Friday, July 31, 2009

We Interrupt this Story...

Hey folks,

To say the least, I'm burnt out. Normally I would wait until I've completed an individual tale for The Children of Gods before I take a break... alas, I reiterate: I'm burnt out.

Due to my lack of motivation and exhaustion, I won't be posting the third and final Act of "The Tiger and the Hare" this week. Once more, you'll have to wait three weeks as I try to recoup. I would not do this unless I felt it necessary.

Until then, here's a teaser trailer for James Cameron's movie Avatar, due out this December.

With apologies,

~ Charles

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Tiger and the Hare" -- Act II

And now for Act II of "The Tiger and the Hare"!


~ Charles


"The Tiger and the Hare" copyright 2009 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


THE ECSTASY OF THE BLOOD MOON: Wherein Ketsueki Retains a Loyal Servant; Ketsueki Makes a Weapon for The Empress' Champion; Elkhorn Tries His New Bow; Mabo Runs in Fear



In the southernmost region of Bizo there lived a brother and sister, Jiang and Qiu Gang. Came they from a close family and quite different were they in disposition. Wherein Qui Gang was powerful, outgoing, protective and trusting her brother was secretive, diminutive, shy and lonely. Qiu Gang was beautiful. So bitter was Jiang his body contorted with vinegar soul until he a hump grew on his back and he scowled at even the blue jay's song.

Together they had saved all their money since childhood and the passing of their parents to purchase a small mill in Bizo. There they ground wheat and oats for local farmers to be taken to markets all over the world. They made for themselves a happy home in Bizo, growing up and growing old together.

The people of Bizo, in turn, learned to love the newcomers Jiang and Qiu Gang. As the brother and sister adopted Bizo as their home, so the people of Bizo adopted them as neighbors and friends. Many men fell in love with Qiu Gang and pursued her only to be gently beaten away with kind smiles and soft gestures. Many men grew angry at this. One such man was a nearby farmer named Xue Xun that had recently inherited his farm after his father's passing. Xue Xun soon found himself plotting to capture the attentions of Qie Gang despite herself.

Still others grew haggard with worry for Qiu Gang. Whenever others met with Qiu Gang they would praise her charm, honesty and hospitality. And when they met Jiang, they scowled and spat his name in whispers.

"A dark man," they would say, "filled with sorrow, so much sorrow he torments his sister and keeps her from wedded life."

Time passed, friends and neighbors grew closer to Qiu Gang and evermore distant from her brother. Once, when asked by a neighbor why her brother was so foul in mood and demeanor, Qiu Gang explained, "He was tormented horribly as a child. He tried love many times with many girls, but all treated his disrespectfully and a few ran off with much of his money. He is bitter at the roots with all creatures, I am afraid to admit, but he is my brother and I love him and he trusts me so I will never part from his side until one of us dies."

Word spread of Qiu Gang's tale and her selflessness made her more adored by all that knew her.

Qiu Gang urged Jiang to seek out the friendship of others, but he refused. At last she said, "In the very least, when you take your daily nap do so outside in the sun or in the shade of a tree. Do not squander your every hour indoors, locked away from the world."

Jiang took this advice, though moreso to avoid confrontation with his sister. He soon was seen by many to be sleeping in the shade of a white oak. One such person was Xue Xun.

One day, while sleeping under the oak, Xue Xun when to a local elder known as a mystic and named Zhen. He was an old man of long, white beard and hair, His eyes were forever squinting. He never wore clothing over his torso, merely wrapping the purest white cloths about his waist and strapping leather sandals to his feet. Master Zhen glowed with wisdom.

"Please aid me in winning the love of the beautiful Qiu Gang," pleaded Xue Xun. "My life is nothing without her. When she passes my farm I can smell lilacs for hours. She does not bathe in flower water, or least I do not believe so. She is too simple a woman to take on such extravagance. She is merely beautiful to the point of being flower of her own accord. I must have her, Master Zhen! I must have her! I beg for your help!"

At this Zhen threw himself before Master Zhen.

Master Zhen eyed the young farmer. "Get up, you damned fool," he commanded. As Xue Xun did as he was told, Master Zhen said, "I do not think I'll dissuade you from taking certain courses of action to gain Qiu Gang's love, but I must issue this warning: my help will come at a hefty price."

"I'll pay you anything you ask of me!" cried Xue Xun.

Master Zhen shook his head. "I will ask for no payment. I will help you without fee and I will help you only because I am an old man and if I am to suffer it is no matter. But if I let you run off to find some other way to win Qiu Gang's love you will certainly make another suffer and I cannot allow that."

"Then what is this payment you speak of?" asked Xue Xun.

Master Zhen eyed Xue Xun closely. He said, "You will gain Qiu Gang's love, but blood will have to flow, starting with your own. You must make a sacrifice of your blood into my bowl and this first bloodletting shall only be followed by more of the same."

"What do you mean by this?" asked Xue Xun. "What kind of bloodletting will follow mine own?"

"That I cannot say. What we tamper with is the will of the Cosmos themselves and they will do as needed to set things right for our tampering."

Xue Xun thought on this moment, then thought of his beloved Qiu Gang. "I will pay any price," he told Master Zhen.

And so a ceremony was done. Xue Xun cut himself at the wrist and let his blood spill forth into Master Zhen's bowl. Master Zhen then mixed a poultice with the blood and gave it to Xue Xun, saying, "The matter with Qiu Gang, I am told, is that she is so very loyal to her brother. Remove the brother from her life and she will be open to marriage. Take this poultice to him, rub it onto his skin. I know not how you'll accomplish this, but it is no longer a matter to me. Do so and in a day's time Qiu Gang will be free from her familial bondage."

Xue Xun thanked Master Zhen greatly and promised him many fortunes before running from the old man's home. As Xue Xun ran, he hoped Jiang was yet asleep beneath the white oak and, much to his pleasure, found that he was.

Xue Xun crept up on the slumbering Jiang. As the fouled brother snored heavily, Xue Xun softly rubbed the poultice, all of it, onto Jiang's arms and cheeks before running away.

Xue Xun, knowing not else what to do, returned to his farming for the rest of the day.

The twittering fife of Teo, a foul little fairy, woke Jiang.

Jiang roared angrily, "Who is there? Who dares disturb my slumber? I shall kill whosoever plays their foul pipe upon my land!"

Teo laughed maniacally. He appeared before Jiang as a mound of moss. Only his dark face, gnarled yellowed teeth and green eyes outlined by white gave his location away.

"You dare threaten me?" Teo laughed and taunted. "But you are so big! Only fools and mortals allows themselves to be so big. Only the gods are bigger but they're so important they deserve their size. But look at you! How would you catch me? Or, wait... yes, yes, I know! This is all in jest! Ohh! Hahaha! Your jest quite amuses me! You are a good teller of jokes, big one!"

"Stop that laughing!" Jiang scowled. "I make no jokes! This is my land my sleep that you disturb, fly! Off with yourself or I'll rid myself of you with violence!"

Again Teo laughed. "Ohhhh! Please, please, dear man, please stop! Your hilarity is so immense I am in tears!"

Jiang punched at the ground where Teo stood, but when he lifted his hand he could find Teo nowhere.

"I am here, fool!" Teo called from his side, this time his voice was angry and serious. "You don't jest! You meant me harm!"

"Of course I did! And I still do!" shouted Jiang. Again he punched. Again Teo disappeared only to reappear at Jiang's side.

"Who are you! Why have you come to disturb my slumber?" demanded Jiang.

"I have come because I was called. Rather, it was my master that was summoned for help."

"What help? What master? Who are you?"

"I am Teo. My master is Masabakes, Demoness of Lust."

"What matter would a Demoness of Lust have with me?"

Teo lied, "She hasn't business with you, rather your sister. She seeks great fortune.Your sister seeks your fortune."

"Lies! My sister is the only person I can trust!"

"Very well then," Teo huffed. "If you do not wish to hear my explanation fo my presence, then you tell me my reason for being here."

Jiang thought it over only to realize the fairy's tale made sense.

"I'll kill her!" cried out Jiang.

Teo smiled and disappeared, this time never to reappear again.

Jiang grew jealous and stormed to the mill, confronting her as she prepared their supper and accused her of plotting to run off with their savings.

"All the money we've made," said he, "all the efforts we've put into this mill and you wish to destroy me to keep everything for yourself!"

"How dare you?" Qiu Gang was appalled. "I've been everso loyal to you and this is how I am to be repaid? With suspicion and accusation?"

"If this not be true," issued Jiang, "then sell me your half of the mill while you remain here to continue working with me. If you remain without any fortune to be gained, then your love and honesty will be proven!"

"But I've worked as hard as you to run this mill!"

"Sell it to me or prove yourself a liar!"

In the hour of heat, when days run long overhead and shine down with angry warmth, one often is not of their own mind. Such was this day for Qiu Gang. Her temper flared, her loyalties wounded, she cried out, "Rather would I sell my half of the mill to a demon than you!"

Outside the mill, Etain descended, Kalavata climbed high. Moonlight dappled the landscape of the southern regions of Bizo as the demon Ketsueki Sato came to them atop the flying beast Neboshazaar. Together they flew betwixt clouds, over fields growing with crops, above trickling streams until they came near a mill and, lifted on the night air, Ketsueki heard the sounds of an argument. He smiled at the anger in the voices, smiled at the suspicion and hatred in the tones.

Ketsueki Sato and Neboshazaar descended from the sky to land nearby the mill. Slowly he entered the home, opening wide the door on a world of suspicion and venom. He reveled in the sound, cackled loudly at the sight.

Jiang and Qiu Gang turned on him.

Qiu Gang screamed at the sight of the wooden demon, his lava eyes. "Who are you?" she demanded. "Rid us of yourself, demon!"

"A demon I be," spoke Ketsueki with charming tones. "But mine is not the hatred found here."

"I knew it!" Jiang broke into the conversation. "You consort with demons! You lying trollop!"

"He is not my demon to contend with!" defended Qiu Gang.

"Oh, ho-ho! But I am your demon to contend with now, young ones."

"What is it you wish here? Nevermind! I'll not know your business! Leave us, demon!" Qiu Gang spat.

Ketsueki smiled. He further entered the mill, running his woody fingers along the mill's wheel to feel the strength and weight there. He spoke slowly, baitingly, "I've come to proffer unto you a game of chance. Win and you shall live, lose and you shall die. Refuse to play and you'll both be horribly killed. Now, who's to die? Who's to die?"

"We'll not play any of your games, demon!" Qiu Gang was angry, disturbed, frightened by the appearance of Ketsueki Sato and yet shivering from anger with her brother. "Leave us now! Go back to whichever of the Hells you sprang from."

Ketsueki frowned. "If only I could." His frown turned to a wicked, gnarly smile once more. "But that is another matter entirely. Now we must play or you shall both die. Allow me a moment to consider... I know! I shall kill the weaker of the two."

