Empress Kay-Li and the Soul Ripper: The Dreaded Sacrifice
THE STORY BEGINS.......
The darkness was slowly enveloping the kingdom of Sapphira. It was not a darkness such as found at nightfall, but a gradual one that deepened and darkened with each passing day. The sun, so revered by the people, had vanished from sight some time ago, only to be seen peeking through the cloud cover on selected occasions. No one in the kingdom knew when the crawling darkness had actually begun. Many people said it was when the Tenshi rulers had abandoned the ancient ways of the state religion and welcomed foreigners into the kingdom. These strangers with different faces and customs worshipped the one true God known to them only as the King. The migration had been three generations ago. Others, perhaps more wiser, said the darkness had begun much later, just six seasons in the past when the newly crowned Empress Kay-Li had given birth to her daughter, Ojo, on the same day that the Tenshi warriors were victorious against the Akra dynasty on the plains of Sonsho. Regardless of the time or date, the darkness continued to grow.
The pagoda fortress of the Tenshi dynasty, rulers of the kingdom of Sapphira for over five thousand years, towered over the capital city of Sabar. Perched high on a hill, the multi-tiered castle was the center piece of the walled city and held a commanding view of the kingdom for miles in every direction. The pagoda was surrounded by a maze of gardens, farms and aqueducts which supplied fresh food and water to the inhabitants. The years of fading sunlight had taken their toll on the once proud people. Crops had been harder to grow. The soil hardened. What once had been a city among a grove of forests now resembled an almost barren land. The tall grasses were no longer green. The plants were dying. The trees were lifeless. The Tenshi rulers had fashioned methods of producing artificial light, but had met with only limited success.
Empress Kay-Li was still young and beautiful, just as she had been when she assumed the Tenshi throne six years ago at the death of her father in battle. Her skin was flawless, but a pale white due to the lack of natural sunlight. Her blonde hair flowed down her back. It was the custom of the men of the kingdom to tie their hair back to avoid it from blinding their eyes. With the darkness, the men had abandoned this practice. Kay-Li, however, had adopted this custom as her own and usually her hair was pulled back. She wore the traditional garment of the Tenshi warrior’s ancestry, a combination of both armor and cloth. Kay-Li had been educated by the finest tutors. She had also been trained in the various modes of combat and was proficient with a variety of weapons. Her favorite one was the long sword and she carried a special sword that had been handcrafted and designed specifically for her. Kay-Li prized the kingdom’s horse cavalry above all else for national defense, partly due to her own advanced riding skills.
On the fourth day of every week, Kay-Li and Ojo would depart the city on horseback for a day in the countryside. They would ride for several miles until they came to the large tree near the river, Hosino. Here, they would water their horses while the mother and daughter pair walked along the river banks. Ojo took special delight in pointing out the insects and animals that were to be found along the river. As afternoon approached, they would share a meal prepared personally by Kay-Li and sip a small cup of tea. Finally, there would be playtime and frolicking across the fields.
Ojo always found much joy in the country. She ran, laughed and played. Kay-Li would chase her over the hills into the open fields. For a girl of six, Ojo already displayed many of the facial features of her mother. Ojo fell to the ground and rolled down a hill, a trail of laughter following her.
“Ojo!” Kay-Li cried out, running after her daughter. “You must be careful!”
Ojo came to a halt. Beside her head, a brown, wilted flower rested. Petals, blown off by the slightest wind, lay on the ground beside it. Ojo was fascinated by the flower. Kay-Li approached her.
“Look mother!” she excitedly said, sitting up and pointing at it. “A flower!”
Kay-Li knelt down beside her daughter and picked the wilted flower from the ground. Ojo gasped and put her tiny hands on her cheeks.
“I have prayed to the King of Life ever since the darkness first began,” Kay-Li sadly remarked. “And yet the beautiful flower remains stale and grey.”
“And does the King hear you, mother?” Ojo asked. “When you pray to Him?”
“I believe that He does, Ojo Tenshi,” Kay-Li answered. “But why He does not act, I do not know.”
“The flower is still beautiful, mother.”
“It once was,” Kay-Li sadly said. “Now, it is dark and dying. It gives no smell to attract the bee.”
“It needs only love,” Ojo calmly said. She reached out her hand to her mother. “Give the flower to me so that I may care for it.”
“The flower no longer has its roots,” Kay-Li replied. “There is no soil for it to cling and grow. It will require clean water and there is no sunlight to keep it warm.”
