Resplendent Air 15 RY 765
It took Bian two more days to enact her plan. At noon she convinced the chief to watch Zuven perform a series of practice katas. Though the soldier was not much of a showman, afterwards the villagers were falling over themselves demanding lessons. Prepared with a selection of bamboo spears for the occasion, Zuven proceeded to run them ragged until dusk.
Much genial backslapping and grumbling congratulations followed, and each participant was given a metal bead in recognition of the event. This named them as Legion Auxiliary Reserves. It was almost complete fiction, the legions would never come here, but only to a point. The villagers could fight, if pressed; the demands of survival had taught them well. If supplied with decent equipment, a decent commander could rapidly shape a light infantry formation from the group.
Every house invited Zuven to join the evening meal, and he dutifully made the rounds from one pot to the next, taking a small portion each time. This ritual served to finally welcome him amongst the Ngaen. Later Trie would extend that welcome further with much enthusiasm.
The day after Bian found him early. It was time to visit the sacred hill, and the village dead.
Despite the sorceress’ attempts to stress urgency, the shaman was in no hurry. A bent-legged man with white hair and a bald pate, his eyes were dark and recessed, wise but also cunning. He had no apprentice, something Zuven had thought odd until he referred to his post as chosen of the ancestors. Initiation, it seemed, was conducted by the dead.
It took until almost midday to get ready, and then the man demanded to take his meal in the village, so the sun had already passed its peak by the time they finally departed. Skilled excuses were proffered from between cracked lips, and might have sufficed to cover a short delay, but the stalling was so excessive as to deny any attempt to conceal.
Bian chose to allow the man his dodges, even covering for the chaffing impatience Zuven failed to bury. Soon after they left the village behind a wave of trees, he heard the sorceress whisper in his ear.
“He intends a trap, after dark,” she announced, perfectly calm. “So ghosts may attack.”
These words were not spoken aloud. Bian walked beside the shaman, some ten steps back on the narrow trail up the hillside, but Zuven had heard them perfectly, carried by the wind to his ears.
He had suspected such a plan, but it was good to have confirmation, and to know the sorceress was forewarned.
Their path was circuitous, a slow ascent of many switchbacks toward the summit of the lonely promontory. At each turn there was a small stone panel raised on a stump. Each was carved with the visage of some ancestor of significance to the villagers, most centuries old. The shaman stopped at each and every one of these, taking the time to offer prayers and burn small offerings of woven reeds.
Bian watched it all impassively. Her blue eyes betrayed no sign that she knew aught was amiss. As they neared the summit she sent Zuven another message on the trembling winds. “There is surely a small shadowland near. The ghosts will move in swiftly. Be ready from an hour after nightfall.”
By the time they reached the end of the path the sun was setting. Long tongues of orange-tinged light crept through the trees. Shadows gathered everywhere, long and sharp.
When they finally saw the demense the view proved worth waiting for.
At first glance the forest spread out atop the wide, flat expanse of hilltop seemed ordinary, if oddly quiet. It was shaped just as the rest of the land, tall leafy trees with numerous epiphytes, clinging vines, and thick molted leaves strew across the floor, and colored accordingly. Peace reigned through the smooth, motionless understory, no insects in flight. Tingling threads of power, currents of gathered essence, sent a gentle tingling over Zuven’s skin.
Bian grasped the truth first. “It’s made of stone,” she whispered.
Staring outward, Zuven struggled to grasp this eerie reality. Instead, he relied upon other senses, striding forward to place a hand upon a bare patch of tree trunk.
The bark had the pattern and shaping of living growth, sculpted by the years of wind, rain, and sunlight, but beneath his fingertips it was cool, textured and solid. Stone. It resisted his skin in the manner of basalt, not bark, and failed to resonate with the wooded essence within him.
“It’s still growing,” Bian spoke quietly, standing next to him. “This demense is attuned to Pasiap, but it lacks power. This stony glaze has recast the nature of this forest, but not frozen it. Not permanent, slowed, growing at the pace of crystal.”
“Your insight is great Lady Bian,” the shaman noted. “Time slows in this place, preserving wonderfully.” He motioned them ahead. “Come, I must take you to greet the ancestors.”
At the center of the summit the undergrowth thinned. Great trees, eight in number, formed vigil in a rough circle, presiding over the heart of the demense. The concentration of essence had raised them to tremendous heights, towering over all those nearby. The sacred ancestors of the villagers had been laid amongst them.
Just as the plants, animals, and insects of this mysterious glade, they were cast in stone, glazed over. The bodies appeared true to life, as if death’s embrace had claimed them only a few days previous. All were attired finely, in a refined funerary style, white robes and full make-up. They were laid in the open, on biers of stone-wood from the forest.
