The Last Ride, Part 2
By Rich Wulf
The old man drew breath with a shudder, his ancient wrinkled face twisting as he turned to face the three who entered his chamber.
"Gaheris?" the old man said, his voice weak. "Is that you?"
Moto Chen cast a worried look at Chagatai. Chagatai only frowned and shook his head slightly.
Ide Tadaji looked up from the old Khan's bedside. The elderly diplomat's face was creased with worry and exhaustion. He rose and bowed to Chagatai and the others, nodding to the lesser generals to follow him into the hallway. Chagatai remained with his grandfather, taking the old courtier's seat.
"It is sad to see the Khan in such a state," Moto Chen said. "He no longer even knows who he is. He mistakes Chagatai for himself."
"No, he thinks that Chagatai is his son," Tadaji replied. "The son of Gaheris carried his legendary father's name, until he fell to Hida Tsuneo during the War of the Spirits."
"Is his memory failing?" Lixue asked.
Tadaji shook his head. "No," he said. "It is deeper than that."
Lixue and Chen exchanged a confused look.
"If my replies are confusing, I beg your pardon," Tadaji said, stumping along the hallway with his ivory cane. "The answers you seek can be more readily answered by an expert." Tadaji gestured at another door, further down the hallway. A servant quickly slid the door open as the courtier and the two generals approached.
A pungent smoke, herbal and exotic, wafted into the hallway from the open chamber. A pale light radiated from within the chamber, the light of three lanterns reflected in a thousand tiny crystals, hanging from the ceiling by silken threads. On the floor of the chamber was a strange circle of symbols was painted in white pigment, and in the center of the chamber knelt a small woman. She was clad in scant, gauzy clothing, her bare shoulders and legs glistening with sweat. Her eyes were closed deeply in meditation, both hands clutched tightly on the haft of a crystal-encrusted naginata. She chanted softly, the words sibilant and unidentifiable. Moto Chen coughed, stunned by the beauty of the scandalously clothed young girl. She opened her eyes instantly. They shimmered from within with a pale green light.
Chen quickly grinned back. "I don't think I've had the pleasure," he said with a deep bow. "That's quite a... remarkable outfit you're wearing."
Tadaji glowered at the general darkly. "Akasha does not possess the same cultural sensibilities as other Rokugani women," he said carefully. "Please, keep that in mind around her."
"Akasha," Lixue said, quickly bowing to the young girl. "The child of the Golden Pearl. I am honored."
Akasha smiled a wide, sincere smile and rose nimbly. She returned Lixue's bow with an identical movement, flipping her spear behind her back with a deft movement. "Iuchi Lixue-sama, the General of the West. It is an honor to meet you as well."
"And our other visitor is Moto Chen," Tadaji said, gesturing at the tall samurai. "Do not let his lecherous demeanor mislead you, Akasha-chan. As the General of the East, Chen is one of the most devastating warriors in our clan."
"And handsome as well," Akasha said frankly, grinning at Chen. Chen politely made a vague attempt to keep his eyes away from her bare legs and stomach. Akasha arched a perfect eyebrow at the General of the East. Tadaji sighed.
"The generals have come to aid the Khan," Tadaji explained. "As we discussed," he added more forcefully, drawing the girl's attention away from Chen.
"Oh," she said, blinking with a lopsided grin. "Of course. My meditations have borne fruit, Tadaji-sama. I have much to share. I believe there is hope that we can save him." Akasha turned about quickly, sauntering back to her circle amid the hanging crystals.
"Gaheris' wounds can be healed?" Lixue asked quickly.
Akasha frowned, shoulders slumping slightly. "You misunderstand me," she said softly. "His body will die, that course can no longer be altered. However, we may still save his soul."
"His soul?" Chen asked.
Akasha looked at the general again. "The Lords of Death ride forth to Shiro Moto tonight, to harvest Moto Gaheris' soul," she said.
"But you have found a way to save him," Lixue asked.
