Empress Kay-Li and the Soul Ripper #1: The Dreaded Sacrifice Part Four
Soul Ripper mounted his black horse and rode out of the village. He followed a narrow path which led in the direction of the mountains. As he galloped away in a cloud of dust, Soul Ripper could feel the nightmare coursing through his head once again. He winced in pain and tried to shake the images from his mind. It was to no avail. Soul Ripper’s mind drifted back six years ago to a tiny place named Sonsho.
The battle for the plains of Sonsho had ended. Ninety-six hours of terrifying combat between four hundred thousand warriors of the Tenshi and Akra dynasties had produced little to no result, other than a trampled grass field littered with carnage, debris and casualties. They had been armored soldiers cloaked in the Bushido traditions of honor and courage, their banners flowing in the wind. Sonsho was once a tranquil place with a meandering stream calmly flowing through the middle of it. Now, it was an open wound, a graveyard where so many men and even some women would call their final resting place. The casualties had been horrific, even by the genocidal standards of the present age. Bodies were scattered across the plain, only eclipsed by the shattered debris of broken armor, helmets, weapons and burning weapons. Broken arrows and spears jutted out of virtually every inch of open ground. It was early afternoon, days after the battle. The vultures still circled overhead, ready to feast on their deceased prey.
It would be an irony of military history that the fields of Sonsho held no military or strategic value to either side. The territory itself had never been in dispute. Historians would record in the Tenshi scrolls that Sonsho was the place, ordained by the gods, where two great armies met to decide the fate of two ancient dynasties. The Akra dynasty was older, by over a century, but the Tenshi’s were more modern. The Akra dynasty still embraced the old religions of animal gods while the Tenshi kingdom had recently welcomed the missionaries from the west and their belief in one true King. However, the clash at Sonsho was not preordained. In fact, the battle had begun by accident.
Early in the cool morning hours of that first dreadful day, when the dew still covered the grasses, detachments of the Tenshi horse cavalry, on an expedition to gather water, smashed into a line of Akra infantry hidden in a stretch of tall grass. The battle quickly escalated as both sides, bound by their code of honor, refused to yield. Soldiers and supplies poured into the fields. The combat raged both day and night. In the end, the Tenshi armies would be declared the victors. There had been no grand strategy or great flanking movements. There had been no great moments when the battle teetered on one decision. The Tenshi army was simply the only army left with any soldiers on the field. The Akra dynasty and its armies had been annihilated.
Emperor Tenshi, however, was dead, a victim of his own recklessness. A burning desire to see the movements of his armies up closer and against the wishes of his generals, Emperor Tenshi had rode with his entourage toward the front lines. Confused and weary, Tenshi archers had struck him down with a volley of arrows. History would record otherwise and give the emperor a more heroic death.
The royal body lay on a bed of grass in a tent until the outcome of the battle was decided. For the dead and wounded at Sonsho, the death of Emperor Tenshi was another stroke of bad karma. Royal protocol demanded that the body be returned to the Tenshi kingdom of Sapphira immediately for a proper burial. The Tenshi army filtered away, leaving the dead unburied and the wounded suffering under the sweltering heat of a blazing sun.
During the battle at Sonsho, at the exact moment of Emperor Tenshi’s death, his daughter, the Princess Kay-Li, had given birth to a beautiful baby girl which she named Ojo. As the remains of the Tenshi army returned to the kingdom of Sapphira, the waves of joy and shock collided. Kay-Li was crowned empress of the kingdom. A period of mourning followed. In her first act of governance, Kay-Li emancipated the slaves of Akra, the spoils of victory, and welcomed them into the protection of the Tenshi kingdom. The casualties of Sonsho were soon forgotten.
Ashitaka Ichiro rolled over to his side as he grimaced in pain. The crackling of broken armor echoed with his every movement. Beside his head, his helmet lay shattered in pieces. Hundreds of arrows were embedded in the ground around him. He crawled forward in agony, clawing at the dirt trying desperately to reach the lifeless body of another soldier, just inches in front of him. Ashitaka fumbled with the canteen on the soldier’s belt. He poured what water he could into his cracked mouth. The rest of the water, he let run down his chin. When the canteen was empty, Ashitaka tossed it aside. His shoulder had been wounded by a sword blade. An arrow protruded from his left leg. Ashitaka gazed up at the vultures circling overhead and passed out. The last sound he remembered was the moans of the wounded.
As the sun descended and disappeared under the horizon, the battlefield at Sonsho took on an eerie haze. Fog had rolled in over the plains pushed by a powerful wind, covering much of the carnage from view. There were momentary islands of light, the result of abandoned wagons burning and flames slowly dying out. Torn banners and flags flapped in the wind surrounded by splintered shields and broken bodies. As night settled in, the battlefield seemed to take on a brief silence, except for the howls of wolves, as the wounded transitioned into their final sleep.