“I will be those things, mother.”
“As you wish, my precious daughter.” Kay-Li handed the flower to Ojo.
Ojo smiled with youthful innocence. Suddenly, red, green and yellow waves of dust formed from the thin air and danced magically around the flower. The weakened and bent stem grew and straightened, becoming firm and green. The fallen petals of the flower rose from the ground and reattached themselves. The flower opened as it regained its lush, purple color. Ojo laughed in delight as she smelled the soothing fragrance of the flower.
“You see, mother,” she playfully said. “The flower is alive!”
Kay-Li was stunned.
“Speak of this event to no one,” she ordered her daughter.
“I wish to bring the flower back to the palace,” Ojo remarked. “May I do so?”
“You are obedient and kind, Ojo Tenshi,” Kay-Li said, stroking her daughter’s hair. “You
may bring the flower back with us.”
The rider spurred the horse repeatedly with his armored boots. The horse raced faster and faster, kicking up a cloud of dust along the dirt road. Long streams of red sash flowed from the saddle, identifying the rider as a soldier of Kay-Li’s palace guard.
“Someone is coming,” Ojo said, pointing in the direction of the eastern road.
Kay-Li drew her sword as the rider approached.
“Stay behind me,” she commanded. “Something is amiss.”
The horse reared up on its hind legs. The soldier, who was hunched over the horse’s mane, quickly calmed the animal down. Kay-Li approached the rider. Immediately, she noticed the dark patches of blood on the horse’s side and back.
“My empress,” the soldier panted. “I was sent from the palace to locate you.”
“You have found us,” Kay-Li remarked. “What is of such importance that you would interrupt my personal wishes to spend time with my daughter?”
“The council has gathered.”
“Surely, you are mistaken,” Kay-Li replied. She studied the horse again. “What has
happened to this horse? Why has it been wounded?”
“My empress,” the soldier struggled to say. “I am not mistaken.”
The soldier’s eyes closed. He slumped forward and fell from the saddle. His armored body crashed to the ground. Ojo gasped in fear and rushed over so she could cling to her mother. Two arrows protruded from the soldier’s back. Kay-Li could tell that the injuries were fresh ones.
“We must return to the pagoda, Ojo,” Kay-Li remarked as she sheathed her sword. “It is not safe for us to be here. Our horses are over the hill. Let us quickly go to them.”
Ojo placed the beautiful flower in her royal cloak. She stretched out her hand to her mother. Kay-Li accepted her daughter’s gesture and offered a comforting smile. They headed over the hill toward the large tree by the river Hosino.
The marketplace located in the center of the remote village was closed for the day. The temporary, rugged tents and vendor booths were held together by simple cord and string and were covered by sheets of burlap canvas. Varieties of merchandise, crafts and trades from around the kingdom were hidden underneath the blankets. Clothes, rugs, jewelry, perfumes and fresh foods were plentiful in the marketplace. There were also four fenced corrals around the village square harboring goats, chickens, horses and camels. During the morning and afternoons, the marketplace was a hectic place. It opened early and the sooner one arrived, the better the selection. Villagers from around the town and farmers from the countryside flooded in ready to purchase needed supplies. It could be a dirty place with people yelling and bartering prices in order to make a fast sale. The market was a travelling enterprise, moving from locale to locale every two to three weeks. It wasn’t just business either. Entertainment of various sources was also available to adult and children alike. The permanent merchants of the village were housed in larger stone or brick buildings around the town square. Often times, the merchant’s family lived directly above their storefront on the second floor. Now, all was calm and quiet except for the occasional sound of the animals. Night had fallen and the village was asleep. A full moon cast a glossy haze over the town.
The man was short and stocky. He scuttled out of a nearby alley, intentionally moving in stealth so as not to be noticed. One of the horses reared back on its feet. He motioned for it to be quiet before quickly moving on. His face was dirty and what few teeth remained were yellow from neglect. He was a craftsman by trade who lived in the village, but had fallen on hard times. Now, he begged each day on the corner. The pauper came to a tent and lifted the canvas. Baskets and baskets of apples, pears and plums were neatly lined up across a makeshift table. The man licked his cracked lips as he removed a sack from his belt. He frantically began filling it with fruit. A faint shadow fell across his back. Startled, the thief turned. No one was there. He shrugged his shoulders and returned to cramming the bag full. Outside, the animals began to stir.
