XI – The Nine Rings
They had left Meropis’s port earlier that morning and now, as the sun started to set, Koatsu could see from his window the black walls of the capital coming into view before them, only for steam to cloud his his sight as the train started to slow down to a halt, the first time it had stopped since leaving Meropis.
He slumped his head back on the leather seat of the compartment, his arms down between his legs, as he looked at Hichami, seemingly oblivious to their arrival to the capital, deeply reading the scrolls on the small wooden table that split the small compartment in this carriage.
Skora had long fallen asleep, his head slumped against the wall and a line of drool crawled down onto the seat as he snored loudly.
He was so small, that his feet didn’t even touch the floor that usually, when they stood side by side, it made for a funny sight and they had sometimes been given the nickname of the Giant and Dwarf, though Koatsu would smack the face red of anyone who dared laugh maliciously at his friend. He was small for his age but he still had a few more years to grow taller, he himself hadn’t been born this tall.
The train now drew to a standstill, just outside the walls and he could see the wooden platform that had been built outside the city’s walls and he peered down below. It was a long drop to the ground.
The platform was filled with government officials, talking amongst one another and once the doors were dragged open and a small ramp placed down, they stepped onto it, halting any passenger looking to get off and got them to show them their documents while a few of the other officials started boarding the train.
‘Look at those fools’ he thought to himself.
With their white robe, which were too tight for them and collars which covered their neck, each one wore black boots, giving them at least ten centimetres extra on their height and their hair was combed back so you could see the lines of their heads.
A few minutes passed in silence when their compartment door slid open and he turned his head round to see Koshin enter the compartment and for the first time in hours, Hichami looked up from his precious scrolls.
“We’ve arrived at the ninth wall” said Koshin bowing his head slightly.
“Oh, is that why we’ve stopped?” said Hichami his long nose trembling as he smiled, something that didn’t suit his long face and dark eyes and Koatsu tried his best to keep his mouth shut.
“Governor Hichami” spoke a voice and Koshin moved out the way as two of the officials walked inside the cramped compartment. At this point Skora had woken up, lifting his head and looked about him, his face dazed and confused, drool hanging from his bottom lip.
“A wall started..” began Hichami as he slightly bowed towards them.
“as a single brick…” they replied in chorus as they returned the bow. That’s when the oldest of the two, with a bowl cut head and sleeves that fell over his hands, drew up a note pad in his left hand, a pencil in his right.
“We just need to go through the mandatory procedures, you know how it is Governor Hichami” said the man as if he was apologising for following orders.
“No matter” said Hichami as he looked from Skora, who was looking at the new arrivals with some confusion and back to Koatsu.
“So, this is Koatsu, no father or mother’s name is given, is that correct?” he asked.
“It is” said Hichami.
“And this is Sporra, no father or mother’s name is given, is that correct?” he asked.
“No” said Koatsu “It’s Skora, not Sporra, can’t you even get names right now?”
‘Wrong move’ he thought to himself as his face stung with the smack that Hichami had just given him.
“Hold that tongue boy” said Hichami as he turned back to the officials “As you see, I have to spend time in the company of such rude and disrespectful people but it has to be done. I’ll be bringing them immediately to the first wall, no stop odds and from there, I’ll accompany them directly to the Scales Of Urok.”
“Very well” said the official, as he signed the sheet of paper which he tore off the pad and gave it to Hichami, who glanced at it before chucking it onto the table.
“Just show that to the check ins and they won’t bother you any further. Have a goodnight Hichami” said the official as he bowed, as did his colleague, before they both left the compartment.
Once the doors had slid shut, Hichami span round and stood over Koatsu, his face just centimetres from his and he could feel the stench of his breath on his face, his eyes wild.
“You ever, ever, disrespect me, like that again, it’ll be more than a smack next time, I promise you, you got that?” said Hichami, a vein pulsing on his rotund head.
“You got it” said Koatsu and Hichami lingered looking intently at him before turning to Koshin.
“Koshin, stay here, I’ve spent too much time with such filth, I need to spend an hour or so away from them, lest I start smelling like them too” he said.
“Sure thing Hichami” said Koshin slightly bowing.
“In a bit” he said as Hichami left the compartment, not saying another word but he did give Koatsu one last look before closing shut the doors.
Koshin sat down where Hichami had just sat, facing Koatsu and for several moments, nothing was said as they felt the train start to slowly pick up speed again and as it passed through the wall, they were plunged into the darkness for a couple of seconds before they were inside Urok.
