Thursday, June 26, 2014

Another weird one

So, I had a stange dream last night. It's not the strangest I've ever had, but it was interesting enough for me to remember upon awaking and to put here on the blog. The dream opens with John Lennon and myself walking down the sidewalk in an unknown city on our way to a recording studio. We obviously know each other, though we never speak to one another. After walking a couple of blocks, Lennon stumbles and breaks his leg. Paul McCartney shows up and tells me that I need to carry Lennon the hospital, so I pick him up in my arms and begin walking him to the emergency room. We had covered the previous two blocks when my friend Brandon shows up and asks what I'm doing... "I'm carrying John Lennon to the hospital." says I. "That's not John Lennon. " says he. I look to the person in my arms and it's a female friend of mine (name withheld for privacy sakes) and (as her leg is broken) I say "Well, she still needs to go to the hospital." and I resume my march with her in my arms. We're almost to the hospital when she speaks to me. "Lem, you're the sweetest person I know." I look at her and realize that she's become a different female friend of mine (none of this shapeshifting seemed to bother me)and I replied to her. "No, no I'm not." I woke up at this point with a horrible cramp in my leg.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Marksman

             Part 1 


             The thunder rumbled in the distance, calling for the rain that was sure to follow. The air was already sticky with humidity around the small village, permeating well into the sake house where the two yojimbo knelt in the hall outside one of the bedrooms. Their master, the governor’s tax collector, was having his way with the proprietor’s daughter, her cries muted by the thunder outside.

             Soga Chikikage glanced at his fellow samurai, whose name he hadn’t even had time to learn, kneeling beside him. Chikikage was young; having only recently passing his coming of age tests, and was honored to have been selected to guard the tax collector in his travels, but now, hearing what was happening behind the rice paper walls, he wasn’t so sure. He knew the girl’s parents were in a nearby room and could hear everything; her screams and his grunts. What kind of pain and horror they must be going through was beyond him. He wondered if there was a way to resign his post with honor.

             His reverie was broken by a particularly loud peal of thunder followed shortly by a blood curdling scream from the girl. Leaping to his feet and drawing his katana from its scabbard, Chikikage quickly slid open the door and rushed into the room, his companion right behind him. They found their master, Hoshino Kagetomo, his robes open, slumped over the terrified, naked girl, who was trying to extricate herself from under his bloated corpse. Blood was pouring onto the sleeping mat on which they lay from a wound on his side.

        Chikikage ignored the screaming young lady, spotting, by chance, a small hole in the exterior paper wall. Moving quickly to the wall, he stuck his finger into the hole, about a half inch in diameter, and tore the wall away in one savage motion. Looking across the lane, he spied a small cloud of smoke hovering above the roof of a building opposite of the sake house. 

         “There!” The samurai screamed, pointing with his katana, and ran into the road. He was met in the road by his partner and two more yojimbo who were, in their words, “guarding the sake.”  

        “You two go around to the right and we’ll go to the left.” Chikikage hurriedly suggested, the others agreeing, and they set off to implement his plan.  Running around the building and finding no one, they pause, breathing hard and looking around excitedly for clues to the assassin’s whereabouts. The sound of a twig snapping in the forest before them sent the rushing into the tree line just as the rain began to fall.

        They quickly formed a skirmish line, a dozen paces apart, and began sweeping the woods for their quarry. The rain had become a deluge, obscuring their vision and creating the sound of thousands of feet pitter pattering through the undergrowth. A scream and a thud sounded off to Chikikage’s left, followed quickly by another.

        “Hello?” Chikikage called out to his party, with only the rain answering in return.

        He hesitated, uncertain whether to go investigate the sounds or continue forward. He was afraid, his katana shaking in his hand, when he heard another short cry of pain to his right. That was when primal fear took over, propelling him through the dark and back towards the village. Branches reached from the shadows and clawed at his face, but still he barreled forward, determined to make it to the sanctuary of lantern light he could make out ahead of him.

       Bursting from the brush, he stopped at the edge of the building; it’s eves sheltering him from the rain. He held himself up against the wall, panting from the exertion. He would go to the village headman’s home and have him rouse up the militia. Then they could scour the forest in force and avenge the murder of his fellows and his master.  It was then that he heard the splash of someone stepping in a puddle behind him.

        He turned on his heels to face his stalker, bringing his blade about, but he wasn’t fast enough. He felt a burning sensation across his stomach and a hot wetness spread across his already soaked trousers. Looking down, he wanted to vomit as he saw his guts spill from the hole in his belly and spread onto the ground. Falling to his knees, strangely careful not to kneel on his innards, he gazed up at his killer, rainwater running off the buildings gutter and onto his face.

       The assassin’s face was shrouded in the darkness of a wide straw hat and his dark blue- grey clothes were nondescript, but Chikikage’s gaze was drawn to the killer’s possessions. Across his back was slung a rifle of some kind and in his hands was a bloody katana. A katana that was brought up and down in a killing blow and Chikikage saw no more.


        Part 2


        Maki Yorikane sat on the floor of his room at the inn, carefully oiling and cleaning the snap lock firearm in his lap. The weapon, a Jaeger rifle from Germany, was illegal by order of the Shogun, and was the ronin’s prized possession. He was meticulous in his work and double checked every nook and cranny of the weapon for debris or moisture.

      Satisfied with his work, he slid the weapon into a long, waterproof tube comprised of laminated bamboo. Tying the top securely, he slung the tube across his back, held in place by a length of rope, and prepared to go to the noodle house for dinner. Adjusting the katana and wakizashi at his belt, he pulled his long hair back into a pony tail and journeyed from his room and out into the night, putting on his bamboo hat.

       The night air was still sticky from humidity and the rain from two days before had turned the dirt road into a muddy morass. He tried to avoid the deepest of the mud puddles, but his ratty, old sandals were quickly covered with grit and the legs of his grey trousers were soaked by the time he made it to his destination, a mere hundred meters from his starting point. Removing his footwear at the entrance, Yorikane was assaulted by the sounds and smells of the noodle house immediately upon his entrance. The low hum of patrons talking among themselves melted into the din of dishes being served while the aroma of cooking danced with the smells of the summer. The place was busy tonight.

                Yorikane knew the owner, Munemasa, and waved to catch the attention of the older man, who was talking to a customer. The ronin waited for the proprietor to disengage himself from that conversation, his stomach starting to get restless.

                 “Is the usual okay for you?” Munemasa asked, finally finding the means of escaping the previous conversation.

                “That’s fine.” Yorikane removed his katana, scabbard and all, from his belt and handed it to the elderly man for safe keeping. Munemasa was also the only other person who knew of the contents of the bamboo tube, but he didn’t ask for that. It was too valuable to leave the ronin’s possession. 

The merchant motioned to one of the serving girls before leading the warrior to one of the private rooms; kneeling and sliding the door open for him before entering himself. They each sat, legs crossed, on floor mats on either side of a small table with Yorikane placing the bamboo tube on the floor beside him.

“You did a good job on the tax collector.” Munemasa’s friendly façade gave way to a more conspiratorial one as he dug a small pouch from his vest. There was a clink of coin as it landed on the table. “The client was very pleased.”