“Thou shall not steal,” a deep voice remarked.
The beggar whirled around again. A figure stood in the entrance of the tent. All the man could see was what appeared to be two, long pointed horns jutting from the figure’s head.
“What, what are you?” the man stuttered out. “A demon!?!”
“I am the Soul Ripper.” Three, flaming blue claws shot out of each of the figure’s gloved
hands. The six, jeweled stones on his chest began to glow. “I will purify you from your evil ways.”
“Stay away from me!” the man cried, dropping the open sack to the ground. He scurried across the dirt floor of the tent, tripping and falling over the fruit scattered on the ground. “Stay away!”
The man frantically crawled underneath the tent canvas and ran toward the alley. He darted down the narrow passage banging into the walls, gasping for breath and covered in fear. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the Soul Ripper walking after him, the fiery claws lighting up the alleyway.
“Stay away!” he shouted. “Stay away!”
The alleys were a maze and the poor man felt as if he were the mouse. The man pivoted to the left and then to the right. He banged into ceramic, potted plants and almost fell over a stone wall. He kept running until he felt that he could no longer breathe. He slid to a halt and fell to the ground in exhaustion. He looked down the alley and saw no one. He chuckled between gasps of air and struggled to his feet. The man wiped his sweaty brow with a sigh of relief. He turned so he might return home. Soul Ripper stood in his path.
“You cannot escape your transgressions,” Soul Ripper said.
“No! No! No!” the man pleaded.
Soul Ripper pushed the man against the side of the building. He raised his clinched fist with the burning, blue claws.
“I was hungry,” the man sobbed. A tear rolled down his cheek. “I have children and nobody would give me food.”
Soul Ripper jammed the burning claws into the man’s chest. Immediately, the beggar burst into blue flame. Soul Ripper stepped back. The fire did not burn or consume the poor man. He screamed, even though he felt no heat or pain. The man slowly sank to the ground, unconscious. The fire dissipated and disappeared. The man’s face, teeth and clothing were strikingly clean. The flaming claws retracted from view.
“You are not a bad man,” the Soul Ripper said. “That is why you were not destroyed. Your soul has been purified from the evil one. When you awake, turn to the King and begin your life again.”
Soul Ripper removed ten gold coins from his belt. It was equal to a month’s wage for the beggar. He placed the coins in the sleeping man’s hand.
“Yes, my friend, begin again,” Soul Ripper whispered. He stood and silently walked away.
General Shig was a large, fat man. He preferred to dress in his full military uniform, complete with a sword and daggers on his belt. His red jacket was adorned with metals of bravery for battles fought long ago. His khaki pants were baggy and his boots shined against the candles that illuminated the Tenshi council chambers. Despite his impeccable dress, General Shig’s face, with his unshaven sideburns, thin mustache and sloppy dark hair, was a mess.
The council chamber was a large room located in the center of the palace. On both sides of the chamber, murals of beautiful landscapes, painted to the tiniest of details, featured mountains, rivers and oceans. The paintings seemed to flow and cascade down the walls of the room. In the center, a long wooden table extended the chamber’s entire length. The table was not built very high. Woven mats of bamboo provided the only seating. The council chamber was filled with members of Empress Kay-Li’s ministers and advisors. They were arguing and throwing their hands into the air in disgust. General Shig clamored to the front of the room.
“Silence!” he bellowed. “We must present a united front!”
“Where is the empress?” someone called out.
“Who has called this assembly?” another minister questioned.
Suddenly, Kay-Li burst through the chamber doors. The room fell silent as everyone scattered to resume their proper place at the table. They fell to their knees on the bamboo mats.
“So now the council meets when the empress has not summoned them?” she angrily said. The room remained silent.
“Has no one an answer?” Kay-Li continued. “Perhaps the task master in the palace dungeon can extract some words from all of you!”
General Shig slowly rose from the table. He carefully balanced his massive frame.
“Your wise counselor, Zee, has brought to the council the gravest of news,” the general said. “In the interest of our mutual security, your cabinet thought it best for your council of advisors to gather. If we have offended the great Empress Kay-Li, it was not by design.”
General Shig bowed and knelt back down.
“I know of nothing from Zee that would justify the joining of this council against my wishes,” Kay-Li retorted. “All matters of the kingdom must first come to me. Only when I seek your advisement does the council gather.”
Abish, an older, skinny man with white hair and a long beard stood. He was the Minister of Property for Sapphira.