"I think so," Akasha said. She knelt and set her spear gently on the floor, rising with a small crystal from the edge of her circle cupped in both hands. The crystal glowed softly as she touched it, reflecting the green glow of Akasha's eyes and illuminating her heart-shaped face. "The whispers have guided me, the teachings of Jakla that have long passed into memory. They speak of a dark realm of spirits, a prison where the souls of the murderous are banished. It is in this realm that the Jakla once bound the spirit of Shahismael, the greatest evil the Naga had ever known. This realm is also known to your people. It is the realm that steals away the souls of those who die consumed with thoughts of murder and vengeance."
"Toshigoku," Lixue said, the color draining from her face. "The Realm of Slaughter, where spirits fight endlessly only to rise again and kill each other anew with each passing day."
Akasha nodded slowly. "This is where the Lords of Death have gone," she said, "it is a place where old gods go to die. Or to kill."
"That makes no sense," Lixue said bluntly. "Chagatai said that Moto Tsume was taken by the Lords of Death, but the Dark Moto served Fu Leng. Fu Leng dwelt in Jigoku, not Toshigoku, a different hell altogether."
"I do not understand it completely," Akasha admitted. "The Spirit Realms are a complex place. Toshigoku and Jigoku are closely linked to one another. Perhaps the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang and Fu Leng were both responsible for the Moto Lord's corruption?"
"Does it matter?" snarled a gruff voice from the chamber's entrance. Chagatai stormed into the room like an angry storm cloud, his small eyes narrowed in determination. "My grandfather stands against the gods tonight. I mean to stand with him. Can you help me, Akasha?"
Akasha's eyes focused upon the crystal in her hands again. "With Lixue's aid, yes," she said. "With her magic, and the guidance of the Naga spirits, we lead you to the Realm of Slaughter. The pathway will not last long, and only those who share the bloodline of Gaheris may enter."
"I will fight by your side, cousin," Chen said without hesitation, clapping a thick hand on Chagatai's shoulder.
Chagatai nodded curtly to his general, then turned to Akasha once more.
"How soon can you send us to this realm?"
Akasha looked up at Chagatai, then back down at the crystal. "The magic will not open the way, it will simply hold the portal once opened."
"And when will it open?" Chagatai asked.
"When your grandfather dies," Akasha replied.
"The shugenja say that he has hours, at best," Tadaji said.
Chagatai nodded. "Time enough for one last ride," he growled. "Chen, Lixue, come with me. I need to clear my head."
The others looked at Chagatai incredulously as he rose and exited the room. Chagatai's generals quickly exited.
"Is he always like that?" Akasha whispered. "He's... frightening."
"Do not fear Moto Chagatai, Akasha-chan," Tadaji said with a warm smile. "He is our protector, and soon he will be our Khan." The old courtier rose and made his way to the door, his ivory cane stumping on the floor. He paused at the threshold, looking back at Akasha with a wink. "If I were you, I'd save my fear. Instead, pity those who were foolish enough to anger him."
The wind rushed through the young Ki-Rin's hair, drawing out a whoop of excitement as he galloped across the dunes. His charging mount seemed equally exhilarated, tearing through the loose sand with its hooves and leaving a great cloud of dust in its wake. As he crested the hill, he drew his steed to a halt for the briefest moment. There, at the base of the dune, he saw his target - a small caravan of wagons. It was tended by ten warriors dressed in the golden armor of the Senpet.
Only ten? The Ki-Rin laughed and charged down the hill with an eager cry.
The Senpet were prepared. They lifted their spears and drew their blades. One had the presence of mind to ready his bow, but the rider quickly hurled his spear and took that one in the chest. The arrow went wide, glancing off the Ki-Rin's shoulder. He shouted a defiant cry as his steed crashed into the front ranks of the Senpet, crushing two beneath great hooves. His blade fell upon a third, taking the head from his shoulders. Another lunged with his spear, blade striking deep in the throat of the Ki-Rin's horse. The Ki-Rin snarled as he felt his horse buckle. He leapt backward from his saddle, rolling through the sand, rising with his saber already in hand. He could taste blood in his mouth from the fall. He spat in the sand and prepared for battle.
The six remaining Senpet advanced. Suddenly the odds did not seem so favorable as they had at the top of the dune. The fallen Ki-Rin clutched his saber and held it parallel to his shoulders, reflecting the light of the sun toward his foes as he shouted another war cry in his native tongue. The Senpet leader sneered for the briefest moment, then fell to the earth with a knife buried in his throat.
