A Legend of the Past, a Savior From the Future
San flew across the hillside, focusing each of her five heightened senses to their most acute. It had been no easy task in tracking down Nathan. But after many grueling hours of relentless searching, the young wolfgirl had finally managed to pick up her wayward companion's trail.
There was no mistaking that scent.
She had followed him through the forest's hidden paths, beyond the narrow river, and finally to the grassy hills that overlooked the lake. It was only until she found the sea of human corpses lying amidst the cracked and broken earth, that the young wolfgirl knew for certain that she was heading in the right direction.
Many more dead samurai lay before her, their bodies crushed and mangled, their pale, twisted faces a testament to the final torturous moments of their existence. The air reeked of death, buzzing and blackened with countless swarms of ravaging flies.
Moving through the piles of the dead, banishing the smell of decay from her sensitive nostrils, San crouched low and scanned the ground. She scooped up a handful of loosened earth, bringing it to her nose. Even the dirt itself stank of death… and of Nathan.
I knew it! She thought to herself, letting the earth fall from her hand. I knew he came this way. She traced her fingers along the ground, her narrowed eyes reading each clump of dirt and rock as one would read a book. But which way did he go? She lowered herself to the ground, breathing in every tiny smell her nose could trace. Which way…
San breathed in the dirt once more, but found that small trace of Nathan's scent she had now faded into the stink of decay. The trail she had spent so many hours following just seemed to end right there where she crouched.
Frustrated, the young wolfgirl raked her hand across the dirt and rose to her feet. Dammit, Nathan, where are you?
• • •
Nathan hated the idea of leaving Toki and other women behind like this. But at the same time he knew he didn't have much of a choice. With Eboshi and the men of Iron-Town off fighting Okoto's army of boars, the compound had been left virtually defenseless.
Defenseless and ripe for plucking.
Now all that stood between Asano's samurai and total victory were a few dozen women. Women armed with guns and a near endless supply of power and shot, though they may be, both Nathan and Toki new the full reality of the situation. If the people of Iron Town had any hope of weathering this storm that's been beset upon them, they needed Eboshi and her riflemen to do it.
Their reunion had been awkward at best, for memories of Nathan's terrible power still ran fresh in the minds of the other women. And seeing him still alive had proved to be an unexpected shock to Toki's already rattled nerves.
But despite all that had transpired between them during those final ill-fated hours of their last encounter, the older woman's face could not mask her joy at the sight of Nathan still moving among the living. As she watched him make his way towards Iron-town's fortified walls, she called out to him, her high voice barely audible over the roar of the battle being waged around them.
And Nathan in turn had called back.
The pleasantries were short and in spite of what friction did exist between them, Toki had told him everything, from the arrival of the hunters and the strangely dressed warriors to the violent battle now being waged between Eboshi and the army of boars. And then she told him about the hunting party. The one Eboshi would soon be leading into the forest to claim the Forrest-Spirit's head.
The older woman was quick and to the point, wasting not a second on the trivial details for both she and Nathan knew that time was no longer on their sides.
"You have to find Lady Eboshi, Nathan," Toki had said, looking down at him from high above the barrier. "Promise me you'll find her and bring her back to us. Without her we won't stand chance."
As the older woman's words repeated themselves again and again like some broken record in his head, Nathan felt his insides lurch. Why? Why had he made the promise? Why was he now about to risk what little remained of his life for the sake of a people he had all but come to detest? And why… why in the name of holy-hell had he agreed to help Eboshi, the woman whose greed and lust for power had brought him to this sorry state.
None of it made sense to him…
…Not one bit.
But if there was one thing that Nathan knew for certain it was this.
The moment those defenses fell, Toki and every other woman in Iron town would be as good as dead. The young outlander had no illusions as to the full gruesome extent of that particular outcome.
And if what Toki had told him was true, and Eboshi was already engaging Okoto's forces, then time had all but run out for him. Once the boars were wiped out, as Moro had said they would be, then all that would be standing between Eboshi and the Forest spirit's head was San.
That was one thing Nathan just could not bring himself to fathom.
"I know what it is you're thinking," Kitsune chimed as he kept pace along side his human ward.
"Trust me, Kitsune, you can't even begin to imagine what I'm thinking."
"Oh I think I can," the fox-god returned. "You feel conflicted. And none of what you're doing makes the slightest bit of sense to you."
Nathan stopped suddenly, giving Kitsune a raised eyebrow. "Alright, that's just creepy."
"So I'm right?"
"What the fuck difference does it make if you're right or not? It doesn't change the fact that no matter what I do, I always end up feeling like a total duchebag."
"You're unsure of yourself. Of the choices you're making." Kitsune replied.
