By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The northern Shinjo provinces, four months ago
Moto Chagatai and his personal guard rode as if they were the wind itself, creating a veritable storm of late autumn debris that swirled in their wake. The Shinjo outpost to the north loomed before them, but they only pressed their mounts harder. As the horses swept through the gates, Chagatai leapt down before his steed had even come to a halt, and glanced around the courtyard expectantly. “Shono!” he shouted.
“Here, my lord,” the Shinjo daimyo said, stepping through the cloud of dust and bowing deeply. “Your arrival is sooner than expected, but all is in readiness.”
“Do you believe them?” the Khan demanded, brushing the road dust from his armor absently.
Shono considered for a moment. “I do, my lord,” he finally added. “There is little to be gained from the story they have told us. I cannot imagine a purpose in telling such a lie.”
“To gain our trust, perhaps,” Chagatai grumbled. “I will not have the Unicorn infiltrated.”
“Never again,” Shono agreed. “If I had believed they were Kolat, my lord, I would have sent you word of their deaths, not their arrival.”
Chagatai smiled slightly, then nodded. “Take me to them.”
Shono bowed again and escorted the Khan into the outpost. There were numerous Shinjo guards throughout the building, far more than seemed necessary for its size, but then Chagatai knew that Shono was not one to take unnecessary chances. It was one reason, one of many, that he trusted the man. After a few moments, Shono stopped before a large door, guarded on both sides by two heavy infantrymen. “They are within, my lord. Do you wish me to accompany you?”
The Khan frowned. “No,” he finally answered. “No, I must do this alone.”
The door swung open and Chagatai stepped in. The room was not large, but it was comfortable. Two men were within. One stood idly against the western wall, his face a mask of frustration and irritation. The other sat awkwardly at the low table, reading a gaijin book of some sort. Chagatai did not immediately recognize the language on its exterior. Both men looked up as he entered. “I am Moto Chagatai,” he said. “Khan of the Unicorn Clan.”
The man against the wall stood up straight. He was not particularly tall, but his bearing suggested he was a warrior. “I am Moto Jochi, son of Moto Ambaghai and grandson of Moto Khaidu, Trader-Khan of the Ujik-Hai. I have traveled from Medinaat al-Salaam to meet the descendant of my grandfather’s brother, Moto Gaheris.”
“I am the grandson of Moto Gaheris, the first Khan of the Unicorn Clan,” Chagatai said proudly.
Jochi nodded. “Then we are cousins.” He stepped forward and offered his hand in the traditional way of the Moto nomads. After only a moment’s hesitation, Chagatai stepped forward and clasped the smaller man’s wrist. “Well met, cousin,” he said.
The other man rose and placed his book aside. He bowed awkwardly, clearly mimicking the gesture he had seen performed since his arrival. “Greetings from the Yodotai Empire, great Khan,” he said. His speech was a strangely accented version of the ancient Moto tongue, but it was understandable enough. “I am called Phyrrus, and I have come on a quest of great importance, one that your cousins among the Moto to the north were gracious enough to assist me in.”
Chagatai looked curiously at Jochi. “What is it you seek, friend Phyrrus?”
“I seek the son of Duqaq,” Phyrrus replied. “We believe that he is somewhere within this empire of which you are a lord. He may be very difficult to locate, but it is necessary that I do so. I would of course welcome any aid you might offer, and the Yodotai would be grateful as well.”
Chagatai took great pains to keep his expression completely blank. From his understanding of his grandfather’s exploits in the Burning Sands prior to his arrival in Rokugan, Duqaq was the name of a prophet that had come to the people there and aided them in resolving their conflicts, at least for a time. Many believed that the man was also known as the Hooded Ronin, which would of course make his son the prophet Rosoku that had died some time ago. But was that information that he could afford to reveal to this Phyrrus? “I am familiar with the legends of Duqaq, of course,” he said cautiously. “I do not know of a son, however.”
Phyrrus was obviously disappointed with the news. “That is unfortunate, but perhaps I can consult with the scholars in your service? I may be able to find some indication of him in your recent histories.”
“Of course,” Chagatai said with a forced smile.
Shiro Moto, two weeks ago
The Khan’s personal study had been completely gutted, and all the trapping that had once adorned it had been replaced. He had commissioned new maps and tables constructed months ago, and had been pleased with the result. He spread his hands across the table and looked down on the exacting maps that had been drawn of the entire western region of the Lion Clan’s provinces. “Report,” he commanded.
