Who’s got two thumbs and names the Seven Samurai as his fave?
The synthmonks of distant Kova set out on their journey numbering fifteen, but only seven reached Horn Pass and then our little village, striding in with clothes tattered and skin scorched and scratched. Gentle but steady rain had drenched the valley and surrounding mountains for the past several days, leaving them drenched and spattered with mud. The one they called Hallr stood beside me, nodding as the group filed into the empty house set aside for them.
“Lucky number,” Hallr said to me. “Seven is good. Seven will be enough.”
I asked, “Why not just bring seven to begin with?”
Hallr rubbed his bald head. “If we had brought seven, but lost eight on the way in, you would owe us one monk, no?” His smile crinkled his entire face.
The bandits had beset them on their journey, lobbing mortars and flaming arrows onto the paths leading through the mountains. Small raiding parties harried the travelers at night, easily dispatched or repulsed but wearing the monks down until casualties were certain.
Hallr’s eyes looked out past the thatched roofs of our village to take in our little valley in the fading evening light. Beyond our little collection of homes and barns lay the fields, and beyond those were the hills, gently rolling up to the mountains. It wasn’t visible from here, but the small creek that wound through the southern portion of the village could be heard quietly gurgling over a rocky bed and splashing through the wooden gears of the mill.
“You have a lovely home,” Hallr said. “In the morning, we will seal it off from the world.”
Clouds still lingered in the sky the next morning, but the rain at least had stopped. The monks emerged from the house at dawn, greeted by almost the entire population of the village. New clothes were offered, along with food and drink. All were politely refused.
The monks spread out among the village, looking for all as though they were taking a leisurely stroll through a familiar home. They frequently stopped to chat with a villager or admire a garden. I walked beside Hallr as he made his way toward the tavern, which served as a sort of gateway to our little town. He turned and waved to two of his fellows who stood in the central square, just a few hundred yards to the north.
“Is everyone within the limits of the village?” Hallr asked.
I nodded. “Yes, ever since they burned the Genaw farm.” I pointed south, where an anemic trail of smoke still led to the sky.
Hallr clapped his hands together. “Good. We shall begin.” He waved again to the monks in the square, who waved back and set about drawing complicated patterns in the dirt around the well at the center of town.
To the south, something rumbled, and my heart nearly seized. It was the same awful sounds that had emerged from the hills the day the Genaw family had been almost entirely massacred in their home, the same that had come to their town and wrenched me up off the ground and threatened to repeat the atrocity on the entire village if their ransom were not met. That terrible screech of metal, rattle of bones, the heavy tread that shook the valley.
I took a few steps back. “We-we should…” I stammered, unsure of what we should do. “They’re coming.”
“They said they would, did they not?” Hallr asked. “Best to take murderous bandits at their word.”
Hallr sat in the middle of the hard-packed dirt road, crossing his legs beneath him. “You may retreat, good Umi. See if my comrades need assistance. Speed is, I believe, of some importance now.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. They’ll be here at any moment!”
Hallr waved over his shoulder without looking back. “I will provide you and my fellows enough time to seal off the town.”
To the south, the bandit horde burst through the trees and onto the road. Leading them was the metal monstrosity, a machine that formed a sort of black metal exoskeleton around its operator, who floated immersed in a vat of bubbling green liquid embedded at the center of its torso. Bones and paint decorated the outside of the beast, and glowing veins of the green ichor snaked through its appendages. Legend spoke of how the green liquid eventually disintegrated the men who operated the beast, after which the skeleton of the operator was added to the decorative horror and a new devout was selected for the honor of possessing the machine. I had no idea if any of that was true, but I had definitely seen how the machine’s claws treated anyone who got in its path, and needed no further reminder of its evil. They called it a Jagannath, and I had seen three of them in hills since the bandits had arrived.
Swarming around the feet of the Jagannath was a squad of half a dozen of the bandits, clad in pieced together leather armor, wielding clubs and axes and other crude, deadly weapons. They spread out around the machine as it plodded forward, jeering at the monk sitting in the road. Hallr stood, his arms held loosely at his side.
One of the bandits stepped forward from the group and cried a challenge to Hallr. I noticed that the man’s head was shaved, and a mocking approximation of the starburst tattoos the synthmonks wore was splashed across his head. The man grinned and pointed at his head, then obscenely gyrated his crotch in Hallr’s direction. These men had killed eight monks in the past few days, and had no fear of them now.
Another of the bandits stepped forward and spun a rifle from his shoulder in one fluid motion. He snapped off a shot in Hallr’s direction. The monk’s hand lashed out, faster than I imagined possible, and he plucked the bullet from the air. The man’s aim had been off, and I realized with a shock that Hallr had just saved my life. The monk looked handed me the round pellet, red and scorching in my hand, and smiled. Beyond, the pipes in the Jagannath’s legs hissed and began to pump forward, picking up speed.
“You should go back,” Hallr said. “Let my friends know that the tavern needs to be included in the shield. I will be needing a mug of your town’s finest brew when this is over.”