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Tales of the Dorokusai

Back in 2002 or so I became obsessed with writing a story about angels and demons, science fiction and fantasy, martial arts and high tech weaponry. After a time the story petered out and I moved on to other things. As this is a project that I don’t plan to publish or do anything else with, I’m putting it all right here. If you do plan to read, please do so with some mercy and manage your expectations. It’s clunky and to say it is a homage to multiple sources is putting it mildly. Nonetheless, here it is in its unedited sprawling fullness, my unfinished novel Tales of the Dorokusai.

Chapter One : 1835

Diary of Lena Iziaslavich

April 16

I had the strangest dream last night.  I was in a big, huge place.  There were people everywhere.  Everyone was talking to each other, but I could only hear the sound of chimes.  I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  I looked around and couldn’t see any walls, I looked up and there was no ceiling, I looked down and there was no floor… everything was kind of see-through and bright white.  I started feeling scared- I didn’t know where I was and I couldn’t see Mama or Papa anywhere. I was too afraid to say anything. I didn’t want anyone to notice me.  

I told Mama about it when I woke up.  She smiled. “Don’t worry; it was just a silly dream, baby bear.” But it felt so, so real.    

April 17

I just woke up in a cold sweat… I had almost the same dream as the one from last night, only this time, it was… I don’t know.  I don’t know if it is just a silly dream after all.  I can remember the whole thing perfectly.  I found I was in the same place again, the white place.  Just like in the last dream.  Only, I didn’t feel afraid this time.  Everything was familiar to me.  Comfortable. 

No one saw me, so I sat and watched them for a while.  They were all so beautiful.  The women, even the men were beautiful.  They looked nothing at all like most of the people in our village.  I imagined that this was how the royalty of the world might look, all clean, prim and proper.  But no, these people were too perfect to be real.  I could only think of them as Angels.  

I stayed huddled at a distance, fascinated by them and lost in wonder at their strange robes and jewellery; I had never seen anything like it. I felt dirty and plain compared to them. Even their voices were angelic, ringing like the most beautifully clear bells I could ever have imagined.   These people looked like they were a part of some lost race that never knew disease, or hunger, or pain.  I knew it was a dream but I wished for it to never end.  

After what seemed like an eternity of watching these angel-people I felt that the mood of the place changed.  The clear chimes quietened, the voices dying down.  They looked at one another and smiled, and a feeling of happiness ran through me like a warm summer breeze, filling me with excited tingles all over.  A soft, motherly voice whispered inside my head. 

“Our decision has been made.” 

April 18

Dear diary, the angel dream happened again.  I was hoping it would.  I can remember it so clearly, and the strangest thing is it seemed to start right from the end of last night’s dream.  As soon as I closed my eyes I was there, in the white room.  All of the men and women were facing me, like I was their queen.  Their eyes glowed like an ocean.  I felt uncertain what to do, and a little nervous.  But they were all smiling, so warmly.  The music of the angelic voices was completely gone, replaced with an absolute silence that I cannot even imagine now, with the sounds of father cursing at the crops.  

Then without a sound, gesture or signal, the group in front of me slowly began to part.  I held my breath.  It was like watching the wind moving through a row of crops.  Sometimes when I stay at Nanna’s farm I sit and just stare at the crops. Sometimes I think that the lines of bending wheat are the fingers of Mother Nature running her hands through her creation.  The Angels continued to part.  I crouched into a ball, tucking my head in between my knees and digging my fingernails into my forearms.  It hurt, but the pain didn’t wake me.  If anything, it made me even more aware of myself within the dream.  Tears welled in my eyes, running down my cheeks.  

‘Stop being such a stupid baby’, I told myself, rubbing tears away with the back of my hands.  ‘It’s just a dream; pretty soon I will wake up, snuggled safely in bed with my sisters.’  That helped. My mind had cleared a little.  I think it was at that moment that I realized the angel-people were not moving anymore.  A long break in the crowd had formed, and it opened right in front of me.  At the end of the break a man stepped out, and it seemed like we were the only two living things in the dream.  A giant among giants, he stood taller and wider than any of the other angels and he had a glow that separated him from all the rest. His sense of comfort put me at ease, and all my little fears melted as soon as he came close.  Maybe it was because he looked a bit like my Uncle Georgii. His long silver hair flowed over his shoulders and down his back. He wore a strange pendant around his neck, and his robes were the purest shade of white I had ever seen. He walked over to me and helped me up, and said hello in a voice I understood, even though it still carried the sounds of chimes in my mind.   

 “Hello, how do you do?” I said (Like Mama taught me).  I didn’t want him to think that I had no manners.  He smiled at me, and I smiled back.  

That was when I woke up.  It was still dark, and my little sister Nikita was deep asleep beside me. What a dream.  I decided to get up and write all of it down, while I still remembered, and there it is.  But I just realized the strangest thing.  My forearms are stinging.  On each arm are four red welts, the size and shape of my fingernails in the same spot I dug them in during the dream.

April 22

Today at school I had a warm feeling in my stomach that lasted all day.   I didn’t know what it was.  It was the nicest stomach ache I ever had.  When I got home I told Mama about it.  She got an odd look on her face, then smiled and gave me a huge cuddle. Mama says that my body is probably getting ready for the change from a girl to a woman.  So, my body is just getting ready.  

I am so excited.  I can’t wait to become a woman!

May 1

I’m wide-awake in the middle of the night; I have my candle, and my diary.  I have to write about this, I won’t be able sleep until I do.  I just had another one of thosedreams.  They are getting more and more vivid each time I have them.  It is the strangest thing.  Even though I am fully aware that I am caught within a dream, the knowledge of the fact doesn’t make the place, or the feelings, any less real.  Also, I seem to be falling into the dream place more quickly, too.  As usual before bedtime I said my prayers with my brothers and sisters before lying down to sleep.  As soon as I was in bed I shut my eyes.  It felt like it was only the next moment that I reopened them, to find myself in the endless white room.  This time, though, it was practically empty.  It was just the giant and I.  

“Hello Lena,” he rumbled in his deep voice that tinkled through my mind.

He knelt down in front of me, and I was so happy to see him that I gave him a great big cuddle.  He was warm and soft like a giant cat, and I felt safe being close to him.  After a few moments he pulled away, resting his enormous hands on my shoulders.  He looked straight at me, up close for the first time, and I think I just stared at him, mouth wide open.  Even now, writing this, I can’t find the words to describe what I saw.  The most incredible eyes, I will never forget.  They were not even eyes.  His pupils were just two huge pools of darkness, and I saw the moon and the stars in them, like a reflection of the night sky.  The bit around his pupils were green like the brightest jewel in the world.  I almost fell over from the shock of looking into those eyes.     

I decided to look at his nose, instead.  

“Are you alright?”  I nodded to the nose.  He smiled. 

“Lena, you will soon be going through a very difficult period in your life.”

He paused.  I wasn’t sure what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

“I am going to need you to stay strong.  One day you will understand.”  His voice was calming, relaxing.  I felt sleepy.  Can you fall asleep within a dream? 

“Uhhmm…please. Tell me what’s happening.  I know I’m dreaming, but you seem so real.”  

He gave me a gentle squeeze on the shoulders.

“Don’t worry about that for now, Lena.  Just believe me, and trust me.  I will be with you on every step of the road ahead”.

“Do you promise?” I asked him.

His great big eyes twinkled and he whispered, “Yes, I promise.”

That was the point at which I woke up.  The sky is getting brighter now, papa is already out in the fields.  I will go and help him. 

May 12

It is so cold.  I could not go to school today because of the snow, so I stayed at home and helped with the chores.  Mama asked if I was feeling well earlier, she said I looked pale.  I can feel these beautiful sensations taking place within me. I feel like the warmth in my belly is becoming stronger every day.  We cannot afford to go to a doctor, and I think Mama is getting worried.  She keeps looking at me with concern.  I ask her what is wrong, but she just shakes her head and tells me it’s nothing.  Mama is being strange.

June 03

My angel was in the dream-place last night, holding my hand. We were walking along a golden pathway that stretched out forever into the whiteness.

“Are you my Guardian angel?”  I asked him.

“I guess I am, Lena.”

All of a sudden I realized I did not know his name.  I wanted to know what to call my Guardian angel. I woke up, my mind filled with his big, soft eyes.  And then I knew his name.

“Volodimer,” I whispered.

July 25

I had a heated bath today and found myself rubbing the warmth in my tummy.  It seems to be growing.  I got excited, because I thought that it was a sign of me becoming a woman, so I called Mama.  She came in and just sort of looked at me for a bit with a blank look on her face.  Then she turned around and left without saying a word.  I got a scared feeling.  I could hear her talking to Papa, quietly, but couldn’t understand what they were saying. Papa said something in an angry voice. She came back, kneeling against the tub, her face worried.  She asked me, had I been playing any new games with the boys in the village?  I said no, I don’t really like the boys in the village very much.  They are all smelly, and all they do is play pretend fights.  Mama just nodded, staring at belly again, which I was rubbing. Then she left.  I am a bit worried something might be wrong with me.

August 13

My belly is getting bigger all the time.  Papa won’t talk to me and I don’t know why.  Mama has stopped asking me about what I have been doing with boys, I could only tell her the same thing all the time.  I don’t go near the boys, I don’t like them, and now when I go to school they all point at me and laugh anyway.  Most of my friends won’t come around any more to play.  I asked my best friend Sasha why she had stopped visiting. She said that her parents told her that I was a bad influence! I don’t know what to do, or why my belly is growing when all the other girls still look the same.  I keep hoping for another visit from my Angel. Maybe he can tell me what I have done wrong so I can fix it and make everything go back to normal.

August 15

Volodimer was there in the dream place last night.  I ran to him and cried and cried and cried.  He patted my head and cuddled me.

“Lena,” he whispered, “you have been chosen for a very special task in this world.  I know things are hard at the moment, but you must take heart.  Be strong and you will survive.  Your Mama and Papa do not understand what is happening to you and they may be harsh.  They may say things that hurt you, but in time you will understand, and soon I will be with you.”

When I woke up the pain was gone, and my pillow was wet with tears.

October 6

Papa has taken me out of school.  He told me I was to stay at home and help with chores until next year. I screamed and cried at first, but now all my tears are gone.  All I feel is this beautiful glow in my belly, which is spreading all through my body. I was doing the dishes when Mama came up to me.  She asked, “Have you been sick in the mornings at all, Lena?”

I said, “No, I haven’t even had a cold since my Guardian Angel came to me.”

She paused when I said that, narrowing her eyes. 

”Is this Guardian angel maybe a real person?” She asked me.

I said, “Sort of… even though I only see him when I am sleeping, I know he is real.  I can feel him when he touches me, and he makes me feel nice.”

When I said that Mama looked at me like she had seen a ghost.

She asked me to describe him, and I did.  She got a terrible look on her face and ran off to the main room.  She left the door open and I heard her talking to Papa.  After a few minutes I started to get scared.  I could hear his voice getting louder and louder. Eventually Papa came storming up to me. I flinched, splashing water over the edge of the sink.

He shouted, “Lena, you are never to talk to your Uncle Georgii again!  Ever! Do you understand?”

I was crying now, I was so confused.  Papa went red in the face.  I have never seen him so angry.

“I love my Uncle Georgii,” I cried, “He’s my favourite!”

And with that Papa roared, and I cringed in fear.

“You filthy bitch whore!” he yelled, and slapped me in the face so hard I almost blacked out.  Then Mama was screaming, and I could hear my little brothers and sisters crying upstairs.  Papa grabbed his coat, shouting at Mama that he was going to “fix this once and for all”, slamming the door behind him.  

Mama came running to me and screamed, “Look what you have caused Lena! Look what you have done to us!”  And then she turned around and ran upstairs to comfort the little ones.  I just stood there with my hands in the water crying, my face stinging and my heart hurting.  This is all too much, I feel like I will break.  I still don’t understand why all this is happening, and now I just want to die…

November 17

I have not spoken to Mama or Papa at all since the big fight. They are keeping me locked up in my room, and I only see Mama when she brings in food for me.  She will not talk to me; she only looks at my growing belly. She has disgust in her eyes.  I do not know what is happening outside of this house, and my Guardian angel has not visited my dreams at all.  I am so sad.  I miss my friends, I miss my brothers and sisters, and I miss Mama and even Papa.  I miss hugs and kisses.  All I have is this warmth in my stomach that convinces me to hang in there.  I feel like something big will happen soon.

December 03

It is my birthday today.  I am now twelve years old.  I feel so alone.

December 22

At last Volodimer came to visit me.  I ran into his arms.

“I am so proud of you Lena.  Your trial is almost at an end.  I am almost ready to join you,” he whispered.

“Please, guardian angel.  Please help me… I can’t bear any more.  Everyone hates me!  I’m locked away from the world.  I have this fire in my belly that feels ready to explode, and I still do not understand anything!  Why, Volodimer, please tell me why!”  I looked up into his great big emerald eyes, and I saw them soften with tears.

“Give me one week Lena and I promise you, in seven days you will understand.  That is all I can tell you.”  He hugged me tightly.  “I love you Lena.  Soon I shall see you with new eyes, and you will forgive me.”

When I awoke my mother was standing above my bed.  She was crying.  I said “Mama!” and she rushed into my arms, both of us now crying. When we finally broke off I looked over to see Papa standing at the door.  He looked ten years older.  He held out his hand and I rushed out of the bed, into his arms.  “I am so sorry my precious little one,” he said as he squeezed me tightly.

December 30

Yesterday I gave birth to my baby.  My parents still do not believe me when I say I have never touched boys, nor do I understand how boys have anything to do with what has happened.  But none of that matters now.  They are proud.  Their grandson has a shock of silver hair, and beautiful big emerald green eyes. When the midwife asked me if I had a name in mind for my baby, I did not hesitate.

“His name is Volodimer,” I said.

And as I looked into the eyes of my son, I finally understood.

Chapter Two : 1851

Volodimer. Tula, Russia

I looked down at Svetlana, clutching her little brother, who in turn was gripping the sides of the ice sled with all his eight year old strength.

“Ready?”

“Of course,” she said; her tone strong and firm.

“Come on, Vlad!  Let’s go!”  Sergei squealed.

“Are you ready for a big one this time little bear?” Instead of answering he threw his small weight back and forward, full of excited impatience.   

“Okay, you asked for it!”

I sank my weight into the snow and drew all my strength up from the ground, forcing power up through my legs and waist. My torso snapped like a catapult, propelling the sled down the icy slope and easily passing the other sleds in a vapour trail of broken ice.  I could hear Sergei’s peals of laughter all the way down.  Suddenly I was mobbed with the cries of all the little ones wanting me to propel them down the slope next.

“Sorry children, no more today,” I laughed.  “I have to go home, but I will be back tomorrow.” 

They would not give up, crowding me with pink faces and hopeful eyes.  I shook my head.  “Next time all of you will get a turn, I promise.”   

They seemed happy enough with that, running off in a chorus of laughter and happy chatter.  A few of their fathers gave me odd looks.  I was not sure what those looks meant.  I did know however, that my stature was beginning to cause petty gossip around the village.  At the age of fifteen I was already taller, broader and more powerful than most of the other men in the village.  I trudged through the thick snow, head down, thinking upon this.  It had not been a cause of serious concern yet, but I was unsure of what the future might hold.  I had always been the biggest of all the children of my own age.  When I had reached puberty, however, my body had exploded in size almost overnight, and I continued to grow at a phenomenal rate.

“Can we go just one more time please Vlad?”  I was shocked out of my thoughts by Sergei, and surprised that I had already reached the bottom of the slope.  My legs were getting longer, I supposed.  

“Sorry Sergei, but we have to get home to help Mama with chores.  If you want though, you can ride my shoulders home.”  I had barely finished saying this before he was scrabbling his way up my back, climbing me like a tree.  I laughed, kneeling down to make it a little easier.  Once he was in position he put his soft little hands across my forehead to steady himself.  I stood up, offered my hand to Svetlana.  She gave me a frown and walked off ahead.  I sighed.  Svetlana had become as cold as the ice towards me since Alexander had left. Alexander was Svetlana and Sergei’s father, and the only people Svetlana had left now, as far as she was concerned, was her mother and little brother.  As we walked back toward our modest cottage my thoughts drifted back to that fateful day, five years before.

I had been barely eleven years of the age at the time, and it had been a school day.  The sky had become dark over the course of the day and by the time class was dismissed an ice storm had broken out.  Shrieking wind whipped the ice and snow into a whirling frenzy that stung every portion of my exposed flesh.  Wrapping a thin coat tightly around my shoulders I began the long walk home. The landscape was a whitewash, occasionally punctuated with the black, skeletal forms of dead trees.  I remember clearly being hit by a deep wrenching in my stomach, knocking me to my knees.  The icy ground chilled my shins and seemed to race through my body, channeling into the space behind my eyes.  I blinked hard, rubbing the palms of my hands deep into my eyesockets as this freezing pain seemed to grow.  As quickly as it had come it suddenly vanished, leaving in its place a blinding light, and then complete darkness.  For long moments I wondered if this was blindness, if I was permanently afflicted, and how I would find my way home before the blizzard consumed me.  Then the darkness cleared, but instead of the snow before me i saw my mother, huddled on the floor of the cottage.  Her face was a mask of blood and swollen flesh, eyes shining through the destruction, ablaze with fear.  I dropped my satchel and ran as hard asI could, my legs pumping through the deep snow at such a rate that it seemed I barely touched the surface.  I had gotten within a hundred yards of the cottage when my keen hearing picked up the screams of my mother, and the angry, drunken taunts of Alexander.  I could hear his words clearly, something I didn’t give a second thought at the time. 

“Liar!”  Alexander was literally screaming.  “You are a whore!  He must have a father, or did the devil put him in you?”

“Please, please, oh god, stop.”  Mother’s breathing was coming in broken gasps, her voice trembling.   

“I don’t know what else to say, you know that I would never lie to you.  Please believe me; I have never loved anyone but you!”      

“Enough!”  He roared, followed by another blow.  I was close enough to hear the sickening noise.  Alexander’s voice was low now, threatening.  “I am no fool… I should kill you…. for your lies… for giving breath to that devil spawn.” 

My blood boiled over and I hit the heavy oak door, still running.  It crumpled inward like wet paper, flying clean off its hinges and smashing into the opposite wall.  Instantly I saw my mother, exactly as I had seen her in my mind’s eye.  Alexander was staring at me blankly, drool still hanging lazily from his bottom lip.  An intimidating bear of a man, he was one of the few men in the village taller than me and thick set from years of working as a blacksmith.  My entrance had frozen him to the spot.  He stood unbalanced, looming over my mother, his blood-spattered fists still clenched.  The heat within me was raging like a furnace.  

“You!  Keep out of this boy… else I deal with you next!”  He spat as he spoke, his eyes out of focus, weight tottering from side to side. His words and fury were fuelled by alcohol but I could hear an element of doubt as his eyes flicked to the broken pieces of door scattered before me.  

Mother was huddled against the wall, seemingly unable to comprehend this new development.  Her eyes were red with tears and broken blood vessels, the rest of her delicate face was swollen in variations of purple, yellow and red.   

The heat within me overflowed, spilling out of my belly and filling every part of me, a red haze passing over my vision.  

“Stay back boy, I’m warning yo-” Alexander was mid-shriek but his voice was drowned out by the blood pounding between my ears like a thousand tribal drums.  All I saw for the next indeterminable string of moments was a disjointed puzzle of angry, sharp, red-tinged shapes.  All I felt was pure rage.  I do not remember anything else until I finally calmed down.  Alexander lay sprawled at my feet, his face now a match for mother’s.  He managed to cough roughly, spitting out the destroyed remnants of his teeth.  It seemed to take all his strength just to lay there and try to breath through his smashed face.  Mother had not moved, only now Svetlana was wrapped in her arms.  My own breath was coming in ragged gasps, and I had streams of Alexander’s blood running from my throbbing knuckles and up my arms, with flecks of it on my face, in my hair, rivulets spreading down my shirt.  I shook with the passing of such a massive dose of adrenaline.  Mother had passed out, I realised, thanking god for small mercies. She should not have to remember this. Svetlana was sobbing incoherently, her eyes soaked with tears and fixed on her barely conscious and occasionally twitching father.  She looked up then; our eyes met and there I saw, for the first time, her capacity for hatred.  

Some days after, when Alexander had recovered sufficiently, he declared through broken teeth and swollen lips that he was leaving.  Mother stood with me.  “Devil-spawn”, he whispered.  I don’t think he knew I could hear him, and I smiled to let him know I had.  I mouthed the words, “Get out.”  Fear passed through his discoloured face.  He turned away brusquely, shaking off Svetlana with careless anger, and limped out the door.  Mother lost her control then, and almost collapsed.  I was there to catch her, lifting her small body into my arms. She was heaving and shuddering, racking sobs tearing through her.

“I’m sorry,” I said with a heavy heart. Although Alexander was a drunkard and a violent man, he had loved my mother and given her two children to bear.  

“Is this what you meant?”  Her voice was barely a whisper.  “When you came to me in my dreams and told me about my challenges.  Is this just a part of it?”

I lay her down softly on her bed.

“In your dreams, mama?”  

“You said it then… my guardian angel… promised to protect me…” Her eyes were clamped shut, her face wet with tears.  I sat there for hours, holding her hand and stroking her forehead, unsure of what to say or do.  I prayed she was not losing her mind, and that I had done the right thing.  

I was painfully snapped back into the present moment by Sergei, pulling my hair as if it were reins.

“Careful you don’t make me angry little bear!”  I jokingly warned.

“Come on, horsey, hurry up!”  He was kicking his little heels into my chest with a drummer’s insistence.  I was forced to laugh.  He had been young enough at the time that he had not been permanently affected by his father’s sudden departure, and I had taken the role of stand in father for him in many respects.  What else could I do?   I had tried on so many occasions to do the same for Svetlana, but every time I had failed miserably.  I was beginning to lose hope that she would ever accept me as a brother again.  She still walked a few paces ahead of us, determined as always to prove her independence, determined to be the strong one. She had long black hair and dark features like her brother.  They both shared a strong pure Russian blood, blood they got from their father.  Lena was also dark, though her breeding was a little more mixed than Alexander’s.  I had never been told exactly where this mix had come from, and had never thought it appropriate to ask.  I received another kick from my little passenger.  “Come on Vlad, come on!”

“Okay, little monkey, hold on,” I said.  Taking a few steps forward I swept up Svetlana by the waist and jogged onward. Sergei squealed in delight and held me tightly around the forehead.  Svetlana didn’t even struggle or complain, which surprised me.  I think she was enjoying the small respite from walking through the thick snow.  After a while I slowed down as the exertion of the day caught up with me.  Besides, we were not too far from home now.  I could see the smoke from our fireplace.

The village that we belonged to was predominantly agricultural, though in the harsh winter months many of our people supplemented their agricultural income by producing handicrafts.  Lena, I expected, would be knitting in front of the fire as she was wont to do.  Her work was quite intricate and very popular with the buyers when we went along to the market fair once a month.

“Hyah! Go horsey, faster!”  Sergei ordered, lifting me away from my thoughts.

“No, that’s enough for now.  I am tired, and you never stop.  When do you run out of energy?”  I asked.

“Never!” he laughed.  I grinned, and took him off my shoulders to run the rest of the way home.   He sprinted toward the cottage as fast as his little legs would take him, giving me a chance to slow my pace and try, as always, to establish some sort of bond with Svetlana.

“Our brother has much youthful optimism,” I offered.  She said nothing, only staring ahead as we walked.  The wall that she had erected between us was almost tangible. I decided to take a more direct tact.

“You surely cannot dislike me forever.”

“I don’t dislike you,” She muttered.

I smiled. “Well, that is nice to-”

“Shut up. Dislike is too nice a word for how I feel about you.  I hate you.” She tilted her face up toward me, and her dark eyes were cold.  “I hate you more and more every day.  You are not my brother.  You are not Sergei’s brother either.  You are devil spawn, and our father left us because he knew the truth.  I pray every night for you to go back to hell.”   Her words were spoken slowly, carefully and without a hint of intonation.  She might as well have been describing what she had had for breakfast that morning, and I was all the more hurt for it.  I stopped in my tracks as she continued on, her long hair whipping in the rising wind.  And then I heard the scream.  Loud and high pitched, it cut through my soul like a hot knife through butter. Sergei.  A horrible feeling passed through me.  I looked into the distance at the cottage.  Nothing seemed out of the normal.  Svetlana had stopped and looked back at me, her eyes wide and fearful.

“Wait here,” I said to Svetlana.  She nodded her acknowledgement, panic obvious on her face.  I ran toward the source of the screams, which had been suddenly silenced. A cold fear had taken hold of me, urging me to abandon all caution.  As I ran, a flash of deja-vu hit me.  Something about this scene was all too similar to that of five years ago, which I had only just before been thinking upon.  The mad sprint toward home, the feeling that something violent was being visited upon those I cared for.  I did not like this feeling.  A small voice inside my head told me that things were about to get worse than that last time, worse than the drunken aggression of Alexander.  The voice told me in all certainty that I was about to experience something more horrific than what I could possibly have imagined in my wildest nightmares.  

“Prepare yourself Volodimer,” the voice whispered.  It sounded like thousands of voices all murmuring at once, like dry snow crunching beneath the feet, the crackle of wood in the fire.  It was smoke and pain and misery, and it heightened the fearful thoughts racing through my mind.  The cottage was quiet and still as I reached it the open doorway. I realized that my pulse was thudding furiously in my temples, the sound amplified by the blood surging within me. I stepped onto the raised stone that served as a doorway.  Sheltered from the snow, I paused before the entrance.  Heat was spilling out from the small fire slowly burning at the end of the room.  I stepped inside and the hair at the back of my neck stood on end.  I began to tingle all over.  My vision blurred, and the colours in the room seemed to change from orange and brown to green and blue.   I shook my head; I needed to focus myself.  A trickle of sweat ran across my temple.

“Sergei!” I shouted.  My voice reverberated around the cottage.  There was no response.  I took a step into the living room and the stone underfoot seemed soft, as if I were stepping into melting snow.  I looked down and had to look up again as the ground swirled and pulsated before my eyes. I found myself thinking, “No, that can’t be.”  I took another step and had the same feeling of sinking into the floor.  I could have sworn that the stone had turned to quicksand. With a violent abruptness my vision exploded.  I went down on one knee, my left hand seemingly sinking into the ground.

“What…is…going…on?”  There was a whisper of sound and a blur of shape on the periphery of my vision.  I ignored the barrage of sensations and spun instantly, launching myself like a battering ram and striking the intruder, riding it to the floor in a flurry of limbs.  I was tripping on a mixture of chemicals pumping within me.  I could not see properly and the blood was pounding through my veins like a wild river, feeding my muscles, engorged and filled with inhuman strength.  I raised my free hand and readied myself to drive it down with full force.  The bandit below me gagged, struggling to speak. All of a sudden I had the sense that something was terribly wrong, though I still could not see through properly. My fingers lessened their pressure, and with my confusion, the blood lust subsided.  I blinked my eyes, willing the rage to clear.  My ears caught the smallest gasp.  It sounded like a word, spoken in a girl’s voice. My eye’s cleared and I perceived the face beneath me to be Lena’s.  I was choking my mother, who I was sworn to protect.  Instantly I released my grip on her throat, horrified at the angry purple hue of skin where I had almost crushed her windpipe.  Saliva glistened on her chin, and she gagged as she lay there, holding her neck with her own small hands.  

