Here is this week's offering of a short story or essay. This short story is number 12 of 13 weekly essay or short story posts.
Entitled "The Children of Gods", this tale appears here on my blog for the first time anywhere as a 5-Act fairy tale. Act 1, 2, 3 and 4 have already been posted and the fifth and final Act will be posted today.
The Children of Gods
(C) 2007 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author(s) and/or artist(s).
Act V of V: The Final Battle
RIDING THE OX HOME: Wherein Xiao-tep, Wu Chan Chu and Comet Fox Battle the Demon Toad Army; Kleos Must Decide the Fate of His People; The Cottonwood Chamber Fills with Blood
In a land made green by heavy rains and dark soils, at the base of a mountain and along a seashore, there was a small fishing village. The people there were industrious and loved their life, having little to do with the outside world. They lived in peace and though some rivalries existed amongst fishermen families, these rivalries were always friendly and no one would ever think to ignore another's superior skills, catch or luck. They were a happy people and they were proud and good.
Beyond the mountain the sea wrapped itself inland to become a brackish estuary and beyond the estuary was a collection of bogs.
The bogs were wide and wet, spreading everywhere. All manner of insect lived here as did the red and purple people called bog imps. Frequently the imps would make war with one another, the borders of each bog serving as unofficial national boundaries.
In the center of one such bog was a mound of dirt packed down. It was green with soft mold and lichen. Within the mound was an entire community of these imps. They were lead by King Spyridon the Brave.
Unlike the other imp kings, King Spyridon had personally lead his army into every battle, blooding himself upon his enemies on numerous occasions. He was well respected by his own people and feared by everyone else.
Though they were an agricultural lot, the imps found the bogs difficult to farm. Nothing more than the lichen and moss that grew there naturally could be cultivated with ease.
But imps cannot live upon moss alone. They enjoy the blood of other living creatures and often suckled at the skin of frogs and vermin that lived within the bogs. This blood, though abundant, was sour and weak with energy.
In all his wisdom, King Spyridon assigned select members of his army to be trained in stealth and sabotage. He sent them out on midnight raids to other imp kingdoms to steal fresh foods from them and spy to ferret out their sources of blood.
On rare nights, these stealthy warriors would explore the lands beyond the bogs.
On one such rare night, Demetrios the Quiet discovered the fishing village filled with mortal men beyond the mountain. He had been gone for several days when he finally returned. Intrigued by Demetrios' tale of abundant fish and foods and a supply of fresh mortal blood, King Spyridon immediately sent forth his whole stealthy squad to raid the mortals.
They returned a few days later with more food than the king or his people had ever seen! They had loaded their clay jars to the brim with frothing blood. The other foods were exotic and good and fresh, except for the fish which had to be preserved in salt on the return trip.
King Spyridon ceased his campaign of raids against all other imps and concentrated in full his stealthy few to continuously raid the fishing village.
To the mortals, relatively little was being stolen, but enough for the villagers to take notice. What's more, they noticed the small bites they were developing overnight as they slept.
"It is some new insect!" one of the fishermen cried.
"No," said another. "It is wounds from the gods. Perhaps we have been too greedy with our fishing as of late."
Uncertain, the mortal Georgios remained awake all night, only pretending to sleep. On this dark night, Georgios heard the small pattering footsteps of Demetrios in his act of thievery. Georgios slammed a small glass jar around the imp, lit a candle and stared down at his prisoner.
"Why do you steal from me?" asked the fisherman.
Demetrios said nothing.
"What manner of creature sucks blood from mortal men? We are good people. Are we being punished for something? Are you a demon?"
Demetrios fell to one knee and spoke, "I am no demon. My people are good and fair, as are your people."
"Then why attack us so?"
"We are hungry and we live off the blood of others. It is a curse and an aspect of our nature. We meant no harm."
The fisherman sighed. "If you truly need the things you steal, you could have simply asked. We of this village know of the value of aiding others. Does your family need food?"
Sensing truth in the fisherman's words, Demetrios said, "I steal for my people. We live in the bogs beyond the mountain."
The fisherman smiled, lifted the jar and gave the imp some sliced and preserved fish. He then made a small wound on his arm and bled into a jar for the imp.
That day the imps of King Spyridon and the mortals of the village made friends. The imps would sometimes play pranks on them, but then only on their children and always with good hearts and in fun. The people of the fishing village enjoyed their new found acquaintance with the spirit folk of the land and felt it an honor to sacrifice blood to such spirits of nature. The imps, in turn, were proud of their friendship with the mortals and brought to them luck in their fishing.
King Spyridon grew fat and old and soon he and his wife had a son. They named him Kleos. This son grew and was loved by all as a fair imp with a wily mind. It came as no surprise when King Spyridon relinquished his throne to his son.
More time passed and a new threat came to them. A wolf, wounded and hungry, began raiding different imp mounds in other bogs. Word of this came to King Kleos and he prepared his army for war. It was to be his first battle. Spyridon, now old and weaker than he once had been, requested of his son a sword to fight off the wolf raider alongside the army.
"No, father. It is foolish," said Kleos.
"I may be old, but I can wield a weapon. I would like to see you conduct your army on the field. I will remain behind and watch, only fighting if I have to."
King Kleos agreed, having a soft spot for his father, and the imps marched from the mound to war.
They found the wolf sleeping in the trunk of a fallen cypress.
"We should challenge him," King Kleos thought aloud. "We cannot possibly fight such a brute. We will challenge him to leave and seeing our numbers he will do so."
"He will not," spoke Ipiretis the Seneschal. "He will attack. We must attack him first before he awakes and kill him in his sleep."
King Kleos shook his head. "There would be no honor in that."
