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Empress Kay-Li and the Soul Ripper #1: The Dreaded Sacrifice Part Five

.Kay-Li exited the pagoda followed by Ojo. Her daughter skipped happily along, carrying her doll from the previous night. The three kimono clad servant girls followed the empress, carrying boxes and miscellaneous items. The mother and daughter walked toward the west wall. The wall stood over two hundred feet high and was constructed of the finest masonry. Two guard towers were erected on each of the wooden gates. Soldiers patrolled the walls and the pagoda grounds.

“The empress approaches! Open the gate!” one of the soldiers from the tower called out.

Soldiers rushed to the massive gate and struggled to push the mounted metal bolt to one side so the gate could open. Cables were tied to cleats on the gate which were then attached to saddles on a row of nearby horses. Two of the soldiers removed leather whips from their belts and began striking the animals. The horses begrudgingly moved forward. The gate creaked and slowly began to open. Kay-Li approached the soldiers.

“Be kind to the animals,” she instructed them. “One day, they may save your lives.”

Outside the city walls, a caravan of carriages, wagons and carts waited. The area bustled with activity. Mounted soldiers darted up and down the line. Infantry stood on each side. Servants were busy loading provisions into the wagons and carts. At the center of the caravan, twelve elephants waited. The animals were surprisingly clean. They were attached to one another by golden harnesses and ropes. Each one was covered with a red and gold blanket. On top, a rider sat. The elephants pulled an opulent carriage. The velvet seats were lushly cushioned and silk drapes hung from the ceiling. Gold, silver and bronze lined the exterior and interior of the carriage.

“Look mother!” Ojo cried out. “Elephants!”

General Shig turned at the sound of Ojo’s voice. He blew out a loud whistle. Immediately, the soldiers began ushering the entourage of servants and drivers into their places. He approached the empress and her daughter.

“There will be time to play with the elephants later,” Kay-Li whispered into Ojo’s ear. “General Shig, you have done well to prepare this procession so quickly.”

“I have provided everything that you have instructed,” General Shig said. “But, I implore the empress to allow my soldiers to accompany her all the way to Mount Sabor.”

“They shall take me to the river Konso,” Kay-Li replied. “From there, Ojo and I will go ahead alone. They will wait for us to return from there.”

“You mean, they will wait for you to return,” General Shig said.

Kay-Li angrily looked at him.

“Pardon, general,” she said. “Was I not clear? The soldiers will wait for Ojo and I to return from Mount Sabor.”

“My apologies, empress,” Shig replied. He opened the carriage door.

“Have you seen counselor Zee?” Kay-Li asked. “I am surprised that he would not be here to see us depart.”

“Perhaps he is in deep meditation” the general remarked. “Or perhaps he prays for the success of your mission.”

“Perhaps,” Kay-Li said as she climbed into the carriage. Ojo followed quickly behind her. General Shig closed the door.

“Are you ready to begin your journey?” the general questioned with a slight bow.

“Yes,” Kay-Li answered. “Signal them.”

General Shig blew a whistle and waved the horse cavalry forward. The elephants followed. The caravan lumbered onto the road.

“May the gods go with you, empress,” General Shig remarked as the carriage lurched and began to roll. “May the kingdom be saved.”

“There is but one King,” Kay-Li remarked. “And may He save us all, especially the little ones.”

Soul Ripper sat at the entrance of the cave stroking the fire with a stick. Behind him, there was a small bed comprised of straw and blankets. The bed had been unused. There was also a metal plate with the half eaten remains of a biscuit and beans resting nearby. Soul Ripper was lost in his thoughts. His stallion snorted and clomped its hooves against the hard ground. Soul Ripper gazed around his campsite.

“You have been tracking me since the village,” Soul Ripper said. “And you have been watching me for over eight hours since I arrived at the cave. Show yourself.”

“Are you not afraid that I may attack you and steal your horse?” a feeble, old voice said from the darkness. An old man with a wrinkled face and white beard appeared. He carried a walking stick and was dressed in clothes made of camel’s hair. “There are many bandits that prowl these hills.”

“I fear no one,” Soul Ripper replied as he rose to his feet. Three, flaming blue claws extended from each hand.

The old man chuckled.

“You fear no one. No one but yourself,” he replied. The old man hobbled over to the fire and sat down. “The night is cold. A wind has blown in from the east. Sapphira is to the east, is it not?”

“Who are you?” Soul Ripper asked.

“Just an old, weak man. Nothing but a humble servant of the King,” the old man replied. “Are you going to finish eating that?”

Soul Ripper nodded in agreement. The stranger reached over and began to eat the biscuit.

“You are a priest?” Soul Ripper asked.

“I am from an age long before the time of priests and prophets,” he laughed. “When the world was much younger and open to hear the Word. Put away your weapons. Surely you can see that I can do you no harm.”