Koshin looked towards the doors, licking his lips nervously as he reached inside his robe and pulled out a couple of pieces of cloth, which were wrapped around something. He placed them onto the table and slowly unravelling them, revealed two slices of cake for each piece of cloth.
“Yay, cake” said Skora straightening himself up in his seat, his mouth open as he licked his lips, looking down at the delicious treat.
“Thanks Koshin” said Koatsu.
“No sweat Koatsu” said Koshin as he split with his hands each of the four pieces into half.
“You don’t think you could loosen these, just slightly?” said Koatsu raising his arms before him. His hands had been enclosed in a solid case of red shining metal, he was unable to move any of his fingers and he shook the link chains that were attached to the floor under his seat “It’d make eating that cake so much simpler.”
“I’m not falling for that one Koatsu” said Koshin “I let you use your hands, you’d be out of this train faster than I could say ‘Magi’.”
“Hey, can’t blame me for trying right?” said Koatsu with a smile as he opened his mouth and Koshin dumped inside a piece of the cake and he chewed slowly, pleasuring every bite, for his stomach had been rumbling all day.
“To be honest” he said through morsels “I would feel bad if I did it to you though I would love to see Hichami’s face as I waved goodbye to him, haha.”
“I don’t think you would, trust me” said Koshin as he gave a piece of the cake to Skora, who almost swallowed his piece whole and Koatsu was reminded of the ducks that used to live by the square of their old home “I’ve seen Hichami angry before and it’s not a pleasant sight, he would hunt you down to the ends of the world, if such rumours are to be believed.”
“You mean this hasn’t even been the worst of him? Gods, what were you thinking?” said Koatsu looking up to the sky and even Koshin started laughing at that.
“So what’s the latest boss, what’s happening in the world?” said Koatsu as Skora ate his last piece of the cake, this time affording one chew and when he realised he had already finished his, he hung his head low.
“The same really, everyone’s still talking about the same old thing” said Koshin as he lay back on his seat, pushing aside the scrolls and resting his feet onto the table.
“The Seven Temples?” said Koatsu who recalled how a couple of weeks ago down in Sumai, that had been the main talk, even when he left they were still discussing it.
“Yeah. There’s now reports that they were at the Temple in Celia, athough they were smarter this time around and went in during the night, it didn’t stop one priest disappearing off the face off the Earth, they say he was an old Omion soldier who had been serving for ten years” said Koshin as he let out a long yawn.
“Only the Red Dome, Saganuey and obviously the one in the inner ring haven’t been attacked. Can you believe it, what kind of people would treat such holy places in such a way?”
“What can they possibly gain? There’s nothing worth taking, I would know” said Koatsu.
“It’s strange, they have simply broken the idols of each Temple and there were traces they had accessed the lower levels of each Temple though there is nothing out of place, nothing out of the ordinary once they leave as far as the reports go” he replied as he bit his fingernails.
“It is strange” he continued “Not as strange as some of the stories that have been told to us. A bloodsucking monster stealing livestock in the lands around Urok, big handed and footed men to the north, flying creatures standing two meters tall to the south. Has everyone been drinking too much of that Moonlight Sparkle or what?” he said chuckling to himself.
“Sounds like it” said Koatsu.
“Then there’s The Hero. Apparently he’s created another ground breaking invention or something though I don’t know the full details. I swear, that man ain’t human, his brain is something else” said Koshin.
Koatsu agreed. The Hero, as he was known for no one knew his real name, was being argued as being the most intelligent man in the last five thousand years due to his inventions, his ideas, his paintings and a dozen other reasons that made him unable to deny the claim.
They were riding one of his claims right now for that title.
“But there’s one thing that is for certain” he said in a more serious tone “There are rumours of Decabian forces amassing all across the eastern border, bordering on Tueley.”
“You what?” he said, rage boiling inside of him.
“Urok has announced it can’t send any forces to protect the cities that stand close to the border, doing so would look like an act of mistrust or a reason for conflict in their eyes although we’ve heard that the smaller villages are evacuating and sending their soldiers to the main cities at the border. Decabia argues that they’re only protecting the borders from bandits and raiders that have been plaguing them for months now so that’s why there’s such a large force” he told them.
“Liars” said Koatsu, yelling out the word so loudly it frightened Skora who jerked his head back and he felt himself shaking with anger.
