The Amenonuhoko cut through the space between worlds like a blade through grass. Nichibotsu stood on the observation deck, staring out into the shifting darkness. Space folded in on itself, manipulated into an endless interstellar origami by the ship’s drive plates, lurching forward towards its final destination in an erratic series of jumps.
A crewman appeared at the top of the stairs and briskly approached.
“Well?” Nichibotsu enquired impatiently.
“We estimate planetfall in just over twenty minutes” the crewman replied in a voice that matched his Captain’s exactly.
Nichibotsu turned and stared into his reflection’s face, noting the proud stance.
“Good” he observed, “the ship will remain in orbit whilst I complete my task.”
The crewman bowed in acknowledgement and returned to his station. Nichibotsu surveyed the throng of doppelgangers working below. Blister clones had their uses he acknowledged. Not only had they removed the need to take on fresh crew during his centuries-long voyage, but more than once these curious biomimetics had saved his life, sacrificing themselves beneath the wrath of tempestuous gods. Eternals rarely went quietly when confronted with death, and most had chosen to take as many with them as possible when forced to relinquish their hold on reality.
Outside, stars slowly emerged from the blur of movement. Nichibotsu sensed the deceleration long before the deck began to shudder and by the time the Amenonuhoko dropped into orbit, he was striding purposefully across the flight deck towards the forward section.
His First Lieutenant appeared at his side, falling neatly into step as the two men descended through the bowels of the ship. ‘One’ was the most long-lived of his replicas and second in command, having been transcribed from Nichibotsu at a much younger age. The man’s handsome features were obscured though by a mesh of melted flesh which covered one side of his face and his shoulder; a parting gift from another vengeful God.
One eyed his Captain with a calm gaze that perfectly illustrated his understanding of the situation.
“I’ll be transporting down to the surface in a few moments,” Nichibotsu instructed. “If I do not return within the hour, you know what to do?”
The clone nodded his compliance and handed Nichibotsu a small pad.
“Core Imploders are primed and ready to launch, sir. Rift Incendiaries are also prepped, just in case the target attempts to leave the system.”
Nichibotsu smiled narrowly.
“Efficient as always.”
“Would you expect anything less, Sir?”
“Indeed I would not.”
The two men exchanged a brief salute, followed by a formal bow more befitting of their heritage before One took his leave and strode back towards the bridge.
Nichibotsu ran a practised eye across his armour and regalia, checking both were intact. His hand traced the carvings of his cuirass and came to rest atop the hilt of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the larger of the two swords slung at his hip. The weapon was the last vestige of his heritage and he still felt the pull of the past whenever he laid a hand atop the accursed blade.
Nichibotsu remembered the first time he had drawn the sword from its scabbard: Susanoo’s gurgling cry of rage as he died, choking on his own blood and treachery. Nichibotsu could not outrun the shame of his betrayal, but at least with the storm god’s death, he had been assured that the accursed deity would join his murdered sister in Jigoku.
The strange properties of the blade continued to imbue him with near limitless longevity, but the truth which festered at his core would ensure he never outlived his guilt. Even now, with the end of his task at hand, the ancient Samurai could not escape the knowledge that he would forever be Ronin, cursed to wander the stars without master or honour.
Coolant gas hissed conspiratorially as he entered the transmission chamber, stepping briskly up onto the projector. The operator offered a grim salute before keying in the start-up program.
“Do not trouble yourself with thoughts of victory or defeat…” the technician announced solemnly, without looking up.
“… but instead plunge recklessly towards irrational death” Nichibotsu finished, acknowledging the proverb.
Thoughts of belief and subservience entwined like angry serpents as he reminded himself of the most important advantage which his stem-grown crew bestowed: that of blind obedience. An alternative band of hard-bitten organics or pre-assembled mercs would have looked up to him. Through numerous battles they would have learned to trust his judgment and his leadership. In time, they would have come to worship him and that, he could never allow.
Idolatry – the word made him sick, so symbolic of that which he sought to expunge. Faith was the double-edged sword which Nichibotsu now wielded. Though followers of any denomination needed their gods, so was the reverse also true. Nichibotsu had learned to see past the obscura of dogma and tenet to realise the true fragility which lay at the core of each god: that their power was entirely dependant upon the faith bestowed by their followers. Take an immortal’s allegiance, tear down the obsequious flesh of his disciples till he stood truly alone and you exposed the puny truth of his heart – a heart which could be punctured by any common blade and bled dry. The hatch snapped shut, leaving Nichibotsu alone in the mist of swirling gas to await transport.
