Chapter 1: Into the Darkness
A foul roar shook the peaceful night. The beastly noise tore through the trees as if it was alive, looking for something. The creature roared again, and was accompanied by a series of similar cries. The instincts of the awakened animals screamed for them to escape or hide as the ground shook with the movement of the creatures. Another thunder like snarl sounded. It was one of warning. No one was safe. As the creatures of the forest moved to safeguard themselves against the onslaught of the beasts, they were disturbed by two swift blurs.
"Did you hear that, Rin?" the first blur whispered.
"The more important question is who else did, Harada," Rin replied.
"I didn't think they'd catch on so fast," Harada muttered.
"It was only a matter of time," the woman said. "I'm more surprised at the numbers we saw tonight."
"Yeah, I didn't think there could be so many in one place. What do you think Master Kaiza will do with this information?"
"That isn't our primary concern," the female hissed. "We should be more worried about finding the Emerald Dragon and giving him the scroll. The Legion needs him!"
"Right. Sorry." Silence passed over the two as they continued their path down the thick forest. "I gotta piss," Harada announced after a few moments. Rin let out an irritated grunt.
"Can't you wait until we at least get to a village?"
"We've been running for hours!" the male shot back. "Do you have any idea how long I've been holding it in?!"
"Fine," she sighed. "But only five seconds, understand."
The two made a sharp left, and ran into a large clearing that exposed the wide fast moving river that had been running alongside of them. They stopped on the riverbank and allowed themselves a brief moment of rest.
Harada was a head taller than Rin, but could still be considered short amongst average sized men. He was dressed in an all-black jacket and pants topped off by a cowl that hid all his features save his hazel eyes. He raised his gangly arms over his head and let out a pleasurable grunt as he felt the muscles stretch.
"Will you just go already, we've probably lost enough time as is!" Rin barked, who was dressed in similar fashion.
"All right, all right. Jeez." The young man turned to the river exposing the straight sword fastened onto his back, and a bright red scroll situated on his belt. "What's the rush anyways? Do we even know if this dragon guy is even here?"
Rin groaned at her colleague's apprehension. He had been asking the same question for the past week. She knew it was a long shot that such a powerful warrior would choose to live in such a remote area, but this mission came directly from Master Rashidi. The Head General, Kaiza, had little rules in his imperial army but one of the first and most important one was to never doubt him or Rashidi.
"Look, Rashidi said that the sun goddess gave him a vision that Atsu was here, alright," Rin said with finality. Harada's doubt was the last thing she needed right now with monsters on their tail. "That should be more than enough for you."
"If by vision you mean when that crazy old man starts talking to himself," Harada muttered, re-doing his belt.
"Yes Harada, keep doubting the old man who can see into the future and communicates with the gods, I'm sure it will end well for you."
"I'm just saying, I'd like a little more solid information than just a vision."
"Are you finished?" Rin snapped, wanting an end to the conversation. "We have a lot of ground to cover!"
"Yeah, yeah. You really need to relax, Rin. Maybe with a little help from a friend?" Harada said with a sly smile as he re-did his belt.
"Please," Rin scoffed. "As if I'd be interested in you. You're way too small for my taste."
"What'd you say? I'll have you know I'm famous around the brothels! The women can't take their hands off of me! They always say I'm the biggest they've seen!"
"You and I both know those women will say anything to get their money," she shot back. "You spend way too much time at the brothels. Besides, you do realize I rank higher than you right? I can cut off your little buddy for your disrespect."
Harada let out a growl as he turned to face Rin with a retort on his tongue, when his eyes widened in fear. Rin cocked her head to the side in confusion.
Harada gave no time to reply. In a flash he grabbed Rin, and pulled her to the ground, narrowly avoiding the swing of a large spiked club.
"They're here!" he exclaimed. The monster roared, either of challenge or of signaling neither Rin nor Harada were sure.
It was a massive beast, six or seven feet at full height. Its skin a dark red that somehow blended in the dark, with fangs and claws sharper than any creature Rin and Harada had seen. A single horn grew out the center of the monster's head. It took a single step forward with its angular, three toed feet.