Ashitaka Ichiro opened his eyes. He carefully propped himself up into a sitting position against the body of another soldier. Ashitaka reached down to the arrow in his leg. Taking both hands, he ripped it out. The pain was immense and he screamed in agony before falling over to his side. He tore a piece of cloth from a banner lying on the ground and quickly wove it into a makeshift bandage. Ashitaka half laughed with a smile before passing out again.
Hours had passed before Ashitaka Ichiro opened his eyes again. The battlefield had drifted into the dead of night. His eyesight had become blurred. The wolves, once heard in the distance, had descended upon the open fields, replacing the vultures which had previously circled overhead. Every few minutes, a scream would cascade across the plains. Ashitaka tried to move but the overwhelming pain in his legs prevented him from doing so. He held a dagger in his hand and tried to keep his senses alert for any approaching animals. His dry throat burned. He wondered if he could even talk or scream. He feared most of all that he would fall back asleep and awake only to find the wolves were upon him.
Ashitaka could not remember when he first saw the illuminated figure walking across the battlefield. At first, he thought he was seeing a ghost. However, the figure had form and features. The light originated from the figure itself. It was not powered by an outside source. The figure wore a simple canvas robe with a cord belt. He was of average build and youthful in appearance. His facial features were partially covered by long black hair and a short beard. He moved effortlessly across the field, seeming to address the dead and wounded. Ashitaka watched in amazement as several of the soldiers seemed to get up and move away only to vanish from sight. Ashitaka watched the figure for several hours, carefully clutching the dagger. Finally, the man approached him.
“Who are you?” Ashitaka painfully forced out of his mouth.
“Who do you say that I am?” the man questioned him.
“I do not know,” Ashitaka answered. He displayed the dagger. “Do not come closer.”
“Put away your weapon, Ashitaka Ichiro,” he replied. “Look around you. See what your weapon has accomplished.”
“How do you know my name?” Ashitaka stuttered out. “Who are you?”
“I have known you since before you were fashioned in your mother’s womb,” the man remarked. “I am the Prince. I am the son of the Most High King.”
Ashitaka struggled to crawl away. He could not. Fear gripped him.
“I did not believe,” he said, coughing.
“The truth has now been revealed to you,” the Prince replied. “Do you wish to be saved?”
“But, my Prince, I did not believe,” Ashitaka repeated. “How could I be worthy? I acted in pride all of my days.”
“You need only reach out to me and touch my hand to be saved,” the Prince said as he extended his arm and smiled. The hand was pure and clean. The fear left Ashitaka. He felt peace. Ashitaka dropped the dagger and removed his armored glove. Surprisingly, Ashitaka was able to rise to his feet despite all of his wounds. He extended his blood stained hand to the Prince. Suddenly, there was a rush of wind and a flash of black and red lightning. Ashitaka Ichiro was swept away and was gone.
Ashitaka found his arms and legs stretched in the shape of an “X” on two wooden beams overlooking a large, circular pit. Smoke and flame rose from the forbidding hole. There was a narrow rope bridge, which extended across the pit. It was blazing hot. He could feel the beads of sweat forming on his body. Ashitaka could barely make out through the smoke and
haze drifting around him, another figure across the pit also prostrated on an “X” beam. A sword was embedded into the ground on each side of the bridge. Ashitaka struggled for a moment and felt the splinters of wood enter his skin. He cried out in pain. He glanced down at his body. The armor which he had previously worn at Sonsho was gone. The only clothing he now wore was a simple loincloth across his waist.
A large, towering figure emerged through the smoke, a red and black cape flowing behind him. He wore full battle armor. Ivory horns protruded from his helmet which masked his true face. A human skull rested on each shoulder of his breast plate. Metal spikes darted out of each glove. On his waist, the fire lord carried a broad sword which measured almost the entire length of Ashitaka’s body.
“Where is the Prince?” Ashitaka called out. “I wish to be saved!”
Flar roared in delight.
“There is no Prince here!” he boasted. “I am your master now.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Flar,” he answered. “Lord of fire.”
“Why am I here?” Ashitaka pleaded. “Release me!”
“You will make no demands of me!” Flar shouted, striking Ashitaka across his face. Two abrasions began to bleed on his left cheek. “You exist only because I may have need of you!”
Two fire soldiers began to untie Ashitaka from the wooden posts. He fell to the ground, panting. They pushed him to his feet and dragged him over to the bridge. On the opposite side of the pit, Ashitaka could see fire soldiers releasing the other man as well.
“I give you the opportunity of trial by combat,” Flar bellowed. “The survivor may become my servant. The unfortunate loser perishes into the pit. Draw your swords and begin.”
Ashitaka hesitated and shuffled a few feet forward and reluctantly removed the sword from the ground. His opponent did not wait. He quickly snatched his weapon and charged onto the bridge with a yell. Ashitaka’s warrior training consumed him. By instinct, he charged. At the center of the bridge, their swords clashed. The heat was unbearable and the smoke clouded every move, every thrust and every parry. The dual continued for several minutes with each man blocking and deflecting the sword thrusts of the other. The sound of metal crashing together filled the air. Ashitaka scored first, a glancing blow against his opponent’s left shoulder. The man stumbled back.
