The small and terrified macaque wrestled against the confines of its small but robust cage. Shrill howls of fear and panic echo throughout the ancient cave system deep within the earth’s embrace. Although having been caught many moons ago the monkey still had vigour. The two Sho-Bakemono dragging the cage up the slope stopped, dropping the cage to the floor with a loud bang. Turning to punish their racketous ward with sharp jabs of their spears. The rusty blades nicked and sliced at the defenceless prisoner’s hide causing the din to increase, howls of rage replaced with squeals and yelps of pain as the captors gleefully exacted the punishment. Both the attendants were careful not to seriously wound the animal; both knew Wu-Zang would not be lenient with this mistake. After a minute or so the animal seemed to accept defeat and slumped down to the base of the cage, gingerly licking at the many little gashes covering its tiny body. The two Bakemono crouched, shouldering the cage upon the two bamboo sticks set adjacent along its bottom shoulder width apart.
As the defeated and broken creature sat, wide eyes straining against the murk, it made out the vast cave that would soon be its tomb. The cave seemed to go on forever, only a small stream bubbling through the centre of the cavern, broke up cold smooth rock. A crusty black substance covered most surfaces; the two Bakemono and the cage were smeared with the crumbly black earth like material.
Slowly the attendants started the climb up the steep path that wound up the cave wall at a steep angle that made the assent difficult with their burden. The path went up for fifty strides before levelling out onto a wide ledge, high above the cave floor. The walls here were illuminated by a fungus that grew there and thus eerie green light cast the pair’s shadows against the wall behind them.
The ledge was approximately twenty strides square and the covering of the thick black substance was thicker here caking the floor. It acted much like mud and showed the movements of the ancient Sho-Bakemono Shugenja that had made this dark place his home. The walls were smeared with markings and drawings. Although Bakemono have no formal written language these paintings were used to record and report the histories of their people and of the individual tribes. Amongst the Hexers the paintings contained dangerous secrets and mysterious and ancient rites which the most wise used to guide their tribes.
Wu-Zang was one of these Hexers; in fact many believed he was the oldest of the Hexers. He held many titles but was most commonly addressed as the “Father of Shadows”. Few but the most powerful Bakemono tribe leaders had heard Wu-Zang speak for generations. Most of the time he led a solitary existence on his ledge, at the heart of the great cavern, painting and repainting the murals on the walls of the cave. Endlessly muttering to himself or to the throng of bats that accompanied him wherever he went, crawling over him like a second skin. Even the attendants, selected from the craftiest and slyest minds amongst the Sho-Bakemono, lived at the base of the path leading to the ledge and were not spoken with. If the attendants lasted long enough without angering Wu-Zang or becoming the meal of one of the giant bats that also called the cave system their home, then over time they too would start to understand the meanings of the scrawlings on the walls, their minds open up to the darkness, they too could hear the whispers in the long shadows. At this point they would return to their tribe and a new attendant would start his long and difficult apprenticeship under the Father of Shadows.
Both the attendants could see Wu-Zang was busy blurring an image on the wall and then using his long finger nail to scratch a new image onto the surface. The fungus light peeked through in parts and gave the image a glow that seemed to pulse slowly in rhythm with the ancient shugenja’s strokes. Both knew to stand and wait until instructed to move. This might take hours depending on the depth of Wu-Zang’s focus in his artistry, only the bats hanging from his bent and crooked form seemed to register their presence. The Bakemono were used to bats having shared the same caves for centuries, but these bats were different, when they looked at them the attendants instinctively lowered their gaze. The bats called to their master, informing him of the trio’s arrival. Suddenly the mumbling ceased and his long bony finger withdrew from its work and into the folds of his old and tattered kimono.
Slowly he turned, with two turns rather than one motion the old Bakemono brought himself to be facing in the direction of the attendants. In his left hand he held a wizened staff, from its handle hung many trinkets, small skulls and items the young Bakemono had no understanding of. Over his hunched shoulders draped the hide of a large Macaque, its head strapped to his head and around his ears, its lolling arms dangled lifelessly down his chest. Much of the body and legs were covered with many layers of kimono and countless vials, bottles, scrolls and items for his craft. The old Bakemono’s frame was twisted and he stood bent at a forty five degree angle. He raised his head slowly and with some difficulty. His deep black eyes met with the nearest attendant and he instantly bowed his head leaving only enough of an angle to catch any movement or direction the Hexer gave, the other attendant quickly followed suit. Without speaking, which was normal, Wu-Zang extended his right arm and index finger with which he had scribed the markings on the wall, the nail was eternally encrusted with the bat dung used in his work. He pointed at the cage housing the monkey; which since arriving on the ledge had remained silent, as if aware of the powerful being it was now in the presence of. He then pointed at a spot in the centre of the ledge; The Bakemono shouldered the cage quickly and moved the cage as instructed. Whilst doing this they could feel the old hexer watching their every move. They put the cage down and stepped back heads and bodies bowed, the hexer mumbled something inaudible to a bat crawling up the macaque hide and then waved the pair away dismissively. They needed no further prompting and quickly scurried back down the path they had come.
Wu-Zang had known that the time was coming. He had heard it in the darkness, seen it in the shadows and now was the time to act.
He shuffled over to the cage and with a surprisingly agile flick opened the cage. Momentarily stunned by this action the small monkey froze, unable to process the actions of its strange captor. This moment passed quickly though and the monkey, smelling freedom made a dart out of the cage heading for the path down to freedom.
