In Alyssa, there is a plague.
This plague is known as the plague of human nature, and in the great world, called “Voidsea” by those born and raised upon its soil, the humans are considered the fiercest and most volatile of the myriad beast-races.
Humans were said to have descended from the stars on an eternal pilgrimage across all the creation. Rumored to have settled many other such worlds, their initial “Homeland” was merely another in a long list of many such habitations, but that’s neither here nor there.
Voidsea was the fortieth such world colonized, and the beast folk who lived here originally called them the star children. However, as before with the motherland, the world of Voidsea was wracked by a terrible calamity, greed giving reign to uncontrolled war, until things were reset to some degree.
Humans and the most beastfolk worked together to restore their cultures. The technology was salvaged, though not well enough, and a peaceful life was meted out for all involved. The bird folk of Baledaria kept to their floating continent, the ape folk of Nim kept to their island nation. However, the tiger folk of Sha kept a watchful eye on the humans, ever their charge, and ever their potential enemy.
A war erupted, the king of the beasts against humans, who, as ever, thought themselves superior to a beast. Initially, humans in their insane fervor won out, and to their discredit, as in earlier times, eliminating a good deal of the friendly beast folk along with the lion races they fought to subdue. The lion races emerged from the battles as the dominating faction possessed of martial prowess.
What follows is a story set in this world, a story of revenge, of sorts, a small, insignificant tale without any bearing on greater events. For what is life if not a series of wondrous tiny stories?
This is an accounting of the lion knight incident. Which is a peculiar tale made even more so by the fact that the lion folk had been extinct during this era. So, none know exactly who or what the “Lion knight” was, but most agree that he was surely a member of the Thaliana race, the lion folk.
In the red-light district, another gambling house was struck, and the head of that killed, every time the stranger struck. The method was the same, he would participate in the game, then proceed to cut the gamblers down with extreme efficiency, insisting that the defeated samurai should commit ritual suicide, while it was he who served as their decapitator.
Soon, enough witnesses were left to gather a vague idea of the stranger's appearance, the head of a lion, the black armor of a Lihaldian general.
Eventually, the Don himself, who'd taken up a position as the shogun’s right hand, caught wind. In outrage, he summoned a small army to scour the city. They found the stranger standing on a bridge, his serrated weapon planted firmly in the red paint coated wood. Warriors under the Don's command surrounded him on both sides.
The Don came forth, a swagger in his step as he drew his weapon, mostly for show, and approached the lion-headed warrior.
His eyes narrowed as he drew closer. He faltered, stepping back a bit as he considered the face of his enemy.
Blue eyes, which were uncharacteristic of a lion kin—perhaps it was just his imagination, but he could have sworn the fellow's eyes were blue!
Shaking his head, he moved closer and faltered once more when he recognized why the eyes bothered him so much.
“Y-you!!” he pointed his weapon at the knight. “I—I killed you!”
The Lihaldian, if that's what he truly was, spoke no words as he drew his weapon from the wood and cracked his neck, his golden mane fluttering in the blackness of the cloudless night.
The darkness seemed to choke out the many lanterns flickering all about the city, and the Don tried his best to regain his composure.
“How—how are you still alive?” he cried.
The Lihaldian extended a hand, opening them to reveal a pair of dice.
“Call it. Call wrong, and I take a limb.”
“And should I call correctly?” the Don asked.
“Then one of your men dies.”
The Don turned to them, and found himself at a loss. Was the shogun to hear of what he'd done?
“Call it.” the Lihaldian said.
“F-five!” the Don blurted, and the lion knight rushed forward after tossing the dice.
The Don raised his blade, hoping to block but it was futile. A single smack from the weapon's edge sent him staggering back just as the knight spun from the strike and took the Don's arm.
Screaming as the limb fell useless onto the red bridge, the blood hardly doing anything to discolor it, he wheeled around to strike, and would have, but the knight had vanished.
The other men were eager to aid him, but he cried out “Stay back!” and reluctantly, they obeyed.
Good, Don Kamakura thought, they were still Samurai, despite having descended into a life of crime with the merchants who’d almost ruined their caste.
The warrior was right back where he'd been standing previously, this time, a single hand extended to show him the dice.
