[ Contents | IV. A Long Story | V. Shah Mat | VI. The Invisible Demon ]
The golden deer was gone. That was the first thing that Vegeta noticed as he stepped into the black glade. The second thing he noticed was the small wooden hut (black wood, thatched with black bark) in the center of the glade. The third thing Vegeta noticed was the old, old man who shuffled out of the little hut and smiled at him--like the deer, he was not black, and caught the eye.
Vegeta's eyes narrowed. The white-haired, white-bearded old man appeared weak, no, downright feeble--but the Saiyan prince could not sense his power. For that matter, he'd never sensed the deer's power--something had hidden it from him. Neither the deer nor the old man were what they seemed. Caution, then. Vegeta would observe, and evaluate; determine what he was really dealing with, and whose side it was on before he acted.
It was times like this he missed Nappa; the giant Saiyan had been a useful stalking horse, letting Vegeta evaluate his enemies in action against the elite warrior, giving him the information and time needed to form his strategy. Well, Nappa was not with him now, nor were those idiot friends of Kakarott's, who had served the same purpose many times later; Vegeta would just have to unravel these unknowns on his own. He ruthlessly suppressed his impatience and annoyance, and approached the seeming hermit.
Before Vegeta could speak, the hermit greeted him. "Welcome, traveler! Few come this way, and fewer still that Old Maricha wishes to meet, but you are most welcome, noble prince!"
"What? You know of me? But how--?" In his astonishment, Prince Vegeta quite forgot his manners and his plans.
"You were advised to seek a guide in the Dire Wood, were you not, O Prince? What kind of guide would I be, if I did not know who and what passed through the wood of my exile? You are the prince of an ancient and noble race, this I can see with my own eyes; I do not know your quest--yet--save that it bears on the fate of the Three Worlds. But come, I am a poor host, to leave you thus standing." With that, the old man stepped inside his hut, and re-appeared with two simple wooden chairs--black, of course.
"Well, why not?" Vegeta said to himself, and took the offered seat. The hermit came out with a small, round, black table and placed it between the two of them. On the table the old man set an ancient, dusty ceramic flask, and two tiny cups with no handles. Vegeta arched his eyebrows in a silent question.
"For later," the old hermit answered. "Talking is thirsty work, when one is as unaccustomed to it as I am. Now, please tell me, what do you seek, O Prince? For I cannot guide a traveler who does not know what destination he seeks."
"This traveler," Vegeta chose his words carefully, "wishes to know first what quality of guide he has found. I had not heard that Hell was populated by kind and helpful.. guides." Prince Vegeta stared cooly at the old man.
The hermit sighed. "You are wise, noble prince. We who dwell in the Lower World have indeed earned our places here. I was once a man-eating demon of the Middle World, who preyed on travelers and holy hermits in an ancient forest. In death, I am cursed to be that which I once preyed upon, and to serve those who were my victims. As I once led a great prince astray, for my atonement I guide another prince on his true path."
Prince Vegeta pondered this; plausible enough, and there was no trace of that foulness, that taint of perverted reality carried by the broo and the demon that killed him. "I seek life--for myself, and death--for my enemy." He smiled wryly. "A simple task--except that no one knows how my enemy might be killed--or even what my enemy IS."
The old hermit looked thoughtful. "I need to think on this, and you must tell me of your enemy." He picked up the dusty flask and poured a rich, golden liquor into the two cups, offering one to Vegeta. Vegeta took it, and regarded it and the demon hermit; with a smirk, he drank it down.
The hermit, who had started to sip his, raised an eyebrow, and quickly tossed his down as well. He blinked rapidly, clearing his eyes from the tears that started from them from the potent liquor. "Soma," Maricha said dryly, "is not really intended for chugging."
Vegeta smirked, unfazed by the potent, magical liquor. "You wished to hear of my enemy, did you? Well..."
