Read Gonji: A Hungering of Wolves Online

Authors: T. C. Rypel

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy

Gonji: A Hungering of Wolves

WILDSIDE PRESS BOOKS BY T. C. RYPEL

The Deathwind Trilogy

Gonji: Red Blade from the East

Gonji: The Soul Within the Steel

Gonji: Deathwind of Vedun

Other Gonji Adventures

Gonji: Fortress of Lost Worlds

Gonji: A Hungering of Wolves

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Copyright © 1986, 2014 by T. C. Rypel

Previously published as Knights of Wonder

Published by Wildside Press LLC

www.wildsidebooks.com

DEDICATION

To

Robert E. Howard
—for the skulls

Karl Edward Wagner
—for the magic

Akira Kurosawa
—for the spirit

And what a strange beastie we’ve conjured…

OPENING QUOTATION

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

  Let him combat for that of his neighbors;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,

  And get knocked on his head for his labors.

To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,

  And is always as nobly requited;

Then battle for freedom wherever you can,

  And, if not shot or hanged, you’ll get knighted.

—Byron

PART ONE

Reflections by Fever-light


Cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque il se defend.

(“This animal is very mischievous; when it is attacked it defends itself.”)

—Anonymous

PROLOGUE

The samurai lay near to death. And he thought:

To die in the spring is nothing less than surrender to the spirits of weakness and resignation.

Something cool lay gently across his brow, its moistness spreading in wispy drafts down over his leaden eyelids. He heard voices thick with hushed concern and his own sonorous breathing. He felt a great weight on his chest and alternating sensations of sinking and ascending. The former came when he acquiesced to his pain; the latter, quickening his pulse with the onset of nausea and vertigo, evinced his efforts at willpower.

He fancied that he was smiling now. He did not know why.

“He’s slipping…saints in Heaven


“God DAMN this wretched armor…”

* * * *

It should have been clear, the dream voice chided him, that the great golden werewolf was pleading for his help when it came to him deep in those Genoese nights. And how difficult such pleading was for so tormented a beast.

Winter slowly wrested the Mediterranean coast from the sultry grip of the sirocco. Shortening days filled with temperamental debate mercifully gave way to long nights of solitary reflection. Gonji felt himself listing aimlessly through those days of planning. He withdrew into himself, often taking his meals separately from his companions. He was given to long walks along the coastline, through swarming mists beneath a brooding gray moon. And frequently he would sleep outdoors under the sea-beaten ledges or some lonely, withered tree.

The strange events they had survived in Africa had left open wounds. So many good warriors had died. Yet Gonji’s sense of wonder had been stoked to the appreciation of a new scale of cosmic values. Deciding a course of action seemed, for the nonce, the pretentious striving of small creatures. But the others, one by one, reclaimed their immediate perspective, and they plied the samurai with notions of duty.

The wiry Luigi Leone, having suffered the loss of all his dearest friends, seemed intoxicated by the air of his homeland. Weary of fighting, he focused his good eye inland and urged Gonji to follow the formal call to Rome.

Sergeant Orozco, the bizarre adventure they’d shared leaving him temporarily subdued, now turned to the wine bottle for fortification. Once in his cups, though, he would rediscover the source of his wry wit and acid tongue. His leaning was clearly toward Austria, toward the settlement of Vedunian survivors he’d never met, whose community was said to be the center of the Knights of Wonder movement inspired by tales of Gonji’s wanderings in Europe. Therewith would reside the remnant of the sergeant’s renegade Spanish lancer company, who’d escaped Toledo under Captain Hernando Salguero.

“They’ll count us lost to the Devil soon,” Orozco was quick to remind them.

But Buey, the Ox-man, disagreed. They would be running dangerously afoul of God’s will, he declared, should they delay any longer in submitting to Gonji’s summons by the pope. Buey displayed a new reverence for affairs mystical since their deliverance from the cross-world castle in the Sahara. An awe of the unknown now filled the valiant soldier’s massive frame.

The one who should have most closely agreed with Buey—Father Jan Sebastio—seemed curiously ambiguous in his opinion as to their course.
Kuma-san
—Sir Bear, as Gonji called the burly prelate who had been a close friend in his youth in the Land of the Gods—had been dispatched to rescue Gonji from the dungeons of the Inquisition, to bring him before His Holiness. This, the priest gently assured, was their most pressing business; yet his stories of events in
Dai Nihon,
of the ascendancy of Tokugawa, of Gonji’s
daimyo
father’s tenuous new position since the civil war, were full of the wistful desire to return to his adopted land.

His talk of cherry blossoms and
sake
and the rolling plains of the Province, of
Noh
plays and fragrant temple groves beneath serene sentinel
torii,
was interspersed with half-convictive assurances of the considerable honor Pope Innocent had bestowed on Gonji. The samurai could only smile deep within his guarded spirit: It was a comfort to share space with another who so loved Japan.