“Oh dear god.” I eased her up by the armpits until she was in a sitting position, and she began to cough.  I patted her back gently, in a state of shock and oblivious to everything but her in those moments.  Gradually her breathing returned to normal.  She eventually ceased her coughs, looked at me and whispered, “What’s happening?”  

Her voice was quavering with fear.  Her eyes were huge, the pupils dilated.

“I… I don’t know.” I mumbled.      

I realized then that I had to keep my head together.  I felt scared for the first time in my life.  I had no idea what was going on.

“Mother, I need you to just wait here for a moment.  Don’t follow me, and everything should be fine.  I need to find Sergei.”  She nodded, instantly agreeing.  I pushed back a wisp of hair from her face, and helped her to lean against the mud-brick wall.  To think I had almost killed her.  The marks on her throat throbbed accusingly.  My fingers had come within mere moments of destroying her very life!  I would need to learn to control this rage of mine.  There was no question of it.  She made a small choking noise, deep in her throat, and her dark eyes reflected movement. It took a moment to figure out that her eyes were not focused on me.  They were mirroring the image of something behind me.  I barely had time to even think of turning around to face the source of this horror.  I was far too slow.  A dark mass wrenched me off the ground and threw me effortlessly across the room. I flew through the air and smashed into the opposite wall, scattering a collection of wood sculptures.  A family of little wooden bears, a collection of wooden rabbits, a tiny tree sculpture filled with squirrels clinging to the branches; all smashed into pieces.  

I slid down to the floor and lay in a frozen, crumpled heap.  I had been thrown headfirst into a waking nightmare and had become a mass of jelly, only barely conscious, completely unable to move.  My vision was dark and blurry, as if gazing through a heavy mist.  I heard a horrible high-pitched squeal, a sound of pigs being slaughtered.  It cut through me like a knife.  Hot blood streamed in rivulets down the back of my neck. I somehow got up into a semi upright position by leaning heavily against the wall, my legs wobbling, my body made of rubber.  I fought to regain a semblance of equilibrium, and then my head imploded.  A sensation of images passed through my mind’s eye, insects and death, crawling over my open eyes and ordering me to stay where I was in no uncertain terms.  Blinking to stop the sweat and blood from getting into my eyes I could vaguely make out the image of a humanoid figure, dark in colour, holding Lena by the throat. The figures seemed impossibly far away and I struggled to keep my focus on them.  The creature turned to face me, but I could not make out any of its features. It raised its other arm casually. An explosion of light filled my head. Another wave of nausea gripped me. I gritted my teeth and fought these sensations before they overwhelmed me entirely.

“No”,I repeated like a mantra, “I cannot let this happen.”  

The dry, deathly voice whispered, “This is your time of reckoning, Dorokusai.”

My vision swam into focus.  Waves of strength washed over me.  

Dorokusai… I had never before heard the word.  But it seemed to trigger something inside, like a secret door opening.  For the first time ever in my life, I dared to hope that I might yet discover who I was.  This word, Dorokusai, meant nothing to me, yet at the same time I felt like it might hold the key to everything… I screamed as my mind was peeled back once more; a mass of cockroaches, maggots and burrowing parasites crawled over me, in my mouth, forcing their way into my mouth, my eyelids, all of them commanding me to stay, cease, not to resist.  I knew this was not real, although every sense told me it was recoiling with disgust and horror.  I resolved to fight this creature, regardless of the consequences, and in my struggle found that I was rooted to the spot.  I had no power over my body whatsoever; I was being held prisoner within myself.  Sweat ran in small trickles under my arms, and it had nothing to do with the heat from the fire.  It was an internal fire, and it burned like the sun.  My vision cleared and I could see, with horrible clarity, the scene before me. The creature was impossibly tall, taller than me by three heads at least.  Its hide was dark, and yet it seemed to possess a strangely transparent quality.  The colour of it was like nothing I had ever before seen.  It seemed to shift from green to purple to blue, and it shone from within.  It wore no clothes and was completely hairless, with nothing that I could see to indicate sex.  It had large, black eyes, and they covered a great portion of its oval shaped face, like some alien insect.  It seemed to have no mouth or nose at all.  It regarded me with those eyes, and I got the distinct impression that if it had a mouth, it would be smiling.  

Mother was almost unconscious now, in shock and deprived of oxygen.  Her kicks were pathetic, and accomplished nothing.  Her small hands had given up their fight. Her face was horribly dark now; her little eyes staring back into her skull so that only their whites showed. A small, pink tongue lolled out of her mouth, and blood flecked saliva bubbled out of her nostrils.  She began to rise up, out of the creature’s hands. She was no longer choking.  Barely visible waves of transparent light passed from her lower stomach and into the creature, and a part of me knew that it was taking her very life force from her.  All the while I fought the paralysis, straining against the invisible force that held me.  Somehow, I managed to force some feeling into my throat.  The sound that came out of me was low, almost a growl. “K…ki….lllll……..yy…..ooo….uu…” The effort was tremendous.  Every sound that passed out of my throat left it feeling ripped as if it had been roughed with sandpaper.  The creature quickly looked at me, then back again to Lena who now touched the roof.  She had stopped fighting, and she now hung suspended in mid-air like a lifeless doll, her skin a sickly shade of grey-blue.  I was urging forward with all my force.  I lurched forward an inch, accompanied with the sound of a snap, and I realized I had torn something in my right forearm.  The pain was sudden, and excruciating.  Vomit rose in my throat.  I pushed through the pain and found that my hand had risen an inch.  I moved it forward.  The creature looked around, bug-like eyes widening.  A wave of icy coldness powered into me.  I now felt even more frozen than before, and all feeling had gone, leaving me numb.  My eyes were fixed on the rag doll hovering before me.  I watched as the creature turned its attention toward her, spreading out its arms as if initiating some bizarre dance.  As its arms reached the apex of their movement, Lena jerked in midair.  Her head leaned to her left shoulder, and then snapped back to the right with a sickening snap.  A small trail of crimson trickled down the corner of her mouth.  

Her dead eyes seemed to stare at me in accusation.  

“Why did you not protect me, Volodimer?”  

I felt tears run down my frozen cheeks.  I was crying. My soul was being torn to shreds with the pain of witnessing the cruel slaughter of my mother.  Try as I might, I could not prevent it.  I could not do a single thing except look on in horror. The alien creature threw its head back in a silent laugh. The multi-collared light within it intensified.  Everything in the room was covered in layers of distorted realities.  The colours shifted before my eyes again.  I was seeing the room touched by the warm colours of the fire, but there were moments when it seemed as if flickers of other colours took over, covering the horrendous reality before me in unearthly blues and greens.  The underlying hum of power grew louder, and the raw force of it hissed like a great angry snake.  The light within the creature and Lena grew stronger, throbbing with power.  I could not look away, could not even shut my eyes.  I could only look on in horror as patches of blood appeared from various points on mother, sticking flesh to cloth.  Her eyes widened in pain, looking straight at me, her neck still lolling at it’s unnatural angle.  I had been wrong.  She was still alive… 

My stomach curled up.  A furious scrabbling tore at my throat.  I was going to drown in my own vomit.  I could not block out the sound of flesh tearing, ripping from the bone.  Mother opened her mouth in a silent scream.  The light was blinding now.  All I saw was the shifting, pulsating colours.  All I heard was the hum, which had almost reached the point of becoming purely white noise.  There was a pause, a gap in time, and the world lurched to a shuddering stop. I was struck with an epiphany, a resounding revelation.  I realized with insight and clarity that the whole of my life had led to this point, that this moment was the crucible that would determine the rest of my life.  The room suddenly funnelled into a laser thin beam and fired directly into the point between my eyes.  Everything and everyone I had ever known bounced around inside my head, ricocheting in a tumult of pain.  I broke down under the weight of it all.  My entire life froze at this point, this moment.  Everything was bathed in cool arctic blues and aquatic greens.  Were we underwater?  I watched myself, crouched on the floor.  I saw the creature, arms out to the side, and mother hanging before it.  The flames of the fire were fixed, frozen in mid-flicker. The scene fluttered, and then crawled into reverse.  I watched in disconnected fascination as she was lowered to the monster’s hands.  I saw myself lift up and hit the wall with force.  Wooden ornaments collected themselves from the floor and arranged themselves on the table that had repaired itself.  I watched as I was flung from the wall in reverse, landing in a crouch above mother. The creature was behind me, gripping my shoulder.  It then released its grip and rushed back, into the shadows.  The scene continued playing backward, getting faster, rewinding in a blur of memories.  Images of people I knew were projected onto glass and thrown into a pool of darkness. I saw Lena holding onto Sergei as they were carried away by a crimson tide, awash in a river of blood. Alexander loomed before me, laughing cruelly.  There were many others; childhood friends, adults from the village, their faces shifting too quickly to recognize.  The images zigzagged and collided with one another, shattering into random bursts of fine powder.  The world caved in and splintered, tearing jagged wounds throughout my mind.  I screamed.  The images cleared.  I found myself once again in the original moment.  Mother was once more suspended in the air, and for a moment everything was peaceful, everything made sense.  I closed my eyes and prayed to gods I did not believe in that when I reopened them I would be in my bed, the nightmare over.

Eventually, after long, unfamothable moments, I opened my eyes. The entire room, even the ceiling, was scorched black.  A cold wind rushed through shattered windows, causing the fire to jump and flicker. The small figure of my mother was slumped on the floor in an awkward, face down position. The creature was gone.  The nightmare had been real.  I got up to one knee and immediately regretted it as my head went into paroxysms of pain.  Surely my eyes would force their way out of my skull.  My knees scraped the stone as I forced my way over the broken form I had sworn to protect.  I gently turned her onto her side, facing me.  Her beautiful eyes were faded now, staring into infinite space, seeing nothing, doomed to see nevermore.  A lump formed in my throat, tears welling in my eyes and heart.  Blood ran in thick lines over her face, forming small puddles on the stone floor.  I closed her eyes with one small gesture, closing my own in grief.     

By nightfall I had the bodies of my mother and baby brother buried deep in the cold snow. Svetlana stood close to me now, somehow she had escaped the nightmare.  My tears turned to ice on my cheeks and in my young beard, and at that moment I became a warrior, hell-bent on revenge.  Death, I swore to myself, would come to the perpetrator of this most heinous crime.  The shovel was a numb object in my fingers.  I stood motionless in the sub-zero temperature, sweating.  The fires of revenge now burned within me, and they were all-consuming.  

“Svetlana, I’m so sorry…” I struggled to find the words.

Her small face was grim; her eyes blood-red from hours of crying.  

“I want to be there.  When you find it, when you… when you strike it down.  I want to see it die, I want to take it’s head, spit in it’s eyes, I want to dance in it’s guts and make it scream.”  She was staring at the fresh snow that marked the bodies of her mother and brother, and I knew there was no use arguing.  We both wanted the same thing.

Vengeance. 

Chapter Three : 1851 – 1854

Nomad

The shovel dropped from my numb fingers, quickly disappearing under a pallid fall as I knelt in the arctic frost, the snow attempting to bury me also.  Heading inside I gathered a small pack from my bedroom; filling it with my few belongings.  The family savings I took from Mother’s night box; it was a meagre amount that she had barely managed to scrape together from her years of selling crafts at the local markets.  Most of her earnings had been appropriated by Alexander, had gone into his alcohol fuelled days of gambling and his wild nights of partying.  I absentmindedly thrust into my belt a thick knife, over my shoulder I slung my hunting bow and a quiver.  I stared for a time at my fists and imagined destroying his face with them, my anger knowing no bounds.  How dare he, why wasn’t he here to fight that monster with me?  Was that not the duty of the father; to protect, to keep safe from harm?  I made my way back into the living area; looking over at the smoking embers of the fireplace, I watched for a time as Svetlana sat huddled on the floor before the fire, rocking back and forth, wrapped in a patchwork quilt.  She had made it herself- a present for Sergei’s birthday. His life; cruelly cut off; put to an end before he even had the chance to grow into the great man he was destined to become.  I winced at the dark flecks of blood now soaked into the weave, creating unruly marks of tarnish on a thing of sweet purity.  I cried then, no longer trying to hold back.  Finally, I gently gathered Sergei’s ‘sleeping friend’.  It was a small brown bear that Sergei had named Boris. Boris was a derivative of Borislav, meaning ‘small’.  He had slept with Boris every night since he was an infant.  I kissed Boris on his worn velvet nose and placed him, with utmost reverence, inside my pack.  His button eyes stared at me like the dead eyes of my buried mother and brother, accusingly and without pause.

I made a vow.  I would return only once I had avenged their deaths.  I would bury them properly, with a priest to deliver the proper prayers to commend their souls to Heaven.  But until then, I had to find their killer, and destroy it- only then could their souls truly rest.  

Svetlana had refused my attempts to convince her to stay in the village.  

“Tell me, what reason do I have to stay? Our family is buried, I have no friends, you have seen to it that father is gone and never coming back… There is nothing here for me, and nothing you can say will change that.  All of this, Vlad, all of it, is your fault.  Now you will do this for me.  Take me with you.” 

Her words stung me.  We stood within our family home, now a burnt-out shell. The fire had died, and it seemed as if the place was an open wound.

“Your father… he would not be happy with this.  You should be with him.  This road, this path I have to take will be long, and I wager it will be dangerous also. Even if I make it, and I don’t even know where I’m going… I cannot guarantee your safety, sister. Please.  Reconsider.”  

She waited while patiently while I spoke, but her small arms were crossed, her stance defiant, her lower lip stuck out.  I knew that nothing I could say would make the slightest bit of difference.  

“I’m going with you, and I’m going to make sure you do this.  You’re killing this thing, and I’m gonna be right there when you do.  You owe me that much.”

“Ahhhh… Very well then, gather your things, there’s nothing else I can say.  I’ll load Irinei and pack the last of our provisions.”  Irinei was our strongest horse, a Yakutian breed that was able to withstand the harsh climate of our land and the rigours of the kind of work we required. He had a thick coat and was heavily muscled and had been with our family since Alexander won him in some gamble or another.  He would be best suited to make this journey with us.  Within the hour I had Irinei fed and shod, saddlebags loaded, and Svetlana getting familiar with sitting at such a great height.  She had never been fond of horse riding and had refused to do it, however I had urged her to do so now.  I was prepared to travel far and wide to track down the fiend and did not care to indulge her protests of sore legs or weak stamina.  By this time the sun was already at the horizon and casting its last weak beams, the skies low and cold like a greatbed sheetthrown over our heads. We would have to leave in the morning; the day was far too late to begin now.  

“We stay here tonight.  You can sleep in my bed; I’ll stay awake and keep guard.”  There was a deep part of me that knew without doubt the fiend would not be returning, knew that it was long gone.  But still I would stand guard, for Svetlana’s peace of mind, and because I needed time alone to think, to contemplate the enormity of what was before us.   

“I want to sleep in mother’s bed.” Svetlana said simply.  She was beyond tired, and I couldn’t begrudge her this. I was envious of her age, the fact that she could still be the child, the one afraid and in need of protection. I longed to curl into a ball in that bed also and cry myself to sleep; but that was not my role, and in fact it never had been.  I knew this and had made peace with it long ago.  

“Of course, yes.  I will look over you and keep you safe.  I promise you that.”

She looked at me with a strange expression and for a moment it seemed as if some of her anger toward me had disappeared. Then as soon as the moment came it passed, and the stone wall came down again.

“You didn’t protect us today; I don’t expect it tonight.  You might as well sleep yourself, for all the good you can hope to do.”  With that she turned on her heel and stalked into mother’s room, slamming the door.  I almost laughed.  Even now, after all this, she would not let go of her anger.  Good.  It would be necessary to fuel her, this anger, when the way became difficult, when she grew tired; when the reasons for what she was embarking upon became cloudy, the anger would see her through.  

Hours later the sky had become clear and the moon hung heavy and luminescent, the night was at its peak and would from this point only recede and succumb once more to the sunlight.  I was sitting in mother’s rocking chair, listening to the stillness of the night and the rustling of a slight breeze through crops, intermittently interrupted by faraway animal calls.  The day’s events seemed like a hazy nightmare in this twilight hour and I wished to a god I did not believe in that they had been.  As I stared into the infinite blackness of space and the stars beyond, the moon began to pulse; subtly at first, and then with insistence.  It grew in size until it encompassed my entire range of vision, now oozing into the room, enfolding me within a cocoon of ivory that had no end and no beginning. I told myself I had fallen asleep, and as such I did not question the illogical nature of what was happening.  Something struck me as familiar about this however, like a dream I had dreamt before.  It was like a waking dream, as you have when you are not quite asleep, still aware of your body, but unable to move.  I could not wake up from this state and yet I was in complete control of my ‘dream self’. I walked through the boundless whiteness of the moon’s embrace and all of these things went through my mind, at which point I decided to test the boundaries of this space.  I called out at the top of my voice, and the sound I heard was a strange cacophony of bells, chiming loudly and droning throughout the whiteness.  The noise itself seemed to define certain limitations of space, as a blind man might tap a cane to use returning echoes to perceive his environment.  I called out again and could now fathom massive pillars running vertically, all around me as far as I could see.  My gaze ran upwards, the columns ascended beyond what seemed like faint clouds far above in the heavens; I viewed downwards to a ‘floor’ that ran equally as far below me, also shrouded in a faint galaxy of cloud matter.  I was suspended in the middle of this space and the mere thought of attempting to comprehend direction or dimension was enough to make me feel nauseous.  In this place I just had to be, and not try to perceive.  So, I hung there, now content to enjoy the tranquility of this strange dream.  With that relaxation a sound came rolling in, like a dust storm come to dirty up the serenity of my mind.  

“Home sweet home, as the humans say, eh Volodimer?”  That voice; the one like broken glass and crackling smoke, the one that had spoken to me earlier in the day, now spoke to me once more.

“Who goes there?”  I chimed out and the sound tolled through the smoke, the residual echoes of our voices sparking off one another.

“Who indeed, and how sad that you should have to ask, poor young Dorokusai…”  That name again.  I stayed my questions, and now looked as hard as I could, seeking the source of this voice that sent chills running up my back.  “It is a complex question you ask, and perhaps not the right one, in this situation.  For I am Orulum, and had you possessed the wisdom and knowledge that is your birthright, you would instead have asked Why or How.  For the Who is the least of your concerns, and the last piece of the puzzle that would reinstate that which is so sadly not yours as of this moment.”  A faint chuckle echoed around me, and still I could not spy this creature.

“You speak in riddles” was all I could manage.  It was so strange to talk and hear my voice clanging like church bells that listening was preferable to putting a sentence together.  Besides, I had no idea what this voice was telling me but a part of me knew it would be best to listen as carefully as possible.

“A terrible day for you Volodimer, and yet in truth it will be remembered by the fates as a day of great change, and a necessary event on a cosmic level.  Calm down, the rage in your heart is impressive and not surprising, but it will do you no good here, so I suggest you leave it for those more deserving.  Namely, the Beast of Shades, Bolar, the Drinker of Dreams, and other such titles as it has warranted and seen fit to stalk by this past score of centuries.”

My anger turned quickly to eager curiosity; this voice knew the identity of my family’s slaughterer and what’s more, was my only key to finding it.  “You know this thing, this creature, you name it!  Help me, tell me where I can find it, it must be destroyed and I will not cease until this has been done, or I will die trying.”

“Name it I can, know it I do; alas, little Dorokusai, find it I cannot.”  Another chuckle, slighter this time, but crackling with contempt.  I bellowed my frustration and for a moment it seemed as if the columns around us shook almost to breaking point as the great bells rang out and reverberated throughout the air I hang suspended in.  The voice paused in the aftermath, took a deep breath as if weighing up a matter of great importance, and then spoke once more.  

“I can do one thing for you, but I ask that you, in turn, do something for me.”

 “Name your terms.”  I did not know what I could possible do for this dream entity, and I did not care. This dream had become all too real and I would do anything to avenge Lena and Sergei.  I would sell my soul to the devil itself, if He did indeed exist.

“I ask of you that when you do find the Beast of Shades that you do not hesitate, you must destroy it immediately.”

I waited a moment, and when it was clear that this was the entirety of the voice’s request, I murmured in disbelief, “This is what you ask?” 

“Yes,” its voice slithered like snakes across my skin.

“Then we have a deal.  Now tell me, where do I find this creature?”

“Far, far south you will find a place where the sand runs red with blood, where the sun endeavors to burn out your eyes and the wind’s wish is to rake the flesh from your bones, there you will find it.  Seek out the place where a thousand souls call out for gore, where the walls ache with the sound of battle, where life and death and misery and glory are all that exists.  And remember our deal, young Realm Walker; do not disappoint me, for it will surely mean the end of you.”  With that the whiteness began to shrink away from me, and details of the room around me began to show through the l=luminescence.  I panicked and called out quickly, while I still had the chance.  

“What am I?”  The whiteness had all but faded now, and I saw a suggestion of a silhouette within it of a spider hanging by a thread.

“That is not for me to say… I suggest you hang your head and pray for answers.”

 I blinked.  It was the cusp of dawn, and already bird calls were ringing out.  I rubbed my eyes and sat for a moment, making sure I did not forget a single detail of the strange dream.  Making my way over to the window I stared out at the crops as they began catching the first weak rays of sunlight, and then I noticed something which gave me a sense of reoccurrence.  It was a spider, hanging in the shattered window, spinning its web.  I stared at it for a moment and it froze, and I could imagine we were staring at each other, sizing the other up.  A draught of air came out of nowhere and swept it out into open space, and it disappeared into the fields beyond, leaving its half-completed web suspended.  It glistened invitingly in the dewy morning air, ready to catch any unawares prey that may happen upon it.  I frowned, picked up a broken table leg and destroyed the web, wrapping its entirety around the wood, and then hurled it, hoping that some freak chance would see it crush that little spider into oblivion.  I looked around, saw that our home was still destroyed as I remembered it, and knocked on Mother’s bedroom door, then prepared Irinei for our travels. The mission began, now.

Though the years had been hard, we had banded together in times of danger and need.  She was sixteen now and had become a woman in many aspects, she was taller now than her mother, with the same dark beauty that caused many men in the village to be envious of Alexander’s nights.  The years of trekking had tanned her skin darkly, had fashioned her physique into one of muscled athleticism and all the horrific and challenging events of her life had made her tougher than she should have ever had to be.  

Three winters had passed and things had changed.  The desire for revenge had ceased burning like an inferno; now it was a thing of buried embers, almost forgotten, yet the slightest disturbance could still bring that vengeful fury to the raging to the surface.  Memories of that day refused to leave me and often ran through my mind during the day and dreams of a night as if taunting me, never allowing me to forget.

I realized that the intense cold that I had acclimatized to over the course of my life had gradually lessened as the weeks became months, the months passing by into years.  We had trekked over the mountainous rages known as the Urals. Upon coming to the boundary of the black sea, I constructed a makeshift raft and oar.  I rowed without pause for weeks on end, pushing myself to the brink of an exhaustion that never fully came.  I reached land and hit the ground running.  I was alive like I had never been, my destination closer with every step. I marveled at what I came to next. It was a dense forest, mainly coniferous but also populated with deciduous beech, poplar, walnut and oak. Completely untouched by man.  

I fought wild boars, bears, lynx and leopards, as well as hungry wolves.  None of them stood a chance.  The climates changed.  The flora and fauna changed as surely as the seasons drifted by.  I passed villages with buildings and temples constructed in ways that intrigued me.  Inhabitants of these villages often seemed as if they belonged from a different world, their garb and languages complex and foreign.  I could not comprehend the ways of these people much of the time.  I did not want to.  I only needed to continue; and as I did, the world around me continued to change.  I drifted like a ghost, driven by the inexplicable need to keep heading south. Eventually I reached a land that seemed as to be on the opposite end of the earth to Tula.  The snow, the blizzards, and the extreme cold of my birthplace had been replaced with a land of sand storms, a seemingly never-ending desert, and an unrelenting and merciless heat.  Intense sun coloured my flesh.  And this, I realized, was my destination.  

The natives were Arabs, and they travelled on strange, hump-backed creatures that I came to know as camels; animals bred to survive in a land where water sources were few and far between. The natives themselves possessed dark olive skin and dark eyes; as a people they were mysterious and foreboding in their energy.  They wore full-body robes to protect them from the sand and the damaging effects of the sun.  They mostly travelled in small nomadic groups.  These were the Bedouin.

I found them to be extremely hospitable.   I found I had only to drink water, coffee or tea with a tribe, or kiss their tent, to secure welcome and sanctuary for three and a third days without question.  I became friends with the members of one particular tribe who insisted I stay longer.  Their kindness was disarming, and I had grown weary of traveling, so I acquiesced.  The tribe consisted of three families, a total of thirty-two people. The longer I spent with them, the more I grew to love them.  In a way, they became my second family.  They marvelled at my size, the colour of my skin, the lightness of my eyes.  I quickly learned their language.  I told them stories of my childhood, about Tula, about a land of snow and cold. They would gather around me, listening in wide-eyed wonder, and asking the most endearing questions.  

“What is snow?” asked Omar.  One of the youngest, he reminded me of Sergei. I was especially fond of him, though it sometimes pained me to look into his eyes, to see a reflection of the same youthful innocence that little Sergei had possessed.

“Snow, young Omar, is very, very cold water.  Imagine an almighty rain of cold water, so cold the particles have ceased to vibrate, and fused together with other drops of rain.”

“Does it not cause pain?”  Asked Ramadan.  At the age of more than sixty years, he was the senior member of the tribe. He had a thick beard, whiter than grey, and his long hair was in itself akin to a shock of snow.  He had quick, intelligent eyes, and a rapier wit to match.   

“Sometimes, yes, the snow falls hard and sharp.  Other times it floats from the heavens with a soft and tenderly caress.”  

Ramadan’s eyes twinkled as he rocked himself on his chair.  “Much like a woman, eh Volodimer?” he grinned.

Everyone laughed, even the ladies. Shortly they ushered the children to their straw mats, sensing the talk becoming bawdy.  Ramadan and I were left to speak alone, strong native liquor fuelling our words and building a sense of empathy between us.  We spoke for hours until I judged the time right to delve into a matter of great significance.  I leaned forward, almost conspiratorially.  

“Tell me something friend.  I have heard stories; tales of a place called the Blood Pit.”

Ramadan’s face stiffened and I pressed on quickly, sensing his immediate discomfort.

“You were once a famous figure in the same place.  Many say you were a legend of sorts, an undefeated champion of the combat arena. I wish to enter this place, this Blood Pit.  I wish to fight on the sands of combat.  I need you to show me the way.”

Ramadan cut me off with a sharp wave of his hand.  Old, faded scars criss-crossed it, resembling jagged forks of lightning, frozen in time. He cleared his throat, almost unable to speak for a moment.

“The blood pit, you wish to fight within this place of horror.  Ach, the feeling of invincibility youth breeds- it seems like many lifetimes since I was filled with the same foolish mindset.  You know not what you ask.”  

“Please… you must tell me,” I pressed. The old man’s grizzled face bunched slightly, his eyes glazing over in thought.  