"We are imps, it is our way. What is honor to us?" replied Ipiretis.
"It is something in me and as long as I am commander it shall be something in you."
It was decided to wake the wolf and challenge him to leave.
"Wolf!" cried out Kleos. "Awake and leave! We imps will not have you here! Leave now!"
The wolf awoke in a rage and ravaged the army. Though they were finally able to put him down, it was not before Spyridon ran into the fray, sword in hand, and sliced at the wolf behind the paws. Angry and in pain, the wolf turned on Spyridon and bit him in half, killing him. Though Spyridon's death was tragic, his people quickly pointed out had it not been for his attack, the wolf would not have bled so much nor been in so much pain with every step he took, would not have slowed as he had and would possibly have slaughtered the whole army. Though Spyridon's death was tragic, it was also claimed heroic. Kleos was claimed a good commander as he had orchestrated everything from afar, yet he also gained some criticism for he never once raised his blade during the fight with the wolf.
After this, the army under King Kleos was hailed the best in every region and arms were put down in other imp kingdoms. Kleos was declared King of All Imps and the other former kings were made lords over their region. Peace settled over the bogs. The armies grew small.
Years later on a moonlit night when it happened not to be raining the imps decided to gather and dance atop their mound. By order of King Kleos a festival was held. The mortals donated food. Poles were erected and adorned with string and flags. A fire pit was made. Tables were set out and rocks were polished and set around for seating. Ipiretis, the new commander of the meager imp army that was now more full of ceremony than war, oversaw the event and made sure all was properly prepared.
At midnight, when the sky was its most clear and the moon its highest over the land, the imps gathered and played music and danced and ate and drank. All were merry.
Ketsueki Sato came through the bog disguised as a sage carrying a long staff. Embedded into the staff's head was an immense emerald. His robes were long and plain. His face, though aged, was friendly and smiling and full of hair.
The imps stopped their dancing as he approached. Some whispered they should get away. Others planned mischief. King Kleos planned to allow the stranger to draw near and speak to him.
"Is he from the village?" some asked.
"He does not look the same," said others.
"If he be here in this bog," spoke Kleos, "he knows his way. Either he is a hunter or a magician. One with mystical abilities is close enough to kin to us and we should welcome him and hear the tale explaining his presence. If he be full of malice, we can easily deal with him in our own lands." Though Kleos' words were strong and calm, he feared he would have to make war once more in his life. He feared another atrocity.
The imps watched as the sage approached.
"Ho, friends! I come in peace!" called Ketsueki-as-Sage.
"Draw near, friend," called King Kleos to the creature larger than he. "Tell us why one such as yourself would draw nigh this night?"
"I am Ketsueki the Sage and I look for help in making potions. In return I will reward all who aid me."
"What sort of reward do you offer?"
"The whole make of my alchemical knowledge."
King Kleos remained unsure. "We are imps, cousin to the faes. We've little use for such things."
"I know this full well, but can you make gold of the lode? I can!" exclaimed Ketsueki-as-Sage.
The imps murmured with shock.
"It is a generous offer, but we've little need for gold," Kleos responded.
"Perhaps the mortals of the village do," Ipiretis whispered into Kleos' ear. "They occasionally use gold to buy goods from other regions. We could trade them food and repay them our debt of gratitude."
Kleos nodded. "What need you in return?" he asked the sage.
"A mere few imp tears."
More murmurs followed.
Ipiretis tugged at King Kleos' elbow and whispered in his ear once more. "The price is so small and with gold we can barter with mortals for anything, including their souls should we want them!"
King Kleos looked at his advisor and saw in him goldlust, but he also heard wisdom in his words.
The other imps saw this and hoped King Kleos would be persuaded in making a deal with the sage.
King Kleos took the words of Ipiretis to heart. He turned back to Ketsueki-as-Sage and said, "We've a deal. How would you wish us to deliver these tears to you?"
"It is a rather simple matter," Ketsueki-as-Sage said. "I've made things quite simple for you. All you have to do is look at the gem here at the head of my staff. You need not even be crying at the moment. The tears will be removed without effort or pain and will magically fly up into the gem. Will you look into my gem?"
Before King Kleos could speak, his people spoke out in agreement.
Ketsueki-as-Sage smiled. "Good, and I thank you." He produced from inside his robe a scroll and laid it upon the mound, making certain not to actually touch the ground there. He dropped the scroll and said, "Therein that scroll is all my wisdom. Now look up, all of you!"
The imps did as he asked.
He twisted the staff so the moon reflected in it, creating a beam of soft white light that lowered itself onto the mound. With incredible quickness, Ketsueki-as-Sage turned and rocked the staff, aiming the beam of light at each imp one after another. As the beam touched their flesh, not their tears but their entire bodies were lifted and placed inside the gem. Each became a prisoner within the emerald.
King Kleos and Ipiretis were the last to be trapped. Ketsueki-as-Sage proved too quick for them to escape.
Once the mound was empty of imps, Ketsueki reverted to his demonic form. He looked into the emerald and laughed at the imps trapped within. "Your crispy flesh will make a fine meal," he spoke to them.
Laughing, Ketsueki Sato disappeared in a puff of red smoke.
The bonfire slowly died atop the moonlit mound.
A small red and purple imp ran through the Cottonwood Palace with haste. The winding corridors and sprawling halls slowed and confused him at times. When finally he found the single room that served as sleeping quarters for all the imps, he ran directly to King Kleos, the lap-dog and personal assistant to the demon Ketsueki Sato. The rest of the imps were huddled around him, filling the room to bursting.
With panting breath did the running imp say, "King Kleos, Ketsueki Sato has now set his entire demon toad army upon the fish-god and his friends."
