Ch. 1 – The End
Jeolla, Goryeo (modern day Korea)
Storm clouds cast a gray pall across the sky. The last of the afternoon light is fading before the overcast, accompanied by a chill wind whipping into the grass that bites into my exposed face and the joints of my armor. All life seems to have left this place with the exception of the occasional fly waiting for an easy meal. The first drops of rain start to land on me and my militia. A hundred steel statues. Men forged of plated armor, spears, swords, and notched arrows. Horses cast from muscle and sinew. All perfectly arrayed on a field of death. It’s impressive for a rural militia usually equipped with boiled leather armor and dull swords. We are the last that stand between thousands fleeing Gajin’s marauders. Murderers pillaging their way through Goryeo’s hinterland.
I fear that we will not be enough.
Hundreds of Mongolian riders crest a ridge well beyond arrow distance. The horde sweeps over the darkened hills, a nightmarish shadow of death flowing steadily over the land with recurve bows strapped across their backs. What little sunlight remains glints off the oncoming forest of spears and swords. It’s a steel-toothed beast come to consume all in its path.
Dark thoughts swirl to the forefront of my mind as I watch the death of me and my men approach. Memories of another life. A better life. It’s gone now. I’m but a shell of that man. A hardened carapace covering a body and mind devoid of emotion. Not since they left this life. There is nothing for me and I am nothing without them, other than a man waiting for an opportunity to escape a purgatory bereft of joy.
Thunder bellows overhead, breaking my reverie. I wipe at my brow and the water soaking into my thick stubble, drawing a long, deep breath that forces me back into the moment. Lean, corded arms from a lifetime of combat hang loosely at my sides, a slight tremor of anxiety at the coming battle coursing through my veins. My men are less ready, their energy a cloud of anger, dread and fear that hovers thickly in the air around us.
No one expects to survive.
I can feel the tumult of their emotions without turning around. Some leaders try to stamp it out as if it was a venomous poison permeating through the ranks. A fool’s errand, impossible and more importantly undesirable. Men that feel the press of death’s hand against their chest can do terrifying things to other men. I turn to survey my force and ensure that each of them has their weapons at the ready and are in position. They seem to stand taller as I meet their eyes, nodding once before turning back to the approaching Mongols. I try not to think about how our bodies will 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 dotting the hills. I push the unhelpful thoughts away. These are good men and they know their duty. They trust me implicitly despite not being born of this land. I want to say something inspiring, but I know that words would only dilute the sacrifice they’re about to make.
The thick line of Mongolian horsemen widens until it flows into a formation three times the length of my own and twice as deep. Arrows point into the air as my archers ready to fire on the signal of Kim Jung-bu, my second in command. The words are nearly out of his mouth before I hold up my hand to halt the order.
Something is wrong.
Pattering rain intensifies, hammering down to scour our faces as we glare at the formation of long black beards, flowing hair and fierce eyes. They keep their bows still. Endless minutes pass in the relentless downpour, promising a cleansed morning regardless of how much blood is shed this day. After what seems like an eternity the riders in the center of the formation part to allow the passage of a dismounted hulking mountain of a man. He’s adorned in plated armor painted blood red, a message of arrogant defiance of any who would dare seek him out among his black army.
Time slows and my heartbeat seems to thunder in my ears, drowning out the storm raging high above the battlefield. My back tenses and sinewy arms flex at my sides. I try to control my quickened pulse with long inhalations through my nose and out through a mouth that suddenly feels parched. My control starts to slip. Dark, amorphous tentacles reach out from the center of my chest, murky smoke filling my veins with every breath until it colors my vision. Its sweet, intoxicating taste beckons for me to unleash it.
Gajin is not alone. A middle-aged Goryeon peasant woman and young boy are being towed behind him, both tied to a single rope secured around emaciated wrists. Both are thrown from their feet as Gajin yanks the rope forward. The monster stands behind the woman first, pushing her so that she’s kneeling and barely supporting herself on outstretched gaunt arms visibly shaking in fear. Kim Jung-bu curses as Gajin grabs the woman’s hair with one hand and reaches across her throat with a vicious curved blade in the other, slitting her throat in a movement casual as slicing an apple.
The darkness that I’ve held at bay slams into me like a tsunami as I stare at the lifeless corpse, ribbons of crimson bubbling up from her opened neck. Anger emanates from my men that are no less affected by the gruesome display. Gajin’s eyes connect with mine, his teeth bared in a macabre smile. Murky waves crash against my self control, slipping over my weakening dam. At an unheard command, a group of roughly fifty Mongols walk 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 widens further, spreading across his face like a disease. My control finally slips.
The beast takes me.
Gajin is 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 can barely make out Kim Jung-bu’s voice in the maelstrom commanding the archers to unleash their arrows on the rearmost ranks. Most of the deadly missiles will waste themselves against the mud, too many will land among the hostages and not nearly enough will find purchase in Mongol flesh.