“We can no longer deny that the darkness over the kingdom continues to grow,” Abish remarked. “We have been cursed for a transgression.”
“And of what sin do you speak?” Kay-Li questioned.
“The darkness began to form six seasons ago,” General Shig answered. “It was about the time when Princess Ojo was born.”
“What do you suggest?” she angrily shot back. “You must be careful, General Shig, of the accusations you appear to make. My father may have been impressed with the medals on your chest. I am not.”
“The gods of our ancestors must be satisfied,” Abish injected. “We must embrace the old ways while we still can.”
“We worship the one true King,” Kay-Li replied. “He is the King of everlasting life and eternal peace. The ancient gods have all but faded away.”
“There was no darkness prior to the foreigners migrating to our land and turning our people away from the sacred idols.”
“Idols are made only of stone,” Kay-Li reminded them. “The foreigners did not bring war and chaos to our land, even though they may be easiest to blame. We were a lost people, fighting for land and greed. We may struggle with the darkness, but we do have peace.”
“How do you intend to remove the darkness from over the kingdom?” Abish demanded.
“On that question, I do not know,” Kay-Li conceded.
“Perhaps we have found a way, Empress Kay-Li,” General Shig offered. He motioned toward the council chamber’s doors. “Bring in, Zee.”
The doors opened and a hooded figure, covered in black robes, was escorted into the council chambers by two Tenshi soldiers. He slowly walked around the room as the ministers and other officials gasped and fearfully stared at him. Kay-Li waved the soldiers to depart. They bowed slightly and immediately left the room.
“Counselor Zee, you appear ungrateful to your empress for the many blessings that she has bestowed upon you for your gift of sight,” Kay-Li remarked. “Your prophecies are to be shared with no one but me alone. Instead, you have chosen to involve the royal council.”
Zee reached up and removed his hood. He was a young man. His body was tall and very
slim. His head was shaved and there was a decorative tattoo that went down the entire left side of his face. It was shaped in the image of a dragon.
“It was not my intent to disrespect the empress,” Zee’s soft voice calmly said.
“It may not have been your intent,” Kay-Li forcefully replied. “But, you have done so.”
“Does Empress Kay-Li wish for me to leave?”
“No. You are here now,” Kay-Li said, kneeling down on the bamboo mat. “Tell me what you have seen.”
“As you wish,” Zee continued. “I was engaged in my daily meditations in the temple when the King appeared to me. He instructed me to have you go to Mount Sabor in the northern region. You are to make sacrifice there.”
“The King?” Kay-Li remarked. “The King has appeared to no one since the beginning of days. Tell me, what did the King look like?”
“I do not recall the features of His face,” Zee replied.
“And for what reason did the King provide that required sacrifice of me?” Kay-Li asked. “Sacrifice is no longer required under the laws of the covenant. The Prince has paid that price for us.”
“He said only that sacrifice could remove the darkness from our kingdom,” Zee answered.
“Then we must comply!” Abish suddenly called out. “Immediately!”
“Silence!” Kay-Li commanded, slamming her fist against the table. “And what shall I sacrifice to the King of all the universe that He does not already possess?”
“Your daughter, Princess Ojo,” Zee calmly replied.
“Are you mad!?!” Kay-Li shouted, rising from the table. “What foolish prophecy is this?”
“I convey to you only what I have seen,” Zee said.
“There is treachery in your words, counselor,” Kay-Li observed. “Do not think that I do not see or hear it.”
“If we are to remove the darkness from over our kingdom,” General Shig remarked. Must we not consider it?”
“No!” Kay-Li retorted. “We will not consider such madness!”
“The empress is ruler over all the peoples of Sapphira,” Abish reminded her. “Tenshi must do what is right for all her subjects.”
“The council has voted, Empress Kay-Li,” General Shig commented. “And the vote was unanimous.”
“Is this true?” Kay-Li shockingly asked the assembly.
The members of the council reluctantly nodded their heads in agreement. A few bowed their heads in shame, unable to make eye contact with the empress.
“The vote of the council holds no bearing or sway over Empress Kay-Li,” Zee remarked. “Only she may decide by her royal birthright.”
“I will retire to my private chambers,” Kay-Li said. “My answer shall be delivered before the morning. Counselor Zee, you will follow me.”
Zee placed the hood over his head and followed Kay-Li out of the meeting room.
TO BE CONTINUED.......