“How unusual,” Bian reviewed the bodies, placed in a neat pattern of circular rows. There were only a few dozen, apparently this honor was reserved for special ancestors only, or perhaps merely those who left behind assertive ghosts. “I once saw a sculpture of a dynast, carved from wax. These are close to that in some sense, but far more permanent.”
Zuven thought the whole display vulgar and gruesome.
“The preservation lends strength to our sacred ancestors,” the shaman announced, devotion deep in his words. “It has kept the village strong. The wisdom of Sagae is great indeed.” He advanced further. “Come, his tomb awaits.”
Sagae lay at the very center of the grove, and the demense. Unlike the others, suspended uncovered, he had been placed atop a heavy stone vault, with posts upon the corner leading up to an incredibly fine casing of transparent quartz. Intricate carvings adorned every surface, lovingly polished and maintained. Rather than simple funerary robes he wore armor, a fine set of lamellar in a state of exquisite preservation. Forged of steel, not jade, it was a mortal’s defense. Zuven found the design familiar, though old. It was the uniform of an infantryman from the last decades of the Shogunate.
Even in death, Sagae possessed the carriage of a mighty warrior. He had died in his early middle years, his form unbent by the ravages of age. Armor obscured the killing wound, but Zuven suspected arrows had slain this man, likely poisoned. A grand sword, straight, broad and double-edged, suited to skilled moves, had been laid at his side, parallel to the right arm.
The soldier would have considered it a fine, fitting monument to a warrior who’d founded a village. It was spoiled for the dragon-blooded by knowing it served to host the ghostly existence of the dead man, a corruption that lingered over his memory and accomplishments.
For a time Bian peppered the shaman with questions. Each received a long-winded answer as the man carefully laid offerings before each of the bodies. By the time he knelt before Sagae, the honored founder saved for the finale, it was fully dark. Only pale moonlight guided their steps.
Bian moved behind the shaman as he laid the devotional carvings out. “Be ready,” she sent a last message to Zuven, setting the hum of battle to rising in his ears. “They surround us. Break south.”
Blue eyes pierced the night as she stood behind the village’s intercessor of the dead. “So,” her voice remained quite calm. “The trap is set. You may find, I fear, that you are mistaken as to who is springing it.”
The shaman began to turn, fear and puzzlement warring upon his face. An apology stumbled from his lips, half-formed.
Blue jade flashed. Bian’s sky cutter jumped free of her harness and slammed the man in the left temple. A cruel crack split the night. The elderly man tumbled senseless, falling atop the body of his ancestor.
Raw screams of pain and torment, unearthly and terrible, ripped through the chill air. Throughout the stone grove warriors appeared. Men and women sliding free of the darkness, solidifying from grisly haze. They bore arms and armor beneath while banners, and over terrible wounds. Empty pallor filled their faces, holes their eyes, and the edges of their bodies blurred and trembled in a wind that was not there. Carved with horrific symbols of death and malice, their armor was black iron, forged in the world below. Shields and axes of the same beat in time with their rage, grasped in bone claw hands.
One formed behind Zuven, axe raised in a brutal, overhead chop. She, for it was the effigy of a woman, stumbled in the next moment, daiklaves buried in her gut.
“Kill them! Do not let them escape!” A voice echoing with commands from long ago spoke from the center. Sagae, clad in a darkened, grayed-out version of his armor, blade in hand, strode forth from the darkness to stand atop his tomb.
Ice crystals burst free from Bian, a storm of chill, branching mathematics. She sprang, cresting high into the air, twisting as she vaulted and passing over Zuven’s head, clear by a full foot. The sky cutter spun out from her hand, slashing a bloody line across the chest of a ghost soldier before streaking back to her grasp.
Zuven exploded into combat. Axes, polearms, and shields formed a hedge about him. He danced and slithered through them, a bramble cutting through the encroachment. Daiklaves sang a brilliant keen of righteous rage with every contact, chipping and sapping the iron mined from the dark land below the living world.
Essence burst out of him as he invoked the grace of the dragons into the motion of his swords, again and again. Strikes plunged into tiny gaps in black plates, or pierced clean through, green jade biting deep into pallid flesh, tearing free. Whirling palm leaves, sun-bright in hue and carrying the scent of the seaside, spun about his frame, a tempest of sharp-sided lathes that slashed and swept in time with his deluge of strikes and parries.
Bian soared, her boomerang spinning in a vortex about her, casting aside axes and knives hurled into the path of her graceful pirouettes. She jumped from one stony branch to another, making mockery of the attempted encirclement.
For the soldier on the ground escaped proved far more troubled. The single step he’d gained by virtue of the sorceress’s preemptive strike loomed endless in the terrible maelstrom of death and dead surrounding him. Plunging ahead, the soldier pressed through the enemy, moving the storm with him, focusing his assault upon those who dared step into his path, blocking and parrying the rest.