Yorikane’s response was stifled by a knocking at the door, which slid back, revealing Umeki, a serving girl. She entered; head bowed, and began setting bowls of noodles, cups, and finally a tea pot on the table. She paused when she saw the coin purse on the table and glanced up at Yorikane, knowing whose bed she would warm that night. He gave her a slight nod in response and then turned back to Munemasa, who waited for the woman to leave before speaking.

“I have another job for you.” The old man spoke, twirling noodles around his chopsticks.

The ronin merely grunted, already wolfing down his food. He never knew when he may be interrupted, based on his line of work, and ate accordingly.

“Three days from now, on the old North Road, there will be a palanquin bearing the governor’s seal.” Munemasa continued. “It will be lightly guarded and you are to kill the occupant and any guards who get in your way.”

“Who’s in the palanquin?” Yorikane asked before taking a sip of the tea, accidentally scalding his tongue in the process.

“The client didn’t say and I didn’t ask. You should know that by now.” The answer was always the same.

“That’s fair enough. I need some more powder and bullets.” The warrior rose, picking up the coin purse and his weapon’s carrier. He opened the door and exited the room, followed closely behind by Munemasa.

“I’ll have that for you before you leave out.” The shopkeeper reached into the closet and retrieved the katana, handing it back to the warrior. “I’ll also send Umeki over to your room, once her shift is done.”

Yorikane merely waved as he walked out the front door, his thoughts already occupied with the new job.

Part 3

The ronin’s breathing was relaxed as he sat behind the tree, rifle sitting across his lap, waiting to spring the ambush. He had arrived the afternoon before, already near penniless due to drink and the ministrations of Umeki.  He proceeded with finding his killing spot and began his long wait, here about a hundred feet from the road and with plenty of concealment. Now, he wanted to complete this job and start the cycle over again.

His attention was drawn to motion on the road. Pulling a small spyglass from his grey vest, he quickly snapped onto a palanquin, borne by six struggling men. Six samurai on foot flanked the conveyance on either side, armed with bows and their traditional daisho.  Returning the glass to his vest, he sighted in his weapon and waited for his targets to get closer.

The first archer went down never knowing what killed him, a crimson flower spreading from his chest wound. The second guard had time to point in the sniper’s general direction before his throat erupted in geyser of gore. The final two, however, managed to pull their bows and attempt to return fire before being picked off one after the other; Yorikane’s reloading and firing the muzzle loader with a practiced precision.

Yorikane left his blind, cautiously picking his way down the hill, rifle in hand. The servants had scattered, leaving the palanquin in the middle of the road and he found this odd. A passenger under the governor’s seal, but with such a light guard and servants that scattered so easily had set his nerves on edge and he needed to know why.

Walking up next to the litter, rifle pointed at the silk screen wall, the ronin called to the passenger inside.

“Open up or I’ll fire” He snarled. “Go ahead and do it!”

“Please don’t.” The low reply came from within, accompanied by sobs of terror.

The warrior, suddenly confused, reached forward with his left hand, still pointing the weapon with his right, and slid the door of the transport open, exposing the weeping young lady. Yorikane was nearly as surprised as this beautiful woman, who clearly wore the robes and make up of a noble, though the latter was smeared with her tears. He began to ask who she was when shouts drew his attention to the direction from whence she came.

A squad of samurai, under the governor’s banner, had appeared from around the curve in the road, and begun to ride towards them, screaming and pulling weapons. Knowing that he held no advantage, he did the only thing he could think of, he grabbed the girl and threw her over his shoulder. He knew that they would have trouble bringing their mounts into the trees and was relieved that only a few arrows zipped by him in pursuit. He needed time and space to think this through.

Part 4

Hisakawa Touya, provincial governor, studied the cherry blossom as he balanced it on the tips of his fingers, the turmoil in his mind in direct opposition to his outer calm. He slowly walked around the ornate fountain that formed the center piece of his garden, casually flicking the small flower into the pool and approached the samurai who knelt on the walk way leading to the governor’s home. He hoped the soldier’s news was better than his nervous demeanor indicated.

“Report” The lord ordered as he picked another blossom from a nearby tree. He sniffed at it while he waited for the young warrior to speak.

“My lord,” The samurai bowed even lower as he spoke. “I have news most grave. Our patrol attempted to catch up with and protect your wife, as you ordered, but…”

“Well?” The governor’s eyebrows climbed in barely disguised anticipation. He always enjoyed when his retainers squirmed before him.

“Her guards were dead and the servants had fled.” The samurai was actively shaking at this point. “Your wife has been kidnapped by a man with what appeared to have been a musket. We’re searching the area now and we’ll find her.”

Touya’s hand instinctively went for his katana before pausing, cold reasoning quelling the murderous rage as quickly as it had risen. He breathed deeply, concentrating on the sounds of the running water and the aroma of his little slice of nature. It was several long seconds before he spoke again.

“See that you find her and quickly.” His composure had slid back into place again. “Kill the son of a bitch who has taken her and return her to me safely. Now go.”

The samurai had bowed and began quickly walking down the path before his lord called out once more.

“Oh, find and execute the servants for deserting her, as well.”

Touya waited a few moments, soaking in the last bit of calm from the garden before making the short trek to his keep. His thoughts were a chaotic mess of anger and questions; what had gone wrong? Where was his wife and why had she been taken? He didn’t even notice the servants as they ducked and bowed, hoping to avoid his ire as he made his way into his meditation chambers and slid the door shut behind him.

The room was small and lit only by a pair of candles that sat on an altar; the only furnishing in the room. Touya knelt down and lit some incense, carefully standing the burning taper in a cup on the small shrine. Adjusting his red kimono, he meditated while he waited for his guests to show. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Hello, Governor.” The voice rasped from the shadows. “We’ve heard that there has been a wrinkle in your plans.”

The nobleman half turned to look at the new arrivals. Strangely, it was not the tall, lean figure, clothed in black from head to toe, a bronze crow mask his only defining feature, which frightened Touya the most. No, it was the speaker, a wizened old woman in a simple blue kimono that scared the warrior. She exuded power and malevolence in equal measure, her kind, grandmotherly appearance making her seem all the more sinister.  The Governor didn’t even know her name, but he knew who she represented.

“A minor setback, I assure you.” He turned back to the altar, inhaling the sweet smoke wafting up from it. “My men will have their heads by tomorrow evening and then I can move on.”

“Your men, though brave and loyal, will not find this ronin. He is subtle and elusive. “Her silky words belied her predatory grin. “ As long as your wife lives, you cannot marry up and improve your lot in the Shogunate. You should have contacted us to start with.”

“I thought the ronin would be a win-win situation.” Touya took a deep breath before continuing. “If he killed her and escaped, he would be seen as a wandering killer. If we captured him after he killed her, then we just execute him and be done with it. I just don’t know why he didn’t fulfill his obligation.”

“The spirits of men are strange indeed.” She purred. “The question now is not why he did it, but, rather, what do you wish to do about it?”

“I wish for you and your clan to finish this job for me.” He offered with little hesitation. “Kill them both and deal with any witnesses. I’ll worry about any political fallout.”

“It shall be as you wish, my lord.” She smirked as she and her companion stepped back into the shadows, vanishing from the room and leaving a palpable chill behind.

