Ch. 1 – The End
Jeolla, Goryeo (modern day Korea)
Storm clouds cast a gray pall across the sky. The last of the late afternoon light faded before the overcast, accompanied by a chill wind that whipped into the grass and the exposed joints of my armor. All life seemed to have left the place with the exception of the occasional fly waiting for an easy meal. The first drops of rain landed on my militia. Two hundred steel statues forged of plated armor, spears, swords and notched arrows. Horses sculpted of muscle and sinew, all perfectly arrayed on a field of death. It was a far cry from the ragtag rural militia we began life as and the last line of defence that stood between thousands of peasants and Gajin’s marauders cutting a swath of death and destruction across Goryeo’s hinterland.
I feared that we would not be enough.
A scattering of Mongolian riders crested a ridge in the distance. They were followed by hundreds more. A thousand, at the very least. The horde swept over the darkened vista, a shadow of death flowing steadily over the land with re-curve bows strapped across their backs. What little sunlight remained glinted off the oncoming steel-toothed beast come to consume all in its path.
Dark thoughts swirled to the front of my mind as I watched the impending death of me and my men thunder across the hills. Memories of another life filled with hope and joy. One with a perfect face crafted from the finest porcelain. An innocent cry of laughter that could melt one’s heart. I let my mind wander in this sweet past while the sound of oncoming hooves pounded against the ground in staccato rhythm. Soon the noise is overwhelming and impossible to ignore. With difficulty I pulled myself back to the present and absently brushed at the water soaked into my thick stubble before drawing a long, deep breath and flexing lean arms corded with muscle. That past is gone and no amount of wishing would bring it back. Nothing existed other than the blade at my side and the soft flesh waiting for its touch. Soon even that would disappear and this purgatory bereft of joy would be replaced by a long, dreamless night.
Storm clouds bellowed overhead and shook the ground. Dread and fair hovered thickly in the air. Slight shifts in the postures of my men and a tensing of shoulders made the cloud of nervous energy that permeated through the ranks even more apparent. Not a single man there was foolish enough to think they would survive the coming storm. Some leaders try to stamp out fear as if it were a venomous poison. A fool’s errand, impossible and more importantly undesirable. Men that felt the press of death’s hand against their chest could do terrifying things.
Fear I would tolerate. Despondency I would not.
I left the tight formation to stride forward and turn towards the men, moving far enough ahead that each would see their commander facing them. A sea of grim expressions and hooded eyes stared back at me. Looking at them, I tried not to think about how our bodies would scatter the ground, food for the flies and crows to pick at in a matter of hours, the remainder to decay into the soil among the wind battered rocks that dotted the hills. Instead I met their gaze a fire burning beneath the surface that would not be extinguished by any storm. They feel the intensity and take it as their own, standing taller with subtle shifts of their spears and swords stilled. I nodded once in satisfaction before moving back to my position in the centre of the the line to face the approaching Mongols.
Short, stocky Kim Jung-bu clapped me on the shoulder and grunted. I knew what he wanted to say, and knowing was enough for both of us. In response, I only nodded without turning towards him. My reliable and tough as an ox lieutenant had become one of the few men that could call me a friend.
The thick line of Mongolian horsemen stopped their advance and flowed into a formation three times the length of my own and twice as deep. Arrows pointed into the air as my archers readied to fire on the signal of Jung-bu. The words were nearly out of his mouth before I held up my hand to halt the order.
Something was wrong.
Pattering rain intensified, scouring our faces as we glared at the army of long black beards, flowing hair, hooked noses and fierce eyes. They kept their bows still. Endless minutes passed in the relentless downpour, promising a cleansed morning regardless of how much blood was shed that day. After what seemed like an eternity, the riders in the centre of the formation parted to allow the passage of a dismounted mountain of a man. He strode leisurely through the crowd as if he were a king. The man had a curved saber tied to his waist that was nearly half his height and was adorned in plated armor painted a blood red, a message of arrogant defiance for any who would dare seek him out among his black army.
Time slowed and my heartbeat thundered in my ears, drowning out the storm that raged high above the battlefield. My back tensed and sinewy arms flexed at my sides. I tried to control my quickened pulse with long inhalations and exhalations through a mouth that suddenly felt parched. My control started to slip. Dark, amorphous tentacles reached out from the center of my chest, murky smoke filled my veins with every breath until it colored my vision. Its sweet, intoxicating taste beckoned for me to embrace it.
Gajin was not alone. A middle-aged Goryeon peasant woman and young boy were being towed behind him, tied to a single rope secured around emaciated wrists. Both were thrown from their feet as Gajin yanked the rope forward. The monster stood behind the woman first, pushing her so that she was kneeling and barely supporting herself on outstretched arms visibly shaking in fear. Jung-bu curses as Gajin grabbed the woman’s hair with one hand and reached across her throat with a curved blade in the other, slitting her throat in a movement casual as slicing an apple.
The darkness that I had held at bay slams into me like a tsunami as I stared at the lifeless corpse, ribbons of crimson bubbling up from her opened neck. I spare a glance left and right at the anger that emanated from my men that were no less affected by the gruesome display. Gajin’s eyes connected with mine, his teeth bared in a macabre smile. Murky waves crashed against my self control, slipping over my weakened dam. At an unheard command, a group of approximately fifty Mongols walked through the ranks of mounted men, each pushing a crying woman or child in front of them, and each carrying a curved knife in one hand. Gajin’s grisly smile widened further, spreading across his face like a disease. My control finally sliped.
The Savage took me.