“Volodimer, listen to me.  It is no glorious thing to slaughter one’s fellow man.  Especially not when it is for the amusement of others.  I fought purely to buy myself and my family out of slavery.  What can you possibly hope to gain from this?”  He spoke softly but his tone carried strength.

“I would seek an audience with the King of this land.  There is something inside of me that compels me to stand before him.  I have travelled many long years, and lately I have had… visions, of sorts.  They compel me to seek out the arena of death, and from there, the King.”   

“Please Volodimer, ask me no further of this place.  It is unholy and reeks of death, of greed and corruption.  You would best avoid it at all costs.  The man you seek is known only as the Sheik, and his desire for power is exceeded only by his reputation for acts of wanton bloodlust.”

“Very well, friend, I respect your wishes, and will ask no further.”  

He visibly relaxed at this.  “I only deter you from this course of action out of friendship, Volodimer.” 

I placed my hand on his shoulder, the sinewy muscle under his robes still evident even at his old age.

“Give my love to the young ones, Ramadan.  I leave at once.”  I stood and turned, quickly making my way from the tent so as not to prolong the old man’s concern.  I had gleaned from his mind the location of the Blood-pit, and I began the long trek toward it.        

Chapter Four : 1856

Berserker

The unwashed masses of the Great Desert had claimed me as a hero, of sorts. A champion of the Blood-pits. I was a demon in mortal form, some whispered. My true identity was unknown; I had not been seen without my great bronze helm, completely obscuring my face. So, the people bestowed upon me a title, befitting my nature in combat.

They called me, simply, ‘Berserker’.


Thousands of people travelled from all across the land to witness me fight in the arena. They journeyed for days, weeks, in order to see if the tales were true. To behold the true ferocity that none could comprehend without seeing with their very own eyes. Entire villages would travel in great convoys, making the perilous trek over and through the most unforgiving terrain. To see me fight, maim and kill. With the spectators came fighters also, combatants of all sorts, from all over the world, wishing to challenge me… I had taken on an almost iconic status to those wanting to prove their mettle in battle. All so far had fallen.
And now, once again, I hear them cry for me. The sound waves echo through the passageways, reverberating through the thickest of stone, to reach me in my underground abode.
They chant the moniker, over and over, like a thunderous war cry. “Berserker! Berserker! Berserker!”
The first time I heard the chant was less than a year ago. It had made me feel almost sick to my stomach. Now I have become accustomed to it. I barely hear it. They cry for the Berserker. In doing so, they cry for death, for blood, gore and chaotic brutality.

It was early morning. A bell sounded, some time before the day’s combat. I lifted my helm from a wall mount and paused, surveying my surroundings. The granite walls were imposing. Impenetrable. A basket of fresh berries, fish and fruit sat in the corner, next to a pitcher of ale and another of water. The room itself was no more than eight by six feet, with little clearance above my head when standing. It was buried deep beneath the arena in a maze of tunnels and passageways. I lifted the helm over my head, quickly fastening the leather straps to the heavy bronze armour I wore always. I knew in advance what awaited me.

There would be a fierce sun, blinding light reflecting off the sand, off the walls. And the ever-present, merciless wind, whipping the minute particles of sand up into the air, creating swirling patterns of chaotic frenzy. As if possessed by a spiteful demon of the elements, the sand lashes savagely at the combatants. It stings painfully at exposed skin, and chokes those who breathe deeply. It strikes savagely like needle sharp daggers into the eyes of the unlucky, causing horrible pain, and for some, blindness.
When I first stepped foot into the arena two years ago, I it seemed as if I had stepped directly into purgatory. Even now I could not bring my senses completely immune to these horrors.
Two years… It seemed more like two lifetimes. I had fought, and beaten, hundreds of opponents. There was, it seemed, none who could best me.

I reached up and flicked my thumb over a catch in the wall. A brick to the right of me creaked. I made my way over to it and grabbed the granite edges with the tips of my fingers. It slid out of its concealed niche smoothly. Behind the hidden wall lay my weapon of choice. It was heavy- at least two hundred pounds. Measuring from end to end it was longer than most men.
Constructed purely of rock, it was my preferred method of despatch in group fights. It was heavy enough so that only I could use it, and to devastating effect.

In little time I had made my way to the thick metal gate, shielding myself from the expanse of sand that made up the Arabian blood pit. Waiting for me was Abdul. Standing at over six feet he was broad and dark, with a keen eye for trouble. He had been my gate sentry ever since my very first fight.
“What now, Abdul?” I prompted in the native tongue, hoping for some prior information on my adversaries.
“Six men of ebony skin, savages from the west. They are of little threat; they wield crude spears and are here merely for the entertainment of the audience.”
I could see them now in my mind’s eye. They stood close together in a small, dark room of stone. Their faces were grim, and they prayed silently to their gods for strength and courage. They wore only brief coverings fashioned of animal hide; the majority of their beautiful black skin exposed. They had little doubt as to their fate, and a pang of guilt struck me. I quickly forced myself to push the images out of my head. I did not wish to build any emotional rapport with these men. A coldness settled within me. For another day, at least, I was the Berserker.
“Another thing. You face a contender from the far east, a strange figure dressed completely in dark cloth. Like yourself, this one also covers their face.”
That was most strange. Contenders usually fought for the opportunity to garner recognition and adoration, feeding pride and ambition. I spat against the wall, caring little.
“Say no more. I stand ready.” Gripping the leather-bound hilt of the mighty stone axe, I waited for Abdul to open the gate. Ducking to walk under the low clearance, I scuffed into the sand. The crowd erupted. The sensory feedback was exactly as I had predicted.


On the opposite side of the cylindrical arena, another gate opened. The crowd erupted once again. My opponents slowly made their way onto the field, looking around and tasting their own perceptions of the blood-pit for their very first time. The slaves blinked to clear their vision, theirs steps erratic and unsure. Looking across the arena they saw me for the first time, a veritable giant clad in armor and bearing an unfeasibly large axe. Their faces showed an instant and intuitive fear. They made small utterances of disbelief and took small steps back, seemingly in unison. From behind them a figure disengaged from the shadows, gliding forward with a fluidity of movement I had never before encountered. The figure, no more than five and a half feet in height, made a small motion to the slaves to stay where they were. The crowd went quiet, as intrigued as I was by this mysterious stranger. I began to make my way into the centre of the arena, the Armor making my footsteps heavy. Clump. Clump. The sound of my mass on the hard-packed sand combined with my visage usually froze my opponents to the spot, but this stealthy foe showed no physical sign of fear whatsoever.


A feeling took hold of me, leaving me with the certain knowledge that this was no man I faced, but a woman. She came closer, moving like a shadow; like a gentle breeze, her footsteps leaving no mark on the sand. We reached the centre in unison, neither of us making move to attack. The people in the stands began to voice their discontent, slowly at first, then with increasing volume and pitch. Still neither of us made any threatening movements. The stranger stood only slightly out of the potential range of my axe, regarding me with the same level of intensity as I regarded her. Without warning, a word was thrown into my mind like a dagger.

Dorokusai

The call jammed my thoughts in an instant. No, not a call, it was a mental assault. I staggered, numbed by the word I had not whispered through my psyche since the day of Bolar’s appearance.
Then without warning, her attack came. With a flash a wicked looking curved blade, roughly three feet in length, appeared seemingly from thin air. The shadow leapt forward in a blur, striking diagonally in a lightning fast sweep. I almost did not see the strike, still reeling from the mental bombardment, and I managed to step out of harm’s way purely out of instinct.


The sword turned at an impossible angle and swung again. It’s fiercely sharp edge audibly hummed through the air, not just a length of metal but an extension of my attacker’s body. I raised my axe with not a moment to spare, only barely managing to parry the attack. Once more the sword flashed, instantly changing course and being drawn into a ready position. The small wielder of this incredible weapon then sprang up and back, turning like an acrobat up high in the air before landing softly on the sand, a full twenty feet away. I gasped in amazement. The entire attack, from beginning to end, had occurred in the space of a heartbeat. The crowd roared their approval. Rarely before had a single foe given the fabled Berserker even the slightest pause.


A touch of hot air passed my neck. A realization crept over me. The sword had pierced the tiny opening in my armour that separated helm from chest plate. I had been hit, a near fatal wound, without my awareness! The helm was loose now, the straps the only thing to be cut, the blade missing my skin by the smallest fraction. My vision impaired, I realized I would have to abandon my helm altogether.


The crowd hushed as I removed the heavy bronze helm, tossing it heavily to the side. Never before had I shown my true visage in the arena before, and a murmur of amazement passed through all those assembled.
“Who are you?” I demanded of the black-garbed assailant.
“I am just like you, Volodimer.” As I had gauged, the voice that rang across the open sand was female, only raspy and muffled from the cloth over her mouth. “I am Dorokusai, and I have come to pass judgment. Defend yourself with all your skill if you hope to see the light of the coming day.” With that she vaulted high into the air. I looked up and was dazzled by the sun, her figure only a tiny speck barely visible before it’s brilliance. “This is not possible,” I thought to myself. Squinting my eyes, I looked upward once more, seeking out her point of trajectory. A peculiar sound, like a sudden release of air, pierced the atmosphere. Once more battle instinct kicked in and I dove to the side, collecting the abandoned helm and gathering it to myself as I rolled and extended, launching into a fast sprint. The ground behind me exploded in a sudden plume of smoke and fire, the sand scattering in a five-yard radius.

Looking back, I saw the shadowy fighter land in a light tumble, springing like a cat to her feet, sword at the ready. I quickly changed the direction of my run and at the same time threw the bronze helm like a great metal discus directly at her. Without pause she leapt directly at the small meteor. There was a flash of light and the helm separated into two pieces, both of them veering separately to either side of her body as she harried onward. I swung my bulk and, using the moment of her action against her, brought the great stone axe down and across, a cut intended to separate her torso in twain. The axe passed through thin air, landing hard in the sand before I realized what had occurred. The female was running up the length of the axe’s handle, the sword flashing across at me. I fended the cut with my forearm, the sharp metal glancing off my forearm bracer. Once more I attacked, this time a straight right fist that landed with a satisfactorily meaty thump upon the face of my attacker. It was followed by a left hook, which she managed to evade. She threw her sword to the side. “Let us fight unarmed, then, Volodimer of the Axe.”


This small utterance was followed by a speedy volley of kicks, three in quick succession, all of them hitting me at the same point of impact. A wound opened above my brow and began to bleed at once. I was caught unawares by a strange, circular movement of the deadly woman’s hands. A deadening sensation of impact echoed through the dense armour covering my side. Suddenly I was pitched backward. I landed heavily, the air rushing from my lungs in a heavy whoosh.


“Remain where you are.” I had little choice. My limbs were virtually paralysed. My entire body had been rendered immobile.
The sun burned my eyes as I lay on the sand, no noise reaching my ears save a deep throbbing from my brow. A shadow covered the sun. Like a solar eclipse she filled my vision. Crouching down, she placed her gloved hand over my sweaty forehead, her fingers coming away bloody. A pair of slanted eyes, dark like polished onyx, regarded me with a gaze of intense interest. Her words, when they came, were spoken slowly and in measured tones.


“You are here out of a foolish desire for revenge. I can see no future for you if you follow this path. I will return when and if you can let go of this mortal emotion, only when you seek your true destiny.”
She rose up, out of my vision, and once more the sun blinded me. After a moment the numbness left my limbs, and I was able to stand once more. The crowd murmured amongst themselves in disbelief.


“The Berserker has been defeated!” “The small stranger has crushed him!”
My anger rose, a small note of dissention at first, snowballing as the comments continued. Picking up my axe I noticed the group of black men staring at me, wondering what my next action would be. The woman was nowhere to be found. Damn the gods! I lifted the axe, funnelling my fury into it. I brought it down and across, letting it swing in a wide arc, and then I simply let it go. It screamed across the arena, leaving a vortex of disturbed air in its wake. I turned my back and walked back to my private dungeon. The sound of destruction barely registered in my mind, and I did not turn to see the remains of the slaves, a mass of bloody pulp and twitching body parts, intermingled with the stone axe still embedded in the sandstone wall. A cheer went up from the crowd as Abdul allowed me back into the darkness of the underground maze, an expression of curiosity and fear painted on his face.


The Berserker was still the king of carnage, but for the moment Volodimer had more to think upon.       

Chapter Five : 1868

Hallowed be the name of Azrael… the blood runs through the veins of all his offspring, our clan Dorokusai.
My name is Volodimer. I have been known by many names. The Axe. Beserker. Nomad. Devil. Son. Brother. Sinner. Death. The clan Dorokusai can trace its roots all the way back to the First Family. The Dorokusai known as Azrael began to document his story on clay tablets many thousands of years ago. Throughout the centuries there have many receivers of the blood, the heritage.


Some have been immortalized as not only perfect warriors. We have had poets, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, creators… and destroyers. I have, over the long course of my life, read through and studied much of the documents and diaries of my spiritual ancestry. Held in an ancient vault in one of the clan estates are all that has ever been written by the Realm Walkers. This journal I begin will be placed with all the rest, for the bearers of our heritage to learn and benefit from. Through these words will they know me and through them will I live on in mind and spirit.


The clan Dorokusai can trace its roots all the way back to the First Family. The Dorokusai known as Azrael began to document his story on clay tablets many thousands of years ago. Throughout the centuries there have many receivers of the blood, the heritage.
Some have been immortalized as not only perfect warriors. We have had poets, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, creators… and destroyers. I have, over the long course of my life, read through and studied much of the documents and diaries of my spiritual ancestry. Held in an ancient vault in one of the clan estates are all that has ever been written by the Realm Walkers. This journal I begin will be placed with all the rest, for the bearers of our heritage to learn and benefit from. Through these words will they know me and through them will I live on in mind and spirit.

A disruption had occurred, a long time ago, which had polluted the essence of all that is holy. I stalked the macabre source of this disruption. In my dreams l had hunted this one for long… a beast of cruel drives and ceaseless hatred. Born human and long since passed to the other side; this one was living out a pact with death. My path on this night was clear and without remorse, though whatever would happen from here, none could say. The Guardian of the Eighth Realm is demanding of its champions, and they move in uncertain ways. As the moon grew before my eyes the wind caressed me gently, carrying with it the scent of my quarry. For thirteen years, three days and two nights l had tracked this wraith that called itself Bolar, and now, at long last, l had finally drawn close.


I reached for my flagon and took a long draught. The mix of spring water, pulped berries and absinthe worked its way down to my innards where it mixed with my bloodstream, alighting core receptors behind my eyes. Closing them, l breathed a prayer of protection and mentally shifted from the physical world into the spirit world. The dull lights of lost souls and disembodied ghouls solidified before me, and all around the atmosphere took on an eerie green hue. As always in this realm my presence did not go by unnoticed. Mentally connected now with both physical and spirit worlds l could hear the whispers of the night travel at great speed, shooting out like a barrage of arrows in all directions, all transmitting the same message: “Volodimer is here…Volodimer has arrived.” Gritting my teeth l reached behind and grasped my familiar axe, the mighty Demon Cutter.


Echoes of memories played on the fringes of my mind. These were not my memories though. While the axe is not a living organism as such, it possesses about it a basic psyche. While in the spiritual realm the axe and I become an integrated whole, and as such share thoughts and emotions. Though its true origins are shrouded in myth, I knew that the axe was designed and created for a sole purpose- the destruction of supernatural fiends. This made the axe and I a match made in heaven. The axe yearned consistently for the kill, and I craved the death of all demons in this world, one appetite feeding the other.


The weeds in this field were long and swept my legs, almost as if they possessed a life of their own and wanted to drag me down. The spirits of the night rose and passed by, haunting the fields where years ago they were cut down from this mortal plane. Old spectres roamed, unseeing and without intention, focused on a lifeline that did not exist and that bore no impact on reality any longer.


As l tracked my target, the strangest sensation passed over me. I halted at once. Looked around. The sensation passed as quickly as it had come. I could see nothing that could have triggered it, save the ceaseless movement of these intangible figures. My vision focused on one of them, perhaps thirty feet away from me. He seemed to carry with him an internal light, a glow that the others did not. And then, with another rush of this peculiar sensation, the figure also stopped, turned, and looked directly at me!
Even though there was a distance between us there was no mistaking the look of recognition in his eyes as he began, slowly, to walk toward me. It seemed he was sizing me up and considering how best to approach this new situation. I wondered briefly, “how must I appear to this man? Does he see me as a ghoulish apparition as l see him?”


“Who goes there?” he demanded.
I was stunned- he had awakened to my presence! Though his image blurred and indistinct, I could make out a young man with long golden hair, loosely braided. The crude armour and heavy broadsword he wore indicated a time hundreds of years ago, but when? The ghost had a strong, smooth face and piercing blue eyes that regarded me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. I decided to make contact.


“I am a friend, young one. My name is Volodimer and I am a nomad, a traveller. I seek to bring no harm or danger.”
Still he stood there on guard, motionless. I took a small step forward.
“Do you have a name, young one?” I began to take another step forward and then stopped as he stiffened with fear.


“Stay where you are!” The voice quavered with fear. As I looked closer, I began to see more of his features, almost as if he were growing in detail with every passing moment. His eyes kept going to the axe in my hands.
“Demon cutter,” he breathed quietly. He knew! I felt a wave of uncertainty. What was going on here? None of this made sense. Human souls do not interact with the living of their own free will! What to do? The figure was now backing away slowly, not taking his eyes away from the battle-axe in my grip. So, lifting the weapon up and securing it once more at my back, I moved forward hesitantly.


“Look, the weapon is away. I mean you no harm, I merely wish to speak with you,” I offered. The light inside of him began to slowly increase in intensity. It seemed as if all the light around us were dimming and he in turn were absorbing it, and the brighter he became, the more anxious he grew. My mood, however, was darkening. My patience with this disembodied spirit was wearing thin and it seemed as if this were becoming a situation that would not be quickly resolved. I was not in the habit of entertaining lost souls at the best of times, and this fearful creature was delaying my true mission. I had not forgotten that with every moment I wasted, Bolar was out there wreaking death and pain among the innocents that I was created to protect. I was determined that Bolar would not escape.
“Speak now, damnable creature or away with you!” I thundered.


“You are the man known as The Axe? The man who destroys demons and hunts down the evils which plague us?” He seems less fearful now, more…excited, almost. The light within him dims once more to a dull glow.
“Aye, I am all these things and more. I am on the hunt now, and though you have piqued my interest, I must delay no longer. Tell me who you are and how it is that you know of me.”
“My name is Darius sir,” the spirit said.
My anger had subdued somewhat by this stage, but I was now unsure of whether to continue with this mystery or to head off once more after Bolar. His scent was growing fainter with every passing moment and I could ill afford to allow much more time to pass.
“I know of you because you are the stuff of legends,” he exclaimed, seemingly in awe.


My curiosity was bubbling; none of this was making any logical sense. I found myself desperately wanting to ask “How is this possible when you lived your life hundreds of years before I ever existed? You cannot possibly know of me, for in your lifetime I had not yet come into being!”
He looked at me patiently, waiting for me to speak. I decided to err on the side of caution and say nothing for the moment, for to inform a spirit that they are physically dead and no longer belong of this earth can lead to altogether unpredictable outcomes. We stood no further than five feet apart at this point. Beyond this spirit before me lay the open field, with dense forest at the edges of the clearing. It seemed this field was used for the grazing of cattle at some time in the past, but now it lay dormant and devoid of life. Angels sang their hymns above, their music filtering down through the heavens to be heard only faintly by my hyper-natural ears. The sky was breathtaking in its clarity, even through the emerald mist, and it seemed you could almost reach out and touch the stars above. We stood there and absorbed the fullness of this moment, neither saying anything, both of us closely linked on the universal consciousness.

Then, softly, there was a dull rumble on the ethereal plane. Darius cocked his head as if attempting to physically hear this ethereal disruption. The hair literally stood up all over my body as a wave of static electricity overtook me. The rumble was growing stronger in power, and as Darius looked at me I felt once more the strange sensation I had felt earlier, something I had yet to define in nature. Something I had in all my years of supernatural dealings never before encountered. This, in itself, disturbed me greatly.


We both sensed the approaching energy of something cataclysmic in nature, and my hand instinctively crept toward my back where Demon-Cutter was resting in its sheath. The axe was tingling with the anxious anticipation of battle, and as I released it from the leather restraint, waves of blood lust overtook me. I shuddered in shock. Demon-Cutter was alive in a way that was totally alien to me. Darius took a step back, his fear obvious as my frame absorbed the gothic power. As I looked into his eyes I siphoned his thoughts, and for a brief instant I had a complete understanding of what this creature known as Darius consisted of. The tremendous energy I had tapped into, combined with the power of the axe, had heightened my psychic senses to the nth degree. I was at once Darius and Volodimer, existing both in my own body and his body simultaneously. His molecules for a split second vibrated on the exact same frequency as my own, and time ceased to be. The purity of his soul came rushing through me with such force that I physically doubled over.


“What is happening?” I wondered. Raising the axe before me I witnessed something that by all rights should not have been.
Emanating from the ancient runes inscribed along the surface of Demon-cutter was a glowing blue light, throbbing in perfect synchronicity with the building ethereal disruption. The ground began to shift, the soil billowing skyward intermittently. The forces at work here were completely unknown to me. Sweat began to bead across my forehead as I fought to maintain a sense of equilibrium. Whispering a silent prayer of protection, I knelt down and brought the haft of Demon-Cutter to rest on the ground, then placed the flat edge of its mighty blade against my forehead.

Contact

The world around me began to fade and then slowly drew back from my vision, leaving a void of white nothingness in its place. The colours of the outside world melted past my peripheral vision, until finally there was naught around me but an infinite emptiness. Rising from my kneeling position I stood and gazed around. This was the place the old ones named “the Sanctum,” though it was more a state of being than an actual place. The Sanctum existed in the space between the moment to moment of life. If life were a film, the Sanctum would be the infinitesimal space between the frames. In this place the future, the past and the present were no more than childish concepts. The basic principles and theorems held in support of a fully functioning universe were meaningless.


I called out a silent command. Out of the void the shapes of the reality I had left behind began, once more, to become visible. I stood there and held witness to the whole landscape reforming. Still frozen in time, the shapes of the trees became sharper, as did the clouds and the forms of the wandering ghouls. Like a rough line drawing all of these shapes were forming before me, on an infinite white canvas. My vision focused. Out of all these shapes, one would lead me to the source of this disturbance. I knew from experience that ethereal disruptions of large scale did not occur as course of nature. From my toes to my head, every muscle in my body tightened in anticipation.
“Come to me, by the power of the infinite, reveal yourself”,” I growled. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Demon Cutter and I ached for it.
A light flashed, and directly before me before me was the one shape I sought, the answer to my question.
Darius.


“This is what you seek, fool Volodimer,” whispered an ancient voice, belonging to an entity so old that it had no title, and was thus referred to as “The Ancient,” or Orulum as it preferred.
“Speak not harshly of a diligent servant of our mutual master, wise Orulum.” I spat out in contempt.
“I can see there is no love lost between us, though your mortal words would have me believe otherwise. I had thought that there would be a direct correlation between both the memory and the lifespan of the Dorokusai. Though you outlive the wretched human race by at least a half-century, you still are as short lived to me as the ant is to you.” The words of Orulum were whispered with tones of scorn that cut gaping holes in my spiritual armour.
“Be silent now, old one! Do you have no respect for the Hammer of Yaueh?” I bellowed.
“I respect only that which I fear… nothing more.” Orulum spoke these words with quiet authority.
“Pray tell, wise Orulum, what is your subject of interest in this matter? The old ones do not make contact with their servants without reason.” I was now speaking in a way that conveyed the respect commanded by one such as He.


Orulum was silent for a moment, a heartbeat that defied definition of time. Though the relationship between Orulum and myself was tenuous at best, the boundaries that separated Dorokusai from Archangels always prevailed. I had long since learned that the puppet does not continue once its strings have been severed. To press for answers would be counter-effective, and very possibly dangerous. And so, I waited for a response, knowing that patience and respect were my greatest allies.
“Look closely, Volodimer of the Seraphim”, hissed Orulum, “for your eyes may yet perceive what your heart already knows. Do not shrug aside the most obvious solution, as it is most often…. the correct one.”
The most obvious answer…Darius…Bolar…Etheric disturbance…the answer was close, intangible, and just beyond reach.

Even now, Darius could not believe it. The giant, Volodimer, had been standing right before him. This creature, this man who had up until now existed purely in the form of stories and legend, had been conversing with him. He shook from head to toe. That their time together had been so brief was regrettable, the manner of Volodimer’s leaving- unbearable.
“I must go”, he had uttered. The strange storm had left as quickly as it had begun, receding back across the plains until it was nothing more than a memory. The earth had ceased to quake, and the air had reclaimed its eerie green darkness, a stark contrast to the angry purple hue that had enveloped the atmosphere mere moments ago.


And then Volodimer was up and leaving, and Darius” soul cried out in pain.
“Do not depart and take with you this great awakening!” Darius pleaded sharply, as Volodimer turned and sheathed once more his mighty axe. Suddenly desperate, reaching out imploringly.
“Please, I beg of you, do not leave!” Still Volodimer did not respond, but only moved away, head down, face grim, eyes set on the direction of his prey.


Darius, angry now, “You appear, bringing to my attention this dimension of strange and wondrous things such as I had only dreamed of; and then just as quickly you leave, closing this world once more, so that I may only possess this faint memory of what may be…”


Volodimer felt torn, the mystery before him somehow linked with his hunt for Bolar; and he could not shake the strong feeling that to abandon Darius would be folly, the words of Orulum still echoing in his mind…
“Do not abandon me Volodimer,” Darius whispered to the wind.

Guilt pressed on me…. Possessing immortal wisdom had instilled an unwavering intuition in me, and hard that I may try to ignore it, always the intuition overrode the mind. It had always been so throughout history, with every ancestor who bore the blood of Dorokusai. I stopped once more. Stilling myself, I gazed ahead at the brilliant stars, absorbed in their lustrous beauty. My sight was returning to the realm of the human world, and once more the earth was bathed in the arctic blue glow of the stars and the shining light of the earth’s moon. Filled with peaceful resolution I doubled back, my heart pulling me to my next destination, my choice made.

Off in the distance I spotted him, staring off into space seeing only violent red flashes of internal anger. Such strong emotion I could feel even from a distance. When I drew near, I made a small noise to alert him to my presence. Darius was jerked out his thoughts. After only a quick moment he collected himself and snapped to attention. I was surprised at the speed with which he had changed, both physically and emotionally. I could sense that his anger had immediately reverted into an almost neutral expression at the sight of me standing before him. It was, I had thought at the time, a strange, and almost unnatural change, especially in short space of time. Who, or what, was this creature?