Touya closed his eyes tightly, knowing that no amount of meditation could erase his sins from his soul.

Part 5

Hisakawa Tsukina collapsed to the floor of the abandoned mill, exhaustion both physical and emotional threatening to overwhelm her. She looked at her hands, the dust from the floor contrasting with her pale skin and tears began to well up into her eyes again.

“Please don’t hurt me!” She again cried to the dirty, brutish man who had taken her from her entourage a few hours earlier. “Please, I beg you!”

She knew why the man had ambushed her party in the woods. She had heard her husband, the governor, talking to shadowy figures in the night. She had even guessed why she was not sent a full complement of guards this morning when she had left out, ostensibly to deliver a message to one of the local magistrates. She had consigned herself to death, but she had hoped it would be quick and painless. Now, with this man, this ronin with the ornate musket, she now feared he would rape her and kill her slowly, her heart sinking by the moment.

For his part, the man had not said much to her on the way to their present location, mostly admonishments of “Move!” and “Go faster!”, difficult commands for one used to being born everywhere she went. She had fallen several times, only to be picked up and pushed along by him through the woods until they had come upon this place, which he seemed to know. Now, he crouched in the open doorway and watched the descending twilight, looking for any who might be pursuing them.

Tsukina raised herself to a kneeling position, patting some of the dust from her dirty, white robes, frowning at the small tears it had incurred from their flight through the forest. She settled into a prayer position and waited for her fate, which must be soon, judging by the sound of the ronin walking towards her. She waited for the sword stroke that would end her life, but was puzzled by the sounds of her captor rummaging through some junk behind her. Curious, she opened her eyes and turned to look at him.

He was not an overly large man and his dark clothing concealed much of his physique, but she knew his strength from his pulling and shoving her through the forest. His long, scraggly hair was tied back, but it was his eyes, predatory, but with just a hint of sadness, that drew her attention. They gleamed as opals from between his bamboo hat and his short beard.

He had retrieved a small, wooden box that had been hidden under some debris. He brought it with him as he sat down next to her, opening it to reveal a metal flask and some rice balls wrapped in leaves.

“Here, eat this.” He offered her one of the rice balls. “I left this stash here yesterday. You need to eat.”

She took it with a grace that defied her bedraggled looks and gently opened the leaves. She needed the nourishment and she suddenly realized how hungry she was as she devoured the treat. She practically snatched the second one he offered from his hand and she ate it with abandon, as well.

“So, who are you and why was I contracted to kill you?” The warrior’s blunt question was both shocking and surprisingly refreshing to her. She took the flask he held out to her and took a swallow of the vinegary plum wine before answering.

“My name is Hisakawa Tsukina and I am the wife of the Imperial governor, Hisakawa Touya.” She took another swig of wine, its bitter taste helping her mind. “As to why you were sent to kill me? I don’t know. Maybe he loves another? Maybe I have not bore him a child yet? Maybe I just wasn’t good enough?”

The last opened another floodgate of sobs and she leaned forward, into the arms of her would be assassin; a man who could easily finish her now and save them both pain and trouble; a man who instead chose to wrap his arms around her and tried to comfort her, instead. Her final waking memories were of his warm strength and musky, sweaty smell.

Part 6

The silence of the small village was broken only by the barking of a dog as the pair made their way out of the brush. They had slept in the ronin’s hideout overnight and well into the morning, both exhausted from the previous day’s ordeal. After a quick meal and trekking through the woods to avoid the roads, they had made it to what Yorikane had hoped would be refuge for them. Instead, the dead quiet and lack of lights to dispel the lengthening shadows set the Ronin’s nerves on edge. Cautiously, they began making their way to the sake house, the warrior eager to find Munemasa or Umeki; anybody to return his life to a sense of normalcy.

The smell of death assaulted his senses even as he opened the door to the drinking establishment and he signaled for Tsukina to stay back as he entered the building. Striking a match against a wooden post, he lit a lantern and beheld a charnel house. There were a dozen corpses, former patrons, sprawled about on the floor and across tables, their terror contorted faces and bloodied bodies betraying the violence of their deaths.

Yorikane lit several more lanterns in the common room in an attempt to better identify the bodies, but, while all were locals, none were the two people he sought, which perplexed him. Still holding his first lantern, he went back to retrieve the young Tsukina.

“Try not to look at them.” He whispered to her, reaching out and guiding her with a hand on her shoulder. “We’re going to go to the back and find my friend Umeki’s room. She may have clothes that will fit you that are better for travelling.”

Together, they navigated through the maze of the dead, making their way to the hall where the owner and staff would live. Yorikane found Umeki’s door and slid it open, surveying the room where he had spent many an evening in pleasure paid for in hard coin. Everything seemed to be in order; her sleeping mat was rolled out on the floor and her small desk had her make-up laid out with a small mirror sitting on top. It was when the ronin turned to open the small wardrobe closet that movement from the shadows caught his eye, but the figure tackled and bore the man to his knees before he could pull his katana. It was Umeki.

The serving girl frantically grasped at Yorikane’s shirt, her bulging eyes stared helplessly as she tried to breathe through her slashed throat. The ronin held her close, tears welling up as he fought the losing battle to save her, trying to staunch the blood flow with his own shirt sleeve.

“No, Umeki! No!” He cried as she gave one final shudder and went limp. He openly wept for one of the few people to ever show him kindness, even if it was for a price, as Tsukina sat in awkward silence in the corner.  He no longer cared. All he wanted was to vent his rage upon someone who he’d make scream and bleed.

“Whoever did this could not be far.” He finally said, gently allowing Umeki’s body to slide to the floor, hand trembling in righteous fury. “She wouldn’t have lived long with that wound. I will find the bastards and I will kill them.”

“It may be an ambush.” Tsukina cautioned meekly as she respectfully slipped a blanket over Umeki. “Whoever did this knew where to strike at you and who to harm.”

The ronin wiped away the tears and tried to consider her words, but the emotions that flowed through him kept pushing him to thoughts of bloody vengeance. Truth be told, the sound of creaking floors in the main dining hall were a welcome relief for him and he quickly slipped his rifle from its carrying case and stealthily loaded it. Motioning for the young lady to stay put, he rose and quietly entered the hallway, senses on fire.

Tsukina waited a few moments, her nerves raw, until her mind began to wander into dark places. The shadows seemed to hold sinister life and were more menacing, threatening to swallow her whole. She even thought she saw movement in the abyssal blackness behind the late occupant’s wardrobe and tried to explain it away to being alone and with a corpse, but fear took over and she hurried from the room to find her savior.

Yorikane was surveying the common room, rifle up and ready, when Tsukina burst into his peripheral vision, startling him. He half turned and was about to berate her when he noticed a figure standing at the far end of the room; a figure he hadn’t notice a moment ago. He raised his weapon in challenge.

“You there, what are you doing here?” He called out to the figure, which was clad from head to toe in midnight blue. The ronin had heard stories of folk like this masked man; they were called ninja and were reported to be assassins and sorcerers. The stories of their skills in the art of death did not concern the warrior right now. He wanted answers and blood and did not care in which order they were received.