"That's it!" screamed Ipiretis. "Now is the time! We must fight!"
Rumbling murmurs flowed through the collected imps.
"Ipiretis, calm yourself," spoke Kleos to the imp crying for war. "If we were to lend aid to these creatures that now make war with Ketsueki and win, we would most assuredly regain our freedom. The fish-god and others have shown no indication they desire our enslavement. We would be free to return to our homelands.
"However," Kleos raised a finger to emphasize the following point, "Should we aid the fish-god and his friends and lose, our lives would be moot and Ketsueki would most assuredly allow the Chamber of Dismemberment by Sawing to live up to its name using our bodies. Imagine, gathered friends, an eternity of your frame being sawed upon. Imagine the horrors we would bear witness to as blood flowed endlessly from our wounds. Imagine the terror of never dying, only living as others set blades to biting our flesh."
Again the crowded imps erupted in discussion at each other.
"We must fight!" cried some to King Kleos.
"We must hide!" cried others.
"We must flee!"
The crowd argued back and forth. Fighting broke out here and there. All were distraught.
"Quiet!" King Kleos commanded. "I am your king and with your faith I will decide our fate." King Kleos allowed the passing of four breaths before he spoke again. "We will not fight."
Many in the crowd cried out in anger, most bowed in agreement.
"And if you do nothing," Ipiretis put forth, "We will remain as we have. What know you of war? You, unlike your father, have yet to be blooded. He earned the right to lead us through his heroism. Your backside rests upon the seat of power by chance of birth alone."
"Enough!" King Kleos yelled. "What brought us here? Trickery and deception. Need I remind you all who convinced your king to trust the Sage Ketsueki?"
Many eyes went to Ipiretis.
"Ketsueki brought us here for his food and entertainment," continued Kleos. "It was I that convinced him we could serve higher purposes as servants, thus sparing us all from the blade and his tooth."
King Kleos challenged, "If you deny these facts, then defy my command and go to war. If you wish to live with some peace, then remain and ignore the war that rages outside these walls."
To both Kleos' consternation and relief his people bowed in obeisance.
"When, O King, do we plan our escape?" Ipiretis asked in defiance.
"One day," King Kleos answered.
"No," Kleos shook his head. "Not today."
The demon toad army marched into the courtyard of the Cottonwood Chamber.
"They are four or five thousand strong," said Xiao-tep.
"Easily," replied Wu Chan Chu.
"You think there's time for me to switch sides once more?" Comet Fox asked.
Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu looked at him harshly.
"And miss your opportunity for revenge upon Ketsueki Sato?" Xiao-tep asked.
Comet Fox shook his head. "I still seek that."
"We have to fight an entire demon toad army and baby sit Comet Fox," Wu Chan Chu said. "I am not pleased."
The demon toad army filled half the courtyard with their numbers.
"Brother Xiao-tep," Wu Chan Chu said. "I've been thinking. Like myself, these toads will be grounded, moreso than you and Comet Fox at least. I say we use that to our advantage. I'll attack them from the ground while you two swoop around overhead and pick them off one by one."
"It is a good plan," Xiao-tep said.
The toads formed rank and file as a massive wall staring down upon Xiao-tep and his two cohorts. Each toad was armed with some manner of weaponry: halberds, lion swords, and axes were common. Many had longbows made of beautiful yew. A few others had articulated weapons. All gleamed with armor and steel.
In unison they raised and slammed their weapons on the ground, on shields, rattling the walls of the courtyard, their mad croaking deafening the heroes with resounding clatter.
The demon toads charged.
Xiao-tep and Comet Fox took to the air.
Wu Chan Chu jumped high and at the oncoming demon toads, leaping into their middle, her fists swinging with ferocity and power. She knocked first one then another to the ground, catching them off guard. She squared off with a third as more closed in on her. Nerves tingled in her body, her mind grew cloudy. She swung with madness, making contact but with little damage done. She breathed deep, leaping backwards to the flank of the army, trying to clear her mind and think once more of the hawk. She landed and the toad army turned sideways. Their uniformity broke from necessity. Their numbers were ultimately too many for the courtyard as they all tried to press in, pushing one another, looking for a chance to strike.
Xiao-tep dived headlong into the madding crowd fraught with ignoble strife. His speared swirled into the fray, slashing and biting. With every cut came a death. Aelis would scream. Xiao-tep would feel the dying. The willow branch would shed tears.
Weapons reached out, toads croaking, and cut his arms and body. He flew away, thinking of his half-sister that had no such escape. Blood trickled from his wounds as he surveyed the madness of war. His eyes searched for Wu Chan Chu and found her near a wall battling toad after toad crushing in after her. She could concentrate on the few in front of her, but the rest sent her mind into confused chaos. They reached out with weapons and cut at her. She swatted blades away and crushed the chest of a toad with her fists. Comet Fox swooped down again and again near Wu Chan Chu, his ulu blades parting flesh, separating limbs from their host bodies. He acted as the meat grinder, untouchable and deadly.
Arrows were launched high, aimed at the floating Xiao-tep. He heard the twang of the bows, the hissing of the arrowheads. He swirled as he dived. His fins trailed behind him in flowing, watery motion. The willow branch shed tears that were flung into the air. He swirled and dived.
The archers were able to take aim once more before Xiao-tep came close to them. Three arrows bit into Xiao-tep's arm, sticking there painfully. He cried out, but did not stammer in his attack.
The demon toad archers broke rank into two groups, stepping away from the attacking Spear of Sorrows. Xiao-tep came to the ground and rotated his shoulders, swinging his spear to slice open the chest of one demon toad. He followed through with a launching attack, extending the spear its full reach and sinking it into the chest of another demon toad. The willow exploded with tears as the heart within the toad's chest exploded from the invading blades. Xiao-tep quickly removed the spearhead and the wound geysered with blood. He launched the shaft of the spear backward to parry an attacker there, swinging his bow weakly like a club. Xiao-tep lifted the butt end of the shaft up, knocking the toad below the chin and sending him reeling backwards in pain.
