Atop the snow strewn peak of Mount Fuji, an unnatural formation of black clouds coalesced. They churned and roiled like a feeding beast, blotting the sun from the sky. Just beneath, at the smoking rim of the volcano, Xing Tian, headless, as always, victoriously raised shield and axe overhead and bellowed with fevered glee, green fiery face lighting the false night. Gone was his usual code of honor. Gone was his instinct to protect and serve. Transformed, he was, by malice, under the seething mass of darkness. At his command, waves of foul creatures descended to the town at the base of the mountain, sending the people screaming for their lives and setting homes ablaze.
Black hair blowing in a cherry blossom breeze, Amaterasu rushed toward the conflict, whirling among the embers and panicked mortals. A flash of steel from her blade, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, smote Xing Tian’s forces mid-stride. Sword clinked against scabbard. Amaterasu glared up the mountain. Xing Tian, laughing, sent more forces into the burning village. Amaterasu narrowed her eyes. This would end only when Xing Tian was stopped.
Amaterasu went up the mountain.
Each step she took was like pushing against the gale that turned the Earth. But on she climbed, goaded ever onward by the echo of Xing Tian’s hideous laughter.
Denied the light of the Sun, the source of her power, Amaterasu grew feebler with each passing moment. Xing Tian’s forces, bolstered by the bruise-colored cloud above, seemed fiercer, more capable, the further she climbed. But she cut them down all the same. Relentlessly she strode. Relentlessly she struck. And endlessly, her enemies fell before her.
And then, she reached the peak. At last she arrived at the source of the laughter.
Xing Tian’s headless shoulders shook with dark mirth. Amaterasu’s shoulders heaved with exhaustion. She pointed her blade at the dishonored soldier. It dripped with grime from a thousand slain foes.
“Cease this slaughter,” she commanded with all her might. “And you shall be spared.”
Xing Tian’s giant axe rang against growling shield, the sound cracking across the heavens like drums of war. “To face me is death!” declared the burning maw upon his chest. “To flee… is death!”
In unison they sped toward each other. Two Gods upon the shadowed peak.
Xing Tian’s mighty axe split the air and cracked the earth where once Amaterasu stood. Though her strength was drained with the absence of the Sun, her speed was not so diminished and she danced aside the crushing blow. From behind Xing Tian, she slashed, a crescent shaped strike the would have split a mountain, but Xing Tian’s shield bore the blow, sparing only a few sparks from the impact. Then, without warning, Xing Tian struck her with his shield. Her sword went spinning into the darkness. Her body fell hard to snow covered ground.
“So this is defeat?” she tasted the bitter words, closing her eyes as Xing Tian raised his axe.
“Not yet,” growled her brother’s voice as axe met steel. Above her stood Susano, rugged and unclean, but hale as his wide sword deflected the axe. Roaring ferociously, he pushed against his blade, heaving the hulking Xing Tian to the ground.
“This,” said Susano, “is victory.”
Above them, the churning cloud, as if possessed by grim intention, twisted and turned, hurtling Westward with the sinking sun.
Xing Tian’s spectral eyes blinked and cleared. He took in the surroundings as though waking from a dream. “What – what have I done?”
“Nothing of your own will, it seems.” Susano answered, staring into the sunset as the black cloud flew on.
Blue-green seafoam stirred in the morning light, drawn outward toward the submerged palace of Ao Kuang. Building and stacking, the waves converged, ever slowly, ever surely constructing a tower of destructive force, a tsunami to crush the Jade Empire once and for all. All this, under the unnaturally bleak black clouds that had settled above the Dragon Lord’s keep. Undoubtedly, Ao Kuang was now victim to its malicious influence – and the great wave, a calling of his creation.
Susano set foot upon these foreign shores, uncertain of the welcome he would receive, but determined to find the source behind the evil cloud. Spurred by haste, the ship that carried him from his homeland rose anchor and made for safer harbor, but the towing sea dragged it out and crushed it under the growing waves.
City streets were bare. Susano heard no sound of crowds or commerce. Only eerie silence. Then, a guttural animal growl. Susano drew his blade, red morning light gleaming on its surface. From behind an empty hut lurched a celestial hound, back arched, fangs bared, eyes black as oil. It stalked slowly, herding its prey, slavering in anticipation of the kill.