Ketsueki drew near Jiang. A long vine moved out from Ketsueki's feet, up Jiang's thigh and back to caress his hunch.

"Yes," hissed the demon. "This one is incredibly weak with illness and despair. I shall take this one. Does this seem proper? But then, this other is so very pretty. It would be such a loss for the world if she were to die. Oh, to choose! I cannot make myself choose."

Ketsueki came to stand between brother and sister. He eyed them both slowly, maliciously. At last he said, "If I cannot choose, then you must choose for me. Choose now which of you will die or shall you both be rendered into the grave."

Neither brother nor sister spoke.

"Very well, then. I will kill this weak one, this hunchback, this ugly fiend of a man." Ketsueki's vines whipped out to latch onto Jiang's body.

Jiang cried out in fear.

"Stop it!" demanded Qiu Gang. "If you must take one of us, then take me!"

Ketsueki smiled. He let go of Jiang and moved closer to Qiu Gang, his vines wrapping about her waist, binding her legs and wrists. She whimpered in fear, tears waterfalling from eyes down her cheeks. Ketsueki looked to Jiang, hoping to prolong the agony he felt on the air, to feed off the terror of these weak mortals.

"Shall I do this wicked thing?" he asked.

Jiang did not look at the demon of wood, did not look to his sister. He thought of Qiu Gang's demon-consorting, of her betrayal and knew neither from the truth. Pain filled his world, broke as a wave against a shore, smashing inside him with fury.

Jiang looked up, to his sister, gazing into her tear-filled eyes.

"Kill her," he said.

Ketsueki threw the woman against a stone wall of the mill and there pinned her with his vines as his hand reached out to grasp the spinning miller's wheel and lift it some distance while the wind mill outside caught wind and turned it. Standing, the wheel grinding against his hands, filing them, splintering them, he threw Qiu Gang beneath the wheel and let the wheel drop atop her, crushing her, grinding her, breaking her down into a mulch of blood and flesh and ground bone. Ketsueki then placed a bucket by the wheel's edge to allow blood to collect within. When it was half full, Ketsueki pricked up the bucket and drank deeply the blood of the dead Qiu Gang.

Covered in carnage, his ever-drying wood body now limber once more, Ketsueki dropped the bucket and approached Jiang. He said, "Some day in the future you may want your revenge. Should that day arrive, come to me and I will kill you then."

The demon Ketsueki Sato left the mill. As he mounted Neboshazaar he spied Jiang stepping from the mill's door.

"What's this? Has the day come already? Am I to kill you now?" Ketsueki smiled a bloody smile of pleasure.

Jiang approached the two vile creatures, eyed them, said, "My mill is nothing without my sister. I cannot possibly work it alone."

"This is not a problem for me, mortal. Cry to another in your country," growled Ketsueki.

"It's not your problem, that much is true. But this mill and this land have nothing more for me. I am in need of a new life and am willing to submit to a life of service."

"What is it that you are saying, mortal? Out with your desires."

Jiang was hesitant at first, but then worked his words with the greatest of confidence. "I wish to come with you. Wherever you may go, I shall follow. If you're in need of more blood, I shall find it for you." At this Jiang went to one knee and said, "I shall promise my services to you in full and for a lifetime."

Ketsueki looked down on Jiang. "What is your name, hunchback?"

"I am called Jiang."

"Jiang the Hunched One, welcome into the service of a demon." Ketsueki put out his wooden hand to clasp that of Jiang's and pull him up on Neboshazaar's back to ride behind him. Together, the three took to the air, scudding across the moon as shadows haunting the night.

"Where do we go, master?" asked Jiang.

"We seek the Eternal Empress, boy! We seek her out for fortune and greater chances at bringing destruction into this world! We seek her out so that I may amass an army to kill the gods themselves, namely the one called Xiao-tep the Ankh-fish!"

"I have heard of such a god," spoke Jiang, loudly over the din of passing wind. "I must confess, I never liked his tales. His courage and beauty and luck are a disgrace upon us mortals. This makes me far happier to be in your service, my lord!"

Ketsueki cackled, driving Neboshazaar higher into the clouds as Jiang clung tightly to them both.



Came Ketsueki and Jiang upon Neboshazaar into the great city surrounding the palace of the Eternal Empresss. Came they at night, at an early hour when the moon had yet to rise to its apex, when many were bedding down yet few were asleep. Came Ketsueki to the palace and demanded an audience with the Empress.

An imperial servant in the Empress' army ran to his liege's side where he delivered this message, "My Empress, a demon has visited our fair land this evening He stands as we speak at the doorway to the palace and demands an audience with my Empress. I forbade this, but he insists. As he is a Blessed One, I've come to you for counsel on the matter. Shall I turn the demon away?"

The Eternal Empress had been preparing herself for slumber when her loyal servant came to her bedchamber. Her great flowing turquoise gown embellishments and embroidery of finely spun silver lifted on every current of air as she considered him, as she considered the demon that visited her palace.

"Bring him hence," she commanded. "I will see him while I sit upon my throne."

And so the demon Ketsueki Sato and his servant Jiang was ushered to the throne of the Eternal Empress. She sat upon her throne lifted high above them and surrounded by a series of arching steps of white marble. She looked down on them as though they were her servants, looked down on them as if she herself a goddess. Her movements were fine, thought Ketsueki, her presence demanding and powerful. He was impressed with this mortal-turned-Blessed One. Her beauty, most of all, impressed him, made him desire her, made him hate and envy her. He stood a wooden shell of his former self, a mighty demon, while she sat upon a throne of gold resting upon the finest marble with all the beauty of the world in her face though she had begun life mortal.

He shook aside his envy and said, "Empress Sulia Laree, I am the demon Ketsueki Sato and I've come seeking an alliance. I am told you currently hunt the fox-god Comet Fox for he has taken off with your daughter, acting as her guardian. I found truth in this when not more than a mere few hours ago I met your commander called Elkhorn. He has sent me your way."

"Has he now?" she asked, eying her own beautiful garments in hopes of showing no interest in the demon.

"He has, but I first came here of my own accord."

"What alliance do you suggest?" the Empress yawned mockingly.

Ketsueki scowled, his vines working wildly with anger and impatience. He said, "Let it be known that once I was the mighty ruler of the Cottonwood Chamber in the Many Hells, but I was tricked, betrayed and usurped by three foul creatures: two gods and one demi-goddess. One of those gods was none other than the very fox-god you now hunt."

The Empress at last looked to Ketsueki, though she played at her eyes being heavy with weariness from the day and a lack of interest in the demon.

Feeling slighted, Ketsueki said, "Empress, I ask that you look at me." When the Empress closed her eyes in defiance, he growled with thunderous tone, "Look at me!"

So sharp was Ketsueki's tone, his words, that the Empress could not help but look upon him. All her feigns ceased and she quietly admitted to herself a certain fear in having a demon in her palace.

"Your gazing suits me," said Ketsueki Sato. "I will not be ignored, not by any god and certainly not by any self-important, self-righteous mortal-turned-immortal!"

"How dare you?" gasped the Empress. "I should have your head for speaking to me thusly!"

Ketsueki placed a wooden foot upon the first step leading to her throne. The Empress' men drew their weapons as he spoke, "I would like you to try my fury, Empress."

The Empress looked to her soldiers and nodded. They lunged at Ketsueki Sato.

Jiang made a weak attempt to fight for his master, but was tripped and put down by a soldier that then lead a charge at the demon.

Out shot the thorny vines of Ketsueki's form, clasping and stabbing at the soldiers. He strangled, entangled and tore apart six men at once. Blood poured over the stark white marble. The rest of the soldiers stood, hesitant.

The Empress smiled. "You're ways are cruel and unique, Ketsueki Sato. I will dismiss your earlier rudeness to hear more of your proposed alliance."

Ketsueki let fall the dead bodies and body parts around him.

Jiang stood, closing the already small distance between himself and his master.

Ketsueki said, "And I will ignore your rudeness for now. What I propose is this: we join together our minds, our efforts to hunt and destroy those that have wronged us."

"I seek only my daughter and, should Comet Fox get in the way of this matter, I will also seek him."

"But Comet Fox will most assuredly not be alone."

"What do you mean by this?"

"Comet Fox is well-liked amongst many gods and mortals. Among those that may lend their services to him and his quest to keep your daughter from you are the two others that have befouled, befuddled and besmirched me."

"And these other two are? You spoke of a god and a demi-goddess?"

"Indeed," said Ketsueki. "A brother and sister, as well, for the god is Xiao-tep the Ankh-fish and demi-goddess be his sister Wu Chan Chu. Where Comet Fox travels and fights and is in need of help, these other two are likely to follow."

"Elkhorn could not possibly take on all three," the Empress realized aloud.

"Hence my proposed alliance," spoke Ketsueki as he mounted another step towards the Empress.

"A demon would be a valuable ally against gods. What could you do for me?"

Again the demon placed a foot upon the next step. Jiang stood at the base of the steps, afraid to advance.

Said Ketsueki, "Allow me to ride out with your commander, allow me to guide your Elkhorn; allow me to aid him in amassing a far larger army, an army so vast it would overwhelm every god in the Heavens." Ketsueki stepped up upon the final step to stand before the Eternal Empress upon the throne. He said, "Allow me to be your general in this war that comes to these lands. Together we shall shake the gods loose from the Heavens."

Impressed by Ketsueki's size, his power, his mind and thoughts and proposition, she nodded in agreement. She stood. She confirmed their alliance by saying, "Together we shall retrieve my daughter and kill everything that stands in our way, including Comet Fox, Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu."

To this day it is said the smile that Ketsueki then smiled was his first genuine smile.

"First, if Elkhorn is to do battle with gods, he must have a proper weapon," suggested the Empress.

Ketsueki nodded. "I will make for him the finest god-killer."



The Eternal Empress gave full command of her court over to Ketsueki Sato for the purpose of making Elkhorn a weapon. Soldiers and blacksmiths and craftsmen were roused from sleep to be brought before him. As the demon paced at the foot of the throne, his long vines working slowly in the air with thought, he spoke aloud.

"Elkhorn is mortal, yes? And we must equip him for the purpose of killing gods. To do so, let us consider the gods he must kill: Comet Fox, Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu. The first two can fly, fleeing the world-bound Elkhorn easily. Wu Chan Chu can jump great distances so as to appear in flight. What is needed for Elkhorn, then, is a weapon of range."

"A bow," suggested a bowyer.

"Elkhorn is known as a fine hunter," said the Empress from her throne.

"A bow would make a fine weapon," Ketsueki agreed. "A bow it will be, then. Let us begin."