“You don’t think I know that? Ten years have passed and though I’m nothing more than an official of Urok and serve Aludin loyally in your eyes Koatsu, don’t think I haven’t forgotten the events of that summer, I think about them everyday” replied Koshin.
“Of course you do” said Koatsu “We Omicornian’s…these other provinces, these people, they don’t understand us, they’ll never know the feeling of losing their home…so is that it? Aludin will lie down yet again and let Decabia invade another province, in twenty years, when they’re at the ninth wall, is that when they’ll finally act?”
Koatsu looked down at his feet, thinking back to ten years ago, the images that flashed through his mind every time he woke up and sometimes appear to him during his dreams. Those were the worst, for he couldn’t escape them and though he knew it was all in his mind once he woke up, it all seemed so real.
“There’s nothing you and I can do about it Koatsu” said Koshin as Koatsu raised his head “Better not to think about these things, get some rest, we’ve still got a long journey ahead of us.”
Koatsu leaned his head back on the seat. Sure enough, they were still only inside the Ninth ring, with another eight to go until they reached the proper Capital. Urok’s title as the capital was pretty misleading as it was pretty much an entire province divided up by the walls which surrounded the city, growing larger and larger the further from the centre you went, with the ninth wall kilometres away from the centre of the circle and kilometres in length.
It had been said that all nine walls had taken over a thousand years to build and millions of people had spent their lives building the nine walls which surrounded the capital, going round plains and fields, smaller villages, rivers, streams and hills.
He had only ever been within the ninth ring himself, the poorest one and the largest, home to fields and small wooden villages where crime and robbery were an everyday occurrence. There was a saying and ambition in Urok for people to ‘claim the Nine Rings’.
By moving on up through hard work and success you could reach the first wall and live inside it, where you could live the rest of your days doing bugger all, with nine rings stitched into your clothing. Koatsu had given up trying to win the Rings long ago and had left the city along with Skora many years ago now.
He shut his eyes and tried to think of something other than Omion but found himself unable too and opened his eyes to see Koshin dozing off and Skora already fast asleep. He couldn’t blame him, sleep hadn’t come easy for them in recent times and they’d been in this cramped compartment since before sunrise.
‘If only I could stretch my legs or move my fingers’ he said looking down at the casing on his hands and shook them for the dozenth time, hoping they’d slide off. He would have liked to have his red jewelled pendant taken off his neck, the chain weighed heavy on his neck but he worried that if he asked Koshin to take it off, Himachi would know about it somehow and see to it that he’d never see it again.
Skora had been able to help him conceal it when they had first been apprehended and he was thankful for that, for it was the only valuable thing about him in this life and the only thing that he had held since he was young enough to walk, so he definitely wasn’t going to give it away just like that. It was probably worth something but his personal attachment was worth enough for him.
He slumped back and looked out the window, to a purple streaked sky. A mist had picked up along the plains and fields inside this region which they called Nevarin though when he and Skora had lived her, he had called it the Ninth Ring of Hell.
He tried to see if he could recognise any of these lands or villages as they passed over them from all the way up here but he found himself unable to recognise any of it.
It was dark outside, the full moon shining brightly down onto them with no stars to be seen in the sky as the train drew to a halt just outside the eighth wall and Koatsu kicked Koshin’s leg, waking him up just as a pair of officials slid open the door and Koshin promptly handed them the document on the table.
They looked at Koatsu and Skora with a funny expression on their face before leaving without another word, sliding the compartment door shut and a few minutes later, with more people leaving the train this time as far as he could make out in the dark, the train started rolling again and they passed through the eighth wall.
He found himself starting to get tired and still Hichami had not returned, not that Koatsu really cared, he hoped he’d never have to see his ugly mug again but knew he was going to have to see a lot more of it for quite a while still.
Sometime later, the train starting to slow before the towering seventh wall, the tallest ones and the thickest of the entire nine rings, built as such due to the high hills before them. Legends said that men with heads that touched the clouds had tried to attack Urok when there had only been seven walls which had forced the additional two walls to be built.
He honestly wondered to himself how people could think such obvious tall tales were fact. There were fewer officials here as far as he could make out as the train drew to a halt before the smaller platform. He looked down but couldn’t see the Earth below.
The door slid open, only this time it was Himachi who at the sight of the snoozing Koshin turned purple as his head pulsated with anger.
“Koshin” he yelled making the man jump, banging his head against the luggage shelf and he quickly stood before Hichami rubbing his head. Skora too had been woken up, bouncing up onto his seat.