* * * *
On Earth, the day after Bulma's late-night storytelling session, Raditz looked for his brother Goku. Only Bulma and Trunks and Raditz remained with Goku's family; the others had found their way to their respective homes, relieved indeed that everything had turned out well, if a bit astonished at the turn of events. They had been more accepting of Raditz than he could understand, until his brother quietly reminded Raditz that they'd all lived through Vegeta changing from mortal enemy to the strongest of allies--and Vegeta had been far more feared and hated than Raditz had ever been.
He found Goku along the stream, hunting fish. "Kakarott."
"Raditz, I wish you would stop calling me that. My name is Goku." Goku stopped searching for giant carp, and turned to face his brother as Raditz dropped down from the sky to land beside him.
"I'm sorry, Kakarott, but I'm not ready to do that. I don't know if I ever will be." There was a strange, haunted look in the tall Saiyan's eyes.
"Kakarott is the name of the little brother I loved, the name mother and father gave you, on our home world. Our parents, who loved both of us, who died with our world," and Goku could hear the grief in his brother's voice. "Goku is the name of a Saiyan who did not know me, who renounced his family and race, and who killed me." He paused, looking at the distant horizon. "I like Kakarott better."
Goku sighed. "I can accept your reasons better than I can Vegeta's. Okay, if you would rather call me Kakarott, I won't complain. What brings you out here? Taking up fishing?" Goku smiled.
"Not yet. Kakarott, I need to know.. how Vegeta died."
Goku turned serious. "You don't know? But you and he--"
"Vegeta didn't volunteer any information, and I was so rattled by what he was asking of me that I didn't think to ask." Raditz seemed embarrassed. "I did find out later that something very, very nasty smashed its way through the Hells on its way to Earth, and from things father said, I gathered that same thing killed Prince Vegeta. I don't know the details, and I need to."
Goku looked sharply at Raditz. "Why?"
Raditz stared at the horizon again. "Because I need to know what to tell Bulma about my meeting with Vegeta in Hell."
"Why not tell her the truth?" Goku frowned.
"Because Vegeta told me more than he intended to, but I need to know what happened to make sense of it. I'm not going to pass on baseless conjecture as fact--and Bulma is going to need to know more than what Vegeta explicitly told me."
Raditz considered; if Kakarott kept asking questions, Raditz didn't know how he was going to answer him--he was not comfortable with the glimpse he'd gotten into Bulma's grief, again.
Sometime in the small hours of the morning, Raditz had gotten restless and gone for a walk outside. He was still full of energy from his recent resurrection, and not really in need of sleep. He'd watched the waning crescent moon for a while, reflecting that he'd better pay attention to the phases of Earth's moon or he'd severely embarrass himself some night, when Raditz heard noises coming from the house. Noises like muffled laughter, or someone choking, or someone.. crying.
Raditz had stalked over to the open window, concerned and curious. The noise was coming from Bulma's room; crying, and low voices. Bulma, weeping, and Chi-chi, talking to her, trying to comfort her. He'd started to turn away--ordinary grief wasn't something he could, or should, protect her from--but then what she was saying had registered.
"Bulma! After you nearly got killed, you can't be serious about searching for another wish, can you?"
"Oh, Chi-chi! You heard what Raditz said! Vegeta is in HELL! I can't leave him there!" she sobbed bitterly, her face buried in Chi-chi's soggy shoulder.
Chi-chi held her friend as she cried. "Bulma.." no comforting words came to her in the face of the stark truth Bulma had uttered. Only.. "Bulma, that wasn't all Raditz said. You said so yourself."
"I know! I know! It didn't make any sense, but I'm afraid.." she cried some more, "I'm afraid that Vegeta may put himself beyond the reach of any wish, and I'll lose him.. forever. Not just until 'we meet again' on the other side, but FOREVER." Terrible, despairing sobs racked Bulma; Chi-chi held her, but could think of nothing comforting to say.
