Epilogue
The Curse of the Man-Eater

AN 1220 (AZ 1457) - Early Autumn
Dungeon of Castle Notos, Maximilion, Notos

It was not the custom in Hijima to take prisoners. You were a guest or a servant in another lord's castle, or else you were dead. However, even if it were the custom to take prisoners, no man or woman with any honor would allow themselves to be taken prisoner, no matter the circumstance. And yet Akasame found himself chained in the bowels of the capital.
He was shackled at the wrists and ankles, just high enough that the pads of his feet could touch the floor and relieve his shoulders of the strain of bearing his body weight. When the strength in his legs gave out, though, he nearly tore both arms out of their sockets. This was not how the Bringer of the Red Rain was supposed to meet his end.
When it became clear that Rowland was not going to fulfill his covenant, Akasame led his men and anyone else who would follow him in revolt against Rowland's rule. Not even fifty of his own men remained with him and only a hundred mercenaries answered the call for all the plunder their heart desired. As with his failed push on Babophos all those years ago, he was outnumbered more than ten to one by an enemy whose advantage could not be nullified by fear and panic.
In fact, the stories of his maneating ways were used against him. Rowland's men were all too eager to put down the mad dogs who ate the flesh and drank the blood of their fellow man. The battle--which could hardly be called that--did not last long.
Only when Akasame could not see any of his own people left standing did he finally admit to himself that all was lost. He would fallen on his sword, as a warrior ought to do when there is nothing left but the threat of capture, but the enemy rushed at him and wrested his sword away from him. His last resort was to bite off his tongue, but even that was denied him when a thick cord was forced between his teeth. Perhaps they saw one of his men kill himself that way and prevented their prize from doing the same.
Rowland personally visited him on the third day to assure him that his death would neither be painless nor quick. The days after that were devoted to proving the truth of his words. After all, he was now the king of the land in all but name and it was the duty of all good and loyal subjects to help uphold their lord and master's honor.
Akasame had not tasted food since the day before he was captured. Once every two or three days they would force some water down his throat to keep him alive a little longer. That was all it accomplished, for it did little to quench his thirst and reminded his stomach of his hunger. Only when he was adrift and made the fateful decision to eat human flesh had he known hunger and thirst like this.
However, he would not continue to suffer forever. All this time he had been grinding his teeth against the cord that gagged him, slowly but surely cutting his way through. It would not be long now.
The door opened. At least once a day, sometimes two or three times, they would come in to beat him with sticks and whips, to poke and cut with various tools, just enough to inflict pain but not enough to risk a mortal wound that would give him an early release. If they thought they could make him scream, they would be disappointed. He enjoyed the pain and the blood almost as much as when he inflicted it on others. It reminded him he was alive and that his fight was not yet over.
It was no common torturer who entered but Rowland himself. It had been some time since the last time he made an appearance--how long Akasame could not say as the light of day did not reach this far below ground and the guards did not keep a regular schedule to make it more difficult for him to keep track of the time.
"How are you enjoying my hospitality, Eastman?" Rowland asked.
He, of course, did not expect an answer and kept on talking.
"I miss Simona. She was a real artist with this sort of thing. The jailers here try, but they're like sculptors with a hammer and no chisel."
Akasame was not following what he was saying at all, other than some vague notion that Rowland's Mononoke woman was more proficient at torture, but perhaps that was all he needed to know, not that it amounted to much. She was dead. What did it matter?
"You should thank me," Rowland continued. "Ruling a country is terribly boring. I almost want to start a new war with Zephyr. It would give me something to do, exercise my swordarm."
In this Akasame could sympathize. War and conquest were fulfilling, worthy pursuits in life, but days of peace were dull and all the nagging duties of everyday rule were infuriating. Of course, had he been given the western part of the land as promised, he would have soon moved to conquer the eastern part as well and from there spread his domain across the sea. Would Rowland prove the same? It mattered little.
