The voices of the Ronin seemed to echo inside Sekhmet's head as he limped across the barren lands of the Nether Realm, in retreat, as usual from the cursed brats they had sworn to destroy.
"You call that a face?"
your power isn't just overwhelming body odor
Sekhmet winced visibly at this denigration of his venom, then looked around quickly to make sure the others had not seen. But they were as exhausted and as dispirited as he; they had failed their master again, and would pay the price.
Their failure, though humiliating, was not the worstnot for Sekhmetit was the words that brought back all the old memories: being feared and hated in the villages, being taunted jeered at. Even now, centuries later, they stung as if it were yesterday. And no matter how hard he tried to drive them away, they came nonetheless
He smelled the forest around him, saw twilight filtering through the leaves. He felt the sharp pain of the cut on his forehead, as he blundered into the woods, not understanding why his father hated him so. The blood that ran in his eye from the gash mingled with the tears that stung his eyes.
Naotaki was born strange, though he did not understand this at first. His mother had gone into labor three months before term, and the members of his mother's family that surrounded her at his birth were certain that she had miscarried, and the child would be born dead.
But he did not die, nor did he cause a great upheaval at his birth
not at first. The strange features that would plague him all his life could have been attributed to the odd lighting in the room and the rather homely appearance many newborns bear. But soon it became clear that he was not normal.
Naotaki never knew what happened that night, when his father had came home on leave from the army and saw his strange child, but when he was older, he could imagine it. His father had taken one look at his son, whose hair was a toxic green, whose eyes bulged like that of a snake, and had demanded that his wife take the unnatural demon to the well and drown it. Kill it before it wreaked havoc on the village.
Naotaki didn't know how his mother had kept him alive, but she did. His father went back to the wars, but things never got any easier.
The other children and even their parents were afraid of him. The children threw rocks at him and called him a freak. The parents recoiled when he looked at him, as if he could set them afire with his eyes. They called him a demon, or a half-breed. Naotaki never understood why they called him these names, or acted so unkindly, and when he asked his mother, she would cry and hug him. But she would not answer his questions.
Naotaki grew quiet and reclusive, rarely venturing beyond his home, and only watching the world outside from the windows. And thus things went until he was five.
Naotaki never forgot the day his father came home for good. He had imagined what his father might be like during long hours spent lying awake in bed. Father was a brave man, of course, and goodhe was fighting for his lord! Of course he must be a great man, kind and righteous, noble and respected. The imagining made what happened all the worse.
Father had been furious to see that the half-breed child still lived under his roofthat his wife had disobeyed his disgusted command that she destroy it. The hatred and fear in his father's eyes would stay with Sekhmet his whole life. The man had flung a plate at the boy's head, cutting the gash above his brow, and Naotaki fled, crying with confusion and fear, while his mother grabbed her husband, giving Naotaki enough time to escape into the nearby trees.
The forest had hidden him. Naotoki ran as long as he could, and then collapsed. He woke hours later, his head throbbing, whimpering with fear in the black night that surrounded him. He ran again, tripping over tree roots and other foliage, running into trees and scraping his bare ankles on rocks, as if he could escapoe his father's disgusted, horrified look if he ran far enough.
He never could.
One afternoon more than a month after his desperate flight, Naotaki found the place he would call home for most of his childhooda clearing in the woods, bathed in sunlight. A huge old cedar tree stood there, a natural cleft in its trunk big enough for him to curl up in, and so get some shelter from the chilly nights. The moment he saw that clearing, when he felt the warm sun that shone invitingly onto the soft ground, he knew that he would stay.
It was a day's walk from the nearest village so that he rarely, if ever, saw people, and that was fine with him. He liked being away from the people who saw him as something less than humanunnatural and vile.
Years passed, though time meant nothing to the child who now called the forest "home". He often watched the village children playing, as he hid in the shadows, painfully jealous of their camaraderie. He hated them for being able to romp in public, without fear of being attacked for a demon, or chased off. It was many a day he would return from a food expedition in tears.
Things changed in the world of the humans; they always did. The village was even expanding, and it was not long before the axes and saws of the woodcutters threatened Naotaki's home. The boy, now nearly twelve years old, had watched the village's slow expansion with dismay and panic. The little clearing with its cedar tree had been a source of comfort and shelter to him, and the thought of its loss filled his chest with unbearable cold. He should have moved his camp, should have found a new place to live, but he was so loath to leave his home that he delayed.
It was this reluctance that led to what he realized years later to be the most important event in his entire life.