For years he had hunted them – destroyed worlds as he sought to rob his prey of their defences. He had constructed vast weapons of destruction: orbital platforms and pan-dimensional atomics to wage his private vendetta, transgenic scout ships with which to scour the galaxy from one end to the other, watching his once omnipotent quarry scurry away. Some had gone quietly, unable to grasp the incumbent reality of their end. Others had stood their ground, hurling petty flame and brimstone in his path till the skies burned red and crackled with fire. Nichibotsu had not cared. He had robbed each of their essence, on their feet or their knees, drinking their dark power and growing stronger with each victory.
The Samurai materialised in a downpour of filthy rain, one hand laid calmly across the hilt of his weapon. The muddied clouds above hung like dead men in the sky, a deluge of mucky water leeching steadily from their boots.
Metal stretched as far as the eye could see and Nichibotsu stood flanked on all sides by warehouses and hangars, clustered together like pallbearers in the mist. Kriptil was described by many as the ‘arse-end of space’: a nasty, dispiriting hovel of a planet, whose only purpose was to house the vast array of forgotten goods and trade items which other civilised worlds no longer wanted.
Something skittered amongst the loose shale of debris and Nichibotsu spun round on the balls of his feet, drawing his shortsword in one fluid motion and stepping forward aggressively. A soggy oversized rat emerged from the refuse, staring blinkedly up at the warrior in surprise, its matted fur coated with a thick layer of sludge. Nichibotsu stood with the energy-fed Katana brandished above his head, steam rising from the blade in the falling rain. The oversized rodent eyed him for a moment, before sidling back under the garbage with mild disinterest.
Nichibotsu let out the breath he had been holding and resheathed his weapon. Scouring the alleyway for an opening, he spied a rusted door several hundred yards away and strode purposefully towards it. Once inside, he quickly surveyed the immediate area before pausing to remove the layer of crud which had adhered to his armour.
The abandoned storage area was empty, except for a few mouldy containers, and away in the distance he could hear gantries rattling in the wind like the brittle limbs of barren trees. Continuous rain droned across the roof, filling the interior with a low buzz. Ignoring these background noises, he glided forward silently into the darkness, in search of his prey.
Nichibotsu had served many different Lords since fleeing Japan, but not one of them had he ever called master. The I’hajin Council of Twelve were but the latest in a long line of paymasters willing to offer an unlimited supply of technology and armaments. They paid well, kept their interference to a minimum and had seen fit not to burden their hired assassin with too many questions. The Amenonuhoko’s hull bristled with all manner of barbarous devices, most currently outlawed by the Prakite Accords. To Nichibotsu though, they were merely tools – a means to an end which brought him one step closer to the end of his journey.
He had lost much of himself over the years, first pawning his armour and outdated possessions to buy passage into space, then later fulfilling contracts of assassination and murder to barter his way into the outer systems. Eventually, as the complexity of his task had become clear, he had turned in desperation to Flesh Peddlers and Reaper Surgeons, obtaining that which he required to traverse this new world of stars and consternation. What they took in payment was but a small price to pay – an organ here, an appendage there – all that mattered was obtaining the augmentation required to carry the battle. The undrawn sword at his side saw to it that he survived each procedure. Anything other than the blackened stone of purpose at his heart was unnecessary.
It was a strange place to make one’s last stand, Nichibotsu thought to himself as he passed soundlessly between dusted crates. A reflection perhaps of how far the once mighty had fallen, that the very last of their kind would seek sanctuary here, in this oubliette of forgotten endeavour. It was fitting that the last of Man’s Gods would die here amongst discarded trinkets; lost and neglected along with all that humanity had left behind in its race towards a utopian future.
Rounding a corner, Nichibotsu found steps leading down into the lower levels. Bare footprints lay embedded in the grime and he baulked at the sight of such inept evasion, immediately suspecting that an ambush of some sort lay ahead. Cautiously, he descended into the darkness with sword half-drawn.
The underground level was split into a maze of pipe-laden passageways. Smoke hissed angrily in places from several broken struts, clouding the way with thick smog, and Nichibotsu clasped Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s hilt in apprehension, taking succour from a blade which legend told had been discovered within the tail of a mighty eight-headed dragon. Beneath the thick fog of engine gas, the same shoeless footprints led Nichibotsu deeper into the belly of the beast, his breath coming in practised staccato as he prepared for the inevitable combat. Branching off into a narrow cul-de-sac of ducting, the smoke finally cleared to reveal his quarry, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
The old man looked up as the assassin approached, his bright eyes agleam in the dimness.