The figure made a quick movement to its right and Yorikane pulled the trigger, thunder and fire filling the room as the bullet flew true. At least, it would have, had the figure not stepped into a shadow, merging with it as the shot splintered a wooden support where the target had just stood. The marksman’s shock lasted only a moment before a weighted chain swung out from a shadow to his left and snared the barrel of his weapon and plucked it from his grasp, sending it flipping through the air behind him. That is when the shadows leapt to life and the wanderer realized he was surrounded by nearly a dozen masked men.

Tsukina collapsed to her knees and crawled backwards until her back was against the wall, the rifle landing a few feet from her. Her fears for her life had been rekindled, even more so than before. She could understand the power of the musket, or the razor edge of the katana, but these killers were unlike anything she had seen as they stepped in and out of the shadows, at times even dropping through the floor and from the ceiling. She could see that Yorikane was holding them off, his blade versus their myriad weapons, but they had numbers and sorcery on their side. How much longer, she wondered, could his courage and skill hold out? Lost in her grim thoughts, she did not notice the older man who reached out from behind his hiding place behind a table to retrieve the fallen firearm and quietly begin to load it.

Yorikane was beginning to tire. The dodging and parrying of the relentless attacks, combined with the swinging at the open air where a foe should have been was pushing him to exhaustion.  He was slowly backing into a corner, sword in a defensive posture against unseen enemies, when a frantic idea for a strategy crossed his mind. Running to one wall, narrowly avoiding a sword blade from a patch of darkness, he blew out the lantern. He did this again and again, zig- zagging and blindly parrying the various blades and chains that struck out at him, six times with the final lantern plunging the room into blackness.

The sudden darkness startled the noblewoman, but she soon understood the tactic as her eyes adjusted to the new conditions. There was enough moon light coming through the paper walls for everyone to be silhouetted but not enough for the shadowy patches the ninjas favored. She could barely make out Yorikane’s shape amongst the others, but she could hear his battle cry before it was drowned out by the screams of wounded and dying men. She almost felt pity for them.

The warrior could help but to smile as his sword lashed out, hewing limbs and cutting flesh. His last foe dying upon his out thrust blade, Yorikane flicked the blood from his blade with a flick of his wrist, scanning the room with all his senses; there was still something amiss, but he couldn’t quite place what it was. He didn’t have to wait long as the lanterns sprung into flaming life, lit by unseen hands and the swordsman spied the tall, crow masked figure standing a few feet from him.

There was something unnerving about this new arrival. The other ninja, now dead on the floor, at least showed some human features, such as exposed eyes and fingers. This one, however, was entirely in black cloth, save for the bronze mask he wore, its recessed eyeholes dark and vacant. This dread was even more apparent to Yorikane as the figure’s arms began to elongate and slither into the shadows, before stopping and slowly retracting, returning with a straight bladed, black sword in each hand.  

Yorikane raised his blade to combat this devilish new foe and was amazed at its speed. The dark figure moved in quick, jerky movements that were difficult to anticipate, as though it flickered through time and space itself. In no time, it had landed several painful, though superficial, cuts on the ronin, the demonic blades as numbingly cold as they were razor sharp. The swordsman thrust forward with his own blade only to meet empty space as the figure dropped into a shadow on the floor and rematerialized behind the man, delivering another shallow wound across his back. Yorikane spun around and lashed out, severing his opponents left hand; a hand that burst into black feathers as it hit the ground and the sword it held melting into inky blackness that oozed back to the shadows.

The warrior’s shock gave the dark figure the opening it needed to use its newly regenerated hand to deliver a palm strike to Yorikane, a cold, eldritch blast that blew the ronin off of his feet and onto his back, landing near Tsukina, his katana clattering to the floor well out of his reach. The humanoid thing strode forward, still flickering in and out of this world and stood over the man, sword raised for a killing blow. The ronin could hear Tsukina praying, finding her sudden acceptance of death strangely comforting to himself. Yorikane closed his eyes and awaited his death.

“Yorikane!” Munemasa screamed from his hiding spot as he threw the Jaeger to his protégé.

The sudden yell startled Tsukina and gave the shadowy killer pause, a pause Yorikane exploited by catching the weapon and placing the barrel where its chin should be. Once again, the weapon’s deafening roar echoed through the hall, blowing a hole through the assassin’s mask and out of its hood.

The mask fell with a metallic clatter and, to everyone’s horror; there was nothing but a gaping hole where a man’s face should be. The faceless thing groped around its head, as though seeking for the missing mask, before finally falling over backwards, exploding into dozens of squawking crows, which took flight past the screaming woman and proprietor and out the door. Yorikane himself was too stunned to make any sounds, he just sat back, exhausted, as he realized the immediate danger had passed. He smiled to Tsukina, who crawled over to him quickly, still shaking in fright, and he put his arms around her, holding her tight. They would survive another day.


Hisakawa Touya slowly walked through his garden, still searching for the inner peace he knew he needed; no, deserved. It had been two weeks since Tsukina’s disappearance and, though he hadn’t received confirmation, he assumed the old lady and her ninja had done their jobs. Certainly, the rest of the province assumed the ronin had killed her and even now no protests were made as he arranged for his new marriage, a cousin of the Shogun, a move that would increase his standing greatly.

Yes, things were good and yet something still nagged at him. A looming sense of dread that things were going too well for him and that he would have to make recompense for his sins. The recompense would come with the sound of thunder on this clear day and a sharp pain in his chest. Looking down, blood poured from his body, dyeing his white robes crimson. His last vision of this world would be to a tree near the edge of his garden, where drifting smoke couldn’t obscure a figure dropping to the ground and escaping into the undergrowth. The governor smiled as he passed from this world and into the next, finally finding the peace he long sought.

The governor’s guards would look in vain for his assassin; never suspecting the three peasants they passed on the road to the Iga province, were the killer and his accomplices, an old man and a lovely, young woman. They never suspected that the loads the commoners carried on their backs hid weapons, including a contraband gaijin gun. No, they did not suspect the travelers any more than the travelers suspected they were being watched from the shadows by an old woman and her companion, a tall figure wearing a silver crow mask.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Death in Dacia

           The rider gently urged his mount further down the forest trail, mindful of the late summer heat. His own tunic was soaked with sweat underneath his mail shirt as he began weighing his options. It was late in the afternoon and darkness came quickly in the dark forests of Dacia, so the man thought to stop at the next suitable campsite. Better that than to blunder through this unfamiliar land at night. He also knew, as tired as he was, the horse would be worse off, carrying a large, armored man in the stifling heat. He spied a likely campsite when he heard a sound which made his blood run cold, war horns.

            His hand instinctively went to the gladius at his belt when he first heard the sound, but his mind turned to flight when he heard the thunderous hooves coming up the trail from behind him.  Slapping his horse on its hindquarters, he shot down the trail, not knowing who pursued him, only that he was outnumbered.  Low hanging pine branches struck at his face and threatened to tear him from his steed as he rushed down the forest path.  Risking a glance at his pursuers, he noted their swarthy features and thick, black beards. “Scythians!” the man cursed to himself and tried to push his mount harder, as he expected little mercy from the nomads.