Ketsueki called for a sacrifice and an ibex was brought forth and slaughtered. Ketsueki commanded the blacksmiths to take up their chisels and knives and carve the horns of the beast away from the skull. He then commanded the soldiers to collect the spilled blood with many buckets and set aside in a large tub made of gold. The Empress happened to have a large tub made entirely of solid gold and it was brought forth at Ketsueki's request. The tubw as then set outside for the blood to be kissed by the moonlight. He called for a butcher and when a butcher was brought before him, Ketsueki commanded him to cut finely at the animal's carcass to remove in whole the sinews of the ibex and dry them and to render the fat of the animal for a hide glue.

One of the horns was chosen for the bow.

The sinews were dried and braided for the string.

The hide glue was made to bind everything together.

Ketsueki then commanded the soldier to start a bonfire right in the throne room and for the bones of the animal to be ground into grist. These things were done and as Jiang set about tossing the grist about the fire, Ketsueki began chanting to the Yama Kings, the supreme rulers of the Many Hells. So perturbed were the Yama Kings by Ketsueki's audacity to have once tried to overthrow their rule but now chanted for their blessings that they at first refused. But Ketsueki continued to chant. He chanted through the night and after the next morning's first light, the blessings were granted. The bow was dipped in the blood within the tub. As the weapon was given life, it drank deeply from the moon-kissed blood until only half the blood remained.

Ketsueki reached into the tub, his hand wet with thickening blood, and pulled forth the Blood Moon Bow -- a living weapon capable of spearing the gods.

A similar ceremony was held as a fletcher was called forth to carve the ibex's bones into arrows. Cherts was used for the arrowheads and they were fastened to the bone arrows with sinew string and hide glue. The fletcher was able to make eight arrows in all in this manner and these were dipped in the ibex blood to be enchanted. The fletcher then made twelve more arrows of cherts and carved wood to be used for practical purposes and these were not ceremoniously enchanted.

When at last the bow and its arrows were completed, Ketsueki looked on them. He grabbed them up and raised them above his head in praise. He handed them to Jiang with a warning to care for them and then drank down the last of the ibex blood. He then stood before the Eternal Empress and said, "I will go now to seek out your Elkhorn. I will gift unto him this fine weapon and these arrows and with them he will be able to harvest gods from a great distance."

The Eternal Empress nodded with wonder and glee.

Ketsueki and Jiang mounted Neboshazaar, taking to the air, chasing Elkhorn southward.

Ketsueki rode on violent winds to get to Elkhorn's side. It took him a mere day on Neboshazaar to find the Eternal Empress' captain and when he found him, Ketsueki gave him the Blood Moon Bow.

Elkhorn looked over the bow, in awe of its beauty and ferocity. "It is a fine piece of craftsmanship," he said. "It looks as though it could truly kill a god."

"Try its deadliness," Ketsueki urged.

Elkhorn grabbed up one of the enchanted arrows. Ketsueki was unnerved by this. He raised a hand and said, "Put that one away. Save those for our prey. Use now one of the other arrows and do not waste the Blood Moon Arrows."

Elkhorn agreed to this and nocked one of the other arrows. He looked about for a target and saw in the near distance a small mound of grass and upon that grass a leveret. Elkhorn pulled back the bow's string, aimed and shot the small hare down.

Dismounting, Ketsueki and Elkhorn went to confirm the kill. They strode up the side of the grassy mound and looked down upon the dead hare. It was Ketsueki that picked up the carcass by the arrow yet stuck in the animal's body. He spied it and said, "You've pierced the heart at some distance. That is a fine shot."

"I can do it many times over without fail," bragged Elkhorn.

Blood trickled onto Ketsueki's hand. He removed the leveret from the arrow and drank its blood. When the animal was dry, he said, "Then do so. Practice with your bow and provide me with a meal. Kill another hare and many more besides."

This was done much to Ketsueki's and Elkhorn's delight and amusement. Arrow after arrow pierced hare after hare as Jiang was set forth to rouse them from their holes and brush. The hares ran madly, afraid. Though they had been hunted before, they had never been hunted so viciously and in so many numbers. They could not understand this thing happening to them, so they ran for their lives.

When Ketsueki filled his appetite and Elkhorn grew bored of the hunt, they left. Scattered across a small area was nearly one hundred hare bodies. All that had made their home here had been killed, all but one. The lone survivor was a leveret named Mabozay, often called simply Mabo.

Eying the field of dead kith and kin, Mabo shook with fear. He ran, afraid the hunter would return. He ran all day until he was starving. He stopped at dusk to nibble upon some wild clover. Mabo was soft gray with patches of warm brown showing through. The top edge of his tail was lined in black and the bottom of his tail was pure white. His eyes darted, his chest pounded, he breathing slowed but remained shallow and labored. His tail, nose and fur twitched with nerves. Having eaten, Mabo continued on his run until he came to a stream where he stumbled in the mud and nearly drowned at the water's edge.



The skies roiled with the ugliness of the Many Hells. Little Gogi the Grasshopper diligently worked his small garden before growing tired and returning to the small home he had made for himself and for his love Szu Ri out of dried plants and leaves. He entered their home to find Szu Ri lying in the bed they had made. He went to her and said, "Szu Ri, my love, are you unwell?"

Szu Ri looked up at him and smiled. She reached out to caress his face and say, "I am well, Gogi. Do not worry. I grow tired of things here, though. There is so much death in the Chamber of Despair and it can wear on one's mind."

Gogi nodded, understanding. Though they had made a good life for themselves within the chamber, though they were near their beloved friends Momoki and Twila, he, too, often felt the tug of despair upon his heart.

They made for themselves a light supper and ate it in silence. When supper was over, Gogi took his hat, a new hat that Szu Ri had made for him, and said, "I'll be going to visit with Momoki."

"Oh, let me come with you," said Szu Ri, a hint of desperation in her voice. "I would like to spend time with Twila."

Gogi nodded, "Of course."

Together they walked, hand-in-hand, to the courtyard of the chamber where they found Momoki finishing up his kata. While he was not training or riding out upon great black steeds with his warriors that passed through his chamber, Momoki was often practicing his fighting arts. This was the case when Gogi and Szu Ri found him. Twila sat nearby, watching the marmoset.

Szu Ri went to Twila.

Gogi approached his friend Momoki. Together they walked the courtyard.

"What is the matter, dear friend?" asked Momoki.

"The m-matter? Why, nothing is the matter," lied Gogi.

"Come out with it, Gogi. You cannot hide your emotions from me after all the time we've spent together."

Gogi sighed. He knew lying to his friend was a terrible thing to do and lying to himself was worse. He said, "Momoki, friend, I fear our time here in the Chamber of Despair draws to an end. The constant presence of death and fighting we watch you ride out to do wears on us and I fear it making Szu Ri ill."

Momoki considered this. "It makes sense a living creature would be made ill by living in the Many Hells."

Gogi sighed, forlorn.

"You should leave us," said Momoki.

"I-I couldn't possibly," answered Gogi.

"And if you don't what will happen to Szu Ri? I fear saying it myself, but you and I both know an illness of the mind and soul is far worse than an illness of the body. Do not keep her nor yourself here, Gogi. Ride out and make a good life somewhere in the living world."

"But," said Gogi softly, "I do not wish to leave you."

"I enjoy your company here, friend, but do not wish you to remain if it will harm you or Szu Ri. What are you afraid of, Gogi? Are you frightened our something will change between us? Listen, dear friend, we are forever friends, no matter the distance between us or how often we visit with one another. Nothing will change. You must do what is right. You've done so before, I know you can do so now."

Gogi nodded.

And so plans were made, things packed, crops harvested for the long journey. Momoki conjured a black horse and lifted himself, Twila, Szu Ri and Gogi upon its back and rode out from the Chamber of Despair. As they went, Momoki reminded, "Close your eyes, little ones."

Though Szu Ri covered her eyes and clasped hands with Gogi, Gogi remained wide-eyed and seeing as they left the Many Hells.

Ghastly faces and ghosts, demons and furies and wickedness came before him in all its forms. Some made him tremble, he admitted, but so sorrowful was he for having to leave his friends, so confident was he that he and Szu Ri needed to leave the Chamber of Despair to have a good life, that he did not cringe at the horrors the Many Hells had to offer.

Seeing this, Momoki said, "Cover your eyes, Gogi."

Gogi shook his head. "There is no need for a fear of death when one rides towards life," said he.

Hearing this, Szu Ri removed her hand from her eyes. She looked about. And though she was afraid, though she cringed and winced, she remained looking.

The world was vibrant and alive. Butterflies fluttered in the air, clouds rolled by overhead, birds floated on unseen currents of air, grass bent and spoke with a passing breeze, the trees chortled in their own language and dancing with life. Everything was alive here and Szu Ri and Gogi both felt more alive than ever. They quietly squeezed one anothers' hands and knew their choice was the right choice.

When they had reached the world of the living, Momoki slowed his steed and asked, "Where to? Is there a particular place you wish to go?"

Gogi shrugged. He said, "I suppose this is as good a place as any. We can wander on our own for some time if need be to find a proper home."

Twila wept, hugged her dear friend.

Gogi jumped to Momoki's shoulder and hugged his face, whispering in his ear, "I love you, Momoki."

"I love you, friend," said Momoki. "We will give you time to settle down here and then come to visit some day."

"That would be nice," said Szu Ri.

Friends parted.

The dead returned to their chamber.

The living breathed in the air and watched their world.

Gogi and Szu Ri traveled for some time. They went slowly as they were getting older now and age slows a body. They finally came to a small stream that reminded them of the home they had once before. Gogi immediately set about crafting a home of dried clay he dug from the mud in the small cliff near the stream. A bed of perpetual mud lay all around, but the way Gogi had built the home with warming fire inside dried their home and kept it safe. Above the cliff he plotted a small row and planted seeds. Szu Ri spun her silk and made for them a new bed and blankets. They were happy and alive and content once more.

Then, one night, came the thunderous sound of a stumbling hare drowing in the nearby stream. Gogi rushed out of their home to see the source of the racket and came to the hare's side to help him, lifting his nose and clearing it of mud so that the creature could breathe.

"Thank you," said Mabo hesitantly. He eyed the grasshopper and decided such a small creature could do him no amount of harm.

"You're welcome," said Gogi. "Are you well?"

Mabo shook his head. "There is a hunter after me, or so I think. It's been a great deal of time since I last saw him, though. He murdered my whole clan."

Gogi frowned. He said, "You're dirty and wet and tired. I've not room in my home, but I can build you a fire outside to warm yourself by and bring you food."

"Clover!" gasped Mabo. "I'm starving and I love clover, if you don't mind?"

"Not at all," Gogi smiled. He built for the leveret a raging fire, though he knew a raging fire was not always a warming fire. But he did so to put the leveret at ease. As the fire died, Gogi stoked it well into blazing, quiet embers that truly warmed them.

Szu Ri came out and gathered clover for their guest. As she placed them before the leveret she said, "I am Szu Ri and this is Gogi."