"All I know is that San is probably out their just seconds away from being blown to pieces. And I'm out here playing messenger-boy to the people who've been the cause of everything that's happened to me!"
"Are those poor women the cause of your pain, Nathan? Is Toki the cause? What about her husband the ox-driver? Or perhaps the poor lepers who toil day and night so that they might keep themselves from being thrown back into the streets like so much garbage? Are all these people the cause of your suffering?"
Nathan scowled, chewing the inside of his cheek. He had no answer.
"Well?' the fox-god pressed on. "Are they?"
"I don't know, Kitsune!" he finally answered. "Alright? I just don't fucking know! A part of me wants to say, 'yes'. Another part wants to say, 'no'. And the rest just says, 'maybe'. All I know is that if given the choice, I would rather try to save lives then just sit back and let them die."
"Then that's all there is to it. If you want to save lives, if you want to help those around you, then there's no reason for you to go punishing yourself. The world isn't all black and white Nathan, you of all people should no that."
"Do you think I'm betraying, San?"
"This isn't about—"
Kitsune shook his head "No, I don't. But in the end, all that really matters is what you think. What you believe."
Nathan considered his small friend's words and sighed. "This savior thing's going to be a lot tougher than I thought it would be."
"As is the nature of most things in this world."
"You still sure Ashitaka wouldn't have been better suited for this sort of thing?"
"Perhaps he would have," Kitsune replied, still smiling. "But here's the thing, and there really is no way of getting around this."
"Yeah, and that is?"
"Ashitaka is not here. You are. And whatever happens from here is entirely up to you. And if given the choice, between you and Ashitaka, I would gladly choose you without a second's hesitation. And if I had to go back and make that same decision again I would not change it for anything or anyone."
A smile crossed Nathan's face despite himself. "Sometimes I think you give me too much credit, Kitsune."
"I think you don't give yourself enough."
The sharp whistle of an arrow split the air between them and Nathan's leg suddenly went limp as jolt of pain overtook the muscles. His hand instantly went to his thigh were a small gash ran wet with a stream of newly spilt blood, while his eyes went to the single black-feathered arrow that was now sticking out of the ground.
Another three arrows soon followed, each coming dangerously close to hitting their mark. As Nathan leapt to avoid being struck, he caught the faint glint of armor among the rocks. He threw himself into the tall grass, pressing himself flat to the ground, the left leg of his ragged jeans now red with blood.
The sight of so much of his own blood triggered something within him, filling his heart with a terrible desire that he didn't understand.
The two hidden archers, form the safety of their boulder, replaced their arrows, took aim and fired another volley. Their hands moved with near-inhuman speed and accuracy, loading one arrow after another, firing the next before the first could reach its target.
As Nathan stared into the wave of arrows falling towards him, their seeking tips starved for his blood, he felt his entire body ignite. The demon within him stirred its evil fluctuating with raw gluttonous power. The youth narrowed his eyes, bringing his power into focus, training it on the projectiles as they fell towards him.
The arrows stopped dead just a few inches from his head, suspended in the air as is held aloft by invisible strings. The youth glared at them, his eyes burning with uncontrollable anger. The halted projectiles all began to tremble before each one burst in a cloud of splinters.
The two Archers could only look on with bewildered expressions, dumbstruck at what they had just witnessed.
Nathan rose to full height and inhaled, his eyes glowing with an evil light.
"Nathan, stop!" Kitsune cried. "The demon's growing too strong for you!" He leapt around Nathan yipping and shouting, desperate to bring the boy under control.
But the words never reached him.
The ground beneath Nathan suddenly cracked and the grass tore itself from the roots. Nathan threw his whole body forward and screamed.
The blood-curdling cry seemed to come alive, pouring outward across the field and towards the rocks. A great fissure opened along the ground, and the boulder the archers were perched upon suddenly split in two. The archers could only cry out, their screams barely addible as their boulder shattered beneath their feet, swallowing them both in an avalanche of falling rocks.
When it was finally over, Nathan Fell to his knees, his entire body feeling like lead. The fire in his flesh was gone and the terrible hunger that had nearly driven him to the brink was now quenched.
"Nathan," Kitsune said softly starring into the youth's glazed eyes. "Don't forget who you are… don't let the darkness consume you." He took a step closer, bringing his face level with Nathan's. "Remember who you are, Nathan Benski."
But the young outlander seemed to not hear him, his blood spattered face a mask of utter exhaustion.
A piercing shriek suddenly split air, snapping Nathan out of his trance. He blinked his eyes into focus, his mind once more his own.
"Wha–?" he sputtered, the muscles in his mouth feeling like rubber. "What the hell's happening?" He looked up into the sky, just barely catching a glimpse at the single arrow as it sped screaming into the clouds.