\
“Hail, Volodimer of the axe.” His voice was disinterested. I frowned and scratched my head. What on earth was happening? If only I had the answers, all of the answers. Unfortunately, it was never quite that easy to make sense of the spiritual world that lay in between the other realms. Even the Dorokusai could encounter new problems, which we did, on many a frequent occasion. We were the primary arm of Yaueh, yes, but infinite wisdom was not part of the deal.
I cleared my throat. “Now hear me Darius and hear me well. You have presented me with something of a mystery. I must admit to you that something in this entire scenario in which I find myself does not make sense. Ah yes, I confide in you quite frankly that at this moment I am quite simply puzzled, and while I desire the opportunity to delve further into this mystery, I must also continue on with the mission at hand.” Darius stared at me with uncertain eyes, and I could smell his hope bubbling just beneath his calm exterior. His innate curiosity indicated to me that he would like me to continue. I took a deep breath. I had never been as unsure of any decision I needed to make. Not for a long time. The devil on my shoulder was gouging deep metaphorical wounds of uncertainty in my mind. “No”, I thought. Follow intuition always. No regrets, no dwelling in the possibilities. It was time to set the final ball rolling. I stepped up closely to him, bending down enough to meet his eyes. Our faces were mere inches apart. I had a brief flashback of our unintentionally mind meld. I hoped I was doing the right thing.
“So, it seems to me that the only option that remains open to me is to keep you close whilst in pursuit of my target, at least until I can reach some kind of resolution.” Darius looked up, eyes shining with instant exhilaration.
I continued on. “I need to study you, and I suspect you would desire also the opportunity to study me”- (Darius nodded in affirmation) – “So follow me as best you can, and we shall observe together where this strange twist of fate leads us. Are you in agreement?”
“As you wish, master Volodimer.” Darius could not quite believe this sudden turn of events, and to be quite honest, neither could I. But the decision had been made, and as the say, the die had been cast. Exactly where this new tangent would take me, I would not have ventured to guess, and if I had, I am positive I would have been terribly, horribly wrong….
So, with that I pivoted and immediately set off once again, taking great strides at what would have been for Darius a blistering pace. But keep up with me he did, and as I cantered through the lush forest I heard him running behind me, silent except for the sound of his breathing, and his extraordinarily light footsteps. Then again, I was dealing with a spectre, though one that seemed to be anchored strongly to the physical world. Ah well, another time to get into these sorts of questions.
The forest was brightly lit by the moon, making it easy for me to pick out Bolar’s virtual trail of destruction through the dense undergrowth. A broken twig here, a footprint in the mud there, and the strengthening residual scent of foulness. Fresh on the hunt once more I fell into what the Dorokusai call the “Primal State.” Unbeknownst to me at that time, the Primal State was destined to become controlled and integrated into a system of Demon tracking by Khan, my spiritual son, in many years to come. But for now, the Primal State was a savage and animalistic state of being, and that was exactly what I was experiencing. And I revelled in it. Every sense was heightened, my body reverting to some pre-human genetic memory. I began to lope rather than run, my neck craning forward as I lost myself in the electricity and sheer thrill of this animalistic state. I was the wolf, my lupine teeth forcing their way out of my gums into a wicked and hideous parody of the were-wolf. I was the owl, my eyes scanning ahead for miles, talons tearing free from beneath fingernails. The night air electrified me, and I never wanted it to end. Adrenaline pumping, nerve endings firing, muscles elongating and contracting. I was the Beast of the Axe, and Bolar was locked in my sights.
Darius was, understandably, terrified. And after the first hour, exhausted.
“Please, Volodimer, I must stop…at least for a short while.” Darius was doubled over, panting like a wounded dog. Humans, I have always thought, are such frail creatures.
With a silent mental command, the Primal state immediately reverted, bringing me back, at least superficially, to some semblance of humanity. With the change (and the absence of pain numbing endorphins) came a searing ache in my gums as the lupine fangs receded back into their hidden cavities. I had to rub my hands together to stem the trickle of blood, as talons forced their way back into their organic sheaths.
“Very well. As it stands, we have made some acceptable progress this night.” I was lying. The scent of Bolar would be very faint indeed if left too long.
“Shall I gather some kindling for a fire, master?”
“No fires. We move silently and without illumination.” Darius was still breathing heavily, his long flaxen hair plastered to his sweaty brow. I studied him intensely. He stood just over six feet in height and was of a lean but muscular build. He had a pale face, covered in sweat (I didn’t think spectres sweated? Strange, yet another mystery to add to the mix of Darius.) He bore marks of combat. His face was marred by old scars, every one of them a badge of conflict.
He was shining perhaps not as brightly now as he had earlier, but the spiritual effects of the mix in my flagon had long worn off, so I did not reflect too long on this. Strangely, the longer I spent in his presence, the more solid he seemed to become. After a couple of minutes in which Darius’ breathing had returned to normal, I broke the silence.
“So Darius, why not tell me something of yourself?” At this point the young man had seated himself, cross legged, on the earthen floor. He was engrossed in the night sky, made vivid by a complete lack of light for miles around.
“What is it that you would like to know?” He was looking at me with wide eyes, his aura faintly pulsing with a hue of innocence.
“Why don’t you start with the year of your birth, tell me a little of your childhood, other such things. I need to understand who you are to decipher this mystery that confounds me, you see?”
Darius slowly nodded his understanding. And with that, he began.
“I was born in the year of 1702 AD, as far as I know.” I suppressed any signs of expression on my face. So, he had lived over a hundred years ago and he possessed no knowledge of his passing over to the other side. Obviously, something was anchoring him to the physical world, and with such strength that I had not before witnessed. He sat before me almost as vivid and tangible as the tree he leant against, and the question was- why was he here? What had he yet to achieve, or what was he waiting for? All these thoughts passed through my mind within the space of a heartbeat, and as he continued I once again willed my mind to fall silent.
“I was born an only child. I never knew my mother. I am told she died when I was only very young. I do not remember her at all.”
“My father was a mercenary. He did not tell me anything of what he did, but as a result of his career choice, all through my childhood we travelled constantly. He did his best to raise me into a good, strong man, though I am sure he found it terribly difficult at times. I had a hard upbringing, and when I was young the children taunted me for being an only child, for not having a mother… I found these jeers and insults painful always, and maybe for that reason, and because of the constant travel, I never seemed to make any friends when I was growing up. I was always alone. My father was unapproachable, and only on hand to give discipline whenever he felt it necessary. I suppose that some good did eventually come of all this suffering, however. I learned how to maintain always a shield of strength, and I gradually learned to fight. I assume that through a combination of the bullying of other children and the beatings I received from my father I became somewhat impervious to pain.”
Darius abruptly stopped talking and stared into space, looking at nothing at all, rather reflecting on this part of his life. I could not help but feel sympathy for the poor young man, I too knew the pain of being different.
“Please, Darius, continue,” I said.
“I do recall a changing point in my life. There was this one child who seemed to find particular pleasure in making my life as unpleasant as possible. My father and I had just moved into a new province, and as always, I was finding it impossible to fit in. As I was saying, this child, Manfred was his name, he was always at my throat, so to speak. We attended the same school; my father had the spare resources to send me to the best centres for learning everywhere we went. I had the good fortune to receive a thorough education up until I reached the age of sixteen, at which time I began my military service.”
“As I was saying, this Manfred and his friends would beat me up on the way to school, in between classes and so forth. After a couple of weeks of living in terrible fear I decided no, I would take no more. I could not live with myself, and I could not live with such constant terror. It was quite literally terror, you understand. So, I decided to take circumstances into my own hands.” Darius looked down at his knuckles, the scars criss-crossing them in jagged lines.

ell. You have presented me with something of a mystery. I must admit to you that something in this entire scenario in which I find myself does not make sense. Ah yes, I confide in you quite frankly that at this moment I am quite simply puzzled, and while I desire the opportunity to delve further into this mystery, I must also continue on with the mission at hand.” Darius stared at me with uncertain eyes, and I could smell his hope bubbling just beneath his calm exterior. His innate curiosity indicated to me that he would like me to continue. I took a deep breath. I had never been as unsure of any decision I needed to make. Not for a long time. The devil on my shoulder was gouging deep metaphorical wounds of uncertainty in my mind. “No”, I thought. Follow intuition always. No regrets, no dwelling in the possibilities. It was time to set the final ball rolling. I stepped up closely to him, bending down enough to meet his eyes. Our faces were mere inches apart. I had a brief flashback of our unintentionally mind meld. I hoped I was doing the right thing.


“So, it seems to me that the only option that remains open to me is to keep you close whilst in pursuit of my target, at least until I can reach some kind of resolution.” Darius looked up, eyes shining with instant exhilaration.
I continued on. “I need to study you, and I suspect you would desire also the opportunity to study me”- (Darius nodded in affirmation) – “So follow me as best you can, and we shall observe together where this strange twist of fate leads us. Are you in agreement?”


“As you wish, master Volodimer.” Darius could not quite believe this sudden turn of events, and to be quite honest, neither could I. But the decision had been made, and as the say, the die had been cast. Exactly where this new tangent would take me, I would not have ventured to guess, and if I had, I am positive I would have been terribly, horribly wrong….
So, with that I pivoted and immediately set off once again, taking great strides at what would have been for Darius a blistering pace. But keep up with me he did, and as I cantered through the lush forest I heard him running behind me, silent except for the sound of his breathing, and his extraordinarily light footsteps. Then again, I was dealing with a spectre, though one that seemed to be anchored strongly to the physical world. Ah well, another time to get into these sorts of questions.


The forest was brightly lit by the moon, making it easy for me to pick out Bolar’s virtual trail of destruction through the dense undergrowth. A broken twig here, a footprint in the mud there, and the strengthening residual scent of foulness. Fresh on the hunt once more I fell into what the Dorokusai call the “Primal State.” Unbeknownst to me at that time, the Primal State was destined to become controlled and integrated into a system of Demon tracking by Khan, my spiritual son, in many years to come. But for now, the Primal State was a savage and animalistic state of being, and that was exactly what I was experiencing. And I revelled in it. Every sense was heightened, my body reverting to some pre-human genetic memory. I began to lope rather than run, my neck craning forward as I lost myself in the electricity and sheer thrill of this animalistic state. I was the wolf, my lupine teeth forcing their way out of my gums into a wicked and hideous parody of the were-wolf. I was the owl, my eyes scanning ahead for miles, talons tearing free from beneath fingernails. The night air electrified me, and I never wanted it to end. Adrenaline pumping, nerve endings firing, muscles elongating and contracting. I was the Beast of the Axe, and Bolar was locked in my sights.


Darius was, understandably, terrified. And after the first hour, exhausted.
“Please, Volodimer, I must stop…at least for a short while.” Darius was doubled over, panting like a wounded dog. Humans, I have always thought, are such frail creatures.
With a silent mental command, the Primal state immediately reverted, bringing me back, at least superficially, to some semblance of humanity. With the change (and the absence of pain numbing endorphins) came a searing ache in my gums as the lupine fangs receded back into their hidden cavities. I had to rub my hands together to stem the trickle of blood, as talons forced their way back into their organic sheaths.
“Very well. As it stands, we have made some acceptable progress this night.” I was lying. The scent of Bolar would be very faint indeed if left too long.


“Shall I gather some kindling for a fire, master?”
“No fires. We move silently and without illumination.” Darius was still breathing heavily, his long flaxen hair plastered to his sweaty brow. I studied him intensely. He stood just over six feet in height and was of a lean but muscular build. He had a pale face, covered in sweat (I didn’t think spectres sweated? Strange, yet another mystery to add to the mix of Darius.) He bore marks of combat. His face was marred by old scars, every one of them a badge of conflict.


He was shining perhaps not as brightly now as he had earlier, but the spiritual effects of the mix in my flagon had long worn off, so I did not reflect too long on this. Strangely, the longer I spent in his presence, the more solid he seemed to become. After a couple of minutes in which Darius’ breathing had returned to normal, I broke the silence.
“So Darius, why not tell me something of yourself?” At this point the young man had seated himself, cross legged, on the earthen floor. He was engrossed in the night sky, made vivid by a complete lack of light for miles around.


“What is it that you would like to know?” He was looking at me with wide eyes, his aura faintly pulsing with a hue of innocence.
“Why don’t you start with the year of your birth, tell me a little of your childhood, other such things. I need to understand who you are to decipher this mystery that confounds me, you see?”


Darius slowly nodded his understanding. And with that, he began.
“I was born in the year of 1702 AD, as far as I know.” I suppressed any signs of expression on my face. So, he had lived over a hundred years ago and he possessed no knowledge of his passing over to the other side. Obviously, something was anchoring him to the physical world, and with such strength that I had not before witnessed. He sat before me almost as vivid and tangible as the tree he leant against, and the question was- why was he here? What had he yet to achieve, or what was he waiting for? All these thoughts passed through my mind within the space of a heartbeat, and as he continued I once again willed my mind to fall silent.


“I was born an only child. I never knew my mother. I am told she died when I was only very young. I do not remember her at all.”
“My father was a mercenary. He did not tell me anything of what he did, but as a result of his career choice, all through my childhood we travelled constantly. He did his best to raise me into a good, strong man, though I am sure he found it terribly difficult at times. I had a hard upbringing, and when I was young the children taunted me for being an only child, for not having a mother… I found these jeers and insults painful always, and maybe for that reason, and because of the constant travel, I never seemed to make any friends when I was growing up. I was always alone. My father was unapproachable, and only on hand to give discipline whenever he felt it necessary. I suppose that some good did eventually come of all this suffering, however. I learned how to maintain always a shield of strength, and I gradually learned to fight. I assume that through a combination of the bullying of other children and the beatings I received from my father I became somewhat impervious to pain.”


Darius abruptly stopped talking and stared into space, looking at nothing at all, rather reflecting on this part of his life. I could not help but feel sympathy for the poor young man, I too knew the pain of being different.
“Please, Darius, continue,” I said.
“I do recall a changing point in my life. There was this one child who seemed to find particular pleasure in making my life as unpleasant as possible. My father and I had just moved into a new province, and as always, I was finding it impossible to fit in. As I was saying, this child, Manfred was his name, he was always at my throat, so to speak. We attended the same school; my father had the spare resources to send me to the best centres for learning everywhere we went. I had the good fortune to receive a thorough education up until I reached the age of sixteen, at which time I began my military service.”


“As I was saying, this Manfred and his friends would beat me up on the way to school, in between classes and so forth. After a couple of weeks of living in terrible fear I decided no, I would take no more. I could not live with myself, and I could not live with such constant terror. It was quite literally terror, you understand. So, I decided to take circumstances into my own hands.” Darius looked down at his knuckles, the scars criss-crossing them in jagged lines.

ell. You have presented me with something of a mystery. I must admit to you that something in this entire scenario in which I find myself does not make sense. Ah yes, I confide in you quite frankly that at this moment I am quite simply puzzled, and while I desire the opportunity to delve further into this mystery, I must also continue on with the mission at hand.” Darius stared at me with uncertain eyes, and I could smell his hope bubbling just beneath his calm exterior. His innate curiosity indicated to me that he would like me to continue. I took a deep breath. I had never been as unsure of any decision I needed to make. Not for a long time. The devil on my shoulder was gouging deep metaphorical wounds of uncertainty in my mind. “No”, I thought. Follow intuition always. No regrets, no dwelling in the possibilities. It was time to set the final ball rolling. I stepped up closely to him, bending down enough to meet his eyes. Our faces were mere inches apart. I had a brief flashback of our unintentionally mind meld. I hoped I was doing the right thing.


“So, it seems to me that the only option that remains open to me is to keep you close whilst in pursuit of my target, at least until I can reach some kind of resolution.” Darius looked up, eyes shining with instant exhilaration.
I continued on. “I need to study you, and I suspect you would desire also the opportunity to study me”- (Darius nodded in affirmation) – “So follow me as best you can, and we shall observe together where this strange twist of fate leads us. Are you in agreement?”


“As you wish, master Volodimer.” Darius could not quite believe this sudden turn of events, and to be quite honest, neither could I. But the decision had been made, and as the say, the die had been cast. Exactly where this new tangent would take me, I would not have ventured to guess, and if I had, I am positive I would have been terribly, horribly wrong….
So, with that I pivoted and immediately set off once again, taking great strides at what would have been for Darius a blistering pace. But keep up with me he did, and as I cantered through the lush forest I heard him running behind me, silent except for the sound of his breathing, and his extraordinarily light footsteps. Then again, I was dealing with a spectre, though one that seemed to be anchored strongly to the physical world. Ah well, another time to get into these sorts of questions.


The forest was brightly lit by the moon, making it easy for me to pick out Bolar’s virtual trail of destruction through the dense undergrowth. A broken twig here, a footprint in the mud there, and the strengthening residual scent of foulness. Fresh on the hunt once more I fell into what the Dorokusai call the “Primal State.” Unbeknownst to me at that time, the Primal State was destined to become controlled and integrated into a system of Demon tracking by Khan, my spiritual son, in many years to come. But for now, the Primal State was a savage and animalistic state of being, and that was exactly what I was experiencing. And I revelled in it. Every sense was heightened, my body reverting to some pre-human genetic memory. I began to lope rather than run, my neck craning forward as I lost myself in the electricity and sheer thrill of this animalistic state. I was the wolf, my lupine teeth forcing their way out of my gums into a wicked and hideous parody of the were-wolf. I was the owl, my eyes scanning ahead for miles, talons tearing free from beneath fingernails. The night air electrified me, and I never wanted it to end. Adrenaline pumping, nerve endings firing, muscles elongating and contracting. I was the Beast of the Axe, and Bolar was locked in my sights.


Darius was, understandably, terrified. And after the first hour, exhausted.
“Please, Volodimer, I must stop…at least for a short while.” Darius was doubled over, panting like a wounded dog. Humans, I have always thought, are such frail creatures.
With a silent mental command, the Primal state immediately reverted, bringing me back, at least superficially, to some semblance of humanity. With the change (and the absence of pain numbing endorphins) came a searing ache in my gums as the lupine fangs receded back into their hidden cavities. I had to rub my hands together to stem the trickle of blood, as talons forced their way back into their organic sheaths.
“Very well. As it stands, we have made some acceptable progress this night.” I was lying. The scent of Bolar would be very faint indeed if left too long.


“Shall I gather some kindling for a fire, master?”
“No fires. We move silently and without illumination.” Darius was still breathing heavily, his long flaxen hair plastered to his sweaty brow. I studied him intensely. He stood just over six feet in height and was of a lean but muscular build. He had a pale face, covered in sweat (I didn’t think spectres sweated? Strange, yet another mystery to add to the mix of Darius.) He bore marks of combat. His face was marred by old scars, every one of them a badge of conflict.


He was shining perhaps not as brightly now as he had earlier, but the spiritual effects of the mix in my flagon had long worn off, so I did not reflect too long on this. Strangely, the longer I spent in his presence, the more solid he seemed to become. After a couple of minutes in which Darius’ breathing had returned to normal, I broke the silence.
“So Darius, why not tell me something of yourself?” At this point the young man had seated himself, cross legged, on the earthen floor. He was engrossed in the night sky, made vivid by a complete lack of light for miles around.


“What is it that you would like to know?” He was looking at me with wide eyes, his aura faintly pulsing with a hue of innocence.
“Why don’t you start with the year of your birth, tell me a little of your childhood, other such things. I need to understand who you are to decipher this mystery that confounds me, you see?”


Darius slowly nodded his understanding. And with that, he began.
“I was born in the year of 1702 AD, as far as I know.” I suppressed any signs of expression on my face. So, he had lived over a hundred years ago and he possessed no knowledge of his passing over to the other side. Obviously, something was anchoring him to the physical world, and with such strength that I had not before witnessed. He sat before me almost as vivid and tangible as the tree he leant against, and the question was- why was he here? What had he yet to achieve, or what was he waiting for? All these thoughts passed through my mind within the space of a heartbeat, and as he continued I once again willed my mind to fall silent.
“I was born an only child. I never knew my mother. I am told she died when I was only very young. I do not remember her at all.”


“My father was a mercenary. He did not tell me anything of what he did, but as a result of his career choice, all through my childhood we travelled constantly. He did his best to raise me into a good, strong man, though I am sure he found it terribly difficult at times. I had a hard upbringing, and when I was young the children taunted me for being an only child, for not having a mother… I found these jeers and insults painful always, and maybe for that reason, and because of the constant travel, I never seemed to make any friends when I was growing up. I was always alone. My father was unapproachable, and only on hand to give discipline whenever he felt it necessary. I suppose that some good did eventually come of all this suffering, however. I learned how to maintain always a shield of strength, and I gradually learned to fight. I assume that through a combination of the bullying of other children and the beatings I received from my father I became somewhat impervious to pain.”


Darius abruptly stopped talking and stared into space, looking at nothing at all, rather reflecting on this part of his life. I could not help but feel sympathy for the poor young man, I too knew the pain of being different.
“Please, Darius, continue,” I said.


“I do recall a changing point in my life. There was this one child who seemed to find particular pleasure in making my life as unpleasant as possible. My father and I had just moved into a new province, and as always, I was finding it impossible to fit in. As I was saying, this child, Manfred was his name, he was always at my throat, so to speak. We attended the same school; my father had the spare resources to send me to the best centres for learning everywhere we went. I had the good fortune to receive a thorough education up until I reached the age of sixteen, at which time I began my military service.”


“As I was saying, this Manfred and his friends would beat me up on the way to school, in between classes and so forth. After a couple of weeks of living in terrible fear I decided no, I would take no more. I could not live with myself, and I could not live with such constant terror. It was quite literally terror, you understand. So, I decided to take circumstances into my own hands.” Darius looked down at his knuckles, the scars criss-crossing them in jagged lines.

ooking at me with wide eyes, his aura faintly pulsing with a hue of innocence.
“Why don’t you start with the year of your birth, tell me a little of your childhood, other such things. I need to understand who you are to decipher this mystery that confounds me, you see?”


Darius slowly nodded his understanding. And with that, he began.
“I was born in the year of 1702 AD, as far as I know.” I suppressed any signs of expression on my face. So, he had lived over a hundred years ago and he possessed no knowledge of his passing over to the other side. Obviously, something was anchoring him to the physical world, and with such strength that I had not before witnessed. He sat before me almost as vivid and tangible as the tree he leant against, and the question was- why was he here? What had he yet to achieve, or what was he waiting for? All these thoughts passed through my mind within the space of a heartbeat, and as he continued I once again willed my mind to fall silent.


“I was born an only child. I never knew my mother. I am told she died when I was only very young. I do not remember her at all.”
“My father was a mercenary. He did not tell me anything of what he did, but as a result of his career choice, all through my childhood we travelled constantly. He did his best to raise me into a good, strong man, though I am sure he found it terribly difficult at times. I had a hard upbringing, and when I was young the children taunted me for being an only child, for not having a mother… I found these jeers and insults painful always, and maybe for that reason, and because of the constant travel, I never seemed to make any friends when I was growing up. I was always alone. My father was unapproachable, and only on hand to give discipline whenever he felt it necessary. I suppose that some good did eventually come of all this suffering, however. I learned how to maintain always a shield of strength, and I gradually learned to fight. I assume that through a combination of the bullying of other children and the beatings I received from my father I became somewhat impervious to pain.”


Darius abruptly stopped talking and stared into space, looking at nothing at all, rather reflecting on this part of his life. I could not help but feel sympathy for the poor young man, I too knew the pain of being different.
“Please, Darius, continue,” I said.
“I do recall a changing point in my life. There was this one child who seemed to find particular pleasure in making my life as unpleasant as possible. My father and I had just moved into a new province, and as always, I was finding it impossible to fit in. As I was saying, this child, Manfred was his name, he was always at my throat, so to speak. We attended the same school; my father had the spare resources to send me to the best centres for learning everywhere we went. I had the good fortune to receive a thorough education up until I reached the age of sixteen, at which time I began my military service.”


“As I was saying, this Manfred and his friends would beat me up on the way to school, in between classes and so forth. After a couple of weeks of living in terrible fear I decided no, I would take no more. I could not live with myself, and I could not live with such constant terror. It was quite literally terror, you understand. So, I decided to take circumstances into my own hands.” Darius looked down at his knuckles, the scars criss-crossing them in jagged lines.

He cleared his throat. “So, what I did was I began to look for Manfred, whenever possible. I quite literally hunted him at all times. I hunted him down with the singular purpose of fighting him. I fought him whenever possible, before school, after, in between. I found out where he lived and fought him there, on his property. And every time I fought him, though his knuckles would bear the evidence of my trauma, even when I was thrashed to within an inch of my life, every time I found a small victory.” Darius smiled at the thought of this, and I let out a low chuckle. I was beginning to like this young man more and more all the time.


“This was your solution?” I asked. He nodded with a big grin on his face.
This time I laughed out loud. “How very tactful of you,” I exclaimed in jest.
“All my life up until that point I had lived as a pacifist, a scholar of sorts, rejecting the war mongering of my spiritual father and his violent ways. But this Manfred had pushed me just that inch too far, and all of the years of hurt and repressed anger bubbled to the surface. I was consumed. All that I saw was a bonfire of passionate hatred, all that I felt was the obsessive desire for vengeance.”


“Eventually Manfred took to avoiding me. He missed weeks of school at a time, and I was informed that he had taken up working with uncle in the business of carpentry. I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that my plan would bear such fruits of success, and I was suitably stunned when I realized that at this point, I felt nothing in the form of satisfaction. Nothing whatsoever. All that remained was a heavy sensation of unsated anger deep in my stomach that ate away at me. I desired so strongly to feel content, to return to my normal life. But it was too late, for what I had embarked upon would surely and inevitably need to be followed through to its bitter conclusion. And I could not. I could not pursue Manfred further; he had had enough. We had both had enough. The other children no longer teased me, they now avoided me… out of fear, out of hate, who knows? I was once a freak, always a freak.” Darius trailed once more into silence. The story, at least for now, was over.
We did not find Bolar that night.


As the days and nights progressed into weeks his scent grew ever fainter, and his tracks gradually became colder and colder until I finally had to admit that he was gone, and the search had been almost entirely in vain. After this time, I had grown fond of Darius, who had followed me for the entire time. Most days neither of us spoke but continually exchanging knowledge in some bizarre form of subconscious telepathy.
And so, it came about that I took on Darius as a pupil, and over time, also as a friend.

Chapter Six : 1922  

Khan. Tibet, China

I was never the strongest, nor the tallest of the Seraphim.  I remember when I was young being puzzled by the sluggish rate of growth I was experiencing, as I knew that historically all my lineage had developed extremely rapidly.  When I was no more than ten years of age I went to my spiritual father, Volodimer, and questioned him on the matter.

“Please, tell me why it is that I am so small and weak?  I want to be as big as you when I grow up!”  I stood up as tall as I could and clenched my little fists, imagining myself as large as the mighty Volodimer.  He knelt before me with a light dancing in his emerald eyes, his olive skin warm and comforting.

“Son, the gods have seen fit to gift you in other ways.  We must take faith in the workings of our creators, for though you may be small, you possess a purity of spirit and inner strength that harks back to Dorokusai of old.”  At this my mentor pointed his massive finger to my chest and gave it a little tap. “The strength of a man lies here, in the heart, and here”, he said, tapping my temple,” in the mind.  You must never under-estimate yourself, and always remember that your true weapons lie within, not without.”

I looked into thin air, lost in the past.  The atmosphere was fragrant and fresh, carrying the scent of the forest. Shaking off this reflection I focused once more, my inner eyes observing.  I realized that my conscious mind had run off on a tangent of neural pathways in the middle of meditation.  I needed to discard the input of my conscious mind and delve into the magic of the layers beneath.  I took a deep breath in and let it out naturally, peacefully.  Meditation was the key.  Once more the extraneous thoughts passed through my mind like so much thin air.  I let my third eye scan every inch of my physical shell.  The tip of my nose, a faint tingle there.  My lips, I could feel their softness the sensitive nerve endings, alive and firing.  I let my observation move to the back of my head, and I winced internally with the pain of the blow I had received earlier.  Deeper down I sank, taking in the energy, expelling the tension.  In, relax, out, tension.  Back straight, eyes closed, and posture correct.  The heat was beginning to rise.  The kundalini energy was at work; setting off tiny fireworks in the frontal lobes, the eyes rolling back in their sockets to receive the cosmic life force.  And then there came the connection with myself.  I saw my shell from above, and I felt…everything.  The breeze caressed me, whispering an old story of love.  I felt the birds above settling down with their younglings for the night.  The warmth of the fire before me beckoned, called out to me.  Dance with us, the flames insisted, dance in the glory of the seventh level of existence.  