Utaku Tama smiled. “Preparations have been successful,” she said. “We have stockpiled a considerable surplus of rice, portions of which have been traded to the Mantis for dried rations, which are easier to transport. The remaining surplus has been offered to the Scorpion and the Dragon, with the tacit understanding that they are in our debt for the extremely favorable trade arrangements.”
“The Dragon will not allow such a thing to impede them from taking action,” Shono cautioned. “It is not in their nature.”
“The bulk of the surplus will not be delivered for another month,” Tama countered. “If they choose to intervene, it will never arrive, and their people will begin to starve.”
“They may choose that path regardless,” Shono said.
“And if they do, then we will face starving men on the battlefield,” Tama said. “I hardly find that to be of concern.”
“Continue,” Chagatai ordered.
“The Baraunghar have been conducing maneuvers for over a month,” Iuchi Lixue said, stepping forward and placing a small marker atop the map. “Even in the most severe winter storms, we can allow travel time at half the normal rate, perhaps slightly less. In more favorable conditions, slightly more. Far more than the Lion will be able to manage regardless.”
“Have you identified your targets?” the Khan asked.
“We have, my lord,” Lixue confirmed. “There are a number of Lion storehouses within a day’s ride of the border, placed there to provide ease of supply should the border become a battle site again. With the Khol in a secure position, the Baraunghar can strike these targets and deny the Lion their assets while bolstering our own.”
“How reliable is the information regarding the storehouses?”
Shono frowned. “As per your orders, we used ronin agents to recruit other ronin, who in turn scouted the locations for us. Some were captured or killed outright, but always before they reached their destination. We have no reason to believe that the information is in any way compromised.”
“Excellent,” the Khan said. “And the Junghar?”
“I have deployed my troops along the northern, eastern, and southern borders as you requested, my lord,” Shono answered. “I fear they are stretched thin, however.”
“Withdraw the troops from the south and reinforce the north and east,” Chagatai commanded. “Instruct Akasha that she and the Naga must be on guard for any potential threats. Assure the serpents it is a temporary arrangement, but one that is necessary. The east and north require more security.”
“The northern border?” Tama asked.
“The gaijin Phyrrus left abruptly some time ago,” Lixue said with a grimace. “We believe he learned of Rosoku’s death, but we are not sure whether or not he is aware that we were keeping the information from him. We can only surmise that he has returned to the Burning Sands.”
“Are we in danger of a Yodotai attack, then?” Tama asked.
“Possibly,” Shono answered. “We have no way of knowing how the Yodotai will react, or even why they sought Duqaq’s son. But if they do attack, it will not be for some time. It will take time for Phyrrus to return home, and even more time for them to mobilize any army of sufficient size to threaten us. They cannot pass through the mountains in winter regardless. I cannot imagine a real threat presenting itself before the late summer at earliest.”
“By which time,” Chagatai said, “we will have the resources of an Empire.”
Shiro Moto, one week ago
Legion upon legion of Unicorn samurai stood in perfect formation, their armor gleaming in the pale winter sunlight. The ground itself seemed to smolder at their touch, the illusion given life by their steaming exhalation in the frigid winter winds. No one spoke, or even moved. It might have been a field of endless statues.
The Khan stood atop the balcony at Shiro Moto, looking out over his men. Never had so many of the Khol been mobilized into a single fighting force. Even he was slightly in awe of the force he was about to unleash. He felt his heart surging in his chest, and he knew that his ancestors, the Moto of old, looked down upon him with favor. He did this in their name. For them, he would carve out an empire, and ensure that the name Moto was spoken only with reverence or with fear.
“The throne is empty!” Chagatai shouted across the field. “The other clans squabble over who to support. I say that there are none worthy! Only those with the strength and the vision to take the throne deserve to hold it! Who among the Empire has such strength? Who else can bring peace to a fractured nation? No one! None, save for the Unicorn!”
A great cheer went up from the men, but it died down quickly as Chagatai gestured for silence. “The Lion stand between us and the capital,” he called out. “They opposed us once before, and were spared only because of the Dragon and an Emperor who now lies dead in the Shadowlands. They will resist us. They will seek to bar our way and destroy us. Sacrifices will be required, the cost will be high, but we are strong enough. We will break them, as I broke their Champion Nimuro, and they will be driven before us! The whelp who leads them shall be shown what it means to stand against true strength!”
The cheers came again, louder this time, and the Khan did nothing to try and quiet them. He held his arms aloft. “We ride! We ride with the Lords of Death at our side, and our offering to them shall be the Lion Clan!”
The cheering could be heard a mile from the castle.