Xiao-tep spun his spear round and brought it horizontal before him. The toad archers hesitated. Xiao-tep stared them down.
Wu Chan Chu grabbed a demon toad by his arm and pulled him towards her, extending her free arm to clothesline the demon toad below the chin and send him to the ground. Comet Fox dived, sinking both his ulus into the chest of the downed toad. He freed them, parried an attack and flew back into the air.
Slowly Wu Chan Chu collected wounds on her body. Blood ran from each limb. Six, ten, twelve cuts adorned her body where it was unarmored. Her armor, too, collected wounds in the form of dents and scratches. Each blow to the armor weakened it.
Seeing the progression of the fight, Comet Fox yelled, "Xiao-tep!"
Hearing the plea, Xiao-tep lifted into the air and came to Comet Fox's side.
"I think it's best we concentrate our attacks near Wu Chan Chu. She can fight those in front of her while we dive in on either side."
"What of the archers?" Xiao-tep asked.
"Their comrades are battling us hand-to-hand. If they sling their arrows at us they risk hitting their own."
"They may not care."
"Maybe, but we'll deal with that if it should be their choice."
Xiao-tep dived over and over as did Comet Fox. He became a white and orange streak to one side of Wu Chan Chu while Comet Fox was a red and black streak to her other. The numbers of the demon toads dwindled, but not without waste. They attacked Wu Chan Chu, Comet Fox and Xiao-tep each. Each one bled and grew slow and tired with the fight.
Finally, the demon toads ceased their attack and backed away a mere step, their weapons ready and aimed.
Xiao-tep and Comet Fox landed near Wu Chan Chu.
"Is the fight over with?" Xao-tep asked.
"Cowards!" Wu Chan Chu smiled at the demon toads.
Cottonwood puffs fell silently and transmogrified from white cottony fluffs into spriggans. Their hard shelled bodies were brown and they had faces like mortal men. They could grow to any size and they chose to grow larger than even the demon toads. They filled the army's ranks to a number greater than it had been before the fighting even started.
"This is our realm as well as Ketsueki's," one called out. "We will defend it with our lives!"
Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu looked on in horror.
Comet Fox said, "I think we'll be dead before this sees an end."
Again a red and purple imp ran through the halls of the Cottonwood Chamber. He burst once more into the sleeping quarters of the imps and went directly to King Kleos. He bowed and said, "My Lord, the fish-god and his friends have fought valiantly and were nearing victory only to have the spriggans join to aid the demon toads."
Speculation and banter shockwaved through the crowded imps. Many spoke in horrified tones. Others called for action. Many still called for neutrality.
It was Ipiretis who declared his feelings loudest. "Damn it, Kleos! Now is the time for war! Now is the time for action! Now we must fight for our future and our freedom!"
An uproar filled the room.
King Kleos raised his hands and called for silence. The imps obeyed.
"Ipiretis, if you should ever call me by a familiar name again without my proper title, I will sink the blade into you chest with my own hand!"
"Ha! You? A murderer? You could not even kill the fish you ate from the villagers back home! You are a coward and your cowardice keeps us bound in servitude!"
"My rationality keeps us alive!" raged Kleos. "We've no part in this war. We will fight only when we have to, only when there in no other option. This is not our war, it is theirs.
"I may not be a warrior as my father had been, and I may have simply inherited his army, but it was under my command that we unified the imps of all the bogs and bring peace. It was also under my leadership that we made peace with the mortals of the village and doubled our food supply."
Kleos pointed to Ipiretis and said, "Bind him, complete with gag. We'll have no more impudence."
As two imps tied string about the wrists and ankles of Ipiretis and gagged him, one spoke softly in his ear, "Many are with you. We will ferret out a plan and free you to lead us. This old king shall soon be usurped."
Ipiretis grunted in reply.
Kleos surveyed his people and wondered at his decision.
The spriggans could fly and as such shifted the tempo and strategy of the battle. Xiao-tep and Comet Fox now found themselves fighting in the air while Wu Chan Chu fought the entire remainder of the demon toad army alone on the ground.
Xiao-tep streaked through the brown blurs made by the spriggans, slicing at each with the Spear of Sorrows. Wicked clawed hands reached out for him and cut his flesh. Scales fell away. Wounds were made.
Comet Fox soared around the spriggans, but he was not untouchable. Fur was cut and fell from his body. Blood poured from wounds to mat the rest of his fur to his body.
The two found themselves near one another.
"Xiao-tep!" Comet Fox called.
Xiao-tep parried an attack with his spear. "What is it, Comet Fox?"
"I fear my fighting abilities are weaker while I am sober."
Xiao-tep scoffed as he fought. "Fah! How can that be?"
Comet Fox lopped off the head of a spriggan and said, "I don't know, but my abilities are weaker. Before, when I was drunk with rum, I gave you and Wu Chan Chu a good fight. Now I make many mistakes and cannot react quickly enough." Comet Fox bent backwards as a spriggan's clawed hands reached for him. The claws ran through his fur and he erected himself to counter the attack. His ulus swung out and ran across the chest of the spriggan. Blood sprayed from the wounds into Comet Fox's face and he spit it back out at the now falling, dead spriggan.
Wu Chan Chu battled toad after toad on the ground. She grabbed one by the arm and flipped him into another. She pulled a lion sword from a third and placed it in the chest of a fourth. Spears and blades reached for her, eating her flesh, opening fresh wounds and carving on old ones. Blood flowed from her, spilling into the courtyard. Her jaw still ached from the wound Comet Fox had given her and she quietly cursed him for it.