A smile played on my lips involuntarily as my body revelled in the joy of existing, purely and simply existing for the moment and nothing else.  Then, a pre-emptive reaction.  I felt the approach before it occurred- movement, a presence in the distance. No time for thought, only time to move. Like the wind I was up, merely observing from the third eye as I spun to a crouching posture and shifted into the void.  Another footstep and my shell was a blur, darting sideways in silence.  An explosion of light and sound issued forth; the spot that I had occupied mere moments ago was now a smoking crater. Remaining in the void I witnessed myself arc off to the left as I felt a kinetic force rush past, missing impact by sheer fractions of time and space. And now I was in the trees, perched on the smallest of limbs, scanning the terrain below.  

Colour, a reflection of nature, and I was moving once more, traversing the branches at speed.  The image before me altered and my trajectory corresponded, weight shifting slightly as another attack missed, this time a single metal disc coming to a sudden stop in the bark behind me with a loud tock.  I hit the grass lightly, rolling and spinning, up and over, rushing with the pure force of the void toward the figure that was now bearing down on me also. Leaping high into the air I somersaulted over the attacking figure, not quite touching the ground before a blow to my ribs vaulted me some distance off to the side, where I crashed unceremoniously in a thatch of soft grass.  Lying there, I realized that my limbs were temporarily paralysed.  My attacker had managed to trigger the correct pressure point in conjunction with his devastating blow.

Looking up, I saw an advancing figure materialize within the periphery of my vision. Though cloaked in darkness, I could not help but recognize the flashing cat’s eyes of my master Chen.

“Your perception and foresight are still lacking.”  His voice carried out upon the night air like gentle music, clear and harmonic.  

“Khan, you need to maintain your stillness, and remember at all times to stay within the void. It is essential that you continue to work at this.  Come, let us rest.”

Reaching toward me, Chen manipulated a flash of light.  Instantly the heaviness evaporated from my limbs.  As he stood once more to his full height of five foot three, I caught the unmistakable glint of an acupuncture needle in his hand that was just as suddenly gone, hidden within his folds of clothing.  I sprang lightly to my feet, wincing as the force of Chen’s palm-strike made itself known.  My ribs throbbed, and as we made our way back to our shelter, I marvelled at the incredible power of the small man gliding across the terrain before me.

Before long we had arrived at Chan’s small bamboo hut.  It stood in the centre of a clearing no more than thirty feet in diameter, surrounded by an indomitable wall of thick vegetation.  The fire that I had lit earlier was wearing back down, the ultra-hot wood crackling softly.  Chen whispered an inaudible string of words as he passed close and gestured to the fire. With a loud “Whoomph” the flames shot high into the night sky, illuminating our surroundings sharply for the briefest of moments.  I had to shield my eyes against the severe glare, and as I lowered my hand, I discovered that the fire burned no longer.  Only a small tendril of smoke drifted into the upper atmosphere.  Crouching down, I placed my outstretched palm close to the ashen remains.  Not a bit of heat lingered.

“Come, Khan, do not let yourself become altogether overawed by a simple elemental manipulation.”

I shook my head in wonder.  Incredible. We made my way into the hut.  He sat cross-legged in the centre of the abode.

“Come Khan, sit… I wish to tell you a story.”  Chan’s eyes veritably glowed as he stared at the single candle burning in the centre of a small circle within the hut.  I sat opposite him and also gazed into the candle, the side of my ribs throbbing softly.  Clearing my mind, I waited for Chen to continue.  The energy in the hut was calm and serene.

“It has been precisely eleven years since the embodiment of Kuan-Ti, deity of war, bestowed you upon me when you were but a child,” Chen said.

I nodded as Chen paused in contemplation, meditating on what he had yet to reveal. I did of course remember vividly the day when Volodimer had left me in the care of this mysteriously ageless man.

I had been a child of ten years when Volodimer had told me that we had to abandon the capital of Ulan Bator in Mongolia, where I was had been born.  We had travelled with little rest for many months through all manner of terrain.  We made our way across the harsh Gobi Desert, over towering mountains and through hostile regions before finally reaching a densely forested and uninhabited region, flecked with the white of snow.  Still we travelled until at last we had come to a clearing, exactly the same as it were on this very day- unchanged, untouched.  There I was presented to Chen.  

Only a small man, he wore many layers of a strange dark cloth that concealed him to a great extent.  He gave the impression of being a wraith-like shadow, only his keen eyes visible under the ceremonial wrappings around his head.  Volodimer stood behind me, his enormous hands resting lightly on my shoulders. Chen bowed to Volodimer, and they exchanged quick words in a language I had never before heard.  

The shadow turned its attention onto me.  He stared deeply into my eyes, his gaze seeming to probe me, inspecting with a feather-light caress every molecule within my body, every memory and thought within my mind.  And then he bent over until he was looking directly at my eye level. His light green eyes were slitted and cat like, and they blazed with inner power.  Then he stood once more and bowed deeply before me.  Placing his willowy fingers across my forehead, he whispered, “I am honoured and humbled to stand before you, my Celestial-Master, Tien-shih.”

The memories floated through my psyche like luminescent clouds across the heavens, then faded into nothingness once more as I cleared my inner being of all thought, all mindfulness. Raising my awareness back into the room I sensed that Chen was composed and ready to continue.

“Kuan-Ti had foreseen a glimpse of a possible future, a terrible and bleak future.  In his immortal wisdom he had brought you here to me, in an attempt to disrupt that timeline and hopefully alter the destiny that lay before us.”  Chen spoke in even, measured tones, but I could feel the importance of his words, nonetheless.

“It is time,” Chen carried on, “that you now learn and understand all which has been kept from you for the past eleven years.”

A slight current of air passed through the hut, warm in temperature and yet still chilling me to the bone.  Chen frowned slightly before his expression once again faded to neutral.

“The prophecy that had been foretold was the prophecy of your future, Khan, of what you are ordained by fate to fulfil.  You are destined for great things, indeed.  Great, and possibly earth-shattering things.  It is predestined that there will come a time when your very existence will form a crucible for an immense insurrection.  This revolution, it has been foretold, shall occur between the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (the compassionate and merciful deity of Hell), and the Shih-tien Yen-Wang (the Kings of the Ten Law Courts of Hell).  If such a revolution were to take place, my Celestial Master, there will be an end… an end to all.”

Chen paused and waited patiently for this sudden influx of information to sink in. A trickle of sweat ran down my temple. Time stood still as I let my mind grasp the implications of what Chen had just revealed.  A terrible coldness had begun to manifest deep in the pit of my stomach.  The coldness turned into an intangible icy hand, which began to creep its way up through my organs, bringing with it an overpowering feeling of nausea.  Chen stared directly at me and said nothing; he did not have to.  His soul was open to me through the profound resignation in his eyes.

“How can this be, Master Chen?” I pleaded.  “I would never have believed such a thing to be possible; an event of such proportions surely defies belief…  Perhaps there has been some mistake, some error.”  My mind was unable to fully accept the sheer scale of this prophecy.

“I wish it were so, young Khan, I truly do,” Chen whispered.

I sat in silence and sank my awareness to a deep level of consciousness.  After a matter of moments, I located and then triggered the appropriate genetic memory.  A sudden rush of history flooded through me.  I let myself become immersed in it, drinking in every detail that I deemed relevant to the information at hand.  All of a sudden, I saw the image of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, also known in Chinese as Ti-tsang Wang-p’u-sa.  He was radiant with enlightenment, and the mere beauty of his spiritual form sent tears of joy to my eyes.  He had a shaved head and carried in his right hand a metal wand hung with musical rings such as Chinese monks carry.  In his left hand he held a luminous pearl, used to light the paths of Hell.

Then the image of this benevolent deity faded, and from of the shadows of his absence there formed another, altogether different impression.  The shadow had become a dark and seething mass, and as I watched it twist and contort, I felt my elation dwindle, to be replaced with the onset of a new sensation- fear.  Pulsating with the sounds of a million anguished moans, the shape rapidly elongated before my inner eye, to form what looked at first like the jagged peaks of a great mountain. 

Then the image broke up into more distinct shapes, and the emotion of fear began to tear at me from within, scrabbling around and constricting my airways.  I could not breathe, nor could I put an end to the horrific sequence playing out within me.  The shadows rose ever higher, fully separating now into ten distinct peaks. I knew what I beheld.  They were the Shih-tien Yen-Wang; The Kings of the Ten Law Courts.  They were seated on great thrones, and all of them were robed in the ceremonial garb of the Emperors of old.  My fear had now risen to maddening levels, and I lost all control.  I screamed internally, every cell of my conscious mind raging in seizures of panic.  Then, slowly, the King in the centre throne turned his gaze, his head tilting down, until he was staring straight at me.  I was looking straight into the eyes of…a God.  What realm had I entered?

Every neuron in my brain flared instantaneously, like a million suns imploding in a microcosm.  I was mercifully granted the unfeeling void of unconscious oblivion.

Chapter Seven : 1993

Geoff

Everything has a perfection, a beauty that must be admired.   Volodimer and I were sitting under a mighty oak tree, star gazing and discussing life and fate, the future and the past.  I always felt whole and serene when I was with my spiritual grandfather.  The sun had set, casting a stark crimson band on the horizon that set fire to the past, burning its memory and absolving all sins in preparation for the future. 

I had just turned sixteen.  We were sipping absinthe, and he chewed away at a thick Colombian cigar.  

“Jai,” he turned to me.  “May I make an observation?”

My favourite person in the whole world, and he asks me if he can say something.  

“Mm. ‘Course you can,” I beamed.  My smile froze when I saw his face.  This was something of importance.  

“You possess within yourself a talent of sorts.” Volodimer whispered.  “It can be a gift… and it can be a curse also.  It all depends on your use of it.  This has nothing to do with your blood, or your heritage. This talent is a part of you Jai, and so it will be all the more difficult to control.”

“What are you talking about?”  I asked.

He was staring into the distance, reflective and composed.  He looked at me, half grinning.

“I am talking about your tongue, son.  Remember this and keep it in your mind at all times…words are like arrows.  Once let loose, they cannot be taken back, and the hurt inflicted can be…immeasurable.”

He didn’t have to tell me though; I had found that out nine years before.  I remembered it as Dorokusai remember everything- perfectly. 

When I was seven years old, I befriended a ghost by the name of Geoff Doncaster. Geoff spent all his time at a playground I sometimes visited. He was there always in the same spot, on the swings. He just sat there staring at his shoes, looking lost, sometimes rocking slightly.  I guess you could say it was his ‘favourite haunt’.  Sorry, bad joke. 

Geoff had been in his mid-forties when he had died, which had been about sixty years before I met him.  

He had been a wealthy man who had dedicated his whole life toward the tireless pursuit of making money.  Geoff had no time for friends, no wife, and he definitely would not spare the time or money to raise children.  He had broken off all contact with his family because he worried, they might one day ask him for money.  It was his life.

And then the depression hit.  Geoff lost everything.  His whole life’s work, all the fruits of his labour, all the sacrifice…it had all disappeared overnight.  All his money, all his materialistic comforts, everything…it was all gone.  

When he found out what had happened, he went numb.  Autopilot took over.  

Geoff put on his best suit, as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. 

Geoff shined his shoes to a mirror finish, as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. Geoff walked to work (to save money), as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. 

He had been almost oblivious to the masses of people joining forces to create a tsunami of hysteria.  There was chaos everywhere.  Grown men in business suits were running through the streets crying and screaming like lunatics.  Great crowds were trying to force their way into the banks to get their money out. But it was too late.  The banks had barricaded their doors shut.  

Geoff reached his building and took the elevator to his office as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. 

The office was empty.  All his furniture had been repossessed.  

Geoff walked calmly over to the window of his office as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. 

He took in the view of the city, as he had done, every day, for the last thirty years. 

He opened the window, which he had never done, not once, in the last thirty years.

The wind took him by surprise.  He closed his eyes and let himself become a part of it.

He had started here in this very building, as an office junior, at the age of fourteen. He was a mail boy in the very beginning. He would deliver mail to the ‘more important’ people from time to time.  One day, he took the elevator to the very top floor.  He hands delivered an envelope to the secretary of the head of the company.  As she walked into the office, Geoff looked inside before the wooden door swung shut. His eyes were filled with sights he had never dreamed of.  The most opulent furniture he had ever seen.  A view of the city from far above, such as he had never seen before.  And Geoff saw The Biggest Desk In The World. Seated behind the desk was a small, balding man with thick spectacles pushed up high on his long nose.  This little man was surrounded with personal assistants, taking notes, running errands, making his coffee. 

Geoff wouldn’t have imagined such people existed in this day and age.  

Ever since then, he knew what he wanted.  Importance. Respect.  Geoff wanted to have it all- a big office, on the highest floor, of the tallest building, in the world.  Nothing else mattered.

After that, every promotion Geoff received was an internal source of pride, a badge of honour. He fought tooth and nail for all of his victories, no matter how big or small.  He had stepped on, used and abused many people.  All for his relentless climb up the corporate ladder. He had ruthlessly destroyed careers, the families…even the lives of his competitors, if he felt it would be of benefit to his career.

He died on impact, his body joining the others who had chosen the same route, their well-dressed corpses littering the streets.

Geoff found out that suicide is a one-way ticket to hell, or a state of limbo.

So, he had stayed around and spent the most part of sixty years contemplating the hurt and suffering he had caused.  He had told me this story because I was the first person, he had been able to communicate with properly in that entire time.  

So, what did I do?  

I called him names.  

Teased him for being so stupid, for being weak, for taking the easy way out. I was having fun, I thought we were playing.

Geoff climbed out of that swing for the first time in over half a decade and began to cry. He started to sob like a baby.  I didn’t know what to do.  

“Stop it, Geoff.”  I told him.

Geoff screamed like an animal. He tore at the soil with his hands, his fingers passing through the dirt silently.  “Let me go then, just let me go!”  He cried. He looked at me with eyes that begged forgiveness. 

The words of the dark language spilled from my mouth.  There was no thought, no effort involved.  The blood simply took over. I shut my eyes and let it happen.  

“Very well. I banish you.  I send you to hell, by the power of my blood, and the blood of those who came before me.” 

When I opened my eyes, Geoff was gone.  All that remained was the squeaking swing, finally coming to a halt. 

Apparently, an eternity of hell is more preferable than getting a mouthful from me.  

Chapter Eight : 1994

Death of The Axe

 “No- I told you already… I don’t know, I don’t know! You keep asking me what happened and I just can’t tell you ‘cause I don’t remember a bit of it!  All’s I know is this morning I was putting on some clothes and next thing it’s the middle of the night and I’m covered in blood and I don’t know how much is mine or how much belongs to these fuckers!”  

The screaming lunatic- well, that was me.

Have you ever had a nightmare that was so vivid, so intense, that sometimes you can’t seem to wake up from it?  Well, that’s pretty much where I was, right at that point.  Only thing, I was starting to realize that I had already woken from the nightmare and…I don’t know.  It was like the terror had only just begun.  As if the horror was going to jump to a whole new level of ‘No way, man. This can-not-be-happening.’  

But it was.

“Calm down. I need you focused, Jai.  Take a deep breath.  Try to relax.”  That was Khan, my spiritual father.  He was kneeling in front of me, holding my right shoulder with his left hand and gripping my jaw with his right.  He was staring straight at me, his large pupils fully dilated.  I could only see the smallest ring of light azure, beaming around the edge of them.  

“I need you to listen to me Jai, hear my words.  You need to heal your injuries.  Meditate on the pain for a moment.”

I struggled to overcome pain and fear in order to follow his directions.

“Yes, that’s good,” he said.  “Sink your consciousness deep within yourself.  Feel your body repair.  Let forth and channel your chi, let it flow in waves of concentric healing.  Feel the green energy pulsating forth, from within your core, your tan-tien.  From within your soul.”  

The internal energy work was beginning to weave its magic.  We remained this way, meditating upon healing, for probably less than a minute.  It had felt like days.  Obviously, Khan’s mere presence had “amped up” my own abilities.  It made sense, hence the power of the Triad.  The three Dorokusai, when linked, were a force to be reckoned with, nigh on undefeatable.   

“Yes, Jai, that is much better.   Now, focus on the surface layer of your memory.  See today, from this very morning.  Can you see it?”

I was very relaxed now, and in a deepened state of consciousness.  My brain reacted to the prompts automatically.  I wondered for a moment if Khan knew that I was aware of his use of a command spell on me.  No…probably not.  

I certainly shouldn’t have been conscious.  

Surely, surely Khan wouldn’t have permitted what followed.  I still to this day cannot let myself believe that he would have willingly let me stay awake, fully conscious, to witness the oncoming tsunami wave of crimson stained memory.  It roared toward me, a great swollen mass, howling terribly with a sound like a million burning souls.  It froze me, mentally and physically.  And then, with slow motion suspense, it crashed down.  The weight of memory metaphysically knocked to the ground.  I was dragged down into a mosaic of images playing out before my third eye, unable to avert my gaze.      

“Like the new shirt, big guy?”  I was wearing the Akira shirt I had bought just the day before.  It strained a little over my shoulders and chest, but otherwise it was perfect.  It was the biggest size I could get.  Volodimer looked down at me from under his New York Yankees baseball cap with thinly veiled mirth.  

“As much as I like anything in this accursed age, really,” he chuckled.  I slapped him on the shoulder and let out a whoop.  It was going to be a great day.  The sun was only just showing over the horizon, the sky was clear and untainted, and Volodimer and I were going out for a bit of morning training.  We left our temporary accommodation, a back packers inn in Fiji, and took up an easy loping stride along the coastline.  

 Dorokusai do not sweat very easily, and so it took the better part of an hour at a decent pace before my new shirt began to stick to my back.  Volodimer looked at me mid-stride, chuckled, then stopped in his tracks.

“Enough cardio,” he grinned.  “How about some light sparring in the fifth realm, eh?”  

“Hah! You know me too well, old man.”  

“Old, am I? Allow me to wager then that I am still young enough to keep up with the likes of you, incorrigible scoundrel!”  

I laughed and sprang back lightly, easily deflecting a hail of playful jabs.  He gave me one of his big, goofy smiles.  I nodded, fully aware of what he was thinking. Party time.  

He reached into a pouch that hung from his belt, producing a small red tablet. Slowly, reverently, it was placed under his tongue.   A momentary flutter of the eyelids as the substance was quickly absorbed into his bloodstream. Suddenly he fell into a crouch, one massive forearm over his knee, his head sagging down almost to the ground. Within a matter of moments, he simply faded away before my eyes until he was gone.  Well, from this plane of existence at least.  I, with a quick mental command, joined him in the realm of magic, pure and unadulterated.  My favorite. Ahhhhh, the danger and the massive fount of power to be found, and fought, in this place.      

The light blue sky was replaced with a smoky purple haze.  Volodimer towered over me. Between us lay a smoking crater, bubbling with unimaginably hot larva.  You really had to be careful where you were shifting to sometimes.  More than one Dorokusai has been greatly injured by shifting into solid objects and the like.  I silently let out a sigh of relief.  Shifting into that steaming magma would have hurt like all hell.    

“You know that I love it here.” I breathed in the acrid, dry air. I really did love this realm. Magic.  Anything was possible here.

“Hmmmmm….” Volodimer visibly stilled himself.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, disturbed by the sudden change in his energy.  I felt nothing.  The lava pits continued to bubble and froth, the amethyst air held a sense of…. nothing….

Something was wrong.  It was too quiet, for this realm.  Volodimer looked to his left, to his right.  His clothes were changing, melding into the physical projection of what he felt most suitable for this realm.  The hat faded; his t-shirt and shorts faded. Traditional garments appeared in their place.  Long white robe, ancient symbols emblazoned.  Heavy leather strapped over his robes, joined to a thick belt fastened across the waist.  Over the left shoulder, buckled into the right side of his hip, hung the giant battle-axe, Demon Cutter.  

Whispers.  “The Axe-Man Cometh”.

A rustle.  Leaves, falling silently on broken earth.  Not that it was, literally.  Earth, that is.  Not of the Earth of this realm, anyway… certainly not as humans know it.  No human beside a Dark Mage could set foot upon this realm, and as far as I knew, not a single Dark Mage had appeared in more than two hundred years.  As they say- ‘More the pity.’

“Stand back, Jai.”  Volodimer tensed slightly.

“What?”  I asked.  

The giant in white looked down at me, heavy brows creased in concentration.  “Please Jai, stand back a moment.  And – Do not say that word one more time.”  Volodimer did not appreciate bad grammar.  Actually, he really didn’t enjoy modern speech as a whole.  I guess when you get past the one hundred and fifty mark you are probably entitled the right to be set in your ways.

Still… I couldn’t help but try to lighten his suddenly dark mood.

“What?”  I repeated.  “What do you mean?  I don’t understand…. What?”

He smiled, in spite of himself. Cuffed me on the side of the head with the back of his broad hand.  Not an entirely playful gesture- one that carried with it a subliminal message. Volodimer was sensing something, and I was beginning to feel it also.  A faint pulling at the edges of my subconscious.  Some sort of danger, it seemed to suggest.

Volodimer began to move, half a step.  His head turned, eyes locking onto mine. 

“Jai, please- stay here.”  And he was off, leaving me clueless as to what was really going on.  

No way man; screw this, I thought. 

I followed him at distance. He moved toward a rocky outcropping. Otherworldly trees, little more than burned out husks, littered the landscape.  My vision blurred from sweat and the dense haze of the fifth realm.  A shadow passed overhead, accompanied by a leathery rustle.  It shot like a missile over and past the outcrop.

UNFINISHED

Chapter Nine : 1999  

Millennium Bug. Gaza District, Tokyo 

It was almost seven thirty on a weekday morning.  The roads were congested with the frustrated masses, commuting in their metal coffins.  I had no such worries though.  After all, I had taken the bike.  Voila. No more traffic problems.  I was wearing a yellow Droors tee shirt, blue denim Ezekiel jeans, and my hardened riding boots.  The wind whipped at me as I weaved in and out of traffic, rushing past the almost-stationary cars at such a rate that they became a multi-coloured blur. 

The city buzzed with energy.  I was overwhelmed, as always, with the smells, the noise and the chaos that people create in their everyday lives.  I hate having to go out, under most circumstances.  Unfortunately, today, it had to be done.  I eased the big Ducati into a loading zone.  What the hell- let the good people at ORB take care of the parking fine.  There was a small courtyard in front of the building, concrete waterfalls scattered throughout the well-maintained lawns.  The glass entry doors reflected the rising sun, momentarily blinding me. The warmth was just beginning to kick in.  Above the doors were large block letters, finished in chrome.  Nice.  The letters proclaimed the building to be the centre for Organic Research and Bioengineering. 

TheORB building looked fairly standard from the outside. To most people, it was merely just another high-rise office complex.  It had been built not too long ago and was completely covered in tinted glass that reflected the murky sky.  I had always believed that such tall buildings stood as a towering testament to the mathematical and engineering genius of homosapiens.  I had to give credit where it was due.  So what if humans were short lived, easily breakable, and blind to all dimensions beside their own?  I had to admire their strength of ambition.  That ambition, that drive had always pushed them on to greater and greater technological breakthroughs.  Unfortunately for them, that same ambition blinded them ever more and more to the most important and simple concepts of life.  No souls in machines, no spirituality in a skyscraper.  Ah well.

Shoving the keys into my pocket I walked up to the entrance of ORB.  The tinted front doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the reception of ORB’s head office was the architecture.  

This organization had money to burn.   

Modern art installations were carefully placed throughout the ground floor, adding to the opulent but strangely clinical feel of the place.  Whether the sterile feel was intentional or not I couldn’t begin to guess.  The second thing I noticed was the size of this one room.  It was at least the size of half a football oval.  Throughout the ridiculously oversized foyer were sandstone columns that stretched the full twenty meters to the ceiling.  The enormity of the room was even more striking because of the lack of people.  The place was almost completely empty.  The only sound was that of my boots striking the grey and white mosaic tiles.  A solid white marble desk sat in the middle of the room, coming up to about waist height.  

A pretty girl was seated behind the counter, obviously occupied with some kind of paperwork.  A quick scan told me her name was Florence- her friends called her Fuzzy.  She was twenty-three, like me.  I was getting erratic energy waves from her.  Her thoughts were cloudy.  Hmmm.  I scanned a little deeper.  Ahhh. She was coming down.  Which means she was feeling the after effects of a big night out on the amphetamines.  She had used speed to dance all night last night.  She had been to a rave.  She had also done a line on the dashboard of her red Corolla this morning, just to get her through work.  

Kids these days. 

Her blonde hair was tied back into a stern knot, highlighting the circles under the eyes that no amount of foundation could cover.  She was so jittery with chemicals and foggy with lack of sleep that she did not even hear me coming.  Nor did she realize that I had reached the desk and was now looming above her. The marble desktop felt cool on my palms.  I cleared my throat.  She looked up with a jolt, disturbed out of her hazy state.  Her composure was completely gone for a moment, so I gave her a polite smile while I waited.

“Uhhmm, hello sir.  Welcome to ORB.  How may I help you today?”  

Very good. Not much heart, but without doubt professional.  She appeared to have gotten herself together.

“Doctor Hideki, please,” I said.  

“Certainly sir.”  She quickly punched a code into the monitor before her and whispered into her head-set. She was looking at me all the while, her light blue eyes yielding a small glimpse into her scattered mind.  I switched off, and suddenly became aware of a menacing presence in the foyer.  See what happens when a man is confronted with a pretty woman?  All presence of mind goes completely out the window.  

There were five guards in total.  Each one was alert, at-the-ready and positioned at strategic points offering maximum visibility whilst offering ample protection from potential gunfire. 

There were two tucked behind the large columns at diagonal points behind me to the left and right.  Two were elevated five feet in the air, standing in alcoves that were built into the columns directly to either side of me.  

These guards were dressed in desert-storm inspired camo gear.  Yellow, cream and green- Hello, Stormin’ Norman.  

The last guard was standing directly in front of me, dressed in a long, off-white coat. It was spread open to reveal a fully buttoned white vest, with a grey shirt and white tie underneath.  He was wearing loose, off- white pants, and snakeskin leather boots.  

This was the hard man, no doubt about it. 

He seemed to blend into the light that was radiating from the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall window behind him.  He stood taller than me, which made him at least six foot six, and he looked, by his stance, to be in full control of every square inch of it.  He was broad across the shoulders, but thin in the arms, legs and neck.  What a freak. His large hands hung loosely at his sides, knuckles protruding sharply under the skin.  His weight was almost visibly sinking into the floor.  Obviously, he was a tai-chi master.  What else I couldn’t say at that stage.

His long, dread-locked hair, just a pale shade of grey, hung back in thick clumps over his shoulders.  His features were long and narrow, with dark, thick brows, and thin lips.  His skin was a pale shade of olive.  