The best one can hope for is to die in the land of his fathers…

But there remained Simon Sardonis, object of many years’ tragic and triumphant questing. Their destinies seemed intertwined. Their karma, strangely united. Targets, they had become. Objects of bloodlust by some nameless conspiracy of evil powers that wore many faces, spun countless wiles. Mysteries remained to be solved.

And there were other urges that courted Gonji’s attraction to legend-haunted, war-torn Europe: lingering desires, acquired affections, unresolved duties, an inescapable fact of heritage…

Simon had stated his case plainly and simply—France. France alone must be their next destination. Gonji had tendered his vague promise of assistance in some matter in France the enchanted warrior would not discuss. He appealed the mysterious business to Gonji’s refined sense of obligation. And so doing, the night of the full moon drawing harrowingly near, Simon departed from the company.

But when he returned, two nights after the full of the moon, Gonji should have seen clearly the pleading of the man within the Beast.

To die in the land of his fathers…or his mother.

* * * *

A rustling in the tatter of the chill rain.

“So…you’ve killed again. I grieve with you.”

“Spare me your hollow infidel amenities,” the voice rasped. The Beast hunkered in the lee of a cliff. Out beyond the beach, the bleak sea tufted uneasily. “Sorry,” the werewolf appended. “It goes with the form, you know.”

Gonji spoke without turning to him. “You sound no different than you do as a man. What have you been about?”

“Two kills,” Simon growled with self-loathing. “Travelers, I fancy. I made for the mountains. I lost the race. God deliver me of the foulness of this monster.”

“But now it is in your control until the next moon.”

Simon hissed. “Again you speak as if this were some
blessing
—sacrilege! As though it were some weapon to be wielded without fell consequence. You
delight
when it kills on the Night of Chains.”

“On the contrary. I
am
sorry, Simon-san. Yet what is…is.”


I
must bear the guilt. The responsibility for what it does because I am powerless to prevent it.”

Gonji considered his words before speaking. “So sorry, but I…believe you have demonstrated that you
have
such power when your will is sufficiently strong.”

The samurai tensed, almost expecting the creature to spring at his back. One hand lightly rested on the hilt of the Sagami at his sash. He could feel the internal struggle played out behind him. But Simon said nothing.

Gonji’s perverse interest in the testing of his fellows’ spirits prodded him on. “Does it tell you, even now, to destroy me?”

Simon emitted a harsh laugh.
“Non,
it’s happy with your heathen blather at the moment. But it does…” The voice trailed off on a curling, humorless note.

“Hai—?”

“It does seem to think a great deal about tearing the fat-bellied priest to shreds.”

Gonji’s head snapped around. For the first time his gaze met the glint of those backswept silver-lit eyes. The hint of menace abated in them, and Gonji recognized the familiar anxious flicker of Simon’s own soul.

“It’s all right,” the Beast said at length. “Have you decided the way you’ll follow yet?”

“Iye
—no, not yet. I have many things to consider.”

“You promised to aid me in France,” Simon ground out, turning away as if suddenly embarrassed to be singing his old refrain again.

“The others are balking,” Gonji replied. “You’ve got to give me a sound reason. Your vaguery is—”

“We don’t need the others. You’ve never had trouble raising an army before,” Simon said in a rush.

“An army? By all the
kami,
what
is
this business that draws you to France?”

“A dangerous need.”

“Of what nature? Are you threatened personally?”

Simon growled thoughtfully. “We are all threatened. Personally. That’s our lot in these evil times. Will you go along with me? I’ve already been absent a year from a compelling duty. I shirked that duty to help save your heathen hide. You’re the one who extols the value of duty. So you can appreciate my shame and guilt,
n’est-ce pas?”

“Speak German or Spanish,
bitte,”
Gonji responded baitingly. “You know how I detest French—yet another reason for resisting your request. Do you know what horrors I was privy to when last I visited your homeland? Do you know what they’ve said about my actions near Avignon?”

“Will
you go with me?”

Gonji’s eyes narrowed. Had there been a note of fear in the lycanthrope’s voice? Had Gonji ever before detected such urgency in the ensorceled being’s words?

“I…must consider it further,” he replied softly. “Kuma-san speaks of the importance of my appearance in Roma. Some of the others urge that we seek out the
Wunderknechten
leadership in Austria. They’ve connected my name and reputation with their work. Though I’m not pleased at being dragged into their crusade without being consulted first, I must defer to the nobility of their cause. Many feuding Christian lives might be saved should it be embraced by the leaders on this continent. Can you deny the importance of that?”