Possessed, the beast was, as Xing Tian before. Susano breathed deep and prepared to fight.
Hound and God circled each other. Beast with head low, spines raised, teeth bared; God with jaw set, twin fisted grip locked white-knuckle firm on the handle of his blade. Snarling, the dog leapt. Fueled by the darkness’ evil, it covered the distance with impossible speed. Susano was taken to the ground, the hound’s foaming maw snapping just inches from his face.
“HEEL!” boomed the voice of Erlang Shen.
Yet the hound did not obey its master.
“HEEL!” came the command again, this time deep enough to rumble the earth. Whimpering, the canine tucked tail and fled. Gone was the rabid gleam to its eye, replaced by remorse. The spell broken.
Ruefully, Susano regained his feet, though his weapon, he found, had been retrieved by Erlang Shen.
“You are far from home,” said the warrior-sage. “The sky darkens and all manner of beasts have grown hostile at your coming. Why should I spare your life.”
Susano snorted. “Slay me if you wish, but I do not come to quarrel. I come only to stop the evil that plagues your shores. For it once plagued mine. Will you aid me or hinder me?”
As he spoke, a dark shadow was cast over the pair. Looking up, the great tsunami had come.
“I will aid you,” whispered Erlang Shen.
Erlang Shen raced up the side of a nearby building as though the pull of the earth had no say. Leaping from the great height, his form shifted into that of a massive bird. Facing the oncoming tidal wave, he swept his wings in huge arcs, drawing a torrent of wind to push back the tsunami. Against this gale, the wave paused, halting at the apex. But for Erlang Shen, the tidal force was too strong and on it came again.
“Best flap harder,” chortled Sun Wukong. “Or you could ask for help.”
“From you?” grunted Erlang Shen. “Never!”
“Don’t be a fool,” the Monkey King retorted. “Lives are more important than your pride!”
Without further askance, Sun Wukong too leapt into the air and transformed into an enormous bird. Together, the two gods flapped their wings, straining against the oncoming tide and, at last, countered the tsunami.
“Impressive,” Susano begrudged as the shapeshifting Gods returned to their humanoid forms. Above, the dark cloud twisted, abandoning Ao Kuang, and sped overhead. Westward, again. “But I cannot linger,” he told them. “I have a cloud to catch!”
Susano sprinted West.
Against the black of night, against the seething cloud, a storm of fire swirled. At its approach, the dark cloud retreated as though frightened to burn, only to redouble and attack from the opposite direction. Endlessly this dance continued; back and forth the forces of darkness and the forces of flame advanced and retreated. Embers dropped from the sky like rain.
Fingers arched, arms straining in arcane gestures, double headed Agni conducted the fiery maelstrom from his watch atop the golden palace dome. Sweat slid from his twin brows as he battled the shadow cloud.
Upon this, did Susano lay eyes when arriving in Aryavarta.
“You have come at an opportune time, Susano, if you wish to slay me,” Agni grunted, his attention and effort cast completely upward.
“Not this day,” Susano conceded. “I come to combat this black cloud that covers you.”
“No cloud is this, wanderer!” Fire flared at Agni’s command and a lone silhouette tumbled from above. A tiny corpse, blackened and charred beyond recognition, evident only that the beast had wings. A bird or bat, perhaps. Above, the cloud churned, millions of swooping creatures.
“This is a God’s power, sent to curse us all,” Agni declared. “If you would truly aid us, Seek the Weaver. She will know from whom this comes.”
Ravaged by the ongoing war, the Kingdom of the Sun billowed black smoke from a thousand wounds, but the sky above remained otherwise clear. Susano, for once, arrived before the darkness. Collapsed were the city gates. Crushed were the market stalls. From high windows, the people spied Susano with faces of suspicion and fear.
A hot breeze blew against the back of his neck. Susano spun, blade ringing as it came free.
Before him stood Neith, Weaver of Fate. Lithe of frame, bright of smile, but eyes sad as a funeral. Eyes that peered through skin to expose the soul beneath.