In its haste it had failed to see the safety afforded by the cage. The panicked patter of the monkey’s soft palms on the hard slick rock coupled with the strange and barely audible clicking emanating for Wu-Zang’s lips made for an alien melody. The monkey had almost reached the start of the incline when dropping from the dark like an arrow, the form of a giant bat was visible only for an instant as its razor sharp teeth pierced the neck and spine of the monkey. It was dead before it had time to realise its arms and legs no longer responded to its minds plea for movement.
Circling the cavern once more the giant bat then landed next to the small body, its blood pooling slowly around the gaping wound in its neck.
Wu-Zang smiled, his cracked lips parting to reveal needle sharp and rotten with age teeth. He shuffled over to the kill, as he did so more of the giant bats dropped from the darkness overhead until he was encircled by the human sized assassins. Their larger leathery wings propping their furry bodies, eyes gleamed in the reflection of the wall’s light and saliva dripped from their maws in anticipation of the coming feast. Although the smell of the fresh blood was almost irresistible none moved any nearer.
Wu-Zang bent lower and flipped the body over with the tip of his cane. Lifeless eyes stared back at him, its mouth hung open and limbs dangled limp as he positioned the arms and legs out like a star. Stepping back and closing his eyes he began to mumble and chant. The bats around him swayed and clicked to the strange rhythm. Slowly the shadows around the circle began to break from their owners, they formed grasping hands and coiled tendrils, twitching and moving to Wu-Zang’s chant. Eyes tightly closed he continued his call to the dark, the tendrils reached out and grasped the body by its limbs, raising it from the ground as each pulled trying to steal it back to the darkness. Reaching out his long nail Wu-Zang drew it across the taught belly of the monkey, the squeaks and clicking of the bats increased as the fresh blood and entrails escaped onto the cold rock with a squelch. The volume of the chant increased and the walls glow pulsed in time, the shadow bonds grew tighter and the body taught in their black, cold grip. Then with a sound of tearing that resonated throughout the cavern the body relented to the darkness’s call and broke, tearing roughly into four parts. The limbs disappearing into the shadows, the bats instantly fell upon the trail of fresh blood and meat left behind, pushing and shoving each other as they extended their long lash like tongues eager not to waste a single drop.
Looking down and seemingly oblivious to the fracas around him Wu-Zang poked the steaming entrails, prodding and pushing them around with crooked cane held in a wizened claw.
“I understand,” he said to himself and no one but the darkness.
“It is time.”
Looking down on his war band, Zo Zee could not help but feel superior. True the Dai-Bakemono gathered in the isolated cave before him were bigger and stronger than the Sho-Bakemono, but what his breed lacked in physical strength they more than made up for with cunning and savagery.
“It’s mine!” A particularly muscular Dai-Bakemono snarled through yellowed, needle sharp teeth. It jabbed its long bony finger into the chest of a smaller kin, hunched over and picking at the remains of some small mammal. Instantly dropping into a crouched defensive stance the smaller of the two narrowed its red eyes, its hand instinctively going to the hatchet tucked into its soiled and dirty obi. With this movement and sensing that the smaller kin wouldn’t give up the food easily, the larger Bakemono began to circle his brother.
“Give it to me now, Kre!” He hissed, his long fingers reached for the hilt of the stolen Katana hung across his bare back. Hissing loudly in reply and keeping in the crouched position, Kre realised a fight was about to happen, he bought the hatchet to the ready.
“Only thing I’ll give you is this axe, Ho!” Kre replied, a wicked smile spreading across his face. The other Bakemono in the camp had all stopped whatever they were doing and watched in anticipation of the entertainment. Zo-Zee, knew this behaviour although not uncommon was only made worse by their confusing of obscure instructions. The Father of Shadows attendant had summoned Zo-Zee to his great lair. Although the Hexer didn’t speak directly to him, he gave his order through the attendant after what felt like an age of staring at Zo-Zee he turned and shambled off, the Attendant had stepped forward and given the instruction to gather warriors and go to a faraway cave. Once the time was right he would receive further instructions. Zo-Zee had left, the journey had been hard and they had travelled through dark and dangerous tunnels and cave systems under the Dragon Spine Mountains. Eventually they had reached the destination. That day had been many moons ago and the warriors had grown restless with nothing to do but wait. Zo-Zee was not even sure how he would be notified of his next orders.
The shouts and taunts from the two Bakemono on the floor below brought Zo-Zee out of his pondering. Both warriors had drawn weapons and were circling each other trying to spot a weakness in the other’s guard, shouts and squeals of excitement for the coming bloodshed echoed through the small cave at the base of mountain. Zo-Zee was just about to jump down for his vantage point when his keen ears picked up the low swishing, steady and getting louder. Zo-Zee realised the sound emanated from the tunnel that led them here and not from the entrance to the surface. Just as the other Bakemono noticed and began to turn, weapons ready and confused by the noise, a giant bat burst into the low light of the cave. It was huge in comparison to the normal bats all Bakemono are used to; its wing span stretched easily the length of three Dai-Bakemono. It’s maw the size of a bear and filled with razor sharp fangs. It landed amongst the band instantly scattering the group to the walls of the cave. It scanned the group, small jet black eyes searching, finally its gaze settled on Zo-Zee, who without realising had drawn his Tanto. As they locked gazes, a voice echoed around the cave.
“Zo-Zee, the time is now, four leagues from here in the woods is an old human temple, take your warriors there and wait, a mighty warrior comes. You must meet him there in one moons time and give him this message,” The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, as if from the very darkness itself. With that a strange and dark script filled his mind. Although he didn’t understand the words the sounds were painfully burned into his memory. Then as quickly as it had appeared the giant bat was gone. Confused, the warriors scattered around the cave looked up at their leader.
“No need to spill each other’s blood, we move out tonight.”