“Five...” Kamakura laughed weakly; it was the exact same number as that time…
“Call it,” the warrior commanded, and he turned to his men.
How many was he, Kamakura, right-hand daimyo of the current shogun, willing to sacrifice to this game? How far was he willing to go to risk revealing the truth? If they were to discover what he'd done—surely he would lose his head.
But looking upon the face of the Lihaldian general he was certain he slew, he could not claim that his chances were any greater. He was bleeding out and would soon die.
“No…,” he muttered. “Not this time.” He planted his sword and sat on his knees, tearing off a piece of his clothing and motioning for a subordinate to come over and attend him.
“Sir—if I may be so bold...” the retainer began, “...who is this beast kin? Why does he harass you so? Should we kill him?”
“You have your orders. This is a personal matter. He killed my retainers in charge of the gambling parlors to draw me to him. No Sensei, this is a reckoning. One I must face alone.”
“What do you mean sir?”
“I did some foul things in my day,” he explained to Sensei, eying the lion knight who reemerged from the surrounding darkness with his black cape blowing in the wind.
“Now I am paying for it. But you will all pay too if I mess up the call.”
“What did you do?” Sensei asked.
“That's neither here nor there,” Kamakura explained. “He wants me to play this game and so I shall. Dismiss all but my closest; this is a private matter—it might as well be a duel.”
Nodding, Sensei shouted to the others to leave, explaining that a duel was in effect.
The lion knight waited patiently for him to finish, and this time when Kamakura picked up his sword his face was steeled with a determined glare.
Gambling dens are pits of festering hypocrisy. When the first samurai of the nation of Landis had settled, they kept the mysterious code of “bushido” among their foremost concerns. Somehow this bizarre code thrived even after the calamity, and “Samurai” became closer to their roots when a Shogunate was established in the city of Lancehelm, so named because a warlord was slain with a lance through his helm.
The Samurai soon fell to their vices; they built debt upon debt to moneylenders. The solution? Gambling houses set in the barracks, or rather, in the backrooms of Samurai barracks.
It was here the Samurai could lure in foolish citizens to have their riches taken away or earned. The rule in such establishments, “Whatever you earned you kept.” Luck, and luck alone the deciding factor, was a myth. The law of fortune was not respected in the dark alleys outside the barracks. Peasants brutally robbed the Samurai's customers of their winnings and the money would recirculate to the Samurai, commission paid to the peasants.
Crime syndicates formed, and gambling dens became commonplace, as did the human penchant for corruption. Here, in one such establishment situated on the edge of Lancehelm's red light district, a fine Knight was being sent by the men of the Kama branch of the crime syndicate.
Liquor was passed into cups; coins were flung around with abandon. Dice were carefully weighed in hands withered from opium overuse. These were the shadowmen. A life of crime had turned them into malevolent, withered specters huddled beneath a paper lantern as the next dice sent rolling was called. The Dice scuttled across the floor while pipeweed smoke hung in the air.
Kang, third in his line with the rather bizarre name, watched quietly as his men gambled, the glowing tip of his cigar lighting the dark veil hanging over him. He kept out of the lantern’s light to avoid being revealed. He hated the scene. In truth, he was a gentle soul unfit for a life of crime, as anyone might guess from his habit of speaking politely to anyone at all.
“Ten, I say!” Rob the butcher spat through all his too-sharp teeth; like a shark's fangs they were.
“Six,” another grumbled. The man’s name was Lummox; his body was large enough to crush an experienced swordfighter like a pancake. Of course, he wasn't fat, rather his muscles were so thick that they bulged as if he were obese. But one tap on that rotund belly of his revealed a stomach of wrought steel masquerading as muscle and flesh.
Many others, all of whom liked Lummox due to his charming personality, agreed with the call, leaving Rob to scratch his head and mutter “Durned luck anyhow.”
“Snake eyes,” called the voice of an approaching figure, and upon glancing behind them, they saw an imposing figure thrice as tall as Lummox, who stood at six feet.