“Ah, there you are child. I was beginning to think you had got lost.”
Nichibotsu stepped forward, twisting his foot sideways into a combative stance and half drawing his katana.
“Jehovah.” He almost spat the word upon the ground. “How could I have become lost, with such an obvious trail of breadcrumbs to follow?”
The ancient God gestured with one arm.
“Please, sit” he stated, seemingly unperturbed by the sight of the battle-ready Samurai standing over him.
Nichibotsu eyed his prey, trying to decipher the immortal’s game.
“Give me one reason why I should not draw my blade and pierce your miserable heart?” he asked, unsheathing his sword a little further.
Jehovah’s shoulders sank into a tired parental shrug of indifference.
“Before you do, will you not join me in ‘Chado’.”
Nichibotsu warily took a step back, the use of his birth language striking a discordant note.
Earth had been obliterated centuries ago, the survivors of his race so far scattered that he had not used his native tongue since setting sail for the deepest colonies. He stared at the ceremonial mat and chadgu which now materialised beside the god with a wave of its hand. It seemed this faded deity had more than one parlour trick with which to play out their endgame.
Jehovah rose slowly from the ground and moved to the mat where he proceeded to wash his hands in a small stone basin of clear water. He gestured to an identical basin on the opposite side of the mat.
“Won’t you join me?” he asked again, beckoning the Samurai.
Nichibotsu moved closer, not taking his eyes from the deity.
“You expect me to take tea with that which I am sworn to destroy?” he snorted in disgust, muddied boots already staining the mat.
“I expect you to honour the ways of your ancestors and show some manner of respect to your host” replied Jehovah sharply.
The God’s voice remained calm, yet beneath there rumbled thunder. “Or would you bring ‘fumeiyo’ to your family name?”
“I have no name…” the assassin grunted in malformed anger, balling his free hand into a fist, “…nor family. I am merely ‘Nichibotsu,’ set forth to put out Heaven’s light.
The white-haired God dried his hands thoughtfully.
“You may label yourself as ‘Sunset’ my friend” he observed. “But beneath that coarsened hide of armour, you bear another name.”
Jehovah’s words effortlessly found the chink in Nichibotsu’s defences and he swallowed hard on the resurfaced memory.
“I would expect better custom from one who was once the servant of Amaterasu,” Jehovah continued. “She, whose sun once shone proudly throughout the endless heavens.”
At this, Nichibotsu felt his resolve crumble. Despite having long accepted the role of R?nin and the dishonour which such labels brought, he could not ignore the invocation of his former Mistress’ name. Begrudgingly returning the katana to its scabbard, he disrobed his armour and removed both heavy boots and weaponry before stepping forward onto the mat. Though it was a clear insult to his host, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi remained clasped in his right hand, Nichibotsu having learnt never to trust an Immortal to honour tradition when their life was at stake.
Lowering himself into a kneeling position, the Samurai turned his ankles outwards and made a ‘V’ shape with his feet, assuming the traditional form of Seiza. Jehovah observed the warrior’s movement closely, eyeing the sword for a moment. Seemingly acceptant of its presence, he turned and began the ritual cleansing of each utensil.
“It is interesting is it not my child, that you use the word ‘they’ to describe mankind?”
Nichibotsu laid his hands palm down across his thighs, meeting the god’s gaze without fear.
“Do I take it that you no longer consider yourself one of them?” Jehovah asked politely, his hands carrying out the precise motions of cleansing the chawan.
“In order to hunt something, one must first understand it,” Nichibotsu stated flatly. “A mere man cannot comprehend what it is to live as an immortal. Therefore it was necessary for me to become something else.”
“Ah, so you think yourself elevated above them?” the old man enquired.
“I serve them,” Nichibotsu countered. “All that I have brought to pass is for their benefit.”
Saying nothing, Jehovah politely held out a bowl of thick tea to his guest. Nichibotsu took the chawan, bowing slightly before raising it in a gesture of respect. Rotating the bowl, he eyed the contents suspiciously before taking a sip. Waiting a few moments, he took a second sip and complimented his host, as tradition demanded.
Jehovah laughed slightly, his eyes bright.
“Had you really thought me so without virtue as to poison my most honoured guest?”
Nichibotsu averted his eyes and shuffled uncomfortably.
“It has been known for your kind to stoop so low,” he muttered.