              The racing figures crashed out of the wooded path and into an open field, the sudden light nearly blinding, even as dim as it was. The warrior thought he may be able to speed away in the knee high grass when his horse stumbled. Pulling back on the reigns sharply, he tried to curse all the gods in one breath, but that breath was better saved as the horse righted itself.  That one misstep, however, was just enough for the Scythians to gain ground and several began tossing lassoes toward him. Two loops flew around him and slid over his chest and pinned his arms to his sides as they tightened. He was snatched off his mount as it tried to carry on with its flight and he slammed into the ground hard. A group of his pursuers continued after his horse, while four stopped to subdue him. He didn’t speak their language, but he understood the kicks and punches and he did his best to curl into a ball for protection.  Seeing no resistance, the nomads secured his hands and feet with smaller lengths of rope and took his gladius and dagger from him. When the other riders returned with his horse, he was blind folded and tied across it and led away by his new captors.

                 It felt like they had ridden for an eternity when he had heard the sounds, a low hum that rose to a chattering and finally to the low roar of a village. His chest burned from lying across the horse’s saddle and his back ached from the animal’s gait. It was almost a relief when his captors released the bonds tying him to the beast and shoved him to the ground, but, blind folded and still bound hand and foot, he had no way to protect himself and fell heavily to the ground. The blind fold was undone and the rest of his bonds were cut, but rough hands held him down and his mail shirt was roughly pulled off, despite his struggles. He was stripped to his breech cloth, with his hands bound once again behind his back, and a noose, attached at the end of a long pole, was slipped around his neck. He was lifted to his feet and forced forward and into the encampment.

            Scythians lined up along the path to hurl what he guessed to be insults at him, as well as food and offal. The lanes between yurts were narrow and he was constantly being slapped and pinched by assailants from within the mass of howling savages. Though he stood nearly a head taller than anyone he had seen thus far, his bonds prevented any defense from the onslaught and he was nearly blind from pain and spittle when he was brought to a sudden halt in a clearing near the center of the camp. Forced to his knees, he saw before him a raised wooden deck, on which sat an older Scythian on an elaborately carved wooden throne.  The chieftain wore grey breeches and a red tunic of fine silk, as well a scale corselet for armor, much like the four guards who flanked him on the deck. All were well armed, with swords at their belts and battle axes in hand. It was the figure just behind the nomad leader that piqued the prisoner’s interests the most, a woman.

              Unlike the few women he had seen so far in the camp, this woman was dressed as a warrior, with scale armor, tunic, and breeches, like the men. Her features were attractive; olive complexion, hazel eyes, black hair, but she had a predatory look to her. Her grip on the haft of her axe was natural and her stance was that of a great cat; relaxed, but ready to kill at a moment. The life of a nomad was a harsh one and it showed in her lean features. The captive locked eyes with her for a moment and something flickered there, a brief smile. Was she mocking him or appraising him?  He didn’t have time to consider it as the older man stood and, waving his hands grandly, began to speak.

            The chieftain seemed quite the orator, though he spoke in Scythian, the man noted how the speaker’s voiced ebbed and flowed and the crowd hung on every word. The mob murmured knowingly during the hushed lines and howled with approval during bombastic interludes. Then, with little warning, the captive was yanked to his feet and pulled through the crowd again. The guards forced him down a different muddy path and to a long row of low, wooden cages. There, he was made to crawl into one of the cages, for they were too small for him to stand upright, or even fully stretch out. He noted that, while there were occupants in some of the other cages, the ones adjacent to him were vacant. This suited him. He would need to concentrate on escaping, if he could, but a pair of guards was always nearby. He tried to relax, as best he could, and waited to see if he would get an opportunity out of his predicament.

              He wasn’t sure how long he had dozed, but the moon was high in the sky when he was awakened by voices near his cell. His interest grew as he realized one of the voices belonged to a woman. He stayed silent and feigned sleep as he heard the soft padding of footsteps coming towards his cell. His ruse was cut to an abrupt end as he was poked in the side with the butt of a spear. He tried to jerk upright and, forgetting how small his accommodations were, hit his head on the top of the cage. This solicited laughs from the woman. The same woman he had seen earlier beside the Scythian chieftain.

            She was dressed as before, though she did not have her axe with her. She did still have long knife at her belt and she held a spear. She handed the latter to the guard and spoke what must have been a command, for he promptly took the spear and walked just out of sight of the pens. The woman dropped to her haunches and studied the man, who was covered now with mud from his nap on the bare ground.

            “Who are you?” The German language sounded unwieldy on her tongue.

              The man hesitated but for a moment. He was curious now. “I am Barius of the Belgae. I hail from the lands North of Gaul and I was travelling in peace before your people ambushed me.” He replied.

             “Tell me, Barius of the Belgae from North of Gaul, what brings you here?” that same hint of a smile playing on her shadowy face. “You’re from one of the German tribes, but your sword and the coins in your purse are Roman. Are you a mercenary? Perhaps you’re a bandit or thief?” Her whispers were accusatory hisses on his ears.” Maybe, just maybe, you’re a deserter?”

              His reply was quick and terse; “One, those charges are rich coming from a Scythian and two, my past means nothing now. I’ve heard of your people and I suspect my end is coming. I only wish for wine in my belly and a blade in my hand, so that I may enter Valhalla as a true man should.”

                She gave a genuine laugh at his statement. “I cannot promise wine for you now, but you’ll have your chance with a blade, I think. “ She rose to leave. “Try and sleep, you’ll need your strength for tomorrow.”

               “What’s tomorrow?” he asked.

               “Tomorrow, we’re recruiting for our war band” was her reply.

              “One more question” he called to her back as she walked away. “What’s your name?”

              “Humaya” replied the shadowy figure. He let her name settle into his mind as he drifted towards sleep. He did not allow the thought that tomorrow could be his last trouble him. What good was questioning the will of the Gods?

             Barius was already awake when the guards came for him; the sounds of the awakening camp bringing an excited droning sound to his cell. The gate was opened and he crawled out; stretching to loosen the cramps in his back and legs. The four guards did not bother to rebind his limbs; rather they walked in a tight formation around him with their hands on their sheathed swords. The group marched to a wooden corral surrounded by a throng of shouting tribe’s folk; some were booing as he approached. Others cheered for him and he soon realized why; three other men, dressed only in loin clothes like him were standing in the corral. This was to be a blood sport of some kind and he was to be a contestant.

                He was already sizing up the other men as he stepped into the ring. Two were Scythians; nearly a head shorter than him, but with wiry muscles. They wore thick beards and the facial scars common to their people. The third man appeared to be Roman and was nearly the same height as Barius.  The man’s barrel like chest was a patchwork of scars and his head was clean shaven. The Belgian marked him as the most dangerous as the crowd quieted.

               The nomad chieftain had taken his place next to the rail; Humaya by his side. The mob listened intently as their leader spoke to them. Even though Barius could not speak their tongue, it was obvious the chieftain knew how to play a crowd. His voice boomed and he knew when to give dramatic pause, as well as to elicit occasional laughter from the crowd. When he finished his speech to the cheering mob, he produced Barius’ gladius and threw it, end over end, so that it stuck into the dirt in the center of the corral. Then, the fight was on.