Raditz turned away, then, uncomfortable with what he had glimpsed. It burdened him; he knew Bulma would be coming to him for answers soon, answers he wasn't sure of himself. All Raditz knew was that Vegeta would be back, one way or another--but he couldn't say why he knew that. And until he could say why, he couldn't convince Bulma of it, either.
Goku was thoughtful. "I learned how it started from Gohan, afterward. You see, I've only recently returned to Earth myself."
"You didn't know? I guess you don't get much news down there in Hell. I did not survive the fight with Cell two years ago, and I chose to stay in Heaven. I didn't want anyone getting hurt again, trying to bring me back, and if someone else wanted revenge on me, well, they already had it because I was dead, and no one I loved would have had to get hurt again because of me."
"Oh." Raditz looked thoughtful. "Did you meet mother there?"
Goku smiled gloriously. "Yes. And you are right--she loves us both."
"So does father." Raditz smiled. "But about Vegeta..."
Goku turned serious again. "I made a mistake in assuming that all our enemies were MY enemies. Somehow Gohan and Vegeta made an enemy of something horribly evil and powerful. According to Gohan.."
Goku explained to Raditz how a monstrous winged, tailed demon had dropped howling out of the sky into the middle of downtown Satan City, where Chi-chi and Bulma had taken Gohan and Trunks shopping for new clothes. At first, it had seemed an evil coincidence that the demon had attacked when they were in town, but then Gohan had attacked the monster.
It had howled his name in triumph--"GOHAN, SON OF GOKU, DIE!", shrugging off the young Saiyan hero's attacks as it slashed envenomed talons at him. It knew who it was attacking, and it had come for them. It was monstrously tough, and fast, half as large as an Ouzaru, and seemed untiring--only as a Super-Saiyan could Gohan even hurt the thing, and the damage to the city was horrific. City blocks smashed into rubble, people broken and killed, and worst of all, people mutated and twisted into demonic caricatures of themselves by the tainted slime drooling from the demon's jaws. Bulma's desperate call home had summoned Vegeta, and together, the two of them had driven the demon away from the city, away from Bulma and Chi-chi.
Away from the city, the chilling truth became obvious; the demon had not been driven away from the city, but was pursuing Gohan, and Gohan was tiring. The demon was also tiring, bleeding from injuries gained fighting both Super-Saiyans, but not fast enough--not fast enough at all, as it broke away from them and plunged through the sky to the Capsule Corp compound where Bulma had escaped to. Perhaps it calculated that it could not defeat both the Super-Saiyans and kill its original targets too--whatever the reason, it left Gohan and Vegeta distracted, fighting its creations--the demonic mutants created by the monster's corrupting spit--just long enough for the demon to get to its helpless targets.
Gohan could not bring himself to kill what were once innocent humans, and was fatally delayed in bringing them down gently. Vegeta had no such compunctions, and ripped brutally through them to pursue the demon. He'd pushed himself to his limits, and beyond, subjecting his body to energies beyond his ability to endure.
He got there in time. Wracked with agony, Vegeta swept Bulma and his son out of the way of the demon's attack, and dumped everything he had left into one incalculably furious attack. The demon reeled, hurt, power nearly gone--but not destroyed. Vegeta collapsed, utterly spent. Every muscle quivered in agony, seared by the energies that had coursed through him, energies that were completely depleted now. Nothing left for attack, nothing left for defense. Despairing, he watched as the wounded demon found its footing again.
Then, Goku appeared. Sent back from Heaven to fight an abomination that had no place in either Earth or Hell, flaring golden beyond super-saiyan, Goku stood between the demon and its prey. Gohan, finally free of its creations, joined the battle in time to see his father appear; beyond him, he saw the surprise, and joy, and relief flash across Vegeta's face. He watched Vegeta glance back to where he'd thrown Bulma and Trunks to safety, watched Vegeta's whole body sag in weariness and relief.
