GOLGOTHA - PART NINE
The boat sailed northwards, a dark silhouette against grey skies, moving with the swift inevitability of death towards the distant godhead.
Below, its shadow flowed in silent pursuit across an endless golden tide, the corn-stalks whipped by the breath of God into waves that flowed for miles. Gradually their tides grew less; gradually the plains gave way to marshy landscape that rose and fell like the flanks of an enormous beast. In the north the godhead sighed and a gale came howling down upon him, causing the air to judder beneath his wings; above, the clouds darkened to a bruising purple, grew up into mighty thunder-heads. There was a moment of silence; all hung in delicate equilibrium before the Ronin's eyes. A bolt of lightning crackled in the distance, its purple light dancing furiously across the clouds. Then the skies opened.
The wind howled and shrieked. Rain crashed against the visor, causing the engines to hiss and spit. Behind the snarling wolf-mask of the Okami, the Ronin's lips drew back into a snarl of their own.
A mountain range loomed dim and ghostly through the rain. Lightning flashed again, followed by an explosion of thunder. In the rear compartments the priests shivered and groaned. Some banged desperately against the bulkheads. But the Ronin paid them no heed.
His eyes narrowed. Through the mountains, illumed by every flash of lightning, a looming shape suggested itself. He slowed the engines, began to descend into the seething mists. Below him, a country of rock faces, buttresses and narrow valleys revealed itself through the wreathing mists. Spouts of water tumbled from high ravines. Trees clung to steep-sided valley walls and streams flowed through the jumble of moss-slicked rocks at the bottom of the valley.
“Almost there.” He murmured to himself.
Somewhere in these passes, he knew, struggling through the wind and lashing rains, the Archon's forces were marching towards their goal. Somehow, he had to find them. Somehow, he had to stop them.
The craft descended- WHOOMPH! He hit an air pocket and a cliff-side lurched into view, alarmingly close at hand-
His eyes swept the landscape. Streams of water spouted through the mists, turned to spray by the wind. Treetops loomed on all sides, swaying madly in the wind. He snarled, his eyes casting about-
Bolts of ion-blue in the distance; the sounds of blasts and distant rockfall. He steadied the boat, revved the engines and tilted forwards. Clifftops weaved on either side. The wing-tips swayed dangerously and the priests screamed and hammered against the bulkheads-
An ion bolt lanced past him, barely missing his wing-tip. It leapt up from the unseen depths below, scoured against the cliff-side and rocks exploded outwards, showering the boat with rubble. He cursed, fought to steady the craft-
There was a flash of lightning. For an instant he saw clearly the crevice where bone-armoured goblins crouched, arrows firing down into the gloom below. Then another ion bolt lanced up and the rock-face exploded, warriors tumbling screaming into the mists. A war-horn blasted somewhere as he fought the wind for control of the boat-
Then the engines throbbed and he was clear, rising high above the narrow gorge. He tilted forwards again, tracked along another mile. Then he came down cautiously into a crevasse and alighted on an exposed outcrop some thirty metres above the valley floor.
Outside, all was pandemonium. The wind howled. Rain whipped viciously against him as he clambered from the cockpit. Muffled voices came from the rear compartment. He slid the door open, barked orders as the priests emerged on shaking legs.
“Your master approaches along the valley.” He roared over the storm. “Go – tell him what's happened. I'll wait for him here.”
The priests made no move. Instead they huddled beneath the wing, their faces screwed up in attitudes of self-pity and hatred as lighting played about the cliff-tops.
The arquebus swivelled into place. Rocks exploded at their feet.
The priests slid down the escarpment and scurried away, their curses echoing from the valley walls.
He took up a sheltered position behind a rock, wary for signs of ambush. Before him was the valley, obscured by the rain and swirling mists. The sounds of battle echoed up from below and lightning crackled about the cliff-tops; occasionally a blue bolt lit up the valley, heralding the Archon's approach. The rain beat against his helmet and steam fogged the lenses of the mask; one was still broken, the targeting system with it. But he could see well enough.
“First the Archon.” He muttered. “Then the Beast, then the Deceiver.”