This was not the plan. The bitter taste of humiliation mixed with a sweet hint of pride, having our honor used against us as deftly as any spear. But with every stride forward I feel my mind becoming more resolute, the blackness within urging me forward and pledged to the avalanche of steel before us. Men and horses collapse beside me. Men, horses, women and children in front of me. Somehow I survive and find myself among the Mongols, my spear arm thrusting deep into soft enemy flesh with animal savagery. What follows is a blur of steel and blood. I scan for Gajin, but in the chaos I can barely make out friend from foe. Unable to yank my spear from a Mongol’s chest, I release it and reach for my katana just as I’m knocked from my steed.
Two broken ribs, head trauma and unable to breathe. I struggle to gain purchase in the muck, panicking that I’ll be crushed in the frackas. Kim Jung-bu materializes beside me while I catch my breath and regain my footing, his sword a whirlwind of death scything through the enemy. Goryeon battle cries build into an enveloping crescendo, but are quickly drowned out by the clashing of steel and blood curdling screams. Sweaty palms are barely able to grip my blade as I parry a thrust from an enemy spearman. The Mongol’s face is a mask of pure hatred. Sharp cheekbones seem to nearly touch his eyes in a wild scream of fury. His follow up strike connects below my shoulder piece joint. I grit my teeth in pain, take the hit and swing my katana downwards at his thrusting spear arm, severing his upper bicep before flowing into an upward slash at the man’s throat. The man collapses to the mud in a lifeless heap as I spin around to search for Gajin.
Two broken ribs, head trauma and lacerated left shoulder. Sheets of rain obscure everything past a few meters, but it’s enough to see Kim Jung-bu’s body at my feet. His head is cleaved open, a gray and pink mess of brains and bone. There’s no time to mourn. Only kill. Incandescent lightning spider webs through the sky to illuminate the bottom of dark clouds and the beastly silhouettes fighting beneath. Gajin is standing across from me surrounded by a pile of bodies. The butcher is unmistakable in his crimson armor.
A streak of lightning closes the distance between us. I struggle to stay upright in the muck where corpses of horses and men litter the ground. The next incandescent bolt has us nearly face to face. Our swords clash in a symphony of steel, attacks and parries dancing together to nature’s thunderous roar. Gajin’s curved saber bears down on my blade, each of his massive hits wearing away at my stamina. His hammering strength and skill besting skill alone. Adrenaline has carried me this far in this battle, but now I’m fighting laborious breaths as much as the enemy. I can’t win at this rate.
I allow my hands to slip from my katana at Gajin’s next colossal strike, only half feigned in the drenching rain. The monster pauses to draw up to his full height, a wide grin spreading across his dark face. I fall to the soil bent over, sodden and defeated, gambling on my executioner’s arrogance. My hands grip the drenched muck digging underneath my nails, curling around the earth in anger. The monster starts to laugh and lifts his saber high just as I hurl a handful of mud into his eyes. He kicks outwards instinctively, his heel connecting solidly with my nose. I struggle 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 buys precious seconds as I retrieve my blade and back away from the monster wiping soil from furious eyes.
Two broken ribs, head trauma, lacerated left shoulder and a broken nose. I stumble towards the only rocky outcropping in sight, beckoning me to refuge. A shower of sparks erupts as I slide against the slippery rock, nature saving me from Gajin’s leaping attack yet again. My feet glide on the grass as I slash my katana upwards at his forearms, tumbling forward and recovering with a stabbing motion into his thigh. Gajin screams out and slams his arms downwards. A moment of excruciating pain finds me nearly unconscious, repeated strikes hammering me into the earth to choke on mud and rain. I have the detached thought that he must have dropped his sword otherwise I would most certainly be dead. My world vibrates and starts to darken. I am not dead. I am not dead. The realization knocks me from my trance.
Marshalling what little energy I can, I launch myself upward and throw an uppercut that staggers Gajin, his knees crumpling as I tackle him to the sludge. He tries to wrap his giant hands around my throat, but I rotate down and grab hold of his undamaged leg, trapping it between my own legs. I pull it closer to my face and push down with my hips, twisting his knee to an unnatural angle. Gajin is hammering at me, but he screams in pain as his ligaments are torn apart. I dig a knee into his chest and start to smash my fists into the monster’s face. Every punch is 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 realizes that I’m yelling in fury as I rain down strikes. This is the weight of history, the righteous crushing the evil. I push myself to my feet and grasp for my katana in the mud. My hands close around the cold, comforting steel. I raise it above my head. This is what I’ve lived for the past five years. This is my departure from purgatory.
Steel penetrates my side. An errant arrow. A simple piece of metal and wood displacing history, pushing me into the afterlife and preserving a devil among demons. Blood flows from my mouth before I hit the ground. A warm sensation washes over me as I fall to my stomach, arms losing the strength to hold myself above the blood spattered earth. I expend the last of my energy to roll onto my back and face the storms above. I see a shadow from the depths of hell imposed among the midnight clouds. The world darkens as the devil himself strikes down from the heavens and everything goes black.
My name is Saito Ienobu and this is how I died.