Then it happened. As Goku gathered power for the final blow, the demon's supple, deadly tail had whipped up in a great arc, over and past the mighty Super-Saiyan to plunge down behind him--into Vegeta. Goku severed the exposed tail, and let go his mighty Ka-meha-meha blast into the demon. It disintegrated with a howl of rage, but too late; a horrified Goku saw the two-meter-long poisonous stinger impaling Vegeta from back-to-front.
There wasn't even time for final farewells; the demon's venom killed Vegeta as Goku dropped to his fallen comrade's side. They later learned how unbelievably potent it was--a hundredth of a drop could kill the mightiest Saiyan warrior in a heartbeat. The stinger impaling Vegeta's heart had delivered far, far more than a drop of the deadly nerve poison.
"..I removed the stinger telekinetically, and destroyed the thing, and all traces of that venom, but too late. Vegeta was dead. I think that was the hardest part for Bulma, for all of us--that we didn't even have a chance to say goodbye. We buried his body in a private place, up on the mountain behind our house," Goku finished the somber tale.
* * * *
"..and that is what I fought, and what killed me," Vegeta concluded. "And I know what the others do not--the demon's physical form was only dispersed by Kakarott's attack. It can, and will, reform its physical body when it recovers enough energy--that is why it came after my soul. I need to find a more permanent way to stop it, and I think that to do that, I must know WHY it came after me and my family, and WHAT it is." Vegeta was on his third or fourth glass of Soma, and his usual cold reserve had thawed considerably.
"I see. I need to think more on the matter, but I suspect that for now, one path will lead you toward both your goals." The hermit capped the bottle of Soma, and put it aside. "In time, you will find that your goals seem to take divergent paths, but there will be a path--roundabout, perhaps--that takes you true to where you must go."
"And that path is?"
"Some thought is needed. An enlightening diversion to clear the Soma clouds from one's mind. A game, I think, between you and me--a simple game to entertain an old hermit, a game played by kings." Maricha smiled, and reached into his hut for an ornate wooden box.
"A game? Feh. I have no interest in games! Tell me my path, and I'll be on my way!" Vegeta's eyebrows arched down, betraying his irritation.
"Patience, noble prince. If you dislike games--you think them things for children, do you not?--call it 'an intellectual exercise in abstracted warfare'. This 'exercise' was once the perogative of kings and noble warriors alone," the hermit Maricha said, as he opened the box to reveal a black and white checkered eight-by-eight board and two sets of playing pieces--one black, one white. "The moves are simple, and easy to learn, and yet geniuses spend a lifetime truly mastering the 'exercise'." He began to set up the pieces, thirty-two beautifully-carved statuettes of demons and warriors, princes and princesses, heroes and villains. "You see, noble prince, the play is your strategy against your opponent's--there is no element of chance in this 'exercise'. Only your cleverness against mine, Prince Vegeta."
Vegeta's eyes widened as the hermit's shot struck home. "Is that so? Show me these simple moves, then! I will play your game, and we will find out how clever you really are, demon-hermit-guide Maricha!"
"The game has had many names through the ages, but modern players call it 'Chess'. This piece, the king, is victory or defeat for you, though he himself has little power..." Maricha explained each of the pieces and their moves, powers and limitations with the same flowery language. He quickly summed up the rules for turns, special moves and victory; Vegeta was an astute listener, and never needed to be told twice.
Maricha courteously offered Vegeta play of the white side, which goes first and is considered to have a slight advantage thereby; Vegeta declined. He preferred to watch his opponent make the first move before deciding on a response. Their game began.
At first, Maricha's experience told in his favor; Vegeta frowned as he lost several pawns and a bishop to the old hermit's attacks. He began to see the pattern of the board, the pieces, their spheres of power and movement--like himself, and his various attacks and powers, Vegeta thought. Each piece an attack or a defense, used against his opponent's defenses and attacks, until the vital core, the King, was exposed...