"Aw-w-w shit!" Nathan groaned shooting a nervous glance at Kitsune, "I did something bad didn't I?"
"A signal arrow," Kitsune replied, barely able to hear his own voice through the ringing in his furry ears. "Come, we must move swiftly. More soldiers will surely come."
As if on cue five more arrows were soon fired into the air, each one landing just a few feet away from Nathan.
"Over there!" someone shouted. "Up on that ridge!
Upon hearing the shout, Nathan looked to the distance were he soon spotted a small party of armored horsemen riding towards them, bows, spears and swords held at the ready.
"Any ideas?" the small fox-god asked.
"Yeah," Nathan replied. "Run for it!" He scooped Kitsune off the ground, holding him tightly under his arm and bolted up the hill. The bite of his arrow wound gnawed at his leg every time his foot touched the ground.
As he cleared the hill, Nathan's ear gave a twitch as another arrow suddenly grazed past his head, the sharpened tip just nicking him. When he looked back he saw that the horsemen were quickly gaining on them.
"They have horses, Nathan," Kitsune said, squeezing himself out from the youth's crooked arm "You'll never outrun them."
"No," The youth said through his teeth. "But I can sure as hell try can't I?" He clutched his leg, the blood sticky against his fingers. Surprising a cry, he pushed onward, running across the clearing with Kitsune keeping pace by his side. His every muscle bristled with fatigue, the ground rushing like a river of green beneath his feet while the sharp rumbling of hooves rose behind him.
"Keep running!" Nathan wheezed, his lungs feeling like they were about to burst. "Just keep running! Don't look back!"
"Are you telling this to me?" Kitsune asked, "Or to yourself?"
"Both! Now shut up and run!" Nathan's jaw tightened, and with a burst of adrenaline, he quickened his pace, tearing across the field in a last ditch effort to replace the lost distance between him and the advancing samurai.
They had not cleared half the field's length before Nathan saw the first sign of smoke rising just beyond the next hill.
"I see it," The young outlander replied, the rolling lump of black smoke growing like a tumor in the sky as they drew near. "That's were we'll find them. Eboshi and the rest of those nimrods."
As they cleared the third hill, Nathan forced himself to an abrupt halt, flailing his arms to keep himself from falling into the ravine that stretched out before him.
The ravine was wide and steep, as though it had been cut away by some great ax. As Nathan backed away from the precipice, he lifted his gaze from the shadowy gullet that had nearly devoured him.
What he found starring back at him was a sea of death.
Beyond the ravine lay a second clearing, gray and barren, stripped bare of the lush green of grass and trees, like a skinned animal left to rot. Fire riddled the landscape while billowing walls of ash choked the very air.
But what held Nathan's attention were the many piles of dead boars. There were so many of them, so many that it was impossible for him to count them all. The once great army of beasts now lay chard and blacked by fire, their powerful bodies broken and mutilated by whatever horrific device had cut them down.
And as Nathan brought a hand to his face, his demonic red eyes watering at the stench of burning animal flesh, a horrible realization struck him, and a single word squeezed passed his trembling mouth.
"San…"He could almost picture the young wolfgirl's small perfect form, crushed and broken beneath the smoldering remains of some fallen boar, her proud warrior face starring lifelessly into the blackened sky while the fire slowly consumed her.
It was only then that Nathan realized that the land was in fact the darkened shade of blood.
So focused was his attention on the carnage before him that he failed to notice the dark shape of a horse descending upon him. The samurai rider swung his spear, catching Nathan square in the back and sending him sprawling into the ravine's hungry maw.
Nathan cried and cursed aloud as he plummeted down the steep slope, bouncing along the jutting rocks like a rag-doll until he finally landed face first at the bottom of the narrow ravine.
He gave a cough, choking on the dust his fall had strewn, his body crying out with a thousand promises of pain yet to come.
"Are you all right?" Kitsune called out, bounding down the hill, moving to where his human companion lay. "Can you still move?"
Nathan's eyes wandered as his mind worked to regain its senses "Ye-e-e-ah," he wheezed a labored reply. He willed movement into his limbs, his every joint stiff like set of a rusty hinges. As he began to move his left arm, a searing pain suddenly stabbed his shoulder.
"Awwww, fuck me!" He cursed through his teeth, pushing himself off the ground, struggling every agonizing inch of the way. "I think I dislocated my shoulder." His whole arm throbbed all the way down to his fingernails, hanging limp off his body.
"Can you still use your legs?" Kitsune asked
"Yeah I think so. Just give me a sec." But the moment he started to move, he gave another wrenching cry as a wave of burning knives suddenly tore through his arm, his shoulder feeling like a balloon just moments form bursting.
"There!" Someone shouted from somewhere above. "He's down there!"