Her tongue whipped out and relieved a toad of his spear. She spit it back out and into his chest. The toad screamed a gurgling scream before falling backwards, dead.
Bodies piled high near her and made getting to her harder for the toads. She stayed near the fallen enemies, using their obstacle to her advantage.
Xiao-tep created another whirlwind with his body, this time mid-air. His spear struck out here and there, stabbing at flying spriggans.
Once more the numbers of the enemies began to dwindle, this time much slower. Once more the heroes began to tire of battle, this time much quicker. Though sore and wounded and possibly dying, all three battled on.
Several imps returned from the kitchen wielding knives, two-handed like swords. They ran into the sleeping quarters in a rage, grabbed the king and placed a blade to his neck and demanded Ipiretis be set free. Unsure what else to do, the other imps unbound Ipiretis.
The seneschal rubbed his wrists as he approached Kleos.
"Now we fight," he said.
"We will not go with you," spoke one imp.
"What?" Ipiretis raged.
"We desire to fight as do you, Ipiretis," said the imp. "But Kleos is our King and we remain loyal to him."
"You will all fight!"
No one responded.
"How many feel this way? How many are with me? Come to me if you are!" Ipiretis demanded.
The few that had helped Ipiretis escape were all that came to stand at his side.
King Kleos struggled to release himself from his captors' grasps. "Your foolishness has lead you to dishonor and disloyalty," he said to Ipiretis. "Bind him once more and this time his followers with him."
The same imp that had spoken out against Ipiretis spoke once more, "Please, dear King, we beseech you! We remain loyal but we wish to fight! In all our time here we have not ever seen anyone challenge Ketsueki as the fish-god stranger does now. We can only believe this is our only chance. Please! Allow us this opportunity! Allow us to fight!" The imp bent down to one knee and lowered his head, raising his clasped hands above his head towards King Kleos. "Please, sire! We ask for this chance!"
King Kleos stared at the imp. He took great care not to look at Ipiretis. He asked of those crowded in the room, "How many feel so?"
One by one the entirety of the gathered imps went to one knee and raised their clasped hands towards Kleos.
Kleos sighed. "Where is our spy?"
At that moment the red and purple imp ran into the room, eyeing the activity within. He ran to King Kleos, bowed and spoke, "Sire, the spriggans have changed the tide of the war. The fish-god and his friends are vastly outnumbered. I fear them dead already."
"Do you hear?" Kleos called out. "The fight will soon end. It is better to stay here and ignore all else."
"Now is the time to raise arms!" Ipiretis cried out. "Now is the time to make our stand, to decide our destiny! If we do not fight now, we may never gain another chance! Stand with me now!"
Many imps stood and came to the side of Ipiretis, though more remained declaring their loyalty to King Kleos.
Ipiretis said, "Bind the old king. We've a new ruler now."
"Bind him and die!" someone declared.
Ipiretis' men readied their weapons.
"Stay your blades!" cried King Kleos. He looked hard at Ipiretis. "Would you spill the blood of your own for a chance to fight?"
"How selfish you are!" Kleos challenged.
"I do it for all of us! I wish to fight for our people!"
"By spilling their blood yourself?"
Ipiretis understood the illogical solution of slaying his own people to free them. He said, "I am no thinker. I am a general and a seneschal. I was born for the fight, nothing more. Now is our time to fight and all I can see is our future, our freedom. King Kleos, you are right to point out the errors of my thinking, but I will still fight and those who wish to follow me may."
"If you fight and lose, we will all suffer whether we raise a blade with you or not," Kleos said.
Kleos surveyed his people. Though most remained loyal to him, they looked at him with pleading eyes. "Failure in this war would mean a fate worse than death. We all know the horrors that occur outside this chamber's walls. We hear the screams at night as we sleep. You know what the future may hold. I ask once more: Do you all wish to fight?"
Every imp nodded to their king.
Kleos sighed. "Wish that I could spare you such a fate. Wish that I could whisk you all away unharmed and free to our homelands. Wish that I were a better man. If you wish to fight, then we will fight and I shall lead you."
A small cheer was raised, though most understood the somber occasion and merely raised themselves to their feet, ready to follow their king.
"Ipiretis," King Kleos said. "Amongst us you are the best trained for war. You are my general and seneschal. Will you lead us to war as I know you can?"
Ipiretis nodded. "It is my duty and destiny."
Again Kleos sighed. "To most of you this palace is this sleeping quarters and perhaps one other room filled with duties that have been set about for you. For me, I have served as faithful servant to that vile demon Ketsueki our entire stay here. While humiliating, it has allowed me the opportunity to become intimate with every corner of this palace." Kleos' eyes scanned the crowded imps. "I know where the armory is."
King Kleos lead his people on a mad march through the halls of the Cottonwood Palace, turning at this corridor and entering the door at the next. Finally they came to the armory and they flooded in, picking and choosing small knives to wield as swords, bucklers to be used as body shields, arrowheads to be used as spears. Every weapon was enchanted and every weapon that could be used by the small imps was picked up.
Armed and ready the red and purple imps marched once more through the labyrinthine palace until, at last, they came to the main doors.
King Kleos paused. He looked first to Ipiretis who stood at his side, then to his people. He felt the occasion merited words, though he knew none that could bring them any further knowledge than what they already had. They all understood that most of their numbers, if not all, would die this day. They knew a loss meant a fate worse than death. Instead of grand orations or wisdom, King Kleos simply said, "Do as Ipiretis says. I trust him. And know I am proud of you all."
