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|Written By:||Rich Wulf|
|Released:||Imperial Herald v2 #13|
Shadow by Rich Wulf
The Dawn of the Empire...
A chill wind blew over the sea cliffs this morning raising a wail in its wake. The eerie sound disturbed Mutsuhito, for it was an ill omen following on heels of the sight he had seen earlier this morning. Fire had rained from the sky onto the shoreline. An earthquake had shattered the morning's peace. The wat party that had been preparing to raid a poorly defended settlement had pulled back, fearing this dark omen might be the work of a powerful god.
Yet even their fear had only help them for a while. Winter would come soon, and the tribe of Noriaki did not fish and dig in the grass like these pathetic Seppun. They were warriors. They took what they needed. Mutsuhito peered out from the low vegetation that clung to the edges of the cliffs, watching the village below. A small circle of hits clung to a large hill.
The people of the village were not toiling at the earth or hurling their spears into the water as they usually did. Today they were all gathered in large numbers around the hill at the center of the village. They all knelt in a circle, gathered about eight striking figures. They were dressed in clothing and armor the likes of which Mutsuhito had never seen, but there were only eight of them. The people of the village were unprepared, exposed. The time to strike was now.
Mutsuhito whistled, signaling to his kinsmen hiding nearby. With a riotous cry, they all charged forth from the rocks, spears and knives held high. Mutsuhito charged forward as well, but moved too quickly, without watching where he placed his feet. The earth slipped out from beneath him. He fell forward with an anguished grunt, chin striking a stone before him. His mouth filled with blood and stars swirled before his eyes. He lay dazed for several moments before rising to his feet. He chuckled to himself, wondering if in so short a time he had already missed the battle below. When he looked back down at the hill, he could not believe what he saw.
The Seppun were fighting. One of the warriors, a tall man in brilliant gold armor, was leading them, hewing about with a brilliant sword. With each stroke, two of Mutsuhito's kinsman fell. Most were already dead. The survivors were fleeing back into the hills or begging for mercy. Within minutes it was over.
Mutsuhito crept forward as quickly as he could without drawing notice. Clinging to the bushes, he searched the battlefield for any sign of his father. He soon found the old man. Kazuhiro and a handful of others knelt on the earth, battered and disarmed, before the either warriors who has defended the village. The leader spoke, and Mutsuhito leaned forward to listen.
"Raiders of these lands," he said in a clear voice, echoing over the village and cliffs. "Your time is over. This land is no longer a land of chaos, but a land of order. Our order. I am Hantei, and the Seppun are under my protection!" He leveled a sword at Kazuhiro with a stern expression. "Yet I find that I am not without compassion for those who have known no other life. There is a place for you among us, if you bow to our law."
"Anything," Kazuhiro whimpered, "just spare my life."
Hantei looked down at the man with a strange, dissappointed expression. Mutsuhito felt rage and disgust boil in his stomach. He stood and hurled hurled his spear with all his strength, then turned and ran as swiftly as he was able.
He was gone before his father's body struck the ground.
Mutsuhito was cheif now, for what that was worth. Only a handful of raiders had survived and found their way back to camp. In the weeks since the rout at Seppun Hill, the tribe of Noriaki had been fleeing Hantei and his brethren. Other raider tribes like their own had been destroyed or had joined forces with these so-called Kami. The tribe of Yobanjin, which he had hoped would join forces with him against them, had vanished into the northern mountians. Mutsuhito realized that he would find no allies, none to help him take vengeance against the Kami, unless he was truely desperate.
And he was desperate.
His father had taught him early in life that only a fool travels too far to the south. Those lands were ruled by beasts that defied description: powerful ogres and trolls, twice as tall and four times as strong as a man, and the bakemono, small, swift and intelligent. Yet these were not the most fearsome. These races bowed to another, the mysterious Nezumi, a powerful and mysterious race of creatures. These monsterous creatures were hostile, and few who entered their lands returned. As what lay in this place was lost in shadow, it was rightly called the Shadowlands. As a curious boy Mutsuhito had scouted these lands, but had turned back at the first sight of one of the monolithic ogre cities.
Yet prehaps, with luck, these creatures might be willing to listen to Mutsuhito. At this point he had nothing more to lose. Death awaited him in the lands of the Kami. To die in the Shadowlands would at least be a death in the manner of his choosing. His followers were of like mind, courageous men who had survived a score of raids. Like him, they had no intention of kneeling before Hantei as Kazuhiro had and building a world of "order."
A massive plume of smoke rose on the horizon, and Mutsuhito watched it with a wary eye. As the tribe drew closer, he realized what he was seeing. The ogre city that he had glimpsed before now lay in burning ruins. His man paused, looking to him.
"There may be loot," he said. "We need supplies. Move in."
They fell into a rough formation around him, fearless in the face of destruction. The ogre city was unlike any human settlement. It was far older, for more advanced. The buildings were made of wood and stone, the roads paved with neatly cut cobblestones. A high wall surrounded the city to keep out intruders, but it's gates hung open. One lay shattered on the ground.
They passed though the gates, skirting the dead bodies of several ogres. They were impossibly large, larger even then the tales has suggested. The creatures looked as if they had perished in terror. Several were burned beyond recognition. A bestial grunting noise drew Mutsuhito's attention.
One ogre was still alive. It hunched on the ground, it's back to them. Mutsuhito quickly gestured for the party to stop moving. One of this men stepped on a loose cobblestone and the creature looked up quickly. It's mouth was filled with uneven fangs and dripped with blood. Its eyes gleamed an angry red. He realized with disgust that the beast had been feeding upon one of its brethren.
The ogre stood, turned, and roared at them in defiance, beating one thick hand against its heavy chest. It lifted a heavy piece of shattered stone in its other hand and hefted it, prepared to throw it if they drew closer.