Naotaki came back to his little clearing, his arms full of the greens and other plants that made up the greater part of his food, when a man's voice caught his ear.
"A blanket," another answered. "Seems a tramp has been sleeping here. Just toss it aside. We need to cut this cedar downTakamoto wants the wood for his manor addition."
A cedarhis cedar! Naotoki dropped his load of flora and raced into the clearing, stopping short to see four men standing there, looking at his tree. They turned at the sound of his frantic footfalls, one man raising a woodcutter's ax, another man raising a bow and arrow. The men stared at Naotoki while the boy stared back, his bulging eyes looking yet more protuberant for his shocked dismay.
"What is it?" one man asked, his almond eyes widening at the sight of the strange boy.
"A feral child, perhaps? Look at its eyes!"
"Saito, shoot it," said a third man, shivering with revulsion. "Quick!"
"No!" the first man said, reaching out a hand to lower the archer's bow. "Catch it, Takamoto might like it for menagerie!"
Naotoki's horrified paralysis broke, and he turned and fled into the woods, ducking into the bushes, an inarticulate cry of frustrated fury escaping his throat. How they'd spoken of him, as if he were some unthinking beast! How they had so casually talked of throwing him into a menagerie, like a common monkey!
The crashing gait of the men pursuing him drew closer, and fear spiked Naotoki's chest. He forced his legs to run faster, using his litheness and his knowledge of the forest to his advantage.
But luck was not with him that day. Two of the men were experienced in trailcraft, and were able to track the boy's progress, and as fast as the boy was, their legs were long, and they soon caught up.
The archer grabbed his arm, yanking him back so forcefully that a thin burn erupted in his shoulder. Naotoki let out a frightened cry, fighting like a wild animal, crying in frustration as the man held onto him, pinning his arms behind him, then slamming him against a tree.
"Letlet go!" he cried. It had taken him a few moments to speak, to remember to speak.
"It talks!" one of the men laughed, coming over to help pin the boy. "Takamoto will be pleased."
Naotoki's shame and anger at being talked about as if he were too dull to understand them faded into terror. He was used to being freealways in motion, running through the woods, gathering food, or exploring new areas of his forest. To be caught like this, to be pinned so he could barely move frightened him more than death.
The man with the ax shrugged and struck Naotoki hard on the head with the handle. Naotaki let a yelp of pain, as light flared horribly behind his eyes, and for a long time there was nothing.
When Naotoki awoke, he was extremely confused. The first thing he noticed was that his head throbbed mercilessly, but he had been hurt before in his life, and could deal with the headache for now. He struggled to open his eyes.
A sudden, sharp pain in his thigh made him jump, and he groaned as the throb in his head sped up to become a steady thrum. He groaned, and when the sharp pain came again, he made a soft hissing sound and rolled away from it. His first, confused thought was that there was some sort of forest animal poking at him with claw or tooth.
His mind rapidly clearing, Naotoki sat up suddenly, the flare of pain in his head scarcely noticed as his eyes flew open. His first view was of a wall of bars in front of him, and beyond that, the leering countenance of a man with a metal-tipped spear. Cage! Cage! That was the word that went through his mind, sparking bright flashes of terror.
The man, a guard of some kind by his garb and the sword at his side, jabbed the spear through the bars at Naotoki. There came that sharp pain again, and the boy realized the wretch had been poking him for some time. Small punctures and scratches in his leg and side told him that.
"Stop that!" he cried, retreating backwards on his rear end, putting a hand to his side, where the guard had jabbed him. He noticed vaguely that he'd been stripped to the waist.
The guard laughed. "So you do talk. You're an interesting beast, aren't you?"
That hot shame came again, making him feel warm in the cool air. "I am no beast!" he hissed.
The guard gave him that sadistic leer again, jabbing once more at Naotoki. "You look like one to me. Sound like one, too. Sound just like a snake, you do. My master will enjoy having you here." At Naotoki's furious glare, the guard's smile faded into a forbidding stare. "I am in charge of guarding the grounds, snake-child. Do not anger me. I have been given leave to control you any way I feel is necessary."
The two of them stared each other down for a few moments before the guard abruptly turned and walked away.
Badly shaken, Naotoki got unsteadily to his feetthe cage was barely tall enough for him to do soand curled his hands around the bars of the cage. He peered out dazedly through the bars, taking in his surroundings.
His cage was not big. It was long enough for him to lie down in and about half as wide. It was set in the middle of a sizable courtyard, walled in on all sides by stone. Beyond the chilly bars of the cage were several other cages, all containing animals of some kind, some of which Naotoki had never seen before.