This was definitely not your standard ten-dollar-per-hour security force. 

When I thought about it further, the security stations seemed to make up the points of a crude pentagram.  Was it just coincidence, or something more?  I smiled as the thought of my spiritual father came to mind.  Khan would have said, “There is no such thing as coincidence in this realm, or any other.”   He was always operating on a higher level to us all, Khan.

“Doctor Hideki will see you now Sir.”  I smiled briefly and gave her a small nod.  She smiled back, the chemicals in her turning it into a faintly hideous half-grimace.  I looked up. The man in grey was right there in front of me, his light eyes regarding me without interest.  

How did he get here so quickly, so damn silently?  

I placed his ranking on the “danger-meter” up a notch.  He gestured toward the elevator at the far end of the room.  Its doors were open and waiting for me.  Into the lion’s den, as they say.  

 “After you,” the ‘Gary Man’ intoned.  His voice was deep, with a rolling undercurrent of an accent that originated from somewhere in South Eastern Europe.  There was no fake, tough guy voice.  Just a soothing rumble that gently assumed, “I could kill you in a heartbeat, and not bat an eyelid.  It also said, “Don’t F**ck with me” in bright blue neon.’  

We walked to the elevator, the security hovering just behind me.  

I did not like this one little bit. 

This guy might be hard- could be the deadliest human on earth, for all I cared.  “I’m his superior”, I tried to tell myself. But I doubted… for the first time in years, I felt a sliver of fear run through me. 

No no no. He couldn’t possibly come anywhere close to me, if it came down to it.  Why did I doubt my words, even if only for a moment?

Still.  I didn’t appreciate the whole bullshit ‘ghost’ thing he was doing.  I would let it go, for now.  But it was noted.  

The elevator was fully mirrored, and bright as all get out.  Small halogen lights burned like tiny suns, suspended in a glass universe. The dazzling light hurt my eyes, causing me to squint.  I quickly spun into the back wall of the elevator, flipping on my Ray-bans instantly. My brain almost sighed in relief. I certainly prefer the cool blue light of the night.  Gary Man saw me do this and did not pause.  Was he on barbiturates?

He stepped into the elevator and touched a code on the metal keypad, pausing midway to straighten his jacket ever-so-slightly.  The doors slid shut with a soft hiss.  A movement, and we were off.  There was no piped muzak, no noise in the small metal box, beside the sounds of us both breathing.  I looked at him, and realized he was the only human I had ever had to look up to.

How strange it felt.  Still, my spiritual Grand-Father Volodimer had been seven foot two.  Now that was tall.  

I cleared my throat.  “So, you have a name?”

“Yes.” Hmmm, okay- the strong, silent type. Still, I wasn’t about to give up so easily.

“Please, allow me to start again.  My name is Jai.”

He looked at me, and his swimming, translucent eyes bore through my Ray Bans, gripping my vision to his.  He held the stare and softly spoke a word.  “Ishmael.”  

“What do you study, Ishmael?” I asked. 

“Excuse me?”

“You know, martial arts.  What style do you study?”

“Chinese Kung-Fu.”  He said this with a gleam in his eye.

“Hmmm. How long?”

“Twenty-two years.”  There was a hint of smugness in his reply.  

He was not even going to ask me what I did, like it didn’t matter.  

If I wanted to, I could have shifted into the sixth realm.  I could have knocked him clear through the elevator shaft, through the wall, and into the next suburb.  He would not even have had time to react.  But I was here on business, not to spar unsuspecting human dummies in unbalanced realms.  So, we stood there in silence, staring at each other, sizing each other up.  

He smiled. “Anytime you would like to spar, I would be most accommodating.”  

I made a short bow.  “I would thoroughly enjoy that.”  The prospect of sparring this man purely in the human realm filled me with a sense of excitement.  Which caused me to open my big mouth.  “I promise to take it easy on you.”

His eyes stayed cool, his face blank.  “Overconfidence is a foolish trait, young one,” he whispered.

After an interminable period of time a bell chimed softly.  The shiny metal doors of the elevator rolled open.  We stepped out as we had stepped in, Ishmael closely bringing up the rear.  I let the doors close behind us as I stood just inside the office. 

The room itself took up the entire level.  It’s clear glass walls took in an almost three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the sprawling megalopolis below. The office of Doctor Hideki was perched on the top floor of the hundred and forty floor ORB building, deep in the heart of the Gaza district in Tokyo.

The rooms hardwood timber floor was polished to a mirror finish, the ceiling twenty feet high. Light flooded in through the glass walls, illuminating a desk in the middle of the room.  ORB seemed to have a thing for big open rooms with desks in the middle.  The desk was small and modest, a wooden finish similar to the floors.  There was a high-backed leather recliner on both sides and sitting on the opposite chair was Doctor Hideki.  He was a small oriental man with a completely hairless head. He stood up to his full height of five-eight and hurriedly trotted over to me.  He wore a white lab coat that flapped and trailed on the floor behind him. 

“Welcome, welcome Mister Jai.  So glad you could make it.  I see you’ve already met our security.”  He said ‘security’ with an exaggerated emphasis.  “I hope you have been nice to our guest, Ishmael.”

Ishmael nodded imperceptibly.  Doctor Hideki stared at him for a moment with his keen eyes, and I felt a sliver of energy pass between them.  Ishmael immediately stretched back into a deep Kung-Fu salute, then turned and retreated to the rear corner of the room.  Hideki looked back to me and his eyes were normal.  What the hell just happened?  It seemed there were some unknown dynamics at work between the giant Ishmael and the little doctor. 

“Come, take a seat.”  Hideki offered the leather high back to me before moving around the desk and taking his own.  “How have you been Jai?”

“Very well, thank you.  Doctor Hideki, if it’s alright with you, I would like to cut right to the chase. You know what I am looking for. You have had two months to conduct your research.  Now you have called me in, and I want to know.  Can it be done?”

Hideki sat back in the chair and arched his fingers, his brow furrowed.  His dark, almond shaped eyes showed little of the inner workings of his highly advanced mind.  I had attempted to probe Hideki in the past, only to be met with a solid wall. His mental defences were extraordinary. Especially for a human.

“Mister Jai, you must understand, there are a vast amount of probabilities at work in the procedure you have outlined.  This kind of surgery, though theoretically possible, has never before been attempted on a live human being.”  Human. If only he knew.  Unfortunately, that was one secret that I could not let out of the bag, so to speak.  Not yet anyway.  That would have to wait until he had passed the point of no return.  I decided to appeal to his scientific mind.     

“To put it quite bluntly Doctor- I don’t care about the risks.  I have the money.  I am a willing human specimen, one that is more than willing to sign away all rights to life for this process.  This experiment, though not technically legal, can be carried out with complete secrecy and discretion.  If it is a success, which I assure you it will be, ORB industries will gain a quantum leap in the understanding of bioorganic engineering.  And you, Doctor Hideki- you will be remembered throughout our future’s history as the pioneer of this particular process.  A procedure that will quite literally change the future of western medicine as we know it.  Now tell me- will you do it?”

Hideki remained expressionless.  His fingers buckled and straightened, buckled and straightened.  

“Yes.  I will do it.  We begin at midnight tonight.  I will meet you here at eleven thirty.  You must tell no one.”  He pulled a small briefcase from beneath the desk and laid it on the table.  

“These are the forms that you must read and sign in order to protect us from legal action, should this particular modus operandi lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences.”  What a diplomatic way to say, ‘in case you die on the operating table.’  I was not too worried, though.  In fact, I was overjoyed.  The operation would take place, and it would be a success; I would make sure of that.

I stood and gave a short bow.  Hideki stood as well, giving a perfunctory bow.  He only came up to my shoulder height but had an air about him that indicated a strength that went well beyond the physical.  I felt a presence at my back and sure enough, there was Ishmael, the grey shadow.  

“Please, I can show myself out.”  I moved toward him and he remained motionless.  What the hell was he playing at?  I had to turn awkwardly behind the chair to get away from him.  This was really starting to annoy me.  

“Doctor, call off your dog,” I growled.

“Ishmael.” Hideki only whispered, but Ishmael obeyed immediately.  He stepped back with languid, gliding movements, until we were about five meters apart.  

The sun had now risen to the level of the floor we were standing on and was pouring through the untinted glass with blinding purity.  Ishmael was once again caught in the rays.  They seemed to irradiate his body, bending and flexing with the contours of his body.  In the light he seemed to take on an almost translucent appearance.  Something triggered in my mind and then… stuck.  That had never happened before.  I paused, examining what had just happened.  There was a trapped thought somewhere in between my subconscious and conscious mind.  It felt as if an important memory had been somehow blocked.  Was there a mysterious outside force manipulating my recall, intervening just before it had a chance to fully form?  

Now, just a minute.  What memory had I been about to experience?  Hang on… what was I thinking about anyway?  Oh yeah.  The sun. I had to shield my eyes as I made my way toward the elevator.  I looked back as I got to the open doors.  Ishmael was standing, relaxed and easy, with a faint trace of satisfaction painted upon his face.  Then it was gone.  Did I imagine that?  

Hideki had disappeared.  He must have vanished into a side room or something.  Whatever.  I stepped into the elevator and the doors slid shut once more.  I shook my head.  What an idiot, standing in the sun and daydreaming.  

It was cold by seven o’ clock.  By eleven I had left my residence.  It was eight degrees Celsius.  Eight degreesfeels like minus 30 at195kmph on a bike.  The wind blows particles of icy wind into every available opening in your clothes, almost freezing any unprotected bits of skin.  I didn’t really care too much, of course.  Being a Dorokusai, I was not overly affected by extremes in temperature. I realized that it was cold, yeah- Ii just didn’t cause me discomfort.  I was wearing my standard night mission clothes, all courtesy of one man. Mister Robert Sands.  He was a freakishly talented arms designer, armourist and miracle man, all rolled into one.  

I wore a heavy black leather jacket, specially designed to conceal my katana, throwing knives, and shoulder harness carrying my cache of mystical objects.   The harness was soft and almost weightless, fully concealed beneath the coat and yet easily accessible at any moment.  It sat comfortably in a body-contoured line, melting over my skin with an eerie feeling of semi-life.  It was an inanimate object imbued with the personality of life.  The harness writhed and I felt the energy of the serpent it contained.  Mana-two. I had mastered the understanding of mana two by the age of six but had never delved into the physical aspects of it. This harness had been blessed by a powerful Earthen-Mage, fully adept in the ways of energy transferal.  I wore a grey tee shirt that covered a priceless layer of MJOLNIR body armour.  

My black riding pants were lined with a triple layer of heavy Kevlar and armoured at strategic points.   I wore plain black shoes, constructed of a newsynthetic polymer-alloy that made themsoft and pliant enough to feel through, yet almost indestructible.  And finally, my riding gloves; internally lined and reinforced.  They ensured not only the safety of my hands in the event of a fall, but also the instant incapacitation of any being who ended on the receiving end of them.  As always though, I did not wear a helmet.  I just didn’t like not being fully aware of all that was happening in my circle of vision.  The city was alive tonight.  It was big business night in the heart of Ginza   People were rushing from place to place, moving about, filling the pathways in an undulating throng of life.  I took the back streets wherever possible, darting in and out of traffic with ease.  I usually ride in a way that proves far too quick for any police to make chase.  

By the time they see me, I’m long gone.  I focus intently when I sit behind the bars of the big Ducati.  My Dorokusai blood pounds within me like a drum, pushing my nor-adrenaline levelsto the point where my body aches for the primal change.  A connection, a melding if you will, between man and machine is achieved.  I share a spiritual affinity with the bike. Harnessing the animalistic power of such a piece of machinery takes on a strange feeling, strangely reminiscent of combat.  It is a power struggle wrapped up in a sublime dance of rhythm, timing and reflex.  

    I pulled up at the ORB building, easing the throbbing beast into the loading zone I had used earlier.   All the water fountains were now inactive, merely concrete guardians leading to the shadowy entrance.  Aquartermoon hung lowin the sky, providing only a faint illumination. This was not helped by the fact that the night sky itself was heavy with toxic pollution.  

It makes me sad to observe the growing contamination of Earth by man.  Genetic memory reminds me of a time when the natural world was untainted.  When I shift into the first realm, I become one with the animals, the elementals, and most importantly, our world as a living microcosm.  In this realm I feel every ounce of pain that our Mother Earth feels.  In the first realm, I wince as though my heart is being twisted for every time a single one of her trees is felled.  I shudder in disgust when a single drop of oil is emptied into her pristine oceans. Sometimes I wonder… is the human race so far removed from the demon race after all?  But then my genetic programming kicks in and reminds me.  My duty is not to question, my duty is only to serve.   To fulfil my obligations in this life as the eighth realm sees fit.  And still… not all of the pieces seem to fit together. I try not to think about it too much. If only I had Khan’s level of understanding, his extraordinary insight…If only I could make sense of the chaos.

            Ishmael stood near a light post, almost drinking in the artificial light. He was a ghostly spectre in quiet vigilance.  To the untrained eye he was as unmoving as the ORB tower behind him.  But my eyes saw an energy within, his internal force held in check.  He wore the same clothes, stood in the same relaxed stance; seeming, as before, to meld into the very earth itself.  I really should have paid more attention to Ishmael, to my intuition.  Not to worry now, though.  Now, I have only to learn.  To observe and grow with every moment that is presented to me.

ORB industries owned the land around its central complex for a kilometre radius.  

Every square meter of land within this diameter was restricted to ORB employees and special visitors.  

“Ishmael.  Hello again.”  I extended my hand to him. His grip was more than firm- he was surprisingly strong, actually.  His hand felt like pliable concrete, encased in a cool layer of flesh.  Interesting.  His eyes pulsed with inner power.  More interesting.

“Good evening Mister Jai,” he said in his dull, neutral monotone.  “Please.  Follow me.” Not a request.  He performed a shallow, perfunctory bow, his grey eyes not leaving me for a moment.   

 “Sure.” I said.

He moved and with a skill bordering on supernatural, shifted into an elemental state of water.  He pivoted a sharp half circle and flowed forward, quickly leaving me behind.  I followed, keeping a distance, the two of us making our way toward the concrete and glass megalith.  

Oh goody. A chance to be the shadow of the shadow.      

Inside the building all was quiet, only the emergency lights glowing in the empty darkness. Ishmael seemed to meld into the shadows, almost taking on the appearance of every surface he came into contact with. We reached the elevator, its doors open and waiting for us.  The light from the elevator seemed even more intense than earlier, a stark contrast to the near pitch black of the foyer.  Ishmael stood facing me, gesturing toward the portal.  I stepped in, once again flipping on my dark glasses. You never know when you might need them, I guess.  Ishmael followed me inside and the doors slid shut with the familiar hiss.  We stared at one another as the elevator began to rise. Nothing to say, this time. 

Looking at him I felt the tugging of some dark, hidden part of my mind.  Some part of my subconscious was pushing, creating an itch inside my mind that I wanted to scratch.  What was it? Ishmael was a picture of stasis, his features blank and frozen.  Something familiar swam in the greyness of his eyes, but what?  Then it was gone, my thoughts interrupted by the chime of the elevator.  I had not even realized we had stopped our ascent.  Ishmael smoothly walked out, leaving me behind, shaking my head.  So bizarre.  Not like Deja-Vu, more like a hidden memory.  It didn’t matter for the moment though, so I pushed it from my thoughts. I stepped out onto the surface of an altogether new, entirely different floor to the one I had seen earlier. This room was smaller than Doctor Hideki’s office, just a tenth the size.  It was just like a hospital theatre, but very modern, with hi-tech machinery that looked like it belonged on the set of a science fiction movie.  There was a standard looking operating table in the middle of the room, but it was surrounded by a seething mass of monitors, surgical tools suspended from computers, and cables that hung from the roof ready to, I guessed, be plugged into me.  Great.  Looked like a helluva party.  

Hideki entered through a side door, dressed in his white gown as before.  He smiled broadly and strode toward me, hand extended. I offered my own and he pumped it vigorously.  The excitement within him was sparking like live voltage.   

“Welcome again, Mister Jai.  I am relieved to see you here healthy and safe.”

“I am honoured to receive your hospitality, Hideki-san.”  Ishmael had retreated to the rear corner of the room, assuming his stance of patient vigilance.      

“So, Doctor…what happens now?”  

“Um, well Mister Jai, as you can imagine, I am greatly intrigued by the mind behind this leap in bioorganic theory.”  He gently took my elbow and led me to the table, indicating I should lie down.  I stood, feeling ill at ease.

“Please, friend, you have no need to be on guard here.  All is well and safe within these walls.”  He soothed.

“I apologize, Hideki San.  I don’t like the feeling of submission.”  I replied.

He looked at me for a moment and all of a sudden, I got the feeling of the rabbit who stands transfixed in the oncoming headlights of its impending demise. Frozen.  The invisible tendrils of his psychic probe made itself known. Hideki was a third realm adept. No question.  My psychic shield unconsciously sprang up with the speed of light, deflecting the probe with ease.  Hideki jerked in surprise as the mental feedback caused a battalion of synapses to fire simultaneously.  His ears would ring incessantly for the next two days.  His face, once he had regained composure, was perplexed.  I sat in the same position, eagerly anticipating what was to follow.

Hideki looked over his shoulder.  “Ishmael. Come.” 

There were no windows, and the fluorescent lighting seemed to illuminate Ishmael, growing ever stronger until he was a crystalline beam of white light.  He walked toward me until our distance was no more than four feet.  I hopped lightly off the table and on to the floor.  This closed us into a circle of attack.  I had to look up at him.  From here he looked translucent almost, only his pale grey eyes standing out in the impossible light-beam halo of his silhouette.      

Ishmael leaned slightly toward me, hands behind his back.  He spoke two words, slow and totally devoid of emotion.  “Hit me.” 

What the… “Excuse me?”     

“I would like you to attack me, Jai.” He stated, shifting into a different, more open stance.

I paused. I was momentarily stunned.

“First warning, Ishmael,” I finally replied.  “I don’t want to fight you…there’s no point.”  His eyebrows arched. 

“Why not? You want you to try me, at least. I wish to confirm my theories of what you may be.”  He closed his eyes and spread his arms wide.  Open target. No, Jai.  Self-control.     

 Hideki stepped back a pace, on the edge of my peripheral.  He was aware of a building tension, but he was transfixed, unable to look away.   

“This is your second warning Ishmael.  You do not realize what you are asking.” 

“Actually, Mister Jai- I believe I do.”  His voice began to quaver slightly, his flat broad tones rising in pitch.  Alarm bells went off in my head.  I flew at him, wrapping my fists in his collar. We were up close for the first time, face to face.  Deja-Vu passed through me for a moment…why?   

“Who are you?” I asked.  He looked at me with vacant eyes.  

“Tell me what you are Ishmael!”  I was demanding now, impatience and anger tainting my words with flickers of the dark. 

“I am all, and I am nothing.”  He spoke in the angelic tongue.  The bells of heaven rang clear in his dulcet tones.  

Hideki heard nothing…. he was only human.  He could not possibly hear Ishmael’s words, any more than he could hear the agonized screams that emanate from hell.   

I had suspected something was amiss, that there was something strange about Ishmael, but this?  This was…phenomenal.  The only beings able to speak in Angelic and Dark tongues are Lucifer, Yaueh, Pure Demons, Angels, Archangels, Dorokusai and…Agents of the Gary. 

I had never encountered an Agent of the Gary.  That is, until now.  

Suddenly, all of the pieces fit together.  It all made sense.

Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I turned to look at Hideki who was watching from a safe distance, in complete awe. 

I had my back toward Ishmael.  Our auras began to arc off one another.  He inched toward me and I felt our energies circle one another, much like two sword fighters preparing to duel.  For a brief moment they intertwined with one another.  I realized that even though Ishmael and I were completely foreign in purpose, we were remarkably similar in design.  I held my breath and focused, staring directly into the terrified eyes of Hideki.  The doctor was attempting to back away calmly, but his unsteady legs gave indication of the trepidation he was experiencing.

My aura fed an impulse through me, what you might call a proximity warning.  Ishmael had inched a fraction closer. 

“Hideki…please, excuse me for a moment.”

Ishmael was within range.

I moved without thought.  Shifting my weight laterally and without notice, I launched a lightning fast back-fist at Ishmael.   I was denied impact however, my hand carving through the air where he had stood only a millisecond before.  

He had seen my trick-shot from a mile away.  I would have never believed it to be possible.  He had shifted realms before I had even clenched my fist.  That was incredible.  Bam, and he was gone.  Just like that!  I was amazed at the speed of his reaction, and the speed of his realm shift.  Not many have ever had the ability to shift realms with such speed, I am one of the few.  Volodimer utilized a combination of prayer and arcane medicines.  Khan requested permission from a mysterious higher source in order to shift.  Well. It seemed that I was not the only one around these days with the ability to shift realms with the speed of thought. 

Now… where did he go? 

I closed my eyes and crouched.  Resting the index finger of my right hand lightly on the smooth tiles of the surgery floor, I drew a quick search pattern.  A force immediately opened from within my tan-tien, rushing through my limbs and filling me to the very extremities.  The ancient glyphs I had traced on the floor lit up with a cool blue glow.  

The keeper of secrets, Orulum, answered my call.  “The sanctum”, it said.  

I shifted and the colours of the surgery rapidly fading to nothingness.

The world of white light that was the Sanctum enveloped me.  From the edge of my peripheral vision came a flash of grey. I spun and barely dodged a savage side-cutting fist.  Such a blow would have gone through solid steel like a hot knife through butter. Ishmael darted back into a cat-stance, obviously anticipating some form of retaliation.  It was tempting.  Of course, my first impulse was to take an offensive.  Smash his face in.  But I had to think, not just act.  Against this creature, victory would require more thought than force.  So, I decided not to play by his rules…anyway, I had always much preferred to make my own rules up as I went along.  The same went with anything.  

Ishmael was prepared to counter my attack.  He didn’t quite expect what came next.  

I stuck out my tongue at him.  He blanched. 

Then I shifted. Ishmael’s look of surprise quickly faded from before me, his image turning into a half-remembered blur in the space of a Nano-second.  I ‘tuned’ my energy vibration to that of the human frequency.  I reformed at once before Hideki, having fully absorbed the molecules of the human world.  

Hideki was staring in shock at the spot that we had been standing moments ago, before our frenzied realm jumps.

“You!”  I was livid.  His pale face turned toward me in bewilderment. 

“What is the meaning of-” My question was cut short by an eruption of pain.  The world flared a brilliant white for a second, then all I saw was grey.  I doubled over.  Ishmael towered over me.  From my vulnerable position I managed to roll sideways.  Cramping my neck, I looked up at him.  He was a stationary monolith.  His eyes glowed with other worldly power.  

“You have access to the sixth realm,” He stated.

“As do you,” I muttered, through a fog of pain and disorientation.

He extended his hand.  I took it warily, climbing awkwardly to my feet.

“Well met, Jai of the Dorokusai,” he said.

“Ishmael… The Gary.”  I regarded him cautiously.  Observing the capabilities of an Agent of the Gary had instilled in me a well-deserved rebuke for my arrogance.  It was an old lesson, one that I tended to dismiss from time to time…over confidence kills.    

“I have heard much of the fabled Dorokusai.  It seems that the legends are well upheld.”  With that he locked eyes with me and stretched back into a full Kung-Fu salute, identical to the one he had performed for Hideki earlier that day. I was taken aback, stunned at the complete turn-about in his character.  

“Is that how all the Agents of the Gary view the art of diplomacy?  Just a simple matter of attack first, make friends later? Do you expect the same in return?”  I was grinding my teeth now.  Poison dripped over my last words.

“You take offense?”  He seemed genuinely surprised, his grey eyes uncertain.

“Yes Ishmael, of course I take offense…. Are you some kind of idiot?”  

Yeah, yeah, okay, I know.  All the sayings about stone throwers in glass houses and kettles looking down upon black pots, I’ve heard all that.  I realized I was being hypocritical.  Here I was, lecturing about the fundamentals of diplomacy, and then I go and start throwing insults around.  But it’s like this.  Firstly, he started it.  And secondly, well, I guess it was just one of those “What the hell” impulses I get from time to time.  I mean, it’s not like I’m going to get the chance to throw childish insults at just any old supernatural creature.  Demons wouldn’t care.  A demon would just try to rip your guts out.  

But with Ishmael…did I get a reaction?  You could say that.   

Idiot

The word echoed inside the giant’s head like a massive thunderclap.

It was like I had triggered Ishmael’s mental fire alarm.  Now, imagine that fire alarm bell ringing furiously.  Now, imagine that noise connected to the biggest amplifier in the world.  And then try to imagine that noise being pushed to full volume, and the resulting noise being projected right between your ears.  Now imagine that, to the power of ten thousand.

Yeah- I picked the right word to get under his skin. 

I doubted that Ishmael the Gary had ever been called an idiot in his life.  

The word triggered an abrupt change within him.  He began to move, and for a brief split-second his façade dropped.  In that instant we locked eyes. 

I caught my first glimpse of the real Ishmael.  The information I gained was recorded and catalogued in my mind for future reference.  I had seen a brief glimpse of Ishmael’s own and wholly unique personality.  

I knew that Ishmael’s master was a Gary by the name of Li-Long.  I knew that he had attempted to break Ishmael’s individuality from a very early age.  Li-Long had hoped to forge Ishmael into the Perfect Gary.  Li-Long had theorized that the first step was to crush all subjectivity and free will from Ishmael.  From there, he was to take the broken pieces and reform them to his ideal of perfection. 

He had failed. Ishmael’s inner-soul, it seemed, was unbreakable.  

When his Li-Long had given up on breaking the spirit, he changed his methodology and simply utilized a different approach.  

Ishmael’s master had opted for a unique type of ‘personality burial’.  A form of brain-washing, some might call it.  

I don’t believe it’s acceptable to consciously perform a systematic repression of an individual’s true nature.  Any way I looked at it, it was wrong.  I felt a small sympathy for Ishmael.  

His free will, his individuality, his own exclusive values and traits were slowly, over time, pushed further and further into the darkest recesses of his psyche. Ishmael, as The Seventh Realm had created him, was trapped in a locked casket.  The casket was buried beneath countless years of harsh training, intense discipline, and intense schooling.   

Intense anger flared in his eyes, for an instant almost destroying the repression. Then it was gone.  His veil of neutral objectivity came up like a shield, no doubt a part of his ‘programming’.   Something that had been instilled in him, no- thrust upon him. He literally just froze in place while his personal anger quickly dissipated. At that moment a complete stranger could have walked right past Ishmael and not given a second look.  He would have appeared, to the human eye at least, at the very most a finely detailed statue, carved from solid granite. 

“Ishmael. Hideki.  Let me say one thing.  I do not being manipulated.  I control my own destiny whenever possible, and my only master is Yaueh.  Now, I will not succumb to anger.  I only want answers.”  I was being diplomatic.  Hooray for me. 

“You know why I am here, Dorokusai.”   Ishmael crossed his arms.  That was that last I would be getting out of him, I thought.

Doctor Hideki had come forward.  He was now shaken out of his state of shock, partially a result of the waves of peace and harmony I had projecting into the atmosphere.  He looked at the both of us with eyes that were wide-open in wonderment. 

I turned my attention to him, still keeping a vigilant third eye on the behemoth standing to my side.