A jet black cape and armor so dark it could have been mistaken for the void glittering with stars seemed to spit at the feeble light of the paper lantern. Gold fur peering from between the bits of armor that didn't fully cover his skin revealed him to be beast kin, though his face and head were veiled. The light of the room he'd come from gave enough of a silhouette to reveal his true nature as a beastman.
Kang sat across from this fellow, their faces both veiled in shadow so neither could see the other entirely.
“Beastfolk ain't welcome here!” someone spat.
Kang snapped his fingers and Lummox threw the racist out. No one heeded his protests.
“Coin before bets, Sir, forgive him. He'll not be allowed back,” Kang explained.
The stranger tossed a gold coin onto the gambling table and Kang eyed the hand. Which had gold fur, black claws.
“Feline?” he queried. Tension mounted. “Roll then,” he bade the dealer.
The dealer nodded, rolling the die.
“Pool's his,” Kang said wearily.
“I thank you’” the fellow said. He gathered up his earnings and moved to leave, but instead of passing through the doors, he closed them and turned back toward the gamblers, drawing from behind his back a huge sword. “Kang, right?” the stranger asked.
“Indeed. Revenge then?” Kang asked, not wishing to waste more breath than was necessary discovering this fellow's intentions.
“Assassination actually,” the fellow explained.
Lummox let out a scream of rage and charged with his dagger out and was summarily silenced with a backhand slash.
The other gamblers took up their weapons and lunged at the armored figure, but Kang sat motionless, watching them all die.
Once they were dealt with, Rob's skull crushed underfoot, the figure turned to face Kang.
“Ready?” he asked.
“I am a samurai,” Kang explained. “We're born and raised ready. Come.”
Kang drew his own sword, a meager daikatana barely suitable for parrying such a hulking, serrated weapon as the sword in that knight's hands, yet he stood his ground, wondering how he could hope to win.
Hours later, the stranger left a decapitated and disemboweled Kang behind, the first of many such targets in his silent quest.
“Let me ask you this phantom...” Kamakura began, “...what are the rules of this duel? How many wrong guesses am I allowed until I am killed?”
“Seven,” the lion knight explained. “when you run out of limbs, I take stabs at your non-vital areas. When the deed is done, you will die.”
“How many correct guesses?” he asked.
“Seven, one for each retainer you have, should you have enough correct guesses you will be permitted life, and your honor will be restored. I will forgive you your crimes, as fate will have absolved you.”
“Then I call the next roll!” he roared. “I call a ten!”
“Why?” The lion knight asked.
“I don't have to answer that question,” Kamakura growled. “If I am to choose my luck, I'll go with the least likely rolls.” Yes, he thought to himself, the ones that don't get my retainers killed.
Kamakura was a goodly man at heart, his transformation into a Don had been a response to a perceived threat to the Samurai caste from the merchants who sought to gain power by forcing his men into debt. He realized the merchants would have bought out the Samurai caste and taken control of the Landis government from within. It was Kamakura, in his youth, who’d come up with the idea for gambling parlors to serve as bait to keep the merchants in check. Unfortunately, this had negative repercussions, later, that saw a rise in crime, and saw him taking on a dual face as the Don of Lancehelm. In this way, he'd managed the syndicates with his Samurai, all to manage the tangled web of merchant crime and their aspirations bound within.
“Ten it is,” the lion knight growled, and he vanished.
Kamakura turned around just in time to see Sensei’s head flying and he turned back to see the dice rolling over the bridge. Staggering to them, he could barely make them out. A clawed hand picked them up and showed him the dice. He looked up into the merciless face of his foe, distraught.
“What I did to you...” he whispered, “...I would take back a thousand ways if I could. But not my men—never my men!”
“What of your honor?” the knight whispered. “It seemed pretty precious to you back when you slaughtered my wife and child. All with the roll of a dice to determine their fate. Tell me, Daimyo Kamakura, why did fate not give them the same mercy it seems intent on showing you?”
Kamakura, realizing this had been a long time coming, accepted the cold remark and strode away. His remaining retainers, understanding that this was a duel of fortunes, quietly waited for their turn. Honor kept them bound from defending themselves; the duel was entirely a weighting of the scales of justice, every one of them knew it, even if they didn't understand why.