The double doors of the Cottonwood Palace burst wide. The imps flooded into the courtyard of the Cottonwood Chamber.
Xiao-tep swung the Spear of Sorrows, catching a spriggan in the side and slicing off an arm. Another spriggan came from behind him, grabbing the fish-god and sinking stinging claws into his flesh. Xiao-tep cried out before he pulled his spear back and pressed it against his attacker's chest, using leverage to pry the creature from off his frame.
Xiao-tep turned on his attacker and sank the spearhead deep into his belly. Blood from the spriggan and tears from the willow branch rained on the courtyard. Xiao-tep pulled the spear free and the spriggan fell away, dead.
"Xiao-tep!" called Comet Fox. "The courtyard!"
Xiao-tep looked to see the imps joining the battle. "We don't need any more enemies this day!" he called out.
Comet Fox stabbed a spriggan twice in the chest and let him fall away before he flew to Xiao-tep's side. "No," he said. "Look closer."
Xiao-tep did and saw the imps leaping, wielding blades and stabbing at the legs of the demon toads. He knew then he could call them allies.
"I know not their motives," he told Comet Fox, "but I am pleased they are here."
Wu Chan Chu spun and delivered a wicked haymaker to the gut of a demon toad. The creature flew backwards into the unsuspecting arms of his brethren. They fell away from the battle and more toads pressed in on her in their place. Noticing some small movement, she looked down to see several imps attacking the calves of the demon toads.
"Why are you here?" she demanded of them as she punched another toad.
"We fight for our freedom as do you!" called back one of them.
"Welcome to the fight!" Wu Chan Chu laughed.
Left and right, hither and thither the imps were trampled on or kicked away. They proved no match for the much larger demon toads. King Kleos served as witness to the deaths of many of his own people this day. Anger and sadness filled him. He questioned his decision to allow them to go to war, but knew it was too late for such thoughts. Emotion carried him swiftly into battle, his voice growing hoarse with battle-cries. He lead an attack on a toad only to be kicked away.
Rolling on the ground, King Kleos lay there and watched his followers trampled into oblivion. How frail their bodies seemed to him. King Kleos thought of his father and wished he had his skills for war. He thought of his father's last battle, the one with the wolf and how he so bravely ran after the creature to slice at its paws. He wondered what his father would do on this battlefield Kleos now found himself on.
Instantly, he knew.
King Kleos got to his feet and charged after the nearest demon toad's foot. He circled round behind it and with all his might dug his blade deep into the heel of the creature.
The toad cried out.
The tendon within snapped.
As Kleos removed the blade he was covered with a spray of red ichor.
The toad fell.
King Kleos looked around and found Ipiretis nearby.
"Ipiretis!" he cried.
Ipiretis turned to find King Kleos covered from head to toe in blood and dodging a falling demon toad. Never would he have thought he would one day see his king covered with such gore.
"The heel!" King Kleos cried out to him. "Attack the heel!" He then showed Ipiretis by stabbing at the heel of yet another demon toad. Once more blood sprayed over his frame as another tendon snapped and another toad fell.
Ipiretis understood immediately and began attacking in the same manner. Together they spread the word to their people and soon the imps were sawing, hacking and stabbing at the heel of every enemy they could find. One by one the toads fell, the mighty pillars of strength crumbling.
Wu Chan Chu, who had the best view of all this, watched in awe of her little companions. She thanked them over and over for their battle strategy as she fought alongside them with pride, attacking those the imps did not or could not immediately attack.
There soon was as many demon toads rolling on the ground in pain, incapable of attacking and useless as there was still standing and fighting.
The battle shifted once more. The spriggans dived on the imps, clawing and killing them in an effort to save their demon toad brethren. Xiao-tep and Comet Fox chased after them, their blades slicing at the spriggans and felling them swiftly.
Wu Chan Chu felt the pressures of the battle ease from her and she fought on with greater fury and skill.
Once more the heroes gained a foothold on the battle. Once more victory came within sight.
"Grah!" the roar echoed throughout the Cottonwood Chamber, shaking every wall and every limb of those held within. With a puff of red smoke the demon Kestsueki Sato appeared.
"I'll kill you all!" he declared. He began growing in size. He grew and grew until all within the Cottonwood Chamber ceased their attacking and defending to watch in horror the size Ketsueki was achieving. He grew until, at last, he was a size ten times greater than even Xiao-tep could grow to. He grew until he could cross the entire length of the courtyard with a single step. He grew until he could grow no more.
Only Comet Fox remained attacking. He sat, straddled across a spriggan he had downed, punching the creature repeatedly in the chest with his ulu blades. With a final breath the spriggan looked to something high overhead and smiled. The creature's head lolled and dropped to the ground in death.
Comet Fox stood and looked up to see what the spriggan had been looking at. He found the demon Ketsueki there. Comet Fox looked up and up and looked up some more until at last he thought he could make out the head of the demon.
"How are we supposed to fight that?" Comet Fox asked himself.
Xiao-tep was the first to attack. He spiraled round and round, the Spear of Sorrows extended, Aelis screaming, until the quad-bladed spearhead sank into Ketsueki's breast and did no damage. Xiao-tep immediately knew the problem: his spear was not deep enough to sink into Ketsueki's now immense frame to satisfy its design. It now only pricked at the skin of the demon and, with a laugh, he swatted Xiao-tep away like a mortal does a mosquito.
The courtyard surged with battle. Xiao-tep fought off the attacking spriggans and occasionally stabbed at Ketsueki in an attempt to decipher a weakness. The demon toad archers shot arrows into the air at Xiao-tep as he flew.
Wu Chan Chu battled with the remaining demon toads in the courtyard alongside several imps.