“Ah yes, poor Loki,” Jehovah replied solemnly. “Come, you must tell me how you finally overcame so devious an opponent, after almost being swallowed by that leviathan beneath the waves of Jaridan II?”
“I collapsed the atmosphere of the planet,” Nichibotsu said, narrowing his eyes, “and bled the oceans dry till nothing but a cored husk and dead fish remained.”
Jehovah leaned his head back at this and roared with laughter. Nichibotsu shook his head in bewilderment, unable to guess the immortal’s motivations.
“A reverse Ragnarök of sorts!” Jehovah chuckled. “Oh, how proud Odin would have found that fitting.”
“You revel in the details of his demise?” Nichibotsu observed coldly.
Jehovah’s merriment vanished, a pained look flooding his face.
“Oh how little you still understand us, my friend,” he replied quietly. “After all these centuries of hunting us, have you not learnt what it is to be an Eternal?”
“I know enough to complete my task,” Nichibotsu replied clinically.
Jehovah watched him, saying nothing, and then turned to begin preparing a second bowl of much thinner tea. As his wrinkled hands worked nimbly, he continued the thread of conversation.
“I ask only to know how it is that they died,” he explained. “Though it is true that we did not see eye to eye, and that our differing judgments often set us at each other’s throats, they were still my brothers and sisters. I would appreciate the opportunity to learn of what they remained true to in death, so that I might understand better what they fought for so dearly in life.”
The second batch was now brewed and he held out a fresh bowl of tea.
“If you were the last of your kind, would you not wish to spend your last moments lost in tales of your kin?”
Nichibotsu’s grip on the chawan tightened as he took the bowl from his host.
“My family are long dead, Yowamushi,” his voice almost cracked. “My planet is gone, scattered to the wind long ago.”
“By your own hand, Nichibotsu,” Jehovah reminded him.
The chawan banged noisily onto the floor, sloshing hot tea across the stone.
“It was necessary,” Nichibotsu growled defensively. “So obvious a weakness was to be exploited. A warrior must win the day at all costs.”
“I do not believe that Gaia would have been convinced of your argument,” Jehovah replied, remaining perfectly still. “She could no more have severed her bond to the Earth as you could to one of your own progeny. What is any mother’s priority, but to her children?”
Nichibotsu retrieved the bowl and raised it to his lips.
“Gaia birthed your home by parthenogenesis long before you were born, Nichibotsu. Her love for that which she spawned was etched into her soul. She was truly the mother of all things.”
The Samurai drank greedily, never taking his eyes from the Immortal.
“That was her undoing” he muttered.
Out on the planet’s surface, the weather had evidently worsened, for down here in the catacombs, rainwater now dripped steadily from ceilings and metalwork, draining into the earth like tears.
Nichibotsu and Jehovah sat opposite each other, having adopted the more relaxed position of agura, the tea ceremony complete. A Kiseru sat beside each of them, the air growing thick with a mist of tobacco.
“And what of the children?” Jehovah asked pointedly.
Nichibotsu raised an eyebrow.
“You speak of Ganesha?”
“I speak of all our offspring across the centuries,” the god replied, “but if it suits your purpose to tell of one example, then so be it.”
“The Trimurti proved a most challenging opponent,” Nichibotsu began by way of explanation. “So entwined in each other’s existence were they, that by the coming of the fourth Age of Man, though I had reduced their following to a handful of minds and slain each of them more times than I could count on one hand, they still lived.”
Jehovah nodded his head, indicating that he knew some of what the Samurai told him.
“You are indeed the most accomplished of warriors, to devise a way to defeat so tightly bound a trinity,” he offered. “So, in order to wound a parent you could not hope to defeat, you struck first at the child.”
“The boy was weak. It was his father’s responsibility to have trained him better for the hardship of battle.”
“Ganesha’s heart was filled only with love,” the God interjected. “His was a path of self-sacrifice, devoted to the removal of obstacles for his followers.”
Nichibotsu’s lips twisted into a serpent’s smile.
“It is fitting then, that he presented the very beginning of a venture which led to that which I craved most. For I drove that one remaining tusk of his deep into his heart and then slit open his copious belly, so that the whole of his realm might spill out on the ground.”
“Shiva came at the sound of his boy’s distress?” Jehovah asked, a single tear descending his cheek.
“He came,” Nichibotsu nodded. “And he brought that accursed preserver and tired old grey-beard with him, so that they might weep together over the still warm body of his offspring.