A flash of lightning rent the air. For a moment all was neon brightness and he saw movement high up on the rock-face: three bone-clad goblins creeping down to surprise him. He rose silently from his hiding-place and swung up onto the lifeboat's wing. The goblins came on, his arquebus tracking their progress as they descended-
The first of the three made the outcrop, stepped forwards in a crouch, an arrow notched to his bow-
KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM KA-THOOM!
Arquebus blasts flew through the air. The goblins fell loudly against the rocks, their corpses twitching grotesquely.
Above them the Ronin tensed, casting about in alarm for the source of the blasts.
Hulking figures emerged from the gloom and mounted up onto the outcrop's surface: six knights in green O-Yoroi, their arquebuses weaving as they cast about for their quarry.
His shout caught them by surprise.
“I command you: no closer!”
The knights bristled, cast about for the source of the warning. But arquebus blasts exploded at their feet and they leapt back in confusion.
A flash of lightning rent the air. Each man saw the armoured figure framed against the clouds. Six arquebuses snapped to, their fingers tense upon the triggers-
But as they saw that starnge figure looming above, a subtle feeling came over them; each man remembered the sermons of his childhood – the bright, stained-glass image of the Christ. And though his teeth were gritted with hatred and duty drove him on, each man found himself unable to fire.
The Ronin's hand moved slowly. The menpo mask was opened.
Then the knights saw the man they'd witnessed being crucified in sacrifice to God; they saw the one who had survived the cross – living proof of God's judgement.
As one they stepped back, their arquebuses whirring into their holsters.
“Yes.” The Ronin's voice rose, calmly and evenly above the storm. “You see that I have returned to you now, at the end of all things. You see that I am the instrument of justice, sent to liberate this world. Archon! You stand accused! Come forth and face your judgement!”
Lightning flashed again. There was the sound of shifting rocks. Then a shape was among them, small and sinister, its sword flashing silvery-purple in the lightning's afterglow.
“Here I am, false messiah.” Its voice came gloatingly. “Come, then – it's time we made an end of this.”
He leapt down to land amidst the knights. Before him the black shape crouched, its blade gleaming in the darkness. There was another flash of lightning and for an instant he saw it clearly-
Robes, ragged and sodden. Eyes, as hard and sharp as steel. A face twisted into an inhuman snarl-
The same twisted madness of the Beast, reflected on its brother's features.
The knights stood back, their eyes darting between the two figures; one was a messiah, the other an antichrist. And it was not yet clear which was which.
“I know the truth about you, Archon.” The Ronin said calmly, his arquebus whirring back into its holster. “I've seen how you enslaved Homo Sapiens to your will. I've seen how you brought misery to this world and its people. I have revealed these truths to the people of Parnassus. Your reign of tyranny is ended. It's over, Archon. I am here to accept your surrender.”
The thing was silent for long moments. Then it spoke in a voice cold and unyielding:
“No. You lie, Ronin of Edo. You have cheated death. You have defied the will of God. You have led my people into sin, defiled the holy temple and dispossessed God's chosen representative. You've done all this. And yet you presume to offer me mercy? I think not. Knights- KILL HIM!”
But the knights made no move. The Ronin drew his blade, stepped forwards with his hand outstretched.
“You will come with me now, Archon. You and your brothers. I will take you from this place; I will set you down on some rock where you can bicker among yourselves until the stars go out. You will relinquish your claim on this world and its peoples. You will do all this willingly, or I will take you by force.”
The Archon let out a high-pitched screech of laughter.
“Will you, by God? Your arrogance is breathtaking! I am the Holy Father – God's anointed champion! This world bows to my will and all who oppose me will be destroyed!”
Its sword flashed in the gloom. It took a menacing step forwards.
“Now step forwards, false messiah, and let us discover where God's favour lies!”
There was a final, quiet moment, thunder rumbling ominously above-
Then the Ronin was lunging into darkness, his sword screaming overhead. It struck against the Archon's blade – found a surprising strength behind it. He pulled back, grabbed for the thing's wrist-
But he found its hand clamped to his own instead. He tried to pull free – found that he could not.