Suddenly a warrior appeared at either side, both dressed in the colors of the
Ki-Rin. They shouted triumphantly in his own tongue, lifting their great blades
as they charged into the Senpet. The Ki-Rin did not hesitate, but joined them in
their charge. In moments, the surprised Senpet were beaten into the earth, their
blood slaking the bottomless thirst of the desert.
"So fall the enemies of the Khan," the rider said, lifting his saber to salute the two men. One was tall, lean, and aristocratic. The other was stocky and thick with muscle; his face looked like something beaten out of copper by a poor craftsman. The Ki-Rin recognized neither of them, though the ugly one seemed familiar. "Who are you, my brothers?" he asked. "I thought I knew all the children of the Ki-Rin by sight, but your names escape me."
"I am your..." the ugly one paused, glancing at his companion for a moment. "I am Chagatai," he said, "one of your cousins from the land of Rokugan. My comrade is Chen."
"Ah," the Ki-Rin said, offering his right hand to Chagatai. "My name is Gaheris, and I am honored to meet you both. Know that this day you have saved the life of the son of the Khan."
Chagatai smiled for a brief moment. "I have heard of you," he replied, clasping Gaheris' hand firmly. "I did not expect you to be so young."
"I am too swift for old age to catch me, Chagatai-san," he replied. "Stay as swift as the four winds, and it will never catch you either."
"Good advice," Chen replied, taking Gaheris' hand and shaking it as well.
Gaheris looked away, casting his gaze across the wide dunes. When he did, Chen shot Chagatai a curious look. Chagatai only scowled in reply, shrugging almost imperceptibly. "I must admit," Gaheris said, his exuberant tone trailing off to one of mild concern. "Without too much arrogance, I may be one of the most skilled scouts of my clan, but I am not familiar with this place. I... cannot even say for certain how I came to be here." He looked back at them. "Where are we?"
"Toshigoku," Chagatai replied. "The Realm of Slaughter."
Gaheris fell silent, his smile fading away. He quickly moved to the nearest Senpet cart, leaning against it and holding one side of his head. "Then we are lost," he said with grim finality.
"We are not lost yet, Gaheris-sama," Chen said. "We can take the Senpet horses, ride deeper into the desert, flee before the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang can find us."
"We can run if we wish, but we cannot outrun death," Gaheris said, not looking at Chen. "Especially not on a Senpet horse."
"Then we fight," Chen said. He looked at Chagatai, who nodded in reply.
Gaheris looked up at them both. When he did, his face was no longer the face of the young raider, but of the elderly Khan they had watched drift away in his deathbed only minutes before. "This is not a battle we can win."
"So we should surrender, then?" Chagatai snapped. "That is not the way of the Ki-Rin as I was taught."
Gaheris scowled at Chagatai, a scowl nearly identical to the younger Unicorn's. "You are full of pride, boy," he said.
Chagatai sniffed. "Blame the one who raised me," he said. "Flee if you wish, Moto Gaheris. Chen and I traveled a long way to battle the gods. We shall do so by ourselves if we must."
Gaheris gave the younger man an appraising look. "Do you have a plan?"
Chagatai smiled, a rare and fearsome sight. "Of course," he whispered.
Chen, Chagatai, and Gaheris stood at the height of the tallest dune in the endless desert. The three stood back to back, sabers at the ready. The sun had sank deep in the west, casting the sky a brilliant purple. Nothing moved, nothing changed in the Realm of Slaughter until the last rays of sunlight vanished from the sky.
Then the came the shrieks of pain, rage, and torment. The desert erupted around them, the skeletal armies of the dead tearing free from the desert's womb. Thousands of them rose suddenly from the earth, ranged all about the trio. Some wore the bone-white armor of the Moto, now blackened as if stained by fire. Others wore armor of black and red of more ancient styling; these were the Ujik-hai, the bones of their ancient ancestors. Every empty eye socket in the undead armies fixed upon the three Unicorn.
Chagatai's eyes scanned the endless armies of the dead. Far away, amid the armies of the dead stood ten skeletal figures in regal robes of brilliant color, each twice the height of the undead Moto that served them. An enormous bodyguard stood before them, dressed in pure white armor. A grinning mempo covered the man's face.