Mutsuhito looked at the creature with morbid curiosity. "Can you understand me?" he shouted at it. "Can you speak in my tongue?"
The creature only threw its head back and wailed inarticulately. The cry was echoed throughout the city by other ogres they could not see.
"A city of beasts," one of his men whispered, taking a step back.
"No." Mutsuhito said. "Not always. Beasts could not have built this. Something not only destroyed their city, but reduced them to this."
He gave the signal to retreat, but as his men began to withdraw toward the city gates, the ogre lunged forward and hurled his stone. The boulder struck with deadly accuracy, crushing two of Mutsuhito's followers. His men began to run.
"No!" Mutsuhito shouted. "Blood has been spilled! You stand and fight or you will face me!"
The warning was well heeded. Mutsuhito's men knew him well, and feared his anger more then they feared the ogre. His spear in one hand, he charged the ogre. The creature began to heft another stone but Mutsuhito hurled his spear, taking the beast in the throat. A plume of bright red blood showered forth, and it clutched its wound with an anguished cry.
It flailed out with it's other arm, knocking one of the raiders off his feet. Mutsuhito drew his knife and rolled under the creatures attack, between its legs, and cut deep into the flesh at the back of one knee. The creature howled again, staggered, and fell back with a heavy thud. The other raiders ran forward with their spears. In seconds, it was over.
The cries of the other ogres quickly drew closer. Mutsuhito moved to his fallen warrior. He frowned as he realized it was Kano, his comrade since childhood. Kano's right leg twisted beneath him, shattered, useless. They could not carry him and escape the ogres. Even if they did, he would never walk again.
"Mutsuhito," Kano whispered hoarsely, a trickle of blood escaping his mouth.
Mutsuhito handed the man his spear. "Do not make their meal easy, old friend," he said.
Kano smiled fiercely and nodded, looking toward the sounds of the howling ogres.
Mutsuhito and the others fled as swiftly as they could, never looking back at the ruined ogre city.
The Noriaki had wandered the Shadowlands for weeks and seen many cities like the first: strongholds of the ogres, bakemono, trolls, and Nezumi, no ruins inhabited by feral beasts. They had even seen a few of the creatures former Nezumi masters, and Mutsuhito was surprised to find that they were small, rat-like creatures rather than the powerful beasts he had imagined. The Nezumi they saw were invariably dead, usually burned or torn apart by some terrible force. Whatever had taken over these lands, it seemed, had no love for these creatures.
At the sawn of the thirtieth day in the Shadowlands, Mutsuhito awakened to find one of his men, Soseki, skulking out of the edge of their camp. He rose quickly and lifted his spear, stopping the man with a shrill whistle.
"Soseki," he called out. "Where are you going?"
Soseki looked back with a terrified expression. "Away from here, cheiftain, and I beg you to follow," he said in a terrified voice. "Do you not sense it? These lands are dead, haunted by the beasts and ghosts. The thing that killed them is still here somewhere."
"I know," Mutsuhito said. "I feel it as well."
Soseki's eyes widened in even greater fear. "We are in danger, my chief. There is nothing here to help us against the Kami. We should escape before we all die."
"Soseki, come here," Mutsuhito said in a calm voice.
The man returned, glancing left and right in terror.
"Terauchi," Mutsuhito said, calling to one of his other men. "Do you feel the presence here?"
"Yes, my chieftain," came the reply.
"Kitaro," he continued. "Do you feel it as well?"
He looked back as Soseki. "Does it call to each of you as it does to me?" Mutsuhito said. "Do you feel it inviting you, drawing you deeper into the Shadowlands?"
"Hai," said Terauchi.
"Hai," replyed Kitaro.
Soseki only shook his head nervously.
Mutsuhito sighed, nodded somberly, and rested one heavy hand upon Soseki's shoulder. "You are a good man, Soseki," he said, "but it seems you have not been chosen. And for that, I am sorry."
Soseki opened his mouth to say something, but the words never came. He fell to his knees choking, he throat slashed by Mutsuhito's knife. The chieftain helped ease his dying friend to the hard earth, covered him with a thick fur blanket, and moved on.
In the valley beneath them lay the ruins of the largest city Mutsuhito has ever seen. The center was cored out by an enormous crater, a gaping wound in the earth. Even as he watched, the fissure slowly expanded, causing the buildings at the edge to slowly crumble and topple inside.
It had now been almost three months since they had entered the Shadowlands. The bizarre landscape no longer disturbed Mutsuhito. The fact he had not seen the sun in weeks no longer frightened him. The beasts that dwelled here no longer gave him pause. After dealing harshly with the first creatures that had opposed them, the others had moved out of his path. He felt more confident than ever in his life. He felt energized, drawn to this place. He felt that this was meant to be.
This it came as little surprise when they found the solitary figure waiting for them on the road of the city. He was a small man, dressed in fine robes of black velvet. A white porcelain mask covered his face. Despite his stature, he radiated power and command.
"You are the raider, the ones my siblings sought and failed to find," the man said in a velvet voice. "But now, I have found you."
Mutsuhito stepped forward and knelt. His followers did the same. "You kneel to me?" the man said, a hint of amusement in his words. "Yet you were so defiant to Hantei. Do you fear me as you did not fear him, or are you merely tired of running?"
"Hantei would create an Empire of order," Mutsuhito said. "We have no desire to live in such a place. We are warriors."
"If you attack us, we will fight," Mutsuhito warned.
"You will die," Fu Leng said.
"That may be," Mutsuhito answered. "Yet one day soon, when your brothers and sisters come for you, you will remember our skill, and you will wish that you commanded it. Let us serve you, Fu Leng. If we humans must serve a god, then let it be a god worthy of our respect."
Fu Leng chuckled. "So be it."
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