There was a tiger, and a cage with two wolves in it. One looked very fat, and Naotoki thought it might be a pregnant female. There was a golden cage with a colorful bird, and a cage a bit bigger than his own, containing a bizarre creature that looked vaguely man shaped, with black and white fur. It hurt Naotoki's heart to see the creatures penned up in cages like they were, and cages that were surely not big enough for them.
There were other, more recognizable creatures, but Naotoki ceased to notice them. It was beginning to sink in. He had been placed in a menagerie
caged, like an animal, for display!
A noise caught the boy's attention, and he turned his head to see the wretched guard coming back, a man in fancy garb beside him, headed right for Naotoki's cage. Naotoki took two large steps backwards, and hit the far side of the cage.
The man must be Takamoto, the man the woodcutters had spoken of--a clan leader, a daimyo, or maybe a shogun. Naotoki did not know a great deal about human ranks and titles.
"Fascinating," Takamoto murmured as he approached the cage Naotoki was trapped in. "He was found in the woods?"
"Yes, lord, living in a tree like a beast."
Takamoto peered steadily at Naotoki, speaking loudly and carefully, as if Naotoki hadn't the brains to understand him otherwise. "Doyouspeak?"
Naotoki's first reaction was not to say a word, not wanting to give this man any cooperation, but it occurred that would only confirm their belief that he wasn't human. "Yes," he said shakily, fighting an appalling urge to burst into tears. "Let me go
Takamoto smiled delightedly, looking for a moment like a child whose father had brought home some wonderful, exotic toy from a foreign land. "He sounds nearly human! Well, boy," he said. "You behave and you'll be taken well care of. Disobey, and Kyoto here will discipline you. Do you understand?"
The tears were going to come; there was nothing that Naotoki could do to stop them. "I'm no animal!" he cried. "This isn't right!"
The lord gave him a level look. "I could turn you over to the villagers, if you like. They don't care for half-breeds. The last man I saw accused of being such was drowned in the village pond."
As if the matter was closed, Takamoto turned and walked away, pausing in front of a few cages as he went, to gaze at the animals within. Kyoto, the guard, smirked at Naotoki. "Cause trouble, half-breed," he said. "Go right ahead."
But Naotoki could not cause trouble, not then. He was in mental shock. Kyoto snorted and turned away to go about his rounds.
Finally, Naotoki stepped forward, grasping the bars of the cage and shaking them as hard as they could, battling the terror that threatened to make him lose control completely. The bars rattled, startling the nearby wolves, but the held fast. There was a door set into the bars, and the boy staggered to this, shaking it just as hard, but it held just as firmly.
Naotaki retreated to a corner of the cage, huddling with his knees drawn up to his chest and let himself cry.
That was the first in several unpleasant days. Time passed without Naotoki seeing anyone but the guard, who often jabbed the spear at him now and then, as a threat, or for amusement. Naotaki was pacing relentlessly in the little cage, desperate to escape the hateful thing. He could not even imagine how the animals in this prison felt, caged up day after day, living out their lives within the same few feet of metal, never running through the woods, or to fly in the air again.
With dawning horror, he realized that he might well never run in the woods, againthat he might be fated to live out his life in this tiny cage, with only the metal below his feet. The thought was enough to crush his heart with despair.
The days were all the same. Takanmoto came to gaze at him often, sometimes talking to the boy and asking him questions, but Naotoki alternated between sullen silence, furious out bursts, and pleading to be let go. The lord did, at least, give him a blanket, which made the chilly nights a bit more bearable.
His food was usually a plate of greens, not so different from what he was used to, and a metal bowl in his cage was refilled with water twice a day. The first time that Kyoto opened the door to give him his supper, Naotoki had tried to attack him, hoping desperately to surprise him long enough to make a run for it. It was a foolish move. Kyoto was surprised, but he was not so surprised that he could not react. He threw the boy to the ground, and kicked him in the side. He slammed the cage door shut.
Naotoki thought that was the end of it, but the guard came back ten minutes later with a bamboo cane, entered the cage, and beat the boy with it until he howled with sobs.
"I warned you, beast," Kyoto said grimly as Naotoki lay curled up on the floor of the cage, his hands over his head. Kyoto exited the cage, pulled the door shut, and took away the plate of greens that was to be Naotoki's supper. Naotoki barely noticed.