Simon snarled. “I am Catholic. I have no use for your Knights of Wonder. Reconciliation of the Church with heretics and apostates doesn’t interest me. I care only for battling the direct assaults of evil…and for destroying the monster who has done this thing to my life. As for His Holiness…his curiosity about your infidel ass can only be that: curiosity. The theologians in Roma will only pick you apart. See what threat to the faith, to their politics, you pose. Perhaps they’ll even discover some of the truth of your worthy fight against evil. I hope so, for your sake. That may serve to save your life once they’ve wearied of your novelty. Even then they’ll only throw you back across the sea to rejoin your warlord father. More than likely they’re most eager to use your influence to barter for the silks and scents and those angry sword blades of your country. I grow weary of this banter. Decide quickly what you will do. Remember your promise. I shan’t await your decision much longer.
Au revoir.
And next time…when next I seek you out in the night, gather what thoughts you have, what observations you’ve made…about
women.”

Gonji tensed, his eyebrows arching in surprise. When he turned, a quizzical expression deepening the angles of his face, the werewolf was gone.

Women

Never before could Gonji recall Simon’s broaching the subject. His mind stretched out, contemplating. A thin smile creased his lips as he scanned the waves that crashed against the stout shoals beyond the shore.

* * * *

“There is nothing that a man need fear

Who carries at his side this splendid blade”

Amidst oblique evening shadows, an aromatic breath of spring softened the pungent airs of sulfur and charred wood as the samurai knelt before the forge, meditating on the storied Sagami’s inscribed motto.

Slowly, reverently, inch upon inch, Gonji drew the
katana
from its scabbard, eyeing the heavenly wave pattern. A soft hiss escaped his lips as his gaze found the repaired section of its gleaming edge. He suppressed a smile.

Behind him, Calderone, the wizened swordsmith, stood with smoke-watered eyes flickering expectantly, a scowl twisting his whiskered face.

Gonji nodded, then bowed his head to touch the forte with his beaded brow. “This will be adequate.
Arigato.”

“Adequate?
Adequate?”
Calderone fumed. “No one could do better!”

Luigi Leone came up beside the smith and, snagging an arm, steered him from the shop.

“Adequate, he says! Who in hell does he think he is, for Christ’s sake? I am the greatest swordsmith in Genoa—the Papal States—
in all of Italia!”

Luigi pushed him out into the twilight streets. Riders coursing the cobbled lane stared as the old man struggled in the grasp of the one-eyed warrior.

“Just let it lie,” Luigi advised quietly.

“No, I’m not going to let it lie—” He twisted out of Luigi’s grip and took two angry steps back toward his shop before finding himself in the steel-trap clutch of the huge Buey.

“Now, old duffer—”

Calderone sneered up at the Spanish lancer. “Who
is
this devil-eyed heathen who wins audiences with pontiffs? He swaggers around here like he was the doge’s own god-cursed chamberlain—begging your pardon, your reverences.” This last he addressed to the pair of gray-robed oblates who looked on, lowering their eyes in remonstrance at his outburst.

Father Jan Sebastio, standing nearby with a rucksack slung over a shoulder, stroked his beard to hide his smile.

“If you knew this ‘heathen’ better, you’d understand,” Sergeant Orozco said from astride his destrier. He spat a date pit onto the street as he leaned from the saddle. “Now tell me true,
signore,
have you ever seen such steel as his before?”

Inside the shop, Gonji replaced his
katana
in its scabbard, thinking again of that day a few years past when he had encountered Simon Sardonis for the first time. Crossed with him in a savage duel that might well have cost the life of one of them, but for the bloodthirsty intervention of the sorcerer Mord’s wyvern familiar.

What a magnificent battle that had been! And the notch in the legendary Sagami’s blade had kept it fresh in his memory ever since. But so wonderful a sword could not conscionably be left blemished forever.

“Our crucible?” Gonji heard a voice inquire behind him as footsteps entered the shop again. He rose and turned.

“Ah,
si
—on the shelf there,
padres.”

Two tonsured monks bobbed their heads to Calderone and shuffled to a crude sideboard filled with crafted metal objects, glancing at Gonji suspiciously before averting their eyes.

Calderone held out his hand. Sighing deeply, he said, “Forgive me,
signore,
but it is my professional reputation, you know. If you wish, I shall try another pass at collaborating seamlessly with the swordsmiths of the East.”

Calderone grinned crookedly, and Gonji bowed, replying, “
Hai,
but you must work swiftly. We have pressing business and must take to the road soon.”

He extended the
katana
in both hands. The swordsmith accepted it.

The shifting in the air—the plunging bulk—the sheen of steel on the periphery of vision—

Something alerted Gonji to his danger.

The nearer priest bore down on him with his bared stiletto as Gonji sidestepped, slicing a knife-hand block through the lunge but failing to disarm the assassin.

“My sword!” he shouted at the backstepping Calderone, who still gripped the Sagami crosswise in both hands, shock freezing his features.

Gonji’s attacker surged past him and circled round the forge, casting a look toward the street as he made for the rear door to the alley behind the shop. Gonji forgot him as the second priest flashed out a rapier from under his habit.

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