The leveret munched at the clover and through a mouthful said, "I am Mabozay." He gulped and added, "But my friends call me Mabo."

"It's nice to meet you Mabo."

So Mabo came to stay with Gogi and Szu Ri. He could not live in their home, for it was far too small for him, but he burrowed a hole of his own some distance from their home and packed it with dried foliage to warm him at night against the cold mud.

One night, as they sat around a fire after having eaten a fine meal together, Mabo said to Gogi, "Sometimes I feel as though I should seek out the one that murdered my people and bring him to justice."

"I can understand this," said Gogi.

"But what can I do? I am so very small and unimportant. He was so large, so angry, so good with his bow."

"Your size does not relate to your importance," spoke Gogi. "It is the will that defines purpose, destiny and importance."

Mabo saw wisdom in this. He said, "You sound as though you know of such things."

"That I do, Mabo." And Gogi spun the tale of the Battle Upon the Plain of Adoration.

"It is unbelievable!" gasped Mabo when he had heard the whole tale. "Such a small one, and yet..."

"It is the will, Mabo, the will that defines purpose."

Mabo nodded. He said, "It all seems ludicrous to me, but I feel I must follow after the hunter. But I know not how to do so."

"Merely go," suggested Gogi.

"Go? And leave my home and food here behind?"

Gogi nodded.

Mabo firmed himself.

Gogi and Szu Ri stood from the twig they had been using as a bench and they watched as Mabo hopped once, then again. Mabo looked back at them only to see Gogi urge him onward with another nod. He turned round and broke into a fast sprint. He knew he could not keep up the pace for long, but it was a beginning for his travels. He ran through the night, leaving behind the warming fire and his warming home, darting from shadow to shadow, between trees, chasing the moonlight without knowledge of pursuit or direction. Mabo ran swiftly, death on his mind and justice in his heart. Mabo ran swiftly, death riding far from him. Mabo ran swiftly, chasing his purpose, afraid the hunter was yet chasing him, afraid of his potential failure, afraid of death, running from memories of a green field gone red with the blood of his clan. Angered by this memory, Mabo ran swiftly.

Watching him go, losing sight of him in the shadows of a dark night, Szu Ri asked Gogi, "Think you he shall fare well?"

"If he stays true to his purpose, he will."

"How desperate and sad was that hare," remarked Szu Ri.

Gogi felt the tinge of sorrow within his heart. He thought of his friends Momoki and Twila and wished they would visit soon. He thought of how ugly the Many Hells had been and how they had made him and Szu Ri ill. He said, "How desperate and sad are we all; running from death, chasing after purpose. But we must not allow the sadness to swell within and drown us, Szu Ri. We must not allow the demons of the sea to pull us under. We must must break our sorrows with hope and love and chase our purpose joyously and unafraid. If our friend Mabo learns this, he will have a fine life, as fine a life as you and I have now."

Szu Ri hugged Gogi and he returned the hug. They loved one another and stood together, unafraid.


Well, we've been introduced to the hare! Check back next Friday the 31st to discover the origins of the tiger!

Friday, July 17, 2009

"The Tiger and the Hare" -- Act I

This batch of The Children of Gods stories has, thus far, been the most challenging to organize. This week I meant to start posting the epic "Tournament at the Peony". Then I realized a lot of other things need happen before that tale be told. As a result, you'll not be reading "Tournament" yet, but instead you'll be reading "The Tiger and the Hare" over the next few weeks.

Apologies for any confusion.

Enjoy "The Tiger and the Hare"!


"The Tiger and the Hare" copyright 2009 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


CHAMPIONS OF DEATH: Wherein Katakasee Becomes Elkhorn the Vile; Ketsueki Sato Enters a Home; Elkhorn is Recruited by the Eternal Empress; An Old Winged Fiend Returns; Ketsueki Sato and Elkhorn Meet



In cliffs bordering the oceans, high above the waves with the songbirds and seabirds that made there nests there, lived the people of Pazi. They were an industrious people if not a struggling people. They had not yet learned agriculture, least of ways not in the sense of planting vast fields. They instead grew ridges and rows of lichen along the cliffs overlooking the sea outside the caves they carved of stone and molded of clay for themselves as homes. Once they had been nomads, outcast from tribes and sent without their yurts to fend for themselves. The purpose of their outcast had been lost with the passing of elders, but many whispered of murder and cannibalism. The younger generations, however, could not believe such rumors.

They harvested seaweed, traded stones unique to their cliffs with traveling merchants or made jewelry with the stones to be traded for food and goods. They were a thin people, though not starving. They were a decent people, though without clean hands. They were a peaceful people, though suspicious of every outsider, even those they knew well and called friends.

Came to these people a child named Yaxtzel, a beautiful girl born into their midst from true love. She grew into a beautiful woman, a peaceful woman. So great was her beauty that some spoke of her beauty as to rival that of the Eternal Empress, though many disagreed. And like the Eternal Empress, though beautiful, her heart grew empty with ugliness.

After she had lived and graced the cliffs for sixteen years, Yaxtzel met and fell in love with a traveling merchant named Abaddon. He was young, though older than she and foolish as a man. He drank heavily, caroused greatly with women on his travels, gambled, cursed, spat and fouled everything that he did. He soon became known as Abaddon the Foolish or, more often, Abaddon the Reckless. He took to sneaking about the cliffs at night when all the Pazi people were asleep so that he may visit with Yaxtzel. There were together many nights like this and, without their knowledge, sowed the seed of life within Yaxtzel's womb.

One such night, after Abaddon had quaffed many drinks and had made love to Yaxtzel, he stumbled out of her cavernous home, slipped upon a bed of bedewed lichen and fell into the sea to crack his skull open against a jagged stone, making him slip from unconsciousness and drown as he floated atop the sea.

Yaxtzel cried out his name, watching her love fall to the sea, unable to help him.

Many of the Pazi tried to help Abaddon, but he was already dead.

They gave him a proper burial with their people.

Yaxtzel cried for many days until she realized Abaddon had given her a gift of child. She was happy once more, but then - realizing her son would never know his father - cried for many days more.

She brought a son into the world. A strong son. His shoulders were so wide he broke her pelvic bone passing through her. He was born with a few scant hairs on his chest and shoulders, his eyebrows already heavy and thick. His hands and feet were, to the surprise of many, of slightly darker tone than his body. He was a powerful boy and, some whispered, an ugly boy despite his mother's beauty. His face was a perpetual grimace.

Yaxtzel lost much blood during birth. She remained alive a few day only, long enough to hold her child once and to give him the name Katakasee.



Katakasee grew into a strong man. As both his parents were dead, he had no family to tend him. All of the Pazi tried to care for him, but so rebellious was he that he was a difficult child. He had been born with his father's hardness and recklessness and little from his mother. He caroused with passing merchant, played pranks on the harvesters of seaweed, tied knots in the ropes of others so it took all day for the ropes to be unraveled. As he grew, his pranks grew more thoroughly wicked. He would often catch the seabirds nesting nearby, breaking their necks and leaving them at outside the caves of people he did not like. He liked the warning jest, liked the power of fear it invoked. He was a cantankerous, mean young man. And at the age of fifteen he left Pazi, hiding beneath the carriage of a traveling merchant.

When he was discovered a day's journey from his home, the merchant thought him a thief and challenged him at the point of a short sword.

"Come out!" cried the merchant.

Katakasee crawled from under the carriage, smiling. "It was all in jest," he explained.

"Is this why my food's disappeared today?" demanded the merchant. "Have you been sneaking off with it?"

Katakasee rubbed the back of his head. He nodded, "Sure, I suppose I've been eating your food."

"Crook!" cried the merchant. "Thief! Well, you'll not have my coffers!"

"I don't want your coffers!"

"We are much too far from any city for there to be law here, so I must be the law," explained the merchant. "And I find you guilty of theft! I must protect my goods from your vile hands! And, besides, who would miss such an arrogant, ugly boy as you? Your body would not be found for days!"

The merchant lunged with his short sword.

Katakasee, though scared, stepped sideways but left his right foot sticking out so as to trip the merchant.

The merchant fell upon his own blade. He rolled over to his back, his eyes wide and staring at Katakasee. "Please!" he begged. "Help me! Run for help!"

Katakasee shook his head. He drew the sword from the fallen merchant's body. The merchant gasped in pain. Katakasse said, "I'll not lend you aid when you've accused me falsely. Oh, with my apologies, you've not accused me falsely. I have taken your food, as you have accused. I, a child, was hungry and I apologize for my hunger. I apologize for living!"

"Please! I need an alchemist!" begged the merchant.

"What you need is the law. But way out here, I am the law," Katakasee circled round the dying merchant as a hawk hovers, circling its earthbound prey. "And I find you guilty of your own ugliness!"

The merchant cried out as Katakasee brought the short sword down upon his neck, separating his head from his body.

Silence fell upon the land all around. A dark, powerful silence. Only the merchant's horse at the fore of the carriage could be heard breathing. But soon a new breath came to his ears. He looked about, spying an elk watching from some distance before bolting in horror.

"Run! Coward!" Katakasee called after the elk. "Run or I will behead you next! I'll snap your neck like that of a seabird!"

Katakasee then considered his handiwork, picking up the merchant's head. He wondered at the fragility of the neck. Once this head had been the lama of a man's body-temple. Now, separate, both were useless.

Katakasee threw the head into a nearby bush. He rested the short sword on his shoulder, spat on the beheaded body lying in the road. He mounted the carriage, took up the reigns and traveled onward.

He became a merchant, and a successful one, over the next few years. But curiosity of the mortality of men infected him. He became ill with obsession until one night, on a drunken rampage, he murdered a whore at an inn. He had beaten her, strangled her. He eyed her lying dead atop a bed. he ran to his carriage to retrieve his sword, intent on her beheading. But their fight had been so loud, so raucous that others raised alarm and he had to saddle his horse quickly before running through the night without his carriage, without his clothes.

Katakasee rode for many days. He stole clothes drying out in the sun, a bow and a quiver full of arrows from a hunter sleeping in the shade. He taught himself to hunt. He starved. He ran. And at last he claimed with the bow a great and might elk. He ate from it for many days, cut from off its head the antlers.

He rode into a town one day and there met with a blacksmith that took interest in his antlers.

"Where did you get those?" asked the blacksmith.

"I hunted the beast myself," explained Katakasee.

"I can make them into a fine helmet of leather or fur or steel."

"Would you? Could you?" Katakasee enjoyed this prospect.

"For a price," explained the blacksmith.

"No price is too great for I am the son of wealthy merchants, traveling as a journeyman," Katakasee lied.

The blacksmith welcomed Katakasee into his home for the few days it would take to make the helmet, introduced him to his family and asked, "What is your name?"

Katakasee hesitated. He feared his name be known for the death of the whore. He said, "I call myself Elkhorn."

"A fitting name!" said the blacksmith. "Welcome to my home."