“I heard you were looking for me,” her bow gripped in one hand, strung with threads of fate, but not drawn.
“From where did you hear this?” Susano’s grip tightened on his blade.
“From here,” she said placing a delicate finger on his chest. Over his heart.
Susano’s guard fell like autumn leaves. “I must know who attacks us with a cloud of beasts.”
“Your thread of Fate is worn,” she said. “Thin. You cannot defeat this enemy until you strengthen it.”
Susano straightened. “How?”
Neith’s smile faltered. “You must decide what you fight for.”
Silence stood between Susano and Neith like a stone monolith.
“Once,” Susano slowly sheathed his massive blade, “I fought for myself. For my own glory. For vanity. My sister, Amaterasu, suffered for this and the world was darker for it.”
“And now?” Neith stepped close enough that Susano could hear her whisper.
Eyes downcast, he sighed. “Now, I fight so my sister will forgive me.”
Like a wisp in the breeze, Neith circled him. “Your sister has forgiven you, Susano. Your strength does not come from her, but from within. You will always be diminished until you forgive yourself. Until you once again fight for yourself, but without vanity.”
In this moment, jackal-headed Anubis appeared from the shadows and bowed regally to Neith. “You called. I answer. What do you require?”
“Susano hunts a God that wields powers of the underworld. Power over death. Though, I cannot tell whom. You are a God of the underworld. Aid him and stop this threat.”
“Three there are,” Anubis growled. “Hades and Hel to the North. But a new God has surfaced to the West. A bat beast. He shall I flush out if you go North.”
Susano nodded and Anubis vanished into darkness.
“Remember,” Neith delicately touched his shoulder. “Without vanity. Only then will your strength return.”
North, Susano sailed, across the green sea, toward Olympus and the God, Hades. Aboard the vessel Tide Breaker, he spied the swarm of evil darkness converging overhead.
“I have come for you,” it seemed to say. “I will break you upon the ocean floor.”
Sailors cried in alarm as salt waters boiled around the belly of the ship. Wolf heads burst from below, attached to scaled and serpentine necks. A crewman raced passed to avoid the hungry monster but was snatched between its fangs. Others dove into the water, thinking it safer, but meeting only oblivion.
Dragged by her monstrous limbs, Scylla rose to the deck. Her child-like visage revealed madness and malice, now driven to dark purpose under sway of the dark cloud. Giggles spilled from her throat, beckoned by the cracking hull and terror fueled screams of the mortals.
Blade scraping free, Susano raced at the demon-child. Feverishly, she hurled limb after snarling limb at him, but his feet danced aside. A leap, like a soaring falcon, brought him to her height. A strike that flared in setting sun. Scylla plummeted back beneath the waves.
As Susano, too, descended with the sinking ship, the dark cloud turned north.
Coughing sea water, Susano woke upon the shores of Olympus, surrounded by fractured flotsam and dregs of the deep. If Hades truly was the source of the malicious swarm, Susano could not stop here. With wide sword slung over one shoulder, he trudged northward into the darkness of the wood.
Before long, gnarled branches and fanged leaves strangled all light from the forest floor. Chirping crickets and singing birds fell silent. Susano wiped stringy spider silk from his forehead.
Thick as a rope, a thread of webbing propelled from the darkness and tangled his sword arm. At the other end was Arachne, once a beautiful priestess, now a spider-fiend. Red eyes glittering with hunger, she pulled on her snared prey.
Growling, Susano strained against her, the webbing creaking as it stretched between them. With a mighty roar he snapped the web back and Arachne came hurtling toward him. His fierce fist he drove into her jaw, and Arachne crumpled like a crushed insect. Above, the canopy rustled as a swarm of winged creatures took flight, like a stormy gust through the leaves.
Ripping the webbing free of his arm, Susano carried on until the forest was behind him and he stood at the foot of Mount Olympus itself. Up there, atop the clouded peak, was the palace. And Hades.
Black winged beasts, too numerous to count, perched along the high rafters of the Olympian Palace’s throne room. A moonless night wandered through the narrow slit windows like a silent stranger upon the road. Only Hades’ unnatural black flames, dancing in the yawning braziers along the hall, provided dim light.