More imps gathered at Ketsueki's heel. With determination they chopped and sawed and stabbed at the demon's skin, but it proved futile. Blades were bent and broken against the thick skin. They could do nothing, but they tried and carried on in their attempts.
Comet Fox circled the demon, fighting off the flying spriggans and searching for a weakness.
A spriggan came alongside Comet Fox who attacked the creature, his ulu blade whistling through the air. The spriggan dived, dodging the blade, and quickly raised back up in a counterattack. Claws dug deep into Comet Fox's gut. Another spriggan joined the first and sunk its claws into Comet Fox's leg. A third came and grabbed an arm of the fox god. Together they flew down into the courtyard with the struggling Comet Fox under their control. He cried out to Xiao-tep for help, but the fish-god could do nothing as he was being attacked at the same time.
It was Wu Chan Chu that came to his aid. She jumped high and over her attackers to come to where the spriggans were setting down. She punched first one then another. Their claws slipped from the fox god's flesh and he was able to wrestle himself away from the third spriggan, stabbing at its throat with an ulu as he once more took to the air, thanking Wu Chan Chu as he did.
Wu Chan Chu turned her concentration onto Ketsueki. She jumped again and again, landing on one of his many horns each time, until she came level with one of his knees. Remembering her training with Hermit Snow, Wu Chan Chu attacked the knee over and over with her double-fisted punch as she had done with the boulder. She punched and punched in the hopes of shattering the knee. She cried out, "Break, you damn fool knee! Break!"
Finally the knee shifted just a bit, though it did not break. It shifted enough to make Ketsueki take a step to maintain his posture. She knew then she may have a chance of crippling the demon.
She continued her punching. Over and over again she punched. She screamed with every punch. Sweat poured from her tiring body. She flung the damaged armor from her body to make punching easier for her. She punched and punch and punched but the knee gave no more.
Wu Chan Chu cried out in anger. Hope slipped from her heart and for the first time she considered the possibility that she and Xiao-tep and Comet Fox may lose this fight and have to face a fate worse than death.
Xiao-tep was circled by several spriggans. His spear flung out, nipping their flesh. When he fell one, another would take it's place. They seemed content to keeping him occupied and away from Ketsueki Sato. They did not press their attack, they simply circled him in every direction and defended themselves. Xiao-tep wanted desperately to attack the demon Ketsueki, but he could not break free from the spriggan prison. His heart sank, at a loss for what to do.
Ketsueki happily jumped and squashed dozens of imps at a time. He bellowed with laughter as he accidentally killed his own demon toads.
Comet Fox rose high, flying as fast as he could into the eye of the demon. He knew the eye may prove to be a weakness. He came in with a long tail of white streaking behind him. At the last moment Ketsueki saw the streak of light and winced, closing his eyes and protecting it from the attacking Comet Fox.
Comet Fox cursed in frustration and weariness. He delivered blow after blow at Ketsueki's head in hopes of finding a weakness. He struck at the temple. He reached up and stabbed inside the nostril. He tried to stab under the chin as he had done with Wu Chan Chu. He found no weakness. He struck everything in blind frustration, the demon Ketsueki waving at him in an attempt to knock the pest away.
"It is hopeless!" Comet Fox cried to no one in particular.
Finally, he flew as quickly as he could, swirling round and round the head of the demon, both arms and ulus extended before him. He dived at one of the large horns atop Ketsueki's head. To Comet Fox's surprise, the horn came free, split in two by his blades.
All gathered watched, ceasing other activity, as the horn fell away.
All watched the horn spiraling towards the ground.
All watched as the horn tumbled to the courtyard.
As the horn fell hope appeared as a small, lone candle on a moonless night.
Angered, Ketsueki reached out to grab and fling Comet Fox into the courtyard. Comet Fox hit the ground so hard he was buried beneath the courtyard's dirt and dust was flung into the air.
Imps came running to his aid, using their weapons to dig him out. Comet Fox coughed in agony, his body twisted in pain.
"O great fox god," one of the imps said as they cleared dirt from around his face. "Are you alive?"
Comet Fox coughed and breathed and groaned. "I'm not sure," he said. "You wouldn't happen to have any rum, would you?"
The imp shook his head, "No."
"Then I am dead."
The imp laughed with the aching Comet Fox.
Xiao-tep spun, creating another whirlwind. His spear struck out in every direction at the spriggans, killing and maiming at will until at last an opening was discovered and he escaped their numbers.
Wu Chan Chu returned to her attacks upon the knee of the demon.
King Kleos ran through the courtyard, blood raining from the sky all around him, making his way towards the fallen horn. He struggled to pick up the large horn, discarding his weapon, and held it with incredible strength and will high over his head towards the flying Xiao-tep.
"Fish-god!" he cried out.
Xiao-tep looked down to see the gore-covered imp with the horn.
"His pit!" cried King Kleos. "He is weak in the pit!"
Understanding, Xiao-tep swooped down, grabbing the massive horn and flying high once more. He waited and watched. He flew around the face of Ketsueki, taking great care to avoid his waving hand and holding the horn tightly in his hand.
Wu Chan Chu punched and punched at the knee until, at last, it exploded. Bone fragments tore through the red flesh of the demon that cried out in pain. Wu Chan Chu jumped away as Ketsueki fell to one knee.
The demon raised his arms to balance himself. Xiao-tep spared no moment. He flew faster than he had ever flown, the Spear of Sorrows in one hand while he held the horn out in the other, extending it as far as he could reach. A trail of tears fell from his willow branch. Xiao-tep cried out in desperation.
With ferocity and precision he struck the pit with the horn. It was long and twisted and strong. The horn sunk deep into the pit, splitting open the nipple there. Blood exploded from the wound and pushed Xiao-tep all the way to the ground.