"Aw hell!" Nathan said the ground feeling like jelly beneath him as he struggled to drag himself out of sight.
As the horsemen proceeded to make their way down the hill, the two companions managed to take cover in a small hollow that lay hidden amidst the rocks and shrubbery. Nathan pressed himself into the shadows, his good arm nursing his injured one.
Kitsune lay close at his side.
Both the fox-god and the human willed themselves into silence as they listened to the sound of hooves drawing closer with each passing second.
The horses soon rounded the corner, their riders seated stiffly in their saddles.
Nathan tilted his head out of the shadows allowing himself a quick glance at his pursuers, watching them scan the ravine for their elusive quarry. Their leader road ahead, sword in hand, his scowling face half hidden beneath his helmet.
"Where is he?" The samurai captain barked, his agitated mount bucking beneath him.
"He's not here, sir," a scar-faced spearmen answered, his narrow eyes flitting across the ravine's high, gray walls. "There seems to be no sign of him."
"Idiot!" The captain lashed out, causing the scar-faced spearmen to flinch. "How can he not be here? You struck him down, you saw him fall!" His fingers tightened around his sword, the blood draining from his whitening knuckles.
"I want him found!" the captain ordered "You!" he said, pointing to another of his samurai. "Stay with him. Every inch of this ravine is to be searched. The rest of you men follow me. We're rejoining our forces at the Ironworks!" As the riders began to depart, he turned a ruthless glare upon the two men about to be left behind.
"And you! Fail me again and I'll have both your heads!
Nathan breathed a sigh as he watched the majority of the samurai leave, but felt no less out of harms way. Even with their diminished numbers, he was still outnumbered two to one.
Two armored samurai against one injured boy.
With his arm injured as it was, it would be no challenge for the two men to overtake him. To take them on in his current state would just be suicide. He leaned back into the shadows retreating into himself as a snail retreats to its shell, daring not to breath. His trembling hand clutched his throbbing shoulder, the stabbing pain now growing too much for him to bear.
He heard the rattle of armor as one of the riders suddenly dismounted, which was soon followed by the scrape of footsteps rising from behind him.
As the footsteps drew near, the fear of discovery suddenly took hold of Nathan. He felt the demon begin to stir once more, now stronger and more starved for blood than ever. He could feel the curse's cold-oily fingers curling through his bowls, slithering like a nest of famished vipers under his burning skin. So strong was the terrible desire growing within his heart that it frightened him.
As the youth prepared to meet his end at the edge of a samurai's sword, a horrid scream suddenly rang through the ravine, followed closely by a horse's frightened whine.
"W–who are you?" Someone shouted. "Identify yourself! No no wait what are you—"
Nathan's eyes shot open at the sounds of the struggle rising behind him, but still, he dared not move. His ears twitched at the high-pitched din of metal striking metal, and were soon met by the gurgling cry of another man being cut down from his horse.
And then all was silent. All Nathan could hear was the beating of his heart and the whisper of his nervous breathing. The sound of footsteps soon returned, and they were moving straight in his direction. Whatever had killed those two samurai knew he was there and it was coming straight for him.
All time seemed to slow to a still. As the footsteps drew closer, Nathan closed his eyes, holding Kitsune tightly to him and breathed what might have been his last.
Nathan's eyes shot open at the sound of the voice. And when he looked into the sharp featured face staring down at him, the blood seemed to drain from him.
San could hardly breathe at the sight that lay before her. As her cold, chestnut eyes became filled with Nathan's battered form, the lump in her throat grew. She slowly drew closer, her face and bodice spattered with blood, and lowered to a crouch, her eyes not once leaving Nathan's.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Nathan opened his mouth, but no words came. All he could do was stare… at her.
Her face… her eyes… her lips… her nose… the polished bone jewelry dangling from her perfect ears and neck… the stark red of the tattoos against her porcelain skin… the glossy black of his Leather Jacket draped over her powerful arms… and the spatters of blood that now stained the dagger in her equally blood-stained hand.
"Nathan." San whispered again, leaning closer, wiping the sweat and blood that had caked upon the young outlander's face. "Please…say something."
Nathan just continued to stare at her.
After what must have seemed like an eternity for both of them, the dark-haired youth parted his dry lips and spoke. "…I thought you were dead," he whispered before the whole world suddenly slipped away along with what little strength had been left in his body.
He collapsed like a dying tree into San's arms, letting the warmth of her strong body embrace him. And as the pain and exhaustion pulled him from the world of the waking, the last thing he noticed was the unmistakable smell of her skin brushing against his nose.
His tired eyes retreated behind heavy eyelids before he finally drifted out of all thought and time. The gentle caress of sleep enveloped his tired limbs and all the world seemed to turn to silent darkness.