“Good men,” he muttered, “...one and all. If you survive this, and should I fall, live good lives under another lor—” He stopped himself; he knew that wasn't possible. His death would be seen as their failure, and they would answer for it with their lives. Truly, there was nothing but death for them either way.
“I suppose I had this coming,” he grumbled. “I'm calling it then. Twelve.”
Another retainer fell.
“Eight gods dammit!”
“Your luck is true with you this day,” the knight remarked as he showed him the dice.
“Like hell it is!!” the Don spat. “Is this to be my divine judgment then?! Are you a spirit sent from on high to show me up for what I did?”
“We weren't at war anymore, yet you brought your foreign pretense of honor into my home. My family and I were among the last of the Lihaldians, yet you still saw fit to eradicate my family, all because 'a true warrior must die with honor for his country.' You entered my home with your soldiers and gave me a chance. If I would not show a sense of honor, then my life and that of my wife and child would be left to chance. And so, you rolled those dice, and what came of it?”
“I—I was younger back then—far more foolish!” the Don protested.
“It doesn't matter. The young or the old, the sin remains the same,” the lion knight growled. “Call it.”
Bound by his honor, a rigid law of self that kept him from lashing out at this specter, the Don swallowed his anger and accepted the situation. This was just; this was fair. “Very well then. Five!!”
He breathed a sigh of relief as his right leg was cut off, and this time he didn't cry out in agony. He summoned a retainer to his side and had him bind up his leg.
“Two more left,” he muttered.
“Nay, one. This one decides it.” the lion knight explained. “This next call will be lethal to either you or the retainer binding your limb. Call the dice.”
“I call snake eyes!” the Don cried, recalling this same general's plea, a plea which had spared the general's child.
“Snake eyes, just as rare as twelve,” the knight remarked.
“Damned right it is! I'm calling it!!” Kamakura roared. “Come what may, I'm ready!!”
“If you die, you die without honor,” the lion knight warned.
“It makes no difference,” the Don growled. “Die without honor or live crippled and with the guilt of loss weighing me down! I'll pay this price for what I put you through! Tell me, though—you claim your child was killed, yet we spared your child. Why then did you claim the child died?” he screamed.
“A child can't survive a missing arm,” the knight whispered.
Kamakura glanced down at his missing limb. “I suppose not...whelp, let's get this over with then, phantom. Take your justice...I offer it freely!!”
“A strange sentiment coming from a villain,” the knight remarked.
“Aye, but that's neither here nor there! Roll!”
Nodding, the lion knight tossed the dice into the air, and the daimyo's eyes went up even as the knight bore down on him, his sword plunging deep into Kamakura's chest.
“I was never going to leave your fate to chance,” the knight growled. “You're too fortunate for that.”
Kamakura's laugh was stifled by blood, but he nodded, accepting this, even as his men drew their weapons and lunged at the phantom, only to be cut down. Kamakura slid down the rails of the bridge, shaking his head as blood poured from his mouth. “My just desserts...” he remarked as he took a long look at the dice and the number they'd fallen on; snake eyes.
Weeks later an investigation would be launched, and the rumors that Kamakura had bested the last Lihaldian general in honorable combat, effectively sentencing the mighty race to extinction, would be proven to be a lie. Many claimed to have witnessed a lion-headed general cut him down. The fact that the general's head had never been delivered by Kamakura at the end of the war now had its explanation; the general had lived.
What they couldn't know, however, was that the general hadn't survived his mutilations. He had died horribly and in the worst possible way, discreetly in a small cottage where he'd tried to live a life free of the war with humans. He'd effectively deserted, to keep his wife and child safe. Kamakura had seen this as an excuse to torture him, using fate as the weapon.
The dice would remain on the bridge, glued to it by Kamakura's blood. Any who tried to remove the dice would find them immovable, forever stuck on snake-eyes.
And so, from that day forth the bridge was called Serpent's Bridge. The general's spirit, never appeared again; its vengeance meted out. As for Kamakura's ghost, many say that his voice can be heard to this day, calling out “Five!' or “Twelve!”
Because of this, people avoid the bridge at night for fear that they might get sacrificed whenever he calls the right number.
Snake Eyes was written by Reg Upfield