“You fight well, my unknown friend,” Ashitaka said. “But, your fighting style is reckless and clumsy.”
“I am full of rage,” the man replied. “And my rage will provide the edge of victory that I need!”
They locked blades. The man tried to sweep Ashitaka’s leg with his own to knock him off balance. Ashitaka quickly somersaulted backwards and deflected three of the man’s sword thrusts. His opponent charged again. Ashitaka spun around and delivered a swift kick to his stomach. While the man was dazed and gasping for breath, he heard Flar laughing.
“Finish him!” the fire lord roared in delight.
Ashitaka swung his blade down hard on his adversary’s hand. He cried out in pain, his grip on the weapon all but gone. His sword fell from view into the pit. The man fell to his knees. Ashitaka approached and placed his weapon’s blade against the man’s throat.
“Finish him!” Flar commanded.
“You were not a soldier such as I was,” Ashitaka said to the man.
“No,” was his reply.
“I will not harm him,” Ashitaka said. He tossed the sword behind him on the bridge. “You will have to do your own devil’s work.”
“You are a fool,” Flar replied. “Your opponent does not share your sympathies.”
The man lunged forward, striking Ashitaka in the chest and knocking them both to the bridge’s wooden planks. Ashitaka wrapped his legs around the man’s throat and flipped him off. They both quickly struggled to their feet. The man threw several blows, but Ashitaka deflected them all with his arms and hands. With a swift kick, Ashitaka knocked the man backwards. They stared at one another as the fire and smoke continued to rise around their black stained and sweaty bodies. Ashitaka retrieved the sword.
“If we are to perish,” Ashitaka said, raising the sword above his head. “We shall perish together.”
“No!” the man cried out.
Ashitaka hacked at the ropes holding the bridge together.
“What treachery is this?!?” Flar roared. “One must survive!”
The bridge snapped in two like a slingshot sending Ashitaka and the man plunging into the abyss of fire and smoke.
He did not remember how long or how far he fell. All Ashitaka Ichiro knew was that he was still alive and standing on solid ground. He saw no traces of the man whom he had fought. He touched the side of the pit. It was rocky and hard. Ashitaka began to climb. Every muscle ached as he ascended skyward. He coughed and had to pause several times to catch his breath. As he climbed, Ashitaka’s appearance began to change. A pointed cowl formed over his head. Gloves and boots suddenly began to materialize. Leather pants and a leather breast plate followed, accented by a flowing red and black trench coat style cape. On his chest, six jewels, three on each side, glowed. An eternity seemed to pass before Ashitaka Ichiro pulled himself over the edge of the pit. He rolled onto his back and gasped for air. Flar approached.
“I waited to see who would emerge first,” Flar exclaimed. “I am surprised it was you.”
“Who am I?” Ashitaka asked, holding up his gloved hands. “What have you done to me?”
“You are not worthy to be my servant,” the fire lord answered. “Because you were unwilling to destroy the man on the bridge, your body has been changed, but your soul still weakly remains. You cling to the honor of your bushido past.”
“What are you to do with me?” Ashitaka questioned.
“I will make you conflicted and complete,” the fire lord barked. Flar raised his massive hands. Blue and red fire shot out, engulfing Ashitaka in a ball of flame. He screamed in agony. The fire did not burn Ashitaka physically, but rather burned, what he felt, was the very fiber of his being. He stretched out his hands and fell to the ground. The barrage of fire stopped. Ashitaka rested on his hands and knees, smoke drifting off his body.
“You are the Soul Ripper,” Flar said. “Ashitaka Ichiro must no longer exist. You will prowl this land searching for deviant souls to return to me.”
The Soul Ripper rose to his feet. Three, flaming red claws extended from the top of each hand.
“Ashitaka Ichiro does still exist and I will not serve you!” the Soul Ripper defiantly said. The flaming claws and jewels on his chest turned blue. “I will fight to be rid of you! You have robbed my soul for a chance at salvation. I will rob your evil domain of those who are good and just.”
“Then you will be cursed all the days of your pathetic life,” Flar replied. The fire lord turned and began to walk away. “I have created you, Soul Ripper. No one defies the evil one for very long.”
Flar disappeared into the smoke and haze, his bellowing laugh echoing behind him.
The nightmare ended. Soul Ripper opened his eyes. He was still riding his horse up a barren mountain path. He touched the two scars on his face. They were the reminder that the nightmare was true. Soul Ripper looked at his gloved hand. Three, blue flaming blades shot out. He studied them for a moment before the blades disappeared back into his hands.
“Who am I?” the Soul Ripper whispered.
The stallion led him to the face of a rocky slope. Carved out of the mountain was a cave. Soul Ripper dismounted and disappeared inside into the darkness.
THE ADVENTURE WILL CONTINUE......