Over the next few days, Katakasee-now-Elkhorn became as an uncle to teh blacksmith's children, as a brother to the smith's wife. And on the third day when the helmet was done, the blacksmith brought it to Elkhorn after they had eaten supper.

The antlers had been mounted on steel, the bases of which were surrounded by soft rabbit fur. The inside of the helmet was lined with soft leather that descended into two straps to be used to secure the helmet to the head. Upon the front the smith had etched the image of an elk.

"It is beautiful," said Elkhorn the Ugly as he gazed upon it. "As beautiful as my mother might have been."

"Might have been?" asked the blacksmith. "I assumed your mother was yet living?"

Elkhorn scowled. With furious movement, he plucked from the table a sharp knife he had used for his supper and plunged it into the chest of the blacksmith.

The blacksmith's eyes grew wide. His mouth worked, but no words came forth.

The wife and children screamed.

Elkhorn dawned his new helmet, tying it at the chin. He stared at the family. He said to the wife, "Take your children into the room. Make no sound."

Afraid, hoping to at least save her children, she ushered them into a separate room where her and her husband had once slept.

When they were gone, Elkhorn removed himself from their home to retrieve his short sword. When he returned, he beheaded the blacksmith, completing his death. He then went into the room with the children and wife. As he stared at them, the blacksmith's head yet in his hand and dripping blood onto the floor, he said, "This is your last night of living. Pray to whatever gods you may have."

The wife screamed out in terror for her children.

Elkhorn cut her down.

The children clasped to their mother's headless body.

Elkhorn turned his blade onto their innocence. He then gathered supplied from the cupboards and ran from the home. He ran through the night. He ran from the murders he had done.

And he was not stopped until, after many murders terrorizing a small town in the land of Bizo, he was surrounded inside a home he had filled with trinkets of his sport - ears and heads mostly.

The Eternal Empress' imperial guard surrounded the home.

Elkhorn emerged, wearing his helmet.

"Who are you?" asked one guard.

"I am your death, come to collect payment," said Elkhorn.

The guards lunged. Elkhorn defended himself, though only briefly, before he was overwhelmed by the number of guards and pushed to the ground where he was bound, taken into custody and transported to a jail near the Empress' palace. He had a trial, or something like it. The trial had been rushed and much evidence was given, despite its validity. The people of Bizo wanted justice from the mass murderer.

When asked of his innocence, Elkhorn spoke thusly, "I am no more innocent than those of you that preside over this trial. But if you ask me whether I've killed these people or not, I must acclaim that I have. And I enjoyed it. I've enjoyed beheading you softened fools! I've enjoyed mocking your mortality! I've enjoyed the sport of hunting your trust, gaining it and then betraying it! I've enjoyed your blood flowing over my flesh! I've enjoyed killing you all! From the merchant in the woods to the blacksmith's family to you damned fools here in Bizo, I've enjoyed it all! And if you do not put me down, I swear to the gods of the Many Heavens and the demons of the Many Hells, I will continue to revel in it until I am put down!"

And so Elkhorn was found guilty of the crimes he confessed to. He was placed into a holding cell, stripped of his helmet and weapons, given a last meal. He was sentenced to die at dawn as Etain flew over the far horizon. Katakasee, Elkhorn would finally be put down. One thing and one thing only could save his life: the Eternal Empress could grant a pardon. But no one suspected she would.



A horse rode into Bizo and atop the horse rode one of the Empress' soldiers, a soldier that had been wounded in the foot. He was granted passageway to the Empress herself. He limped to her side, his foot infected and needing attention. He knelt before her, in pain but determined to do his duty.

"What is your name?" she asked, eying the foot whose wound broke open once more, trickling blood onto the golden honey-white marble floors of her palace.

"I am called Tu, My Empress," he winced as his foot bled.

"I am told you have news for me."

"Yes, My Empress. I was a member of the Imperial Guard you sent forth after your daughter."

"Have you returned with her?"

Nervous, hesitant, his head remaining bowed and looking at the floor, he said reluctantly, "No, My Empress. She has made friends with gods. We fought them in a village and they slaughtered everyone but me." He lied, not wanting to admit a few of her men were too frightened to fight.

"And why would they leave you alive?" asked the Empress as she got up from her grand pillows upon which she lounged.

"To bring to you this message: -" the soldier faltered, his body shaking nervously.

"Why do you hesitate?" asked the Empress as she drew near him.

"For the message I am to deliver will offend My Empress! I care not to offend her!"

"Dear one, you already offend me as your foot now bleeds across my floor, staining it with your impure and unworthy blood."

The soldier gasped. "My Empress! With apologies!"

The Empress gestured to have a rapier brought forth to her. One of her guards did so and she drew it from its scabbard. She placed the tip of the blade beneath Tu's chin and raised his head with it. He looked at her briefly, then lunged forward, prostrating in respect and fear.

"Tell me this message and have no fear," commanded the Empress.

Tu's voice shook as he spoke. "I was told to say this: that Alecto is now under the care of Comet Fox; that I witnessed our defeat at their hands and weapons, that Comet Fox travels with three others, including another fox-god; th-that," Tu's body shook.

"Go on," urged the Empress.

Tu breathed deep. "That if you continue your hunt, Comet Fox will do to you what he did to your captain!"

"And what was done to my captain?"

"He is dead, My Empress!"

The Eternal Empress drew deeply a breath. She slid the rapier in between Tu's armor, the blade slipped through ribs and by bones, piercing through to the heart. She pulled the blade free and threw the sword to the ground, but not before blood dappled her fine silk turquoise and white dress. More blood came from teh foot, reaching out to clasped at the foot of her long dress.

Tu's body remained in prostration, frozen in service.

The Eternal Empress stood near death, her visage stained by blood. She eyed her guard, ordered them strip her naked and bathed right then and there, order them to clean the floor and replace the marble that had been stained, ordered her wisest councillors to her side.

When she was freshly dressed in a light gown of deep reds and embroidered golds, she lay one more upon her lounging pillows and she was joined by her staff.

"My daughter has seen fit to league herself with gods," she informed. "This is not an unwise course of action. We must assume she will only find more to join with her. We must assume she is attempting to build an army to challenge my authority here in Bizo and, in that, we must assume we are now at war with my daughter."

This unsettled all around her. They murmured a moment, then fell silent.

"First and foremost, we must replace the captain of my Imperial Guard and send the new captain forth to find her once more. But this time, we must find a vicious warrior, one not so unused to death and killing, one that not only knows of killing, but revels in it. We must find one who will gain all payment simply in the act of killing. We must find such a foul man quite swiftly lest we raise our own army's alarm against that of my daughter's."

"My Empress," stepped forth an elderly man that had long been in her council. "There is just such a man in Bizo and, dare I admit, he might be willing to help for the mere chance to kill once more. Though his suggestion may cause my name be labeled with madness, he is such the man you speak of."

"Who is this man? This killer?"

"He sits in your cells now. His trial recently garnered mass attention. His name is Elkhorn and he is mad with the lust for death."

The Eternal Empress considered this. She said, "This is the wisest choice. Take me to this Elkhorn, I've a matter to discuss with him."



The cell smelled of filth and manure and rotted hay. It was late in the night when a team of Imperial Guards carried the Eternal Empress on a lounging pillow into the jail and set her before the cell Elkhorn was kept in.

One of the guards banged on the cell's iron door. He called out, "Hey! Ugly! Wake up! The Empress comes to see you!"

Elkhorn, asleep on a bed of filthy hay, his back to the door, said, "Shut up. I'm sleeping. Can't a dying man rest?"

"You dare insult the Eternal Empress? Get up or I'll come in there and get you up!"

"I'd enjoy it if you came in here," said Elkhorn, smiling to himself.

The Empress placed a gentle hand onto her guard's arm, calming him. She spoke in soft tones, tones of pure mystic wind. She said, "Elkhorn, I am Sulia Laree the Eternal Empress and I am ruler here in Bizo, the land you are now a captive of."

"Oh? Is that so? Well then, that's good for you."

"Please," said the Empress. "Don't be a brute. I've come to offer you your freedom."

"My freedom?" at this Elkhorn turned round and sat up to face the Empress. He eyed her a moment before saying, "You must be the Empress, your so clean! And the tales of your beauty do you no justice."

Sulia Laree blushed. "You do me great kindness to say such things. How can you be a murderer of the kind they claim you to be?"

"They do not claim it. It is true and I admit to it. I enjoy killing. It rouses in me a power like no other thing can. And I enjoy it. It's true. I am truly a madman."

The Eternal Empress smiled sweetly. "How would you like to kill again?"

"If I were immortal like you, I would spend every day for all eternity killing."

"Then kill for me. Commit yourself as my servant and I'll give you the job of killing once more."

"Oh? And who would you have me kill?"

"My daughter for one."

"That's quite the request, killing a daughter for a mother. It is foul and twisted in its thinking. I like it. It's a tale to be told in a traveling opera. Who else? I cannot kill merely one person. If you set me free for one murder alone, I'd rather not do it at all. Give me more to kill or end my life now."

"What about a god?"

"Kill a god?" this intrigued Elkhorn. "I would love to do so, but a mortal cannot kill a god nor a Blessed One such as yourself."

"They can with the proper weapon."

"And you'll give me such a weapon?"

"I'll find one."

"Which god would you have me kill?"

"The god that travels with my daughter. He is called Comet Fox. Have you heard of him?"

"Perhaps, I care not for the affairs of the gods, however, so I generally do not pay them much attention. They have eternal life whereas we mortals are made to suffer and die. To the Many Hells with the gods. But I would like killing one. And if Comet Fox needs killing, then I shall be the one to kill him."

"There may be others for you to kill, as well. But that all depends on how well my daughter amasses others around her."

"More gods?"

"Gods, Blessed Ones and mortals."

"Then you will have my service," promised Elkhorn.

"Then I hereby pardon you of your crimes, Elkhorn, and install you as captain of my Imperial Guard," said the Eternal Empress. She then commanded of her guards, "Set him free."

Elkhorn was freed. He stood, his massive shoulders and frame towering over the Eternal Empress. He smiled and said, "Thank you, My Empress."

His short sword and bow was returned to him. He was given a fine quarterhorse and the golden armor of the Imperial Guard and ten soldiers to ride with him. He immediately thought of killing them, one by one, as they rode from Bizo, but thought better of it. All his life he had enjoyed killing and now was given death as his task. He would not risk losing that.

He and his ten men rode through the lands, heading south, following the dying path of Alecto and Comet Fox. On rode Elkhorn, murder on his mind.



South of Bizo, in a quiet farming community, at a farm far from any other home, cries of terror lifted into the air. Three children screamed in fear as a wooden demon entered their home. A lone father challenged the fiend with a hot fire poker. A mother corralled her children in a far corner of the home and held them fast.

"What are you, demon?" demanded the father.