The demon cried out in pain.
Xiao-tep's willow branch mixed tears into the falling, spewing blood.
Ketsueki's eyes melted and blood pooled in the sockets. His teeth fell from his mouth and into the courtyard. Ketsueki's roar echoed, rumbling the foundations of the Cottonwood Chamber and sending tremors through the rest of the Chamber of Dismemberment by Sawing.
The Yama Kings took notice and knew that Ketsueki was dying. They decided to remain neutral and ignored the demon's cries.
Ketsueki Sato's skin melted into blood, his flesh below erupting into fire that was quickly put out by the blood flowing from his mouth and pit and nose and ears. He melted until there was nothing left of him but blood.
Blood filled the Cottonwood Chamber until the imps could no longer walk and had to swim. Comet Fox safely floated, the imps that had dug him out still at his side and watching over him.
Wu Chan Chu stood watching the melting demon.
Ketsueki was gone.
The gates to the Cottonwood Chamber flung open and his blood poured out into the universe. Several bodies and imps and still-living demon toads were swept away with it. Wu Chan Chu grabbed the floating Comet Fox and kept him from falling to the same fate. The imps guarding him climbed atop the fox god and thanked Wu Chan Chu.
Everyone and everything was covered in blood.
Xiao-tep joined his friends at their side.
"Will Comet Fox survive?" he asked his half-sister.
"That depends," Comet Fox answered before Wu Chan Chu could. "If I can never get these imps from off my chest I may never breathe again."
The imps climbed off the fox god's chest. He stood, feebly and with great effort. He walked over to a wall and leaned against it. Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu joined him.
The remaining demon toads left through the gate without looking at the heroes.
The spriggans turned back into the cottonwood puffs. A final one approached Xiao-tep and his friends. "You have defeated us," he said. "And stained our home. Go, please, and never return." He, like the others, turned back into a cottonwood seedling and floated to the ground.
King Kleos gathered what few of his people remained. Ipiretis walked up to the king and, with a great deal of effort from the wounds he had suffered and not from a lack of desire, he bowed to King Kleos, giving him his respect.
Together the imps approached Xiao-tep.
"Fish-god, we thank you," spoke Kleos.
"the name is Xiao-tep," Xiao-tep bowed, "And without you our battle would have ended in defeat."
"I am King Kleos. Without you," King Kleos responded. "My people would not be free." He looked at the meager numbers gathered round him and wanted to cry. He looked again to Xiao-tep. "Farewell, fish-god. And should you ever find yourself in the bogs that is our homeland, know that you will find friends there."
Xiao-tep bowed deeply to the imps as they passed by and through the gates of the chamber.
Xiao-tep, Wu Chan Chu and Comet Fox were left alone int he courtyard of the Cottonwood Chamber.
Xiao-tep, with help from Wu Chan Chu, removed the three arrows from his arm.
They each were sore and riddled with wounds.
Xiao-tep looked to her and asked, "What will you do now?"
"I will seek out our father."
"He is in an arid land," Xiao-tep told her. "His people are beautiful and bold."
She nodded. "Will you accompany me?"
Xiao-tep thought a moment before he shook his head. "No, there is nothing more for me there."
"What will you do?"
Xiao-tep closed his eyes. He felt the last few tears fall from the willow branch onto his chest. An image of the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree came to him. He opened his eyes and looked to his sister. "I will travel to the realm of mortal men. There I will ease as much suffering as the Cosmos will allow."
Wu Chan Chu looked to Comet Fox. "What of you? What will you do? Where will you go?"
Comet Fox groaned and rubbed at his head filled with pain. "I think I should try sobriety for a while."
Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu looked at one another and smiled.
"Then," said Comet Fox, "since it would seem the Cosmos have plans for me to fight in this life, I shall seek a new master and learn a new form."
Xiao-tep nodded at the wisdom of the fox god.
"We each have quite a bit of traveling ahead of us. Perhaps we should travel together for a ways before we have to part," Wu Chan Chu suggested.
"I would like that," Xiao-tep agreed.
"Why not? You two have brought me nothing but fun times so far," said Comet Fox.
The three laughed.
Together, they stepped through the gates of the Cottonwood Chamber.
The sun was shining all day in the countryside. It was summer and children of all ages were running, playing and enjoying the day, enjoying being alive and well and under the happy, smiling sun.
Two boys, Sam and Tom, ran through the countryside. Each trailed behind them a kite, one adorned with the design of a fish, the other painted like a bright star.
They launched the kites high and giggled and ran and played.
The sun baked their fresh skin and it felt good to them.
Their faces grew wide with smiles.
The leapt over streams and ran through wide open fields.
They stopped to moo at cows and chase after butterflies and cats.
Their day was full of the business of being alive and young.
As the sun set, they came to a river and washed themselves until they felt fresh and clean and new. They laid down in the grass growing along the river. It was soft under their bodies. They placed the kites at their sides and Sam picked a stem of grass, placing it in his mouth to chew on. The grass tasted sweet and was wet inside.
They laughed and told tall tales to one another as they watched the sun slowly descend.
The sun shimmered on the horizon before saying its last 'goodnight' to the boys and disappeared. The sky soon after sparked with fire as stars awoke with life all aglow.
As the two boys lay in the grass, three streaks of light crossed over the horizon.
"Are those falling stars?" Tom asked.
"I dunno," said Sam, propping himself up on his elbows. "Falling stars don't usually fall together, side-by-side, like that."
They watched the three lights streak across the sky and disappear.
"Huh," said Sam. "I wonder what that was all about."
Thanks to everyone for reading. Be sure to check back next week for a breakdown of notes from me on the entire tale "The Children of Gods".