The training grounds outside Kenson Gakka
Matsu Yoshino stormed across the field, ignoring the snow swirled around him. His breath seemed almost to crystallize in the winter cold, and after only a few minutes outside, his face burned from the sheer extremity of it. The Lion Champion gave no indication that he even noticed. He squinted through the bleary white blanket that seemed to obscure everything in sight. Finally, he ground his teeth in irritation. “Otemi!” he shouted.
“Here my lord.” The older man emerged from the white at Otemi’s right, bowing sharply. The tactician was fully armored and wrapped in a number of cloaks that seemed to deflect the bulk of the winter’s cold.
“What do we know?” Yoshino demanded.
“Word reached Kyuden Ikoma of an incursion by the Unicorn only a day ago. A Kitsu in attendance at court there was able to send a message to your advisor here. At the time the message arrived, the forces at Kyuden Ikoma were mobilizing to engage the enemy at Shiranai Toshi, but they believed that the Unicorn had already overrun at least three border outposts and seized all the assets there.”
“Unbelievable!” Yoshino said. “The Khan has gone too far this time. War will come of this!”
“Forgive me, Yoshino-sama,” Otemi said darkly, “but I believe war has already come. Your advisor has been unable to reach his associate at Kyuden Ikoma since late last night.”
Yoshino’s eyes narrowed. “Do you believe Shiranai Toshi could have fallen?”
Otemi grimaced, although whether at the cold or the topic, Yoshino did not know. “It is possible,” he admitted, “but would require troops of significant number, far beyond the small incursion forces you faced some months ago. If they have taken Shiranai Toshi, then Kyuden Ikoma itself may be in danger.”
“How can they have moved from the border to the city so quickly?” Yoshino demanded. “This storm is merciless.”
“Fukashi-san believes that the Unicorn may be manipulating the weather somehow, using it to their advantage. We know that the Mantis are capable of such things, although the Unicorn have never used such tactics that we know of.”
“If that is true,” Yoshino said slowly, “then we must assume that the forces sent from Kyuden Ikoma are lost.”
“Agreed,” Otemi said. His tone was dark, and his expression severe. “The officers there are good men, capable commanders. But if the Unicorn are as numerous as we suspect, and they are using the elements against us on a large scale…”
“How many cavalry do we have at our disposal here?”
“Very few,” Otemi said with a frown. “Most are scattered along the border, and are already behind the Unicorn. Catching up to them will be difficult if not impossible, so they are of little use to us at the moment.”
“A winter campaign!” Yoshino nearly shouted. “This is madness! His men will die by the droves from exposure and starvation! He cannot win! What could have possessed him to undertake such a ludicrous assault?”
“A tactic believed impossible is only madness until it succeeds,” Otemi said. “The Khan is an arrogant, deceitful barbarian, but he is nothing if not cunning. I believe there is some method behind his madness. He has a plan of some sort, I am sure of it.”
“A plan that will fail,” Yoshino growled. “Can we reach Kyuden Ikoma before he does?”
Otemi thought for a moment. “With an army of any size, the Khan will need to constantly replenish his supplies,” Otemi said. “If he has taken Shiranai Toshi, he will strip it bare before departing, but he will be sure to leave before our forces in the northern provinces hear word of his arrival and move against him. Assuming that the stockpiles at Kyuden Ikoma are his next target, he will move on the castle within a day or two at the most. Its defenses are doubtless minimal if they have deployed forces to reach the Khan, and he will overtake the castle. If we depart immediately, we will reach it perhaps a day before he does. Possibly less.”
“That will have to be sufficient,” Yoshino said. “Prepare the men. We leave immediately.”
“Our men will be exhausted and suffering from exposure by the time we reach the castle,” Otemi cautioned. “Our forces will be in poor condition to face the Khan.”
“We are Lion,” Yoshino said defiantly. “One of us exhausted and nearly dead, is still more than a match for a dozen of the Khan’s men.”
Despite the circumstances, Otemi smiled slightly. “The men would follow you into Jigoku itself, my lord. As would I. We will be ready to march within an hour.”
Kyuden Ikoma, two days later
Yoshino glanced over the scrolls one last time and tossed them onto the table in disgust. “I am to blame for this. I reassigned the forces here to the western and northern borders, leaving only a token presence. Less than half a legion’s worth of men in the castle.”
“Most are not on active duty,” Otemi confirmed poring over a longer list. “They will not be prepared to mesh well with our forces.”
“We will do what must be done,” Ikoma Chikao said. As captain of the watch, he was the ranking military officer in the castle following the departure of his superiors. His mood was grim, but he had clearly not embraced the idea of defeat, and the gleam in his eyes ensured that surrender was not an option.
“Of course,” Otemi agreed, “but even a moment’s hesitation to follow an unfamiliar order can be disastrous. It will be less than ideal.”