"I am just that," spoke Ketsueki Sato. "I am truly a demon."

"Why have you come here? Stay back! leave our children alone!"

Ketsueki smiled a wooden smile. "I've come to proffer unto you a chance at winning a game."

"A game? Whatever game you bring into our home, we refuse it! Leave this house! By the gods, leave this house!"

Ketsueki grimaced. One of his long roots smacked the poker from the father's hand as he grumbled, "Do not mention any of the gods in my presence!"

"This is my home and I'll do as I please! May the gods curse you!"

"They already have!" Ketsueki raged as he closed near the father, towering over his mortal frame, his wooden, thorny head scraping at the roof of the home. One of his roots wrapped about the father's throat. Fear filled the father and this soothed Ketsueki as he knew he controlled the home.

His voice was softer now, "My game is a simple lottery. There are no losers. All will be winners. let me look at this handsome family," Ketsueki dragged the father to the corner where his family cowered in fear. "How many of you have we here? Three children, a mother and a father. That five in all, yes?"

The father nodded, afraid.

"Then here is how the lottery works: you good people will choose which of you three will die, leaving two to remain. I assume the parents will give their lives for their children and perhaps even the eldest will follow suit, but then you leave the two youngest as witnesses to the horrors I will commit here tonight. Now ask yourselves, would you like them to live out their lives with such memories? Or will you instead choose to spare your children such spiritual injury and request they be killed, leaving the parents to suffer the rest of their lives with their choice? Which shall it be?"

"We cannot make such a choice!" cried the mother.

"And we will refuse to make the choice!" defied the father.

Ketsueki considered this. His roots reached out to caress the youngest, a girl. She squealed as he gently touched her.

"Keep your filth from her!" cried the father as he batted away the roots.

Ketsueki knelt low, smiling his demonic, toothy, wooden smile and asking softly, amiably, "How old are you, darling?"

The girl answered him with only shrieks of terror and tears.

"How old are you?" he growled, yelling loudly, grabbing at her with his roots.

"She is five!" cried the father as the mother batted at the roots.

"Five?" asked Ketsueki as he stood, his roots retreating. "Five years is hardly enough time to know life. She should not be allowed to die this night. Conversely, if you do not choose, she definitely will be the first to die tonight."

"Don't you touch her," demanded the father. "If you touch her, by the gods, I will do everything in my power to banish you to whichever Hell you come from."

Ketsueki laughed, amused. "You would banish me? A mortal would banish a demon? How droll, dear man, how very droll." Ketsueki brought his face close to the father's. The father could smell dry, aged wood and dust on the demon's breath as Ketsueki spoke.

"Once I came from the Many Hells. Once I plotted all the Hells rulership, but I was slaughtered by your precious gods. Now I am," he backed away and held out his arms for the family to see him in full, "I am this weak thing you see before you. I am but filth crawling across this land."

"All demons are filth!" spat the father.

Ketsueki smiled. He disregarded the comment. He instead said, "Your youngest's life or three others."

"We'll have none of it!" cried the father.

Ketsueki's roots whipped out at blinding speed. They cut through the air, parting flesh from bone as they sank into the youngest girl's body. He pulled her away. Four rooty tentacles latched themselves onto her, into her, each pulling in separate directions until she was pulled apart in bits. Ketsueki drew those bits close to him, letting ripping blood fall into his mouth.

He discarded the pieces of flesh and demanded, "Two more, you must choose two more as my victims."

Shocked by the horror of what was happening, the family could not speak. They cried out. At last, the father gathered himself to say, "Me! If you must kill another, kill me!"

Ketsueki's roots lashed out. Once again flesh was torn from flesh, limbs fell away, blood spattered throughout the home and Ketsueki drank deeply. He grew with each swallow so that he now had to lean a little to fit in the home. His limbs grew more supple, more allow, more wet with life.

"One more," said Ketsueki. "Just one more."

The mother hugged her children. She then stepped out before the demon and said, "I will be your third and last."

And Ketsueki killed and drank of the mother's blood, as well.

He eyed the two remaining children. He crouched. He said, "How old are the two of you?"

The eldest stepped forward, a girl, and pushed her brother behind her. "I am fourteen... almost."

"And your brother?"

"He is ten and a half."

"And do you know why I have done what I have done here tonight?"

The girl shook her head.

"Because I am a demon and demons make deals with other creatures, especially with mortals. It is our task in life. We demons see life for what it is and refuse to ignore the suffering in the world. Hear me now, child: demons themselves suffer and demons are suffering. To ignore suffering is to ignore life. To run from suffering is to ignore us." Ketsueki's face turned into grimacing ugliness. The home seemed to fill with darkness as he yelled his next words. "And we demons refuse to be ignored!"

He smiled once more. The home lightened and the girl thought she might smell sweet jasmine flowers on the air. Ketsueki asked, "Do you understand now?"

The girl nodded, not truly understanding but hoping her understanding would cause the demon to leave.

Ketsueki lowered himself to sit cross-legged before the girl. "Now, I've a problem," he said, "I have to decide whether or not to keep my bargain with your family and let you live or to kill you and your brother anyways."

"There is no reason to kill us," the girl found herself saying.

"Perhaps," said the demon, "I suspect, however, you will grow up resenting me and living this night. That would encourage you to some day hunt me down and I'd only have to kill you then. So the true question for me to ponder is this: do I wish to kill you now or at some time in the future after you've suffered many years of loss and loneliness?"

The girl thought of another possibility and spoke it thusly, "Or someone could kill you before then."

Ketsueki frowned. He stood and said, "Thank me for another few years of life, mortals," before leaving the home.

He stepped outside into the night.

It is well known as illness breeds illness within a home, so ill deeds attract evil.

In far lands, the smells of fresh blood came to an old foe, an old creature of evil. Ketsueki's murders came to the attention of Neboshazaar and the winged beast lifted into the air, following the scent until he came to fly circle over the demon stretching his back outside the farmers' home. Uncertain of the wooden demon, Neboshazaar remained circling a moment before descending into the night to land near Ketsueki Sato.

Ketsueki eyed the bird-creature. He squinted with memory and said, "Once I knew you."

Neboshazaar squawked. he smelled the wood demon, smelled the blood within, recognizing the taint of the Ruby Bug that once filled the demon-dog Yaska Selith. The bird-beast hopped closer to his old friend.

Ketsueki put out a hand to pet him. He thought a moment and said, "I think, perhaps, I could use you as a mount. Would you allow this?"

Neboshazaar looked at him nervously.

Ketsueki stroked the bird's bald, black neck. he then pulled himself up onto the burd. Neboshazaar could hold him easily enough, but found it rather awkward to take off and fly. Once in the air, however, Neboshazaar spread out his wings and screeched so loudly the lands below trembled with the fear of fates worse than death.

Ketsueki laughed at his new and old friend, joyously riding on the air.

The two soon caught sight of a cloud of dust pricking up on the dark horizon of night, kicking up under horses' hooves. Ketsueki wondered if anyone had heard the cries of the family and were now coming to their rescue. He decided to remain hidden behind a nearby cloud, watching.



Elkhorn and his ten men rode on, drawing nearer the farmer's home Ketsueki had just left. As they slowed, they heard a great shriek from the sky and looked to find a horrible bird-beast flying down at them and a demon of wood laughing maniacally as they passed by overhead. When Neboshazaar landed, Ketsueki called out, "You'll not be able to help the farmers there! I've killed them all and now I will kill you!"

"What matter are farmers to me?" challenged Elkhorn. "I could care less about such worthless people. I ride with these men to kill Comet Fox."

"Comet Fox!" Ketsueki cried, almost as if in fear of the name.

"If I am to judge your reaction, I would say you know the fox-god. Are you in league with him?"

"Bah!" spat Ketsueki. "Hardly! He is mine own enemy! Once he ousted me from my chamber in the Many Hells. Now I hunt him and his friends Wu Chan Chu and Xiao-tep."

"I know not these other two. be they gods?"

"Xiao-tep is," informed Ketsueki. "Wu Chan Chu is his demi-goddess sister. Tell me, mortal, why do you hunt Comet Fox?"

"He is in league with Alecto, the Eternal Empress' daughter and the Empress herself would have me kill them both."

"I have been told of this Empress once before," Ketsueki said as he thoght back to his conversations with Loki after he had been resurrected. "I was told perhaps I should seek her out."

"It is no matter to me. I am to kill Comet Fox and Alecto and whichever other god or mortal rides with them."

Ketsueki smiled at this. "Then I would help you."

"Who are you, creature? You mentioned a chamber in the Many Hells. Am I to believe you a demon?"

"I am," Ketsueki's chest swelled with pride as he sat straighter, taller on Neboshazaar's back. "I am Ketsueki Sato, once the master of the Cottonwood Chamber, and I wish to help you, but first I feel I must seek out your Empress."

"I am called Elkhorn. If you must see then Empress, then go to her. Her palace is half the night's journey from here by horseback and cannot be mistaken, though I suspect you would make the trip in half that time upon your winged beast. If she should have you join me, then fly after me."

Ketsueki smiled. He desperately wanted to go with Elkhorn then, but knew he should find the Empress. He said, "A good hunt to you, then, Elkhorn. If you and your Empress would have me, I'll be at your side as swiftly as my friend here can carry me."

The two parted ways. Elkhorn rode with his men to the south. The demon Ketsueki Sato rode Neboshazaar to the north. And from out of the farmer's home peeked tiny, wondering, fearful eyes.


Well, that's it for Act I of "The Tiger and the Hare"! I hope you enjoyed, dear readers! Check back next week for Act II!!!

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Broken Steel" -- Act V

So, I'm a liar. I thought last week was the finale of "Broken Steel". I was wrong. I realized that many elements of the next tale could be far more easily dealt with as another act in "Broken Steel".

Here now, then, is the FIFTH and final act of "Broken Steel"!


~ Charles


"Broken Steel" copyright 2009 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


RUNNING ON THE WIND: Wherein Jupkishi and the Butterflies Enter Taleisin; Comet Fox Seeks out Xiao-tep; Xiao-tep Shares with Comet Fox his Tale of the Broken Spear of Sorrows; A Band of Dark Hearts is Formed



Came to Taleisin in large droves clouds of butterflies of every kind, of every color. Came they to Taleisin on winds of rumors of demons. Came they to seek council with the passing Zingtai. Came they to carry to the world word of what they saw.

Xiao-tep flowed down the mountain to the vast plains flowing gold and purple, blue and white, bright orange and grays with the flickings, flutterings of thousands upon thousands of butterflies. He drew near one that flew higher than all the rest, saying, "Welcome, friends. Welcome to Taleisin. Have you come here for some great purpose? Or is this a simple visit? I can make tea. I'll mow down grass or nuture flowers into bloom as you wish. Welcome, welcome to Taleisin."