“Speak, human.” I directed my words at Hideki, and he almost jumped at my call.

“All courtesies are now called off.  Before I get angry, why don’t you tell me what your part is in all of this.”  

Hideki paled visibly before me, the sweat from his bald dome shining in the clinical lighting. He composed himself after a moment, and then spoke.

“Yes, Jai.  Let us talk freely, now that all is revealed.   You know by now Ishmael and myself for what we are.  And most importantly, we know you for what you are.  We were suspicious for a time now…” I cut him off.

“What does that mean?  You, a human, know of the Hammer of Yaueh?”  I glanced at Ishmael.  He stared at me with an air of impartiality.  The pieces of the puzzle finally came together, everything fit at last.

“Of course.” I said.  “It all makes sense now.  Ishmael is our little governor of balance, and he has seen fit to observe the modifications I wish to make upon myself.”

“Yes. That is my purpose at this point in time.”  Ishmael was so damn calm that it actually made me angry.

“Your purpose.  Hmmm. So Ishmael.  Are the Gary Lords of the Seventh Realm somewhat afraid that my plans may tip the scales toward order and upset your fragile equilibrium?  

He looked away. 

“That is your purpose, isn’t it?  To govern the balance?  How convenient,” I spat.

“It is as it should be,” uttered Ishmael.  

“It is as it should be… Nice quote, Gary.  If genetic memory serves me correctly, I do believe an Elemental poet already said that sometime around 400 B.C.” 

“Your point?” He asked.

“The point is, Ishmael, that sometimes there is no point.  Things happen.  Do not listen to your head, your training.  Feel your intuition, listen to your soul.  Be your own man, not just a carbon copy of a failed man’s dreams.”

Hideki stepped forward.  “Jai, this surgery can happen.  We had to make sure of what you were, first.  This is a design obviously not of human origin… It is far too advanced.  When I first encountered your request, Ishmael appeared.  He needed to ensure first that this procedure would not tip the scales too far in either direction, toward that of either order or chaos.”

Ishmael almost nodded, then stopped.  My words were still playing over in his mind.  

Hideki continued.

“I am merely a psychic human surgeon, and I bow before the forces of sixth realm.  Please believe that we mean no harm.”  

I saw Ishmael in all of his colours now.  He was a transparent vessel for all of the first six realms, and reflected the colours of each.  He spoke in the Angelic tongue.  

“All is accurate.  Let the next chapter unfold.”  Bells rang, and the heavens spoke with truthful clarity.   

Hideki bowed toward Ishmael, who promptly shifted realms and was gone.  

I lay on the chair.  The surface was soft, cool.     

Hideki placed a mask over my face, and as my physical form lost consciousness, I let my spirit slide effortlessly into the fourth realm.  Not a single spirit, spectre or ghost in sight.  Good.  I was here to witness, coordinate and perhaps even manipulate the surgery.  I was nothere to banish any random chaotic energy.

A thrill of energy passed through me.  Khan was there beside me, wearing a simple brown cloth robe.  He had obviously felt my presence here, and had joined me.  

Always the spiritual one, Khan.  He could sense any slightest disturbance on the fourth realm to the nth degree.  His appreciation and understanding of the spirit was infinite.  It had been a large part of his life’s work, and continued to be.  

“You don’t need to do this you know, son,” he soothed.  

“I know, father.  I’m just…. scared, I guess.  I don’t want to lose control again.  Not like last time.  I don’t want to destroy myself.  I refuse to let the scales tip too far.  It happened once before, it can happen again…it could all fall apart.”  

“There are always protocols, Jai.  If we Dorokusai cease our vigilance, or are wiped out, there will come a time of darkness, yes.  But Yaueh will allow the Gary precedence over all the realms, to establish order until eventually more Dorokusai come into being.  You cannot alter the course of fate without incurring that which is equal and opposite.  You know this.”

He was right. But… no damn it, I had made up my mind. 

I was doing this. Doing it to stop the agents of the Gary and the Dark from infecting the realms.

“Please Khan. I feel this is right for me.”  

Silence.

I looked around.  He was gone, his energy faintly wafting through the atmosphere.  

Right. Back to business.

My physical form lay motionless on the table.  Hideki was skittering around the surgery with an almost chaotic methodology, preparing his equipment.  He busily checked and double-checked monitors, their flat screens projecting some bizarre code that was not recognizable and obviously encoded purely for Hideki’s use.  He hurriedly connecting tubes to my body, wheeling medical trolleys covered with surgical tools into place.  

Now it was time for the next phase of my plan.  I prepared myself for a mental assault on the good Doctor.  I knew from prior experience that Hideki’s mental defences were extremely strong.  On the two occasions I had tried to tap into his mind I had been blocked out, denied.  Even his surface thoughts were hidden behind barriers, something I had found a little odd.  See, it’s usually pretty easy to get into people’s heads for me, or any Dorokusai for that matter.  The majority of the human population are so caught up in the multitude of thoughts whizzing around the surface layers of their mind that I can usually hear what they are thinking without even trying.  And if I’m in a packed crowd it actually takes a conscious effort to block out the deafening mental blare, lest it drive me insane. 

I had attributed Hideki’s strength of mind to a lifetime of devout meditation, high intelligence and a healthy lifestyle.  So I left his psyche alone, for two reasons.  

The first was simply a matter of ethics.  I tried to practice good manners and show respect for the privacy of others.  Well, I tried.  Err, usually, anyway…

The second reason I didn’t push into Hideki’s mental guard was by far the more important. Quite simply, the human mind is a very, very delicate thing.  It’s all too easy to cause unintentional mental harm.  An over-excessive probe can accidentally and without warning destroy a psyche, just shatter it like glass. Once that happens it’s too late.  Such damage is irreversible and the recipient of the probe is left a dribbling, comatose vegetable.  It’s not the organic brain itself that is delicate; the human grey matter is extremely hardy in design.  It can operate at survival levels even if you take out a big chunk of it, and over time, it can repair even the most horrific injuries.  The mind, however, is not an organ, it’s not a machine… it’s not anything you could quantify in words.  It’s an intricate conglomeration of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and untold other things.  The mind is a concept that has been the topic of heated debate among the human race for thousands of years, and even Dorokusai don’t fully understand it.  All of my mental abilities are merely automatic, a by-product of my blood and lineage.

So as a general rule of thumb I don’t push any barriers or safeguards that I find in human minds, unless absolutely necessary.  

And this was one of those times.  Fortunately Hideki, as he had revealed to me, was a third realm adept.  A master of the mind.  It was a very rare talent to find in a human, and one that I planned to exploit to my full advantage.  

I almost smiled.  Let the procedure begin.  

I focused on Hideki for just a moment before unleashing upon his mind a jarring mental strike.  His body jerked in surprise and he froze in shock.  In the instant before he had the chance to realize what had happened I was already through his barriers.  I instinctively recognized the necessary compartment of his mind that I needed and grabbed it tightly with my meta-physical hands.  From that point it was child’s play, almost too easy, to force the strength of my will directly over his. 

I now possessed control over a vital part of Hideki.  Not his soul, as the soul is something altogether different.  

As with most of these things, I did what I did purely by following my intuition.  I had tapped into his essence, the central force that held Hideki together.  I saw through his eyes, I felt the nagging physical pains that he suffered, I remembered his lifetime as if it were my own.  Hmmm.  Bo-ring.

Now for the cool part.

I shifted realms, bang bang bang, faster than any other Dorokusai since Jian-Xingand, of course, the Original, Azrael.      

Hideki survived intact.  Whew. That was pretty lucky.  We were in the Seventh Realm for an instant.  The crystalline shards of Hideki’s psyche hovered beside me, bathing in the warmth of heavenly light.  The shards began to emanate warmth to match.  I felt that was enough, so I shifted back toward the realm we had come from.. 

Bang bang bang. We were back.  I lay on the couch, looking up at the vacant face of Hideki.  He stood frozen, his eyes bulging, tongue lolling from his slack mouth. 

Shit. That was not good.  Before I had a chance to move, Ishmael had appeared.  He threw Hideki’s lifeless form crashing into the wall.  It fell into a twisted, broken heap. 

“You!” Ishmael flew toward me and had his long, bony fingers around my throat in an instant.  I gave up any thought of resistance immediately.  My entire plan had gone out the window the moment I had seen Hideki’s eyes.  I had shattered his psyche… damn it all, like I said, once you broke it, there was no going back.  Now I had to just deal with what was to come.  First things first, the small matter of Ishmael’s grip on my throat.  I spread my hands in a gesture of submission.

His features softened slightly, but his grip remained firm.  

“You failed, Dorokusai.  You have upset a balance.”  He paused, considering his words carefully.  “You should have known better,” he whispered.

His grip loosened enough for me to speak.  

“What are you talking about?”  I gasped.

“This. Now.  The reason I have been here with Hideki.”

“I don’t understand.”    

“It was a test of choice, Jai.  You should have realized that once you identified me.”  He released me, stepping back smoothly.

“And so here we are.  Well done, mister-freaking-Myagi.”  I looked across at the broken mess that once was Hideki.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Now I will restore the balance.”  

I blinked and then…all I saw was grey.  

My soul shifted, not of my own accord, in a way that I had never before experienced.

A blaze of light left me momentarily blinded.  

When I regained my vision, I was staring into the keen eyes of Hideki.  He was alive!  Not only alive, but something more.  Hideki’s eyes blazed with enlightenment.  Another level of consciousness.  It was the knowledge, the understanding of one who had experienced a moment of the Seventh level.  

I looked to where Ishmael had been, but he was gone.  

Somehow, Ishmael had done it.  He had made it work.  

Hideki saw my eyes darting about.  “What are you doing awake?”  He muttered. “Never mind.”  He squeezed a tube and I felt numbness creep through my physical body.  “More anaesthetic.”

I allowed my spirit to drift free once more.  The Doctor, infused with supernatural energy, got to work.  His hands moved with lightning speed, reconfiguring my body exactly as I had specified, cutting and splicing at such a rate that he managed to consistently work at a matter of Nano-seconds ahead of my body’s healing factor.  After five solid hours of surgery, Hideki was finished.  My body was unrecognizable beneath the tangle of wires, tubes and intravenous drips.  

I was bandaged almost from head to toe.  The bed was literally covered in blood and gore, the floor littered with cords, surgical tools, machinery and my pumping and obsolete entrails.  With the completion of the task, the magic released its hold on him.  At once Hideki dropped. His body was completely drained of energy.  He was instantly unconscious- a result of pure exhaustion.  Ishmael was there to catch him.  He lifted the small man with ease, and carried him silently into an adjoining room where he lay the small doctor on a table.  Ishmael placed his palm on Hideki’s shoulder and whispered quickly in an unfamiliar tongue.  Being in the spiritual realm, I saw the effects of a healing spell, waves of aqua coursing through Hideki’s aura.  Then Ishmael was gone once more, and I was left with nothing but questions.

And now, I was indebted to the Gary.  A cold shiver of fear ran through me.  I would rather owe the Reaper my soul. 

Later that night, Godwin Hideki awoke from a terrible nightmare, sweat soaking his skin.  He was in his wife’s arms before he had even realized it.  She gently patted his head.

“Shhh, my love,” she cooed.  “It was just a bad dream.” 

 He lay there in his wife’s loving embrace, gripping her tightly.   His eyes were wide open, his heart racing.  No, not a bad dream, he thought.  More like a horrific memory.  Like a memory of dying, and being reborn.  Screaming in pain, under an oppressive grey sky.

Hideki did not sleep that night.

Chapter Ten : 2003 

Gun run 

The engine of the Ducati beneath me hummed smoothly, barely audible under the roar of the wind. It was two fifty-five in the afternoon, and I was dressed for the hot summer weather.  I was riding out to see a business associate, wearing a light singlet and my Kevlar lined jeans.  I gave the helmet a miss, as always.  I was not terribly worried about killing myself on the bike.  There were two reasons.  One, it would nothing less than a head on with a truck to incapacitate me- and even then, only for a short while.  Two, I had much more dangerous things than fellow motorists to deal with tonight.  The man I was riding out to meet was a fellow by the name of Robert Sands.

 Robert Sands was a friendly, likeable man.  More importantly, he was a professional.  He had never been married, never had kids.  Robert was married to his job.  He stood around five foot-eight and had a little paunch.  To look at, he seemed harmless.  He was small, even by human standards.  Of course, most of the people I see are a little small, by comparison. I have been six feet-five inches high since the age of fifteen.  I weigh about a three hundred pounds, none of it fat.  You get a little used to the fact that peopleseem to notice you- you kind of stick out in most crowds.  I stay away from crowds whenever possible. I guess not too many other people have orange eyes either. Hmmm.  Yep- that was me.  A bit of a freak.  Hence the staying away from the general population whenever possible.  

Robertwas okay though. If he ever wondered exactly what I was, he did a good job of keeping his curiosity hidden.  Dealing with Robert was a nice and easy experience.  I had purchased items from him in the past.  He was the absolute best. He made exquisite weaponry and had access to some firearms that even the military had never heard of.  I didn’t ask questions, neither did Robert.  Ah, the perfect partnership.  

His shop was hidden from the tourists and the good people, in a real rough part of town.   It was the sort of neighbourhood where you did not stop at red lights. Ten seconds waiting for the green could be the ten seconds it takes for you to get robbed or shot.   Robert never seemed to have any problems with the local hoods though.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  There was that one time his shop had been broken into, maybe a couple of years ago. Some young idiot had smashed his way in and taken all of the cash in the till, leaving the place a mess.  Robert had been very, very keen to track down this guy down, and spread the word.  It spread real quick.  A week after the break-in, I heard about something about a John Doe getting slaughtered. As it turned out, John Doe was the idiot who had broken into Robert’s.  Apparently, the local boys took to him with a bunch of machetes. The paramedics took his body away on three separate stretchers.  He was still screaming when they found him, or so I’m told.  What a mess.  So, ever since then, Robert’s been trouble free.  He has the protection of The Black Panthers, and all of the big boys in the Panthers get to sport lethal, custom made blades.  

Yet another example of a perfect partnership. 

Robert’s shop itself was a blink and you’ll miss it affair.  Lodged in between a Laundromat and a vacant warehouse, it seemed to fade into the background.  The front of the shop was ultra-discreet.  It was narrow, only a car’s length in width.  Blacked out windows for privacy, no signage, no fluorescent exclamation marks buzzing in your face.  Nice and cosy.  I pushed the door in without knocking.  It was dark inside- my eyes took about a thousandth of a second to adjust.  

 Robert jumped. Was he jittery?  

“Hello Mister Sands.”  My voice reverberated around the shop.  Nice acoustics in here.  The icy blast of the air conditioner hit me like a slap to the face.  After coming out of thirty-degree heat, the cold change was a welcome one.  Funny how quickly sweat can dry up.

The shop seemed bigger on the inside than on the outside.  Probably thanks to some little gizmo of Robert’s.  A barrier of sorts stretched the length of the shop.  It had a metal base that rose out from the metal floor to a height of four and a half feet.  Above it appeared to be nothing at all.  Open target- Robert?  No way. I had the distinct impression that there was a layer of invisible energy running above the metal barrier, connecting to the ceiling.  I had a feel for these things.  The barrier was all that separated Robert from the crazies outside.  Somehow, I didn’t think my friendly neighbourhood arms dealer was letting it keep him up at night.  

The barrier was at least twenty feet long, two feet thick.  It was a metal I had never seen before.  There were no seams, no marks of welding, nothing that would indicate any sort of fabrication.  It all appeared to be forged from the one piece.  I had wanted to ask him about it, but I had resisted temptation and managed to keep the talk strictly business.  I could keep wondering for a while yet.

Robert smiled, “Ah, hello Mister Orange.  You gave me a little fright there.”  Orange was because of my eyes, I guessed.  Robert didn’t want to know names.  I was sure that there were higher forces monitoring his activities, and hey- if the government wanted to provide free security checks, who was Robert to argue? His tanned face beamed up at me, nice big smiles.  Robert looked at least quarter Italian.  He was pushing fifty and not even starting to look forty.  Good genetics.  Tiny smile lines stretched along his face.  You could see just from looking at him that he laughed a lot.  He wore a light lemon polo shirt and khaki shorts. Not exactly what you would expect someone in this field of work to wear, but what the hell.  He was comfortable and it showed.   

“Ah, my apologies.  Am I not on time for our appointment?”  I asked out of politeness- I knew I was on time.  3 o clock exactly.  Still broad daylight, a couple of hours left to go before sundown.   

“No, no, you are right on time as always, Mister Orange.  Please come with me, I think you will be happy with what I have for you.’  His eyes sparkled as he said that, a mischievous look on his face.  Oh boy, what had he come up with this time? 

I followed Robert, he on the left side of the bench, myself on the right.  I realized that I had never seen this man out from behind the barrier.  Oh well.   Maybe that was how he wanted it.  It was probably harder to kill someone who never left their own little hi-tech shelter. I had heard rumours that Robert had the entire block around his secret little shop rigged with enough explosives and guns to start, and finish, a third world war.  I didn’t know about that.  Didn’t much care either.  At the end of the room, on Robert’s side, was a small white plastic box that looked like it had been slapped onto the wall in the dark.  It was at a leaning angle and had indentations along the edges of it. Robert put his left hand over it, looking at me with the excited face of an eleven-year-old about to let off their first firecracker.  Which, when you thought about it, was not too far from the truth.   

The plastic box flashed a thin line of green at the top, accompanied by a thoughtful little beep.  Just in case you weren’t paying attention.  An opening appeared out of I don’t know where.  One second, I was looking at a blank wall with a funny plastic light switch.  One beep later and a dark portal appeared out of nowhere.  I had seen this before, every time I had been here before.  I had remained confident that I would pick the seams in the wall one day.  It looked like today was not that day.

“Just wait a moment please Mister Orange.  I’ll be right back.”  Robert gave me his one-hundred-volt happy smile and disappeared through the hole. Just like a rabbit.  Still, I don’t feel the need to create some alternate Alice in Wonderland paradigm to coincide with my story.  Truth is usually stranger than fiction anyway.  

I leaned against the barrier; it came up to just under my chest.  I had figured out a long time ago that Robert had a raised platform on his side of the barrier.  That was fine.  If Robert felt that he needed to look people directly in the eye, more power to him. As long he didn’t have a sawn-off shotgun pointed at my belly, I was a happy lad.  Gut shots- at point blank… they hurt like hell.  And they took a while to heal.  

At the ripe old age of twenty-six I had seen, and fought, more horrors than most men would ever dream of in their entire lives. It had made me a little hardened- a little pessimistic maybe.  I tended to be on the lookout for worst-case scenarios most, if not all, of the time. Still, my pessimism had saved me from death on more than one occasion.  So, colour me negative.  Just because I was born with the sacred blood of the Dorokusai didn’t necessarily mean I was invincible.  Age, and experience, had taught me that.

I ran my right index finger along the metal barrier, keeping well clear of the energy shield.  It left a smudge on the dull finish.  The smudge quickly faded.  I wanted to ask Robert exactly what this metal was.  Could I give it a few good hits, just to see what would happen?  I rapped my knuckles against it.  No reverberation.  Not a microbe of weak metal.  I rapped it harder.  Nothing. My knuckles actually felt some degree of pain.  That was not right.  I had been able to put my fists through hardwood at the age of six.  I could destroy solid brick with ease at the age of nine.  Khan and Volodimer had uttered words, from time to time, not meant for my ears. “Accelerated growth”, “Dangerous at his level of his understanding,” other such things.  I once, in a fit of rage, palmed a beautiful old oak tree into smoking annihilation. 

 I had been about thirteen at the time, angry with my spiritual grandfather, Volodimer. Long story.  To cut it short, I had been a teenager with an, admittedly justified, feeling of invincibility.  At the time Volodimer had, in his wisdom, not given in on a certain issue.  Basically, I had wanted to advance to the next level of my training.  I had rapidly mastered the first four levels of my studies and was now keen to learn the fifth.  For months I had craved, day and night, the ability to shift into the Fifth Realm- the world of true magic.  A world where mythical creatures of human folk-lore and legend roamed like animals in the jungle. In the fifth realm, myth became stone-cold fact.

Volodimer had told me all about the monsters there. Many of them he had hunted down and exterminated, on direct orders from the Guardian of the Eighth Realm.    

The idea was so exciting to me.  A realm where Minor Demons and Demi-lords flew through purple skies… Oh yeah, that’s right, the good stuff.  

I wanted to see Minor Demons of Magma relaxing in a pool of volcanic lava.  I imagined in my mind’s eye an epic power struggle between raging Demi-Lords, massive goliaths who stood over thirteen feet high and shook the ground when they walked.    

Ever heard of Ghouls?  They are real, and the truth is so much stranger, more bizarre, and infinitely more exciting than the fiction.  Ghouls are basically scavengers- unthinking, parasitical creatures. They travel in large packs, roaming the fields of despair and attacking the weak, and the lame.  

And then, there are these scary Mofo Dark mages. Just read any half-decent fantasy novel, and there they are.  Human magicians.  For example, and believe it or not, King Arthur’s Merlin was based on a real-life White Mage.  Anyway. There are, as far as I’m aware, only a handful of Dark Mages, and there have not been any White Mages around for a long, long time.  The reason is simple; it’s really, really hard for a human to gain Fifth Realm access. And, it’s actually known as a ‘Realm-crime’, punishable by death.  

But for those who do want to try it, it’s a bit of a three-step procedure.  First step, the human has to study the arcane arts for, say, thirty years minimum. Second step.  If he, or she, can cause enough chaotic imbalance in the cellular structure of their body without spontaneously combusting, they can attempt to call upon a Demon from the Sixth realm.  Third step, and this is the tricky one, because it’s got two parts.  

Firstly, the spell has to be performed perfectly.  I mean, absolutely perfect.  If anything, like a chant, a candle position, even a breath, is out of place…spontaneous combustion, go straight to hell.  Leave your immortal soul and ticket to redemption at the door. And then, if all this goes right for the would-be Dark Mage, they have before them a mean mother Demon who will more than likely toast them where they stand, just for their impudence.  If the Demon happens to be in a good mood, or feels like being a little “naughty”, or even just likes the human’s style, then bingo bango.  Simple as that.  The human sacrifices their immortal soul to the Demon, and in exchange for this, they gain one single human lifetime of access to the fifth realm and below, and all the power that comes with it. 

Gimme access, I begged.  It knew it was a big step, but I had already begun my run-up for it.

Khan, my spiritual father, had backed Volodimer up on the issue.  I had asked repeatedly, but to no avail.  After yet another request and another refusal, I got angry.  I started to see a wave of red, sweeping over my vision. Volodimer had taught me to beware the red vision, to fight the oncoming berserker rage.  I had turned and walked slowly, calmly, outside.  The red had almost covered my vision by the time I was out in the forest.  I was a mass of pulsing, seething, boiling rage.  The red grew dark and absolute, and my rage exploded.  Electricity tore through me, off me, arcing from the atmosphere. My scream became a roar.  The blood pounded through me, my heart firing rapidly like a machine gun. I clenched my fist, and a colour exploded inside me.  Pure, empty white.  The colour of the sixth realm, the sanctum.  I had turned, focused, and launched a palm strike with every bit of my rage, unleashing all of the power I possessed at that moment.  Any inanimate target would have sufficed.  I, for some reason, had focused my palm strike upon a beautiful, ancient old oaktree.  It had been a protected tree and stood roughly seventeen feetin diameter.  It had been a poetic demonstration of nature’s power to prevail against all.  

Yeah, right.  The tree had shattered with the force of the strike.  No joke.  It had completely, instantly and utterly shattered, with a furious explosion of supernatural force.  In the smoking aftermath I was still standing in shock, frozen to the spot.  Just breathing heavily, my pulse slowly returning to normal.  Through the deafening ringing in my ears I had heard Khan mutter five slow, measured words.  “His blood is strong, Volodimer.”

There’s a lesson for any in that for all parents out there.  For god’s sake- don’t give your kids access to thermo-nuclear devices.  No, not even in America.  I don’t give a damn about amendments and constitutions.  Guns don’t kill, no that’s true.  But the psycho, carrying the gun, can have no hesitation in pulling the trigger.  Anyway. I was an angry young man with the powerful blood of the Dorokusai.  Here’s how the basic mix goes.  You take a shot of raging teenage hormones.  Mix liberally with the power and strength of the lord’s number one hit man. Yeah, I was dangerous.  And the worst part was, I knew it.  I was more dangerous than a bunch of President Bush Clones at a W.M.D party.  

After the Old Oak incident, Volodimer grounded me for a week.  No, not grounded, as in, stay at home, no more MTV. I mean grounded.  As in, buried in the earth.  About fourteen feet underground, actually.  Oh, I know it sounds bad. It’s actually not as cruel as it sounds. We Dorokusai are just a great deal more resilient than your average bear.  So, to speak. I guess our methods of punishment can seem a little extreme by human standards, but it is amazing the epiphanies one experiences when completely submerged in compacted earth for an entire week.  After the first couple of days I even stopped worrying about the soil forcing its way into every nook and cranny I possessed.

I was jerked out of my thoughts by the child-like giggle of Robert.  He was re-entering through the impossible portal, and he held a brown, non-descript carton under his arm.  Shit, you have gotta be kidding me.  He looked like he was just about to explode with glee.  He laid the box on the bench before me.  No alarms were activated.  Was there an energy barrier, which Robert had deactivated?  Or was there no barrier after all?  Only a low block of metal between myself and the polo-shirt loving beach boy?  Hmmm. I was betting on deactivation.  

The carton was about the size of two shoe-boxes taped together, head to head.  

“Okay Mister Orange, here they are… delivered just this morning, don’t you know.”  He patted the box on top, two little pats.  He was looking at me with eyes that said, ‘Hurry up and open it before I do it for you’.

I couldn’t help but smile.  God bless the children.  Even the ones who turned into sweet little gun runners.  Should I just take it and leave without looking inside? Jeez, I think his little heart would burst.  

The carton opened at the top, easing off to reveal the leather attaché case inside.  I pulled it out, surprised at how light it was.  It couldn’t have weighed more than ten kilograms, which surely not possible.  Not with what I had asked for.  There was a small silver key under the case.  Robert was shifting from foot to foot, grinning like a fool.  His big brown eyes were all lit up like Christmas trees, all set for the festivities.  

The case had a lock on either end.  I eased the key into the first, turning it until I felt the well-oiled bolt release.  Robert barely held back a squeal.  The room was killer quiet.  The only noise was the hush of the air conditioner and the sound of Robert’s rubber thongs squeaking from side to side.  The second key turned with the same solid little thunk as the first.  I opened the upper lid, exposing the contents for our inspection.   Two pistols lay on black foam, brand spanking new.  They were gunmetal grey.  Surprise, surprise.  I lifted one out and wrapped my hand around it.  It felt good.  A holster made of black leather lay underneath.  Beautiful.

“Ah Robert, I think you may have outdone yourself this time my friend.”

“He, he.  That is good to hear.  These are 92-FS pistols my good sir.  If you don’t mind, I will give you a quick rundown of the mechanism.”  I nodded, smiling, and he brought his hands together with glee.  

“These pistols, Mister Orange, are a new prototype of mine.  They are recoil operated and magazine fed, as you can see.”  He gestured to the magazines laying under the pistol mounds, encased in foam.  Smooth little black affairs.  