“Things in this world are never how they seem,” Soul Ripper remarked. His fire claws retracted and disappeared. “The evil one distorts all that is good and true.”

“Has the evil one distorted you, Ashitaka?” the old man asked, scooping up some beans.

“That is no longer my name. I am the Soul Ripper.”

“No, I can see that he has not. You cannot erase the goodness inside your soul,” the stranger calmly said. “The goodness inside your soul existed long before you were banished here. Even Flar cannot take that goodness away from you.”

“I do not need your witness, stranger.”

The old man placed the plate down. He poked the fire with his walking stick.

“I know that you miss her,” the old man said. “When was the last time that you saw her?”

The Soul Ripper remained silent.

“Has it been seven years now? Seven years since you left your clan to join the conflict between the Tenshi and Akra dynasties?” the old man questioned. “Seven years since you engaged in a forbidden love affair? You were already a great warrior then. Gifted. Your talents recognized by the masters.”

“How do you know these things?” Soul Ripper asked.

“I have watched you for more than eight hours, Ashitaka Ichiro. I have watched you for a long, long time.”

“Who are you?”

The old man rose and began to hobble away.

“All people, at some point in their lives, must ask themselves that same question,” he said. “She is in danger, Ashitaka. She travels to Mount Sabor in the northern region by way of the roads to the river Konso. You must go to her.”

The stallion reared up on its hind legs and let out a loud neigh.

“Easy, girl,” the old man said. “Your beautiful horse appears to have been spooked.”

The horse reared again. Soul Ripper drew his sword from the sheath on his back.

“She doesn’t spook that easily,” he said.

The creature bounded out from the darkness, knocking the old man to the ground. Its face was pale and wrinkled with no visible hair. Saliva dripped from the fangs in its mouth. The body was shaped like a human with two hands and two feet. It wore ragged and torn clothing. Four, worm like tentacles were attached to the monster’s waist. The creature moved like a spider and quickly crawled over the body of the old man. It growled and snarled at the stranger.

“Oh, my goodness!” the old man called out as he tried to poke the monster with his walking stick.

Soul Ripper surged forward and sliced one of the tentacles in half. The creature howled and immediately jumped away. It landed on a nearby rock wall, sticking to the surface. Soul Ripper helped the old man up from the ground.

“If it can be hurt, then it can be destroyed,” Soul Ripper said. “Stay back. I will fight this battle.”

“Remember all that I have told you,” the old man replied before he moved away. “You must go to her.”

The monster bolted off the side of the mountain, landing directly in front of the Soul Ripper. With its one human hand, it swung at Soul Ripper’s head. He caught the creature’s fist in his gloved hand. The creature was strong, but Soul Ripper was stronger and slowly pushed the pale, hairy hand back. Two of the tentacles swung to strike him. He dodged them with ease. Soul Ripper slashed at the creature with his sword. Another tentacle withered and fell to the ground. With a kick, he knocked the monster back. Soul Ripper rushed forward and delivered two quick punches to the zombielike monster’s face, cracking one of the fangs.

“Where have you come from?” Soul Ripper asked. The creature could only roar in reply. “You have no fighting skills. All you possess is blind rage. You can never win the battle without discipline of the soul.”

They circled one another. Only the campfire illuminated their steps. The creature surged forward first. Soul Ripper quickly pivoted to the side and delivered another devastating blow with his sword. The creature’s wounds oozed a green liquid. It dropped down on its remaining limbs and scurried toward the cave. Soul Ripper somersaulted over the beast and landed directly in front of the entranceway of the cave. He now blocked the monster’s path. Soul Ripper tossed his sword aside and ignited his red, flaming claws. The jeweled stones on Soul Ripper’s chest and the visor shield on his cowl began to glow a bright red.

“You have no soul to purge,” Soul Ripper said, crouching down, his flaming claws in front of him.

Soul Ripper charged and slashed at the monster’s remaining two tentacles. The creature reared back on its human legs and roared in pain. Soul Ripper embedded his flaming claws in the monster’s chest and lifted him up into the air. Soul Ripper yelled in victory as the creature burst into flames and disappeared. The claws retracted and vanished.

“I told you, my friend,” he said. “If it can be hurt, it can be destroyed.”

To his surprise, there was no answer. Soul Ripper gazed around the campsite. He saw the walking stick lying on the ground, but the old man was gone. Soul Ripper picked up the stick and placed it in the saddle of his horse.

“Do you have strength for a journey, my loyal companion?” he asked the stallion. There was a slight neigh. “The kingdom of Sapphira is not far from here.”

His horse snorted and brushed its tail to one side. Soul Ripper walked over to the fire and kicked dirt on it until it was safely extinguished. He gathered his sword and sheathed it on his back. Next, he collected his provisions from the cave and loaded them into the saddlebags. He mounted and patted the horse’s mane.

“To the river Konso,” Soul Ripper said. He gently prodded his horse.

They moved off silently into the night.


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