"Thank you, friend," spoke the butterfly. "By the glory of your colors, by your kindness, may I guess you are the one called Xiao-tep?"

"I am indeed," answered Xiao-tep.

"I am Jupkishi, Elder Butterfly of All the World. I am Zingtai's great-great-grandfather and have lead my people here for her council and, perhaps, for yours."

"What can I do for you, Jupkishi?" offered Xiao-tep.

"There comes to me word of a mighty demon crossing the face of all the many lands. With him follows death like a stallion running wild upon a plain. Everything the demon touches does not merely die, it withers first in agony and pain, is tortured and then is mercilessly left so life may bleed out. Many of my people, we that live upon the lands like no other, suffer because of this. Flowers wilt and dry. Branches are too weak to hold even the smallest of our cocoons. We are desperate and though I dare not admit it to my people, I had to grant them the wisdom that I am lost at the moment. I know not how to purge the world of the demon or reclaim our lands. Many of my people have already died, withering as I have said, their bodies turning to dust like that which graces the underside of our wings.

"I seek council, friend Xiao-tep. I seek your aide."

Xiao-tep's heart grew heavy for the butterflies. He said, "I will help you the best I can. Until you find the answers you seek, you may remain here on Taleisin as my guests. You are most safe here."

"Thank you, friend Xiao-tep."

That night Jupkishi flew near his great-great-granddaughter and told her his tale of desperation, of woe, of death, of the demon. Xiao-tep flew with them. So horrible was the news Jupkishi shared, Zingtai could not help but cry.

"What is the name of the demon?" asked Xiao-tep.

"He has many names and has been called many foul things, all of which I will not share but I would not argue with, either. The name I've most often heard, however, is Ketsueki Sato. He is a demon of wood resembling a demon of the Many Hells."

"Ketsueki Sato?" cried out Xiao-tep. "Are you certain of this name? Think with every wit, Jupkishi, is this demon truly named Ketsueki Sato?"

Confused by Xiao-tep's reaction, Jupkishi cautiously put forth, "It is as I have said. His name is Ketsueki Sato."

"What's the matter, Xiao-tep?" asked Zingtai.

"I know this demon."

"Do you?" asked Zingtai.

Xiao-tep nodded. His eyes grew wet with the distance of memory. As stars glimmered overhead, he remembered the Cottonwood Chamber, his fights with Wu Chan Chu and Comet Fox, the battle for their freedom. He nodded again and said, "I have fought him once before."

"Did you defeat him?" asked Jupkishi.

"I did, with the aid of my sister and many friends."

"Bless the gods!" exclaimed Jupkishi. "Then we are saved! You can go forth and defeat him once more!"

Xiao-tep was once more awash with memory. Tears formed in his eyes. He shook his head violently, shaped his fins into clenched fists and said, "I cannot! And you cannot ask me to do this thing! I shall never fight again!"

At this Xiao-tep broke from their side and returned to Taleisin.

"What has happened?" asked Juokishi. "I meant no offense."

"You did not offend him, Great-Great-Grandfather," explained Zingtai. "You simply must not have heard that our dear Xiao-tep recently killed another fish like himself. So wracked was he with sorrow he has sworn off fighting for good. He has destroyed his famous Spear of Sorrows."

"I did not know," was all Jupkishi said.

Jupkishi returned to his people. He lead them in prayer to the gods, asking they rid the world of the demon. He then silently asked for help with Xiao-tep. He begged the gods for him to find peace and, if it be within his character to do so, to convince him to fight once more, just once more.

The butterflies slept upon the plains of Taleisin.

Xiao-tep spent the rest of the night perched near the edge of the mountain, his fins dangling over the edge as he gazed upon the sleeping world. Otti the Firefly came to him, saying, "It is not safe to be so close to the edge. Please remember the tale of Momoki's Fall."

"I know the tale well," answered Xiao-tep.

Otti landed on a blade of grass nearby and spent the night with Xiao-tep.

Xiao-tep mulled over many things in his mind. He realized how much fear, how much sorrow had plagued him for so long. And though much of it was well-suited to him as much of his sorrow was not brought on by his own actions, he realized the sorrow and fear remained with him because he allowed it. Xiao-tep closed his eyes for meditation. He controlled his breathing. He breathed in, then out, then in and held his breath, then out and held his breath and repeated this pattern until he could feel the beat of his heart. Slowly, slowly, silently Xiao-tep released the sorrows, released the pain, released the hatred for his father and fear of having to fight again.

Etain's head rose over the far horizon. The new day touched Xiao-tep's face with fingers of light. His scales glimmered brilliantly. His eyes opened. He rose from the edge of the mountain to greet the new day. He looked down upon the world; gazed upon the handiwork of the Cosmos; witnessed the clouds of the world and knew of Aowe, a boy, a mortal child and his wish for flight; he gazed upon Etain, turned to look over his shoulder at the tails of Kalavata and Zingtai. Every bit of this world he lived in, every bit of his world was alive and connected and each minute thing served its purpose. He felt the world as one, he felt all the interconnectedness of every living thing - he felt everything. He gazed into the distance and saw at the farthest reaches of all existence the Misty Hands of the Cosmos. He felt the world moving far below Taleisin, he felt Taleisin breathing and smiling at the butterflies, he heard songs in the wind, laughter in the air, life living everywhere.

His white scales grew shiny, more pearlescent. They glowed of themselves. The violet ankh upon his forehead shifted into gold and shone with a light of its own, shone like a jewel from Zingtai's wings.

He did not hate, he understood. He did not fear, he accepted death and failure. More than anything, he loved. Xiao-tep saw all things at once and, with his new understanding, he loved. Should death ever come for him, he would die. Should hatred ever mock him, he would laugh. Should anyone ever cast him out, he would hold them near.

Xiao-tep found his path, his purpose. He would not fight, could not fight, would never raise a hand or weapon again in anger or emotion or with logic. He would not allow the illness sorrow to infect him again, he would make himself too busy chasing smiles like a child chasing butterflies across an open plain.

The Heavens on high were moved, the many gods took notice.

All of Taleisin gazed upon Xiao-tep as he turned to gaze upon them. Not a single creature spoke, except little Otti who said, "By the gods, he's beautiful."

In the distance Xiao-tep saw the familiar form of Comet Fox break from a cloud, flying towards Taleisin. He went about preparing to receive his old friend.



Comet Fox came to Taleisin on swift wind and sparkling white light of a comet's tail. He flew hurriedly, eying the Mountain That Lives in the Sky, seeking out Xiao-tep. When he found his old friend, he landed softly near him.

"It is good to see you once more, old friend," said Xiao-tep.

Comet Fox cocked his head sideways with wonder. He studied Xiao-tep a moment, questioning his newly golden ankh, his whitened scales.

"A change has come to you," said Comet Fox, the quickly added, "I'm sorry, Xiao-tep. I forgot my greetings. It is good to see you once more, as well."

The two embraced as brothers might after years apart.

"Would you have tea with me?" asked Xiao-tep.

"I would, but I cannot stall too long," Comet Fox looked about at the mass of collected butterflies. "There are so many butterflies here. Is it always this way on Taleisin? I think I could get dizzy with all their flutterings."

"They seek the refuge of Taleisin," said Xiao-tep as he sat upon a stone and pour hot tea for first Comet Fox, then himself.

Comet Fox took the tea and nodded a thanks to Xiao-tep. "Refuge from what?"

"From the demon Ketsueki Sato," Xiao-tep explained.

Comet Fox ceased sipping at his tea. He set the cup down on the ground. He asked, "What do you mean by this? We killed Ketsueki Sato long ago."

"That I do not know, but these butterflies are here for that very reason. They seek refuge from Ketsueki Sato."

"Could he have been resurrected?" asked Comet Fox. "Could we have failed in putting him down before we fled the Cottonwood Chamber?"

"Perhaps, but anything I tell you would be speculation. I just learned of this myself the day before today."

They sat in silence a moment. At last Comet Fox said, "Those were dark days for me. I was sick with drunkenness at every hour and the demon's willing pawn as long as he fed me him enchanted fruits and wines."

"It was dark times for me, as well. I had just learned of my father's hatred and hatred filled me," Xiao-tep let memories flash across his mind. "It seems an age ago now, the day we met."

"The day we fought," added Comet Fox.

Xiao-tep smiled. "I am glad you became a friend instead of remaining an enemy."

"I am glad for it, also. And I come to you to ask for your aid, friend."

"What is it?" asked Xiao-tep. "You may ask anything of me."

"As we speak, the Eternal Empress is committing dastardly acts. She hunts her own daughter, murder is the intent. Alecto has come of age and the Eternal Empress will not have another challenge her throne, even her own daughter, though Alecto has yet to formally challenge it."

"The Eternal Empress' actions, it would seem, are destined to be foul."


"How can I aid in this?"

"I have taken Alecto as my charge, I am her guardian. But the Empress' men are many. We have defeated them once, but I am uncertain if it can be done again and again. Our flight takes it toll on the mortal Alecto and her handmaiden. Truly, it takes it toll on us all. If I can but have you at her side, when the fight comes once more, I would rest well in the knowledge you are there with your Spear of Sorrows."

Xiao-tep eyed Comet Fox. He stood, asking, "Would you follow me a ways?"

Comet Fox agreed to do so. They crossed the plain of Taleisin, the massed butterflies fluttering madly and parting before them, taking flight around them, speaking to one another on how blessed they were to have gods walking amongst them.

"I think we should have put down the Eternal Empress long ago," said Comet Fox as they walked.

"Perhaps," was all that Xiao-tep gave.

When they came beneath a cherry tree, Xiao-tep looked down, gracefully waved a hand at the thirteen pieces of the Spear of Sorrows laying amidst the grass.

Comet Fox looked on. He bent low, asking, "Is it truly the Spear of Sorrows?"

"It is," confirmed Xiao-tep. "It was last used to kill Fei Li Mi when he came here with rage in his heart. His was such a sad tale. I could not let his passing go without being felt. He was, after all, as my darker self. Ii ripped from my waist my willow branch and felt the full effect of his demise, every bit of it. SO horrible was it that I determined to never fight again and thus broke the spear in its current thirteen pieces against this cherry blossom. Aleis was freed by this and I have left the pieces. I cannot bring myself to pick them up yet."

Comet Fox reached out to touch the legendary spear. One of its four blades pricked his fingertip and he bled. "Though broken," he said, "it is as sharp as ever."

Comet Fox stood. He eyed Xiao-tep. "Does this explain your change in appearance?"

"To a degree. They are all symptoms of a far greater change."

Comet Fox looked at the broken spear once more, then to Xiao-tep, saying, "You won't help me, will you?"

Xiao-tep sighed. "If I were to aid you in your present task, I would most certainly be placed into situations where I would be forced to fight." His eyes leveled and he peered into Comet Fox's eyes. "I will never fight again, dear friend."