"They want me to execute you," Rowland continued, "to deliver swift justice for all your abominations. The savage man-eater, the bloody barbarian..."
Barbarian? It annoyed Akasame to be called barbarian by a barbarian. If he could, Akasame would eat Rowland's liver for that. He would probably eat more than that given how hungry he was. Besides, after feasting on the weak for so long, the meat of the strong appealed to him. Yes, he would acknowledge Rowland's strength, barbarian though he was. Akasame would take that strength into himself and become all the stronger for it.
It was a vain wish. In peak condition, perhaps, but wasted away and weakened as he was, what could he do? There was nothing left for him but to die.
Rowland got closer to him and said, "Personally, I want to see how long I can prolong your suffering. I wonder if they can break you or if you'll hold to your stubborn pride to the bitter end. What do you think?"
Finally, Akasame succeeded in biting through the cord. He delivered a savage grin to Rowland and said, "You will never know."
Before Rowland could do anything to stop him, he bit down on his tongue with all the strength he had left, cutting clean through. Blood filled his mouth as he spat the severed piece of his tongue at Rowland. And then he laughed. He laughed like a madman gargling his own blood.
Rowland simply stood there watching as Akasame continued to laugh, the blood spilling out of his mouth, spraying whenever he would gag and sputter. It did not take long for him to start feeling light-headed. Whatever strength was left in him was expended and he slumped over, or as much as he could being strung up by the chains.
That should have been it. What little life remained in him would drain out with his blood, but even as all feeling was draining from his body, the taste of his own blood stirred something within him. He wanted more.
His heart stopped beating. Silence. Darkness.
But not death.
A wave of energy surged through him. His limbs brimmed with new strength. His body swelled, snapping the iron shackles that bound him. He was changing. His nails lengthened into claws and something was growing out of his skull. Horns. Yes, horns.
As his eyes began to focus, he saw that he now stood at least two spans taller. His skin had flushed into a reddish purple and his muscles bulged twice their original size. From the stump of his tongue, a new one burst forth, running over his teeth, which were now twisted into sharp fangs.
So it was true after all. By the curse of the man-eater he had been transformed into a Mononoke. He knew the sort. The Oni. He had killed several of them in his time. Now he was one himself.
Now towering over Rowland, Akasame was laughing once more. Before it was in defiance, dying on his own terms. Now it was because this new life gave him the power to overcome anything and anyone, starting with Rowland.
"I do not die so easily, it would seem," he said.
"You show your true face," Rowland replied, infuriatingly showing no sign of fear.
"I will eat your flesh, drink your blood and suck the marrow from your bones!"
Rowland grinned confidently, drawing his heavy sword.
"You can try."
Akasame lunged forward, reaching out to crush Rowland's skull, but Rowland stepped to the side, lopping off his hand with a single smooth stroke. Akasame howled, more out of anger than pain. Why was Rowland not gripped with fear, frozen as a stone at the sight of the warlord's horrific new form? If he ever had cause for fear, this was it.
Very well, it would have been boring to kill him so easily. That sword of his bought him a few more moments. That was all.
Before he could make his next attack, he felt his strength fail him for a moment. He looked to the stump of his arm. The wound burned. And that was when he realized it. Rowland's sword was no common blade. It had a power to it.
The realization came too late. With a wide stroke, Rowland cut him in half at the waist and when his body hit the floor, a downward chop took his head.
Even with his head separated from his body, he did not die. Of course. A Mononoke could not be killed as a mortal creature can.
Rowland took hold of one of his horns and held up his head. Even though the wound burned, Akasame cackled menacingly.
"I cannot die," he said, lying in the hope Rowland would know fear at last.
Rowland was not intimidated, though.
"We'll just have to see what we can do about that."
With that, Rowland left the dungeon carrying Akasame's head. All the while, Akasame taunted him.
"Your petty tricks will not save you. I cannot be killed."
"We'll see, Eastman," Rowland replied. "We'll see."
Let him try. The Bringer of the Red Rain was reborn and his new reign of terror was just beginning.