"Let's go!" Rin yelled, already sprinting into the woods. Harada dashed after her.
"Damn it, how did they find us?" Harada scowled.
"That isn't important! We just need to get the hell out of here now!"
A loud roar caught their attention. Within moments two more monsters dove out of the darkness with their shark like teeth blazed. Harada lost no momentum as he cut them down, but three more replaced them in their path.
"Rin heads up!" he warned.
Rin drew her weapons, twin Sais and made short work of the new obstacles. She looked over her shoulder and saw Harada dispatch two more monsters before stabbing another that was on his flank.
"Damn it!" she spat as she killed another. "There's no end to them!"
"I think they have us surrounded!"
Harada's thought was proven true when countless more seemed to sprout from the darkness, and approached the two scouts in slow tightening circle.
"I'm thinking damn it!" Rin hissed.
"Hate to bitch, but could you think faster!"
"You're so not helping."
The monsters, armed with similar spiked oaken clubs, let out a series of smug grunts as they watched their trapped prey tremble. Rin gritted her teeth. It was only a matter of time before they closed in. She knew the monsters were savoring her and Harada's helplessness. If they got caught, the entire mission would be for naught, and the empire would have no defense against what kind of storm was coming their way.
The ring of monsters became larger as more of the odd creatures joined. Rin bit her lip and tightened her hold on her weapons. There was only one way out. Harada would have a better chance than her anyway. He was lazy but he was still faster than she was, and based on the situation, speed was all that mattered.
"Harada," she whispered. "As soon as you see fire, I want you to run like a mad demon out of hell got it?"
"Yeah, but what about you? There's no way in you can beat all these monsters!"
"That doesn't matter. As long as you find the Emerald Dragon, Kaiza and the empire will have a chance."
"This is crazy. I'm not leaving you behind."
Rin saw the creatures begin to close in. She even thought she saw one lick its lips in anticipation.
"We don't have time to argue idiot, just do it."
"Now isn't the time to be noble you bastard!" Rin snapped. "I'm ordering you to get the hell out of here!"
Harada let out an agreeing but reluctant grunt. Rin stepped back, and her foot snapped a dry stick. That was all the monsters needed.
They charged like wild elephants. Their steps seemed make the very earth crumble and shake with fear. Rin closed her eyes just seconds before they were upon them, and thrust her Sais into the ground with a loud yell. Fire erupted from the earth creating a wall that halted the monsters.
"GO NOW!!" she bellowed.
"I'll be back for you! It's a promise!" Harada swore, and dashed through the fire, past the demons, and into the darkness of the woods.
"I-Idiot," Rin muttered. "Making promises like that, at a time like this….."
Her lips curved to form a small smile.
The flame wall dropped.
The creatures closed in.
And her world went black.
Harada ran like he had never run before in his life. His arms pumped up and down in a practiced fashion, and his breath going in and out with trained timing. The dark forest became nothing but a blur as he dodged the trees left and right as if they were adversaries. He leapt yards across the ground to gain more ground and time, and changed direction often throw off possible pursuers. His heart pounded harder and harder in chest until he was sure that it would burst if he didn't rest. He made a quick left, and arrived at a narrow cliff-side that over looked the wide flowing river below.
Harada hunched over with fatigue. His breaths fast and heavy and his legs pulsing from overuse. He took several deep breaths to calm his heart. He looked up and saw that without the obstruction of the trees, the pale silver light of the moon shone clearly illuminating the cliff-side. He saw that he was a good two to three yards from the river below, and that the river was flowing upstream. Based on the map they had received prior to the mission, if he went downstream there was a chance that there was a town called Amiri where he could get help for Rin. The empire may have been in danger, but that wasn't enough of an excuse for Harada to escape, and leave her with their attackers.
"Hang on Rin. I'll be back for you," he whispered to the pale gray rocks before him.
"My, my isn't that noble," a soft yet menacing voice said from behind him. Harada drew his sword, and turned to face his new opponent. He felt his heart stop.