Susano entered cautiously, blade gripped tightly.
“You fool,” Hades whispered from the unseen depths of the darkness. “Their trap is sprung.”
All of the winged creatures abruptly took flight, swirling and swooping around Susano. A torrent of flapping wings crushed upon him, until he could see nothing.
Then, it was silent. He stood in a new place where horizon and ground were one and the same; colorless, featureless. Beneath his feet, the ground earth squelched with saturation. Thin rain dripped from above. Standing before him was himself.
“You are a failure,” the other Susano sneered. “Your sister reviles you.”
“No!” Susano hurtled at himself, sword raised. Cleanly his doppleganger parried the attack and pushed him to the mud. Blows were cast upon him. A kick to the ribs. A slash across his back. Susano could only curl up against the onslaught.
Then, that world peeled away and he was again in the throne room. Hades loomed above him where once the doppelganger stood. The swarm retreated through the windows.
“What happened?” Susano asked weakly.
“I have set you free,” Hades whispered. “The darkness had taken you.”
Susano’s breath froze in the chilling air. Certain Hades did not command the swarm, Susano continued northward to Asgard. While Anubis searched for the Bat-God across the sea, Susano would investigate their last lead, the Goddess Hel.
Heavy gray clouds smeared the sky like thick paint and carelessly tossed weightless snow upon the earth. Trees caught the flakes first, then the highest stones, then the flat grasses. Before long, all was awash in pale featurelessness.
It reminded Susano of the other realm. The place he’d been taken by the swarm. To face himself. A foe that knew his every weakness, his every thought. How could he defeat such an opponent?
Snow was falling thick, now, obscuring vision across the rocky countryside. Distantly, blue lightning arched across the heavens, scratching the sky, and flaring through the white cavalcade. Seconds later, thunder roared like an angry lion.
And then the earth quaked. Trees whipped off their snowy cloaks, rocks tumbled down slick slopes, the very ground groaned as it shook. Beneath his feet, the stone split with a crack like breaking bone, and into that yawning crevasse Susano plummeted, chased by rock and snow.
Susano hurtled through the darkness, flailing as he fell. Somewhere below, a soft green light grew. A wide cavern opened beneath, full of lush greenery, soft moss, lazy trees, and a bubbling pond at the center. Susano splashed into those warm waters, then clawed for the surface, gasping for breath.
A rough, bark coated hand hoisted him from the pond and set him upon the sponge loam shore. Whirling, he found a tree-being, trunk split to form legs, knobby branches for arms, and upon its knotted shoulders sat a wizened old man with eyes that glistened like stars in the night.
“You have fallen far, Susano,” the old man chortled.
“You have no idea,” Susano grumbled, tentatively retreating a step. Sylvanus was known to shift quickly between benevolence and violence. “I seek the source of the dark swarm.”
“Ho ho!” Sylvanus exclaimed. “Then you have come to the right place! It has claimed Asgard’s favored son, Thor. With lightning he scars our hills and valleys and draws the ire of the lady Terra. Her mighty fists shake and crack the earth. To reach Asgard safely, you’ll need to appease her, I think.”
Susano straightened. “Can you take me to her?”
Sylvanus’ eyes twinkled.
Susano followed the lumbering tree that carried Sylvanus through dim winding caverns until, at last, they reached the surface. Gray-white storm clouds hung heavy in the sky. Snow fell as though it sought to drown the world. Before them spread a valley, scorched and blasted, razed from the constant raking of lightning from above. Within this smoking ruin was Terra, fuming, massive fists drumming the earth, rumbling the mountains with as much crescendo as the deafening thunder. Susano could barely make out the shape of Thor, rigid atop a nearby ridge, the swarm of beasts swooping about him.
“At one time, the wind obeyed my command,” Susano spread his arms wide. ”Let us see if it still does.”
Resoundingly, he clapped his hands together. A shockwave erupted. It roared through the mountains, echoed across the valley, drowned the storm and quakes. Above, the gust blasted the gray clouds northward like a breath on candle flame. The sky shone clear blue, as if waking from melancholy.