It took a long time for the boy to calm down, and after that, he spent a good deal of time huddled in the corner, recovering. He stopped speaking to Takamoto when he came to gawp at him
and he began to plan. It was the only thing that Naotoki could occupy his mind with, and it was the only thing that kept him sane over the weeks that were to follow.
Kyoto beat the boy sometimes
often for fabricated reasons. Naotoki came to fear and hate the man, who would also poke at the real animals in the menagerie with his spear, simply to watch their snarls and howls. He never did this in front of Takamoto, which made Naotoki think that the lord was perhaps not very nice, but at least not cruel like this wretched guard. He tried telling the lord this once, but of course he was not believed. And Kyoto had found out.
Naotoki did not try again. He could only sit, and plan, and let his hatred for Kyoto grow.
After three unbearable weeks, something happened that changed everything.
Kyoto had acted vague and distracted for a week, which was rather a welcome change from his usual bright-eyed cruelty. He hadn't poked Naotoki with a stick in days. Naotoki did not know what was ailing the man, but he hoped it was something very unpleasant.
One cloudy day, Kyoto opened the cage door to give Naotoki his plate of food as usual, but in his distraction, he did not notice that the door did not click correctly shut. Naotoki, huddled in the cover with his blanket wrapped around him, did notice, and his wide eyes bulged with sudden hope. He glanced quickly at Kyoto, but the man didn't even turn around.
The child's first, instinctive urge was to escape that very moment, flinging the door open, and running as fast as he could away from the menagerie, with its cages of unhappy animals, its sadistic guardsman, and the hateful lord, who saw every creature there as his personal property. But Naotoki did not do so. He did not know when Kyoto would come back, or even if there were other guards beyond the menagerie itself. He had never seen any, but that did not mean they were not there.
And there was something else, something darker. The idea of leaving without paying Kyoto back for the torment he had put Naotoki through, without avenging the humiliation, the fear, and the pain, caught in Naotoki's throat like a bone. He wanted the man to pay.
So he waited, but he ensured that when the time came, his escape would be assured. He ripped off a wad of cloth from his blanket, stuffed it in the hole where the cage latched, and shut the door. And every time someone opened the door, he made sure to make noise--an angry outburst, a shuffling on the floor, a rattling of bars--to mask the fact that the door was not latching properly.
Not four days after he had fixed the latch, the opportunity came. Kyoto, who had turned from distracted to angry (whatever was bothering him was getting worse) made a crucial mistake. One of the wolves had begun to howl miserably, and Kyoto turned around to snarl at it to shut up. His back was to Naotoki's cage.
This time, the boy let instinct guide him. He stood silently, darted to the end of the cage Kyoto stood against, and his small, white hand flashed through the bars, grabbing for Kyoto's sword.
Kyoto was surprised, but not slow. He spun around, even as Naotoki grabbed, and the boy nearly lost his grip on the sword's hilt. A snarl of shocked fury twisted the guard's face as Naotoki yanked back hard, pulling the sword through the bars, holding onto it with both hands. Kyoto raised his spear, jabbing at the boy, but Naotoki was quick and lithe, and able to avoid the blow.
Naotoki had only meant to wound the man, perhaps to eventually knock him out as he himself had been knocked out, but Naotoki was running on fury. Kyoto had only the day before beaten Naotoki badly, leaving him bruised and in considerable pain, and Naotoki could remember all the taunts, all the mean-spirited pokes of the spear, the sneering face.
The boy gave a feral howl, grabbing the sword with both hands, as if he had handled such a weapon all his life. He put all of his fury, his terror, and misery into one fatal lunge.
Kyoto was not armored for combat, and his midsection was unprotected, and he had badly underestimated the caged child. After that first beating, Naotaki had not fought. The child's frightened façade had not even hinted to the strength his rage lend him, and Kyoto did not so much as jerk back as his own sword was run through his stomach. His eyes widened in shock, and he jerked to the side, as if someone had poked him in a ticklish spot.
Sobbing now, Naotoki shoved the sword in as far as it would go, then twisted the sword viciously, pulling up as hard as he could when he yanked it out.
Kyoto made no sound beyond that first, guttural sound of shocked pain. He fell to his knees, then against the cage, his spear dropping from a hand that had gone limp. His other hand clutched spasmodically at the fatal wound in his stomach, and the look that he turned up to the caged boy was not rage or agony, but stupid, unbelieving shock.