Ghostly armament hacked at his defenses, but his swarming guard kept them at bay. The rare lucky strike that penetrated merely glanced away, warded by the potency of jade lamellar. Though he felt each blow against his muscled frame, he remained unbloodied.
Only so long as he stayed ahead, and his essence burned, but neither could last. Black iron blocked many blows, and even those strikes that bit down rarely served to stay the unloving warriors. Pain resided upon the dead in a fashion dissimilar to the living, and these were hard ghosts. Though their movements slowed and their faces twisted into a rictus of agony, the wounded did not withdraw and did not break.
No villager ghosts these, grasping spears in unsteady hands. This was a disciplined force, seasoned soldiers, hardened to war and fearing nothing to be struck free their shells. They pressed forward, refusing to yield a passage. A pair with shields screened the strikes of Bian’s sky cutter, the rest surrounded the palm-bladed warrior, closing an inexorable ring. A full scale, they stepped into gaps vacated as the fallen dissipated back to the Underworld, closing ranks behind grim eyes.
Palm leaves rose to towering heights and lashed with hurricane storm. All things within the sweep of Zuven’s blades were struck by the ripping and tearing of razor-edged green. Ghostly attackers blossomed with red lines across face, hands, and thighs as lethal essence barbs swept over them, the corona of his surging anima a soul-melting weapon of terrible fury. The soldier took little solace in this display. It heralded the last of his dragon-blooded potency, and though he had felled many, three full fangs of the enemy yet remained.
At last an axe slipped his guard completely, no supernatural speed present to whip a blade across its path. It arced down and glanced across jade plating, opening a stinging cut across the left forearm. With the very last of the essence within him, and a shout of righteous retort, Zuven slipped past a stroke from behind and ripped his blade through the ghost’s neck.
The axe, a stark red stain upon its terminus, fell slowly through the night air. Once, twice, the bloody blade spun, and then it hit the earth, iron-scented liquid touching first.
Zuven blinked. Shock flashed across the expressions of ghost soldiers.
Bian, high above them all, threw back her head and let loose a single peal of cruel, terrible laughter. The sky reached down to mock. “At last!” she screamed, white crystals cascading from her body. “All conditions are met. End this farce!”
The ground writhed.
Fifteen ghostly warriors jerked into hapless panic as their footing vanished. Iron-shod black boots dropped ankle deep into something colorless and turbulent beneath.
Madness burst free.
An unending torrent of crawling, creeping, twitching things exploded from below. Many-legged frights with tittering fangs, snub-nosed masses of edged legs and writhing mandibles, fist-sized knots of worms contorting and dripping green, gray tendrils of weird sticky film – blind but guided, sucking, churning, piercing. The mind rebelled at the vision, the formless mass of subterranean hunger unleashed.
It surged up sunken legs, across black chainmail, under gauntlets, beneath helmets. Then it met the barrier of mortified skin, pressed, pushed, and plunged inside. Eating as it burrowed, countless tiny maws corkscrewing into ragged dead flesh, wretched excretions melting undead muscle, bone, and tissue into a gray-green mass feverishly lapped up by millions of padded, hair-coated palps.
Agony rang and echoed from ghostly throats, shaking leaves of stone.
The soldiers jerked and spasmed, wracked by terrible, nerve-searing fire. Some, strong-willed, tried to fight on, raising axes against the feasting morass underfoot, or the soldier before them. Crippled by wounds and buried in a well of pain, entwined by the binding tendrils of the feeders, they moved in slow, wretched fashion. Zuven slapped aside desperate strikes with ease and plunged deadly counters into exposed faces, slaughtering the dead. It seemed almost a mercy.
“What…is…this?” Sagae, standing atop his tomb, secure beyond the reach of the mauling, churning mass of death enveloping his allies, shouted out in impotent rage. “What have you done?”
Bian fixed him with a cold, satisfied smile beneath eyes of merciless ice. “All know and fear the great predators who stalk and consume the living. Few recall those who feast upon the dead, enforcing decay upon the fallen lives of Creation, insuring the cycle of being. Individually small, they are oft forgotten, but they are fearsome in form, eternal in hunger, and so very, very numerous. Just as the great trees have their kings, so too the under-dwellers, and the Endless-Fanged-Creeper is known to find the well-aged flesh of the underworld a delicacy, a fine vintage.”
Ghostly agony faded into weak moans, submerged beneath a horrid horde of crunching, slurping, squelching noises accompanying the slow descent of the remains into the ooze-like center of that mass of hungry forms. Black iron was spat back out, to sit en-slimed upon the stone grass, but no scrap of flesh was neglected as the swarm-thing, this mind-scaring elemental, brought its repast to conclusion.
Bian jumped down from her perch, floating feather-light by the grace of Mela. She landed in front of the ancestral ghost, and his remains.