             Barius leapt over the blade and directly onto the tall Roman; grasping for his throat. His target was unprepared for the sheer savagery of the assault and the Belgian’s weight bowled him over and the barbarian’s hands, strengthened by his momentum, snapped his neck. Barius stood up, consumed by the red rage, and barely saw the two Scythians, one who now held the sword, through the haze of battle. The armed nomad charged with a scream and thrust at Barius with the blade, which was easily side stepped. Catching the nomad’s outstretched arm in the crook of his left arm, Barius simultaneously head butted his foe, shattering nose and teeth, and yanking upward on the sword arm, breaking it. The small man’s muffled scream was cut short by a smashing fist to the throat, crushing his windpipe. The final fighter tried to leap onto the Northman and catch him off guard, but Barius was too quick in retrieving his fallen blade. The Scythian just whimpered as he tried to hold his guts in his newly opened stomach until his throat was slit by the victor.

              The crowd was silent as the warrior held up his hands, covered with mud and gore, and unleashed a victory roar that was as much beast as man. The entire fight was over in a matter of minutes and the crowd was stunned by the display they had just seen. As the exultant roar echoed through the camp, they too screamed and cheered for the champion of the day. Barius let this all sink in as he turned to the chieftain; who first stared back at him with a hard gaze and then, pointing at him, yelled to the crowd. The crowd erupted enthusiastically again and the corral was opened. Barius was led away, not as a prisoner he sensed, but as a friend, and many tribesmen crowded around him to clap him on the back or shake his hand. The sudden change in the crowd, combined with the loss of adrenaline, made his head swim and he was thankful when he was led to a yurt and allowed inside.

             The candle lit interior of the tent was sparsely furnished and what was in there was at odds with his notion of what should be in a nomad’s tent. A large bronze mirror stood across from a large bath tub of hot water and in between was small table with a stack of towels and a small cup of soap. The only thing that truly looked at home was a pile of furs on the floor; his future bed it seemed. No one had followed him into the tent and he noticed no guards outside, though a small crowd of admirers had stayed just within view of the tent. In fact, with all of the confusion, he realized he still held the sword in his hand. Taking one of the towels, he wiped the blood that was still on the blade off and, not having his scabbard, leaned the sword against the tub. He then pulled the tent flap closed and, removing his filthy loin cloth, settled slowly into the bath tub.

              Barius remained in the tub long after the water turned cold; clean and relaxed for the first time in weeks. He exited the tub and stared at his blurry reflection in the mirror. Scars crisscrossed his torso; some from battle, others were reminders of punishment from his time with the Legions. He had also lost weight after deserting, though he was still in good shape.  He idly wondered what his former officers would have thought of his shoulder length, tawny hair and thick beard. He now looked more like his barbarian ancestors than the Romans who had kept him first as a political hostage and then as a soldier.

            So enthralled was he in his thoughts that he did not hear the gentle swish of the tent flaps as they were opened and closed. The unexpected slap on his ass startled him and his subsequent leap brought laughter from behind him. Turning, he tried to bring a towel up to cover himself and came face to face with Humaya. She had a bundle in her arms and the smile of a prankster on her face.

              “You clean up well” she purred, setting the bundle on the table. Unlike her earlier attire, she was dressed in a much more feminine manner; red, silken pajamas with a white, gauzy robe. With her kohl painted eyes and jewelry, she would not have appeared out of place in a Persian palace.

             “I brought you some clothes and your scabbard.” She began to press close to him.

             “I would have thought you’d have a servant do that for you.” Responded Barius, eyeing the beautiful Scythian, who now stalked around him in a circle, studying his lean, scarred body.

             “My people are very…hands on.” She placed a hand on his chest and pressed close to him. “And I wanted…needed to see you.”

              Her scent, now surrounding him, kindled a new fire within him. The fragrant mixture of perfume and sweat ate at his senses and he leaned toward to connect his lips with hers. Her resistance to the act was token at best and soon she responded to the gesture in kind, even more passionately than he, even.  Walking her backwards, mouths locked, he eased her down onto the pile of furs and silken sheets that was to be his…no…their bed. His hands began to remover her garments, exploring her body and seeking her most sensitive parts. It was to be a long night for the both of them.

             The next few days were a whirlwind of activity for Barius, who was now accepted by most of the nomads, though some were obviously patronizing in their attitude towards him. He was taught to be a better rider and how to use the Scythian composite horse bow, neither of which he was particularly good at, considering that his new people were taught these things from their childhood forward. He fared better with the sagaris and kopis, the former a type of battle ax with a spike on the reverse of the ax head and the latter a crescent shaped sword; it’s cutting edge in the concave curvature of the blade.  He even learned some of their language, mostly salutations and obscenities, but he was sure he could pick up on more, later. The nights were, of course, spent in the warmth of Humaya and her passions.

              It was after his first week among the tribe that the chieftain, who Barius now knew as Jomos, called for the tribe to move. The Belgian had something new to learn; how to quickly pack everything to travel. He had learn the basic of this during his time with the legions, but the Scythians made the Romans look like amateurs in this aspect. They began at dawn and, by mid-morning, an entire tribe was ready to move.

              Barius’ horse had been returned to him and he now rode it beside Humaya, who was on her own horse. He was dressed as a Scythian now, with leather boots, baggy breeches, and a long tunic. He still wore his own mail shirt and his gladius and pugio were at his belt. He did now have a horse bow and two quivers of fifty arrows each, though his confidence in his ability with the weapon was still questionable. He was laughing at a joke from his lover, Humaya, when he caught a glare from Jomos, who was riding at the front of the column.

            “Why does your uncle always stare at me with such venom?” Barius looked to the woman who had become so much of his world. “I don’t think I’ve knowingly insulted him.”

              “He’s jealous of you.” Her whisper tickled his ear. “He wants me for himself.”

               “He’s your uncle!” Barius spoke a little too loudly and, embarrassed, quickly lowered his voice at Humaya’s icy grimace. “He cares not for that fact?”

             “It doesn’t matter to him. He’s a drunkard and lecher. He has tried to bed me before, but I dissuaded him with the blade I keep under my pillows.” Her countenance grew cold as she spoke. “Also, my father was chief, so, if the gods bless me with a son, he would be the next chieftain. I have spent years learning to fight as a man to protect myself from my own family.”

            Barius nodded in reply as they lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. He wasn’t certain what to say to her and, even if he did, he didn’t know what her reaction would be. In truth, though he had lain with whores and camp followers, he could not deny that this was the first time that he had developed feelings for a woman and he was a bit frightened.

            He was relieved when Jomos called for a halt to the procession, though his curiosity was piqued as the tribe’s scouts returned and engaged the chieftain in a lengthy conversation.

            “What do you think that’s about?” He turned to ask Humaya, but she was already riding forward to interject herself into the conversation.

            Barius sighed and rode forward, trying to remain a respectful distance, as he was still a newcomer, but close enough to try get the gist of a conversation a language he did not truly know.

            The scouts seemed excited about something they had found, but Humaya acted indifferent to their news, whatever it was.

            Jomos, however, seemed quite interested in the report and he snarled something in their language to his niece, but his eyes were on Barius the entire time, even after punctuating his speech with a harsh laugh.

            Humaya urged her horse from the circle gathered around her uncle and pulled alongside a reddening Barius and his steed.