“It will mainline with the delivery system you have specified, which I must say, is a piece of equipment I have never before encountered.  The technology is almost alien in concept and design.  I had a few difficulties amalgamating the systems, but luckily I managed to whip something up that should more than suffice.”  Robert looked at me, his eyes full of questions.  Where does this technology come from?  His thoughts were an open book to me.

I sent out a subtle mind-wave, a command of secrecy, if you will.  You know the drill- ‘To be sure, to be sure,’ as the Irish are famous for quoting.

Robert caught the command instantaneously.

“I will, of course, keep the nature of these delivery systems entirely confidential.”

“Thank you, Robert.”

The delivery system he was talking about, of course, was me.  Robert didn’t know that.  A quick mind probe revealed that he expected these pistols to be equipped to some sort of enhanced armoured combat suit.  Certainly not a Dorokusai full of bio-engineered implants. 

He continued.  “You won’t have to bother about loss of aim when using short spurts of firing.  By short spurts I mean…. Oh… maybe two to four rounds per second or so. Be careful with the recoil on fully automatic, though.  At full capacity, the 92-Fs model will achieve an unload rate of one cartridge in four-point-two seconds, or 24 rounds per second.  One of the test agents had their arm, wrist and shoulder destroyed in seven places on fully automatic.”  He was grinning as he said it.  The man was a living contradiction in ethics.

He leaned forward, rocking on his feet. “Try to use the fully automatic function only when absolutely necessary.”

I was almost drooling over the bench, transfixed by these twin masterpieces.  All hail Robert!

“I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of scrapping your specification for using 7.62mm armour piercing rounds.”    

“Oh?” I raised my eyebrow.  Robert visibly quaked under my stare.  

“Sorry Robert.  Please, tell me what you have come up with.”  I used a soothing tone, combined with spiritual waves of calmness. He relaxed immediately.   

“Well, Mister Orange, I found I achieved a much more effective result using a 12.7mm round.  They are, of course hollow-point armour killers, as requested.  The extra size of the round is to accommodate a small solution of nitro-glycerine, suspended in ethanol, which I have encased within each round.  Upon entry of the target, the impact and spread of the round dissipates the ethanol instantaneously and triggers the nitro-glycerine, resulting in a far better internal combustion.  These rounds will stop an elephant in its tracks.  With the other ammunition, the cartridges would have been able to carry more rounds, but the shells would have been less effective by far.”

I nodded.  Couldn’t argue with that.  The man did know what he was talking about, after all.  I put the pistol back in the case, softly closing the lid.  

“So, what do I owe you?” I asked.  I braced myself for it.  Here we go.  The funny feature about the best things in life was that, while some of them were free, most were ludicrously expensive.  That was why, whenever Robert Sands made a weapon, it was a work of art- and the price certainly always reflected that.  

“Uhhmm, let’s see… just a minute Mister Orange….” 

“Actually, on second thoughts, just charge it to my account,” I said.

“Yeah…maybe it’s not such a good idea to tell you while you have these pistols close at hand,” he laughed.   

I was about to go and then stopped.  That’s right, nearly forgot to ask.  

“Silver, Robert?”

“Yes.  Silver bullets, Mister Orange, as you specified.”  

“Ah…” A pause.  “I don’t mean to be rude…” Hesitation.  He looked…nervous?

“Please, I hope you don’t mind.”  He was like a child who wants to do something but knows it’s naughty and not allowed.    

“Go right ahead.”  I said.   

“Well.”  He cleared his throat, giving me time to object.  He did value his privacy and understood that there was a mutual understanding that if he invaded mine, I would be entitled to infringe upon his, something I don’t think he was accustomed to.  The internal battle raged and was fought, and won, by the side of curiosity.

“What exactly is it that you hunt, Mister Orange?” 

At last.   The question.  I pulled the case toward me, looking at him.

“I don’t think you would believe me if I told you the truth.”

“I’m don’t know, maybe I would.  I am a worldly man.  Please, try me.”  He was jittery for a reason.  He was thinking, what kind of civilian carries this sort of heat?  Well then, if he wants the truth…Alright Robbie old son, try this on.  I shifted into the third realm and let my power reach outward, crawling over the walls, forming a surface over the energy barrier between us.  Even through the barrier he would have felt it, like spiders crawling over his back.

“I’m a nigh on immortal vessel for the angelic host of the Seraphim.”  I intoned, the energy arcing off the ceiling and walls.  “My mortal shell is possessed of the ability to weave in and out of the realms that co-exist with our own.  I am the preternatural judge, jury and executioner of chaos on this human world, and I protect every single vibration that contains the life force of the Sky-Father, Yaueh.”

He just stared.  He was a little dazed.  Hmmm. Think I used a little too much of the dark language there.  I snapped my fingers in front of his face.  His eyes cleared, turned to me. 

“Just joking.  I hunt bears Rob.  Just bears.”

“Right.  Right, well, good luck with that.”  He was still not quite back to his senses.

Bears.  Right. Like I said.  Truth is stranger than fiction. 

Time to go.  “See you later, Rob.” 

“Sure, sure.  Okay then, take care, Mister Orange.”

And it was done.  I had my nice new guns, and Robert Sands had a down payment on a new home. And that is how the economy works, ladies and gentlemen!

As I left the store the heat closed over me like an invisible, weightless blanket.  The padded seat of the bike squeaked as I hopped on.  My hyper sensitive hearing was almost deafened by the loud bang.  The metal roller door at the front of the Robert’s shop had been shut.  The shop now looked like nothing more than an old metal shed.  Clever. 

I turned the key and squeezed my wrist over the throttle, reassured by the deep throb of the Ducati’s engine.  I released the clutch, smiling as the bike howled. I tore away from the shop, leaving a smoking peal of rubber.   The time was 3:25 pm.  I still had a few hours to prepare for tonight.  My new automatic friends would get a chance to prove their worth before too long.  There was an electric swirl of current in the air that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.  Soon I would be bear hunting 

Chapter Eleven : 2003 

Kain of the Underworld

The air was dead in this dark night; not even a breath of wind prevailed.  Yet the cold closed in on me with an unnatural certainty that I knew from experience signalled I was drawing close to my target. A quick survey of the towering skyscrapers in the distance, and in particular the Seiko building, told me that it was seven thirty-five p.m.  I was walking through deserted streets, lost in my thoughts, my feet taking their own path, devoid of conscious thought.  I tucked my hands into the warm pockets of my leather jacket.  I had deserted my Ducati in one of the less reputable provinces ofGinzain order to centre myself, some time ago.  Time itself was indeterminable now.  I focused, drawing glyphs of the fifth realm within my mind’s eye; as they formed, they blazed with a blue light, the power creating warmth within my tan-tien, blazing with power as they converged into one.  My footsteps continued.  I witnessed the subtle changes take place as they glyphs completed their magic.  

The sound of my tread no longer echoed on the gravelled surface.  I saw, as always, the small differences.  The shadows became darker than usual taking on a wet, oily volume.  It is a by-product of dark dealings, I believe. Volodimer could never see it, and Khan would never say.  My physical form abandoned conventional laws of physics.  I walked on, now invisible to the human eye, each cell within me vibrating at a completely impossible frequency.  The world of magic replaced the second realm; the ‘pink’ physical world.

Chaotic undertones now heavily penetrated the entire block around me.  

The atmosphere was heavy with dark magic, the entire realm, filled to bursting point with preternatural creatures going about their ways.  The pattern, on a basic level at least, is extremely simple.  

Chaos fights for supremacy.  Dorokusai punish those who abuse their power.  Grey police the balance.  

It had worked pretty well so far.

The back of my neck crawled with energy.  Danger. I drew calmness from my core, and felt the waves of tranquillity envelope me, redirecting the nervous energy and channelling it in a way that would prove beneficial.   

Only the sounds of the wind prevailed.  I paused. I sensed a strong entity draw close. The silence was suddenly broken by a voice that spoke in a dialect of a bygone era.  My genetic memory served as translator. 

“So stealthy…even after all my years on this immortal coil, rarely have l been so very…” the voice paused for a moment, as if unsure how to continue… “Intrigued, perhaps.”

Now the source of this disturbance had made itself known. I had a vocal pattern to imprint, a leader to address.   

“So, you speak. And so, we may talk in the dark language if it suits you and proceed with all the formality that befits two such as us.  Now,” I ventured, “reveal yourself.”

I spoke using the oldest language in existence, one that has been the standard form of nether-realm communication since the dawn of time.  It is a wise way of making one’s way through the treacherous negotiations that are common when dealing with supernatural creatures that have lived a millennium or more.

You may know me as Kain.  All other names have melted away with the passage of time; all titles have long since become meaningless.”  The voice rumbled; a gesture of mirth, I supposed.  

“To find a human in our realm is deeply disturbing…Pray tell, how did you learn of the sacred arts of the damned?”

It was my turn for humour now, I could not entirely suppress a smile.  

“My knowledge extends from my birthright, that of the Dorokusai clan.”  It never ceases to amuse me, the inevitable stirring of energies that are released whenever I reveal my identity.

“And what is your business here, what right do you have to set foot upon my ancestral domain?”

“I think you know why, Kain.  You have created quite the little gang here in the fifth realm” I looked around at the dark things scuttering among the rooftops and within the shadows and shook my head, still smiling.  “You know the law.  ‘None of the nether world may create their own disciples in order to crown themselves false gods.’  It’s the fourth holy decree, book of dark commandments, handed down from the seventh realm an eternity before you knew creation.”

A deep rumble sounded as the demon contemplated this, and for a moment I found myself acutely aware of my flanked and outnumbered position.

“So, the seventh realm is now sending out the Hammers of Yaueh to attend to its housekeeping?”

“Seems so. So come on, Kain of the underworld, step up, and let’s get this over and done with.”      

I had never been the most diplomatic of agents in this kind of thing.  But screw it.  It’s inevitable that formal parlay between a 20th century city half-angel half mortal and a pre-dawn undead physical manifestation of evil are not always going to go smoothly.

A pause followed my final challenge.  And then the sound of lungs as old as time slowly beginning to expand as Kain gathering the energy from the very air around him.  Out of the darkness now l could see his eyes for the first time. Once again l felt shivers of fear. I was paralysed in his powerful stare. It was the unblinking stare of the powerful and eon-long undead.  Though being a Dorokusai gave me a certain protection that ordinary humans lacked, I was still part human, and that part was not invulnerable to such magic. Kain’s eyes were polished onyx, gaping at me from within their concave sockets.  I faced before me a lord of immeasurable years, its soul merely a decayed memory, and its pure devotion to the deity of death were its only remaining reason for existing.

Kain stepped out of the shadows.  The blue light of the moon bathed the deserted back street around us.  Small flickers of energy sparked here and there, like suicidal fireflies.  Kain was at least nine feet tall.  A dirty, tattered, crimson robe hung over its gargantuan skeletal frame, and it moved like an illusion, my eyes finding it difficult to focus on it directly.  Its arms hung low, ending in monstrously proportioned, six fingered hands.  The robe had a cowl that mostly covered its face, thank god, but revealed throughout its frame hideously barbed pieces of bone protruding from its skeleton, stretched over rotted flesh.  It emitted a snarl that reverberated from the buildings around us, and the dark eyes flashed red as they fixed upon me.    

The Sky Father creates us all, complete with our own free will and ambition, greed and lust, but it is not His way to intervene with His progeny.  It is our domain to wrong, to condemn, and it is to us to seek justice in His name.

I knew that Kain intended to destroy me, as my presence was a surety that its own death warrant had been signed.  With this realization came my own physical anticipation of the unavoidable battle to come. Like a fire hose suddenly jammed onto full pressure the rich Dorokusai blood roared throughout me; I held witness as my body underwent a series of drastic changes.  My senses quickly transcended mere human perceptions, to the point where every colour exploded into sound, every shape vibrated with meaning, and every whisper took on a soul and personality of its own.  An explosion of strength filled me, engorging my frame in a rushing tsunami.  Such a thing would surely have been fatal for the ordinary human.  

I, however, bore the lineage of Dorokusai.  I was genetically far superior to the homo-sapiens of the world. I possessed mental and physical tolerances far beyond the limits of human imagination and had so far managed to endure everything this world and all of its realms had thrown at me.  

In addition, the experimental and highly dangerous form of surgery I had undergone three years ago further enhanced my prospects of survival against the increasingly cunning world of the dark side.  Specially engineered titanium alloy tubing ran through every inch of my inner space, simulating all of my major veins and arteries.  Many years ago, I had suffered massive internal bleeding at the height of a battle rage.  It had almost killed me.  The surgery ensured that it would never happen again.  

My thoughts were brushed aside by an overwhelming influx of chemicals.  A hormone synthesizer implanted within my spinal cord had been activated by my own natural reactions; engineering a killer cocktail of testosterone, adrenaline and endorphins that mixed quickly with my bloodstream.  Combat effectiveness programs were downloaded with a mental command, now readily available at any time with the speed of thought.  

In the space of a few heartbeats I had completed my preparation.  Shifting into a leopard stance I relaxed slightly, allowing Kain time to prepare.   There was an accepted code of honour among the undead, and it was one that the Dorokusai observed and respected.  Honora was one thing that most creatures of any realm respected.  Without our reputation for honour we Dorokusai would have been hunted and systematically slaughtered.  

I watched as Kain steadily gathered and consolidated his power, his aura swelling and expanding before my eyes.  I stayed neutral and tried not to let the implications of the beast’s now obvious power cause me any hesitation or fear.  The air became dense, taking on a fog-like texture that was growing steadily murkier.  With a barely a whisper, Kain disappeared from sight, melting once more into the shadows. Bad boy, he was cheating already. A single thought command triggered a neural connection to my implanted multi-plane optic receiver, and the crimson world of infrared was instantaneously revealed to me.  And there before me lay my supernatural quarry.

Kain spoke and the voice that rumbled forth now had the caustic edge of anger.

“Do not for a second believe that your technology combined with your pathetic abilities gives you the slightest advantage over me.  For over three hundred thousand mortal years have I walked the dark realms.  Your good fortune has come to an end now.  I suggest you surrender… or face my wrath.”

And so, the final words in our formal parlay were spoken.  Or to put it plainly, the time for words was well and truly behind us. Kain’s offer of surrender was that of a quick and (relatively) painless death.  But this offer was purely a formality, and completely meaningless.  I reminded myself, it is my birthright, and duty, to destroy all that threatens to corrupt the delicate balance of this world.  Like my spiritual father before me, and his spiritual father before him and so on, going all the way back before the dawn of creation.  Known by many names, we are most commonly the Realm Walkers, the Hammer of Yaueh, and the Host of Seraphim.  We are those who stalk the stalkers and bring to an end the horrifying pursuits of these creatures of the nether realms.

I could see Kain preparing the attack but still he surprised me, darting behind me with invisible swiftness.  His arm was locked around my neck before I realized he had moved, and the feel of his cold, hard flesh against mine filled me with a wave of revulsion. Damn.  He had caught me internally monologuing.  A bad habit. 

“And so, it ends for you, before it has even really begun,” Kain growled as its bony forearm steadily increased the pressure on my thorax, lifting me off the ground and bracing me from behind. In Kain’s mind l saw images of my lifeless body lying broken at its feet.  So accustomed was it to the quick and easy kill that overconfidence made its execution a moment too late.  It never anticipated any further action.  I took that moment’s overconfidence to my own advantage.  Using every iota of leverage l could muster l swayed slightly forward, then with a whipping motion drove my heel into Kain’s knee, driving clean through in an explosion of bone and gore.

The pressure on my throat lessened as Kain let forth a blood-curdling scream of pain.  I dropped down, spun around and delivered a short volley of palm strikes to the throat. This did not have quite the desired effect though.  Kain, still standing quite firmly on his one good leg, struck out with a lightning backhand swipe, somersaulting me back some ten metres.  It seemed we both suffered from overconfidence…

As I regained my bearings and refocused Kain retrieved the ruined limb from the ground, placed it below the bloodied stump, and used a fraction of dark magic to fuse the two into a whole once more.  As I picked myself up from the rough surface of this dark alley, I caught a smug grin on the face of the immortal before me.  Long canines glinted within the deeply cratered visage, the shifting image at one moment a reflection of the creature it once was, and the next a glimpse of the hideous monster it had become.  As I prepared to move once more into the fray it held its long hand out, palm facing forward.  It wished for me to cease, for the moment.  The monster had something to say. 

“I must confess to a small amount of surprise, young mortal.  The name of Dorokusai bears a certain ring of fear and apprehension in this world; among my kind the legend of the Realm Walkers is spoken of in fearful whispers.  This has led me to the assumption that to meet with one of the fabled night stalkers is to meet with destruction.  But now l see that l have been led to what is obviously a false conclusion.  You are not to be feared or faced with caution, you are but a frail mortal insect waiting to be crushed and devoured.  And look at you, relying on this modern technology to the point where all else is forgotten and neglected.”

Kain was right in a sense; the numerous implants l had throughout my being were what some would call an unfair advantage.  I was the first in my lineage to receive the benefits of this age of micro-circuitry, Nano technology, and biotech chemical synthesizers. But I wasn’t about to get served by this self-righteous false god.  

“I see what you’re saying, Kain, and I respect your opinion. You know what the funny thing is though, you piece of shit”. I spat a nice fat one in its general direction. “This here is a fucked-up time we live in.  I watch television.  You know what that is don’t you?  I see your demons’ brothers in the Middle East, disguised as humans, leading third world countries into ruin.  I see armies of zombies commanded by chaos mages, wielding the latest in automatic firearms and slaughtering entire populations.  Do you know of the internet, you obsolete, remnant of a time long since passes?  Ghosts have learned to hack into computer mainframes and cause havoc in new and completely unforeseen ways.  I was born in a new world, it’s a new fight, and just because you still wallow in your memory of the dark ages, don’t think I give a shit.  Tell me, Kain of the dead, why wouldn’t I take advantage of all this world had to offer?”

Kain’s eyes were burning crimson.  It advanced a step and leaned menacingly forward, its hands clenched and teeth grinding.  It was enraged by my words.

“You… will… die…now.”

I dusted myself off and shifted into an open battle stance, ready once again for the onslaught.

“Bring it on then, bitch.”

It screamed, the sound like a high-pitched air horn, intended to freeze me to the spot. But I was also enraged, and barely heard it.  Propelling myself forward and lunging at Kain, I threw up a defensive shield to deflect any magic attacks that were likely to be thrown my way.  Kain shifted sideways and reached out with ancient limbs, wrenching a metal sign post from its concrete foundation.  In one fluid motion it aimed and threw with demonic speed.  I narrowly missed decimation as the makeshift spear whistled overhead, exploding into the wall behind.  

Speeding through the air toward Kain I snapped out a tiger heel kick, which he easily deflected, followed by a hammer fist which struck empty air as Kain swivelled around.  Granite knuckles grazed the side of my face as I pivoted, and I was forced to take a quick step back to avoid a further barrage of claw strikes.

Kain was fully enflamed with battle lust now, dead eyes ablaze with power.  Now that we were engaged in hand-to-hand combat, I instinctively cleared my mind, allowing my subconscious to overtake command of my every move. Kain tore onward, ancient limbs blurring with preternatural speed as I parried and deflected a furious barrage of blows.  The very street beneath Kain’s clawed feet began to splinter and crumble, the demon instinctively channelling elemental force into the attack.  Sweat was pouring from me now, and I found myself blinking to stem the stinging in my eyes.  A moments loss of vision at this moment could quite easily be the death of me.

Kain feinted a right backhand slash, and as I moved to deflect it a cunningly fired straight left caught me on the temple.  My vision doubled, only the titanium alloy encasing my brain preventing instant death.  As it were, I was ill prepared for the vicious upward sweep of Kain’s outstretched claw that tore through my leather and Kevlar garments.  

Blood erupted from my torso, followed by an explosion of pain. Still Kain pressed forward.  An emergency override program immediately took control, causing the cybernetic relays entwined within the muscle of my legs to coil like mighty springs and unleash with inconceivable power.  I found myself being flung backward at incredible speed, Kain screaming with anger as its finishing move was momentarily denied.  

I soared out of control to the opposite end of the street, slamming full force into a late model automobile.  Its windows shattered as if a bomb had been placed within its shell, the chassis twisting violently.  The chemical synthesiser in my spinal cord went into overdrive.  

I took stock.  My jacket was ripped to shreds and slick with my own gore.  I felt like I had just gone twelve rounds with a pack of wolves. Damn.  I should have prepared for this battle much more thoroughly.  I put a hand to my wounds, and it came away wet and scarlet.  Fortunately, the synthetic drugs in my system helped to dampen the pain to a dull roar. My hands reached for my new automatic pistols, holstered at my sides.  As I grasped the pistols my internal cybernetics joined with the custom design, lights igniting upon the metal alloy of the firearms as my own system provided power and anchor.  

Already the mystical Dorokusai healing process had begun, the jagged wounds rapidly closing as the blood congealed with a slight tingling sensation. Leaning against the ruined sedan I narrowed my eyes at the distant figure of Kain.  A mental command projected a red target against the massive, charging beast.  This target was perfectly aligned with the state-of-the-art weaponry I wielded.  

My digital retina display read Kain’s distance at seventy meters. The automatic targeting system was having difficulty locking on due to the speed of Kain’s approach, and I knew it would prove a waste of precious ammunition to begin firing now.  Kain was hurtling toward me, side stepping and blurring with dark magic residue.  Kain was rapidly gaining ground, becoming larger and larger in my sights by the moment. I held rock still, grimacing as the wounds continued to knit themselves together, the targeting reticule still red and out of focus. 

Fifty meters now and the galloping step was like a psychotic firework show.  At thirty meters Kain was truly terrifying, talons fully extended, jaw locked open in an unholy scream.  Ten meters, and Kain was almost upon me.  I could hear its rasping breath, like the bellows of an old-fashioned forge.  I tensed. A fraction of a second passed. Seven meters, and the reticule flashed green.  Target lock. My fingers squeezed down hard on the triggers.  Robert don’t fail me now.  I was not disappointed.  

An intense recoil thundered against my palms, shoulder joints flaring in pain by the skeletal structure being hammered against them.  Like twin bearers of lightning the specially engineered pistols brought destruction.  The volley of high-powered rounds sent Kain hurtling back in an explosion of carnage. Time slowed down as I focused, observing the effect of the sustained rounds pierced and exploded within Kain’s frame, jerking the creature violently in mid-air like some sick parody of a puppet thrown, its strings cut.  In a matter of seconds Kain was a smoking mess.  It twitched and moaned in pain as its ancient body struggled to regenerate after being dealt such massive damage.  

I quickly holstered my smoking weapons, oblivious to the heat of the barrels as they burned close to my body.  Kain was starting to rise already, the pulped physiology rapidly regenerating.  I realized that I possessed but a few precious moments before Kain would be on the offensive once again.  Charging directly at him I leapt and silently breathed a prayer as my momentum carried me up in an arc.  Kain was already rising, wounds almost healed.  I had truly underestimated the danger of this battle. I hurtled down toward the rising figure of Kain screaming a battle cry.  The pounding of blood deafened my ears.  I barely heard the shriek of the raging wind that had been whipped up by our supernatural conflict.  A thought crossed my mind as I looked into its flaming eyes.  This could well be my final attack.

The next thousandth of a second slowed down to a crawl, as the physical adrenaline in my system mated with my metaphysic Dorokusai focus.  Kain’s obsidian eyes flashed with power and it launched a dark bolt of frenzied energy at my chest, striking me full force.  The bolt of unholy force immediately broke up into many smaller shards within my body and at once completely invaded my internal organs, momentarily disrupting my Chi.  Instinct and genetic memory took over.  I subconsciously generated a deflection which, though extremely painful, nonetheless succeeded in reverting the force into usable energy.  Energy which, if not quickly expended, would render me a mini-super nova; resulting in an explosion which could easily destroy a sizable portion of the city.  I allowed myself to become a momentary conduit for this sudden influx of dark power. 

Channelling maximum efficiency into my right arm, I threw it with devastating force.  The consequence was instantaneous, and terrible to behold. Mottled flesh and ancient bone gave way with little resistance as my fist ripped straight into Kain’s chest, coming to rest at his very core- the tainted black heart.  Windows shattered in the buildings above as Kain let forth a scream from beyond the depths of hell. Ghoulish nether beings appeared now, bearing witness to the destruction of Kain, their god.  Large taloned hands clawed in frenetic fashion at my back, the effort amounting to little.

Closing my eyes in concentration for this one moment, l carefully drained the energy from Kain’s core and focused it, combining it with my own.  My wounds immediately closed up and all fatigue left my body as the unholy power was converted to my own.  The screams rose higher as the very earth beneath us began to tremble, cracks appearing in jagged formation around us.  Now locked to me via the energy link l had established, Kain could do no more than shudder in agony as l took my left hand and locked fingers of steel around its throat.

“How does it feel, eh?  How…does…it…FEEL?”

I was livid with battle lust, my superhuman grip crushing ancient flesh.  The air hummed with an unnatural static charge. Pure energy leapt from building to building, arcing between the monster that I held in thrall and myself.  Sirens rang from smoking storefronts, inaudible to the natural ear beneath the deafening cry issuing from Kain’s blood-soaked lips. Kain stared directly into me with eyes that were rapidly becoming opaque.  I lessened my grip only slightly so Kain me speak its last words. Instead, I only received piteous disbelief.

Huuugh… how can this be?”    

Kain seized up with pain at this exertion, each word from its blackened lips causing streams of poisonous bile to come spilling down its jagged chin. Ages passed before my eyes as the demon slowly crumbled beneath my three-pronged attack.  Finally, I breathed, this once great monster now completely submissive beneath me.  Energized and reinvigorated with the converted energy, I bristled with power.

“How can this be, Kain?  Let me tell you.  I take great pride in being who I am; all the vast and diverse resources from all realms lay at my fingertips.  This is one of the reasons the legend of the clan Dorokusai still persists throughout the dark realms, or the place that some regions label “Hell”. Our blood allows me access to all tools of destruction, and rare is the demon that has ever stood up to a concerted psychic, magical, and physical attack.”

Kain could only gag as I siphoned its life force.

“You must realize what comes next, demon.  An ending to your immortal existence.”

Staring into Kain’s glazed eyes I decided it was time to deliver the last rites.

“Go from this place and know not Heaven nor Hell, only know that from this time on you are consigned to languish in a void of nothingness, the fourth realm; feeling nothing but uncertainty about a tomorrow that will never come.  I banish you demon, l destroy you by the power of my blood and the blood of those who came before me.”

The time had come.  With a simple neurological impulse, I brought the beginning of the end to my adversary. Kain’s eye sockets enlarged, the orbs almost popping out with the pressure inside.  Lines of white light began to appear from the many ruptures forming like tiny seams across its body, the heavenly energy within it building to unbearable levels.  A final psionic command brought Kain’s inner core to something equating a nuclear combustion.  Kain simply…shattered.  My vision was obscured as the creature disintegrated, shrieking whirlpools of darkness flying outward in chaotic confusion.   Fragments of inner and outer-self showered the street and walls, creating a mess of gore and sickness that suddenly turned in upon itself, receding into a vortex which seemed to carry all matter with it. With an unnerving conclusion the light flashed and then faded, leaving behind naught to tell of the existence of the creature that named itself Kain and held itself in the light of the gods.

Notes