“What do you think you were doing?” he demanded to know.
“I’m sorry Hichami, I must have shut my eyes only a moment ago” said Koshin as Hichami pushed him aside and took his place, looking at Koatsu intensely.
“A moment is all these Magi need, especially this one” he said nodding to Koatsu. If he had meant it as an insult, he had failed, for Koatsu felt complimented at such a remark.
Koshin took his seat as officials walked into the compartment, promptly checking the document and leaving without a word the compartment, sliding shut the door. Ten minutes passed yet the train hadn’t started moving and Hichami looked up from his papers and turned his head to look outside the window.
“What’s the hold up?” he said out loud.
Koatsu leaned against the window to see the moon had disappeared and complete darkness. He couldn’t even see the lanterns on the platforms and the windows had fogged up from the outside.
A couple more minutes passed and the train slowly started moving again, the whistle from the release of steam ringing loudly in Koatsu’s ears as the train entered the tunnel though once through the walls, complete darkness filled the compartments…
…when the train stuttered to a complete halt.
“Oh what now?” moaned Hichami who light up a small lantern placed underneath the table and held it before him.
“Probably just some minor malfunction or delay” said Koshin shrugging his shoulders when coming from both ends of the train, at once, came two loud bangs, shaking the carriages.
Hichami looked at Koatsu, his eyes wide.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“How could I possibly have done that?” yelled Koatsu bringing up his chains shaking them violently when the carriage shook again and the bangs got closer and they heard several screams and yells coming from across the train.
He suddenly felt something pressing down against his chest and he looked down under his shirt to see the red jewelled pendant was pulsating against his chest, emitting a weak glow of red light.
He tried to act as natural as he could for as long as he had had the pendant, never before had it acted this way, he didn’t even know it could glow. The carriage shook once again, this time more violent than before and Koatsu slid left and right in his seat, hitting his head against the window of the carriage.
“What the hell is going on out there?” said Hichami “Koshin, check it out.”
“Right” said Koshin with a grave expression on his face and he stood up, sliding the compartment door open and stepping out, he looked down both ends of the corridor before looking right and left again.
“I don’t see anything” he said turning round to face them.
Slithering out from the darkness to his right, something grabbed Koshin, wrapping it’s arms around Koshin’s torso and sunk it’s teeth into his shoulder.
“Ahhhh” he yelled as the creature ripped his clothes and Koatsu could only look in horror, too stunned to react but Skora was screaming at the creature.
It stood with a curved back, hunched over, a long shell like neck and head with two long red slits for eyes, with scaly wings behind it and a body that resembled pure muscle, their was no skin over it and it stood on two cricket like legs, with a long tail with smaller legs running down it
It grabbed Koshin, dragging him away and that’s when it let out a cry so alien to Koatsu’s ears and in return he heard dozens more answer it and a chill shot down his back.
That’s when chaos fell.
He heard the sound of steel and metal being torn.
Yells, screams, shouts and sounds of breaking glass and the carriage shook violently as he heard stampeding out in the corridor. Hichami had sprung to his feet and drew out his falchion, leaping forward and going for a slash across the creature’s head…
…only for it to bang violently against the head, the falchion fell out of Hichami’s hand, still vibrating as it landed on the floor from the force of the impact when the creature lashed out with it’s tail, sending Hichami crashing into the table before Koshin disappeared from sight as did the beast.
“Help” yelled Koshin amongst the other cries he could hear that seemed to come from everywhere.
“Hichami, free me from these chains” said Koatsu as he lift his restraints as the wounded governor rose up to his feet and looked at him as if he were mad.
“That things got Koshin, we don’t have much time, now’s not the time for this Hichami. Free us, we can help in a way you can’t, you know that” begged Koatsu as he heard the Koshin’s yells growing further away amidst the chaos and Hichami looked at him, his face straining under the pressure when he reached into his belt and produced two small keys.
He quickly broke free the chains attached to the floor under his sear before unlocking the casings that had covered his hands since earlier that morning.
The casing split open like fruit and fell down to the ground and finally, he could flex and move his fingers. But now wasn’t the time for that.
He asked for the second key from Hichami, who promptly gave it to him and ran to Skora, freeing his hands and he fumbled with the chains.
“Koatsu, what’s going on?” said Skora, his voice full of fear.
“I don’t know Skora, I don’t know but we’ve got to get out of here” he whispered trying to conceal the trembling in his voice when he finally broke free the chains from the floor of the compartment and Skora hopped onto the floor, moving his hands about.