"There they are, Chagatai," Gaheris whispered, following Chagatai's gaze as he fixed upon the nearest tall figure. "They are the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang." He looked at the younger man. "Are you certain you wish to do this?"
"Chen, guard my right flank," Chagatai ordered. "Gaheris, take my left. We will clear a path to that Lord of Death but I will face him alone. Is that understood?" He looked back at the others.
"I take the ten thousand on the right, he takes the ten thousand on the left, and the ten gods in the middle are yours," Chen said, his tone vaguely amused.
"Right," Chagatai said, lip twitching in a faint grin.
"This will never work," Chen said.
"But what if it does?" Gaheris asked. "What if we survive?"
"The first thing I plan to do," Chen said with a nervous chuckle. "Is visit that Naga girl again."
"Then ready your blades, Moto," Chagatai said. "Today we defeat the gods."
The three Unicorn lifted their swords as one, screamed an ancient war cry in the language of the Ujik-hai, and charged into the ranks of their dead kin. The skeletal troops seemed taken by surprise, uncertain how to deal with a foe who faced them without fear. The front ranks fell before the gleaming sabers of Chen and Gaheris, the massive longsword of Chagatai. The three had left their katana behind as they had left Rokugan behind. They know fought their ancestors with the weapons of their own unique tradition. Many of the undead Moto seemed frozen in their tracks by the ancient war cry of the three defiant warriors, as if something in the words reminded them of how much they had lost.
They moved as a blur, slicing through the shambling ranks, never in one place for more than a moment. Chen grunted as a blade sliced across his left arm. Chagatai snarled as the spiked club of a long-dead Ujik-Hai resounded loudly against his chest plate. Gaheris sneered as an arrow took his thigh and another lodged deeply in his shoulder. Gaheris stumbled, and Chagatai shouted for Chen to remain at his side. The young lord of the Unicorn fought on alone, cutting a path toward the Lord of Death.
The forces were endless, the battle hopeless, but still he fought on, charging through the ranks of the dead Moto. His breath came with difficulty as he cleaved to either side with his great blade, hewing aside the bony claws of his enemies. Finally, as he raised his blade for another strike, the armies receded.
Chagatai found himself standing in a circle of the dead, surrounding the ethereal figures of the Ujik-Hai gods. Before him stood the great ivory-armored bodyguard of the Lords of Death. The samurai bowed to Chagatai, and reached up to remove his mempo. Unlike the others, this one's face was untouched by rot and decay. Raw stitches sawed through the man's skin around his throat. His face split in an eager smile. "Moto Chagatai," he said. "The Lords of Death expected to collect only Gaheris today. You are an unexpected prize." The empty eyes of the Lords of Death watched Chagatai quietly. Their jaws clattered in excitement as they spread in a line behind their guardian.
Chagatai did not return the man's bow. He clutched his blade in both hands, shoulders heaving as he drew breath. "Step aside, Moto Tsume," he said. "I wish to speak to your masters."
Moto Tsume drew his sword, a katana, and pointed it at Chagatai. "You recognize me?"
"I recognize your foolish pride," Chagatai said. "You think you can bar my path?"
"Pride?" Tsume laughed. "A strange accusation from a man who would presume to speak to the gods."
"You died three times already, Tsume," Chagatai said. "You do not impress me."
Tsume laughed. "You mean my corpse?" he replied. "That toy the Lords gave Fu Leng to set their trap?"
"Trap?" Chagatai replied, stepping slowly closer to Tsume.
Tsume kept his katana trained upon Chagatai. "Trap," he said with a nod. "Like the Lords, Fu Leng was a forgotten god. They came to an agreement with one another. The Lords took my soul, and gave my body to the Fallen Kami to set a trap for the rest of our family. It took three hundred years, but at last you are here. Even better, now you rule the clan that once destroyed the Ujik-Hai. Now Gaheris will return as the new lord of the Dark Moto, stronger even than I ever was. We will ride on Shiro Moto. The Unicorn Clan will fall. You will fall, and at last the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang will have their revenge."
"Revenge?" Chagatai laughed. "Is that all that you dream of? You are pathetic Tsume. So eager to pass on your mantle to another; you cannot even lead the dead."