Before him was a creature that could only be described as a spawn from hell itself. Its skin was deathly pale. Paler than even snow. Its hair long and pure white. Harada looked into the creature's eyes and saw cold cobalt stare back at him. Its body was that of a human's, but Harada was not fooled when he saw the long claws on the creature's large hands, the two sharp horns on its head. It grinned, exposing its triangular teeth, and tongue. It wore light metallic chest armor that was made from small metal scales that were linked together. Odd leather clothing that was underneath the armor covered the legs, arms and neck. On its hip was the hilt of a sheathed short sword. The monster moved its head side to side with a loud snapping sound accompanying the motion before letting out a smug smile.
"Stay back demon!" Harada yelled. Despite his words, his foot was inching back.
"Oh I'm so scared," the monster scoffed. "Give me the scroll, and I will promise you a quick death."
"I'd rather die first!"
It rolled its eyes.
"Well either way you end up dead. All that matters is what order we go in."
Harada tightened his grip. Rin sacrificed herself to allow him to get his far; there was no way he would allow himself to die here.
His breath became rapid and sharp. His heart pounded faster than when he was running. A bead of sweat rolled down his brow, and his throat gave way to a gulp. His sword became harder to hold still. The creature took a step forward. He took a step back. His shoulders were tight and stiff as if some great weight was pushing down on him. His mind went blank, his will vanished. All he could see was the monster before him, and the sheer look of superiority on its face. It then Harada knew, death stood before him.
He had been taught that it was an honor to die in the service of the empire. That it was better to die with the information that you had learned than to allow it to fall in the hands of the enemy. He was always told that dying for the empire was a glorious event, and he should have nothing but pride in his heart if it happened.
Harada felt no pride at all.
All he felt was the feeling that certain death lied behind the monster before him. He didn't want to die. He wasn't ready to die. The monster took another step forward, Harada stepped back again. Now there was only two ways out, fall or face the creature. His time was up, and there was nothing he could do.
He lowered his sword. The monster smiled.
"So we'll go in that order then." He held out his hand. "Give to me."
Harada's hand passed over the scroll on his belt, and made a fist as realization struck him. There was another way after all. He only prayed that whatever happened after this, happened for the empire's benefit.
He slowly took the scroll from his belt, and presented it to the smiling monster.
"Hand it over to me now," the creature said as if talking to a scared animal. Harada made his way towards the monster, and held out the scroll placing it inches away from its hand.
"It's too bad…." Harada muttered.
"I know," the creature said with a chuckle. "So many people were counting on you, and yet you failed."
"No. It's too bad you have to find it again yourself!" With that Harada spun on the balls of his feet and hurled the scroll over the cliff into the river.
"I might die but I'm taking you with me!"
Harada swung his sword with a savage yell at the creature's neck determined to sever it.
The monster caught his blade with ease without as much as a scratch. Its other hand thrust out and grabbed Harada by the neck. The monster's grip greater than iron. Harada let out a gurgled cry as he felt air leaving his windpipe.
The last thing Harada heard was the snap of his neck.
The creature hurled the body over the cliff-side and let out a demonic roar of calling that echoed through the darkness of the forest.
Within moments the other monsters gathered, with two holding an unconscious Rin by her arms. The monsters formed around the young woman, their teeth were bared, and hunger in their eyes. The pale monster snarled, stopping their advances. The monster awoke Rin with a hard slap, and grabbed her by the neck, careful not to snap it.
"Now tell me my dear, who sent you?"
Rin spat at the creature, which increased its grip in response.
"Not a wise choice," he turned to seven creatures that were on his left. "Take her to Lord Idai. Perhaps his famous torture methods will get her to talk. And make sure you take her weapons! The last thing we want is for her to take her own life. The rest of you, find that scroll! I don't care if you have search this entire forest just find it now!" A chorus of snarls sounded, and the creatures vanished into the darkness the carry out their orders.
The pale creature took one last look over the cliff at the flowing river below, and growled before following the others into the darkness.
It was only beginning.