“Come on then Magi, let’s go” said Hichami as he held his falchion in his hand and started charging out the compartment into the corridor, only to be flung back against the window, unable to move his entire body as he was lifted and pressed against the window like a fly trapped in a web.
He roared in anger, spit flying everywhere as he cursed ancestors, mothers, fathers and sisters as Koatsu slowly backed out of the room, his hands hovering above his shoulders, each one of his fingers pointing at each vital point of Hichami, as Skora slipped behind him and out into the corridor.
“Sorry Hichami, but I think I’ll be getting off at this stop. After nearly a day spent in this small compartment, the idea of doing this for the next few years, it doesn’t really sound at all inviting, you’ll understand, won’t you?” he said as he stepped out the compartment.
“Curse you Koatsu, you Magi trash” spat Hichami “I’ll get you for this, believe me I will, I will hunt you down like the rodent you are.”
“No man, this isn’t a see you later, this is a good riddance” he said as he grabbed the door and slammed it shut and closing his eyes, he felt the flow of energy wash down his arms and with a punch, he smashed the handle of the door, jamming it from the outside.
‘That should keep him trapped in there for a long time’ he thought to himself as he turned round to Skora.
“Now let’s find Koshin and get out of here” he said only to see Skora was pointing behind him, his arm trembling as he tried to speak but it only came out in wheezes.
Koatsu turned round to see the creature holding Koshin up by his neck, his legs dangling as he tried to free himself from the grip of the beast, struggling to breath when suddenly a white light spiralled from the creatures arms and enveloped Koshin in a white light.
His body stopped shaking as the light grew brighter and Koatsu shook violently as he felt the force of energy.
He had always been able to sense the energy of all living things since he had been young enough to remember yet this…this was the largest and scariest force he had ever felt in his life and in an instant the light burst, momentarily blinding him and when he could see once again, he saw Koshin lying still on the floor.
The creature roared as its body grew bigger before them and it’s tail grew longer and out of it’s side, burst forth a new pair of legs.
It turned it’s head.
“Ruuuunnn” yelled Koatsu as he and Skora darted down the corridor, heading towards the back of the train when another of those creatures leapt before them. This one filled most of the corridor and made the other one seem like it’s offspring as it roared out and lashed out at them and he barely ducked in time.
“Skora” yelled Koatsu and Skora threw his arms in the air, releasing the sliding door to their left free from it’s constraints and slamming the creature with it against the carriage wall, causing the entire carriage to shake violently, rocking back and forth.
They jumped over the beast and kept running, reaching the end of the carriage, only he saw through the small window pane of the door that led to the next carriage, that that too was full of the creatures and people were hopelessly trying to run or fight them.
“Stop” he said to Skora, putting an arm before him as he turned round to see the creature spinning round towards them, letting out a mad cry and he glanced up to the roof of the carriage.
“Skora, you think you’ve got enough energy?” he said pointing upwards as the creature neared them and Skora spread his arms wide before bringing them together, tearing a hole in the roof and he grabbed Koatsu’s hand and jumped upwards and they flew up into the air and landed onto roof.
They felt the cold air rushing over them and inside the darkness of the tunnel, all they could hear were the snarls and growls around them when he realised he was glowing and looked down to see a red light surrounding him and he felt the pendant vibrating against his skin. He looked back and could see the tunnel entrance just before them.
“Skora” he yelled to his friend and they started running down the carriage, leaping over the holes the creatures had made to get inside and as he looked about him, he could see the outlines of the creatures in the darkness, some small, some monstrously huge, crawling about the tunnel.
They kept leaping from carriage to carriage until they were on the penultimate carriage nearest the exit and he and Skora leapt onto the next carriage and they were out the tunnel though still in complete darkness, when falling before them was one of the creatures, roaring at them and shaking the carriage so violently, Koatsu struggled to stay on his feet and had to grab Skora’s hand as he looked close to falling off the carriage.
He span his head round, to see a trio of them slithering towards them and he realised they were stuck. He couldn’t see where the platform was and he looked down below and thought of the great drop between the tracks and the ground down below.
‘Could we make it’ he thought to himself.
He looked to Skora, who gave him the same look and he held onto the shoulders of his small friend as he took a deep breath and he felt Skora leap off the carriage and Koatsu felt the winds push against him as they started to plummet down to Earth.
Far, far away, three boys and two girls stood before the hooded figure, who slowly pulled down his hood.