"The Little Empress needs you, I need you. Great injustices will occur unto her if something is not done."

"I understand the possibilities in all things, in every choice. I wish to help you, but I cannot."

"Then at least let me bring her here, to Taleisin."

Xiao-tep shook his head, "I cannot allow that, either."

"But this land is pure and safe and you've always kept Taleisin's borders open for refugees! You've thousands of them flitting about currently! Why not Alecto?"

"For I intend to keep this land pure and safe. If you were to bring her here, her mother, I know, would chase after her. Armies of wicked men would find ways to climb to and conquer Taleisin."

"Perhaps I'll bring her here despite you," Comet Fox growled.

Xiao-tep sighed. "I will not stop you, though it would displease me."

Comet Fox was angry with his friend, but felt Xiao-tep was on some new path he simply could not yet understand. He knew Xiao-tep to be good and wise and caring. He also knew Xiao-tep would not dissuade him from doing anything unless he truly felt it the right thing to do.

"I trust in you," said Comet Fox, "though I do not understand you."

"Thank you, Comet Fox."

"I suppose I should be leaving. I'll need to return to Alecto's side as swiftly as I can."

"Can you wait a moment longer so that I may prepare for you a satchel of supplies?"

Comet Fox thought it over. "We could certainly use a few supplies," he agreed.

Xiao-tep called upon all the creatures of Taleisin to gather items for Comet Fox. Bark was peeled from trees and stamped down into cloth to make the satchel. Vines were dried and braided to make rope to tie the satchel and for other various uses. Foods were brought forth. Xiao-tep harvest many teas and vegetables. When the satchel was made and filled, Xiao-tep handed it to Comet Fox.

"I love you, Comet Fox. You are as a brother to me," said Xiao-tep as Comet Fox took the satchel.

These words surprised and confused Comet Fox, though he felt they were spoken with truth. He searched within himself and there found words and feelings to express to Xiao-tep, "Whatever my words may be worth, I love you as a brother, as well, Xiao-tep."

They embraced.

"Be careful, Comet Fox."

Comet Fox nodded and said his thanks to everyone. He then added, "Momoki once said we should stick to our paths. I urge that to you now. I know not what happens with you, Xiao-tep, but whatever it may be, may it be peaceful and good."

"Thank you," Xiao-tep bow low at the waist.

Comet Fox pulled the satchel on over his shoulder. He lifted to the sky and flew away. All of Taleisin watched him go and waved goodbye, wishing him luck and blessings.



Comet Fox had left Alecto and the others under Stavros' watchful near a small, flowing stream. Yele Prin Prin and Alecto sat in the stream, the water caressing their legs as Yele braided the young lady's hair. Gullnir drank deeply from the stream as Faryad and Snow Fox both lounged in the sun, enjoying the warmth of the day. Stavros sat in the shade of a large oak, Eloqua nearby. She eyed the rat, wondering. He caught her watching him and said, "What is it? I've had people stare at me many times before, I know when someone wants something from me."

Eloqua was startled by Stavros' accurate read of her. She said, "It is your sword. It's quite the deadly-looking weapon. Has it killed before?"

"Many times before," he said, then warning, "And it will again if I continue to be pestered."

Eloqua ignored the threat. She said, "Have you taught others to fight?"

This questions surprised Stavros for it was not a thing he had ever been asked. "No, I haven't."

"Would you?"

"Why do you ask this? Are you interested in learning how to fight?"

Eloqua moved closer so that she could speak without being heard by anyone but Stavros. She said, "Every day for more than a week now we have been on the run from Alecto's mother. The other day these good people that now surround us, along with your friend Comet Fox, had to fight the Empress' men. On that occasion Alecto and I were fortunate enough to have been hidden prior to the fight, but I fear more fights to come and there may be a time when we cannot hide. I feel I must learn how to fight for the sake of Alecto. If I do not and should be surrounded, if I do not and we should be challenged, then doom will wash over us. To learn to fight would give us a greater chance at surviving the Eternal Empress' wrath."

"And you would have me teach you?"

Eloqua nodded. "The others have many great tales of battles they've had and won. But Comet Fox, the one I trust most, trusts you most. He said your sword and friendship can be trusted. If that be so, then I wish to learn to fight from you."

Stavros breathed deep. He considered the handmaiden before him.

Snow Fox eyed the sky overhead. He was the first to see the streaking tail of his brother. "Here comes Comet Fox!" he heralded.

Everyone stood, waiting, as Comet Fox landed near them, a new satchel of supplies about his form.

"Well?" advanced Eloqua. "Will the fish-god Xiao-tep help us? What news do you bring?"

Comet Fox sighed. He said, "I bring supplies and nothing more."

"What? Where is Xiao-tep?" asked Stavros.

Comet Fox stored the satchel across Gullnir's back, thanking him for carrying the heavy loads without complaint. He then turned to Stavros and explained, "He will not come. He cannot help us."

"Why? What reason has he given you for turning his back on a helpless girl?" demanded Stavros.

"He says he can no longer fight and he knows our task will force him to do so."

"He is a coward, our Xiao-tep? After the blades I've seen lashing out upon his spear, creating lightning in the sky, fighting like no other, our friend is a coward?" Stavros was angry by the possibility.

"No, Stavros," Comet Fox soothed. "Xiao-tep is many things, but he is no coward. What he does, what he needs to do now, is a righteous thing, I feel. But cowardice, fear, lethargy have nothing to do with this. He simply cannot help us at this time."

Stavros spat. "To the Many Hells with him! When you brought him forth, I was going to let you run off with him and return to my village. But if he will not, then I will stand in his spot."

"I thank you, Stavros. We could use your sword and your company, but I say again: Xiao-tep is no coward."

"If the fish-god will not help," questioned Eloqua, "then who will? Where do we go to from here?"

"Balori!" cried out Alecto as she rose from the stream. "I have said from the very beginning that he would help us. We must seek him out."

"I agree, Little Empress, that Balori would be a strong ally, but he is as yet far off. After the Battle for the Plain of Adoration, he remained with Xiao-tep a time before leaving for Ife and Ife is yet too far," Comet Fox did his best to calm the young lady.

"Then what do we do?" cried out Eloqua. "Woe, mercy upon us!"

Comet Fox turned to Stavros. He judged his thoughts against his friend. "We will be fighting once more. It is safe to assume the Empress will soon dispatch a new band of men after us and these new men, perhaps, will be far more fierce, far hungrier for death than the first."

Stavros nodded in agreement. "She will find a man so hungry for battle he will lay to waste all that he touches from her land of Bizo to us."

"He would be a wicked man," added Eloqua. "A man with a wickedness to match her own."

This made Comet Fox think upon Xiao-tep's mention of Ketsueki Sato. "And what's more, Xiao-tep has told me of a demon that has entered the world, a demon he and I fought once before. Thought we he to be dead."

"Let us pray the demon is not the one the Empress recruits to hunt us," said Eloqua as she grasped Alecto and hugged her closely.

Comet Fox shook his head. "I doubt that to happen. I know this demon and Ketsueki Sato is not one to enter into the service of another," he let his thoughts wander on the matter a bit before adding, "Though I would not be surprised by a union between the two, himself and the Eternal Empress."

"Comet Fox," Snow Fox approached to stand by his brother.

"Yes, little brother?"

"What will we do then? We've traveled this far to find Stavros and then Xiao-tep. Now that we've done so and Xiao-tep will not help us, where do we go from here?"

"I still say we must go to Balori," spoke out Alecto.

"Quiet, girl," scolded Eloqua. "We know your feelings on the matter."

Again Comet Fox looked to Stavros, to have him confirm the validity of his thoughts as he spoke them, "It would be wise to assume we will be fighting again, perhaps many more times. We did well against the Empress' firs group of men, but as we've determines she will most likely send fiercer fighters after us. Our options, then, as I see them are thus: we disband and I carry on with the Little Empress to some safe hiding place while the rest of you remain behind to deter the oncoming fighters. Or, alternatively, we can remain together, but not only remain together, but grow our numbers with fighters of our own."

"We could build our own small army," said Stavros, "we did once before against the demon-dog Yaska Selith, we can do so against the Eternal Empress."

Comet Fox nodded in agreement.

The small group gathered closer, each thinking over the options, each remaining silent for a brief moment.

It was Snow Fox that spoke first. "I, for one, would not leave. I've come this far to see my brother, I would enjoy more time with him, even if in that time we are under duress. Perhaps that is selfish of me, but as long as my brother is dedicated to the life of our Alecto here, then so is my life dedicated to her."

Alecto smiled, looked at her feet. She said, "Thank you, Snow Fox."

Faryad and Yele looked to one another. Faryad then said, "We would like to right the injustice being done here. We will stay with you, if you'll have us."

"I suppose that means I'll have to be going along, as well," grumbled Sarut.

"And you already know you've my sword," said Stavros.

Comet Fox nodded. "Then we will remain together and find others to help us."

"But who?" asked Alecto.

"There is another and, the last I heard, she is closer. She is perhaps a day's ride from here. She is quite possibly the best fighter in all the world and will most likely be sitting upon the throne of championship at the Peony Teahouse.

"She is Wu Chan Chu the Frog Demi-goddess, sister to Xiao-tep. And we will go to her."

All were in agreement on this. They stalled not another moment longer. Eloqua and Alecto mounted Gullnir, the others gathered their things. Soon they were heading north towards the Peony Teahouse.

Stavros came to walk beside Gullnir. He said, "Eloqua, if you still wish to be trained, I will teach you all that I can."

Eloqua thanked him.

On they went, across plains and farmers' fields, over hills and through both day and night. They rested where they could, begged for food at many homes. They were met with much kindness. And as they went across the world, as they traveled, they quietly feared the coming of the Eternal Empress, they each were secretly dismayed by the presence of Ketsueki Sato in the world.

On went Faryad and Yele Prin Prin, both hunted by Sharif.

On went Sarut, ladybug without a home or family.

On went Stavros, leaving behind once more his beloved village.

On went Comet Fox and Snow Fox, brothers desperately trying to enjoy their brotherhood.

On went Eloqua and Gullnir, afraid for Alecto's life.

On went Alecto, hunted by her own mother.

And as they went; as they begged for food and were met with kindness; as people greeted them, spoke with them, learned of their harrowing trials, people spoke of them to one another. People spoke of their lives, of their curses, of their frantic flight. People watched for them, wishing to help. And as the small group traveled across the world the people called them Dark Hearts, for here was a band that knew sorrow, that knew betrayal, that was fighting against great and desperate odds for justice, righteousness.

To the east, an empress chose a murderous madman for her general.

To the south, a demon entered the home of a family to terrorize and slay them all, drinking their blood to grow stronger.

And on ran the band of Dark Hearts.


All right, folks! There was your fifth and final act of "Broken Steel"! I hope you enjoyed it. Check back next week for Act I of "Tournament at the Peony"!