His blade fell to the ground. He lunged for the Archon's throat-
There was a moment of mad confusion. Red warning lights flashed before his eyes. The shouts of the knights echoed in his ears as lightning flashed, made a deafening explosion of thunder-
Then its face was before him – an image of madness, hugely distorted – and its hand was clamped against his gorget, the metal crumpling like tinfoil beneath its grip. The menpo mask came free; it sailed away into the storm. Then he was on his knees, the Archon's hands around his throat, its voice raised in triumph-
“You see? The Lord God has spoken! This is no messiah! It is just a man, a man of flesh and blood – weak and sinful!”
The knights stepped forwards – a cry went up and there was a sudden hurried movement-
“The will of God will not be cheated.” The Archon hissed as the gorget collapsed beneath its grip. “Blood shall wash out blood.”
The Ronin's response was inarticulate.
The storm raged and echoed through the corridors of his brain. His hands clawed madly at its wrists. There was a crunching noise – a dull roaring in his ears. Movement flashed at the edges of his vision and blue lights filled the air. He saw the Archon's mad features, brightly lit for a moment. Then there was a hulking shadow behind it, a pair of antlers outlined against the sky-
In the next instant its hands were gone from around his neck and he crashed gasping to the ground, the taste of blood in his mouth. He groaned, rolled weakly onto his side. There was a cold rush as the O-Yoroi dispensed adrenalin to his bloodstream. The night swam before him, dark and soundless. He put out a hand, rose unsteadily to his feet-
Then sensation came back with a roar, and all was screaming madness. Green-armoured hulks lumbered through the darkness, their arquebuses firing wildly. Arrows rained down from above and bone-clad warriors leapt from the shadows. There was a flash of lightning: he saw clearly the goblins streaming down the cliff-face, dark forms seething across the rock's surface.
Before him was a frantic struggle. The Beast was crouched over the Archon, its claws fastened about the Archon's neck while the thing clawed frantically for the sword lying just out of reach-
The Ronin sprang forwards; he snatched up the Archon's blade and in a single motion thrust it up and through the Beast's armoured chest. There was an ear-splitting scream, a great convulsive thrashing. Then he was on the prongs of its antlers and all was spinning madness as it flung him through the air-
CRASH! He slammed with bone-jarring force against the lifeboat's hull, the metal buckling beneath him. He fell forwards with a gasp, raised himself onto an elbow-
He heard its animal screams, saw the monstrous outline of it writhing in the darkness. He rose with a grimace, stepped forwards to make an end of the thing.
But there came the sound of screeching metal and an instant later the sword was flying through the air to clatter at his feet, the black ichor that coated it hissing against the rocks. The Beast rose and shook itself like an angry bear. Then it let out a furious scream and turned once more to seize upon the Archon.
For long moments the Ronin simply stood dumbfounded. Then he spun awkwardly, caught the blade of a screaming warrior and snapped the man's arm with a convulsive movement. He fell back against the lifeboat's hull with glazed eyes while the goblin writhed and screamed at his feet.
Could nothing harm these monsters?
The battle raged around him. Lightning flashed. Swords rose and fell and wild screams echoed through the valley. The cliff-face swarmed with black forms; on a high boulder-ledge, the O-Yoroi-clad knights stood bunched, struggling desperately against the rising tide of screaming warriors-
The Ronin slumped. All was thrown into chaos and madness. He was no closer to solving the world's problems now than when he'd first taken up his blade against his father's tyranny. His plan faded to a sad nothing and its place he saw, in a flash of perversity, the image of himself straining and heaving a boulder up a sheer mountainside.
But as these thoughts crept darkly through his mind, a whisper seemed to rise up from somewhere, speaking quietly beneath all the madness and horror of the world:
“Never to be outdone in the way of the Samurai; To be of good use to my master; To be filial to my parents; To manifest great compassion; To act for the sake of man.”
He rose with quiet determination, turned away from the inhuman figures still struggling before him and swung up into the lifeboat's cockpit.
This world was a result of Christ's failure – of all the subsequent crimes committed in the name of God. And somehow, between the three personalities that those crimes had birthed, the key to the godscape's redemption lay hidden. He would find that key, even if it killed him.
But it lay not with these two monsters alone. He would need all three to make the trinity.