Gajin was reaching for the neck of the boy in front of him when my men and I let loose with wild screams of fury, charging our steeds forward. I could barely make out Jung-bu’s voice in the maelstrom commanding the archers to unleash their arrows on the rearmost ranks. Most of the deadly missiles would waste themselves against the mud, too many would land among the hostages and not nearly enough would find purchase in Mongol flesh.
This was not the plan. To have our honor used against us as deftly as any spear would leave fewer of our enemies dead. But with every step forward I felt my mind becoming more resolute, the blackness within urging me forward and committed to the avalanche of steel before us. Men and horses collapsed beside me. Men, horses, women and children in front of me. Somehow I survived and found myself among the Mongols, my spear arm thrusting deep into soft enemy flesh with animal savagery. What followed was a blur of steel and blood. I scanned for Gajin, but in the chaos I could barely make out friend from foe. Unable to yank my spear from a chest, I release it and reached for my tachi sword just as I was knocked from my steed.
Two broken ribs, head trauma and unable to breathe. I struggled to gain purchase in the muck, panicking that I would be crushed in the frackas. Jung-bu materialized beside me while I caught my breath and regained my footing, his sword a whirlwind of death scything through the enemy. Goryeon battle cries build into an enveloping crescendo, but were quickly drowned out by the clashing of steel and blood curdling screams. Sweaty palms were barely able to grip my blade as I parried a thrust from an enemy spearman. The man’s face was a mask of pure hatred. Sharp cheekbones seemed to nearly touch his eyes in a wild scream of fury. His follow up strike connected below my armored shoulder joint. I gritted my teeth in pain and swung my tachi downwards at his thrusting spear arm, severing his upper bicep before flowing into an upward slash at his throat. The man collapsed to the mud in a lifeless heap as I spun around to search for Gajin.
Two broken ribs, head trauma and lacerated left shoulder. Sheets of rain obscured everything past a few meters, but it was enough to see Jung-bu’s body at my feet. His head was cleaved open, a gray and pink mess of brains and bone. There was no time to mourn. Only kill. Incandescent lightning spider webbed through the sky to illuminate the bottom of dark clouds and the beastly silhouettes fighting beneath. Gajin was standing across from me surrounded by a pile of bodies, unmistakable in his crimson armor.
A streak of lightning closed the distance between us. I struggled to stay upright in the muck where corpses of horses and men littered the ground. The next incandescent bolt had us nearly face to face. Our swords clashed in a symphony of steel, attacks and parries dancing together to nature’s thunderous roar. Gajin’s massive saber bore down on my blade, each of his hits wearing away at my stamina. His hammering strength and skill was besting skill alone. Adrenaline had carried me this far in this battle, but now I was fighting laborious breaths as much as the enemy.
I allowed my hands to slip from my tachi at Gajin’s next colossal strike, only half feigned in the drenching rain. The monster paused to draw up to his full height, a wide grin spreading across his dark face. I fell to the soil bent over, sodden and defeated, gambling on my executioner’s arrogance. My hands gripped the drenched muck digging underneath my nails, curling around the earth. The monster started to laugh and lifted his saber high just as I hurled a handful of mud into his eyes. He kicked outwards instinctively, his heel connecting solidly with my nose. I struggled to my feet, water rolling down my mess of long hair to mix with a steady stream of blood leaking into my mouth, making it even harder to breathe. The diversion bought precious seconds as I retrieved my blade and backed away from the monster while he wiped soil from his furious eyes.
Two broken ribs, head trauma, lacerated left shoulder and a broken nose. I stumbled towards the only rocky outcropping in sight, beckoning me to refuge. A shower of sparks erupted as I slid against the slippery rock, barely avoiding Gajin’s leaping attack. My feet slipped on the grass as I slashed my tachi upwards at his forearms and missed, tumbling forward and recovering with a thrust that slid deep into his thigh. Gajin screamed out and slammed his arms downwards. A moment of excruciating pain nearly knocked me into unconsciousness, repeated strikes hammered me into the earth to choke on mud and rain. I had the detached thought that he must have dropped his sword otherwise I would most certainly be dead. My world darkened, but the realization that I’m still alive knocks me pushed me forward.
Marshalling what little energy I could, I launched myself upward and threw an uppercut that staggers Gajin, his knees crumpling as I tackled him to the mud. He tried to wrap his giant hands around my throat, but I rotated down and grabbed ahold of his undamaged leg, trapping it between my own legs. I pulled it closer to my face and pushed down with my hips, twisting his knee to an unnatural angle. Gajin continued to hammer at me, but he screamed in pain as his ligaments were finally torn apart. I dug a knee into his chest and started to smash my fists into the monster’s face. Every punch was in staccato rhythm with the lightning, illuminating his bloodied, psychopathic face bouncing off the ground in a tune only a killer can carry. A distant part of my mind realized that I was yelling in fury as I rained down strikes. This was the weight of history. The righteous crushing the evil. I pushed myself to my feet and grasped for my tachi in the mud. My hands closed around the cold, comforting steel. I raised it above my head. This was what I had lived for the past five years. This was my departure from purgatory.
Steel penetrated my side. An errant arrow. A simple piece of metal and wood displacing history, pushing me into the afterlife and preserving a demon among men. Blood flowed from my mouth before I hit the ground. A warm sensation washed over me as I fell to my stomach, arms losing the strength to hold myself above the blood spattered earth. I expended the last of my energy to roll onto my back and face the storms above. I saw a shadow from the depths of hell imposed among the midnight clouds, holding my blade in his crimson hands. The last thing I saw is a white toothed smile painted across the demon’s face before he struck down from the sky and everything went black.
My name is Saito Ienobu and this was how I died.