Sagae’s form began to fade to shapelessness.
“Leaving so soon?” A dark eyebrow rose above furious blue orbs. “I have questions.”
“A pox take you!” the ghost spat.
Sky-cutter rose up, then fell, held in check a hair’s breadth from the stony face of the corpse at the sorceress’ feet.
The ancestor’s dissolution halted abruptly. “You wouldn’t,” he whispered, words tinged with unearthly fear.
“You, and all the others,” her words froze, colder than the icy power spilling from her flesh. “If you intend that I should preserve the existence of ghostly abominations that have conspired to have me slain, you had best intend to trade commensurate knowledge for the privilege.”
“But the village!” the protest and terror on the ghost’s face were unfeigned. “You’ll destroy them! They need our aid.”
Bian did not so much as flinch. “One village is irrelevant.”
“But you have made friends, been so gracious, you can’t-“
“An academic project, nothing more,” Crystalline and imperious, the sorceress remained completely unmoved. “The Ngaen are of interest; one village means nothing. Now,” she let the pause linger meaningfully. “Answers. Or I will raze these bodies and order this demense capped. Your villages can spend the next decade as slaves to its construction.”
“They’ll forge me into bricks!” It was a final, feeble, objection, filled with panic and loss. An edifice built up over hundreds of years tumbled down before the blue fire of Bian’s fury.
Zuven found his heart empty of sympathy for the wretch.
“That is inevitable, and has been since you began this absurd plot,” the reply was merciless. “Especially as you have just revealed you acted on another’s behalf. They will know you betrayed them. Who commanded this? Why isolate the village? Why dare an attack on visitors? On dragon-blooded? Why?”
“I don’t know why, I don’t!” Sagae, his noble bearing shattered, begged. He was not a warrior anymore, merely a lingering dead man. “General Hidemasa gave the orders, every village patron, seal it all away.”
“And who commands your shogunate officer?” Bian demanded, fires burning on, not nearly satisfied. “Who can force such a ghost to set his descendants upon the path to destruction?”
Sagae’s voice dropped so low as to be barely audible. Fear infected his armored frame, shaking visibly. “A deathknight,” he sobbed each word. “One of the Lion’s.”
“Why?” Bian repeated the demand.
“I don’t know, I just obeyed. I told Hidemasa when you arrived. He sent the legionnaires,” the man was quivering. “It was all I could do to keep command,” he begged desperately.
The pale face of the sorceress grew dark with formidable anger. “Enough,” she declared, disgust seeping into her words. “Flee now. If you run fast enough you might survive a little while. Know that your fellows shall no longer abuse the forest god of this place, your shaman will be carrying that message ere he wakes. If you care anything for your descendants I suggest you never, ever look back.”
Without hesitation, or daring to speak, Sagae faded from sight, dissipating into spectral form, flowing back towards whatever shadowland had let him loose before, running for the Underworld.
Only when the ghost was gone did Zuven dare approach the sorceress.
“Would you truly have sacrificed the villagers?” the question jumped free from him before he could call it back, though he cursed himself for a fool.
Blue eyes fixated on him, still burning, though their flames had receded. “I rarely offer threats idly.” She answered, harsh, but without visible anger. “One village would be a terrible sacrifice, but the ghost exaggerates his importance. Such things are hard to contemplate, difficult to countenance, but what he revealed was of incredible value.”
Zuven looked at her hard. In his reckoning the ghost had said little. Regardless, he could not, would not, accept such a sacrifice, not made merely to compel. The calculus was too cruel. It was not the soldier’s way. Perhaps, he admitted with a glance to the gathered darkness, this was a failure in him.
“Is your injury serious?” The harsh mask of the sorceress fell away, revealing a layer of genuine concern beneath.
Adrenalin fading, Zuven felt the pain and itching sting of the blow. It was not bad, a clean cut to the bone, but not chipping. They worked together to bind it. “Why didn’t you have the elemental attack at the start?” He shuddered, remembering the thing, now sunken into the earth and gone, though he wished to blot the sight from his memory. A reflection of some part of Creation though it was, it had been no less hideous than any demon.
“The contract I made was to fight from the first blood spilled,” she offered a half-smile to accompany this statement, a tiny suggestion of error. “I had rather expected that to occur earlier on.” Her eyes lingered on his daiklaves. “Ultimately, the fates were with us, for this proved to our advantage. Your blazing display gathered them all together. That was well, the soldiers would have revealed nothing, and might have silenced Sagae.”
“Who were they?” Zuven questioned. They had been professional troops, well-trained even by the standards of armies, certainly no kin of villager ghosts.
“The Legion Sanguinary,” it was an ominous answer, full of dark potential. “I will explain the rest as we descend. Lingering here serves no purpose.”
They heft the unconscious shaman between them and began the trek downward.