"You are correct, Maricha. It is an interesting.. game." He raised his eyes from the board to look at Maricha. "Have you thought on my path, yet?"
"Yes, I have," the old demon-hermit said. "Under the city of Hidden Lankha lies the Treasury of the Rakshasas, wherein is stored all manner of ancient lore and magic. My nephew is King of Hidden Lankha, and will welcome you, O Prince, for sake of thy eldest ancestor. Go to him, and tell him what you have told me, and he will know where to find lore of your enemy, and the path back to the living as well."
Maricha moved one of his bishops. "Indeed, Hidden Lankha is part of the Middle World, though set apart from it by illusion and myth, and therein lies a problem."
"What, besides the fact I am dead and down here in Hell?" Vegeta's brows arched downward, betraying his irritation as he reached for a pawn.
"That is exactly the problem. From our hidden refuges in the Lower World to Hidden Lankha there is a passage, one I can guide you to quite easily--but it is guarded. He who guards it stops any undeserving souls from passing from the Lower World to the Middle World or the Upper World. Only good deeds done in life may shield a man from him.." The hermit moved another pawn to counter Vegeta's move.
Vegeta reflected. "That.. could be a problem," he said wryly.
"If you may not pass him with the shield of Dharma, you will simply have to defeat him. He is a demon, a Rakshasa like myself, and not a god; he was defeated once before, which is why he is dead and guarding the other worlds from the Lower World, and not ravening across the Middle World." Maricha's manner seemed less confident than his words as he chose which piece to play this turn.
By this point in the game, Vegeta began to realize that Maricha was very conservative, almost timid in the way he deployed his pieces. Each piece carefully supporting the other, attacks that were hesitant, risking nothing--and gaining little in return. Vegeta smirked.
"No one ever won a combat with timidity, Maricha!" Vegeta's queen slashed across the board, capturing the hermit's rook and putting his king in check.
"That is true," the old hermit-demon allowed. "However, the foolish oft rush boldly into traps. Prince Vegeta, are you familiar with the concept of a 'fork'?" Maricha's knight jumped into position, breaking the check.
Vegeta stared at the board, heart sinking. On the one hand, his rook was threatened; on the other hand, his remaining bishop. He could only protect one; the other piece was doomed. The vein on his forehead stood out as Vegeta berated himself silently. Vegeta, you idiot! All those 'timid' moves of his--he was setting you up for this trap! His exposed king--a feint, to lure me out of position! If this had been a real combat, I'd be digging myself out of the nearest chunk of landscape, spitting out blood and seriously down on power, if not on the verge of being killed! Hmmm.. Can I salvage this situation?
Prince Vegeta studied the board, and finally saw the rest of the trap he'd fallen into. No matter which piece he saved, Maricha's next move would threaten his king--and Vegeta saw no way out. Vegeta, you are an even bigger fool than you thought! I've mistaken careful coordination of forces for timidity, and foolishly tried to carry this 'game' on sheer boldness and improvisation--which works fine in the usual total chaos of my battles.. but this is different. Both of us know what the other's capabilities are, and where they are--no surprises, except in how we choose to use them. Against an iron-nerved strategist--one who plans carefully, always adapting to the circumstance and who cannot be panicked into doing something stupid.. it takes more than boldness. I should have known better--I do know better!
Vegeta played the last, inevitable moves, and watched coldly as Maricha tipped his king over--"Shah Mat!"--the king is dead!
Vegeta watched as Maricha put the pieces away. The old hermit uncapped the bottle of Soma and poured some more for each of them. Vegeta snarled, "Yes, a very interesting.. game! And, it has cleared more than Soma clouds from my head. I think we shall play again. I insist on it!" His brows arched down with barely suppressed rage, and the vein on his forehead stood out.
Maricha gulped nervously. "Drink. You must rest first, and one other thing.." He frowned. A great sleepiness came on Vegeta as he drank the last cup of soma, and he seemed to hear Old Maricha as if from a great distance, saying, "You've lost your tail. Let me see if I can fix that," and then he slept...