Naotoki hit the door with one hand, stumbling out of the raised cage and onto the ground. Shaking almost too badly to run, he staggered toward the gate of the walled courtyard, still clutching Kyoto's sword in one numb hand. Tears blurring his vision, Naotoki ran as fast as he could convince his shaking legs to run
The boy was lucky. It was beginning to rain--the clouds he had seen earlier finally dropping their load of water down on the world. It was chilly and miserable, and few people were out.
He had enough presence of mind to keep to the shadows, taking cover wherever he could, as he headed desperately for the treetops he could see above the city buildings. He reached the sanctuary of the woods without having been seen.
Finally, Naotoki stopped running. He collapsed on a carpet of grass, sobbing helplessly, the hilt of Kyoto's sword still help in a panic-tight grip on his left hand, and cried until he could cry no more.
Eventually, as he began to calm, Naotoki finally noticed the sword in his hand. Too exhausted to lift it, he set it down on the moss and gazed at it, as if he had never seen a sword before.
Though the rain had nearly washed all of the blood from the metal, a bit still remained, streaked in pinkish, watery runlets. "I killed him," Naotoki whispered, and his mind received this truth with fascination. He bit his lip, hard
looked at the sword again
and then lay down on the moss, exhausted.
Naotoki slept for hours. When he woke, he was able to stand, though a bit shakily, and to lift the sword that he had taken from his tormentor. He could not deny the dark fascination that he had felt, even under the terror, when the sharp point of the sword had sliced into the vulnerable flash of Kyoto's midsection. He couldn't deny the exotic, giddy feeling of power that lurked at the back of his mind as he took the man's life.
He thought he might want to do it again.
Takamoto never found the boy; he had gotten away clean.
Naotoki kept the sword, and began practicing in an instinctive, unorthodox way on the trees of the forest. He knew nothing about swordwork, but he knew what felt right in his hands, and what felt right to his heart. And as weeks, and the months passed, he began to grow stronger, and to leave behind the ordeal that had led him to murder.
The boy never did settle down againnot in the mortal world. His imprisonment had changed him. He could no longer settle down anywhere for more than a few days. He would remember his endless days in the hateful cage, could remember how he felt he had to get out of that cage or he would lose his mindbecome the mindless, howling beast that they had thought him to be. And he would move on, unable to bear being confined to one camp.
So he became a wanderer.
Naotoki grew from a boy into a strong youth, rarely venturing from the woods. He stole a scabbard for his sword and wore it everywhere he wentit kept him safe, made him feel powerful and competent.
The next time he used that sword, he was thirteen. It was a bandit who had come at him from the woods, intending to kill him and take whatever goods he had. Naotaki slew him easily, watching with fascination as the man's slit throat gushed bloodmarveling that he, Naotaki, had caused this great and irreversible change on a man's life. It was an indescribable feeling of horror and exhilaration.
The child in him, the innocent part of his soul that had nearly been killed the day he was forced to leave his mother's side, cringed in horror at what he had done. But the rest of his soulthe hurt part that had taken great satisfaction in that first death in the menagerie, rejoiced. It said, "This is what you were meant to do. To avenge others like you, who have suffered at the hands of these
humans." Naotaki thought that was when he stopped thinking of himself as human.
Once he used his sword on a woodsman who happened upon him, and Naotoki remembered the woodcutters who captured him that day so long ago. Naotki didn't give this woodsman a chance to raise an alarmhe stabbed the man through the heart.
Killing became easier--that horrified child's voice easier to still. Soon, he thought that voice might be dead. And good riddance. The child was helpless and hurt. And Naotaki vowed would not be helpless or hurt ever again.
As Naotaki grew from youth to young man, someone watched him, unseen to the mortal world. The demon Talpa watched from a realm of evil--and one day, when Naotaki was seventeen, the watcher approached.
Talpa promised power and prestige, a place among his elite, where his differences would be assetsnot objects of scorn. Talpa promised him revenge against the humans on a far wider scale than one young man with a single sword ever could.
Sekhmet smiled a little as he remembered that day. He had accepted at once, and become Talpa's fourth warlord. He had found a new homethe Nether Realm, a place that offered him as much solace as the cedar tree had, once, centuries before. He had received a new name.
The smile faded from Sekhmet's face as the four of them stepped into the palace where Talpa resided. He always strove to please Talpa, to receive the approval from him he never got from his father. Sometimes he even succeeded.
"Freak, am I?" he whispered, thinking of the Ronin he had fought that day. "We will see." He stood up straight, squared his shoulders, and walked into Talpa's throne room with the others. He would meet the Ronin again. And he would not fail.