The engines roared to life. The craft lurched into the air. As he turned the boat around, an ion-bolt rent the air to explode against the cliff-face and he saw below him the Archon's army: column after column of exhausted soldiers, struggling forwards against the elements and monstrous foes towards uncertainty and death, carried on against impossible odds only by their absolute, unshakeable faith-
The Beast's war-horn echoed from the cliff-tops. Its goblin warriors let out an ferocious howl. They surged forwards: an endless stream of ants, almost suicidally determined-
Then the valley was dark once again and the Ronin tilted quickly, guided the craft up and away towards the north.
The storm growled and shook the boat. His thoughts were jumbled and diffuse and he fought hard to master himself, to assume an attitude of no-mind. Gradually the storm died away. Escarpments pressed in to either side. The trees thinned and the boulders grew dry and bare. Above him, the sky lightened and he saw mountain-side shrines through the mists: high fanes of stone and timber on which orange pennants fluttered in the wind.
Then the mists parted and it was as though a veil had fallen suddenly away. He saw the face of Christ, huge and awesome before him, its wracked features rising ten miles high, tears cascading down its cheeks to feed all the rivers of this bitter world. Wisps of cloud made play about the high cliffs of its temples. Its tears were broken into spray by its breath, making a play of rainbows upon his visor.
Beneath him the valley had opened into high meadow, the godhead's tears forming into milky rivers to tumble down through the mountain passes. And at the base of its great chin, beneath the mouth from which flowed the godscape's airs, a terraced settlement was huddled: a slanting, staggered mosiac of rice-fields, villages and stone reservoirs, the tears of Christ running back and forth across their surfaces.
The engines gave a whine; above him, the godhead's nostrils flared, their breath vibrating against the hull. With a final twist of the throttle he descended to the first level of the terraces and landed on the outskirts of a village.
Robed figures emerged from their hovels. He saw shaven heads, orange robes – the broad, dark features and watchful eyes of Homo Sapiens. He swung down from the cockpit and came forwards, hands held up in the universal symbol of peace. A village elder came forwards with a bow, apparently unmoved by his monstrous appearance.
“Good day to you, stranger.” The old man spoke blandly. “You are welcome here. Tell us your requirements and we will aid you as best we can.”
Behind him the villagers stood in neat rows, their heads politely bowed.
The Ronin looked about in confusion. The faded robes and bare feet of the villagers spoke of a simple poverty. Behind them the wattled hovels of the village huddled around a timber-frame longhouse. The smells of cooking rice and manure drifted on the breath of God and the grunting of pigs mingled with the sounds of playing children. At the edge of the terrace, a low wall of piled stones marked the boundary, broken at intervals by ramps leading down to the meadows below.
“Where are your troops?” He asked sharply. “Where are your weapons, your defence against invaders?”
The elder blinked.
“We have no use for such things. Violence is unknown here – forbidden, in a certain sense.”
The Ronin shook his head in confusion.
“Violence comes whether you permit it or not. Where is the master of this place? I must speak with them. I bring news of an enemy force, marching up through the passes to make war upon you.”
A few of the younger figures stirred, their expressions politely pleased. A child clutched at its mother's skirts and the woman picked it up and turned away with a smile.
“Ah, well this is good news indeed.” The elder remarked.
“I mean to say that this the news we've been waiting for for some time. Our master has long informed us that the hour of ascension draws near. 'You shall know by the coming of my brothers that you have reached a state of pure grace such as to arouse their hunger.' By this sign then, we know that the exodus to nirvana is nigh at hand. In truth, sir, we greatly look forward to it.”
The Ronin shook his head.
“You have a means of ascension, then? You have discovered a way to reach the next level of Being – to escape the dying of the universe?”
“Of course.” The elder replied with a slight smile. “We have worked out our karma; by that right we shall ascend into the godhead, return to cosmic oneness.”
He indicated by a slight nod the enormous stone face that loomed far above. The Ronin squinted; only the great buttressed chin, the black ovals of its nostrils and the streaming of its tears were visible from this angle. But as he stared up at it he saw, as if by a trick of the light, an odd line pressed against the chin: the profile of something thin and regular laid against it.
“We have purified ourselves and so we shall be united with the absolute.” The elder was saying. “The hour has come. And now the stairway is made, just as it was promised. All is in readiness. The master shall consecrate the stairway. And then we shall ascend into the embrace of infinity.”