Terra unclenched her fists and straightened. To Susano she nodded appreciation. Thor whirled his hammer and propelled after his storm clouds, pursued by the swarm.
“Well,” chittered Sylvanus. “Aren’t you just full of surprises!”
Atop the branches of Yggdrasil, Asgard was barely visible, swallowed as it was by black storm clouds. Lightning flickered within the roiling mass, like a thumping heart beating to an impossible rhythm. Possessed as Thor was, he spared no mercy for his home, nor the people within. Susano lowered his head and climbed the multicolored Bifrost road that wound to the gates of Asgard.
He found the wide wooden doors open, silent. Icicles hung like spears from ramparts and gutters, snow gathered heavy across rooftops and alleys. Where citizenry should have been, heavy clouds crowded the streets.
A lone shape stood shadowed in that darkness, feet wide, hammer gripped tight.
“Come,” said the God of Thunder in a voice that was not his own. “Mjolnir will give you a kiss and take your teeth in the parting.”
“This is bloody business,” Susano slowly pulled his heavy blade free. It scraped like the moving of mountains. “Shall we get to it, then?”
Thor hurled his hammer, crackling with lightning. Susano dove aside. Mjolnir smashed through the wooden wall where Susano once stood before hurtling back to its owner. Twice more the hammer came and twice more Susano leapt for cover, but Thor’s weapon tore through wood and stone like a boar through brush. Susano was cornered.
“Face me!” Thor bellowed. “You hide like a craven.”
Slowly, Susano rose. This time, he would not be able to avoid the hammer. Their eyes met. Mjolnir whirled.
Thor’s malicious grin spread while Mjolnir crackled and spun. Susano recalled the wind blowing through a cherry blossom’s spindly branches, casting her delicate petals to dance. It reminded him of his sister. This was the end.
Time slowed. Susano watched Thor rear to throw. In that moment, from behind the thunder God, Tyr emerged from clouded obscurity and clamped his iron fist around Thor’s thick arm.
“Awake Odinson!” Tyr bellowed, and hurled his prince backward. Thor smashed through wooden walls and vanished from sight. Time sped back up. Susano moved at once.
“Tyr, we must find Hel if we are to stop Thor’s madness. She controls a swarm of darkness that has stolen his mind!”
Tyr shook his head. “As soon as this foulness began, I concluded the same and imprisoned her. This power comes not from Hel.”
Lightning clawed and chewed at the wreckage where Thor was thrown.
Tyr’s heavy breath froze in the air. “Odinson returns.”
Susano clutched tight his sword. “Alone, we cannot defeat him.”
Thor burst upward, sheathed in furious lightning, splintering and shattering structures around his ascent, scattering shrapnel. “I AM THE GOD OF THUNDER!” he roared.
Tyr leapt, snatched Thor’s ankle and hauled him back to the ground. Susano’s blade swept in a flurry that sparked across Mjolnir as Thor defended. Tyr withstood a fierce punch from the thunder God before wrapping his great arms around Thor’s waist and slamming him to the snow. Susano knelt upon the prone God, sword to throat while Tyr’s iron hand wrestled Thor’s wrist, trapping Mjolnir. Thor strained against his captors.
“Awake Odinson!” Tyr pleaded through clenched teeth.
The screeching swarm converged.
Thor’s eyes cleared and he ceased struggling, finally free of the dark influence. Susano rose to meet the descending cloud of flying beasts that had consumed the minds of Gods from East to West. A final battle against himself.
“No!” urged Thor. “It will take you!”
But Susano was resolute. Down they came, swooping and swirling, closing in, choking all sight. Snowy Asgard disappeared. Susano waited to be transported.
Bleak, empty, and devoid. Susano was again in the colorless realm. Instinctively he raised his blade, blocking an attack from his doppleganger.
“You are reckless, Susano!” the other him crowed. They pushed against each other, blades locked, scraping in the silence, spraying white hot sparks.
Susano grunted, leaning against his blade. “Once. But no longer.”
“Look at the devastation you have wrought pursuing me,” his clone sneered. “It is no different than before when you shamed your sister. When your father sent you away!”