            “What was that about?” He asked her tersely, his knuckles whitening on the reigns. He did not like to be mocked, particularly when he could not understand the insults.

            “The scouts have seen a small fortress nearby. My uncle wishes for a small group, including you and me, to ride to it and determine if they are friend or foe.”

            “Then what was the laughter about?” He wanted to know, his anger still simmering just below his flesh.

            “He still thinks that you must prove yourself to the tribe and he thinks that you will try and desert us as you did the Romans.” There was a hint of pain and fear in her voice. She was worried that her uncle was right.

            “I make no promises for his sake, but I swear, by the Gods, that I will not desert you.” He reached out and stroked her cheek, a rare public display of affection between the two.

            Their moment was broken by shouted commands from Jomos and a flurry of activity from the Scythians. In short order, most of the tribe began to set up camp while twenty horsemen, as well as Barius and Humaya, joined the chieftain. With a few more instructions to one of his lieutenants, who was staying behind to watch the camp, Jomos led the small expedition out into the lengthening shadows of the Dacian wilderness.

            Barius was on edge. His people held that the night held terrors and his own experiences in Germania did not help. He rode with a hand on the grip of his gladius and his eyes scanning every bush and bough he could see. It stung his pride that the few people he told his tale to, even Humaya, did not believe him, but he pushed this from his mind as one of the scouts pointed out their destination, silhouetted in the now risen moon.

            The fort was a simple affair; a great hall surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade. Barius noted some other smaller buildings, likely a stable and smithy, as they crossed the bridge and entered the open gate. The warrior also spotted several men and women moving about the grounds, likely finishing their chores, one of whom approached the party.

            The man, like the others they had seen, was pale and emaciated, wearing the garb of a peasant. His eyes were wide and moist and stared out from behind his black bangs with just a hint of wildness in them.  He knelt his head to Jomos as the horseman tried to speak to him in the Scythian tongue. The unkempt man replied in a halting dialect of the nomad’s language, which Humaya translated for Barius.

            “He says that he is Dardanos, a servant of Zia, the mistress of this place and that she will welcome peaceful travelers such as ourselves.” She paused, having to decipher his strange accent. “He will lead us to where we can stable the horses”

            “What do you think are your uncle’s intentions?” He whispered as the servant led them into the compound.

            “He will likely look for weakness. If there is one he can exploit, we will return with more warriors and take what we want. If it’s not worth the effort, we will pass the place by.”

            They lapsed into silence as they approached the long, open pavilion, under which they secured their mounts. Barius was no horseman, but he did note that the beasts were jittery. He wanted to ask about it, but the rest of the party had already tied the animals off and begun walking to the wooden keep. He patted his horse reassuringly and jogged to catch up to the others.

            The hall, filled with dancing shadows from the numerous braziers along the walls, was dominated by several long benches down the center of room. These tables were rapidly being covered with platters of food and goblets of drink by the servants for their guests. It was the figure at the end of the table, sitting in an elaborate wooden throne that caught Barius’ undivided attention.

            The woman looked to be in her late twenties; her face pale with just a hint of baby fat still on her and dark, reddish- brown hair. Her burgundy robes announced her noble roots better than her servant could, but it was her light blue eyes that held the former soldier’s attention. In fact, he was glad he was still wearing his mail given the elbow that his female companion gave him in his ribs.

            Dardanos stood to the side of his mistress and spoke to her, loudly and theatrically, obviously announcing her guest’s arrival to her. She spoke, also in a dialect of Scythian, and gestured for everyone to take seats.

            The food and wine flowed freely and soon so did the laughter, though Barius could not share in most of it. He was an outsider again, as he had been in Rome. He tried not to sulk and instead studied those around him. In particular interest was his new chieftain and their host. Jomos was already deep into his cups and gazing upon the young woman with a mixture of love and undisguised lust, and the noblewoman was returning his attention back to him.

            It was no surprise, therefore, when their hostess rose, that she would extend her hand and help the Scythian chieftain stand, walking with him to the far end of the hall. This is where her private sleeping area would be, separated from the rest of the hall by a curtain of furs. The rest, guest and servant alike, rolled out blankets on the floor of the hall and soon the air was filled with a chorus of snores, Barius and Humaya joining them in short order.

            The darkness of sleep rushed from Barius as he felt the elbow of Humaya in his ribs.

            “Wake up.” The whisper sounded like a roar to his groggy brain.

            “What?” His query angrier than his intent. “Sorry, what ails you?”

            “Palacus went to check on the horses and has yet to return. I worry about him.” Her voice pleaded from the shadows.

            “He probably fell asleep among the beasts,” He stood and began to dress, slipping on his mail shirt and sword belt over his clothes out of habit. “But I’ll check on him.”

            He leaned over and kissed her, savoring her warmth before forcing himself to pull away. He gave her a quick smile as he began to wind his way around and over the sleeping bodies scattered throughout the hall, the low burning braziers providing just enough light to navigate by. Slipping out the doors, the cool night air a welcome caress after the stagnant air of the great hall. A near perfect night but for one thing; the silence that assaulted the warrior’s senses.

            He pulled his gladius as he approached the stables, the weight comforting in his sweaty palm. He needed that security as he saw what had become of their horses, the stalls now a charnel house of shredded entrails and gore painted walls. He was a battle hardened killer, yet even his stomach roiled at the sight before him. He closed his eyes, trying to filter the scene before him, when he heard the first sound since stepping outside; a wet, slurping sound coming from one of the far stalls.

            Barius glided silently through the shadows, sword at the ready. Looking through each stall, he stopped before the final opening, a narrow beam of moonlight illuminating a figure hunched over a quivering mass, the obscene sounds filling the small room. The thing looked up, despite the Belgian’s stealth, and Barius gave a gasp.

            It was Dardanos, or at least had been. His pale skin, however, was stretched tightly over his bony frame, like a corpse, while his red eyes glowed with an unnatural rage. It’s fang filled mouth and clawed fingers were covered with blood, the blood of Palacus, whose body lay under the creature with a ravaged throat. It leapt forward with a feral roar, slashing at Barius with its razor sharp claws.

            The warrior backpedaled, parrying the creature’s wild swings with his blade, amazed at its speed and strength. Despite the thing’s emaciated looks, it felt as though Barius was slapping his sword against tree trunks. He was quickly beginning to tire, while the beast was still relentless in its assault. He missed a block and the thing landed a vicious backhand that sent the warrior through the air, sending him through a wooden wall of the stable, his sword clattering to the ground a few feet away from him.  He tried to stand, thankful that his armor took the brunt of the blow and saving his ribs, but the thing was on him, its claws seeking his throat.

            Humaya stood and finished adjusting her belt. Her instincts were on fire and she needed to know Barius was alright. She slid her kopis into its scabbard and picked up her axe, prepared to find her lover when she heard the sounds; a low, savage growling. Scanning around her, she saw movement among the Dacians; a slinking, feral movement highlighted by red eyes that glowed in the shadows. She wished that she had taken the time to put on her scale armor.