The Ronin shook himself, tore his eyes away from the godhead.
“Where will I find your master?” He asked quietly.
“Why, up at the temple, of course. Where else would Lord Ego consecrate the holy stairway?”
The Ronin turned without a word and raced back towards the boat.
“The fated hour has come, my children, just as Lord Ego promised!” The old man called joyously to the assembled villagers as the boat's shadow fell across them. “We have rid ourselves of attachment and now we shall enjoy our reward! The master will lead us to nirvana!”
The engines whined. The boat rose high above the rice paddies. At the edge of the mountains, several miles back down the valley, the Ronin saw black specks emerging from the high passes – outriders on horseback moving swiftly to ford God's streaming tears-
He turned away with a curse, revved the engines and rose over Lord Ego's domain. The terraces fell away beneath him and he saw clearly what he'd only glimpsed before: a high, narrow stairway rising from amidst the stone buildings of the highest terrace to disappear into the mists that flowed from the godhead's mouth.
He landed in the shadow of the largest building: the great temple of Ego, the staircase rising up above it. He leapt from the cockpit and with a pang of dread, shouldered open a pair of wooden doors.
Within, all was darkness. Choking sage-brush smoke assailed his lungs and a low, guttural chanting reached his ears. His head swam and the image of a spinning lotus flower came unbidden to his mind's eye. He shouldered his way through the cowled, chanting figures of the monks, their attentions directed towards the little pool of lamplight at the centre of the room-
He saw the low rostrum from which the foot of the stairway mounted up. Here a group of senior monks were gathered, their heads bowed as they chanted, smoke rising from the censors swinging on either side of them. And at the very centre of the room, stood importantly on that first step to heaven-
“Ego! Deceiver! Whatever you call yourself!” The Ronin shouted as he pushed his way forwards. “Unholy thing, you will face me!”
The chant reached a crescendo and fell abruptly silent. The monks stepped quietly aside. Then he was at the foot of the steps looking up into the calm features of the Ego. Its blue eyes flashed brilliantly. A pair of thin lips twitched into the barest semblance of a smile as it examined his hulking form.
“Well then, what is it?” It spoke in a voice deep and resonant. “No angel ever entered so rudely into the holy places. Are we a devil then? A lost sheep, perhaps?”
The Ronin stood for a moment looking breathlessly up at it.
Here was the third of the trinity – long-shanked and lank, wide-shouldered and almost impossibly thin. A set of saffron robes enshrouded its body, its limbs lost to view amidst endless folds of cloth. Above, its long, oddly shaped head showed calm, kindly features into which a pair of electric-blue eyes were set, burning with curiosity. And on its shaven pate, completing the impression of the whole, a curious red cap was balanced, its tip nodding agreeably towards him.
“I am the Ronin.” He answered, his voice raised for all to hear. “And I have come to redeem this fallen world. Ego, you have deceived these people. You have led them to believe that they are purified – that they can escape this dying world by climbing up into the mouth of God. And now your brothers draw near and your people are defenceless against them! What do you say to this?”
The Ego only smiled at him, its expression no less benevolent than before. It raised an arm slowly, gestured to the stairway.
“Here is the stairway by which we will ascend. My people have rid themselves of attachment and so they are purified. The proper hour is at hand and we will ascend, just as I promised. And if my brothers come – well, what then? My people need no defences against them. Tell me then, 'Ronin', where is my deception? Point to it, if you can.”
The Ronin shook his head in anger and confusion, taken aback by the thing's kindly tones.
“How can you expect to reach paradise when the godscape remains tormented by evil? How can you be purified without first having brought the world into balance? Evil remains. It approaches along the valley! You cannot enter the godhead and leave this world unredeemed! You must take action. Come with me – confront your brothers before they tear this world apart!”
The Ego smiled at him, its gaze steady and unblinking. It reached out to grip the pauldron of his armour. And as its fingers touched him, its eyes met his own and he felt a deadly calm fall across him. He felt that only he and it existed. Childhood memories came to mind of a hundred quiet moments in which his elders had bent, gently but firmly to impart wisdom to him.