“How was it done?” Jehovah whispered hoarsely, struggling to form words round a lump in his throat.
“When I stepped forth from the shadows and proclaimed myself Ganesha’s executioner, they combined into one and lunged forth angrily with many hands to smite me down.”
Jehovah hung his head, seemingly tired. He offered no words, awaiting an answer.
“A silicate-based matter suffusion beam directed from high orbit,” the Samurai concluded icily, with more than a trace of pride. “Even a stone head may be severed from its body, no matter how many faces it bears.”
Jehovah watched a tear fall to his robes, seeping into the thick fabric.
“The others are all gone then? Ba’al, Allah, Waheguru, El?
“Allah proved difficult,” Nichibotsu acknowledged dismissively with a slight wave of his hand. “For a hunter cannot hope to discover the identity of a prey whose own followers are taught not to visualise him in their minds.”
“Yet he lived within the words of his prophet,” Jehovah recited miserably, “sent down from above to convey the divine message amongst the faithful, so that they might emulate his example and give glory to their God.”
“I despatched a temporally impervious HK drone to traverse an artificial wormhole into the past,” the Samurai finished. “My automaton slew Mohammad the day he set foot within this reality, and so erased his many teachings from the fabric of the universe. No word. No God.”
Nichibotsu had expected to see bitterness burning when the old man’s eyes rose again, but instead he saw only pity in the Immortal’s face.
“Tell me Sunset, has the blood of a hundred eternals sated your thirst for vengeance?”
The Samurai calmly reached out a hand to the sword beside him, unsheathing the long blade and laying it across his lap in answer.
“What about Susanoo” Jehovah asked. “When you agreed to poison his sister, your Kami Mistress, and put out her light in return for that sword in your hands, could you have known the pain which your disgrace would ultimately bring?
The God leant forward and placed a warm hand across the Samurai’s own.
“Must every higher form of life in this universe continue to pay for your mistake?” he asked.
Nichibotsu withdrew his hand, lest the twinge of emotion it brought infect him further.
“All must pay,” he replied, rising to his feet.
Jehovah gazed calmly up into his executioner’s face.
“And the mortals you have sworn to protect from our unwanted meddling. Do they not have a choice in whether those whom they willingly give worship to live or die?”
Nichibotsu’s hands slid softly round the grip of his blade like those of a lover.
“They cannot know freedom until the last of you are gone,” he said through gritted teeth, moving to stand directly behind the kneeling God.
Jehovah’s eyes focussed upon a small beetle, making its way uncertainly across the vast expanse of the mat.
“And so you make the choice for them?” he observed, reaching out a hand to gently lift the insect up and help it safely on its way. “Interesting.”
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s made a soft whistling sound as Nichibotsu raised it above his head.
“And what of your paymasters?” Jehovah asked, causing the Samurai’s arm to falter mid-stroke. “The Council of I’hajin – you know what it is that they swear allegiance to, deep in the bowels of that planet?”
“I know,” Nichibotsu smiled, “and I have a plan for that infernal machine as well.”
“And if it should grow more powerful? And seek to exert its influence across Man’s entire domain?”
The Samurai lowered his weapon slightly for an instant, granting the God an answer to his question.
“The preparations have already been made. I seeded I’Haji’s atmosphere with an aggressive breed of nanite before I left. The abomination will not live long.”
Jehovah bowed his head forward slightly, presenting the pale flesh of his neck to Nichibotsu’s blade.
“Then you truly have become the most powerful of all entities my child,” he whispered. “Perhaps it is we who should worship you?”
The tip of Nichibotsu’s sword plunged deep into the earth at the end of its killing stroke. He left it embedded there, quivering beside a pile of fresh dust, having no further use for it. Donning his armour, he made his way back to the surface.
Outside, the storm still raged. Black filth fell relentlessly from the sky, spattering across Man’s rusted past like oil. The Amenonuhoko’s Captain signalled his ship and stood waiting for retrieval in the pouring rain, corruption slowly seeping beneath the folds of his armour. He would not return to this place again he decided, as he watched the darkening clouds. After all, such a lowly inconsequential world as this was no place for a God to walk.
Carl Barker’s work has previously been included in magazines such as Title Goes Here, Niteblade and The British Fantasy Society Journal, as well as numerous anthologies, including Shadow Masters – An Anthology from The Horror Zine, The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic 2 and Terror Tales of The Scottish Highlands. His first collection will be published by Parallel Universe Publications. A more detailed bio is available at his website: www.holeinthepage.co.uk