Tsume's eyes narrowed. Behind him, the Lords of Death clattered their jaws at one another in excited confusion.
"Failure," Chagatai snapped, lowering his sword and advancing. "Weakling. Shadow. Your puppet-corpse inspired more fear. I should slay you now so that the children's tales that speak of your fearsomeness will not be dulled by the idiot truth. But such would dishonor my blade." Chagatai dropped his great sword to the earth and sneered at Tsume.
Moto Tsume roared, lifted his katana, and charged at Chagatai. Chagatai smiled. The most common mistake his opponents ever made was to assume he was stupid. The second most common mistake was to assume that a man so large would be slow and clumsy in his movements. Both assumptions were wrong. As the katana came down, Chagatai darted to one side. In a swift movement he drew the wakizashi from his belt, planted one foot on the huge samurai's knee, leapt into the air, and took Moto Tsume's head from his shoulders with a single precise stroke.
Silence fell over the fields of Toshigoku. Out of the corner of his eye, Chagatai saw Chen and Gaheris stumble into the clearing, both badly wounded and leaning upon one another for support.
The Shi-Tien Yen-Wang howled in one, screaming and pointing at Chagatai in their rage.
Chagatai smiled and tossed his wakizashi to the earth. "Kill me if you will," he said to them as the undead horde advanced all around him. "Make me a pale, ineffective shadow as you did Moto Tsume. As you are."
"How dare you, insect!" shouted the foremost Lord, speaking in the ancient language of the Ujik-Hai. "We are the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang. We are gods!"
"You are less than memories," Chagatai replied. The armies of their dead brandished their weapons as they advanced "Forgotten by even your own people. Tell me, Lords of Death, what happens to a god when no one remains to worship him?"
"We will fade," the nearest Lord snarled. "But that is nothing, compared to what will happen to you."
"Then we are at an impasse," Chagatai said as the first skeletal warriors clutched at him and his comrades. "Perhaps a deal can be made?"
The army paused as one.
"Deal?" the Lords of Death said, all as one.
"As I said," Chagatai replied, "You have been forgotten... and Rokugan is a land of many gods. Who would notice ten more slipped in among the rest? A shrine here, a shrine there. What comes after is up to you. Perhaps you will be forgotten again. Perhaps, in time, you will come to be revered above even Shinjo."
"Such is impossible!" the Lords replied.
"Is it?" Chagatai replied. "In Rokugan? A land where spirits walk as mortals? A land where an arrogant young girl and a brash boy can become the Moon and Sun?"
The Lords of Death looked at one another, bony jaws chattering as they glanced about in nervous confusion. They looked to Chagatai once more and one, he could not tell which, spoke. "You would do this, Moto Chagatai?" they asked.
"Release the souls of my ancestors," Chagatai snarled. "Send Chen and myself back to the mortal realm, and I promise by my grandfather's sword that it will be done."
"Your price is high," the Lords said. "You would rob us of our vengeance."
"I will make you gods again," Chagatai said. "Weigh it."
Chagatai's gaze was cold and steady as he looked into the eyes of the lost gods. At his side, Chen was pale and silent. Gaheris only frowned. For a long time, no one spoke.
"Moto Chagatai," the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang said as one. "Your terms are acceptable."
There was no flash of light, there was no fanfare or magical display of any
kind. One moment the armies of the dead ranged about them in an endless desert.
The next, Moto Chen and Moto Chagatai stood on White Shore Plain in sight of
Chen collapsed, panting, on the ground. Chagatai laughed openly at him.
"Well?" he asked his general. "We survived."
"We did, at that," Chen said with a relieved laugh. "I suppose I must make good on my promise and find a nice gift for Akasha."
Chagatai only nodded, his face showing no humor.
"What just happened, Chagatai?" Chen asked, his tone suddenly serious. The general staggered to his feet. "What sort of pact did you make back there?"
Chagatai was silent for a long time. "I do not know," he said at last. "I hope we will not know for a long time to come. In the future, perhaps, the Lords of Death may come to be a threat once more."
"What can we do?" Chen asked.
"All that we can," Chagatai said, offering the general his hand. "To insure that the future will be strong enough."
"I am with you," Chen said, clasping Chagatai's hand in the ancient tradition of the Ujik-Hai, "my Khan."