“Ah, Ronin.” It said gently. “You would take the fate of the world on your shoulders, redeem it single-handedly? Do you not see that this is arrogance? You are like a child speaking of things beyond your understanding. You cannot enter my domain and alter the course of events. You are not the master here; you cannot be as I am.”
The Ronin grasped the Ego's wrist, tried to remove its hand from him. But it too had the immense strength of its brothers and he could not shift its grip an inch.
“But what of the evil of the Archon and the Beast?” He insisted. “They are coming here to murder and destroy! Who will oppose them? Who will defend the people?”
The Ego only smiled and shook its head.
“Understand that there is no such thing as evil. There is only suffering. And without suffering, one cannot learn to properly detach oneself – one cannot be purified that one may return to the infinite. Let them murder and destroy us then. They have their dharma, just as we have ours.”
It turned aside, gave a slight nod; the chanting set up once again and the censors began to swing. The Ronin spoke in desperation-
“But you must see, their actions upset the balance! They've killed thousands – tortured and deceived many thousands more, denied them the possibility of ascension! I've tried to stop them, but I'm not strong enough. You are their brother – you must oppose them!”
Ego smiled patiently, turned and stepped onto the holy stairway.
“Murder, torture and deceit – these only harm the giver and not the receiver.” It replied absently. “My people have detached themselves; their souls will fly free upon death to be sniffed up the great nose. Have no fear, lost sheep – all is quite in hand.”
It accepted a censor from an acolyte, began to swing it ponderously back and forth so that cloying sage-brush smoke filled the air.
“How can you refuse to take action?” The Ronin choked. “How can you stand by and do nothing in the face of evil?”
But the Ego only shook its head, refusing now to look at him.
“These attachments are your own, Ronin. I bear no responsibility for them. Now. I must open the stairway that we may return to the higher realms. Nothing matters but this.”
The chanting reached its former plateau; the Ronin's angry cries were drowned out and a wall of monks appeared between himself and the Ego, gently herding him back towards the entrance. The flagstones caught at his boots, his protests were lost to chanting. Then the doors were closing gently before his face, the steady, deep-throated dirge that came from beyond them as impersonal as the blade of a guillotine.
He turned away in shock, his head swimming.
The Archon. The Beast. The Ego. Somehow, the solution lay between these three agencies. But how would he find it? What good was strength and skill against these monsters of obstinance?
But he was already out of time.
Down below he saw it: the telltale signs of fire, smoke rising from the village of the lowest terrace. He ran forwards, saw the valley below – saw the warriors on horseback flitting amidst the flames and smoke, heard the screams and cruel laughter-
The boat rose once again into the sky. For an instant it hung, a black speck before the tortured features of Christ. Then it plunged, engines roaring, the Ronin's primal scream rattling against the visor. It flashed down towards the village, the roar of it growing upon the warriors who ransacked below. Too late they heard its approach. It screamed through the village and a horseback rider disappeared without so much as a sound, his corpse crashing down through the roof of a hovel an instant later. Above, the Ronin swung the craft around, dived towards them like a screeching bird.
But this time the goblins were ready. Their victims were tossed aside, the trinkets of their conquest abruptly dropped. As the shadow fell towards them, they drew their bows, let off a defiant volley-
Most of the arrows fell short or clattered uselessly from the wings. But one found the air intake on the starboard engine and it gurgled horribly for a instant before exploding into flames. The Ronin fought wildly to level the craft. But the ground leapt up to smash into the boat's half-risen nose and he was thrown about like a ragdoll, glass exploding in on him as the craft ploughed through the ranks of screaming horsemen-
The boat slowed – struck against the longhouse and came to rest amidst its broken timbers. There was a moment of ringing silence. Then the Ronin groaned, hauled himself out through the shattered visor and rose unsteadily to his feet. The boat had thrown up a pile of earth, strewn with rotten baulks and the corpses of dead horses. Children were screaming, trapped somewhere beneath him. There were more screams in the distance. Flames. The wild cries of the remaining warriors as they wheeled their mounts about-
He staggered forwards. Shards of glass fell from his lacerated face and his vision swam. A hand protruded from the soils at his feet, opening and closing-
The warriors emerged through the smoking carnage, charged screaming towards him. His hand went to the scabbard of his wakizashi – discovered that both blades of his daisho were now gone. At his shoulder the arquebus jerked erratically; he grabbed hold of the barrel with one hand, squeezed the trigger-finger of his gauntlet with the other.
KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM! KA-THOOM!
The goblins fell like decapitated flowers. The horses ran screaming into the haze.
He turned dizzily to look about him: the village was half in flames, animals and children running and cowering through the streets. There came the far-off sounds of screaming; the sounds of sobbing, closer by-
He bent down, dug with both hands through the rubble heap 'til he found the half-collapsed cellar below, mud-caked, half-naked children cowering within. He hauled them out, handed them off to the villagers as they began to emerge from their hiding places. The village elder was stood with his daughter some little way off, all traces of kindly indifference now gone. His face was grey and sheened, twitching as though on the verge of a stroke.
“Illusion. It's all an illusion.” He muttered, patting at his daughter as she howled over the dead baby in her arms. “A false attachment – ah, to be overcome-”
He squawked as the Ronin seized him, looked in confusion into the wild, lacerated features.
“Wake up!” The Ronin roared. “You are the leader here – organise these people, get them to safety!”
The old man simply nodded, patting at the Ronin's arm. The Ronin thrust him aside in disgust, cast wildly about as the village smouldered and wailed around him, people dragging corpses through the smoke-choked streets to pile them before the ruined longhouse.
“Leave the dead!” He roared. “Take your children and flee! Don't you see? This is just the beginning!”
But the villagers did not appear to hear him.
Somewhere above a gong was ringing, its brass notes reverberating throughout the valley. At the edge of the terrace a group had gathered, murmuring among themselves. He shouldered through the crowd-
He saw the valley before him, green and beautiful, carpeted with high alpine flowers. At its far end, the Archon's army was emerging from the mountain passes: row after row of armoured troops marching up into the godlit uplands, the barrels of their ion-cannons gleaming at their backs. On either side of them white snow-fields reared, and it was down these slopes that the Beast's bone-armoured horde was now descending, their master at their head.
For a moment, the two armies paused. Weapons flashed in the godlight. Pennants flapped gently in the breath of God. They raised their exhausted heads and looked up, blinking in wonder at this high Arcadia, every pulse quickening at the sight of the godhead they'd come to redeem and profane.
Then came the blaring of their war-horns and the armies moved forwards as one.
High above, the gongs were ringing. In the terraces, the villagers began to stir, began to turn their faces up towards the godhead-
The Ronin tore his eyes away from the advancing armies, turned to grab the nearest arm-
“The gongs – what do they mean?”
“The stairway is open.” The woman stammered. “The way to nirvana is open. We are going now. We are called to become one with God.”
The Ronin shook his head grimly.
“Clearly,” he remarked, “clearly, you are not ready for this.”
The woman pulled away with a whimper; behind her the villagers were already streaming up towards the temple, their wounded propped between them.
Down in the valley, at the head of a tattered column, the Archon set its face grimly, turned to urge its troops to greater efforts. Behind its mask the Beast gave an inhuman grin, drew its sword and set its spurs cruelly against its horse's flanks. And inside the temple the Ego turned with a beautific smile, laid aside its censor. Behind it, the holy stairway stood open.
“It is done, my children. The cycle of karma is finished. I have put an end to everything and now the path to ascension lies open.”
And with that, it turned aside and mounted the stairway to nirvana.
Outside, the Ronin was plunging and rising, his horse blowing as he rode hard up the terrace steps, mounting up towards the temple.
Everything was revolving. Everything was spinning out of control. The tri-part nature of Being was forming into yet another deadly pattern.
But he was there, just as he'd vowed to her, determined to finally set the balance.
He knew now what came next. He would have to go, once again, into the depths of hell; there he would find the Ego of this world, its demiurge. And he would redeem it.
He reached the temple doors, dismounted and shouldered his way through the tattered crowd. Before him, the followers of Ego were mounting up the misty steps, eager for their own dissolution. Behind him the forces of Archon and Beast were coming, destruction and tyranny in their hearts. Far above, the tortured godhead wept.
There was no choice. There could be no turning back. He set his foot to the stairway and took his first step into hell.