“There is nothing idea about this situation,” Yoshino interrupted. “What of the stockpiles? What will the Khan gain if he takes the castle?”
“Far too much,” Chikao confirmed. “We have many guests this winter, and have supplies to last the entire season. It would be enough to feed even a large army for nearly a week.”
“That cannot be allowed,” Yoshino said. He paused for a moment. “Guests?”
“Hai, my lord.”
“What of them?” Yoshino asked. “They cannot be placed in harm’s way while they are guests in our lands.”
“Moving them in these conditions would do little for their disposition toward us,” Otemi observed.
“I feel certain death would do even less,” Yoshino retorted. “How many?”
“Several dozen,” Chikao answered. “However, I began evacuating them to Bishamon Seido yesterday.” He glanced down. “Along with a significant portion of the castle’s supplies.”
“What?” Yoshino asked.
“I did not know of your impending arrival,” Chikao said. “I felt sure the supplies could be recalled if necessary, but if our forces were defeated, that the Unicorn would gain control over them. I could not allow that.”
“Well done,” Otemi said. “How much remains?”
“Too much,” Chikao admitted. “As of yet, only a third has been removed.”
Yoshino rubbed his bleary eyes for a moment. “What do we know specifically about the Khan’s forces?”
The two Ikoma glanced at one another uneasily. “We have a scout’s report,” Chikao said. “He survived the attack on one of the border outposts. He has since died from exposure, but if his report is to be believed, they outnumber us more than two to one.”
“Difficult odds, but not insurmountable in a siege situation,” Yoshino said. “If we can hold them off long enough, their supplies will begin to run low.”
“They will not retreat,” Otemi said. “If their supplies run low, they will merely choose another target. They can move far too quickly for us to chase them.”
“What is his objective?” Yoshino pondered aloud. “Revenge?”
“I doubt that,” Otemi said. “Chagatai killed your father, may his spirit guide us from Yomi. As arrogant a man as he would see little need to kill you or I to further confirm his glory. If it was vengeance he wanted he would have tried to take the City of the Rich Frog. I do not believe that he desires anything from the Lion specifically.”
Yoshino shook his head slowly. “He wants the throne.”
“That is a reasonable explanation, my lord.”
“How can one man fall so far,” Yoshino mused. “He was one of the Emperor’s Champions, and now he seeks to take the throne. This man is no samurai.” He paused and looked again at the reports before him. “Time is short.”
“Agreed,” Otemi said. “Word should reach the forces at Shiro Matsu soon, and they will begin deploying toward Tonfajutsen, as you ordered. With luck, the forces at Bishamon Seido will delay the Khan long enough for us to fortify the city, but it will be a difficult battle. It could take weeks or even months before we can successfully maneuver our forces to meet his, particularly in these conditions.” He paused for a moment, carefully considering his words. “Would you have us put the castle to the torch, my lord?”
Chikao winced visibly at the question, and closed his eyes. Yoshino considered it, but ultimately shook his head. “Chagatai is a barbarian, but he will not destroy everything in his path. Doing so marks him as a madman. If he spares those who do not oppose him, the peasants, then he stands to gain their cooperation or at least their indifference as he marches onward. And by destroying the castle, we would only hasten his departure for Bishamon Seido. We must give them as much time as possible to prepare.”
“We must slow the Khan’s assault, then,” Otemi said. “How?”
“His army of shugenja,” Yoshino said, gesturing to one account from the War of the Rich Frog. “What are they called? I cannot recall the gaijin term they use.”
“The Baraunghar,” Otemi said.
“The Baraunghar,” Yoshino nodded. “They must be enabling his progress. If we can thin their numbers, then we can slow him down at least somewhat. If we draw his front lines into the castle after an initial defense, then his command group will be open to an attack from the outside.”
“Open to attack is a relative term, my lord,” Chikao said. “He and his officers will be well defended all the same. And the cold will hamper the attack. Those who face the Khan will almost certainly die.”
“I know,” Yoshino said grimly. “I will manage all the same.”
“No.” Otemi spoke with such certainty that for a moment neither of the other men could speak. “Forgive me, my lord,” the former Champion said with a respectful bow of his head, “but you are too valuable to risk in such a maneuver.”
“It is my duty,” Yoshino said. “It is my destiny to face the man who killed my father.”
“It is,” Otemi agreed, “but today is not the day of your destiny. Forgive my insolence, Yoshino-sama, but you are not ready. I am more experienced in this manner of maneuver. And if the Khan sees you, he will spare no effort to end your line. Every man following you will die, without question. If I lead them, there is a chance they can survive to follow you on the day you slay the Khan.”