            Barius remained locked in mortal combat with the monster, his hands locked on the thing’s wrists, his muscles burning. The thing tried biting at his face, forcing him to release with his left hand and grip its throat. The creature used this opportunity to bury its claws in his shoulder, causing a groan of pain from the warrior. Knowing he was losing, Barius began to look about frantically for a weapon, anything to turn the tide in his favor. An object caught his eye, a large hunk of wood, broken to form a point. He let go of the thing’s other wrist and reached for the makeshift weapon, his sudden movement throwing the slavering monster off balance. Rolling over on top of his attacker, Barius slammed the wooden point into the thing’s heart, black ichor spraying from the wound. The warrior, partially blinded by the arterial spray, began to use the butt of his hand to hammer the improvised stake deeper into the thing’s heart. Not ceasing until it finally stopped twitching.

            The warrior stood up, body aching, and wiped the smelly black fluid from his face. He jumped as the thing unleashed a final death scream and began to disintegrate, ash floating away, leaving only a handful of badly deteriorated bones. He only had a moment’s reprieve before the sounds of screams drew his attention to the longhouse. Picking up his sword, he began to run to the great hall.

            “Stand and fight!” Humaya was screaming, her hands filled with both axe and sword. She knew not what these things were, but they were tearing through her people like wild animals. Even their iron blades were no match for this Hellish onslaught and her heart began to waver. Were she to die without Barius by her side?

            Barius threw open the doors and immediately began to scan the shadowy room for his love. Seeing her near the wall, leading a semi-circle of Scythians in a desperate defense against the creatures, he began to wade through the bloody chaos to join by her side, swinging his blade in an attempt to push through the current of bodies.

            “I thought I’d lost you!” She embraced him tightly, her warmth helping to negate some of the pain he felt. “What shall we do?”

            The soldier looked around and saw Jomos standing near the partitioned off section of the building. He pointed to him with his sword, forgetting his earlier feelings about the man who was the Belgian’s liege, like him or no.

            “We grab your uncle and we leave this accursed place! Follow me!”

He set off across the room, avoiding the many writhing obstacles in his path, when one of the things leapt at him, its tattered dress showing it to have been a woman once.  He instinctively respond with a backwards slash with his blade, beheading it as much by accident as by design. Much to his astonishment, the creature disintegrated with a screech; a mass of ash exploding onto the floor.

“So there are more than one way to kill these things.” He muttered under his breath before turning to the wide eyed Humaya and smiling. “I know it was impressive, but we still need to get out of here.”

They made their way to Jomos who, though armed and armored, stood about as though in a daze. Humaya looked him in the eyes, trying to find the man within.

“Uncle, we must go!” She cried in her native tongue, shaking him by the arms. She looked over her shoulder. Barius and a few of the others had made it this far, but they were surrounded by the things. The rest of their party was dead, their blood a feast for the demonic creatures. Looking back again, she saw the lady of the house emerge from behind the curtains where she had been sleeping, her movements both sensuous and predatory. This was when Jomos raised his sagaris and brought it down on the shoulder of Barius, oblivious to his niece’s screams.
            Barius was not sure if instinct or the will of the gods allowed him to twist away from Jomos’ blow, but between this stroke of Fortune and his mail, a fatal blow was avoided. Even so, the shot numbed his left hand and threw him off balance, making it hard for him to parry the savage blows his chieftain continued to rain down upon him. He gave ground and the creature parted for them, watching in fascination as these two mortals fought amongst them. It was like Barius was back in the fighting pit again.

Humaya looked on in confused terror. Between the horrors of the night and now the battle between the two men of her life, she had never felt so helpless before in her life. She didn’t even notice the Lady Zia move up behind her.

“You are a lovely one, in a rough way.” The Lady’s voice oozed like honey from her pouty lips, the nearness of the woman’s voice startling the nomad.

Humaya spun on her heels, weapons up, to face the noblewoman, who was eyeing her in a disturbingly way, much as her uncle had when he had drank too much. The nomad gulped for air, her arms were getting heavy as she looked into those deep blue pools that were Zia’s eyes.

“What are you?” Humaya whispered, mesmerized by the woman’s serpentine glare.

“We are Strigoi and we are ancient.” The vampiress moved close to her prey. She leaned in to whisper into the nomad’s ear, her voice husky with desire “I will not kill you, my little bunny. I will make you one of us, and perhaps your barbarian, as well, and we shall love and feast forever.”

The mention of Barius brought strength back to Humaya’s limbs and she shoved the undead demon away from her with a savage scream. Raising her weapons she surged towards the former noblewoman with a berserker’s fury.

Barius barely ducked a high swing from Jomos’ axe, but the effort sent him sprawling on the ground. He rolled away from a downward stroke, but the axe did land across the soldier’s sword, breaking the blade. Seizing the opening, Barius sent a kick into the chieftain’s gut, doubling him over. Grabbing a handful of hair, the Belgian cut Jomos’ throat with what little blade was left on his sword’s hilt. Barius saw a flash of clarity in his foe’s eyes before they closed for good.

Barius grabbed the chieftain’s sagaris and sprung to his feet, his brief reprieve from the creatures over. They surged at him like a tidal wave and he fought for space, swinging the axe with abandon. One of these wild swings caught the edge of one of the braziers and it toppled over, burning coals spilling onto the floor and onto the undead. Much to his amazement, the monsters easily caught ablaze, like kindling, and a plan began to form in his head.

 He ran across the room, shoving and swinging his axe, clearing a path to the next brazier. Hooking the lip of the fire pit with the beard of the axe, Barius pulled it down with all his might, barely leaping out of the way of the burning embers. He began to run to the next one, his sight drawn past his goal to where Humaya battled for her life.

The two women fought back and forth, blade versus claw, the Strigoi stronger and faster, but was used to prey that didn’t fight back. Humaya, however, was a warrior experienced beyond her years and rage and instinct had pushed her fears from her mind. In a final rush of fury, the female warrior shoved the immortal to the ground, mounting her and raising her kopis above her head.

“Please,” Zia’s face suddenly soft, tears streaming from her eyes. “I can give you eternity. I promise.”

“No, I’m giving you eternity.” Humaya brought down the blade across the vampiress’ throat, beheading her in a fountain of gore. The horsewoman stood as the undead began to decay, hundreds of years of aging occurring in mere seconds. Shaking the ash from her breeches, she turned to see Barius kicking over the brazier closest to her.

“Let’s go!” He gathered her into her arms and began to herd her towards the door. The fire had begun to spread throughout the room, the Strigoi panicking as they burst into flames. The two warriors raced forward, swinging their blades to carve a path before them. Bursting out of the door, Barius held the doors shut while Humaya pushed a small cart in front of the exit, locking the things inside the burning building before retreating outside of the wooden palisades, where they both collapsed from exhaustion.

“Are you well, my Love?” He asked breathlessly, pulling her close to him. His adrenaline had begun to subside and pain began to weary his bones.

“I am” She whispered. “Do you think they’re gone?”

“I think so.” He kissed the side of her head. “Still, we need to move.”

“No, not yet. I want to watch it burn.” Her voice steady as the flames lit her eyes. “You know, I am next in line to rule the tribe…”

“And?” Barius tilted his head to her, quizzically.

“That means that my husband would become chieftain.” She answered, snuggling deeper into his arms “That’s something to think on.”

“Yes,” Barius stared into the inferno as it reached for the Heavens. “Something to think on, indeed.”