Without vanity, Susano thought. “For that, I have atoned.”
“And what of the crimes since then? What of the failures you’ve yet to commit?”
“They are mine to make,” Susano declared. “But I will no longer be bound by guilt. I know who I am!” Susano heaved and his doppleganger went sprawling into the mud. “Who are you?”
Throwing back its head, the clone belted out laugher as it tore apart into thousands of winged beasts.
“You want to know who I am?”
Alone, Anubis traveled from the sun scorched sands of his homeland, across the Ocean Atlantis, to arrive at last upon the jungled Mayan shores. Here, would he find a God of the Underworld. The last of four from whom the dark curse could originate. It was not he, and Susano sought Hades and Hel. This left only the Bat-God. Camazotz.
Anubis closed his eyes and twisted his jackal ears. Alive with sound, creatures of the jungle each sang a different song. Chirps and whistles, growls and taunts. Hot wind played between the heavy canopy leaves like fingers through a lover’s hair. Of the Bat-God, there was only silence.
Opening his eyes, Anubis found night creeping over the horizon. At the edge of the trees a spotted jaguar, emerald eyes glittering, watched him. It turned, but looked back once. Follow me, it seemed to say.
Into the wet heat he dove, pursuing the lithe cat. Over bubbling streams, through barbed branches, until at last they stopped before a V-shaped tree. Astride the split, silhouetted against a full white moon, stood Awilix.
“The night is not yours, Jackal-God,” she called. “You should not hunt here.”
Anubis bowed as formally has he dare. “A curse has spread across the land, begat by Camazotz. Help me hunt him, then will I leave as I came.”
“You are in luck,” a sly grin spread upon the moon-Goddess’ face. “With night upon us, you do not hunt him. He will hunt you.”
Hellish wind tore through the upper canopy. Leaves crackled in fear and tree boughs bent to make way. No creature with will to live lingered, but darted for dirty holes and hidden nooks. All along his spine, the hairs on Anubis’ back rose. The wind screeched like fingernails on stone.
Anubis turned to Awilix. “What is this?” he growled, but she was gone. The V-shaped tree empty as though she was never there.
Then they were upon him. It was no wind, but a thousand howling bats, swirling and snarling. Razer fangs nipped his neck. Leathery wings beat his face. Talons like sickles drew his blood. Their numbers strangled the moonlight. Anubis was certain this was the black swarm. The source of the curse.
Drawing great power to him, he let loose a burst of dark energy that rippled through the jungle for miles. The bats cried in anguish as their tiny souls were rent from their bodies, dropping to the ground like wet rags. The jungle was suddenly still.
“I will be no victim to your dark swarm, Camazotz,” Anubis called into the empty silence. “Come forth from concealment and face judgement!”
A dry, raspy laughter echoed through the wood. It seemed to come from everywhere. And nowhere. “You are no victim,” Camazotz whispered. “You are prey.”
Anubis twisted his jackal ears. Camazotz would throw his voice, bounce it between the trees. Yet, Anubis was keen of hearing. Camazotz could not fool him.
Anubis leapt high, wrapping his claws around the Bat-God’s hide and dropping back to the earth, pinning him.
“You underestimate me, fiend!” Anubis snarled.
Camazotz raspily laughed in his face. “You overestimate me, hound. The curse you seek, the swarm… they are not bats. They are ravens.”
“Crows?” Anubis leaned back. Camazotz twisted and sliced for the neck.
“Crows?” said Susano as his doppleganger ripped apart into black feathered birds. He was again in snowy Asgard, Tyr and Thor at his side.
“You want to know who I am?” came the voice of the Goddess that controlled the swarm. Who’s black powers could draw the deepest doubts and darkest secrets from the mightiest of warriors.
The crows hurtled together and she took shape. Hair black as those feathered wings, eyes glittering with hard malice. “We are Morrigan.”
Susano leveled his blade at her. “For what you’ve done, none will forgive you. There will be war!”
“We invite it,” The Morrigan replied. “Too long you’ve battled. Too proud of yourselves. Now,” she grinned wickedly, “witness what your pride has wrought!”
Her hand extended and the crows flew forth.
War began anew.