For just a moment, Yoshino’s face lost the weathered look he had taken on in the last year, and his youth was all too obvious. “I… I do not wish to lose you, Otemi,” he said. “You are my chief advisor. I depend upon you, more than any other.”
“You will not need me much longer,” Otemi said. “Today, the Lion need me.” Seeing Yoshino hesitated, he pressed further. “Give me the order, my lord. I will not fail.”
Yoshino closed his eyes and nodded. “Continue evacuating the supplies,” he ordered. “Chikao, use all of your men. Otemi, take whatever men or units you require. I will command the rest.”
The Khan’s forces arrived earlier than expected, but the Lion were ready for them. The attack on the castle was as brutal and unrelenting as they had known it would be, with the very winter itself aiding the Khan in his gambit, it seemed. Within an hour, the Lion defenders at the gate lost control of the situation, and the Khol front ranks began to push through the gates into the courtyards.
It was the moment Otemi and his men had been waiting for. Nearly fifty in all, they had concealed themselves within various small peasant buildings for hours, suffering the bite of winter the entire time despite that they had wrapped themselves in as many thick cloaks as they could find. Otemi wiped the frost from his eyebrows and nodded to the gunso at his side. As one, the men rose and took their positions near the exits. Otemi held his breath for a moment as a patrol of Unicorn raced past the building, fearing that the keen-eyed Shinjo scouts would see them even at such speeds, but nothing happened. Finally, after long moments of peering out at their enemy, Otemi spotted one of the command banners that marked the Khan’s personal forces. “Now!” he whispered hoarsely.
The Lion rushed from their hiding places and charged across the streets and alleys wordlessly, seeking the Iuchi among the Khan’s forces. The Lion struck the flank of the Khan’s guard and began cutting down Unicorn left and right. Roughly a third of them held back and began firing their bows, easily targeting the mounted Unicorn over the Lion. In the scope of a minute, perhaps seventy five or even a hundred Khol warriors had been killed, but then the element of surprise was lost, and the Lion began to suffer losses.
Otemi saw two shugenja fall from their horses, then two more. There were others, he knew; he could only hope that they would kill enough to hamper whatever rituals they had developed to move the Khol so quickly through the winter snows. Otemi freed his blade and cut down a White Guard, then kicked the dying man away so that he could move onward.
The first thudding impact caught him off-guard, and spun him half around from the sheer force of it. Otemi looked at the arrow jutting out from his shoulder with detached surprise, then shoved the thought aside and rushed back in. He cut down two more men before the second arrow pierced his right arm above the elbow. The pain was overwhelming, and he struggled to stay upright. He looked about desperately, but most of his men had fallen. Finally, he saw a burly man atop a horse, holding a massive bow.
The Khan grinned and fired a third arrow. It hit Otemi high in the chest and drove him to the ground with a bone-rattling thud. He tried to catch his breath, but it was difficult. Somehow, despite the clamor all around him, he heard the sound of the Khan’s blade being drawn from its sheath, and he knew that death was coming for him.
There was a sudden, explosive sound, and all the Unicorn around him suddenly turned toward the castle. “My lord!” he heard one of the officers shout. “The castle gates have collapsed! Our men are cut off!”
“That puling whelp!” Chagatai cursed. “He dares think he can outwit me on the field of battle?” The Khan’s protestation was hampered somewhat by the sounds of Lion battle cries. Otemi smiled weakly, ignoring the trickle of blood from his lip. Yoshino had somehow collapsed the gates and was sending his men out to attack the Khan’s command group. It was a dangerous ploy, but the young Champion was the impulsive sort.
The Khan’s angry shout to fall back was the last thing Otemi heard before darkness closed in.
Yoshino wiped blood from his face and sheathed his blade. “Is he dead?” he demanded.
“No, my lord,” Chikao said, “but he is gravely wounded. He will die soon if his wounds are not treated, and he may die regardless.”
“I will not hear such things!” Yoshino growled. “Signal the men to fall back. We leave for Bishamon Seido.”
“Shall I have the supplies torched?” Chikao asked.
“No,” the Champion ordered. “The Khan will stop to take them, and give us time to reach the fortifications at Bishamon Seido. I will supervise the withdrawal. You ride ahead with Otemi. He must not die, Chikao. Do you understand?”
“Hai, my lord,” the officer answered.
“Go,” Yoshino ordered. “The Khan regroups even as we speak. We have won only moments.”
The Ikoma nodded and signaled his men to ride. They began to disappear into the wintery landscape even as Yoshino shouted for his men to begin to begin an ordered withdrawal.
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