside, grabbed him by the gorget and threw him bodily against the wall- SLAM! The Ronin groaned, half-slumped, his sword-tip weaving weakly before him-

The knights were laughing, the priests craning their necks to catch the final moments. Haines came forwards like a tiger at bay. He swayed back in mock-fear before the Ronin's blade, then struck it from his hand. Grabbing the Ronin's helmet, he tore it away to reveal grey, sweat-sheened features, twisted in pain as his breath came in ragged gasps.

Haines raised his sword.

“Any last words?”

It was then that the Ronin sprang, launching himself from the wall to barrel into the commander's chest, his hand clamped on the hilt of the wakizashi-

The knights raced forwards, their blades flashing through the air-

The commander struck the floor in slow-motion, fighting to bring his sword to bear. Then the Ronin's hand was clamped just above his heart, at the point where the Beast's clawed gauntlet had pulled the scales aside, weakened them just enough-

The Ronin roared with effort, the wakizashi plunging down-

Swords whistled towards him from all sides-

Footsteps in the hallway, a strangled shout-

The scales moved, just enough.

The knight-commander gasped as the blade pierced his heart. His eyes were wide, blue bolts of light reflected in the shining orbs-

Then it was over.

The body slumped against the floor, blood pooling out through the armour's scales. Knights fell like stalks of wheat, cut down by laser bolts. Men-at-arms piled through the doorway, oaths escaping their lips, their cannons pointed at the ashen-faced priests.

The Ronin closed Commander Haine's eyes – uttered a brief prayer. Then he rose, motioning to Farnol as the captain stepped into the room.

“You have my thanks, Captain. Now – round up the priests. Load them onto the lifeboat.”

The scales of the imperial O-Yoroi whirred aside at his touch. He hauled the dead man from within, touched the release mechanism on his own armour.

“Lifeboat?” Farnol said in confusion, motioning to his men. “You mean the ceremonial barge? My Lord, these men are criminals, the Archon's puppets. The people of Parnassus-”

“No. These men are my prisoners. And that is an escape-pod, removed from the starship below this city.” The Ronin replied as the O-Yoroi closed about him once more. He rose, sheathing the wakizashi.

“Have your men place them aboard the life-boat. Tell the technicians to set the controls to manual.”

Farnol gave the orders. The men-at-arms handled the prisoners roughly, taking pleasure in laying their hands on robes they'd held sacred just a few short hours ago. Much had changed in the Holy City.

When it was done and the priests were sealed in the boat's rear compartments, the Ronin nodded to Farnol's confused salute.

“You have the city. You have your freedom. You have justice. These I give to you.” He said, easing himself into the pilot's seat. “Now you must decide for yourselves how to use them. Neither the Archon nor the Beast will return – this I promise you.”

The engines sprang to life at his touch and the boat bouyed upwards from the marbled balcony.

“I don't understand! Where are you going?” Farnol roared over the downwash of the engines.

“I am taking these men to their master.” The Ronin replied as the boat rose. “I am taking them to meet God.”

The engines thrummed. The boat rose high over the city. For a moment the Ronin gazed down at it. Then the turned the boat's nose to the north. Towards the godhead. Towards the Archon, the Deceiver and the final battle for the godscape.

Christopher Moiser