He dreamed that he was a small white monkey, looking up as a flying chariot crested the wall of Lankha. In it rode a powerful black demon prince, and he held a beautiful golden-skinned princess by the hair. The white monkey recognized the princess Sita, and called out to the demon, "What are you doing?"
The demon prince answered, "I would do anything to give you pain!" He smiled and raised his sword. A scream cut the air, and the demon cut Sita apart; he struck her left shoulder while he held her hair and cut down across her body, carving her in two along the line of the sacred thread lying across her breast, and half her body fell to the chariot floor.
The white monkey tried to find Prince Rama; he met Jambavan the Bear and Lakshmana together, and rubbing tears from his eyes he said, "Indrajit killed Sita!"
Lakshmana was speechless. Jambavan said, "That ends the war; Rama will die."
Out of nowhere, Vibhishana the Rakshasa, tall, black-skinned and blue haired appeared beside them--"Hanuman, what is this?"
The white monkey told him, and Vibhishana said, "That was an illusion!"
"Oh no, I saw it, it was real!" cried the white monkey.
"It was false!" Vibhishana grimaced and his face shattered and fell in pieces at his feet. His sapphire-blue eyes broke like glass and were gone. He looked at the white monkey with empty eye-sockets in a horrible scar-covered skull. "Monkey, thus are you blind!"
Vibhishana's eyes and face reformed, and he said, "Take my word, it never happened. Do not grieve and please your enemies."
* * * *
Vegeta started awake. This was impossible! He was dead! The dead do not sleep, nor do they dream. He blinked, and looked around. The glade was empty--no hut, no deer, and no game-playing hermit. Illusion.. Treacherous demon! No--the rakshasa had not played him false, even if the coward had run from the challenge of a second game. He knew, as if Maricha had whispered it to him while he slept, the path to Hidden Lankha from these woods.
Prince Vegeta rose to his feet, and staggered, off-balance. WHAT THE HELL? Something felt odd. Something felt.. right. Vegeta's eyes widened in amazement as he felt something he'd missed for a very long time. He looked down and over his shoulder.. at his tail!
It wasn't exactly HIS tail; this new tail was white, except for the very tip, which was dusted black as if he'd dipped the tip in soot. It felt right, though, as he switched it from side to side, and finally curled it around his waist, where it belonged.
"So, someone thinks I need a tail. Does it work like the old one, I wonder?" Vegeta hesitated to try it, and yet it seemed unwise to wait until he needed it to find out that he might not be able to transform after all.
On the other hand.. it would save him some travel time across the Dire Wood. Vegeta cupped his hand, and summoned the energies of lunar light, then flung his artificial moon into the non-sky of Hell.
"I wonder," he thought, tingling with the energy of impending transformation, "can Bulma play chess?"
* * * *
Two figures watched the great ouzaru wade through the Dire Wood, snapping off black trees and tossing them aside as if they were so many twigs.
"Can he hope to win?" asked the one to the other, who was Maricha the Rakshasa Hermit.
"Against any other.. no question. But against your brother's son--who has such power?" Maricha sounded doubtful.
"He has the power; in all the ages of the world, I have seen only two mightier." The other was more confident.
"If you say so.." Old Maricha was still doubtful. "But he is too eager to believe every illusion spun about him."
The tall rakshasa with dark blue hair and clear sapphire-blue eyes smiled wickedly, showing long fangs and sharp teeth. "Perhaps it is as you say, and all hopes and dreams will fall before Indrajit's deadly arrows. Or perhaps he is wiser than you know... Vegeta's fate is his own to make."
* * * *
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER VI. THE INVISIBLE DEMON
[ Contents | IV. A Long Story | V. Shah Mat | VI. The Invisible Demon ]
Disclaimer: See Credits.
Copyright 2000 by Dragoness EclecticLast Updated: Mar 8, 2009